Sunday, May 26, 2013

Musings of a Reformed Bookseller – Part Two

In last week’s blog, which can be found here, I shared a few of my experiences from my years as a bookseller with Barnes and Noble.  There were good times, there were bad times… there were riotous times.  But most of all, they were unforgettable times.  Those times have come in handy as I navigate this brave new “Indie Author” world.  I like to think the bookseller experience keeps me sane and less focused on the things I can’t control (sales, reviews, etc.) leaving me to concentrate on the things I can (how many books I write, what kind of promotion I do, etc.)

So, here is Part Two of my musings and the things I learned from being a bookseller:

If People Want to Return a Book, They Will
I don’t know what Barnes and Noble’s return policy is these days, but in my day (I sound like such an old codger) it was pretty fair.  Full refund with a receipt within 30 days, store credit with no receipt or exchange for another item in the store, with a store credit for any overage incurred.

For the most part, folks adhered to that.  Of course, there were a few that would try and game the system… like the guy who would always try and return his Time Life photo essay books (the only people who should have been taking those books back, were Time Life).  Or the woman who would come in every two weeks like clockwork with mass market paperbacks (the small paperbacks that you might see for sale in the supermarket) that she always wanted to exchange (she was forever “losing” her receipts).  Then there was the woman who wanted to cash in a $200 store credit (she didn’t get it, though it wasn’t for lack of trying, given the epic tirade she went on in the middle of the store).

There’s been a lot of dust-up recently about readers buying eBooks on Amazon and returning them for full refunds a few weeks later, essentially using Amazon as a library.  Apparently, there’s a petition going around which implores Amazon to limit eBook returns to seven days, reason being that’s ample time to read an eBook and will block readers from ripping off authors.

Well, that’s all well and good in theory, but I rarely read any book within seven days of purchasing it.  More like seven years.  My electronic and print to-be-read piles are in the decade-long backlog by this point.  Full disclosure, I’ve returned four eBooks.  One was an accidental purchase, one was stuffed with typos and bad writing (there may have been a good story hiding under it, but I couldn’t stick around long enough to unearth it), one, while the writing was decent, I didn’t care for the story and the fourth was the third in a series and I decided to buy the print book instead to complete my set.  In the past, there’ve been occasions, not many, where I’ve exchanged print books because it was a book I already had, or was a book that I just didn’t like, so I got something else I wanted instead.   

The truth is, serial returners weren’t going to put any money in your pocket to begin with.  For one, they don’t see that they’re taking money from the author, but think they’re getting over on Amazon/Barnes and Noble/every other retailer out there.  Second, some people just don’t like paying for merchandise, whether it be their library of ripped DVD’s or illegally downloaded music – they enjoy gaming the system.  These are the same folks that keep the torrent sites humming.  I’m certainly not saying it’s right – far from it.  But, it is what it is and “it” is the cost of doing business.  Besides, Amazon already has a policy where it stops refunds to serial returners.   

There are PLENTY of people out there who are more than happy to support authors they like by buying (and keeping) their books.  As an author, I chose to concentrate on them instead.  

Booksellers Can and Will Be an Author’s Greatest Advocate
One of the best things about being a bookseller was the Advanced Reader’s Copies (ARCs) (well and stripped mass markets and I got plenty of those, too).  Every couple of days, publishers would send over a handful of ARCs for booksellers to read and evangelize about when the time came.  Among the ARC’s I read, loved, recommended and still have on my bookshelf are “Your Oasis on Flame Lake,”  Denial,”  and “The Church of Dead Girls.” 

Customers constantly asked us for recommendations and would often come back not only to tell you what they thought, but to thank you for the suggestion.  Aside from the NYT Bestsellers section, the “Staff Recommends” section was perhaps the most popular in the store (each month, a bookseller would select a favorite book and do a little write-up about why they liked it.  Barnes and Noble would then discount the book for customers during that month.)  

I remember 15 or so of us were reading “High Fidelity” at the same time (it wasn’t planned… just kind of happened that way) and completely unprompted, would constantly talk it up to customers (alas, I don’t have it as an ARC, just a plain old book that I bought and still have).  Getting a bookseller’s seal of approval carries a lot of weight.  If a bookseller loves a book, you can’t shut us up. 

In today’s brave new world of publishing, book bloggers are beginning to fill that evangelist role.  Treating the book blogger with respect is so important, because not unlike a book seller, if they like what you write, they will spread the word.  Be nice to them!


You Really Do Have to Write a Lot of Books
Just like customers always want to know what a bookseller will recommend, they always want to know what else an author has available.  They love backlists. LOVE.  When John Grisham’s second book, “The Firm,” exploded, demand went through the roof for his first book, “A Time to Kill,” (where previously, he could barely give it away, as detailed in this charming and insightful essay.).  The minute customers finish a book they love, they are back in a few weeks asking where they can find the rest of Debbie Macomber/Dean Koontz/Sophie Kinsella’s books.  They can’t wait until the next one comes out.  They ask for recommendations of authors similar to Debbie Macomber/Dean Koontz/Sophie Kinsella.  Readers love to read and as a writer you have to feed the beast.

Who knows… as an indie author, I could very well end up on the shelf at Barnes and Noble or some other bookstore.  The tides are changing and indies are gaining more acceptance every day from the mainstream.  If that happens, just shows how once again, things really do come full circle.

As always though, back to writing.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Musings of a Reformed Bookseller – Part One

I’m one of the few people I know who doesn’t watch “Mad Men.”  No doubt, it’s a fantastic show, judging by the amount of commercial and critical acclaim it’s garnered over the years.  However, I worked in advertising for a number of years, so I lived “Mad Men,” and don’t want to relive it, thank you very much.  Just know that, no matter how much weed they’re smoking, liquid lunches they’re having or sex they’re having under the desk… it was ten times that in real life. Trust. 

Once you’ve seen how the sausage is made, you don’t really want to eat the sausage anymore.

While I resist (quite easily) all efforts to be swept away by “Mad Men” mania, my past as a Barnes and Noble Bookseller doesn’t invoke the fetal position the way mentions of the ad industry do.  Quite the opposite, as I really do consider it to be my favorite job (present career as a suspense novelist most definitely excluded) and one I look back on with (mostly) fondness.

Image from publishingperspectives.com
 
I haven’t been a bookseller for a long time, but it doesn’t matter; it’s kind of like the Hotel California – once you check in, you never leave.  To this day, if I walk into a bookstore, I can’t resist straightening displays, turning books face-out or directing a befuddled looking customer to the fiction section. 

Having the experience of working on that side of publishing has helped me stay philosophical about my own writing career.  This week, I share three reasons why; next week, I’ll share three more:

Unless You’re Pat Conroy, Book Signings Don’t Sell Books  
Back in the mid-90s, when book superstores popped up across the country like weeds, the book signing event was like Mecca.  People would plan their whole month around what authors were scheduled to do signings and readings.  Seriously.  The store I worked at was considered an A-Store, due to our location (near Northwestern University) and our revenue (No. 1 in the region for a time).  We had A LOT of big name authors come in to do signings, including the aforementioned Pat Conroy, David Brinkley, James Patterson, David Sedaris, Roger Ebert and countless others.  Those were always the events with lines out the door. 

Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with other authors.  Even though we were a high-traffic store in a great location and we would promote the hell out of every book signing with promotional posters, ads, mailings and PR placements, more often than not, midlist, critically acclaimed (even some bestselling authors who weren’t household names) would only see a fraction of those crowds at their signings.  Fortunately, many of them were good sports about it and would sign stock, chat up other booksellers, and just hang out in the cafĂ© to talk shop.  Still, it was always disappointing for all of us when five people would show up to see them.

This guy can pack 'em in.  (Image from bloody-disgusting.com)
 
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, but more often than not, book signings are less about sales than they are a way to meet readers and make connections.  Unless you’re Stephen King, it’s highly unlikely you’ll sell a gazillion books.  Still, even if you only sell five books, that’s five readers you’ve made a connection with and that’s gold. 

If Readers Don’t Like Your Book, No Amount of Promotion in the World Will Make Them 
I can still remember when Oprah started her book club; it triggered an unprecedented national book buying frenzy that had publishers drooling and bookstores scrambling for stock.  Of course, since we were in Chicago, we could have told her producers what would have happened.  While Oprah aired in the afternoon in the rest of the country, here, she came on at 9 a.m.  Anytime she would feature a book, it was guaranteed that at 10 a.m., our phones would start ringing off the hook, demanding to know if we had “the book that was on Oprah this morning.”  Every. Time.  I even had a customer ask me if I could print her a list of all the books that had been featured on Oprah the week before.  This was the mid-90’s, so people weren’t yet glued to their Crackberry’s and iPhones and there was no Oprah.com.  Alas, it wasn’t something we could do, so I told her to call Harpo (Oprah’s production company).

Image from google.com
 
As I said, the success of the Book Club wasn’t a surprise to us in Chicago at all.  And while those authors enjoyed an insane amount of publicity when Oprah chose their book, many of them saw their follow-up books sink like stones.  Readers just didn’t take to them.  There was one author whose book was chosen as an Oprah pick and went on to be made into a movie as a result of the buzz and sales it garnered.

Unfortunately, that author’s next book tanked.  Horribly.  It was heavily promoted and we had hundreds in stock.  And not one book sold.  Even though readers had gobbled up the previous book, for whatever reason, they just didn't like the second one. Those books were ordered pulled from the shelves and returned to the publisher within two weeks. 

There were plenty of other publishing sensations (not Oprah picks) who saw dizzying heights with one book, only to wind up in the return bin with the next.  They had the publishing machine behind them, the press and the co-op space (huge displays in the front of a bookstore, be it prominent table displays, stepladders or kiosks.  Publishers pay BIG money for that placement).  Moral of the story?  Having a publishing machine behind you is awesome, of course, but it isn’t the Holy Grail. 

People Never Remember the Name of the Book.  Ever.
I touched on this in my recent guest blog at Riley Bank’s Writer’s Shack.  If I had a dollar for every time I had to guess the book a customer was looking for, because they didn’t know the title, I could have had an early retirement.  They will always remember that they read in “USA Today” that Sandra Brown has a new book, but didn’t write down the name.  They know Alexander McCall Smith writes about the ladies detective agency in Africa.  They know the book they saw on the new release shelf last week was blue/red/green (I was even asked once if the computer categorized the books by color.  Not.  Joking.). 

Because of this, it’s always good to brand your name, not your book.  Because no one will ever, EVER remember the title of your book.  Unless it’s “Fifty Shades of Grey.”  Or “Twilight.”  


Next week: The Wonder of ARCs, Gaming the System and Why You Must Keep Writing

 

Monday, May 6, 2013

Guest Blog at "The Writer's Shack"

I recently had the opportunity to do my first guest blog and while I was a little nervous initially, once I got into it, it was a lot of fun!

Riley Banks, author of "The William S Club," hosted me at her blog, "The Writer's Shack," where I opined on why authors should brand their name not their books.  After all, our name is our brand.

Just ask Oprah.
 
The blog post can be found here.

Thanks again to Riley for the chance to share my views!  If you haven't read Riley's blog, please do.  She has some great topics and is quite insightful about self-publishing and promotion in this brave new world.

 


Sunday, May 5, 2013

Getting to Know...Emily McDaid, Suspense Author



Emily McDaid is the author of "The Boiler Plot" and the forthcoming, "Tetherbird."
I’m so excited to interview my critique partner, Emily McDaid, today.  Emily and I “met” at www.ladieswhocritique.com, a website that matches up writers seeking other writers to critique their work.  I had the opportunity to read her forthcoming suspense novel, “Tetherbird,” and she gave me some invaluable advice on “Sweet Little Lies.”  Like me, Emily’s background is in PR and I think that’s yet another reason (besides how awesome she is) that we clicked right away. 

Emily’s first book, “The Boiler Plot,” about a PR gal living in London (sounds like chick lit, but it’s not – it’s about a sinister plot to use the internet against the public) was a candidate for “Amazon Breakthrough Novel,” and has been described by several reviewers as “gripping” and “fast-paced.”  If you’ve ever been curious about the world of technology PR, and are looking for a suspense novel that explores white-collar crime, definitely check it out.

Here, Emily talks about her journey to self-publishing, lessons learned and gives a preview of “Tetherbird.”

What’s your writing background?
I have wanted to be an author since second or third grade, but I admit, I wasted a lot of my twenties not really doing much writing. (But living is important, too – it gives us creative fodder!) I took a creative writing class at college at Johns Hopkins (just one – pathetic, really) and loved it. Then after I got my PR career underway, I started focusing more on writing. I just wrote a lot at home, after work, to ease problems or challenges I was facing, etc.  I took another creative writing course in my late twenties at the London School of Journalism, and that’s when things really started taking off.

I submitted a first chapter of the book that would become “The Boiler Plot” as my final project. I also met a really cool group of writers in London and we met at a pub every Wednesday night after work, and used the time to write and critique each other’s work. My group members were amazing writers. From there I really had the writing bug and kept at it until I had a completed novel.

How did you decide to self-publish?
I tried querying agents first and none of them responded with a request to see pages. I was so deflated from the process, it convinced me that the ‘slush pile’ is not only broken, it’s derogatory for aspiring writers, too. I finally decided to take my writing career into my own hands. Self-publishing really suits me. I rue all that time I wasted trying to please agents, when I should have just been trying to please myself and my readers.

What’s been the easiest aspect of self-publishing?  The hardest?
The easiest part is picking a cover. I absolutely LOVE getting involved with artists/designers to create an image that communicates the feeling of a book.

The hardest is marketing your book. Even though I have more than a decade of experience in PR and marketing, I have never had to market a product that has a million competitors.  And those really are the odds you’re up against. Plus it feels icky to constantly be pushing a brand which is essentially yourself.

What’s been the biggest surprise on your self-publishing journey?
How social it is! I’ve met so many amazing people (such as yourself) who also publish their own books. Writing is mostly done in solitude, but marketing a book is all about meeting others who love to read and write.

With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would do differently?  Anything you will do differently moving forward?
I didn’t seek professional editing for “The Boiler Plot” because I was a little too cocksure (I thought, ‘I have twelve years of professional writing experience! I will see everything!’).  However, the process of copyediting my own work drove me insane. I am a perfectionist and it’s just really, really hard to properly copyedit your own work.

I have changed that strategy with “Tetherbird,” coming in May. It’s with a professional editor as I write this! It saved me a ton of angst and makes me feel more confident in the final product.

How did you come up with the idea for “The Boiler Plot?”
I wanted to write what I knew, so I wrote about a PR girl. Some of my friends have poked fun at me for writing something so autobiographical in nature, but I felt it was where I needed to start with my books. I no longer feel that way, so my next novel isn’t going to feature an indie writer with two kids!   The scam that occurs in “The Boiler Plot” was pretty easy to come up with, because technologists are very cutthroat and it was easy for me to imagine an internet startup that was evil! If you’re going to write a book about technology, you have to write about Google because, like I say in the book, they really do own and run the internet.

Give us a preview of your upcoming release, “Tetherbird.”
“Tetherbird” is a contemporary suspense novel with similarities to “Homeland,” in that it explores the life of an Afghanistan veteran, and a modern-day “Downton Abbey,” because the veteran protagonist is matched up against a Duke in the quaint English countryside. It explores how our gun culture and the culture of fear may be even more treacherous than war. And like all my books, it questions what we are told by the media, and what we should believe.

The full jacket copy is available here: http://emilymcdaid.com/coming-soon-tetherbird/

 
What are your thoughts on working with a critique partner?
I admit I used to feel a little intimidated by the process of critiquing. But now that I'm fully comfortable with it (because I have found an amazing one -- you!) I realize it's absolutely invaluable. One of the biggest lessons any writer needs to learn is that you can't put work out before many eyes have gone over it. When more than one reader has the same reaction to a sentence and it's not the reaction you were looking for, it needs to be tweaked or removed.

I can't say enough about the critiquing process. I think it's hugely important to give feedback that follows the guidelines given on the Ladies Who Critique website. (Link: http://www.ladieswhocritique.com/critique-tips/how-to-give-a-great-critique/). We are all "smart" in the writing business and yet none of know what will sell, not even the most successful author or agent. It's therefore important not to be preachy or condescending and to look at writing as what it is: a piece of art that the writer has spent many hours putting together. Your role as a critiquer is to help the writer say what they were trying to say in a clearer and more concise way. 

Sage advice.  I wanted to ask about your tagline, “character-driven suspense novels.”  Why that particular tagline?
I personally feel the majority of books that fall under the thriller/suspense category are too plot-driven. I tend to dislike books where a lot of people die or books with bombs that will blow up the whole world. For me, what is suspenseful is when a character I have come to know quite well is standing on a train track without realizing it, and as a reader you can see the train coming, but he/she can’t, and you read because you desperately want to get them out of the situation.

I guess another way of saying this is, my books are quite psychological in nature and more about inner people than outer catastrophe. I am quite certain there is a far better tagline out there for me, but I haven’t come up with it yet. The other tagline I use is “mainstream suspense novels,” because I hope the word “mainstream” assures readers there isn’t a ton of gore, or gratuitous violence, and that my books should appeal to lots of age ranges/demographics of readers. Grandmas will like my plots just as much as hipsters. Or so I hope.

How did you decide to write suspense novels?
This is a wonderful question, and I’m not sure I have the answer! I read a ton of historical fiction and mysteries, but I wound up writing suspense novels. My little secret is that I don’t actually seek the suspense shelf first as a reader. My sister thinks it’s hilarious I write in a different genre than I typically read in. I like reading literary stuff but I don’t think my stuff is ever going to fall under the literary category.

I love the challenge of making my stuff stylistically interesting while also making sure it’s commercial. The only answer I have is, when I read a book that is truly suspenseful and I am deeply tied to the characters, those are the books I truly cannot put down and cannot stop talking about or recommending to others. I think I read “Gone Girl,” in about five sittings, I was so engrossed, and I have recommended it to hundreds of people. I don’t necessarily do that with any other genre. Suspense hooks me like no other.

Who’s an author that, when you read their work you think, “I wish I could write like that.”
Tana French – all the way. I love every sentence she has ever written. Other authors that I always think ‘gosh, I wish I wrote like this’ include Gillian Flynn, Tim O’Brien, David Sedaris, the late Stieg Larsson and Kazuo Ishiguro.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?
Set yourself a daily writing goal and always make sure you do it. I kept mine relatively low: 300 words. I never would have finished my first novel without that daily obligation to the craft. Writing is as much about discipline as about talent, perhaps even more so.

What’s your writing process?
I’m old school. I handwrite my first draft in a notebook. I edit that draft as I type the notes into the computer, so that becomes my second draft. From there I use a bizarre and always-shifting method of revising. I usually wind up rewriting the entire book four times before I’m done with it.

What’s next for Emily McDaid?
I am not sure! I have an idea for a combined sequel to my first two books. (So my first two would both be prequels to it). It revisits the media characters that my readers have liked. However, I would absolutely love to write a standalone satire that focuses on funny family dynamics, parenting and emotional relationships. I just don’t know which one to write first. I usually let my craft tell me what is going to happen.

So I think I’ll just lie low for the next couple months while “Tetherbird” is released, and let some ideas percolate.  The one thing I know is I will never stop writing books because it has been life-changing in such a dramatic and positive way. I’ll never look back.

Awesome.  I can’t wait to pick up my copy of “Tetherbird” when it comes out.  Thanks again and I need to get back to writing so I can have you critique my next manuscript!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

"Live and Let Die" Named "Thriller of the Month" By e-thriller.com!

So this happened today - e-Thriller.com, a leading reviewer of "e-thrillers" from major publishers and independents, named "Live and Let Die," as "Thriller of the Month" for May 2013, calling it, "a great story that carries you along with it from the first page." 

It was pretty "thrilling" (ha ha) to get the news and mostly, I'm just glad the reviewer enjoyed the book so much. 

Read the full review here.

Great start to Spring - woo hoo! :)