Novelist Ellen Meister Gives The Book Doctors the Skinny on Switching Genres, Independent Bookstores and Thick Skin
One of the questions we get asked all the time is: What if I want to write more than one kind of book? Can I write a cookbook and a cozy mystery? Can I write a dark literary novel and a vampire romance? When we met Ellen Meister, we discovered that she was on the brink of changing courses, genre-wise. Her new book, The Other Life, is a literary novel, which comes on the heels of two novels that are squarely commercial women’s fiction. So we were excited to ask her about her experiences with this change. And in the course of doing so, we were able to find out some other great tips and information about Ellen’s publishing trajectory.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: Many writers come up against brick walls when they change genres or styles. With your latest book, you’ve moved from fun, sassy, upbeat women’s fiction (i.e. the perfect beach reads!) to a more literary premise and story. Did you have any difficulties with this change? Did your agent or publisher want you to stick with the voice you’d already established in your first two books? Did you, yourself, feel you had to stick with what you’d done so well?
ELLEN MEISTER: I was pretty worried about that when I came up with the idea for THE OTHER LIFE, which was clearly a major departure from my previous books. But I fell so in love with the high concept “what if” story about a woman who has the ability to slip through a portal to the life she would have had if she never got married and became a mother, that I knew I had to write it, even if my agent said she wouldn’t be able to sell it.
Of course, I hoped she would adore it, and prayed she wouldn’t tell me I had to stick with what I had been doing. So I wrote a proposal and sent it off, then spent an incredibly anxious week waiting to hear back.
When she called, her response was even better than I had dared dream. Not only did she love the idea, but she had shown the chapters to everyone at the agency, and the reaction was unanimous. Fortunately, several editors felt the same way and the book wound up selling at auction.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: Can you tell us how you got your first book published? Did you encounter rejection? If so, was there anything you learned from this rejection?
ELLEN MEISTER: Oh, the rejection! Pure anguish.
When I finished writing GEORGE CLOONEY IS COMING TO APPLEWOOD (later titled SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA), I attacked the chore of finding an agent as a full time job. I spent my days researching literary agents, honing my query letter, and sending it out again and again and again.
For nine months, the rejections poured in. And then it happened. A wonderful agent called to say she loved the book and wanted to represent me. I went to her New York City office to meet with the whole team. A dream come true.
Ironically, after all those months of rejection, another big agent called the next day to offer representation. It was stressful to turn down a major player … but validating.
I wish I could say I learned something from all the rejection–that my skin got a bit thicker and my fragile heart a little stronger. But I’m afraid this hyper-sensitivity is an incurable condition. Steelier types have lectured me about bucking up and growing a tougher hide. But that’s like telling someone who sunburns easily to go outside naked and ignore the UV rays. It’s just not going to happen. We thin-skinned types just have to nurse our wounds and hope for the soothing balm of success to make it all worthwhile.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You established your own sales promotion agency. How did the experience with this business help you with being an author? What tips do you have for other authors on embracing the promoter within? Are there any unique promotional ideas you’ve employed as a result of your experience?
ELLEN MEISTER: That experience helped me in so many ways. First, being a copywriter was great training. I learned how valuable it is to grab the reader’s attention from the first sentence and never let go.
Also, my background in marketing helped me understand how difficult it is to stand out in a crowded and competitive marketplace. So I never sat back and expected my publisher to do all the heavy lifting in terms of promotion and publicity. There are so many thousands of books in stores vying for attention that an author has to work tirelessly to help the sales effort. Once the book is finished, my floppy artist hat get tossed in the closet and replaced by my rigid marketing hat. (Or perhaps I should say helmet. Yup, it’s that rough out there.)
My advice to other authors is to keep trying and learning and figuring out what works. The Internet is such a dynamic and ever-changing medium that you have to stay agile and quick.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: We met through Book Revue in LI, near where you live. Can you tell us how your local independent bookstore has helped you become a more successful author? Any tips on how newbie authors can embrace their local independent?
ELLEN MEISTER: Book Revue has been so good to me! I’ve done several events with them, and just adore that store.
My advice to newbie authors is to understand the toll this economy has taken on the publishing industry. And indies, in particular, have taken a big hit. That means they’re often understaffed, and you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do a bit of work.
For instance, if you drop into your local indie to sign stock, know that the staff will probably be busy helping customers. So offer to round up the books yourself, and tell them you’ll be happy to affix the “autographed copy” stickers. When visiting smaller indies, it’s a good idea to bring your own stickers in case they don’t have any. (You can buy these pretty cheaply online. The source I use is Alpha Business Forms.)
Another tip: Indies are often happy to supply books for offsite events, but can’t spare the personnel to send out. So if you’re doing a non-bookstore event, contact your local indie ahead of time and ask if they would be willing to supply the books and sales slips. Then line up a friend or relative to lend a hand and write the orders.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You’re on book #3. How has your approach to publishing your books changed from book to book? What have you learned that has only come with time and doing it over and over?
ELLEN MEISTER: On a practical level, I’ve learned that breaking down my deadline into manageable chunks is critical. For instance, if I’m contractually obligated to turn in a manuscript on a specific date, I look at the calendar and calculate how many pages I’ll have to write per week to meet that deadline. Then I make that my weekly writing goal and stick to it. I recommend weekly writing goals even to authors who aren’t on deadline. If there’s a book you want to finish, this is the best way to accomplish it.
On a more philosophical level, I keep learning the same lesson in karma again and again. And it’s a good one. Throughout this journey, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of my literary heroes. A few of them were disappointingly cold and stingy souls, but most were warm, supportive, appreciative and generous. These are the ones I try to model myself after! And I’m happy to say that I never regret it–being kind and helpful to my fellow writers is always worth the effort.
The Book Doctors, aka, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, will be making a house call in Kansas City, at the Kansas City Public Library, with Rainy Day Books. They want YOU to pitch your book at their acclaimed event, Pitchapalooza, which was recently featured in The New York Times, and in a mini-documentary for Newsday. Pitchapalooza is like American Idol for books–only without the Simon. Writers get one minute to pitch their book ideas to an all-star panel of publishing experts, including Chris Schilling, responsible for over a dozen New York Times best-sellers as editorial director at Andrews McMeel, and ex-editorial director at HarperCollins and Publisher at G.P.Putnam’s Sons; John Mark Eberhart, former Books Editor, Kansas City Star; and Jeffrey Jennings, entertainment law attorney/bookseller extraordinaire at Rainy Date Books. The winner receives an introduction to an appropriate agent or publisher for his/her book. Plus, anyone who buys a book gets a free consultation worth $100.
Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for 18 years. She is also the author of seven books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 12 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, YA fiction and reference. His last book appeared on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Together, they’ve helped dozens and dozens of talented amateur writers become published authors. They’ve appeared everywhere from NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today, and have taught publishing workshops everywhere from the Miami Book Fair to Stanford University. Find more at www.thebookdoctors.com.
WHAT: Pitchapalooza Comes to Kansas City
WHEN: Monday, February 28, 2001 at 6:30 PM
WHERE: Kansas City Public Library, Plaza Branch, Truman Forum
WITH WHOM: Chris Schilling, editorial director Andrews McMeel Publishing,, John Mark Eberhart, former Books Editor, Kansas City Star; Jeffrey Jennings, entertainment law attorney/bookseller extraordinaire at Rainy Date Books; the Book Doctors, and Kansas City writers rich and poor, of every age, race, creed and color.
The Fine Grind Book Club
Suburbanistas by Pamela Redmond Satran
Monday, March 7
$5 (one drink–tea, coffee, cappuccino or latte– and a delicious appetizer spread)
Author Pamela Redmond Satran will lead a lively discussion on her book Suburbanistas. This little gem is the story of a Jersey Girl who becomes a movie star, but ends up moving back to her small suburban town and reconnecting with her oldest friend, a mother of four married to a local cop. It’s a story of how female friendships change, survive, and ultimately sustain us through marriages, divorces, kids, moves, careers, success, and adversity. This book is for sale now at The Fine Grind.
RSVP at The Fine Grind counter with one of our excellent baristas, contact firstname.lastname@example.org or call 973 837 0199. Please check out The Fine Grind Coffee Bar’s list of fabulous events at www.thefinegrindcoffeebar.com.
You’ve finished your novel (or maybe not—that’s okay, too). What’s next? You gotta have a great pitch. Now you have the chance to test your pitch on The Book Doctors, aka, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, who are holding a Pitchapalooza for NaNoWriMo participants only. Pitchapalooza is like American Idol for books—only without the Simon. Arielle and David have been hosting Pitchapaloozas all around the country, and they were recently featured in The New York Times. Dozens and dozens of writers who have participated in Pitchapaloozas have gone from being talented amateurs to professional, published authors.
How does this online Pitchapalooza work? Just send in your 200-word or less pitch to email@example.com by February 15th, 2011. Twenty-five pitches will be chosen randomly and critiqued by Arielle and David on their blog,www.thebookdoctors.com/blog. A winner will be chosen on March 1, 2011. The winner will receive an introduction to an appropriate agent or publisher for his/her book.
Plus, anyone who buys a copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published gets a free consultation worth $100 (please send proof of purchase to email above).
And, for the first time ever, you have the opportunity to vote for your favorite pitch. Let Arielle & David know which pitch you like best by firstname.lastname@example.org. The fan favorite—if different from Arielle and David’s choice—will win a free copy of The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published and the accompanying free consultation.
Just send your pitch to email@example.com. See you in cyberspace!
Click here to go to The Office of Letters and Light.
BY Stacey Gill | Friday, Feb 11, 2011 12:00pm
People from all across Baristaville turned out last night for Montclair’s own David Henry Sterry and Arielle Eckstut’s Pitchapalooza. Over 100 writers from Bloomfield to Verona packed the Montclair Public Library for Sterry and Eckstut’s final book idea pitching event, after traveling cross-country from Huntington, Long Island to Chico, California and back on their own book tour.
The Book Doctors, as they are known, just published The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, and along with it they are personally trying to help other writers get their own books published — one Pitchapalooza at a time.
Last night they helped one lucky winner, the youngest in Pitchapalooza history, on her way to publishing her novel. Zoe Schiff (pictured right) at only 15 years old had the best pitch of the night. This incredibly creative Montclair High School student told of her idea of a historical novel with a twist. In her book about the Revolutionary War the Americans do not win. This AP history student goes on to tell the tale through two young sisters caught in the aftermath of the Americans’ defeat.
With ideas ranging from a poetic memoir to a book told in pictures to reveal the autistic mind, Schiff had stiff competition. And she knew it. ”I’m shocked and grateful,” Schiff said after winning the contest.
Although there can only be one winner, for whom the Book Doctors vowed to “do everything in our power” to get published, Sterry and Eckstut’s desires were to help all aspiring authors achieve their dreams.
“Our goal is to get everyone here tonight to publish your book,” Sterry said. And to that end he noted with a smile, “This is the best panel we’ve ever had.”
Although I got the feeling he says to all the authors, the panel was impressive. It included Montclair’s Dominic Anfuso, VP & Editor-in-Chief of the Free Press/Simon & Schuster; the bestselling author/blogger and MEWS founder Pamela Redmond Satran, also of Montclair; and agent extraordinaire Liza Dawson of the Liza Dawson Associates Literary Agency.
For those in the audience, Eckstut and Sterry dispensed plenty of helpful advice including their own travails in writing the pitch for their current book. “It took us six months to write, edit, and come up with the moves for that, and it’s 20 seconds!” Sterry admitted.
Another bit of Sterry wisdom was that the pitch should allow the agent to get a feel for your book through the voice and style. Sterry put it this way, “It’s like those t-shirts that say ‘Sexy’ on them. Let me be the judge of that.”
The pitch, then, should be a little snapshot of your book. Sterry stressed his point. “Don’t tell me it’s suspenseful. I want to sit on the edge of my seat.”
Eckstut agreed. “When you nail it in a minute, I feel like I read the book.”
Satran’s advice for writers was to give specific details in the pitch. “Agents and editors are inundated. Give them a sales handle where they can see it on the book shelf and next to which authors.”
All the panelists agreed and suggested authors come up with comparable titles to their own work. “There is a mania for categorization in the bookstore,” Sterry added.
Ultimately, people in the book business really want to hear writers’ stories, according to Anfuso. “Most of us get into this business to honor writers and books.”
If you are cursing yourself because you missed it, fear not, The Book Doctors are hosting a workshop next weekend in Baristaville:
How to get Published Successfully Workshop
What: A step-by-step, information-packed workshop that removes the smoke and mirrors from the publishing process, covering everything from coming up with a blockbuster title to finding an agent to building a following through social media.
Where: Montclair, NJ.
When: Saturday, February 19 from 1 pm to 4 pm.
Cost: For details and location call 310.463.2068 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 310.463.2068 end_of_the_skype_highlighting or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photos by Margot Sage-EL
This workshop, developed at Stanford University, is a step-by-step, information-packed, interactive workshop that removes the smoke and mirrors from the publishing process. We cover all the publishing bases, large and small, including: choosing the right idea; coming up with a blockbuster title; crafting an attention-getting pitch; creating a sellable proposal; finding the best agent/publisher for you; developing sales, marketing, and publicity savvy; building a following through social media; and self-publishing effectively with ebooks, print-on-demand or traditional printing. This workshop is for fiction and nonfiction writers of every ilk. Here’s a unique opportunity to have your idea evaluated by industry professionals and get concrete suggestions on how to improve your chances of getting published. Dozens of workshop attendees have received book contracts from major and independent publishers.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are authors of The Essential Guide to Getting a Book Published, which Khaled Hosseini called “A must-have for every aspiring writer.” Arielle Eckstut is an Agent-at-Large for the Levine Greenberg Literary Agency, the author of seven books, and the co-founder of LittleMissMatched, a lifestyle brand that she built into a $30 million company. David Henry Sterry is the author of twelve books, from memoir to sports to reference to YA fiction. His first book has been optioned by Showtime, his latest was on the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. He is a regular contributor to the Huffington Post, and his writing has appeared everywhere from The San Francisco Chronicle to The London Times.
SATURDAY, FEB 19, 1-4pm, $99 St James Church (Parish Hall) 581 Valley Road Montclair, NJ
OK, all you scribblers, it’s time to come out of your attics.
Time to let those manuscripts see the light of day.
Think about how you’d summarize your book to an agent if you only had the chance.
Distill that description down to a minute.
Rehearse it with a friend, or in front of the mirror.
Go to the Montclair Public Library tonight, and deliver that pitch to the Book Doctors and their panel of judges at Pitchapalooza, a sort of literary “American Idol” but without the cruelty.
The Book Doctors, in private life called Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, are the authors of “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.”
A revised edition of the book was released in November 2010 and since then Eckstut and Sterry have been touring the country with Pitchapalooza. They’re wrapping up the tour in their hometown and invite Montclair writers to pitch their books tonight, Feb. 10, at 7, at the library, 50 South Fullerton Ave.
Three judges will evaluate 25 pitches: Dominick Anfuso, vice president and editor in chief at Free Press; Liza Dawson, owner of Liza Dawson Associates Literary Agency; and Pamela Redmond Satran, bestselling author of “How Not to Act Old” and many baby name books, and the founder of the Montclair Editors and Writers Society, of which Eckstut and Sterry are members.
Eckstut has been a literary agent for 18 years and is the author of seven books. Sterry has written 12 books, in a wide variety of genres including memoir, sports, young adult fiction and reference.
With anywhere from 100 to 300 people at each Pitchapalooza event, the Book Doctors must see a wide range of pitches. Do they ever feel they’re wasting time?
“No one knows what’s going to be a successful book,” Sterry said. “If anyone knew they’d make a billion dollars.”
Citing Michael Jordan having been cut from his high school basketball team, Sterry said it’s not his job to nip anyone’s dream in the bud. But he won’t hesitate to tell a writer, “Look, this is not professional caliber. You need to do A, B, C and D.”
And as an agent, “trained to say no to everything,” Eckstut pointed out that there are no barriers to getting published anymore.
“One of the first questions we ask,” she said, “is ‘What is your goal?’ If they say ‘I want to be published by Random House and get a six-figure advance…'”
The sentence hardly needed finishing.
But what surprises publishers, editors, and agents, Eckstut says, is how many people don’t want that.
“They just want a printed book in their hands, and don’t care how they get it: self-publish, e-book, print on demand.”
Self-publishing doesn’t have the stigma it had a decade ago, when self-published meant ugly and riddled with typos.
“We tell everybody, if you’re going to self-publish, hire an editor, hire a proofreader, hire a cover designer and a book designer, so it looks like it deserves to be on the shelves,” Sterry said.
Many authors who’ve been published by reputable houses are choosing to publish on their own because they already have a following, he said. “If you’ve got 20,000 people champing at the bit and they can press a button [to get your book], why would you need a publisher?”
Before Pitchapalooza, Eckstut and Sterry conducted workshops based on the 2005 edition of their book — titled, like the book, “Putting Your Passion into Print”— and have had what Eckstut called “some major success stories.”
“A winner in San Francisco from seven years ago has seven books out,” she said, “and Tim Ferriss of ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’ took our workshops. Even from this tour, we’ve already hooked up a lot of our winners with agents, so they’re in the process right now.”
Everyone pitching a manuscript tonight will get one minute.
“This is what makes the event so dramatic,” said Sterry. “That clock starts ticking. When they get to 50 seconds, Arielle says, ’10 seconds.’ You can feel the room tightening up.”
For an unknown writer to get to pitch a book to established agents and publishers is a rare thing, so the Book Doctors want you to make the most of your minute tonight.
For writers who aren’t sure what a pitch is, Eckstut suggests reading the copy on the backs of books in your genre. Whether mystery, sci fi, children’s book, whatever you read (and write), “on the back of every book is a pitch.”
The Eckstut-Sterry family loves living in Montclair, to which they moved just after the birth of their daughter three and a half years ago. Eckstut recently completed a book project with her mother, an expert on color.
Sterry has just finished a novel, which he describes as “‘Catcher in the Rye’ meets Stephen King.”
That’s a very short pitch.
Contact Elizabeth Oguss at email@example.com.
Does an Author Really Need a Website?: The Book Doctors Interview Annik LaFarge on How To Be a More Effective Author Online
We are asked all the time, “Do I really need an author website?” We are big believers in author websites, but we decided to take this question to the person we consider the expert on the subject: Annik LaFarge. Annik is the author of The Author Online: A Short Guide to Building Your Website, Whether You Do it Yourself (and you can!) or You Work With Pros. She also happens to have spent twenty-five years as an executive in the book publishing business, working at Random House, Simon & Schuster, Addison-Wesley, and Bloomsbury USA. She began her career as a publicist, and went on to become an associate publisher, marketing director, senior editor, and publishing director. And she was involved in the early efforts to create e-books and develop strategies for digital publishing. In the late 1990s, at the height of the dot com boom, Annik took a year away from publishing to join entrepreneur and journalist Steven Brill in the development and launch of Contentville.com, where she published an original series of e-books and oversaw the website’s bookstore. In 2008 she left publishing to start her own company, Title TK Projects, which specializes in website project management, editorial work, and consulting on digital strategy. Author websites she has project-managed include MitchAlbom.com, FrenchWomenDontGetFat.com, MireilleGuiliano.com and TaraParkerPope.com. Clearly, Annik knows what the heck she’s talking about. So we asked her to share with us the benefits of author websites. She was also kind enough to share with us her 10 ½ tips for being a more effective author online.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: In this age of social media, why is a website still important? Is it possible to just get away with a blog/Facebook page/Twitter presence?
ANNIK LAFARGE: Even in this age of social media, having a website is really, really important. A recent study by the Codex Group showed that that websites are one of the key ways people find out about books. Surprisingly, in terms of new book discovery, Facebook and Twitter are much less influential than author websites. Some of the reasons for this have to do with SEO (search engine optimization) and keywords. When you type in an author’s name, his/her website is first thing that comes up. To be the first result that pops up in a Google search is reason enough to have a website. This visibility gives you the opportunity to control your message and to craft the experience that you want that person who is interested in your work—that person who has taken the time to Google you—to see.
Your website also gives you the opportunity to capture people’s email addresses and to build a newsletter list. Your mailing list is extremely important, even if you’re a literary fiction writer. People who give you their names and email addresses are telling you that they’re interested in you and your work and want to know more about you; they want to be kept up to date. Even just a 100-person list matters because you can use it as a mini-focus group, testing book covers and plot ideas, and you can easily alert your fans about new releases. And over time that list will grow and grow.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: What are the top mistakes authors make when designing their websites?
ANNIK LAFARGE: The biggest mistake I’ve seen is building a website and not using it. People get excited, build the engine and then let it just sit there. You need to have a plan for your website—a monthly and yearly plan: what sort of content will you launch with? What will you add as time goes by? How frequently will you post new material? Enough to blog? If so, what will the voice of your blog be? What will be the first 10 things you write about? I tell authors to plan for their website the way they do for a new book: write an outline, like a book proposal, that includes not only the “big think” – the overall substance and point of view of the website – but also a list of all the different pages and what they’ll contain. Think of it as a business plan for your site. Or to put it in more literary terms, it’s like mapping out a long piece of nonfiction – for both the hardcover and the paperback edition.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: A lot of struggling writers are concerned about the costs of setting up a website. I know you write about doing it yourself, but if you don’t have the time or inclination, what’s the minimum a person can spend and still have something that looks professional?
ANNIK LAFARGE: Anybody should be able to get a fine looking blog/website using WordPress, Sandvox (only available for Mac) or Squarespace; these are content management systems that allow you to customize a site off an easy-to-use template for nothing (in the case of WordPress, which is purely open source) or less than a hundred bucks. If you’re working with WordPress pick a theme you like at themeforest.net—my favorite of the theme sites but there are zillions on the web. And if you’re intimidated by technology then hire a designer who can create a nice banner and who knows how to do the basic programming (so you don’t have to hire a separate programmer). This can be done for as little as $500 and most designers these days are very comfortable in WordPress particularly. BUT, there is a very strong argument to be made for building a website yourself. Writers care enormously about how they present their ideas and their presence on the page, and having control over their own “content” is extremely important. Understanding how your website or blog works – how to post new material, set up new sections, add photos and videos, link up with Facebook and other social media venues – means that you can always make changes and additions whenever you like; you’ll never be dependent on a webmaster or an overworked publicist again. For many authors a website is their beating heart in the public space. Creating one can feel daunting – anything more technical than Microsoft Word intimidates many writers – but it’s enormously empowering and creative, and the technology has evoloved to the point where honestly anyone can do it.
You can map out the structure for your website – e.g. create your own “wireframe,” which is to a website what a blueprint is to an architectural project – at a cool new site called GoMockingbird which is very easy to use and inexpensive. Or you can do it the old-fashioned way, using a pencil and an 8 ½ x 11 sheet of manuscript paper. But sketching out a site – putting your plan on paper – is a great way to work through your ideas about who you want to be on the web, and it can save you lots of time and frustration later on.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: You are now a self-published writer. What platform did you use? What was the costliest part of the process? What was your favorite part of the process.
ANNIK LAFARGE: I went the more complex route by setting up my book at many different retailers. I used Amazon’s CreateSpace for the POD (print-on-demand) paperback version of my book and am very happy with them; they have great customer service and excellent help documentation. Early on I decided I wanted my book to look like a real book – even the ebook version – so I paid a designer to do a proper interior and a cover. I thought I could do the Kindle conversion myself but I made a real hash of it, so I sent the manuscript to ebookconversion.com and let them create the ePub edition. Then I set up accounts at Apple’s iBookstore (using iTunes Connect), Barnes & Noble’s PubIt! (for the Nook), and Google Editions, and I simply uploaded the file at each place, created all the metadata (description, bio, etc.), and I was in business. For awhile I even sold a PDF of the book myself, on TheAuthorOnline.com, using an online tool called e-junkie, which allows you to sell digital products very easily and inexpensively. I could have gone to Lightning Source, which is a great company, and they would have streamlined the whole process for me, but I wanted to learn about each and every step along the way myself, and I make more money this way on every sale. It was time-consuming, but generally fairly easy to do. The most complicated part was dealing with Bowker who you have to go through to acquire an ISBN (the unique identifier for your book that retailers use to display and sell your book). But I’ve trained myself to go into what my partner Ann calls “the Sufi state” and become deeply patient before I visit any e-commerce site I want to partner with. I’ve found that eventually I can slog through and figure out just about everything I need to do, and there’s a particular satisfaction in that. Call it author empowerment.
What I love about ebooks and POD is how nimble they allow an author to be. You can update the content any time you like, and also change the price at will. You don’t get locked into decisions. And if you set up your own website, as I did with TheAuthorOnline.com, you get the benefit of the huge amount of traffic data that Google Analytics provides – for free. So you can learn a great deal about who your readers are.
My advice: start slow, be smart, have fun, and just get on with it.
Annik’s 10 1/2 Tips for Being a More Effective Author Online
No. 1: Think Like An Author
One of the things that authors (unlike other mere mortals) do is organize their thoughts and ideas. You don’t just sit down and write a book from page 1 to 300; you do a lot of thinking, researching, and planning. Tip #1 is to approach your web project in the same spirit. Put on your author hat and make notes and an outline. Start with several general questions that will help inform the overall organization of your website or blog:
– Who am I as an author? If you were writing the opening graf of a newspaper profile of yourself, what would you consider the ideal description of your work? Where would you place the greatest emphasis? Where the least?
– And then: What do my readers want? What sort of questions do they ask you when you make public appearances? What do they say when they write letters or emails to you?
– And: What do I want my readers to know about me that they may not currently know? This is your chance to write the Ur Q&A. Consider it a work-in-progress: post it, then keep adding to it as time goes by and your writing and career develop.
No. 2: Make a Content Plan, Part 1: Static Elements
Make a list of static elements that you want to include on your website: content that doesn’t get constantly updated or newly created like entries in a blog. First focus on things that you already have or would be easy to create: sample chapter(s); biography; reviews; Q&A; etc. Then start another list: stuff you’d love to add in the future (The Author Online contains an exhaustive list of features that readers say they like on author websites). Then go back and prioritize your master list and arrange the items into broad categories that could serve as the navigation on your site: Books (do you subdivide Fiction & Non-Fiction?), Bio, Journalism, About, etc. These are the categories that make sense to you, based on the work you did in Tip No. 1.
No. 3: Make a Content Plan, Part 2: New Elements
Consider where your new content will come from. Do you want to blog? (Do you have time to blog? Will you run out of steam after 3 months?) Will you write occasional articles/essays to post on your site? Will you share early chapters with your fans? Invite them to vote on jacket art from your publisher? Will you constantly post new links to bloggers, videos, new studies/research in your field, etc.?
No. 4: Be Smart Today and Plan to Grow in the Future
Websites evolve. The best thing you can do is be smart and focused at the beginning, and assume that you’ll grow your online presence with time and valuable feedback from fans, traffic data, and other sources. So if you’re just starting out be honest with yourself about how much time you can devote to your site; be ambitious but also realistic about your plan for adding new content. Focus on quality of content not quantity, and always circle back to the questions you asked yourself in No. 1: what do your readers want? What do you want them to know about you? Then think about what’s the best way to deliver that on your site and map out a plan for the coming months. And be sure to keep a handy list of “Future Features” and ideas for new content. Tip 4a: Set up a Dropbox account and keep your list in the cloud so you can always access and update it. This is particularly handy if you travel a lot, and you can install Dropbox on any mobile device. (See here for more about how Dropbox works. While you’re there, check out Evernote, another great app that helps you keep track of stuff you find online.)
No. 5: Build a Mailing List
Even if you don’t intend to send out an email newsletter create a sign-up form and place it conspicuously on every page of your website or blog. Do this on Day 1. You may not see a reason to have an e-letter today, but in a year or so you may. People come to your website because they like your work or they’re interested in your subject; give them a simple way to stay in touch. An author’s email list has tremendous value, and it will grow over time. Start now.
No. 6: Use an ESP
Use a professional email service provider (ESP) like MailChimp or Constant Contact. Some of these services are free until your list reaches a certain size (like MailChimp) and there are many benefits: they provide simple templates for creating professional-looking emails; easy opt-out links for your subscribers; and vast riches of analytic data about who opened your emails, what they clicked on, how many times they forwarded it, where they live, etc. From that data you will learn to do things better and more effectively in the future.
No. 7: Be Creative About Your Newsletter Signup
You don’t go on the radio and simply say “buy my book, it’s a great read.” You say: “buy my book because I describe all the best tools and strategies for killing a zombie and tell you how to prepare yourself in both an urban and a rural setting.” So in your newsletter signup offer some specifics about what your emails will deliver. For a very good example of a smart newsletter sign-up see the form that SocialMediaExaminer.com uses. They promise a value-add (a free video tutorial on using Twitter), and the text has a real voice. Another example of a creative newsletter signup is the blog CrazySexyLife.com. The first signup box I saw there (in 2009) had three separate options: daily, weekly and monthly, so the reader could choose how much of author Kris Carr’s stuff she really wanted. Recently Carr updated her newsletter signup and it’s still great, but very different and now she also offers a free piece of content for folks who sign up. You’ll find screenshots of all these examples at TheAuthorOnline.com/newsletter
No. 8: Use Google Analytics
Set up your Google Analytics account on Day 1 and get addicted. As you gain traffic you will find this a terrific editorial tool because you’ll know what your readers are looking for, what they actually spend time reading, where they come from (country, state, city), and much more valuable data. Nothing will teach you more about how you’re doing online than Google Analytics, and it’s free. Don’t forget: launch it on Day 1.
No. 9: Visit Your Own Site Regularly
Go to your website at least once every few weeks and test your links (they have an uncanny way of breaking for no apparent reason). While you’re there, chances are that something will strike you: “gee, I could do this better,” or “that featured article is feeling a bit long in the tooth, it’s time to replace it with something else.” Be objective, be critical, be creative. Test new things and check the results in Google Analytics. Then lather, rinse, repeat.
No. 10: Have Fun, Be Empowered
Websites are stressful – everybody knows that. But remember all those times you had a great idea for your publicist and it just never got off the ground? Well, guess what: with your own website you can do a whole lot on your own. And once you start understanding how to use it well, and you get in the groove (and you build up your mailing list, social networking fan base, RSS subscribers….) you’ll be able to reach your readers directly whenever, however, you want. And you can invite them to provide their feedback, both publicly (through blog comments, message boards, and of course in social networking environments) or you can keep things quiet and just enable people to email you via the site. You can start small and grow. Most of all, can you can do it yourself. Visit TheAuthorOnline.com for a rich (and constantly updated) list of resources, sample author and book-specific websites, online tools, articles, links, and more. Please email me and tell me what you think I can do better, or simply alert me to your web project. I’m interested, and many others are too. Most of all, have fun.
Good luck with your project!
New Orleans opened her beautiful, battered and FREEZING arms to us (it was as cold as a polar bear’s ovary in January in New Orleans, DO NOT come without your woolies!) as we made the next stop on our coast-to-coast pilgrimage listening to book pitchers from America’s citizen authors.
Food. Let’s talk eating first, since this is, after all, N’Awlins. Our first meal was at Cochon (that’s French for pig), recently voted #1 restaurant in New Orleans by the people who live there. Our amazing concierge from the W Hotel (best customer service this side of Zappos btw) snuck us in, otherwise we would never gotten seated.
Alligator. Pig’s feet. Hog’s head. Just reading the menu was an adventure in culinary exotica. We had smothered collard greens whose vinegar greenness melted in the mouth and intoxicated the taste buds. Creamy grits that made you want to cry for joy. Boudin balls crispy fried on the outside and mushy with flavorful sausage and rice on the inside. Black eyed pea and pork soup. A pork pie that made you rejoice to be alive, bursting with thick textures and deep dark gravy flavor combinations all set off by a crisp, crunchy crust. Dessert was a key lime pie that was to die for, with homemade butterscotch ice cream. Plus lime coconut sorbet that was extraterrestrially splendiferous.
On our last night we went to Commander’s Palace. It was the polar opposite of Cochon.
Upscale and formal as opposed to down-home and funky. A hidden kitchen versus the openness and excitement that comes from watching the chefs bustling, hurrying, and slaving over hot stoves. Vests and ties, not t-shirts and jeans. The food was also reflective of this schism. Whereas Cochon took traditional dishes and put contemporary spins on them, Commander’s was strictly old school. We had an appetizer that was simply spectacular – shrimp skewered with a slice of pork smothered in pepper sauce and accented by okra so fresh you expected it to grab your ass and woo you with a snappy pick-up line. But the last meal was sadly pedestrian. The grits were leaden, the gumbo was just above average, and the lamb no different than the lamb we’ve had at upscale joints across the country. Dessert salvaged the meal though: soufflé light and lovely set off by vanilla/whisky sauce; shortcake long on delicate buttermilk goodness and complimented by succulent strawberries and wicked whipped cream. One other important difference: Commander’s was $150; Cochon $60!
Okay, now to the secondary news: our event. Garden District Books is one of the delightful, intimate indie bookstores that reeks of charm and is run by a serious book person: Britton Trice.
The staff is warm, friendly, welcoming, and knows books inside and out. Actually we were scheduled to go there in September 2005 for an event, but were waylaid by Katrina, So it was joyful to finally make it there and to see the bookstore, and indeed N’Awlins not only up and running, but flourishing. It was a freezing night, but to our delight 75 people showed up to pitch.
A very stylish slow talker gave her pitch about a memoir of continually saying the wrong thing at the wrong time with the charming title: The Bumble Gene. Another writer told her story of ½ human, ½ alien hybrids. A trust-funded rock critic gave a lovely presentation about her coming-of-middle age memoir. But our winner blew us away. He pitched his middle school novel called Peaches, starring a “blaxploitation Pippi Longstockings.” It was unique yet familiar, funny and poignant, magically delivered. One of the things that sets this Pitchapalooza apart from dozens and dozens of others we’ve done was that lots and lots of the people told stories in which New Orleans herself was a main character. People there take a real pride in their crazy mishmash of a culture and history. It was way, way cool!
Again, we were blessed with a set of slammin’ judges. Susan Larson, who has her own NPR show after being the book critic at the Picayune for two decades, had a gentle wisdom and wit while dispensing pearls of valuable 411. Kathleen Nettleton of Pelican Publishing was wonderfully no-nonsense, with a real tell-it-like-it-is POV that comes from being in the family book business since she was 12 years old. She told the writers there how critical it is to research a publisher to make sure you fit perfectly on their list.
Writer tip: be nice, not bitter. We were confronted by a writer after the event who was hostile and angry, disgruntlement shooting off her like poison arrows. She complained about how we sucked because she didn’t get to pitch. As we said, there were 75 writers there; we would’ve been at the bookstore until 3AM if we stayed to hear everyone’s pitch. To offset the disappointment some feel, we offer a free one-on-one consultation for everyone who buys a book. But this was not enough for this lady. She snarled and huffed away. An incredibly handsome and snappily dressed doctor approached us full of thanks and gratitude. He didn’t get to pitch either, but said how much he learned by watching and listening. Immediately we wanted to help this guy. So he told us his story. He was a doctor who had overcome drug addiction while treating patients. Great story, told with style and heart.
We were sad to leave New Orleans, but there’s already talk of bringing us back down for the Tennessee Williams Book Fair. We can’t wait!
Got a good book idea? Do what I did: Bring it to the Pitchapalooza By Neal Wiegman
Pitch your book idea:
A second Pitchapalooza sponsored by Lyon Books will take place at the 1078 Gallery on Tuesday, Jan. 18, at 7 p.m. For writers who can’t make it then, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry (pictured) will be available to listen to pitches on Northstate ublic Radio’s call-in show “I-5 LIVE!” Monday, Jan. 17, at 8 p.m.
Three years ago I got the idea that I might have a book in me. It had been germinating for some time, but I hadn’t felt confident that I could do it. So when an opportunity came to pitch my idea—at what was called a Pitchapalooza—in front of a group that included a panel of judges who offered the possibility of being introduced to an agent, I decided to go for it.
That’s how, in November 2006, I found myself at Lyon Books, in downtown Chico, joining more than 30 wannabe authors standing before the microphone that afternoon. (A second Pitchapalooza is scheduled for Jan. 18; see the info box.)
That morning, in preparation for my one-minute pitch, I had written the first paragraph of what became a self-published historical novel, Walking the Way: A Medieval Quest.
When my turn came and I got up to face the crowd, I realized I was more nervous than I’d ever been in my life, although I’m used to speaking in front of groups. I think it was because of the time limitation. Fortunately, as I began, I was able to deal with my nervousness and steady my shaky voice by focusing on that first paragraph.
The panel of judges consisted of Susan Wooldridge, the Chico author of two best-selling books about writing, poemcrazy: freeing your life with words and Fool’s Gold: Making Something from Nothing and Freeing Your Creative Process; and the “Book Doctors,” Arielle Eckstut and her husband, David Henry Sterry, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published.
Eckstut has been a literary agent for 18 years, and Sterry is the best-selling author of 13 books, the last of which appeared on the cover of The New York Times Book Review. They’ve appeared on National Public Radio many times and taught publishing at Stanford University. They’ve helped dozens of talented amateurs become professionally published authors.
Pitchapalooza participants, their time allowances strictly enforced by stopwatch, attempt to convince the experts that their idea is worth consideration by an agent. After each writer’s pitch, the judges critique everything from concept to potential in the marketplace. Aspiring authors come away with concrete advice on how to improve their pitches, as well as a greater understanding of the ins and outs of the publishing industry.
Even if a pitch was poorly written or presented, the three judges gave encouraging feedback. I was told that a selling point in my favor was the fact that my wife and I had actually walked the medieval pilgrimage road to Santiago de Compostela in Spain that the hero of my novel follows on his quest. (I described that walk in “The bones of Saint James,” a feature story in the Dec. 24, 2009, issue of the CN&R that was another outgrowth of the Pitchapalooza.)
Nancy Wiegman, my wife, also attended the November 2006 event and was so impressed with the number of writers in the Chico area that she was inspired to create a platform for their books through radio interviews. A few months later Nancy’s Bookshelf debuted on Northstate Public Radio. She has now interviewed more than 150 mostly local and regional authors for her show, which airs on KCHO, 91.7 FM, Fridays at 10 am.
Sterry eventually returned to Chico to be interviewed on Nancy’s Bookshelf about memoir writing and how he helps writers put their passion into print.
He described the Pitchapalooza, which he invented, as “kind of like an American Idol for books, where everybody gets one minute.” When Nancy commented that the judges’ evaluation of each pitch was always very kind, Sterry replied, “Well, there’s no Simon [Cowell]. Yes, I have to censor all the angry, bitter, cynical thoughts that come through my head.”
Sterry thinks it’s important that everyone pitching a book idea get encouraging words: “You don’t want to go in public and be humiliated. Many people have a dream of getting a book published, and who am I to say their dream shouldn’t come true?”
Eckstut and Sterry have done Pitchapaloozas all over the country for years. “What I’ve discovered is that at every single event there are at least five book ideas that someone pitches and you go, ‘Oh, my God, there is a great book just waiting to be born.’ And people don’t have the mechanism in place for even explaining what their book is. What’s one of the hardest things to do is to take a 300-page book and condense it down to be able to explain it in 25 seconds, 30 seconds. It’s really an art.”