Does What We Do as Authors Really Matter?

Today’s post is another contributing chapter in the Social Media saga as it pertains to authors trying to flog books to the millions of as-yet unaware readers “out there.” If you will direct your attention to Exhibit A—the chart you see here was pinched from a recent Romance Writers of America article. (The article had a whole bunch of other interesting facts and stats you might want to check out.) While it’s true that Romance readers are different from other genre readers, there’s an argument to be made that how they decide on what book to read next is not terribly different from how other readers decide.

As you can see, if this chart is correct, a whole lot of effort is being made by myself and my fellow-authors in areas that prospective readers are not very interested. In fact, the only area with a remote interest shown is that of our websites and even then it’s less than 50%. Personally, after you wince your way through the big long blue bars, you have to discount the red bars, too. Because let’s face it, if you have to convince people first to do whatever the thing is over and above looking at your book, it might as well be a blue bar. For example, on the one that says “saw a promotional book trailer and bought the full book,” if 23% said “not done but some interest,” what does “some interest” mean? I think it means now you have to convince them or interest them in watching the damn trailer before you can lure them into your web to peek inside the book. That’s a lot of hoops to jump through before they start to consider whether or not they want to read your book. In fact, the only portion of this chart that we need to be looking at is the purple part and, except for the author’s website (even so, barely 40%) the rest of these activities look like, if not a waste of time then at the very least something that takes you away from writing.

Again, that’s just me and if you know me at all, you know I lean in the direction of lazy. So what do you think? Is the chart shocking? Do you still believe? Are dreams really not about ROI? Love to hear your take…

Living Your Dream at the Worst Possible Time

Ten years ago I  wrote a book called “Quit Your Job, Move to Paris.” I wrote it after a young dewy-eyed college grad interviewed with me at the bank where I was working in the advertising department. (Dear God, I’m depressing myself just writing the words.) She’d recently graduated with a degree in advertising and wanted to know what she should do to, basically, get my job. I looked at her and asked: “Are you married?” She blushed prettily and shook her head. I said: “So no kids?” She reddened not so prettily and frowned at me. “Of course not,” she said. “Do you own your own home?” “I’m only 21,” she replied, as if speaking to a seriously mentally impaired individual. (Kind of like how my teenager speaks to me all the time but that’s another blog.) I said: “So, no ties, no mortgage, no private school tuition. My advice to you is…” She poised her little pen over her little steno pad.

Well, you can probably guess what I said (see above title of aforementioned book) and she did not appreciate being led on as she put it. In addition to being a new college graduate, she also happened to be the daughter of the bank’s vice president so I’m not sure why she even bothered to get my take on anything. She should’ve just gone to her Dad and said: “I want her job, please, Daddy.”

But see, I had a mortgage and a kid (plus two step-kids, but again, another time, another blog) and the idea of “living my passion” or waking up and smelling the croissants on the Rue de la Paix or spending a year writing a novel was about as possible as starring in a Broadway musical. She was young. She had her whole life ahead of her. Her choices hadn’t been made yet. From my perspective, I thought she should take advantage of her freedom while she had it, as if passion—for writing or travel or acting or anything—would dry up or run out like sand in an hourglass.

When I wrote the “Quit Your Job” book, I ended up researching various chapters on different life situations to suggest ways and ideas of how moving to Paris for a period of time might be possible: married with kids, single with kids, etc. During the course of my research, I discovered how it would be possible for me to go, too. The  information I came up with for my own situation was good and bad. The good news was: I learned I could go! I learned how I could make it happen! The bad news was: I chose not to. Yeah, I know. That part sucked. But it still helped to know I had a choice. I didn’t pack up the kid and the husband and shoot off to France in 2001 because when I sat down and thought about it, I realized I wanted other things more. Things that couldn’t happen if I took the Paris option at that time.

Funny thing about passion, though. If it’s real, it tends to stay with you. I don’t work in a corporate advertising department any more. I write full time. As for the Paris thing, well, my son is sifting through his college acceptances even as we speak which means, next year, he’s launched into his grand adventure. And guess what? Turns out, Paris is still there!

Seems that silly college girl was right about one thing: there really isn’t a time limit on passions after all.

The Top 3 Reasons Why Book Trailers are Worthless

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure book trailers have been done before. And they weren’t successful then either. We all remember the thirty-second television ads that you’d see from time to time for a book. There was always a disconnect—watching a visual medium trying to excite you about a nonvisual medium. First, books are SO personal and the images we create in our heads of the stories and settings of books are so unique to our own personal world construct, that it’s hard to see what would work in a mass media presentation. Has a video ever succeeded in selling a book? Ever? It’s one thing to see a movie of a book you’ve already read. Most of us can switch gears pretty quickly to align our vision of what Hogwarts looked like with that of Director Chris Columbus’. And ever after that, of course, it’s his vision we see in our heads as we read the rest of the series.

I was watching a BBC time travel show last winter called “The Outcasts,” (really good BTW but cancelled after one season) and at one point the camera focused on the main character’s face as she opened up a chest that held an alien creature germane to the survival of the colony. The camera hesitated a tad too long on the woman’s face and I found myself thinking: “If you do a cut away to the next scene without showing us what it looked like (presumably to save on the production cost of creating the alien thing), I’m going to be pissed. If I wanted to use my imagination, I’d read a book.”

The point is, we have certain expectations from each of our mediums. Trying to pretend that a book is a movie and that we are excited and teased by it in the same way as a movie is silly. For one thing, our experience with a book will typically be more invested than with a movie. A movie may cost the same but it’s only about 90 minutes of your time. A book will likely go with you on your daily round and fall asleep with you at night. You will access the book on your own schedule, and dip into it or read it straight through based on your mood and timing—not your neighborhood Cineplex’s. It’s a relationship. Whatever actress or animation you see in the book trailer is not who you would have created in your own mind. The book trailer actually succeeds in making the world created in the book less real.

Top three reasons not to waste your time producing a book trailer:

  1. If the production is decent, you—as the author—will come off looking a little smarmy and slick. And not-so-deep down we all know it just means you spent money for a professional video editor. It has nothing to do with the promise of the quality of the book.
  2. If the production is lame, and indie book trailers often are with their sappy music, indecipherable text fonts, and amateurish slides, most people—used to very sophisticated video productions—will run like hell from you and your book.
  3. Finally, not only is the medium of video inadequate to sell the complex, detailed world expected from a book, but so is the time allotment. Sixty seconds—the recommended length for a book trailer—just isn’t long enough to do the job. Wrong medium, wrong message. Books aren’t movies. They can’t be advertised like movies.

Also, my brief visit to Wikipedia today informed me that book trailers were originally created to get nonreaders interested in picking up a book. That makes sense. If someone doesn’t read, he likely gets his stories from TV or movies, so a movie would be a good way to try to reach him.  But, unless you’re trying to talk your audience into reading, rather than specifically reading your book, it’s probably a better use of your time to let the indie filmmakers keep their trailers and you do other things to promote your book!

Having said that, I’ve got a book trailer for my book Toujours Dead that was loads of fun to do, (I’m an amateur film editor) though I won’t be repeating the experience anytime soon. Anyone else have a feeling one way or the other about the benefits of book trailers? Or proof of how a book trailer helped to sell books? Love to hear from you!

Is it the end of bookstores or the sound of one hand clapping?

I didn’t rejoice when Borders announced last fall that they were going belly up, but, at the time, I didn’t really care, either. I’d long since stopped buying even paperbacks there although it was still nice on an unhurried lunch hour to browse through their magazine shelves to flip through periodicals I never knew existed. Except for the odd gift here and there, I can’t remember buying a hardback book at any of the big box bookstores for at least five years. And since the advent of the affordable e-reader, I haven’t even bothered picking up a paperback book from Wal-Mart—not when it’s so much more convenient, not to mention cheaper, to download it to my Kindle. (Brick and mortar bookstores require climbing out of your bunny slippers and driving. Real-place bookstores require parking and standing in line. When I want the third book in the Hunger Games series, I want it NOW.)

So why does it feel, with the closing of this once warm and happy place (and oh! it always smelled so good inside!) like the world has turned its back on reading and literature—not just the method by which it was delivered to us? If anything, thanks to e-readers and smartphones, we’re all reading much more than before. We’re reading in line at movie theaters, in doctors’ offices, and even while waiting for traffic lights (well, maybe that’s just me).  Plus, now that there is no tell-tale cover of heaving bosoms or pre-teen sci-fi fantasy, no one can see what we’re reading either.

The sad, bare shelves aside, it wasn’t reading we were turning our backs on, even though that’s how it felt last fall when my husband and I picked over the rumble sale that was our neighborhood Borders store. What we really lost was the pleasure of browsing that the big bookstore afforded. Anchoring an outdoor string of Pottery Barns and Gaps, the Borders in our neighborhood was the only way we could turn a “trip to the mall” into a joint affair. Neither of us can manage to wander around Williams and Sonoma for an hour (as much as we like the place) but we could always get happily lost, coffee cup in hand, at Borders for much longer. (Plus, I could even leave him and go to J Crew and come back and he was still happy to be “out shopping” with me. Win-win.)

Reading is, by its nature, a solitary pleasure but the big box bookstores gave us a steady stream of coffee and plush chairs and brought other bibliophiles together. They surrounded us with all the lush colors of one magnificent book cover after another—in fact rows and rows and stacks and stacks of them—the objects of our mutual desire. It was such a lovely little world. And for awhile it didn’t matter that we weren’t actually buying anything. In fact, for years I stubbornly refused to pay $25 for a hardback book. I picked  them up, read the blurb copy, and photographed the gorgeous covers with my cellphone so that I could find them later either at the library or as an e-book. For me, the big bookstores—and the mom and pops for that matter—were about everything except actually purchasing the book. They were about fellowship, good coffee, relaxed browsing, and discovering new books.

I wonder, amid all the wondering of what the future of bookstores will be, if there might someday once again be a place to congregate—with coffee and plush chairs and other book lovers. Oh, that’s right…that’d be the Internet Book Clubs. And the coffee is chez vous and the plush chair is your living room couch. It’s just that, it seems to me, especially on top of the worry that my Boomer generation often confesses to about our children’s generation possibly having difficulty “connecting” in person, might this be another nail in the coffin of personal interaction?

What Makes Historical Romance Work?

What happens when you combine a right-brain off-the-charts creative type with an inclination toward OCD? (No, I wishthis were a set-up for a joke.) While my husband and family wouldn’t be surprised, the results of a personality test I recently took (which inescapably established that I was indeed unemployable in any kind of corporate or structured setting) revealed that not only was I an intensely creative type but I had a heavy dose of the analytic compulsive personality. A creative who likes rules? So that’s weird. But I think, after essentially sloughing off the results of the test as if they were as irrelevant to my options for prospective work as a Cuisinart is to a bricklayer, I’ve assembled the Intel in a way that makes sense to me. (Which, by the way, is what the test predicted my type of personality would do.)

It is true I am creative, but I am also curious about the creative process. This is why I don’t just write, but wonder why I wrote what I did. My husband is a philosopher and he introduced me to the whole “an unexamined life is not worth living” idea. (I know that many of you learned about this in college, I live it with this man pretty much daily.) Okay, so my natural inclination combined with the company I keep has me questioning things I might normally just sit back and enjoy. (God forbid.) Because, see, if you want to re-create an amazing experience, first you have to understand it. You have to understand how it happened or how you happened to create it in the first place. My nascent left-brain tendencies don’t really accept the whole “it just wrote itself!” or “who cares why chocolate tastes good? Dig in!”

This is a lengthy introduction to my most recent self-question, which is: why do I like to read historical romances? Again, if you read this genre and do not care why you like them, that’s fine, of course. But if you discover the little nugget of why upon which the whole of your pleasure in the genre turns, then, possibly you will then be in a position to find a way to expand that pleasure by including other tints of the thing you (unconsciously) love or are drawn to in other plot lines within the genre. (If this next bit goes under the heading of “everybody knows that!” please remember that one person’s epiphany is another person’s “well, duh!”)

Okay, so I love historical romances. That’s easy enough to break down: I love history. I love romance. So far, not much to decipher.  When I examine it closer, though, I discover it’s not so much history, in itself, that I love, but the idea of what life was like during that time of history compared to my own life. It’s immensely interesting for me to imagine myself—with all the ups and downs in my typical day—trying to put dinner on the table for my family without the use of microwaves, Whole Foods or an SUV. I love the idea of having much the same goals and dreams: love, family, security, self-improvement only now plopped down in the 14th century. So the history thing I get. As I’ve written before, reading a story that takes place in a time other than the one in which I am living is time travel and I love time travel.

Okay, on to romance. Again, not too complicated. I loved falling in love when I was younger, I love reading about it now. The whole courtship thing is so exciting and, unless you’re Elizabeth Taylor, not something that gets repeated too many times in a lifetime.

The bolt from the blue, for me, on the whole historical romance genre—and an important reason why I love it so much—had to do with the kind of romance that’s typically portrayed. Unless it’s just my myopic worldview, relationships between men and women today tend to be very equal. We both work, we both take care of the children, we both share much of the same problems and concerns of career advancement, ego, worry about the world going to hell, etc. The differences between men and women back then were much more pronounced. The sexes were very different from each other. For one thing, the women were protected, the men did the protecting. If you had a woman behaving like a typical woman from today’s world—strong, resolute, decisive—she was considered (within the genre’s rules) to be headstrong (and therefore, much more worthy of the male lead’s love.)

God knows I’m not saying I long for less equality with men. I’m not saying I approve of the fact that women still make less money than do men for the same job. I’m saying, when it comes to fiction, it is quite pleasant to read stories in a time when the differences between men and women and their happy acceptance of each other’s gender roles actually augmented their attraction to each other.

Or am I over-thinking it?

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.

Taking a Chance on Love

I would like to share a great blog posting I recently uncovered that’s as pertinent and vital today as when it was originally posted two years ago. The posting, called An Indie Call to Action, was posted by April L. Hamilton, the “author and indie publishing agitator.” What April suggests, essentially, in her post is that we, as writers, put our money where our Indie mouths are. More specifically, she suggests we find an Indie book to love. We find it, read it, love it and then spread the love. Become your own little one-person word-of-mouth love machine and tell everyone you know—in all the social mediums you run around in—about this great new indie find. Just imagine if we all did this! In fact, it smacks very much of the thing that Kristen Lamb is always encouraging us to do—giving service to others. (There’s always good karma involved in doing good unto others!) It is often a little tricky to find awesome Indie novels, so let’s make it easy on each other…and help a fellow Indie author at the same time.

These two books, The Boltons of the Little Boltons by Robert Phillip Bolton and The Loyal Heart by Merry Farmer, I’ve recently read and loved, loved, loved. I highly recommend that you discover them for yourselves. Meanwhile, if anyone out there has a great Indie book they’d like to shout about, please let me know. (Just, really? Not your own. Right?) I would love to hear from you!