Monday, February 27, 2012

Pimping Your Book, Indie or Traditional

Now that I've got feet in both camps, I have a unique perspective on the good, the bad and the mysterious truths about book marketing. My memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, was published by Random House. I leaped into the indie world when I self-published my first novel, Sleeping Tigers, a couple of months ago. My second novel, The Wishing Hill, will be published by Penguin in spring 2013. These experiences have taught me a lot about book publicity, but I'm still learning new things every day. There are some differences in how traditional and indie books are publicized, but those differences are shrinking by the nanosecond. The truest thing I can tell you is that, no matter how your book makes it into the world, you'll need to take an active part in the publicity. Here are a few tips to get you started.

Mine the Free Resources
The Internet is a wonderful tutor. There are more free resources out there about marketing your book than you'll ever have time to read. Google anything from “picking a book cover” to “social media for authors,” and you'll get enough hits to last through a few thermoses of coffee each time you do it. Make good use of these resources. One of my favorites is Novel Publicity's “Free Advice Blog” at

Prepare Your Platform
No matter who you talk to in publishing—agent, editor, publicist, or sales team—they'll tell you that their ideal is a good book written by an author with a “solid platform.” Basically, that means that they want you to be famous before you even give them a manuscript—or they want some hook, like you chewed off your arm during a battle with a grizzly bear. (Even then, they hope you've been blogging about it.) One easy way to start building your platform is by crafting a virtual identity. Social media tools are free and easy to use. Start a blog, create an author facebook page, get a twitter account, and set up a Goodreads page. Give people useful information—don't just pimp your book. If you know how to do something—anything from fly fishing to quilting—blog about that, guest post on other people's blogs, and people will start following you. Yes, it's time consuming, but it's also incredibly fun to connect with people. If you're trying traditional publishing avenues, it will help your editor sell your book to the publisher if she can prove that you have an active presence online. Indie or traditional, you're cultivating a loyal readership.

A Publicist Is Just Part of the Picture
If you're traditionally published, expect to be assigned a publicist. It is that person's job to advocate for your book with print media, radio and television stations, bookstores, and online sites. Make yourself part of the publicity team. If the publicist suggests that you do something, do it! The more you help your publicist, the more she can help you. On the other hand, don't take it personally if the publicist is too busy to do more than a few early rounds of marketing pushes. She'll probably have a minimum of time and an even smaller budget to devote to your book. You'll have to keep up the momentum. Likewise, if you're an indie author, be prepared to devote part of every week to promoting your books. Writers with deep pockets may find it easiest to hire a publicist; even then, log the hours if you want results.

Your Book Launch Is What You Make It
Long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, a book launch in traditional publishing was a Very Big Deal. Authors were sent on book tours to do readings and signings on the publisher's dime. The pre-sales of books, both online and in bookstores, determined pretty quickly which books were hits. That's because they knew that shelf life in bookstores was brief. This is all changing. Sure, it's great to gain traction the minute your book is available. However, with the advent of online book sellers and e-books, your book will stay around forever. Don't despair if it takes weeks, or even months, to see sales results. Keep at it, and eventually the numbers will climb.

Give Away Your Books
Traditional publishers know that the best way to sell a book is to give it away first. They target who they give it to, of course—book reviewers, TV producers, book clubs—but, ultimately, the idea is to “seed” your book around the country so that people start talking about it. You can do the same thing on your own. Participate in giveaways on your own facebook author page or through Goodreads, or ask book bloggers if they'll host giveaways for you.

Befriend Book Bloggers
Book bloggers are fairy godmothers for writers. Without their support and generosity, many of our books would never be read. Check out as many book blogs as you can find. When you discover a book blogger who reviews books like yours, write a personal note and ask if you can send a review copy. You might want to send her an e-book because it's cheaper than mailing a paperback, but if she says she'd rather have a paperback, send it! Media mail is cheap postage and print-on-demand paperbacks are inexpensive, too. Remember: she is the one doing you a favor, and it's a good investment. Most book bloggers post reviews on Amazon and Goodreads; once they're up, be sure to tweet and post those links on your own pages. Add them to your Amazon Author Central page as well.

Look for Out-of-the-Box Marketing Opportunities
Just like parents know their own children better than anyone else can, you know your book: its content, style, and target audience. Use that expertise in thinking about out-of-the-box marketing opportunities. I contacted pet groups when I published The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, for instance, and found a loyal following. For Sleeping Tigers, I'm contacting breast cancer groups, because my main character is a breast cancer survivor, and I know other cancer survivors will connect with this story about hope and starting over.

Lasting Impressions
All of your marketing efforts will eventually come together. If you're a parent, think about how many times you had to show your toddler peas or carrots before that child stopped thinking of veggies as too weird to eat. The same is true of your book: keep putting it out there, and pretty soon people will start saying, “Hey, I remember that title. I meant to read that book!”

Monday, February 20, 2012

How to Sell a Novel in Just 25 Years!

When my agent called a few weeks ago to say that an editor at Penguin wanted to buy my new novel, The Wishing Hill, I literally had to lie down. Otherwise, I might have fallen out of my chair. After all, I've been waiting for this call for 25 years.

How did it take me so long to publish a novel? And why was this novel chosen, but not one of the other half dozen my loyal agent sent out?

I don't really know. I was doing what all writers do, really: I was writing fiction around the edges of my life. I've been married (twice). I've had children (three of my own, plus two stepchildren.) I've done some traveling. I've renovated old houses and summer cottages. I've made a good living as a nonfiction writer.

Despite having so many people to love and things to do in my life, however, I never stopped trying to write a novel good enough for an editor to say, “Hey. I want to publish that.” I got so frustrated with the wait that I finally published my own novel, Sleeping Tigers, just a few weeks before I got the call about Penguin wanting to buy The Wishing Hill. I'm delighted that not just one, but two of my novels, will now be in print. To those of you longing to do the same, I hope it takes you less time than it did me. Meanwhile, here are a few tips for outlasting the rejection letters:

Watch Reality TV
Shows like American Idol or So You Think You Can Dance can be just the antidote you need to a crisis in confidence. That single mother with the lip ring, the doughy girl who thought she'd never be a dancer, and the guy with the cowboy hat all have talent. But, just like writers, they have to hit the audience and judges at the right time to win the gold ring.

If You're Writing, You're a Writer
Lots of people say, “Oh, if I had the time, what a book I could write!” It's true that everyone has great stories to tell—but only a few of us actually write them down and revise them again and again. If you're writing, you're a writer, and you will get better as you go.

Every Rejection Is Just One Person's Opinion
We've all heard the stories about various novels being rejected, like, 800 times, before editors taking them. Every rejection letter is written by just one editor. Tear up the short, nonsensical notes (I once received a rejection that said, “This does not amuse.”) Editors send those out because they have to say something. Keep sending your work out. It can only get published if it's out there.

There Really Is Such a Thing as a Good Rejection
When a friend called recently, despondent because she'd received a rejection letter, I asked her to read it to me. The editor had clearly taken the time to read her novel carefully and had made constructive comments. Even better, the editor said she'd take another look at the novel if my friend rewrote it. There really are editors out there willing to take the time to do that. My advice? Put aside your ego and do it, then send your book back out.

Be Not Afraid of Young Pups
Pick up an issue of Poets & Writers magazine, and you can't help but envy all of the babes-in-arms out there winning fiction contests and earning publishing contracts before they're old enough to need their author photos digitally enhanced. Yeah, well. Some people are talented and lucky, and some of us are talented, but don't get sprinkled with lucky stardust until later in life.

Never Equate Being Published with Being Rich or Happy
What did I do after I sold my first novel? I celebrated, of course—but only after picking my son up from school, throwing in another load of laundry, and doing the supper dishes. The thing about publishing a novel is that it won't make you rich, especially now that advances are lower and publishing companies are paying out in thirds or even fourths. Plus, don't forget to subtract your agent's commission and taxes on earnings.
As for being happy? My contented writer friends were happy before they published their novels. And my writer friends who are unhappy? Yep. They were that way before they published their books, too. Being published really won't change your life, unless you happen to become as well-known as Stephanie Meyer or J.K. Rowling—and my guess is even those two could shop at the local Market Basket for eggs without being recognized. They just drive better cars.

Surround Yourself with People Who Believe that Writing Is Worthwhile
Writing is a long and sometimes lonely business, so it's key to have a constructive writing group, writer friends, and a spouse or partner who believe that the act of creating a story is a worthwhile use of your time. Without my incredibly supportive husband and my LIW (Ladies in Writing) group, with whom I swap not only manuscripts, but stories about rejection letters and agents, children and spouses, I never could have made it through the past 25 years of crafting stories and surviving doubt. They helped me remember that the creative journey itself is worth savoring and sharing.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Why Do Writers Need Readers? Not for the Reason You Might Think.

A few weeks ago, a friend of mine asked if I'd like to participate in his “Books, Authors, and Wine Tasting” event. I had just published my novel Sleeping Tigers, so I said yes. I wasn't expecting to sell any books, really—I hadn't started marketing the novel yet, and this was the kind of event where the authors sit at tables displaying their wares, like a craft fair, while potential readers wander around with glasses of wine.

As I lugged my box of books up the icy driveway that night, part of me was longing to be at home, sacked out on the couch and reading or watching TV. Imagine my surprise, then, when one woman, and then another, and then a third—twelve in all—found my table and excitedly said, “This is the book I was looking for!” as she picked up a copy of Sleeping Tigers and, miraculously, bought it.

“Really?” I asked in shock.

One of the women explained that there were two book clubs attending the event, and the members had all agreed to read my novel. Then she leaned forward and confided, “I've had breast cancer, too. That's why I want to read your book.”

She told me her story, then, of her diagnosis and surgery, of her recovery and good fortune to have survived the ordeal. Then she walked away, my book in one hand, a glass of wine in the other, held aloft like a torch.

The stories that many of the women told me as they stopped by my table lingered with me for a long time. We talked about breast cancer and motherhood, travel and books, husbands and jewelry, among other things. Afterward, as I toted my empty cardboard box back to the car, I was reminded again why being a writer is the most spectacular pursuit in the world: as you share your own stories with others, readers share their lives with you in return.

Of course there is a part of every writer that longs to be on the New York Times bestseller list. We would all love to make enough money from writing to put our kids through college, or even to put a dent in the grocery bill. More important than that, though, is our longing to connect with readers on an emotional level. Hearing someone say “I loved your book” is a great thing, but it's even better when a reader takes the time to say why: “My best friend is like your main character, only she's a tap dancer,” or, “You made me laugh because my mother used to cut my hair like that, too.”

After I wrote The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, a memoir about growing up with a Navy father so obsessed with gerbils that he started raising them, I was stunned to discover how many readers had parents who were chain smokers. It was equally surprising to me how many people grew up with fathers who raised animals. I heard from one reader whose father hatched parrots in the basement, and another whose dad had tropical fish tanks in every single room of the house. Now, three years after that book was published, I still correspond with a thirteen year-old reader who is as passionate about horses and reading as I was at that age, as well as a woman in California who by now feels like a sister to me.

The point is that writers lead solitary lives. I work in a barn behind my house, usually in a flannel shirt and sweatpants. I finally get dressed and put on makeup (sometimes) when it's time to collect my son from school. Otherwise, I see few people and live inside my head, my fingers spinning stories on my laptop, never knowing if my plots and characters and settings will ever reach anyone beyond my best friends.

For most writers, every book takes months, even years, to write. We don't know how, or even if, that book will ever be published in the end, but something compels us to keep going. That “something” is the reader. In this age when so many bookstores have gone under and few books are reviewed in print, book bloggers and social media have become our lifelines. They let us reach readers, and we are forever grateful that they exist. Meanwhile, we'll keep seeking avenues to meet readers in person, especially the ones who aren't afraid to carry a glass of wine around as they shop for books.

We write, because we want to open our hearts and share our stories with you. We hope you'll do the same with us.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Maybe Private School is Cheaper than Ritalin

I was eating lunch when I got a text from my youngest son today. “95 on Spanish quiz!” he wrote.

Ironically, at that very moment I was catching up on the New York Times, where I stumbled upon the January 28 article, “Ritalin Gone Wrong” by L. Alan Sroufe, a professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Minnesota. The point of his article was that we all need to wake up and question why three million children in this country take drugs for attention problems, despite the fact that “no study has found any long-term benefit of attention-deficit medication on academic performance, peer relationships or behavior problems.”

Wait. What?

I wanted to weep with relief—and frustration. Where was this article five years ago, when I really needed it?

You see, my youngest son was one of those fidgety boys whose teachers were always eager to share his flaws with me: “He never listens.” “He built the wrong kind of gingerbread house.” “He never remembers his homework.” “He can't sit still.” “He asks too many questions.” Or, my personal favorite, “He has potatoes in his ears.”

It's true that my son is active. If there's a high surface, you can bet he's on it. These days he spends most of his free time at skate parks and doing parkour. In his public elementary school, he was put on a 504 plan at my insistence because his teachers couldn't seem to figure out that keeping him in for recess was a bad idea.

“We've tried punishing him by keeping him inside,” one of the teachers said, “but the punishment has no impact. He pays even less attention than before.” Thank you, Sherlock.

This was the same teacher, by the way, who gave a power point presentation during parents' night that left me so bored that I started fiddling with things on my son's desk. I ended up accidentally knocking a stack of books to the floor and got that “apple doesn't fall far from the tree” look.

My son was bright but his grades in school were dull: A's in the subjects he liked, C's in classes he found tedious. He forgot his homework or didn't bother to do it. He lost things.

“It's ADHD and EDD,” another of his elementary school teachers assured me—while standing in the hallway at a school concert. “Medicate him and he'll be an A student.”

Frightened by the accumulating alphabet of pathologies, I took my son to a professional who specializes in testing for educational disabilities and sat in the waiting room with the door ajar. I fell asleep listening to the tester's droning voice as she had him do repetitive tasks to see if he had an attention disorder. Big surprise: he did.

Except, that is, outside of school. At home, he built the Taj Mahal out of Legos by himself, fashioned a go-kart out of a skateboard strapped to a leaf blower, and talked at great length about concepts like parallel universes. In the driveway, he would try tricks on his scooter for hours at a time until he perfected them. He loved helping his grandmother with her computer. His summer camp counselors said there was nobody more enthusiastic about hiking, canoeing, and dissecting owl pellets.

The teachers and the tester sent me to a psychiatrist, so that my son could be evaluated further for ADHD. The psychiatrist, a lovely young man with lots of degrees but no kids of his own, was so neat and tidy that he arranged pens by color on his desk. He chatted with my son and invited him to make paper airplanes. The psychiatrist spent a long time getting the creases just right on one paper airplane.

My son, meanwhile, built six really gnarly planes, weighing them down at the nose with paper clips and bending the wings in various ways so that the planes could fly in spirals or circles or shoot straight across the room, as one did—right into the psychiatrist's tender temple. After spending less than an hour with my son, the psychiatrist wrote a prescription for a stimulant that would help him focus in school “and rein in his behavior problems.”

“Should I give it to him on a weekend to see how it goes?” I asked.

The psychiatrist waved a hand. “No need. This is very mild. It'll be fine.”

Luckily, I ignored this advice and gave the drug to my son on a Saturday. It was a nightmare. Or, rather, it was my son's nightmare: he spun in circles, couldn't sleep, and said monsters were coming in the window.

We took him off the drug. We made him finish his public elementary school
through Grade 6, then tried our regional public middle school—the same one my older children had loved. It was a disaster. My son had classes of over 30 students apiece and, guess what? No hands-on activities and definitely no recess. He began hiding rather than get on the bus.

What could we conclude, but that our son was defective? At wit's end, my husband and I talked about another psychiatrist and different drugs. What stopped me from doing this wasn't any scholarly article—though I read everything I could find—but our babysitter, a college kid who had been put on Adderall in high school and taken himself off it after three years.

“The thing is,” the babysitter said, “I never knew whether it was me or the drug thinking, and after a while I felt like I'd never learn how to study if I had to depend on the drug.”

Finally I decided to abandon the public school and look at alternatives. We considered home schooling, Catholic school, a farm school, even a year at sea. We ended up in a tiny Montessori School where students did academic work at their own pace, had recess at least once a day, and spent a lot of time building things. Voila. My son was happy. It was so instant and complete a transformation that I had to keep pinching myself, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

It never did. “We love your son's creativity, his humor, and the way he thinks outside the box,” his math teacher told me. “He's a joy to have in class.”

No teacher had ever said that to me before. About my other children, yes, but not about this one. I adore my youngest son—he is funny, creative, witty, smart, daring, graceful, and loving. But I worried about him constantly, because I never thought I would see him succeed in school.

We had two blissful years at that Montessori School. Then what? In eighth grade, my son visited the public high school and was adamant about it not being the right place for him. This time, we decided to listen.

It was frightening to look at private high schools. My husband and I went to
public school, as did our four older children. We aren't wealthy; if we used our son's college fund for private high school, what would we use to pay for college? On the other hand, I felt certain that his best shot at getting into a college and doing well there was to prepare him beforehand.

Oddly, our son passed the private school entrance exams with flying colors. (Or maybe not so oddly: he has always stepped up to the plate when something matters to him.) When his test scores led him to be admitted to a small day school of his choice, I was joyful—but nervous that he wouldn't be able to handle things.

At first it seemed I might be right. This was a prep school, a very academic one, with lots of highly focused, talented kids who were diligent about homework, played sports, and were already talking about college. When our son had so-so first trimester grades, I had that knee-jerk reaction that all parents of children with attention issues have: was this the time for Ritalin or Adderall? Had we reached the end of the line, the point where our son's gifted intelligence and creativity could no longer compensate for his attention issues? I still hadn't gotten over the opinion of the experts that my son needed a drug to fix his brain.

This time, a friend came to the rescue. “We were told that it takes six months to get used to your new village in Africa as a Peace Corps volunteer,” she reminded me. “Maybe you should give him that long to get used to high school.”

So we waited. After all, our son might not be getting A's, but he was happy. He joined the cross country team and came home excitedly talking about his Western Civilization and physics classes. “Those teachers really should be on Jeopardy, Mom, they're so smart,” he said.

Now, at the close of second trimester, he is getting A's and B's. Why? Because the classes are small and calm. The teachers are keen to give him extra help. So are the other students. And, most importantly, his intellectual curiosity is on fire.

In “Ritalin Gone Wrong,” Dr. Sroufe concludes that attention disorders are likely not genetic at all, but the result of various environmental factors that demand further study. He believes strongly—as do I—that every child has such a unique profile made up of chemistry, personality, and environmental influences that “there will never be a single solution for all children with learning and behavior problems.”

I know there are children for whom psychotropic medications are literally life savers. But the point of telling my story is this: if you're worried about your child's focus in school, examine his learning environment to make sure it's the best fit. Your child needs to be learning in a place that will support his strengths rather than view him as a problem. For children who are bright or anxious, active or inattentive, simply changing how and where they learn can make all the difference.

Making the leap to a private school setting isn't an easy leap financially, but there are alternatives worth investigating. Charter schools are free and are often Montessori-based, with smaller classrooms and more hands-on experiences. Some schools with religious affiliations may also provide you with an affordable alternative and a smaller, calmer environment where teachers are as invested in your child's individuality as they are in test scores.

Listen to your instincts. If your child is telling you that school is a bad place for him, then it probably is. Consult the teachers and experts, sure, but make your own experience with your child the biggest part of the equation when figuring out solutions. You know your child better than any doctor or therapist does, or ever could.

Consider, too, Dr. Sroufe's final comments as you ponder your child's future: “...the illusion that children's behavior problems can be cured with drugs prevents us as a society from seeking the more complex solutions that will be necessary. Drugs get everyone—politicians, scientists, teachers and parents—off the hook. Everyone except the children, that is.”