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!

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.

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 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/

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.

 

Modern Publishing 101: Traditional Publishing

Once upon a time–like when I started in 1991–traditional publishing was virtually the only game in town. If you wanted to get into bookstores–and you did, because that was the primary place books sold–you needed a publisher, the bigger the better. Unfortunately, that meant you needed an agent, who would take 10-20% of your share, so you could get a publisher, who would retain 85-96% of the proceeds from the sale of your book. Unless they paid you a flat fee, in which case they kept it all.

Today we have many options, and I’ll be discussing all of them in this series of blog posts. But I’m starting with traditional publishing, because it still exists, and some argue it’s still the most desirable, or at least the most prestigious. (I’m not saying I agree. I’m just reporting.) The Big Five NYC publishers lead the pack, but there are many other prestigious publishers that have national distribution, and beyond that, many regional, small, and university presses.

Getting a contract with a big publisher is supposed to be the aspiring writer’s dream, but that dream is more like a nightmare if no one can find your book, or sales are poor, or they edit it poorly or give it a silly title or an embarrassing cover (fyi, I’ve had all of the above). But let’s say you’ve got your heart set on traditional publishing. Here are the essential steps:

1) Accurately categorize your book

2) Find an appropriate literary agent

3) Prepare your submission materials (query letter, synopsis, etc.)

4) Submit

Accurate categorization is critical. Even if you think your work is too deep and complex to be pigeonholed, you must be able to tell people what it is or you will never sell it. Presentation materials differ from different kinds of books. For instance, nonfiction writers can pitch with a proposal, but fiction writers will need a completed manuscript. Agents tend to specialize in certain fields, as do editors. You must know what your book it is to find the right business partner. The Big Five do best with genre fiction (romance, mystery/thriller, SF, YA), and nonfiction with a strong hook or concept that could appeal to a large audience. You are unlikely to sell the Big Five books over 120,000 words, poetry, short story collections, memoirs (unless you’re famous), literary or experimental fiction. A smaller or regional press, however, might be interested (and might not require an agent).

If you want to be published by the Big Five, you will need an agent. If your project is unlikely to draw a decent advance, an agent will probably not be interested. Today, you have the advantage of using the net to obtain info about agents, and you may be able to query them online, too. The best sources for agent information are: WritersMarket.com, PublishersMarketplace.com (useful, but subscription required), AgentQuery.com, QueryTracker.net, and for the literary market, Duotrope.com (also requires a subscription). You can even hire someone to find appropriate agents and publishers for you. Visit Grad Student Freelancers.

While you’re researching literary agents, find out what they want to see, because it varies. All will want a query letter, a one-page pitch letter, though today it can usually be sent by email, or possibly pasted into an interface on a webpage. You will also probably need a synopsis for a novel (1-2 pages long), sample chapters, or a proposal (especially if this is nonfiction).

And then it’s time to submit. Don’t expect a fast response. Prominent agents receive about 300 queries a week. If you get no response, you probably need to improve your premise (read Promising Premise) or rewrite your query to make it more engaging. If people ask for a manuscript but then decline, there’s something wrong with your manuscript. Come to a writing seminar or retreat and we’ll see what we can do about that.

How long should you keep querying? Obviously, there’s no set answer here. How much can you stand? I will tell you this. I sent my first novel out, over a period of about three years, and it was rejected hundreds of times by agents or publishers. No, I am not exaggerating. I heard that it was boring, unbelievable, and poorly written. And then Random House/Ballantine bought it and sold half a million copies in the first three months.

So now you know why I tell my students to be persistent. Never give up. You’ve never been trying too long.

But if traditional publishing isn’t working for you, you might consider the alternatives. I’ll post about that next time.

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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Figuring Out the Publishing World

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Since I’ve spent the last several blog posts talking about writing, I’m not surprised that most of the Red Sneaker email is about publishing, trying to fathom how to crack the market, where to send manuscripts, how to survive in a world where bookstores are online and books look like Star Trek PADDs.

I wish I had all the answers. I don’t. At best, I can offer a few guidelines, but at least those guidelines are based upon experience gained publishing over forty books in every possible way during the last thirty years. Here’s what I know for sure about where to publish your books:

  1. It depends on the book, and
  2. It depends upon you.

When I started submitting manuscripts back in the 80s, there was no confusion about it. Unless you had a NYC publisher, you weren’t in the bookstores, and that was where books sold. But somewhere in the last twenty years, Amazon became America’s top bookseller–by far. (#1 retailer, too.) In 2009, digital gizmos like iPads started catching on, and pretty soon people could carry thousands of books on a device that weighed less than a pound. If you’ve ever packed books for a long trip, you can see the advantages. Yes, you may prefer snuggling up to a nice hardcover when you’re in bed, but you aren’t always in bed (I hope) and hardcovers are expensive and increasingly harder to find. So what’s the upshot?

  1. Adult genre fiction sells more in eBook than paper. Figures vary, but it looks to me like sales are around 75% eBook. Books for kids, art books, and some nonfiction still sells better in paper–but the margin in narrowing.
  2. The Big Five NYC publishers are becoming increasingly dependent upon genre fiction (which they sometimes call “upscale fiction” to make it sound more different than it is). You will need an agent to pitch them.
  3. Smaller publishers are less likely to care about agents, and that may be where your non-genre work is heading anyway.
  4. New York is not publishing poetry to any significant degree.
  5. Amazon Publishing is not yet the largest share of the market, but they are the fastest growing slice–by far. Given the high visibility Amazon gives books in which they have a vested interest, that just makes sense.
  6. The Kindle Scout program is one way to get a book into Amazon. Amazon has other houses, but some still require agents (and even if you have one, do you want to give up 20% of your slender royalties)? It works best for adult genre fiction, though there have been exceptions.

And this is why last week, I worked on a book for a large publisher, sent one to a smaller publisher (cross fingers) and launched a Kindle Scout campaign for another book. These days, you need to try everything–based upon what’s right for the book and what’s right for you.

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