What’s New? A Mid-Year Publishing Report

It’s July, so I thought it might be time for an update on what’s happening in the publishing world–because the well-informed writer is better positioned to succeed. If you only want to hear the good news…skip to the bottom.

Barnes & Noble is Retreating

Ok, this part probably isn’t a surprise, but it must be said. We only have one remaining national bookstore chain, and it does not appear to be in sound financial shape.  Their sales are down 6.4% from the previous year, their stock price has dropped 4%, they are closing stores and eliminating employee positions. They keep saying they’re “pivoting” back to books, but that’s not what I see in the stores. Part of their problem is the movement away from brick and mortar toward online shopping, but mostly it reflects the new American reality: Amazon is the number one retailer in America.

No analysts are predicting B&N will be around long, and some have stated they would not be surprised if the corporation folded before the end of the year. What happens then? Maybe independent bookstores will rise from the dead, but it seems more likely that people will continue doing what they’re doing now–shopping online. The only new bookstore chain that shows financial strength is Amazon’s new brick-and-mortar chain–there are 16 of them now. They use a different business model that people seem to be responding to positively. Lots of books, low prices, easy shopping–you don’t even have to stop at the checkout counter.

Amazon is Retreating…in Some Indie-Friendly Categories

Kindle Scout, the Amazon crowdsourcing program enjoyed by many (including me) has stopped taking submissions, instead steering people to KDP (self-publishing). The reason given was the desire to focus on Amazon Publishing (Amazon’s traditional pub unit) and its many imprints. They also shuttered Kindle Worlds, the fan fiction program, even after it launched more than 100 shared worlds over five years. They closed Amazon Studios–an open call for scripts–and CreateSpace no longer offers editorial services, though it is still happy to print your book for you.

Why? These programs required Amazon to be involved with reviewing submissions and generally led to relatively low-priced genre fiction ebooks. By contrast, Amazon Publishing, which is showing strong sales, acquires in the traditional way (you need an agent to submit) and their books sell at a higher price. So I could be wrong, but my experience with corporations suggests that they are closing programs that make less money and beefing up programs that make more. Amazon Publishing’s many imprints sell well, and there’s an obvious advantage to being connected with the largest retailer in America–but to get there, you’ll need an agent.

Digital Subscription Services Are Not Retreating

There are two subscription services sharing the market: Kindle Unlimited (which despite the name, is extremely limited), which primarily covers Amazon Publishing and self-pubbed titles, and Scribd, which peddles the Big Five’s titles. Scribd had many startup problems and suffers from a spotty list, but it rebounded this year with an $8.99 monthly subscription package and now has about 700,000 subscribers. KU costs a buck more but offers far more titles.

One of Scribd’s problems is that it is mostly backlist–you can rarely obtain the latest and greatest from NYC, which would seem to be one of the main reasons for subscribing to a Big Five program. Scribd’s list also has virtually unknown titles from the Big Five’s digital-only and even vanity lines. There are a few titles only subscribers can obtain–but I think we can safely assume that doesn’t include the latest from Anne Tyler or James Patterson.

I don’t know whether these programs will survive or even if I want them to. KU famously compensates self-pubbed authors on a bizarre per-page-read system that pays far less than a normal sale. (Traditionally published authors are paid in a more traditional way.) Many authors have taken their books out of the program, thinking that it gives readers a way to read their work without fairly compensating them. Others think it’s a great way to find new readers. Others liken it to the subscription libraries popular in the nineteenth century. I don’t know. But I don’t think I’d mind if the next Amazon closing is KU.

Traditional Publishing Claims it is Advancing

According to AAP stats, traditional publishing sales advanced 2-3% over the past year. They also say overall sales are about 80% print, 20% ebooks. That may be so, but remember that Big Five ebook prices are much higher, sometimes more expensive than the paperback, which suggests the publishers are deliberately trying to suppress ebook sales. Also recall that these numbers include many regional and smaller presses that don’t publish ebooks. All sources agree, however, that the growth is driven by nonfiction, backlist, and childrens books. Frontlist fiction went down by 5%.

I’d take all those articles about “Print is back!” with a grain of salt. Print never left, but there are a whole lot of people reading ebooks on their tablets and phones, and those high prices may alienate those readers. Although I have no statistics to back it up, I think people are still reading lots of fiction–but they’re buying it online. Some sources say genre fiction sales are now about 70-75% ebook.

You Will Have to Market Your Book

Another clear trend: traditional publishing contracts that require authors to actively engage in marketing. I just reviewed one for a friend. It requires an author webpage and frequent engagement in social media. Agents report that editors at Big Five houses are now requesting a list of “comps”–that is, comparable titles that have succeeded–with the manuscript submission. In other words, the marketing discussion that at one time might’ve come later now occurs at the beginning of the submission process. Donald Maass, president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency (who is appearing at our writers conference) said, “I know publishers are thinking ahead to the marketing of fiction, so it’s natural for ideas of comp titles, next work, and so on to pass up the line.” He says his agency works with its clients to prepare this information. He will talk about this more at the conference.

Click here for more info about the Red Sneaker Writers Conference! 

Are Audiobooks Taking Over the World?

If you’ve been reading this newsletter long, you’ve heard me say that audiobooks are growing exponentially. And it’s still true–only more so. Audiobooks are now the fastest growing sector of the book market. In fact, audiobook sales have more than tripled in the last five years. Consumers bought almost 90 million audiobooks in 2016, driving sales to $2.1 billion, up 42% from 2012. Hachette, Penguin Random House, and Macmillan are doubling their audiobook production.

Clearly, many people love to listen to books. You see people everywhere wearing earbuds and assume they’re listening to music–but they might be listening to your book. Digitalization has made audiobooks less expensive and easy to download. Cellphones are now audiobook players. Being old school, I want to be snobby and suggest that audiobooks somehow “aren’t as good,” but in truth, research indicates that people who listen get the same enriching experience as those who read with their eyes. As an author, you can take charge of your own audiobook, so you don’t have to compromise your vision.

This is why many major A-list writers are now producing audio-only books. Michael Lewis has sold over ten million books and is a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. Nonetheless, when he wrote his latest political narrative, he didn’t sell it to VF–he sold it to Audible. You can’t read it–but you can listen to it, and he reads it himself. He has now signed a mutiyear contract with Audible for more original stories. Others striking deals with Audible for original work include historian Robert Caro, novelist Jeffrey Deaver, actor David Spade, children’s book author Jack Gantos, and science-fiction novelist John Scalzi. “You have to go where the market is,” Scalzi said. “You can’t just give them the same old thing.”

The new turf war is Amazon/Audible fighting with traditional publishers to acquire audio rights. Audible has 150 original audio works currently in production, and is also commissioning one- and two-person plays from emerging playwrights. Reese Witherspoon signed with them to develop audio originals. Audible reportedly paid a seven-figure sum for the audio rights to Wild Game, a memoir by Adrienne Brodeur, after an auction involving fourteen publishers. They paid almost as much for St. Marks is Dead, a nonfiction book by Ada Calhoun, again outbidding major competition.

I’ve known abut the advantages of audiobooks for some time. How many of you are on this mailing list because you heard the audio of one of my Red Sneaker books? The audiobooks significantly outsell the print editions. But–and this is true of every innovation–if you want to participate in a changing marketplace, you have to know what’s going on out there. Yes, we all know about self-publishing, but there are so many other opportunities for today’s writers. Wattpad, a free platform where people can post their novels, has resulted in publishing contracts and large audiences for many authors. Podcasting has become one of the most effective ways to promote books. Fan fiction is another potential way to acquire an audience. Anna Todd scored a six-figure contract and a Paramount movie deal after her fan fiction Wattpad novel After found a breakout audience.

The publishing world changes every day–and you need to stay on top of it. I’ve always made sure the Red Sneaker conference is an innovator, not an imitator, being the first to address new topics, coming up with presenters and programming ideas others copy later. This year, we will have sessions on all the above-mentioned topics, including a live demonstration and step-by-step walkthrough on audiobook creation. Join us and see if there are opportunities that help you achieve your writing dreams.

Click here to register for the conference!

Creating Suspense

If you’ve read Perfecting Plot, or for that matter, any of the other books in the Red Sneaker Writers series, you understand the importance of creating suspense, or its junior partner, tension. Bottom line, it’s a matter of maintaining interest, keeping the reader riveted to the page in a world rife with distractions. Suspense is not just for so-called suspense novels–it’s an important element in any book you want the reader to finish. And in my opinion, it’s just as important in nonfiction as it is in fiction. When the book is full of suspense, the reader finishes and runs to work the next day (or posts on Amazon) enthusiastically talking about this great book everyone need to read. That’s when they call it “a good read” or say they stayed up till three in the morning because they couldn’t put it down. And that is the best publicity a writer can get.

Simply stated, suspense is apprehension–the reader wondering and even worrying about what will happen on the next page. This requires at least two elements. First, there must be a perilous situation fraught with risk. This doesn’t have to involve guns, cliffs, or end-of-the-word scenarios. Sometimes emotional stakes can be just as important. The second essential element is a protagonist readers care about. This doesn’t mean they have to be perfect (and probably shouldn’t be). It just means the reader has to care what happens to them. This won’t happen automatically. You have to give them a reason to care (see Creating Character).

Tension is nascent suspense, a sense that all is not right with the world, even if you don’t know quite what the problem is. There should be tension on every page, from the first page until the climax is completed. You heard me right. Every page.  Tension is that nagging feeling that there’s a ticking time bomb somewhere that’s going to explode if someone doesn’t do something. It’s the unsettling intimation that the characters are all talking but not actually talking about what is uppermost in their minds. Even in the early pages of the book, when you might not have fully developed the suspense elements, there should be tension.

I’ve been reading a lot of manuscripts lately, editing for friends and patrons, and I’ve noticed that suspense, or attempts to create suspense, tend to fall into one of two different categories. The best kind of suspense is what I described before, a genuine concern about what might befall characters you care about. “Oh no–what will happen next?” This is conflict that arises naturally and authentically from the narrative you’ve created.

Too often, what I see is “false suspense.” (If someone has a cooler name for this, please share it.) This is the literary equivalent of the “jump scare” in a horror film–when something unexpectedly leaps out from off-screen, usually accompanied by a jarring noise. Sure, you jump, but that scare wasn’t really earned. Similarly, writers sometimes create unearned suspense by withholding vital information. Like, in the worst possible (and most common) example, the fact that this exciting interlude is only a dream. Almost as bad is when a first-person narrator withholds critical information. Though some have done this with success (Agatha Christie, Harlan Coben), it always leaves me feeling cheated. I mean, seriously–I’ve been inside this character’s head for 400 pages, but he never once thought about this critical detail that was not reveled until the last page? To me, that’s a cheat.

I understand the desire to have one final surprise on the final page, and that may be the easiest way to do it. But for me, I’d rather see a “big reveal” in the climax, and let those few pages following the climax wrap up character business, or complete the narrative with a touching, evocative, or thematic grace note. Even in thrillers, there’s more to a good novel than eternal surprises. And I think there should a constitutional amendment banning all dream sequences, drug trips, daydreams, parallel universes, and any other devices that allow writers to suggest something exciting is happening when it isn’t. This is suspense without consequences, and I think it leaves most readers feeling ripped off.

The best approach? Dynamic, sympathetic characters working against major opposition to achieve meaningful goals. Anytime you feel the suspense may be lagging–raise the stakes. Put more at risk. Put someone else in jeopardy. Make your book impossible to put down.

Have you registered yet for the Red Sneaker conference? The 2018 conference is going to be the biggest and best one yet. Click here for more information.

Looking Ahead to 2018–and Beyond

Writing about Hollywood, William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.” I feel much the same about publishing. When eBooks first borke, I repeatedly heard people say, “That will never catch on,” or “I love the feel of a real book in my hands.” Well, guess what? EBooks account for abou 75% of sales in popular fiction, and a large chunk of the other categories. Similarly, the big New York publishers were little concerend when Amazon hit the scene. Who wants to buy online? “People want to hold the book and thumb through the pages, then carry it home with them.” Wrong again. The ease of advance ordering, home devliery, and deeply discounted prices vastly outweighed the advantages of brick-and-mortar stores, at least in many people’s minds.

It’s been almost ten years since the eBook revolution began, and the publishing world is still going through tremendous changes. Audiobooks are not a fad. They are the future. Amazon is the nation’s most sucessful retailer, not just in books, but overall. Self-publishing is not only viable, at least for some, it is profitable. Online marketing is paramount. But people wonder–how long will this last? Is this a fad or a new world order?

Prognostications for the Future:

  1. Indie Authors (Self-Pubbed Authors) Will Increase Their EBook Share. Traditional publishing in many ways seems mired in the past. They price eBooks too high and rely on “legacy authors,” which means their output shows little innovation. Indie authors can be more flexible and responsive. They can price their books lower, or use price pulsing and short-term free promos to spur sales. Indie works best when it innovates, not imitates. Indies are better at taking risks. There are too many idenitical-looking romances and Star Wars ripoffs. Indies are free to experiement, which doesn’t always work–but when it does, that’s when you see someone break out big. In 2017 the number of authors who reported making over $100,000 from writing grew by 70% over 2016. Who did this? The authors who paid attention to trends, stayed up-to-date on the latest information, and made the most of their opportunities, I predict the indie eBook share will increase in 2018.
  2. Marketing Will Change and Some Approaches Will Stop Working. Facebook and Amazon ads have become more popular and, as a result, more expensive. (I’ve had success with Amazon ads, less so with Facebook.) As more and more authors go indie, the need to market your work to emerge from the crowd will increase. I suspect more authors will use freelance marketing agencies, because it makes good business sense, and because the work is complex and time-consuming. (We will have some narketing firms at the RSC writers conference.) I believe you will see more emphasis on email marketing–going direct to the reader. Of course, that means you need a solid, curated list of readers, and you know what interests them.
  3. Amazon Will Continue to Grow–and That May Not Always Be Good. What happens if Amazon doesn’t love us anymore? Does anyone have the power to retaliate? Last year, Amazon made changes to its affiliate program that basically made it less profitable for participants. This trend will probably continue, because Amazon no longer needs to drive customers to them–they’re already there. Kindle Unlimited has some competition, but it remains by far the largest reader subscription service. KU pays out a lot of money each month, but it is divided into many different hands. For authors with a few titles, it is the simplest way to go, though it means being completely dependent upon Amazon. Last year, after much hand-wringing, I took all the titles I controlled out of KU, but it was a tough decision and there were no clear answers.
  4. You Need an Audiobook. Will I never stop talking about this? No, not until you’ve all recorded your audiobook. If you really want to invest in your publishing future, this is what you should be doing. A few weeks ago, I recorded an audiobook for a fellow wirter using our home studio–and his audiobook is already outselling the eBook.  According to Kelly Lytle of Findaway Voices, “Digital audiobooks will remain the fastest growth area in publishing with sales increasing 30% to 40% or more. The dynamics—ease of access for consumers, lifestyle habits, increased market competition, new selling models—have all synced up to create significant staying power. It should surprise nobody when the market size of audiobooks surpasses eBooks in a few years.”
  5. Readers still love reading and still love books. This was my final point in the last newsletter, too, because it’s still true and, for me, it’s the point to always keep uppermost in your mind. Yes, you need to remember that this is a business, and you need knowledge and connections to be successful in any business. But writing is also an art. Books have changed people’s lives and have changed the world–and they will again. What is it you want to say to the world?

What Writers Learned in 2017

When the calendar reboots it always seems like time to reassess and plan for the future. I know, this was a month ago, but the new year never sinks in with me until: 1) I’ve remembered to start writing “2018” on checks, which  takes weeks, and 2) all my 1099s arrive–the definitive word on what worked and what didn’t. So in this blog I’m going to discuss what we learned in 2017, and in the next blog, I’ll make my annual forecasts about what we can expect in the future.

What We Learned In 2017:

  1. Audiobooks Are Still Hot. In fact, they are the fastest growing segment of publishing, and have been for several years running. Don’t believe me? See for yourself here. If you haven’t got an audio edition of your work, you are literally leaving money on the table. Every year at my writers conference we’ve had someone speak on how to produce your own audiobooks professionally and affordably. This is critical information. In today’s world, it’s just as important as knowing how to use a word processor.
  2. Bookstores Are Not Hot. Which is not to say they are unimportant. Just less so. We have one national bookstore chain and it appears to be in financial distress. The Nook and its associated ebook businesses have declined for years. (Forbes says B&N has lost $1.3 billion on the Nook.) B&N says they are now focusing on the core business–books–but when I go in, I see lots of games and toys and magazines and coffee and CDS and DVDs. If B&N crumbles, what then? Brick-and-mortar retailing appears to be steadily failing, replaced by online buying. Some say bookstore sales only account for 7-10% of the total market.
  3. The Indie Market May Be Maturing. Some people are making money with independent or self-publishing (click here for details), and that will increase in the years to come. CreateSpace controls 80% of the print-on-demand market. It’s growing while its competitors (Lulu, Smashwords, etc.) decline. Overall, ISBN purchases have declined, which could mean  that fewer people are publishing–or fewer people are bothering with the print edition (eBooks do not require ISBNs at KindleDirect). A lot of fly-by-night operations are closing, which may make it easier for writers to know what to do and how to do it. I will write more on indie success techniques later this year.
  4. Wattpad is Profitable. Wattpad received a $40 million cash infusion from a Chinese retailer. They’ve also partnered with Hachette for audiobooks and offered a premium “no-ads” subscription. They generated 20 million in advertising revenue, a big increase over the previous year. Wattpad Studios is developing film projects. The point being, if you think of Wattpad as just a place where adolescent girls publish fan fiction, think again. Serious writing careers are being launched at Wattpad.
  5. Traditional Publishing Can’t Launch a Bestseller. Yet again, NY publishing failed to produce a single breakout hit. The bestselling novels last year were 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale, neither new books, surging due to television and current events, not NYC marketing. Which does not mean publishers aren’t making any money. But the stories about eBook sales declining are nonsense, not borne out by any statistical analysis that includes Amazon, where self-published eBooks are about 40% of all unit sales. Traditional publishers are responsible for “just over half of paid ebook downloads” (Publishers Marketplace). And that doesn’t consider all the online “borrowing” that takes place through Kindle Unlimited.
  6. Readers still love reading and still love books.

That last one is, of course, the most important. That’s why we bother.

Made plans to attend the Red Sneaker Writers Conference yet? Register in February and the entry fee for all contests is waived. Stay at the conference hotel and save another $50 off registration. Click here for details.

Thinking Theme: The Heart of the Matter

Thinking Theme, the new book in the Red Sneaker Writers Book series, goes on sale today. You’ll want to be the first kid on your block to have all the wonderful goodness inside this book, and of course, to keep your set up to date.

Are you thinking–really, theme? Meh. Then don’t. It may be more interesting–and more important–than you suspect. I started this series with a topic rarely discussed–story structure–and now I’m doing it again. The relative lack of chatter on this topic isn’t because it isn’t important. It’s because it’s an elusive topic that even some successful writers haven’t quite wrapped their heads around.

Here’s what I see as the most important distinction between this book and others in the series. The first seven–Story Structure, Creating Character, Perfecting Plot, Dynamic Dialogue, Promising Premise, Sizzling Style, and Excellent Editing–were all about the craft of writing. This one is about the art of writing. Let me answer a few questions that may pop into your head as you read this. Is art important in today’s publishing marketplace? Yes. Can art be taught? Yes–at least to some extent. It may be more accurate to say what’s being taught is the ability to recognize art, to know what you’re looking for, to seize upon the trace elements that emerge in the early drafts of your story and turn them into something larger, something that catapults your book from the ordinary to the blissfully extraordinary.

Here’s an excerpt from Thinking Theme in which I discuss how I’ve found and deployed theme in my novels:

In Cruel Justice, I told a story in which Ben Kincaid tackles the defense of a developmentally disabled young man accused of murder. This case also involves Ben with a high society sort who wants to be a good father—but doesn’t know how. Ben’s friend Mike has to save his ex-wife’s son—apparently not realizing the child is his own. And Ben learns some startling truths about his deceased father. But it was several drafts into the book before I thought—

Wait.

Never mind what’s happening with the murders and the courtroom and such. This book is about fatherhood. Which shouldn’t have surprised me, since my first son had been born shortly before I started writing it.

There was just one problem. The parent who brought the case to Ben’s attention, who schemed and connived to get Ben to take the case—was the young man’s mother.

That got changed in a hurry, once I realized what this book was about. The mother became a father, which worked better anyway. And when the review came out from Publishers Weekly, there was nothing but praise. They called it “…Bernhardt’s rumination on good fathers, bad fathers, and fathers never known.”

I almost cried. I distinctly remember thinking this was the best book in the series. In fact, I thought it was the best work I’d done to date, period.

More recently, I completed the nineteenth Ben Kincaid novel (time flies when you’re having fun). And once again, it was several drafts into the writing process before I realized what I was writing about. I was sitting in an airport restaurant, waiting for my delayed flight to depart, reading someone else’s book, when the central idea bubbled up to the surface of my brain. You didn’t bring Ben’s sister back just for continuity’s sake, a voice said. You did it because they have unfinished business. And I realized that was the emotional core of the story. Once the book’s theme came together, I had the ammunition I needed to deepen the characters and enrich the plot.

(End of excerpt)

I hope you’ll check out Thinking Theme, preferably today, so it can have a good showing on its release date. Here are some links:

Thinking Theme

Cruel Justice

Justice Returns

And by the way, next year’s Red Sneaker Writers Conference will be over Labor Day weekend in Oklahoma City. The website will go live in a few weeks. In the meantime, save those dates on your calendar!

 

Do You Need an Editor?

My normal pattern is to pose the question in the title, then make you wade through a lot of patter to get to the ending. Not this time. Do you need an editor?

Probably. Goodness knows I do.

I’ve seen too many manuscripts that, though not intrinsically horrible, were spoiled by the irritation of poor editing, leading to typos, continuity errors, formatting problems, etc. This did not begin with self-published books, but they may have intensified it. Part of the problem with eBooks is that there are many different eReaders and but no universal standards for formatting, and even the best designed book may be undone when users tamper with the font size and background colors and such. But a lot of it is just poor proofreading.

Even before we get to the proofreading stage, though, every book needs careful proofing during the revision process to make sure it is as good, as consistent, as accurate, and as powerful as it can be. I read my manuscripts repeatedly before they’re published, but I don’t consider that editing. I don’t think authors can edit themselves. There comes a time in the writing process when everyone benefits from an outside opinion, someone who can give them insight into how the rest of the world, those who did not create this story from scratch, might perceive it.

Outside editing shouldn’t bankrupt you. I’ve seen too many people come to my summer retreats only after spending four or five thousand dollars for editing, and in some cases getting the worst advice I’ve ever heard from people who have clearly never published a book with a major publisher, if anyone. Being a former English major is not enough. Choose an editor with real experience and a reasonable pricing scheme.

That said, don’t EVER pay for an editor:

  1. after only one draft. Too soon. This is the time for you to revise, not someone else. Only hire an editor after you’ve done everything you can think of to improve it.
  2. just so you can say in your query that your manuscript has been professionally edited.
  3. because you’ve been swayed by a dramatic sales pitch from someone calling themselves a “book doctor.”
  4. just to get validation from a third person. Come on. No one you pay is likely to tell you that you’re terrible.

I always recommend that, after you think you’re finished, set the manuscript aside for a month, do something else, then reread it. That alone may help you find obvious ways to improve it that you didn’t see when you were too wrapped up in the creation process.

But when the time is right, get a good editor. It will increase the quality of your manuscript as well as your chances of success.

I don’t think I’m the only good editor out there, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that I do offer editing and critique. I find it a pleasant way to fill the day after I’ve done my own writing. It actually exercises a completely different, much more analytical skill set than writing itself.

If you’re interested in my editing or critiquing, please visit my website: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/publishing_editing_services.php

Do You Need a Literary Agent?

Speaking of all the various ways the publishing world has changed, just in the last decade…let’s talk about literary agents.

Once upon a time, agents were virtually mandatory, because the only way to get your story into the hands of readers was to sell it to a publisher, and most major publishers would not accept “unsolicited” manuscripts, preferring to get work from agents. Was this because agents sprinkled magic fairy dust on them that made them better? No. Was this because anything an agent liked would automatically be liked by publishers? No. The agents were simply gatekeepers. Publishers assumed agents would separate the wheat from the chaff, that is, reject the completely unpublishable, so they could focus on choosing amongst the remainders.

This system worked well for publishing houses. Less so for writers. In the first place, agents were hard to come by. Queries worked infrequently. Face-to-face meetings were better, but no one could afford to go to all the writer conferences out there, and some conferences promoted agents that were less than ideal. And even after that holy grail agent was obtained, they were no guarantee of publication–and typically took 20% of a writer’s already meager earnings. And you could never get them on the phone…

More than one writer thought, there must be a better way.

Now of course, there is. For the first time ever, self-publishing is viable. That doesn’t mean it’s necessarily what you want. Some people–ok, probably everyone–would rather write than run a business. Some people dread marketing and social media–though they will need to do both even if they land a major publisher. But self-publishing rarely results in books in bookstores, or flashy hardcovers you can show off to your mother or zealously competitive siblings. What’s best?

To some extent, the best course depends on what you’re writing, but if you’re writing anything remotely resembling commercial fiction, I advise starting with trying to get an agent and print publisher. Give yourself a deadline. If you work it hard but don’t get there in three years, maybe it’s time to consider independent publishing. But that assumes you’ve worked it hard. Which means sending out queries, attending conferences, giving pitches (don’t worry–no one else enjoys this any more than you do), and seeing if you can find your way into a comfortable New York berth. The stakes are high. It’s worth the effort, especially early on, when you’re still building a career and a following.

I’ve mentioned this before, but at my annual conference, I am quite choosy about who I invite. Agents aren’t there unless they are reputable and have a substantial list of successful sales. I don’t promote anyone I wouldn’t have for an agent myself–in fact, several of the speakers have worked for me in the past. I have seen people at my conferences land agents who got them substantial publishing contracts–and to me, that’s what it’s all about.

If you think an agent is something you might like, I know a great opportunity for you to find one. Come to my writers conference September 22-23. In between sessions, we can chat about your work and your plans and try to get you what you need to succeed. I’d like to see you become the next publishing success story.

Schedule and registration info: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

Do You Need a Marketing Guru?

If anyone had asked me that question six months ago, I would have said no. Maybe even three months ago. To be fair, I’m accustomed to doing things myself. I’ve managed this writing career, for good or ill, for thirty years. Then again…we get agents sometimes to negotiate better sales. We get lawyers to review contracts. Others design covers and format the interior. Why not a marketing guru (which is NOT the same as a publicist). Marketing has become more important than ever, particularly in the online arena.

Fortunately, I had a new perspective pressed upon me by my friend and fellow writer Sean Callahan. He has spent years researching this field and as a result, knows all the latest and greatest, what works and what’s a waste of time and cash. He tosses out terms like “conversion” and “market penetration.” and it actually makes sense. I had a two-hour conversation with him a while back and learned more about marketing than I had in my entire previous life.

This is why I’ve invited him to the Red Sneaker conference (Sept 22-24). So he can do for the rest of you what he’s already done for me.

A few things to think about:

Conversion: The idea is to turn all your online and social media activity into book sales. Interestingly, this isn’t always as direct as it might seem. The best posts don’t overtly promote or contain links sending someone to Amazon. Better in the long term, Sean says, to send people to your website and collect their email address. Then you can notify them about your latest work till the end of time. Mail Chimp is an inexpensive way to keep the addresses organized and use them effectively.

Metadata: Personally, I’m always flummoxed when sites or people ask me for keywords or other forms of metadata. I don’t know what to put. Jungle Scout is a program that will research the field and provide a ranked list of possible terms for promoting your book. And remember–you can change terms at any time. Try a few, and if they don’t work, or they’ve taken you as far as they can, try some some different ones.

Amazon Marketing Services allows you to place ads on Amazon to promote your book (or any other product). To be fair, this will cost more than Facebook ads, though possibly not as much as you might imagine. And unlike Facebook ads, they pay off. Use the search terms you’ve discovered to craft a highly effective ad. And if you haven’t been successful in getting Bookbub to promote one of your books–consider a Bookbub ad. Sean advocates a procedure know as “ad stacking” to get the biggest bang out of your buck and to get the news about your book in front of the maximum number of people.

I haven’t even started on branding or levels or online engagement…or a host of other terrific ideas. You need to talk to Sean. And you can do so–at no additional cost–at the Red Sneaker writers conference. Have I convinced you yet that you need to attend?

Here’s a link to register or get more information: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

Should You Attend a Writers Conference?

Every year, many aspiring writers search for the assistance they need to break out–the agent, the editor, the publisher, whatever it is. And every year, many writers conferences offer to provide that assistance. The problems, of course, are that they are not free and they are not all in your hometown. How do you decide whether a conference is worth the investment? How do you decide which of the many you should attend?

I have some insight on these questions. As you may already know, I’ve organized a writers conference for many years now. It’s a lot of work and not terribly profitable, but every time I think about ending it, I come back to the same question: How would my life have changed if something like this had been available when I was trying to break into the business? I was a Oklahoma punk who’d never even met a writer, much less been in a hotel filled with them. Information was tough to find. I survived, but it wasn’t easy and that certainly might have helped.

And that’s why I put on the conference.

I think hard every year about how to make this year’s conference as useful as possible. Social opportunities are great, but I want the conference to provide more than networking. Information is the most valuable professional asset, so I try to provide the info people need to succeed. This has become even more important in recent years, as the publishing industry has undergone so many changes in so little time. I make sure people can find agents and editors, too. While I can’t guarantee publishing contracts, I can guarantee opportunities, information, and valuable feedback. The rest is up to the writer.

Here are the factors you should consider when deciding whether to attend a conference:

  1. If you’re hoping for an agent (or editor), examine the credentials of the people attending in advance. Sadly, some conferences will invite (or permit) agents who do not have strong track records, to fill slots cheaply or because they lack the contacts necessary to get to the top players. I’ve seen conferences with agents I wouldn’t even allow my students to pitch. If you’re going to commit to an agent, there should be a good reason. Make sure the person you’re pitching has sold books. Their website should list their clients as well as past sales. Make sure they represent the kind of book you’re writing. Make sure they’re with a reputable agency. If you can’t tell from their webpage (or they don’t have one), that should set off warning bells.
  2. Some conferences are so large they take the cattle-call approach to private consultations. Everyone is released at the same time in a large room and you can talk to as many as possible in a set period of time. You’ll like spend most of your time waiting, not talking. Some conferences make you pay an extra fee, per pitch. I recommend smaller or midsize conferences with reputable agents, so you know you’ll get to talk to the ideal people–and have enough time to have a real conversation. Plan to spend maybe 10% or your allotted time actually pitching. Spend the rest of the time listening. Go in with smart questions, things you need to know. Even if they don’t take you on, what would they recommend you do next? Instead of expecting an instant contract, view it as a learning experience, a rare opportunity for a professional consultation. Pick the brains of industry leaders. Most will be happy to talk.
  3. Give the rest of the speakers the same scrutiny. You should pick your sessions based not only on topic but also credentials. Even if the topic doesn’t address your primary need, a knowledgable speaker can impart information you may well find useful. Look for people who know what they’re talking about. If an opportunity for a chance conversation comes along, be prepared with questions. Don’t ask the obvious, stuff you could Google. Dig deeper. Take notes. Buy recordings. Then put the information into practice immediately, before you’ve had time to forget it.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that when I plan my conference, I only bring in agents I would be happy to have as my own, and I only choose speakers who are knowledgeable and know how to impart that knowledge. And I am always available to make sure people make contact with the people they want to see (or get anything else they need). I mother-hen the whole shebang, doing my best to make sure everyone is happy and everyone gets the tools they need to succeed. If you have any questions about the conference (OKC, Sept 22-24), feel free to email me: willbern@gmail.com.

You can register here: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/