Author Blurbs Drive Authors Crazy

Before I got my first book published, a novelist I knew quipped, “The only thing worse than not being published is being published.”  I had no idea what he meant, but I soon figured it out.

Take blurbs. Begging for blurbs for your forthcoming book is a definite downside of being published. It’s humiliating to have grovel for them rather than have your publisher take care of it (when they remember!). You can feel like Dorothy menaced in Oz.

wicked witchFar too many authors think blurbs will magically rocket a book to success. That the right, brilliant blurb by some famous author will impress the publisher, readers, reviewers–and of course our friends, family, and fans.

But do blurbs really make a difference in terms of sales? It’s hard to say. How can you quantify a blurb’s impact?  As a reader, there are actually some authors whose names make me not want to read a book because they’re blurb whores and seem to love having their names on as many book jackets as possible.

What you can be sure of is that not getting a blurb you hope and pray for is a major buzz kill, and getting it is often like July 4th on steroids. The entire world is ablaze with joy. Someone famous, or at least someone you admire, has given you their blessing. They’ve blessed your book–won’t their fame be contagious?

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Is it any wonder blurbs make us writers sometimes get a little frantic? A writer friend told me a hilarious, sad story about a new author asking a national best-selling author for a blurb. I can’t name the celebrity writer, but she’s huge.

The newbie waited and waited. No response. So the anxious author tried again. This time she got a swift and stinging reply:

“My Dear: I understood your letter to be a request, not a demand.”

I sympathized with the celebrity author feeling put upon, but I felt sorry for the writer who was embarrassed, and wished The Famous One had simply said “no” the first time.

Stories like that have made me determined never to ignore a request from an author asking for a blurb. If I can’t do it for whatever reason, I always reply.  Will my blurb make a difference if I’m able to do it? I hope so, even for a little while, and that’s good enough.

Still, you never know how competent a publisher is.  Once a publisher of mine in New York never got advance copies of my book out in time for blurbs and had to rely on reviews for my previous book.  That wasn’t a disaster, but it was frustrating.  And I recently did a blurb that the author loved, but despite her insistence, it didn’t show up on the book.  The publisher, Crooked Lane, wasted my time and the author’s, which is just more proof–if anyone needed it–that publishing is a crazy business.

Lev Raphael is the author of Writer’s Guide is Bunk and 24 other books in genres from mystery to memoir which have been translated into a dozen languages.  He’s done many book tours across the US, Canada, and Europe.

7 Reasons I’ll Skip “Go Set a Watchman”

1) As a longtime print, radio, and on-line reviewer, I’ve always recoiled at massive media hype. I prefer to champion small press books and books that fly under the radar–and they make me more curious. It annoys me to see a book blitzed so relentlessly, and when a PR stampede roars into life, I’m suspicious and get the hell out of the way.

stampede2) When it comes to my favorite Southern writers, over the years I’ve preferred reading Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Dorothy Allison, Truman Capote, Carson McCullers, Alice Walker, and Faulkner.  Yes, Lee won a Pulitzer–but even though her classic book is wildly popular, it’s not at the top of my personal list.

3) The circumstances around the “discovery” of the book get murkier all the time and it’s increasingly probable that Go Set a Watchman is really an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird and not actually a “new novel.”  Lee’s own previous comments about her working relationship with her editor make that pretty clear.

190px-Mockingbirdfirst4) It’s unlikely that aged, infirm Lee had anything to do with publishing the manuscript.  Her own sister was quoted by Lee’s biographer as saying, “Poor Nelle Harper can’t see and can’t hear and will sign anything put before her by anyone in whom she has confidence.”  Where’s the proof she would want us reading what she’d kept private for so long?

harper-lee_3374329b5) Reading about Go Set a Watchman and reading excerpts (including Chapter One in The Wall Street Journal) hasn’t made it seem appealing.  That includes Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker quoting a drab passage I’m supposed to find “lovely.”  None of the reviewers has convinced me it’s a better or more interesting book than To Kill a Mockingbird.

6) If Lee weren’t famous, the manuscript (however it had been discovered) wouldn’t have been anything more than an archival curiosity.  It’s something a scholar might have eventually published with “apparatus”: notes, timeline, an introduction, etc.  But the Rupert Murdoch Money Machine has helped turn it into a global event instead.

Colorful fireworks lighting the night sky7) HarperCollins publisher Jonathan Burnham said that “We [only] gave the book a very light copy edit.”  So Harper Lee is such a genius that she can go right into print without real editing?  That smacks of opportunism, sloppiness, or dishonesty.  I don’t want any part of a book published in such circumstances. I might, however, watch Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird again to see if it holds up or if–like the novel–it’s just something that meant a lot to me in my adolescence….

"To Kill a Mockingbird"Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon.

 

Writers: Don’t Get Trapped By Social Media

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For the last few years, at every writers’ conference I’ve attended, the hottest topic has been social media.  Writers crowd these sessions like medieval pilgrims seeking miracles at a shrine. They seem convinced that with just the right piece of information, they can use social media to promote themselves into writing stardom.

Any why shouldn’t they be? Session after session, book after book, writing blog after writing blog all seem to promise that if you figure out the way to use Twitter or Goodreads or Tumblr or Instagram or Facebook or Amazon algorithms and SEO you’ll hit the jackpot.  Just read X’s blog or book and see how she did it…… Your books will be in the Top 100, you’ll have tens of thousands of followers and customers–if not more.  Hell, you might even develop your own lifestyle brand.  You won’t just have a platform, you’ll have a ziggurat.

But it’s not possible for every writer to score big, is it?  And just like all the other other promotional fads of recent years–like blog tours and Skyping to book groups–this heavy focus on social media might end up wasting an author’s time.

Americans love quick fixes and snake oil, they always have.  It’s not surprising, then, that so many writers are following what’s going to be a false lead for most of them.  It’s really tempting to imagine yourself just a hashtag away from fortune and fame.

Colorful fireworks lighting the night skyWriting is intensely competitive. It’s hard to have a writing career of any kind and not compare yourself to other writers–that’s endemic in the business.  You’ll always find  someone else selling more books, appearing at more venues, winning more prizes, making more money than you are, getting better reviews (deserved or not). But things have only gotten worse now that publishing is easier, and more and more people just like you, it seems, are getting rich because they have the secret.

According to the New York Times, “A small but growing body of evidence suggests that excessive social media use can lead to an unhealthy fixation on how one is perceived and an obsessive competitiveness.” We writers have enough ways to make ourselves miserable without even getting out of bed–hell, some of us probably can do that in our sleep. Honestly, who needs more help?

Do you feel pressured as a writer to be engaged with social media? How do you deal with the pressure?

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery to historical fiction–and beyond. His web site is levraphael.com and you can find his books on Amazon.

Why I Quit Newspaper Reviewing and Became a Happier Writer

Ten years ago I stopped reviewing for the handful of newspapers and magazines I’d spent a decade freelancing for.  But I kept reviewing on several radio stations because I felt freer there and had more fun; eventually I also moved on line to Bibliobuffet.com and The Huffington Post.

I didn’t quit print reviewing because the deadlines wore me down.  I loved the discipline of writing well under pressure, seeing my work in print so quickly, and knowing people read it.

And I didn’t quit because I had a vision of the decline of print journalism.

My main reason for quitting was bad policy.

On radio, nobody hassled me about whether a book had come out that week, that month, or the month before–but print reviewing was very different.  One newspaper editor in particular was obsessed with “timeliness.”  Here’s what she meant:  I couldn’t, for example, review a book in December if its official publication date was in November. Why? Because by then it was old.

This struck me as ridiculous. Reviewing books isn’t like covering fast-breaking news stories. Why would readers think the way my editor(s) did? Especially when I was reviewing fiction? Why would readers care about publication dates?

Let’s be clear. Not every newspaper or magazine operates in this way, but those that do are extremely rigid in their boundaries, and that’s sad.   Books get lost; staffers at publishing houses fall ill and fall behind; sometimes they forget to send all the review copies out.  Books can reach the reviewers late for any number for reasons, but if that happens at one of these outlets, the author and the publisher are completely out of luck.

Reviews are a crucial part of a book’s success, even bad reviews, because they alert people to the book’s existence, and not everyone believes bad reviews anyway.  I’ve bought books precisely because a certain reviewer didn’t like them and I knew our tastes were very different.

I don’t miss living with that kind of rigidity at all.  And I feel sorry for all those authors whose books don’t get in under the wire to at least be considered for review.  The strict policy about publication dates is old-fashioned, idiotically restrictive, and doesn’t serve the interests of the reading public well at all.

I’m glad I don’t have to work with editors who are so inflexible and that I can share my excitement about a book whenever I discover it, because that’s the best part of being a writer-reviewer. The second best part is finding a book to review that also makes me a better writer and when that happens, it’s magical.

Lev Raphael’s books have been translated into fifteen languages, most recently Czech and Romanian.  His 25th book is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and militarized police: Assault with a Deadly Lie.

 

Why Are So Many Reviewers Careless and Clueless?

I confess. Even though I’m an author, I did go over to The Dark Side years ago and I’ve done hundreds of book reviews for newspapers, magazines, radio shows, and on line.

I’ve always tried to be fair and to avoid spoilers; I’ve always been scrupulous about getting my facts straight. But over the years I’ve had to put up with many reviewers who’ve been careless and just plain wrong when reviewing a book of mine, and it’s irritating. I’m not talking about reviewers who don’t like a book for one reason or another, but reviewers who just plain goof. Here are just a few examples.

A Booklist reviewer said that my novel The German Money dealt with a theme it didn’t remotely touch. I was lucky enough to know one of the Booklist editors and complained. He agreed, he apologized, and he changed the review on line, but the print review couldn’t be altered. I’m convinced the reviewer only skimmed my book and was thinking of another title of mine.

Then there was the Publishers Weekly reviewer who never even bothered to count how many mysteries there were in my Nick Hoffman series and published a review in which the number was off. That’s just plain sloppy and it’s happened more than once with other reviewers. Of course I wondered how carefully those reviewers even read the books if they got something so basic wrong.

A Michigan newspaper reviewer once criticized my narrator for misusing the word “access” when he supposedly should have used “excess.” Well, my narrator Nick Hoffman was an English professor and knew what he was saying.  He used “access” correctly in the sentence the reviewer didn’t understand; he was talking about an outburst of feeling. A quick check of a dictionary–physical or on line–would have helped the reviewer avoid making a mistake in print. It would also have expanded her vocabulary.

The latest example of a clodpole mishandling one of my books is the online reviewer who couldn’t even read the cover of my 25th book correctly. It’s clearly subtitled a novel of suspense, but this nimrod criticized it for violating the rules of a mystery. The only response to someone who doesn’t fully appreciate the difference between the structure of a mystery and the structure of a suspense novel is a head smack.

Head-smack

Oh, and a blog.  🙂

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie, a novel of suspense about militarized police, stalking and gun violence, and 24 other books in a wide range of genres which you can explore at his web site: http://www.levraphael.com.

Maybe You’re Right and the Reviewers are Wrong?

As an author who’s done hundreds of readings and signings around the country (and abroad) I’m often asked about books on the best seller list and books in the news.  I learned a long time ago to be very careful how I answered those questions.  At the beginning of my career, a well-known author had warned me to watch what I said.  He’d made an unfortunate remark about one of his peers when he was starting out, and it had hurt him.

So I often turn the question around and ask what my audience member thinks.  Usually the response is: “I didn’t like it.” That’s why they asked the question in the first place.  They wanted the opportunity to express it publicly, and with an author present; somehow that makes it all more official or permissible–or both.

Everything is Illuminated is one novel I remember many people at various venues saying they found frantic and phony one year when I was out on tour; The Lovely Bones was another book people complained about a different time I was touring.  I didn’t like either one for various reasons, but all I said in either case was that the writing didn’t draw me in. That’s the territory I stake out: technique.

Disliking popular and acclaimed books has been on my mind lately, given the rapturous reviews for the movie of Gone Girl, which have pretty much followed the whole reviewing world’s take on the book. Seriously, is there a newspaper in the country that isn’t crazy in love with Gillian Flynn’s novel?

Friends whose opinion I respect have urged me to read it, and I tried more than once.  Really.  I never got very far.  I found the writing off-putting.  I tried her other books to be fair, and they didn’t work for me either stylistically.

But this isn’t the first time a universally acclaimed book hasn’t passed my smell test.  I reviewed for the Detroit Free Press and other outlets for over a decade and I often found myself at odds with the reviewing consensus.

So If it helps any of you out there who didn’t like Gone Girl, or found it boring, you’re not alone.  Take a closer look at the Gone Girl Amazon page.  The last time I checked, for the 14,000+ readers there who gave it four or five stars, 7,000 gave it only one, two, or three.  You’re not alone, and it’s okay.

sleepingstudenty_Large

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in genres from memoir to Jane Austen mash-up.  You can read about them here.

The Dirty Secret of Publishing

I taught at a Michigan State University study abroad program in London this summer and had some superb guest speakers. Val McDermid wowed my writing students for her candor, especially when she told them about the lucky breaks she’d had in her career. “There are writers who are as good as I am,” she said, “they just haven’t been as lucky.” She made it very clear that even though talent and hard work were essential, so was luck.

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I thought about that when reading Robert McCrum’s entertaining biography of P.G. Wodehouse.  The comic writer was immensely talented, but just as lucky whether in London or New York. In each city, his timing was right because editors were hungry for the kinds of stories he could write.  And in New York, the gifted and speedy poet had no trouble composing witty lyrics in a city where musical comedy had become wildly popular.  He also met the right collaborators at the right time, all of which made him Fortune’s darling, not her fool.

I’ve had my share of luck. There was the editor who took over from another and wanted to launch my mystery series when his predecessor was highly dubious about it. And the university library archivist who actively pursued buying my literary papers and made a very lucrative deal with me, a deal I likely wouldn’t have gotten if I’d lived in another city.  But I’ve also had really bad luck. Like the overconfident, high-powered California agent who took a novel of mine to New York and not only shot her wad by hitting more than two dozen publishers all at once in the hopes of an auction, but she did it just as the stock market collapsed.

The Germans have a separate word for bad luck, Pech. It deserves its own term because it’s as formidable and potent a force in a writer’s career as the good kind. People in the publishing industry don’t like to talk about luck, and writers sure don’t. There’s a widespread fantasy, especially among newbies, that if you write a good book it will find an audience. Or that there’s some magical form of promotion that will make you a best seller. Currently, social media is supposedly the answer to the eternal question of what will make a book a hit, and there are hundreds of people willing to sell you a book (or their consulting services) that they promise will reveal the secret to success.

The real answer is that nobody really knows, and that nobody can predict whether a book will be lucky. It’s hard to admit that a book’s fate is so completely out of anyone’s control. But it’s the truth.

Lev Raphael is the author of Assault With a Deadly Lie and 24 other books in a wide range of genres.

How to Diss Other Authors Safely: A Quick & Dirty Guide

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Watching other authors succeed in ways you can never dream of isn’t easy.  Life isn’t fair and that goes double or triple for the writing life.  There’ll be plenty of times in your career when you wish you could hire Olivia Pope and her Scandal team to just shutthemdown.

But speaking out about your feelings isn’t a good idea.  Not so long ago, Lynn Shepherd got  lambasted all over the Internet for having urged J.K. Rowling to stop writing.  In Shepherd’s view, Rowling is a literary Mount Etna whose magma is burying way too many other authors. Cap the volcano, whatever it takes!

Whether she was kidding or being serious, I think she chose the wrong way to express herself.  As an author of crime fiction she had obvious, wonderful tools she should have used, and it’s a path any author who wants to even the score can easily take.

Write about it, but disguise the people involved.  Channel the emotion and use it to fuel fiction of some kind where you can balance the scales in any way you want.  Take control of the situation by turning the “offending” author into a character over whom you have complete control.  Their fate is now completely in your hands.  Make it brutal, gory, grotesquely funny–whatever works, whatever gives you catharsis.

Turn the author’s latest book into a joke or a disaster.  Mock the title, the theme, the reviews, whatever gives you pleasure.  I’ve done that at least once and it didn’t matter that I’m sure the quite famous author never noticed–I had a ball because I thought he was so over-praised by the reviewers and I couldn’t stand his work.

When you channel your frustration this way, you’ll not only end up rising above the feelings weighing you down, you’ll also be extra productive.  Better still, if you do a good job of disguise, nobody but you, your agent and editor or whoever else you let in on the secret will know.

Masking the situation as fiction, you have the chance of not seeming mean-spirited and be far less likely to incite other people’s fans to shout Bansai! and launch their planes at your fleet.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Author

I’ve done hundreds of talks and readings from my books across the U.S. and in Canada, and in Great Britain, Germany, Austria, France, and Israel.

When I’m picked up on tour at a train station or airport, one of the most frequent questions is a rhetorical one: “This must be pretty exciting, right?”

It is.  I’m an extrovert.  I love meeting new people and speaking to new groups.  I prepare extensively for every gig I do: finding out as much as I can about the audience and venue in advance, then writing talking points, studying and rehearsing those, and practicing my reading to get it right.

It helps that I did so much theater in college, and that I’ve taught for many years as well and feel comfortable as a performer of my own work–and my own life.  And yet there’s always a trace of sadness, too, that’s unrelated to being away from home.

I was recently in Marquette, Michigan, a picturesque town of about nine thousand, and my days there typify being a tourist author. I did five different talks starting with a keynote at the beautiful interfaith Holocaust memorial ceremony.  My time there was more intense than a typical tourist’s would be.

I got to see the area from the local standpoint because I met so many natives and so many people who’d moved there either from elsewhere in the Midwest and around the country.  I saw the beautiful tiny synagogue in tiny Ishpeming, which has remarkable stained glass windows and feels like a spiritual jewel  box.  Members told me about the area’s Jewish migration patterns and gave me an in-depth look at local sites and drives.  The beautiful downtown with its late 19th century stone buildings and churches was especially impressive.

And I had what I always have, whatever the city or country: intense talks with people I’ll probably never see again.  I was lucky to be there three nights, because it’s rare to spend more than one or two days on tour as an author.

The whole experience is intense, and wonderful, and fulfilling–and then it’s over way too soon. That dynamic repeats itself over and over and over.   That’s one thing I never expected when I launched my career as writer many years ago: the miles it would put on me, the smiles, too, but also the sadness of random, lovely contacts that fade away–until the next tour.

The Internet Isn’t Elysium

I recently blogged about how where you live might affect your writing career, pointing out that access to various traditional media and publishing contacts is more likely in big cities.

I wasn’t remotely suggesting that people move from where they were, or discouraging anyone from writing in the first place if they didn’t live near a major media hub.  I was simply pointing out the possible downside of not living where you might have the kind of access to connections and exposure you don’t find in smaller towns and cities.

I’m keenly aware of that having grown up in New York and living in a Michigan town with only one newspaper that doesn’t do a lot of Arts coverage.

Many readers agreed with me when I cross-posted on The Huffington Post (and hundreds posted the column to Facebook), but some argued that the Internet has changed everything.  According to them, writers can go anywhere and be anywhere now.

That sounds true, but is it? There are more book stores in big cities where you can meet book sellers, and indie book stores are making a significant comeback.  There are also more radio and TV stations where you can do live interviews, more newspapers and magazines.  Those contacts can be made long distance and possibly even nurtured that way, but they’re not typically as intense as when they’re face-to-face.

Likewise, meeting writers, agents, and editors in person, sometimes casually, can’t be replaced by texting or Skyping or chatting on someone’s blog.  Obviously, you can do some of those things mentioned above by attending workshops and conferences, but you might have a head start if you’re already living where there’s a large concentration of media.

The flip side of course is competition for attention.  But that’s just as big a problem on line, maybe bigger, especially now that so many people are going indie and offering their books for $.99 or free.  No wonder ebook sales are flattening out.

Is the Internet the answer to a writer’s problems?  Sometimes, and sometimes it’s the source of brand new ones.