Just an Author Blog

Reflections on the Journey to Publication and Beyond...

Mondays at CHICKS ROCK!

On Mondays I post at CHICKS ROCK!, the blog of The Women’s Mosaic. Check out my posts there, too!
The Women’s Mosaic is a New York City-based non-profit organization that provides education, inspiration, and motivation for women to rise up and rock the world! The Women’s Mosaic unites and empowers women through programs that promote intercultural understanding and personal growth. We are a community of diverse, dynamic women interested in expanding our horizons by creating positive change that can individually and collectively enrich the world.

So, I Guess I’m a Slacker…

Today the New York Times published an article entitled “Writer’s Cramp: In the E-Reader Era, a Book a Year Is Slacking.” I read this article with interest. As an author who writes fairly quickly, I’m always looking for new ways to get my books out into the world faster. But it’s not as easy, nor as inevitable, as Julie Bosman’s article makes it sound.

Ever since I began publishing, the fantasy of releasing ”a book a year” has dangled over my head, partly as a creative challenge and partly as a measure of ultimate success in publishing. A big part of my adult reading life has been spent eagerly awaiting the release of my favorite authors’ next books. Even though some of these authors (the ones who publish most frequently) are considered “popular” and not “literary,” those distinctions don’t matter to me when I’m looking forward to a good read. When I hear the names James Patterson or Lee Child (both referred to in the Times article), I admittedly get stars in my eyes. I think, “Household name.” I think: “Big money.” And even as a literary author I fantasize about following in their footsteps and scaling the bestseller list with some future blockbuster, and being slated for a book a year for the next ten years. I can’t help dreaming about how amazing that level of job security would be. So, to be told in a prominent news headline that my dream, my ultimate goal, is unworthy of today’s market….it was immediately demoralizing.

But upon reading, I quickly realized that this article is not talking about me, or most of my author friends. The assumptions made in the piece are upsetting on a number of levels:

First, the piece seems to take the attitude that all writers are bestsellers, whose publishers are desperately clawing after us for the next (invariably pristine) manuscript. The reality is, there are only a handful of authors who can publish at this insane rate within the current system. You have to be a REALLY big name–and probably also a series writer–for a publisher to do more than one book a year. For most of us, achieving the rate of ”a book a year” is still great!

Second, there is no mention at all of the concept of an editorial process. The implication being that we writers churn away at our desks, hand some pages in and wash our hands of it, rapidly moving on to the next book. The further implication being that the only thing restricting the flow of an author’s books into the marketplace is how fast he or she can actually write them. Nothing could be further from the truth, particularly for literary writers. I can’t imagine that even the biggest, most popular bestsellers get away without at least some editorial input. (Otherwise, I’d guess they wouldn’t stay bestsellers for long.) Not to mention the energy that must be spent on cover design, page layout, proofreading, production of advance copies, etc. within the publishing house.

Third, and perhaps most upsetting of all, is how frankly TRUE it seems. Books by big name authors are becoming more frequent, and they appear to be receiving almost all of the press attention from the major houses. Case in point: you can’t walk into a bookstore without tripping over a James Patterson novel, or six. As a former Patterson fan, I have long since lost track of the Alex Cross series. I’ve fallen too far behind because the books keep coming out so fast. I’ve stopped buying them. GASP! This is exactly what publishers were afraid would happen, years ago, when they settled on the one-book-a-year model. Do they not realize that most people read books by more than one author?

Fourth, the article begs the question: what does this climate of insatiable readership mean for the rest of us? What does it mean for the debut novelists who have yet to really prove themselves to an audience, not to mention the majority of authors, who once felt solid in our relative success with a few publications under our belts, the non-bestsellers who still manage to make a living (or part of a living) writing books? Where do we fit into this picture? When there is always a fresh offering from the likes of James Patterson, when will his most loyal readers ever find the time to branch out to something new?

There’s definitely pressure to produce for authors at all levels, but when such unrealistic expectations are being set by the most bestselling authors, doesn’t that A) steal publications “slots” from newer writers and B) condition our readers to expect something that few of us can follow through on? Why aren’t more publishers looking for ways to market new or unknown writers in relation to bestsellers (“If you like Lee Child, check out So-and-So”) to cross-promote? James Patterson makes a nod toward this by acknowledging his co-writers on the front of his books. At least in that scenario, publishers can make the money off his name, while still getting other authors into the game. And, it acknowledges a deeper truth of the matter–Patterson publishes more per year than is humanly possible for a single man!

It is extraordinarily short-sighted of publishers to hang their hats (and their operating budgets) on just a few names. None of today’s bestselling authors will be publishing books forever, and there is going to have to be new blood coming up to take their places. And if traditional publishers shut them out, then the ebook revolution is ultimately going to shut publishers out as the next generation of bestselling authors takes publication into their own hands. Not because they want to, but because they don’t really have a choice.

For people who are really big readers, the anticipation of your favorite authors’ books coming out once a year used to be enjoyable. It made the actual reading of those books more special. And during those interminable months of waiting, you didn’t just sit around and twiddle your thumbs. You went to the bookstore or the library, browsing around for something with which to fill your time. And, guess what? You found other great books to read!

Panther Photos!

I’m out in San Francisco and Oakland, doing research for my upcoming nonfiction book about the Black Panthers, tentatively titled PANTHERS!

There’s a lot of material to review, and the research itself is rather intense, but it’s also really neat to get to walk the same streets as the original Panthers, and to actually see these places for myself. When you’re researching a book, it’s really useful to find some way to immerse yourself in the time, or place, or circumstances of the story you are planning to tell. Unexpected details emerge and inspiration abounds.

Here are some photos from my journey so far:

 

 

37 Things I Love…#31: Making Videos

My new novel, 37 THINGS I LOVE, is due out from Henry Holt/Macmillan on May 22, 2012. In honor of this exciting development, here is a video of me talking about the book:

I cut this video out of extra footage I recorded for a special project. Even after making that one, I had so much neat material left over, that I made a whole separate reel of excess footage from the interview, including fun outtakes from all my “book drop” attempts. Don’t know what I mean by a “book drop?” Watch and learn….and laugh. I know I did.

Mondays at CHICKS ROCK!

On Mondays I post at CHICKS ROCK!, the blog of The Women’s Mosaic. Check out my posts there, too!
The Women’s Mosaic is a New York City-based non-profit organization that provides education, inspiration, and motivation for women to rise up and rock the world! The Women’s Mosaic unites and empowers women through programs that promote intercultural understanding and personal growth. We are a community of diverse, dynamic women interested in expanding our horizons by creating positive change that can individually and collectively enrich the world.

While I Have You…. (Crafting Your Elevator Pitch)

I once met Toni Morrison in an elevator. This happened during ALA in Washington, DC, in 2010. It was late in the evening. I was exhausted. She was probably exhausted. We were staying in the same hotel, apparently, and we were both on our way back to our rooms. She stepped into the elevator behind me, along with her aides. I turned around and there she was, in all her magnificent glory. And she is a magnificent person to behold. People had told me that she has a presence, but I was unprepared for the intensity of it.

It’s difficult to excuse what happened next. Because I can honestly say I’m good at networking. I’m good at pushing myself to speak up when it feels awkward, and handing out my book cards and business cards and making sure people know who I am. I’d been doing it all day at the conference, and pretty well. As a quiet, sometimes self-conscious person this kind of socializing is difficult, but I challenge myself and I think I perform well overall.

Not in this case. Stepping into my own hotel represented the end of the day, the end of the need to be “on” and networking. I was done. So, to be taken by surprise by one of the great literary figures of modern times, not to mention a beautiful black woman who I admire….well, let’s just say I was taken by surprise.

In the end, all I was able to blurt was “Are you Toni?” She nodded sagely, during which moment I was flooded with shame over having called her by her first name. “Ms. Morrison,” “Dr. Morrison,” even “Toni Morrison” for crying out loud would have been better. (I’m still mortified.) She looked at me expectantly, with tired but generous eyes, her gray locks falling over her shoulder like some sort of epic waterfall. I stared back at her…and utterly stalled.

There are things I always says to new people about my book. I didn’t say them. I had actually (believe it or not) rehearsed conversation points specifically to raise with Toni Morrison if I should run into her at this conference. I lost all track of them. I had postcards galore in my shoulder bag. I fumbled to pull one out. I thrust it at her as the elevator doors opened on her floor. “I’m Kekla Magoon,” I blurted. “I write–it would really mean a lot to me if I could just give you my book card.”

And that was it. She took the card, stepped out of the elevator, and handed it to her aide without really looking at it as she headed down the hall. I’m sure I made no impression at all. If she ever even looked at that card again, I feel lucky.

In the moment, I was crushed. A great opportunity, blown. And all because I stuck my foot in my mouth. Even though it felt like she dismissed me, I didn’t get the sense that she dismisses people automatically. I believe there are things I could have said that would have cut through her tiredness and made her look twice at me as a young author with potential. I can only hope I’ll meet her again someday, because I know I would handle it better.

Every author needs a strong ”elevator pitch” when promoting their books. You need to know it cold. Here’s the why and how of it.  

The “elevator pitch” concept is based on the exact scenario I just described:

You get into an elevator and press the button for your floor. The elevator doors close. There’s someone else in there already, and when you look closer, you realize it’s–gasp!–a person with great power and influence in your particular industry. In our case, perhaps an agent, editor, reviewer, publisher or fellow author you admire. Knowing this is your big chance to impress the person by talking about your forthcoming novel (or your work in progress) you strike up a conversation. They seem congenial enough, but the floors are ticking by quickly, and soon the doors will open and the person will step away. You have limited time, and you must explain yourself and your project in a brief but compelling manner so they will remember you. You have less than a minute, which means very few sentences uttered. How do you sell them on the concept of your book?

It is so incredibly important to have your elevator pitch close at hand at all times. True, it won’t always be the likes of Toni Morrison whose attention you need to capture. It might just be people at a cocktail party who politely ask what your book is about, but may or may not really care. Your job as a casual self-promoter is to make sure that they care a little bit more after you answer the question than they did when they asked it. And the more you practice this pitch with regular people, the more likely you’ll be to handle the situation correctly when it really matters most, and you’re at your most nervous and awkward.

Elevator Pitch Basics:

  • Who are you?
  • What is your book about? More specifically, what makes it unique in the marketplace?
  • How should someone find out more about it, or contact you?

When your book is high-concept, it’s easier to come up with a striking elevator pitch. The Rock and the River was the first (and at the time only) novel dealing with the Black Panther Party for young readers. My pitch usually went something like: “I’m Kekla Magoon, author of The Rock and the River. My novel is set in 1968 Chicago, about thirteen-year-old Sam, whose father is a civil rights activist. When his older brother joins the Black Panther Party, Sam must decide which path he’s going to follow himself. Here’s my card.”

When the book is about more common subject matter, it is a bit more of a challenge to find phrases to describe the book that are going to make it seem unique. That is why it is so important to spend time thinking about your elevator pitch before you head out into the world to network. My novel Camo Girl is basically about friendship in middle school, and kids having to make diffucult choices. But, hello, that’s what most middle grade novels are about. I know the book is unique, but how is a prospective reader to know that?

I tried to bring a little humor to the pitch: “Camo Girl is about friendship in middle school–in other words, how to choose a lunch table. Ella and her best friend Z are outcasts in sixth grade and they sit alone at lunch every day. Then a new boy in school, Bailey, befriends Ella and gives her the chance to join a more popular crowd, but to do so she’d have to leave Z behind.

I’m still working on the perfect elevator pitch for my upcoming novel, 37 Things I Love. Saying it’s about “friendship in high school” isn’t going to cut it….but what I’ve gone through in coming up with a pitch for that book is enough to fill a follow-up post. Stay tuned.

Always, always, have book cards, business cards, bookmarks or marketing materials with you when you are out. Whether you’re going to a conference or to the grocery store, you just never know who you’re going to run into. Keep a few business cards in your purse or wallet at the very least. Stick a pack of bookmarks in the glove compartment. Whatever you have to do to keep them close, because anytime you deliver your elevator pitch, you MUST give the person the ability to follow up if they are interested. Let’s face it: that was the only salvation of my encounter with Toni Morrison. She heard me say my name, and I placed information about my book in her hand. Sometimes that’s all you can do.

What’s your elevator pitch? Post it in the comments–it never hurts to get a little extra self-promotion in!

Mondays at CHICKS ROCK!

On Mondays I post at CHICKS ROCK!, the blog of The Women’s Mosaic. Check out my posts there, too!
The Women’s Mosaic is a New York City-based non-profit organization that provides education, inspiration, and motivation for women to rise up and rock the world! The Women’s Mosaic unites and empowers women through programs that promote intercultural understanding and personal growth. We are a community of diverse, dynamic women interested in expanding our horizons by creating positive change that can individually and collectively enrich the world.

Dark and Stormy

I guess I’m coming late to the party: I just found out today about the SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) blackout. Where have I been, you might ask? I’ve been everywhere I usually go online lately, I just somehow missed it. But now I’m on board.inappropriate content

Well, I’m not turning my blog or website dark, partly because I don’t know how to do it and partly because I think that sort of statement is much stronger coming from powerhouse sites like Google and Wikipedia. Little writers like me, I think, should just keep on writing, because to stop doing what we do in order to make a point runs counter to the battle cry for anti-censorship. For instance, I’m happy that Twitter has kept on tweeting, because, frankly, that’s how I found out about the planned blackout in the first place. I’m not sure shutting down the internet for a day does anyone any good, and while I get that the whole point of the demostration is to prove that fact, I suspect the people who need to learn the lesson aren’t going to learn it in a day.

Then again, maybe I’m wrong. Maybe they can learn the lesson. I’m excited to see how much buzz and action is being generated online around this issue. I’m sure the blackout helps draw attention to these bills, so I’m glad that more and more sites and individuals are jumping on the bandwagon and voicing their perspectives. I hope it succeeds in getting Congress to block the bills! I also hope this kind of massive action can be replicated in the future around other important issues that affect all of us.

If you’re like me and are just learning about this issue and want to know more about SOPA, PIPA and the blackout, watch this video:

http://fightforthefuture.org/pipa/

And/or read these sites:

http://americancensorship.org/

https://www.google.com/landing/takeaction/

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sopa

 

Launch Your Book In Style

 

The Rock and the River Book Launch
The Rock and the River launch party, January 2009

I’ve attended a lot of book launch parties in my day. It’s pretty exciting when anyone you know has a new book out, but nothing tops celebrating your own debut. There’s a lot to consider, but if you take a little time to think it through, the party can go really smoothly!

Choose your venue. First, consider what kind of party are you going to have: An adults-only party with cocktails and mingling? A kid-friendly outdoor picnic? A bookstore-based event with a reading? A catered dinner at a local restaurant? Do you want a place that will provide food, or do you want to arrange your own snacks? A lot will depend on how much you want to spend and who you plan to invite, which depends on who you know. If you live in the suburbs and have a bunch of friends with young children, consider a family-friendly option. If you’re thirty and most of your friends are single and like to drink, a bar or restaurant with a private room may be a perfect gathering place. A lot of bars and restaurants allow you to reserve private rooms for free, assuming you’ll order food and drinks while you occupy the space.

Plan your refreshments. No party is complete without a little food and drink. Depending on your venue, this might be easy or difficult. If it’s a bar/restaurant, you’ll need to choose whether you’ll pick up the tab for food and drinks, or if your guests will pay as they go. You might order a few party platters from the kitchen for the group to snack on, but allow people to order and pay for their own drinks. Discuss it with the venue, and price it out. If you’re in a different kind of space, you’ll have to make separate arrangements for the food. You could hire caterers, buy snacks yourself, or ask a few close friends to bring various party trays. Are you going to serve alcohol? Always provide non-alcoholic beverages as an option, too.

Set a time frame. Unless you’re plan a catered dinner ($$$), people will likely drop in when they can, so you want to choose a large enough window that people don’t feel like they have to be there exactly on time, but small enough that you. Two to three hours should do the trick, depending on the venue and the number of people. Setting a closing time is helpful so people don’t think they can just show up hours later, but no worries if it goes over time.

Line up some party assistants. Don’t try to go it alone! Your family and close friends will be excited to help you plan and execute your party. During the event, you want to be floating, chatting, signing books and generally enjoying being the center of attention, not worrying about whether the pretzel bowl is still full. Assign a friend to manage the snacks and keep them replenished. The same friend, or another, can keep an eye on the drinks table, or even serve beverages to people. You might choose an artistic friend or two to be your designated photographers–you’ll want photos after the fact. I had a fairly large party, so I assigned my brother as a greeter to meet people at the door. He pointed out things like the coat closet, the refreshments area, my signing area, and where they could buy books. Rather than being a burden on people, it actually gave them something to do at the party, and made some of my shyer friends feel more comfortable being in a social setting with a lot of people they didn’t know.

Name your event.In my experience, people are more likely to show up to a “book launch party” than to a “book signing.” if you can come up with a cool sounding name, it’s even better. Perhaps incorporate your book title, if that works, or your own name. “Kekla’s Book Launch Extravangaza.” (I don’t know. Naming parties isn’t my strong suit. I’ll work on it…) Regardless, be excited when you talk about it. The party should match your personality (or your book’s personality) and allow you to shine. Convey the fact that there will be snacks, and people will have fun while celebrating alongside you. Depending on the circles you run in, a lot of your friends may have no idea what to expect from a book party.

Book launch food
An appetizer spread I created myself

Invite everyone. You’ll want to seriously consider how many contacts you have, and think really broadly. Not everyone you invite will come, of course. That’s just life. But you also might be surprised at who does come. Don’t limit your guest list based on who you think will want to attend. Easily fifteen distant acquaintances that I would never have expected to show up for my book launch actually came. Because I invited them haphazardly during a long sweep of my inbox, in a moment of excitement, wanting everyone in the world to know about my book. My best hope was that a few of them would buy it online, and stick it in a closet somewhere. They proved me very wrong–I shouldn’t have underestimated them!

Invite them repeatedly. Send a Save the Date email as soon as you know the date. Send a follow-up invite about six weeks before the event. Send a reminder about a week before. Send. Create a Facebook event. Tweet a countdown. Keep it in people’s minds. It doesn’t have to be the same exact message every time. Perhaps drop little tidbits about the book, or send around any good review quotes that come in. This is how you generate buzz.

Ask for RSVPs. Let people know that it’s important to get an accurate head count so you can order an appropriate amount of books. And food. Don’t press the issue, or give a deadline for RSVP, though. You don’t want people to fear they shouldn’t show up at the last minute.

Inform the local press. I highly recommend this, especially if you live in a small to medium community, or have lived in your community for a long time. It felt silly to me to notify the New York Times of my signing in Manhattan (I didn’t), but I did send press releases to the Journal Gazette and News Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Indiana, when I planned a local event in my hometown. They published the announcement! Friends from high school who I’d forgotten about saw it and came. As did a lot of my parents’ friends, and a few random strangers. A local community paper also printed an interview with me along the theme of “hometown girl, grown up,” which landed me a paid visit to my local library.

Have copies of your books on sale. This is an absolute must. Do not be shy. The people who come out to celebrate your book launch want to support you, and supporting an author means buying their book. People need to understand that. (You’d be surprised how many acquaintances of mine thought I would be giving books away to everyone I knew. Don’t give away free copies.) Most local independent bookstores will order books for you and send a representative to your event to sell them for you. This eliminates a huge headache for you, not to mention a big expense of buying copies to resell. But, if you prefer, you can order the books yourself and assign a friend sell them for you. Not everyone will buy the book on the spot, but a lot of them will. Some might even buy gift copies. You may want to set aside a time for signing, or you can just do

HueMan Bookstore sells at Kekla's book launch
HueMan Bookstore came to my launch party

it on the fly as people ask. (Important note: A bookstore rep will usually be able to take credit card sales. If you sell books yourself, let people know by email in advance if the books will be available for cash only. Most people pay with twenties, so you’ll need plenty of bills to make change. Have receipts available. Some people might ask for one.)

Decide if you will speak. This can feel awkward, especially if it’s your first time in front of a crowd to talk about your book. But I think it’s an important opportunity. Honestly, I didn’t do it at my first party, and I wish I had. When you feel like most people have arrived, you can just take a moment to thank folks for coming, speak a little bit about the book. (5-10 minutes, tops. No grandstanding.) Invite people to buy it if they haven’t already, and remind them you’ll be signing copies. One easy way to get yourself “onstage” is to ask a friend or family member to initiate things by offering a toast to your new book. He can get people’s attention and say something brief but nice about you, then turn the “mike” over to you for your brief remarks. You probably know someone who’d be perfect in this capacity.

Go to other people’s parties. It’s always fun. You’ll look around and see how they organized their party, and you’ll pick up tips for your own. Besides, supporting your fellow writers is a great way to build a following for yourself. Show up for people, and it will mean something to them. They will remember. So, even when it’s cold out and you’d rather stay in your jammies and you don’t even know the person that well anyway, GO. On the way there, reflect on how badly you’ll want them show up for you!

 

I found some posts with more book party-planning tips:

Editorial Ass has a great piece on planning a book launch: http://editorialass.blogspot.com/2010/05/how-to-throw-awesome-book-launch.html

The Writer’s Handbook gives a rundown on WHY to have one: http://writershandbook.wordpress.com/2009/03/19/plan-a-great-book-launch-party/

A Lee and Low author talks about her personal experience planning a book launch for her book: http://blog.leeandlow.com/2009/11/11/how-to-plan-a-successful-book-launch/

New Website!

I just finished a very long process of revising and updating my website. With the help of a fabulous web designer, all my new content is up and ready for viewing! I’m very pleased about how it all turned out.

I’ve moved my blog content from Blogger to my own site, too, so if you’ve been following me on Blogger, I hope you’ll join me here now. I’ll be posting twice a week about my author’s journey.

Check out my new site and let me know how it looks!