Ingram Spark vs. BookBaby vs. CreateSpace

question-mark-background-vectorI was recently asked for the pros and cons of Ingram Spark vs. BookBaby. The answer, I quickly realized, is a complex one, greatly dependent on the particular publishing goals for the book. I also thought that in any decision tree, Amazon’s CreateSpace would have to rate a mention. So what follows is my attempt to delineate the decision tree I would adopt in choosing between these three services, à la Decisions, Decisions; Self-Publishing a Children’s Book, which many of you appreciated.

1. How important are bookstores to your sales strategy?
If NOT VERY, skip to 4.
If VERY, keep reading.

Let’s start out with a reality check. Self-published authors will find it almost impossible to get wide distribution in bookstores. Period. The reasons are legion but boil down to two words: workload and risk. Most self-published authors aren’t represented by distributors that bookstores are already doing business with, and there’s little incentive to slog through the paperwork to set up a new account or to take your books on consignment and handle you outside the system. Also, as a book buyer, you have thousands of titles per season from the top publishers and distributors to contend with. You don’t have the time to read many samples. Why gamble that this self-published author has taken the pains and expense to ensure a professional-standard book when you can choose from thousands of titles that have been vetted by professional editors, designers, and copyeditors?

But with this caveat front and center, bookstores might be a valid cornerstone of some self-publishers’ sales strategies. A good example would be if you have a book with a very specific market that can be reached through very specific bookstores. Take Katy Pye‘s Tracking the Flash: My Lighthouse Travel Log. Where would you sell that? Gift shops attached to lighthouses, or bookstores in the neighboring towns. If you’re a buyer in one of those stores, are you so swamped with lighthouse books that you don’t have the time to look at a self-published title? Probably not. You’d probably at least take a peek at something so specifically lighthouse-y.

You may also decide for emotional reasons that getting into bookstores is important to you. It’s perfectly valid to feel that if you’re going to go to all this trouble to write, fund, and publish a book, you’re going to enjoy a book launch party and the pride of having your book on shelf in your local bookstore(s). Depending on your relationship(s) with your local bookstore(s), this might be a real possibility and may even lead to a reasonable number of sales. Amanda Conran, for example, was guaranteed a launch party at Book Passage in Corte Madera, for the excellent reason that she works there. She sold around 120 copies of The Lost Celt on her big day. That’s about half the total sales of most self-published titles, if you believe what you can google, which is that the average self-published book sells fewer than 250 copies in a lifetime. This number shows up everywhere, most respectably in Forbes, but the original source is never given, so imbibe this factoid at your own risk.

In any case, if for either of the reasons above you decide that bookstore sales are important to you, then I would drop CreateSpace right off the bat. Most independent bookstores will not knowingly take a CreateSpace book. They hate Amazon that much, and Amazon doesn’t help out by playing ball either: CreateSpace offers roughly half the discount (read profit margin) that bookstores are used to getting from other distributors and publishers.

Ingram, on the other hand, already has a relationship with just about every bookstore in the USA and an established (and accepted) discount schedule. Within the industry, Lightning Source, Ingram’s original print-on-demand offering, was thought to provide much better production quality than CreateSpace—better color handling, more trim sizes, fewer typographic anomalies, etc. Spark has probably inherited some of this perception as a halo effect, even though its production process is different. (Lightning Source accepts printer-ready PDFs, forcing someone to pay attention to typography—or so one would hope; Spark, like CreateSpace, uses a “meat grinder”—an automatic formatting system that, in CreateSpace’s past, at least, was prone to errors.)

The Amazon stigma, if you’re targeting bookstores, is a compelling argument for favoring Ingram Spark. But how do you choose between Spark and BookBaby?

2. Do you want someone to produce your book for you?
If you want help, keep reading.
If you think you can do it yourself, skip to 3.

As Ingram wholesales for other book producers, you can benefit from Ingram’s bookstore relationships without producing your book with Ingram. BookBaby is a popular option.

When authors gush about their experiences with BookBaby, and quite a few of them do, it’s usually because BookBaby makes everything so easy. You pay them; they take care of it. Then, once your books are produced and in all the promised sales channels, they are out of the picture. No ongoing royalties, etc. It’s a straight “for fee” service.

They are credited with an excellent support staff who actually answer the phone. They provide easy, one-shop access to professional book designers and editors. (BARNT BARNT, that’s my alarm system blaring: for a professional-quality book, you need both of these services!) If I wasn’t a publisher myself and didn’t have easy access to designers and editors, etc., I’d probably consider using BookBaby.

3. Do you think you can produce a book yourself?
On the other hand, some self-publishers don’t need BookBaby’s menu of services. Some are already working with editors. I’ve been retained by a few of them, and these clients are a determined bunch who want to be more than authors—they want control of the entire publication process. (I actually brought one an invitation to submit from a traditional publisher, and he turned it down because he wanted to retain all creative control.) They want to pick their own illustrators and/or designers and have control of the cover art. They relish the challenge of marketing. They are digitally adept enough to deal with the meat grinders without suffering dangerous spikes in blood pressure. If you have your stable of professionals in hand and don’t need much additional production help, Ingram Spark is the most direct route into the Ingram database. As Ingram is America’s largest book wholesaler, that’s the catalog most independent bookstores will use when placing an order.

Be very clear that Ingram Spark, BookBaby, and nearly all similar services offer production, fulfillment, and easy ordering of your books, but although they use the word “distribution,” they are not full-service distributors. Industry distributors like Perseus and Independent Publishers Group have sales forces. In theory at least, their sales reps will go out there and plug your book. (In reality, their sales forces have thousands of books they can plug; they will plug what they think they can sell.)

Ingram and BookBaby, et al., do not offer sales services. They do not sell to the trade. YOU have to do the work to get a bookstore to place an order. Although you will be in the Ingram database, that database during any given season includes thousands upon thousands of titles, so unless the bookstore is actively looking for it, your book will not be found.

4. Are you primarily interested in online sales?
Unless you have a very specific target or excellent bookstore relationships (count celebrity or royalty as instant excellent bookstore relationships), most self-publishers will rely primarily on online sales. This is not disabling: independent bookstores now account for less than 10% of all book sales, according to a 2014 article in Forbes. If your intent is to go online-only, the choice comes down to Amazon vs. someone like BookBaby.

BookBaby’s advantages were covered in 2 and they apply whether or not you’re interested in bookstores. Your title will sit in Ingram’s catalog, just in case pigs fly and a bookstore wants to order your book without any prompting; but for the rest, BookBaby will take care of production of the print-on-demand (POD) book and conversion of the e-book, and usher both into the appropriate retail channels, dominated by Amazon for POD, and Kindle for e-books. They’ll charge you a fee for their services, and then you will take all profits minus the cut to your retailers.

Amazon is a little trickier in that not only do you have to handle print book production yourself, you have to handle ebook production also. Even if you are not intimidated by this, there will still be two separate Amazon companies with their own procedures that you’ll have to deal with: CreateSpace for the POD book; and Kindle for the e-book. If you would like your e-book available for every device, you will also have to convert your book into multiple e-book formats and distribute them separately to non-Kindle platforms like iBooks and Kobo.

One plus of persevering and tackling CreateSpace and Kindle yourself is that you can take advantage of Kindle’s Select program. This gives you higher royalties and various marketing perks in exchange for a period of exclusivity—at a minimum, 90 days. Another advantage is that your POD books are directly in the Amazon system. You don’t have to ship books to them; they print them right off their own printers. But one of the most compelling reasons to consider the CreateSpace + Kindle bundle is profit. By not paying the likes of BookBaby, you can invest less in the production of your book. (Although, repeat repeat: I would really urge you to pay for a book designer for the cover, a professional editor, and ideally a separate copyeditor—so any apparent savings may be a false economy.) CreateSpace is also  thought to generally offer lower per-book prices than Ingram Spark, although costs vary with page count and format. When you get into the publishing business, you will be bowled over by how thin the margins are, so any penny saved is a penny earned.

OK, at this point I’m not sure if I’ve bored or depressed you into a stupor or confused you with all the branches of my decision tree, so I’m going to close with one last question:

5. Do you really have to choose between them?
Going back to the original question of whom I would choose, BookBaby or Ingram Spark, and having introduced Amazon as a third candidate myself, here is what I would try if I were a self-publisher with a commercial fiction novel. If, say, I had a romance, or a piece of sci-fi, or a mystery—all genres that do well digitally—and I were a first-time publisher with few professional contacts, I would:

  1. Go to BookBaby and have them help me with design and editing, because, as I hope I’ve made abundantly clear, both are necessary to give your work its best shot, and unless you are yourself from an affiliated field, you might not know what good design and editing is. BookBaby not only gives you access to those services, but their suppliers have been vetted, and from what I can see, BookBaby knows a thing or two about professionalism and design, so “better than nought” as they say in northern England (pronouncing the “nought” as “nowt”).
  2. Have them distribute my POD book, including to Amazon and Ingram. I’ll get the world’s largest online retailer, and the world’s largest bricks-and-mortar wholesaler as sales channels—recognizing that the responsibility for sales (pushing consumers to those channels) falls 100% on me.
  3. Order 100 (more if you’re really brave) print copies and sell them hard to friends and family. Take sample copies into all the independent bookstores within a 50-mile radius (my personal definition of “local”) and try to negotiate consignment deals. Do the math carefully here because you should expect to give away a commission of at least 40%. That may leave you with little profit.
  4. At the very least, negotiate a book launch party with the best independent bookstore within that radius. Work very, very hard at bringing my own crowd, knowing that I will get exactly three members of the public who happened to wander in.
  5. Have lots of photos taken signing books. This is your author’s moment, and most self-published authors will look back and realize they spent a few thousand dollars on it, so suck as much joy out of this marrow as you can.
  6. Have BookBaby hold off on distributing my e-book, but have them hand me a Kindle-ready mobi file.
  7. Go to Kindle Direct Publishing and sign a 90-day exclusivity deal for my e-book to access the Kindle Select program benefits. Make the most of those benefits while I can.
  8. Cancel my Select privileges and revert to a standard Kindle Direct Publishing account once the first 90 days are up.
  9. Go back to BookBaby and ask them to now take the hold off and distribute my e-book to all their e-book channels, other than Amazon.

If you follow this strategy and all goes well, you will have Ingram and Amazon as sales channels, a reasonably professional product with the minimum of head- and heartache, a book launch party so you’ll at least have proud moments and happy memories, direct and consignment sales, the advantages of Kindle Select for your critical three months at launch, and distribution into most other e-book channels after the exclusivity period. I know that BookBaby will hold off on e-book distribution for three months; their reputation for answering their phone and being accommodating held up on personal inspection. And also, I want you to notice one thing: this strategy, if successful, might maximize your chances and even deliver personal satisfaction (a good launch party, as Amanda Conran enthused, is “everything I dreamed of, and more”) but it may not deliver you sales.

Sales is the unicorn. I’ve only ever heard one person in publishing say they know how to ensure it. Not any publisher, nor any editor either. Only one person: James Patterson. For what he has to say, go here. You will have to pay, but that should not surprise you.

Hope this helps!

For more on the publishing game, join me at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference for a one-day Publishing Bootcamp. Or pick my brain while on retreat—I have one space left for my Oct 6-9 Port Orchard writers’ retreat, co-hosted by author and writing coach, Sheila Bender, and five spots open for Oct 9-12. Email me at shirin.bridges@goosebottombooks.com if you’re interested.

In the meantime, enjoy the first days of summer and happy writing!

Shirin

 

 

 

Opportunity knocks?

As I prepare for two upcoming workshops, I’m impressed again by how much the publishing industry has morphed in just the past few months. Publishing has never been so challenging, nor the myriad of options available so overwhelming, and yet the industry has also never been so exciting for brave and innovative authors. The game has changed. The odds are much worse, but the returns are potentially much higher.

Think back for a moment and consider just how much change there’s been. Not all that long ago, if you wanted to read a book you had relatively few options. You could borrow one from a library or from a friend, or you could buy one from a book store. That book store would likely have been an independently owned affair, or at most part of a regional chain. And the books would have been, well, booksPrinted, bound, releasing the tantalizing whiff of new-book smell when you first cracked the spine.

Nowadays, you are probably not buying your books from your local bookstore or borrowing them from your local library. In March 2013, Digital Book World reported that e-retailers had overtaken physical retail stores in sales volume.1 And libraries now have to compete with an explosion of different subscription services accessed at a very low cost through your phone or e-reader. 

In addition, the very definition of “book” has changed. E-books accounted for 20% of all book sales in the first six months of
2015.
2 This isn’t yet the wholesale takeover many people anticipated: in some past projections, e-books were supposed to be outselling print books by now. But 20% is fully one fifth of a multi-billion-dollar market; impressive when you think that ten years ago, no one had even heard of a Kindle or an iPad.

Plus, the days when e-books were the default alternative to the print book are over. Audiobooks are growing strong.3 There is always a delay in publishing stats, so 2014 figures were only released and reported by Publishers Weekly in August 2015, but in that most-recent report on the audiobook industry, the Audiobook Publishers Association reported a jump of 13.5% in U.S. sales dollars, year on year, and a 19.5% increase in U.S. sales units, with total U.S. retail sales of more than $1.47 billion.

And now, coming to a store near you, are print books that do not exist until you order one up. Print-on-demand has already enabled self- and independent-publishers to advertise their titles in online stores and incur production costs only once the book is ordered. Deep in the bowels of Amazon or Ingram, a machine prints and binds that ordered copy and spits it into the mail. Now, closing the circle, print-on-demand is coming “offline.” Espresso Book Machines are coming to the drug store, supermarket, or big box store near you—and, surprisingly, to your local book store also.4 While they are still in the pilot phase, switching partners like square dancers, I am excited by the idea of print-on-demand machines wherever people buy paperbacks. Instead of a rack of maybe twenty titles, you will be able to choose from a list of more than two hundred thousand. Who knows how long the coming of this reality will take, but from title selection to your new book dropping out of the slot would be around five minutes.

But how, you ask, does all of this affect the author? Well, it fundamentally changes the business you are in or trying to get into. Where before there was a publishing path—manuscript,agent, publisher (or if you were a picture book author: manuscript, publisher)—now there is a publishing labyrinth. Should you self-publish, and if so by which of many options? If you choose “traditional” publishing, what kind of publisher? Five years ago, there were:
1. The Big Six as they were called then;
2. Everybody else that 
was big;
3. Small presses;
4. Vanity presses.
Now you need to add to that list reading platforms, digital-first publishers, audiobook publishers, partner or cooperative publishing, and crowd-funded publishing.

All these new options mean a lower barrier to entry. Anybody, and I do mean anybody, can now publish a book with the investment of only a few hours and at most a few dollars. In 2012, according to the latest confirmed figures available from the industry watchdog, Bowker, traditional publishers released around 300,000 titles in the U.S. while non- traditional publishers released more than two million.5 And this does not count the millions of public-domain e-books available. Your book now has to compete against many, many more titles.

Excitingly, a handful of self-publishers have proven that it can be done. Fifty Shades of Grey, first self-published as fan fiction and then as an e-book and via print on demand, famously changed the paradigms of publishing when Random House bought the rightsand sold 70 million copies of the trilogy in nine months.6

The Martian started off equally humbly, being serialized for free on author Andy Weir’s personal website before progressing to a self-published e-book, then to an audiobook that rocketed to the number one spot on Audible—and then, of course, to a print deal with Crown/Random House and a movie with Matt Damon playing the lead.7

This new playing field affects even the largest publishers. It’s been called Blockbuster Syndrome. Publishers now look for every chance to “guarantee” sales: self-published books that are already white hot; big name authors; movie, TV, or video game tie-ins; established series; celebrities who can bring their own audience. How well the book is written is often not the critical factor, and that shows in the advances. Donna Tartt, who went on to win a Pulitzer for The Goldfinch, received a $450,000 advance for her first novel A Secret History, placing her well into the major league for literary debuts;8 but Bill Clinton received $15,000,000 (fifteen million just in case your eyes cannot quite absorb all the zeros) as an advance for My Life.9

Who can blame them? Publishing companies are businesses run for profit and have to be responsible to their shareholders and responsive to the market—us. We are the people who gave James Patterson sales of 300 million copies worldwide,10 while Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, after it had won the Man Booker Prize (which I agree is the mark of “fiction at its finest”), was considered a literary blockbuster at only 225,000 copies in hardback.11

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if good books would find good sales; if good books would rise to the surface despite publishing’s increasingly labyrinthian challenges; and if good books would find their audiences not by marketing muscle but by merit. This raises the question, who is to judge a book’s merit? Well, this is my blog, so let me rephrase: I wish that all books that I would think were good would find good sales.

For strategies and musings on how this might be achieved, I hope you’ll join me for a Publishing Bootcamp at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference on August 7th. Or come discuss it over dinner at one of our fabulous retreats: Port Orchard 6-9 or Port Orchard 10-12; or for those who’d like a longer break, October 6-12. Email me at shirin.bridges@goosebottombooks.com for details.

Until then, happy writing!

Shirin

1.  Digital Book World, March 18, 2013.
2.  Fortune, September 24, 2015.
3.  Publishers Weekly, August 7, 2015.
4.  The Digital Reader, September 2, 2014.
5.  Bowker ISBN Output Report for 2002-2013.
6. Christian Science Monitor, March 2013.
7.  Publishers Weekly, September 11, 2015.
8. The New Criterion, October, 1992.
9. New York Times, April 5, 2008.
10. Business Insider, April 15, 2014.
11. themanbookerprize.com, The Man booker Effect, November 13, 2012.

A real-life glimpse at the power of conferences

As many of you know, I’m enthusiastic about conferences when I teach, calling them the only publishing short cut there is (if you’re not Hollywood celebrity or British royalty). I’m about to pick up this refrain again in  An Author’s Guide to Publishing at Stanford, and Publishing Bootcamp at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. And I got to thinking, how can I prove what I claim?

I decided to diagram some of the relationships I’ve developed because of retreats and conferences—either by meeting somebody directly at a conference, or because somebody who was met by someone else at a conference was eventually introduced to me.  I think you’ll find it heartening to see how many previously unpublished authors got incorporated into this publishing web, and how many times cash and services changed hands.

Now, bear in mind that this is only a small subset of all the wonderful connections I’ve made through conferences and retreats, both in the U.S. and abroad.  I really do believe that retreats and conferences can enrich and propel your writing career as it has mine.

So saying, check out these upcoming West Coast offerings. But be brisk—some of these registrations are closing soon!

Association of Writers and Writing Programs, March 30-April 2

Santa Barbara Writers Conference, June 5-10

Squaw Valley Writers Conference, June 18-25

Napa Valley Writers Conference, July 24-29

Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, August 4-7

Willamette Writers Conference, August 12-14

Write On The Sound, September 30-October 2

Happy writing, retreating, and conferencing!

Shirin

Just in: New writing competition to be James Patterson’s next co-author!

A competition was just announced that will be very appealing to some of you. There are no entry fees, but you must take James Patterson’s video writing course. (I know about this because I took James Patterson’s writing course and, literary snob that I am, I was chagrined to have definitely learnt from it.)

In any case, it’s just been announced that students are eligible to enter a competition to win cash prizes and the chance to be picked as his next co-author. Here are the details. Interviews with his current co-authors are part of the course. It doesn’t look like a bad life if you enjoy writing mysteries. Entries close March 22nd.

For short story writers, Glimmer Train has three competitions closing in February and March: Short Story Award for New Writers; Very Short Fiction; and their Fiction Open. Glimmer Train is one of the few highly respected literary magazines (they usually make it into the annual America’s Best Short Storiesanthology) who actively look for previously unpublished writers.

Last but not least, most writing residencies are likewise closed to new writers, but the Djerassi Resident Artists Program is not. They advertise that they would like to mix emerging and established artists. Residencies are one month room and board, either in a shared Artists’ House with rooms especially designed for writers, or in your own cabin (pictured here), designed to give you visual and audial privacy. Applications close on March 15, 2016 for a residency in 2017.

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A reading fee does not invalidate a competition. Glimmer Train, for example, charges modest reading fees and are very reputable. But for those of you looking for free competitions, here is a searchable list.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Shirin

Shirin’s Chinese New Year Wishes

I’ve been asked by the Asian Festival of Children’s Content to write an article for inclusion in an anthology about past faculty. They’d like the title to be, Shirin’s Wish. This is the closest I’ll ever come to being a Miss World contestant: “Well, I would like to wish for world peace.” But of course, that’s not the wish they’re after. They mean what would I wish for as an author or publisher. “Well, I wish that people, millions of people, would be willing to pay more for books, my books, than for plastic junk.” Whoops, a bit negative?

So, after some thought, here’s a more constructive list. I’ve done some research on how to fulfill these wishes, so if you’re an author with similar wishes, you might find a couple of these links interesting.

My three wishes/Chinese New Year resolutions:

see no evil

 

 

 

 

 

1. I wish new technology didn’t scare me.
This might seem an odd one to start with, but I think it gnaws at the liver of many a writer. Building those authors’ platforms seems to involve wielding an intimidating amount of new technology unless you can pay someone else to wield it for you.

Whatever the marketing plan, the rule of thumb I’ve heard is that you should have the following minimum in social media presence:
— An author’s website at yourname.com.
— A professional Facebook page for you the author, not you the aunt.
— A blog. This is in addition to your website, although it can be part of yourname.com.
— At least one of the following, depending on your audience: a tumblr, pinterest, youtube, linkedin or twitter account.

You may know that shirinbridges.com leads, ehem, here. So here’s resolution #1: After looking around, I’m going to use Squarespace to create a professional, e-commerce-optimized website at my proprietary URL. Their templates are fabulous, and MailChimp is a fan. MailChimp’s own user interface is so well designed, their endorsement reassures me that this won’t be so scary.

I’m also behind on the Facebook front. I have two pages: Goosebottom Books, and Shirin the Author Aunt. This is going to be a problem as the latter is private, and the former will not be relevant as part of a platform for my coming novel. So resolution #2: I’m going to build a Shirin Bridges Author page.

The blog I’m doing, as you can see. Yay! And I’ve tweeted more than twice in 2015, so I’m going to consider that box ticked also. Once I have all my recommended channels up, Resolution #3: Hootsuite should help take away the terrors of ad-hoc social media management. Here’s hoping. (Watch this space for a future review.)

hear no evil

 

 

 

 

 

2. I wish I could generate more income.
Why bother with all the above? Let’s face it. Almost every author would like to generate more income. Not because we’re greedy souls, but because we need to eat to have the energy to hold up a pen.

For many writers, an authors’ platform is about selling more books. But for me, it’s also about promoting my services. I am the author of more than a dozen books, but I don’t live on my royalties. I also edit, mentor, and teach. (By the way, my next editing slot opens up in April. Please drop me a line if you’d like to book it!)

And not only would I like to teach more, I’d also like to teach more at home. In 2015, I was home for more than four consecutive weeks only twice. So resolution #4, I’m going to learn how to offer online classes, whether they are webinars through a service like BigMarker, or one-on-one consultancy packages communing via Zoom or Skype, or facilitated writers groups with manuscript reviews handled by Google Docs or Box. (If you think you might be interested in any of the above, send me an email. I’d especially love to hear any suggestions for topics.)

say no evil

 

 

 

 

 

3. I wish I could find the time to write.
And that brings us to the proverbial third and last wish, the time to write. Every writer wants more of it. Every writer then fritters away what little we have…by staring into the fridge…or suddenly checking our Spam folders.

I write more on retreat than at any other time, even though I live in a pad that’s pretty retreat-y. You really can’t over-estimate the power of being in community with other serious-minded writers. So, I’m going to make 2016 The Year of the Writers’ Retreat. So far, I have six planned. The first two (in March) are already full, but if you’d like to be wait-listed or informed about the four coming up (one in Australia!) please watch the space to the right, or drop me a line.

So those are my wishes. Unlike world peace, or people buying books instead of junk, I can exert some control over their fulfillment. And that, at least, is a self-empowering way to start this Monkey Year.
Now, I’d better start writing that article…

Good luck and prosperity, and happy writing!

Shirin
shirin.bridges@goosebottombooks.com

 

The case for losing the plot.

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As many of you know, every year I conduct publishing workshops and offer consultation to authors and would-be self-publishers.  It seems to me that every year finds its own focus—the new opportunities afforded by digital technology; the creative use of novel promotional and publishing channels; the phenomenon of “digital first” imprints; and if I were to précis the key learnings from last year, the great advantage to authors of learning how to lose the plot.

In 2015, as both workshop participants and myself settled into a numb acceptance that the industry is now changing so rapidly that it’s impossible to know it all up to the moment, the focus moved to what key advantage authors could give themselves that would put them ahead of the curve, regardless of how that curve was moving.  The answer is: knowing how to pitch your book—or more precisely, knowing what you’re pitching.

This is where the plot-losing comes in. In workshop after workshop, when prompted with the question, “tell me about your book,” authors responded by laying out their plot. At a certain point, no matter how good the yarn, you could sense the interest of the rest of the classroom shifting. A plot is not something you can tell. It often takes you 100,000 words to do it justice—that’s why we write the novel. And you don’t have the luxury of taking up twenty reading-hours of your listener’s life to convince them that the plot is great and your book compelling.

So, the first step is to lose the plot entirely. PLOT DESCRIPTIONS BANNED. Play with this idea, and most of you will feel as if you’ve been asked to defend yourself with one hand tied behind your back. It’s a useful analogy. I’m sure I’ve seen this method of martial arts training in some movie somewhere. And don’t worry, as with the training, at some point the hand will be untied; the plot can be brought back in again later.

Sometimes it’s useful to think in genres. That at least takes you one step down from the wide blue sky of plot. Realistically, it’s how book buyers will think of your book. “Where do I shelve it?” The sad news is, a book that doesn’t sit well on any particular shelf, although it might bring pride and joy to the author by being such a unique baby, usually won’t get sold.

Sometimes it’s useful to think in tropes. This is a boy-meets-girl story; this is a coming-of-age story; this is a new-kid-in-school story. Again, it helps your listener rule out many other options to get a quicker grasp on what your book might be about.

Which brings us to the ultimate question, what is your book about? What is it at heart, at its emotional pith?

I’m going to use the novel I’m working on as an example. First, the standard plot answer:

“My book is about a Native American woman in Seattle in the 1860s who meets a Chinese merchant and ends up moving to China. But that’s only the first part of the book. Because then the book follows her granddaughter who grows up in the highest prestige and luxury, and her move from China to Hong Kong as a refugee after the Communist takeover. And then the book follows her granddaughter who grows up thinking she’s very Westernized, but then moves to San Francisco in the 1950s and feels, in the face of racism, very Eastern instead. And then you pick up her granddaughter moving from San Francisco to Seattle, closing the loop, in an attempt to fill a hole that she somehow cannot explain.”

It’s not shoot-me-now boring—I hope. But it’s also, even in this reasonably efficient form, hard to grasp…hard to digest. The best I’d expect would be a tentative, “interesting.”

But what really, is my book about?

I think it’s about dislocation.

“My book is about dislocation—about the absence of belonging. It’s about the loss of place, through the experience of a Native American woman who moves from Seattle to China in the 1860s for love, only to find that love hollow. It’s about the loss of status, through the experience of her granddaughter who flees China to Hong Kong as a refugee, and loses all her landmarks governing how to be. It’s about the loss of identity, through the eyes of her granddaughter emigrating from Hong Kong to San Francisco, for she finds that how she sees herself is not how she is seen. And it’s about the loss of self, through the experience of her granddaughter, our last protagonist, who has never felt as if she belonged, and who goes looking to claim that belonging in one final, drastic act.”

Hopefully all who would have said “interesting” before will still say “interesting.”

Some, I’m sure, will find it equally hard to digest. But some will be more engaged by this description, because it is closer to the heart of the book: because it is closer to its emotion. Emotion. Motivation. Motion. They all have the same root. If you want motion from your listener, if you want him/her to act, you have to tap emotion.

This year, in 2016, my publishing workshops are going to be changing slightly. Learning from the successful workshop I facilitated at Write On The Sound in October, I’m going to include more practical, hands-on, let’s-give-this-a-bash-and-learn-from-each-other time. We’re going to work on no-plot answers to “what’s your book about?” We’re going to work on elevator speeches, and on query letters. We’re going to focus on selling our work, because whether you need to sell it to an agent, or you have self-published and you need to sell a copy to the guy beside you on the bus, at the end of the day, you’re going to have to sell it. And we’re going to look at building the greater author’s platform, because once we know how to pitch it, we can explore the myriad of ways in which we can go out and make that pitch, and build up our own reputations.

All aboard anyone?

Happy writing!

Shirin

The benefits of writing in community

I teach, I speak at writers’ conferences, and I lead writers’ retreats. I’m often asked what the comparative benefits are of each. Well, I’ve just returned from a writers’ retreat in Port Orchard, Washington. A craft or publishing course will give you more instruction. A writers’ conference will give you exposure to more of your peers and a broader range of faculty. But a writers’ retreat—writing in community—has certain advantages that are hard to beat.

1. It gives you a concentrated time to write, in an environment hand-picked to be conducive to writing.

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aPDAgiRmFeyTzrbEi7Dw7sG3xkBKXVmWZ1cGIXd08NIWe were lucky to have plenty of space to work privately or side-by-side, to commune by the fire or collaborate over a table. As one participant said, “the accommodations went a LONG way towards putting me in the right frame of mind to sit down and get some work done.”

2. Being surrounded by other hard-working writers and hearing only the tap-tap-tap of keystrokes does amazing things for productivity. Unlike most of us when we’re out in the real world, being on retreat with writers makes you feel like a writer. For those three or four days, it becomes your principal calling. I heard time and time again that participants got more writing done on this retreat than they had in the preceding year.IMG_9083

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3.  It gives you real relationships with other writers—people writing at your level and struggling with the same challenges; people who may be more established and from whose experience you can learn; people who may be professional editors, writing coaches, and publishers—all contacts that any aspiring writer should want to make, all gathered around a table or a fire once a day, commenting and collaborating on work.

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It is a great benefit of writers’ conferences that they also expose you people, but on retreat, you are a small and tight-knit family for three days. The nature of the bond is qualitatively different. You can’t have the dinners we had together and not feel permanently connected.

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In the end, the proof is in the pudding. We had one participant tell us that she was on the point of quitting for good, but with the help of all the collegial interactions, she’d landed on a new arc and was now re-motivated and back on track. We had another thank us for getting her out of the doldrums. And another excited by new project ideas that had come to her. Where writers gather with warmth and wine, the muses come visiting.

So, still basking in the rosy glow of a great retreat…wait, cue the sunset shot…

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…I’d like to thank my fellow house-elves for making this possible. Wendy for the superb catering, and Robyn for keeping us all sorted and sane.

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If you’re interested in joining our next retreat, we will be back in Port Orchard, March 24-27. Email me or murphyrobynt@gmail.com for details.

And in the mean time, happy writing!

Shirin

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Answers to three questions raised in this summer’s workshops

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It’s that time of year again. Labor Day looms, signaling the end of summer. Most of another year has slipped away. And all that summer reading and writing? Still undone.

I learned a few things this summer, though. Mostly from finding answers to difficult questions that were raised in class. If you’ve attended one of my publishing workshops, you’ll know that the first exercise I assign is an introspective one: why do you want to be published? This summer, for the second time since I started asking that question, an answer came back, “I see it as a first step to a movie.”

I can answer a lot of “how to” questions about publishing, but “how to get my book made into a movie” wasn’t one of them. I knew differing cocktails of agents were involved—authors’ agents; subrights agents working for publishers; media talent and IP agents like Creative Artists or Gotham—but the exact process has never been anything I’ve had the good luck to need to know.

But here is a step-by-step from someone who does: How a Book Becomes a Movie. It’s a fascinating read even if you don’t have such hopes for your book, because it shows how both the book and film industries have been so radically changed by Harry Potter, Twilight, et al.

Enlightenment #2 is a sequel to last month’s blog about Outlining (this corner fought by James Patterson) vs. Not Outlining (in this corner, Zadie Smith). I get asked whether or not to outline all the time, and I personally find it freeing to have convincing advocates of such diametrically opposed views. It allows you to do pretty much anything in between—and in between is exactly where my personal process is. But Patterson’s proposed advantages of outlining did not extend to character and voice. So I was intrigued to come across this discussion of How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice. I’m still not sure outlining is mandatory, but the argument for its utility grows and grows.

The last enlightenment is a caution. I give consults to writers; frequently to self-publishers. There is one question I often get asked that I regret having to answer: “I have self-published my book using print-on-demand (POD). How can I generate more sales?” If your book is already published, the invaluable information I have is too late to save you, though I can perhaps help you make the best of a bad situation. I use “save” advisedly because it is with this mode of self-publishing more than any other that authors get burned and disappointed. Please, if you’re thinking of self-publishing, speak to me before you commit to POD. You can attend one of my publishing workshops, or email me to arrange a consult. I charge $100 for an hour, and I guarantee, I can save you from a much more expensive misstep.

So, those were my three big take-outs from this summer. But here is an ongoing opportunity to learn more about publishing and its ancillary skills, for free. Skillfeed is offering 30 days’ free access to its 93,858 video courses.

The neighbor’s BBQ smoke wafts in through my windows. Maybe it’s because I’m writing a novel populated by Native Americans, but I feel as if I’ve gathered a few fat writing berries from this social summer to carry with me into the insular winter, when surely…finally…I will snuggle down and write?

Happy learning and writing!

Shirin

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James Patterson vs. Zadie Smith: How do you teach craft?

I’ve been listening to a lot of “how to”s lately—from authors as disparate as James Patterson and Zadie Smith.  One of Patterson’s commandments is to never start without an outline. The outline, Patterson believes, is critical because it allows you to evaluate the story as a story. It saves you from investing good writing in a story that doesn’t work and that you have to then go back and unpick—or worse, that you are unwilling to unpick because too much has been invested. Once established, the outline gives you a skeleton on which to hang your drafts. Drafts, plural: the first a sketch to get the story told; each subsequent draft a layering of sinew and muscle.

Smith has never used an outline in her life. In her article, That Crafty Feeling, she admits that she starts without having any idea where the story is going. But what the story will become, she believes, is in the tone, in the atmosphere, in the metaphysics of that first line. She will try out first lines until she finds one that has enough soul to birth a story. She labors over every sentence as that story unfolds, until a particular sentence tells her that she’s come to the end, and—that’s it. She lies down with a bottle of sancerre. She is a one-draft writer.

Such opposite views on something as straightforward (you’d think) as whether or not to outline poses a dilemma. How do you teach or learn how to write when nobody can agree on how it should be done?

Being someone who both writes and paints, I always find it helpful to think of writing as painting. “How one should paint” is not very valuable. What made many great painters great is that they painted in ways that they should not have. The impressionists and what they did with light and paint surface, we all know. And then came Lautrec, cropping in on his subjects, leaving us with just an elbow or an ear. Or Van Gogh, squeezing the yellow onto his canvas directly from the tube. Think of the fauvists with their unnatural colors that somehow make sense—so much sense that I can no longer see how once they did not and were thought offensive.  Think of every great painter afterwards. We never went back to Ingres, although I love him too.

What is useful to learn when painting is how to choose a brush…how to choose your medium…what different substrates will do for you. Techniques are useful too. If you know what can be achieved by layering, you can decide whether or not to use it. If you learn what is wonderful about painting wet-on-wet…well, you might well fall in love. And there are rules you should know if only to break them: how perspective works; how to evaluate balance; how to vary tone so that the whole thing doesn’t turn into dense mud.

This summer, I’m giving a course of five workshops, each focused on a different craft. Writers’ exercises are invaluable, I think, and something we rarely allow ourselves unless we’re in a group. When was the last time you sat down and wrote to a prompt by yourself? The thinking is, if I’m all alone and I have time to write, I should be working on the real stuff. But think how much comes out of every writing exercise. I’ve been teaching for four years now, and it amazes me every time.

In painting terms, we’ll be creating five different canvases, one a week, each one exploring a few new techniques: Ideation/Breaking the Block; Creating Complex and Compelling Characters; A World of Your Own; The Many Ways of Showing; Great Abs for Your Novel. They’ll be sketches—quick and fun—but I’m sure they’ll result in new brush strokes and color combinations that can be applied to any master piece.

In the mean time, here is the best how-to-write I’ve come across:

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.
— Vincent Van Gogh

Happy writing!

Shirin

Summer’s here!

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While everybody else looks forward to summer reading, it’s time for us to think about summer writing. Summer, with all its conference offerings, might well be the aspiring author’s busiest season. Here’s what’s on the cards over the coming months:

July
The Squaw Valley Fiction, Non-fiction, and Memoir Writers’ Workshops are scheduled for July 6-13. Days are made up of morning workshops and individual consults. This is a rigorous conference with an emphasis on craft, held against a breath-taking backdrop.

On July 11, I’m teaching a one-day workshop at the Berkeley Writing Salon, You’ve Finished Your Book: Now What? As the title suggests, we’ll be discussing next steps and the best publishing strategies depending on what you would like to achieve.

The inaugural Book Passage Young Adult & Middle Grade Intensive Writing Weekend is scheduled for July 11-12, in Corte Madera. This is the first year that organizers of Book Passage’s beloved Children’s Writers and Illustrators Conference has decided to break it up into two events: one for MG/YA, and another one for picture books scheduled for September. I’ll be teaching on the 12th.

For five Sundays starting on July 19, I will be teaching a series of craft workshops at the San Francisco Writing Salon. Writing for Kids and Young Adults: Improve Your Craft will be chockablock full of exercises and discussion, with a different craft focus each week.

The Napa Valley Writers’ Conference is being held from July 26-31. This conference has a strong emphasis on fiction and poetry. Serious writing. Serious wine. What could go wrong?

August
My favorite “beginner’s conference,” The Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, is being held this year from August 6-8. I say “beginners” as no slight to its impressive faculty, but because this is the perfect conference on which to cut your teeth. Intimate, supportive, and collegial, the camaraderie here is second to none. It exerts such a strong pull that I’ll be there, although I’m not teaching.

September
If you’re ready to pitch by the end of the summer, the NY Pitch Conference is the venue for you. Known for its roster of Big Five editors, this conference focuses on the end of the writing process.

So, happy writing! And if you’re indeed happy with what you wrote, don’t forget that Glimmer Train has a few awards over the summer:

Their Very Short Fiction Award is open for submissions in July, and the The Glimmer Train  Short Story Award is open for submissions in August.

Good luck, and enjoy your summer!
Hope to see some of you,

Shirin

 

 

 

Shirin Yim Bridges' journeys in writing and publishing