Helping authors and publishers flourish in the digital age. I have more than 15 years of experience in the book and magazine publishing industry, with expertise in digital media and the future of authorship.
Since 2012, the year I began working exclusively with self-publishers, I’ve helped more than 100 authors create self-publishing imprints. Some of these were formed as corporations and LLCs, but most were in name only. The common thread between all of them—one of the earliest decisions made—was to choose a name under which to buy an ISBN, short for International Standard Book Number, a unique number assigned to every published book.
Early in the ebook revolution Amazon declared ebooks did not need an ISBN. Much to the consternation of Bowker (the official U.S. issuer of ISBNs), and the publishing industry itself, ebook self-publishing platforms had no choice but to follow Amazon’s lead. Even Apple, which launched iBooks by requiring an ISBN for ebooks, was forced to abandon its position.
“Who cares?” many self-publishers declared as they forged ahead. Bowker did not or does not adequately explain the value of assigning one, so what’s the point?
I can’t argue with them.
But like the other technology-fueled revolutions of the past 30 years, self-publishing is becoming more sophisticated. I’ve been thinking about what value an imprint (and ISBN ownership) provides the author/publisher, and what the consequences are for using, or not using, an imprint.
I know this may seem like minutia to new writers. But I’ve learned that these early decisions can and do have a long-term impact with little or no chance for fixing or correcting, short of re-publishing.
Is a lack of planning or investment fatal? Of course not. But it is much easier if you understand those implications early so you can make an informed decision. Consider the following.
A publishing imprint is the name of your publishing company. This name is:
Displayed to the public wherever you sell your book.
Recorded in book industry databases used by retailers, book wholesalers, and book distributors.
Listed on your book’s copyright page, and often included in your book’s sales and promotional materials.
The name assigned to your ISBN(s). It can be an invented name or the name of one’s existing business, or some variation. Self-publishers can use their author name, but I think it is preferable to create a distinction between the author name and the publisher for public relations and brand-building reasons.
In the last ten years, books that use an ISBN registered by self-publishing imprints (Bowker calls them Small Publishers) increased 205%—from 14,952 in 2008 to 45,649 in 2017.
The first question that usually follows is: Do I need to set up a company under this name? The short answer is that there is no requirement, but depending on your circumstances, it might make sense.
One consideration is whether you want to accept payment in the name of your imprint. Financial institutions will want to see proof that you are authorized to be “doing business as” (DBA) this name, so you will need to formally register the fictitious name. Check with your city, county, or state, and consult your tax or legal adviser about your individual circumstances.
You can certainly skip this step, do it just before your book’s release date, or after you’ve already published a few books. But I believe you want to decide on a name for your imprint early for one important reason:
Marketing a book before its release date—sending out advance reader copies (ARCs) to get reviews and blurbs—is one of the most effective marketing activities you can do. You will be promoting your ARCs and doing pre-publication PR using the name of your imprint.
Another reason to consider selecting your name early is that it is an important metadata element. Depending on the words it may help your book show up in search results—on Google as well as Amazon.
A name other than your own helps create (and maintain) a public record separate from you the author. As many of us know there continues to be a bias by many in the media, book retailers, and some readers against self-published books. A unique name, with no ties to your own, could help your marketing efforts. It certainly won’t hinder your marketing like the use of your own name as an imprint name might.
Is this considered unethical or deceitful? No! You are no different than any other small business seeking a future of self-determination. Many writers dream about writing full-time. And I think it helps authors maintain a healthy distinction between us as writers and us as business owners. It may also be helpful in establishing the legitimacy of your business when it comes to filing taxes.
Where is your self-publishing imprint name used?
Here are five key places an imprint name can appear or be used, many of them publicly visible:
Books In Print, the official registry of U.S.-published books. Maintained by Bowker, this is the sole company authorized to sell ISBNs in the U.S.
Library of Congressfiling. Besides the imprint name, you need your publisher identifier from your ISBN series to start the process. The publisher name you enter must be the same as the one you entered as publisher when you bought the ISBN. (The free ISBNs issued by CreateSpace or KDP Print do not qualify.)
Distribution accounts through services such as IngramSpark and KDP Print. This is especially relevant if you plan to enable pre-release ordering for your book, which means you need to choose a name before beginning the process.
Book sales pages setup by individual retailers, such as Amazon. This displays automatically for books available via pre-order (e.g., Amazon Advantage or IngramSpark).
Business filings: Banking and other account setups.
It would be disingenuous for me to say that you must have a self-publishing imprint or that the name associated with the ISBN is important for sales success. Which is the right path for you and your book? It will depend on your long-term goals, but it is a decision you make once, and it cannot be changed without re-publishing your book.
Note from Jane: This post was originally published several years ago, but has been updated and expanded.
Whenever you decide to directly quote, excerpt, or reproduce someone else’s work in your own—whether that’s a book, blog, magazine article, or something else—you have to consider, for each use, whether or not it’s necessary to seek explicit, legal permission from the work’s creator or owner.
Unfortunately, quoting or excerpting someone else’s work falls into one of the grayest areas of copyright law. There is no legal rule stipulating what quantity is OK to use without seeking permission from the owner or creator of the material. Major legal battles have been fought over this question, but there is still no black-and-white rule.
For understandable reasons, you might be seeking a “rule” to apply to reduce your risk or reduce time spent worrying about it. Probably the biggest “rule” that you’ll find—if you’re searching online or asking around—is: “Ask explicit permission for everything beyond X.”
What constitutes “X” depends on whom you ask. Some people say 300 words. Some say one line. Some say 10% of the word count.
But any rules you find are based on a general institutional guideline or a person’s experience, as well as their overall comfort level with the risk involved in directly quoting and excerpting work. That’s why opinions and guidelines vary so much. Furthermore, each and every instance of quoting/excerpting the same work may have a different answer as to whether you need permission.
So there is no one rule you can apply, only principles. So I hope to provide some clarity on those principles in this post.
You also do not need to seek permission when you’re simply mentioning the title or author of a work. It’s like citing a fact. Any time you state unadorned facts—like a list of the 50 states in the United States—you are not infringing on anyone’s copyright.
It’s also fine to link to something online from your website, blog, or publication. Linking does not require permission.
Finally, if your use falls within “fair use,” you do not need permission. This is where we enter the trickiest area of all when it comes to permissions.
What constitutes “fair use” and thus doesn’t require permission?
There are four criteria for determining fair use, which sounds tidy, but it’s not. These criteria are vague and open to interpretation. Ultimately, when disagreement arises over what constitutes fair use, it’s up to the courts to make a decision.
The four criteria are:
The purpose and character of the use. For example, a distinction is often made between commercial and not-for-profit/educational use. If the purpose of your work is commercial (to make money), that doesn’t mean you’re suddenly in violation of fair use. But it makes your case less sympathetic if you’re borrowing a lot of someone else’s work to prop up your own commercial venture.
The nature of the copyrighted work. Facts cannot be copyrighted. More creative or imaginative works generally get the strongest protection.
The amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the entire quoted work. The law does not offer any percentage or word count here that we can go by. That’s because if the portion quoted is considered the most valuable part of the work, you may be violating fair use. That said, most publishers’ guidelines for authors offer a rule of thumb; at the publisher I worked at, that guideline was 200-300 words from a book-length work.
The effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the quoted work. If your use of the original work affects the likelihood that people will buy the original work, you can be in violation of fair use. That is: If you quote the material extensively, or in a way that the original source would no longer be required, then you’re possibly affecting the market for the quoted work. (Don’t confuse this criteria with the purpose of reviews or criticism. If a negative review would dissuade people from buying the source, this is not related to the fair use discussion in this post.)
To further explore what these four criteria mean in practice, be sure to read this excellent article by attorney Howard Zaharoff that originally appeared in Writer’s Digest magazine: “A Writers’ Guide to Fair Use.”
In practice, if you’re only quoting a few lines from a full-length book, you are most likely within fair use guidelines, and do not need to seek permission. But to emphasize: every case is different. Also, much depends on your risk tolerance. To eliminate all possible risk, then it’s best to either ask for permission or eliminate use of the copyrighted material in your own work. Here’s a flowchart that can help you evaluate what you might need to ask permission for.
Three important caveats about this chart
Nothing can stop someone from suing you if you use their copyrighted work in your published work.
The only way your use of copyright is tested is by way of a lawsuit. That is, there is no general policing of copyright. Therefore, how you handle copyrighted content depends on how risk averse you are. If you decide not to seek permission because you plan to use a fair use argument, be prepared with the best-possible case to defend your use of the copyrighted content in the event that you are sued.
If you intend to produce material that is accessible worldwide and in digital form (such as content on the internet, ebooks, etc), and if you are using content considered in the public domain in the United States, you should double-check whether the content is also in the public domain in other countries. You can learn more about this issue in The Public Domain by Stephen Fishman.
If you’re concerned about your risk, you can also search for the rights owner’s name and the keyword “lawsuit” or “copyright” to see if they’ve tried to sue anyone. However, just because someone hasn’t sued yet doesn’t mean they won’t sue you.
If you seek permission, you need to identify the rights holder
Once you’ve decided to seek permission, the next task, and one of the most difficult, is identifying who currently holds the copyright or licensing to the work. It will not always be clear who the copyright holder is, or if the work is even under copyright. Here are your starting points.
First, verify the actual source of the text. Sometimes writers use quotes from Goodreads or other online sources without verifying the accuracy of those quotes. (As someone who is misattributed on Goodreads, I can confirm: people are misattributed all the time.) If you don’t know the source, and you don’t know the length of the source work, and you don’t know if what you are quoting is the “heart” of the work, then you are putting yourself at risk of infringement.
If you’re seeking permission to quote from a book, look on the copyright page for the rights holder; it’s usually the author. However, assuming the book is currently in print and on sale, normally you contact the publisher for permission. You can also try contacting the author or the author’s literary agent or estate. (Generally, it’s best to go to whomever seems the most accessible and responsive.)
If the book is out of print (sometimes you can tell because editions are only available for sale from third parties on Amazon), or if the publisher is out of business or otherwise unreachable, you should try to contact the author, assuming they are listed as the rights holder on the copyright page.
For photo or image permissions: Where does the photo appear? If it’s in a newspaper, magazine, or an online publication, you should seek permission from the publication if the photo is taken by one of their staff photographers or otherwise created by staff. If you’ve found the photo online, you need to figure out where it originated from and/or who it’s originally credited to. (Try using Google Image Search.) When in doubt, seek permission from the photographer, keeping in mind that many photographers work through large-scale agencies such as Getty for licensing and permissions. Photo permissions can get complex quickly if they feature models (you may need a model release in addition to permission) or trademarked products. Here is an excellent, in-depth guide if you need it: Can I Use That Image?
Generally, you or your publisher will want nonexclusive world rights to the quoted material. “Nonexclusive” means you’re not preventing the copyright owner from doing whatever they want with the original material; “world rights” means you have the ability to distribute and sell your own work, with the quoted material, anywhere in the world, which is almost always a necessity given the digital world we live in.
Also, permission is generally granted for a specific print run or period of time. For example, if you seek permission for a 5,000-copy print run, you’ll need to secure permission a second time if you go back to press. (And if you publish a second edition, you’ll need to seek permission again.)
If you’re under contract with a publisher
Just about every traditional publisher provides their authors with a permissions form to use for their project (be sure to ask if you haven’t received one!), but if you’re a self-publishing author, or you’re working with a new or inexperienced house, you may need to create your own.
To help you get started, I’ve created a sample permissions letter you can customize; it will be especially helpful if you’re contacting authors or individuals for permission. It will be less necessary if you’re contacting publishers, who often have their own form that you need to sign or complete.
To request permission from a publisher, visit their website and look for the Permissions or Rights department. Here are links to the New York publishers’ rights departments, with instructions on how to request permission.
It’s hard to say, but when I worked at a mid-size publisher, we advised authors to be prepared to pay $1,000–$3,000 for all necessary permissions fees if they were quoting regularly and at length. (Publishers don’t cover permissions fees for authors, except in special cases.) If you’re seeking permission for use that is nonprofit or educational in nature, the fees may be lower or waived.
What if you don’t get a response or the conditions are unreasonable?
That’s unfortunate, but there is little you can do. If you can’t wait to hear back, or if you can’t afford the fees, you should not use the work in your own. However, there is something known as a “good faith search” option. If you’ve gone above and beyond in your efforts to seek permission, but cannot determine the copyright holder, reach the copyright holder, or get a response from a copyright holder (and you have documented it), this will be weighed as part of the penalty for infringement. This is not protection, however, from being sued or being found guilty of infringement.
Sometimes, the best strategy is to avoid seeking permission in the first place. With a little editing or reworking, it may possible for you to abide by fair use guidelines; in such cases, you don’t have to seek permission. Ideas are not protected by copyright, but the expression of those ideas is protected. So, putting something in your own words or paraphrasing is usually okay, as long as it’s not too close to the way the original idea was expressed.
How to avoid the necessity of seeking permission
The best way to avoid seeking permission is to not quote or excerpt another person’s copyrighted work. Some believe that paraphrasing or summarizing the original—rather than quoting it—can get you off the hook, and in some cases, this may be acceptable. But be aware you can still be found in violation of fair use, and guilty of copyright infringement, when paraphrasing.
You can also try to restrict yourself to using work that is licensed and available under Creative Commons—which does not require you to seek permission if your use abides by certain guidelines. Learn more about Creative Commons.
What about seeking permission to use work from websites, blogs, or in other digital mediums?
The same rules apply to work published online as in more formal contexts, such as print books or magazines, but attitudes tend to be more lax on the Internet. When bloggers (or others) aggregate, repurpose, or otherwise excerpt copyrighted work, they typically view such use as “sharing” or “publicity” for the original author rather than as a copyright violation, especially if it’s for noncommercial or educational purposes. I’m not talking about wholesale piracy here, but about extensive excerpting or aggregating that would not be considered OK otherwise. In short, it’s a controversial issue.
Does fair use and permissions apply to images, art, or other types of media?
The same rules apply to all types of work, whether written or visual.
Typically, you have to pay licensing or royalty fees for any photos or artwork you want to use in your own work. If you can’t find or contact the rights holder for an image, and it’s not in the public domain, then you cannot use it in your own work. You need explicit permission.
However, more and more images are being issued by rights holders under Creative Commons rather than traditional copyright. To search for such images, you can look under the “Creative Commons” category at Flickr or VisualHunt.
Note: If you find “rights-free images,” that doesn’t mean they are free to use. It simply means they are usually cheaper to pay for and overall less of a hassle.
No permission is needed to mention song titles, movie titles, names, etc.
You do not need permission to include song titles, movie titles, TV show titles—any kind of title—in your work. You can also include the names of places, things, events, and people in your work without asking permission. These are facts.
But: be very careful when quoting song lyrics and poetry
Because songs and poems are so short, it’s dangerous to use even 1 line without asking for permission, even if you think the use could be considered fair. However, it’s still fine to use song titles, poem titles, artist names, band names, movie titles, etc.
If you want to consult with someone on permissions
Reviews can be a tremendous help in driving the sale of a book. In fact, a marketing survey company found that 61% of online purchases were made after reading a review. Reviews on Amazon can also help your book turn up more often in customer searches.
How many reviews do you need? Well, ideally over fifty. If possible, you should have closer to one hundred reviews. However, you don’t need to get them all at one time. As a matter of fact, getting reviews incrementally can actually help boost your book’s exposure. Why? Because staggering reviews keeps your Amazon book page active, and a book with current reviews is much more attractive to a potential buyer than a book that hasn’t been reviewed in months.
So you want reviews—great reviews—but Amazon does not welcome planted reviews. They need to be authentic. Here’s how you can get great, honest reviews on your Amazon page.
First, approach the people you know
I often advise authors to use email pitching as a way to get the ball rolling on book reviews at Amazon, which can then be used to market your book. As part of this pitching process, you shouldn’t forget one of your most powerful groups: your friends, family, past reviewers, and existing readers. Take a few minutes to craft a pitch to this audience and reach out to them to ask for honest and unbiased reviews.
I stress the “honest and unbiased” piece of this because Amazon doesn’t allow an author’s mom to say, “My daughter has always been a gifted writer…” for obvious reasons. Your network should be encouraged to review your books just like they would any other product. Most everyday readers, however, aren’t familiar with writing Amazon reviews, or fully understand what makes a constructive, helpful review for other shoppers.
Oftentimes reviews consist of not much more than, “Loved this book!” And while it’s great to have fans, Amazon reviews like that do little to help convince others to buy. Also, shorter reviews are often frowned upon by Amazon and could get pulled if the review seems disingenuous. Read more about why Amazon reviews get pulled.
When a book has lots of great, detailed reviews, we tend to scan them for highlights about the things that matter to us. That’s how we often buy books. Both good and bad reviews can help us decide, and, frankly, I’ve often bought a book after I read a bad review because what the reviewer didn’t like was exactly what I was looking for. That’s why detailed reviews are not only helpful, they’re a must for your Amazon page.
So here are some tips you can share with people who want to post something about your book:
Whenever possible or appropriate, ask the reviewer to add their expertise on the topic—especially if your book relates to nonfiction.
Ask readers to post reviews that are between 100 and 450 words.
If a reader feels compelled to include a spoiler, ask them to post a warning first so customers can choose to read on—or not.
Never, ever, ever offer to edit a review. You want honest appraisals, not watered-down reviews that all sound alike.
It’s important that the reviewer cite why the book mattered to them. This also personalizes the review for the reader.
If your reviewer still isn’t sure how to craft a review, here are some start questions to help them along:
What did you like most about the book?
Did the book cover the content as described?
Do you think you got your money’s worth?
What could the author have done better?
How does it compare to other books in this category? Please cite any books you’d compare this one to.
What about “Amazon Verified Purchases?” A lot of people ask if the Amazon Verified Purchase has more clout than a regular review posting. The answer is: Not currently. However, this could change. Early reviewers don’t often pay for their own books—books are mailed or gifted. I have had authors ask a reviewer to pay for the book to get that “verified purchase” label, but that doesn’t always go over well.
Other people you should approach with a free review copy or early access
First, try your professional network: When I re-released Red Hot Internet Publicity, I offered the book (for free) to anyone who wanted to read it and post an honest review. I was very clear that I wasn’t asking for a good or bad review, just an honest one. I got close to 100 responses from readers who wanted to do it. So that would be my first go-to. Whether you reach out to your newsletter list, a big social media following, or perhaps even a local group you belong to (like a Meetup), my first point of contact would be to go after the low-hanging fruit.
To expedite this, I create a Dropbox folder for the ebook version of the book and then email the link to everyone who requests it. This method is very easy and fairly cost-effective. And since it’s an ebook-only offer, make sure your readers know it’s a digital book.
If you write nonfiction, your mailing list may be a mix of business contacts, and if you write fiction, it will be all readers, but in either case it should also contain your superfans. If you have fans, be sure to reach out to them early and offer them a copy of the book. I did this on Facebook with a personal note to fans via the Facebook chat app. In another instance, an author I work with created an exclusive Facebook group just for her superfans and invited them to participate. They got great goodies,
but, more importantly, they got early access to all her books, and were able to read them before everyone else.
Try review blogs in your genre or category
I know it’s hard to get your message out there through the noise of all the pitches bloggers must receive on a daily basis, but reaching out to bloggers in your genre, even just five per week, can make a huge difference. And here’s another thing: Authors often stop reaching out to bloggers once their books have been out for one or a few months. This is a mistake. Make sure you continue to pitch; many bloggers don’t care when your book released.
Your pitch should be short and sweet. If it’s longer than one paragraph, it’s too long. I recommend an intro paragraph that describes the book. Then you can invite the blogger to request a copy of the book and let them know the available format(s). You should provide the book in whatever format they want—don’t make a fuss about it.
Ask at the end of your book for a review
I always encourage authors to put letters at the end of their books asking for reviews. Not a good review, just a review—good or bad. And to make it super easy, be sure to include a link to your book (the Amazon book page) in the letter. Oh, and don’t forget to thank your readers for buying the book, too!
In this 5 On interview, Anna Schmidt discusses how she became a romance novelist, the nearly accidental way she acquired her current literary agent, her journey from successful romance novelist to self-published literary novelist, and more.
Under the pen name Anna Schmidt (@annaschmidt70), Jo Schmidt has written over thirty novels that have collectively sold over half a million copies. She is also the author of Parkinson’s Disease for Dummies and several books on eldercare published by AARP. Her latest novel, The Winterkeeper (March 2019), is her first literary fiction release.
A former marketing and communications professional for two international corporations who has also taught at the college level and run a mom-and-pop adult daycare business with her husband, Jo is now retired and focused only on writing. She splits her time between Wisconsin and Florida.
5 on Writing
KRISTEN TSETSI: Your writing career began after you received a grant from the Wisconsin Arts Board and the National Endowment for the Arts to write a play about Holocaust survivors.
What, specifically, motivated you to write that story—and, too, to write it as a play, something to be performed and viewed more than read?
ANNA SCHMIDT: I have a masters in theater arts, so the foundation was there. On top of that when I write novels, I see them as plays or films—characters on a stage, moving around. I have always had a fascination with the Holocaust—that level of cruelty and disregard for human beings stuns me.
Since writing the play, I have continued to be a student of WWII and the Holocaust. A trip to Normandy on the 70th anniversary of D-Day was so inspiring.
Similarly, I am captivated by ordinary people who see some massive wrong and decide they must act—however small that action may be.
How did you find your way to writing romance novels? What inspired you that very first time you sat down to write your first one?
I started doing romance because at the time I saw it as the way to learning the craft of writing and moving into the more complex stories I always wanted to tell. When I began writing (thirty years ago), romance was a route with fairly open doors. Also, I had attended a conference of the local chapter of Romance Writers of America and learned a lot about the publishing industry. Joining that group as well as the Romance Writers of America organization put me in a place where I saw I could learn and grow.
I could have just as easily gone the mystery/suspense route, but I felt uncomfortable trying to write those. Also, the agent I had partnered with for my non-fiction project was very active in the romance market.
As it turned out, I got pigeon-holed into that genre, and it has been a long uphill battle to break out with a story like The Winterkeeper.
Stepping away from a sure thing—the almost certain publication of another romance novel—to write something different, and less certain, seems like an exciting, revitalizing move.
What was it about The Winterkeeper’s story that drew you to it so powerfully that it was the first book you wanted to write in this new phase?
The three main characters literally drove that novel. I knew them—knew their internal dialogues—from the first page. Each of them faced a challenge that needed an answer. There was no going back.
Nate was aging and coming to the end of a career he loved; Ginny was facing financial ruin and pregnancy; and dear Millie was so alone through absolutely no fault of her own. They had to keep moving forward.
They weren’t based on any live person (other than Nate, the winterkeeper, who was in a small way modeled after a man who had been a winterkeeper for several decades and was featured on CBS Sunday Morning). In short, the writing flowed, the story revealed itself to me rather than the other way around.
I guess the story came at a time in my life when I faced a similar challenge: my husband was dying and then he died, and I was alone. Oh, how I wanted to go back, but that was not real. I had to find my way.
In the comments section of a guest blog post you wrote for Writer Unboxed about your move from the romance genre to more general fiction (The Winterkeeper has been categorized in different places as literary, YA, and historical fiction, respectively), literary agent Donald Maas replies, in part:
“Romance fiction reads like no other type of fiction. Its characters are singularly focused. Romance fiction even has unique language found in no other type of story. Habits are hard to break and that can be true for writing in the romance mode too.”
What did you initially have to teach yourself about the writing style and/or formula within the romance genre to produce a successful romance novel?
Different romance editors/publishers have different requirements and styles.
Without naming names, one publisher I wrote for micro-managed everything, including how the story developed.
In one case, due to people leaving or having a baby and such, I had five separate editors on one manuscript and each of them had a different idea of how she wanted the story to go. By the time I turned that ms in, I didn’t recognize it!!
In another case, I was given far more freedom.
Of course, one cannot mess with the basic concept of a romance—in the most simplistic terms: boy meets girl (or vice versa); boy loses girl; boy gets girl.
Fortunately, as time passed and I grew as a writer, I was given the freedom to stretch my wings, developing sub-plots and secondary characters. Specifically, my editors at Barbour embraced my more complex stories for my Women of Pinecraft and The Peacemakers series.
Because I read mostly in the non-romance areas, I learned far more about the complexities of research, character development, dialogue, and plot development. I will always be indebted to Jodi Picoult for teaching me through her incredible novels how to blend research into story, and through reading the works of writers such as Kate Quinn and Fredrik Backman, my understanding of how best to weave time and plot and people has been enriched.
I also stretched by trying my hand at screenwriting and attending conferences well outside my genre (like Thrillerfest in NYC).
Having said all that, I will give enormous credit to the Romance Writers of America (RWA) organization and the skills I developed through my membership over the years.
What keeps you motivated through the writing of each book?
Writing is enormously therapeutic for me. During my husband’s long years of ill health and in the years that have passed since he died, writing has been my salvation. The ability to escape into some character’s head and live in their world for a few hours every day is very healing for me.
From childhood on, I have been a storyteller (sometimes to get myself out of tight corners!). I believe one way we learn tolerance, understanding, and acceptance is through story. Frankly, there are books I would dearly love to make required reading for our politicians—every one of them regardless of party. We have become far too focused on winning—the vote or the next election or….? Whatever happened to the government that was founded on mutual respect and equality and….but I digress.
5 on Publishing
How difficult or how easy was it to find an agent, and then a publisher, for your first published romance novel?
This will reveal how old I am, because in those days it was possible to send a romance novel “over the transom” and catch the interest of an editor.
I partnered with my first agent after selling a nonfiction book on elder care to a publisher. She represented me in fiction and nonfiction until she died of cancer several years later. At that time, I naively thought I could just send out a query and any agent would leap at the chance to represent me.
I got very good at dealing with rejection during that period. My current agent actually called me to tell me why she was going to reject me. We spoke for nearly an hour, and at the end she decided I needed her help and took me on.
Publishers liked, but weren’t sure they could sell, The Winterkeeper, so you self-published. What had you learned about marketing and publicity in your years as a traditionally published romance novelist that helped you navigate the marketing landscape for a self-published title, and what, if anything, did you hope you’d be able to do, marketing- or publicity-wise, that ended up being a lot harder, or not possible, without a publisher backing you?
Believe it or not, I spent 15 years working in corporate communications for two international companies. One would think I would be an old hand at this. But selling is not my forte, and frankly I believe social media (not to mention the 24-hour news cycle) is a pox on our society. So, I hired help.
Fortunately, I have the means to do that. I am totally undisciplined, so making sure I do the things I need to do to interface with the public, such as regular posts on social media and keeping up with my part as a GoodReads and BookBub member, is a huge challenge for me.
Twitter is easier, because when I come across a quote that inspires or something like a Little Free Library story, I can post it without much trouble. Both of those subjects seem to connect with others—certainly more than posting something about BUY MY BOOK!
I am trying to improve, but, frankly, my dear, I’d rather be writing the next book!
Many readers attach to a genre more than to a particular writer. They read only romance, or only literary fiction, or only historical fiction. When you branched out, you considered using your real name, Jo Schmidt, but decided against it because you’d already created a name with Anna Schmidt.
Why did you choose a pseudonym to begin with, how confident were you that your established audience, or a certain percentage of them, would follow you on your new-genre journey, and what steps are you taking with your marketing to build a new audience? Is marketing general fiction much different from marketing romance fiction?
A thousand years ago, when I first started writing romance, some publishers had in the contract that they owned the author name in the sense that a writer could not use that name at any other publishing house. By the time they saw the error of their ways (that readers might actually follow a writer they loved from house to house), I had already assumed a pen name.
I wasn’t at all sure readers of Anna Schmidt would follow me down this new path, but it occurred me that some might, and no one knew Jo Schmidt.
The folks at BookSavvy have opened doors for me that would have taken me months or even years. I know my strong points and I know my limitations. As for the difference in marketing? I have no experience trying to market romance because those opportunities were always put in front of me by the publisher. They have been enormously proactive in getting me guest blog spots and reviews for the books I write for them. The difference is that with The Winterkeeper, I am not only the author, but the publisher/editor/marketing team as well, and it’s up to me to seek out those opportunities.
What failures did you experience (and learn from) in your foray into self-publishing, and what stands out as a meaningful success?
Answering the second part first: I DID IT!! I wrote the story I wanted to tell and put it out to the world.
The learning curve was a steep climb—I uploaded the ms several times trying to figure out the font/page design details, and The Winterkeeper has had three different covers!
The cover snafu was the most frustrating failure part. I started by using KDP’s Create-a-Cover and was really pleased with the result until my web designer asked for a file, and I realized I didn’t have one. I tried downloading the cover with no success. Then I called KDP and was basically told I didn’t own, and could not have, the file.
I spent an entire afternoon going up the ladder asking how they expected me to sell my book if I had no access to the file. The answer was some form of “That’s just how it is.”
Advice: spend the $$ and hire a professional designer so you own the cover! Once I did that, I got the cover the story needed, and I have the files I need to use for marketing and promotion.
Similarly, BUY your ISBN numbers rather than accept the freebie from Amazon (there are strings attached).
You write in the guest blog post:
“Just as I published The Winterkeeper, I was finishing revisions on the final story of my romance series, Harvey Girls and Cowboys, and found myself wanting to tell the heroines of those novels who were bent on finding romance: ‘Honey, you are not getting this. Love is so much more (and so much more work) than romance! Real love is a lot more fun and challenging and even more mind-boggling than anyone can expect.’ And that’s when I realized I don’t have to choose—if I have a story to tell, there are paths for telling it. It’s my story—and my career.”
Now that you’ve self-published, and you seem genuinely excited about the independence it affords you, do you have plans to self-publish future novels, whether literary fiction or romance?
I will always start with my agent on the traditional pubbed route for any story I write, and only when that fails, and I still believe the novel is worthy of the public’s scrutiny, will I turn to self-publishing.
I guess that makes me a hybrid—not the worst thing I’ve been labeled!
In either case, I will never say never to any genre. There’s every possibility I will wake up one pre-dawn morning with a great idea for a new romance series. The choice to write is based on my enthusiasm for the story—my belief that the characters have something to share and the plot might inspire or move at least one reader.
That said, at the moment, while I have fond memories of the trials and triumphs of romance—falling in love—they are just memories. Being in love and navigating all the good, bad, ugly and never-saw-that-coming challenges of life—those are the stories I want to tell now, and I will tell them in whatever way leads to reaching out to readers.
“Oh! The sample bottles for my skincare line are here!” she said breathlessly on our weekly Skype call, holding up the clear plastic containers for me to check out while smiling broadly.
I couldn’t help laughing along, her enthusiasm infectious.
“Let’s talk about the chapters!” she continued, pulling out a notebook, pen poised expectantly over the paper, waiting for me to begin.
If this had been the CEO of a successful cosmetics company, it all would’ve been par for the course in the world of ghostwriting and editing. But the fact of the matter was that my client, who was currently writing her first novel, was a 16-year-old high school junior. And in addition to the novel we were currently working on, she was also developing her own beauty brand, scheduled to launch in 2020. Welcome to today’s teen overachiever.
Between celebrity memoirs, Trump tell-alls, and the reliance on ghosts to feed the appetite for self-published genre fiction, the practice of ghostwriting has taken the publishing world stage. By definition, a ghostwriter’s job is to be invisible, and in most of the instances when the broader publishing and literary world is reminded of the practice, it is usually because someone took credit for a book they clearly did not write, or the publisher of a popular ebook series turned to a cut-rate ghostwriting service for a new title—with plagiarism-riddled results.
But I am here to tell you that there’s a new niche on the rise in this relatively secretive world: writing fiction for teenage authors.
In recent years, I have written four novels—and referred many more to fellow ghosts—for teens from wealthy families who pay up to six figures to bring the kids’ dreams of authoring a book to life.
There’s nothing new about a bookish teen scribbling away at a first novel, but having mom and dad kick in a significant amount of money to have a professional ghost lend a hand with the writing and editing process is very much a new development.
While money is generally no object in such situations, I have been routinely surprised at the talent—and the earnestness—displayed by many of these young authors. The teens themselves are either young and talented, proficient in creative writing and require only detailed feedback from a developmental editor, or they are “big idea” teens, like my novelist-turned-skincare entrepreneur, who have the basics of plot figured out, but need a ghost to flesh it out into a book. No matter the approach, working with kids on ghosting projects has proven to be a surprisingly enjoyable experience.
Sure, I have to work around school schedules, exams, college applications, and extracurricular activities, but in most cases, the energy, enthusiasm, and sheer talent these teens bring to the experience is unparalleled. They have a drive and determination to succeed, coupled with nearly boundless energy.
To my surprise, instead of all of that puppy dog enthusiasm getting on my nerves, I found myself drinking it in, wanting to up my own sense of positivity and excitement to match their own. It fueled my own work too, rekindling interest in a novel that had languished in my hard drive for a year.
For the most part, teen clients are some of the hardest workers I’ve ever ghosted and edited for, and some of the most creative too. They’re not boxed in by prescriptive literary techniques they’ve learned in college or in writing workshops. They take risks as easily as taking a breath, and they take criticism better than some 60 year olds I’ve worked with. They’re hungry for knowledge. They want to learn. Which is why teen clients are some of my favorite clients to work with, hands down. They’ve got the moxie, the drive, and most of the time, the raw talent to take them past the finish line and beyond. Nothing makes me happier these days than getting a call from a teen client, inquiring about ghosting or editing services.
The problems that come up usually lie not with the kids, but with their parents—who oftentimes have a very different idea of what their children should get out of the experience, not to mention their own expectations for what the project should look like. It’s unfortunately common to run into a pageant-type situation, where a parent (usually a mom) didn’t get to be the proverbial beauty queen, and desperately wants her kid (and it’s usually a daughter) to make it—and in both over-managing and micromanaging the relationship between me and the client, can often put the whole book at risk.
But when parents are able to step back, it allows their kid’s creativity to shine, and I can more easily do my work. Sometimes, I’m functioning solely as an editor, as was the case with a pair of surprisingly well-realized adventure-fantasy books written by a 15-year-old girl I worked with last year. When a client has a lot of natural talent, my job is less about stepping in to write on his or her behalf than it is to steer the writing that has already been done, encouraging the best of the young writer’s instincts. It’s part editing, part hand-holding. Reading over her two manuscripts (first big-picture suggestion: it’s one book, not two), I at times found myself tipping over from critical reading to reading for pleasure, only to be jerked back to the reality of the job at hand (and the writer’s young age) by an understandably immature choice regarding the plot or the way a character was being drawn.
You can’t buy talent, but it can be cultivated—and that usually happens over the course of years as a writer tries and fails repeatedly, working either on their own or in the context of classes or workshops, until finally they’re able to pound out a draft of something that at least kind of works. Working with teens can feel like a somewhat doomed effort to speed up that cycle. But the way that some of these kids attack the edits I send their way can make it seem like you can press fast forward, that they are capable of packing in years worth of growth and development into the six or eight or twelve months that we work together on a project.
A story I often find myself reflecting on, with no prompting, is 45 Years. It’s a British drama based on the short story “In Another Country” by David Constantine.
While the movie portrays some of the most ordinary events you can imagine, the context of those events amplifies every scene. It’s about a married couple planning their 45th wedding anniversary right when a stunning revelation surfaces from the husband’s past.
Without the context of the anniversary—which is right there in the movie title—the story wouldn’t be half as affecting. In the latest Glimmer Train bulletin, Monica Wood discusses how context is a “descriptive background in a story that sheds light on its meaning.” And, as she points out, it’s larger than plot:
Context provides forward motion at the emotional level, using symbols and metaphors that reinforce emerging themes in a story. It also can serve the practical purpose of organizing the physical movement of a story into beginning, middle, and end.
She goes on to offer a few excellent examples, including Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome (the context of a cruel New England winter) and A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (the family-owned and generations-old thousand acres of land). Read Creating Context.
Writers always seek to produce a unique story, hoping readers will choose their book from the increasing pool of what’s available. But this can lead to creating a character or story that is “different” sheerly for the sake of, well, being different.
I’ve found three dangerous pitfalls for writers struggling to stand out:
“Strong” female characters
Enemies-to-lovers story lines
Leading characters who are damaging, not damaged
Luckily for anyone struggling with one of these tempting story blackholes, there are ways out of all three.
What Makes a (Female) Character Strong?
There’s a reason for the parentheses in this one. It’s because gender truly does not matter in what makes a character strong. End of story. Period. Does making a female character a gifted kickboxer make her strong? Physically, yes. Does it make her a strong character? No more than it makes a male character strong. The fact that a female character is a kickass fighter does nothing for the readers in terms of respect or interest in her as a person. This is a crime of being “different” for the sake of it.
For example, if you pick up a romance novel featuring a female perspective, it’s likely you may encounter a character who’s “not like other girls.” This girl is tough. She knows how to handle herself. She likes fighting and beer, maybe she smokes too. She’s gruff and doesn’t take garbage from any man.
So what? Transplant all of those traits to a male character, and the reader has no real reason to like him, so why would they like Sally Slugger?
The way around this is to think about what makes a person truly strong. Physical strength, in fact, has little to do with character. Some people train for years to become as strong as they are, some are naturally gifted. Now, if you include details on your character’s workout routine that shows grit and determination, that’s strength. But there’s also emotional strength in a person who carries on through difficult circumstances. There’s strength of character in a person who is willing to make sacrifices to achieve a goal. Note the use of the word person here, not woman. Many acts that require true strength are universal, and characters should be treated as such, if you want readers to care about them. Don’t write a “strong” woman. Write a strong character.
Wait—But They Just Hated Each Other!
If you’re writing fantasy, you can’t just tell me “it’s magic” without explaining what you mean. If you’re writing science fiction, you can’t solve every problem with ambiguous “lasers” and expect readers to believe you. Similarly, with any romantic story line, you cannot unite mortal enemies in passionate love without explanation. Not if you don’t want every reader to roll their eyes instead of looking at your pages, anyway.
Every great story needs conflict, but it’s a crime of being “different” for the sake of it to make two characters who absolutely despise one another fall in love. It doesn’t happen, almost ever. And if it does, it should probably take the full length of the novel, plus several traumatic bonding experiences.
The way around this particular pitfall is to remember, above all, that you want your readers to believe your story. People want to escape when they read, but usually within reason. When romantic attractions are so wildly outlandish—like feeling immediate attraction to someone trying to kill you or steal your business—readers can no longer identify with the story. So, if you want to tackle an enemies-to-lovers romance arc, remember the average person should be able to see themselves in it.
I Get You’re Hurt, But You’re Also a Jerk
Hundreds of great characters have been born from tragedy or trauma, and a leading character with a troubled past will be full of weaknesses or flaws that lead to great conflict. But every one of those characters should also have redeeming qualities. They show at least a shred of kindness or remorse, even if they are jaded and closed off.
If flaws are all the character has, he or she will act accordingly. This tips the balance too far to one side, and you’ll have a jerk on your hands. These negative behaviors should also be challenged, and even overcome, over the course of a story. The ultimate goal of conflict is, after all, to change a character. He or she has to be more than just their tragedy.
It’s all too easy to fall into the trap of making a story “different” to set your story apart. But first, write a story that makes sense and stands on its own.
When you see headlines discussing the staying power of print and the decline of ebooks, it’s important to remember those headlines are describing only sales of traditionally published books. Such headlines aren’t factoring in other market trends, such as digital subscription services, self-publishing, and—perhaps the most overlooked sector—library lending.
In 2017, OverDrive (the largest digital content catalog supplying libraries and schools) recorded 225 million ebook and audiobook checkouts around the world. To put that in context, consider that—during the same year—US traditional publishers reported 162 million ebooks sold.
How libraries affect book sales and discoverability
At BookExpo in May, I attended a panel focused on early findings from the Panorama Project, a research initiative sponsored by OverDrive, that hopes to demonstrate quantifiably how libraries affect book discoverability and sales. The project lead and panel moderator, Cliff Guren, started off by saying that, in 200 years, there has never been a study on the impact of libraries on the business of publishing—despite the fact there are roughly 18,000 library buildings in the United States and 10,000 public library systems.
The panel shared data reflecting how library events bolster bookstore sales. Bill Kelly from the Cuyahoga County Public Library (CCPL) system said in 2018 his library system hosted 93 events, with 17,600 in attendance and 11,389 in book sales through their partner bookseller. But that wasn’t all: Kelly showed a graph that demonstrated an overall sales lift for all area booksellers around the time of the events. CCPL’s event marketing begins with an email newsletter that is sent to hundreds of thousands of patrons and includes in-library displays, front-and-center website advertising, social media posts, and even occasionally Google ads. In 2019, the library is on track to surpass last year’s sales.
With help from OverDrive, it’s now possible for anyone to identify the most popular (but less well-known) ebooks based on library lending. Rakuten has aggregated all of its anonymized US public library ebook demand data to create what’s called Panorama Picks. These quarterly picks (divided into adult fiction, adult nonfiction, and YA categories) focus on titles published in the last one to two years. They are then filtered to limit known bestsellers, book club selections, and other heavily promoted titles. Furthermore, picks are segregated into the eight retail regions used by the American Booksellers Association—making it an attractive tool for booksellers who want to promote titles already of high interest to their communities. Alexis Petric-Black, the manager of publisher account services at OverDrive, emphasized that local readers differ in their interests, so those regions really matter. Anyone can download the picks for free.
To better harness the power of libraries, a Big Five publisher suggested proactive steps for editors, authors, and marketers. Skip Dye, the VP of library marketing at Penguin Random House, suggested following and participating in Early Word Galley Chat (#EWGC), the monthly Twitter chat where librarians share what books they are most excited about. Similarly, he mentioned participating in LibraryReads and seeding the market with pre-pub galleys and e-galleys.
How indie authors can get into libraries
During a webinar on May 15, publishing industry vet Amy Collins presented an hour-long session on how self-published authors can get their books into libraries. She emphasized how it’s critical for authors to make sure their work is available through a wholesaler as a first step. Wholesalers include:
OverDrive for ebooks (more on this in a moment)
IngramSpark for print
Findaway Voices for audio
If you intend to make libraries a focus of your marketing, Collins advised preparing three documents for your approach:
One-page sales sheet: brief book description, brief author bio, marketing overview, comparative titles, book specifications (title, page count, format, ISBN, etc), and cover image
One-page marketing plan that includes awards, reviews, and how you’ll be spreading the word about your book
A cover letter to a specific librarian that emphasizes you’re about to launch a marketing campaign for the book that will spark demand, noting the wholesalers where the book is available
An option for getting self-published ebooks into OverDrive
While it’s possible to get your ebook into OverDrive through a distributor such as Draft2Digital, a library may not know your book is available unless you do specific marketing outreach (as described above).
An alternative—or something you can do in addition—is submit your work for free to the Indie Author Project (IAP) and/or Self-e program; both are powered by Biblioboard, Library Journal, and OverDrive. Your work is then reviewed by professionals at Library Journal, the Black Caucus of the ALA, and a network of hundreds of librarians who participate in the IAP’s regional indie ebook contests. About 8 percent of titles submitted are selected for the national Indie Author Project collection.
Starting in July, this national collection will be distributed by OverDrive to its partners worldwide, and authors will receive payments for lends. According to Stef Morrill, the director of the Wisconsin Public Library Consortium, “For years, there has been interest in sharing great indie ebooks with patrons, especially from authors in our own communities. Locating and selecting that content has been challenging, and integrating it with our existing OverDrive content has not been possible. … Now we are able to identify the best authors, both in our state and beyond, and make their ebooks available to as many patrons as possible.”
Furthermore, this program will introduce a simultaneous lending model. To understand why this is meaningful—and represents an innovation—some history and context is required. With the ease of digital lending, pressure is increasing on library budgets and resources. For example, a recent article in the Philadelphia Inquirer explained how a bestseller like The Woman in the Window costs the Free Library of Philadelphia $1.04 per ebook checkout but only 16 cents per print book checkout. Complicating matters, over the last year publishers have been adjusting licensing terms and even embargoing.
For example, three of the Big Five publishers, including Penguin Random House, have moved from a perpetual-access model to a metered model. Perpetual-access terms require libraries to pay once for indefinite access to an ebook. Books purchased under metered access—at a lower price—expire after two years. Frontlist titles cost between $35 and $65 under the metered model. Both forms of access are for one patron checkout at a time per ebook purchased.
While IAP is a royalty-paying program for authors included in the national collection, it will not limit checkouts to one book, one patron. Instead, it can extend availability and experiment with an unlimited, simultaneous access model. Mitchell Davis, CEO of Biblioboard (which created the Indie Author Project), says there will be a 20% royalty pool from the revenue received in library subscriptions that will be distributed to authors based on number of ebook lends per month. “Of course, it is hard to know what the payments will look like until we launch and see if libraries are interested in this,” Davis says. “We will pay authors electronically and monthly 30 days after we are paid by OverDrive.”
As of today, there are 110 titles (in four collections) available for libraries to add to OverDrive. These are free sample collections for libraries to try, and they will remain available until October 1. Beginning October 1, the entire Indie Author Project collection will be available for OverDrive libraries to purchase in a couple of different subscription models. This will include 725 ebooks in adult fiction and YA (including the 110 in the free sample collections) and represent selected titles through the end of 2018. Each year the collection will be updated with regional award winners, finalists and other curated indie ebooks from the previous year.
The future of ebook library lending
Late last year, I spoke with Heather McCormack—vice president of collection development and publisher relations for bibliotheca cloudLibrary and formerly book review editor of Library Journal—about the library lending issue. She sees some creative efforts from publishers to sign on to new models that give libraries more flexibility—and says that simultaneous use is starting to gain attention.
“Simultaneous use has been very popular in school and academic libraries but not in public libraries yet, owing to publishers’ understandable fears about eroding revenue. To get their feet wet, they are experimenting with limited-time discounted pricing for a title that could be for a community read. … Meanwhile, book publishers can get their digital backlist hopping again.” For another viewpoint and more discussion on competing library lending models for digital works, read Bill Rosenblatt in Copyright and Technology.
McCormack says the reason for the myriad types of licensing agreements and payment models is simple: not every publisher’s list (and not every author’s work) is identical. She says, “Your list should dictate your model. If you’re not Big Five, you have no business copying their models. You cannot compete with New York Times bestselling novelists in the digital library market in this way. You have to play it safe and mostly replicate how you sell digitally to consumers. Conversely, Big Five would be stupid to leave money on the table.”
Your turn: What’s your experience been with libraries—as an author? Share your insights in the comments.
I’ve been a writer nearly all my life. When I was younger, and way more earnest, and probably more prone to listening to everyone else who came before me, I used to say things to myself—and others!—like, “Ass in chair,” and “Write every day.”
I don’t do that anymore. Which is also to say I don’t write every day now—or I’m not working on my next magnum opus every day of my life. I don’t believe you have to be feeding the literary beast every single day in order to be a prolific, successful writer.
But, as is the case with all things #liferules, I have recently found cause to believe that it is very good practice to do something creative every day. And I did it by taking a 16-day break from writing to focus on another artform.
We accompanied my parents on a cruise to Iceland and Norway recently. I’ve been dabbling in watercolors for the past few years and I was looking forward to seeing a whole new landscape and trying experience it through my new art.
Plus, it’s fun. Once or twice a week or so, I’ll pull out my supplies and make myself a little painting, usually involving animals wearing clothing. (I don’t know. Don’t ask. Probably something to do with my unhealthy obsession with Wind in the Willows. Moley + Ratty FOREVER.)
So when I plan for trips, I take all my watercolor stuff with me. My desired MO is as such:
See pretty thing once or twice or five times a day.
Lay down pencil sketch.
Take picture of pretty thing.
Complete drawing/watercolor many hours later, or maybe never at all.
What has happened in years and trips past, predictably, is that these drawings never, ever get done. I have nice notebooks filled with pencil sketches and sad-trombone noises.
But this time! This time I managed it. Over our 16 days away, I completed 22 individual drawings and colored them in. And this experience taught me something:
You don’t have to sit down to do something every day. But if you do, you get better at it.
This is probably old news to you. But for me, it was a huge lightbulb moment, because I have never, ever thought about the sitting-down-to-write-every-day thing as a matter of getting better. I have always thought of it as a matter of diligence.
The getting better was of secondary importance.
But with watercolor, it’s easy to feel the difference with each consecutive drawing I make. I could sense myself getting more confident when it came down to the initial sketch; knowing which colors to mix to get the right tone; trying and failing and then eventually achieving the right texture for everything from flowers to lattés to turf houses to blue glaciers.
With writing, though—with writing, I’ve forgotten how to feel those incremental improvements. I think this is because writing has been my career and my passion for over twenty-five years. I have been a published writer since I was 18.
I got cocky.
But looking at a creative endeavor with a beginner’s eyes allowed me to remember what it means to get better. That, when you’ve fought your way through an essay to a conclusion you didn’t see coming, or created a character with a tic that really defines her, you are improving.
In Mandy C. Wallace’s new book Landing Your First Publication, she quotes Ray Bradbury: “Write a short story every week. It’s not possible to write 52 bad short stories in a row.” Wallace, who collects writerly quotes, says that the real hidden gem in this quote is the strategy behind it. She uses the quote to encourage writers to not only write a short story a week, but to submit them, as well.
Wallace’s choice to see Bradbury’s words as strategy over inspiration provides us an opportunity to put those short stories to the test. Her book’s prescriptive plan for sending these stories out is the equivalent of my seeing my watercolors fill my notebook; watching the pages wrinkle with absorbed water, so that when I close my notebook again, it never quite sits closed all the way.
With visual art, it is easy to see when you are improving. With the written arts, less so. My wrinkled notebook is what you want with your writing practice: You want your creative life to be bulging at the seams, too, so that you can always see improvement, and room for it.
If you’re writing and submitting, á la Bradbury & Wallace, then you’re going to be getting feedback, even if it takes the stark form of acceptances and rejections.
I think I’d argue that it’s worthwhile for us to assume beginner’s brain when it comes to our feelings about our craft, too: how does it make us feel to look at it? What feeling do I get when I write this sentence or create this character? What does that sense of elation I’m feeling upon completion of this essay comprise?
In order to do this, though, you have to make something that produces these feelings. That means writing frequently.
Wallace’s book comes with a giant passel of prompts, as well as some tools designed to make submitting less onerous. And there’s another book of prompts that my dad bought me about two years ago sitting right next to Wallace’s book on my desk. I’ve only completed a few of the prompts in the older book, mostly because I’ve been of the opinion that writers should be able to find inspiration wherever they go, and that I shouldn’t have to rely on a pre-made book of prompts to do so.
The difference is, the prompts in the book come from without. Like the inspiration for the drawings I make when I’m out and about, or even just imagining a lizard wearing a helmet, I got the idea from somewhere else. And that’s okay.
Letting someone else help you is probably the best part of beginner’s brain, after all.
Today’s guest post is by H.R. D’Costa, an author and writing coach specializing in story structure and story stakes.
Yep, it’s a thing. The scenario looks like this:
Readers discover your book, perhaps by browsing the categories on Amazon, perhaps through a Bookbub ad. And with so many enticements—
steeply discounted price
mouthwateringly gorgeous book cover
compelling book description
—they click the buy button. But after the first chapter, the third chapter, or even the first half of your book, they abandon your novel—never to return again.
Therein lies the fatal flaw of the marketing tactics mentioned above. While they’re essential for readers to discover your book, they can’t get readers to finish your book. And if readers don’t finish your book, then all your savvy marketing plans are for naught.
On the other hand, if you create the kind of emotional experience that readers crave, they won’t be able to put your book down—and you’re one step closer to igniting word of mouth that can help you effortlessly sell your novel, month after month, year after year.
That’s why improving your craft is an essential component of your marketing strategy (although, at first glance, it might not seem like it). But what storytelling elements should you focus on?
I humbly suggest an element that might not even be on your radar: the stakes, or the negative consequences of failure. Without stakes, your protagonist doesn’t have a reason to keep on pursuing his goal. Readers may question why he perseveres despite the obstacles mounted against him. Once readers question the plot, they’ll disengage from your story. And once they disengage…well, book abandonment becomes almost inevitable.
With stakes, however, the protagonist does have a reason to continue—and there’s no cause for readers to disengage. Not only that, stakes put readers under tension. That’s because they don’t know how your protagonist is going to avoid those nasty negative consequences. The only way to relieve that tension is to—wait for it—finish your book.
Indeed, when you wield stakes wisely, you’ll create the emotional intensity that’ll make your book impossible to put down. The plotting tricks here (adapted from my writing guide Story Stakes) will show you what to do.
As a quick overview, here they are:
If a multitude of people will suffer if your protagonist fails, focus on a few of them.
Build a subplot around the stakes.
Have your protagonist put some skin in the game.
Bind your protagonist’s failure to the sting of regret.
Take the personal stakes out of play last.
Before we dive in, a few caveats:
This article doesn’t really discuss different types of story stakes. If you’re looking for something like that, here’s a convenient, printable list of 11 types of story stakes.
I tend to use masculine nouns and pronouns (you may’ve noticed that already). But rest assured, as a female, I know females make amazing protagonists.
Because films are more universal, I generally use examples from films to illustrate my points. However, the principles behind the examples apply equally as well to novels.
The tips in this article are suitable for novels with elements of physical danger (i.e. thrillers, mysteries, etc.). In other words, the tips are less applicable if you write rom-coms, but you can still save them for future reference!
Okay, with those caveats sorted, let’s get to it.
1. If a multitude of people will suffer if your protagonist fails, focus on a few of them.
The fate of a nation. The fate of the world. Objectively speaking, these are high stakes indeed.
However, it might not feel that way to readers—not at an emotional level. That’s because these stakes are too vast to grasp. Subjectively, these stakes might not generate much emotional weight. As a result, the reader experience can become more of an intellectual exercise, and your story may not contain the emotional intensity you anticipated.
That’s why, if you want readers to invest in your novel, you should draw their attention to the plight of a few individuals within the larger group comprising the stakes.
The connection between readers and this subset creates a conduit for reader emotion to flow through, and thus carry over to the group as a whole. This way, the stakes remain high, and at the same time, they feel high.
To accomplish this, make sure readers get a chance to spend time with the stakes (the subset, to be clear) at the beginning of your novel. Give readers the opportunity to get to know and like the stakes—the same way you give readers an opportunity to know and like your protagonist. To create such an opportunity, consider starting your story with a celebration.
In the film adaptation of Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, the fate of all Middle-earth hangs in the balance. But audiences worry about the effect of evil on one area in particular: the Shire. Moreover, the connection between audiences and the Shire is formed by depicting preparations for a special birthday party.
Likewise, in Braveheart, William Wallace wants to free all of Scotland from the tyranny of King Edward I. But audience investment in this worthy goal emerges, in part, from their connection to Wallace’s own village—which they get to know through scenes depicting a wedding.
Once you’ve created a bond between readers and the stakes, you’re not home free yet.
If you don’t take the appropriate measures, this bond can slowly wither. Consequently, readers won’t be as emotionally invested in the climax, whose outcome will determine what’ll happen to the stakes.
To prevent this, take the time to fortify the reader-stake bond. Periodically remind readers about the stakes throughout your novel.
Just to be clear, the same techniques should be used even when your protagonist is only charged with saving one or two people (as opposed to a multitude). Forge a bond between readers and the stakes, then maintain it.
2. Build a subplot around the stakes.
Need to get your novel to the right length? Subplots are quite handy for that. You accrue even more benefits when you build a subplot around the stakes. That’s because doing so also enables you to accomplish the aims discussed above, namely:
forming a connection between readers and a subset of the stakes
bringing the stakes to the forefront of your story in a natural way (i.e. subplots = stake reminders)
I read a lot of scripts, and one recurring issue I find, regardless of genre, is a lack of emotional resonance. There can be all this huge stuff going on in the plot, literally in a sci-fi story at the scale of blowing up an entire planet, but if there aren’t points of connection for a script reader to the story’s characters, where we actually feel something authentic for them, then the effect can be so much noise.
That’s why I have this writing mantra: Substantial Saga / Small Story. That is whatever the big story is, what I call the Plotline, there have to be some intimate subplots and dynamics going on which engender a human connection between the reader and the characters.
To show you how you might integrate a small story into your own novel, let’s play around with the plot of Wonder Woman. In it, moviegoers got the “substantial saga” of World War I. But they didn’t get the “small story.” Let’s fix that.
In the film, Diana and Steve rescue a village which, despite their heroic efforts, is ultimately destroyed. Poignant stuff, to be sure. But now imagine how much more poignant it would be if a subplot were built around this village.
For example, the film could introduce this village to audiences long before Diana and Steve arrive there, and highlight the attempts of one or two villagers to survive amidst the chaos.
As in the actual film, the outcome of the war would hinge on Diana and Steve’s actions. But in this alternate version, audiences would feel the effect of those actions through their connection to the villagers.
Furthermore, because audiences have gotten to know the villagers through the small story, when Diana and Steve finally arrive on scene, audience joy over the rescue of the village is going to crest higher. At the same time, audience pain over the village’s ultimate destruction will cut deeper.
3. Have your protagonist put some skin in the game.
It’s a basic truth: By and large, readers invest more in your protagonist than in any other character. So when you use this plotting trick and make your stakes personal—when your protagonist’s potential failure directly affects him—your story will have greater emotional intensity. It’ll be even more difficult to put down.
Returning to The Fellowship of the Ring, the Shire is home to Frodo, one of the central protagonists. Because audiences have invested in him, the potential destruction of the Shire carries more emotional weight than if it were a place that wasn’t so near and dear to Frodo’s heart.
However, “skin in the game” means you usually have to go beyond a protagonist’s connection to a place and focus on his connection to a person. Someone close to him—
—will die (or suffer other grave consequences) if the protagonist fails to achieve his goal.
At this moment, you might be recoiling from this idea. Indeed, many writers resist it because it occurs too often. That’s their argument, at least. But if you’ve done your job well—and readers have emotionally invested in your protagonist as well as in the stakes—then readers will be too engrossed in your novel to compare it to something else.
Think about the ending of Ant-Man. I doubt any members of the audience were thinking, “I can’t believe the hero’s daughter was taken captive by the bad guy.” The same exact thing happened at the end of Live Free or Die Hard.
No, I’d wager audience members were thinking, “How in the world is Scott going to save Cassie in time?”
If you still remain unconvinced, well, maybe you can try out the next plotting trick instead.
4. Bind your protagonist’s failure to the sting of regret.
Here’s how this works: Although your protagonist has a dream, he hasn’t been pursuing it. He’s all talk (or thought), no action. Then the inciting incident comes along, bringing with it a new goal for the protagonist to pursue, the overall goal driving the main plot of the story.
Now, the protagonist can’t pursue his dream at all. That’s not an option anymore. Instead, he must save the world, save the day—whatever the overall goal may be. And now, failure carries double meaning.
It doesn’t just mean that the day won’t be saved. It also means that the protagonist, having lost all chance of pursuing his dream, will be consumed by regret. This, you’ll note, makes a bad situation feel even worse, which is why this trick is so effective at adding another emotional layer to your story.
To see it in action, study the film Collateral. If Max fails to outwit a hit man, Max will die, filled with regret. However, if Max succeeds, he’ll not only survive the night; he’ll also be able to start the limo business he has always dreamed about.
At first glance, the limo angle might not seem like it contributes much. But think about it. This dream, along with the specter of regret that accompanies it, is much more relatable than dealing with a psychopathic hit man. In other words, it creates another pathway for audiences to connect to the story, thereby supercharging their experience.
That’s not all. If you employ stakes of regret in your own novel, you won’t just be heightening its emotional intensity. You also might motivate your readers to take action and pursue their own dreams—before it’s too late.
5. Take the personal stakes out of play last.
Whenever your story involves general stakes and personal stakes, be careful about when you take the stakes out of play, i.e., bring them to a place of safety.
If you take the personal stakes out of play first (e.g. the protagonist rescues her daughter—and then everyone in her daughter’s summer camp), your story ending will be anticlimactic.
If you take the general stakes and the personal stakes out of play at the same time (e.g. the protagonist rescues everyone at summer camp, including her daughter), your ending won’t be anticlimactic (not for this reason, at least).
However, you will be missing out on an opportunity to elicit even more emotion from your readers.
To take advantage of this opportunity, take the general stakes out of play BEFORE the personal stakes (e.g., the protagonist rescues her daughter’s campmates, and then her daughter). Notice, to accomplish this, you’ll probably have to come up with a credible way to separate the personal stakes (in this case, the daughter) from the general stakes (the other girls at summer camp).
But why bother?
Remember, readers are emotionally aligned with the story’s protagonist. Consequently, they’re going to have a stronger emotional response when they see the protagonist rescue her daughter than when they see the protagonist rescue the other girls. By virtue of contrast, the latter half of the climax is going to feel escalated compared to its initial half. As a result, the reader experience—already intense—is going to feel even more intense.
Confession: This plotting trick isn’t like the others. Whether you use it at the climax or not, readers aren’t likely to put down your novel at this point. They’ve come too far to throw in the towel now.
Even so, the tactic is still valuable to apply. With it, you’ll prove to readers that you know how to prolong the tension and deliver a roller-coaster ride, right up until the last minute. So when they eventually walk away from your story—not because they’ve abandoned it, but because they’ve reached THE END, and that’s what they’re supposed to do—they’ll eagerly search for the other books you’ve written.
A happy ending, in more ways than one!
Note from Jane: For more tips on how to use story stakes, check out Story Stakes by H.R. D’Costa.