I am absolutely delighted to be featured on Erika Dreifus’s website in this Q&A, in which we chat about Everyday Book Marketing, my own adventures in book promotion, and what new authors need to know about marketing.
Category: On Publishing
There are a few great opportunities for fiction writers coming up, so I wanted to mention a few upcoming awards and deadlines…
The submission deadline for the 2013-14 Bear Deluxe Magazine Doug Fir Fiction Award is September 3!
The Bear Deluxe Magazine welcomes submissions of previously unpublished short stories up to 5,000 words, relating to a sense of place or the natural world, interpreted as broadly or narrowly as the author defines.
Entry Fee: $15
Word limit: 5,000
Grand Prize: $1,000, writer’s residency at Sitka Center for Art & Ecology, national publication, and manuscript review
Finalists: Manuscript review, recognition, publication consideration
Click here for more information and complete details.
The Press 53 Award for Short Fiction opens September 1!
The Press 53 Award for Short Fiction will be awarded annually to an outstanding, unpublished collection of short stories. This contest is open to any writer, regardless of his or her publication history, provided the manuscript is written in English and the author lives in the United States. The winner of this contest will receive publication, a $1,000 cash advance, travel expenses and lodging for a special reading and book signing party at Press 53 headquarters at the Community Arts Café in downtown Winston-Salem, North Carolina, attendance to the 2014 Press 53/Prime Number Magazine Gathering of Writers, and ten copies of the book. Click here for full details.
Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet seeks submissions until December 31!
Editor Cliff Garstang seeks submissions for a new anthology titled Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, to be published by Press 53 in Fall 2014. This is an anthology of short fiction (short stories of any length, including short shorts and flash) set around the globe, including the United States. Click here for full details and how to submit.
You’ll find out about upcoming events, a few great resources for writers, calls for submissions, and have a new writing tip and prompt to keep your writing going.
I remember learning years ago that the average short story is rejected 25 times before finding a home. (Now, I’m guessing this number is much higher.) This made me feel a lot better — some of my stories were above average in terms of how long it took to publish, some were below, and many were right on track.
Half the battle, I’ve come to learn, is just sticking with it — sending out that story over and over again even when the rejections keep coming in. But the other half of the battle is even more important: making sure you not only have a terrific story (or novel, or poem, or whatever it may be) but that you follow editorial guidelines and send a professional submission, whether you’re targeting a literary journal editor or an agent. Time-strapped editors and agents have little patience for sloppy work, and it’s worth paying a little extra attention to detail when it could mean the difference between getting a fair read or being tossed in the reject pile.
As both a writer and editor, I’ve learned (often the hard way) how to put together a submission that gets a fair read. While every editor is different, below are a few of the most common submission mistakes that writers make and how you can avoid them yourself.
Sending out work before it’s ready. Keep in mind that it’s the writing that is most important — always. If your story or novel isn’t ready, don’t send it out. Period. I’ve done this many times, of course — it’s hard not to be eager to send out something brand-new, especially if you’ve spent months or years working on it — but it never turns out well. What editors and agents look for more than anything else is great writing. So wait until your project reaches that level before you even consider sending it out.
Submitting a sloppy cover letter or query. If a cover letter is riddled with typos and grammatical errors, an editor will assume your writing is the same — this will not encourage a thoughtful read. Many writers have their manuscripts professionally copyedited before sending them out — and if you’re a writer who needs this, be sure your cover letter is edited as well, as it’s the first thing an editor/agent will see. By “sloppy” I also mean not researching the publication, agency, or publisher — writers who submit a literary novel to an agent who only reads mysteries, or a science fiction story to a poetry journal (and yes, these things happen all the time) will not get read; it’s simply a waste of everyone’s time. Be sure your submission is appropriate to where you’re submitting.
Overselling yourself. You do want to be confident about your work, but in a professional way, not a desperate-salesperson sort of way. Keep your cover letters and queries short and to the point, and if guidelines are available, follow them exactly. Don’t compare your work to that of other authors (unless the guidelines specifically require this); I’ve seen letters for everything from short stories to novels in which writers compare themselves to famous writers (often misspelling these famous writers’ names, no less), and it’s no surprise that there is, in fact, no comparison whatsoever. For a literary magazine submission, don’t describe the story, essay, or poem — let it speak for itself; your cover letter need only contain a bio, contact information, and whatever the guidelines may ask for. For an agent query, follow guidelines exactly (this usually means a one-page query with a little about the book and a little about you).
Don’t get ahead of yourself. Many writers include a copyright symbol with their work, or they include a dedication or acknowledgments page with a manuscript — unfortunately, including these things at such an early stage reveals a lack of awareness about publishing and may get in the way of your getting a fair read. If you’ve been writing and think you’re ready to submit but don’t know anything about publishing (whether you’re submitting to literary magazines or agents), take the time to learn before submitting — it will save you a lot of time, energy, and rejection. (For example, you’ll learn that your work is automatically copyrighted as soon as you write it; there is no need to register it or do anything else — and you’ll also learn that you submit a dedication and acknowledgments to your editor only after you’re under contract, with the final version of your manuscript.)
Less is more. Simplicity is key here — again, it’s the writing that is important; let it speak for itself. The less you include with your submission, the more quickly the reader will get to your writing, and this is exactly what you want.
A million thanks to Joanna Penn for hosting me this week on the brilliant The Creative Penn blog, where you’ll find my post “Think Like A Writer Every Day, Even If You Can’t Write Every Day.”
Best of all, Joanna’s wonderful readers have chimed in with fantastic tips and ideas for how to stay inspired and creative, even when you’re unable to sit in the chair and write — I so enjoyed hearing about so many different processes and learning a few new tips.
For those of you not yet familiar with The Creative Penn, do check it out — you’ll find a wealth of information on writing, publishing, and marketing. In addition to Joanna’s own expertise as a writer, her website features guest posts and interviews with other authors on everything from finding time to write to editing and revising to how best to publish your work.
If a picture’s worth a thousand words, a book cover’s got to be worth at least forty to a hundred times that, if it’s going to sell what’s inside.
According to Para Publishing, “everyone judges a book by its cover,” and their statistics cite a Wall St. Journal study that reveals that bookstore browsers spend eight seconds looking at the front cover and fifteen seconds looking at the back. Yet the trick is usually getting readers interested enough to pick up the book in the first place.
As many of you know, Forgetting English was reissued last year with a gorgeous new cover.
What most of you don’t know is that I was madly in love with another cover image before falling in love with this one. That first cover was exotic and mysterious and beautiful, in a way completely different from the one above. But we ran into a permissions issue and had to let it go.
Naturally, I thought I’d never fall in love again. My kind and patient publisher, Kevin Morgan Watson of Press 53, assured me that I would.
And I did. Now, I can’t imagine my book having a cover other than the one above.
Below is the first edition of Forgetting English, the cover of which went through several dramatic makeovers (different type styles, different colors, different layouts, with the Gauguin painting the only thing that didn’t change) before turning out like this.
While I’m partial to my new book cover, I’ll always have a fondness for this one — my ex-book, if you will. Going through this process not once but twice was interesting; I think authors (not to mention readers) react to a cover much the way they do to people they meet: There’s an instant connection, or there’s not. A good publisher and book designer understands that and looks for an image conveys what’s beneath the cover as best it possibly can.
Check out this book design case study, featuring Erika Dreifus’s wonderful book, Quiet Americans, which takes us through the steps a book designer goes through in preparing not only a cover but the interior design.
Most authors, unless they publish with a small press, don’t have a say in what their book covers look like (or, they attempt to have a say and are ignored or overruled). For my first book, while the Gauguin painting featured on the cover is one of my favorites, its South Pacific feel evokes only one story in the collection, and I didn’t feel it was a good fit. While I’d already sent along a few cover ideas and even several images, someone had already secured permission to use the art, and there was no room for debate.
When my book was reissued, I was thrilled to work closely with Kevin at Press 53 to find a cover that we both thought was perfect for the book. He understands, as good editors, agents, and publishers to, that while the publisher knows how to best market its books (and is footing the bill for book design, no less), the author also has a valuable contribution to make — and an author who loves his or her book cover will be all the happier to promote it.
For more insights on authors and their book covers, check out this piece in The Awl featuring six writers on book covers and marketing; it’s fascinating to hear from authors who either love or hate their covers, who were consulted or not, and how they approach the strange process of getting blurbs.
When all is said and done, when it comes to our book covers, we authors have to be flexible. If our books are our “children,” as the comparison often goes, we have to let go just as parents do: Parents, after all, never know exactly how their kids are going to turn out. And they love them all the same.
Q: How do you know when a story, or even a novel, is truly finished?
A: This is, of course, among the most challenging questions to answer because writing (and being finished with a piece) is such a uniquely personal thing. I was talking with an artist friend recently about this: She said that it must be difficult to be a writer because you actually have to finish a story or book, whereas she can always go back and rework a painting. I pointed out that writers, too, rework things a zillion times — and that even once something is “finished,” i.e., published, we often still feel as though we’d like to rewrite it. (At least, I do…and I’m sure I’m not the only one! I talked a little about this in a recent interview with Brenda Miller, c0-author (with Holly Hughes) of The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World.)
In short, whatever type of artist we may be, we probably all feel that we’re never quite done. Yet eventually paintings get sold, and stories and poems and novels get published — at that point, we have to let go. But how do we know we’re ready to send the work out into the world in the first place?
Here are a few tips (and while I use the word “story” below, the tips, of course, apply to anything from poems to essays to novels):
- First, ask yourself a few important questions: Does this story reveal what I planned to say? Are the characters well developed and portrayed? Do I offer a sense of setting and detail that not only enhance but complete the piece? Does it have a beginning, middle, and end?
- Next, give the project some space. You’ll need to step back and come back to your story fresh in order to see what it really needs, if anything; when we’ve been working hard on a piece, it’s impossible to get the necessary distance to know whether it’s working or not. Try a week or two; see if you’re able to look at it objectively and determine what needs fine-tuning or even complete reworking. If that’s not enough time, let it sit for a month or more. This is one step that is important not to rush.
- Find a trusted reader. Most writers aren’t able to see their own work completely objectively — while we may be able to take it far, we all need at least one (or several) outside opinions to make sure we’re on the right track. Find one or two trusted people to read and respond to your story, answering the following questions: What have you gained/learned from reading this? What are your favorite parts of it? What, if anything, isn’t working for you? What do you feel is the point of this piece? Would you recommend it to others? Basically, you want to discover whether the reader has figured out what you’d hoped to say with your piece — as well as enjoyed the journey.
- Send it out and gauge reactions. Once you feel it’s ready to go, send it out into the world! If you’ve finished your novel, send queries to a few agents; if you’ve finished a short story, send it to a few literary magazine editors. You’ll either get personal, detailed responses, or you may get form rejections that don’t tell you much. Keep in mind that a pile of form rejections can mean a lot of things: It can mean that your piece simply wasn’t the right fit for these particular agents or editors, or it could mean that it still needs some work. If the form rejections continue to pile up without any positive feedback at all, move on to the next step, which is…
- Return to the beginning. Re-read the piece again after even more time and space and see what it might need. Be as objective if you can (and, if you have gotten some feedback, see whether it resonates with you and whether you might want to incorporate these suggestions). Then, after you’ve done another appraisal of the piece, find another reader to give you an objective opinion.
Clearly you could repeat this cycle endlessly, and no one wants to do that. At some point you will have to decide on one of the following:
1) The story is finished, and it’s publishable, and you’ll keep sending it out until it finds a home.
2) The story is finished, and it’s not publishable, and you’ll let it rest in peace.
3) The story is finished, it’s not publishable as is, and you’ll take it apart, recycle was is salvageable, and begin again.
In the end — and most important — you must ask yourself this key question: Am I proud of this? The one (and only) reader you must satisfy unconditionally is yourself. Not everyone will like what you write, but if you love it, then that’s something you can live with…and it’s the only opinion that counts.
Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, Vermont, is a place for which you’ll want to set aside an entire day.
The bookstore is in a beautiful old Victorian, with several levels, including a full-service cafe on the top level and a large reading area for its many visiting authors.
It’s an fabulous place to wander through — even better, to get lost in — and among its treasures are not only books but clothing, jewelry, accessories, and a huge children’s section that includes toys and games.
Another interesting aspect of Northshire is that it’s one of the growing number of bookstores with an Espresso Book Machine, which means that you can order up any book available through the print-on-demand service (such as self-published books, small press titles, or large publishers’ backlist titles) and have it printed while you wait. And for all you indie authors out there, Northshire also has its own imprint, Shires Press, which offers a variety of packages for authors who want to self-publish their books — a very smart idea and likely one of the many reasons this bookstore is celebrating its 35th birthday and going strong.
If you’re a writer in 2012, you surely have a blog. Yet how do you know if you’re using your blog in the best way you can to promote your work (without being that dreaded writer, The Over-Promoter)?
There is no one-size-fits all way to write a blog — for as many writers as there are in the world, there are as many blogging styles. Yet if you don’t blog enough — or if you blog too much, or if you blog about the wrong things — you risk alienating the very audience you hope to engage. So here are a few tips to help you keep up your blog, your writing, and your connection with readers.
- Keep it short and sweet. A blog post need not be the length of a novella — it need only be interesting, relevant (see below), and useful to the reader. Also, if you’re a writer, you need to be spending most of your time on your novel or poems, not blogging. Be brief and have fun — and then get back to your writing.
- Keep it relevant. While you don’t want to be a shameless self-promoter, you do want your blog to be at least somewhat related to your writing, whether you talk about the process of writing your novel (research, writing rituals, inspiration for your characters, etc.) or whether you add content relevant to a nonfiction book (new recipes if you’re writing a cookbook, for example, or — as happens to be the case with this blog — new writing prompts that relate to Everyday Writing) or whether you link to stories thematically related to your fiction (I’ve often linked to travel stories related to settings that appear in Forgetting English).
- Add visuals. Not every post will lend itself to images (and it’s better to use none at all than cheesy, unrelated stock photos), but keep in mind that what engages the eye helps to engage the reader. Make each post as visually appealing as possible. For example, I’m using bold type in this bulleted list to make it more reader friendly. (Is it working?) And, when in doubt, I can always add an image of my book (most people find this cover very relaxing).
- Share the love. Use your blog not only to share your own writing but to connect with others. The more you reach out and share others’ blogs, the more your readers will gain. Link to other blogs, offer and host guest posts, participate in virtual book tours and giveaways. All these things will help foster a true online community. And don’t neglect to comment on others’ blogs and to respond to comments on your own. Both bloggers and readers love the feedback and the sense that there’s a real human behind the posts.
- Have fun. While I saved this point for last, it’s probably the most important. Even if it means posting less, post only when you’re inspired and have something to say. The last thing your blog should be is a chore (and readers can tell when you’ve phoned it in), so take the time to consider how best to keep up with a blog in a way that engages and inspires you, and this in turn will keep your book out there in the world in a subtle yet important way.
Wishing you happy blogging!
I always love chatting with Sheila Bender of Writing It Real — she asks the most thought-provoking questions about all aspects of the writing life. So I was delighted to chat with her about Everyday Writing, which meandered into the realm of publishing, submitting work, and writing in different genres — all followed by writing prompts of varying lengths to fit any busy writer’s schedule.
Check out the article here — and if you’re not already a member, I highly recommend becoming one! Membership offers a wealth of articles, inspiration, classes — and community.
Thanks to Sheila for the opportunity to talk about a few of my favorite things!
I’m happy and grateful to be featured on the StyleSubstanceSoul blog today with “5 Ways to Make Time for Creativity.”
If you’re not familiar with StyleSubstanceSoul, visit today and sign up to receive their e-news, which delivers inspiration, book and film reviews, interviews, and amazing giveaways to your in-box every week. This wonderful site was founded by three best friends (and mothers of daughters) who believe that “female energy has the power to change the world.” They are all about living a life of positive action and compassion — what’s not to love about that?
A million thanks to StyleSubstanceSoul for featuring 5 Ways to Make Time for Creativity (and be sure to click through to a couple of the links, where you’ll find books by a couple of my favorite poets). Hope this all leads you to a weekend of inspiration, good reading, and good writing!
There’s a lot to enjoy about Manhattan Beach, from its miles of sandy beach to its boutiques and shops to its amazing Mexican food — and, most of all, Pages: A Bookstore, a fabulous indie in the heart of the neighborhood at 904 Manhattan Avenue.
Pages and its three owners — two of them, Patty and Margot, were there for Cher’s party — are warm, generous hosts, and the bookstore itself is a wonderful, inviting space not only for a book event but for wandering and reading.
In addition to comfy chairs for browsing, the bookstore’s shelves are topped with quotes about writing, from William Faulkner to Thomas Jefferson. The layout is spacious but somehow also offers that cozy feeling of being among a great abundance of books.
Like all good bookstores, Pages is active in its community, with events (including author appearances, game nights, workshops, and book clubs), a monthly newsletter, and an expansive children’s section with beanbag reading “chairs.”
Don’t miss this wonderful bookstore the next time you’re in Manhattan Beach — it’s the perfect place to find your beach reading, and a wonderful respite when you’re ready to step out of the sun.
One of the many things I love about Forgetting English‘s publisher, Press 53, is its yearly Memorial Day tradition: For every book you purchase from the Press 53 website from Memorial Day until Flag Day (June 14), Press 53 will send, at no additional cost to you, a book to an active-duty overseas soldier or to a recovering soldier in a military hospital. What better way to celebrate mark Memorial Day?
Buy a book for yourself or a fellow reader, and Press 53 will take care of the rest. And, in celebration of National Short Story Month, why not try a new collection?
Forgetting English isn’t the only Spokane Prize winner among Press 53 titles — Becky Hagenston’s Strange Weather is also a recipient of the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction (and it’s an amazing collection…I highly recommend it).
And here are a few recent Press 53 award-winning story collections:
Anne Leigh Parrish’s short story collection All the Roads That Lead From Home won an Independent Publishers Book Award Silver Medal for Best Short Story Collection.
Marjorie Hudson’s short story collection Accidental Birds of the Carolinas won a PEN/Hemingway Award Honorable Mention.
Michael Kardos’s short story collection One Last Good Time won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award for Fiction.
Q: How do I know which literary contests are worth entering? Are some better than others?
A: I recommend doing a lot of research before entering any type of literary contest — whether you’re entering a single poem or an entire short story collection, you’ll want to make sure that it’s a magazine or publisher you know of, respect, and want to work with. Some contests may in fact be a better fit for your work than others — but most of all, you’ll want to avoid contests that could be scams (sadly, there are all too many of them out there). For the most part, though, contests are great — in fact, winning a university press contest is what led to the publication of the first edition of Forgetting English back in 2009.
So here are a few tips for researching and entering contests, whether you have one story/poem or a whole collection …
- First, get familiar with any contest you’re thinking of entering. How long has it been around? (If it’s the contest’s first year, on one hand, you may have good odds of winning; on the other hand, if it hasn’t been around for a while, you may not know whether it’s legitimate until you enter.) Is the contest supported by a well-known organization, such as a literary magazine, a small press, or a university? Do you like and respect its products, whether it’s a literary magazine or a book publisher? Make sure you’re completely comfortable with the organization running the contest before you send anything in, especially money.
- Consider the fee. Even legitimate contests usually charge fees these days, using the money to administer the contest and to offer judges a stipend. Paying attention to the cost may give you an idea of whether the contest is legit or not — for example, most contests for literary magazines charge fees from $5 to $15 (sometimes as high as $20) to enter a short story or selection of poems; contests for book-length works usually charge about $25. If it’s much higher than this, the contest may not be a reputable one (if, say, a contest asks for $30 or more for a single story or charges more than $50 for a manuscript). Of course, it’s always possible that these are reputable contests — some simply have higher fees — but if it’s far above the average, why not instead support the magazines and presses that work hard to keep fees reasonable for authors?
- Consider the award. Another red flag is if there are no cash prizes for the winners, or if the prize is way out of line with the fee. All contests that ask you to pay a fee should offer a cash award (often these range from $500 to $1,000 for a story or group poems, and from $1,500 to $2,500 or more for a small-press manuscript award). If there’s no award, then what do the fees go toward? Also, make sure the fees and awards align — while some emerging lit mags and presses offer smaller awards, if you’re paying $20 for a short-story award that only pays the winner $100, that’s not a sign of a well-run competition.
- Learn about the judge. Good contests often invite well-known authors to be a final judge, and this is usually a sign of a good contest. Also look into who does the first round of readings/rejections — magazine editors, or interns? Make sure you’re comfortable with the review process before you enter. You might also note whether a contest is judged blindly or not — contests are a lot more fair if the playing field is leveled by having no author names on the manuscripts; this way, readers and judges look at every piece with a completely open mind, which is one of the biggest advantages of entering contests: No one knows whether you’re an unpublished author or Joyce Carol Oates.
- Submit your very best work. For contests, this is especially important — you’ll be competing with other authors submitting their very best (few authors spend money on reading fees to submit a half-baked story). So be sure your work is polished (some editors are very fussy about typos) and that it’s the best it can be. Spend time reading the contest issues of literary magazines as well as books that have won manuscript contests — this will give you a good idea of what the press is looking for and what it considers award-winning material.
- Follow guidelines carefully. This is even more important than with regular submissions because if your work gets tossed out for not meeting guideline requirements, you’ve also lost your submission fee. If they say no cover letter or acknowledgments, do not submit them. If they say your name should not appear on the manuscript, double check to make sure it is not there. If they ask you not to staple your pages or to submit electronically using an RTF file instead of a Word doc, do it. All this may take a little extra time, but it’s better than having your submission disqualified.
- If at first you don’t succeed… Always keep trying. Literary magazines get hundreds, if not thousands, of entries for each contest they hold — and book publishers may receive 500+ submissions for a single contest. It’s tough out there — but winning, or even placing, in a contest can do wonders for your exposure, not to mention your bank account. If you win $1,000 in a contest, I suggest using half to celebrate and using the other half to create a “contest fund.” You can then use that $500 to enter up to 50 literary magazine contests, or up to 20 manuscript contests…and if you win another award, you’ll be able to keep on going.
I couldn’t possibly define “author platform” any better than Jane Friedman does in this blog post, so I won’t even try. This is truly a post that anyone who wants to publish a book should read — even better, prospective authors should read this long before publication is on the horizon.
Whether fiction or nonfiction, books usually take a while to write — years, in most cases. Yet somehow, many authors seem to be rapidly approaching their publication dates before realizing they have to build a platform (a few years ago, this was me). And as Jane so accurately points out, building a platform does not happen overnight: In fact, a solid platform takes years to build (especially if you want to avoid all that she tell us a platform is not, such as “hard selling” and “annoying people,” which no author wants to do).
I have to admit that I began writing and publishing stories even before a “platform” was the first thing an editor or agent asked about. I didn’t know (or care) about having one — but fortunately for me, by the time I had a book contract, I discovered that I sort of did have one. I was a teacher who was developing a mailing list and writing a blog; I’d published stories in dozens of magazines and journals. Today, I work to keep up with all these things, including writing nonfiction articles, and even a book, on the creative process. I’m on Facebook and Twitter (a little reluctantly sometimes) and even though all this takes time away from writing, it’s all so important as it can still be a challenge for an author to find her audience.
For all of you out there who are still working on your books, know that it’s never to early to think about your platform. And if you cringe at the very thought of the word “platform,” you’re not alone — but think of it this way: How will you find an audience for your book? While it’s true that some writers seem to be overnight successes, the vast majority of us will have to find our audience on our own. Many authors think that marketing isn’t their job, that it’s only about the writing — yet this couldn’t be further from reality. This isn’t to say that a platform should come first, only that it’s something that needs to be developed along with your creative project so that when your book is ready for the world, so are you as a writer. After all, what’s the good in writing that book when you’re not in a good position to find all the readers you possibly can?
As Jane tells us, “It’ll be a long journey.” Start now, and you’ll be able to take your time and even have a little fun.