Tuesday, May 24, 2011

The Girl Who Kicked the Book Right Back to the Library

I was so excited to find Stieg Larsson’s third Lisbeth Salander novel, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, sitting on the library shelf. It was a 14-day book, but that reduced borrowing period had never been an issue with me. I could read three or four books in two weeks, even if I opened them only at mealtimes.

It has now been 13 days. I’m on page 281—of 563. I’m not going to finish this book, at least not now.

Note to authors: Please don’t give your characters similar names. Was Niedermann or Nieminen suspected of murder? Who was investigating? Was it Ekstrom, Eriksson, Edklinth, or all three? And what were the roles of Bjurman, Berger, Blomkvist, and Bublanski again? It’s enough to make a reader crazy.
Did I mention that this novel is set in Sweden? The translator did a fantastic job, but he couldn’t change the street names, for instance when “Figuerola drove her white Saab 9-5 to Vittangigatan in Vallingby” or reached the Bishop’s Arms and “found a parking space on Bellmansgatan at the corner with Tavastagatan.”

I slogged through the first 150 pages of The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest just to digest the background, which I didn’t remember from reading the second installment. It had been too long between books, and this one contained WTMI: way too much information.
Note to authors: Let us know what we have to remember, or just leave out the irrelevant parts.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest is going back to the library today. I could try to renew it, but I won’t. It bugs me to have read the first two books in this best-selling series and then to let this one go at the halfway point, but for Pete’s sake, I’d rather do math problems.

What's It About?

People always ask me, “What’s your book about?” It’s a natural question--one of the first a writer hears--and the Stupid People’s Guides (made-up name) to marketing tell us how to prepare for it.

Memorize an “elevator speech,” the books say, so that you can recite the crux of your book instantly and enthusiastically when people ask. This will come in handy when you go on radio and TV. First, write down the genre, plot, theme, lesson(s), and the ways your book will change the world. Then incorporate that material into a pitch you can deliver in about a minute. Finally, practice saying it as though it’s the most important information ever imparted.
It Started with Dracula: The Count, My Mother, and Me (Did I use all my words yet?) is a memoir. An editor friend once told me, “Many people who write memoirs forget that the first two letters of memoir are M-E.” It’s about me.

After I signed my publishing contract for It Started with Dracula, my publisher gave me a series of assignments designed to help me identify and express the essence of my book for sales representatives and bookstore managers. Yes, it was about me, but every memoir author can say the same. It was time to spell out what distinguished my memoir and made it compelling.
I spent hours writing descriptions, first listing every summary, benefit, and angle I could think of and then boiling it all down to a paragraph. I did this again and again. My initial tries were returned with suggestions to try again. It wasn’t rocket science, but occasionally it made me wish for rocket science.  

Though I wouldn’t want to wager that my versions of the sales sheets, website pages, and back cover copy made it through intact, they were good practice. I’m grateful for my publisher’s help in finalizing the central message of It Started with Dracula; otherwise, I might still be at it.
The summary of my book on the back cover begins like this: “A long-awaited dream vacation unexpectedly triggers an inner journey of self-reflection that opens the doors to forgiveness, acceptance, and longed-for peace.” It goes on to explain that visiting the land of Dracula at age 59 unearthed memories of my childhood with an alcoholic mother.

Nailing down “the story” should make writing the elevator speech that much easier. It’s all related.
When I created my visualization board, the place where I display my wishes as though they have already come true, I pasted information about my memoir onto a copy of the New York Times best-seller list. Covering up the real #1 book is a description of It Started with Dracula that mimics those on the list: “A solo traveler’s inner and outer journeys in Romania.” Well said, if I do say so—and certainly succinct. There are all kinds of descriptions.

Not long ago I spoke to a class of fourth-grade writing students. They had prepared questions for me in advance. Partway into my talk, a boy raised his hand and asked expectantly, “Is there a lot of action in your book?”
“Well,” I said, wishing I could embellish the truth for him—or at least slap on a pith helmet--“It’s about me.”

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Personal Branding VII: Hire a Publicist

I might have argued with this nugget of advice before I did it, but now I’m convinced. Yes, I knew that marketing “how-to” books suggested an author should have a publicist, and my publisher had echoed that advice.

“Just use the person for the three most important months,” she had said: “The month before your book is released, the month of, and the month after.” The success of my book launch would depend heavily on my activities during those three months.
My publisher then quoted me a typical publicist’s monthly fee—one that made my mortgage payment look puny. (Some might argue that my mortgage payment IS puny, but let’s stay on track.) Once I knew the cost, I gave up on the idea of having a publicist and considered other options.

The busy period for my book would likely be July through December 2011, with the key months being September, October, and November. The big push was still several months away.
Always working ahead, I began a list of possible stops on my expected book tour—bookstores, book festivals, and retail establishments that might stock It Started with Dracula. I went on the Internet and found the contact information for each one.

How do you book a book tour?
The next step, according to the marketing books, was to call each place and verify the contact information, especially the people. Employees come and go; websites, if unattended, can be wrong.

I’ve always dreaded phone work. Maybe that began when I worked for a figure salon in the 1970s. Every so often I’d have to sit on the floor behind the service desk with stacks of customer member sheets and call each woman whose attendance had lapsed. “We’ve missed you!” I’d begin in a perky voice, not having any idea who she was; and from there my script was designed to turn anything she might say into a commitment to come back.
Any kind of selling is about as comfortable for me as a three-day wedgie. Some of us just don’t have that killer instinct. Combine “selling” with “phone work,” and I’m out. Bye-bye.

I called a friend who has a thriving assistant business, but she was booked up. That’s what thriving means. I dreaded having to handle every detail myself. When should I start calling? How long would it take me to contact every bookstore on my list? Would they be happy to have me, or would I have to convince them? How many places could I appear in a week? It was overwhelming, so I put it off.
In the meantime, another publicity challenge was on the horizon. Early, uncorrected copies of my book were being printed so that they could be mailed out to “key reviewers.” The publisher wasn’t going to do all of the mailing; some of it would fall to me. After that, it would be time to create an EPK—my electronic press kit.

I couldn’t do all of that. Besides being untrained and terrible when it came to snappy marketing ideas, I was writing a second book. So, when my publisher again mentioned hiring a publicist, I agreed. She very generously offered to help with the cost, which by then I knew was reasonable and the service worth every penny.
I love having a publicist, and she's a wonder. She loves setting up book tours, she does a rocking EPK, and she made up the best mailing labels for all those books “we” sent out. About the only thing I have to do now is get used to saying “My publicist,” which still sounds a bit Hollywood to me. I’m working on that.

Thank you, Randee Feldman of GetNoticed PR (www.randeegfeldman.com); and Bettie Youngs (www.bettieyoungsbooks.com), the best publisher on the planet.

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Personal Branding VI: Social Media

A few years ago I was at a work conference in Orlando. A dozen of us had gone to lunch, and the conversation at the table turned to Facebook. I didn’t know what Facebook was, or why it was so important for my colleagues to meet their friends in cyberspace.

I listened for a few minutes before asking, “How many of you are on Facebook?” Every hand went up—all but mine. I was writing It Started with Dracula then and beginning to study the world of book publicity. Like two country roads converging under a sign, those threads intersected when I realized that social media could help me connect with others personally and professionally.
I did what I usually do when faced with a challenge: I bought a book. The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Facebook wasn’t written for me, of course--I'm sure the bookstore clerk realized that immediately--but I knew it would explain the concepts clearly and that I could refer back to it if needed.

I’ve had a Facebook account for a while now. The site has surpassed its role of helping us tell our friends what’s up; for example, a page was created in the aftermath of spring storms that devastated the South. Its purpose was to reunite pictures, documents, and other scattered mementos with their rightful owners.
Facebook makes me wonder how big the Internet really is. Consider all of those postings, day after day, rolling down the page and out of sight. Where do they go? And that blank box at the top of the page—the one that asks, “What’s on your mind?"--still stumps me sometimes; I’m not one to record my every move for others.

The best reward Facebook has brought me is the feeling of connectedness, now that I’m retired and spending most days alone at my computer. I understand it now. Later on I’ll investigate starting a fan page for my memoir.
About the same time I learned to use Facebook, I was invited to start a LinkedIn account. LinkedIn is like a business version of Facebook, its purpose being to connect people professionally. I visit LinkedIn much less frequently, but I do keep my profile up to date.

My final frontier of social media was Twitter, which on the surface seems like the easiest of all: Postings cannot exceed 140 characters. Twitter feeds adorn the websites of movie stars, where many of the “tweets” announce guest appearances or new product lines. The thinly disguised advertising was a turnoff, but I joined the party anyway, choosing a few feeds to follow and posting my first tweet for the world to see. Incidentally, I had four followers before I wrote a single word. How is that possible?
My first tweet was my last, so far. Twitter is designed to be speedy, a constant stream of little messages. I can’t commit to that. Maybe the rich and famous hire people to tweet for them, but for me Twitter seems a lot to manage. I may go back and try again, but already I have to sign out of Facebook several times a day to keep my focus on my work.

So, compared to my friends in the restaurant, I’ve moved into social media slowly. The important thing is to begin and to find your own way. I still won’t call myself a complete idiot —even if I do buy their books.