Entr’acte: how not to win friends and influence people, or what good writers can learn from bad author interviews

only a flesh wound

I hope you will pardon a brief digression from the topic at hand — standard format for manuscripts — but something I saw on television last night was such a marvelous example of what not to do in an author interview that I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to talk about how to do it better. So while I very rarely comment on pop culture in this forum, I am breaking into our series already in progress to spend a day chatting about what does and does not work in an author interview.

I’m thinking ahead, you see. When you give your first filmed or recorded interviews, I’d like to see you pull it off effectively — and, if possible, in a manner that might conceivably help you sell a few books. (I’m funny that way.)

The interview I saw last night did not, in my opinion, meet those minimal criteria for interview success. For the sake of those who do not have time or be in a space that allows for running acrimonious video clips, though, I shall give a general description of what happened before starting to talk theory.

Basically, this author (who shall remain nameless throughout, as I have not read his book, and I don’t want any of this to be construed as a review of it) fell into a trap that book-promoting authors — particularly first-time authors — tumble into all the time: he seemed to forget that what he was doing there was promoting his book.

Oh, you may laugh, but it happens all the time. In the excitement of dealing with public attention, it’s very, very easy to forget that the person in front of you — be it talk show host (as in this instance), radio host, a freelancer who picks up extra cash by interviewing authors, or even a question-asking audience member at a book reading — did not walk into the room because you’re a fascinating person. If you’re an author booked for an interview, the interviewer is there to talk about your book.

As, incidentally, are you, if you’re on a book tour. If you should also happen to be a fascinating person, well, that’s just icing on the cake.

The cake itself is your book and your ability to talk about it in such a way that readers, hearers, and/or audience members will remember your name and the book’s title after the interview ends. If you can also manage to talk about your subject matter in such a way that it causes these people to murmur, “My, but that sounds like an interesting book; I think I shall check it out,” well, let’s just say that your publisher will be grateful.

True, your mother may wonder why you didn’t mention your fourth-grade softball team, but trust me, everyone else who participated in your book’s road to publication will be happy that you remembered that the author’s job in the interview is to make the book, not himself, look good.

I can say it in three or four more ways, if it’s still not sinking in. Trust me on this one: if you have any significant success in a writing career — and I sincerely hope that you do — it’s advice that will serve you well.

Seriously, if you take nothing else from this post, please, I implore you, cling like a leech to the notion that a book-promoting author is first and foremost a marketer. That way, you’ll never find yourself in the hideously embarrassing (yet disturbingly common) position of realizing after an interview is over — or, sacre bleu! after it’s already aired or been published in a magazine — that you were chatting away as if everyone in the audience were waiting breathlessly to hear your opinion on everything but your subject matter.

“Book?” audience members and readers say after such interviews. “What book? I just thought that guy was there as a pundit. Was I supposed to remember anything else but what side he took in the debate?”

Speaking of erring on the side of punditry, as you may already have gathered from my vehemence on this particular point, the author in today’s example did not, in my opinion, consistently bear in mind that he was at least ostensibly there to promote his newly-released book. Stepping almost completely into the role of opinion-giver, he got into an argument with the interviewer, not a bad strategy for a pundit, but almost always a losing proposition for an author promoting a book.

The result: the author lost his cool during a nationally televised interview, so much so that by the time the segment ended, he was actively arguing that the host should waive the length restriction and allow him to keep talking uninterrupted “to make the points I came here to make.”

As someone who has both conducted and given many, many interviews, I’m here to tell you: that’s not a request that’s at all likely to be granted by a friendly interviewer. The chances of an interviewer the interviewee has already insulted agreeing to such an arrangement are roughly equivalent to the probability that dinosaurs will spontaneously appear in each of our back yards first thing tomorrow morning, bearing gift baskets of freshly-baked croissants.

Let’s just say that your flowerbeds are safe from dinosaur-trampling.

The weird thing, from a book-promotion perspective, was that in promoting this book on this particular talk show, an argument was 100% predictable, and thus could have been prepared for with ease. The author was promoting an overtly political book on a television show whose host (and studio audience, apparently) did not concur with his political opinions. Which happens all the time, right? Surely, anyone who had watched the show before — as any reasonably prudent author should always do before giving an interview on it — would have been able to predict the likelihood of a political debate ensuing.

As, indeed, an author of any kind of controversial book might reasonably expect in any interview situation. If one of your book’s selling points is its potential to spark debate, you would walk into any interview prepared for a debate to be sparked, right?

But as so often occurs in both television and radio interviews, the author in this case did not seem particularly well prepared for this contingency. Or so I surmise from the fact that by roughly a minute and 45 seconds into the 11-minute interview, the author clearly began to become flustered by the host’s wanting to have a political debate.

On a show that takes as its daily subject matter political news. Who could have seen that coming, eh?

So already, we should be grateful to this author, for he has taught aspiring authors everywhere something about preparing for an interview: watching (or in the case of radio, listening) to at least a handful of episodes of the show is essential to the preparation process. For print interviews, there’s no substitute for reading some recent articles by the interviewer.

Why? Well, can you think of a better way to become aware of any slant the interviewer might have? Or — and this is even more important for an author promoting a book — any particular kind of response that interviewer’s established audience might expect?

As today’s example illustrates so beautifully, it’s really not a good idea to wait until the interview is actually in progress before finding out these things. By 1:45 in, what had been a fairly intelligent exchange of ideas directly related to the topic of this poor author’s book began to degenerate into just another political argument of the type that anyone who has turned on a cable news program within the last couple of years has seen a dozen times over.

Hey, I have nothing against political debates — although I hasten to add that my point here is not to prompt my readers to start arguing about who was right and wrong politically in this instance; we’re here to talk about how to present and promote writing, right? — but in this case, allowing the interview to devolve into one cost the author rather dearly: in the minds of the viewers (who are, he hopes, his potential readers, right?), his book has become just another argument for his side of a political debate, rather than a book about his subject matter.

In other words, his message became generic, rather than book-specific, and therefore much, much easier for potential readers to tune out.

Now, as I mentioned above, I have not read this book; I have no idea how it does or doesn’t resemble other books produced by authors of a similar political stripe. But as someone who frequently promotes books, I can say for certain that when an author presenting himself as an expert on a particular topic stops talking about that particular topic in an interview, it’s usually harder for potential readers to remember what the book’s about after the interview ends.

Tell me: would you feel that was an effective use of your book’s promotional time?

Let’s return to the arguing author — who, regardless of how one might feel about his politics, was by this juncture in an exceptionally hard position for a book-promoting writer. There were 8 minutes and 15 seconds remaining in the televised interview, the argument in progress was veering farther and farther away from the subject matter of his book, and in order to make his book sound authoritative, he needed to make sure viewers understood just how and why he was a credible expert — or, to put it in terms the whole industry could understand, to establish his platform.

Which, frankly, I’m still rather at a loss to explain — and I re-watched this interview three times, in preparation for writing this post. From what I saw in the first 1:45 of this interview, it wouldn’t even have occurred to me that in order to understand his particular corner of the political world, I should rush right out and buy his book.

In other words: the interview up to that point had failed the litmus test of any author interview. It did not interestingly promote the book he was there to promote.

How, then, could he have turned the interview around? What would you have done in his place?

Since my readers are a pretty savvy bunch, I’m guessing that your first answer to that question was not, “Why, I’d start talking over the host, in order to win the argument, with an eye toward talking about my book after I had reduced the host to silence.” That would be a strategically poor choice, right? Not only would virtually any interviewer resent it, but since it renders both sides of a discussion substantially harder for onlookers or listeners to follow, it tends to annoy even a sympathetic audience.

But guess what our exemplar du jour did?

Uh-huh. For most of the rest of the interview. Punctuated, unwisely, by statements like, “Let me get a word in edgewise,” and “Let me make my point.”

Not the best way to endear oneself to any interviewer, and usually not a particularly effective means of garnering sympathy from an audience. Audiences are smart: they can tell for themselves when an interviewee is being bullied.

Which was not, to my eye, the case here, incidentally; I could be wrong about the motivation here, but as nearly as I could tell the author merely seemed to be unused to making his case to people who did not already agree with his political views. Again, rather strange, given that even a passing familiarity with the show would have lead him to expect that.

Here again, though, we writers can learn something from this situation: in preparing for any interview situation, an author should always practice in mock interviews with both friendly and hostile interviewers.

Established authors do this all the time, and for very good reason: if they’re not prepared to parry wittily off-camera and off the record with someone they already know, experience tells them that making being grilled by a total stranger under a studio’s worth of bright lights look easy is going to be, well, hard. Hey, being urbane requires some serious practice.

Besides, it’s a great way to get your more passive-aggressive kith and kin involved in promoting your book. Come on — don’t you have a cousin or former college roommate who wouldn’t just love the opportunity to try to get your goat under the guise of interview prep? Right before you embark on a book tour is a dandy time to put ‘em to work.

Do I see a few hands raised out there in the ether? “But Anne,” some timid souls point out, “what makes you think that last night’s interviewer was not trying to be a bully? I’ve just watched the interview, and the host kept firing questions at the author.”

Good point, timid souls — but if a writer is going on a book tour, or even talk to readers at a book signing, he’s going to need to steel himself to the possibility of being asked questions related to his book. Especially in an interview, because, let’s face it, it’s the interviewer’s job to keep asking questions.

In this case, though, I have another reason for thinking well of the interviewer’s motivations: after the frustrated author had been increasingly talking over him, even mid-question, for quite some time, at 6 minutes and 10 seconds into the interview, the host changed the subject rather pointedly back to, you guessed it, the general subject matter of the book. Which, considering that both parties were visibly annoyed by that point, was actually rather generous of him.

Need I even say that the author did not respond to it that way? Having gotten into an argumentative rhythm, he reacted not by eagerly seizing the opportunity to talk about his book — the reason he had come on the show in the first place, lest we forget — but as an invitation to further debate. But by then, the author was clearly in it to win the argument, period.

Always a bad move in an interview, by the way, even if you’re 100% positive that you are right and the interviewer is wrong. Why? Well, think about it: even in a televised or radio interview, the host is inevitably going to have the last word, right? He can talk about you after you have left; the show’s directors, producers, and editors are going to have the power to edit what you said. And in print, an unfriendly interviewer can simply not reproduce what you said correctly.

Tell me, would you rather have these people on your side, or to win the argument?

Before you answer that, allow me to add that I’m not asking your heart here; I’m asking your head. Specifically, the part of your brain that wants to convince potential readers to go out and pick up a copy of your book.

Winning a short-term argument at all costs no longer sounds like the best long-term strategy, does it? Again, we can extrapolate a general rule: feel free to make your case in an interview, but if the discussion gets nasty or personal, turn the talk back to the book. Remember, your goal here is to get the interviewer to help you promote it, not beat him in an argument.

What can happen if an interviewee loses sight of that goal? Fortunately for our learning curve, today’s example shows us a frequent outcome: about a minute after the host threw the author that lifeline, he visibly gave up on trying to talk about the book. For the next several minutes, the interview once again devolved into a political debate between two people who do not agree about politics.

Good television? Perhaps, but again, I ask you: is this the most efficient use of televised promotional time, from the author’s point of view?

Obviously, this interview was not going well, either on a promotional or personal level, and time was running out. The author had things he wanted to say, so he kept speaking faster and faster, reacting to questions as distractions, rather than invitations to elaborate. Whenever the host tried to jump in, the author kept repeating that he wasn’t being allowed to talk — and kept right on talking.

Sometimes, an author being interviewed in front of a studio audience (as was the case in our example) will respond to conflict by trying to appeal to the audience, rather than the interviewer. Sometimes this works, sometimes it does not. In this case, the latter. Unfortunately — yet absolutely predictably, to anyone who had ever seen the show before — the audience sided with the host, not the author.

How did the author respond to that? Not in a manner at all likely to win any member of that audience over as a potential reader: at one point, he held up his hand to stop the audience from applauding something the host said.

Oh, dear. Need I even tell you how that went over with the audience?

Because I know all of you are kind people and sensitive souls, I tremble to relate what happened in the minute or so that followed this imperious gesture. Suffice it to say that voices were raised, and the host had to hush him in order to announce that they were going to have to break for a commercial. The author made fun of the host for wanting to break for a commercial, wasting still more time that he could have used for, say, making one last attempt to sell his book.

Since the interview had, in fact, already worn on longer than average for this show, the host apparently did need to wrap things up, so as interviewers tend to do, he gave a brief summary of his last point in order to round out the segment. Throughout, the author just kept calling the host’s name, trying to get him to stop.

And then it got worse, from a book-promoting perspective. No, really.

Since the scheduled interview time was over, the host did something he had frequently done before with problematic interviews: told the author and audience that although he had to break here, they would continue to tape the interview and post it in its entirety, unedited, on the show’s website. (As indeed they did: roughly 30 minutes of footage of this interview is posted there, should you wish to see it.) Again, even a fairly cursory review of past interviews on this show would have led a well-prepared book-promoting author to expect this move.

You can feel it coming, can’t you?

The author began protesting posting the rest of the interview, instead of televising it in its entirety. “So I can’t make my points on the air?” he demanded, as if the show — or indeed, any television or radio show — would have had infinite time at its disposal. (Word to the wise: any taped interview will need to fit within a pre-scheduled segment. If you talk longer, it will have to be edited down, so either limiting the length or editing are the two available options.) To bolster his case, he revisited his earlier mantra about not being allowed to speak uninterrupted: “You did most of the talking,” he said — unwisely, I thought, because any viewer at home with TiVo would not be able to go back and check the veracity of this statement. “I didn’t get a chance.”

What happened next was something that I have actually never seen, heard, or read before in any author interview — which, considering that I have listened to authors talk about their promotional interviews before, after, and sometimes even during them since before I could talk myself, is genuinely saying something. (Hey, you didn’t think I would have interrupted our ongoing series for a merely pedestrian example of an interview snafu, did you?)

What happened next was this — and I swear I’m not making this up: the author and interviewer spent over a minute of air time debating about who had talked more during the interview. The author kept claiming that the host had “talked right through me”; the host was so astonished that he apologized, then said, “Geez, I’m just trying to think of a way…can I remove what I said and just have you speak.”

The audience laughed, of course: no one seriously believes that the proper definition of an interview is an uninterrupted monologue by the interviewee. Although that was precisely the implication of the author’s protests, wasn’t it?

I’m not bringing this up to castigate the author or the interviewer — as I said, I have not read the guy’s book, and I have no wish to say anything that might lead any potential reader to eschew his book, or indeed, any fellow author’s book. I suppose, too, that a case could be made that by engaging in an unseemly public fight, an author of a political book is promoting his work, although personally, I seldom see someone being rude on TV and immediately think, “Wow, I’m finding that fellow strangely credible. Bring me any books he may have happened to have written, and pronto, that I may imbibe more of his point of view!”

But none of that is why I decided to devote today to what in all honesty was a pretty annoying interview to watch. This is: of all of the interesting things a habitual viewer of that particular program could have taken away from this interview, very few of them would, in my opinion, have made the book more memorable. And that, in my opinion, is a wasted book promotional interview.

“But Anne,” some of you point out, and who could blame you? “From what you’ve said here, the author made himself plenty memorable. Isn’t that, you know, good enough for a book tour stop?”

It might have been enough — barely — if the televised interview had seared the author’s name into the viewer’s consciousness by its end; it is indeed true that an intelligent viewer is perfectly capable of typing an author’s name into a search engine, coming up with the title of his book, and ordering it. But I’d be kind of surprised if most viewers found the author’s name the most memorable thing about this interview. More importantly from a promotional perspective, it’s almost certainly not what they’ll mention first about this interview if they talk to their kith, kin, and/or coworkers about it.

You know what they’ll say? “This guy was interviewed on the Daily Show, and there was this incredible fight.”

Correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the Daily Show being promoted by interpersonal communications like this, not the book the author went on the show to push?

Sadly, this outcome is far from rare; even Q&As at book signings occasionally go hideously wrong. So much has been written about the culture of celebrity and the mixed blessing of punditry that I’m sure all of you are more than capable of drawing your own conclusions about why authors so frequently confuse presenting their viewpoints — or personalities — with promoting their books.

But please, when your time comes, don’t make that mistake. Yes, the book is your baby, but the goal of any book-promotion exercise is to interest potential readers in the book, not just the author. If you can’t make the darned thing sound fascinating, who can?

In other words, respect your writing enough to be willing to talk about it in a way that will attract readers. On TV, on the radio, in print, at public readings, at book signings, online, and anywhere else anyone’s willing to listen. Because that, my friends, is how effective book promotion is done.

Oh, and when that happy day comes, humor me: do your homework about anyone who might conceivably interview you; remember, you’re trying to turn at least some of that person’s audience into yours. You’d be surprised at how far just research can go toward charming a potentially hostile interviewer.

Don’t believe me? Okay, go out and find me an interviewer who would not be pleased to hear her next subject say, “Oh, I just loved your interview with X, and here are the 14 reasons why,” and then we’ll discuss the matter further.

In the meantime, isn’t it about time that we got back to the pressing matter of manuscript format? Join me next time for more close examination of technicalities — and as always, keep up the good work!

Not another best and worst of the decade list!

one-way sign in graveyard

It’s certainly been a year — and a decade — of mixed blessings, hasn’t it? Why, only last month, as I was noting with annoyance that Publishers’ Weekly’s list of the top 100 new releases of 2009 did not contain a single book by a female author, I realized with a shock that the Matthew Crawford at #8 used to sit next to me in grad school seminars. Naturally, I rushed out and bought Shop Class as Soulcraft at a brick-and-mortar bookstore right away, on general principle and to boost my writerly karma, but it made me think: the dark, dark clouds of the last year have certainly had some odd silver linings.

So, belatedly: congratulations, Matt. And here’s to finding writers I like on 10-best lists, anywhere, anytime.

I’ve been mulling over those unexpected flashes of silver in the sky all month, as I’ve been gearing up to this, my last post of the decade. I had planned to come up with one of those ubiquitous best and worst lists from a writerly perspective — you know, books I hated, editors at Random House I was sorry to see take early retirement, that sort of thing.

Frankly, coming up with a worst list was no problem at all. Took about four minutes. Yet every single one of my hard-found bests — all seven of them — were charming surprises like seeing Matt’s name turn up on the PW list, not genuine trends I could laud as harbingers of good things coming to writers everywhere. And while I could follow the excellent example of other end-of-the-decade commenters like Julianna Baggott (whose recent Washington Post article on why it is so hard for female authors to crack those top ten lists is well worth reading, by the way), devoting my last post of the year purely to criticism of the status quo, I just can’t bring myself to believe that those silver linings, however few and far between, are not something worth celebrating.

But let’s not kid ourselves: we writers have a heck of a lot to complain about these days.

So here’s what I’m going to do. First, I’ll be taking a barefoot run through what I think are the ten worst things to happen to writing over the last decade, followed by what I consider the single nastiest development for aspiring writers. Then, with all of that out of our collective system, I’ll let you in on some reasons that I think all of us should continue keeping the faith.

With me? Tremendous. Let the snarly bits begin.

The Ten Worst Things to Happen to Writing in the 2000s So Far

(10) Benefit-free simplification of the language
You know what I’m talking about, right? We’ve all picked up a newspaper — remember those? — and been knocked out of an otherwise interesting article by , say, the completely gratuitous capitalization of the first word following a colon. It’s never been correct in English — so why the heck has it suddenly become so very common in recent years? Why, in fact, has it become acceptable by AP editing standards?

For heaven’s sake, it’s not a new sentence!

Okay, so maybe that’s not the type of irritant that makes folks who don’t read or write manuscripts for a living choke on their coffee, but I assure you, such creeping attacks on literacy drive those of us who do absolutely nuts. Why? Because after enough readers have seen the incorrect version often enough and in authoritative enough sources, it will begin to look correct to them.

Can the fall of civilization be far behind?

No, but seriously, the last decade has seen the dubious legitimization of quite a lot of technically incorrect practices. More nails on the proverbial blackboard:

* The use of quality as a synonym for high-quality, without the necessary modifier. Technically, quality could be high, low, or middling. The sole exception, as far as I know, is when it refers to obsolete social class distinctions: it was obvious from her bearing that she was a lady of quality.

See? I didn’t capitalize the first word after the colon in that last sentence, and the grammar gods didn’t strike me dead on the spot.

* The use of unique with a modifier, as in she is very unique. By definition, something is unique because it is the only one of its kind.

* Leaving question marks off sentences that are clearly questions, as in do you hear me. It’s a lame writer’s trick, intended to convey flatness of tone. If only the language contained some sort of descriptors for sound, so the reader could know how a speaker’s voice sounds…oh, wait, it does.

Nit-picky? You bet. But since when did wielding the language correctly become optional for good writers?

(9) Conspiracy theories whose individual elements can be adequately exposed within a three-page scene.
I’m looking at you, Dan Brown. Just once, couldn’t a necessary clue not be instantly recognizable the second our hero stumbles upon it? Followed, perhaps, by that crusty old character who has held his tongue for the past forty-three years not blurting out everything he knows the instant the protagonist happens to ask? Or sometimes even before he asks?

Call me a complexity-monger, but if a long-unsolved mystery can be revealed to the first yahoo who bothers to glance in its direction, and that within the first four minutes, I’m just not interested. I have too much faith in the inventive capacities of mystery writers to settle for boneheaded plot twists.

(8) Single spaces after periods and colons in manuscripts.
Yes, yes, I know: eliminating these necessary spaces in published books saves a lot of paper and ink. In a manuscript, however, omitting these spaces is not only an offense to the rules of punctuation, but renders text significantly harder to edit by hand.

Which, in case you’d been wondering, is generally the only way to catch the kind of errors mentioned in (10). And why it’s so obvious to most professional readers handed a manuscript without the necessary two spaces that the writer has not worked with an editor before.

(7) A radical increase in pop culture references in published books.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in, say, a memoir: mentioning that the protagonist’s sister is lying on the floor, watching a brand-new Gilligan’s Island episode is a legitimate way to give a sense of place and time to a scene. But using current pop references in a novel to make it seem up-to-date now will simply render it out of date in five years.

Sorry; I don’t make the rules governing the turnover rate of pop culture. Nor of the passage of time.

I object to this one, like the last, primarily for its negative effect upon aspiring writers. It can take a couple of years for a manuscript to travel the bumpy road from sale to a publishing house to a spot on a bookshelf at Borders; what’s hip today may well be dated by then. Manuscripts still do get rejected, and often, by old-school professional readers trained to spot references that readers will not necessary catch three years from now.

Yes, I know: you’ve seen plenty of published books with these references. So have I. That doesn’t mean that it’s in your best interest to follow their example.

(6) Not dividing the YA market into as strongly-defined book categories as the adult market
Didn’t see that one coming, did you? Well, I guess you might have to talk to a lot of writers, agents, and editors to notice this problem, but since YA has taken off as a major market, more and more agents who represent primarily adult fiction have, predictably, started actively seeking out the next Harry Potter or Twilight.

Which are, correct me if I’m wrong, quite different from each other. So how is an aspiring writer to know what an agent who says she’s looking for YA, any YA, to know what she’s got in mind?

Defining YA books more precisely would be very, very helpful to agent-seeking writers — and not just by guiding those who write YA paranormal romance to agencies with a more successful record with vampire stories than horse books. Lumping too many kinds of YA together makes it harder for those who write for niche markets — like, say, the book for the smartest girl in the class, rather than for the boy who has a hopeless crush on an unattainable girl — find the right homes for their books.

There is literally nothing writers can do about this one, of course. Doesn’t mean it’s not worth grumbling over.

(5) “Whatever!”
Oh, God, how I wish that this one had never entered the language — although, as a means of irritating adults, I suppose the very fact that I want to strangle the next character who utters it indicates that it has been a rousing success.

Fine; you win, whatever-ers. Now give it a rest, already.

I’m not talking to young writers here, although I must admit that I have had a younger students hand me pages where whatever played a prominent role. (Unfortunately, the pages were in a term paper on Rousseau, and the first sentence that caught my eye was In human beings’ natural state, they all lived alone or whatever. The ensuing discussion was not pretty.) I’m aiming this complaint squarely at adult writers who shove whatever into their teenage characters’ mouths in an effort to make them sound like, well, teenagers.

Personally, I find this dismissive; most of the teenagers I know are pretty interesting people. As a reader, I want to hear what a specific teenage character has to say, not to see her merely parrot what any generic teenager might say.

And don’t tell me that young people really talk that way; real-life dialogue can be pretty boring. Astonish me with how your characters are different from anyone I might overhead in a movie ticket line, rather than lulling me to sleep with a transcript.

Want to show an attitude problem? Go right ahead. Writers have plenty of other narrative tools with which to demonstrate all kinds of emotional states.

(4) The demotion of the art of memoir to mere journalism
As recently as seven or eight years ago, memoirists signed contracts with their publishers that specified that the stories they were telling were essentially true, to the best of their knowledge. Lawsuits did occasionally happen, but pretty much everyone concerned recognized that (a) every human being recollects any shared event differently, (b) one of the things that separates a gifted memoirist from the rest of the population is the ability to hone and plane reality into a story that someone might conceivably want to read, and (c) occasionally, the effective exercise of (b) might lead to a bit of narrative fudging.

In short, no one seriously believed that all memoirists did was stand around for their entire pre-publication lives, taking notes like a court reporter. Poetic license was considered legitimate. Heck, ten years ago, you’d only have to buy a junior editor at a major publishing house one drink before he’d be assuring you that the latest celebrity memoir was a good 87% poetry.

Oh, I’m sorry — should I have warned you that the emperor’s clothes were about to be affected by gravity?

Now, memoirists are not only often required to sign iron-clad contracts, taking on all legal liability for any misstatements, but sometimes have to obtain signed releases from anyone mentioned in the book. Under the threat of negative publicity, publishers have been regarding memoirs with a far more suspicious eye. And no wonder, given how the media has reacted to the news: one established memoirist after another is outed as having made up salient facts, and some hyper-literal reporter so misunderstood David Sedaris’ essays that he meticulously fact-checked them.

Sedaris writes humor, people. Comedy writers see things differently than the general population. And may I introduce you once again to the concept of poetic license? Should I invite you all over for dinner, so you may get better acquainted?

It’s tempting to blame James Frey, he of the Million Little Pieces scandal, for this rather severe shift in publishing attitude. If only those rumors that his agent sold the book as a novel, not a memoir, would stop circulating so persistently, I might be able to jump on that bandwagon. However, as a memoirist whose publisher was dogged with lawsuit threats (unfounded) over my book, I’m inclined to think that the real culprit here is a trend for authors to be saddled with more and more of the burdens of bringing out a successful book.

If an author is now expected to, say, pay for his own book tour or hire his own publicist, is it really all that astonishing that he should be saddled with all of the risk of telling his own story? The emperor needs a new wardrobe, after all.

(3) The rise of editing on computer screens
I’m placing this one near the top of my list, since it has contributed so heavily to some of the problems lower down. Long-time readers of this blog, pull out your hymnals and sing along: since the human eye reads 70% faster on a screen than on a page, it is markedly more difficult to catch typos, logical problems, and other textual errors if one edits on a computer screen.

I could — and have — unleash an avalanche of examples at this point, but I’ll restrain myself and provide only one, a little something I like to call the according to Smith problem. See if you can spot it for yourself in this (completely fictional) article opening:

For the Anderson family, this was not the New Year’s Eve they were expecting. Last year, and every year before that, Mom Sheila, Dad Egbert, twins Drucilla and Delward, and little Ermintrude had gathered around the cheerful fire on their hearth, toasting one another with the vodka-laced grog Sheila’s grandmother used to make.

That was before the fire. Like so many now-scarred Americans, the Andersons were tragically unaware that vodka is flammable.

According to Smith, however, the turning of the year was not the only time the family used to drink. “I thought the kids were a little young. I mean, grog in the baby’s bottle? But hey, who am I to tell them how to raise ‘em?”

Did you catch it? No? Here’s a hint: WHO IS SMITH?

As an editor, this sort of editing error drives me nuts — and I assure you, it is an editing error, not a writing one. To an editorial eye, it’s fairly obvious that in an earlier draft, a sentence identifying Smith, probably including his first name and his relationship to the Andersons, appeared prior to the paragraph with the quote. In a subsequent draft, the reference was cut, and nobody noticed.

Except the confused reader, that is.

Would this be a good time to remind you to read your manuscripts IN HARD COPY, IN THEIR ENTIRETY, and, if possible, OUT LOUD? No? Okay, I’ll move on to my next point.

(2) The swiftly-widening gap between advances for bestselling authors and those less established
Do I really have to explain to a readership of writers why this one is bad for our art form? I doubt it, but just in case I need to spell it out: tiny advances mean that first-time authors can’t quit their day jobs.

Am I the only one who worries that the full-time book writer is in danger of becoming obsolete? And does anyone seriously believe that eventuality will improve the overall quality of the literary market?

Especially in combination with…

(1) The rapid turnover of editors, or, the rise of the five-editor book project
Ten years ago, it was rare that the editor who acquired a manuscript did not remain with the project all the way through the publication process. Heck, it was fairly normal for an editor to stick with a successful author for half a career.

Now, a first-time author may thank her lucky stars if her book is handled by only two or three editors; the turnover rate over the last year has been so rapid that I know no fewer than three authors whose books were overseen by five editors, all of whom wanted the book to be something different. One poor novelist got assigned a new editor less than a month before his book was scheduled to be printed.

Guess how he spent the first three weeks of that month? Oh, well, his protagonist didn’t really need that lesbian sister, anyway.

I’m not casting aspersions on any of his five editors, of course; for all I know, each of their widely divergent opinions on the book could have worked — had it been the only editorial vision. I’m merely suggesting that continually asking writers to adjust their creative process to different masters’ expectations within a single project might not be the most efficient means to get the best out of talented people.

Of course, the rate of turnover isn’t really the editors’ fault — I’ve seldom meant one who actively yearned to be fired — any more than the notoriously short average tenure of agency screeners and editorial assistants is the result of some active conspiracy of the powerless. So before we leave behind the blame portion of our evening, let’s talk about one other negative development for writers that is very much within these decision-makers’ control.

Bonus: the increasingly common practice of agents and editors not responding to submissions at all
A decade ago, an agent’s using a form letter to reject a query was the most common source of complaint among aspiring writers; now, it’s far from uncommon for that same agent not to respond to a query at all if the answer is no. But until just a couple of years ago, it was unheard-of for an agency to apply the silence-means-no practice to requested materials.

The times, they have indeed been a-changin’. Now, it’s not unusual for a submitter to hear back 6 months later, or even not at all.

Obviously, this widespread policy shift has been terrible for agent-seeking writers — and not just because it’s harder to wait five months to hear back than two. How, for instance, is a writer to know whether four months of non-response means that (a) his manuscript has been rejected, (b) his manuscript has not been rejected, but has not yet been read by all of the people who need to read it before the agent can say yes, or (c) the manuscript never got there in the first place?

Yet despite this quite radical change in how some agencies — not all, thank goodness — handle requested submissions, most aspiring writers still submit to only one agent at a time. Or even — sacre bleu! — query one at a time.

In the current environment, that means that even a writer who gets picked up unusually quickly will unnecessarily waste a year or two. Once again, I implore you: unless an agent’s website or guide listing specifically says s/he will not accept simultaneous submissions, keep sending out your work.

Unless, of course, you have an extra decade or so to kill before your book gets published?

Okay, that’s enough gloom-inducement for one night. On to the reason that all of you talented writers out there should keep pushing forward, despite an increasingly difficult publishing environment.

Come closer, and I’ll whisper it: the fact that it’s become significantly more difficult to get it published has little to do with the quality of your writing; these are systemic changes. But that doesn’t mean a good manuscript isn’t still worth promoting.

Yes, yes, I know: that sounds suspiciously similar to what I’ve been saying here at Author! Author! for the last five years. It’s still true. The primary difference is that in the face of ever-heightening barriers to good writers’ getting discovered, it’s becoming harder and harder to keep the faith.

And yet you still push forward, don’t you? That’s one of the things I love most about our Author! Author! community: we don’t give up on our talent. Even when the odds are, frankly, pretty ridiculous, good writers keep writing.

Which is why, despite my deep concerns about the future of writing, I’ve decided to end the year not with my suggestions for how to keep the faith, but yours. Here, at long last, are the winners of November’s Words to Write By contest:

“Don’t look down.” — Jennifer Crusie, bestselling romance author

Submitted by Jenyfer Matthews, who adds: “Seemingly simple, I interpret this quote to mean believe in yourself. Be brave enough to take that first step and then let the magic of the writing process carry you. Keep your head up, eyes forward, and just keep putting one word in front of the other until you reach the end. Don’t second guess yourself or the story – or else. Have faith.”

I’m with you, Jenyfer. Here’s another:

“You are allowed to suck.” — Mur Lafferty

Submitted by Bart Silverstrim, who went on to explain: “I first heard that aphorism as one of Mur Lafferty’s Rules of Writing in her podcast called “I Should be Writing.” My fears of ridicule, lack of talent, not being “good enough” to deserve the chance to become a published author melt away when I remind myself of this. It is the permission that all new (or aspiring) authors need in order to face that keyboard; you cannot edit your manuscript that sucks into something better until you have a manuscript to improve upon!”

So true, Bart. In a similar spirit:

“I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” — Dodie Smith

Submitted by Natalie Kingston, along with this charming comment: “I love this quote; it’s the opening line of I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith (more famous for her Disney-adapted work The Hundred and one Dalmations). It reminds me that it’s always possible to find the time and space to write, if you look hard enough. It’s Virginia Woolf’s “room of one’s own” shrunk down to fit into the most prosaic, domestic space. The quote is typical of the whole novel, which contrasts romanticism of writing and the cold reality; the father takes a forty year lease on a dilapidated but charming castle in the hopes it will help him write his second novel, but it is his daughter who takes inspiration from their struggles to survive there. It reminds me not to cut myself off, and that the best ideas come from the most unexceptional places.”

Feeling more empowered already, aren’t you? Hold that feeling, because here comes the entry the judges found most inspiring of all, the winner of a brand-spanking-new copy of Askhari Johnson Hodari and Yvonne McCalla Sobers’ excellent LIFELINES: THE BLACK BOOK OF PROVERBS:

“I am a writer. I have books to write. What am I doing building a museum?”
~ Orhan Pamuk, possibly from a New York Times interview on the creation of his new museum

Submitted by Juniper Ekman, who went on to say:

“This is a quote I post to each page of my calendar, the quote I have taped to my phone. This is the quote I write in permanent marker on my palm so I can hold it up every time I answer yes to the wrong question:

“Do you have a few hours to make fifteen puppets for the holiday puppet show?”

“I know you’re already working five jobs, but would you mind coming in for an extra shift on Thursday? We forgot to hire somebody to replace the last employee we fired.”

Or when I find myself distracted by my hobbies, my friends, my feller, my life. All the things that make life worth living but prevent me from living on.

What am I doing?

No.
I am a writer.
I have books to write.”

I can think of no better way to end the year. Congratulations, Juniper, Natalie, Bart, and Jenyfer for trumping some pretty hefty competition for top inspiring quote, and thanks for helping all of us keep the faith for another year.

I say it at the end of every post, but never have I meant it more: keep up the good work, my friends. The world needs to hear your voice.

The guest post so nice I ran it twice: if this is Tuesday, it must be Minneapolis, by Stan Trollip

Trollip, Rusoff, Sears

Hello, campers –

As I mentioned yesterday, I’m writing on a deadline this weekend — a perennial fact of life for a professional writer, incidentally — so I’m seizing the opportunity to re-run a guest post by FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! blog) Stanley Trollip. Yes, some of you may have read it earlier in the summer, but readership always dips a bit as the summer winds down, and Stan’s post is on a subject upon which most aspiring writers are woefully misinformed: the respective roles the publisher and author play in promoting a novel.

Since this is literally the first time I have ever re-run a guest post in toto, you may judge for yourselves just how important I feel this information is to anyone planning a career as an author of books.

I must admit, though, that there’s another reason that I’ve chosen to slip it under your collective noses again today: Stan’s running a contest with a September 15th deadline, and I’d really, really like for one of my readers to win.

Details follow below, in my original intro to the post. Since the contest is a guessing game based upon a photo, I’ve enlarged it a bit above. (Hint: there’s a reason that I’ve given you a slightly closer look at the painting behind Stan, his writing partner Michael, and their agent, Marly Rusoff.)

If the honor of the Author! Author! team isn’t sufficient to prompt you to leap into the fray, here’s another incentive: the prize is a copy of a great book — and for those of us who love books, it’s a really grand thing that the big publishing houses are under the impression that this type of giveaway is good promotion, right? Believe it or not, the best way to keep this kind of promotional freebie flow going is to enter to win contests with book prizes.

So put on your literary history thinking caps. Oh, and enjoy Stan’s guest post.

For those of you who have joined the Author! Author! community only recently, Stan is best known as Michael Stanley, nom de plume of Stan Trollip and Michael Sears. It’s one of the great thriller collaborations of our time.

But don’t take my word for that: the Los Angeles Times named their last novel, A CARRION DEATH, as one of the top ten crime novels of 2008. It also raked in finalist honors for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

The flattering buzz has been even louder for their new novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for it, along with both the US cover and the cover and title you’d see if you happened to be browsing in a Canadian or UK-based bookstore:

seconddeath cover michael stanleydeadlytrade cover Michael StanleyHow can a man die twice?

That is the question facing Detective David “Kubu” Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in Northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analyzed, Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years earlier.

Kubu quickly realizes that nothing at the camp is as it seems. As the guests are picked off one by one, time to stop the murderer is running out. With rumors of horrifying war crimes, the scent of a drug-smuggling trail, and mounting pressure from his superiors to contend with, Kubu doesn’t notice there is one door still left unguarded – his own. And as he sets a trap to find the criminals, the hunters are closing on him…

Not a bad pitch, is it? Notice how those one-of-a-kind details just leap out at you? Out comes the broken record again: never, ever forget that even the most tedious chore in book description is an opportunity to show what a good storyteller you are.

I digress, however. I promised you goodies, and goodies you shall have.

A whole literary cornucopia of them, too: to keep things interesting, not only will Author! Author! be bringing you Stan’s insights today, but a newfangled high-tech treat and a good, old-fashioned contest. To avoid scaring any technophobes out there away from winning a copy of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU free, gratis, and entirely without encumbering your monetary worth even tangentially, allow me to fill you in about the contest first.

To prepare you to enter, please study this lovely photo of precisely the kind of literary event most aspiring writers would happily give their little toes to attend:

Seated at the round table are Stanley (left), Michael (right), with their agent, Marly Rusoff

Stan (left) and Michael at the round table with their agent, Marly Rusoff

To win a copy of Michael Stanley’s latest book, all you have to do is answer this question: where are Stan and Michael hobnobbing with their agent? (Hint: as public places in New York City go, it could hardly be more literary.)

Present-day Anne again here, unable to resist giving you another great big hint: in its heyday, you might have run into Harpo Marx there. Or Robert Benchley. Or one of my all-time favorite short story writers, a lady who happens to be depicted in the painting behind Stan and his friends.

The great thing was, there was always room at the their table for another talented writer; there as even a pretty good movie about the circle of friends who gathered around the very table where Stan et alia are seated.

Answers should be emailed to michaelstanley@detectivekubu.com with subject line “Author! Author! contest” before September 15th. Three lucky winners will be drawn randomly from all correct answerers shortly thereafter, and the results shall be announced here and on the Detective Kubu website.

So this is a chance for fame as well as (modest) fortune!

Okay, now on to the technofest. As it happens, it directly relates to what you might be winning.

HarperCollins is beta-testing a nifty promotional feature that not only enables potential readers to browse books on its website, but allows me to offer my readers that opportunity, too. It’s not the whole book, mind you, and it’s not printable, but this feature does allow you to see more than most readers skim in a bookstore before buying. Take a gander, and see what you think:

What do you think? Like it as a promotional device, or would you rather be turning pages in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Would you feel differently about it if it were your book being promoted this way — in other words, do you prefer it as a writer than as a reader, or vice-versa?

As if all that weren’t exciting enough for one post, we haven’t yet gotten to the watermelon at the heart of the cornucopia (oh, you had a better metaphor in mind?): Stan’s promised insights into the mysteries of book tours, working with publicists, and every author’s nightmare, what happens if no one shows up to a book signing.

So please join me in a big Author! Author! welcome for Stan Trollip! Take it away, Stan!

stan-trollip-at-book-signing

June 2nd saw the launch of our second Detective Kubu mystery — The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu — at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, and kicked off something of a whirlwind book tour of the US. We visited 12 cities and 20 bookstores over about six weeks, but most of the trip was concentrated over a three-week period. During that time, we were in New York, Minneapolis, Urbana-Champaign IL, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Houston, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Book signings were interspersed with radio and TV slots and online interviews, and surrounded by Book Expo, Thrillerfest, and the American Library Association convention.

We were fortunate to have strong support from HarperCollins, particularly from our in-house publicist Heather Drucker, and things went smoothly as a result. And external publicist Susan Schwartzman buzzed around getting media slots for us. It would be a big challenge to arrange this sort of tour without the support of such knowledgeable and energetic people.

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Many writers don’t understand the role of the publicist at a major house. So here is how we see it. Several months before the book is released, the in-house publicist sends out review copies of the book to influential reviewers in the various media. This list is often compiled in collaboration with the authors, who may have insights into niche areas. If you have a publisher like HarperCollins, this can amount to well over a hundred books.

Then the publicist works with the authors to map out a book-tour itinerary. The extent of this depends on the publisher’s budget, which was zero for our first book, A Carrion Death, and small but significant for the second book, as well as how much the author is willing to contribute. For both books, we chipped in a sizeable amount of our advance to fund our tours.

Then the publicist contacts the bookstores or other organizations, such as libraries, and coordinates everything with them, including providing publicity materials if available, ensuring they have enough books to sell, helping to publicize the event, and so on. The publicist also coordinates the travel and accommodation arrangements. We try to stay with friends whenever possible, not only because it reduces costs, but is also much more fun.

Finally, the in-house publicist works with the external publicist to ensure that their efforts are coordinated. For example, Heather from HarperCollins worked with Susan (an external publicist whom we hired) to support her efforts to find radio and TV spots. She did this by supplying additional review copies of the book, providing book reviews as they came out, and coordinating the sale of books if appropriate.

We have heard stories of the in-house and external publicists competing. This is not a good situation! Before you hire an external publicist, you should coordinate with your in-house publicist so that you are building a team not a pair of competitors. In our case, Heather and Susan worked together wonderfully.

So what is our perspective on our book tour, looking back two months later?

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

From the moment we launched The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, it was great fun. We talked to people who enjoy our books and had read both or intended to do so. We met booksellers who care about mystery books and have an intimidating knowledge of them and their authors. And we spent a lot of time together, enjoying the travel, sharing the experiences, and talking about our third book.

Second, we learned a lot. We discovered that people really care about the ongoing characters in the book, particularly our protagonist, Botswana police detective David Bengu (known as Kubu) and his family. Interestingly, few questions or comments related to Kubu himself, other than whether he was based on a real person (he isn’t). Perhaps people have already formed their own mental pictures of him and where he is going.

Readers really like his wife Joy and wonder what is happening with the relationship between Joy’s sister, Pleasant, and an occasional suitor, Bongani. We also heard a lot of positive comments about Kubu’s aging parents (Wilmon and Amantle). We were told they added to an understanding of the Botswana culture. This was very satisfying as we had decided early on in our writing to purposefully deal with the physical and cultural attributes of Botswana. We realized that doing so would slow the pace of the mystery a little, but hoped what it added would compensate. Our tour and the reviews we have received tell us that most readers like the style.

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers' reactions to A Carrion Death

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers’ reactions to A Carrion Death

Third, the tour was hard work. We did the Midwest, travelling by car from Chicago; there are long distances involved and the June weather was — to be polite — variable. We had plenty of good dinners with old friends, who turned out across the country to support us, but we had a few twists and turns along the way. One pit-stop restaurant we could only find sugared pop, other than tap water, and fried food. We were caught up in a demonstration in Los Angeles urging democracy in Iran. We were becalmed on the LA freeway. We had sessions with standing room only, and an event to which no one showed up.

We suspect that it is every writer’s nightmare to stand expectantly at the front of a room, and wait, and wait. Look at your watch. How long should we wait? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes. Feel embarrassed, awkward. Not sure what to say to the bookstore manager. She’s not sure what to say to you. It happened to us on a Sunday lunchtime on the city’s first nice summer day of the year. “Sundays are always busy,” she told us apologetically. But the first sight of the sun tempted even the most ardent readers and every chair was vacant.

In some ways, we were quite pleased it happened. We had got it out of the way — the nagging fear of an empty room. More importantly, we survived! And our egos were still intact. People on the street didn’t point at us surreptitiously and snigger. And it gave us something to write about in this blog.

All we can say is that it is going to happen. We are lucky to tour together, so at least we have each other to talk to. And maybe there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps new authors should consider doing events in tandem with another author. At least then, when there is no audience, you have a companion with whom to share the disappointment.

Stan making the most of a book signing

Stan making the most of a book signing

At a more practical level, one can ask what these book tours achieve. Certainly we find it of value to learn in person what readers think and feel about our writing, even though we get similar feedback by email and over our website. We think the readers enjoy the events and find them interesting. In addition, bookstore owners and managers now have a personal experience of us to link to the books when they sell them.

But our feeling is that this sort of discussion is irrelevant for most people in the publishing industry, especially in the current weak economic environment. Their question would be: does the time and money spent on a book tour improve book sales?

It’s a difficult question to answer. One publicist told us that they know that only half of their marketing has any impact on sales — they just don’t know which half.

The same goes for us. We are both scientists and have a constant discomfort that there are no data about the effectiveness of what we do for publicity. In reality, we believe that book tours and so on are valuable, but don’t ask us to prove it.

Then there is the 90:10 rule – ninety percent of the marketing budget goes on the ten percent of authors who are best known, best sellers, and who need marketing the least. Since we are not in that ten percent, we are grateful for the slice we got of the other ten percent. We work hard and spend a considerable amount of our advances on marketing and touring. It is reassuring that HarperCollins is willing to support us in this.

Book tours outside North America seem to be uncommon except for well-known authors. We have done no more than a few signings in other countries. Declining to organize a function in Johannesburg for our second book, our South African publicist told us that launches don’t sell books; publicity sells books. We pointed out that the launch of A Carrion Death in Johannesburg sold over a hundred copies and attracted at least twice that number of people. Her response was: “Yes, it was an excellent launch. You have a lot of friends in Johannesburg.” So we threw our own party to which 100 or so people came, and we sold seventy books.

Would the same number of books have been sold anyway? We don’t know.

So how would we sum up our feelings about the book tour? Let’s put it this way. If we’re asked to do one next year for our third book, we’ll dip into our pockets and start buying the plane tickets.

carrion-death-us-small.jpgcarrion-death-us-small.jpgcarrion-death-us-small.jpg
Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

If this is Tuesday, it must be Minneapolis, by guest blogger Stanley Trollip

stan-trollip-at-book-signing
Hello, campers –

Today, I’m giving us all a much-deserved respite from our rather taxing ongoing series on conference pitching to bring you all a reward for virtue — no, make that several rewards for virtue. Remember earlier this summer, when award-winning police procedural author and fab guy Stanley Trollip stopped by to give us his insights on publication contracts, promising to return to tell us all about his book tour for his second novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU?

Well, jump for joy, fans of thrillers and book signings: he has proven as good as his word.

For those of you who have joined the Author! Author! community only recently, Stan is best known as Michael Stanley, nom de plume of Stan Trollip and Michael Sears. It’s one of the great thriller collaborations of our time.

But don’t take my word for that: the Los Angeles Times named their last novel, A CARRION DEATH, as one of the top ten crime novels of 2008. It also raked in finalist honors for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

The flattering buzz has been even louder for their new novel, THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU. Here’s the publisher’s blurb for it, along with both the US cover and the cover and title you’d see if you happened to be browsing in a Canadian or UK-based bookstore:

seconddeath cover michael stanleydeadlytrade cover Michael StanleyHow can a man die twice?

That is the question facing Detective David “Kubu” Bengu when a mutilated body is found at a tourist camp in Northern Botswana. The corpse of Goodluck Tinubu displays the classic signs of a revenge killing. But when his fingerprints are analyzed, Kubu makes a shocking discovery: Tinubu is already dead. He was slain in the Rhodesian war thirty years earlier.

Kubu quickly realizes that nothing at the camp is as it seems. As the guests are picked off one by one, time to stop the murderer is running out. With rumors of horrifying war crimes, the scent of a drug-smuggling trail, and mounting pressure from his superiors to contend with, Kubu doesn’t notice there is one door still left unguarded – his own. And as he sets a trap to find the criminals, the hunters are closing on him…

Not a bad pitch, is it? Notice how those one-of-a-kind details just leap out at you? Out comes the broken record again: never, ever forget that even the most tedious chore in book description is an opportunity to show what a good storyteller you are.

I digress, however. I promised you goodies, and goodies you shall have.

A whole literary cornucopia of them, too: to keep things interesting, not only will Author! Author! be bringing you Stan’s insights today, but a newfangled high-tech treat and a good, old-fashioned contest. To avoid scaring any technophobes out there away from winning a copy of THE SECOND DEATH OF GOODLUCK TINUBU free, gratis, and entirely without encumbering your monetary worth even tangentially, allow me to fill you in about the contest first.

To prepare you to enter, please study this lovely photo of precisely the kind of literary event most aspiring writers would happily give their little toes to attend:

Seated at the round table are Stanley (left), Michael (right), with their agent, Marly Rusoff

Stan (left) and Michael at the round table with their agent, Marly Rusoff

To win a copy of Michael Stanley’s latest book, all you have to do is answer this question: where are Stan and Michael hobnobbing with their agent? (Hint: as public places in New York City go, it could hardly be more literary.)

Answers should be emailed to michaelstanley@detectivekubu.com with subject line “Author! Author! contest” before September 15th. Three lucky winners will be drawn randomly from all correct answerers shortly thereafter, and the results shall be announced here and on the Detective Kubu website.

So this is a chance for fame as well as (modest) fortune!

Okay, now on to the technofest. As it happens, it directly relates to what you might be winning.

HarperCollins is beta-testing a nifty promotional feature that not only enables potential readers to browse books on its website, but allows me to offer my readers that opportunity, too. It’s not the whole book, mind you, and it’s not printable, but this feature does allow you to see more than most readers skim in a bookstore before buying. Take a gander, and see what you think:

What do you think? Like it as a promotional device, or would you rather be turning pages in a brick-and-mortar bookstore? Would you feel differently about it if it were your book being promoted this way — in other words, do you prefer it as a writer than as a reader, or vice-versa?

As if all that weren’t exciting enough for one post, we haven’t yet gotten to the watermelon at the heart of the cornucopia (oh, you had a better metaphor in mind?): Stan’s promised insights into the mysteries of book tours, working with publicists, and every author’s nightmare, what happens if no one shows up to a book signing.

So please join me in a big Author! Author! welcome for Stan Trollip! Take it away, Stan!

seconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanleyseconddeath cover michael stanley

June 2nd saw the launch of our second Detective Kubu mystery — The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu — at the wonderful Once Upon a Crime bookstore in Minneapolis, and kicked off something of a whirlwind book tour of the US. We visited 12 cities and 20 bookstores over about six weeks, but most of the trip was concentrated over a three-week period. During that time, we were in New York, Minneapolis, Urbana-Champaign IL, Chicago, Milwaukee, Detroit, Ann Arbor, Houston, San Diego, and Los Angeles. Book signings were interspersed with radio and TV slots and online interviews, and surrounded by Book Expo, Thrillerfest, and the American Library Association convention.

We were fortunate to have strong support from HarperCollins, particularly from our in-house publicist Heather Drucker, and things went smoothly as a result. And external publicist Susan Schwartzman buzzed around getting media slots for us. It would be a big challenge to arrange this sort of tour without the support of such knowledgeable and energetic people.

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Michael with HarperCollins publicist Heather Drucker in New York City

Many writers don’t understand the role of the publicist at a major house. So here is how we see it. Several months before the book is released, the in-house publicist sends out review copies of the book to influential reviewers in the various media. This list is often compiled in collaboration with the authors, who may have insights into niche areas. If you have a publisher like HarperCollins, this can amount to well over a hundred books.

Then the publicist works with the authors to map out a book-tour itinerary. The extent of this depends on the publisher’s budget, which was zero for our first book, A Carrion Death, and small but significant for the second book, as well as how much the author is willing to contribute. For both books, we chipped in a sizeable amount of our advance to fund our tours.

Then the publicist contacts the bookstores or other organizations, such as libraries, and coordinates everything with them, including providing publicity materials if available, ensuring they have enough books to sell, helping to publicize the event, and so on. The publicist also coordinates the travel and accommodation arrangements. We try to stay with friends whenever possible, not only because it reduces costs, but is also much more fun.

Finally, the in-house publicist works with the external publicist to ensure that their efforts are coordinated. For example, Heather from HarperCollins worked with Susan (an external publicist whom we hired) to support her efforts to find radio and TV spots. She did this by supplying additional review copies of the book, providing book reviews as they came out, and coordinating the sale of books if appropriate.

We have heard stories of the in-house and external publicists competing. This is not a good situation! Before you hire an external publicist, you should coordinate with your in-house publicist so that you are building a team not a pair of competitors. In our case, Heather and Susan worked together wonderfully.

So what is our perspective on our book tour, looking back two months later?

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

Michael and Stanley answering questions at Once Upon A Crime

From the moment we launched The Second Death of Goodluck Tinubu, it was great fun. We talked to people who enjoy our books and had read both or intended to do so. We met booksellers who care about mystery books and have an intimidating knowledge of them and their authors. And we spent a lot of time together, enjoying the travel, sharing the experiences, and talking about our third book.

Second, we learned a lot. We discovered that people really care about the ongoing characters in the book, particularly our protagonist, Botswana police detective David Bengu (known as Kubu) and his family. Interestingly, few questions or comments related to Kubu himself, other than whether he was based on a real person (he isn’t). Perhaps people have already formed their own mental pictures of him and where he is going.

Readers really like his wife Joy and wonder what is happening with the relationship between Joy’s sister, Pleasant, and an occasional suitor, Bongani. We also heard a lot of positive comments about Kubu’s aging parents (Wilmon and Amantle). We were told they added to an understanding of the Botswana culture. This was very satisfying as we had decided early on in our writing to purposefully deal with the physical and cultural attributes of Botswana. We realized that doing so would slow the pace of the mystery a little, but hoped what it added would compensate. Our tour and the reviews we have received tell us that most readers like the style.

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers' reactions to A Carrion Death

Michael and Stanley being pleased at readers’ reactions to A Carrion Death

Third, the tour was hard work. We did the Midwest, travelling by car from Chicago; there are long distances involved and the June weather was — to be polite — variable. We had plenty of good dinners with old friends, who turned out across the country to support us, but we had a few twists and turns along the way. One pit-stop restaurant we could only find sugared pop, other than tap water, and fried food. We were caught up in a demonstration in Los Angeles urging democracy in Iran. We were becalmed on the LA freeway. We had sessions with standing room only, and an event to which no one showed up.

We suspect that it is every writer’s nightmare to stand expectantly at the front of a room, and wait, and wait. Look at your watch. How long should we wait? Fifteen minutes? Thirty minutes. Feel embarrassed, awkward. Not sure what to say to the bookstore manager. She’s not sure what to say to you. It happened to us on a Sunday lunchtime on the city’s first nice summer day of the year. “Sundays are always busy,” she told us apologetically. But the first sight of the sun tempted even the most ardent readers and every chair was vacant.

In some ways, we were quite pleased it happened. We had got it out of the way — the nagging fear of an empty room. More importantly, we survived! And our egos were still intact. People on the street didn’t point at us surreptitiously and snigger. And it gave us something to write about in this blog.

All we can say is that it is going to happen. We are lucky to tour together, so at least we have each other to talk to. And maybe there is a lesson to be learned. Perhaps new authors should consider doing events in tandem with another author. At least then, when there is no audience, you have a companion with whom to share the disappointment.

Stan making the most of a book signing

Stan making the most of a book signing

At a more practical level, one can ask what these book tours achieve. Certainly we find it of value to learn in person what readers think and feel about our writing, even though we get similar feedback by email and over our website. We think the readers enjoy the events and find them interesting. In addition, bookstore owners and managers now have a personal experience of us to link to the books when they sell them.

But our feeling is that this sort of discussion is irrelevant for most people in the publishing industry, especially in the current weak economic environment. Their question would be: does the time and money spent on a book tour improve book sales?

It’s a difficult question to answer. One publicist told us that they know that only half of their marketing has any impact on sales — they just don’t know which half.

The same goes for us. We are both scientists and have a constant discomfort that there are no data about the effectiveness of what we do for publicity. In reality, we believe that book tours and so on are valuable, but don’t ask us to prove it.

Then there is the 90:10 rule – ninety percent of the marketing budget goes on the ten percent of authors who are best known, best sellers, and who need marketing the least. Since we are not in that ten percent, we are grateful for the slice we got of the other ten percent. We work hard and spend a considerable amount of our advances on marketing and touring. It is reassuring that HarperCollins is willing to support us in this.

Book tours outside North America seem to be uncommon except for well-known authors. We have done no more than a few signings in other countries. Declining to organize a function in Johannesburg for our second book, our South African publicist told us that launches don’t sell books; publicity sells books. We pointed out that the launch of A Carrion Death in Johannesburg sold over a hundred copies and attracted at least twice that number of people. Her response was: “Yes, it was an excellent launch. You have a lot of friends in Johannesburg.” So we threw our own party to which 100 or so people came, and we sold seventy books.

Would the same number of books have been sold anyway? We don’t know.

So how would we sum up our feelings about the book tour? Let’s put it this way. If we’re asked to do one next year for our third book, we’ll dip into our pockets and start buying the plane tickets.

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Michael Stanley smiling with catMichael Stanley is the writing team of Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip.

Both are retired professors who have worked in academia and business. They were both born in South Africa. Michael is a mathematician, specializing in geological remote sensing. He lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, and is a tournament bridge player. Stanley is an educational psychologist, specializing in the application of computers to teaching and learning, and a pilot. He splits his time between Knysna, South Africa, and Minneapolis in the United States. He is an avid golfer.

Their first novel, A CARRION DEATH, featuring Detective David “Kubu” Bengu, was published in 2008 and received critical acclaim. The Los Angeles Times listed it as one of its top ten crime novels of 2008. It is a nominee for the Minnesota Book Award, Strand Magazine’s Critics Award for Best First Novel, and Mystery Readers International Macavity Award for Best First Novel.

Bringing a memoir to successful publication at an indie press, by Arleen Williams, guest blogger

Hello, campers –
After spending a long, hard few days slogging through the nitty-gritty of how to get a manuscript out the door to an agent or small press — and an even harder couple of days talking about the stresses of doing so — I have an aptly-timed treat for you today, a guest blog on, you guessed it, submitting a memoir to an indie press by one of the bravest memoirists I know, Arleen Williams. Her memoir, THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM, was published recently Blue Feather Press.

Naturally, it takes genuine bravery to write any memoir honestly — speaking as a memoirist myself, I had absolutely no idea how emotionally difficult it is to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth on a page intended for publication until I did it myself, or, more precisely, until the editor who had acquired it started asking me to change things.

But Arleen’s situation was, unfortunately, the stuff of nightmares: her little sister, Maureen, was murdered by the worst serial killer in American history. In case any of you missed my enthusiastic cheers when the book came out last April, here is the official blurb:

The Green River murders were headline news throughout the 1980s. By the time the perpetrator was sentenced in 2003, at least 48 young women had met an untimely death at his hands. What started as as string of local killings in Seattle became a national nightmare before it was over. In homes all across America, television news programs and newspapers large and small carried feature stories about the ever-growing list of victims.

Now imagine that during this time, someone you love — your baby sister, a beautiful young woman of 19 — suddenly goes missing. The police are at best unhelpful, and at worst, seemingly uninterested in what’s happened to her. And then comes word you hoped you’d never receive: your youngest sister’s remains have been found. She is yet another victim of the Green River killer. With amazing candor, Arleen Williams tells the story of her family’s journey, before and after the Green River killer murdered her sister Maureen and left her body in a stretch of wilderness off the west side of Highway 18.

What amazed me about Arleen’s memoir is that instead of approaching this horror as true crime — which, frankly, would probably have been easier to write — she embeds the reader in her family’s dynamics in the years leading up to Maureen’s disappearance, as well as after, making their sense of disorientation and loss achingly present. Intriguingly, their interactions are not at all the sanitized, made-for-TV-type family dynamics readers have come to expect from third-hand accounts, but a micro-culture of selective recognition and unanticipated temporary banishments for minor infractions that renders the family strangely equipped — and painfully unequipped — to deal with Maureen’s permanent disappearance.

I don’t want to give too much away, of course, but let me tell you, denial has seldom been so fascinating.

(For a more extensive peek into the memoir’s world, there’s a video about it on her website. And in case you’re wondering, THE THIRTY-NINTH VICTIM may be purchased directly from the publisher, Blue Feather Press, or on Amazon. If you happen to live in the southeastern portion of this fine country, you may have Arleen sign a copy for you at her upcoming readings:

Wordsmiths, Decatur, Georgia
December 15, 7:30 pm

Vino Loco, Englewood, Florida
December 20, 4 pm

I just mention.)

Remember how I was saying yesterday that it often takes a long time for even an excellent manuscript to see print? I believe that Arleen is going to have a thing or two to say about that. Aspiring memoirists will find this guest post helpful, too, as will anyone out there considering working with a small press.

But mostly, I’m thrilled to post this because, frankly, those of you who are writing on dark topics couldn’t possibly hope for a better-suited advice-giver. Please join me, then, in welcoming Arleen Williams as today’s guest blogger.

Take it away, Arleen!

How did a middle-aged straight woman get a memoir published by a small press with a lesbian fiction focus? This is a question I am often asked in one form or another. It’s a sort of how and why question, I suppose. So here’s the answer I tell readers and fellow writers alike: it took relentless determination and a whole lot of luck.

I wrote a story that I felt needed to be told. I took the classes and followed the rules – buying how-to books, reading blogs like this one, honing my query letter, going to conferences. I sent out over fifty agent queries. The responses ranged from harshly impersonal to expressions of heartfelt sorrow for my loss.

What they all shared was that note of rejection. Some included comments suggesting that I make the book more about my sister’s murderer, about the Green River case. Others claimed readers didn’t want a story told from a victim’s perspective.

So what to do? I wasn’t writing true crime or thriller. I wasn’t willing to change from the memoir format that I had chosen. I had two alternatives: self-publish or find an independent press. I opted for the latter and started querying every publisher listed in Writer’s Market that accepted memoir and unagented manuscripts.

After nine months of sending out queries and enduring rejections, I got lucky. I was offered a contract, but my luck ran out again when the company holding my contract was bought out before my book was published.

Unwilling to give up, stubborn determination came into play. I contacted the new company and asked if they intended to honor my contract. That was when my love affair with small, independent publishers began. I was able to talk with them, actually e-mail and get prompt responses.

And they wanted my memoir. Why?

Curious, I asked Emily Reed, co-owner of Blue Feather Books, Ltd., that same question. Why would a small niche publisher of predominately lesbian lit want a straight memoir? Simple answer: they liked it and they thought they could sell it. They publish books by women and for women. They were willing to take a chance on me.

I cannot say enough positive about working through the pre-publication revision and editing process with a small press. It was one-on-one, personal and real. I have developed a lifelong friendship with an editor who lives across the country from me. Jane Vollbrecht (my editor for The Thirty-Ninth Victim) and I will meet for the first time later this month when I do a reading in her city. Our relationship developed through respect, honesty and her willingness to share her story with me as we edited my own.

For the final line-by-line editing, Caitlin d’Aguiar, another of Blue Feather’s owners, and I met for a nine- or ten-hour marathon at a roadside Denny’s halfway between her home and my own. Again, it was personal and real. I have never worked with a New York publisher or an agent of any kind, but I’ve had conversations with many authors and their experiences seem to be very different from my own.

It sounds rosy, doesn’t it? The communication and connection. The e-mail, phone and face-to-face interaction with editor and publishers, but there is a downside to working with a small independent press.

Isn’t there always a downside?

I’ve always written, scribbling in journals for as long as I can remember, and like most, I write because I must, because it’s in my blood, because it’s my way of processing my world. When I began to write The Thirty-Ninth Victim in fall 2001, the thought of publication did not enter into the equation. I wrote because I needed to write. Nothing more. Later, when a draft began to take shape, it was a pair of dedicated teachers – Robert Ray and Jack Remick – who encouraged me to pursue publication, who felt that I had a body of work worthy of publication.

I explain all of this only to say that like most, I write for me, I write because I love to write. Never, in all my years of writing, in my wildest dreams, did I see myself in the role of book seller. And yet, that is precisely the role one falls into by publishing with a small press, particularly a press that does print-on-demand (POD) sales.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that you won’t be promoting your own book if you publish with a large New York house. Of course you will. Publishers have extremely limited promotional budgets, the bulk of which goes into promoting a very small number of pet projects. Most small presses have little to no promotional budget.

In both cases, most authors are on their own to promote their book, to set up bookstore and library readings, to secure media and on-line coverage. In short, to be their own (or to hire) publicity person. In that sense, publishing with a large or small house doesn’t differ much.

The difference lies in how a book is printed and distributed. Many small publishers, including my own, operate on a POD basis. It’s the only way they can survive economically, and yet because of this, most of the large bookstores won’t carry their books. If bookstores can’t purchase large orders with guaranteed buy back, they don’t buy.

For that reason, if you were to go into any major book retailer and request The Thirty-Ninth Victim, they’d be happy to order a copy for you, but you won’t find it on the shelves or on one of those wonderful tables displaying new books. A bookstore browser, a holiday shopper, will never see my book.

Though I didn’t know any of this when I signed my first publishing contract, it probably wouldn’t have mattered, anyway. I was tired of rejection, and I was thrilled, as most writers are, to simply land a contract. In the intervening months since my memoir was released, I have become PR person, public speaker and book seller – all roles I never imagined for myself.

The selling part is the hardest for me. If your book is in bookstores, your role is limited to publicity. But when bookstores are unwilling to stock your book, you turn to the indie stores and often enter the world of consignment sales. You find yourself weighing the cost of the books you must purchase from your publisher against the odds of being able to sell them. You finding yourself setting prices based on your break even point in a feeble attempt to stop bleeding money. And you begin asking yourself if selling your book will ever become more than an expensive hobby.

So I’m not saying there’s a huge difference between the author’s role in promoting a book published by a large house vs. a small press, but I am saying that it is harder if your book is POD. In that case, it is essential to rely on your personal and professional networks to get word out about your work.

Along those lines, I want to thank Anne Mini for her invitation to do this guest entry on her blog. I appreciate the opportunity to share my experiences with Anne’s readers and, of course, to invite you to visit my website to learn more about my work.

I sent my first agent query in March 2004. Wide-eyed, naïve and full of hope. The Thirty-Ninth Victim was released in April 2008. It was a long journey – one I am honored to have had the opportunity to take. I wish you all the best on your own publishing journeys.

Arleen Williams has been recording her life in journals since she left home in her late teens. Her wanderings took her to Mexico City, where she completed a bachelor’s degree through the University of California while earning a teaching certificate from the National University of Mexico. Arleen has been teaching the English language for over thirty years. She taught international students living in dorms in Seattle, and migratory workers in her living room in Santa Cruz, California. In Caracas, Venezuela, she faked an Irish accent in order to land a position at the British Embassy School, and in Mexico City, her high school students encircled her for her protection during an anti-American protest.

In 1984, the disappearance of her youngest sister brought her back to Seattle. Later, she completed a master’s degree in education at the University of Washington and accepted the teaching position she still holds at South Seattle Community College. For the past fifteen years, she and her husband have been remodeling a small 1941 home in West Seattle, where they have raised their only daughter. The Thirty-Ninth Victim is her first book.

The Glamour of the Book Tour, Part II, by Michael Schein, author of Just Deceits

Hello, campers –

Welcome back to Part II of your treat for having made it all the way through the Manuscript Formatting 101 series: a first-hand account from a FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) of a book tour by a recently-published author. Bookmark these posts, because someday you’ll need them.

Don’t quibble about when someday will come. Whenever it does come, you’ll want to be ready, won’t you?

Yesterday, FAAB Michael Schein, author of the recently-released JUST DECEITS gave us a humorous peek into the hectic world of being one’s own publicist, as well as some very valuable tips on how to set up book readings. (In response to that great gasp I just heard from those of you who missed yesterday’s post, no, Virginia, one’s publisher doesn’t always set those up for one. Increasingly, it’s up to the authors of books released by major publishing houses, just as it’s always been to self-published authors, to schedule public readings.)

Today, Michael is being kind enough to share his experience of what happens after an author gets to such a reading, as well as insights on how to cajole attendees into actually shelling out the dosh for a copy.

Speaking of which, I would be remiss to my duty to a fellow author if I did not add: if you happen to have a mystery lover or two on your holiday shopping list, here is a brief description of JUST DECEITS to whet your gift-giving (and reading) appetite:

In 1793, the most powerful family in Virginia found itself embroiled in scandal: Richard Randolph and his sister-in-law, the beautiful and impetuous Nancy Randolph, were charged with adultery and infanticide. Based on actual events, Just Deceits tells the story of the Trial of the Century – the 18th Century – as the remarkable defense team of wily Patrick Henry and ambitious John Marshall battled each other, their clients, family intrigue, the prosecution, and the truth itself, trying to save their clients from the gallows. In its ribald portrayal of a young legal system already driven more by spectacle than evidence, Just Deceits calls into question the feasibility — and even the desirability — of uncovering “the whole truth.” Ultimately, in the secrets revealed and the relationships celebrated, Just Deceits is as much a story of a trial of love as the trial in the courtroom.

You may buy JUST DECEITS directly from Michael’s website, from his publisher, if you’re in the mood to spread the Christmas spirit to an independent press, or on Amazon. If you’d like to buy it from him in person, here’s a link to his tour schedule.

Why do I so often list several venues for buying my guest bloggers’ work? Knowing how publishing works, mostly: in case you weren’t already aware of it, these days, the author’s royalty rate varies by where a book is sold. Typically, that rate is highest through the author’s or publisher’s website and lowest at discount clearinghouses like overstock.com. (Yes, you read that correctly: much of the discount offered by discount venues comes out of the author’s pocket.)

Once again, please join me in welcoming Michael Schein. Pay close attention, think good thoughts about your own future book tours, and keep up the good work!

How to sell a book, one at a time. OK – it’s the day of the book signing! I just had the first one of my tour today (11/18). It was my fifth overall. I sold 13 books today on a quiet Tuesday evening (in three hours), and the Barnes & Noble manager said that as signings go, that’s a success.

I certainly think so – I feel quite good about it. I’m being read by people from various parts of the country, including (aside from Washington State, where I live) Virginia, Missouri, Minnesota, Texas, West Virginia, Alabama and New Jersey. If they like it, they’ll probably tell their friends and family – because I asked them to.

Making contact with your future readers. If you aren’t John Grisham, the first and most important thing about a book signing is to get your butt up out of the chair.

The only time to sit in the lovely chair the bookstore will provide (it’s a leather throne at Seattle Mystery Bookshop) is while actually signing the book you just sold. Then get up and shake your new reader’s hand as you return the book to him/her. That won’t make up for a crappy book, but it will make your new reader want to like your book, which doesn’t hurt.

Second, don’t wait for people to approach you – they won’t. Don’t stalk them, but greet them as they walk by, and ask, “May I tell you about my new novel?” or something to that effect.

It takes a hard heart or a big hurry to answer “no” to that one.

Your pitch – the same one that sold the book – comes next. Every time you say it, say it like it is the first time (but without the stuttering). In other words, this is conversation, not telemarketing.

Show the customer the back cover – the one with the great blurbs. Hand it to them. Put the product in their hands.

Yes, it’s a “product.”

Ask a question: “Are you interested in history?” (for historical fiction) “Where are you from?” “Have you ever dreamed of traveling to Africa?” (for a book involving Africa).

You’ll get used to it – again, this is simply conversation. Don’t do all the talking. Listen.

Once you’ve engaged a person in conversation, you’ve probably got a sale. But you still need to close the deal.

The correct way to close a book deal is not, “Would you please buy my book?” It is “May I sign that for you?” “Shall I personalize it?”

Once signed and personalized, it is sold.

Pretty scary, huh? Look, we can be artists on our own time. When we are in the bookstore, our job is to sell books. If you need motivation beyond the royalties, remember this – that new masterpiece taking shape in your hard drive is unlikely to see the light of day if your current book flops.

Nov. 19. More pitfalls on the road. All the above sounds rational, right? Forget rational. The world is not what it seems. Or, worse yet, maybe it is.

On Nov. 19th I found that the Richmond stop I’d sweated blood over was a small house off the main road on the edge of a small shopping district where there’s no foot traffic. True, the owner was kind and interesting, the shop was crammed to bursting with an eclectic assortment of books, and it had been in business somehow for 28 years, but still, it was dead. It had never been my first choice, but writers can’t be choosers: it was an independent non-Christian bookstore and therefore something special in post-apocalyptic America.

Despite marketing through their email list and by postcards to local lawyers, the only two people who showed up were my brother-in-law, and the woman who owns the B&B where I’m staying. I could have sold to them directly, and made more on each sale.

No one else even entered the shop from 7 pm to 8:20 pm, when I gave up. Then I did what you cannot do if you are to make a profit – I bought an expensive book. It is hard to sit in a bookstore for over an hour with nothing to do, and not buy a book or two.

This is so glamorous!

What do you mean, the books aren’t here yet? My publisher was supposed to ship two cases of books, and I needed them for my 11/20 appearance at the John Marshall House, since they hadn’t ordered books directly. I’d made arrangements with Anna, the B&B proprietor, to ship books to her, so I was disappointed to find when I arrived the night of 11/18 the books were not yet here. Nor did they arrive on Nov. 19.

Finally, I got the tracking numbers from my publisher – and sure enough, they had arrived on Nov. 17th, and been signed for by Anna! It was too late to ask her again, but I sent an urgent email, and then didn’t sleep well all night, thinking they’d been stolen.

The story emerged the next day. Anna (an otherwise very capable woman) had hosted another writer the previous weekend (see, I told you last time that we’re thick as flies), and had arranged with his publisher to take a shipment. She’d forgotten about the same arrangement with me, so when the books arrived, she assumed they were his, and had his sponsor pick them up for shipment to his next stop – New Hampshire!

My books were on their way to a general store in the Granite State and my signing in Richmond was in three hours.

Frantic calls, texts, and imprecations to the ghost of Jack Randolph, who I’d insulted the previous day during my visit to Hollywood Cemetery, resulted in a rescue worthy of Lassie, as my books were snatched off the loading dock with all the shipping labels affixed, and somehow returned to me.

I sold twenty (count ‘em – twenty!) books today (11/20). I almost had none to sell.

And so, to end this tale of woe and wonder, this life of ours is never boring as soon as we step off the edge, and call ourselves writers.

Happy touring, fellow fools!

The Glamour of the Book Tour, by Michael Schein, author of Just Deceits

Hello again, campers –

Remember how I promised a few days ago to give you a treat for working so hard throughout the Manuscript Formatting 101 series? (Yes, I honestly do know it’s no fun for anyone concerned. Things that are good for one often aren’t.) Well, today is Treat Day — and I’m delighted to report that tomorrow will be as well.

Don’t you feel virtuous now? Doubly so?

I’m excessively pleased about this particular treat, because it’s not something I’ve been able to finagle for all of you here at Author! Author! before: a first-hand account from a FAAB (Friend of Author! Author! Blog) of what it’s like to be on a book tour by a recently-published author.

Yes, really. Pinch me, somebody.

To make this treat better yet, FAAB Michael Schein, author of the recently-released JUST DECEITS is not only going to share his on-the-road experiences with us, but also give us some tips on how to set up public readings, attract potential book buyers to them, and sell copies of one’s book once they’re there.

I told you it was going to be a good treat.

So please join me in welcoming Michael Schein; take good notes, because you are going to be deeply grateful for his insight someday. If you’d like to see him in action at one of his own book signings, here’s a link to his tour schedule.

Keep up the good work, and take it away, Michael!

November 17. 12:59 Eastern Time. 24,997 feet. Descending into Atlanta. Turbulence. Welcome to the book tour for Just Deceits: A Historical Courtroom Mystery (Bennett & Hastings 2008). I’m Michael Schein, author, publicist and traveling salesman, and I’ll be your host. Let’s talk about that particular aspect of book promotion known and romanticized in many Hollywood films and in the fertile imagination of the unpublished writer as the book tour.

Let me begin by saying that I am grateful to be at this point in my life, in which I have a trade paperback published by a small Seattle press, and I have the freedom and frequent flyer miles (“earned” by charging too much on my VISA) to be able to go out and peddle my book.

Between that paragraph and this one much has happened! I wrote that in Atlanta while awaiting my flight to Norfolk. We took off, but the plane seemed to falter on its ascent. It was quiet and creepy. We turned. We lost a little altitude. We turned some more. We heard engines, but they were too quiet. We heard nothing from the flight attendants, who remained buckled in and stone-faced. We were about three to five thousand feet up – the trees and houses were still clearly distinguishable. Finally, we were told we were returning to Atlanta due to a little problem but not to worry, the engines were working fine.

OK, great, what else keeps a plane up? Wings? Rudder? Flaps? God? who never hears from me except to curse and write atheistic poetry?

A minute can be a long time.

We were up for about twenty to thirty of them. But the fact that I’m writing this tips off the happy ending. Yes, a safe landing. Turns out the throttle lever got stuck – that’s not good, is it? No matter how well the engines are functioning, without fuel their proper function is to shut down! Anyway, our crack pilots got it unstuck.

To make a long story short, we changed planes, and got to sit on a new plane without ventilation for an hour while we waited for the crew, plus another hour while we waited for soft drinks.

There’s logic: delay a one hour seven minute flight (airtime) one hour to be sure you can serve the thirsty cranky denizens a Pepsi which the few who actually drink that treacly syrup would have been able to purchase at their destination just as quickly.

But I wasn’t complaining. Alive was good enough for me. All this to sell a book! And so far, all I’ve managed is give away the copy in my carry on to my seat mate, who didn’t offer to buy one.

But as I blew along 64 West from Norfolk (or NorF*ck; to pronounce it right, “you have to say the dirty word,” I was told) to Williamsburg in my rented Kia, and chanced upon Simon & Garfunkel’s Kathy from Bookends with its magnificent chorus of “All come to look for America!” just as I passed the exit for Historic Jamestown Settlement, I had to pinch myself to be sure I hadn’t died and gone to heaven.

Setting up the book tour. Here’s what I know about setting up a book tour. The first and most important thing to realize is that most bookstores don’t really want you if you aren’t already famous because they’ve seen years of authors sitting behind a table loaded with their books, and almost nobody attending or purchasing.

Therefore, it is hard to set up a book tour; it takes time and persistence, and you need to begin at least three months before you plan to start the tour and figure you will be working on setting dates for at least two months.

Don’t expect to sell a bunch of books while on tour. The tour has several purposes:

(1) getting to know bookstore owners/employees and, more important, getting booksellers to know you;

(2) getting some readers to know you;

(3) getting your book into bookstores where the booksellers remember you and your book, and will continue to hand sell it; and

(4) selling a few books with a personal touch, and saying to each person who buys one: “If you like it, please tell your friends and family.”

My tour began with the totally naive gesture of me purchasing airline tickets with frequent flyer miles, that put me on the East Coast for 2 weeks. The only reasons it wasn’t totally insane were: (1) frequent flyer miles; and (2) my daughter and parents reside in NY and VT respectively, and I’ll see them all for Thanksgiving. By perseverance I have managed to book nine events for the fifteen non-flight days I am here.

Not bad. Here’s how I did it:

First, my initial contacts were made by my “publicist”. The fact is, I don’t actually have a “publicist”. Unless you are published by a big house that has decided to bless your book, or have big bucks to shell out to a publicist – I’m talking $50 – $150 per hour, or in one case I know, a $10,000 flat fee – you are your own publicist by default. It is a full-time job, or as close to it as you can possibly eke out from your other remunerative activities (you have some, right? – I hope so, cause we’re all striving as writers for that mythical ten cents an hour!).

But even though you are your own publicist, that’s not good enough for the initial contact. Few bookstores want a writer who’s such a loser that they have to book their own appearance. So my small-press publisher made the initial contacts for me – mostly from a list of contacts that I generated using the internet. One great source is the American Booksellers’ Association website – they have a state-by-state, city-by-city directory of their members, hot-linked to the members’ websites.

Those first contacts should be by email with detailed information (Title, Author, publisher, ISBN, cloth/trade/mass, price, where in distribution, “Please book me for an event”, when you’ll be there, contact, attached synopsis, press release, cover image, author bio). Followed the next day by a telephone call.

Once the first contacts were made by my “publicist”, it was acceptable for me to follow up. And follow up. And follow up.

Every few days I followed up and then put a new “To Do” in my computer calendar to follow up again in a few days until I finally either got: (1) booked for an event; or (2) “No.” Then I marked it in my notes, and if it was “No” I dredged up a new contact in the area (or continued to follow several in the area simultaneously).

When (not “if”) you get a “NO”, try to make it work for you. Always say that’s fine, I understand, but would you please carry my book? They’ve just said “no” to you; most people don’t like to say “no”, so now they get to say “yes, of course.” Whether they will or not, who knows? – but they’re more likely to.

One venue booked me for a big lecture, then later wrote an email saying that the lecture had to be canceled. I was very understanding, saying that just a book signing would be fine. I think they meant to cancel me completely, but now I’ve got a book signing.

Never, ever, blow your cool. Remember, we’re just writers – a dime a dozen. When you’re JA Jance there will be time enough to act the prima donna, if that’s really how you want to be remembered. But for now, nobody wants a hothead in their shop.

And besides, booksellers are some of the finest, most dedicated and underpaid people in the universe. They are there for love of books, not filthy lucre, of which there is precious little.

Even when you are booked, you are not done. You still need to follow up – check their website to be sure you are listed; if not, re-send all the info just to “help you update your events listings”; be sure they’ve got books, and there aren’t any distribution problems. Be sure they’ve got a poster if you are going to be able to send or bring one.

An example of the care and feeding the tour needs, and the need to stay cool, is the call I got from my publisher a month or so before leaving. “Congratulations,” she said, “you’ve pissed off your first Virginian!” We had discussed whether Virginians would be open to a Pacific Northwesterner messing with their history (even though it our history too!), and this seemed a portent of pitchforks to come. The ARC found its way to this bookstore’s most valued customer – a retired banker – who reported back that he was offended by my lack of respect for treasured historical figures.

I hasten to add that I love my characters, even the villains, but I don’t idolize them. Even lofty figures like John Marshall and Patrick Henry come to the page warts and all. Anyway, the owner was determined to cancel the one bookstore signing I had in Richmond (the other signing was at the John Marshall House). But another ARC and calm dialogue defused the situation, and now I count this bookseller as a colleague and Just Deceits enthusiast. And, I might add, all the other Virginians I met were very gracious and seemed genuinely interested in my book.

In addition, if you want to have anybody present at the signing you have to shake the trees till the nuts fall out. Whatever publicity you can think of – postcards, emails to friends and/or groups with an interest in your subject, small newpaper ads or review copies, radio spots if you can get them, facebook and goodreads announcements, booktour DOT com (which I could never get to work!), skinnydip in the town fountain two nights before (leaving one day for the story to run in the local paper and for you to get out of jail).

Be creative! Getting the word out is an entire blog topic, and that’s not this blog.

Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about how to sell a book once you actually convince people to come to your book signing.