Bluebirds, spring, and launching websites

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It’s the first day of spring, and I couldn’t be happier.

My mood has little to do with breaking winter’s iron grip or even the bluebird I saw on the back porch this morning; I launched a renewed and redesigned website.

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My primary client, an author with a great following and two dozen books under his belt, had used a former coworker as his web administrator for years. Then she disappeared. It seemed like a plot from a mystery, and he was genuinely concerned for her well being. Weeks of trying to reach her by phone, mail, email and through friends were fruitless, and he was on the verge of publishing a new Simon & Schuster book, Rescue of the Bounty, along with a couple other titles. The timing couldn’t have been worse. The plot thickened.

We’re still not sure what happened to her, but were able to convince the Domain Registry to give us administrative access to the account, and I went to work. Whew. His website had fallen out of date and readers were emailing, asking where and when he had appearances scheduled. Stress mounted by the day.

Last night I held my breath as I pointed the nameservers to the new site. This morning, it was alive and kicking again, overhauled and fresh: Elation, joy, exuberance!

A few lessons:
— an updated, working website is not just an option, it’s a necessity
— some web design programs are as easy to use as this blog
— make sure your web designer/administrator puts your name on the account so you can regain control of the content if she/he quits, dies or just flakes out

We’re so relieved to have the site up and running, but I’m already looking at it critically, making a list of things I’d like to tweak … and that online store will be running by the end of the week. There’s no stopping me now.

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Look away from your author website

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It’s been SOOOO long since I’ve posted, but not for a lack of topics! I’ve actually started creating websites for new authors — really fun stuff when you’ve got about two year’s creativity bottled up inside because you took a job with a boring company (but I digress).

Oftentimes new authors are so amazed to see a website that’s been created for them — it has their own smiling face looking back at them, for Goodness sakes — that they’re speechless. They’re happy, they feel empowered … then they want to smear that lovely website with all sorts of information and text, making it instantly unreadable.

But that’s just my experience.

So I decided to investigate what successful authors’ websites look like and consider the design elements that may be employed on my client’s behalf. At the least, I hope to illustrate to my clients what the websites of successful authors look like, and my investigation has revealed great variety. And great simplicity.

Gillian Flynn is a relative newcomer, with just a handful of books published, so her site doesn’t try to bowl the reader over with images of book covers, instead it creates a mood centering on her most recent work. Note how other book titles are discreetly in the nav bar above, keeping the entire page uncluttered.

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And I love the essay she’s written inside about women’s outlets for violence that makes me want to read her stuff:” …I think women like to read about murderous mothers and lost little girls because it’s our only mainstream outlet to even begin discussing female violence on a personal level. Female violence is a specific brand of ferocity. It’s invasive … Some of the most disturbing, sick relationships I’ve witnessed are between long-time friends, and especially mothers and daughters. Innuendo, backspin, false encouragement, punishing withdrawal, sexual jealousy, garden-variety jealousy — watching women go to work on each other is a horrific bit of pageantry that can stretch on for years.”

Many major authors focus their websites on their most recent work, like Dennis Lehane whose home page is a simple image of his most recent book cover. It’s interesting, because you have to interact with the site (click on a link or scroll) to get any info. (And it’s out of date, hello??)

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Dan Brown‘s site goes on and on and on — yet in a unified, cryptic design that’s perfect for his genre. Below are two screenshots, the first being your initial view of his site, the second (info about Brown) comes into view when you scroll down. It’s also quite lovely and dark…

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Two sites I really enjoyed were for authors James Patterson and Neil Gaiman, and when I look at them I think “do these guys ever sleep??” because the sites are reflections of their wildly prolific personalities. Patterson has movie reviews on his site alongside DOZENS of book covers. And he has been working on a platform to get kids more involved in reading to boot.

Gaiman is playing the piano on his site, which made me take note of the use of embedded video, a growing trend (yet hopefully more stable than it used to be) … oooh, I better get back to work on my client’s stuff, this really raises the bar.

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This has been a fun little side trip — it’s helpful to get your nose out of your own stuff sometimes and look around for inspiration.

Navigating your route to success

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Oh joy, what great news: most writers only earn about $1,000 per year. But we knew that — and the Guardian article offers hope too, saying that most of us have motives other than financial gain. Better yet, indie- and self-publishing is expected to continue growing, becoming more mainstream each year. In fact, a quarter of US Kindle ebook sales in 2012 were primarily self-published works.

“Fortunately only a minority of respondents listed making money as “extremely important” – around 20% of self-published writers, and about a quarter of traditionally-published authors.” (Guardian)

Few people support themselves by writing and publishing books. But there are ways to maximize your profitability.

librarian keep churning out those titles!

One way is to study what has worked for others. Take a tip or two from this list of successful self-published authors. Most found creative ways to increase their audiences, from giving away ebooks to approaching niche reviewers.

Perhaps you’ll delve into a new initiative this year, like the WEBook program described here. The process sounds intricate, but it could lead to bigger things, particularly while it’s a novelty (everything online seems to get its 15 minutes of overexposure).

My primary publicity client is a midlist author with more than 20 books under his belt, the last several with major publishing houses (which do less publicity than you’d imagine). Generally, once one of his books has been available for a couple years, sales slow to a trickle. But this fall, a 3-year-old title was offered at a discount as an ebook and suddenly sales of that title rebounded, dozens of new reviews were posted to Amazon and many readers took interest in his other books of the same genre. (At the same time, he hasn’t been waiting for lightning to strike, as he’s built a strong platform of speaking engagements, continuing to sell copies of his books himself.)

Few of us will be the next Amanda Hocking, whose book sales went wild after she self-published them as e-books.

Hocking had a backlog of unpublished books when she finally self published. Readers who discovered her were then interested in finding more that she’d written, creating a fan base that boosted sales of everything she published online thereafter. Just as the writers interviewed in this Writer’s Digest article say, continue to focus on your writing even as you’re publishing and marketing your work.

The moral of her story is that she loved writing, honed her craft, kept writing and got creative with the resources that were available when she was repeatedly rejected. Who knew vampire stories set in Minnesota would be so popular?

The Wall Street Journal just published a story about a guy who writes under the name Russell Blake and churns out a book a month. That’s impressive in itself BUT there’s more — he gave away his first ebook to seed interest. His ebook sales are skyrocketing because he stays on Amazon’s list of “recently published” books, month after month. We salute his productivity (and thank him for this insight into sales!).

The takeaway: keep writing, even if it’s not selling now.

Don’t waste your time — or their’s

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Rejection: you have to embrace it if you’re going to last as a writer. Or, you can get better at avoiding it.

I find it so interesting that writers — often very sensitive, exacting people who invest their whole beings in each submission — are rejected routinely as part of their careers. Does anyone reject the work of Joe the mechanic or Tony the baker who turns out dozens of pizzas a day?

effective emails are as important as good prose

effective emails are as important as good prose

Today this essay about rejections (by an editor) popped up on my screen. My kneejerk response was to pick it apart for the writer’s insensitivity and sarcastic tone.

…we accept under one-third of one percent of submissions that come in. Given those numbers, rejection letters are necessary, and they are, unfortunately, unexceptional. In fifteen years in publishing, I have probably written more than two thousand rejection letters.

Then I realized that we writers have to accept rejections as a part of doing business, or avoid it by writing better proposals and better emails.

Your book proposal or published book may be a gem but if you can’t get anyone to review it your audience will never know what they’re missing.

This professor says:

You have 1.54 seconds, based on your email subject line alone, to convince the target consumer to open your email, according to Lon Safko, author of The Social Media Bible. That’s less than two seconds to convince your potential customer to read your sales message! It probably took you longer to read that last sentence.

Assuming that your fabulous headline convinces the consumer to click the email open, you then have less than 5 seconds to lead your consumer from that initial click to the action you want them to perform.

Your target’s decision about whether to respond favorably to your email marketing campaign happens in 5 seconds – start to finish.

They key, she says, is immediately stating the stakes, what she calls “What’s In It for Me.”

If you send dozens of emails without getting a response perhaps you need to revamp your approach. Try cutting the message down to a few actionable sentences.

And always, always study the publishers and review outlets you’re approaching to make sure they’re a match for your subject matter. It will save you a lot of time and frustration (see rejection section above) if you’ve honed in on those most likely to be interested in your topic.

Even if you create the algorithm that will churn out guaranteed best-selling books (as described in this scientific study) they’re only as good as your pitch to publishers and bookstores.

You gotta take something for that

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Are you sniffling, groggy and lacking energy? Do you sit at the computer all day and just stare at the screen?

It may be a bad case of writer’s block.

What can you take to get past it, to get the mojo flowing again?

hard working author Anita Diamant

hard working author Anita Diamant

Plenty of writers have suggestions. I like this one from Hemingway, who said to stop writing in the middle of a good part, when the words are flowing, so you can just jump into that mode again the next day without losing momentum.

Charlie Jane Anders provides some fantastic, in-depth advice in this blog post, which may help you identify and overcome the source of your issues. For instance,

“6. You’re bored with all these characters, they won’t do anything.
You created these bold, vibrant characters, and now you’ve written dozens of pages… about them brushing their teeth and feeding their cats. …

The good news is, sometimes writing a few dozen pages of nothing much happening can be super valuable – you’re getting into the world, and you’re working out for yourself what these characters are about. It’s entirely possible that once you’ve done that, a conflict will present itself, or one minor character will suddenly start looking like your protagonist. Just be prepared to toss out all these pages after that happens. (As you probably will with almost everything in a first draft, anyway.)”

There’s also whether you BELIEVE in writer’s block. I’ve had the benefit of writing on deadline and writing nonfiction — so either the story is there or it isn’t, I’m not waiting for my imagination to kick in and provide the heart-racing climax. When I can’t produce a compelling lede in my first five minutes on the keyboard I just keep writing and eventually come back to it.

A wonderful writer friend told me the analogy of “islands and bridges” style writing rather than trying to sit down and pound out a story from beginning to end. It made perfect sense.

I always thought writer’s block was a fiction-writer’s thing. But then I met Anita Diamant, author of The Red Tent and Good Harbor. I was profiling her for my magazine and asked about her writing muse. Her answer surprised me:

“I don’t have a muse,” she said. “I have an ass-in-chair work ethic.”

She doesn’t seem to believe in writer’s block, I guess.

What are you looking at?

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Ha, caught you trolling the web. Don’t you have anything more important to do??

As writers we all struggle with procrastination and a million distractions. Why is it that writing doesn’t convey the same laser focus and importance as heart surgery — or at least, driving?

I take great comfort in the fact that the wonderful writer Neil Gaiman is trying to take a break from social media in order to accomplish more (if you enjoy fantasy at all or have any background in Native American folklore/origin myths, his American Gods is a must-read). On the other hand, this guy is singlehandedly raising the bar for all writers as he is a dervish of activity, albeit much does not appear to be actual writing.

ImageThoreau wasn’t distracted by kitten videos.

Rather than ramble on about the productivity lost to social media browsing (hey, we’re writers, we can justify it by saying inspiration comes from many sources!) I will simply offer the following links that contain many options for streamlining your work.

This one starts simple (open Facebook and other time wasters in a separate window) then provides explanations of and links to many useful tools, including GMail extensions that will save time by creating templates for emails (no need to retype the same info again and again).

More time-savers are in this post, including apps that allow you to maximize the impact of your Twitter posts by timing when they are published. When I have time I’m going to look more closely into Glyder (mentioned here), which promises to help with the appearance of your messages.

This successful writer offers several low-tech solutions, such as keeping a writing diary and managing your time by working 4 days a week, but I was most interested in the extreme tool suggested, called Write or Die. This app allows you to set a writing goal for yourself (time or word count) and holds you to it. Check it out!

I hope these links will help you be more productive. One writer I know well has a simple one: a separate computer that is not connected to the internet. But then there are the birds outside the window…

And if you’re not ready to go back to work yet, consider this list of famous writers’ productivity compared with the amount of sleep they got. It can be a Catch-22 situation, skipping sleep to make up for the work you haven’t completed as your mental acuity slips…

If you’re not JK Rowling, there’s work to be done

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If your book received “withering reviews” that included an assessment like, “so willfully banal, so depressingly clichéd” you’d never sell any copies, right?

Unfortunately, writers with gold-plated names like JK Rowling can overcome such a New York Times review (it was of one of her post-Harry Potter novels, “The Casual Vacancy”). According to this article it still sold more than 1.3 million copies and was the No. 1 best-selling hardcover fiction book of 2012.

Later, Rowling published “The Cuckoo’s Calling” under a male pen name (Robert Galbraith) and the book sold only modestly until she was unveiled as the true author. It had done about $50,000 in sales, prompting the NYTimes writer to comment:

What’s clear is that without the aura of celebrity, “The Cuckoos’ Calling” would have been just another work of debut crime fiction. Its author might have gotten a modest TV deal, and maybe another book contract, while working another job to make ends meet.

So, unless your name is JR Rowling and your readers aren’t looking too closely at the cover, there’s a lot of work to be done to get book sales rolling.

bookshelf will your book stand out from the others?

The behind-the-scenes work to create a platform prior to publishing your book is almost as much work as the writing itself.

This is a great, step-by-step guide to  publicity and marketing, including working with related blogs two months before publication and planning a “cover reveal.” Interestingly, it says little about sending out advance copies for reviews.

And if you’re querying agents, your online presence is important, according to this survey. So think about showcasing your expertise in your subject matter or providing evidence of an audience (yes, prior to publishing). It’s all about your platform, which is well-described in this blog post.