Category Archives: book publicity

The demands of commercial authorhood today

daydreamer

  Photo courtesy of Alexander Solodukhin

Daydreaming fosters creativity. Industriousness, on the other hand, is beneficial for commerce. Rarely is a creative writer equally productive in both modes.

Everyone’s favorite writers’ conferences and how-to-get-published guides gently encourage and inspire. They wouldn’t be as popular if they presented a fully realistic picture of what it takes for an author to succeed commercially—that is, by selling lots of books. As an unfortunate, unintended result, many aspiring book authors are led too soon to believe they’re ready to compete with their idols in the publishing world. I’m conflicted about how to bring this matter up with prospective clients.

The telltale promise that exposes naïve writers every time is, “I’m willing to do whatever it takes for my book to succeed.” They feel compelled to say it, because they haven’t begun to envision and haven’t yet started whatever it takes. Technically, it’s a failure of their imagination. It shouldn’t happen.

My job is to screen out the dilettantes and hobbyists and to coach the thoughtful, devoted, solid professionals who have chosen writing as a career path. Following are some of the questions I try to remember to ask prospective clients when we’re deciding whether we’ll be able to work together.

Takeaway: If you don’t have good answers to these questions, then there’s no need to pitch your manuscript to me. You’re not ready.

How much time can you invest in building your writing career, knowing you’ll simultaneously need to spend significant time earning income? Holding down a day job is not an issue if you have enough passive income or savings to support yourself for more than a few years. Will any of your commitments over the next several years prohibit you from being in the public eye and from devoting a lot of unpaid time to your author platform and your writing? *

Have you already proven you’ll be able to market yourself as an author? Have you developed a following or any sort of name recognition among a sufficiently large group of people who are likely to buy your book? Consider that selling books primarily to the writers in your social circle isn’t an ideal marketing strategy, unless your book happens to be a writers’ manual.

Can you show me articles, essays, or stories you’ve written that were published in journals and magazines or on websites with some traffic? While unremunerative, collecting publication credits can be a quick-start learning experience. By the way, I tell new writers that it’s likely to take sixty submissions to get a first short story or essay published in a selective journal or magazine, including the digital ones.

Do you write a column or blog for a print or online publication? Landing that sort of (typically low-paying) gig demonstrates your ability to network and collaborate with an editor.

Do you have a professional-looking website and an active, engaging presence on significant social media sites? Which authors’ websites are your benchmarks? Don’t think of emulating but learn from the living authors you most admire.

If you’ve made no initial progress on your author platform before contacting me, then I’ll be forced to assume you never will. It takes a great deal of time to acquire the technical and social skills and then to execute a long-term publicity strategy for a career. Many, in fact most, writers aren’t terribly teachable or motivated to work on their techniques for self-promotion, without which their chances of succeeding as a commercial author are just too remote. I’m obligated to choose clients who are prepared to knock it out of the park, not those who have never shown up for batting practice.

I do my utmost to prepare a new client to collaborate successfully with a publisher and with the people who will offer opportunities for good publicity that might increase book sales. The actual work is up to the writer. Some might prefer to find and hire freelancers to help with some of their responsibilities. I don’t recommend delegating tasks, because no one will care more about the success of a book than its author. Usually it’s obvious when there’s no practical possibility that a potential client will follow through on vague promises to hire someone to do the work they don’t want, or don’t know how, to do.

Once a book is under contract, a publisher’s timeline is unyielding. Authors sometimes are asked, for example, to turn around revisions or proofs in as little as two weeks. No one will worry whether those two weeks happen to fall during the author’s annual vacation in the Florida Keys. Grace under pressure is an enormously valuable trait.

I emphasize to new clients the benefit of rolling up their sleeves. If a publishing team begins to sense that their new author isn’t working as hard as they are to launch the author’s book successfully, then the publisher’s staff will shift their focus to another book by another author. Conversely, if an author is going above and beyond anyone’s expectations to generate amazingly creative publicity for a book, then the publishing team will be enthusiastic and motivated, at least to care, even if they don’t have a spare moment to act. The caring part matters. It ripples out. The word spreads. You’ve got to read this one!

Debut authors get one chance to establish their commercial viability. It doesn’t matter whether their first books are self-published or traditionally published. The sales data are inescapable. To the largest trade book publishers, an author was a financial risk who cautiously was given an opportunity to become a profitable investment. If readers didn’t show their approval by purchasing thousands of copies of the author’s book, the record of poor sales becomes all but impossible to overcome. When a book flops, according to the trade book publishing industry’s definition of failure at the time, then commercial publishers won’t invest in the author’s future works. It doesn’t matter how gifted the author is or how much I believe in and like the person. A first-time author is viewed as a more strategic risk than one whose published book hasn’t sold well.

I’ve been through this fantasy-wrecking process with writers who thought they could either a) embark on degree programs, internships, alternate career development, or other major new endeavors while simultaneously building a career as a book author, or b) immediately discard all of their practical plans in favor of a career as a book author, without realizing how slim the chance that writing ever will generate an income sufficient to live on. The illusion of overnight success is the de facto gate beyond which most aspiring authors can’t progress.

These demands might seem unbearable or unfair, but as long as a few good writers are finding imaginative ways to put in whatever effort is required to succeed commercially, they will be the ones setting the bar so high.

How do you plan to manage all of the work ahead of you?

* In case you haven’t noticed, these expectations have an unfair and disparate impact on writers who are not wealthy but desire careers in the arts requiring many hours of labor with little likelihood of financial gain. I already do a lot of pro bono work as an agent, as I’m sure most authors’ representatives do, because we believe in trying to mitigate the existing disadvantages. At least one nonprofit literary agency exists in the U.S. Check it out. Individual publishing houses and arts funding agencies contribute much more to solving this persistent problem.

How will readers ever find your book?

It may well be that you don’t have enough time for a career as a book author, and writing is really just a hobby, a side gig, or a form of therapy for you. No problem. In that case, you don’t need a literary agent, or more correctly, the literary agent doesn’t need you. If you want to make money as an author, on the other hand, then your books must be discoverable. Readers won’t come to you. You’ll need to find ways to get on their radar. You’ll need to become an author whose books are recommended by one reader to another. That’s how books and their authors become bestsellers.

Let’s say your book was published in 2013. More than 300,000 new titles were traditionally published in the U.S. in 2013. In the same year in the U.S., more than 1,000,000 new titles were non-traditionally published, a figure that includes self-published books. How many of those books did you read? How many can you name? How many of the authors can you name? How would a stranger have ever found your book among the 1,300,000?

browsing books

  FreeImages.com/Nick Manning


When you’re browsing in a bookstore, how many books do you leaf through before selecting one to buy? What attracts you? What makes you put a book down and choose another? Do you typically search for new titles from authors who are known to you? Do you like to read what your friends are reading? Your book is evaluated in the same ways.

If your book’s page on Amazon lacks a compelling description and any customer reviews, and the Amazon customer who happens to come across it has never heard of you, and you have no online presence to give the prospective buyer any information, then why would you expect the person to pay for your book instead of the latest from Clive Cussler or one of the titles longlisted for the Man Booker or the novel everyone at the hair salon is discussing?

If you know anything about online booksellers and social media, then you know it requires effort to capitalize on the exposure they can offer books and authors. It takes time and technical ability to maintain multiple online profiles and learn to write compelling sales copy. Working at it every day for three years might get you up to speed, provided you already possess some basic social skills. There are no shortcuts. Thousands of writers are there ahead of you.

Don’t know where to start with self-promotion? You can join the crowd of writers who remained clueless. You’ll know them. They’re the ones you’ve never heard of.

Everything you want and need to know about book marketing and self-promotion has been debated at length online, where you can find vast amounts of information on author platforms. Start with Jane Friedman’s excellent blog. I’ve gathered links to “Publicity tips for book authors.” Good advice comes from Joel Friedlander, Joanna Penn, and Penny Sansevieri. Self-published authors are generous with recommendations. Don’t assume that marketing strategies for traditionally published authors should differ from strategies for self-published authors. The main addition is the need to coordinate marketing and publicity efforts with a publisher or publicist, if there is one.

Learning about the business of selling books is doable if you want a career as an author and are willing to work hard for it. No one will mind if you prefer to remain a hobbyist. Just don’t make the mistake of asking me or a book publisher to donate time and money to support your hobby.

Authors and humility

mask

  Photo courtesy of Marc Garrido i Puig

There’s nothing inherently wrong with fashioning your public image the way you want to be perceived as an author, but onlookers are discerning. They know instinctively, often without being able to explain why they know, when someone’s posturing. Americans, especially, are incredibly alert for any hints of pretentiousness and sometimes go overboard by openly demanding self-effacement, which we equate with graciousness. One result is the defensive tactic so well known to authors: the humblebrag.

The only way to avoid jumping straight into harm’s way is to learn how to get outside yourself and view your own public image through the eyes of readers, followers, colleagues, and friends. Silently noticing what other authors do wrong and right can help. Friends and family aren’t likely to give you honest criticism, because they all love you and fear ruining their relationships with you.

We’re living in a moment when genuineness, transparency, and humility are valued more than poise and sophistication, but cultural preferences eventually will change. They always do.

Fear of exposure

I can’t count the times I’ve seen some great writing online but haven’t been able to reach the author, because the person’s email address wasn’t listed anywhere. A writer who wants to turn professional needs to provide some very straightforward biographical and contact information on his or her primary website. The writer’s most effective business card is the site used as a hub for the person’s online identity and writing-related activities.

For the sake of being taken seriously, a writer’s professional email address should use the writer’s professional name or business name. It’s possible to set up multiple email addresses for different purposes and direct all the email for those addresses to a single email inbox. Instructions for accomplishing this will vary depending on the email application being used.

It’s silly for a new author to make it difficult for a book reviewer, reporter, or event organizer to get in touch, yet many writers seem purposefully aloof online. They haven’t make the transition into the public sphere, where their potential readers might be found. Ridiculously, some of them are the same writers who, cloaked with anonymity, blame everyone but themselves for their failures at getting published, soliciting reviews, selling their books, and generating income. (Of course, being publicly obnoxious will have the same self-defeating results. Have they already realized something about themselves that’s better left hidden?)

Concerns about privacy are no small thing, but the ability of an author to attract publicity has a direct affect on the discoverability and sales of the author’s book. A book publisher can’t compensate for an author’s inability to connect to readers, or for the author’s inaccessibility to reporters, book critics, bloggers, librarians, producers, and event organizers who would help make those connections. Privacy has always been a tradeoff for fame.

peeking

  Photo courtesy of Ned Horton, Horton Web Design, Nashville, TN

Writers who take the initiative gain an advantage

It’s difficult for new writers to comprehend that having a literary agent doesn’t mean the end of all rejections. When I’m able to persuade an acquiring editor to read a manuscript, the writer continues to face considerable competition. At the major U.S. publishing houses, each acquiring editor opts to read perhaps fifty or more manuscripts per year and selects from them maybe five or fewer that are published.

Lately, when manuscripts of equal quality are being evaluated, one factor that tends to tip the scales in favor of an acquisition is the author’s ability to help promote the title before and after it’s published. Publishers aren’t impressed with earnest promises; before investing, they look at what an author already has done to become familiar and interesting to readers.

Six years ago, when I started my agency, consideration of an author’s platform wasn’t as prevalent among publishers, but aspiring authors were learning how to use social media to their advantage. Now that a good percentage of creative writers are entrepreneurial, many editors view the absence of a platform (or the lack of an established readership, or name recognition, or whatever you choose to call it) as an additional reason to disqualify a manuscript and move on to those that have more potential to be profitable.

Some writers simply aren’t good at self-promotion, and it’s not something anyone can do for them. On the other hand, when a publicist at a publishing house and an author are able to collaborate easily—when they’re on the same page, so to speak, and the publicist doesn’t need to do much explaining—a successful book marketing campaign is far more likely.

Some writers excel at self-promotion, but their manuscripts aren’t superlative. What then? Is it easier and more cost-effective to fix an imperfect manuscript or to teach a writer how to make connections with readers? The jury’s still out on that question. I suspect that by the time I’m reading a query from an aspiring author, the individual already has reached his or her peak performance in both arenas and won’t be able to show much improvement. In other words, earnest promises don’t impress me. Evidence of self-initiative does.

Walt Whitman

  Detail of the entrance to the Detroit Public Library

Still can’t stop talking about it: Get Known Before the Book Deal

Day 19: I sincerely wish I could stop talking about it. I wish writers who send me queries had read Christina Katz’s Get Known Before the Book Deal and implemented the strategies she outlines in the book. I wish I didn’t need to tell so many prospective clients to back up and learn exactly what publishers and readers expect of them in 2014. I wish I were a fairy godmother with the power to transmit knowledge, skills, and business sense with the flick of a glitter-spangled wand. I’m weary of repeating myself. I’m whining today.

GET KNOWN BEFORE THE BOOK DEAL by Christina KatzHowever, there is good news! There’s an upside of my frustration, which I assure you is shared by at least a few other agents, as well as book editors and publishers, not to mention successful authors who frequently are asked how they got so lucky. The bright side is that the unbelievably small percentage of writers who apply—that is, put into practice rather than just reading—Christina Katz’s advice can achieve an enormous advantage over the larger number of writers who don’t.

Think about that. Did you just feel the power shifting?

Christina doesn’t promise instant results, and she doesn’t say it’s easy when it’s not. No one ever truly masters self-promotion in a turbulent market, and the mere attempt takes a lot of time. More hard work is exactly what average writers or wannabes will not confront. They believe they should be finished with the work part when they put the last words on the last pages of their manuscripts. They’re ready for the cake, punch, and applause precisely when the going really gets tough. C’mon. Take advantage of their mistakes.

Writers need to exploit every possible asset in order to stand out among thousands of contenders and to get their books noticed among the incredible quantity of titles now frictionlessly available to readers. Those readers easily can choose similar content in other media, often at less expense. Writers who are aware of their competition, respect readers, perfect their manuscripts, consider their art a career, and demonstrate their ability to engage their intended audience, well…

We know who they are.

Full disclosure

Christina Katz is my friend, but I recommend her book because the advice in it is so good. Chuck Sambuchino wrote a similar manual called Create Your Writer Platform, but then I must admit that Chuck’s a friend, too. There’s also Amanda Luedeke’s ebook, The Extroverted Writer: An Author’s Guide to Marketing and Building a Platform. I’ve met Amanda. I like and respect her. She’s a dynamo. Several other books cover this very topic, and some of these resources are likely to be available at the nearest library. By the way, my old neighbor Bob Robertson-Boyd developed the WorldCat interface that shows the closest library where a copy of a particular book can be borrowed.

Musical accompaniment

Believe it or not, I do have a heart. It gets crumpled a lot, to the tune of “The Laugh of Recognition.” Over the Rhine are some of my favorite musicians.

BookADay-The Borough Press

Dusting off the popular list of book reviewers

The month of March was a slog, weather-wise, which motivated me to take care of boring chores like fixing the broken links on my list of Book reviewers on the Web. It and a few other posts on this old blog get lots of page views. I imagine readers nagging me to update it periodically.

Book reviewers on the webOne visitor mentioned that my book reviewers list was confusing or disorganized, so to improve navigation I’ve added a table of contents linking directly to each section, or type, of reviewers. If you use the Book reviewers on the Web list often, please let me know how I might make it more user-friendly.

As penance for channeling so many pitches to the reviewers on my list, let me urge anyone who’s planning to ask for a book to be reviewed to study each review outlet’s guidelines before submitting. Ignorance is no excuse for spam.

For anyone who’s never written a pitch to a media outlet, Rick Frishman gives excellent, clear directions in Advanced Review Copies of A Book Being Published at the book marketing blog Beneath the Cover.

Lastly, for those who aren’t do-it-yourselfers, I offer a long and random list of publicists who can be hired to do the work.