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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

September 2015

Who, Me?


A little over 72 hours ago, I found myself standing in front of a microphone to thank the Military Writers Society of America for choosing me as their "Author of the Year." I love this picture of that moment for several reasons. First, I want to call it "The Sound of One Hand Clapping." That's why the two gentlemen have blurry hands in the photo. Now I know what that sounds like. But what I like even more is the expression on my own face -- the one that says, "You've got to be kidding me!"

I don't win things -- not contests, not titles, not even sales records. Inside, I'm still the little kid whose mother was told to take me out of dance class because I was hopelessly awkward. "She'll be happier going to the library," the teacher said, "And the rest of us will be happier that she went."  A few years later, it was a piano teacher who said, "I can't accept any more money for lessons. She'll never be able to move her hands in two separate directions." And a driving instructor who said, "She's never going to make it down the driveway until she's in a car that has an automatic transmission."

In organizations, now that I'm all grown up, I'm not bad at getting elected as the chair of an unpopular committee. I was a pretty good teacher, with a small cadre of ex-students who still come around, but I was never "Teacher of the Year." My office wall has a few plaques on it -- certificates of appreciation for hard work, recognition for donations, and the diplomas that show my academic achievements (although none of them have a seal higher than "Cum Laud" -- no "Summa' for me.) And not a single one of my books will ever bear a sticker that says "New York Times Bestseller."

Now, at 76?  This award? I'm almost speechless. I am endlessly grateful for all of the congratulatory notes that have been arriving on Facebook, even if I can't thank all of you personally. But now, it's time to get back to work. Recognition means nothing if I cannot use it as a vehicle to help others reach the same goal. As I think I remember saying on Saturday night, "Use me. If I can help other writers by sharing what I have learned, I am at your disposal. Ask away."


Finding My Troops

Maybe it's just the time of year. As the seasons change, as the weather gets cooler, we settle down for a long winter's work, and thoughts seem to wander to book award contests and writers' groups. At least my e-mail has witnessed an upsurge in that sort of posting. Just today, I had a message from a company that wanted $500.00 to enter my book into five different book contests.  I didn't take them up on it, although I agree with the basic premise-- that winning a book award, if the group is a prestigious one, is almost certain to result in an upturn in book sales.  But $500.00 worth? I doubt it.

I would much rather see a new writer use that $500.00 to attend a conference of writers. It doesn't have to be a fancy meeting. Sometimes the smallest ones are the most useful. A conference has one huge benefit over the book award contest -- everybody wins. You get to spend two or three days in the company of people who think like you do -- who understand the agonies as well as the delights of writing. No one will bombard you with the kind of comments we've all learned to hate. You know the ones. 
  • "I just finished reading your book. Hurry up and write the next one."
  • "Gee, books are so expensive. You writers must all be really rich."
  • "My Aunt Mabel wrote a book once. Would you like to read it?"
  • "Can you get me a publishing contract so my book will get made into an HBO movie?"
  • "It must be nice not to have anything else to do all day but just sit and write."

Best of all, you will be surrounded by people who have faced the same sort of problems you face. And they'll be willing to offer you very good advice. Writers may not be wealthy, but they tend to be extremely generous with their time and knowledge and experience. A writers' conference is the place to dial into what they have to offer.

One example of this occurs every September in Colorado.  A group of writers who participate in a group called "Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers" meet for their "Colorado Gold" conference to encourage each other, to learn new techniques, and to recognize the best of their efforts.  I've never had the privilege of attending a Colorado Gold Conference, but as a long-ago resident of Colorado, I still lurk on their webpages and read about their successes.

I've been interested to note, this year, a new turn of phrase that appeals to me. One of them commented that attending their meeting always felt like going home, like re-discovering family. She coined the term "my herd" to describe what belonging to the group felt like. For a western-based group, of course, the term "herd" is particularly appropriate, and I fully understand what she means when she says "I have found my herd."

And that got me thinking. This weekend I'll be attending the annual meeting of the Military Writers Society of America. We have a membership well over one thousand now, all of us with some connection to the military. We write about the military, or we served in one of the armed forces, or we married a serviceman, or we grew up in a military family. We have the same sort of bond that the Colorado writers define as "being part of the herd," but that term won't do for us.

 We're not a herd, but what are we? A "force?" That sounds to much like Star Wars. My Marine brother would have suggested "corps." My husband would have preferred "flight." But we also have Navy -- a "crew?" -- and Army -- "a squad?" It occurred to me that we are a regiment in numbers, but that sounds too . . . regimental!

Unless somebody can come up with a better term this weekend, I'm going to think of this meeting as getting to see "my troops." These "troops" are my people. They are generous, welcoming, and encouraging. They will send me home with new resolve to write better, to write more, and to believe in myself. I need them, I need that yearly transfusion of energy.

My advice for any writer is to step away from the keyboard for a few days. Take the time to find your herd, your troops, the people who make you feel like one of the family. And then absorb all they have to offer you. I promise it will make you a better writer.

Going,Going, Gone

One of the characteristics of e-book publication in 2014 was the appearance of new marketing tricks. For example, KDP Select now offers an option to do a "Countdown" sale. In this promotion, your book starts out at a low price of $0.99 and then the price gradually increases until it reaches the book's list price. Amazon promotes these countdowns heavily, but I fail to see the point. If customers won't buy the book for 99 cents, why would they be more likely to by it when the price increases by one dollar, and then by two dollars?
 
Still, I was willing to give it a try. I listed a countdown for a book that had been out for two years and had sold regularly although in small quantities. Here's part of the announcement I posted: 

"On Thanksgiving Day at 8:00 a.m. PST, its price will drop to $.99 for a countdown period through Black Friday.  (Your savings amount to 67%) On  Saturday, Nov. 29 at 8:00 a.m. PDT, the price will increase to $1.99 and remain there for a second countdown period through Cyber Monday. (Your savings amount to 34%) It will return to its original list price of $2.99 on Tuesday, December 2 at 8:00 a.m. PST. Don't miss out on this one!"

I was encouraged to help the countdown along by posting frequent reminders that "there are only x-number of hours left before the price goes up." How annoying is that -- not just for readers and potential customers, but also for the author who has to keep track of the hours and post the warnings?
 
There was not a single sale during the countdown promotion. I received no feedback on why readers did not purchase the book at a lower price, but the message was clear. Potential customers were simply ignoring it. The countdown did not produce any sense of urgency. They knew the book would still be around if they needed it, because e-books never go out of print. If they didn't need it, there was no reason to invest even that small $ .99 amount.

I have no idea what the Kindle people were thinking when they proposed this, but for me it makes absolutely no sense.  This is one marketing ploy i have written off completely.

Lesson Learned:
You don't have to do something simply because Amazon tells you to.

 

Will Audio Books Work in Your Market?

I've been noticing a heavy push toward audiobooks on various writing blogs lately.  I have no idea why it is suddenly "THE THING TO DO," but before too many of you run off to find the nearest microphone, let me tell you about my own experience.

Ugh! I've tried using audio books as a marketing plan, too, and it was a spectacular failure.  I chose to try out this format on my best-selling book, Beyond All Price. My choice of a production company was ACX, the Amazon affiliate, because they handle the contracts between author and narrator and do all the final formatting. I got to audition several possible readers and selected a talented and experienced woman who seemed to be a perfect fit. She agreed to do the job on the basis of a 50/50 royalty split. If I had had to pay her on an hourly basis, the cost would have run into several thousand dollars.
 
Too late, I learned that royalty splits are a bad idea because the narrator does not have any immediate hope of getting paid. As a result, the project goes to the bottom of her list of priorities.This project stretched out for over nine months because the narrator had other paying gigs and concerts (she was also a professional singer) that took up her time. The whole thing was easy for me, but I, too, found myself losing some of my enthusiasm as time passed.
 
All I had to do was listen to the tapes at the end to make sure there were no obvious errors, and I think we ended up with a great product. However, it simply has not sold. My readers are not the kind of folks who listen to audio books, apparently.  They don't drive cross-country, or go to the gym or do other mindless things that would give then the time to listen. If they travel by car, they also have a spouse and children who aren't interested in historical biographies. (Beyond All Price runs for over 13 hours.)
 
ACX sent the narrator and me 75 code numbers apiece; those numbers could be exchanged for free copies. The idea was to distribute them to our friends so they would write reviews for the website. I soon learned that I couldn't give the audio versions away, even by running contests.  I still have over 50 left.  My narrator had the same problem. And then we realized that we would receive no royalties on those give-away copies.  So we had exhausted our small supply of readers by giving the product away.  The result after six months of publication? There are exactly 18 copies in circulation beyond those we gave away, and the narrator and I have each received payments of approximately $50.00 total.  I feel really bad for the narrator because she did all that work for free. At least I only spent a few hours on the project. But I'll never do another one. 
 
Maybe it's a great idea and I just did a lousy job of marketing. Maybe I don't really believe in audio books (I've never purchased or listened to one), and if you don't believe in something, you can't sell it. Maybe I'm just an old fuddy-duddy who's stuck in a rut, but I've gone back to writing the next book, where I know what I'm doing. 

Lesson learned:

Once again, you have to know a lot about the people in your audience before you can decide on the best way to reach them.

Do Chipmunks Eat Chop Suey? Do Skinks Like Salad?

Earlier in the summer, I wrote about a kitchen experiment I had going on.  I had discovered that if you cut off the root ends of certain vegetables and put them in a small container of water, they will start to grow again.  My first success was celery, and I followed that with two kinds of lettuce, a leek, and even a small bok choy. Before long I had a kitchen table full of mugs sprouting new leaves and looking gorgeous.

A month or so passed, and the new plants had started to outgrow their little pots.  Meanwhile, the tomato plant on my front porch had succumbed to old age, so i dug it out, refreshed the soil, and planted all my new little sprouts out there.  i would surely have enough leaf lettuce and romaine to carry me through the fall, I thought.


But I forgot to factor in the eating habits of the other denizens of my front porch -- a blue-tailed skink and a sassy little chipmunk. They both provide hours of entertainment for my house-bound cats, who simple curl up every morning in front of the glass door and wait for the show to begin.

One by one, my plants began to look a little ragged. And then one morning the romaine lettuce was gone.  Not just the leaves chewed off, but the whole plant, roots and all, dug out and gone, with only a neat little hole left behind. The leaf lettuce was next, followed by the celery, which had developed some pencil-sized stalks. And then the bok choy disappeared! I' trying to visualize a chipmunk with a container of takeout Chinese food!  

The leek is the only survivor of my garbage garden, and it's getting pretty big.  Do you think the little thieves are avoiding it because they don't want onion breath? Or is it only a matter of time before the fifth hole appears in my vegetable garden?