Author Solutions, authors, book marketing, self publishing, writing

Will shorter attention spans and smaller screens impact the books we write?

Photo Illustration by C. J. Burton for The Wall Street Journal

Photo Illustration by C. J. Burton for The Wall Street Journal

Earlier this month, the Wall Street Journal, ran an interesting article titled, The Age of Bite-Size Entertainment, with the subtitle, As the world goes mobile, get ready for more movies, books and music that can be snacked on in a single sitting.

In the opening paragraphs, the writer made these observations.

When soap operas “All My Children” and “One Life to Live” come back to life online later this month, episodes will run for 30 minutes, about half as long as the hourlong blocks that ran on broadcast television for most of the shows’ 40-year run. Why? Because they’re likely to be watched on the go.

Everyone is talking about the binge-viewing craze, but as people increasingly consume TV, movies, books and music on mobile devices, briefer is better. Shorter formats “are in-betweeners, the cream in the middle of the Oreo,” says Jeffrey Katzenberg, chief executive of DreamWorks Animation.

Some of the biggest forces in entertainment are rushing out bite-size portions, not just to adapt to mobile technology but to test the appetite for heartier versions. If a serialized e-book catches fire, publishers will print the novel. A short film that goes viral on YouTube can lead to a feature film or television series. A well-received EP might prompt an album.

I have to admit before this article I had not given much consideration to whether this trend would impact the way we write books. Will we have to develop characters and plots more quickly?  Will the best writers be those who can write the best chapters and then string those together into a book, rather than outline a great book and then write the chapters to fit the outline? In a media and image driven culture, will dialogue become even more important when writing a book?

These are just some of the questions I have been thinking about in light of this article.  At this point, I don’t have any answers, but I wanted to know what you think. Use the comment section to offer your opinions and let me know if you have started writing differently to fit a shorter format.

Some of the biggest forces in entertainment are rushing out bite-size portions, not just to adapt to mobile technology but to test the appetite for heartier versions

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How to avoid writing badly.

For many years of my career, I was a creative director at an ad agency and one thing I would tell the writers on my team is we do not work for a deli. We are not paid by the pound or volume we write. In fact, many times when they would bring me copy for an ad, I would ask them to go back and  take 30% of the words out of what they wrote and see if it hurt the communication. In almost every case, the communication was improved by using fewer words.  I think authors of books would find the same exercise helpful. Even though books are not bound by the time and page restrictions of advertising, writing with brevity and clarity can actually make the writing more powerful.

The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying.- Ben Yagoda

Writing for stories

Learning to write well takes work, but this book can help.

Apparently, I am not the only one who holds that point of view. This weekend, the Wall Street Journal ran a column written by Ben Yagoda, English professor at the University of Delaware. He is the author of How to Not Write Bad: The Most Common Writing Problems and the Best Ways to Avoid Them,” to be published this week.

In the article, he uses an example from his classroom that illustrates the challenges many aspiring writers face today. Here’s excerpt.

My students can’t really handle writing “well.” At this point in their writing lives, that goal is too ambitious. I propose a more modest aim: not writing badly.

Take this sentence, adapted from a restaurant review by a student who was roughly in the middle of the pack in terms of ability: “Walking in the front door of the cafe, the vestiges of domesticity are everywhere regardless of a recent renovation.”

In just 19 words, it provides an impressive selection of current widespread writing woes: dangling modifier (“vestiges” didn’t walk in the front door), poor word choice (“vestiges,” “domesticity,” “regardless”), excessive prepositions (four in all) and an underappreciated but pervasive ill, a weak sentence-subject (“vestiges”).

The fact that someone would write such a sentence in an advanced college class is generally attributed to deficiencies in K-12 education. I don’t doubt that’s a valid criticism, but two other factors are equally important and a bit simpler to address

He goes on to offer some reasons why he thinks writing is a challenge today and one suggestion of what we can do about it. In his words,

Young people don’t read enough edited prose. Malcolm Gladwell has popularized the notion that, in order to become an outstanding practitioner in a discipline, you need to devote to it roughly 10,000 hours of practice. If you’ve done that much reading—not including text messages, emails and status updates—you will probably have absorbed a sufficient sense of punctuation, diction and style so as not to perpetrate a sentence such as the one above.

The second thing is that the author of that sentence tried to write “well.” Trying to create a complex sentence led to the dangling modifier. Trying to use fancy words led to misusing “vestiges,” “domesticity” and “regardless.”

This desire to “write well” is a big reason why so much writing fails to connect with and hold the writer.  Again in his words:

The road to not writing badly starts with simplifying and clarifying. What was the author trying to express? The nub of it was that when you’re in the cafe, you notice a lot of homey stuff, and that this is surprising, or at least interesting enough to mention, because of the recent renovation. So the way to start is just by saying that as precisely as you can. Something like this: “The cafe was remodeled last year, but lots of homey touches are still evident.”

What about your writing? Once you have a draft, do you go back through and see if you can say what you want to say with fewer words or more precise words? It is how to not write bad.

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What is the most important thing for non-fiction authors: Write with clarity.

I think it is a daunting task to write a book on how to write well, yet there are volumes of such books published each year. Few become classics, like The Elements of Style, but there is a new book published today that I think is worth noting. The title is Good Prose: The Art of Nonfiction.  It is written by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd and in the description of the book, the publisher makes this claim, …Good Prose—like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style—is a succinct, authoritative, and entertaining arbiter of standards in contemporary writing, offering guidance for the professional writer and the beginner alike. This wise and useful book is the perfect companion for anyone who loves to read good books and longs to write one.Good Prose Cover

Time will tell if this volume holds up to that claim, but the sections I have read are quite good. Here are some of the statements I found particularly insightful. Some of these excerpts will also featured in an article in the Wall Street Journal’s weekend edition.

  •  To write is to talk to strangers. You want them to trust you. You might well begin by trusting them. No doubt you know some things that the reader does not —why else presume to write?—but it helps to grant that the reader has knowledge unavailable to you. This isn’t generosity; it is realism.
  • Good writing creates a dialogue between writer and reader, with the imagined reader at moments questioning, criticizing, and sometimes, you hope, assenting. What you “know” isn’t something you can pull from a shelf and deliver. What you know in prose is often what you discover in the course of writing it, as in the best of conversations with a friend—as if you and the reader do the discovering together.
  • Beginnings are an exercise in limits. You can’t make the reader love you in the first sentence or paragraph, but you can lose the reader right away. You don’t expect the doctor to cure you at once, but the doctor can surely alienate you at once, with brusqueness or bravado or indifference or confusion. There is a lot to be said for the quiet beginning.
  • Meek or bold, a good beginning achieves clarity. A sensible line threads through the prose; things follow one another with literal logic or with the logic of feeling. Clarity isn’t an exciting virtue, but it’s a virtue always, and especially at the beginning of a piece of prose. Some writers seem to resist clarity, even to write confusingly on purpose. Not many would admit to this.
  • For many other writers, clarity simply falls victim to a desire to achieve other things, to dazzle with style or to bombard with information. It’s one thing for the reader to take pleasure in the writer’s achievements, another when the writer’s own pleasure is apparent. Skill, talent, inventiveness, all can become overbearing and intrusive. The image that calls attention to itself is often the image you can do without.
  •  Sometimes the writer who overloads an opening passage is simply afraid of boring the reader. A respectable anxiety, but nothing is more boring than confusion.
  • You can’t tell it all at once. A lot of the art of beginnings is deciding what to withhold until later, or never to say at all. Take one thing at a time. Prepare your readers, tell everything they need to know in order to read on, and tell no more.

For many other writers, clarity simply falls victim to a desire to achieve other things, to dazzle with style or to bombard with information

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Hey, wait a minute. Print books may not be dead.

WSJ logoThis past weekend, the Wall Street Journal, ran an article titled, Don’t Burn Your Books—Print Is Here to Stay, with the subtitle, The e-book had its moment, but sales are slowing. Readers still want to turn those crisp, bound pages.

I was fascinated to see such a claim because a year ago I did an interview and predicted that e-book growth would slow and print would still be a significant part of book purchases. The reporter was actually quite surprised and even said he disagreed with me. Now I admit my claim was not based on exhaustive research or statistics, but rather observing my habits and other readers who I know. Yes I do read e-books, but for me, certain books were best experienced in print. So while I have downloaded a number of books, I have also continued to purchase print books.

The author of this essay, Nicholas Carr, was basing his claims on more substantial evidence than his own reading habits, but offer some compelling arguments. Here is a quick summary.

  1. A Pew Research Center survey released last month showed that the percentage of adults who have read an e-book rose modestly over the past year, from 16% to 23%. But it also revealed that fully 89% of regular book readers said that they had read at least one printed book during the preceding 12 months. Only 30% reported reading even a single e-book in the past year.
  2. The Association of American Publishers reported that the annual growth rate for e-book sales fell abruptly during 2012, to about 34%. That’s still a healthy clip, but it is a sharp decline from the triple-digit growth rates of the preceding four years.
  3. A 2012 survey by Bowker Market Research revealed that just 16% of Americans have actually purchased an e-book and that a whopping 59% say they have “no interest” in buying one.
  4. From the start, e-book purchases have skewed disproportionately toward fiction, with novels representing close to two-thirds of sales. Digital best-seller lists are dominated in particular by genre novels, like thrillers and romances.
  5. E-books, may turn out to be just another format—an even lighter-weight, more disposable paperback. That would fit with the discovery that once people start buying digital books, they don’t necessarily stop buying printed ones. In fact, according to Pew, nearly 90% of e-book readers continue to read physical volumes. The two forms seem to serve different purposes.

    Print books seem to be holding their own in many genre.

    Print books seem to be holding their own in many genre.

Only time will tell what formats will dominate, but if you read the full article and read the comments, you will see this topic creates some spirited debate. The most important implication for me is that authors should not abandon print as they think about going to market unless they are publishing very specific genre fiction books. Print should still be part of your go-to-market strategy.

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Author Solutions, authors, Editing, helpful hints, Indie book publishing, self publishing, writing

How using a “commonplace” book can make you a better writer.

In the weekend edition of the Wall Street Journal, author, Danny Heitman, wrote a helpful article titled. A Personal Trove of Prose.  Heitman is a columnist for the Baton Rouge Advocate, is the author of “A Summer of Birds: John James Audubon at Oakley House.  

In this piece, Heitman suggests there is great value for all writers having a “commonplace” book.  According to Heitman,  a commonplace book is a small journal for recording favorite passages gleaned from personal reading. The idea is that these snippets, transcribed for posterity, might spark some insights for one’s own writing.

Commonplace books answered a practical need in days of old, when writing down a cherished line from a work of prose or poetry was perhaps the easiest way to remember it. The commonplace book derived its name from the ideal of a “common place” where useful ideas or arguments might be gathered.

Technology has changed where this might take place.  Now in place of a physical book, you may capture passages on a laptop or a tablet, but the principle is the same. If you want to be a great writer and improve your craft, read great writers and use them for inspiration. Also, examine closely what is it that captivates you about a particular text. Is it the use of specific words or the way something is described?  Or is it the sentence or paragraph structure that held your attention?

The point is a commonplace book allows you to go-to-school on how to write well, without ever attending a class. Heitman cites a particular writer and text that he wrote in his commonplace book and how it inspired him.

Technology may change where you keep your commonplace book, but it seems most great authors have one.

Some years ago, I fell under the spell of this passage from “Some Notes on River Country,” Eudora Welty’s travelogue about the Natchez Trace: “A place that ever was lived in is like a fire that never goes out. It flares up, it smolders for a time, it is fanned or smothered by circumstance, but its being is intact, forever fluttering within it, the result of some original ignition. Sometimes it gives out glory, sometimes its little light must be sought out to be seen, small and tender as a candle flame, but as certain.”

I plucked the passage from Welty’s essay and placed it in my commonplace book, where it quietly haunted me on repeated readings, forcing me to think about how the history of a place continues to resonate through time. Welty’s words eventually became the prologue for a small book I wrote about a particular stretch of woods where the bird artist John James Audubon spent an eventful summer of his career.

For years, I have followed this practice, but until I read this article, I did not have a name for it. Do you have a commonplace book? If not, I would encourage you to start one.  If you do, perhaps you could share how you have used it by leaving a comment on this blog post.

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4 important things all authors can learn from Seth Godin’s latest publishing plans

Last week, Seth Godin, author, thought leader and publishing innovator announced he was returning to his traditional publisher, Portfolio, to publish his next three books. At the same time, he was launching a new experiment using Kickstarter to measure interest among his followers for his new book.  The text from the Wall Street Journal article that covered this announcement is copied below.  It is worth the read.

…his hybrid approach—which essentially supplements his publisher’s efforts with his own promotional work—could well become an industry template because it eliminates much of the uncertainty for booksellers and publishers deciding which titles to bet on.Godin has long been one creating new models for publishing..

I find this change in direction a bit surprising and also instructive to any author thinking putting a book in the market in the new world of publishing. Here’s some of things I think we can all learn from this latest development.

Seth Godin returns to his traditional publisher.

  1. A big platform does not always guarantee book sales–Even with Godin’s following, some of his self published books struggled to achieve the sales he hoped for. It wasn’t because of a lack of effort or even publicity, but readers purchasing habits are hard to predict. I find at times, first time authors believe if they do everything they read, it guarantees success as if selling books is like a math problem. Now that doesn’t mean you should not follow sage marketing advice, build a platform and get creative in your marketing efforts, but it doesn’t mean you will always have big sales.
  2. Being an author is as much about the journey as the destination–Despite this change of strategy by Godin, I don’t think he has failed in any way. His decisions and risk taking have helped fuel discussion and debate about how authors and publishers and readers and agents will relate in this new world. If you only measure your impact as an author by book sales, you miss the point. A book gives you a platform from which you can impact people’s lives. That is what makes becoming an author such a worthwhile pursuit.
  3. Publishers and authors will share the risk together going forward–Whether it is through self publishing or through ideas like Godin’s current Kickstarter plan, authors and publishers are each going to have some skin in the game when it comes to bringing books to market. The days of publishing companies putting up all the money are likely gone except for a few exceptional authors.
  4. Creativity is still one of our most valuable resources–Godin has always been willing to try new things and been very creative about how he promotes his books. We can all learn from that. Take some risks. Some will work. Some will not. That’s OK as long as you don’t take a second mortgage to promote your book. And when in doubt, remember point number two in this post.

From the Wall Street Journal:

Giving Book Readers a Say

Seth Godin Returns to Old Publisher, but Measures Fan Interest Via Kickstarter

By JEFFREY A. TRACHTENBERG

Seth Godin, the best-selling business author who jettisoned his longtime publisher Portfolio in August 2010 in favor of selling his books directly to his readers, is now returning to Portfolio and will publish three new titles in January.

Bloomberg NewsAuthor Seth Godin says testing reader interest could reduce risks.

But Mr. Godin, a marketing iconoclast known for titles like “Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable,” is taking an unorthodox path. A champion of new approaches to business, Mr. Godin decided to test online whether readers would be interested in his new books before the works actually hit the shelves, a decision that he says could make publishing and selling books considerably less risky in the future.

For Mr. Godin, his hybrid approach—which essentially supplements his publisher’s efforts with his own promotional work—could well become an industry template because it eliminates much of the uncertainty for booksellers and publishers deciding which titles to bet on.

“The pressure on the bookstore and the publisher is to pick stuff that will work,” said Mr. Godin. “I’m saying ‘Hey, Mr. Bookstore Owner, the world has spoken. There are lots of people talking about these books.’ “

Mr. Godin began his publishing experiment in June on Kickstarter, a website that enables people to solicit funds from individual investors. Before agreeing to his new deal with Portfolio, an imprint of Pearson PSO -0.50%PLC’s Penguin Group, Mr. Godin hoped to gauge interest from readers in the three new projects he had in mind. To potential backers, he presented a variety of pledge packages—that is, different levels of financial support for the projects bring perks for individuals, such as previews of the books and copies autographed by the author.

The lead title he offered is “The Icarus Deception,” which he describes online as looking at “how our economy rewards people who are willing to stand up and stand out.” There is also an illustrated book for adults titled “V is for Vulnerable” adapted from one section of “Icarus,” and a compendium of previous writings.

The Kickstarter campaign began on June 18 at 5:50 a.m. By 8:15 a.m., he’d reached his pledge goal of $40,000. By the end of the next day, he had exceeded his personal goal of pledgers signing up for 10,000 copies.

Mr. Godin’s followers continue to sign on to the Kickstarter campaign. As of Sunday at 1 p.m., the pledges totaled $232,000. Since the pledge window remains open until July 17, the total could move substantially higher.

Addressing the response to his new project, Mr. Godin, said, “What this shows is that if you build a tribe, you can use it to calmly build a publishing career that doesn’t involve a roulette wheel experience where you only have a week to succeed.”

Mr. Godin’s experiment comes as publishers and authors alike seek out new ways to build stronger direct ties with readers.

“You have to go direct to consumers today because it’s gotten harder to get attention from general media,” said Dee Dee De Bartlo, a principal in the marketing and publicity firm February Partners. She herself is taking a direct approach in marketing a new title from Rodale Press, “The Starch Solution,” which preaches the benefits of a plant-based diet. Her firm is targeting self-proclaimed vegans on Facebook.

Ms. De Bartlo thinks Mr. Godin’s hybrid approach may appeal to other authors. “It’s hard to convince publishers to take on some authors unless you can prove you have a fan base,” she said. “This is one way to do it.”

After Mr. Godin left Portfolio in the summer of 2010, he launched a joint venture imprint with Amazon.com Inc. AMZN +0.09%called the Domino Project, which published a dozen titles. Among them was Mr. Godin’s “We Are All Weird,” which generated disappointing sales, results Mr. Godin later attributed to his own failure to aggressively promote the book. Late last year Mr. Godin called it quits, writing on his blog that the effort was “not a lifelong commitment to being a publisher of books.”

As for Portfolio, it believes that the early copies that Mr. Godin sold will generate wider consumer interest when the book is distributed to stores and online.

“Before we published ‘Purple Cow,’ Seth self-published it and sold 10,000 copies,” said Adrian Zackheim, Portfolio’s publisher. “It went on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. The idea is that the core base will start talking about the book, and that will spread to non-core readers.”

Kickstarter Pitch

Author Seth Godin is seeking fan pledges via Kickstarter:

For $4 or more: Pledgers get a digital preview edition of ‘The Icarus Deception.’

$49 or more: four copies of ‘Icarus’ plus access to the preview digital edition.

$111 or more: eight hardcover copies of ‘Icarus'; two signed copies of ‘V is for Vulnerable'; a limited-edition essay collection; digital preview.

$1,150 or more: Mr. Godin will interview each participant and write a brief account of an artistic accomplishment that will be included in ‘Icarus.’ Pledgers also get eight hardcover copies of ‘Icarus'; two signed copies of ‘V is for Vulnerable'; an essay collection; the digital preview.

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Wall Street Journal reports: After 360,000 Copies, Publishers Take Notice

In Friday’s Wall Street Journal, Alexander Alter, told the tale  of self published author, Ms. Garvis Graves, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa. She is just one more example of how self publishing is creating opportunities for authors to be discovered. I have copied the text of the article below, but there are some key points we can all learn from her experience.

1. Rejection can be motivation if you believe in your work. Like many authors, traditional publishers said no to her many times, but that did not deter her from getting her book in the market place. She believed in her work.

2. Pricing has to be part of your marketing strategy. She employed a common strategy today with respect to pricing her book. She came out as a very inexpensive e-book even selling for as low as 99 cents, but that helped her develop a following and get word of mouth started.

3. No matter how good the book, we all need a little help. In her case, Amazon featured the book in a promotion and sold it for 99 cents. That was a key to accelerating her sales, but it wasn’t anything she had control over.

Here’s the full text of the article.

After getting 14 form-letter rejections from literary agents, Tracey Garvis Graves figured there wasn’t a market for her

Author Tracey Garvis Graves self-published her novel which led to a traditional publishing contract

debut novel, a romance about two castaways stranded on a remote tropical island. But she decided to find out for herself.

So last September, Ms. Garvis Graves, a 45-year-old mother of two who lives in a suburb of Des Moines, Iowa, self-published the novel, titled “On the Island,” as an e-book, also making it available for print on demand. She has since sold more than 360,000 copies through Amazon, Apple, Barnes & Noble, Sony, Kobo and other self-publishing platforms.

 Publishers took notice this spring when the book broke into the top 10 on major best-seller lists. Earlier this month, Plume, a Penguin imprint, acquired “On the Island” in a seven-figure, two-book deal. Plume rushed the book into print and is planning a first print run of 400,000 copies for the paperback edition, out July 10.

Ms. Garvis Graves is the latest self-published author to land a high-profile publishing deal. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers paid six figures for “Life’s a Witch,” a self-published series by Brittany Geragotelis that had millions of readers on the website Wattpad. Young-adult fantasy writer Amanda Hocking, who sold 1.5 million copies of her self-published books, got a multimillion-dollar deal with St. Martin’s Press.

Ms. Garvis Graves says she has always been a fan of island survival tales, including the TV show “Lost” and the movies “The Blue Lagoon” and “Cast Away.” In 2010, she had the idea for a novel about a young tutor and her pupil—a teen boy who missed school while being treated for cancer—who get stranded on an island in the Maldives after surviving a seaplane crash. The characters, Anna and T.J., fall in love as they struggle to survive by fishing and scrounging off the limited supplies that wash up from the crash debris (conveniently, Anna’s suitcase is brought in by the tides, carrying island essentials like hair conditioner and a yellow bikini).

It took Ms. Garvis Graves 18 months to write the novel. She got up at 5 a.m. to write for a couple of hours before heading to her job as a human-resources recruiter at Wells Fargo. She sent queries to literary agents, and gathered a string of rejection letters. “I was heartbroken,” she says. “That’s a pretty strong indicator that the premise isn’t working.”

She didn’t expect to sell many copies when she released it herself last fall, priced at $2.99. She sold 100 copies the first month. Soon it was selling a couple of thousand copies a month. Sales spiked this spring after Amazon included the novel in a promotion and discounted it to 99 cents. In April, the novel sold around 140,000 copies and shot up the New York Times, USA Today and Wall Street Journal e-book best-seller lists.

Publishers in Indonesia and Hungary bought foreign rights before Ms. Garvis Graves even landed a literary agent. She signed with Jane Dystel at Dystel & Goderich Literary Management, who has since sold the book in nine more countries. This past May, Temple Hill Productions and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer optioned the movie rights.

Plume bought the book in early June and rushed it into print to capitalize on the online buzz. A print edition was ready 10 days after the deal was signed.

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