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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Researching Your Story

As a writer of fiction, it is my job to come up with a plot, characters, setting and all the accoutrements of a story that will hold my readers' interest. I don't know what your lives are like. But I don't have the benefit of true life experiences that would be exciting enough to captivate and amaze.

So what do I do to find interesting matter for my books? Why, research, of course.

Having the web available as a research tool is a godsend to contemporary authors. It wasn't long ago that if you needed some background detail on an unfamiliar topic, you had to either spend a day at the library, or if you were one of the select few, you could delegate the research to an assistant. Not necessary for many subjects these days. And for that, we can all be grateful.

But in my opinion, as fantastic a tool as web research is, it doesn't get you quite the level of insight or detail that you often need for a major component of your book. And getting proper info for your book's setting or characters from the web is darn near impossible.

For setting and characters, I stick to what I know. For other major story components, I like to do personal interviews. You might be surprised how many experts are willing to share their knowledge with you, if you are brave enough to ask, and organized enough to not waste their time.

I've had some real fun doing personal interviews for my two novels to date. These are just some of my interviewing experiences.

I asked a small-plane pilot if I could pick his brain about his plane and the airports from which he flies. He said, "I've been looking for a good excuse to get up in the plane. When are you free?" Not only did he give me a very information-packed half-hour lesson on small airport procedure in the flight training center, but afterward, I got a hour-long plane ride. Even got to play pilot for a few minutes. The price? Beer and pizza.

I asked a nuclear chemist if he could review a chapter or two of my WIP to see if my chemistry was plausible. He responded with an invitation for some trap shooting. We covered the chemistry over beer and burgers after an afternoon spent shooting sporting clays.

I asked an acquaintance if he would be willing to tell me about his experiences with computer technology in his work at a high-tech company. As long as I provided the beverages, he was more than willing. What started as a general discussion of computers turned into an in-depth discourse about the interior of computer chips and how they are made. That visit eventually led to very large part of The Missing Element. A number of readers have commented to me about my amazing knowledge of technology. I tell them that I just started questioning an expert and kept going until he told me something really interesting that most people don't know. And that's exactly what happened.

Fairly recently, I spent a couple hours with a friend in law enforcement discussing drug trafficking and trade in my area of the country. He gave me all the basic info I wanted, and shared the hospitality of his "man cave" garage as well. After I had the fundamentals in order, I started bouncing possible drug-related plot scenarios off him to get his opinion on their feasibility in real life. I came away with, at a minimum, a major sub-plot for my next "Beck" novel.

The above are just a few of the many interviews I have conducted (and enjoyed). My experience has been that, if you are willing to be polite and respectful, most people are willing to share their unique knowledge. Heck . . . who doesn't enjoy being an expert once in a while! I have found interviews like these to be priceless sources of otherwise virtually unobtainable information.

As an aside . . . after I do a personal interview, I go back to the web and make sure I understood my expert correctly. Once you know the right terms to look for, web resources can fill you in on even more goodies for your book.

That's it for today. Hope you are inspired to locate and approach some experts to help you out with your new fiction WIPs.

All the best!

John

Friday, July 23, 2010

Bargain eBooks -- What Do You Think?

Today's post will be my first attempt at a discussion format. The topic for today is bargain eBooks.

I'm going to arbitrarily define a bargain eBook as an eBook that sells for $1.00 or less and is not a reprint or a public domain publication.

Here are the two questions for discussion:

1) How does the availability of bargain eBooks affect the readers' opinions of self-published authors/books in general -- or does it have no effect?

2) Does the availability of bargain eBooks help or hinder sales of more expensive publications (>$1.00) -- or does it have no effect on their sales at all?

I will be very interested to see your posts. Please contribute. This is a topic on which I know there are many different viewpoints. This is your chance to be heard.

Thanks.

John

Monday, July 19, 2010

Is Self-Publishing Really "Vanity Press"?

Is self-publishing really nothing more than what used to be called (with disdain) "vanity press"?

Or let me ask this question another way.

"Are you paranoid if someone is actually following you around?"

The answer lies in the quality of the product. Can anyone get a really lame piece of writing POD printed and onto Amazon? Sure. "See my book? It's in print." That's Vanity Press.

But if you have really worked, and you have some writing talent to go along with your work, and you've engaged any help you need to make a great finished product, well . . . that's a whole different animal. That -- in my mind -- is "self-publishing."

Are you paranoid (or in the case of writing, self-deluded)? Or is someone really following you around (in the case of writing, you have a GOOD book)?

These are the factors that determine the appropriate label for your work. Not whether Simon & Schuster has validated your art by taking a cut. Not whether an overworked and underpaid literary agent has been able to (miraculously) recognize your talent on the basis of an email query.

Publishing is changing. And self-publishing is at the forefront of the change.

So self-publish proudly, if you wish. But do so in a way that makes all self-pubbers look good. Hold the qualities of self-pubbing high, and readers will follow.

That's it for today.

All the best.

John

P.S. Love Mel's comment below.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

It Doesn't Hurt to Ask -- Politely

Getting your book(s) noticed by readers is a formidable challenge for self-pubbers working on a tight budget. I can't make the process much easier for the rest of you -- or for myself for that matter. But I can (and do) pass on, in this blog, certain observations I have made, or truths I have discovered during my self-publishing journey.

This week I have come to firmly believe in a very simple principle -- It Doesn't Hurt to Ask. As an author, you can apply this axiom in many circumstances.

-- Don't be afraid to ASK an agent to represent your book. Send an email together with a PDF Media Kit and links to some good reviews, if you've got'em. Ask if you may send them a copy of your book to consider.

-- Don't be afraid to ask ANY newspaper or magazine editor to review your book in their publication . . . unless their policy specifically excludes self-pubs.

-- Don't fail to ask Reviewers who have enjoyed your book to help you promote it. Maybe they would like to interview you on their blog? Maybe they will let you re-print their review as a "Guest Book Review" in a newspaper? (And then remember to ask the newspaper editor, too.)

-- Don't be afraid to ask a Reviewer if they will write you a "TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN" recommendation letter. If the Reviewer really liked your book, maybe they'll give you some extra special documentation of that fact.

-- Don't be afraid to send press releases to EVERY newspaper, radio station or TV news program you think might have ANY ANGLE AT ALL on your book -- or on you, yourself -- for a story. You never know when they'll have a last minute cancellation and need to have some quick filler.

-- Don't be afraid to ask a Reviewer if they would consider writing a Letter to the Editor of a local or regional newspaper where you live, telling the readership what a fine local author they have in their midst. Make sure to provide a link to the paper's "Letters to the Editor" page and a description of submission requirements so it's really easy for the Reviewer to help you out.

-- Don't be afraid to email big name authors seeking permission to send them your book for a review or a blurb. Some of their websites (usually named www.BigNameAuthor.com) actually have a procedure to address requests for "blurbing."

These are examples of some of the things I've been asking lately. I've had some surprisingly positive responses. And many of my emails have gone unanswered. But so what!

If you don't ask . . . you don't get!

So by all means ASK. But please ask politely.

BTW, would you please consider clicking on one of my book links, or the link to my website, at the top of the page? You might be pleasantly surprised at what you find. (I HAD to ask. LOL.)

That's it for today.

Happy writing!

John

Friday, July 9, 2010

Book Release Fiasco

Since I had released my first novel in an extremely haphazard and random fashion, I decided that the release of my second book would be orderly, well-planned and highly effective.

Ha!

Here's what I envisioned:

Back in mid-June, I set a Release Date (in my mind) of July 31 for my new book (assuming I could get inventory of my tree books by then). I reasoned that by that date, I could coordinate local press releases, a book signing, a web release and I would have all my ARC reviews available to evidence the book's quality.

It seemed like a pretty good plan. After all, depending on your printer and other factors, there are quite a few details and time lines you need to consider. And I thought I had covered the bases. For instance:

-- It would take somewhere between 10 days and four weeks after the date I ordered my paperback inventory for it to arrive at my home for distribution to local independent bookstores.

-- It would take up to 15 days for my book to appear on Amazon after I submitted to them.

-- It would take up to six weeks for my book to be "available" in wholesale catalogs such as Ingram and Roberts & Taylor.

-- It could take up to a month for me to arrange coordinated press coverage in local and regional newspapers.

-- All of these time frames were a bit nebulous. My book might show up on Amazon as soon as two days after I posted it (instead of two weeks). It might take only two weeks for my book to be available through the major wholesalers. I might receive my book inventory as quickly as ten days after ordering.

Anyway, I thought I had all these factors pretty well covered. If the book showed up on Amazon early, who would notice? It's not like books by no-name self-pubbers pop to the top of any search lists. And the same was true of the wholesalers. The books could be available through them, but no one was likely to know about it or place any orders.

So in mid-June, I ordered my inventory and allowed the book to be posted on Amazon and placed in the wholesale catalogs. For several weeks, my plan worked flawlessly -- no one had noticed the book.

And then . . . my local newspaper was kind enough to do a story on "Summer Reads," and they gave my first book substantial ink. All good. Except there was some miscommunication between me and the reporter, who announced that my upcoming book "would be released later in July" -- very good -- and later in the article -- "was available now through Amazon and local booksellers."

As soon as I saw that announcement, I knew what was going to happen. People started "finding" my new book on Amazon and requesting it from local retailers -- who didn't have the book yet, because it wasn't supposed to be "Released" until July 31.

With customers asking for books, and local retailers feeling left out, I was forced to place my inventory with the local sellers as soon as the books arrived -- which was, fortunately, only a day after the newspaper article.

But now I had books "available" on Amazon and in bookstores. So what was left to "Release"? My ARC reviews had not yet come in. And the newspaper wasn't going to do another story about a book they had just mentioned.

The best laid schemes of mice and men . . .

So I share with you today my book release fiasco. The 19th Element is available everywhere right now, though its official Release (in my plan) will be July 31.

Hope you've had a good laugh!

I'll have to figure a bit more human error into my next book release plans.

That's it for today.

Thanks for stopping in.

John

Thursday, July 1, 2010

10 Important Facts About Book Selling

Today's blog has to do with some of the dynamics of book-selling and distribution. Let's start with a few statements that I believe to be true, based on my self-pubbing experience so far:

1) Independent bookstores hate Amazon.

2) Traditional publishers like Random House, MacMillan, Simon & Schuster, etc. hate Amazon.

3) Book-selling chains like Barnes & Noble and Borders hate Amazon.

4) Amazon cares more about selling your book at the LOWEST PRICE than they do about MAKING MONEY on it.

5) An author's failure to pay due regard to items 1, 2, 3 and 4 will result in hard feelings and hiccups in distributing your book.

6) It is VERY RARE for an independent bookstore to stock a self-pubbed book. The exception would be books by a local author.

7) It is EVEN MORE RARE for Barnes & Noble or Borders to stock a self-pubbed book.

8) Unless its author has a huge platform, it is very hard for a self-pubbed book to get noticed ANYWHERE in the marketplace.

9) Failure to pay attention to items 6, 7 and 8 will result in the author filling his/her basement to the rafters with unsold inventory.

Depressed Yet?

Don't be.

10) It IS POSSIBLE to market a self-pubbed book. But expect it to take work, time and creativity . . . and lots of each.

If you have a really good book (well-written, artistically designed, professionally laid out), there are markets for it, and readers for it. There are also lots of books, blogs and articles out there telling you how to sell your book. Read those.

But I can't cover all that territory here today. So I'm just going to give you my thoughts about where to focus your efforts once your book is "ready."

In my humble opinion, to be successful, you need to:

-- identify your TARGET MARKET -- the people you think will buy and read your book.

-- figure out where those folks hang out (eg. online, at industry conventions, in libraries, in writing groups, at author blogs).

-- go hang out with them. They need to get to know you before they'll buy your book. (PLEASE NOTE: I don't recommend unannounced visits to their homes.)

-- if possible, identify people whose opinions your Target Market will respect, and get them to review or endorse your book. Prominently display those creds.

-- contribute something of value to your Target Market. (It doesn't have to relate to books at all. Recipes, electronics advice, DIY tips, volunteer services at conventions, you name it . . . all of these can be of value to your potential readers.)

-- have a decent author website to which you can easily refer potential buyers for information.

-- have a one line description of your book at the ready (and inventory in your car).

-- if you have the chance, make book-signing appearances, do blog interviews, schedule a virtual book tour, speak to book clubs who might want to read your book.

-- Be creative. Make eBooks available to armed forces personnel for free. Give a sample copy of your tree-book to a few libraries. Offer discounts to groups who buy directly from you. Get permission to leave one of your books at the dentist's or doctor's office, labeled "Waiting Room Copy." Like I said . . . be creative. Those are just a few of my ideas.

-- Don't be shy. (I sold the woman at the post office a book when she wondered what was in those packages that I kept showing up to mail at her window. When I told her, she asked if she could buy an autographed copy. I had one in my car.)

-- do all of the above . . . and keep working and learning new and more refined ways to meet your market.

Wrap Up

While you are engaged in all of those creative marketing activities, please remember the "10 Facts" I first mentioned today. A good memory will help you avoid stepping on anyone's toes -- including your own.

Your Creative Marketing Suggestions

If you have a creative marketing suggestion of your own, please share it as a comment to this post. We'd all love to hear them!

That's all for now.

Have a great day!

John