The Necessity of Slowing Down

Fast food. Microwaves. Speed dating. Twitter. Life today runs like the scrolling electronic tickers at the bottom of financial television shows. And writing is no exception. Just the other day, I happened across a book online touting how to write, market, and publish a bestseller (of course) in less than three months!

I don’t know about you, but everything in me resists this frenzied and ever-increasing pace. Although I may appear calm and steady, inwardly my default setting is a cross between the Energizer Bunny and that aggravating, cymbal-clanging monkey who does a back flip every five seconds. Over the years, I’ve learned how to achieve and maintain my equilibrium, but the lure to the Land of Busybusybusy is relentless, ever nipping at my heels.

So hearing novelist John Dufresne speak about the necessity of slowing down this past weekend at the UW-Madison Writers’ Institute was like chocolate raining from heaven. Referring to his book Is Life Like this? A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months, John said of the subtitle, “It’s a lie. I can’t do it.” (Apparently, his editor insisted on this subtitle over his protestations.) He then went on to say, “Slow down. Take your time,” and described his process for doing so. In the midst of my running from one information- and camaraderie-rich session to another, this successful, prolific author confirmed what my frazzled spirit already knew but needed reminding yet again: Slow. Down.

We’re told that moving at warp speed is a necessity if we are to achieve the fulfillment of our heart’s desires. But it’s a lie. All that brings meaning and beauty to life is not accomplished overnight. As it takes time for a fetus to develop in its mother’s womb before it’s ready to be birthed into the world, it takes time to create a transformative work of art, be it a book, a painting, a sculpture, or a rose garden. Ideas and stories, like babies and flowers, need time to incubate and germinate in the dark before they are thrust into the light of day.

So slow down. Take your time. Nurture your babies, literary and otherwise. Don’t push them into the world before they–and you–are ready. You’ll know it when you both are.

Book Review: Word Trippers 2nd Edition by Barbara McNichol

What a lifesaver for writers and editors alike! Fellow NAIWE member Barbara McNichol has compiled in one easy-to-navigate manual the most crazy-making words from A-Z that, yes, trip us up. No more scrambling through stacks of reference books, as now the answers we seek are right at our fingertips.

Who among us hasn’t agonized over “affect” or “effect”? “Lay” or “lie”? “Who” or “whom”? Word Trippers comes to our rescue, but it doesn’t stop there. It also includes homophones that trip us up, like vial/vile and waver/waiver. Excellent!

My personal word tripper is “comprise” or “compose.” I have sought several sources and have never found an explanation to help keep them straight in my mind. Until now. Thank you, Word Trippers!

Word Trippers 2nd Edition is a must for every writer and editor.

What Does “Self-Publishing” Even Mean??

As we embark on a new year, many writers are assessing where they are in their journey and determine where they want to go in the year ahead. For some, that means publication.

Most writers are familiar with traditional publishing, and usually the Big Five (formerly the Big Six) comes to mind: Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, and Simon & Schuster. But a myriad of mid-size and small presses fall under this umbrella as well. Only a small percentage of manuscripts are accepted for publication each year, and with the Big Five, the author must have an agent prior to submission. There is no financial risk to the author, but he or she does lose his or her publishing rights for a negotiated period of time after publication.

But today, authors have a staggering number of self-publishing options available, which is a real coup for the thousands of books that otherwise would never see publication. However, along with the many options available, the term self-publishing is bandied about so freely that authors’ heads are spinning. And it’s no wonder. So what does “self-publishing” even mean??

First of all, true self-publishing is just that: you, the author, are the publisher. This means that you handle or contract out all aspects of the publishing process: editing, proofreading, design, indexing, printing, marketing, and distribution–in addition to writing a good book. You assume all the responsibility and risk, but you also receive all sales proceeds and retain all publishing rights.

The following options are also referred to as self-publishing. However, although the author does not assume all the responsibility, he or she still assumes all the risk with less profit and, in some cases, a loss of publishing rights, at least for a specified period of time, as in traditional publishing.

Print-on-Demand

As the name implies, books are printed when there is demand rather than authors stockpiling their garage with books that they need to hustle to sell. The companies that provide this service are ideal for the author who doesn’t have the cash, time, or inclination to do the printing, design, and distribution. Some POD companies allow authors to use their own ISBNs, which means that the author is listed as the publisher and can print his or her book elsewhere as well. In addition, authors can often set their own price, which, in turn, means higher profit for the author.

Subsidy (or Vanity) Publishing

In this option, the author relinquishes responsibility for all aspects of the publishing process for a fee paid by the author. However, with some companies, their ISBN appears on the book and they hold the publishing rights, albeit nonexclusive and terminable at will. The company sets the pricing, and the author is paid a royalty.

These options are considered self-publishing because the authors themselves are ensuring the publication of their book rather than waiting for a traditional publisher to accept their manuscript. The key is to be aware of the various options and their differences when one hears the term self-publishing. Also, keep in mind that the delineation between print-on-demand companies and subsidy publishers is oftentimes murky.

True self-publishing, print-on-demand, and subsidy publishing are viable options for the do-it-yourself author. However, do extensive research into each option before making a decision as to which path to pursue. Bottom line: know your options, research them thoroughly, and determine your responsibility and risk comfort level.

Reflections

As I reflect on this past year, I have had the privilege to bear witness to the achievements of many writers—and, in some cases, I have had the honor as an active participant in them. Some finished writing a book, and some started writing one. Some are days away from publication, and some are researching their options. Some created blogs and author websites, and some submitted to publications and contests. Some branched out and developed their skills in another genre, and some marketed their newly published treasure through readings, speaking engagements, social media, and book signings. And some are now brainstorming, researching, or actively writing their next book, and some are doing the same with their first book.

All of these are admirable achievements, and each one was accomplished through perseverance, commitment, and desire to communicate to the world through the author’s gift of writing. I applaud them all and am blessed to have each one of them in my life.

Wherever you are in your journey, I celebrate you. May you follow your heart in 2015.

What Does Your Brand Say about You?

What immediately comes to your mind when you hear or read the following names: Oprah? Stephen King? Joel Osteen? Most likely, it is an image, a concept, or a word. But whatever the form, that is that individual’s brand, or, in other words, what he or she represents or stands for.

To those familiar with Oprah, Stephen King, and Joel Osteen, the words talk show host, author, and televangelist are synonymous with their respective names. However, what these individuals do is not their brand. Their brand is that one quality they bring to what they do. For Oprah, living authentically is the quality she brings to every TV show she produces and every issue of her monthly magazine. For Stephen King, scaring us all half to death is the characteristic of the majority of his books. And for Joel Osteen, the positivity of faith for financial success, otherwise referred to as the prosperity gospel, is the theme of his broadcasts and books. All three of them stand out from others in their field for something specific. That “something specific” is their brand. And most people know them not only for what they do but also for what they stand for. That is an effective brand.

Here’s another way of looking at this. As I was writing this article, the image of a branding iron kept popping into my head. Ranchers place their unique stamp on their cattle to set them apart from the cattle of other ranchers. So I ask you: What is your stamp that sets you apart from other writers? What do you want to be known for?

Your brand derives from who you are, not from what you do, so determining your brand may require some soul searching. In doing so, don’t be afraid to ask those you trust what they see is your stamp or “something specific.” Oftentimes, others can see it better than you can.

Marketing

Last month, I wrote about the importance of writers having their own storefront, or website. So this month, I want to address how to drive traffic to your website. In a word, marketing.

I confess that marketing felt dry and impersonal to me, as it tends to be data driven, which is not my forte. I am a words and people person, not a numbers person. However, while attending the Wisconsin Book Festival last week, I had an epiphany that led to a new perspective: Marketing is about making connections with people and attracting those who are the right fit for you and your work. With that in mind, four elements are key.

Key #1: Know Your Market

Market research is vital or you will end up trying to appeal to everyone, which is impossible, or you will turn yourself inside out trying to connect with readers who are not the right fit for your work. Writers of horror will most likely not appeal to readers of romance. And chances are memoirists will not draw a following from the sci-fi crowd, no matter how moving and well written the story. And be specific. Are your readers men, women? Or does your writing speak to both? What is the age group? Children? Young adults? Middle-agers? Octogenarians? Are they professionals, blue-collar workers? Are they retired? Married? Single? Divorced? Empty nesters? Parents of young children or teenagers?

Key #2: Find Your Market

Where do readers hang out?

  1. Book festivals
  2. Indie bookstores and coffee shops–Introduce yourself to the owners and ask if they would be willing to allow you to give a reading/book signing at their store or shop. Also ask if they would be willing to stock your books.
  3. Libraries–Ask if you could do a reading/book signing or presentation.
  4. Writers’ conferences–Offer to be involved in a panel discussion, give a presentation, lead a workshop, and/or have a table at its book fair.

At all of the above, be sure to hand out business cards that includes your web address and have a sign-up sheet to gather e-mail addresses of attendees.

Key #3: Maintain Contact with Your Market

Options abound: print and e-newsletters, blogs, and social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, and Google +. But don’t overwhelm yourself thinking you have to do them all. Choose one, two, or however many you can sanely manage. But whether it’s one or four, be consistent. Using only one platform regularly is far more effective than using four occasionally. Try whichever platform(s) appeals to you to find your own comfort level. The more comfortable you are, the more likely you will use it consistently.

Key #4: Grow Your Market

In addition to the suggestions in #2 and #3, follow blogs of agents and other writers in your genre. Make comments on their blogs and ask if you could write a guest post on their blog. And, of course, offer the same to them. This promotes good will and helps increase exposure for you both. It’s a win-win, the best kind of exchange there is.

Marketing is not only a business strategy for those who want to sell books or a service. Marketing is also a connecting tool for those who have a message they want to get out into the world or stories they long to share. And be creative in your marketing. Come up with your own ways to connect with people.

Author Website: Your Storefront

Two weeks ago, I was chatting with an acquaintance who is also self-employed. A massage therapist, she rents space in a salon on Main Street in her city. We discussed the perks and perils of self-employment, and then the subject turned to marketing.

“In order for people to remember you, you have to be in front of them all the time,” she said, slapping her hands as punctuation. “How do people know about your business?” When I told her online, she said, “Eeuwww! Then you can’t use your personality! With me, people can see me!”

The next morning, I had a phone conversation with a business development manager of a regional publication who remarked, “You really don’t have a business.” My hackles raised, and I said, a bit steely, “Yes. I do have a business.” “Well, I mean you don’t have a retail business with an actual physical location.” “You’re right,” I told her. “I don’t have an actual storefront, but I do have a business.”

These back-to-back conversations got me thinking. Frankly, I was shocked that in our cyber-digital world that these two businesswomen held the apparent notion that physical presence is everything; that real businesses have an actual brick-and-mortar storefront with the owner’s physical body inside. To me, this smacks of “Build it, and they will come.”

Authors, editors, and web designers—those whose business is intellectual property rather than the sale of tangible products or services—often do not set up shop in the mall, a business park, or even a quaint artsy district. But to believe that they do not have a viable business is pure baloney (actually, its more colorful counterpart). First of all, renting space, and the overhead that goes along with that, would not be financially wise for these types of businesses. And all savvy business owners must be financially wise, especially in the early years, or they won’t be in business for long.

But both of these women did make a good point: all businesses need to be visible. And that includes yours, Authors. So what is your storefront? Your website. And it is vital that you have one.

I told my acquaintance that I do use my personality online—through my words. But it’s more than that. Everything from the colors, the font, the graphics, the pictures, the design, and all the bells and whistles we choose to have on our website reflects our personality and speaks of who we are. Our website not only tells the world what we do and have to offer, it also tells the world who we are as a real, live, in-the-flesh human being. And that is whom people connect and want to do business with and buy books from.

Setting up shop in cyberspace is the first step in becoming a business owner as an author. And don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t have a real business!

Burnout

“If you don’t take some time off, your work is going to suffer.”

This inner admonition sliced through my murky, overwork-induced fog, snapping me to full, present-moment attention. The last thing I want is for my work or my health to suffer, and I had been diligent about taking time for and good care of myself. Still, my workaholic tendency to forge ahead like a steamroller gaining momentum had kicked in without my realizing it, and I was dangerously close to hitting the wall.

I was burned out, a very real condition that entrepreneurs of all stripes—and that includes writers—are prone to when their passion, coupled with an overdeveloped work ethic, blinds them to the reality that they are driving themselves way too hard.

Two months ago, I wrote that today’s authors are expected to be entrepreneurs; gone are the days when writers focused solely on writing and PR and marketing people did the promoting and marketing. Alas, today’s authors are responsible for it all, whether they traditionally or self-publish. Running in all directions and wearing all the hats, which for some may be exciting and invigorating, can lead to mental and physical exhaustion, cynicism, depression, and a host of other maladies if one is not mindful of maintaining balance and a healthy perspective.

I’m grateful I took heed before my work had suffered and/or I had done serious harm to my physical, mental, or emotional well-being. Perhaps the fact that I was aware of my tendency to overdo helped me hear the instruction to slow down and pay attention to it—before it was too late.

And that’s the key to avoiding burnout: know thyself. First, know your basic nature. Whether you’re an introvert or an extrovert, you need regular downtime to recharge your batteries. Second, know what downtime means for you. For some of you that may be white-water rafting with forty of your closest friends, for others of you that may be curling up with a good book with nothing but silence and solitude for companions. And third, know those pitfalls that ensnare you and those temptations that lure you into the rocky shoals when you least suspect. One of mine is “Oh, this will only take a minute.” Before I know it, an hour or more is shot because, along the way, I’ve stumbled across a few more things that “will only take a minute.” And, of course, this is in addition to that day’s initial to-do list.

Finally, take time for yourself daily, or at least weekly, and do those things that relax and refresh your mind and body and revive your spirit. And above all, listen to your inner wisdom. Loving what you do will result in a heap of ashes if you don’t love yourself first.

Platform and Marketing: The Difference

Recently on Facebook, one of my friends posted a photo of his book cover with the caption “On sale now…” What immediately followed, along with the 51 “Likes,” was a flood of comments: “Where can I buy it?” “Where is it on sale?” “Is it on Amazon?” “Is it available in kindle version?” “I want it on kindle version too!” One of his friends even shared it on his own FB page, saying, “He’s finally publishing!”

I, too, was excited. I read his rough draft two years ago and encouraged him to publish. This man is a survivalist and a world traveler and has tales to tell that not even Hemingway could have made up. I read further through the comments, hoping to find out where his book is available.

Then I came across his comment: “its not for sale … i just put it up there as a joke.” This, too, was met with a flurry of comments, one of which summed up the collective outrage: “yer a #@* … that would be a book a good few folk would like to read.” Frustrated, I couldn’t resist adding my own two cents. I wrote, “You have what every author dreams of—a market and a platform. You really ought to publish your book.”

In publishing, the first half of the battle is, of course, writing a good book; the second half is platform and market. Writers are often confused by what is meant by platform and market, and sometimes think they are the same thing. But they are not. Platform is an author’s visibility and reach to a specific audience to whom the author has a reputation as an authority in a specific area. Using my Facebook friend as an example, his platform is solid, as he has high visibility and reach with at least 300+ “friends” on Facebook that span the globe. In addition, his blog and YouTube videos, all pertaining to his adventures in the wild and life on the road and showcase his survival skills and gift for storytelling, have a significant following.

Market, on the other hand, is the group of people who want the information, stories, etc. from that author and will buy his books, attend his speaking events/book signings and seminars/webinars, and tune in to his televised or broadcast interviews. Again, using my FB friend as an example, his market is other survivalists/world travelers (and wannabes) along with personal friends who are salivating for his book, which is filled with salacious yarns and fascinating yet highly practical survival tips and techniques.

In traditional publishing, agents and editors are looking for authors who have a solid platform and an eager market clamoring for their book. And in self-publishing, these are just as important. But don’t despair if you don’t yet have either one. Building a platform and finding your market takes time, patience, persistence, ingenuity, and consistency. Keep showing up and don’t give up. My FB friend’s platform has been literally years in the making. And now it’s paying off.