Ah, November. For most people, it’s just… November. For writers, it can be one of the busiest months of the year. It’s got Thanksgiving in there, it’s the month before some big holidays in December, and it’s National Novel Writing Month. November is a great month for writing, but it’s also good for going a little insane trying to juggle all of these commitments as a writer and still trying to be real live person.
Bear with us, dear readers, as we try to not go insane this November. In fact, we’re keeping our left-brains in check this month by diving into the business side of writing. You’ll read posts about some of the more logical and analytical aspects of being a writer, such as:
Working with an editor
Hiring a cover artist
Marketing vs. advertising
As a special treat, we also have guest posts from the likes of Lisa Mangum, Stephan McLeroy, Nick Ruva, Heidi Wilde, and Sam Sykes.
Help keep us sane by commenting on our posts and sharing them with your friends!
I wanted to follow-up on Quincy Allen’s great post of October 15, 2013 about the value of active convention attendance on your marketing plan. The post is particularly timely as I’m packing my bag for World Fantasy which will be held in Brighton, England from October 31 – November 2. Quincy shared how his career had been enhanced by his decision to attend conferences. Like Quincy my successes in writing can be traced back to my decision to attend a conference. But that’s only a part of the story. Showing the is the easiest part. What Quincy did, and I recommend you do, is he was an active participant in the conferences.
Taking a convention from being a fun event to being a professional marketing tool is hard work. We attend writers’ conferences or seminars, to market our writing, and to meet other writers, agents, publishers and editors. For ease of reference, I’ll refer to agents, publishers and editors collectively as “agents.” You cannot sit in the seminars and only interact with the group of people you came if you are marketing. Every day of a convention is an interview. Every moment of every day is an opportunity for you to help or hurt your career. So how do you ramp up your marketing potential at a Con?
Before the Con: do your homework.
One of the things I love about World Fantasy is it posts a list of attendees or “members” so I can see if my dream editor or agent is going to attend. This year WFC also has a separate list of attending publishers so if you don’t know that Jane Doe is with XY Literary you can see that XY Literary is attending and investigate further. Conventions are often crowded. Decide in advance who you’d like to make a connection with, why, and how.
I wanted to talk to Peter Beagle because I love his stories and since he was a Guest of Honor that year . How was I going to meet to him? Because he was scheduled for a reading, an interview session, and to attend the banquet I knew where and when I could find him, but I also asked my friends if anyone knew him. One of the founding Fictorians did and she introduced me. Ask your friends and colleagues if they know the person you want to meet. Chances are that one of them does. A personal introduction will usually take you a lot further than cold calling on someone. If the person you want to speak with is not giving a lecture or otherwise booked to be in a specific place be prepared to check the Con Bar – regularly.
If you are planning to pitch a story make sure it’s finished. “Finished” does not mean the first draft is complete. It means you have done everything you can to make the story as compelling and as free from typos as you can. Prepare your pitches. Ace Jordyn attended last year’s WFC with a list of the people she wanted to meet, and pitches prepared for each work and each person. Amazing, really.
At the Con: Be professional and bold.
I’ve written about this before so I’m not going to delve too deeply here. Appearances matter. If you want to be taken as a professional be dressed as one. Does that mean you have to wear a suit? No – unless that’s your brand. Look at just about any New York Times best-selling author’s website and you’ll see what I mean. Lisa Scottoline, a retired lawyer and writer of legal thrillers, wears suits. She wore one when she was instructing at the Seak, Legal Fiction for Lawyers convention where I met her. Because of who she is and what she writes the suit is part of her brand. Neil Gaiman and Brandon Sanderson don’t wear suits. In fact, I would guess that the bulk of professional writers don’t wear suits. Still, they all look professional. You should too.
Act professional. Don’t interrupt, don’t be rude. Enough said about that.
Go boldly. Follow-up on your plans. Go to the places the people you are looking for are likely to be. Talk to them when you find them. If you can’t find them, ask other people if they might know where Jane Doe is. You must approach strangers at a convention. You must ask friends to introduce you to people you don’t know, but want to. At least one agent has said that she only signs people she’s met at a convention, and the agent doesn’t wear a name tag. She, like every other agent, wants to see you’ve done your research and that you’re passionate about your work. After all, if you’re not excited about and willing to sell your work, why should she be? Sitting in a corner watching the con go by will not result in publication.
Strike while the iron is hot. If you are engaged in a genuine conversation and someone asks what you are working on. Tell them.
After the Con: Follow-up.
Oh lucky day! You spent three hours talking to your dream editor at the Con Bar. So, now what? Follow-up with that person just like you would do at any other networking event. Send her an e-mail saying you enjoyed meeting her at the Con. Make the e-mail specific so that if you drinking a purple girly drink remind the editor so she, who met hundreds of people at the Con, has the opportunity to place you. If you were asked to submit to the editor do so now. It not, just thank her for her time. At minimum, follow the editor’s twitter feed or friend her on Facebook. Comment honestly on posts. If she posts something you find interesting you should comment on it. If not, you shouldn’t. You are trying to maintain and forge a genuine connection with her.
Don’t forget your friends. Remember all those people who helped you research and introduced you around? Thank them as well.
Conventions are one of our most powerful marketing tools if used correctly. Meeting someone at a convention may make the difference between a polite “no, thank you” and a sale. Treat every convention like an extended job interview because that’s what it is. Your primary goal is to form honest and lasting connections with the people you meet. Succeeding at that goal leads to success.
Too often we view marketing only as selling and we forget about presentation, tone and targeting an audience. Together, these things create a brand and branding is something writers rarely think about. A brand is what we become known for and it is what people will expect from us and they’ll either love us or hate us for it.
Sometimes, I watch the singing competitions such as The Voice and X Factor. I see people mustering the courage to follow their dreams and I applaud them for it. What distinguishes the finalists and the winner from the rest of the pack? It isn’t simply the singing – many of them are excellent. When you’re garnering audience votes, there’s got to be something more. Commercial appeal is how one judge on the X Factor summed it up – nice voice, but no commercial appeal. Is your writing nice but has no commercial appeal? But, what is commercial appeal?
On the singing competitions, there are specific things about the finalists that make them commercially appealing. Each one has a distinct style (genre, sound/voice, song presentation), target market (demographics) and tone (audience appeal, song choice, personal appearance, passion). Overriding all these is passion. You need to express passion whether you’re singing or writing. Are you missing the passion and depth to move an audience?
Let’s examine the factors from the singing competitions to see how we can apply them to the query letter, the story and our virtual presence. How we present ourselves in each of these areas determines how people perceive us (our brand).
The Query Letter
First impressions count – and the first impression we make is with the dreaded query letter. Most of us aren’t aware that we’re branding ourselves with this letter and that it determines our commercial appeal. Your brand is something that the editor/agent will glean from your letter. The specific information you convey plus overall feeling you convey forms your brand even though you don’t have a logo or jingle like commercial products do.
Tone: Is your letter polite and professional or obnoxious and whiny? Does the story pitch convey passion for the story and characters?
Style: Can you write clear concise sentences or are they run on, filled with dangling modifiers and metaphors trying to pack in too much information? If the latter, it makes you seem uncertain, not in command of craft, disorganized and lacking clarity in your story and that’s bad branding. Is your story pitch focused and clear? Does your letter convey that you understand the genre you’re writing in?
Target Market: The comparison pitch in your query letter positions your novel in the market and sets an expectation of what the editor/agent can expect. Do the works you’re citing accurately reflect your story’s style, tone, plot or theme? Who is your audience? Your audience is determined in large part by the genre or sub-genre you’ve chosen, your public presence and initial contact list.
Branding is what readers come to expect from you. That’s why author’s use pseudonyms when they change genres – each name is a brand for a specific genre – readers associate a certain type and style of book. A sub-genre is a very specific branding which writes for a narrower target market. Who is your target market? Will those demographics be moved by the passion in your work, your writing style and your messaging? For example, cozy mystery author M.C. Beaton has a very different audience than does Ian Rankin with his hard-boiled detective thrillers. Each author exploits different sensibilities within the mystery genre and has a writing style that appeals to a particular audience.
Sometimes an author whose book didn’t sell well (the brand turned bad) will use a pseudonym sell new work (rebranding).
Your Virtual Presence
Of course these all these things apply to blogs and any social media we engage in. Always think about your brand and how people will perceive you. As with your writing, they can interpret what they read and see only in relation to their personal context and experience. Therefore, your public persona on these sites is part of your brand and it affects word-of-mouth marketing.
Think about your favorite authors. What are they known for? What do they write and how do they write it? What is the tone, the language, the plot and messaging in their books? What do you expect to read when you choose his book?
Tom Clancy was one of my favorite authors. He was lauded by people in or connected to the military establishment because of the accurate details in his books. That was part of his brand and that’s what people looked for when they read his books. Plus he was an excellent story teller and writer and we’ll miss him for that.
Your brand is part of your commercial appeal. Be aware of it and make the most of it in your writing, in the business of writing and in your public persona.
Progress rarely happens in a straight line. It isn’t steady. It isn’t stable. Rather, it happens in fits and starts. When you’re trying to lose weight, you plateau for long periods of time. Sometimes it’s hard to understand why those plateaus happen; if you’re doing the same thing that helped drop you from 220 pounds to 200, shouldn’t the same strategy drop you from 200 to 180? The answer is no. And the reason? It’s complicated.
Technology works the same way. For the longest time—thousands and thousands of years—humanity’s technological level remained static. Then came the renaissance! Followed by more static. Then came the industrial revolution, and in the blink of an eye we’re planning manned missions to Mars and walking around with internet-connected sunglasses controlled by rapid eye movement. Or something. I’m really not clear on the details.
Similar arguments could be made for any kind of long-term change—civil rights, human evolution, writing careers… Wait, go back. Writing careers? Well, this one should be obvious. You start writing those first words, full of excitement and promise, and then you hit your very first murky middle. Or maybe you make it past the middle but can’t stick the landing. Maybe you finish your first book easily, and maybe your second, too. No matter how long your roll lasts, I promise you this: it won’t last forever. You will plateau. And not just once, but many times. When these come along, they can be incredibly stifling. If you give in, you may never recover. You gotta show some tenacity.
The most successful people in any field or occupation are those who get to plateaus, realize they’re on a plateau, scope out ways to move on, and then take the next step. I realize how glib that sounds, but it’s basically the truth.
Instead of talking in abstractions, let me tell you about my plateaus. I’ve faced a couple of big ones.
In 1988, I decided I wanted to be a writer, so I began to write short stories. A lot of reputable genre writers recommend starting with short stories, so I was in good company right from the start. Still, I don’t think they meant these short stories; I was five years old, and they contained by own not-quite-in-the-lines crayon illustrations. My most successful literary achievement of this period was my breakout hit, Darryl Gets His Glasses. For the record, Darryl was a giant orange dinosaur of unknown genus. This was a real tour de force; those second-grade girls were weeping in the corners when I read it aloud following afternoon recess.
But those stories only took me so far. Sure, I had my fans, but my career was beginning to stagnate. I wrote and wrote and read and read, and you know what? I noticed that the biggest names in publishing weren’t getting famous off handwritten stories in primary school notebooks. After some serious soul-searching, I decided to take a bold step into the brave new world of fan fiction.
These were heady years, when words didn’t have to be good; they just had to exist. (Which was fantastic practice, by the way.) My fan fic quickly took the form of full-length novels. I wrote a couple of them, two in two years… and then rested on my laurels. I had done it! I was a writer. Welcome to Plateau #2.
By 1995, I was certain of one thing: my books were certainly as good as their professionally published counterparts (they weren’t). This false confidence led me to take the next step: investigate how to submit my fledgling literary Picassos to the big leagues. This was a critical step in mine and any writer’s development, and from it I learned I wasn’t as good as I thought I was. Oh yes, I was slapped down good and hard. It turned out my friends and family had lied to me about my wunderkind status, those sons of bitches. It turned out there were actual skills to pick up beyond just writing down whatever came to my head in the moment. Plateau #3.
I took better English courses, I read how-to-write books, I broadened my reading selections. When high school concluded, I went for a communications degree. This made me much better and I started to convince myself again that a writing career was possible.
And yet this was the longest and most tangled plateau of all. It was almost seven years between my last high school offerings and my first serious foray back into novel-writing. I got a lot of education, sure, but that didn’t seem to be enough. Indeed, I was trying to get ahead by following the same strategies as before—and those strategies were no longer as effective as they had once been.
The way forward this time was in meeting other writers, becoming part of a community of like-minded individuals, partnering with other people who shared my goals and aspirations. I found those at conventions and seminars. People and support structures, rather than skill alone, showed me how to get to the next level. That process started in 2010 and inspired me to get back down to business. I’ve written a half-dozen novels since then.
But you can never climb for long before reaching another plateau, as I have learned. Allow me to let you in on a little secret: I’m actually on a plateau again right now. My novels have gotten better, my support structures are stronger than ever, but I’m still not raking in the big bucks. Where are the shiny contracts? Where are my stacks of hardcover new releases?