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 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.

The Lure of “Exposure” For Writers

There’s been lots of buzz lately on-line about how often even established authors get requests to submit their writing for free, or even speak somewhere for free.

The lure is “exposure.”

These pieces make me wince with recognition.  I’ve been publishing fiction and nonfiction about children of Holocaust survivors for over thirty years and I’ve keynoted three international Holocaust conferences.  I was traveling to Florida for a conference not so long ago, and months in advance contacted a local Holocaust Museum to let them know I’d be in town.  I asked if they’d like me to speak there about my work’ given its recognition in the U.S. and abroad.

They did.  But they had no interest in paying me even a token speaking fee for my time.  Why?  Because they insisted speaking there would get me good “exposure.”

I explained that I wasn’t a newbie, that speaking was work, that I planned all my talks and readings extensively.  After all, I was a writer and this was my business, not a hobby.  They didn’t bother replying.

sigh2-609x430I guess they thought I was nervy to ask to be compensated for my time.  I’m happy to report, though, that this happens to me rarely.  Now and then a new magazine might ask me to submit a story and say they’d be happy to “consider” it.  I thank them for their interest, and say I don’t write “on spec.”

If an editor knows my work well enough to ask me for a piece, I’m delighted to edit it as much as necessary to make it meet her or his requirements.  For one recent anthology, I did almost ten drafts of a story because I knew the editor, Derek Rubin was on target with his suggestions and I wanted to work with him to shape the story into something successful and polished.  He was going to take the story once it was “done” and I loved working with such a gifted editor.

promisedBut I don’t have the time anymore to supply people with material they can reject–that’s exposure I don’t need.

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

(updated 7/25/2015)

The Writer’s Ultimate Guide to Social Media

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At every writers’ conference I’ve been speaking at lately, the hottest topic has been social media.  Wannabe and established writers flock to these sessions like deathly Coronado seeking those seen golden cities.

They seem convinced that with the right information, they can use these new tools to promote themselves into writing stardom.  And fast, too.

Any why shouldn’t they be? Session after session, book after book, writing blog after writing blog all seem to promise that it you figure out the way to use Twitter and Tumblr and Instagram and Facebook and algorithms and SEO, you’ll hit the jackpot.  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.  Just read X’s blog or book and see how she did it……

But it’s not possible for everyone 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, for example, this heavy focus on social media for authors can just as likely waste their time and divert them from their writing.

Americans love quick fixes and snake oil, 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.  What a temptation to imagine yourself just one hashtag away from fortune and fame…

Writing is intensely competitive, like it or not. 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 selling more books, appearing at more venues, winning more prizes, making more money than you are, getting better reviews.

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. Who needs more help?

Lev Raphael’s most recent book is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence, and police militarization: Assault With a Deadly Lie.

Instagram Authors?

The New York Times recently reported that fashion designers like Jason Wu and Diane von Furstenberg are turning to Instagram for inspiration and to take the pulse of their fans.  They monitor where and how fans are wearing their designs and also poll fans for opinions and suggestions for their work.

The iPhone app is apparently “generating 25 times the level of engagement of other social media platforms.”  So when will publishers start pushing their authors to switch to this hot new social medium that’s outpacing Facebook and Twitter?

Think of the possibilities!  Authors could find out where and when fans are reading their books.  They could post and enhance photos of themselves on tour and at work. They could post images of how they imagine their characters, seek advice about book covers, and generally engage with their fans 25 times more than they do already on any other social medium and have their photos instantly posted to Facebook, Twitter, Flickr, Posterous and Tumblr.

Every aspect of their lives, from morning to night, could be photographed and commented on.  Best of all, the Instagram community doesn’t seem to generate the kind of snark other platforms do.

And if they plunged into the new, new thing, they could also catch up with the shifting social media landscape, discovering why Instagram is so hot, why Facebook acquired it for one billion dollars, and why it has this stellar track record, as Kelly Lux reports on her blog:

  • Launched on October 6, 2010
  • #1 in the App Store within 24 hours of launch
  • iPhone App of the Week
  • Holds the record as quickest to reach 1 million downloads, occurring on December 21, 2010
  • Launched 7 new languages
  • An Instagram photo made the cover of the Wall Street Journal
  • Surpassed 25 million users in early March, 2012

The possibilities for authors and their fans are endless, and publishers will no doubt be relentless in chasing after the next Holy Grail of PR.

If they’re not doing so already.