Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Using comparison titles: an author's perspective

I am interrupting my Finding Happiness as a Writer series to bring you these feelings about comparison titles. Why? Because I want to, and it seems like many of you have strong feelings.

Disclaimer: These are my thoughts. They are in no way the thoughts of my publishers and I have no behind-the-scenes knowledge of book marketing or promotion. TBH, I don't even know the difference between the marketing and promotion and publicity and sales departments and who does what. I might use those terms incorrectly in this post--please feel free to correct me if you know more about any of this. It's all the Department of Mysteries as far as I'm concerned.

I'm writing this partially because I answered a question on GR that was like: "Is Liars, Inc. like Pretty Little Liars because I hate that book and one of the reviews said it was and now, I don't know if I want to read it..." [paraphrased]. In hindsight I realize this probably wasn't a question for me and by answering it I might've come across like a crazy-eyed authorzilla and scared the question-asker even farther away from my book. But I'm the only one who has read the shiny finished copy of Liars, Inc. and sometimes no one answers those questions and *nibbles on nails* *mumbles to self* Anyway, sorry if anyone thinks my response was out of line. I'll try to exercise more self-restraint in the future ;-)

But the whole thing got me thinking about how comparison titles can be helpful or harmful, which got me thinking about how outraged some people get when they find a comparison doesn't work for them. Here's what I think: using comparison titles appropriately is an efficient and effective way to market and promote a book. For the most part, comp titles are used to position a new book in a very crowded market, not to trick you into reading something you don't want to read. Note: I have fallen prey to flap copy fraud and cover fraud, so I'm not saying no publisher ever tries to trick you into reading something you don't want to read. But in general, I give them the benefit of the doubt.

The first thing you should know is there's a difference between catalog copy and flap copy. Catalog copy is usually written by sales/marketing. Flap copy is usually written by editor/author. What ends up on Goodreads, Amazon etc. might be either one or a blend of both. Here's the catalog copy for LIARS:

Here's my flap copy, what many people (including myself every once in a while) incorrectly refer to as a blurb.

Things to note:

  • The catalog copy is shorter.
  • The catalog copy contains the comparison titles.
  • The catalog copy even has a different author bio.

My understanding [again, correct me if I'm wrong] is the catalog copy, which is also what is on Edelweiss/NG/the ARC/in the physical and digital publisher catalog, is geared toward sales reps, corporate buyers, booksellers, and librarians--not bloggers. Reps, buyers, booksellers, and librarians see hundreds of titles every month. They often have to make decisions about buying and promoting books without reading them, so comp titles are invaluable. Bloggers are an important part of the industry, but my understanding is bloggers don't often recommend books they haven't already read.

It makes sense that the catalog copy is shorter, because the people mentioned above have to make decisions about hundreds of books in addition to a lot of other job responsibilities, so publishers try to appeal to them quickly. Also, catalog copy has to fit in a physical catalog where space is limited. Comparison titles are a good way to get across a lot of information in a few words.

But why do publishers insist on using the same famous books and authors over and over? 
The whole idea of a comparison title is: [New book] is for fans of [something most people have read/seen.] Something different like [New book] is for fans of [underperforming midlist title] and [obscure 1990s TV show] helps no one. Neither Harper nor I are trying to say I am every bit as good as Gillian Flynn or that my book deserves a movie, etc. [Although I think a movie would rock :D] But if Harper said "In the same vein as [well-written mystery book that only sold 400 hardcovers nationwide], bookstore buyers might look up those sales numbers and be like "Yeah...we'll take a pass on this one."

So when you see "For fans of The Hunger Games...", please do not assume the author or publisher are delusional narcissists who are shopping for yachts. This is simply a business decision, much like a cover. You can't expect publishers to be like "For fans of The Hunger Games...who don't mind a more confusing plot and not quite as well-developed characters." If they don't sell books, they don't make a profit. When in doubt, remember that publishing is a business, and if you like having lots of books to choose from, publishers need to be able to sell them and make money.

Also, comparison titles are meant to convey that two books are similar in plot, theme, prose style, pacing, etc., and therefore should have overlap in readership. Publishers aren't saying that YA Debut Book #234 is THE SAME as Divergent. Or that YA Debut Book #234 will appeal to EVERY fan of Divergent. Etc. Although, reality check, some people will decide that YA Debut Book #234 is a great readalike for Divergent. Some people will like it even better than Divergent. Just because YOU didn't, doesn't mean that publisher was a no good dirty bad publisher for using it as a comp title.

Comp titles to appeal to readers/bloggers:
Another thing to know: When you go into a big bookstore and see a display table of "For fans of John Green and Rainbow Rowell" or similar, that placement is called "co-op" and is often paid for by publishers. Endcaps and table displays move copies, and bookstores are smart enough to know this limited space has financial value. Not always, mind you. If I were a bookseller I'd try to hook up the books I really liked. But again, publishing is a business, and before you clutch your chest at the unfairness of it all, realize that if things were done differently you might have fewer books to choose from.

But maybe you're thinking comp titles totally don't work. Let's do an informal test using my personal comps for my future titles/WIPs:

  • VICARIOUS DUOLOGY: for fans of All Our Yesterdays, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and the movie Inception
  • BAD LUCK CHARM:  for fans of The Art of Lainey and Since You've Been Gone
  • JACK OF HEARTS: for fans of Huntley Fitzpatrick and The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight
  • SECRET PARANORMAL WIP: Before I Fall meets the TV show Dead Like Me
  • SECRET NA WIP: For fans of Boomerang and [...I need to read more "fun" NA. Please recommend titles in the comments :D]
  • SECRET ADULT WIP: for fans of Tess Gerritsen and Orphan Black

Chances are, one of those descriptions made you go "Ooh." But if not, just because comp titles don't work for YOU doesn't mean they don't work. There are a million "pre-reviews" on GR likes this one:

Ocean's Eleven meets Game of Thrones . . . hmmm, let me think . . .

More thoughts from my muddled brain:

1. Rule Number One of book promotion is to have a solid product. If readers find merit in your story, if they feel your prose was crafted with care, then even if the comparison doesn't work for them, they can still enjoy your book. If your book is a "a rough draft hurriedly revised to capitalize on a hot trend" book that marketing has blinged out with a foil cover and is pimping as for fans of The Hunger Games, Divergent, John Green, 50 Shades, The Bible, The Anarchist's Cookbook and carne asada fries [did I miss anyone?], readers will see through that.

2. Creating expectations with bestselling comp titles can be dangerous, but not as dangerous as promoting your book in a way where it doesn't get read. Bad reviews don't scare me (too much), but the idea of no reviews is terrifying.

3. But even bestselling comps should be chosen with care. If every contemp is compared to John Green and Rainbow Rowell and Sarah Dessen, and every dystopian to Divergent and The Hunger Games, it becomes totally meaningless.

4. But if Rule Number One is followed, I don't believe any marketing comparison is setting a book up to fail. First of all, those comps aren't usually printed on the finished book so they don't affect in-store sales. Second, the idea is to entice readers to read. And like I said, if the book is solid then even if the comparison is a reach, the reader should still enjoy the book.

5. If you're someone who sharpens up your snark and reads a book with the sheer intent to expose how fraudulent the marketing plan is...um, okay, that's your right. But try to remember books are written by actual people, not marketing departments. And then maybe go look at some kitty pictures or something.

Do you need a snuggle?

6. Then again, I do believe authors have a responsibility to advocate for their books and question uncomfortable comparison titles or flap copy/cover art that is misleading. I have a friend who asked her publisher to remove a reference to The Hunger Games because she felt it wasn't a legit comparison. They complied.

7. "But if your book is good then you shouldn't need to compare it to bigger books." I see this proposed a lot and it's kind of circular logic since no one will know how good your book is if they don't read it. Hundreds of books get published every month. Really awesome books sometimes fail just because not enough people find out about them. It would be great if every book got trailers and print ads and book tours and heavy promotion, but less than 5% of books get those things. And if you think publishers should give every book those things, then what you're saying is you want a lot fewer books to be published. Marketing money doesn't grow on trees.

8. Bloggers are an invaluable but small segment of the reading public. In addition to marketing for booksellers and librarians, marketing departments create promotions for the "average reader." The average reader does not read 250 books a year and they don't write hundreds of critical reviews. They don't care as much about instalove or love triangles because they are not forced to deal with them multiple times a week. They are not as jaded when they see "For fans of Divergent and The Hunger Games" used in marketing materials.

9. "Well does a book NEED to be compared to other books?" a friend asked me earlier on Twitter. I say probably yes, for the aforementioned reasons that have to do with sales reps and librarians and booksellers. Also I asked a sales rep and she said yes too.

10. That said, I do think comp titles that are too broad, way off base, or that spoil the ending of a book are unfortunate. Compare something to We Were Liars and the savvy reader looks for twists. Compare something to The Fault in Our Stars and we look for, well, you know.

On a related note, I think a lot of readers have no idea just how few copies some books sell. This article cites that The Cuckoo's Calling had sold fewer than 500 copies in six months before JK Rowling was outed as the author. Here's Abby McDonald's blog about How Dangerous Girls sold less than 450 hardcovers in its first year. Those kind of sales figures generally don't make your publisher money. You write enough books that don't make your publisher money and you end up out of a job. Marketing books, selling books--these things are tough. If something like a comparison title can help a book/author find an audience, and success, isn't that a good thing?

What are your feelings on comparison titles? Discuss, but try not  to bash individual titles or authors. I'm not going to censor people, but please remember those are my friends and colleagues you're talking about.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Finding Happiness as a Writer: MANAGE YOUR PANIC

If you’re new to the series, you can check out all the posts here. (Start at the bottom.) If you’re not a writer but struggle with anxiety, this is a post that you might still find helpful.

Let’s talk panic. Welcome to your crisis post, the one that coaxes you down from the ledge. [Small print: I am a licensed RN but nothing in this post should be considered official medical advice. If you believe you are ill, you should consult a medical professional in your area or 911 for emergency transport.]

Today's musical selection: ANXIETY by The Black Eyed Peas. For whatever reason, there's no licensed Youtube clip [I hate when that happens] so if you're hankering for readalong music, pop in your Elephunk CD or check it out on Spotify (track 12). Basically, if your train of thoughts is more like a runaway train, if your anxiety is worse than bullets from Uzis, that's a problem.

I’m not going to lie guys—sometimes I get stressed—like trembling fingers, racing thoughts, chest tightness kind of stressed. Usually it’s when I’m looking at my to-do list and thinking “Ahahahahahaha. Why did I agree to write fifty-six guest blog posts and teach a class and edit two full manuscripts while I'm trying to draft, revise, and promote three different books? OMG, I wish Fiona Paul was real so she could help me with all this work.” But then I do some push-ups and the shaking stops, and I attack the list a bite at a time. I make to-do lists and a plan. [Plans help me a lot. Monthly, weekly, hourly--I make lots of plans.] And then my breathing returns to normal and slowly everything starts to feel manageable.

Panic attacks come in many types. If you’re having chest pain or are unable to function, please call 911 or have someone take you to the emergency room. I used to date a paramedic and some of his calls involved going out to the same house once a week to prop up an elderly man who slipped down in his wheelchair. The man's wife wasn’t strong enough to do it and they couldn’t afford home health so she called 911. I am telling you this because most of us think of paramedics like we see them on TV, always responding to gruesome car wrecks and shootings, much too busy to deal with our piddly little issues. NO. JUST NO. That is not real life. Your issues are part of their job. You are not doing anyone a favor by trying to drive yourself to the ER if you are shaking and losing it. And if there is even a tiny part of you that thinks “I might need the ER” then go to the ER. Sometimes a panic attack is a heart attack. People die every year because they don’t get a $25 EKG or $175 in bloodwork that can definitively diagnose a heart attack. Don’t be these people. Your life is worth more than 200 bucks.

But what if you’re stressing but not quite at that level?

If you’re hyperventilating, you’re blowing off too much carbon dioxide which can mess you up internally. Try these hyperventilation tips from Web MD.

If you’re not hyperventilating, but you’re breathing rapidly or you feel physically anxious—like you’re in “fight or flight mode”—try square breathing.
  1. Breathe in for 4 seconds
  2. Hold air in for four seconds
  3. Exhale for four seconds
  4. Hold lungs “empty” for four seconds 
This type of breathing is taught in emergency response classes as a way to calm your whole body. It’s also used by military snipers to calm their minds and reduce trembling of extremities. At least that’s what Parvati [my LIARS book-girlfriend] told me. I square breathe a lot. A lot. It can also just help you learn to use your lungs more efficiently.

Okay, but what if you’re feeling stressed but it’s not necessarily manifesting in your vital signs? 

I also sometimes do what I call the DESTRUCTIVE THOUGHT SPIRAL. Here’s an example: Editor likes option manuscript but tells agent she has to pass because the book is too similar to something else on publisher list. Do I have anything else she can read? I immediately do something like:

1. OMG, everyone hated my submission.
2. Passing on the sub was a nice way of telling me I’m finished at publisher.
3. My editor doesn’t really want to look at another project.
4. She won’t buy more books from me ever.
5. No one will buy more books from me ever.
6. Publisher probably won’t even do much for current book there since they passed on sub.
7. Basically, my career is over.
8. Which means I will be miserable FOREVER.

That’s a slight exaggeration of my spiral, but not as much as I wish it was >_< Let's all agree this is serious drama queen action. It’s one thing to be aware of the worst case scenario. It’s another thing to assume it’s inevitable every time things don’t go your way. I mean, what if you got caught in traffic and arrived home two hours late to find your husband packing his things because he assumed that your traffic jam was an affair and you were obviously going to leave him so he was packing to get out of your life forever since clearly you don’t love him anymore. Not okay, right? Rule of thumb: Try not to behave in a way that you wouldn't tolerate from other people. You might run across a lot of ledges in your writing career. Don't crawl out on the ones you have no business being on. [The reality of that spiral is that the editor bought other books from me and the book she didn't buy sold to someone else. Oops, don't I feel silly!]

Things NEVER to do when you are seriously anxious or caught in a destructive thought spiral:
  • Email your editor
  • Post on social media
  • Make huge life/career decisions

Instead you might try:
  • Talking to a friend or your agent [Note: a friend is not a 285-person writer message board. Groups like this can be great, but I caution you from getting too venty with them, and I'll tell you more about why next week.]
  • Yoga or stretching
  • Push-ups
  • Walking
  • Running
  • Music
  • Inhaling lavender or rosemary
  • Writing therapy
  • Complete distraction [movie with friend, drive to the beach etc.]
  • Emotional freedom techniques [sort of like self-hypnosis]
  • Licensed cognitive or behavioral therapy

Butterfly is soothing, yes? Perhaps you need a therapeutic trip to Costa Rica.

I did my Master’s project on reducing test anxiety in nursing students, and there’s empirical evidence that music can not only reduce blood pressure and heart rate, but also cause people to report lower levels of anxiety. For some people loud angry music works best and for other soothing classical music helps. The deciding factor seems to be the kind of music you like.

Inhaling lavender or rosemary also resulted in lower heart rates and lower reported anxiety scores. Writing therapy [If you haven’t figured it out, this whole blog series is writing therapy for me], in which anxious students spent ten minutes journaling about their anxiety prior to taking a test, not only resulted in lower reported anxiety, but also in higher test scores. [Hey, maybe this blog series will make me a better writer!] Other things that work according to the research I did include emotional freedom techniques and licensed therapy.

Speaking of therapy...When I was in nursing school, I was that kid who got all As on the tests but was scared to touch the patients. I had particular anxiety about inserting IVs because when I get nervous, I shake, and no one wants a shaky IV inserter, right? I talked to a LCSW through our student assistance program. That’s the only therapy I’ve ever had and I went because I was really suffering and because it was free. And it helped me. And I got to do my senior practicum in the Cardiothoracic ICU, one of the scariest places to work. I later graduated with an “Award in Clinical Excellence.” Me—the girl who was afraid to put in IVs. 

My insurance is crap now and I can’t afford any kind of counseling, but if I could, I would probably go. I mean, why not? Who among us couldn't use an unbiased listener to help us navigate the stresses of life? I would say probably 30% of the writers I know have told me they take antidepressants, anxiolytics (anti-anxiety meds), and/or see a therapist regularly. And that's lower than the real number because not everyone feels comfortable talking about their mental health. YOU ARE NOT WEAK IF YOU NEED TO TALK TO SOMEONE. You are not even unusual. I’m betting plenty of your writer pals are also seeing someone and/or taking meds too. Just because they don’t tell you doesn’t mean it’s not happening. It goes back to the introductory post: We writers are a sensitive bunch and writing can be really unpredictable and scary. Get help if you need it.

As far as meds go, I don’t take antidepressants or anxiolytics, but it's not because I'm the picture of mental health >_> Mental health is a fluid thing and I definitely have days where I feel emotionally labile or frail. I'm only telling you all that because it feels disingenuous to say there's no shame in taking medication and then not be straightforward about myself. I can say as an RN that these meds work really well for a lot of people, and if you have a side effect from one (weight gain, cloudy thoughts, etc.) there are lots of other options. Finding what works for you might take a couple tries.

If you have situational or social anxiety that only bothers you occasionally, you should know there are pharmaceutical options that aren’t psychotropic that you can take on an as-needed basis. Beta blockers are cardiac meds sometimes prescribed off label to lower your heart rate and blood pressure if you’re like me and shake/sweat when you’re anxious. Beta blockers are used a lot by classical musicians and stage performers, and I have taken them to survive school visits and store events because these things are really hard for me. [Note: hopefully this doesn't need to be said, but taking any kind of prescription drugs while not under the care of a healthcare provider is illegal and dangerous. Don't do it.]

Okay, so to recap:
1. Get help if you need it.
2. If you're doing okay, try some things on your own, but then
3. Get help if you need it.

Next week we're going to talk about building a support network, and yes that involves more than just joining one of those huge 285-person online writer forums. Depending on who you are, it might even involve reducing the time you spend on one of those. See you then :-)

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Belated Valentine's Giveaway :)

Nothing says Happy Valentine's Day like a bunch of lying liars, right?

What? You'd rather read a swoony story that takes place after THE ART OF LAINEY? Oh, I wrote you one of those too. Note that it takes place after the novel and so even the summary will be spoilery for the book. But that's okay because we all know what happens when two people fake-date, right? ;)

Taz knows what happens.
(Random kitty pic because I don't have the energy to look for anything Valentines-y.)

Okay, but back to the liars. If you live in the US, go here for a Goodreads giveaway of LIARS, INC.

If you don't have a U.S. mailing address, you can enter the giveaway below for a pre-order of LIARS from The Book Depository. Note: I'm sponsoring this to accompany the publisher's GR giveaway because they can't send books overseas but I can, so you do have to be a GR user to enter.

If you're interested in keeping track of all of the current LIARS, INC. giveaways, including ones that don't require GR membership, check out the "Win a copy!" tab on the official LIARS, INC. webpage. I will be sponsoring several more giveaways of finished hardcover books in the next few weeks, so check back often!

Happy belated Valentine's Day. Sorry, I'm sick and overmedicated so this post is kinda weak ;)

Monday, February 9, 2015

Finding Happiness as a Writer: CONTROL WHAT YOU CAN

New to the series? Check it out from the beginning. You’ll have to start at the bottom and scroll upward if you want to read the posts in order.

Okay so last week I told you (or reinforced) all the terrible truths of publishing and I know you might hate me a little. This week I’ll try to win you back with actual strategies to combat those issues. It’s all about seizing control (or perceived control) where you can. If control is not your thing because you’re totally comfortable with the plan God has for you, or you trust the universe implicitly, or you’re fine if you never sell another book, etc. you might want to skip this post. [And since this is the interwebz where things get misinterpreted, let me clarify: I mean that previous sentence completely seriously. I’m not snarking on anyone’s religion, faith in destiny, or writing goals.]

Low control authors should probably just keep on keeping on—living life, writing more books. Man, I wish I were low control because that sounds pretty awesome ;-) But if that’s not you, let me take you back through last week’s points with strategies on how to make them hurt less.

If only it were that easy, Janet.

Writing isn’t fair.

The first way to deal with this is just to figure out if you can accept it. Are you okay with the idea that you might never achieve your personal definition of success? Are you okay with the idea that you might spend your whole life trying to be traditionally published and never even get a book deal at all? You're either someone who will think "Hey, at least I never quit fighting for my dream" or someone who will think "I wish I hadn't wasted so much time." It's best to figure that out sooner rather than later.

The second way is to realize that money and marketing don’t guarantee anything. Plenty of shiny debuts with six-figure marketing budgets and all the publisher bling you could dream of never become bestsellers. And then other books break out against the odds. ANNA AND THE FRENCH KISS, CODE NAME VERITY, and ELEANOR & PARK, to name a few, all achieved huge success despite not selling in massive deals. Barry Lyga and Rachel Harris both put out several books before becoming bestsellers. Someone told me Charlaine Harris sold the first Sookie Stackhouse book for a few thousand dollars. I'm sure at that time no one imagined it would become an international sensation and the TV series True Blood. And just last week I read a post where Victoria Scott mentioned how she started with a small publisher and her first royalty check was for $21. Now, four books later, she's with a major publisher and her latest royalty check just bought her husband a fancy new car. Great things can happen when you don't give up.

The third way to deal with this is to work your ass off. If you’re not getting print advertising or a national book tour or a commercial to run before the last Hunger Games movie (and 95% of books don’t get these things), make sure everything you do get is as good as it can be. Thing #1: YOUR BOOK. Don’t run out of gas during copy-edits and say “Yeah, okay, whatever.” Make sure the story is the best it can be. You’ll thank yourself later. Work with your editor to hone your flap copy to perfection. Make sure your Amazon and B&N pages are typo-free and display your positive trade reviews. Set-up online promotional opps like contests or blog tours and try to come up with something fun or different to promote your book. There is a lot you can do for free or on the cheap. Does it help sales? I don’t know, but it feels like it might, and sometimes that's comforting.

Publishing is a business.

Again, first, recognize. If you just want to write without doing any of the other work, um…marry rich? ;) Seriously though, there are ways to make this more palatable. Budget your time. I try to spend one day a week on administrative and promo things, five days a week writing, and one day a week off. You can do that same schedule even if you work full-time, you’ll just be spending fewer hours each day. Use technology to your advantage. I am all about Google forms and spreadsheets to stay organized. Limit the amount of time you spend on social media. Choose your promotional opportunities wisely. I love bloggers but before I commit to guest posts, I drop by websites to see if they look professional. And by that I don’t mean the wording of the reviews, but just is the page readable? Does it appear well-maintained, etc. If you take the time to write a guest post or set-up a giveaway, be sure to promote it. You can use tweetdeck to schedule tweets that promote your posts.

Some people will hate your work.

Dealing with book-loathing is tough. I remember seeing all the anger over the end of the DIVERGENT trilogy and thinking: Why are we so mad about a book when there are egregious human rights violations being committed all over the place? Where’s the outrage for that? Thing is, people have a right to get mad about whatever they want. People have a right to hate what you’ve written or misinterpret your words—purposely or intentionally—and then write scathing reviews. The alternative, a world with only positive reviews, would be like having no reviews at all, since no one would believe them. And no reviews at all would be bad for books.

Recognize that since you like some books and dislike other books, it’s kind of arrogant to think everyone will like your books. Go to your favorite books and read some of their scathing one-star reviews. Re-read the reviews of the people who love your books and remind yourself that their opinions are just as valid as those of your detractors. Realize that people bring their own histories, prejudices and feelings to each book they read and just because your book triggered a negative response in them doesn’t mean it’s bad. “Good” and “bad” are meaningless terms for the most part when it comes to fiction—as far as I know, no one is the high priest or priestess of book judgment. Bad reviews are something that will always kind of sting, but they do get easier with time. And you can always opt to seize the ultimate control over them by not to reading them.

You are not the boss of your book.

You, your agent, your editor, and your publisher all have the same end goal: for your book to be the best it can. Before you sign a contract, make sure you’re open to other people pushing you to improve upon your work. If you disagree with an edit suggestion your editor has pitched, that’s fine. When an editor pitches a revision idea, it’s because he/she thinks something in the story didn’t work as well as it could have. You can fix the area with your own solution if you want. Your editor just wants you to either address the problem or justify why it’s not a problem. Don’t be afraid to communicate. Remember, you’re all on the same team.

Can I play too?

Also, make sure your editor is aware upfront that you’d like to be consulted in matters like cover design. Don’t assume she knows this. If you have specific ideas, you can definitely feel free to send them along to her. If there’s anything you really don’t want, it’s okay to mention this too. Just realize that the design team might come up with something completely different from what you've envisioned.

When you are emailed a cover, try not to look at it like “That’s not what I wanted.” Look at it like: “Is it appealing in a way that will stand out on shelves and webpages? Does it accurately convey the story I wrote?” If you have legit concerns about either of these points, talk it over with your agent. If you don’t have an agent you can politely mention these concerns to your editor to see what she thinks. It’s also totally fine to ask for tweaks like changing someone’s shirt color or eye color to match the book, so don't be shy.

Success is somewhat out of your control.

I could write thousands of words about things that might help you hang onto partial control of your writing success, but I’ll try to keep this brief and give you a few overarching ideas. They’re all “best guess,” because like I said in the first post, it’s all about the perception of control—none of us really knows for sure what works. I just know I feel better when I’m working toward a goal, not just sitting back and hoping for the best.

Promote like a boss, like your new book is the best book ever. This is adapted from a tip from Sara Raasch, the kind of thing we all should know but might need reminding. You have to have faith in your work. Even if you have doubts, you can’t sit around biting your nails and thinking your book isn’t good enough because readers pick up on that sort of thing. Also, theme your contests and posts to match your books whenever possible. I have a #MysteryTwitterTheater event happening in March that should be super-fun for everyone involved and will hopefully reach mystery lovers across Twitter that might not have heard of LIARS, INC. Promote on and offline. I sent out postcards promoting LIARS to 100 indie bookstore buyers and a few found me online to tell me they were ordering the book. At least one read it and wrote a review for IndieNext. Sure, they might have ordered it anyway, but like one buyer told me: "You're smart to remind us because we see hundreds of new books every month." And if more of them read it then maybe more of them will recommend it to readers.

Diversify your writing portfolio. Loyalty is awesome. Loyalty to a publisher or editor is a beautiful thing. But your editor is not your spouse. If he or she gets a better job offer, they’re probably going to leave you. And that’s okay, because we all have to look out for ourselves. There’s nothing wrong with trying a new genre or going for a second publisher (as long as your contract allows—talk to your agent if uncertain.) There’s nothing wrong with branching out from YA to MG or NA or adult. There’s nothing wrong with doing a work-for-hire novel, a collaborative book with a friend, or self-pubbing. Maybe none of these alternate paths lead where you want to go, but you’re still allowed to explore them, and doing so—or at least embracing the possibilities—is another thing that might make you feel a little bit more in control.

Keep writing forward. Maybe you think it was total crap for me to talk about how some authors struggle to sell a second book when I sold four books last year. What you might not know is I sold them all before THE ART OF LAINEY came out. LAINEY’s sales are okay, but she’s definitely one of those “middle of the pack” horses. If had waited until LAINEY released to shop more books/proposals, there’s no guarantee I’d be in the same place I am now. If you want to do this long-term, you should always try to write forward. And writing forward has the added benefit of taking the pressure off your debut or most recent novel. Once you see the possibilities in a new story, you’ll realize that even if things don’t work out with one book, that doesn’t mean they won’t with your next.

There’s one more major thing we moderate to high control people should strive for in our writing pursuits, and that is to control OURSELVES—our anxiety, our negative thoughts, our self-destructive impulses. And that’s next week’s topic. In the meantime, have a happy week :-)

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Finding Happiness as a Writer: ACCEPT THE UNACCEPTABLE TRUTHS

If you’re new to the series, check out the beginning. You'll have to scroll down and read the posts from the bottom if you want to go in order because I'm too lazy to link to them individually ;) #SorryNotSorry

Okay remember how I told you that the info you wrote down about yourself last week would come in handy later? Later is now. 

This week is going to deal primarily with people who have a high need for information. If you read the last post and decided you are someone who does better without all the info, then you might want to opt out of the bulk of this post. If you are someone who thinks that writing is this romantic endeavor where you sit by the fireplace at your secluded lake cabin and idly pen a few sentences each day while sipping wine bought with your huge advance, and you prefer to cling to that illusion, consider yourself low information. I don’t want to kill Santa Claus for anyone.

[Just imagine there's a GIF of Stewie Griffin 
saying: "I'm going to KILL SANTA!" here.]

People with a low need for info might also want to consider:
  • Not reading all their tweets. I have periods where I only read my @ feed and even that can get taxing when I get tagged in a long conversation.
  • Telling their agent to withhold rejection information and their editor to withhold bad reviews/bad news. (This is totally acceptable and in most cases they will do that for you.)
  • Not reading every message posted to their debut group/FB group/author newsboard. There are a ton of groups like this now for authors at all stages of publication, and although they can be supportive, they can also be overwhelming. It’s okay to opt-out, temporarily or permanently. You have to take care of yourself.
  • Not sharing rejections or sales numbers with other writers.
  • Staying up on the publishing industry by reading a minimal number of blogs. I recommend YA Highway’s Field Trip Friday. I can go AWOL from the interwebz for a whole week and if I catch the posting of FTF I feel like I haven’t missed a thing.

"With the lights out, it's less dangerous."
(Bonus points if you can name the song.)

People with a moderate need for info:
  • Hey, look at you. You sound very healthy and well-balanced. Will you be my friend? ;-) As far as the post goes, I’d look over all of it and decide what works for you. 
  • P.S. Tell us your secrets in the comments area.

And now for the rest of us...

Before I went to nursing school, I asked some medical professionals their opinions on nursing. Almost all of them told me not to become a nurse--even the ones who had been nurses for twenty years. They told me it was hard, thankless work. Long hours, physically demanding, everyone from patients to doctors yelling at you, lots of bodily fluids and possible TB exposure. [This was before Ebola. I can only imagine what they'd say now.]

But I went to nursing school anyway, because I listened to what they said, accepted the information as likely to be true, and decided I was okay with it. Don't get me wrong, I've never been all like "Yay, feces!" or anything, but being warned about the potential grossness of nursing made it easier to deal with the occasional Code Brown. [Yeah, that's what we call, well, you know.]

And yeah, people with books out already will probably just nod their heads sadly to most of this info, but this is all the stuff I didn’t know going in that I wish I had. [Warning: some of it might hurt.]

Writing isn’t fair.

Not in an equity or an equality kind of way. Let’s say you get hired to make $30/hour as a nurse. You’re thinking that’s pretty decent money until you find out your friend, who has the same years of experience, is making three thousand dollars an hour. That’s a ludicrous scenario, right? Not when it comes to publishing. Some debut novels sell for $3000. Some sell for $300,000.

I am not going to pour Haterade all over this post and say that anyone who sells in a major deal “got lucky.” I believe everyone who achieves traditional publication has worked hard and produced a book that industry professionals think will find a readership. Plus, some of my best friends sold in ginormous deals :) [Full disclosure: VENOM sold in a three-book major deal, but as the work-for-hire writer I made a small percentage of the money from the sale.]

But I am going to say that sometimes you can set a "major deal" and a "nice deal" manuscript side-by-side and not necessarily tell a difference. You might prefer the cheaper book. Critics might prefer the cheaper book. [So far, most critics prefer my cheaper books.] Sometimes the cheaper book even outsells the expensive book. No traditionally published book is a hundred [or a thousand!] times “better” than another published book, so I do believe there is an element of luck in writing the right book and getting it to the right agent who gets it to the right editors at the right time to have publishing economics work to your best advantage.

I know if you don’t have an agent or a book deal, part of you is screaming “I don’t care about money!” but you probably do care about your future as an author, and disparity isn’t just about cash. Disparity also exists in cover creation, marketing support, promotional efforts, etc. and these things can impact your sales numbers. This is also why you can’t compare yourself to other authors. A book with a gorgeous foil cover that gets a US tour and a TV commercial should sell more copies than a book that gets none of that. And maybe you're still screaming that you don't care, but it can be tough to see giant tables full of some other writer's debut book at B&N when your book isn't being stocked in a single store, and yeah that happens. If you like information, it’s better to know going in that the treatment your book gets and the treatment the book next to it gets might be completely different.

Writing is a business.

Businesses often come with long waits, seemingly inefficient processes, colleagues you will like to varying degrees, and a lot of administrative work that has to be done by somebody. Regardless of whether you pub indie or traditional, your workday might consist partially of sending emails, packing up prize books, mailing things, balancing accounts, understanding tax laws, doing design work, doing market research, promoting your product, maintaining a website, etc. The time I spend doing the not-writing work of writing is often more than the time I spend writing. Before I got published, I naively thought I could just hire someone to deal with all of this—an accountant for my receipts, a publicist for my social media, a web-designer, etc. Yeah, no. If I hired someone to do all the stuff I don’t want to do, my writing income would be negative.

Some people will hate your work.

I don’t know what it is, but each time ARCs go out for a book and I start to get early reviews on Goodreads (I always read the very early reviews because sometimes reviewers bring up legit problems that slipped past everyone else), some arrogant, delusional part of me thinks “Maybe this’ll be the book no one hates.” I’ve gotten over the idea I can write a book everyone will love, but a book that no one despises enough to write a huge scathing diatribe about—I mean that’s possible, right?

Probably not. There are a ton of factors that go into why people love or hate a book, some of which have more to do with the people than the book. Either way, just as all of us probably have extremely negative feelings about a small number of books, expect that a small number of people will have extremely negative feelings about yours. Those people might write reviews that make your face burn when you read them--they might even make you cry. [Truth time: my Kirkus review for VENOM made me cry.] Be prepared, but if it happens try to let it roll off you, because more people will like your book than hate it, and those are the people who might have some say in impacting your future career.

You are not the boss of your book.

If you want to be the boss of your book [*gestures at high-control people*], you need to self-publish. When you sell your book to a publisher for an advance or for the promise of royalties [not all books get advances], you relinquish a lot of control. You can suggest a title, but if the publisher wants to replace it with a different one, they can. Sometimes your publisher will take your ideas for a cover into consideration, but other times you are not even consulted until the cover is basically done. Your publisher can also switch your cover and/or title when going from hardcover to paperback. They can redo your cover mid-series, even if you don't want them to. [They're usually doing it in an attempt to reach more readers, so you should probably just be glad they're spending additional time and money on your book.]

During edits, your editor might want you to change something that you don't want to change. Generally author and editor can find a compromise, but you should know that you being paid depends on delivering a "satisfactory manuscript" and it's within your publisher's power to refuse to publish your book if you and your editor can't agree. It's also generally within your power to walk away, but that means giving back the money you've been paid and probably burning a bridge with that publisher.

Success is somewhat out of your control.

OMG guys, this is the HARDEST thing for me and the thing no one tells you. You work your ass off for years trying to get an agent and a deal and then when you do you think “Yay, I’m an author now. The hard work is over.” Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but the hard work is just starting. Unless your first book rockets onto the NYT bestseller list or outsells publisher projections, selling your next book will be just as hard—or harder!—than selling your debut novel. A debut author is like a thoroughbred racehorse running its first race—so exciting, so many possibilities. After that horse runs for a year and consistently finishes in the middle of the pack, people are less willing to bet on it.

Essentially, writing comes with all of the risks and responsibilities of being a small business owner. You can create a quality product, market that product effectively, provide good customer service, and still “go out of business” because for whatever reason enough people don’t buy your book. There’s no job security until your books have theme parks. I don’t tell you this to depress you. I tell you this so you won’t get punched in the face by any of it later. Also, you can make responsible choices about your finances, your day job, the time you invest in your writing, etc. If you read all this and you're like I was with nursing: "Bring it on. I'm informed and I'm still all-in," that should give you power and confidence as you progress through your publishing journey

But if you are depressed, never fear. Next week we’re going to talk about how you can take back some of that control, how you can compensate for some of that disparity, what you can do to maximize your chances for success. 

In the meantime, people with a high need for info might want to:
  • Ask yourself if there’s anything you can do with the data you want. I am hugely high-info it it’s data I feel like I can do something about, but not so much when it comes to stuff I can’t control.
  • Sign up for an Amazon author account to access Bookscan data
  • Share sales data with trusted author friends
  • Become a GR author so you can edit your GR page and use GR (responsibly) for market research and promotion
  • Become active in author online communities
And then finally, my last tip and the place where I admit embarrassing things about myself:
  • Go ahead and email your agent/editor with that nagging question. Don't ask your debut-group pal who doesn't know. Don't ask twitter. Ask the person who probably has an answer. Better to ask than to let your brain spin worst-case-scenarios to the point where you can’t function. Awkward revelation: Doing this is hard for me. I still sometimes cower when I email my agent questions that I’m not sure I should be asking, like: “OMG, she’s so busy, I shouldn’t bother her. OMG, she emailed back. What if it’s a lecture about being too needy or neurotic??? I think I need an internet break! *hides under bed*” This has everything to do with me being a ninny and nothing to do with my agent, who is the most awesome agent ever and has never yelled at me, not even once or twice when she probably should have. If you need to know, just ask. Even if the answer is "I don't know" or “there is no real answer to that question,” you’ll feel better after putting it out there.

Happy rest of the week! See you next time :-)