Thursday, July 28, 2011

Publisher, Sell To Thyself!

I'm always astounded by the hard-sell and oversell antics of some indie authors. While I often advise indie authors that they must be able to take off their Author hat and put on a Publisher hat, the thing is, no matter which of those two hats they're wearing they should always have a Reader beanie on underneath.

While I wouldn't ever advise a writer to engineer his or her fiction to suit a given demographic, this is definitely required when it comes to nonfiction. You must do this in order to identify your target audience and ensure your book contains the information or reference material that audience will want. But having said that, I'll go on to say that even fiction authors---even literary fiction authors---would do well to give a thought to the reader as they lovingly craft their prose. You want to see your vision brought to vivid life on the page, certainly, but you don't want to confuse or bore your readers in the process.

It's even more critical to keep your Reader beanie on nice and snug when you go to don your Publisher hat. This is necessary because among other things, you still must identify your target audience, regardless of whether your book is fiction or nonfiction, in order to develop an efficient and effective marketing plan. You need to figure out who's most likely to be interested in your book, and where and how to reach those people. But this doesn't mean that once you've done so, you should go all full-bore, Mad Men, Marketing Exec From Hell on them.

Author and Publisher you may be, but you're also still a human being and a consumer. You still shake your head in annoyance at the pile of junk mail, junk email, junk fax and even junk Facebook and Twitter flowing into your life on a daily basis, don't you? So why on Earth would you ever risk being counted among the purveyors of that junk?

How is it possible that the Author who chuckles to herself at over-the-top marketing hype in advertisements for weight loss aids will nevertheless splatter "MY BOOK WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!!" in gigantic, flashing red letters two inches tall on her author website?

How can the Author who complains about all the pointless piano-playing cat videos his Facebook friends post to his wall go on to blast all his Twitter followers with twice-daily reminders of his book's current availability and sales rank on Amazon?

Why does the Author who's sick of all the spam comments left on her blog turn around and post a so-called review of someone else's book in which she devotes as much time to plugging her own book as talking about the book she's supposedly reviewing?

Yes, you must get the word out about your book. But you most do so with some consideration for the people on the receiving end. When in doubt about a given tactic you're about to employ, put yourself in the shoes of a non-writing, non-publishing, ordinary consumer and imagine how your tactic will be received under those circumstances. Don't overthink it, just go back to the Golden Rule: advertise how you'd want to be advertised to.

Monday, July 25, 2011

6 Dialogue Traps To Avoid

Dialogue is an area where many writers struggle. This is pretty ironic when you consider that words are writers' stock in trade, and unless a given writer is mute, he or she has been plying that trade since about the age of eleven months. Yet while most of us communicate normally and without much difficulty in our everyday lives, for some reason many of us have a tendency to go all flowery, choppy, melodramatic or wooden when it comes time to put words in our characters' mouths. Avoiding the following dialogue traps will go a long way toward making your dialogue more natural and believable.

1. No two people talk exactly the same. In believable stories, as in life, each person will have his or her own rhythms of speech, pet phrases and regional or family expressions. This doesn't mean each character should broadcast his geographic or cultural background with every sentence, however. It just means that if, by about a quarter of the way through the book, a reader can't tell your characters apart merely based on their dialogue, you haven't made each character's "voice" distinctive. The important thing here is to be subtle when drawing those distinctions. If you're not sure what this means or how to go about it, here's an exercise to try: the next time you're in a crowded, public place, pay attention to the bits and pieces of conversation floating all around you. Notice how different people express the same thoughts differently.

For example, where one person might say, "I called Sally," another might say, "I phoned Sally," or, "I rang Sally." Where Joe (in his forties) says, "That whole night was a waste of time," Jake (a twentysomething) might say, "Two words: epic fail," and Steve (an ex-military man) might say, "FUBAR, all the way, man." Thinking about your characters' backgrounds, histories, and even biases and motivations when constructing their dialogue will help in making their voices distinct from one another.

2. Life is not a movie. While heated exchanges, adamant diatribes and weepy heart-to-hearts all have their bit to contribute in various stories, they should be used sparingly if you don't want your novel to read like a soap opera script. If you're prone to succumb to melodrama in your dialogue, try reading it aloud. If the words feel or sound unnatural coming out of your own mouth, they shouldn't be coming out of your characters' mouths, either. Of course there's some wiggle room here if you're writing something historical, a fantasy, sci-fi, or anything else with purposely unusual language.

3. Men and women communicate differently. This really boils down to a single, simple concept. Speaking in gross generalizations, the masculine communication style is based on utility, whereas the feminine communication style is about socialization.

In the masculine, words are used to accomplish some goal. The goal is usually imparting necessary---and that word, "necessary", is key here---information, but it can also be to quickly size up a person or situation, or to establish or reinforce the pecking order (e.g., teasing). Generally speaking, believable masculine characters talk less than feminine characters, and get to the point pretty quickly. With feminine characters, a given conversation need not have an intrinsic point: the point of the conversation may simply be for the feminine characters to hear and be heard, and feel validated by one another as a result. But having said that, I'd caution against too much mutual navel-gazing on the part of your feminine characters, lest you bore your readers.

4. In general, the words should not draw attention to themselves. Dialogue should never take your reader out of the story, for any reason. If your reader must reach for a dictionary or fire up some device that has access to Wikipedia in order to understand what the heck that character is talking about, that reader is being pulled out of the story world.

While particularly intellectual characters may employ five-dollar words at times, try to err on the side of conservatism in that area. If you can substitute a word or phrase that's better-known, though still only rarely used in everyday conversation, make the change. Similarly, if a given character wants everyone to think she's worldly and well-traveled she may pepper her speech with foreign words, and that's appropriate. Just make sure the foreign words are familiar to most readers, or that their meaning is adequately conveyed through context.

5. Dialogue that's used for exposition will sound stilted 99.99% of the time---so don't do it! As a general guideline, characters should NEVER say things to one another only for the purpose of conveying necessary information or background to the reader. If a given character might just as well open his bit of talking with, "Well, since the reader probably doesn't know anything about particle physics, let me give you a thumbnail sketch of string theory," then you're doing something wrong. Find a way to get the expository into your story in other ways: through actions, settings, and so on. Consider the following example.

Michael was physically and mentally abused for years at the hands of his mother and as a result, he has a great deal of trouble extending trust to any females. This history informs the character and actions of Michael, but is not a central focus of the story at hand. When Michael visits a new girlfriend's home for the first time, one writer might include a confrontation between the two characters in which the girlfriend voices concerns about Michael's unwillingness to open up to her and Michael responds by spilling his guts about his mother. A better writer will have Michael flinch when the girlfriend removes her belt while changing out of her work clothes, when she playfully quotes an overbearing female movie or TV character, or when she reaches for the knife block while preparing dinner, and then have the girlfriend notice this.

6. When in doubt, read it out...loud. This goes back to trap #2, but it bears repeating.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Can The Subscription Model Work For Trade Publishers?

I recently read a Slate article about how the film industry is repeating the DRM and business model mistakes of the music industry, and of course saw many parallels with, and implications for, trade publishing in it. But unlike the film and music industries, Big Pub has plenty more market and cultural shifts to contend with these days than just the rising popularity and availability of digital media.

The once-mighty Borders has failed, proving once and for all that brick and mortar is no longer the ace in the hole it once seemed for trade publishers. Authors, established and aspiring alike, are seeing fewer and fewer reasons to partner with trade publishers now that it's become clear they can get their work to a readership more quickly, keep control of their intellectual property rights, and earn higher royalties to boot by going indie. As if to add insult to injury, Amazon seems poised to eat whatever's left of Big Publishing's lunch after everyone else has had a go at the trough. But it occurred to me that there may yet be some unexplored and promising territory for Big Pub, if they're willing to entertain an unorthodox idea: a subscription model of ebook content delivery.

Much like
Gamefly and O'Reilly's Safari Books Online, major publishers could offer a monthly, flat-fee subscription service for book-at-a-time access to all their ebook titles in various ereader formats. Note that I said access, not ownership. It would be a rental-type paradigm, and like Gamefly and Netflix could be offered at various pricing tiers according to how many titles the consumer is allowed to have checked out at any given time. Such a plan would enable publishers to maintain steady, ongoing revenue streams in addition to their existing sales channels, and would allow publishers to do an end-run around Amazon, B&N's Nook store, and Apple's iBookstore, too.

Perhaps just as importantly, it would allow publishers to gracefully exit the ebook pricing, DRM and staged release debacles of the past, and finally be seen as offering a valuable service to consumers instead of being the big, greedy bad guys.

Gamefly charges the equivalent of the cost of one new game at retail prices for its basic subscription; trade publishers could do the same. At $10 - $15 per month I think plenty of avid ebook readers would be willing to sign up, because they're probably already buying at least one ebook at retail prices each month.

There are only 5 major players left in trade publishing, so even if you had to 'subscribe' to all 5 of them individually (since it's not likely they'd form some kind of collective service), you're still only talking approximately the same monthly fee as what plenty of people are already paying for their Gamefly accounts.

While publishers would lose money on accounts signed to voracious readers who currently buy numerous ebooks every month at retail prices, those folks are outliers. Most people I know don't buy ebooks at that rate, and most people I know don't read more than one book a month, either. Also, there would surely be a large contingent of people who sign up fully intending to wring their money's worth out of the subscription fee, but ultimately end up 'checking out' a book only every second or third month. Once you know the books are there for the taking any time, there's no urgency.

If you subscribe to Netflix, Gamefly or even a health club, you're probably personally acquainted with this phenomenon. I say this while gazing ruefully at the Netflix DVD I've had checked out for nearly four months now. Yep, I've paid the monthly fee for that movie three times over, and in fact could've bought the DVD for less than I've paid for this rental by now. But I still have no intention of cancelling my Netflix subscription because it's a convenience I'm willing to pay for. And maybe someday I really will end up checking out a new movie every few days, like I imagined I'd be doing when I first signed up.

Yes, there are technological hurdles to be overcome. And yes, there will be some considerable startup effort and investment. But those things are true of any new business model trade publishers might try to adopt. And heaven knows, the model they've currently got is no longer working so they're going to have to try something.