Monday, December 29, 2008

Resolutions: Make Some

Well it’s that time of year again. We sit down to make our New Year’s Resolutions, knowing that these are things that go in one year and out the other. But those of us who are goal oriented try to map out our objectives for the coming year. Aside from the mundane stuff - work out, reduce my personal debt, fix up the outside of the house - I have very definite writing goals for 2009.

Of course, the writer’s job falls in to two categories - creating and promoting. So the goals fall into two discreet lists. The creating is the fun part. It’s what we’re all here for. Some writers like time goals. They commit to writing a certain number of minutes per day or hours her week. I prefer to measure production. So I’ve set the mark that I will complete the first draft of our collaborative urban fantasy novel by July 1. That means producing 9,872 good words every month. We’ll have to bear down, but that’s what goal setting is all about.

The other side of the job is marketing. In my case, that means supporting the release of the next Hannibal Jones mystery, Russian Roulette, by following the marketing plan. Even though the book release date is in June, the marketing begins now. There are post cards, coasters, print ads and bookmarks to get designed.

I’ll be seeking blurbs from other authors. And in February when I expect to have a few physical books in my hand, I’ll be sending those advance copies to a broad spectrum of reviewers.

In March I’ll send pre-release postcards, which means I need to purchase a mailing list. I’ll be buying print ads in mystery magazines and buying a classy video trailer.

Of course I’ll have to set up bookstore signings closer to the release date, send a mailing to independent bookstores, sending out news releases and setting up a blog tour.

Planning is ongoing now for the big release party in June, and I’ll be running a contest for readers to get a little more attention. I’ll get Hannibal Jones’ podcast going again. And I have a schedule for newsletters and blogging, and I have to register for the eight writer’s conferences I plan to attend. Plus, I’ll be making a special effort to reach out to book clubs.

I WISH I could set a goal of a number of books to sell during the year, but that’s not practical. Self-published or Print On Demand authors can track their sales. But publishers, even small publishers, don’t like to share sales figures except on royalty statements. Sadly, those statements arrive after a six month delay. Knowing how sales were going from last January to June doesn’t help guide my marketing in the New Year.

But that limitation doesn’t impact my goals for 2009. What I will do, and what I urge you to do, is keep writing, follow my marketing plan and stay connected to the publishing community. We’ll have to trust sales to take care of themselves. If we do the right things, we’ll see the right results.

So... how many words or pages will you write in 2009? How many hours will you devote to honing your craft or creating new worlds? If you’re not published, what will you do about that? How many agents will you approach? How many conferences will you attend to meet editors? And if you’re published, what will you do to promote your writing?

Come on, I showed you mine, so you show me yours. If I get more than 2 or 3 responses, I’ll share them here (anonymously if you like) so others can know we’re not alone in this.

Monday, December 22, 2008

The Writing Life at Holiday Time

Sometimes the marketing side of being an author is more fun than other times. Last weekend was one of those times when the life of an author starts to feel like fun.

My weekend started Friday evening at Borders Books in Silver Spring, MD. It was a great event, aside from finding a couple dozen new readers. First, new pal James Grady stopped by. Jim started his writing career in 1974 with "Six Days of the Condor," which became a brilliant film starring Robert Redford. His new book is "Mad Dog." Not much later, another author friend came through the store - Con Lehane, who writes a brilliant mystery series starring world-weary bartender Brian McNulty. McNulty's latest mystery is "Death at the Old Hotel." Anyway, having a few minutes to chat with those guys made it a special signing.

Saturday's event at Ukazoo Books was another chance to spend time with other writers. Seven other authors who contributed to "New Lines from the Old Line State: An Anthology of Maryland Writers" read from their stories, essays and poems. It reminded me of what good company my own short story is in. It put me in a great mood for the party Saturday night.

My lovely wife Denise and I were invited to a holiday dinner party by a member of my writers club. Our hostess is as-yet unpublished but has a number of very literate friends. She invited me as the “surprise mystery guest.” It was fun meeting new folks, especially in the context of a 70’s theme party (I wore a huge afro wig, but so did at least 3 others.) After dinner and some get-acquainted games our hostess distributed wrapped gifts to each guest which turned out to be copies of my first novel, The Troubleshooter. There is no greater ego blast than to be in a room full of people who are impressed that an author is in their midst, and all are vying for space to ask questions and get their books autographed. Dancing and karaoke followed, but for me the “reveal” moment was such a rush I found myself thinking that every writer should get the chance to feel that.

Then Sunday, I had another signing at the Borders Express in Dulles Town Center Mall. I'm sure the fact that it was the last weekend before Christmas helped make this the most successful event ever at that store for me. Several people handed me books to sign saying, “Thanks! I couldn’t’ think of a cool gift for this one person but you saved me!” That really capped an especially cool weekend for me.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Can Authors Succeed in Today's Economic Climate?

What is going on in the publishing industry right now? It seems like a rather scary time for people in the business. I read not long ago that Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has asked its editors to stop buying books. So if you have submitted a manuscript to that house or its many imprints, don’t expect to hear anything any time soon. I’ve never heard of a publisher going so far as to instruct its editors to stop acquiring. One wonders what acquisition editors do at times like these.

At the same time, Simon & Schuster announced the reduction of staff by 35 positions. And Random House, the world's largest publisher of consumer books, announced a sweeping reorganization of its publishing divisions. Bantam Dell (the imprint publishes Danielle Steel and Dean Koontz) and Doubleday Publishing Group (Dan Brown and John Grisham) both lost their publishers. Not fired, but resigned. And imprints are being combined or dropped. People in New York are saying they’ve never seen anything like it.

I guess that means they weren’t around ten years ago when HarperCollins cancelled more than 100 contracts and laid off more than 400 people. The industry survives these challenges, just as other businesses do during a tough economic time. But what does it mean to you and me?

Well, if you’re published by one of the majors you might well be nervous about your next book seeing print. I have a book placed with a small press. The management has not changed, and I don’t’ think acquisition policies have either. And despite the harsh economic climate, people around me seem to still be buying books. In fact, bookstores I was in this last weekend were doing brisk business, even without the 55 books I signed.

Perhaps this really is bad news for most of the books published by the big companies, but most of them never turn a profit anyway. Maybe this economic climate will force them to trim some of the fat, to lose some books that just don’t sell anyway. But for those of us in the small press or self-published world, the big news may be no news. We already know how to work lean, we already work at marketing smart, we already look for every opportunity, and we know how to cut our losses if stuck with a loser.

So for me, and folks like me, the publishing recession might represent more opportunity than disaster. If Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Simon & Schuster stop flooding the market for a while, maybe more people will notice my work.

Am I overly optimistic? Probably. It may be impossible for me to thrive while the giants stumble. But then I remember the words of Rogers and Hammerstein in Cinderella:

The world is full of zanies and fools,
who don’t believe in sensible rules,
and won’t believe what sensible people say.

And because these daft and dewy-eyed dopes
keep building up impossible hopes,
impossible, things are happening everyday.

Monday, December 8, 2008

In the company of authors

Yes, the current economic climate has triggered lay-offs and restructuring at major publishing houses and the loss of some popular imprints. I’ll chatter on about the state of the industry next week - I promise. This week I want to talk about something positive closer to home. Yesterday I attended a small writer’s event that turned out to be the social equivalent of a perfect storm.

As the current president of the Northern Virginia chapter of the Virginia Writers Club I arranged a sort of holiday gathering to end our first year of existence in style. When I say it was a perfect storm, I mean that all the right elements happened to come together at the same time to create a more enjoyable experience than I could have hoped for.

First, we found ourselves in a perfect venue. Busboys and Poets is a restaurant/bar that moonlights as a bookstore. I know of it because it is across the street from a library. Authors who speak at the library often go across the street afterward to do their book signing. I was just looking for a writer-friendly place but it also turned out to be a warm, welcoming atmosphere with an intimate back room perfect for our meeting. They prepared sweet snacks and kept the coffee/tea/juice flowing.

Then there was the turnout. Twenty-one local writers and aspiring writers joined us – just about a perfect number – plus the speaker and me. Enough for lively discussion, but not so many that people got lost in the crowd.

Finally, we had a great speaker. John Gilstrap’s writing career includes five award-winning published thrillers, a successful nonfiction book and several screenplays. That gives him the kind of credibility that makes new authors sit up and listen. It also means he has the varied experience to talk about a number of different sides of the writing business. But most importantly, John has the kind of positive and upbeat attitude that is encouraging to new writers, even while he’s delivering the hard realities of the publishing business.

And he’s such cool guy! How gracious is John Gilstrap? Well, if he’s reading this now I guarantee you he’s blushing. He was gracious enough to stand for more than an hour, answering questions about getting published, writing craft, process and business. He’d have gone on but I called a halt to give him a break.

The bottom line of all this for me is that despite what is happening in the publishing industry, there are still great people in the business, and great people who are fighting to get into it to tell their stories. I may never be on anyone’s bestseller list, but living a life in the company of authors carries its own sweet reward.