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SFWC 2018: Beta Readers

There are three types of pre-publication readers:

  1. Alphas
  2. Betas
  3. ARC Readers

Alpha readers are your earliest critics. These are the members of your writing group that see your roughest work.

Betas are the ones we hear about most. They read the manuscript after you’ve tidied it up from the feedback you’ve received from your alpha readers.

ARC readers are seeing the final product. You’re not looking for feedback at that point so much as people to review your book and generate some buzz.

There is one other kind of reader, and those are live readers, meaning people who are reading the book as it’s written. This is specific to display sites like Wattpad, where you may post a chapter at a time to build an audience.

Finally, there is a subcategory of readers: sensitivity readers. Those are people from a certain backgrounds that can advise authors on whether or not the representations in the book are accurate—or potentially offensive. For instance, a white hetero author writing a black transgender character would probably want a sensitivity reader to look at the manuscript prior to publication.

Okay, so why even have beta readers? Well, think of it as similar to a Hollywood test screening. When a studio makes a movie, they’ll host small screenings to get feedback from general audiences. Then they may make changes to the movie based on that feedback. Beta readers allow you to fine tune your book. At the same time, you can build a fan base or community, a group of core supporters who (hopefully) are excited about your book and will spread the word.

How do you find beta readers? The easiest way is to simply ask. Start with friends and family, but also look into online communities where members might have interest in your subject matter. Put a call out in your newsletter or put links in your ebook back matter. There are readers who would love to feel like they’re part of an exclusive group that gets a sneak peek at a new book.

How many readers do you need? The number of alpha readers will usually depend on how many people are in your critique group. If you don’t have a critique group, well, you should definitely find one. But if you can’t, at least try to find around three people to read your rough work. When you’re ready for a beta read, you want more like 10-20 readers. For ARCs, you want as many as you can get. Same for live readers—you want to hook as many as possible.

The most important aspect of getting and keeping beta readers is engaging them. Make them feel valued and special, like they’re part of an exclusive club. Create a Facebook group just for them, and keep in regular touch with them. Give them something to do—be specific about what you’d like from them. And always thank them, even if they’ve given you feedback that’s difficult to swallow. These people have given you their time for free, so they deserve your gratitude.

You’ll get the best (meaning most useful) feedback if you ask specific questions. Just don’t ask too many, or else your readers will feel overwhelmed. I use the rule of three when considering feedback. If one person says they don’t like something, it might just be them. If two people say it, I’d better take a look. If three or more people have the same issue, I need to fix/change it.

That said, don’t start editing until your results are in and conclusive. It helps to give readers a deadline and maybe send a couple of reminders. Just don’t pressure them too much. Again, they’re giving you their time for free.

When do I beta? I wrote a post a while back about the order of the writing process. You will normally beta after your critique/rewriting loop is done but before the professional edit. This is because a professional edit costs money, and you don’t want to pay for that only to have to change everything due to beta feedback. Still, that’s no excuse for giving your betas shoddy material. It needs to be clean and polished for them in a way it doesn’t need to be for your alphas.

I’ve written all this in a lead-up to introducing a site I learned about while at SFWC. It’s called BetaBooks and I’m giving it a try with Hamlette. So if you’re interested in beta reading for me, please let me know! I’ll be posting chapters on BetaBooks as I revise. I hope you’ll consider reading and giving me some feedback. At the same time, we’ll be checking out how well the BetaBooks site works. Should be fun, so please join us!

SFWC 2018: Getting Book Reviews

Here’s a topic every indie author—and probably traditionally published author, unless they’re already a big name—wants the scoop on: how to get more book reviews. This panel consisted of Stephanie Chandler and Isabella Michon and was moderated by marketing guru Penny Sansevieri.

Isabella stated up front that book marketing is “all about exposure and getting media attention.” She pointed to the Midwest Book Review as a good place to submit for that exposure. Also BookTalk. Giveaways are a good way to get your books under people’s noses, too (though now Goodreads charges for that). And if you do a blog tour, or if a blog posts a review of your book, you should always thank them and ask if they’ll also please publish on Amazon or Goodreads.

Stephanie agreed that you shouldn’t be afraid of giving your book away. She quoted Seth Godin: “Your problem is not piracy, your problem is obscurity.”

She mentioned software called Book Review Targeter that helps authors find Amazon reviewers for their books. She said to get in the habit of asking, even from big-name authors. “Find bloggers who speak to your audience.” Joining online groups and enlisting beta readers who will spread the word about your book is also helpful.

Penny gave a startling statistic: approximately 4500 books are published each day now. That’s a huge amount of content, and it’s difficult to be heard over all that noise. She said to put a letter in the back of each book that asks for a review. Turn those beta readers into superfans by giving them early access to material, or even exclusive material. Do the same for newsletter subscribers. Give them reasons to be fans rather than just readers.

95% of books are sold via word-of-mouth.
Fewer than 3% of readers leave reviews.

Isabella then mentioned the paid reviews you can get from elite outlets like Kirkus, or the paid Facebook ads. Those are fine so long as you’re only paying for honest reviews from known channels. Never pay someone to post a review on Amazon. You have to make sure your reviews are legitimate. (In most cases, people advise authors never to pay for a review regardless of the outlet.)

Someone then asked about Amazon pulling reviews if the book was, say, gifted rather than a verified purchase. Penny said that you can post a review, even if the book was not purchased on Amazon, and that pulled reviews usually have more to do with the reviewer than the book or author. Usually, if a review is pulled, many reviews by that particular reviewer are being pulled rather than the book or author being somehow punished.

So how to find fans? Well, social media is a good start, or maybe creating a private Facebook group where that elite content can be posted. People like to feel like they’re part of a club. Penny points out that the level of engagement is more important that the number of total fans. If you have 10,000 fans who don’t do anything, well . . . How much more valuable are 10 fans who are eager to spread the word about you and your book?

Timing is a final consideration. Major outlets will want your book well ahead of publication. But Amazon reviewers don’t care when the book was published. And readers seldom stop to look at whether the review is recent or not.

As for pre-orders, they’re great, but better to keep the time short. One to two weeks works best. And make sure you have fans and readers ready to post their reviews right away.

What do you think of these tips? Have you tried any? What has worked for you? Tell me about it in the comments!

SFWC 2018: Exploring Your Print Options

Let’s assume you’re going to self-publish your book. You’ll do an e-book, certainly, but then you have to decide whether or not to also do a print version. Some indie authors don’t. They say the print books don’t sell enough to make it worthwhile, especially since print-on-demand (POD) books aren’t stocked in stores. Especially not books printed by Amazon’s CreateSpace, which many bookstores view as the enemy. (I’ve mentioned in the past that I’ve run into this problem myself. One of my publishers used CreateSpace for the paperback version of my book, and none of my local stores will carry it because of that.)

Still, there are people who don’t read e-books, and many industry professionals say it’s best to offer some kind of print version to maximize your chances of being read. Also, I’ve noticed many indie book awards require you to have your book in print.

So you want to print your book, and you don’t want to use Amazon. What are your other options? Well, it’s possible to do offset (traditional) printing, even if you’re an indie author. Let’s look at the differences between POD and offset.

POD
Pros: environmentally friendly since books are only printed when ordered; costs little to nothing for the author; the author doesn’t have to warehouse any stock
Cons: costs more per copy; there is no discount for a bulk order; choices of paper and trim sizes, etc. are limited; quality control issues; general stigma; bookstores won’t stock and libraries seldom order them

Offset
Pros: the more you print, the more money you save; more printing options overall; greater quality control; bookstores and libraries are more willing to stock them
Cons: costs more money up front; authors must warehouse the books or pay to have them warehoused by a distributor

How to decide? Sometimes it comes down to whether you have the money and the room in your garage to do your own print run. But really you need to know a couple things:

1. Who are you selling to? If bookstores and libraries, then you want to do offset. If directly to readers, POD might be fine so long as you’re relatively sure the books will print at good enough quality.

2. How many books can you realistically sell? Offset only makes sense if you print 250+ copies. Do you have space to keep those somewhere? Do you think you can sell that many at events, etc.? You also need to be prepared to fulfill orders from home.

Can you do both? Sure. You can have POD and a print run.

Why do bookstores balk at stocking POD titles? Because bookstores are used to receiving a discount (of about 55%) from distributors. They can’t get that discount with POD. Also, bookstores can return unsold books to distributors, but not POD books. And, again, many POD titles come from Amazon, which bookstores see as a competitor.

A viable alternative is IngramSpark, which does have a POD option but also lets you set a discount for bookstores. And Ingram is a known distributor that bookstores and libraries are comfortable working with. You’ll still need to market your titles to bookstores and libraries, but you’ll be able to say, “It’s available from Ingram” and they’ll know what that means.

Be sure, when doing a print version, that you have a good formatter and designer. The skills to create a good print book are somewhat different from those needed for an e-book. Many book designers can do both, but do your homework and find a good one.

Clear as mud? Great! Indie authors have to make a lot of decisions, and how (or whether) to print the book is just one of a long list. I hope this post helps you choose the best way to bring your book into the world.

90s Kid Book Tag

I wasn’t exactly a “kid” in the 90s. In 1990 I finished eighth grade and started high school. But I still want to try this 90s Kid Book Tag.

The Rules

  1. Please, please, please steal this tag and spread it around! I only ask that you link it back to The Literary Phoenix so that I can see everyone’s answers!
  2. Tag, you’re it! Even if you weren’t a kid in the 90s, so long as you’re old enough to remember the 90s, I want to hear about those memories! And if you do participate, don’t forget to tag someone.
  3. Have fun!

Gotta catch ’em all!

Pokemon was big in the 90s. But we’re here for books. So: Which author do you need every book from? For me it’s Tana French. I received a copy of In the Woods when I was a reviewer for Blogcritics and it hooked me. Even though it took me forever to read The Likeness because I couldn’t immediately forgive French for dumping Rob and going on to another character. Now, though, I understand that’s kind of the point of the series, and I’ve learned to love it.

Ready, AIM . . .

Remember AOL Instant Messenger? How great it was to chat online before mobile phones let us text? What book(s) connected you with your best friend? Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles. I can’t even begin to describe how those books affected us. I checked Interview with the Vampire out from the school library (it’s a wonder our school had it) and read it in secret. Guess it’s not a secret now! Sorry, Mom.

Monstrous!

Furbies were all the rage. Well, okay, I didn’t have one, nor did I want one. Bottom line, though, Furbies were demon-possessed robots of pure evil that would go off in the middle of the night at random and never shut up. (I only know this because my children now have them.) In the book world, what book seemed like a good idea but turned out to be, well, a bad one? I have to say, nothing immediately springs to mind. I’ve probably blocked it out. I’ve read plenty of disappointing books in my day. Recently I tried to read The Ghost Orchid by Carol Goodman. I’d enjoyed The Lake of Dead Languages, and the idea behind The Ghost Orchid sounded really intriguing, but I just couldn’t like the characters. I wouldn’t say the book itself was a bad idea, only that it didn’t work for me. I’ll add that I feel that way about pretty much anything written by Roald Dahl, too—his books are supposedly classics, but I’ve never liked any of them.

Bye, Bye, Bye

N’Sync was the big thing. And while we still have Justin Timberlake to entertain us, what book did you hate to say goodbye to? So many! Anything by Zilpha Keatley Snyder for starters, The Changeling in particular. I really identified with that book. Du Maurier’s Rebecca, too, which swept me away.

Barth Burgers

You Can’t Do That on Television ended in 1990, so I guess it still technically counts? On that show, Barth would serve up disgusting meals at a restaurant one had to wonder how it ever stayed open. What book did other people eat up that you just couldn’t stomach? I’ll admit I never tried to read them, but I remember my friends going on about Francesca Lia Block books . . . I also never read Goosebumps or Christopher Pike. I feel like I sort of skipped a layer of reading in my life; I went straight from Judy Blume to Dean Koontz and never looked back.

Kill Me Now

Oregon Trail is something I hear people talk about a lot, but for whatever reason we never played it where I lived. Still, I’m now very familiar with the idea behind the game. What book made you wish you’d died of dysentery? For me, The Scarlet Letter was a real trial. I also don’t at all enjoy Moby-Dick.

On Permanent Rotation

Mix tapes (or CDs) were all the rage. It was the biggest sign of affection to create one for someone. We didn’t have MP3s, after all, so making a tape or CD took real time. And it was a great way to introduce people to your favorite songs or bands. (My husband made me a mix tape when we first started dating, and Marillion’s “Kayleigh” remains one of my favorite songs.) Which three books would you put on your “playlist” by recommending them to anyone, anywhere, anytime? I often find myself recommending Rivers of London (aka Midnight Riot) by Ben Aaronovitch. Also, A Density of Souls by Christopher Rice and The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero.

Dialing In

Who can forget the sound of the modem connecting? And how it took forever to connect, often only to be ruined by someone either picking up the phone or calling? What book took ages to read? For me it was Watchers by Dean [R.] Koontz. I loved that book, and I’m a quick reader, but I remember that one took time, maybe because I was savoring it.

Water, Water . . .

In the 90s you couldn’t escape things like Adam Sandler. What book do you feel like you see referenced everywhere and is in everything? The Harry Potter books, of course. Those books have entered the general lexicon. Also Shakespeare.

No Peeking!

Cover your eyes and count to ten. Did you look through your fingers to see which way everyone ran to hide? What book did you read the end of first because you just couldn’t stand the suspense? I’m proud to say I’ve never done this. In fact, I can’t stand the thought of doing it. For me, all the fun in reading a book is in getting to the end.

Red Slice Anyone?

We all have fond memories of old foods and drinks that are no longer with us. I remember drinking Red Slice in the UT cafeteria. What are some of your favorite bookish snacks? I find when I’m reading, weirdly enough I crave bread and butter or toast.

Spooky Mulder

Did you love The X-Files? Did Eugene Tooms or the Flukeman rob you of sleep? (For me it was Brad Dourif in “Beyond the Sea.” Something so much more creepy about a realistic killer.) Name a book that kept you up at night. ‘Salem’s Lot by Stephen King. Remains one of my favorites by him, too.

Mr. Wizard

Like You Can’t Do That on Television, Mr. Wizard’s World didn’t last much beyond the 80s. Still, I learned plenty from him, and from MacGyver, too. Name a book that taught you something new. Though fiction, King and Goddess by Judith Tarr taught me about the female pharaoh Hatshepsut and engendered my interest in ancient history in general. The Memoirs of Cleopatra likewise gave me a deeper vision of that queen’s life.

I hope you enjoyed this book tag. Pretty extensive! Try it yourself if you’re brave enough! Or just tell me about your favorite books in the comments.

SFWC 2018: Building a Bestselling Author Platform

I mentioned in a previous post that I had the opportunity for a brief one-on-one with Rusty Shelton. (He’s a former Longhorn like me.) After that meeting, I also attended his talk on building an author platform.

Many fiction authors will say they don’t need a platform, that platform is for nonfiction. It’s true that nonfiction authors must prove themselves differently than fiction authors, but everyone needs some kind of platform. In short, we all need an audience/readership.

According to Rusty, there are three chief pieces of real estate in the media world: rented, earned, and owned.

Rented Media includes anything you buy an audience for. That is, when you pay for an ad, you’re paying for access to someone else’s audience. You control the content—what people see and hear about you and your book—but someone else holds the audience. Even if you aren’t paying outright, Twitter followers and Facebook page Likes aren’t actually yours. That real estate—those sites—belong to someone else. Those readers aren’t yours, but you’re hoping that you can sell to them and make them yours.

Earned Media is the world of PR. This is where you get book reviews and do interviews. You’re not paying for it (usually), but you’re exploiting that opportunity. In this case, however, you don’t control the content. You don’t get to say how the interview or review is written up. And the real estate still isn’t yours; it belongs to the newspaper or blog or reviews site where it’s posted.

Owned Media is the goal. This is your site, your home turf. You control the content, and the audience is yours. They’re coming to you, not through some other outlet.

So what you want is for the rented and earned media to drive the audience to your site and mailing list. You want to convert them.

Rusty explained it by using a stadium as an example. (Texas Memorial Stadium, in fact.) Imagine a stadium divided in half. One one side sits the VIPs. On the other side are people just here to see the game. Maybe they’re not big sports fans yet. And then there are people milling around outside the stadium not even sure they want to go in.

VIPs = your established customers
Spectators = those who are checking you out but haven’t committed yet
Loiterers = people who don’t even know you exist

The big problem with many authors is that they want to take people from outside the stadium and immediately stick them in the VIP section. And that’s a hard sell. In fact, you shouldn’t be trying to sell these people anything. Instead, give them a free ticket and encourage them to just step inside and check things out.

That’s right, give them something—a reason to stay, and a reason to come back.

You need to make readers aware of you and your product. And then you need to convert that awareness not immediately to a sale but simply to attention. Get their attention and hold it. Else they’ll wander into the stadium, look around and think there’s nothing for them there, and wander back out again.

Think about your website. If someone were to stumble across it, or even deliberately click the link from somewhere, what first impression does it give? Do you immediately get a sense of the brand? You are a brand. And in the absence of meeting you personally, your site stands for YOU.

If you’ve won awards, showcase that on your site. You have mere seconds to capture and keep someone’s attention, so be sure your site does that. Differentiate yourself from everything else out there. And update consistently. But don’t make your content all about you and what you think. Deliver other content, maybe from daily headlines that pertain to your work. Rusty called this “newsjacking.” However, don’t be unprofessional or too controversial because that will turn your readers off.

Another idea is to interview others. Not just writers but, again, experts that are tangential to your work. Maybe a local undertaker if you’re writing a book that features a mortician. Yes, you’re a writer and you want to stay in your hole. But you’re also a brand, and that means you’ll have to go out there and show your face once in a while.

If you don’t want to do interviews, offer others guest post spots. Again, not just other writers, but professionals in various fields that relate to what you’re writing about.

And as so many others pointed out over the course of the conference: if at all possible, own your name as your website.

I hope this gave you a new way of thinking about how to reach readers and build a fan base. I definitely got a lot out of it! If you have anything to add, feel free to speak up in the comments!

Proust Questionnaire

I came across this Proust questionnaire that Arthur Conan Doyle (creator of Sherlock Holmes) answered. He admits on the questionnaire itself that he was “jaded” at the time. So I decided to try answering the questions myself, or at least some updated ones I found on Vanity Fair.

__1.__What is your idea of perfect happiness?

Not having anything I have to do and being free to do only what I want to do.

__2.__What is your greatest fear?

Oddly specific, but it’s being trapped in a car that has gone into the water.

__3.__What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

Selfishness.

__4.__What is the trait you most deplore in others?

Similar selfishness. Really it’s the way others don’t take anyone but themselves into account.

__5.__Which living person do you most admire?

. . . ??? I’m not sure I admire anyone.

__6.__What is your greatest extravagance?

Being a writer.

__7.__What is your current state of mind?

Open.

__8.__What do you consider the most overrated virtue?

Exercising and eating healthy.

__9.__On what occasion do you lie?

To spare feelings. Not lie, exactly, but soften the truth.

__10.__What do you most dislike about your appearance?

My jawline. I think I will want a facelift some day.

__11.__Which living person do you most despise?

Donald Trump.

__12.__What is the quality you most like in a man?

Gentlemanliness.

__13.__What is the quality you most like in a woman?

A lack of jealousy.

__14.__Which words or phrases do you most overuse?

“Sure.”

__15.__What is your favorite color and flower?

Indigo; daffodil.

__16.__When and where were you happiest?

London. Just wandering the city on my own.

__17.__Which talent would you most like to have?

The ability to draw.

__18.__If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

My dependency on others.

__19.__What do you consider your greatest achievement?

Raising good kids. (I hope.) If that fails, at least I’ve written some decent books.

__20.__If you were to die and come back as a person or a thing, what would it be?

A cat of some sort.

__21.__Where would you most like to live?

Abroad.

__22.__What is your most treasured possession?

My laptop.

__23.__What do you regard as the lowest depth of misery?

Rejection.

__24.__What is your favorite occupation?

Being productive.

__25.__What is your most marked characteristic?

Laziness.

__26.__What do you most value in your friends?

Loyalty. I like people who value me as much as I value them.

__27.__Who are your favorite writers?

Tana French, Kate Morton, Ben Aaronovitch, Shakespeare, Jane Austen

__28.__Who is your hero of fiction?

Peter Stoller. I know I created him, but that makes him my hero.

__29.__Which historical figure do you most identify with?

No idea. Which is impressive since I love history. But at the moment I’m drawing a blank.

__30.__Who are your heroes in real life?

The everyday ones: police, firefighters, etc. People who do real work that matters.

__31.__What are your favorite names?

Alexander, Evangeline, Robert, Elizabeth

__32.__What is it that you most dislike?

Spiders.

__33.__What is your greatest regret?

Missed opportunities. So many times I said “no” when I should have said “yes.”

__34.__How would you like to die?

I wouldn’t. But if I have to, in my sleep, please.

__35.__What is your motto?

I like the line from the Tabitha’s Secret song: “All is nothing in moderation.”

SFWC 2018: Exploring Your Publishing Options

There are three basic types of publishing:

  • traditional
  • independent (or self-publishing)
  • hybrid

Traditional publishing takes the form of writing a book, finding an agent, and then sending the book out to publishers. Some publishing houses—particularly small ones—will accept unsolicited manuscripts directly from the author (meaning no agent is required). However, it’s recommended that you not sign a contract without input from an agent or appropriate counsel. In traditional publishing, the author is not required to contribute any money to the process. If a publisher or agent ever tries to charge you money, RUN.

Indie publishing is when the author takes full responsibility for producing the book. That doesn’t mean the author doesn’t need help, however. Indie authors should always have their books edited by a professional, and they should hire good cover artists and formatters/designers (though in some cases having good software may make the need for an outside formatter obsolete). There are “author services” companies that will provide all this, but authors must be careful not to be trapped by scam artists. The big difference between indie and traditional is that an author must invest money in their book before making any back from sales. Not everyone can afford to do that.

Hybrid publishing also requires the author to pay, so again, it’s not for everyone. The thing that distinguishes a hybrid publisher from a vanity press is that a hybrid publisher will have a submissions process. They won’t take just anyone. They will also provide distribution for your book, something that’s difficult to arrange as an indie author. She Writes Press is an example of a hybrid publisher, and co-founder of SWP Brooke Warner was on this panel to discuss the options authors have when publishing.

Now, “hybrid publisher” should not be confused with “hybrid author.” A hybrid author is an author who has some works traditionally published and some indie published.

Stephanie Chandler noted that traditional publishing doesn’t allow the author much control of the process or his/her work. She had a couple of books traditionally published and realized she wanted more say. Brooke Warner said that her reason for starting SWP was that while working for a traditional publisher she was forced to pass up great manuscripts because the authors didn’t have a platform. She wanted to create a way for those books to be brought to the public.

Hybrid publishing is still new enough that there are no established criteria, but the IBPA is working to change that. It’s anticipated that in the next few months they will be coming out with a list of standards for publishers to qualify as “hybrid.”

No matter which option you choose—and these days, you can choose something different for each book if you want—you need to know the market and your audience. Even if you’re published traditionally, you need to be prepared to do much of your own marketing. Know your genre and keep up with whatever is going on in the industry.

Nina Amir pointed out, “Having your book stand beside traditional books on the shelf means it needs to go through the same rigorous process. If you’re not going the traditional route, you need to put your own money where the publisher would normally put theirs.”

Speed is also a factor. The traditional publishing process takes years, and that’s not counting the amount of time it takes to write the book and find an agent. Hybrid publishing can take less time, and indie publishing takes the least amount of time. In short, the more people involved in publishing a book, the longer it takes.

Hopefully this gives you a sense of your publishing options. Feel free to ask questions in the comments!

SFWC 2018: Reach Readers All Over the World without Leaving Your Desk

Some of these are pretty basic, but we can all use a refresher from time to time.

Claim your about.me page. Even if you don’t have a blog or other sites to link to it, it’s a place to start an online presence.

Use email signatures—but keep them short! Don’t list every link or form of contact. Use a picture of you rather than your book.

Post videos. Google gives preference to videos in searches. 80% more people will watch a video over reading an article. A good editing software for videos is Camtasia.

Buy your domain name. It should be your name, not the title of your book. If you do buy the domain name of your book title, have it redirect to your author domain. Remember that you are the brand; you’re selling YOU. If you have a common name, or your domain is already taken, try adding “-author” or “-writer” to your domain name.

Title your posts clearly so that they can be found in a Google search. That is, think about what people might search for and title your article accordingly so that it will come up in that search. Also, give names to your images so they turn up in image searches.

Join LinkedIn writing groups.

Blog consistently. Check your stats so you can see which articles get the most hits. That way you can write more of what people want. For fiction authors, some possibilities are: cut scenes that didn’t make it into the final book; cool research tidbits or facts you discovered while writing; info on your writing process itself.

If you’re targeting a teen audience, you have to go where they are: Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr. One suggestion is to have an online scavenger hunt.

Short and sweet, but I hope these tips help! I, for one, hope to try putting videos up sometime . . . maybe not “soon,” but soonish? Stay tuned!

SFWC 2018: Meet the Fiction Agents

I wasn’t pitching this year, but I was still curious to hear what the agents might have to say. The participating agents were: Lisa Abellera, Amy Cloughley, Taylor Martindale Kean, Laurie McLean, Mary C. Moore, Patricia Nelson, Monica Odom, Nicki Richesin, Ken Sherman, Gordon Warnock, and Carlisle Webber. I’m not too proud to point out many of these have already passed on Hamlette. Also, many are from the same literary agencies, which I felt limited the scope of the discussion. [Abellera, Cloughley and Moore are with Kimberley Cameron; McLean, Warnock and Webber are from FUSE Literary.]

After introductions, it went straight to questions.

Q: What do you look for in a writer?

Nicki Richesin: Professionalism, no ego, an understanding that a project may not sell. I want a long-term writer, not someone with just one book.

Monica Odom: Someone with business savvy and connections they can leverage. A platform.

Patricia Nelson: Willingness to revise.

Q: What are some of the biggest mistakes writers make in pitching?

Carlisle Webber: They pitch or query too soon, before the book is ready.

Gordon Warnock: A good book is worth waiting for, so take the extra time to make it right.

Laurie McLean: Querying every agent they can find instead of doing their research to see if the agent even reps their genre. Stalk agents on social media to get a feel for them. Look at AgentQuery.com or join PublishersMarketplace.com for information. And don’t send to 100 agents at once. Do batches of about 10 at a time.

Q: Can you clarify some of the genre definitions, like “literary” versus “commercial” or “upmarket”?

Patricia Nelson: Literary tends to be about a character’s journey. Commercial is more plot focused. Upmarket is a blend of the two.

[I’ll step in here and say that upmarket usually has elevated language but a genre plot. My novel The Fall and Rise of Peter Stoller was billed as “upmarket espionage.”]

Q: An author asked that, since she’d produced a book trailer and had a Facebook following, was it worthwhile to pursue traditional publishing?

Laurie McLean: I used to think people had to pick a path. If they self-published, then that was it, that was all they could do from then on. I’ve since changed my mind. Publishing is a ladder; there are many rungs. Each book is a new choice. I’d suggest setting a goal: “I’m going to query X number of agents, and if that doesn’t work, I’ll self-publish,” or, “I’ll query for X months, and if that doesn’t work I’ll self-publish.” That said, each agent feels differently. Not all will want to consider a self-published author.

Patricia Nelson: Self-publishing is like a sailboat. You have a small crew, or maybe you’re even sailing alone. You can’t go as far, but you can move faster and turn on a dime. Everything is up to you. Traditional publishing is like being on an ocean liner. Lots of people to help you, and you can go farther, but it’s much slower and hard to turn around. You don’t have much say in where it’s headed.

Q: If I’ve published with a small publisher, what are my chances of getting an agent and a traditional deal?

Amy Cloughley: You’ll need a brand new project if you want to change houses, but at least you have some experience in publishing now.

Q: I’m not sure if my book is fiction or creative nonfiction.

Monica Odom: Whenever I hear “creative nonfiction” I can’t help but think, “So you’re lying…?”

Nicki Richesin: You need to be reading more if you don’t know where in the bookstore your book belongs.

Gordon Warnock: And we want authors who can write more than one book [in one genre]. So ask yourself where you want to “live” in the bookstore.

[Guilty as charged. I’ve written several books now, but as I hop genres, I know I’m difficult to market.]

Q: Since several of you are from the same agencies, is it okay to pitch more than one of you?

Nicki Richesin: If only to practice your pitch, sure.

Taylor Martindale Kean: You can pitch and decide who to submit to. And you can check guidelines; some agencies allow you to pitch another agent if the first one passes, but some don’t.

Q: What if I want to pitch myself to an agent rather than just a book? Like, I want an agent to help with my overall career.

Carlisle Webber: I wouldn’t talk to you if you didn’t have a fresh project. You need to have a product to sell, not just yourself.

Taylor Martindale Kean: Maybe in nonfiction? You’d just need a proposal and you’d be pitching your experience.

Patricia Nelson: An agent only gets paid when he or she sells something, so you need something to sell.

Laurie McLean: That said, some agents will sell just the sub-rights to a project. Meaning, if the book is already published, the agent might just sell the audio or film rights.

Q: How many clients do you have and how did you find them?

Gordon Warnock: We work with as many as we can. If you want to increase your odds, aim for newer agents at established houses.

Amy Cloughley: Not all our clients have works coming out at the same time, there’s an ebb and flow, so we can sometimes add new clients when we’re not too busy.

Lisa Abellera: I have only 8 clients. Two of them I found in the slush pile as an intern and chased them down again once I was an agent.

Wow. Wouldn’t it be nice to be chased by an agent? That was effectively the end of the session. I hope some of these questions and answers provided insight into what agents look for and how they work. (And if noticing Ken Sherman didn’t answer any questions, you’re right!)

SFWC 2018: Some Insight

The great thing—well, one of the great things—about this conference was the number of opportunities to talk to industry professionals and gain some insight. In particular, I was trying to figure out what to do with my YA novel Hamlette. I’ve sent it out to some agents, and there have been nibbles, but so far (barring one incident I’d rather not rehash) no real feedback that I could use. Here’s the little bit I have received:

  • One agent was “afraid to fall in love with it” because it was too close to something else on his wish list, and so if he took mine on he wouldn’t be able to take on that dream manuscript if it were to ever cross his desk.
  • One agent said she didn’t have time to read this manuscript but was intrigued by my description of planned follow-up manuscripts and said she’d like to read those if I didn’t find representation.
  • One said she thought it was “a crazy fun concept” but the way the narrator directly addresses the reader didn’t work for her.

That last one gave me pause, of course. She didn’t say, “If you change it, I’d love to see it again,” so I guess it wasn’t a revise and resubmit.

Okay, so I while at the conference I met with Rusty Shelton and asked him whether I should just scrap this blog and my existing author identity and start over. He said no. (I was honestly surprised by this!) He said, “You have a half-built house. Why start over and have to lay a whole new foundation?” When you put it that way . . . He and I brainstormed some ideas that I look forward to putting into practice soon.

Then I met with independent editor Amelia Beamer and poured out my story of woe. She was so kind to listen, and so sympathetic. I told her I just didn’t know whether to keep trying to find an agent for my manuscript, or if I should self-publish it, or maybe just trunk it entirely. I told her about the agent that didn’t like the one aspect of the manuscript. “I’ve received a number of rejections,” I told her, “but none have specified why. Maybe they all hate the direct address and just didn’t bother to tell me?” Amelia pointed out that that could be true. Or not. I could try to change the manuscript for this one agent, but as she didn’t ask for revisions, I should be sure I’d be changing it because I honestly thought it was good advice. (I’m still not sure about that.) Then she told me, “The publishing industry will take your little piglet that you’ve nurtured and turn it into sausage. So be sure you’re okay with that. Else, write something you’d be okay with seeing turned into sausage.” Which I thought was a very good and vivid metaphor.

Next I had a chance to speak with an agent who shall remain nameless. Sufficient to say she’s an agent who only handles children’s and YA. I laid out my dilemma, told her the feedback I’d had from other agents. I wasn’t trying to pitch her so much as understand what wasn’t being said, or what the market might be for my book. She pulled up her email and showed me that she had 11 queries in her inbox referencing Hamlet. In short, Hamlet is overdone. I mentioned that one of the agents (the one with the wish list) had suggested Merry Wives of Windsor, which I have in fact outlined as a potential project. This agent told me that might be a good way to go because it’s a much fresher, lesser-known play. “Sit on the one you have, and maybe it can be published later.” I asked if it would hurt my chances if I self-published this one. She said no, since the books I’m considering writing—these Shakespeare updates—aren’t really a series with the same characters throughout.

So now I’m really trying to decide what to do here. But I least I have a clearer view of my options.

This morning I went to a session about children’s book marketing and was flattered when Penny Warner remembered me. (She’s delightful btw.) She asked me what I was working on and I told her, then also told her what the agent had said about there being too many Hamlets. Naheed Senzai was sitting next to Penny and said, “Find another agent.” Penny pointed out that everyone in the room could write a version of Hamlet and they’d all be different. “Figure out what sets yours apart.” But I don’t know what sets mine apart since I don’t know what those other 11 manuscripts look like! Still, the encouragement was much appreciated.

Other takeaways included the idea that my paperback books should be made by IngramSpark while my ebooks should probably be Kindle exclusive. Many thanks to Penny Sansevieri for that.

I realize much of this relates specifically to me and my project, but it goes to show how key these conferences can be, how important. Here is information I would otherwise not have had. Here is fresh support. Here is new perspective. I still have many decisions to make, but it’s so nice to learn and connect and get a bigger picture. If you are an author and have an opportunity to attend a conference, I highly recommend you do so.