Pick Me

Pity the poor American publishing company. After all, you, Mr. Author, aren’t the only one struggling in a competitive marketplace. Publishers churn out thousands of books each year, hoping for a hit, but seven out of 10 new trade books in the United States lose money. Big-chain bookstores order just enough of each book to test the waters and can return anything that doesn’t sell—without paying a dime. Used books are more accessible than ever on the Internet.

Are you weeping yet? How about this: All of the above means that publishers are looking much harder at their bottom lines. And that means your brilliant oeuvre will be scrutinized to make sure it’ll rake in the dollars.

OK, forget about the publishers. You’ve clearly got your own problems. Like: So how the hell do you get published in this kind of environment? Far be it from us to tell you to think outside the box. (We hate that stupid saying.) But you may have to take matters into your own hands and be a little … rebellious. There are a lot of creative-without-embarrassing-yourself ways to get published and get the word out about your books. But you have to know what you’re dealing with today, and how to work the system.

• THE TECHIE REVOLUTION

Hey, I had a thought! Now it’s on my blog. Oh, wait, there goes another thought! Better fire up the ol’ BlogSpot again. More and more writers (like me) are taking their streams-of-consciousness straight to the Web, hoping that trolling editors will run across their brilliant blogs and rush to send out a multibook contract.

It does happen, but unfortunately, editors and agents are starting to grok that blogs don’t equal books. “There are a couple of agents who are proactive in scooping up bloggers, but 99.9 percent of the books have been hugely disappointing,” says Kitt Allan, vice president and publisher of the general-interest books division at Wiley. “Yes, it’s important to have a platform, but in the end you need a good book to deliver to it. There’s a difference between writing 2,500 words a day that people want to read and writing a whole book that people want to read.”

But don’t give up on your browser just yet—while we can’t expect agents and editors to go gaga over our blogs, the Internet does help you sell your books once they’re published, because you can target more people more cheaply. “A full-page ad in The New York Times is nice, but it reaches people in New York City,” says Chuck Adams, executive editor of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. “The Internet is allowing us to reach more audiences and sell more books.”

Tech-savvy authors have an edge over their how-do-you-set-a-VCR brethren: They can include audio and video clips on their websites to entice readers and even post pages or chapters of their works, says Tina Jordan, vice president of the Association of American Publishers. For example, Orson Scott Card posted the first five chapters of his upcoming book Empire on his website, Hatrack River (hatrack.com). If you don’t know how to create a website, post book pages, or make audio or video clips … well, learn how. Or at least hire someone else who knows how.

• GET A LITTLE CLOSER

The Internet also allows authors to break out of their solitary confinement and talk to actual readers. “Writers sit in a room for a year or two writing a book and love the admiration and interaction [they get from] the Internet,” says Peter Steinberg, an agent at Regal Literary in New York City. Think about it from the fans’ perspective, too: Before, if you wanted to contact Stephen King to tell him he should write a book about an iPod that sucks out people’s souls, you had to send a letter to the publisher and cross your fingers for a reply. Now, you can surf to King’s website (stephenking.com) and post on his forum. Other authors are creating e-mail newsletters, accepting e-mail from the public and writing blogs where readers can post comments.

Readers are taking advantage of their newfound ability to talk to—and about—authors. “If I look at Amazon and BN.com, I see the people’s reviews and realize that people are reading and reacting more than I was aware of,” Adams says. If you get out there and interact with readers, you can boost book sales.

To get people buzzing about your book, don’t hide from your readers, pretending you’re all cool and Thomas Pynchon-like. Instead, make it easy for readers to get in touch with you, and be sure to reply to their comments and questions as much as you can. You can keep in touch with readers via newsletters, blogs and AmazonConnect, which lets you post messages to your book’s Amazon page.

• WHEN NOT TO BE A REBEL

When it comes to getting published, the good news is that the Internet makes pitching easier for authors. The bad news is that the Internet makes pitching easier for authors. “I get e-mails from people, and it feels like spam,” Allan says. “Because e-mail is an easy access tool, people stop doing the fundamentals.” Writers who’d never dream of scrawling their queries in crayon on the back of a Friendly’s kids’ menu seem to have no problem zapping off un-spell-checked, hastily-written e-mails with cheesy writing quotes from Mark Twain in their signature lines.

Stop it. Stop it right now. The way to stand out in an e-mail query to an agent or editor is to be one of the very few who think up relevant subject lines, use proper salutations (hint: “Hey” and “Yo” aren’t proper salutations), include their full contact information, use spell-check and read over the e-mail before sending it to eliminate those snafus that spell-check doesn’t catch.

• THINK SMALL

When my first book, The Renegade Writer, came out in 2003, I created simple postcards on my computer that told readers the book would make their teeth whiter, help them win on “Fear Factor” and double as a makeshift weapon to thwart muggers. The card also included my publisher’s web address and instructions on how to buy the book. Whenever I visited a bookstore (which I did an awful lot), I would sneak over to the writing book section and stealthily slip one card into each of the other writing books on the shelves.

Guerrilla marketing—that is, marketing at the grass-roots level in unexpected ways—is a cheap, easy way to reach masses of people. Publishers are catching on that building word-of-mouth from the ground up is cheaper and more effective than taking out a full-page ad in a major newspaper. And who’s expected to lead the charge? You are: “Publishers are relying on their authors to be the creative ones to help market,” says Jerrold Jenkins, chairman and CEO of the independent publishing services firm Jenkins Group.

The guerrilla marketing campaign for your book can contain elements as small as including a link to your book’s website in your e-mail sig line, and as big as creating and publicizing your own podcast. Other ideas include creating a blog (there we go with the blogs again!), building a MySpace page, starting discussion groups on Google and Yahoo, sending out e-blasts (to people who opt in, of course—no one loves a spammer) and even posting messages to relevant forums online (which helps build your credibility as an expert).

Another guerrilla tactic for creating buzz is to offer free information that your readers will want to share with others—something so good that they can’t help but forward it to their friends. If your book is about or set in Paris, you can offer a list of offbeat sites to visit while there (maybe the world’s second-biggest ball of le string?). If your book is about sewing, offer instructions for a fun sewing project that doesn’t appear in your book. Because my first book was about magazine writing, I created a packet of 12 successful query letters written by myself, my co-author and my husband, stuck an ad for The Renegade Writer at the top, set the whole thing up in an autoresponder and publicized the free packet on writing s ites. People who read and liked the packet have posted the autoresponder address on their blogs, in their newsletters and on writing forums. It took maybe one day to compile the queries and add instructive text; it cost absolutely nothing to create, publicize and distribute the packet; and the packet works while I sleep, go on vacation or watch a “Project Runway” marathon.

Remember Glengarry Glen Ross? “Coffee is for closers.” Well, affiliate marketing is a cheap way for writers to get other people to close their sales for them, Jenkins says, and you don’t even have to offer them coffee. In affiliate marketing, someone who has an audience—such as a blogger, newsletter publisher, discussion group moderator, webmaster or owner of an extensive mailing list—offers to plug the author’s book in exchange for a small fee for each book sold. With a few clicks of a mouse, affiliate marketers can push books and make money, and the author gets great publicity. If you decide to go this route, you’ll need to make decisions like whether to pay per click or per sale. For more info, check out Entrepreneur.com and tamingthebeast.net, which have articles on affiliate marketing.

• THE E-BOOKS ARE COMING! (NOT.)

Because you’re a writer, you know that after an hour of reading on a computer screen, your eyes feel like burning orbs of fire. At the same time, the rebel writer part of you thinks, If those dumb publishers don’t want my book, I’ll create my own e-book. Take that, capitalist publishing pig!

While e-books (such as those in PDF format) are good for distributing shorter books, many readers will balk at taking in your 400-page novel from a screen. This is one time where you may want to heed the experience of the traditional publishers. “Electronic distribution of content, whether done through an e-book reader or a desktop or laptop, has existed for a number of years,” says Albert Greco, a senior researcher for the Institute for Publishing Research. “But the sale of e-book content was about $13 million in 2005, while total book sales in 2005 were $51.9 billion.” (For those of you who are afraid of math, that means e-book content sales accounted for 0.025 percent of total book sales.) Thus far, book readers on the market have had a mediocre screen, a short battery life and high prices. Plus there’s that problem of the burning orbs of fire.

• BRILLIANT IDEA … BUT WHAT’S YOUR PLATFORM?

Whenever I come up with an idea for a book, my agent asks, “What’s your platform?” I want to yell, “My platform is that I’m the one who came up with such a brilliant idea! Isn’t that good enough anymore?!” But the plea for platform shows that publishers are thinking more like businesspeople, and that’s not likely to wane. “We’re no longer happy to say, ‘If you build it they will come,’ ” Allan says. “We want to understand in advance who the audience is for a book.”

“If someone wants to write a book on, say, being a mother, even if she has fairly respectable creds, in my experience I find that the author needs to have a national level of exposure already in place,” adds Jenny Bent, an agent at Trident Media Group in New York City. “She needs to be appearing regularly on a national TV show or have a national syndicated column or be on a radio show with a national audience.”

It’s enough to make you commit seppuku with your keyboard, but thankfully, rebel writers have figured out ways to build platforms without having to host a hit TV show, create a website that garners a million hits per day or jump up and down on Oprah’s couch—particularly if their topic is narrow or specialized. “We look for an author to be an active part of the outreach to the community,” Allan says. Depending on your topic and the competition, being a prominent member of an online community or an organization related to your topic could count as a platform, as could appearing on the local news or having published articles on the topic. Also, if you have a unique story, expertise in a subject or exclusive access to important people in the field, then, yep: That’s a platform.

If you want to be a real rebel, you can build a platform by self-publishing your book and selling many copies (several thousands’ worth) in a small market. In this case, “the publishers don’t want you to have national distribution,” Bent says. “It’s kind of a test market.”

While platform isn’t mandatory for fiction, it can help. “If there’s a nonfiction element to the fiction, that’s the hook and the platform,” Steinberg says. “More and more publishers are looking for fiction that’s based on a real event.” For example, Steinberg cites The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue, which is based on a William Butler Yeats poem of the same name: “It gave an angle to the story that the publishers could hold onto,” he says. Another example is Cathy Day’s The Circus in Winter, based on the author’s experiences growing up in a circus town. Base your fiction on your own (or someone else’s) sordid life and you’ll have a built-in platform.

The publishing industry is changing faster than you can say, “My advance is how low?” Keep your eyes and ears open to new changes and trends and you’ll be able to brainstorm loopholes and counterattacks that will help you get published and sell more books.

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