Should You Attend a Writers Conference?

I hope you will forgive me if, just this once, I digress from the usual hot-off-the-presses publishing news and writing advice and instead tell a more personal story, one that has been much on my mind these past few days–in part, because people keep asking why I spend so much time putting together this annual writing conference. It takes time away from my writing, it’s not particularly profitable, and I spend most of the year worrying that no one will come–so why? I’ll explain this the same way I do everything.

Let me tell you a story.

When I was young, my dream was to write a book and see it published. That was it. That was all I wanted. I dreamed about visiting the library and seeing my name on the spine of a novel and thinking, yeah, I did that. Problem was, I had no idea how to make this happen. I sent my stuff out, hundreds of times, but it was always rejected (because it was awful). I took some classes in college, but they didn’t lead anywhere. I became a full-time trial lawyer, but I wrote every available spare minute–and still couldn’t even get an agent.

I joined a local writing group, and someone there recommended that I attend the Golden Triangle Conference in Beaumont, Texas. Not in Dallas, or Houston, or anyplace you might expect. Beaumont. Great conference, she said. So I went.

I participated in everything possible. I went to every class I could. Despite my poor social skills, I forced myself to talk to people, even agents. I even went to the banquets. No luck. But somewhere in the midst of it all, someone mentioned an agent named Esther Perkins. How did she know Esther? Esther had attended this conference several times in the past.

So after I got home, I sent Esther my manuscript (this was Primary Justice, in case you’re wondering). She liked it. Better yet, Esther knew an editor in the Ballantine division of Random House, Joe Blades. How did she know Joe? She met him a few years before at the same conference. As it turned out, Joe also liked my book. He offered me a three-book contract. The book was a hit and that led to a career of more than forty books and several New York Times bestsellers. All because of a conference.

You may be thinking this is just my way of persuading you to attend the conference. Wrong. This is my explanation of why I’ve hosted conferences all these years.

Because now my dream is to see what happened for me, happen for you.

Can I guarantee you’ll get an agent at this conference? No–though many have. Can I guarantee this will lead to a publishing contract? No, though for many it has. But I can guarantee you’ll meet some terrific people, and one of them might just drop your Esther Perkins, that is, the tiny bit of information that makes all the difference.

You will have one asset I didn’t have all those years ago–me. I will be there chatting and shepherding and making sure everyone gets what they need. No one will miss a session that could have changed their life. No one will miss a chance to speak to the people they came to see. Everyone will leave feeling they have the inside scoop on the current publishing world–because they do.

Writing is like any of the arts–it’s hard to know when success will strike. But the one thing I know for certain is that you have to get yourself out there, get in line, give yourself a chance. Your break will come when you have the right book in the right place at the right time–and you know how to take advantage of it. There is no reason why it couldn’t happen for you. Do you think that skinny geeky kid from Oklahoma thirty years ago had something you don’t? I did not. But I had a lot of desire. And I went to a conference.

Chick here for more information about the 2018 Red Sneaker Writers Conference.

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.

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/

Publishing 103: The Other Alternatives

In the last two blogs, I covered traditional publishing and independent (i.e., self-) publishing. This time I’ll cover all the other possibilities–that I know about. If there are some I missed, please write and let me know.

You’ve probably heard the term “hybrid publisher,” which originally meant someone who has both traditional publishing contracts but also self-publishes. (Today, with so many options, the hybrid might be doing several of any number of things.) The statistics at Author Earnings indicate that hybrids, as a group, are pulling in more author income that any other category. The usual, though not only, hybrid approach, is to self-publish, develop a following, then parlay that success into a traditional contract, which may only include print rights, or may be for a sequel or related work. In fact, they may come to you. Traditional publishing watches the Kindle bestseller lists carefully, and if they see a self-published author running up impressive numbers, they often contact them with an offer.

Amazon Publishing is a major force in today’s book world. (I’m not talking about Kindle Direct Publishing for self-pubbed eBooks, I’m talking about Amazon’s own traditional publishing branch.) When people talk about the Big Five, they are usually referring to the big corporations with New York offices (kind of like the Tonys only go to plays presented on Broadway). If Amazon were put on the list, in terms of sales, they’d be No. 3. With a bullet. While the number of books Amazon publishes is relatively small, their sales are significant. Are you surprised? Of course Amazon the retailer gives preferential treatment to Amazon the publisher.

Amazon’s contracts are among the most progressive offered today–usually for a set term, 50% royalty on eBooks, paid monthly, and allowing you to reserve subsidiary rights. Amazon has an imprint for every kind of book imaginable, including both genre and literary work. You do need an agent to approach Amazon Publishing, which means you’ll be giving a good chunk of your earnings to an agent. Unless…

…you go the Kindle Scout route (like I have, twice). Kindle Scout allows you to get into Amazon Publishing without an agent, and in much less time. They call it a crowdsourcing site, but in truth, the decision what to publish and what not to publish is based on many factors, not merely how many “nominations” your book receives. Like any other publisher, they choose the books they believe will be most successful.

A more genuine crowdsourcing alternative would be funding a book through Kickstarter or Indiegogo, or acquiring patrons through Patreon (which full disclosure: I have a page on). Kickstarter has funded many individual books, while Patreon funds the artist, allowing them to produce their work or provide mentoring to others. The patrons receive many rewards, so it should be a win-win for everyone. The magic of the internet is that, even if each individual makes a small monthly contribution, the aggregate could make it possible for the artist to create without being controlled or robbed by a big corporation. If you’re interested, please check out everything I’m offering on my Patreon page: https://www.patreon.com/willbern

BEWARE! The Big Five publishers now have vanity press lines (Simon & Schuster’s Archway Publishing, for one example). Don’t be fooled by the fact that it’s affiliated with a big company. If they ask you for money, it’s a vanity press. I don’t care if they call it a marketing fee or an editing fee or anything else. If they want money, it’s a vanity press, and if you think that will ever lead to anything good, you are simply kidding yourself. Don’t let the desire to tell friends you have a contract with a Big Publisher lead you to a poor decision. Your friends will learn the truth. This path can only lead to embarrassment.

The Big Five also have “digital-only” lines, that is, all they want is the eBook. They may or may not acquire the print right or audio rights, but they will only publish the eBook. These lines have proven profitable for the big companies–but not so much for individual authors. If you prefer this to learning how to self-publishing, that’s fine, but if you’re doing it because you think you will have great sales or the prestige of being affiliated with a big publisher, I would reconsider.

Don’t be overwhelmed by all the possibilities. Be delighted. When I started back in the 80s, authors basically only had one viable route to publication. Now we have many, and that’s good. I like anything that puts more power (and income) in the hands of the creators, the people without whom books would not exist.

Modern Publishing 102: Indie Publishing

Just to be clear, what we now call indie or independent publishing is what we used to call self-publishing. What we used to call independent publishing was every publisher other than the New York mega-houses. Today, indie publishing accounts for more than two-thirds of all books published in the US.

Self-publishing does not have the stigma it once did, but I’d be fibbing if I suggested it has none at all. If you’re talking to someone who knows anything about the current publishing environment, you’re unlikely to see much judging. The fact that some people have made self-publishing successful speaks for itself. If you’re talking to someone who wants to be perceived as “literary,” a critic, a gossip, a professor, or one of the lucky few still making money from traditional publishing–the reaction may be different.

Some people start out trying for traditional publishing and if that doesn’t work opt for indie. Some people start with indie, work hard, acquire some strong sales figures, then use that to attract a traditional publisher. And some people–the hybrids–do both at the same time. All of these approaches are viable, and I for one am glad to see that writers have options. We are, after all, the ones who create the stories people love. We should not always be at the mercy of giant corporations peering relentlessly at their bottom lines.

To make indie publishing work, you must:

  1. Hire an editor
  2. Learn about formatting, distribution, and design
  3. Master marketing
  4. Create a brand, or
  5. Hire someone to do all of the above for you.

Did you notice that I put the editor first? Good. There’s a reason. Yes, I know–you have excellent writing skills and got As in English all through high school. But no one catches everything, and for that matter, you might need input that goes beyond merely catching typos. Maybe you need fact-checking, or credibility checking, or input on character likability, or pacing or viewpoint or…

Bottom line, no one catches everything, not even writers with 43 published books. We can all benefit from outside eyes, a reliable but honest beta reader. Or ten.

Formatting eBooks isn’t hard and you can learn it in a few hours. Formatting print books, even for print on demand, is hard and will take much longer. If you have no graphic design or layout experience, or you hate computers, you may want to consider hiring someone to do this, at least the first time around. Cover design is also critical, but there are many good cover designers online and you shouldn’t pay more than $2-300 for it.

I know you would rather write than market, and social media may drive you batty, but it’s necessary. If you think readers will find your books on their own because they are so splendid…you may be in for an unpleasant awakening. For that matter, even if you are published by a NY big shot you will have to market online and might well be contractually required to do so. Branding is simply establishing a reputation for creating a certain kind of work, a genre, subject area, series, or series character. Ideally, you want people to see your name and know exactly what kind of work they should expect.

If you hire someone to do this stuff for you, please beware of expensive services that use high-pressure sales tactics or prey upon your inexperience. Good assisted services include Girl Friday Publications, Book in a Box, DogEar, and Matador. At Amazon, Kindle Direct Publishing allows you to self-publish and see your eBook immediately for sale on Amazon, where most books are sold today. Smashwords, or Draft2Digital, will put your eBook everywhere else. Amazon also has CreateSpace, which allows you to create print-on-demand books and have them immediately for sale on Amazon. Others may prefer IngramSpark or Lightning Source, which will guarantee your book can be ordered by bookstores through Ingram (assuming a bookstore is interested in ordering your book–it won’t happen automatically).

If you’re waiting for me to tell you which way to go–it will be a long wait. You’ll have to answer this one yourself, but your decision should be based upon:

  1. What kind of books you’re writing, and
  2. What will make you happy.

Most indie successes have been with adult genre fiction, so if that’s what you’re writing, this course may be more viable. If only a print book, or a contract with a big company, will make you feel validated as a writer–then that’s what you should pursue.

So now we’ve covered traditional publishing and self-publishing. Next time I’ll discuss all the other options.

 

Do You Need a Website?

This blog post will be a definite change of pace. Normally, I start with big broad questions, and then answer with something like, “It depends,” or, “You tell me.” But this time, I can be much more direct. Do you need a website? Yes.

Every author needs a website. I often tell people at my retreats not to trust an agent with no webpage. Why should it be different for a writer? Here’s the reality: Setting up a webpage is time-consuming and will cost you some money, even if you learn how to do everything possible yourself (which is doubtful). But the subsequent upkeep is less demanding. And the benefits are many.

We live in an online world, and you probably don’t need me to tell you that. There’s a reason malls are closing and Wal-Mart is no longer America’s number-one retailer. People shop online. Your books must be available at Amazon, and you should have an Amazon Author page (discussed in a previous blog). But you need more. You need an environment you can control, update, and use to promote whatever you need to promote. Even before you have a book to promote, you should start building the site and thinking of ways to get people to visit.

Make your webpage as interactive as possible. Active, not passive. Give away free stuff. Hold free video seminars. Give readers a way to contact you. Explore the themes in your work. Ask yourself: What draws people to my books? And then put much more of it on your website. Jan Brett gives out colorful freebies. Jeff Kinney (Wimpy Kid) has silly interactive games. Linda Ashmangives lets people download her first chapter. What should you be doing? Some readers love to read “deleted scenes,” background stories about the novel, short stories set in the same world, or teaser chapters from unreleased books.

Build your mailing list. If they came to your site, they probably won’t mind signing up for a newsletter or notification of book publications or interesting downloads. People are paying millions of dollars these days for good e-mailing lists. You can create your own. Be sure to give visitors a way to contact you. That’s another way to collect email addresses.

Make it pleasing to the eye. Unless you are a graphic designer (and maybe even if you are), this means you’re hiring someone to design the site. Yes, I know you could do it yourself with an online interface but that doesn’t mean you should. An unprofessional, unattractive webpage does not inspire confidence or reading. After you have it looking nice, make sure it is easy to navigate. Don’t make people work hard for anything. Make especially sure they can get to a “buy page” for your books with a minimum numbers of clicks.

You don’t need to implement a whole new look all that often, but you should update the content frequently–forthcoming events, new books, etc. Have the person who designs your site set it up so you can make simple content changes yourself. You don’t want to be paying someone every time you need to post something new.

Next week I’m traveling to California for the final summer writing retreat. So far, I’ve had more questions about publishing than anything else, where to go and how to do it, so I’ll tackle that in the next few blog posts.

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Why Give Your Book Away for Free?

I’ve just finished the second of my summer writing retreats, which is why you haven’t heard much from me lately. First day, I always ask people what they want me to talk about. Once upon a time, the topics most frequently requested involved writing, but today, they almost always involve publishing. The publishing world is in chaos and writers don’t know where to take their books. Even at home, I frequently receive requests that I write a Red Sneaker book about publishing. The problem with that is that everything changes so frequently I would have to update it constantly. Better to keep that material in the blog, I think.

At the Georgia retreat, writers talked about using books as “loss leaders,” borrowing a term from the world of retail. The idea is that you sell a book for free, preferably the first or second book in a series. Technically, Amazon only lets you sell an eBook for free for five days out of every ninety, and then only if it is exclusive to Kindle Direct Publishing. If your book is free on other sites, however, Amazon will match the price. (In other words, let Smashwords give it away, and the omnipresent Amazon bots will soon know about it. Or you can just send an email and tell them)

Yes, you can give you book away–but should you? You worked hard to write that thing. You put enormous amounts of creativity into it. Don’t you deserve to get something back? The answer to that is a clear yes, but there are some sound marketing reasons for giving books away, either permanently or periodically. Free may make sense if:

  1. You want to build your reader base.
  2. You have a sizable backlist.
  3. You’re writing a series.
  4. You want to get more Amazon reviews.
  5. You have a a subsidiary product to sell.

If any of those things is true, go for it. But if you’re early in your career, or this is your first book, and you have the ability to set the price, my recommendation is that you set it low, but not free. Go with 99 cents for a short work and $2.99 or $3.99 for a full-length work. That’s cheap enough that anyone can buy it, but you will get some return. A lot of people will “buy” free books just because they’re free, but that doesn’t mean they will ever read them. Make them pay even a small amount, and the chances that they read it will substantially increase. You can’t turn them into fans unless they read the book, and frankly, reviews tend to be better when people have paid for a book, too. Readers tend to disrespect anything they got at no cost.

I’m in Eureka Springs this week. And it’s not too late to register for the California retreat that begins July 19. Writers who have joined my Patreon campaign may attend for free.

Keep writing!

California retreathttp://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Patreon campaignhttps://www.patreon.com/willbern