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! 

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.

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 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/

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.

Join the Red Sneaker elite and get special stuff! https://www.patreon.com/willbern

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

Thinking Theme, The Final Chapter

After a few diversions, I’m back to the topic of theme. This is the subject of my next Red Sneaker book, so if there are any aspects I haven’t covered, or anything you’d like me to address, please let me know. And I’m still interesting in hearing title possibilities…

Here’s what I’ve covered so far, in brief. Theme isn’t about thumping people over the head with your political, religious, or spiritual beliefs. At best, it’s putting a topic up for discussion–basically saying, here’s something important we ought to think about.

Some writers handle theme more subtly than others. People like Brad Thor and the late Vince Flynn have found success in thrillers with a hardline conservative bent, typically portraying the Middle East as a dire threat to truth, justice, and the American Way. There’s no doubt but that much of John Grisham’s early success was due to his anti-lawyer, anti-lawyering stance. Most of his early characters become disillusioned with the law and quit, in some cases before they’ve actually begun. This clearly captured the zeitgeist of lawyer-bashing popular at the time. (To be fair, Grisham, a fine writer, has since moved on to more profound themes.)

Many contemporary novels have found great success by encapsulating, or perhaps galvanizing, the sentiment of their times. Catch-22 rode to success with an antiwar theme that held great appeal during the Vietnam era (even though the story concerned a different war). The same could be said of M*A*S*H. The Bonfire of the Vanities was perceived as a summation of the “Me Generation” of the 80s. The film Tootsie addressed gender roles and stereotypes long before that became commonplace.

Some themes recur frequently because they are universal, or close to it. Prejudice. The dehumanization of industrial society. Revenge. Corruption. Obsession. Relationships. And then there are all those dichotomies your English teacher used to talk about. Man vs. nature. Hope vs. despair. Good vs. evil. These will always be of interest and import to readers. The only question is whether you can bring anything fresh to the table.

I mean no disrespect to any of the previously mentioned authors when I suggest that the books that continue to be read through successive generations, that stand the test of time, usually speak on a quieter but more profound level. I always advise writers to ask themselves: What matters most to you? Get past the obvious answers. I know you love your spouse, kids, family, pets. Beyond that. What matters most? What has made the biggest difference in your life? If you could cause your readers to see one thing, what would it be?

Theme should add depth to your story, should transform it from an amusing way to pass time into a meaningful reading experience. The repetition of thematic elements will lend the tale resonance. The story will still be strong, and that’s good, because it you practice any degree of subtlety, some readers will miss it. But the others will appreciate you much more because you lent an added dimension to your tale. And it should be useful to you during the writing process, too, because knowing your theme will help you make decisions about what to write, what characters to use, and what should happen to them. In the editing stage, it guides what to keep and what to cut. It sharpens the entire story.

In the Red Sneaker book, I’ll talk more about how to integrate that theme into your work. In the meantime, my Kindle Scout campaign has two more weeks to go, so please tell your friends to meander over and “nominate” my book. Costs nothing and might get you a free book. And please also spread the word about the Patreon campaign I’m hoping will keep the Red Sneaker Center, all the blogs and newsletters and publishing and seminars, running for the foreseeable future.

Kindle Scout: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/KY5IRZ0DD3YU

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

 

 

Figuring Out the Publishing World

Would you take a moment to nominate my new novel on Kindle Scout? It costs your nothing, and if the book is selected, you’ll receive a free digital copy. Click here to get to the page, then click “Nominate me.”

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.

NOMINATE ME!: https://kindlescout.amazon.com/p/KY5IRZ0DD3YU

Join my Patreon campaign!: https://www.patreon.com/willbern