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Fiction Writing: 7 Elements of the First Page

First pages are like first dates. No, worse. First pages are more like the ten seconds it takes your blind date to come into sight and walk toward your table. It’s often a make-or-break deal, and in many cases, a delusive representation of what follows in chapters behind.

Or am I jaded? More often than I care to admit, a book’s finely-crafted opening pages evoke lovestruck stars in my eyes, much as one too many nervous cocktails over tentative introductions. But when I dig deeper, get to Chapter Two–or the second date, as it were–the luster of those brilliant opening lines fades to a dull incompatibility. But, we can discuss second dates/chapters in another post!

The dating world and the publishing world share a urgent requirement to hook the bait from that first glance. Below, a guest post from  Linda R. Young’s W.I.P. It blog shows us the seven elements a first page should include. (I’m tempted to share seven first date tips, but then you’d have to “red-mark” me for digression.)

1. A distinctive voice. A unique voice is essential to capture the imaginations of the readers and pull them into the story. Voice will make your novel stand out above the rest.

2. A strong character. Readers will engage with strong and interesting characters.

3. A sense of time and place. This grounds the reader into the story. They should be able to recognise the story’s genre in the first page. These should be markers only. Avoid wads of descriptions.

4. Questions. Don’t answer all the reader’s questions at once. Don’t give them everything they need to know about the characters, the history, the setting. They don’t need paragraphs of backstory. They don’t need–or want–everything explained too soon.

5. Intrigue. More than simply holding the cards to your chest, tease the reader into wanting to know more.

6. The point of change. The story should start at the point of change. This
change should reflect conflict. Note: the conflict doesn’t have to be explosive.

7. No wasted words or throw-away lines. Keep it tight. Every word should have a reason for being. Try to avoid redundancies.

Can you think of other essential elements in the first page?
How many times have you rewritten your first page?

Lynda R. Young writes fantasy and science fiction short stories, and is working on two Young Adult novels. One is an Adventure Fantasy set on the High Seas and the other is a Steampunk Fantasy. She also writes Christian articles and maintain a Christian Devotional Blog: Fearfully and Wonderfully.
Also, please read this article, Something Has to Happen. (Seriously, this is important. Something HAS to happen in the first 250 words of your story.)
Let’s connect on Twitter? @TheRJLacko
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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

18 random thoughts about creativity – Not just for writers

What can we say about creativity? Joel Friedlander, a self-published author and book designer who blogs about book design, self-publishing and the indie publishing life at The Book Designer spends a lot of time being creative… and thinking about creativity.

“Where do ideas come from?” he asks. If you don’t know, that’s okay. Friedlander asserts, “nobody else knows either.”

But he does have 18 thoughts for you; please add yours in the comment box at the end of this article..

  1. You are absolutely unique, and what you have to offer the world cannot possibly be duplicated by someone else. Don’t minimize this.
  2. Other people may not understand what you’re doing, and this can sometimes be a very good sign. The trick is knowing when.
  3. Learn when to share an idea with a friend, and when to guard it like the most precious secret in the world.
  4. If you don’t take credit for good ideas when they simply happen to you, you won’t have to take the blame when you find out your idea won’t work.
  5. No one else can see what you can see, or has ever seen what you are seeing right now. This scene has never existed before and will never exist again.
  6. My father told me, “Never be the only one in a room doing something.” I believe he was only partly right.
  7. Let what you’ve created speak for itself.
  8. If you don’t believe in your work, support it with passion, champion it bravely, why should anyone else believe in it?
  9. Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. Being productive in the world requires compromise somewhere along the way.
  10. Doing something worthwhile takes time—and training and preparation and resolve. You need to have some steel inside to see a big project through to the end.
  11. Being able to say “yes” to yourself is just as valuable as being able to say “no” to yourself.
  12. The letdown or “anticlimax” of completion never happens if you are present during the process of creation.
  13. Tools have never created anything. People create with whatever tools are available.
  14. Inspiration is beautiful but overrated. Persistance is at least as important, especially if you want to be a professional. Albert Einstein claimed he was no smarter than his colleagues, but that he worked at problems far longer than anyone else.
  15. Realize that most of the models we have of creativity are media depictions designed to appeal to our fantasies. Really being creative rarely looks the way you think it will.
  16. There’s nothing more common than “good ideas.” There’s nothing more satisfying than a good idea transformed from a possibility into reality in the world.
  17. You don’t need wild invention to be creative. William Shakespeare did not invent any of the stories he told in his plays, yet he is regarded as the greatest writer of all.
  18. If you imagine you can do something extraordinary, you’re more likely to take the steps necessary to achieve it. It’s taking those steps that sets you apart.

Go and create.

Joel Friedlander is also the proprietor of Marin Bookworks, where he helps publishers and authors get to market on time and on budget with books that are both properly constructed and beautiful to read. Subscribe to Joel Friedlander via RSS or E-Mail to get updated with all of the latest content from The Book Designer.

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6 tips for promoting your book on Facebook

Every writer’s “other” job is self-styled marketing machine. My bet is because you spend so much time on the computer anyway, your fave form of communication with the outside world is the written word. (See how I plugged the name of my own blog there?) Twitter and Facebook allow invaluable connections. For me personally, my Tweeps are my lifeline to the industry and I freely admit that I hang on the 140 character offerings of favorite authors, pundits, editors, publishers and agents. On Facebook, most everyone with whom I’m connected are actual friends or acquaintances… and sweet little nieces. Perhaps it’s time I utilized my network for more professional aspirations.

Dana Lynn Smith is a book marketing coach and author of several marketing guides, including Facebook Guide for Authors. She explains how “many Facebook users never venture beyond their profile, but there are several other ways to gain visibility on Facebook.” Here are Smith’s suggestions for getting the most from this powerful networking tool:

1. First, be sure to take full advantage of the promotional opportunities on your Facebook Profile. Just below your photo is a small box where you can enter a concise description of what you do, including the title of your book.

The About Me box (under Personal Information) is a good place to describe your book and your business. In the Contact Information section you can enter multiple website addresses. Post your book cover in your photo album or another application and display it in the left column of your profile.

Remember, your Facebook profile must be registered in your real name. If you create a profile for your book or business, you risk having your account cancelled.

2. Facebook Pages are similar to personal profiles, but they are created for business use. You can create a page for your book, your business, or even one of the characters in your novel. People join a page by becoming a fan.

You may want to offer an incentive to join (or at least visit) your page, such as a free download or a coupon for one of your products. Another way to attract fans is to set your page up as an information hub, offering links and resources. Using Facebook applications like Static HTML, you can create customized content for your Facebook page, including graphics, text, videos and mailing list opt-in forms.

3. Groups are a great place to meet people who share your interests and find new friends. Search for groups by entering keywords in the Search box at the top of the page and then clicking on the Groups tab. You can gain visibility on a group page by introducing yourself on the wall, participating in disucssions, and posting your book cover, photos or videos.

Forming your own group can also be beneficial. Be sure to encourage discussions and offer valuable information such as free downloads and links to resources. You can direct message the entire group.

4. Joining relevant events is a good way to get visibility because you can write on the event wall and post photos. You can also promote your own live or virtual events by hosting an event.

5. Facebook displays pay-per-click ads on most pages on the site, and ads can be targeted by age, gender, location, education level, relationship status, or keywords in people’s profiles.

6. The Facebook Marketplace is a classified advertising area where you can post a listing to sell your book. It’s worth an experiment if the topic of your book is something that might be searched for on a classified site.

Thanks, Dana Lynn Smith for your advice! However, “be careful,” say Stanford Smith from Pushing Social. “Twitter and Facebook can be a time-waster if not used properly.” Leo Babauta recommends you spend 80% of your time promoting others, 10% promoting your blog, and 10% on personal tweets.

Habits to avoid: I would be remiss if I didn’t also include a link to author Kathy Kristof’s 3 Most Annoying Facebook Habits that Bug Your Friends.

Excerpted from The Savvy Book Marketer’s Guide to Successful Social Marketing, by Dana Lynn Smith. For more book marketing tips, follow @BookMarketer on Twitter and get Dana’s free Top Book Marketing Tips ebook when you visit The Savvy Book Marketer blog.

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, For the love of writing, Freelance Writing, Guest posts

Self-doubt and writing: amicable partners?

It’s Monday morning, and I am dragging myself through the mud. Am I making any progress?  Is what I’m writing any good, any good whatsoever? Over the weekend, my husband and I had the rare opportunity to enjoy a date night. It was a beautiful evening, so we sat outdoors at one of our favorite places (the incomparable Watermarc in Laguna Beach) and over dinner, my husband inquired about my fiction novel, Radiohead.  He asked if I come sum it up, so I gave him my elevator pitch.

His response? Utter indifference. Struck by his impassibility, I found myself rambling, determined to convince him of how exciting the details of my story are proving to be, but the conversation continued its radical nosedive. While the storyline seemed promising and dynamic to him, in truth he really didn’t want to talk about the details of my process. Nonetheless the exchange aggravated deep-seated self-doubt I’d been struggling to quash.

“Every one of us experiences self-doubt, even the most well-established writer,” says Joan Dempsey of Literary Living. “Dean Koontz, for instance, an author who has sold more than 400 million books and is one of the most highly paid writers in the world, says ‘I have more self-doubt than any writer I know.’”

Dempsey also points to Alice Munro, the celebrated Canadian writer who’s been called our Chekhov, and how she worries every time she finishes writing a book that she’ll never write again.

“Let’s agree, then, that self-doubt is an ordinary part of every writer’s experience, even yours,” says Dempsey. “You’ll never be without it. The question is, what can you learn from it?”

Here are Joan Dempsey’s four reasons to appreciate your self-doubt.

1. Self-Doubt is a Protective Instinct

Self-doubt arises out of your own instinctive desire to protect yourself, which is actually a nice impulse that you probably don’t often acknowledge. We usually bemoan or bludgeon our self-doubt; we believe what writer Sylvia Plath famously claimed, that “the worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.”

I beg to differ!

You can be more creative if you welcome and examine your self-doubts.

It’s true, though, that we writers allow our doubts to keep us away from our work. Why? To protect ourselves from pain. Author James Baldwin says we’re good at fooling ourselves because we don’t want to get hurt. “We don’t want to have our certainty disturbed,” he said.

Psychologists call this self-handicapping . If you stay away from your work you’ll never have to face the pain of writing poorly, or you can fool yourself into thinking you’ll be a great writer if you do get down to work.

The problem with that, though, is that you’ll never really be a writer. Baldwin believed that the trick is to know when you’re fooling yourself.

The best writers live an examined and therefore honest life, and that includes scrutinizing your self-doubt.

2. Self-Doubt Sounds an Alarm

Not unlike a smoke detector, self-doubt alerts us to the presence of fear, the typical cause of our doubts.

Thich Nhat Hanh, a well-known Buddhist teacher (and celebrated author), advises us that because fear is a natural and constant presence in our lives, we’d do well to welcome it rather than fight it:

It is best not to say, “Go away, Fear. I don’t like you. You are not me.” It is much more effective to say, “Hello Fear. How are you today?”

The next time you feel self-doubt, don’t despair or fight – look around to see what might be smoldering; be grateful for the alarm.

3. Self-Doubt is a Call to Action

Dean Koontz is notorious for obsessively polishing his paragraphs. “I began this ceaseless polishing out of self-doubt,” says Koontz, “as a way of preventing self-doubt from turning into writer’s block: by doing something with the unsatisfactory page, I wasn’t just sitting there brooding about it.”

In Koontz’s case, feeling uncertain about his abilities actually motivated him to take an action he might otherwise not have pursued.

4. Self-Doubt Provides Fresh Perspective

If you keep your doubts to yourself you’re missing a valuable opportunity. By sharing your doubts with friends and writing colleagues you’re bound to get a fresh perspective. Others often don’t see your failings or uncertainties in the same way you do.

By sharing your doubts you’ll likely learn something new about yourself, feel companioned, hear a helpful cheer, or receive a much-needed boost to your self-esteem.

James Baldwin, in discussing why he writes, says he does so to describe. What he means is that by describing something in detail you come to understand it intimately. Describe your doubts in writing, or through dialogue – either way, your new understanding can help disarm your doubts.

The next time self-doubt keeps you away from your writing, try this:

  • Review these four reasons to appreciate your doubts;
  • Say “Hello, self-doubt, how are you today”; and
  • Get to work.

What have you learned from your self-doubts?

Joan Dempsey is a writer and the founder of Literary Living, an online program for serious, aspiring writers who want to overcome resistance and self-doubt to create a unique writing life. Sign-up for more information, a free audio interview with Leo Babauta, and a free e-book, The Power of Deliberate Thinking: 5 Strategies for Staying at the Writing Desk (Despite Your Self-Doubts)

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts

7 tips for aspiring children’s writers from author Audrey Vernick

For many years, New Jersey children’s author Audrey Vernick wrote literary short fiction, where a big success is “selling” your story to a literary magazine that pays you with free copies of the magazine. Honored twice by the New Jersey State Council of the Arts with its prestigious fiction fellowship, Audrey has published seven children’s books and now gets to hang out with cool and funny kids at readings. Good call.

Vernick has figured a few things out along the way. “I also continue to make the same mistakes over and over,” she quips.

1. Apply for fellowships and grants. I always thought fellowships were for other people, like second homes and well, clean homes. Until I applied for a fiction fellowship and actually got it. That fellowship, more than any single other milestone, made me feel like a writer. Do not think a fellowship or grant is beyond you. I’ve also served as a juror for an arts foundation, evaluating manuscripts, and trust me: your work can definitely stand up to the rest.

2. Find good readers for your work. I always have a few people read my work before I send it to my agent. I’ve been lucky to meet people along the way who get what I’m trying to do and point out when I might be missing the mark. Time and experience have taught me to gratefully accept the suggestions that work for me and cast aside those that don’t. This did not come easily, naturally, or quickly. See #3.

3. Do not let critiques hurt you. I learned this with tears and pain and possibly a voodoo doll or two. Maybe you can do better. My first workshop in graduate school nearly killed me. I’m not sure there’s a way to protect yourself from that pain. If you’re writing honestly and earnestly and someone is nasty, it can hurt. As I’ve gotten older and nastier myself, however, I’ve gotten better at dealing with it. Remember that this whole business is subjective. Find the readers who get you; try to disregard the rest.

4. Don’t underestimate luck. I think it’s vitally important to continuously work at craft, to improve, to revise with vigor. But on the publication side of things, I can’t get over the amount of luck one needs. Maybe it’s a combination of luck and timing. This year’s hottest trend might have been rejected two years ago as too out there. I advise having good luck, not bad.

5. Obsession doesn’t help. I’m not completely sure this is true, as I think I’ve willed some things into being. But I do know that checking one’s email more than three times a minute is not healthy and won’t make an agent respond faster. And I learned this month that there’s a correlation between descending into pure madness and watching your Amazon ranking. That said, I think obsession is, by definition, kind of hard to stop. So take note of it, make fun of yourself, and try to work yourself down to checking your email twice a minute.

6. Keep learning. Whenever I can, which isn’t that often, I take a writing class. I always learn something. I seek out classes taught by writers I admire. I also learn by reading, but I assume all writers are voracious readers.

7. Everyone wants to write a picture book. I don’t think I have yet met a person who hasn’t told me about the picture book he is going to write. Or the one she wrote that’s going to be published as soon as she sends it out. It makes sense. There are so many bad picture books, and invariably, those are the ones our children want to hear over and over. It’s reasonable to conclude that if you write one that’s not bad, it will be published. But I’m not sure it works that way. Still, I smile and wish them luck. And you, too.

Have you written a children’s book manuscript? Submit your story to MeeGenius!

As a writer, Audrey Vernick shares her books and stories with readers and aspiring writers of all ages. “I have spoken to small and large groups at elementary schools, public libraries, book fairs, and writers’ conferences, and have conducted numerous writing workshops.”

Vernick’s presentations touch on New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania Core Curriculum Content Standards, including comprehension skills and students’ response to text. In particular, I focus on drawing conclusions, genre, retelling, and plot/character development.

Email audrey@audreyvernick.com for information on rates and availability.

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Freelance Writing, Guest posts, Who is Writing What?

Television as Teacher: 5 things we can learn from TV writers and their characters

A few weeks ago I attended the Writers Faire at UCLA. There were over 45 seminars on the craft of writing, presented by a humbling variety of the nation’s finest authors, poets and screenwriters—who just happen to teach at UCLA. (I’m salivating as I write this. I live just a few hours south–too far to attend classes in person, yet close enough to be heart-broken by this geographic tragedy. However, I will take advantage of the faculty’s 1-day and 4-day programs… and possibly its online offerings. More on that later.)

What I discovered at the event was an unexpected illumination of creativity spawned by the screen-writing instructors. I’d attended to learn more about the art of novel-writing, but ended up rapt by the pace and passion offered by the screenwriters, and have since been more open to finding inspiration in unexpected places.  Janice Gable Bashman, co-author of the new book Wanted Undead or Alive: Vampire Hunters and Other Kick-Ass Enemies of Evil (Citadel Press, 2010) and contributing editor of the Big Thrill (the newsletter of the International
Thriller Writers) suggests we writers look to television of all places to learn more about shaping more captivating scenes, characters and storylines. Here is her advice:

1. Jump Right In—Television shows start smack in the middle of the action to grab and hold our attention from the get-go. This method discourages the viewer from flipping the channel to find something more interesting. Once we’re hooked, backstory is revealed. Tune in to any drama or even the news and you’ll see this method in action. Today’s readers expect the same from their books. They want to be hooked after reading that first paragraph, the first page, the first chapter. They want a book so exciting that they can’t put it down, a story that captivates their hearts and souls and fires up their imaginations. They want a story that pulls them into a new world and threatens to hold them there until the very last word. It’s up to writers to hook the readers, to keep them interested enough to keep reading. And it all begins with the first scene. Make it exciting.

2. Use Hooks and Cliffhangers—What keeps us hooked to television shows when the distractions of home,

family, friends, work, the Internet, etc. threaten to pull them away? It’s simple really. Good storytelling. But it goes beyond that. Just because it’s good doesn’t mean viewers will stay tuned, especially once a commercial comes on. Television shows tease us when going into a commercial or ending the show. They leave us hooked with an unfinished question or scene that makes the viewer want to know more and makes us wonder what will happen to the characters in the future. This process is a deliberate effort to keep us watching the shows. And it works. For writers, it’s important to begin and end a scene with a hook. It can be an unfinished question, a line of dialogue, or a bit of action—anything that grabs the reader’s attention and make the reader wonder what comes next. The hook compels the reader to turn the page and read more. As readers, we’ve all experienced that book that keeps us up well into the night when we have to get up early the next day. What keeps us reading each page, each chapter, when we know we should really go sleep? It’s simply a good story combined with great hooks.

3. A Break From Writing Is Not a Waste Of Time—We’ve all seen the television character who can’t solve a problem but who is then hit with a great idea while fiddling with the remote, hanging out with friends, playing basketball, or cooking. Some of the best ideas come to us when they’re least expected. Some writers believe that writing is the only way to find new ideas or resolve problems, but sometimes taking a step back from the process yields wonderful results.

4. It’s Not Always Best To Brainstorm Alone—Ideas don’t occur in a vacuum. Television cops don’t work alone, the women on “Army Wives” solve problems together, and the creative group on “Mad Men” is just that—a group of individuals who work together to brainstorm ideas. Many of the ideas are terrible and are rejected, but then a unexpected gem emerges from the give and take among the group members. When stuck for ideas or for solutions to plot problems, writers often stew in their chairs, surf the internet, knock out chores, or play games on the computer with the hopes that the solutions will magically appear. Sometimes it does; sometimes it doesn’t. Shooting an idea past a colleague or brainstorming with a friend can be just the thing to bring freshness and excitement to your work.

5. Diversification Is Key To Success
—How many good television shows have gone stale? They show the same twist on an old story line over and over again. As a result, we become bored, abandon the shows, and find new ones to watch. Also, have you noticed how advertisers don’t focus on only one market? They diversify among television, print, radio, and the internet and adjust their advertising to each market to achieve the highest success rate and to reach the widest audience. As writers we must diversify in order to succeed in this ever-changing industry and to ensure our work is constantly in demand. If we focus on only one market and that market becomes stale or fails, we’re out of work. But if we diversify and continually look for new opportunities in untapped markets, the opportunities are endless.

What forms of media have inspired your writing, and how?

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Filed under Best Writer Tips, Fiction Novel Writing, For the love of writing, Guest posts, Who is Writing What?

How authors make money. No, really.

Writing your first book (or second, third…)  is no small undertaking. In the best of times, getting an agent and finding your book one day in a book store was a long, arduous journey. The task facing today’s aspiring authors can often seem unsurmountable, but the truth remains: a writer must write. One’s story must be told—the show must go on.

In his excellent blog post, How Authors Really Make Money: The Rebirth of Seth Godin and Death of Traditional Publishing, Tim Ferriss, enormously successful author of The 4-Hour Workweek (number one New York Times, Wall Street and Business Week bestseller!) lays out the financial potential for would-be authors seeking to quit their day jobs.


What are the economics of publishing? (Photo: thinkpanama)

Print is dead!

This has become a popular headline, and a great way to get quoted, as Nicholas Negroponte has shown. Iconic author Seth Godin, after 12 bestsellers, just announced that he will no longer pursue traditional publishing, and the writing seems to be on the wall: the e-book is the future, plain and simple.

But what are the real concrete numbers? How are established authors actually making money, and what should new authors do? Go straight to e-book?

In this post, I’ll look at real-world numbers to discuss some hard truths of publishing, explain economics and pay-offs, and provide a few suggestions for aspiring authors.

To start, some contrasting numbers…

The 4-Hour Workweek is one of the top-10 most highlighted Kindle books of all time.

– The 4-Hour Workweek was the #1 business book when Kindle first shipped after November 2007, and is currently around #116 in the Kindle store.

– In my last royalty statement, December 2009, digital book sales (all formats, including Kindle) totaled…. ready?… a mere 1.6% of total units sold.

My own book has been on the bestseller lists for more than three years, and I’ve tracked most multi-month bestsellers for all of those 36+ months using Nielsen Bookscan (among other tools) which covers about 75% of all retail book sales since 2001, including Amazon but excluding discount clubs such as Sam’s Club. Titlez has also been useful for looking at detailed trending on Amazon.

This all gives me a good pool of data, and I feel like I have a good grasp of what authors are selling and… realistically earning directly from books. If you’d like to get a basic idea, just subscribe to Publishers Lunch to see what authors are getting paid as advances. Enjoy.

We’ll come back to the Kindle numbers, but first, here’s a sketch of book economics, incentives and options:

– For a hardcover book, authors typically receive a 10-15% royalty on cover price. This means that for a $20 cover price, the author will receive $2-3. If you have a $50,000 advance, a $20 cover price, and a 10% royalty, you therefore need to sell 25,000 copies (“earn out” the advance) before you receive your first dollar beyond the advance. This is the basic rule, but several quietly aggressive outfits — both Barnes and Noble’s in-house imprint (Sterling, acquired in 2003) and Amazon’s in-house print arms, AmazonEncore and AmazonCrossing — could prove to offer more attractive terms. Then there are the fascinating rogues like Andrew “The Jackal” Wylie.

– For a trade paperback book, authors typically receive around half the royalty of a hard cover. If you are making 15% on your hardcover, you might get 7.5% when it goes to paperback. Guess what? This means you now need to sell twice as many books to break even. I think going to paperback is a bad idea for almost all authors, unless you want to double your work for the same income. Do you really need the people who won’t buy a $20 book hardcover that’s already discounted to $12-14 dollars through Amazon or Barnes and Noble? I don’t think so, yet most authors follow the hardcover-to-paperback progression without question.

– Electronic books, including Kindle, do not count towards the most famous bestseller lists
, such as The New York Times bestseller list. I suspect this will change within the next two years, but for now: print is what will make you famous in the mainstream.

– If you choose to self-publish but stick with print format and retail distribution, you might double your royalty earnings. This is based on conversations with friends who own their own boutique publishing houses, all of which have distribution in large chains like Barnes and Noble. It’s fun to imagine that you could print a book with a $20 cover price and pocket $15, but that isn’t how the math works out. Once you factor in retailer discounts and distributor percentages, you might end up netting 30% of cover price vs. 15%, if you’re lucky and have a print run of 20,000+ units (Can you afford the upfront cost, especially if retailers are paying net-30, net-60, or beyond?). Keep in mind you also need to manage things as a publisher, which could make your dollars-per-hour earnings less than with a traditional publisher. There are a few promising companies, like Author Solutions, trying to solve this problem for authors.

– If you choose to go digital only as an e-book, this is where profit rules and amazing numbers can be achieved. How amazing? I know one man who nets between $5,000,000 and $10,000,000 per month with a single e-book and affiliate cross-selling to his customer lists. I’m not kidding. The downside is that you need to be a world-class marketer and understand affiliate and CPA advertising better than anyone else in your niche (since there is little barrier to entry, and therefore plenty of competition). Prepare to be an uber-competent CEO or fail if you choose this option.

The Kindle Phenomenon — How Press Releases Are Misread

Amazon is incredible and I expect nothing but more innovation from them. Putting aside their coming bloodbath with Apple, though…

What of this announcement that Kindle sales have now passed hardcover sales on Amazon? I believe this to be true, but there are a few things I suggest we keep in mind:

1) Kindle books selling well does not mean that print books are selling poorly. In fact, it appears quite the opposite. From the Wall Street Journal coverage of the announcement:

Still, the hardback comparison figure doesn’t necessarily mean the end is near for paper books. Amazon said its hardback book unit sales also continued to increase.

It will be fun to see more precise Kindle sales when they are shown as a separate line item in Nielsen Bookscan, which should happen in the next year.

2) The top-five Kindle selling authors of all-time, over 500,000 copies each, are all fiction writers (including Stieg Larsson, Stephanie Meyer, and others). In the top-50 Kindle bestsellers right now, I counted just three (3!) non-fiction books. If you’re a non-fiction author, I’d think carefully before jumping the gun to all digital. Remember that comment about print being dead? What if we ask a high-level exec at one of the “Big Six” (explained later) about how print sales are declining?

Hardcover trend is mixed and dependent on hot books. If you are wondering about ebooks, commercial fiction is where you’re seeing the erosion. Paperbacks are ok. Mass markets are taking a hit.

What are “mass market” books? The NY Times describes them thus:

Mass-market books are designed to fit into the racks set near the checkout counter at supermarkets, drugstores, hospital gift shops and airport newsstands. They are priced affordably so they can be bought on impulse. There are other production differences in binding and paper quality (historically, paperbacks were printed on “pulp” and could fit in the consumer’s pocket). The format is often used for genre fiction, science fiction, romance, thrillers and mysteries.

Is it a coincidence that print impulse purchases are also the biggest sellers on Kindle? I don’t think so.

3) I believe (conjecture, yes) that the figure we are missing is Books-Per-Person. If you have a Kindle, as I do, how many books did you buy in the first week or two? How many unread books do you have on your Kindle? Unlike with print books, you don’t have to look at a stack of unread material like undone homework. Ergo, you purchase more digital books than you would ever purchase in print. If Amazon is selling 180 Kindle books for every 100 print books, I wouldn’t be surprised if 10-20 people are responsible for the former, whereas 80-100 people are responsible for the latter. This reflects that Kindle owners are buying more books per capita, not that paper purchasers are buying fewer.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There has to be some cannibalization of sales, and much of print will die eventually, but it will take a long time. Print is far from dead… and far from unprofitable. Despite the industry-encouraged myth that print has no margins, a hardcover book sold for $20, assuming no graphics or color, can often be produced for less than $2 a copy. With the proper economies of scale (unavailable to most individuals), the publishing biz can be quite a little cash cow.

Let’s cover some basics of traditional publishing next.

What “Traditional” Publishing Looks Like

Traditional publishing looks something like the following for non-fiction authors. For fiction authors, you need to write the entire manuscript first. Here are the five steps:

Step 1. Get an agent (best done through a referral from one of their authors).

Step 2. Put together a book proposal, which is like a business plan. It will contain marketing plans, your existing “platform” (who you can sell to or reach without publisher help), an executive summary of the book concept, and 1-3 sample chapters, among other things.

Step 3. Pitch to specific editors at different publishers through the agent and schedule meetings.

Step 4. Sell the book. The editor will probably have signing authority up to a certain advance amount, but higher ups will need to sign off on larger advances. If you don’t have a great platform for selling books without publisher help, don’t expect anything more than $50,000, and that’s being optimistic. The $50,000 will not be paid all at once, but in several installments, something like this: 1/4 upon signing the deal, 1/4 upon publisher acceptance of manuscript, 1/4 upon publication, and 1/4 upon paperback publication (assuming you start with hardcover).

Step 5. Write the book. Keep in mind, you’re not getting paid the advance all upfront, and writing a good book will probably take at least a year if you’re hoping to have good word-of-mouth and some longevity. I’ve been working on my new book for more than three years. I’ve spent this time because I want it to sell like mad for no fewer than five years after publication, preferably more than a decade if I update it on an annual or semi-annual basis.

For more detail and recommended books, which I used as guides, read “How to Sell a Book to the World’s Largest Publisher,” which explains exactly what I did.

Below are the “Big Six” publishers — most of the bestsellers you see come out of one of their divisions (called “imprints”). In no particular order:

Lagardere (owns Hachette)
Harper Collins
Macmillan (owns St. Martin’s)
Penguin Group
Random House (the largest, and where my book lives within the “Crown Publishing” imprint)
Simon and Schuster

All of these publishers have iBook agreements with Apple except for one… Random House. Why? Is Random House just unable to see the obvious future? Nah, I don’t think that’s true. There are plenty of smart people working at Random House, and that includes their legal department.

The paragraph that follows is all hypothetical:

What might happen if the iBooks agreements of the other Big Five all have suspiciously similar terms? If there were a federal investigation, might that lead to charges of collusion among the publishers and have terrible financial consequences for an already fragile industry? It certainly would. By distancing themselves and coming in late to the game, Random House — again, hypothetically — would be playing a very smart hand, indeed.

For those of you who are devoted to your iPads (I do like mine), you can always use the Kindle app to read Random House books on them pretty screens.

So What Should Authors Do?

First off, writing books is a terrible revenue model for authors.

Precious few books sell more than 25,000 copies, so it’s unlikely you’ll make even $75,000 a year from book royalties. In rare cases, you might have a perennial bestseller, but this is less than 1% of all books sold and not a good bet to make.

There are still a few reasons you might consider writing a book and going through traditional channels:

– Speaking: Particularly in the business category, if you target your Fortune 500 audience well enough, you can stair-step your way into $20,000 per 60-minute keynote without needing a miracle. Hundreds, if not thousands, of authors earn this kind of money. The higher echelon can make $80,000 or more per speaking engagement. Needless to say, this adds up fast.

– Reputation and audience: Money is a means to something else. Not unlike wampum, income is traded for either a possession or an experience. If you use your book to build a reputation as a thought leader, and if you can establish a direct line of communication to intelligent readers (through a blog, for instance), it is possible to bypass income and get almost any experience for free or next-to-free. The middleman of currency is removed, and you also have access to things money can’t buy, whether it’s interesting people or unusual resources.

Though I have done high-level speaking and enjoy it with the right audience, I typically do fewer than a dozen engagements a year. I prefer to focus on connecting with my readers and having fun with cashless adventures.

How do you build a base of fans or supporters and build a high-traffic blog? Here are two detailed closely related case studies:

How Does a Bestseller Happen? A Case Study in Hitting #1 on the New York Times
How to Create a Global Phenomenon for Less Than $10,000

So what of self-publishing versus the more traditional route?

Reputation, at least in the mainstream and for the next few years, is difficult to build if you self-publish. In the below five-minute discussion, NY Times bestselling author Ramit Sethi and I discuss the pros and cons of self-publishing vs. getting a “real” publisher:

In Closing

For established and successful authors, like Seth Godin or Jim Collins, self-publishing in print or digital is a supremely viable option. Jim Collins self-published his last print book, How the Mighty Fall, and was featured on the cover of BusinessWeek magazine to help push it up the bestseller ranks. Seth could do the same.

Why is this possible?

Because they have incredible reputations that were built, in part, on top of the traditional publishing machine. The Big Six and their close cousins are in real trouble. Some of them might adapt (which will include massive lay-offs), but most will not. In the next few short years, there will also be many interesting publishing alternatives for aspiring authors.

But, all that said, there is still real value in having the rare stamp of approval that a “traditional” publisher provides. I don’t think this will change much in the next 12 months, perhaps even 24 months.

Now, a handful of first-time, self-published authors hit the New York Times list, that’s an entirely different story…

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Recommended reading – Below are the three books I’ve suggested to a dozen or so aspiring-author friends. Almost half of them later hit the New York Times bestseller list. Reading these doesn’t guarantee that outcome, of course, but it will help:

The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing (to help you craft the right message and themes)
Bird by Bird (to help you write the damn thing and not shoot yourself)
Author 101: Bestselling Book Publicity (to help you reach and excite big media)

Afterword: Book Format and Multimedia Books, etc.

In the comments below, I was asked the following question:

“Tim, I have a question… Before I decided to self-publish, I got a couple decent offers from traditional publishers, but they all involved 10+ months of lag time between when everything is ready to actually print and when they would actually print. I’m not nearly patient enough for that much delay. Is the world of “real published authors” really limited to people who are comfortable waiting around a year for their book to manifest?”

My answer addresses a few other common questions I get:

Hi Jeff,

With the big boys, yep. That’s the lag time in production. I actually kind of like it. Allow me to explain:

It forces you to think about your material and attempt to make it perennial. Which advice will be obsolete in 12 months? Delete. Which advice would be obsolete in 24 months? That means it will only be good about 12 months after pub date. Delete.

I find that it helps refine your thinking, just as having the content in a fixed form (print) forces you to consider your writing and editing more seriously than if you could change it willy-nilly like a blog post. There are certainly benefits to the multimedia books on the horizon, but I wouldn’t call them “books”, and I think the bells and whistles of video, hyperlinks, etc. will be used to mask sloppy thinking as often, if not more often, than they will be used to create a more compelling argument or presentation. The wordsmithing and precision of the language will suffer with the crutches of embeddable video, etc. Will they make perfect sense for some books? Absolutely. Will they distract and detract from the flow of the prose, story, or argument in most cases? Absolutely.

To me, “timely” books are a bad bet for writers. If the content delivers value based on timing near recent events, other media have it beat. I think long-form books should have a longer shelf life, and therefore require harder thinking throughout the process to ensure the content has value 1 year, 5 years, even 10 years down the line.

Hope that helps!

Tim

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