Saturday, March 28, 2009

Need a platform?

Here's a response we got back that says a lot about what we are up against: "While the concept is unique and interesting, I don't believe (the author) has the credentials, network contacts, and appeal we're striving for."

It goes to show in today's economy how important platform is to sell a book. What are we bringing to the table? Do they perceive us as someone that is going to just hand them a book and expect them to get it sold? Or do they perceive us as a capable partner, one that is gaining visibility, expanding contacts, who has access to markets that we (and they) can use to sell books? When we are putting proposals together we tend to just give some sort of afterthought to putting comparables and market info and particularly to our own plan for marketing (platform). More and more responses that I'm getting back rejections are being based on lack of platform.

It was pointed out that more and more this is driving authors to self publishing. That can be the right answer, but only if we’ve accepted what that really means. One writer said, “If these companies not only expect the author to write the book, probably do most of the editing, submit it and then have a plan to help sell it, why not go to one of those co-op self-publishing things, if it isn't too expensive?”

Why indeed, the stats show that most self published books sell less than a hundred copies. The author makes the lion’s share on the sales that way. The harder they work the more it sells, but even if the book is offered online or thorough a recognized distributor, somebody has to make the sale and in that case that someone is the author, period. I have a friend that has several self-published books and he makes 6 figure income from them, has for years, but his sales routine would daunt most professional salesmen. The bulk of the sales will continue to go to the companies set up with sales staffs and distribution. They are the ones who will continue to go into the bookstores and the libraries because no single individual has the structure and the ability to do that.

Major publishers want that author busy generating visibility and promotion but for the most part will count on their own sales staff and distribution channels for the bulk of the sales. They know, however, that even though they have the ability to get the books into stores and onto shelves that they are likely to be returned if that author is not out helping create a buzz so people will react to the title and try the book. The name identification of the author sells books. Nothing else is as important. People browse the bookracks looking for names they recognize and trust. Houses invest each year in a few new names to see if they have the ability to become a known quantity. To the extent that we can show them we already have a lot of name identification and have the ability to produce even more if they will help, that is what really starts making us appeal to them. They will sell far more books than the author can, but only if the author is doing their job creating name identification.

Large sales numbers are hard to get without books being in bookstores and individual authors have little chance of getting into stores without publisher support. But publishers find it almost impossible to build a name identification for an author without the authors help. Maybe it used to be that platform was much more important for a non-fiction book than for fiction, but these days all publishers want to know they are going to get that help from an author and to see some demonstration of how capable the author may be in doing it.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Do not allow rejection

Editors and agents get submissions up in the 4 digits each year and they know they will only be able to take a handfull. Common sense says that most things they look at they will reject. They have to.

Most will begin reading a submission looking for the point where it is clear the one they are looking at will not work for them, or is not ready to be published, or the formatting and editing make it not ready to go. Whatever the reason, basically the author took themselves out of consideration at this point.

I think an author does a better job when they go into the process knowing the person they are submitting to is looking for that reason to reject and simply does not allow it. They hook the editor with the opening line of the query or cover letter and cause it to be read. If this letter somehow conveys the fact that this is something the person doesn't handle it can be over right there.

The 'elevator pitch' contained in the letter causes the person to want to go down into the proposal and find out more. The proposal answers all of the questions posed in the submission guidelines for this particular person and the synopsis and the sample writing intrigues them enough that they want to see the full manuscript. The full manuscript is submitted and the agent or editor has no choice but to read the whole thing because you pull them in and keep them in the story all the way to the end.

You see, it isn't that person's job to like your submission. It's your job to make them like it. They are looking for that decision point that tells them it won't work and on most of them it'll be there to find. The people who publish quite simply do not give that person evaluating their project a reason to reject it. Most writers feel they are casting their fate into the capricious hands of editors and agents, when in reality the fate of their project is in their own hands the whole time.

Of course, there is that point where a number have made it all the way through and are being seriously considered. Maybe there are a dozen in consideration for a single slot or two. Now it's about who connects best with the caliber of the story and writing. But that's the level you want to be on when the decision is made, right?

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Suspension of Disbelief

In an online group we have been talking about the new show Castle. I’m recording it and enjoying it very much – although I might mention that my son (a Lt homicide detective) highly resents it when a mere writer knows better questions to ask than a seasoned investigator - >>>HUGE smile<<< He also gets aggravated when he sees how quickly CSI can get evidence from the lab and make a case.

I explained the principle of “suspension of disbelief” to him and told him the show was only an hour long and we couldn’t wait three months as he does to get DNA results back. To enjoy a story, ANY STORY, we have to be able to accept that the things they want us to accept in the story could conceivably happen. If we cannot accept the premise then we should not read the book or watch the movie or show.

I had a similar discussion on “The Shack” – I had a very negative reaction to the book in the opening chapters and might have quit reading but I wanted to understand why so many people felt it was a wonderful book of faith while others at the same time felt it to be sacrilegious. Once I read far enough I began to feel that the writer had a very clear insight of the Trinity and a way of presenting it so that someone of very little faith could understand. Great book. I also started to see that those who react badly often do so by giving up on the book at the point where I too was not reacting well to it. It is the same thing as above. To enjoy the book you have to be able to have the suspension of disbelief required. Talking to one person who reacted negatively they said God was not going to come down as depicted in the book, that in the old testament when he did come down at all he never allowed anyone to see his face. I said I agreed and very much doubted he was going to do it, but where the suspension of disbelief comes in I asked, “but do you believe he could do it if he wanted to?”

The answer for any believer of course is yes. God can do anything he wants to do. I’m sorry for those who were not able to accept this premise simply as a teaching tool to present the story and surely do not fault anyone whose faith is strong enough that they simply cannot accept the premise. But for those who realize that 1) it is fiction 2) that if you accept the premise just to allow the author to demonstrate the trinity in terms easy to understand and 3) that regardless what we think of the story the author has a very clear faith and religious belief and by no means wants to say anything negative about his or anyone else’s faith, the story then can be a delightful experience.

I do believe it is something we need to be careful about. We make this jump immediately as writers as soon as we accept the premise we will be writing on. For a reader, or for that matter editor or agent, to love the manuscript they have to be equally as willing to accept it. I read manuscripts, watch movies or TV, and all the time find myself saying “I don’t believe so and so could happen.” That’s a small example where a premise doesn’t work. If there are enough of them or if I just can’t buy the overall premise or the overall setting then the manuscript doesn’t work for me even though the author is committed to it and sees it clearly.

My wife tapes her favorite soap and I’m usually here when she plays it. Sometimes I watch. A major premise dedicated watchers have to accept in these seems to be the premise of time. You can go months and have no time pass at all then from one day to the next some children in the series are years older. A character can be at home and say he’s going to the office then seconds later walks in down there on two characters doing something. I know a lot of people who would love to have a commute like that. I figure it’s a teleporter. But watchers accept the premise and have no problem with it.

This is a place where crit groups can be very helpful. Like I say, we accept the premise because we’re writing it that way so it isn’t obvious to us, but can others accept it that way or are we putting King Kong in a rowboat? If readers don’t make the suspension of disbelief and accept the premise, then the story doesn’t work for them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Do websites sell books?

Writers sites and groups have talked about this a lot. Of course people who sell directly from their websites have some numbers. I have order links to places where books can be bought and get some feedback that way but do they have greater impact that that? Do they send people into stores or over to an online bookstore?

Hard to know. I've always maintained that an author had to get all of the visibility they could however they could and that visibility and publicity led to sales. Like the famous promoter P. T. Barnum said of the media, "I don't care what you say about me, just be sure you sell my name right." There's a lot of truth to that, people often remember a name without remembering where they saw it or why they know it.

But back to the question, do websites sell books? Rob Edgar's Wildfire Marketing E-Newsletter just gave some of the most direct information that I've seen. In it he reported this:
Last summer, the Codex Group, a publishing research firm with clients including Random House and Barnes & Noble, surveyed nearly 21,000 book shoppers. The objective of their study was to understand the relative effectiveness of author websites among shoppers and determine the elements that keep them coming back to a site. Result from this recent ground-breaking research revealed these important statistics:

● Book shoppers who had visited an author website in the past week bought 38% more books, from a wider range of retailers, than those who had not visited an author site.

● Visiting an author's website is the leading way that book readers support and get to know their favorite authors better. And, this is true regardless of age.

● Most author websites lack the right content that makes readers want to return, such as exclusive material or fan interaction.

Very interesting.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Do you have staying power?

It took me six years to get my first book published. A few years ago I did a survey, talked to over 450 multi-published writers (people who had published more than one book) and was surprised to find out averaging all the responses that it came out to be six years for everybody. 85% of all people writing a book will never be significantly published according to the stats, and this one figure is the primary reason. They don't have staying power.

Writers who have stayed the course, learned their craft, made the necessary contacts, knocked on the appropriate number of doors and finally started having success tend to resent people who try to take short cuts and expect those strategies to take them to the top. The same way people slowly inching up in a traffic zone resent the people who feel genetically entitled to drive all the way up to the front of the line and expect to be let in. Grrrr.

But it happens, people do find a way to cut in at the head of the line. Only a handful have been able to do that and it actually work, actually end up with a title that is a big seller and gets picked up by a big house to go on to even more success. Most of the time they pretty much waste the book and make the task of getting back in line and trying to do it right even than much harder.
But I'm not talking about POD or self-publishing, there are valid reasons for doing that, and I often recomend it to someone as the right strategy for them to get their book out. I've talked on that before. I'm talking about trying to get into the big show via some method of cutting into the line at the top and getting a book out to avoid the process everyone else had to go through. We all know the difference between the two, or we should.

We don't expect to be a big name surgeon without going to medical school, or a mechanic without going through some training, or even flipping burgers at Sonic without going through a training program. Why would we think we could just write a book and immediately have success without going through the steps that all other writers have to go through, without learning our craft and making the necessary connections? I don't know, any more than I know why some people feel they have the right to drive past all the people in a line and be entitled to cut in at the front.
Why indeed?

Monday, March 9, 2009

Cowboys Don't Cry

Billy Coffey is a guest blogger over at today and his posting spoke right to me. I've spent my whole life working with and around cowboys and they have as a rule raised concealing expression of emotion to an art form. Yet most I have known do feel and feel deeply and when they do break past the barrier to express emotion it is always honest and strong even if understated.

This is true for a lot of men I have known in all sorts of avocations who struggle to maintain the facade of the strong, reliable man they have been taught to be.

My post there (that was just before his) spoke about getting a chance to experience what it might have been like to live in those days. Those were good times. I got a question from it asking if that was that was the extent of my cowboy background or if I had ever worked as one. In essence that asked if I was all hat and no cattle.

I’ve never owned or lived on a ranch but I worked as a day hand from the time I was in high school up until I moved to the big city and couldn’t do it any more. Even after that I’d get out and do it when I could. I did a book of cowboy poetry many years back and I spoke to the question of my cowboy credentials this way:

Am I a cowboy? Well, I don’t live on a farm or a ranch, but I’ve worked on ‘em and lived in West Texas most of my life. I’ve plowed and fixed fence and worked cows. I’ve eat dirt, been rained on and kept going in 100 degree heat without a breath of wind to cool my brow. I managed a rodeo and I’ve watched cowboys play. Been up on a bull and know how long 8 seconds can really be.

Am I a cowboy? Being a cowboy is more than wearing boots and a hat. It’s even more than doing the job. It’s something down in you that makes you go on after others have quit because it’s what you’re out there for. It’s working hard and playing hard and holding up your end. It’s doing what’s right, not because of laws or because you’re told to, but just because it’s by gosh what’s right!

Am I a cowboy? That’s not for me to say. But I’d like to think so.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

When not to hire me

What? Bet you never thought you’d hear an agent say that. I was talking to a group on getting and working with an agent and I surprised them several times. The first was when a person said “I can only get one agent appointment and I don’t know whether I should get it with you or with XXXXXX.” I told her to get it with him if she could. Agents are different just like Fords and Chevys and Cadillacs are different. I’ve been in the business about three years as an agent (much longer publishing in general), but with a well established agency. I have established a base of contacts and made sales, and I work hard for my clients, but I’m under no illusions. I know a person who has been in the business for many more years than I have has had that many more years to gain experience and to gain more of those all important contacts. That’s just common sense. I also know the stronger that agent’s credentials are, the harder it is to make the cut and get in with them. That’s just common sense too.

The second answer that often surprises people who are just beginning to look for agents is the answer to the question, “Do I need an agent to get published?” Nope, you don’t. More writers have gotten published before they got an agent than got an agent before they were published. I always encourage people to query both editors and agents and to go where the Lord seems to be leading them. When I suggest that, however, I also suggest leaving the major houses alone. I recommend querying the smaller houses that do work directly with authors. Those who say agent only, or only if you meet them at a conference, or something like that are a long shot going after them directly. Anything is possible, but the most likely outcome is that the author would simply be burning a bridge that later an agent could use to get them published Most of the time you don’t get ‘do-overs’ at a house just because somebody else is making the pitch.

And there are times when you don’t need an agent at all. One of the most common examples is someone with a very strong speaking ministry. The main thing they need a book for is to sell at these events when they are speaking. They realize there would probably be a very small percentage of sales that might fall outside of those speaking venues and maybe the website that supports that speaking venue. If this is the case, why give an agent 15% of the deal. For that matter, why hook up with a publisher that will make the lion’s share of the book sales revenue. I suggest they self-publish and keep both streams of revenue to themselves.

The point is, getting and working with an agent is a business decision and should be made based on what you need rather than on what people say should be done. Books are not sold to publishing houses, they are sold to editors. Do you know those editors? Do you keep up with who is moving and what people are buying? Do you have the expertise to negotiate a contract? Do you need professional advise on revising and making the product more saleable, on preparing a killer proposal, on who is the right editor or house for you? Do you need a go-between to help you deal with the publisher ? If you can do all of these things except maybe negotiate the contract for instance, you can pay to have a contract looked over.

I had an author call me and say “I have a contract offer in hand, would you take me on?” I asked if she was asking me to negotiate the contract for her and she said no. She said she knew having a contract in hand was one of the best times to get picked up by an agent. She said she had looked at who my clients were, who I had been selling to, the things that seemed to interest me and she thought we were a good match. Now there’s a lady who knows how, why and when to get the right agent for her. It’s a business decision.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Guest Blogger - Kristine Pratt

Hello, my name is Kristine Pratt, Since September, 2008 I’ve been working for Terry as editorial assistant. Since he so kindly took me under his wing, I’ve had the privilege of reading queries and proposals, interacting with editors, and researching markets. That’s what I want to talk about today.

I think this has to be the biggest or at least the most time consuming job of the agent. Finding the right market for a manuscript is like doing a great big jigsaw puzzle. Sadly, no agent has all the pieces and so must go hunting for them on occasion. Sometimes it’s not too difficult…the client has already done a little hunting of their own at conferences and has come home with those pieces all ready to go. (This is why we love it so much when writers go to conferences and talk about their novel to editors. Those requests are invaluable!)

The rest of the time is a process that is about as time consuming as pulling up the couch cushions and checking every inch of floor to see is the dog maybe tracked the sky pieces from your jigsaw into the kitchen.

The process goes something like this:.

I start with the novel. Once I’ve read it, I start looking for other books that similar in type and genre. This is why a client proposal is so important…they’ve already given me some leads. I also look for patterns…which publishers have taken on books like this one? I’ll do a little extra checking with Publisher’s Marketplace and Writer’s Digest as I make this list. And will even take a trip to the bookstore just to see what’s on the shelves right now (because, after all, we all need a good solid excuse to go to the bookstore).

Once I have that list of publishers I go to the database and see if we have any contacts with that house. When we do, it’s a simple matter to submit…isn’t it?

Not really. Submitting to a publishing house is a waste of time. Books are sold to editors so I need to have that appropriate editors name to send it to. Especially recently, there have been a lot of changes in the publishing houses. Jobs change, people move on, and sadly, company reorganization affects every level. Rather than send to someone who either isn’t there anymore or not in that department, I pick up the phone and begin the next stage of the process.

I start with the switchboard of the company…though finding the phone number can itself be a challenge in and of itself. From there I ask questions until I find someone who can tell me the name of the individual who would look at your book. This is a job that can take hours, requires leaving numerous messages from time to time, and on occasion never pans out at all. (Random House? Are you out there?) The payoff comes when the right person picks up the phone and not only has the name and contact information right at their fingertips…but want to hear about the project you’re thinking of sending to them. Here’s where thinking fast on your feet and being prepared to pitch comes in handy.

Long….grueling sometimes….but oh so satisfying when that piece is finally lying in the palm of your hand. At this point there is no way of knowing it this bit is going to fit with the manuscript you had in mind when you began…but you never know. Someday that right story is going to come along. And when it does, you’re ready to put it right where it belongs.

So that’s what it takes to make a sale? No, that’s what it takes to get the ball into play. Moving on beyond the submission? That’s a new topic for a new day.

Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies.--Mother Theresa