Sunday, February 26, 2017

Starting Your Story With An Earthquake

The famous movie impresario Samuel Goldwyn (the “G” in MGM) said, “I want a story that starts out with an earthquake… and THEN builds to a climax!”

Ol’ Sam knew something about pulling people into a story.

As you know, Clint Eastwood also knows something about pulling people into a story.

My wife and I recently saw the Clint Eastwood-directed movie Sully, about airline pilot Captain Sullenberger. Sully, played by Tom Hanks in the movie, had to make a forced landing right after takeoff from LaGuardia Airport in New York City.  A flock of birds suddenly flew into the path of the airliner, destroying both of the engines on the plane. (Sorry about that, birds!)

After thirty seconds of engine tests and emergency diagnostics, Sully realized two things. First, his engines were toast, and he had to make a very careful emergency landing if he had any hope of saving the 155 passengers. Two, he didn’t have enough altitude to be able to glide back to the airport. So he landed in the Hudson River and didn’t lose a single life.

From the standpoint of a storyteller, this movie is fascinating to watch because the tense process of putting the plane down in the river only took a bit over a minute. How does one make a 90-minute movie out of one minute of action? Another challenge is that everyone who sees the movie (or read the book it was based on) already knows the outcome of the story. Yet a third difficulty is how to draw people into a story they already know.

It turns out that Eastwood took seriously Samuel Goldwyn’s desire for a story that starts with a bang. We barely hit the play button on the DVD when we see Tom Hanks in the cockpit as the birds strike the plane. He immediately begins preparations for an emergency landing.

Talk about starting with an earthquake.

All of us authors should make a mental note of this movie and its beginning. When we begin a story, we so often think we need to “set the stage” and explain to our readers who our characters are so that when the trouble starts, the reader will care about the characters because they already know them.

Eastwood shows in a powerful “earthquake” manner that we don’t need to know characters at all in the beginning.

If you want to grab your reader, put your characters in deep, deep trouble as early in the story as possible. The trouble makes us care about the characters who are struggling with it. The reader will eventually come to know your characters in the way you desire, no previous “stage setting” necessary. And perhaps readers will care even more because of the trouble your characters are in came on so strong and so fast.

Most important of all, when your characters get into bad trouble from the beginning, the reader is much more likely to stay with the story and not turn away looking for a “grabbier” story.

Take a look - or another look - at the movie Sully and see just how Eastwood does it. It’s a powerful lesson in storytelling.

P.S. Let's not forget what the real Sully did. Wow.

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Self Publishing - What Not To Do Part 3

The last two weeks, I wrote about the worst way to self publish your books. The problem basically boils down to signing over your publication rights to a so-called "self publishing" publisher, which is technically anything but.

I've spoken to more writers who signed on with "self-publishing" publishers than I can count. These writers - like all writers - are universally smart, earnest, focused, dedicated, skillful writers. They have great ideas and great execution. They reasonably believe that the best focus for their limited time is the books they are writing, not the mechanisms to bring those books to the marketplace.

Unfortunately, this is a big error in judgment. Because they aren't driving their own writing/publishing/marketing vehicle, their books are just one more set of titles in a company that has hundreds or thousands of authors. And at whatever sales level these authors create, their so-called publishing company takes a critical portion of the money off the top, yet they still don't help those writers sell books. How can you tell?

Easy. When you find a compelling "self-publishing" company, go through their catalog and write down the titles and authors of their books. Pick out dozens of them. Or hundreds of them. Now look up those same books on Amazon. What are their sales ranking? (Remember, a sales ranking of #1 means the top-selling book at Amazon. A sales ranking of 100,000 means that 99,999 titles sell better. The lower the number, the better the book sells.) When you look at the sales ranking of all the books you've written down, you'll quickly see that most are over 500,000. Many are over a million. Some way over. That tells you how successful/unsuccessful the publisher is at selling books.

How can authors who signed over publication rights to a company that pays no advance and yet doesn't sell many books ever hope to compete with the real self-published authors? The simple answer is that they can't. Because real self-published authors have a full-time, or even double-time, person working exclusively on the publishing and marketing of their own books. Themselves. Their efforts are rewarded by being able to keep all of the profit. And their efforts aren't diluted by having to focus on other writers.

Self-published authors who have complete control over their work are nimble and faster and more motivated. They don't have to get any permission to make this little change or that adjustment in their story or on their book cover. When they see a promotion opportunity, they can jump on it. When a group, corporate or social or otherwise, asks for their participation in an event and they need to show up with 100 books, they can immediately accept. And every one of these things that they do puts more money in their pocket, not someone else's pocket.

Of course, many writers think that they don't have time to figure all this stuff out. So just pay the money, and the next thing you know, their book is for sale on Amazon. Yay. They're in the big time. Never mind that their books might not make any money.

Further - and this is a big point - these writers look at "real" self-published authors and see that most of them don't make money, either! Same for New York-published authors. So who cares what approach one takes?

I can't argue with that. As I said in my caveat at the beginning of this rant two weeks ago, if you're happy with your choices, great.

But because only a small percentage of writers earn a good living from writing, it's worth it to take a close look at them. Some of them have established long careers with New York publishers. It's a tough gig - the Authors Guild reports that the average New York-published author makes $17,000 a year - but it can be done. And an increasing number of authors earning a good living are self-published. But, as far as I can see, all of those self-published authors are true self-published authors, in control of their own career, with no other people between them and their readers.

The bottom line is this. If you want to have a chance at joining that small percentage - authors who earn a good living - wouldn't you choose one of the approaches that they all use? Yet many writers choose an approach that no successful authors use. Why?

Is figuring out how to be a real self publisher hard work? Absolutely. It takes a lot of research to learn what is necessary to truly self publish. Writing your book was hard work, too. As was studying for and developing your previous work career. You wouldn't have turned over control of your previous career to someone else to make all the decisions. You did it all yourself, going directly to the people who paid you money for your services. And your efforts and focus on every aspect of that career were important to your success.

Like any research project, start by Googling your questions. Then expect to read a hundred blogs on the subject. Plan to purchase several books on the subject. Join writer's groups. Attend their meetings. Ask questions. Get involved. Do the same stuff you did when you got into your first career. Education, apprenticeship, practice/study/practice some more/study some more.

If you're going to self publish, I think you should use as your role model those writers who are successful. Please don't fall for a slick website. The reality is that those companies are good at only one thing: Taking money from writers who have stars in their eyes and an unquenchable desire to see their books in print on a bookshelf right now. Consider the benefits of delayed gratification. You will benefit a thousand times for the moments when you paused to learn more before you jumped into deep water.

You did a great job on all the research to write your book. Put in a relatively small amount of research to learn the most effective way of bringing your books to market. Either get yourself a New York deal with a decent advance or be a REAL self publisher. The first is a very unlikely possibility, and the second is a reasonable, workable approach that has rewarded thousands of writers.

You may be wondering what makes me think I know so much about this stuff. Just that my observations come from 16 years of publishing, the fact that I make a good living from this business, and the clear knowledge that I could not have succeeded had I done any of the things I'm warning about.


I know writers who made the mistake of paying money to such companies, eventually realized the folly, reconfigured their approach to take back control, and began to do very well. So if you've gotten your books hitched to other people and given others control over your writing life, it's not too late. Read the fine print on your contract to see what is involved in taking back every right you gave them. Maybe you can republish under new ISBNs that you own. Maybe you can do new, professional covers, and get proper editing. With effort, you can probably take complete control over your new writing career, just as you did with your first career.

Sunday, February 12, 2017

Self Publishing - What Not To Do Part 2

Last week I said that there is a very simple way to cut through the hype and hyperbole on a publisher or "self-publisher." This is the most basic, obvious way to judge if a publisher or so-called "self publisher" company is worthy. It's so basic that we often overlook it. Apply this test to any and every publishing services provider.

Ask them for the names of their authors who make a good living from their books.

That's a simple question with a simple answer. "John Doe and Suzie Doe each made $50,000 last year publishing with us. And Mary Roe made $100,000 with us in each of the last six years."

I've posed this question before. No one has come up with any names of successful writers using these "self-publishing" services. NO ONE. Do they exist? For the good of writers, I hope so. But I have yet to hear of one.

Does that mean that self-published authors don't ever make money? Of course not. Thousands of authors who put their books out with real self-publishing - their own businesses with their own ISBN numbers and their own marketing and control of all aspects of their own books - do very well. Some make over a million dollars a year. Many, many make over $100,000 a year. Countless self-published authors make $50,000 a year.

Do any of these authors sign up with one of the internet companies that has a slick website promising self-publishing success, promising that they'll handle all of the details, promising that they'll give you all of these amazing benefits for only $50 or $199 or $499? Plus, because your writing is so stellar, they'll allow you to participate in their advanced marketing/editing/promotion package for only $999?!

Gag, choke, cough, give me a break.

Again, no one has yet given me the name of an author who makes a decent living working with one of these publishers. Maybe there are some one-book wonders, writers who bought the "self-publishing" service and then uncorked a bestseller and made a bunch of money in one year. But I've never heard of them. And as for writers who, year after year, do well? I'd be astounded. The reason is that if anyone can successfully sell books (which of course a writer has to do himself or herself, because the companies provide no help), they would quickly switch over to real self publishing so they can make decent money instead of giving a percentage to a company that did nothing other than add the book to their internet catalog.

So, if you are a successful writer earning $50,000 or $100,000 or more income by publishing through one of these companies, please reveal yourself. Let other would-be writers see the rewards of working with the "self-publishing" company you use. Let other writers explore your sales rankings and appreciate the professionalism of the book covers the "self-publishing" company put on your books. Let other writers see your reviews and media coverage and distribution and learn from your success. You would be doing the world a big favor if you could show us that in fact there are self-publishing service companies that really do provide a worthwhile service.

I've asked this before, but no one has responded. The simple truth is that successful self-published authors do it all themselves so that they have complete control. It is that control that allows them to succeed. Without control, if you have the world's greatest idea about your published books, you have to try to contact someone who has control at your publisher. Someone who can make decisions. Someone who is willing to implement your idea. Of course, that person may be on vacation. Or playing golf while you are waiting for a return phone call or email. And when you get a response, it may be negative. Sorry, we don't do that...

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Self-Publishing - What Not To Do

In last week's post, I mentioned several reasons why self publishing is a logical default approach for new writers. What I forgot to do was explain what self publishing is and isn't. So this post is a clarification.

A clarification that could properly be called a rant. The rant comes from the frustration I've witnessed in dozens of writers I've met over the last few years who've signed their publication rights over to a so-called "self publishing" publisher. This post and perhaps another or two won't be very much about the best way to self publish. It will be very much about the worst way to self publish. Thus a rant. A warning.

(First, a qualification. If your only goal is to get your book printed and up on Amazon so you can know that your kids and grandchildren and neighbors can read your story, then ignore this post. If you don't care about selling significant numbers of books or finding a substantial audience of readers, ignore this post. If you have no aspirations for a career as a writer, ignore this post. And please know that there is nothing wrong with the simple desire to take the easiest approach to getting your book printed and up on Amazon. That "easiest approach," whatever you determine it to be, needs no comment or critique from me!)

(Second, a disclaimer. What follows is merely one writer's view of the world of publishing. It is not the one true vision. I'm not the one true expert. Take everything I say with a healthy skepticism.)

(Third, a caveat. If you are already a published author and you are happy with your current publishing arrangement, whatever it is, then don't read any of this post. It will just distract you from what you should be doing, which is working on your next book!)

Having said that...

To state what might be obvious but often isn't in a world filled with companies trying to sell "self-publishing services," self publishing is publishing yourself.

Over and over, writers fall for "self-publishing" scams. They pay money to a company that claims to self-publish them. This entire premise is false. If you self publish, that means you publish yourself. If you pay money to an outfit that claims to help you, you are more than likely buying snake oil.

Self publishing means that you figure out how to get your books to the marketplace and you have control over that. You figure out the mechanisms to get your books into paper form and ebook form and you have control over that. You arrange for your cover design, your editing, your formatting. You get your own ISBN number. You decide your discounts, your retail price, which distributors and retailers you will sell to, whether they be the likes of the behemoth Amazon or the corner bookstore or the neighborhood cafe.

If, instead, you pay money to one of the ten thousand companies that call themselves self-publishing companies, you are not really a self publisher. You give up control to another company. They own the ISBN. They control the distribution. They make the critical decisions. Pricing, marketing, distribution, promotions. In the rare event that you find a company that claims to still allow you to make these decisions, move very carefully. Why are you paying them money? What is the point? To make it so you don't have to learn to do the very things that dramatically enhance your ability to find an audience and sell books?

At this point, I should point out that if they don't ask you to pay them any money and instead only ask for you to sign over your publication rights, then that's the fee you are "paying" them.

In other words, one could logically sort out publishing scenarios and consider the two most attractive versions. The first is when a publisher pays you a substantial cash advance in return for those publication rights to your book. The second is when you bring your book to market yourself, keep all the rights, all the control, and make certain that all reasonable monies flow to your bank account and not the account of some other company that owns the ISBN number. (Technically, the owner of the ISBN number is the publisher of your book and will be listed as such in all appropriate databases, i.e., if you own the ISBN number, you are the publisher.)

When you give up control to another company, you'd be amazed at what you can't do. In most cases, you can't control much of the most critical aspects of your writing career. There will be a layer of bureaucracy between you and your book. If you want to fix mistakes in your paper book or ebook, good luck. If you want to get a bunch of books at a really good price to take to talks and book clubs and festivals, you're out of luck. If you want to have enough margin to entice bookstores with a full 50% discount and free freight, you will make zero money or even end up paying out of pocket for the privilege of selling to them. If you want distributors like Baker & Taylor or Ingram to take on your book, you won't be able to give them the 55% discount they require.

The list goes on. If you want to change course with your marketing, you have to convince someone else to let you do it. If you want a reviewer to consider reviewing your book, you have to convince them not to be affected by a possible stigma connected to the reputation of your so-called "self-publishing services" company. If you want the larger world of books - stores and media and conventions and conferences to take you seriously, good luck. Professionals in the book world often take one look at your "self-publishing" company and see that you got sold by one of those "internet publishers" who made your book available on Amazon and other internet sales channels, and they know you paid good money to an outfit to have them do what you could have done yourself for free. You become stigmatized by your choices that suggest you didn't do your due diligence.

In addition is the possibility that your actual publisher - not you, but the company who owns your ISBN number - maybe takes a chunk of the money off the top, money that should come to you. You paid them to set up what you could have done for free, and then on top of that you may have given them permanent rights to take a percentage of every book that you sell for what could be the rest of your life and the life of your children.

That same "self publisher" may sell their business and then a stranger you've never heard of owns rights to your books. Or the ISBN owner dies and that person's wastrel nephew inherits the rights to your books. At the very least, you have a major problem on your hands. At the worst... Well, as a writer, you can probably imagine the worst. And all of it is unnecessary.

Next week: A simple measure that will immediately tell you if a publisher of any sort is any good at all...