A little early morning rant with your espresso?

16451156Okay. I admit I don’t often read the Administrative Science Quarterly. Okay, well, I never read it. But it was cited recently in a mash-up piece on The Passive Voice and while I’m still not going to read the paper, I will throw my two cents in on what seems, combined with my own growing experience, to be an unfortunate and unpleasant phenomenon.

Here’s an excerpt from the paper in the Administrative Science Quarterly, that started this rant:

Comparing thousands of reader reviews on Goodreads.com of 64 English-language books that either won or were short-listed for prestigious book awards between 2007 and 2011, we find that prizewinning books tend to attract more readers following the announcement of an award and that readers’ ratings of award-winning books tend to decline more precipitously following the announcement of an award relative to books that were named as finalists but did not win.

First, we propose that the audience evaluating a high-status actor or object tends to shift as a result of a public status shock, like an award, increasing in number but also in diverse tastes. We outline how this shift might translate into less favorable evaluations of quality.

Second, we show that the increase in popularity that tends to follow a status shock is off-putting to some, also resulting in more negative evaluations. We show that our proposed mechanisms together explain the negative effect of status on evaluations in the context of the literary world.

So basically, it seems there is a tendency by the general reading public–once a book is deemed worthy  by some measuring stick respected by the literary-reading world–to attempt to devalue that work.

I know there will always be haters. Got it. I’m a University of Florida alumna so Been There. Won the National Championship. Got the T-shirt. It’s not the fact that, as an author, I feel vulnerable to the masses weighing in on my stories or writing ability. I  had a long career as an advertising copywriter so not only have I suffered the literary slings and arrows of clients (and account execs) as well as Creative Directors (who started out as Art Directors I feel inclined to point out) in reference to my writing, I’ve run my precious literary babies up the flag pole and had readers as far away as Australia and India use them as target practice, too.

But even as thick-skinned as I tend to be, after experiencing a couple of bad mornings which were the result of reading a particularly cruel review on one of my titles, I generally don’t go there anymore. I’m lucky enough to have a buffer between me and my reviews, good or bad. My husband  checks Amazon frequently for me so I don’t have to. I’ll often get texts from him throughout the day that read: “Another 5-star for SOF!” or “Check out your 4-star on FF…from a male reader, no less.” (Note: he’s not being sexist, most of my readers are female.)

What my husband typically keeps to himself are the 1 and 2 star reviews that inevitably come down the pike. Because he has an inquisitive mind and because he wants to know why one title with three hundred 4 and 5 star reviews would prompt someone—especially someone who goes onto the review page and SEES all the love–to write a vitriolic rant condemning it, he often tracks down the reviewer.

30326822Now I don’t mean he gets their GPS coordinates, but he traces the reviewer’s link back thru the Amazon website to find out who they are and what their story is. Once in awhile he’ll tell me: “You got a 2-star from some old lady in Tampa who’s only ever reviewed foot powder ’til now.” But usually–and it makes me mad just to write it–usually, he’s discovered the ultra-negative reviewer is not only another author–but one in my genre and one not doing well (which you can easily determine by the ranking on the book page.)

Let me say, if not from the get go (little late for that), that I’m not trying to say my books are just so awesome that someone’s negative opinion—if it results in a two-star review—must be wrong. I’m saying I see a pattern related to most of the one and two star reviews I receive on certain of my books. And it seems to reveal that the more visibly loved a book appears, (ie 300 4 & 5 star reviews) the more one-star reviews it attracts.

This post is not really about crap reviews. It is a lamentation about the fact that it appears that the higher up you go, the more people want to jerk you back down. I follow several authors’ blogs who used to regularly tell how much money they made on their book sales in an effort to help other authors figure out possible promotion methods, etc. Frankly, I’ve found those blog posts very helpful in showing me what might be. It’s unusual in publishing to have that kind of transparency and it was refreshing and beneficial to see it. Recently, I’ve been reading those same authors say that when they release that kind of information they then see an avalanche of 1 and 2 star reviews show up on their Amazon book pages. Most say they won’t do it anymore.

"While I only read part of the first chapter of this book, I knew the whole book sucked. In fact, probably ALL her books suck! In fact, I think the AUTHOR sucks! Don't read any of her books ever! You've been warned!"

“While I only read part of the first chapter of this book, I knew the whole book sucked. In fact, probably ALL her books suck!”–Signed Disgusted Reader who also has a book you’ll like lots better available for 99c HERE.”

Keep in mind, these are not blogs addressed primarily to readers. These are blogs focused specifically on writing and indie publishing. So unless there’s a bunch of Big Five spies lurking on their blogs, these knee-jerk bad reviews are coming from jealous writers!

And not just newbies–in fact, I’d say rarely newbies. My husband’s own investigations show the poor reviews that I get from other writers are writers who are either traditionally published or are attempting to sell their backlist from back-in-the-day when they WERE traditionally published.

Which makes me want to ask: does it really make anyone feel better about themselves to tear someone else down? Does it really help?

Really?

Finding Your Peeps Out in the World

Finding your tribe, your peeps, your people. Not to restrict this important part of living to just that of writers, everyone needs community. While it’s true I belong to a nuclear family, an extended family, a parish, a neighborhood and a community of other high school student parents, it wasn’t until I left my corporate job and began to reach out to other writers that I realized I didn’t truly have a community of people who spoke my language. It takes all kinds to make a parish, for example, and that’s great. Because all the differences add valuable and differing skillsets and perspectives. But an artist laboring in a cubicle with corporate drones is not just a different piece of cloth in a multi-colored quilt. She is acting out a perverse situation of mismatch, misfit, and misconnection that adversely affects her on every level. The reason I continue to bang on this particular drum is because for most of my  tenure in a corporate office, while I knew I didn’t really belong, I also didn’t see to the extent the attempt to fit in was bad for me. About two months after I left my job I went to a writers’ conference up in the mountains of north Georgia. There I met authors and writers of every stripe. I met geezers with boatloads of ancient trunk material they were self-publishing for their families, I met traditionally published authors who swaggered about accepting accolades for being incredibly lucky to be recognized as “real” writers, I met teens who only had scribbled poems and short stories they published on Facebook. I met writers a lot like me and writers nothing at all like me. And I was blown away by the fact that I felt connected to every single one of them. Even the ones I would’ve edged away from in an elevator or crossed the street to avoid. Even the obnoxious ones. Even the ones who shoved their self-published prose at me to prove within a few seconds that they couldn’t write very well. Even those people, I felt more connected to than the people I’d shared birthday parties and company picnics with for the five years previous. You don’t have to like every member of your family, but that doesn’t keep you from acknowledging (usually) that they are your family. Breaking out into the world of weirdos and writers, artists and losers, the pompous and the generous has lifted me up and filled me with a sense of belonging that I literally never had before.

My peeps. My peers. I love being with them. I love talking to them about writing. I love recognizing the same struggles in them that I have with my own work. They understand me because they understand my passion. They understand my pain.

When I started blogging last year, I read all the advice about not doing a blog for writers because how can that be helpful in marketing your work? I worked so hard not to make this a writing blog but something readers might be drawn to (for obvious reasons). But writing is a passionate interest of mine so, like any other passion, I kept turning to it time and time again. It’s also the thing I’m attracted to in other people’s blogs—their take on writing, their perspective on writing schedules, their writerly worldview. When I realized that, regardless of what the social media experts preach, a writing blog is what fills me up and satisfies the parts that other topics can’t reach, I stopped trying to write for nonwriters. Not to take anything away from my parish or my family but when it comes to writing there is a singular language that only another writer speaks. Just like the expatriate I once was, I have to say sometimes it’s just so nice to relax with your own people.

 

 

When our heroes track mud on the living room carpet

Seventeen years ago, I found an awesome book called Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. I have worn this book out, underlined it, typed whole sections into my smartphone over the years, mined it for never-fail gems upon which I have launched many a blog post. I remember loving her voice, her assuredness as I re-read her words of wisdom, much of it researched by great writers and thinkers, explorers and doers in history and enhanced and made current to our lives, our time by Ms. Breathnach’s own gentle voice and common sense perspective.

It’s not hyperbole to say that she touched my life. I found comfort and balance in her words and reached for this book often. If you’re not familiar with it, she gives an essay for every day of the year and while she mostly speaks to women, her essays cover everything from raising children to digging out of credit card debt to finding your passion to cooking a simple meal.

Today, I looked up the chapter where she addresses Spending Habits. She wrote: “One of the greatest gifts my husband has ever given me is the ability to think before I spend. This is how savers behave. Savers don’t get a high from recreational shopping. Savers don’t shop in order to make themselves feel better…Today, be willing to gently explore your life-energy expenditures. Don’t blame yourself for bad choices. Do attempt to make better ones. Most of our problems in handling money stem from unexamined patterns rather than from uncontrollable urges.”

Okay. Very nice, and as true today in 2012 as it was when she wrote it in 1995. You might have read this in last month’s O Magazine, it’s so current sounding. In fact, Ms. Breathnach appeared on Oprah’s show 11 times.

Which is why I was so shocked to discover that a few years after selling 7 million copies of Simple Abundance, Ms. Breathnach ended up divorced, broke and sleeping on the couch at her sister’s. (As a writer, myself, this is definitely not how one dreams that being a mega-bestseller author will end up.)

We all have heroes that fail us. We are all human. I get that. I think it’s remarkably gutsy to write a book saying you have researched all the answers and then go on Oprah eleven times to underscore the point.

And then trip.

My hat is off to her for trying in such a big way. In fact, I may currently be even more impressed with Ms. Breathnach than I was before her fall. It’s one thing to be all Yoda and wise when you’re sitting in your comfy middle-class home when you don’t have to worry about a day job because you have a working spouse. It’s quite another when you’re homeless, in debt up to your eyeballs and jobless.  Here is one Phoenix, however, I have to believe is destined to rise from the ashes.

Not surprisingly, she’s got a new book out about her journey. But for me, I think I’ll pass. Don’t get me wrong, my hat is off to her and her unsinkable Molly Brown ability to fashion opportunity out of failure, but I’ve gotten a few years under my belt since I last looked outward for my heroes. Today, I’m looking closer to home for that and sorting out the codes and values that define my life the old fashioned way: by trying to live them day by day instead of reading about them.

Life After Twitter

This is a follow up to the blog post that put me on the map, thanks to a push from Dean Wesley Smith who directed his followers to my site for the post, many of whom ended up staying.

In less than 48 hours, my post The Great Social Media Flim-Flam received over 8000 views, 80 comments, and the blog, itself, gained 500 new followers.

Dang.

The vast majority of commenters—some from New Zealand, Germany, the UK and Venezuela—all said the same thing: “Thank God! Let’s quit this idiocy and get back to writing books.” It was like they were waiting to hear some kind of argument that would allow them to pack it in, close the Twitter account, sign off of Facebook for good.

I heard from one guy who I had noticed on Twitter several times spamming the crap out of everyone and who I’d always been annoyed to see because he was doing exactly what all the social media experts tell you not to do! He was obnoxiously repeating over and over again to “buy his book.” When he wrote me after the post he said, “I wouldn’t do it if it didn’t get results. Dramatic results.” My annoyance dissipated immediately when he told me that. I don’t blame someone for using a tool to get the result we’re all going after. If anything, he’s just more honest than the rest of them who tweet what they had for breakfast as some form of “relationship-building” but really they’re just waiting to slip you their books when you get all cozy and unsuspecting. He says he spams every hour. But he also retweets more than he spams because, let’s face it, he’s the guy the social gurus warned us about and it rankles being considered an untouchable by much of the Twittersphere, even if it does sell books. He said this internal conflict, spamming and then trying to make up for it with treble the re-tweets, has resulted in him spending so much time on Twitter that it’s taken him a year to finish a book he should’ve finished in three months. He says if he can stop the compulsion to watch his numbers rise, he’s going to quit social media and go back to putting his effort into writing again.

I also heard from one woman who was very testy and said that social media absolutely worked for her. She claimed to sell 10,000 books a month (at 99c). I can only imagine she’s a little friendlier in her other social media channels than she was defending herself to me!

I think the thing I’d want to stress is that, especially after talking to Jim (the spammer guy, who has decent books, I might add), I don’t feel judgmental about people who use social media to sell their stuff. If they can do it, power to them. Even if they do it by using a sledge hammer to the head—and it works—go for it. And if they can do it and sleep at night? Mazel tov. I think the thing that bothers me the most is all the people pretending to be friendly while keeping their not-so-hidden agenda in the background (“buy my book!”) Let’s face it, if that’s not the case and you really are trolling the internet to find friends, you have more problems than getting people to buy your book. I mean, come on. You do know you cannot really have ten thousand friends, right? Not in real life, not in cyberspace. (You can call the singles in your wallet twenties if it makes you feel better but they’re still singles.)   So where is the word of mouth coming from if these friends aren’t real?  Last year, I’d heard hundreds of people rave about “The Help” on Kindleboards and Twitter and never once thought it sounded like something I’d like to read, until one (real) friend of mine on Facebook mentioned she couldn’t put it down. And after I read it, I bought it and sent it to two other (real) friends. (Yeah, yeah, I wish it had been an indie book.)

And while it’s only been a couple of days, I can already make some things add up from this blog post experience. The biggest take-away has got to be so clearly viewing blogging as a mechanism to enlarge friendships with other writers. Their input, their way of looking at the same problems you’re wrestling with, their empathy, their experience—all of it is invaluable as shared Intel. (FYI: after 8000 views and a virtual outpouring of affection and “likes,” I sold not one book more than I have been averaging all along.) If you blog because you like to do it, or because you want to meet other writers, and you’ve got something to share, I think it’s a great way to spend your time. If you’re expecting a monetary ROI, probably not.

What an astounding experience these last two days have been for me. I sat at the dinner table last night listening to the steady stream of “dings” that heralded the email notifications that continued to come in (until my husband made our son get up and mute the volume on the computer) and I felt such a part of the larger writers’ community. Between that feeling and the fact that I wrote 3,000 words yesterday on my book, I’d say this whole Life-After-Twitter campaign is off to a great start.

I will get around to answering everyone who left a comment from the first post and I wanted to thank everyone who took the time to write me. Any and all sharing of experiences and information is much appreciated, so please let me know what you think. After all, we really are all in this together.

Why local book clubs are the single, best way to sell more books online

Drum roll, please.
What is the one thing that all members of our writing/publishing industry—writers, publishers, legacy and indie—agree sells by far more books than any other method?
Word of mouth.
Ahhhh. You knew it wasn’t going to be something you could click on and just get.
No, word of mouth, like all things worthwhile, is not easy to create or obtain.
Marcella Smith, of Marcella Smith Associates, and a former Barnes & Noble executive has been quoted as saying that when it comes to selling books: “Nothing beats word of mouth. Nothing. These days, there is so much more book news in all kinds of media. I think it comes down to, ‘Who do you trust?’”
And we all trust our friends, right? I don’t even bother “sampling” a book if someone I know has already gushed all over it.
The question is: How to you make word of mouth happen? For your book?
I’m going to go with “book clubs.”
Nothing builds a writer’s brand better and faster than talking about her book to a group of people who are interested in hearing about it. All you have to do to make it happen is contact some book clubs in your area and suggest to them that if they read one of your books as a group, you will be happy to speak to the members about the book.
The reasons why a book club might agree are:
1. They are readers and most readers are keen to ask questions of the authors of books they’ve read
2. Everyone likes to be entertained or presented to
3. Most people like feeling proprietary about the books they read and the authors they discover
The benefits to you as an author are:
1. Once an author meets his readers he increases his “buy in” with them and increases the chances that they will talk about the book to their friends
2. It’s been shown that not only does the book club read and buy the book from the author but they tend to read everything that author puts out in the future!
3. Speaking at book clubs keeps books alive. Many books have been resurrected with a new generation or demographic of reader as the result of a book club embracing it.
4. Meeting with your readers opens opportunities for other avenues, related to your book or future books. In the November issue of IBPA Independent, columnist Linda Carlson told about an author who spoke at a club, met an attendee who was a writer for a magazine and ended up doing several keynote speeches and selling many, many more books.
5. Asking your new group of enthusiastic fans to post reviews of your book on Amazon.com, Goodreads and so forth will help boost your sales online.
If you go down this road, here are some things to keep in mind as you add book club presentations to your promotions tasks:

1. Be friendly and focus on connecting with your readers
2. Hand out bookmarks with new-book information
3. Always bring paperback or hardback copies of your book; if members bought it as an e-book, they may want a signed “real” book now that they’ve met you.
4. Bring a signup sheet to capture emails so your new friends will be some of the first to get information on upcoming releases

There is a strong belief in publishing circles today that one of the main things that can save publishing is book clubs.
They can do a lot for the author too, especially if they’re willing to “put themselves out there.”
Nobody said it was easy.
At least now you know what you need to do.

John Braine on How to Write A Novel

John Braine was a famous Yorkshire novelist, considered one of the celebrated Angry Young Men of British literature. He wrote “Room at the Top.” His own life was fairly dramatic in that he rose quite high as a top author of his day and died bitter, alone and in debt at the age of 64. While some of his tenets on writing a novel seem a little old-fashioned compared with the typical advice one reads today, many points are spot-on, and serve to underscore the fact that certain rules of good writing are universal and timeless.

John Braine: “How to Write A Novel:”

• A novel is a story to be read for pleasure.

• As an author, you must write to please yourself and you must be completely honest about the world as you see it.

• Discipline and technique are infinitely more important than inspiration

• The people in your story should astound us

• Before writing your story, write a 500-word synopsis; the more quickly you write this, the better • Your novel should have at least 20 chapters (? Not sure if this is still relevant.)

• Each chapter must end with a hook to draw the reader on to the next chapter

• You must end your novel with a bang—nothing vague about the ending • Limit for length of time the story should occur—one year. (? Not sure what I think about this but may be some validity to it for the most part.)

• Your novel’s aim: show us your characters during a period when, suddenly, almost despite themselves, they start to move and everything they do and say is significant

• Characters should talk and think about the past. (There was much more interior dialogue and ruminating tolerated during Braine’s time. Today’s authors attempt to skillfully (unobtrusively) weave in back story when it’s needed to propel the story forward or explain certain coming action.)

• Always write from experience. A writer must watch for relevant detail, the detail which will epitomize the whole event.

• Writing is seeing. Always write as if the action of your novel were taking place before your eyes on a brightly lit stage.

• Nothing is shown without a purpose.

• People are places and places are people.

Next week, I will do a recap of the first five chapters of Les Edgerton’s manual, Hooked, a book that shows you how to “write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go.”

Which, I feel confident, is something we all strive to achieve.

How Social Media Made The Writer’s Life Bearable

When I think of a typical author (is there such a thing?) I think of a quiet type–antisocial or at least very shy–whose life is played out among the characters she creates in make-believe worlds. This is a stereotype and I personally know some very noisy and social creatures who are also fine writers. But I think there is some equity to the stereotype. Writers are readers and writers spend a lot of time writing. Reading and writing are both solitary activities. I’d have to believe that most writers like to do these things so they either a) have no problem being alone or b) they prefer it.

There was a brief time in our history where writers had to do something that would be considered torture for normal people, but was positively HELL for shy or retiring people. There was a time when writers, in order to sell their books, were forced by their publishers or convinced by their own marketing common sense, to sit on display in public bookstores while shoppers walked by them and alternately ignored and felt sorry for them. As bad as this would be for anybody else, I think it must have been particularly agonizing for the typical writer.

One of the great things about how writers are being encouraged to market their books today is that social media is ideal for shy people. You can now pretend to be the amazing writer you’ve created on your dust jacket, complete with airbrushing and that photo that was taken ten years ago. And you can deal with people as THAT person, kind of like an avatar you’ve created that does all your talking for you. Social media lets the part of you that is the awesome part of you—the part that communicates by putting amazing words together—take over and meet people and make connections.

On Twitter, you don’t have to worry about meeting fans and not measuring up. (“Wow. You’re short.”) You don’t have to lose weight or shave or get a brow lift. You can be friendly and brilliant in your bathrobe with yesterday’s cat vomit crusted on your bunny slippers and no one will ever know.

My father used to tell me when I was a teenager and he was in his late fifties that I would be surprised to discover some day when I’m older that regardless of how I appear on the outside, who I am on the “inside” will always be 25 years old. At the time, I didn’t understand him. The man had a full head of white hair and a beard. Was he really telling me he looked at the world through the eyes of a twenty-five year old??!

What I discovered as I grew older was, of course, it’s true. You operate in the world on a daily basis and, in your mind, nothing’s changed. You toss your hair and smile winningly at someone in the parking lot and they grab their kid and hurry away, and then you catch your reflection in a mirror and you want to grab yourself and hurry away, because you’re a crone! But it’s not fair, you whimper. You don’t feel like you now look.

But with social media, you really are 25 forever. Who you are on paper–the best part of  you –is the face you present to your social media friends. And because you know you’re looking good (on paper), you are brighter and wittier and friendlier. You are, in fact, your ideal self.

This was actually going to be a lead-in to why I think writers need to brush off or discover their public speaking skills! So now that I’ve got you all comfy and determined never to go out into public again, check my post next Wednesday when I move us all into the scariest light of all: the limelight.

Are you shy? A natural talker? Writers come in all sizes and flavors. I would love to hear about you! Stereotypical writer or offbeat all the way?

Mixing Writing with Your Life

I once read that Rita Mae Brown, renowned equestrienne and novelist (among other things), said she couldn’t both ride and write at the same time. She didn’t mean she couldn’t balance a book on her pommel, she meant if she was fully engaged in creating characters and plotting storylines, she couldn’t also foxhunt or get very involved with her horses. I assume she still hacked most days but maybe not even that. (Huh! Just caught the pun…hack writer, hack rider?)

Anyhoo, I used to think about that comment when I would see myself totally immersed in some nonwriting project, like putting together my dad’s recipes into a family cookbook, or piecing together the personal history I’m doing for my mother. It’s funny how “real” writing projects would get tabled or worse, put on a shelf indefinitely.   I do see piecing together family cookbooks or creating legacy books or making amusing little videos as major detours to sitting down and finishing my word count. They have their place in my life—just as Ms. Brown’s horses had a place in hers. But she also had a publisher waiting for her next book. Makes temporarily hanging up your spurs a little more bearable.

Before I started indie-publishing, I handled it this way: I stopped writing. Since there was definitely more payoff in creating the perfect chicken potpie than in opening up a vein over my keyboard only to have the manuscript remain a manuscript until it officially qualified as “trunk” material, I allowed myself to just give up. And when I did, I felt such relief at not writing. On the one hand, I was driven to do it, but I’d learned to resist the impulse, kind of like what I imagine crack addicts must go through: you know you desperately want to but, deep down, you also know it probably isn’t going to end well. Spending hours mixing sugar and milk and eggs and vanilla together may not match the thrill of holding your published book in your hands but you can always count on getting at least some cupcakes out of the process and with a book, not so much.

And then came Indie.

Indie publishing helped free me from the question mark that always hung over the effort of writing. I hate to think I have the same validation issues that so many writers have. After all, writing something beautiful should be just as satisfying to read back to myself as it is shared with other people. But you know, it’s just not.  Writers need readers. The fact is, thanks to indie publishing there is now a way to get the hard work, the carefully chosen words, the well-crafted plot and scintillating dialogue in a form that can be shared. And it’s not a crap shoot or a popularity contest or who-you-know or blind luck. It’s simply the logical next step in the creative process.

So now, when I’m baking,  I’m also sorting out character motivation and plot logistics in my head. I’m rerunning the action happening up to now and envisioning different characters doing different things as I sift and zest and measure. If you don’t count a few absent-minded burns here and there, I find that allowing my writing ruminations to infiltrate the rest of my life has been a very good thing—for me as a person and for my writing, which, whether I’m sitting at a computer or greasing baking sheets, I’m now pretty much doing 24/7.

And you know? The rightness of that is so exquisite, I can almost taste it.