San Francisco Writers Conference: Day 3

I didn’t attend any sessions Sunday morning because I was going to be pitching to agents at 11:00 and knew I wouldn’t be able to focus on what was being said. I’d just be checking my watch. Constantly. So after breakfast (at which the agents all introduced themselves and told everyone what kinds of books they were looking for), I went up to my room to attempt to stay calm, and also to pack.

I’ll talk about the pitching in another post. Here I’ll talk about the last session I did attend before leaving the conference. This was after pitching to the agents, and it was a session about “Populating Your Tribe” and building a fan base. It was run by Evan Karp and Ransom Stephens. The two of them were quite entertaining, in the way where one is made to think they should have their own podcast or radio show or something.

However, I’m not sure how much I walked away with in terms of building a fan base, except to say they emphasized getting involved in the local arts scene. Karp runs Litseen and Quiet Lightning and Stephens is known for LitQuake—both San Francisco-based events. For people not from the area, they suggested finding the scene in your own area, or starting one if there isn’t any. Of course, only do as much as you’re comfortable doing. Don’t start a reading series if you don’t have the time to keep it up, or if it’s painful for you to put yourself out there in that way.

But if you do want to start something, here are some easy steps:

  • Pick a venue. (Don’t forget to ask the manager if it’s okay to invite a group in.)
  • Pick a date. (And make sure the venue is okay with it. Also be sure your date doesn’t overlap with some other big event.)
  • Invite! Find authors, writers, etc.

Pretty simple. And if it’s a success, make it a regular thing.

If you don’t want to run your own show, try volunteering at someone else’s. Especially at a festival or conference, this can be a great way to get in for free and still meet lots of people.

It’s really up to you how much you want to do or how involved you want to be. Just remember that whatever rewards you reap are often directly related to how much time and energy you invest.

SFWC: Guy Kawasaki’s Keynote

I’ve seen a lot of speakers in my life, and they’ve ranged from pretty awful to passable to good. But Mr. Kawasaki takes it to a whole other level. Very dynamic, a pleasure to hear him speak. Saying that he didn’t want to suck and talk too long (“that’s like being stupid and arrogant”), he had broken his presentation into a Top 10 list. “That way if I do suck, you at least have some idea of how much longer.” Well, he didn’t suck, and here are his points on writing and publishing a book:

1. Write for the Right Reasons
A book is a goal in and of itself, a work of art, a finished product. So don’t write one for money or because you want to get speaking engagements. If it’s a good book, that will come in time. Your reasons for writing should be to enrich lives, further a cause, or even just for the intellectual challenge of doing it.

2. Use the Right Tools
These are the ones he recommends: Microsoft Word (because of the styles), Adobe InDesign (because it plays well with Word when you import), Evernote (for collecting information), Dropbox (to keep your work safe and accessible), YouSendIt (for sending files as a link that you can limit to a certain number of hits and/or how long they’re available).

3. Write Every Day
Don’t wait for the “perfect moment” or the “right time.” Three things you should do every day: hug your kids, floss your teeth, write.

4. Build Your Marketing Platform
No need to wait until the book is done to start cultivating connections. In fact, you shouldn’t. Think of it as NPR radio or PBS: they provide a great service or product, and then every now and then they run a telethon. You don’t like the telethon, but you put up with it because these corporations have made themselves invaluable. You should also be making yourself—your blog, whatever—valuable to others, so when it’s time to ask for support, people will be willing to do it.

5. Start with Kindle E-books
They hold about 75% of the market. So like, “If you can make it in New York, you can make it anywhere,” if you can do business on Kindle, you should be good for when it’s time to roll out to other devices.

6. Tap the Crowd
Use those hundreds (thousands, if you’re lucky) of online friends. Post your book outline and get feedback. Then ask who might be willing to read a draft. And once you’re all done, offer a PDF for people to review. When the book finally goes on sale, remind all these people that they can submit a review to Amazon (and other sites).

7. Hire a Copyeditor
Kawasaki said he had 10 friends and 60 test readers as well as himself and his co-author proofread the manuscript. His copyeditor still found 1400 mistakes.

8. Hire a Cover Designer
The chances that you are a great writer AND editor/copyeditor AND designer? Nil. And the cover is a key part of selling the book.

9. Test your E-book
Quality control. Check it on every device to make sure it uploaded correctly and the format is right.

10. Never Give Up
Rejection is part of the process. Don’t let it stop you. People like Stephen King and George Orwell wouldn’t have been published if they’d given up after a few rejections.

Kawasaki also wants to coin the term “Artisanal Publishing” to take the place of “vanity” or “self-published.” He points out that you would call an artisanal baker or winemaker a loser just because he makes his own bread or wine. (“You just couldn’t get a job at Little Debbie, so you started making your own!” Really? No.) So why call author losers if they choose to publish their own work? Why suggest they somehow didn’t make the cut?

Mr. Kawasaki has worked at Apple and has 10 traditionally published book and 2 he’s published himself. He latest is: APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur.

San Francisco Writers Conference: Day 2 (Part Two)

Picking up where I left off earlier: the next session I attended was about publicity and “discoverability.” Since we didn’t go over the definition, I’m not 100% what “discoverability” is, but if I had to guess, I’d say it has to do with you being easy to find via an online search. Basically, an online presence. Now the talk really slanted toward nonfiction authors with a lot about helping journalists when they need an expert on a topic, but I think much can be applied to fiction writers as well.

Rusty Shelton was the speaker. He pointed out what a lot of speakers have during this weekend: we now have fewer journalists covering as much or more information than ever before. And they need constant content. So if you think of yourself, your blog or website, as a micromedia outlet . . . What kind of magazine would you be? Hopefully not all ads! You want to provide useful content, the kinds of articles people will want to read. Then you can get regular “subscribers,” people who will read your site regularly. Curate content too—guest authors and interviews, etc. I know a lot of bloggers already do this, especially in the form of blog tours, but you should be doing it all the time, even when you don’t (or someone else doesn’t) have anything to sell at the moment. You don’t want every call to action on your site to be, “Buy my book!” That gets old fast.

Don’t call the media; give them a reason to call you. Sign up for HARO and volunteer when there’s something you’re an “expert” on. (Hey, if anyone needs Sherlock Holmes commentary, I’m their gal!) Even if you’re a romance writer (and this is something Stephanie Chandler said in a later talk), you can use things like holidays as a springboard: “Top 10 Ways to be More Romantic.” Because romance writers should know, right?

The key comes in finding something in or about your book that makes people want to share it, that causes them to interact with and personalize the content. Does your book make people want to create a list of 1,000 things to be grateful for? Then the readers will share that list and there is more visibility for your book.

You should also be very aware of your Google search results. What pops up if you Google yourself? You want to make sure any old blogs, embarrassing YouTube videos, etc. are NOT at the top (and preferably not there at all).

The following session by Stephanie Chandler about publicity via more traditional outlets (radio, newspapers, magazines) reiterated much of what Shelton said. Some additional considerations: When writing a press release, don’t just make it about a new book coming out. New books come out all the time. It’s not news. Hook with the press release title and make sure the first paragraph contains all the journalistic elements: who, what, where, when, how, why. Give them a reason to care.

Pitch to Internet radio stations. Add a media/press page to your site so journalists (and bloggers, reviewers, potential interviewers) can easily find your bio, contact info, and a list of your credits. And Stephanie said one other interesting thing: If you are self-publishing with a big box company (Amazon, CreateSpace), put your own publishing logo on the book. It looks more professional.

That’s it for tonight. Tomorrow I have a guest excerpt from Christine Rains as part of her Dragonslayer blog tour, plus I’ll go over Guy Kawasaki’s keynote talk and tell you what the fiction editors had to say (but as a teaser: not as keen on self-publishing as a lot of the other speakers have been).

San Francisco Writers Conference: Day 2 (Part One)

I was up very late last night (long after I published the previous article) at a “pitchathon” wherein Michael Larsen and Katherine Sands worked to help authors refine their book pitches. I didn’t pitch, but hearing all the feedback on everyone else’s pitches helped me whittle mine down a bit. I was very, very lucky when I ran into Mr. Larsen this morning and he remembered me (maybe there IS something to that adage about success being 90% showing up) and invited me to sit at his table for breakfast and try out my pitch for The K-Pro on him. Aside from it being a bit long, it was pretty solid, and I’ve used it a couple times today to pretty good effect. The consensus seems to be that it’s a unique premise for a book, and there’s probably a market for it, though whether it’s fantasy or paranormal women’s fiction remains in question. It could go either way.

My first session this morning was about blog tours. Stephanie Chandler (who’s just fantastic, really knows her stuff), Tara Gonzalez, and Pam van Hylckama Vlieg were the panelists, and the key thing they pointed out was: How do you choose what you read? More often than not: recommendations. And besides getting them from friends and family, you find those recommendations on blogs, review sites and the like. So the goal really becomes getting bloggers and reviewers to recommend your book.

Ideally, these bloggers will have regular readers and credibility when it comes to their suggestions. Meanwhile, you can use Google or Technorati to search for bloggers who cover your topic or genre. Don’t only aim for the highest hits because they’ll also be the most difficult to get to read or review your work; so long as a site looks legit, you should query them too, so you have a better chance at wider coverage.

And querying these bloggers is similar to querying an agent: be polite, etc. It helps if they already know you as someone who comments on their site or follows and retweets them on Twitter. However, never put them on the spot by requesting a review in a public forum; always send a private, personal e-mail. And while it’s okay to ask that they post about your book within a particular period (“the next two weeks”), you should never say it has to be a specific day.

This all seems like common sense, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it. The keynote address by Guy Kawasaki was next, but I’ll go over that in a separate post because he did a great top 10 list.

I then went to a panel about e-books. Mark Coker from Smashwords, Brian Felsen from BookBaby, and Randy Kuckuck from PublishNext were there. (As an aside, I’m so over intra-capitals in brand names.) These guys posited that the stigma of self-publishing is evaporating, though e-books are sometimes still seen as a “lesser” product because they are not tangible, are harder to lend, and are so comparatively easy to create—they cost little to nothing if someone is keen enough to do it themselves.

I think it’s interesting to pause here and consider independent media as a whole. It happened with music: the artists got sick of the way labels were treating them, of how little of the money they felt they were getting, of the gatekeepers holding them back, and now indie music is huge (Grammy award winning) business. And film: once again the studios stood in the way, but as technology made it easier and less expensive, people began making their own movies. So why not publishing too?

Buying something on a Kindle or iPad or computer is easy, it’s fast, it stimulates that sense of instant gratification. BUT. In order for an author to be successful, he or she still needs to get that book in front of people. If not in physical bookstores than virtual ones.

Best ways to monetize an e-book? Well, as with any book, the content needs to be good. Write a great book. But also put an amazing cover on it. Remember, the cover is your key marketing piece. And price it low. A study Smashwords ran showed that books priced at $2.99 sold 6.2 times more copies than those priced $10 or more. And if one price isn’t working for you, don’t feel bad about changing it to see what does work.

These were the two pre-lunch sessions. Post-lunch sessions will come in a later post.

San Francisco Writers Conference: Day 1

I’ve had quite the eventful day, filled with many panels and sessions. Some were very interesting and informative, some less so, as is the way of these things. But I’ve met a lot of fabulous people, and that’s always fun. Worth the price of admission, as they say.

The theme of the conference is: “Craft, Commerce, Community.” Some of the most useful opening remarks came from Kevin Smokler who pointed out that you can always do something to help yourself, something to move forward rather than standing still. Identify your obstacles and realize that you can be your own worst enemy, whether through procrastination, doubt, being overly sensitive, or feeling like you’re entitled to something. He noted that in television and movies, writers are often portrayed as temperamental geniuses, brats of a sort . . . And that writers are the ones portraying themselves as such! Food for thought.

The first session I attended was about building your platform as an author. I thought Elisa Sasa Southard and Teresa LeYung-Ryan made a great team as presenters. What I really took away from the whole thing was what they call a “talking tagline”: Basically, what do you say if/when approached by someone and they ask what you do. Now, they wanted me to start with the phrase, “Through my book,” but I find that somewhat unnatural as a segue. But the value of the session came from being able to distill my work to a 10-second essence that hopefully makes someone want to know more. So while I wouldn’t (and won’t) do it exactly as they prescribe, it was a useful exercise on the whole.

Then I went to Linda Lee’s website session. She recommended WordPress, and she recommended owning a domain name instead of going with the free option (though free is good if you want to test it out). Well, check and check. Though I’d consider hiring Linda to help me optimize my site (if I could afford to)! Interesting to note that most people only read the first 250-350 words of an online article or blog post. So keep it short and break it up into installments to keep them coming back.

Rayhané’s Sanders’ session on writing query letters was insanely packed. She read a few successful queries—by which I mean queries that succeeded in getting her to request the manuscript—and one that was a big DON’T. It was helpful in giving me an idea of how to do queries, but the ones I’ve written are already very similar to her “successful” models and still I get rejected . . . And it all seems very vague, where the lines are drawn. As in: Flatter, but not too much . . . Cite your publication history, education, hobbies/experience if relevant to the text, but don’t do literary magazine and undergrad stuff or talk about colleges no one’s ever heard of . . . Describe the book, kind of in detail but not too much detail (and never end with a question, as in: Can she beat the clock and save her son?) . . . I think I may have been guilty of that last one, so it’s good to know that’s mostly considered obnoxious. But it’s all so subjective, too. And though I’ve sent queries to agents whose sites say they’re interested in my kind of story, they say “no” . . . And then other agents say they don’t read my kind of book, so . . . What’s a girl to do?

Lunch was lovely; I met a lot of interesting people at my table, and Anne Perry was amazing. I’ve never read any of her books, but she seems like such a wonderful person, now I kind of want to go look at her stuff. Though she has so much I wouldn’t know where to begin.

And then I went to Dan Poynter’s talk on book promotion but didn’t find it all that helpful. He suggested things like hiring some guy to put up a Wikipedia article for you (I’d LOVE to be on Wiki, for sure, but . . .) and hiring some other guy to do a sizzle reel/book trailer . . . And joining lots of forums that are related to your book in some way so you can get known and then get the other people on the forum to buy your book. I think a lot of what he had to say, too, related more to nonfiction (like about working with journalists who need experts). Shrug.

Finally there was a big panel with a bunch of fiction editors from various publishing houses. The bottom line with them was: Get an agent. We trust agents to sift out the bad stuff and only present us with gems. But even then, the gems are likely to be rough. The idea is: You write and rewrite until you think your manuscript is perfect. Then an agent sees potential and suggests more edits. And after you’ve done that, a publishing editor will want you to rewrite some more. So, in short, don’t send it out until it’s exactly right and then there will be more work to make it exactly right. They were also decidedly anti e-readers because they feel Amazon selling books at $.99 makes readers on the whole less willing to pay for books so content gets undervalued AND the quality of the product is less as well. And yet there was some middle ground in the editors saying they do look at what self-published authors are doing and have accomplished, just in case they find something good. (In other words, if you’ve proven yourself out on your own, maybe they’ll throw you a bone?)

I don’t know. Some conflicting information, since some presenters were saying you MUST have an author site/blog and others were saying DON’T run your own site, just guest post on other people’s sites because having your own will never generate enough traffic or interest. I get so-so traffic here (much more over on spooklights, which has broader appeal), but I don’t think I’ll ditch this site any time soon anyway.

So my question really is: how does a moderately successful self-pubbed author get the interest and attention of an agent? That remains to be seen. No one seems willing to talk numbers. My sales are above the average for self-published authors, especially considering I have zero marketing. So . . . Shouldn’t that be worth something? But finding the one person who will value my work is like looking for the proverbial needle in a haystack. We’ll see what I can accomplish over the remainder of the weekend.

Places I’ll Be

Mostly I’m a hermit—writers are often like that, in order to write—but I have two conferences coming up, so people wanting to meet me (and not ambush me at home or at the store or, as happened once, while I’m at the Doctor Who Experience) can plan accordingly.

18-21 October 2012—Austin Film Festival, Austin, TX. I don’t know my schedule yet, and I do have real and actual friends to visit on top of attending, but I’ll be around and probably even wearing a name tag.

14-17 February 2013—San Francisco Writers Conference, San Francisco, CA. Now that I live out here, I am technically a “San Francisco Writer,” I suppose. So I’ll be wandering around this conference, too.

To my UK fans (and for whatever reason there seem to be more of you than US ones): I don’t expect to be back on that side of the world until perhaps late summer/fall 2013? I wish I could be more of a jetsetter, sure, but . . . Thanks, though, for the encouragement and love. I love all of you, too. One day, if we’re all very lucky, I’ll settle down on those shores for good.