Authors: Don’t Forget that Writing is a Business

My father had a small business which I thought imprisoned him, and as a kid, I swore I would never “do retail.” .

Boy, was I wrong!  As an author, I wound up owning my own small business and it’s as vulnerable to competition and the vagaries of the market place as any physical store.  Sometimes it’s just as exhausting.

From the beginning of my book publishing career in 1990, I was deeply involved in pushing my work, contacting venues for readings, investing in posters and postcards, writing my own press releases when I thought my publisher hadn’t done a good job, and constantly faxing or mailing strangers around the country about my latest book.  I spent thousands sending myself on tour when my publisher wouldn’t do it or going to conferences to push my work and build my presence, and so did many of my friends.

Then came the Internet and everything shifted to email.  Add a web site that needs constant updating, newsletters, going on Twitter and Facebook, maintaining visibility on various listservs, blogging, blog tours, producing book trailers, updating ebooks in various ways, and the constant reaching out to strangers in the hope of enlarging your platform and increasing sales.  It never ends.

And neither does the advice offered by consultants.  I’m constantly deluged by offers to help me increase my sales, drive more people to my web site, help me discover the secrets of SEO.  They come on an hourly basis and when they tout success stories, I sometimes feel as if I’m trapped on a low-performing TV show while everyone else on the schedule is getting great ratings.

Going independent for a few books after I published with big and small houses momentarily made me feel more in control, but that control morphed into an albatross.  When my 25th book was published recently by a superb university press I was relieved to be intimately involved in things like the cover art and promotion, but not be the one ultimately in charge of every aspect of production.

The burden of business has often made writing itself harder to do, and sometimes it can even feel pointless because it initiates a whole new business push.  But that’s the author’s life, like it or not.

If you’re going to be an author, prepare to work your butt off at things that might not come naturally to you and might not ever feel comfortable, whether you’re indie published or traditionally published.  Way before the book even sees publication.  Do your research.  Know your genre. Be smart.  Be patient.  Play the long game.  Hope for success, but don’t expect miracles.

One author friend who’s been a  New York Times seller for years confided to me that despite all the success, “I feel like a pickle salesman, down on the Lower East Side in 1900, hawking my goods.”

http://blog.women-on-the-road.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/LES-310x397.jpgLev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery which you can find on Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

Did George Bush Really Write That Book About His Father?

All over the country, newspaper reviewers are wasting space reviewing George Bush’s biography about his father. Whether they pan it or praise it, they’ll say over and over, as Michiko Kakutani recently did in The New York Times, things like “he writes–” or “he says–”

Does he?

I reviewed for the The Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Report and other print outlets for well over a decade, but I avoided celebrity-authored bios or memoirs for a simple reason. They were almost never written by the “authors,” but compiled from tape recorded interviews, ramblings, or notes and written by a professional ghost writer. I learned this early on in my own publishing career when one writer friend told me she had been asked to do a best selling author’s memoir, and another told me what he was ghosting.

In my view, when reviewers pretend that’s not happening, they makes themselves complicit in the fiction that these celebrities have actually written the book that flaunts their name, a book they’ve gotten huge advances for.

Bush wrote a book about his father? Have people forgotten what a juvenile attitude this man has about books?

Back when he was President, he and his senior advisor Karl Rove acted liked they were in elementary school, competing with each other to see who could read more books per year. Bush won, of course, supposedly reading ninety-five books yearly for three years straight, which is close to what I used to read as a professional reviewer. And of course his consigliere swore that Bush “loves books, learns from them, and is intellectually engaged by them.”

Truly engaged readers can’t stop talking about books they enjoy, and sometimes even books they dislike. But given his love of books, it’s strange that nobody ever reported Bush discussing a book with them, anywhere. At meetings of world leaders, the President was widely known to chat only about his colleagues’ flights and if they were able to sleep on the plane. He never brought up books that he supposedly had read (like Team of Rivals) when that would have been a perfect opportunity, especially if his favorite topics were supposedly history and biography.

The only proof we had that he was reading steadily was testimony from his personal friend Karl Rove, just as the only proof we have that he wrote this new book is his name on the cover.

But the saddest part of the book race Bush ran with his crony was that reading sounded like a real burden, otherwise why compete in the first place, and in such a bizarre way? Rove reported that “We kept track not just of books read, but also the number of pages and later the combined size of each book’s pages–its ‘Total Lateral Area.’ ” So the number and size of pages apparently meant as much to Rove and Bush as what was on them. Maybe more?

41: A Portrait of My Father is only 304 pages with the Acknowledgments and Index starting on p. 277, and physically it’s on the smaller side for a political hardcover: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.5 inches. By their own strange standard, this new book doesn’t score very high, does it?

BTW, Michiko Kakutani is one of my least favorite reviewers, and this bit of praise in her review has to be one of the smarmiest things she’s written in a long time:

“As for Mr. Bush’s descriptions of the West Texas world that greeted him and his parents in the 1950s, they are evocative in a way that attests to his painterly eye. “We lived briefly at a hotel and then moved into a new 847-square-foot house on the outskirts of town,” he recalls. “The neighborhood was called Easter Egg Row, because the developers had chosen vibrant paint colors to help residents tell the houses apart. Our Easter egg at 405 East Maple was bright blue.”

Really? That’s what one of the country’s most influential book reviewers considers evocative writing? You have to have a painterly eye to notice the colors of the houses around you? How is Bush being “evocative” if the image was handed to him by the neighborhood’s actual name? He’s just reporting what was there.

A passage like that makes you wonder. Is the reviewer angling for an invitation to a Bush party? Desperate to say something positive? Or just running out of steam? Maybe a bit of all three….

Lev Raphael’s 25th book Assault With a Deadly Lie is a novel of suspense about stalking, gun violence and the militarization of our police forces.

 

Who’s to Blame for Your Crappy Career?

Writers like Malcolm Gladwell have popularized the notion that all you need to become a genius or even an expert at just about anything is hard work. Do I hear RuPaul?

And it’s never to soon to start kicking butt, either.  Psychologist Ellen Winner says it’s now widely believed that “with sufficient energy and dedication on the parents’ part, it is possible that it may not be all that difficult to produce a child prodigy.”

Whoa. Think about it: truly dedicated parents can get their kids to write symphonies like Mozart, paint canvasses like Picasso, carve sculptures like Rodin, design buildings like Frank Lloyd Wright, create fashion to match Ralph Lauren.  The list is endless because they can get their kids to do anything. It’s all about work, and wanting it enough. Boom.

I come from a family of mathematically gifted people. My mother’s father was a statistician; my mother tutored her peers in mathematics; my older brother aced every math class he ever took from day one.  Math was like a religion in our house. But from kindergarten on, I had trouble with the simplest computations–and I still do.

Let me be absolutely clear: I was desperate to be good at math, and equally desperate to please my mother (and my teachers), but I kept disappointing everyone. I was a good little student in most everything else, and it was a torment to me that no matter what I did, no matter how anyone tried to help me, I just could not succeed. Neither could my teachers or my tutors. And no matter how many hours my frustrated mother spent trying to get me to understand what was elementary to her,  I just did not get it. 

All that hard work only led to embarrassment and shame, and that’s what this perverse new cultural naivete has the potential to induce, despite its smiley-face propaganda: feelings of inadequacy for everyone who doesn’t make it to the top. Because the answer isn’t bad luck, or not enough talent. Nope, it’s because nobody tried hard enough!  Not you, and definitely not your loser parents.

Andre Dubus is widely quoted as having said “Talent is cheap. What matters is discipline.” And now we know it started before we got the career bug in our heads.  We know exactly who to blame when we don’t make it as writers (or anything else): Mom and Dad.  If only they’d believed in us more; worked us harder; pushed us to the max we would all be best sellers (or celebrities).  Then we wouldn’t have to spend so much time and money in therapy complaining about how we never grabbed the brass ring.

http://jasonfixmypc.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/frustrated-computer-user-2000.jpg

 

Writing Is My Business, But So Is Business

My father had a small business which I thought imprisoned him, and as a kid I swore I would never “do retail.”

Boy, was I wrong.  As an author, I wound up owning my own small business and it’s as vulnerable to competition and the vagaries of the market place as any physical store.  Sometimes it’s just as exhausting.

From the beginning of my book publishing career in 1990, I was deeply involved in pushing my work, contacting venues for readings, investing in posters and postcards, writing my own press releases when I thought my publisher hadn’t done a good job, and constantly faxing or mailing strangers around the country about my latest book.

Then came the Internet and everything shifted to email.  Add a web site that needs constant updating, Twitter and Facebook, keeping a presence on various listservs, blogging, blog tours, producing book trailers, updating ebooks in various ways, and the constant reaching out to strangers in the hope of enlarging my platform and increasing sales.  It never ends.

And neither does the advice offered by consultants.  I’m deluged by offers to help me increase my sales and drive more people to my web site.  They come on a daily basis and when they tout success stories, I sometimes feels as if I’m trapped on a low-performing TV show while everyone else on the schedule is getting great Nielson ratings.

Going independent for a few books after I published with big and small houses momentarily made me feel more in control, but that control morphed into an albatross.  Right now, my 25th book is being brought out by a superb university press and I’m relieved to not be in charge, just consulted.

Way too often, the burden of business has made writing itself harder to do, and sometimes it’s even felt pointless because it initiates a whole new business push.  So this isn’t a blog that promises you magic solutions to your publishing problems.  This blog say: If you’re going to be an author, prepare to work your butt off at things that might not come naturally to you and might never feel comfortable, whether you’re indie published or traditionally published.

One author friend who’s been a perpetual NYT best seller confided to me that despite all the success she’s had, “I still feel like a pickle salesman, down on the Lower East Side in 1900.”

http://blog.women-on-the-road.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/12/LES-310x397.jpg

Lev Raphael is the author of 25 books in genres from memoir to mystery.

 

Digital Diet? Not For Me.

Years ago, I followed health guru Andrew Weill’s advice and took a “news fast.”  I stopped reading newspapers and news web sites for six weeks.  I found myself calmer during that period, and spending more time both working and enjoying myself.  I read more books, I wrote more, I relaxed more.

Lately I’ve seen talk about “digital diets” or fasts: taking time to unhook completely from our constant connectedness.  I get that.  I actually returned my Android phone six months after I bought it and went back to a pre-smart phone.  I had found myself more obsessed with email than usual, checking it at doctors’ offices, on line at the post office, even when I was in my car stopped at red lights or train crossings.  I decided I need more free time away from work, and the phone was just too tempting.

But going cold turkey, for even a week?  I just can’t.  It doesn’t make sense from a business standpoint. Like most authors, my professional life is digital.

If my publisher or my editor contacts me, it’s via email.  If an editor wants me to write a story or essay for a new anthology, that’s how I heard.  Ditto with other authors or anyone who’s found my email address via my web site and wants to write me fan mail or invite me to speak at a conference, a university, a library or any of the many other venues where I do talks and readings from my work.

I’ve done entire book tours here and abroad without ever needing the phone.  In fact, the only time I’m on the phone for business is firming up details that have already been set up via email, and that’s infrequently.  And when I am connecting via phone, I’m often simultaneously checking details on line, or even emailing something to whoever’s called me.

Now that I’m also a visiting assistant professor at Michigan State University, a digital fast makes even less sense. I need to stay in touch with my students and also with other faculty members. That’s become specially important as I continue to work on the planning for a study abroad program I’m co-leading in London this summer.  Emails to various people and institutions in London have been legion.

The place where I can cut back, though, is Facebook.  I think I can live without cute cat videos for a week.  Who knows, maybe even six weeks…..

Image courtesy of Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

How Much is Enough?

Many authors worry about how many words they write every day.  Some even post the tally on Facebook as if they’re in some kind of competition.

And if they’re not writing at least 500 or 1200 or 2000 words or whatever quota they’ve set, they feel miserable.  Why aren’t they working harder?  Why are they stuck?  What’s wrong with them?

If that kind of system works for you, fine.  But I think too many writers start out assuming that if they’re not actually physically writing a set number of words every single day, they’re not just slacking, they’re falling behind and even betraying their talent.

Many well-known authors like Ann Lamott (in Bird by Bird) advise beginners to hold to a daily minimum, but some days it’s simply not possible.  Hell, for some writers it’s never possible.  Why should it be?

I’ve never advised my creative writing students to write every day; I advise them to try to find the system that works for them.

I’ve never worried myself about how much I write every day because I’m almost always writing in my head, and that’s as important as putting things down on a page.

But aside from that, every book has its own unique rhythm.  I’m currently finishing a suspense novel and I’ve spent weeks on one chapter.  Some would call it obsessing.  They’d be wrong.  What I’ve been doing is musing, rewriting, stepping back, carefully putting tiles into a mosaic as it were, making sure everything fits right before I go ahead, because this is a crucial chapter.  I’ve also been doing some fact-checking because guns are involved and I’ve had to consult experts. I barely have ten pages, yet there are times when I’ve written ten pages in a day on this same book.

The current chapter is the book’s most important one, where the protagonist and his pursuer face off, and it’s got to be right.  So when I re-work a few lines that had been giving me trouble and find that now, they finally work, that makes me very happy.

And if I don’t write a word, I know I will be, soon enough.

 

Success As A Writer Is Soooooo Unpredictable

Poor newbie writers.  Everywhere they turn, someone’s telling them how to be successful.  Go indie!  Publish traditionally!  The advocates of each path offer mind-numbing statistics to prove their points.  It’s as frantic as those middle-of-the-night infomercials for exercise machines that will trim belly fat in only ten minute sessions, three times a week.

Of course, these machines are modeled for you by men and women with killer abs and minimal body fat.  You and I will never look like that unless we give everything up and hire live-in trainers.  And even then, as the coach said in Chariots of Fire, “You can’t put in what God left out.”

I’ve lost my patience with super-successful indie or traditionally-published authors telling the world to publish and promote your books the way they did because look how great things turned out for them.  Each side reports the benefits of what they’ve done with certainty and conviction, and of course they’re either best-selling authors on the newspaper lists or best-selling authors on Amazon.  Or both.

First-time authors sometimes publish big with a New York press, and sometimes they make it big going indie (and possibly go bigger switching to legacy publishing).  It’s all a crap shoot.

Most authors will never reach the heights of these newly-minted experts, and not through any fault of their own.  It doesn’t matter how hard you work, how good your book is, luck and timing are key ingredients that can’t be corralled.  Books have their own karma.  The right book at the right time published in the right way booms. We have no control over how our books succeed or fail, but we can control how good they are before they reach readers.

But nobody can predict it’s going to happen.  And the authors who share their glorious experiences need to realize that though they may want to inspire and enlighten wannabes, at some level, they just make the rest of us drool or wish we’d listened to our parents and gone into something less unpredictable like Accounting.

The author of 25 books in many genres, Lev Raphael has taken his twenty years of university teaching online to offer unique creative writing workshops at writewithoutborders.com

An Author Chooses His Favorite “Child”

Fans often ask me at readings which of my two dozen books is my favorite.

The answer doesn’t pop up immediately, because I’ve published in so many genres: memoir, mystery, literary novel, short story collections, psychology, biography/literary criticism, historical fiction, Jane Austen mash-up, vampire, writer’s guide, essay collections.

I love them all, or I wouldn’t have written them, but my 19th book My Germany has a special place in my writer’s heart. It’s more deeply personal than my other books, and it’s also the one I struggled with most.

[cover]

I’m the son of Holocaust survivors, and the book is a combination of history, family history, travelogue, mystery, and coming out story as I explore the role that Germany–real and imagined–played in my family while I was growing up and in my own life as an adult and an author.

It wasn’t an easy story–or set of stories–to tell. It took me more than five years to figure out the book’s structure of the book, and to let go of trying to force it into a specific mold. I finally realized that I could blend genres, and that set me free to follow the advice Sir Phillip Sydney’s muse gave to him: “Look in your heart, and write.”

My Germany is also the book that garnered me the most speaking gigs of any book in my career, including two tours in Germany where I spoke in over a dozen different cities, and sometimes even read from it in German.  It was a book I didn’t guess I would even want to write, and then a book that surprised me in many ways.

P.S. 4/22/15: Five years after it was published, it’s still getting me invited to give talks and readings…..

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

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.