Author Archive

Riding the B&N

January 13th, 2010 No comments

I’ve been MIA for about a year now from this blog, and for that I apologize! Time flies when you’ve got book deadlines … but everybody else here has those, so I guess I haven’t really got a compelling excuse! (I’ll cop to being a slacker and move on ….)

Last month, my first novel Spellbent was released by Del Rey. It sold relatively quickly after my agent started shopping it around, but it spent about 15 months in editorial. So I was pretty excited when it finally came out, and other people were enthused that a big publisher was releasing my novel.

“Are you going on a book tour?” they’d ask.

“Well, no, it doesn’t work that way,” I’d reply. “But I’m sure there will be a few book signings and such.”

“Ooh! Ooh!” said my friend Sara. “Why don’t you set up a book signing here in Indianapolis, right before Mo*Con? We have a really good Barnes & Noble here; it would be a great place for a signing!”

At that point I was buried in another deadline, so being the good friend she is, Sara called the B&N and talked to their events manager, who seemed enthusiastic about the book. He told her to have me email him with more information about my novel, and I did … and heard nothing.

Shortly thereafter, it occurred to me that, since Spellbent is set here in Columbus, a reading in a Columbus bookstore would make a whole lot of sense. Our go-to bookstore, a great indie shop called Liberty Books, sadly went bankrupt a couple of summers ago. So I contacted the events manager at a local B&N; I had met the woman a couple of times at the Ohioana Book Festival and she had been prompt in her responses to my queries, and had likewise seemed enthusiastic when I talked to her about my book at the fair.

And once again, I received no reply.

So I followed up with both stores a week later. Zip. Zilch. Nada.

So I thought to myself, “Self, you do realize you have a publicist at Random House, don’t you? Why not have her do the followups?”

And so I contacted my publicist. And she told me that the problem is that Barnes and Noble won’t schedule us mass-market paperback authors for book events. Not even if we’re local, not even if we have a book from a big house, not even if our books are selling well.

Apparently, your book has to be thiiis tall to ride the B&N.

I’m a writer. I’m used to being told “no”. What I don’t get is why the B&N reps couldn’t have just told me what their policy is, instead of making positive noises and then blowing me off? “No” doesn’t bother me, but wasted time sure does!

Once I knew what the deal was, I had my publicist call Borders, and they seemed happy enough to have me.

I guess the take-home message here is that Borders is the chain you should talk to about any book events if you don’t have an independent bookstore in your city. But always talk to your indie shop first. (Boy, do I miss Liberty Books ….)

On Author Interviews

January 13th, 2009 1 comment

I’ve been interviewed about a dozen times, but I’ve also spent considerable time on the other end of the microphone. In addition to my recent chat with Clive Barker, I’ve interviewed writers such as Neil Gaiman and William Peter Blatty. And when I was getting my MA in journalism, I interviewed many people (mostly scientists) for newspaper articles.

In my stint as a reporter, I got flung into the fire of having to conduct hostile interviews.  On several occasions I had to talk to someone who absolutely, positively didn’t want to talk to me, and who spent a chunk of his or her time threatening legal action. Needless to say, that kind of interviewing isn’t a lot of fun, but it’s highly educational. And the hostile interviews really make you appreciate the comparative ease of friendly interviews.  Especially author interviews, because a writer generally wants to come off as witty and interesting, so you don’t have to do the same coaxing as you might trying to get good quotes from, say, a grumpy entomologist.

But easier isn’t the same as easy. There are good ways and bad ways to conduct an interview with an author. Read more…

Clive Barker and Collaborations

December 13th, 2008 1 comment

Earlier this week, I interviewed Clive Barker; the finished article will appear in a book titled Writer’s Workshop of Horror that will come out (I believe) next fall from Woodland Press. It will be a collection of articles and interviews by or with professionals in the horror or dark fiction industries. Some of the other folks involved are Stephen King, Joe Lansdale, Ramsey Campbell, Tom Monteleone, Mort Castle, Gary Braunbeck, Brian Keene, Tim Waggoner, Elizabeth Massie, Paula Guran, Scott Nicholson, Michael Laimo, and JG Gonzalez.

I had a really excellent chat with Clive … he’s an incredibly generous and gracious person. His assistant initially told me he’d only be able to talk for 20 minutes, but I ended up with over an hour of recordings.

Many of you have noticed that his voice had gotten steadily more hoarse and tortured-sounding over the past couple of years. Some have wondered on blogs and message boards about his overall health. His voice problems, it turns out, were caused by a cluster of noncancerous polyps growing in his throat. I hesitate to call them “benign” because in addition to wrecking his voice they were also starting to interfere with his ability to breathe.

The upshot is that Clive had surgery to remove the polyps — about two dozen in all — several weeks ago. He’s sounding much, much better, and says that he feels much better because he’s finally getting proper amounts of oxygen into his system.

Not all of what he talked about will make it into the final article, of course. Clive’s done a lot of interviews and I feel pleased I actually managed to ask him a couple of questions nobody had asked before.

One of the things we discussed was collaboration. Barker has collaborated with other creators on many film, theatre, and comics projects, but he says that he has no interest in co-writing stories or novels because he sees his own fiction projects as very personal endeavors.

I periodically see a writer — usually a beginner with few to no pro credits — declaring that he would never, ever collaborate with another writer because his style is “too unique”. Which to me sounds about as bragworthy as a singer declaring he never performs with an a capella group because his voice is “too unique” — in other words, he doesn’t have much dynamic range and probably can’t reliably find the key.

It’s one thing to know how to do something well and decide you’d rather not do it; it’s quite another to be proud to be unskilled. That makes me think of the stylishly raw punk bands in the late 70s who made one-chord-pony hay for a couple of years. But then the 80s came, and by the 90s most punks burned out or faded away. But there are a few old punks still performing to this day, and guess what? They learned to play their damn instruments.

There’s a collection of skills anyone who wants to call him- or herself a well-rounded writer should have, and being able to collaborate on projects is one of them. That whole “plays well with others” thing gets scoffed at a lot by authors who style themselves as lone wolves. The truth is, every pro writer has to make his or her editor happy, and if you don’t want to view that particular give-and-take as compromise, it helps to look at it as collaboration.

Editing aside, collaborating with another writer can be a lot of fun. When collaboration goes right, when you’re working with someone you respect and nobody’s ego is likely to get caught in their zipper, your different abilities enhance each other. You end up with a piece that’s fresh and uniquely stronger than if either of you had attempted to write it on your own.

I’ve co-written several stories and poems with Gary Braunbeck, and we have a pretty good system down. Our collaborations have often emerged when Gary’s been invited to a theme anthology but found himself unfamiliar with the subject matter (ironically, when he was initially invited to write for Doctor Who: Destinations Prague he’d never seen a single episode of the show. He’s a big fan of the good Doctor now, but that’s a topic for another post).

First, we’ll sit down and hash out a general story idea. Then, one of us will sit down and write a very rough initial draft. That will be passed to the other of us, who’ll go through the story and fill in the gaps and flesh out scenes. And then that draft will be passed back to the first person, and back and forth until we’re happy with the final story.

If you’ve done collaborations before, you may very well have a different co-writing technique. Some writers literally sit next to each other as they write the drafts; Gary says he wrote a story with Alan Clark in this fashion. The important thing is the finished story, so whatever works, works.

But if you haven’t collaborated before, I encourage you to give it a try. I think you’ll find it can be an enlightening and rewarding experience.

Tempus Fugit

September 13th, 2008 6 comments

When Random Person discovers that you’re a writer, odds are that he will ask you any of several basic questions. These are The Questions Everybody Asks:

  1. How long have you been writing?
  2. Where do you get your ideas?
  3. Where have you been published?

(If Random Person is a jerk, he’ll just grunt “You’re a writer? Never heard of you,” but that’s a topic for another article.)

If Random Person wants to be a writer, he’s bound to ask you this:

How do you find time to write?

Hands down, this is the question I get asked most at my day job at the university. There’s no shortage of beginning writers there, and most of them have written enough (or tried) to realize that time is a distressingly finite commodity. They’ve found themselves juggling jobs and classes and kids and housework and errands and … well, things always seem to go unfinished at the end of the day.

And it’s not just a matter of scheduling time, is it? After a 9-hour shift at the restaurant or call center, you might technically have a whopping two hours to call your own before you go to bed. But when you sit down with your notebook or computer, you find the day’s left you mentally exhausted, and after an hour of staring at the blank page you have maybe a sentence or two to show for your efforts.

There’s no easy answer to the question “How do you find the time to write?”

Well, okay, there is; I call it the Grizzled Writer’s Bluff: “You can’t just find the time, you have to make the time. And if you want it bad enough, you’ll do it.”

It’s an easy answer because while it’s perfectly true, it’s perfectly unhelpful. It doesn’t provide anything resembling a workable strategy or even a helpful hint; what it often does is make the newbie feel even more lost and loserish than before he asked his oh-so-hopeful question.

Time is a problem for every writer. For those of us with full-time jobs, it’s an ongoing struggle not only to make time to write, but also to ensure we’re in a fit condition to get good work done when the time comes. Because there’s no standard life, there’s no standard answer to the question. But there are some tactics writers can take, and the real secret is to try anything and everything to see what works best for you.

When I graduated from college, I started on a “career” job – the kind of job that follows you home at night – and quickly realized I could either have a well-paid life as a white-collar worker, or I could pursue my dream of becoming an author. I knew I just didn’t have the energy for both. So, I made myself indispensable at my workplace, and managed to convince my boss to let me drop to part time. Part-time jobs worked well for a while until the .com bust left me unemployed and excellent hourly positions scarce. When I found another day job that didn’t seem like it would suck up all my energy, it didn’t pay nearly as well as what I’d gotten before, so dropping to part-time was no longer an option. However, I was recently able to switch to a compressed, 4-day-a-week schedule, and that’s been helping me cut loose more writing time.

Deciding to pursue more casual jobs instead of better-paying career positions was a pretty risky choice on my part, and it’s not one that everyone will feel comfortable making. But there are other time management tactics to take, although they, too, may involve difficult choices.

Start by taking a hard look at what you do during the course of an average day. Make a list of everything you do, and separate things into “work” and “play”. Flip a coin if you can’t decide.

First, look at your “play”. Don’t skimp on your weekly tennis game or thrice-weekly trip to the gym – you need to keep your body in shape to keep your mind in shape. But what about all the TV you watch at night? Tearing yourself from the tube is a prime way to find writing time. Socializing is another, harder, place to find time to write. How many parties do you go to in a month? If the answer is more than one, and your day job isn’t as a promoter or DJ, you need to cut back. It’s hard to say “no” to friends, and you don’t want to nuke your social life from orbit lest you become a crazy, out-of-touch hermit. But if you’re going out for drinks after work nearly every day, you need to gut up the courage to tell your coworkers you’ve got other plans.

Ultimately, you need to treat writing like a second job, because it is. Even if you’re not getting paid for it yet.

Next, look at the things you’ve put in the “work” category. What, really, do you have to do? And what do you feel you ought to do? The “oughts” need to be weighed. You can probably cut down on the number of errands you run with a little planning. And unless your neighbors are already complaining, you can probably get by with less yard work and housework. Forget about keeping up with the Joneses – what do you really care what they think, anyhow? If you don’t have to do it and you don’t want to do it, by all means, ditch it. But make sure it’s really something that doesn’t need doing; ignoring litterboxes, for instance, can become an expensive disaster.

And gruffly blowing off your kids or spouse and holing yourself up in your office is a recipe for heartache down the road. You have to take care of your responsibilities to the people and pets living with you. Period. The carpet doesn’t care if it gets vacuumed, but your daughter will care a lot if you don’t go to her soccer games.

The flip side, of course, is that the people living with you may not understand the time and effort involved in writing. So, your first step is to recruit them to your cause. Explain to them that writing means a lot to you; share your dream with them. Explain. Negotiate. Tell them that you need their help to achieve your dreams; your spouse will probably feel a whole lot better about watching TV alone if he or she feels she’s helping you get good work done. The kids will still want your time, of course, but “Mommy’s working” is a lot easier to understand than “Mommy’s ignoring me.”

But what if you talk to your spouse about your need for work time alone, and he still treats your desire to be a writer like a childish phase you’ll grow out of? Or, worse, he seems to outright scorn it?

For instance, a writer acquaintance of mine isn’t “allowed” to write while his wife’s awake. She expects him to sit with her watching TV in the evenings until she goes to bed, and then he’s free to do what he wants as long as he doesn’t disturb her. So, this guy writes from 11pm until 2 or 3 in the morning, whereupon he goes to bed for a few hours, gets up at 6am and gets ready for work.

Clearly, he really, really wants it. Few of us would be able to keep up that kind of schedule. And the thing is, he really shouldn’t have to. His wife should have enough basic love and respect to support his ambition instead of treating his writing dream as some unpleasant character flaw that she grudgingly indulges. What she’s doing is frankly bullshit. He seems to be sticking out the marriage because they have young children, but I don’t see how it can last.

One female writer friend of mine had a husband who made supportive noises while they were dating, but once they were married, he acted impatient when she talked about her writing and did a lot of passive-agressive crap to interrupt her while she was working. She, too, resorted to working after he went to sleep, or she left the house and went to the library. Over the years, his snark and disrespect got worse and worse, even though she was bringing in serious money from freelance writing, and finally she filed for divorce.

I’ve seen other situations like that, and if the writer sticks with writing, the marriage always ends in divorce.

And that’s the upshot of all this: if you are living with people who won’t respect your writing or writing time, or if you’re dating someone who treats your writing with veiled scorn or disdain, that’s a clear sign that they just plain don’t respect you. You need to get them out of your life. And although it might seem easier said than done, it’s a lot easier done before the wedding bells have rung.

Life is too short to do otherwise.

– Lucy Snyder

Shy writers and crunchy numbers

August 13th, 2008 9 comments

As I said earlier, the most basic purpose of book promotion is to let people know that your book exists, why they might want to pick up a copy, and where they can get it.

Some authors aren’t keen on promotion. They might make a brief announcement on their blog, webpage, or mailing list, then put their noses back to grindstone, focusing on The Work. They rely mostly on the kindness of strangers, friends, and their publishers to get the word out.

Many other writers spend countless hours talking their books up at conventions and on message boards. This tactic can work well for gregarious authors with enough social depth perception to avoid becoming annoying. And if they fundamentally enjoy chat-and-post, the time involved may be an energizing boost that enables them to get back to The Work with renewed vigor and enthusiasm.

However, many writers are introverts. Shy, some painfully so. Chatting up strangers at conventions leaves them nervous and exhausted, and even making unobtrusive promo posts on message boards makes them feel tired and uncomfortable.

A shy writer at a convention often ends up needing a few hours of “quiet time” between panels. Sometimes, gin is involved. Or good Scotch if the ruggedly-coiffed Richard Dansky’s been by to commiserate and fill her glass. Either way, she sits there in the comforting dimness of the hotel room gathering her nerves. Slight boredom sets in. She grabs the freebie bag she got at registration and pulls out the souvenir program book. If it looks nice, she starts to thumb through it. In between the fan articles and dedications, she sees shiny advertisements for books from big-name authors.

She touches the ads wistfully. So many nice, pretty books adorned with blurbs, the covers doing all the talking to potential readers … she wishes her publisher would take out some ads for her books.

And then she has a thought: maybe she could take out some ads on her own?

The good news is, she (or her publisher) can! The bad news is, an ad campaign will take varying amounts of time and money — a lot of time if you don’t have much money, or a lot of money if you don’t want to (or can’t) spend time on things like ad creation and statistics analysis. But the good news on top is that smart, well-targeted ads actually do work.

Many writers first consider taking out ads in convention program books or in magazines they read. If you want to suppport the publication or convention in question, taking out an ad may almost be a no-brainer, especially if you’ve already made enough writing money that you’re worried about owing taxes at the end of the year. An ad is a legitimate business expense, and you’d be paying money out to the IRS anyhow, so why not help out projects you like by renting adspace? In that light, the fact that the ads might raise awareness of your book and increase sales is just the cherry on the sundae. If you’re working with a publisher of any size, they probably already have ads you can request through email and then just send along to the publication.

But if you don’t have a tax burden to defray, and if you don’t particularly care about the welfare of the convention or magazine in question, you’ll want to give things a harder look.

The problem with print ads is that:

  1. Unless you take out just one ad at a time, you never really know if a specific ad is working, unless you get the oh-so-rare message from a new reader: “I saw an ad in Weird Tales and I bought your book and wow I really love it!” Otherwise, you’re reduced to sending a bunch of “Are we there yet?” type messages to your publisher to see if there’s been any uptick in sales.
  2. Print ads put a burden of memory and action on the reader that probably won’t end in a sale unless it’s reinforced with word-of-mouth from friends or a bookstore employee, etc.

In his post “What The Nuns Didn’t Teach Me“, Richard Dansky talks about what he and other book store clerks observed as the Pattern of Picking Purchase:

  1. If the book was face-out and the cover was appealing, the reader might pick it up.
  2. If they picked it up, they might scan the front cover for the title, the author, and any blurbs that might have made it to that side of the spine.
  3. If they liked the cover, they might flip it over to read the back-of-book blurb.
  4. If they liked the back-of-book blurb, then they might be interested enough to crack the book open and read a few pages.
  5. And if they liked those few pages, they might then buy the book.

Many people lose interest and put the book aside at each of those steps. Just think of the front-end attrition for people who glance at a magazine ad for a book and think, “Hey, that sounds interesting.” Those people then have to actually remember the name of the book, then get in cars and go to bookstores, where things go crashing to a halt if it’s a title the store doesn’t carry.

It seems to me that the Web is a much more reliable place for readers to find books, and so Web advertisements can reduce many of the barriers between learning about a book and deciding to pick up a copy.

Some people hate advertising in general and despise Web ads in particular. I can certainly sympathize; my inbox overfloweth with spam. I fondly remember the good ol’ days of Netscape 1.0 when the Web was a cozy, ad-free place mostly populated with hobbyists and college students. And I’m well aware that Corporate America has done damage around the world by promoting mindless consumerism, harmful goods and pernicious social and sexual stereotypes through advertising; kids are particularly vulnerable. For instance, researchers have found young girls often develop eating disorders the more they’re exposed to advertising (references). Google ads are filled to the brim with scams that prey on the naive (I personally see red every time I see a vanity publishing scam).

But your book isn’t a scam, is it? You worked as hard as you can on it, poured your life into it. It’s not wrong to tell people about it.

Will your book get negative backlash if you take out a web ad? If it’s an attractive, honest ad, and you don’t, say, advertise your pornographic horror novel on a children’s cartoon site, probably not.

But there’s still a risk. Most people who hate web ads with a passion do the logical thing and install ad-blocking software, regardless of whether this hurts the sites they enjoy or not. A few of them will condemn any product – good or bad – that is promoted through advertising. They condemn any site – good or bad – that hosts ads. So if you think the true target audience for your book is mostly composed of pedantic, judgmental lit snobs, then yeah, you might want to avoid ads altogether. And if that’s the case, “Hey, guys, my new book came out!”-type message board promos aren’t going to pass muster with that crowd, either. You’re probably stuck waiting for word-of-mouth to materialize.

Fortunately for me, those folks probably wouldn’t ever pick up my humor collection, so the publisher and I decided to give web ads a try through the Project Wonderful system. PW mainly runs on web comics sites but also delivers ads to speculative fiction magazine sites like SFReader and Greatest Uncommon Denominator. It’s been a learning process for sure — one big thing I learned is that web comics readers actually do buy “real” books. Another thing is that actually paying for ad space often yields better results than participating in free banner exchanges. Most people who host an exchange banner stick it down at the bottom of their pages where hardly anyone will see it. Conversely, people who are participating in Project Wonderful often put the ad slots in highly visible locations so that they’ll be worth more. The trick is to hit a good balance between cost and exposure.

Anyhow, since the publisher’s refined his tactics, monthly sales for my book have quadrupled. There are a lot of elements you have to orchestrate to have a successful web ad:

1. You need an attractive ad.

Every ad system allows you to run text ads, but text ads in my experience are a usually a waste of time and money. People just tune them out. Graphical ads do much better. Colorful ads do better than monochrome ads, and ads that move do better than static ads. This is all Psychology 101 stuff — we’re wired to pay attention to movement. The key is to avoid obnoxious colors/movement. Having an ad move too slowly to catch the eye is bad, but setting its frames to flash by too quickly to read is worse. We’ve all seen those horrible mortgage ads featuring panting sows and dancing people from the uncanny valley. Obnoxious. Avoid.

Some sites are so put off by moving ads that they’ll only take static ads. Furthermore, different sites have different sized slots (see PW’s templates page for more info). So, you’ll need multiple ad sizes, and this is where graphic design skills and proficiency with programs like Photoshop and Image Ready come in handy (GIMP is free and great for static images, but I’ve found making animated ads is far easier with Image Ready). If you don’t have these kinds of skills, and if your publisher can’t provide ready-made ads, you’ll have to hire a graphic designer. If your budget is limited, at the very least get a banner ad and a leaderboard ad. A square ad wouldn’t hurt, either.

Aside from fitting into different ad spaces, having a variety of ads at your disposal lets you see what works and what doesn’t. A specific ad might get a listless response at one site, but work very well on another. So, get multiple ads made if you can.

What should you put in an ad, or tell your graphic designer to put in the ad? The title, cover art, and author names are mandatory — you want these things prominently displayed so that potential readers who don’t click through might recognize the book and pick it up if they see it in a store later. Short, lively review excerpts are good — no more than a dozen words in a single frame. Less if possible.

It helps if your ad has a “hook”. Why would people would want to read your book? Is it funny? Exciting? Scary? Sexy? Informative? Try to convey that in the ad. The goal here, other than to make people aware that the book exists, is to entice them to actually click on the ad to learn more about it.

2. You need an ad host.

Some popular book sites, like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books or, provide their own ad hosting and offer flat rates for buying ad that will appear on their site for a set period of time, usually a month at minimum. While these $50-for-a-month type arrangements can be a good deal, you’re locked in — you can’t usually swap an ad out for a different one if it performs poorly, and you surely can’t cancel it and demand a refund unless the site goes down or there’s another problem on the host’s end.

Furthermore, you’ll experience click-through attrition on ads that stay up a while on sites that have a regular daily readership. You might get 100 clicks the first day, 75 the next, then 50 the next day, and so on until you’re only getting a few clicks each day toward the end of your ad month.

So, there’s a lot to be said for sites that take ads through auctions like the system Project Wonderful offers. A banner ad slot on a popular site might be going for $50 a day … but my publisher doesn’t have to buy the space for an entire day. He can just bid up enough to secure the ad during lunchtime, spend a few dollars to get a couple thousand exposures and a couple hundred click-throughs, and then cancel the ad and let someone else have their turn in the slot.

Once you’re buying space through an auction system, you’ll start considering taking out ads on sites that are new to you. Use basic common sense in evaluating them. Does the site get a lot of traffic? Are the site’s visitors likely to be interested in the genre you’re writing in? Do many of them appear to be readers? Are the ad slots featured in visible places, and are they limited so that the page isn’t crawling with competing ads?

3. The ad needs to go someplace useful

What do you want to achieve with the ad? Do you want to promote a particular book, or do you want to promote your whole catalog? Whichever you want to do, make sure that the page the ad sends people to is attractive, informative, easy to navigate, and loads quickly. Good review blurbs are a must. Free samples of the book are extremely useful – few people are willing to take a chance on an author they’ve never heard of before if they don’t have the chance to read some of it first.

In my experience, you get the best results if you send people to a place where they can read excerpts and then actually buy the book, such as its page on a major, consumer-trusted seller such as Amazon or Chapters. This works best if the book page has at least a couple of positive reviews featured on that page. So, when you or your publisher are sending out books for review, don’t ignore people who mainly post on Amazon or other bookstore sites. They do have value.

Barnes and Noble and Amazon pages also have additional value in that they provide sales rankings. While these rankings involve a lot of secret voodoo and are hard to translate into real numbers, they do give you an idea if a book has actually sold copies or not that day. And being able to track sales greatly protects you from click fraud and other shenanigans from dishonest ad hosts.

4. You need to monitor your ad’s performance

Okay, you don’t have to monitor an ad’s performance. If you’re awash in cash but not much time, you can just throw money into ads and hope for the best. But if your budget is limited, it helps to pay attention to what works and what doesn’t.

You need to know some jargon going in. A CPM is not a type of missile, and CPC is not an ozone-destroying chemical. CPM is the cost for 1000 loads of the ad on the site’s pages. A raw CPM refers to overall page loads; a unique CPM refers to loads presented to individual visitors as determined by their internet address. CPC stands for “cost per click”. Paying for ads based on pure click-throughs is a bad idea (see the next paragraph) but watching the number of click-throughs in conjunction with the number of impressions is helpful for determining if the ad is reaching an interested audience or not.

A lot of potential advertisers are concerned about click fraud – that is, a single person spoofing different IP addresses to make it seem like real site visitors are actually clicking through when they aren’t. A slightly lower-tech version of this is a webmaster who’s enlisted minions to click on new ads as they appear on the site. This is a legitimate worry. But if the site is high-traffic and it seems legitimate (ie, not a link farm) you probably don’t have to worry too much, particularly if you give the ad a test run and see that it’s generating results in terms of your book’s sales ranking. We use Titlez to keep track of Amazon rankings, and it’s been very handy for the purpose.

Remember Richard Dansky’s observations about potential reader attrition? That applies just as much to web ads, but at least there are fewer steps for them to go through. Of the people who see an ILDB web ad on a high-traffic science fiction comic site, maybe 2% or 3% might click on it. Of the people who click through, another 0.5%-3% might actually buy the book then and there (the statistics I have indicate that more people apparently come back later and buy the book from another vendor, or put it on their wishlist, or bookmark the site, etc., but for direct sales it’s between 0.5%-3% depending on how the wind’s blowing and if Mars is ascendant and Venus is in the House of Pancakes).

By my calculations, if 5,000 people on the aforementioned comic site load up a web ad, 2-5 of them will end up clicking through and buying the book in one fell swoop. So if an ad goes out to 2,000 web surfers and the Amazon numbers don’t improve a little that day, we know the ad isn’t working.

Ultimately, you need to run some test ads, then crunch numbers. How much is a single sale worth to you? You need to know this before you can go further. Figure out how many clicks and exposures you probably need to get to earn that single sale (and bear in mind that some days you’ll do all the right things and still not get a bite). If the ad on the site is going to cost more than you’d get for that sale — don’t buy it.

I’ve seen Facebook ad hosts bragging about a fifty-cent CPM – that is, a buck for 2000 ad impressions. In my experience, that’s actually pretty bad, unless the site’s visitors are mainly composed of the sort of people who buy the kind of books you’re selling. My publisher generally ditches an ad that gets worse than a $0.30 CPM, unless it’s highly-targeted. It’s entirely possible to find CPMs of 10 cents or even less in Project Wonderful.

Likewise, he looks for low costs-per-click. More than 10 cents is bad, 3 cents is good, one cent is awesome and if you find an ad at that rate, you should ride it for a while to see what happens. At three cents per click, my publisher spends $3.00 to have 100 people hit the book’s page. If just one person buys the book, he’s broken even; if a statistically-probable 3 people buy it, I’ve personally earned enough in royalties to go get a burrito.

And that’s pretty cool.

I hope you’ve found this introduction to web advertising helpful. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to this stuff, so it’s pretty daunting at first, and it’s definitely work, but it can generate good results. And you don’t have to stand up in front of a crowded room of strangers or drive five hours to do it.

More on Getting Your Books into Libraries

July 13th, 2008 5 comments

I got to thinking about the library-related advice in my last post and realized that it was inevitably going to be incomplete because I’m not a librarian.

So, I thought I would do a short interview with Greg Fisher of the The Cleveland Heights/University Heights Public Library; Greg also runs …With Intent to Commit Horror, which provides readers with horror reading lists by author, series and subject.

My questions are in bold; his answers are below, and as you can see, he has a lot of good advice for us writers.

Why do authors want their books in libraries?

For an author, having her book in a library means increased exposure to an audience that might otherwise never hear about her or have an opportunity to read her work.

A few authors have claimed libraries cost working writers money because they allow readers to consume books without paying for them — how do you respond to this type of thinking?

When I first came across that claim over a decade ago, I was astonished that someone would think such a thing. Then I became concerned because when you look at it on the surface, it seems like an accurate picture. This bothered me for years because the last thing I wanted to do was cheat an author out of a living wage.

But I’ve come to realize a few things:

  1. The library always buys its copy of an author’s book (gift donations aside).
  2. Most books don’t circulate as often as people think.
  3. Many people won’t buy a new author unless they have the chance to try his work first.

Before I pulled all the horror books together in their own section at one of the libraries where I work, most mass market horror paperbacks went out once or twice before being canceled. Many, like Simon Clark and Jack Ketchum, never left the turnstile. Laurell K. Hamilton circulated well — 3 or 4 times a year. So it was much like someone buying a copy of a book and lending it to a friend or two to read.

After I created the horror section, circulation rose. Simon Clark is checked out a couple times a year. Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door circulated 18 times. I had to buy a replacement copy because it fell apart. Laurell K. Hamilton’s book Guilty Pleasures has circulated about 50 times through three copies in paperback and one hardback.

There is something else to add to this equation. Many of my patrons tend to have little to no disposable income. Single mothers, teenagers, and college students who really need to not read any more Shakespeare for a while are the people I see most at the horror shelves. Most of them would not take a chance on a new author without the library.

I hear anecdotes all the time of readers who have made authors “autobuys” after having been introduced to the author in the library. I’m one of those people. Without the library to introduce me to Simon Clark, Jack Ketchum and Laurell K. Hamilton I would never have bought copies of their work for my personal library — and not just mass market editions. I bought my own copy of Vampyrrhic in the Leisure edition, but when the gorgeous Cemetery Dance hardcover editions came out, I had to pick up both Vampyrrhic and Vampyrrhic Rites which won’t be stocked by many libraries. And now I’m saving my money for three Jack Ketchum novellas because he hit home so hard with The Girl Next Door.

Ummm … okay, I stopped reading and buying Laurell K. Hamilton a few years ago. I still love the early Anita Blake books, though.

The people who probably lose some sales to libraries are writers like Stephen King, Danielle Steel and J. K. Rowling. Even though we’ll get 10-15 copies for the system, those books circulate 25-50 times.

The point I want to make is that if you took away all the library sales in the nation, you wouldn’t see a significant rise in sales over all. You would probably see a drop, especially of new authors.

As an aside, ten years ago, the guilt over possibly taking money out of a writer’s pocket was part of the impetus to create the original version of my website — I saw it as a possible way to put money back in authors’ pockets.

How do authors convince libraries to buy copies of their books?

The single most important thing you can do to get your book selected by libraries is to get it reviewed/listed in the following publications: Library Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, Booklist, Ingram’s Advance and Kirkus. These publications are thought of as buying tools, and often the only source of information a librarian has or uses to make his selections. The buyers for my library system use all of those except Kirkus. Other libraries will use their own combination of those tools.

Read these magazines (ask to see back issues at your local library) and find out what their requirements for review/listing are. Many have websites which lay out exactly what they want, how many copies they want, and how much lead time you need to give them. They aren’t kidding about the lead time.

Do not assume your publishing company is going to take care of this for you. Find out. If they say they will get the copies to those magazines, do what you can to make sure it happens. Make sure the books and promotional packs are sent out on time. If you have doubt that the publisher is getting this part of the job done then you need to do it yourself. If your publisher doesn’t send out review copies then you most certainly must do it yourself. Be aware that many magazines demand a long lead time — several months — and will not publish anything about your book if you’re late. Do not procrastinate on this.

Jo Ann Vicarel, my supervisor and the fiction buyer for the Cleveland Heights/University Heights Public Library, told me “For libraries, a review is almost everything.”

Also helpful are reviews and advertisements in magazines like Locus Magazine, Romantic Times Book Review Magazine, and Mystery Scene Magazine. If you write for a genre, then there is probably a magazine devoted to that genre with professional caliber reviews. Find that magazine and get your book in it.

If a library lacks funds, should an author offer to donate a book? How should he/she approach the library?

First, walk around the library where you want to donate your book to determine if it’s the right library. Locate the adult section (not all libraries separate the adult section from the kids section) and check out the fiction section. Are all fiction works lumped together or is your genre separate from the rest? Is there a special section or display of new fiction books? Is there a special section or display for new books in your genre? Are hardcover and paperback books mixed or segregated? If the books are all lumped together, without any attention drawn to genres or new books, they may not be the right library for your book.

If they are the right library for your book, either because they make a point to draw readers’ attention to new books and various genres, or because they’re your local library, look in their catalogue. Do they already own your book? Do they have it on order? Get a librarian to help you if you can’t make heads or tails out of the information. Even I get confused working in a catalog system that’s not my own.

If they don’t own your book, then ask any adult reference librarian for the name of the person who buys fiction for the library. If that librarian is present, ask if you could speak with her for a few minutes about a book you’ve written. If she isn’t working that day, leave a business card with your phone number and a piece of promotional material for your book and ask that she call you.

Many libraries will allow any librarian to accept donations but be pleasant yet firm in you wanting to meet the person who buys the fiction. Why? Because you want her to have a face and personality to put with your name for your next title. The whole point is to get the library to start buying your books.

For your meeting make sure you have one or more copies of your book on hand. Offer to sign it if she’d like. Give her a one minute pitch about the book — mention the genre, briefly describe what it’s about without giving any spoilers, describe the tone and atmosphere, and end with a list of 2-4 authors who write like your book: “people who enjoy the way Dean Koontz or Joe Schreiber blend genres seamlessly in a supernatural story would love my book.” This will help her pitch the book even if she never reads it.

Give the librarian a printed list of your books with the titles and ISBN numbers (use both ISBN-10 and ISBN-13). If you have promotional material, like bookmarks, ask if you can leave some with her. If you’d be interested in doing some programming with the library (like a meet the author program) then mention your willingness and ask if there’s someone you can talk to about programming. Don’t take more than 5 or 10 minutes unless she actively prolongs the conversation.

If the author also lacks funds and/or available books, how should he or she choose which library to approach with a donation?

At the bare minimum, an author wants his/her book in two libraries. He/she wants it in his home library and he wants it in the nearest library that actively participates in Worldcat and will lend out their materials to other libraries.

Donating a copy to your home library, or library where you did most of your research, is a nice gesture, like a thank-you. However, that nice gesture also helps you win over the librarians who in turn will take extra opportunities to promote your book to their patrons — “Try this book. It’s by Mary Doria Russell who lives here. She used this library to do her research, you know. And look here, part of it takes place at John Carroll University.”

Most big city libraries participate in inter-library loans through Worldcat. Lots of suburban libraries do too. Ask the adult reference supervisor (or nearest equivalent) if your library participates. If they don’t, could she recommend a nearby library that does?

By getting into a library that will lend out their collection through Worldcat, you can increase the potential range of circulation to a nationwide level. That’s how I was able to read The Book of A Thousand Sins, a short story collection by Wrath James White. I enjoyed it so much I bought my own copy a couple of months later. Which is, of course, the point of getting your book into the library.

Lucy A. Snyder is the author of the forthcoming Del Rey novel Spellbent and the collections Sparks and Shadows and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger (And Other Oddities).

Book Promotion: Part 2

June 13th, 2008 5 comments

Just to recap, last month I detailed my first two suggestions for promoting your book:

  1. Write the best book you can. 
  2. Don’t get stuck with a bad cover.

If you’ve got those two things taken care of, you’re well on your way to having a successful book! Now, let’s take a look at a few other foundation elements necessary for effective book promotion.

The things I’m discussing this month are mainly of concern to authors and editors with small-press books. So, if you’ve had the good fortune to score a deal with a big house, you can skip this post and check back next month, when I’ll be talking about blurbs and book reviews.

3a: Make sure your book’s listed at Amazon.

Once the cover’s set, check with your publisher to make sure the book will be listed on If your publisher is a small specialty press, a little (or a lot) of wheedling may be necessary. But if you’ve got more than 300 books to sell after preorders have been accounted for, it’s best to get the book listed on Amazon.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with; some of you may have a hate-hate relationship with them. If so, I sympathize completely. Amazon demands a 55% commission on top of account setup fees, and they’ve been bullying POD publishers into using their Booksurge service instead of LSI and other printers. Amazon is the 80,000-pound gorilla of book sales, and they’ve been taking full advantage of their status, often to the detriment of small publishing companies.

So, I understand a small-press publisher’s desire to tell Amazon to go blow; the publisher’s got their own site and can sell books through their own secure shopping cart just fine, so distribution’s covered, right?

The problem is, for many prospective readers, if your book isn’t on Amazon, it’s as if it just doesn’t exist. Your book’s being available at the publisher’s site won’t help if a reader has never heard of the publisher before and is therefore reluctant to release their credit card info to them.

So: if your book’s not on Amazon, you will lose potential sales. Also, because so many other sites grab book information directly from Amazon’s feeds, your book’s absence from that site means it will also be absent from a bunch of other sites.

(Side note: because book information posted on Amazon gets distributed far and wide, double-check that the publisher is posting accurate, complete information about your book from the start. The publisher can make changes later, but I’ve noticed changes often don’t propagate to and other sites. It’s better if the book description is correct from the beginning).

I’ll be discussing Amazon more in future posts, but for now, the basic goal is to make sure your book is listed. If your book is a small-run limited edition from a specialty press, the cost of selling the book on Amazon might not make sense. But if you’ve got more than a couple hundred books to sell, get the book listed on Amazon (and price it to compensate for their commission), or else be prepared for slow sales.

3b: Make sure your book’s listed in WorldCat.

WorldCat is a gigantic database of books in libraries around the planet. WorldCat gives you basic publishing and authorship details about a book and tells you how you can borrow it for free through Interlibrary Loan. If you’re the least bit of a library geek, you already know it’s very cool, and you probably already wanted to be in WorldCat just on general principle.

If your book’s not on Amazon, getting it listed on WorldCat is important. Why? WorldCat is the other main source of information about books that websites like Bookmooch and LibraryThing refer to. It cuts to one of the most basic goals of promotion: making sure potential readers know your book exists. Getting your book listed in as many places as possible is part of that goal, and WorldCat helps you achieve it.

Furthermore, if your book’s not in WorldCat, to the librarians of the world it’s as if your book just doesn’t exist. And since librarians can be some of an author’s strongest allies, you want to make sure they can easily reference your work.

How do you get a listing in WorldCat? In theory it’s pretty simple: just make sure that at least one Worlcat-member library immediately gets a copy of your book when it comes out.

If you’re an established author, there’s a good chance your local library already knows about you and is planning to order a copy of your latest book (and if your local library doesn’t know about you, shine your shoes, brush your teeth and go make friends with the library staff).

But if this is your first book, or if your local library’s suffering from funding cuts, chances are good you will need to donate copies of your work if you want specific libraries to carry it. On the plus side, you can write the donated books off your taxes. On the down side, this usually isn’t quite as simple as popping a copy of your book in an envelope and mailing it to the library (if you do this, your unsolicited book may go straight into the box of books culled for the next library book sale).

First, find out who the acquisition librarian is if you haven’t done so already. Drop him or her a polite, professional email to tell them about your book and to ask if the library would like a copy for their collection. Make sure to mention that you are a local author and that your book is not self-published. Otherwise, if you and your publisher are unknown to the librarian, he or she is very likely to assume you’re self-published and the answer is probably going to be “thanks, but no thanks.”

Libraries have only so much room on their shelves, and to avoid being inundated with amateur work most patrons will never check out, many have explicit policies against accepting self-published books. Some may send an email back to you asking for evidence that your small-press publisher has produced a certain quantity of books; don’t take this personally. Just politely send them back the information they’ve asked for (above all: don’t piss off your local librarian).

Be prepared for a “thanks, but no thanks” response no matter what; a library may be in the midst of downsizing their collection or undergoing renovation and they may not be acquiring new books. Again, don’t take this personally; follow up with a thanks-for-your-time email and query the next library on your list.

Once you’ve moved past the probably-small list of local libraries who’ll look favorably on your work because you’re a local author, you’ll want to have a more formal press release to send out to promote your book. But to put together a good press release, first you’ll need some good book blurbs and review excerpts … but that’s a topic worthy of its own post, and I’m out of time.

So, come back next month for tips on getting your books reviewed and blurbed!

Book Promotion: Part 1

May 26th, 2008 9 comments

When people think about doing book promotions, they often think of an author going on a book tour. Doing a book signing or sitting at an author’s table at a convention or book store means you get to talk to a lot of new people and (hopefully) get your books into the hands of new readers who’ve been impressed by your approachability and charm. This can be a lot of fun, especially if you’re an extrovert who gets energized by meeting new people.

But even for the most gregarious among us, working a book table is also likely to put you in touch with your inner Rodney Dangerfield.

The simple act of sitting behind a book table — whether you’re actually selling any of your books or are just there to sign copies — trips a certain circuit in a certain type of narrow skull. Namely, it triggers the conviction that you, the author, are a mere sales clerk, and therefore not a real person this Rudy McRuderson needs to show any basic courtesy toward.

When I shared a book table with my husband Gary Braunbeck, a guy in a suit came up, pointed at one of his Leisure titles, and said “Ooo, that looks like a spooooky book!” and wandered off making idiotic cartoon ghost noises. At a recent local book fair, a well-dressed soccer mom picked up my book Sparks and Shadows, read the back, then tossed it down on the table with the queenly disdainful announcement “I don’t like short stories!”

More commonly, someone will shuffle up to your table, disinterestedly glance over the books you sweated blood to finish on deadline, and then say, “I’ve never heard of you.”

And upon hearing this, your job, dear signing table author, is to give them your most dazzling smile and brightly reply, “Well, now you have! Would you like a bookmark?”

And that cuts to the most basic purpose of book promotion: it’s how you let people know that your book exists, why they might want to pick up a copy, and where they can get it. And you try not to alienate anyone (including yourself) in the process.

Make no mistake: promoting your book is work. My first job involved scraping dried poo out of the bottom of snake cages; the darkest depths of book promo can seem comparable. However, the snakes never once thanked me for a clean cage, whereas I have gotten emails from people who’ve picked up my work at a convention as a result of seeing me read or seeing my materials and consequently became fans.

I can see some of you shaking your heads, resisting my crazy notions. Surely you would never have to stoop to the literary equivalent of scraping snake poop! Isn’t writing a good book hard enough? Surely well-written books just naturally rise to the top of any book stack and find their audience like dandelions finding the sun! Isn’t all that icky, tiresome promo stuff the publisher’s job?

Sure. And it would be great if your publishers threw all their money and effort into promoting your book … but what if they don’t? It would be great if the big book chains automatically ordered a zillion copies of your book and put them up front for all to see … but what if they don’t? What if the publisher gets cold feet about your book’s sales chances and releases it as a POD, and now no brick-and-mortar stores will stock it at all?

What then? How is your book going to fare against the hundreds of other books that are published in the U.S. and U.K. each day?

I won’t stand here and tell that you actually have to do anything. You still have a book, and what you do with it is entirely up to you.

For instance, you can just be thrilled that you beat the odds and got a book published, send your author’s copies to your friends and family, and let the book market remain a black-box mystery you don’t involve yourself with. You’ve got a pretty nice life, and you reached your goal of becoming a Published Author. So what if low sales and low involvement will prevent you from selling another book to that publisher? One book’s enough, right?

Alternately, you can feel cheated that your publisher dropped the promotions ball, and bitter that people aren’t flocking to the book you poured your heart and soul into. You can wail and gnash your teeth and throw up your hands in defeat. Later, after you’ve pulled yourself from your inactive funk, you start work on your next project, hoping your first failure hasn’t doomed your hoped-for career as a writer. You can always get a fresh start with a pseudonym, right?

Or you can say to yourself, “Hm. This isn’t going like I thought it would, but I refuse to let my book go down as a failure without a fight. This is my book, and I know in my heart there’s an audience for it out there, and dammit, I’m going to find it!”

And when you’re ready to roll up your sleeves and help your book perform as well as it possibly can, that’s when you need to start considering what you can do to promote it.

The first, most basic step is one I’ve already touched on: write a good book. Write the best book you possibly can.

You are, first and foremost, a writer. Worry about promotions after you’ve taken care of your craft and your deadlines. You can surely do a hard sell and essentially trick somebody into buying a mediocre book, but that reader isn’t likely to come back for seconds.

The second step is this: never, ever get stuck with a bad cover.

In this instance, “bad” can mean an ugly cover, but it can also means a cover that doesn’t speak to the target audience’s aesthetic sensibility, or which greatly misleads readers into thinking the book will be something it’s not. The old adage “Don’t judge a book by its cover” is widely and utterly ignored by the reading public. People buy or ignore books all the time based purely on the cover art; buyers for book chains may double an order of a book that has a cover they think is especially appealing.

Yes, this is shallow and horrifying, but it’s how the world works. A bad cover can kill your book dead. So don’t let a bad cover happen to your book if you can help it.

Most big publishers have professional design staff, but these pros often work under crushing deadlines and consequently they do make mistakes. Look at their past offerings and try to get a cover approval clause written into your contract if you have any doubt that they’ll give you a good cover. Small-press publishers may or may not be run by people with good art sense, but they’ll generally be perfectly willing to work with you if you approach them politely with suggestions.

Not sure if you know what separates a good cover from a bad one? Then take some time to learn a little about the basics of graphic design and typography. Being “artistic” is as much a learned skill as it is a natural instinct; even if you think you’re art blind, you probably can learn the basics of good design. And if after Art 101 you’re still convinced that covers featuring bluish Poser people trapped in the Uncanny Valley look just fine … make friends with an artist who likes to read the kind of books you like to write. They can help warn you when a bad cover is about to happen to you.

Developing your graphic design sense and acquiring skills with programs like Adobe InDesign and Photoshop will serve you well as you move on to more advanced book promotion tactics … but I’m going to save that and more for my next entries, wherein I’ll talk about all the things that Gary promised you’d see here, namely how I went about promoting my fiction collections Sparks and Shadows and Installing Linux on a Dead Badger.