Friday, August 31, 2012

How to sell a million books without breaking a sweat

by Meredith Cole

Now that I've got your attention with my newest best selling book title, I'll be completely upfront.  I have no idea how to sell million books or I would have done it and would now be sitting on bags of money on a beautiful and remote island.

These days, it seems like everywhere you turn, someone wants to tell you their brilliant idea for how to sell more books. The people with the most ideas are usually trying to sell you something (like their PR services). So what really works? Facebook? Twitter? Blogging? Guest blogging? Goodreads? Great reviews? Personal appearances?

I'm ashamed to say, since I work in marketing as my day job, that I don't have the magic solution for all authors. But neither do publishers, or PR people, or even best selling authors. They're all trying whatever they can and hoping they'll get great results. Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't.

But here's what I and everyone else knows for sure sells a lot of books: that elusive word of mouth. People telling other people that they have to read your book. The trouble is, how do you reach those first people who fall in love with your book? If you don't have a heavy-hitting publisher that's invested in your career and is putting you on one of the front tables at Barnes and Noble, and if you aren't able to get reviewed because you're self-published or because newspapers/magazines, etc., are all shrinking their review space, how do you find readers?

Authors and publishers have clearly decided that the way to find readers is through the web. Authors have joined social network sites everywhere and try to push their books on everyone. Some may feel they have success, and others may feel it's a waste of time--but the truth is it's mostly free (except for an author's valuable time and energy). And if done incorrectly, it can really annoy a lot of people.

But here's an inescapable truth about selling lots and lots of books: You have to write a great book that people want to read. If you're off spending 10 hours a day guest blogging, tweeting and Facebooking, you'd better have something to talk about. And all that marketing is bound to eventually interfere with writing your next book. A recipe for author burnout if there ever was one.

So, really now, what's a poor author to do? First, write a great book. Then tell everyone in a way that isn't obnoxious. Then spend a period of time marketing it in ways that you enjoy. Hope your book finds readers who love it. And then go write another book, even better than the last. Repeat.

I know, I know. Easy for me to say. But when you get yourself tied in knots about what you think you should be doing and how little promotion your publisher is doing for you, ask yourself--what will the following (tweet, guest blog, expensive self-funded book tour, etc.) really do for my career? And if the answer is "diddly-squat" or "I'd rather grind glass into my forehead than do x", skip it. Go write your next book instead. And tell them I told you that you could.

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Tweeter

I had to think on this week’s question as my first impulse was to have my assistant, some over-qualified, very bright young man or woman with an MFA from some prestigious institution of higher learning, fetch my daily Hoyo de Monterrey or Partagas moduro-style cigar and short dog of whiskey from Jack’s Liquor (which has a walk-in humidor) in nearby Koreatown – for use during happy hour you understand.  But that would be a waste of their talents not to mention I vary my selection of cigars more than the two brands just mentioned so that’s a task best left to be completed personally.
"Does this crown make me look wizened"?
But how to best utilize this eager acolyte?  I know.  My assistant will become me on the cyberways.  I can barely get it together to do my every other week blog post for Criminal Minds let alone tweeting, Facebooking, pinteresting, being a pinhead, or whatever the hell else it is writers are supposed to do now on a daily basis to be witty and maintain a presence among their readership and potential readership.  To do as those various articles advise writers to use social media to connect with their fans in a meaningful way.  Of course nothing says luv like someone buying my book but one must not be naked in their desire for such.

The way this could work then is my assistant every two hours or so will tweet something wry and sardonic, but good-natured, from me after we’ve had a brief discussion about current book news or some riff on something of a pop culture nature.  Given I’m a lefty, it’s probably better I don’t go into rants as some of my fellow scribes left and right have a wont to do on Facebook.  That can be a bit much, don’t you think?  But leave me not go on about that at this juncture.  Figure at least twice a day my assistant will peruse my Facebook stuff and respond with a quip here or observation there. 

As the years go on, I will emerge less and less from my sanctum sanctorum. – hitting those keys, sweating phrasing and pacing as I knock out the work, be it a short story or magnum opus novel.
Salinger-like, I become a recluse, only known through those clever, literate social media burst that float out there regularly from my assistant.  In a reversal of how poor assistant Tom Courtenay was verbally abused by the odious aging actor played by Albert Finney in The Dresser, my assistant will have subtly stroked my ego such that he or she has convinced me that to build my mystique, I should be seen less and less in public and let my work speak for me.  He or she will attend to all these distractions and I should be left to tend the vineyards of my writing, my gifts to the world.  Deep down I will know there’s no way I can live up to those artful postings as over time, the assistant writes in their voice.  

I become the shell, my assistant the full-bodied personality.  Quick I say, bring me my make-up.  

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Dream On

by Alan

Today’s Question: You've hit the big time! Congratulations. What's the first task you assign to your new assistant?

What? I’ve hit the BIG TIME? Oh my! Oh my! (Why didn’t anybody tell me? Strangely, it doesn’t feel a whole lot different than the SMALL TIME, where I’ve been for a while—maybe it’ll take a few days for this wonderful news to hit me).

After my newly-hired assistant and I clean up all the confetti and champagne corks and hundred-dollar bills lying around, I suppose it’ll be time to get my nose back to the grindstone. After all, once you reach the big time, you have to work doubly hard to stay there (at least that’s what I’ve heard).

Where could my assistant be most useful?

I don’t think I’ll need to rely on my assistant’s creativity; I’ve already got plenty of ideas for books. I’ve got spell checker and grammar checker, and the Chicago Manual of Style at my feet, so I’m good there. I’ve got lots of pencils, pens, spiral notebooks, toner cartridges, and erasers, erasers, erasers—no need for a run to Staples.

I’d have my assistant fetch me coffee, except, well, I don’t drink coffee.

Maybe I could ask him or her to touch up my headshot with Photoshop? Answer all my fan letters? Talk to Oprah’s people? Do some research about leasing a (small) private jet? Or buying an island? Work on getting me a seat in Castle’s poker game?messy office

All worthwhile tasks, for sure. But I think what I really need my assistant to do is CLEAN MY FRIGGING OFFICE.

It’s a BIG TIME mess.

(Trust me, this picture doesn’t quite capture the enormity of the task.)

Monday, August 20, 2012

In Memoriam - Jeff Sherratt

Jeff with Ray Bradbury - 2 big losses this year

I had my blog post for Criminal Minds written and set to schedule when I received an e-mail informing me that Jeff Sherratt had passed away Saturday evening. Jeff was a fellow author and friend and even though his health had been sketchy for a while, the news still shocked me down to my socks.
So with a nod to this week’s question – I can honestly say that no matter how successful I become, I will never pass along to an assistant the duty and honor of saying goodbye to a fallen friend.
Jeff Sherratt was very active in the mystery writing community in Southern California and he and his lovely wife, Judy, were often present at events and book signings. Sit next to Jeff and you would be treated to colorful stories about LA County and organized crime in the seventies, told with a bright twinkle and an easy laugh. He was a great guy and a gentleman. As for selling books, no one could touch Jeff’s passion and bold approach. Place him with a stack of his books just inside the entrance of any Barnes and Noble and stand back. In no time, those books would disappear into the hands of excited readers!
Several years ago, Jeff asked me to blurb his book The Brimstone Murders.  Of course, I said yes, being that Jeff was a friend. Below is that blurb:
Reading THE BRIMSTONE MURDERS is like going to an old fashioned Saturday matinee – so sit back and enjoy the action, the fun, and the cast of colorful characters. Popcorn optional.
Friend or not, the blurb was an honest opinion. The book was extremely well written, and a fun, action-packed read with great characters. His last book, Detour to Murder, is still on my extensive TBR pile. In his honor, I’m moving it to the top, putting it next in line.
If you have not read one of Jeff Sherratt’s books, give yourself a treat and pick one up or download it today. The Kindle editions are currently just $0.99.
Goodbye, dear friend. You will be greatly missed.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Crying for mercy

by Meredith Cole

We live in a country which has too much of almost everything.  Giant cars. Huge houses. Binge eating. We rent storage containers to stick all our extra stuff. We clearly don't know how much is too much on almost anything in our lives. So perhaps any advice I could give on "too much" might be pretty useless for most of us. But I'll try.

How do you know when you've got too much sex or violence in your book? I wish I had a formula or a recipe for it. Like mix two parts sex, four parts violence and one part romance and bake at 500 degrees = thriller.

But I don't have a secret formula. The mix definitely depends on the book. An erotic romance certainly would need a lot more sex and probably less violence to satisfy a reader of that genre. A techno thriller would need less sex and more violence to satisfy that audience. And the confusing part is the same person could enjoy both. They just have expectations when they pick up a certain book, and they want to be entertained in a certain way. So...

You know it when you read it.

Sounds so simple. Perhaps it's not.

Here's an example: you pick up a book and it is page after page of non-stop action, with violence oozing from every page. Perhaps you like the pace and get sucked into the plot. Or perhaps you quickly become confused about who is who, and find yourself unable to care when someone is blown sky high. So for one reader it's too much violence (and not enough back story) and for another it's just right.

Genre fiction is perhaps less complicated than literary fiction. You can even read on some publisher's websites how much is too much and what you're allowed to say. I know my limits. Violence that has no purpose in the story is often too much for me. Especially if it requires lots of bone crunching/blood gushing detail. And I don't mind f-bombs dropping all the time--if it fits with the character. But that's just me and my personal tastes. If a story is written well, I usually don't notice one way or another. The book just gels and I reach the last page way too soon.

What do you think?

Monday, August 13, 2012

Are You Not Entertained?

By Reece Hirsch

Can you have too much sex and violence in a book?  First, let me say that I consider sex and violence two of the essential food groups of a healthy, well-balanced reading diet.  But I’d like to redirect the question a bit to consider more generally what is too much, particularly in a thriller.

It’s funny how little things stick in your head and become part of your personal vocabulary.  For example, I don’t remember where I first picked this up, probably when watching “The Compleat Beatles” or “Beatles Anthology” documentaries years ago.  When the Beatles were getting their start playing marathon, pill and booze fueled performances at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1960, the German rock bands would shout at the lads, “Mach schau!”   It means “Make show!”  Make a show for the customers. Don’t just stand there and play guitar.  Lennon’s response to this exhortation was reportedly jumping around like a gorilla on stage.

Writing a thriller, I can’t say that I’m not thinking of my potential readers and their expectations.  And in the back of my mind, I hear those heckling German rockers shouting “Mach schau!”  Think of them as an alternative universe, Teutonic Fab Four of Horst, Dieter, Ulrich and Jurgen.  Dieter is The Quiet One.  But I digress.

For thriller writers, mach schau means keeping the reader on a steady IV drip of action, violence and sex.  Don’t let the pace relent.  And just when things are falling into a rhythm (albeit a fast one), apply the shock paddles with a plot twist.

And when it works, it doesn’t feel like a formula at all and the end result is a book that is about as immersive and immediate as any reading experience you’ll ever have.  I’ll never forget the first thriller that really got its hooks into me as a teenager – William Goldman’s “Marathon Man.”

But there’s a line that can be crossed.  More than probably any other literary genre, thrillers are influenced by, and feel the pressure of, other media.  Thriller fiction often draws comparisons to hyperkinetic action movies and video games and is held to those standards of more-is-more, Joel Silver over-the-topness.  Some people think that the highest praise you can give a thriller writer is to say that their book reads like a movie.  I think good literary thrillers are a lot more than long-form screenplays.

Over the course of a novel, there are opportunities for character development, social commentary and depth-of-field that even an excellent action film can’t duplicate.   Some would say that a film like “The Hurt Locker” takes you into life-and-death moments with an immediacy that a literary thriller can’t touch, but I don’t buy that.  If a reader has come to know a character over the course of a novel and truly gotten inside his or her head, then when they face that moment of peril, it can be more riveting than anything the cineplex has to offer.

A book can put you into the headspace of a character, feeling what they’re feeling, thinking what they’re thinking, in a way that is not some poor man's analog to a movie or video game.  It’s a particular magic trick that is only performed between the covers of a good book.  You can keep your 3-D glasses and first-person-shooter games -- that’s my idea of mach schau.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Going for the Gold

by Alan

What Olympic sport would Channing Hayes excel at?

gold medalChanning Hayes is not known for his athletic prowess, so let’s do this by process of elimination.

He’s a stand-up comic, a denizen of the night. Right off the bat, I think we can safely eliminate all outdoor activities.

He performs alone, so we’ll ditch all the team sports.

He doesn’t much like water. No swimming or diving.

He gets motion sickness (a little, from time to time). Out goes indoor cycling.

Channing is not a strong man, and he really only gets physical when his life—or someone else’s life—is in danger. Add to that a low threshold of physical pain, and we can eliminate weightlifting, judo, taekwando, wrestling, boxing, and any other sport where you can get hurt. (He can take heckling, just not broken bones.)

Channing is about as limber as lumber. Gymnastics? Hah! Trampoline? Not hardly (Can you say splat?).

What does that leave? Badminton, fencing, and table tennis. Channing has smarts and quick reflexes, so any of these sports might fit. Let’s dig a little deeper.

Channing doesn’t look good dressed in all white, so there goes fencing. And badminton? Nah, just on principle.

So table tennis it is.

Too bad there isn’t an Olympic Beer Pong team. Channing would be the gold medal favorite.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Olympic Dreams

Molly Smith wanted to be an Olympic downhill skier. She was raised in the mountains, close to some of the best skiing in the world. Her parents owned an adventure vacation store and guide business: she grew up skiing, hiking, kayaking, and worked as wilderness guide.  

… growing up in the house at the edge of the bush, her first memories of coming to work with her mom, playing with ski equipment and hiking gear as other children played with toy trucks or Lego. Her dad teaching her and her brother to be guides, exploring the remote mountains and hidden valleys at his side.”

Molly was a good skier, very good, but not good enough to make the Olympics. So she quit competition.
But she still loves to ski, calls it the best thing in the world, and hits the slopes at Blue Sky, near the town of Trafalgar, every chance she gets.

“This, racing with Tony, reminded her of when she’d competed. Pushing herself, testing the limits of her mind and body. She’d quit competition when she’d realized she was never going to be good enough to make the Olympics or even a national or provincial team. Maybe, she thought now, gasping to recover her breath, laughing at the snow on Tony’s face, she shouldn’t have been so quick to give it up.”

A lot of the action in Winter of Secrets, the third book in the series, and next year’s A Cold White Sun take place on the slopes.

Me, I don’t ski. I’ve never been too fond of heights and the idea of steaming downhill at full speed has never really appealed.  Sort of like Sergeant John Winters of the Trafalgar City Police who thinks, “Personally, he didn’t see the attraction. Plunging down the side of a mountain at the speed of a freight train and getting freezing cold to boot? No thanks.”

I absolutely love watching it though. I can never get over how fast they go, and how easy they make it look.  Downhill skiing is my favourite of all the Olympic sports.

I wrote Winterof Secrets over the winter I spent in Nelson, B.C. I went to Whitewater, the ski resort there, several times to soak up the atmosphere, check it all out, watch what everyone was doing.   They all seemed to be having fun.

But when it came time to write the scenes where people are actually skiing I was sort of at a loss. So here I am, the Canadian, needing help with the skiing scenes.  I called on two friends –one in Hawaii, and one in Sante Fe.

How’s that for Olympic sized irony?

Friday, August 3, 2012

Hey--leave my books alone!

by Meredith Cole

So we're all talking this week about Clandestine Classics' decision to "sex up" the classics and I've been interested to hear what my fellow criminal minds think of the plan.

I admit to being a total curmudgeon about certain things. It's hard not to think of my own books, 100 years in the future, in the hands of someone who has decided to completely rewrite them and add gratuitous sex. Or aliens. Or take out the murders. No!!!

There was a reason there weren't mind-blowing sex scenes in Jane Austen's books. She was no prude (although she died a virgin, as far as we know), but chose to express love and affection in less graphic terms and in ways befitting the culture and art of the time. Rewriting her books is like rewriting history, in my opinion. And we wonder why kids are confused!

Other things I think should never ever happen to any writer or artist:

1) Get abridged: When I was nine, I was convinced I'd read GREAT EXPECTATIONS by Charles Dickens. What I had read was a version abridged for kids that took out any difficult vocabulary words and seriously cut down the number of pages. I understand why they do this (expose kids to the classics!) but it is not really Dickens and it should not be presented as Dickens. Would it have really hurt me to wait a couple of years and read the real book instead of someone's "interpretation" of Dickens?

BTW, I don't necessarily put comic book classics in the same category. To me that's an artistic interpretation of a classic (like a movie) rather than a rewrite.

2) Colorization: If I recall correctly, Ted Turner thought that people wouldn't watch black and white movies so Ted decided to colorize the ones he owned. There was a major outcry and threats (Don't you dare try it on CITIZEN KANE!) but he did it anyway on movies like Casablanca (even though it looked rather fake and strange). This seems to me to be a giant denial of a time in history when entertainment was seen in black and white, and cinematographers planned their shots around light and shadow.

3) Have someone "take over" their series: I know I'm going to get a lot of grief over this one, but this just seems wrong to me. I know readers love the characters in certain series and want them to keep living on in new books. But guess what? Everything has to end someday. And just because someone wants to make a whole lot of money doesn't mean it's okay to write what you think would be a writer's next book.

So how do I feel about merchandising (plastering Vincent Van Gogh paintings onto mugs and pot holders) or sampling songs from artists without asking their permission? I guess it all depends on how the artists themselves feel. I get angry when we can no longer ask a writer or film maker for their permission to alter their work but we do it anyway. That just seems wrong to me.

What do you think?