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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, March 30, 2014

8 Tips for Writing that Killer Blurb

by Ruth Harris

You’ve written a book!

  • You’ve started the first draft. 
  • You’ve finished the first draft.
  • You’re waiting for your editor’s comments. 
  • You’re thinking about writing a book.
  • You’ve got a great idea for a book.
  • You’re making notes for a book.
  • You’re outlining a book.

No matter what stage you’re in, the fact is it’s never too soon to start thinking about your blurb. 

(Also known as the sales pitch, the back cover copy, and on Amazon, the "product description".)

Writing or drafting your blurb at an early stage or even before you start writing can serve as a brief outline and help you stay focused as you write. 

Coming up with the perfect headline for your blurb will also give you a head start on honing that all-important elevator pitch.

The cover is the first thing that grabs the reader’s attention and tells him/her what kind of book s/he is looking at: romance (sweet or steamy), women’s fiction, mystery, thriller, horror, sci-fi.

But once you have the reader’s attention, then what?

Then you have to make the sale.

We’re talking blurb here, and don’t think you can get away without a killer one. Every book—no exceptions—needs blurbing. These days, even the Bible has one. Don’t believe me? You can look it up.

The blurb is crucial, it’s essential. It's the message that seals the deal and tells the reader why s/he absolutely, positively, MUST buy the book.

Blurbs are a little bit art, a little bit craft, a little bit commercial poetry. They are (or should be) quick and easy to read but they are time-consuming and challenging to write—certainly for me and, I suspect, for most writers.

In another life, I wrote paperback blurbs, probably thousands of them over several decades. Back in TradPub days, blurbs had to be short (paperbacks only have so much space on those covers) but comparing the reader who’s browsing in a bookstore to the person who’s surfing the net is the difference between a leisurely stroll and NASA rocket flight. As a consequence, my definition of short has radically changed: Now it’s just about as short as humanly possible.

Here are some ideas about getting from here to there: 

1) Research. 

Read (and study) the blurbs for the bestselling books in your genre so you will start with a solid idea of what you’re aiming for in your own blurb. Make note of the exact words that pique your interest. Pay attention to the headlines, body copy and formatting of blurbs that particularly appeal to you so you can be inspired by them.

2) Keep your reader in mind. 

Speak directly to him or her. You wouldn’t speak to a rowdy sports fan in a raucous bar the same way you’d speak to your child’s Sunday school teacher, would you? (At least I hope not.) Blurbs work the same way and keeping a clear picture of your reader in mind will help you find just the right tone for your blurb.

3) Refine, rethink, rewrite. 

You are looking for the most potent way to compel your reader’s attention, not a winning time in a track meet. Look at your blurb on your computer, your phone, your tablet. Print it out in a large font size and post it on the fridge or the bathroom mirror. See if viewing your blurb in different way exposes any weaknesses or triggers any ideas for improvement.

4) Every word counts. 

As you work on your blurb, cut flabby, wishy-washy words (you know me and my love of the delete button!). Ditch meaningless hype like: the most exciting thriller ever written or the best romance you’ll ever read. Instead use power words such as: beautiful, shocking, exciting, scandalous, terrifying, sexy, hilarious—words that evoke an emotional reaction.

5) Use short sentences and lots of white space. 

Don’t confront the reader with a dense block of text. Remember that s/he is probably skimming so make it easy for him or her. I also try to make sure my blurb on Amazon is short enough to be seen in its entirely without the reader having to click read more. Apple is stingy about space for the blurb so be prepared to do even more cutting if you are uploading to iBooks.

6) Use italics and bolding sparingly. 

Too much or too many and they just cancel each other out.

7) Don’t marry your blurb. 

Especially if you’re e-pubbing. I view my blurbs as WiPs and constantly change, tweak, refresh and revise them. Just remember that if you change your blurb on Kindle via Author Central, you won’t be able to make changes through your KDP bookshelf but will have to go back to Author Central if you want to do further tinkering.

8) Stay true to your genre and your voice. 

Contemporary romance, historical romance, and Victorian-era mystery with a female version of Sherlock Holmes each set up different expectations. So do humor, horror, sci-fi, pulpy noir, steamy romance, sizzling coming-of-age stories, and action-adventure. 

Make sure your blurb meets your prospective reader’s expectations and write your blurb in the same voice as your book.

More professional advice on blurbing

Bestselling author of romances set in New Zealand and former copywriter, Rosalind James, talks about how she had to re-learn the art and craft of copywriting because all copy is not the same. She has a great piece about her approach to the kickass romance blurb on her blog.

Ace blurb-writer, Amy Wilkins, Assistant Manager of Digital Content and Social Media at Harlequin, is a member of the acquisition team for Carina Press. Amy discusses how much plot to reveal, the importance of conflict, and describes different ways to hook a reader. She offers details about her method of writing romance blurbs at Romance University.

YA author Sarah Juckes breaks down the daunting task of blurb-writing into clear step-by-step directions.

Mark Edwards, a friend of the blog and a superstar #1 Amazon UK author, thinks the power of the blurb can sometimes be under-rated. Mark tells how he doubled the sales of his co-written book, Killing Cupid, by rewriting the blurb in a guest post on our blog, 5 Steps to a Great Product Description.

Joanna Penn, author and book marketer, was voted one of The Guardian UK Top 100 Creative Professionals 2013, and voted one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers 3 years running. Joanna offers tips about writing an effective blurb (aka sales pitch)in her blogpost, How to Write an Effective Back Blurb.

Marilynn Byerly, who teaches on-line writing courses, breaks down blurb-writing by genre: romance, romantic suspense, sci-fi and fantasy, mystery and suspense. Marilynn also explains how to do the precise cutting required to make a short blurb even shorter.

Sarah Webb author of chick lit and children’s books, shares her recipe for the brilliant blurb here. Sarah also explains the power and importance of the shout line or tag line.

Other resources

Want advice from other writers? Post your blurb on Writers’ Cafe, ask for help, and get input from peers.

Fed up with the whole thing and want to pay someone to do the heavy lifting? If you’re looking for experienced help with your blurb, Ella Blythe, who has a background in corporate copywriting, offers a range of services from a touch-up to an entire blurb. Ella usually charges $25 for a blurb, is willing to negotiate depending on the job, and guarantees satisfaction.


Scriveners, are you as blown away as I am by all these great links? How do you approach blurb writing? Would you think of using a blurb service (At $25 it looks like a good deal to me.) I think it's fabulous that Writers Cafe has a blurb critique forum. Any other advice to add?...Anne 

Next Sunday, we'll have a guest post from friend of the blog, freelance writer Sarah Allen (no relation.) She'll be talking about what things a pre-published author can be working on NOW to jumpstart your career. 

Meanwhile, on April 6th, Anne will be signing books and giving short talk at the Coalesce Bookstore on Main Street in Morro Bay, along with her fellow members of our local Sisters in Crime chapter. If you're in the area, come by on April 6th from 1 PM to 3 PM, for wine and goodies and lots of fun book talk. 

Ruth Harris's New York Times bestseller Love and Money is Marked down from $4.99 to 99c this month!

"Richly plotted and racing to a shocking climax, this glittering novel is first-class entertainment." --New York Times 

"Fast-paced, superior fiction. With a crisply precise and descriptive narrative style and an unerring ear for dialogue, Harris has written a terrifically satisfying 'good read.'" --Fort Lauderdale News Sun-Sentinel

"Ruth Harris has done a miraculous job of entwining the lives of two women in a believable and fascinating way. You won't have to hide if someone asks what you're reading." --West Coast Review of Books

"Sophisticated and entertaining. I couldn't stop reading." --Rona Jaffe, author of The Best Of Everything


The Golden Quill AwardsEntry fee $15. Two categories: Short fiction/memoir (1000 words) and Poetry (40 lines max) $750 1st prize, $400 2nd prize in each category. Sponsored by the SLO Nightwriters and the Central Coast Writers Conference. Entries accepted from April 1-June 30th.

The Saturday Evening Post "Celebrate America" fiction contest. $10 ENTRY FEE. The winning story will be published in the Jan/Feb 2015 edition of The Saturday Evening Post, and the author will receive a $500 payment. Five runners-up will each receive a $100 cash payment and will also have their stories published online. Stories must be between 1,500 and 5,000 words in. All stories must be previously unpublished (excluding personal websites and blogs). Deadline July 1.

Fantasy Scroll Magazine is a new paying-market, upscale SciFi online literary magazine. Now taking submissions for flash, micro-flash and stories up to 5000 words. They are also launching a kickstarter campaign to obtain funding to maintain this as a paying market. They're looking for highly original work in SciFi, Horror, and Fantasy.

Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award. Entry fee £15. This is a biggie. Stories in English up to 3000 words in any genre from anywhere in the world. £3000 First Prize. Judges include iconic mystery author Lawrence Block and Whitbread & Orange short-lister Jill Dawson. £4500 ($7200) in total prizes. The top 50 contestants also get a free critique of their stories. Deadline June 30th.

Flash Prose Contest $15 ENTRY FEE. WriterAdvice seeks flash fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction running 750 words or less. Enlighten, dazzle, and delight us. Finalists receive responses from all judges. First Place earns $200; Second Place earns $100; Third Place earns $50; Honorable Mentions will also be published. Deadline April 18th.

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Sunday, March 23, 2014

Building Platform: What Most Writers are Getting Wrong

by Anne R. Allen

Writers know we need a "platform" these days.

That means we need to be on Twitter and FaceBook and Google+ and LinkedIn and Pinterest and Tumblr and have a blog with a ton of followers and get 100s of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and drive ourselves batty keeping up with all of it, because…who needs to write books? It's all about racking up those numbers, 24/7, right?

That would be a no.

Last year I wrote a post about 7 Ways Authors Waste Time Building Platform and it's been one of our most popular posts.

But the majority of writers are still running on the old social media hamster-wheel, pursuing those elusive numbers. I even see writers begging for money on IndieGoGo and Kickstarter, so they can "buy Twitter followers and Facebook likes." I hope nobody's silly enough to give it to them.

Because those numbers mean almost nothingeven less now than they did a year ago.

If you write narrative (novel or memoir), all you need is a social media presence, not huge numbers. (Nonfiction is a little different. More on that below.)

You do need to be Googleable. You can get Google's attention by commenting on blogs, having a Google Plus, Twitter and/or Facebook account and maybe a blog.

But guess what is the #1 thing an agent, editor or reviewer wants to find out when they Google you?

Whether you're a pain in the butt.


They don't care much about your Alexa, Klout or PeerIndex rating. They aren't all that interested in how many Tweeps, blog followers, LinkedIn contacts, Google Plus circles, or Facebook friends and/or likes you have.

I know you've heard otherwise, but that info probably came from marketers, not actual agents, editors or influential reviewers. Not recently anyway.

What Publishing Professionals Look for When they Google an Author

1) Is this person making the effort to network on social media?

2) Is this person volatile, entitled, disrespectful, or a self-involved jerk?

Don't just take my word for it:

  • Super-agent Kristin Nelson (obviously trying hard to maintain her legendary niceness) put it this way in a roundtable discussion with Scratch magazine last week: "In terms of social media, a lot of times we’re just looking to see if this is somebody we want to work with or are they really … what’s the word I’m looking for … strange on social media circles, or lacking a level of professionalism in their online presence. Let’s just say there are some folks who have a Twitter/Facebook presence that’s a little … aggressive or antagonistic."
  • Agent Sarah Burnes said in the same discussion that she looks at the whole "social media footprint. The truth is you can tell a lot about a person online."
  • Rob Spillman, editor of the prestigious literary magazine Tin House, says he's looking for “literary citizenship" and people who are "supportive of other writers".
  • Canadian agent Carly Watters wrote on her blog earlier this week that she's looking for: a website or landing page, some social media "proficiency", a professional attitude, good personality, and no blogposts detailing your personal submission woes to the general public.

In other words, no matter how good your numbers are, if you flame out on writing forums or use your blog to badmouth the publishing industry, complain about rejections, or put down other authors, it doesn't matter how many likes, hits, clicks or followers you have.

So be nice. Practice the Golden Rule. Don't be a whiner or a bully. And stop listening to marketers and system-gamers who tell you it's all about building up numbers. 

This is because:

  • Most publishing professionals don't care 
  • Those numbers do not equal sales, and have become increasingly meaningless—as you'll see below

Why You Should Stop Worrying About Social Media Numbers

Social media numbers are being gamed—and the problem is getting worse. They're also bought and sold from "click farm" sweatshops that have sprung up all over Asia.

This week Forrester Research reported that marketers and publishers are coming to believe, "The paid ads Facebook encourages them to buy often lead to 'fake' fans generated by 'like farms'."

And an article in the HuffPo on how social media "likes" are bought and sold says:

"While the Federal Trade Commission and several state attorney generals have cracked down on fake endorsements or reviews, they have not weighed in on clicks. Meanwhile, hundreds of online businesses sell clicks and social media accounts from around the world. BuyPlusFollowers sells 250 Google+ shares for $12.95. InstagramEngine sells 1,000 followers for $12. AuthenticHits sells 1,000 SoundCloud plays for $9."

In other words, this isn't even illegal, so everybody's doing it.

But that doesn't mean it's smart.

Because large numbers of clicks/likes/followers, etc, now mean absolutely nothing.

Here are some other iffy and pointless ways to waste time and money on meaningless numbers:

Purchasing LinkedIn connections and email addresses

This week I got an email from an author I'd connected with on LinkedIn. She claimed to write reviews for the Wall Street Journal. She offered (in all capsalways a bad sign) to give me a book review in exchange for… a list of all my LinkedIn contacts.

How's that for creepy?

Are there really people who will sell out their accountants and doctors and everybody they do business with in exchange for an iffy book "review" from a complete stranger?

But it gets worse. She also promised the names and contact info for "2000+ Amazon book reviewers".

Oooooh! I'd be able to spam 2000 Amazon book reviewers and get them to all hate me at once? Hmmm. That sounds like a good marketing plan…

My agent Pam noted this was probably a sock puppet who was gathering LinkedIn contacts to sell on those click-selling sites.

But the underlying assumption has a basis in a sad fact: many authors will pay to rack up meaningless numbers, whether a quantity of nonsense reviews or "likes" or "contacts".

And even if you're not paying cash for reviews and clicks, if you're trading with other authors, offering prizes for "likes", or whatever, you're wasting time.

Fake Facebook "likes" 

Many writers are duped by Facebook into paying to "boost" pages to get hits on their author page.

They tell me they do it because it gets "results". By which they mean they get more people to click on a "like" button.

But when I ask if those "likes" translate to book sales, the authors go strangely silent.


A handful of real friendships and loyal readers mean more than thousands of nameless, faceless numbers.

Author Jonathan Evison advised writers at the annual conference of the Association of Writers and Writers Programs, “If you don’t like Facebook, then just don’t do it … It’s not about broadcasting. It’s about connections.”

Unwilling Newsletter Subscribers

I've been "subscribed" to dozens of newsletters by authors I don't know in genres I don't read. Maybe because they've queried me for a guest blogpost, or we've communicated on another subject. Or I've commented on their blogs. Or they just take my contact info off this blog. They've got my email address, and dammit, they're going to use it! Their marketing consultants told them to!!

But this is what a lot of marketing people don't understand: annoying people with email spam does not move them to buy books.

As the lawyer known as The Passive Guy said on The Passive Voice this week, "Email lists! What an powerful concept! For 1996."

And Tony Hursh responded to PG in the thread, "Just this morning I was reflecting that I don’t have nearly enough spam in my life."

How about you? Not enough spam?

That's what I thought.

And yet every marketer says you must have a newsletter and send it to as many addresses as possible, regardless of who they are or whether they read your genre. It's NUMBERS, they tell you. NUMBERS!!

I think it's wiser to listen to Mr. Evison. He advises writers that instead of blasting out group emails about their books and events, they should take the time to write a personal email to each friend.

A personal email to a friend. Not a bunch of advertising aimed at some undefined "them" you imagine to be out there.

Auto-Tweets to Fake Tweeps

I think Twitter is probably the medium authors abuse the most. Hundreds of thousands seem to autotweet book spam 24/7. Often to "followers" who have been purchased (and probably don't even read their language.) 

And they can't figure out why their books aren't flying off the shelves.

That's because they don't understand that Twitter is not for direct marketing. People are on Twitter to get news and information. What gets retweeted most is links to original content or news stories.

Social media guru Jon Morrow at Boost Blog Traffic says this about boosting Twitter traffic,

"Consistently tweet the content of the other influencers in your niche (even if they’re your competition), making sure to mention their handle and, of course, include a link to their article."

That's right: the number one way to boost your own traffic is to share other people's linksboth unknowns and big influencers. Unknowns will probably thank you and follow you, and the influencer's Tweeps will notice you and you can become part of their clan. They start noticing your other tweets, they might even see one for your blog and come on over and make friends. And eventually take a look at one of your books.

Bestselling mystery author Elizabeth S. Craig (@elizabethscraig) has 26K Twitter followers. I'm willing to bet those are real people who have followed her voluntarily. That's because she tweets the best links in the publishing business. And she has never once tweeted ads for her books. She tweets great content. 

Obsessing about Blog Hits

It's my personal opinion that a blog is an author's most important tool on social media. My blog re-started my career after my first publisher went out of business. It got me two more publishers, an agent, and a blog partner I'd admired since she was on the NYT  bestseller list and I was a wannabe actress reading Ruth Harris novels in the greenroom of a little theater in Southern California.

But none of those things happened because of huge numbers of hits on this blog.

Those things happened because I made connections with people on many blogs: mine and theirs and Nathan Bransford's and Kristen Lamb's and Elizabeth S. Craig's and many, many more.

1) Blogs for Nonfiction Authors

Nonfiction writers need to follow slightly different rules from fiction writers. (And although memoirs are nonfiction, they're narrative, so they're marketed like novels.)

A nonfiction writer definitely needs to work at driving traffic to his blog, because a widely read blog is one of the best ways to establish yourself as an expert in your field.

I advise nonfiction authors to work on a blog for some time before you launch a book, and to comment on the blogs of "rivals" for some time before that. 

But you need an engaged readership, not fake numbers. An attack by a Moldovian spambot is going to boost your numbers through the roof, but it won't sell one person on your idea.

That's why you need to network with other bloggers in your field, and share their content, not sit alone on your blog waiting for hits like a spider waiting for flies.

2) Blogs for Fiction Writers and Memoirists

If you write fiction, you don't need a writing blog like this one, unless you also have a "how to write" book like, ahem, How to be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide.

Novel readers read novels. Blogs, not so much. So if you write fiction, you don't need worry about your stats or your Alexa rating.

Sure, it was fantastic for our egos when we got 50,000 hits last month. It's like the thrill you get from winning a videogame. With about the same real-world significance.

Yes, there was a bit of an uptick in sales of my novels. But I also had attack by the the Amazon sock puppet-trollsmaybe in retaliation for signing an anti-sock puppet petitionwhich probably helped my sales as much as the blog surge. It's funny how my sales go up when they leave their brainless 1-stars. I think any review gets a book some attention from the algos, no matter the star rating.

But I also see an uptick in novel sales when I visit smaller blogs. Almost any time you reach out to a new audience there will be a flurry of sales.

But the blog surge did put my nonfic book onto several bestseller lists. Nonfiction writers: take note. 

A fiction writer's blog is simply a place for your fans to find you, or if you're not published yet, a way for you to build up friendships in the blogosphere.

Neither of those goals is dependent on a huge number of blog hits. It's the number of engaged readers that matter. You're not going for a million hits. You're going for 1000 true fans. Or even 100, or 50. Real people, not pointless numbers.

Catherine Ryan Hyde is one of the top selling novelists on Amazon. Last summer she bumped J.K. Rowling off her perch at #1.

But Catherine's blog has an Alexa rating down around #4 million. As of this writing, this one is at #132 thousand. (Google, at #1, being the best-rated)

But I probably don't sell as many novels in a month as Catherine sells in a day. She sells books because she has a fantastic reputation, she's been a star since she wrote Pay it Forward a decade and a half ago, and readers feel they know her. People who visit her blog already love her books. They're coming to the blog to get to know her better.

The thing most marketers don't understand is that selling books isn't the same as selling collapsible hoses, Sham-Wows or Perfect Bacon Bowls.

Readers are quiet people. You need to gain their trust. You can't influence them by shouting at them.

Or by being a pain in the butt.

So don't.

And you can stop obsessing about all those silly numbers.

As I said in last year's post: If you're dealing with marketers who are in love with numbers for their own sake, I hereby bestow a rank of 10 million ARA points!!! on each of you. When somebody puts you down for not having a Klout rating over 80, just roll your eyes and say "Klout is so over. I have 10 million ARA points."

Doesn't that feel better? 

What about you, Scriveners? Have you been obsessing about numbers without really knowing why? Have you ever paid for Twitter followers or "boosted" a Facebook page? What do you find is the most effective way to boost your book sales? Or if you're unpublished, how much time do you spend building platform online?

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Sunday, March 16, 2014

The Changing Role of Literary Agents and New Submission Guidelines: Read Before You Query (or Self-Publish)

This week I'm totally jazzed to host my agent, Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg. She's one of the new breed of agents at the cutting-edge literary agency, Foreword Literary, founded by "Agent Savant" Laurie McLean.

Pam represents the book I wrote with Catherine Ryan Hyde, How to Be a Writer in the E-Age: A Self-Help Guide. I can't tell you how great it's been to have somebody savvy (and kick-ass) in our corner shepherding the book through all its various stages and lifting much of the stress off our shoulders.

Bu-bu-but, say the more tech-savvy among you...

...do I even need a literary agent in the digital age?

Nope. Plenty of writers are doing fine on their own, self publishing or working with a small press. But the most HIGHLY PAID authors—most of whom are "hybrid" these days—generally have representation, whether they started out traditionally-published or self-published.

A lot of the big name "indies" like Joe Konrath, Barry Eisler, and Hugh Howey have powerful, hard-working agents who earn every penny of their 15%. And most of the successful hybrids, like Catherine Ryan Hyde, also have representation from agents who understand the new publishing paradigm. (Catherine's novels are repped by Barry Eisler's wife Laura Rennert. The traditional publishing world is a small one.)

But self-publishing is growing fast. Some people say 50% of all books will be self-published by 2020, and others say it will be more like 75%.

So is the literary agent an endangered species?

Agents aren't going anywhere. But their role is changing.

UK Agent Andrew Lownie spoke at the London Author Fair about the role of agents in the digital age (quoted in Porter Anderson's Writing on the Ether):

"I think there will be much more partnership, much more like celebrity and sports agents, having to look at a much wider range of things that we do.…retainers, tapered commission, an a la carte menu for authors where agent will do some of their books, not all of their books." ...Agent Andrew Lownie

The most up-to-date agents not only represent their clients' work to traditional publishers (and keep them safe from bad contracts that don't allow them to indie publish as well.) They also give advice and aid in self-publishing.

Kristin Nelson, the super-agent who has propelled the careers of hybrid superstars like Hugh Howey and Barbara Freethy, has formed a self-publishing wing of her agency called NLA Digital, which she's eager to point out is NOT a publisher. This quote is also from Porter Anderson's blog.

"Our author clients do not grant us rights. They maintain full control of their rights and intellectual property. However, what we do offer is a platform that fully supports them in an endeavor to indie publish."
...Agent Kristin Nelson

That means NLA clients are self-publishing, but they have access to the top professional editors, designers, formatters, and publicists as well as the benefit of Kristen's industry savvy and clout guiding their careers.

Foreword Literary has launched a similar project, called Fast Foreword, which helped us self-publish How to Be a Writer in the E-Age when our small publisher, MWiDP had to close its doors.

(BTW, the head of MWiDP, Mark Williams, "Mr. International" is very ill, and has been airlifted from the African village where he was volunteering to a hospital in the UK. After a blood transfusion, he is on the mend, but I hope you'll send him healing thoughts and prayers.)

Our book was selling steadily, we both have big platforms, and Catherine Ryan Hyde is one of the top-selling novelists on Amazon, so Pam was willing to take us on. 

But we're the exception to the rule. Mostly Fast Foreword publishes shorter works that can't be placed with traditional publishers because of rigid trad-pub word count rules. (Submission guidelines on the Foreword Literary website.)

It's true that a handful of superstars have gone from self-publishing to landing huge traditional contracts—but again, they are the exceptions. The reason you've heard names like Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey is their kind of success is rare, which makes them news.

Pam wants authors to understand what agents can and can't do for them in this new publishing world, and when it's a good idea to query and when it isn't.

Here's my take-away from what she's been telling me:

If you think you want a traditional or "hybrid" career, you should start by querying, not by self-publishing. Or query with a different book from the one you self-published.  

Yes, three years ago we were being told "the ebook is the new query", but that was back when Amazon's algorithms gave cheap indie books the same weight in calculating the bestseller lists as they did the big name, expensive trad titles. AND when the Big 5 weren't selling their backlists for 99c apiece through Bookbub. 

This industry is going through turn-on-a-dime changes right now. What I tell you today may not be true next week.

That's why you need to make sure you're querying an agent who keeps up. It's also a good idea to run any agent contract by an expert in contract law to make sure you're not signing with somebody who wants a piece of everything you publish for the rest of your life and your children's lives. Yeah. It happens. Be careful out there.

But even a cutting-edge agent has an eye on the traditional publishing world (which isn't going away, and we should be glad of it.) This means she's not going to take on a book that publishers won't buy. And she won't invest her time in something that has already been in the marketplace and failed to sell. Yes, even ebooks can become "shopworn."

Agents only take on what they think will grab the interest of the editors they know. They'll only choose a self-publishing route after they've tried the traditional one, and their self-publishing departments are usually reserved for authors who are already clients.

Like anybody else, agents can make mistakes. Sometimes they misjudge what editors will buy. Agents often fall in love with a book that goes on submission for years and doesn't find a home.

That's heartbreaking to the agent as well as the author.

But now, savvy agents can help clients self-publish when the big publishers won't take a risk—or have suddenly decided they won't publish anything but Steampunk Bigfoot erotica set in Oz for the next two years—or whatever the marketing department has deemed the "next big thing."

But as publishing's rules change, so do query rules. So Pam, take it away—

Ch…Ch…Changes in Agent Submissions

by Pamela Van Hylckama Vlieg

I’ve been an agent for two years. I came in right at the start of the digital revolution.

I love that small presses and self-publishing create so many chances for authors. Whether you’re a debut author or a seasoned vet your world is wide open and there’s a myriad of ways you can make money creating the art you love.

I’m not a New York City agent. My husband is a manager at Yahoo. Tech rules our world. At Foreword Literary we strive to attract and manage hybrid authors. Of course we have authors that are interested in traditional only and that is still how we make the bulk of our income but we are committed to learning and kicking some major ass in digital.

Agents are evolving. We’re no longer the gatekeepers placed high atop Mt. Olympus peering down at the plebs of the written word deigning to take a look at your pittance of a novel.

I love this. I’m a helicopter mom in real life and I enjoy helicoptering my clients. I want to be involved in every aspect of your career (even if it’s stuff I don’t take/get my 15% on) so that together we can guide you to your goals in a timely manner.

Now that I’ve declared my love for all new cool things, here are 6 things that seriously drive me batty.

6 Mistakes New Authors Make When Dealing with Agents in Today's Marketplace 

1) Mistaking an Agent for a Publicist

When an author self-publishes badly and then writes me asking me to sign them so that I can market their book, I can't help.

I’m not a publicist and even though we do have an in-house publicist at Foreword that’s not what she’s for.

If you want to self-publish you have to think of it as a business. Rarely does cranking out a book, not having it edited, and not having a professional cover work for anyone.

You can’t just sling your book on the internet plate like a side of bacon and expect it to fly off the proverbial shelves. There is work involved and that work is not my job. (Unless you are already my client and then I make it my job.)

2) Submitting to an Agent and a Small Press at the Same Time

You submitted to me at the same time you submitted to a small press and you come back three days after I asked to look at your manuscript and tell me you have an offer of publication from Otters R Awesome Press.

I don’t have a staff of fifteen to read that fast. I’ve never heard of that press so I’m not going to read you before I read the other people that have been waiting.

Upon looking at that press I see they have predatory deals, no distribution other than that you can secure for yourself, and their covers look like they were made in Paint by my four-year-old.

All of that is fine if you that is what you want from your publishing journey. Just don’t expect me to sign you. You’ve effectively taken my work out of my hands and done it for me and I didn’t get a shot to see if I can do better.

3) Asking an Agent to Negotiate Foreign Rights for a Non-Client.

You’ve self-published and sold a few thousand copies. You now want me to do your foreign rights but have no plans to give me a book at some point in the future that I can sell.

I don’t do foreign rights. We have agency partners that do that for me.

I can’t help you here. You don’t want me to be your business partner in any way so an agent is not what you want. You want a foreign rights specialist. (Some agencies have these but they are generally for their own clients.)

4) Self-Publishing Because Your Book isn't Right for Me.

You reply to my passing on your material saying you will just self-publish.

That’s fine, but I worry: are you doing it for the right reason? Are you doing it because you believe in your book and you want to make a real go of it getting the editing help you need and a good cover...or is it because you’re getting rejected because you haven’t put the time and effort needed into creating a novel.

(Note from Anne: Self publishing because of a few rejections isn't wise if you'd prefer to have representation. Agents and editors reject books for reasons that have nothing to do with the quality of your book. Often rejections mean exactly what they say: this isn't right for that particular agent at this particular time.  For more on this, read Ruth Harris's post 11 Reasons Why Writers Get Rejected.  Ruth was an editor at several Big Five houses, so she knows what those meetings are like.) 

5) Self-Publishing a Book that's on Submission

I’ve signed you as a client! Yay! Then we go on sub to the Big Five publishers on the first round and you freak out over a few rejections. And self-publish the book.


You need to tell me first so I can pull the book off of submission. The editors reading the manuscript are not going to be happy with me.

Also this makes me have less faith in your motives. Do you really want traditional publishing? I have to reevaluate our relationship and decide whether we should go on together.

Trust and communication are key. I work hard for my clients. I expect them to work hard too. That means communicating and exercising patience.

6) Being Ambivalent about Whether you Really Want an Agent

If you want to publish yourself or only work with small presses that you can submit to on your own then…you don’t need me!

You need an entertainment lawyer to look over your offered contracts. Not an agent.

If you want someone who is available to brainstorm with you, or as contacts in the industry, or will fight for you like a mama bear, and you want to traditionally publish then you need me.

And I need you.

I do this job because I love it. I take 15% of the books I sell for you that you’ve given me to sell for you.

I don’t take 15% of your short stories or things you self-publish (unless you need my assistance in self-publishing).

I work at least 10 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m writing this on Saturday morning and when I’m done here I have a nonfiction book proposal to write and ready for Monday morning.

If I get done with that proposal today I’ll read queries and submissions. I think I deserve my 15%, which let us be honest doesn’t even amount to a living for a new agent. I’d break it down to what I made an hour this past year but I don’t want to depress myself (or you).

I love books, reading, and authors. I love that authors have choices. I love that those choices don’t have to include me. I’m not afraid of losing my job. I’m not afraid of big publishing going away. I’m excited for the change and want to meet it head on.


To read more about Pam you can follow her on Twitter or read her bio and submission guidelines on Foreword’s website.

What about you, Scriveners? Are you still hoping to "land" an agent? Did you self-publish hoping an agent would take you on afterward (I know 1000s of authors have been doing that, alas.) Do you hope for a "hybrid" career at some point? Do you have any questions for Pam? She's generously offered to reply to questions today and tomorrow.

WE HAVE A WINNER!! THE WINNER  OF LAST WEEK'S "DE-LURKER" CONTEST IS CORDIA PEARSON, who was selected by a random number generator at Random.org. So CORDIA, just send me your email address to annerallen dot allen at gmail dot com, and I will gift you a copy of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE from Amazon. 


It's HERE: the new, improved, deluxe version of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE: a Self Help Guide now published by Fast Foreword.

NOT JUST FOR INDIES: It's full of advice from NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde (and moi). There's a step-by-step guide to blogging, and self-help guidance for dealing with social media overload. Lots more on how to deal with rejection, bad critiques and troll reviewsas well as how to query, how to decide the right publishing path for you, and how to market without spamming. It's all in there! Do you know who the Big 5 are? What agent-assisted self-publishing is? How to tell if your book is ready to publish? We've got the answers!

You can pick it up for only $2.99 at Amazon US, and the equivalent at Amazon UK, Amazon CA, and all the other Amazons around the world! (Paper version to follow in about 6 weeks)

"Their prose is easy to read, warm, worldly, honest...instantly we are welcomed into their fold, and serious subjects (encompassing our dreams and livelihoods) become fun."...Joanna Celeste

"I so wish there had been a book like this back when I first started….The moment I started to read 'How to be a Writer in the E-Age' I knew it was a winner in every sense. The information is not only valuable to new authors, it's relevant to published authors." ...Ryan Field 

The Golden Quill Awards: Entry fee $15. Two categories: Short fiction/memoir (1000 words) and Poetry (40 lines max) $750 1st prize, $400 2nd prize in each category. Sponsored by the SLO Nightwriters and the Central Coast Writers Conference. Entries accepted from April 1-June 30th.

Writers' Village International Short Fiction Award. Entry fee £15. This is a biggie. Stories in English up to 3000 words in any genre from anywhere in the world. £3000 First Prize. Judges include iconic mystery author Lawrence Block and Whitbread & Orange short-lister Jill Dawson. £4500 ($7200) in total prizes. The top 50 contestants also get a free critique of their stories. Deadline June 30th.

The 11th Yeovil International Literary Prize now open for entries  Prize categories for novels, short fiction, poetry. Entry fee £11 for novels. 1st prize £1000. Deadline May 31st.

Flash Prose Contest $15 ENTRY FEE. WriterAdvice seeks flash fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction running 750 words or less. Enlighten, dazzle, and delight us. Finalists receive responses from all judges. First Place earns $200; Second Place earns $100; Third Place earns $50; Honorable Mentions will also be published. Deadline April 18th.

GLIMMER TRAIN FAMILY MATTERS CONTEST $1500 prize, plus publication in Glimmer Train Stories, plus 20 copies. $15 ENTRY FEE. They're looking for stories about families of all configurations. It's fine to draw on real experiences, but the work must read like fiction. Maximum word count: 12,000. Any shorter lengths are welcome. Deadline March 31.

14th “Dear Lucky Agent” Contest for Middle Grade fiction. FREE! This is a recurring online contest with a different genre each time, with agent judges. Submit the first 150-200 words of your unpublished, book-length work of contemporary middle grade fiction. Prizes are agent critiques and a free subscription to Writer's Market. Please note: To be eligible to submit, you must mention this contest twice through any any social-media. Please provide a social media link or Twitter handle or screenshot or blog post URL, etc. Deadline is March 18.

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Sunday, March 9, 2014

Are You Ignoring This Simple Platform-Building Tool? How to Comment on a Blog

Whether you're planning to self-publish or go the traditional route, every author needs a "platform" these days.

Some authors obsess too much about platform and waste time on pointless overkill. (More about how to skip the time-wasting stuff in my post, 7 Ways Authors Waste Time Building Platform.)

But others ignore it entirely, often because they're not quite clear on what it means.

It's true that "platform" isn't easy to define. But Jane Friedman, former Writer's Digest editor has written extensively about it. She says when agents say they're looking for author with platform:

"They’re looking for someone with visibility and authority who has proven reach to a target audience."

They'll probably start with "visibility". The first thing any agent, editor, reviewer, blogger—and even many book buyers—will do when you approach them is put your name into Google and hit the "search" button.

The results of that search are a good indication of your platform.

If you don't appear on that first page, or nothing comes up but your letter to the editor supporting John Edwards' Presidential primary campaign, or that picture of you partying at Señor Frog's in Mazatlán on your Spring Break in 2005, your career is not going anywhere.

Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but:

  • The agent won't read those carefully honed pages. 
  • The blogger won't invite you to guest post.
  • The reviewer won't read your book.
  • The buyer won't pony up the $2.99 for your fabulous novel. (I know. Less than the cost of a latte, but buyers are tight-fisted in these days of the free ebook.)

I can hear the moaning now, especially from my fellow Boomers:

  • "But I'm still working on my first novel!"
  • "I don't have time for all that social media stuff!"
  • "I'm a serious literary writer. I'm not going to waste time on childish things."
  • "I'm not going to take up blogging at my age."
  • "I'm already on Facebook. Isn't that enough?"

But there's something quick, easy and relatively painless you can do right now to raise your search engine profile that won't take more than a couple of minutes from your writing time.

Ready for it?


Comment on blogs. 

With your real name. (Or whatever name you write under.)

Yup. Comments on high profile blogs get your name onto that Google search page. Also on not-so-high-profile blogs that have been set up by somebody schooled in SEO.

I'm not just talking writing blogs. Any blog that interests you will do (although I strongly advise against anything controversial, because you're going to alienate half your potential readership.)

But I know writers new to the world of social media have lots of reasons for not commenting on blogs. I hear them all the time.

1) "I can't even find the comments half the time!"

If you're my age, the whole concept of blogging may be new for you. I remember being frustrated when I first started. Sometimes I'd find comments, and sometimes I wouldn't. Sometimes I'd land on one post with a thread of comments after it, but sometimes I'd get a whole string of posts with nothing but a thingy at the end saying "37 comments".

Here's the little trick "everybody knows" so they don't bother to tell you—

Click on the "37 comments" (or whatever number) and that will open the post in a new page where all the comments appear at the end of the post. Some blog formats make you hunt around in the sidebar for the "comments" link, but it's there. Keep looking.

Some blogs, like this one, will allow you to reply to a particular comment if you hit the "reply" button under that comment.

Or you can leave a general comment if you hit "reply" at the bottom of the whole thread. (On some Wordpress blogs the reply button is at the top of the thread.)

Click on the header (title of the blog) and it will take you back to the comment-less stream of blogposts.

See? It's not so hard when somebody tells you what to look for.

2) "Why should I comment on Nathan Bransford's (or Kristen Lamb's, David Gaughran's or The Passive Guy's) blog? They never comment on mine."

Nathan has well over 5000 followers of his blog. (He doesn't post the widget anymore, so I've lost track: it's probably over 10K now) He also has 100K followers on Twitter, and 10K in his Google circles. If he spent all day, every day, doing nothing else, even sleeping, he still could not keep up with all his followers' blogs. And remember he's doing it all for free.

But if you comment on his blog, Google will notice YOU, because his blog is on their radar and your name has become part of his "content".

That means you get a bump in YOUR search profile. He doesn't benefit that much from one more comment, but YOU do. The same is true of a comment here.

3) "I'd rather send the blogger a personal email and get a personal answer."

Sure. That's fine. Sometimes the blogger will have time to give you a personal answer. I try to answer them all, even though it gets pretty time-consuming.

But my e-mailed answer is no more personal than my answer in a comment thread, and nobody will see it but you and me.

Last week a number of people sent me personal emails saying they liked the blogpost, and of course I appreciated it. We always like to hear that people are benefiting from our posts.

But I noticed several writers mentioned their own books. Some of the books sounded fascinating.

So let's stop a minute and think about this: what's better for YOU?
  • Getting your book title in front of me, the world's slowest reader, who has 500 unread books in my TBR list.
  • Getting your book title in front of the 44,000 people who read this blog last month.
Are you seeing why it's better to put your feedback into a comment?

Plus, if you have a question, you can be pretty sure other readers have it too. If I answer in the comments, rather than in a personal email, that's helping ALL our readers, not just you.

4) "I can't figure out how to leave a comment. They want some kind of ID and I don't know how to jump through all those hoops."

Okay: this is a biggie. New tech can be daunting, especially for Boomers. And nobody likes to be rejected, especially by a machine.

Blog software likes people who have blogs, so if you have a blog ID you're in without a problem (usually. For some reason a handful of Wordpress bloggers get blocked from this blog and I don't have a clue why.)

But there are two simple things you can do that can give you IDs that allow you to comment on almost all blogs even if you have no Web presence right now.

1) Get a Gravatar ID

2) Join Google Plus

But before you jump in, make sure the name you're using is the "brand" name you want for your writing career.

First Google yourself (put your name in "quotes" for a more accurate search.) This will tell you if your name is already in use. If your name is as dirt-common as Anne Allen, you don't even need Google to tell you there are hundreds of thousands of women using that name too. There are three Anne Allens in my small town doctor's practice alone.

To stand out, I added my middle initial. Everywhere I go on the Web, I'm annerallen. There are other Anne R. Allens but not as many, and at the moment Google gives me top billing.

Making your name unique is especially important if you share it with somebody famous. So if you're called Rush Limbaugh, Lindsay Lohan or Justin Bieber, choose a pseudonym or trot out a middle name, initial, or use a nickname. Try Rushton Q. Limbaugh or Elle Lohan or J. Montague Bieber.

You want to make this decision before you start to set up your profiles, or you're going to be adding to the other Justin Bieber's platform, not building your own.

And don't use a cutsie moniker. Unless you plan to write all your books under the nom de plume  "scribblersally", "pufferballsmom", or "#1belieber" you don't want to comment on blogs with that handle. Use your professional name, because you're building a professional platform.

Gravatar (which stands for Globally Recognized Avatar) is affiliated with Wordpress, so if you have a Gravatar ID, you can comment on any Wordpress blog and your picture will show up with your comment. (A big plus—you're trying to get visible, remember?) Lots of Blogger blogs will accept a Gravatar/Wordpress ID too. So this is where I'd start if you're brand new.

It's easy. Just go to Gravatar.com and post a profile. Have a short bio prepared (info on how to write an author bio here), and choose a photo from your files before you go. The best kind of photo is a friendly, smiling picture of yourself in tight close-up. If you don't have an author photo, you might be able to crop an existing photo (You can crop for free at PicMonkey ), or even use a selfie, as long as it's professional and friendly looking.

And please do use a picture of yourself. Not your cat. Not a baby picture or a cartoon. It needs to be a grown-up picture of you. With clothes on. Beachy photos end up looking like porn spam in thumbnails. Even if you write erotica, save the skin for your website.

Here's more advice on how to sign up for Gravatar from Joel Friedman.

Google Plus isn't hard either. Most people think of Google Plus as a slightly geeky version of Facebook, but you don't actually have to use it for socializing. Simply putting up your profile will get you into Google's databanks. Remember you're trying to get the Google search engine to notice you, so that's a good thing.

If you don't want the hassle of dealing with another social media site right now, simply turn off all "notifications" and they won't bother you. But you'll have a nice profile where people can find out about you, Mr./Ms. Writer, with links to your website/book pages/and any blogs you contribute to.

Make sure you put "writer" in your "employment" even if you're not getting paid to write yet. If you flag yourself as a writer,  it will come up in that Google search. Plus you'll be circled by other writers you can network with when you want to get more social.

In a guest post written for us by SEO expert Johnny Base, there's a video showing you exactly how to sign up.

He has you start by getting a gmail address if you don't already have one. It's a great idea to have a dedicated email address for your writing business, anyway. The only hard part of any of this is choosing a good password and then remembering it. And that's true of anything on the Web, alas. And if you already have a gmail account, you're halfway there.

5) I don't know what to say!

I understand. Writers are shy persons. We'd rather lurk in the shadows. I lurked for months before I started commenting on blogs. That's fine. Do lurk for a while if you're just starting in the blogsphere.

But eventually you'll probably feel moved to say something.

Most bloggers will put some questions at the bottom or the post to invite comments. Good questions will invite you to share your own opinions or experiences with the topic. For some examples of great comments, look at the comment thread from last week's post. Our peeps came up with some wonderful ideas and shared interesting experiences.

You don't have to heap praise on the blogger. Bloggers like praise as much as anybody, but it's best to say something that adds to the discussion. That doesn't mean you should be confrontational or put the blogger down, either. (That's a good way to get deleted.) But say something like,  "Love these 10 tips for getting your cat to eat dry food and I'd like to add a #11..."

Or you can say, "I understand what you're saying about blogging nonfiction only ...but I blog daily cat haikus, and I have 400 followers who love them." You can even include a link to the blog. Every rule has an exception and if you're it, let people know.

You can even say something like, "I'm glad you say it's okay to be a slow writer. It took me 23 years to write Love is a Cat from Hell  but I finally launched it last week." Don't put in a link to a retail buy page, but a mention of your book is fine.

Or, "I love what ScribblerSally said about Maine Coon cats in her comment." This can bring the added perk that ScribblerSally might click on your name to find out more about you and your cat. If you've joined Google Plus or Gravatar, that will take her to a profile with an address for your blog and an email address. She may follow your blog or even buy your book.

You can also say, "I've quoted this post on my blog today and we're having a lively discussion." It's okay to link to the blog here, too. Make sure you always link back to the original blog.

The most useful comments add something to your "authority".
Remember what Jane Friedman said in her definition of platform. So if you can say stuff like, "I was in law enforcement for 20 years and this is what really happens when somebody reports a missing cat..." Or "I'm a social worker who also writes cat haiku and I have proof that cat poetry has healing properties," that will add the most to the discussion.

Plus that little fragment of text that comes up in the Google search of your name will show your name and "I was in law enforcement for 20 years..." A huge help to agents, reviewers, and other people who are trying to find out if you're a reliable person they want to work with.

A good blog comment can be anything from 10 to 300 words. I wouldn't go much longer. If you feel the need to go on and on, you probably have a blogpost of your own there.

Other than that, almost anything goes, with a few caveats:

1) Don't spam.
Bringing up your book when it isn't relevant to the discussion is spamming. Ditto links to your website or buy pages if they don't illustrate a relevant point. Begging people to read your blog is spammy, too.

2) Don't be a troll. Saying insulting things about the blogger or other commenters, or using language that's inappropriate will get you deleted. Ditto political diatribes or religious screeds. Be professional and polite.

3) Don't use emotional blackmail. Don't say, "I just followed this blog, so now you have to follow my five blogs, like my Facebook page, follow me on Twitter and get me a double caf latte while you pick up my dry cleaning." If you demand any kind of quid pro quo for a comment or a follow, you'll look like a doofus to the whole community. Remember everybody who reads the blogpost will see your comment.

4) Don't whine. Dissing Amazon, agents, the publishing business, or trash-talking a bestselling author will generally not work in your favor. Ditto complaining about how nobody reads your blog. Getting your blog noticed by search engines involves many factors: SEO, tech savvy, Tweetable headlines, and original, general-interest content. Nobody owes you readership.

Besides, every author does not need a high profile blog. You simply need a place where fans can find you.

5) Don't expect Nathan Bransford or Kristen Lamb to follow you back or critique your blog. Not because they're snotty. Blogging doesn't work the same way Twitter and Facebook do. If you follow a blog, it shows up in a "dashboard" rss feed, and the number you can follow is limited. (And they can never be deleted as far as I know. If anybody knows how to delete a dead blog from an rss feed, let me know!)

Also, people who get thousands of emails a day can't subscribe to everybody's blog by email or visit every blog. Inboxes get stuffed and carpal tunnels get injured. Nobody has more than 24 hours in their days.

6) "How do I know if it's a 'high-profile blog'?"

To find the big blogs in the publishing industry, just go around to a few writers' blogs. Many will have a "blogroll" in the sidebar. Here's a great example on author Meg Wolf's blog.

If you're planning to publish traditionally, agent blogs are a good place to comment. Rachelle Gardner's and Janet Reid's have big followings (although I see Rachelle's comments have fallen off in a big way: no idea what's up with that.) Writers Digest editors have a number of high ranked blogs: Chuck Sambuchino's Guide to Literary Agents is a biggie.

I use Nathan Bransford's blog and Kristen Lamb's as examples of great all-purpose writing blogs, because they host helpful, nurturing communities, and both of them are generous, savvy industry professionals. But there are dozens of other great blogs for writers, both indie and trad, too many to list here. Don't try to read them all.  Choose one or two to follow and drop in on others when you see them mentioned elsewhere.

1) Followers. Blogs that have more than 500 followers have probably been around a while, so the search engines will have found them.

2) Comments. Blogs with a lot of comments are probably being read by a lot of people, since less than 10% of readers comment.

But many top blogs do not get many comments. Joel Friedlander's and Jane Friedman's don't, but they're a great place for Google to find you.

3) Check out the blog with Alexa It's the most-used website ranking system worldwide. Just copy the url (web address) for any website and paste it in their search window.

Or you can download an icon for your own toolbar (go to "toolbar" on the Alexa site and choose the one for your operating system.) It takes seconds to install, and then you can click on it to automatically see the ranking of any website you visit. Also, if you have the Alexa icon on your toolbar, your own site will rise in the Alexa ratings more quickly, because they'll know you're there.

Alexa lists the top five websites in the world as #1 Google, #2 Facebook, #3 You Tube, #4 Yahoo, #5 Baidu (the Chinese language search engine.)

A blog with an Alexa rating of 500K or less is getting a lot of readers, since there are tens of millions of websites. (Alexa measures all websites, not just blogs.) Our ranking right now is 140K (28K in the US), which we think is kind of crazy for a couple of Boomer authors, but we sure are pleased. But we don't beat Nathan B. at 133K or Kristen Lamb at 112K (way to go Kristen!)

4) But don't just comment on the biggest blogs! Comment on the blogs that interest you. Comment on you favorite author's blog. Comment on cat blogs. Or food blogs. (But avoid the snark-infested waters of political blogs unless you're using a pseudonym.) Alexa ratings rise and fall, but your comment is forever. It may be picked up years from now by some search engine that hasn't even been invented yet.

And be aware that a smaller blog with an engaged audience can be much more useful to you in the long run.

For more info on how to research blogs, check out this great post from Brian Dean at Boost Blog Traffic.

Commenting on blogs is also a great way to make friends. And in the end, that's what a platform REALLY is: how many people feel they "know" you well enough to want to buy one of your books.

What about you, scriveners? Are you out there lurking, not knowing how to comment on a blog? Does this help? Does anybody remember when they made their first blog comment? Was it scary? How did you learn the basics of blogging? What writing blogs are on your "must-read" list? And does anybody know how to delete a dead blog from your Blogger feed? 


If you DO jump through all those hoops and make your very first comment on this blog, you'll be eligible to win a copy of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE. Just mention "this is my first comment on a blog" and I'll go to random.org to choose a winner to gift with a copy of the ebook. (Or another of my titles if you already have it.)

If you don't have any ID the Blogger elves like yet, and you'd like to make a comment on this blog, email me through the address on our "Contact us" page. Sorry we can't allow anonymous comments. We get so much spam, we either had to block anons or put on the dreaded "CAPTCHA" prove-you're-not-a-robot thing. We decided blocking anons was the lesser of two weevils. 

Book Deal of the Week

No Place Like Home 
99c this month on Amazon US, Amazon UK, and Amazon CA, and Nook

"A warp-speed, lighthearted comedy-mystery"...Abigail Padgett
"A fun, charming novel about the rich and less so" ...Karen Doering
"A cross of dry British humor and American wackiness, and it all adds up to a fun read." ...Deborah Bayles

Coming up on the Blog

Next week, we're going to have a visit from Pam Van Hylckama Vlieg, senior agent at the cutting-edge literary agency, Foreword Literary. She'll be talking about the role of agents in the new publishing paradigm.


THE NEW GUARD FICTION AND POETRY CONTESTS entry fee $15 $1,000 prize for fiction in any genre. Up to 5,000 words: anything from flash to the long story. Novel excerpts are welcome if the excerpt functions as a stand-alone. $1,000 for an exceptional poem in any form. Three poems per entry. Up to 150 lines per poem. Deadline July 14.

Writers' Village International Short Fiction AwardEntry fee £15. This is a biggie. Stories in English up to 3000 words in any genre from anywhere in the world. £3000 First Prize. Judges include iconic mystery author Lawrence Block and Whitbread & Orange short-lister Jill Dawson. £4500 ($7200) in total prizes. The top 50 contestants also get a free critique of their stories. Deadline June 30th.

The 11th Yeovil International Literary Prize Prize categories for unpublished novels, short fiction, poetry. Agents and publishers pay attention to this one. Entry fee £11 for novels. 1st prize £1000. Deadline May 31st.

Flash Prose Contest $15 entry fee. WriterAdvice seeks flash fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction running 750 words or less. Enlighten, dazzle, and delight us. Finalists receive responses from all judges. First Place earns $200; Second Place earns $100; Third Place earns $50; Honorable Mentions will also be published. Deadline April 18th.

Writers Digest Self-Published Novel Awards. First prize is $3000, plus free tuition to the Writers Digest Writers Conference, promotion in WD and a marketing consult. Many second, third and hon. mention prizes. This is a pricey contest, with entry fee of $99, but a win can open a lot of doors. Fiction or nonfiction. Send bound books only. Early Bird Deadline April 1st

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Sunday, March 2, 2014

Is There a Place for the Slow Writer in the Digital Age?

We live in a speed-obsessed culture. Whatever it is we crave—cars, trains, electronics, food, dates—we want them ever-faster-and-furiouser.

In fact, much of the developed world seems to be engaged some turbo-charged drag race of the soul, hurtling our frenzied selves from cradle to grave, terrified of slowing for even a minute.

Nobody is pressured to go for speed more than writers. Everybody tells us we need to churn out books as fast as Mickey D's grills burgers, or we'll never make it in this business.

One of the chief prophets of the speed-writing gospel is uber-prolific indie guru Dean Wesley Smith, who recently got into a verbal contretemps on the subject with his former friend, literary agent Donald Maass.

Dean Wesley Smith vs. Donald Maass on the speed question:

In early February, Donald Maass, author of the popular how-to-write-breakout-novels books, posted a controversial piece for Writer Unboxed, dividing all authors into three classes with the imperiousness of Caesar dividing Gaul.

He relegated self-publishers to "Freight" class, and the direct-to-paperback/ebook trad-pubbed authors to "Coach", while pronouncing the "First Class" artistic elite (like Snooki, Rush Limbaugh, and the Duck Dynasty guys, presumably) deserving of hardcovers, big bucks and the undying respect of the literati.

Many big-name indies rebutted him, but none with more passion than Dean Wesley Smith, who had apparently, up to that moment, enjoyed a cordial relationship with Mr. Maass. Or at least Mr. Maass thought so.

I agreed with much of what DWS had to say, until I read his remarks in the comment thread:

"He [Maass] thinks all writers need to rewrite and rewrite....He thinks that slowing down and writing less is a better way to become a better writer."


"I tell writers to write with passion and never rewrite."

I think DWS did more harm to the self-publishing movement with those statements than any of Maass's silly elitism.

He's reviving an old piece of advice from scifi great Robert Heinlein, excerpted from a 1947 essay, "On the Writing of Speculative Fiction", which offered the following counsel to young writers:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

I'm sure those were excellent rules for writing science fiction for pulp magazines 67 years ago—when writers were submitting to actual editors who would later give those "editorial orders".

But in the age of self-publishing, this stuff can be dangerous. It can derail a promising career and stoke the fears of every reader already cowering in dread of the indie "tsunami of crap."

Later in the thread, Donald Maass himself appeared, and I found myself agreeing with some of his points, like this one:

"What I advocate and teach is not any particular pace of output but the techniques that I’ve observed result in strong fiction. I do see that revision is pretty often part of getting that result."

My problem with both men in this argument is they're lumping together completely separate issues:

1) Writing fast

2) Self-publishing

3) Refusing to edit

So let's look at them separately:

1) Writing Fast: Authors have been urged to write faster for decades. Writing fast has nothing to do with the self-publishing movement.

As early as the 1970s, P.G. Wodehouse, prolific author of the "Jeeves" novels, gave this advice to new writers in the Paris Review, "I always feel the thing to go for is speed." 

In 2011, the trad-pubbed Sci-Fi author Rachel Aaron wrote an article for SFWA outlining how she built from a pathetic 2000 words a day to 10,000 words a day or more, when her publisher required it.

And this month, The New York Times reported, "The practice of spacing an author’s books at least one year apart is gradually being discarded as publishers appeal to the same “must-know-now” impulse that drives binge viewing of shows like 'House of Cards' and 'Breaking Bad.'" They say it's now ideal to come out with books in a series every three months.

2) Self Publishing: Many self-publishers are also traditionally published, and hybrid authors are the best paid in the business, so these ridiculous "either/or" arguments should be long over. Donald Maass's own hybrid client Delilah Marvelle wrote a rebuttal more eloquent than anything I could say.

"I have to say, Freight Class is awesome. The seats are bouncy and let me swivel any way I want so I can write and deliver the books in any way I want. And the conductor isn’t sticking his nose in on my business telling me what I can and can’t write. It’s soooo nice. I guess what you’re not seeing is that I learned to appreciate the wonders and the joys of Freight Class after being stuck in Coach Class for so long. I’m loving it back here and I kinda wish you’d actually rename all the classes. Because the people in Freight Class deserve more respect."

3) Refusing to edit: In telling writers they don't need to edit, Mr. Smith sounds as imperious as Mr. Maass. His statements remind me of a quote sometimes attributed to Oscar Wilde:

"I never rewrite my own work. Who am I to tamper with genius?"  

(Although it's said that Wilde actually edited his work meticulously.)

Maybe Mr. Smith himself can write a perfectly crafted novel in a weekend. He's had a lifetime of experience cranking out those puppies, so it's entirely possible.

Some people can jump off mountains with wooden planks strapped to their feet, do somersaults in the air and glide effortlessly to safety and Olympic glory.

But it's ridiculous to say that everybody can.

Or should.

Especially newbies.

A beginner can't do the same thing as a seasoned professional, no matter what skill set you're talking about.

I'm pretty sure Dale Earnhardt Jr. didn't vroom into a NASCAR race the day he got his learner's permit. Any music lover can tell you the notes produced by a first-year cello student won't fall as delightfully upon the ear as those of Yo-Yo Ma. And I promise you, nobody wants to wear a pair of socks created by a first-time knitter.

Why do people think it's different with writing? Telling beginning writers they should be able to do the same thing as a seasoned professional is not helpful. It can hurt the fledgling writer as well as the poor reader (who should factor into the equation somewhere, I think.)

And as far as the argument that writing lots of pages makes you a better writer—

That's only true if you get feedback. And learn from it.

Making the same mistake two hundred times is not an improvement over making it once. 

Getting back to the speed question:

In spite of my undying admiration for Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, I think it's important to remind people that not all bestselling authors write fast. Not even in the e-age.

Donna Tartt, whose brilliant novel The Goldfinch topped everybody's lists for the best book of 2013, has only written three novels since her first in 1992.

Lots of professional writers create slowly and edit as they go.

I do.

Okay, I've learned to compose a little faster than I could a few years ago. I've moved from a snail's pace to that of an arthritic penguin, but I still can't write much more than 1500 words a day on a WIP, combined with an average of maybe 500-1000 words of nonfic for blogs and social media. And maybe spend a few hours editing.

Am I a failure? I don't feel like one. I'm mostly published by small presses: one of Maass's pathetic mid-listers in "Coach" class. And I'm certainly not keeping the publishing industry afloat like those Duck Dynasty guys, but I have eight published books, several of which have made bestseller lists, and I'm being read all over the world.

Hey, I even have haters, which might be the real mark of success in today's snarky Internet culture.

The power of SLOW:

I remain a believer in doing things slowly.

  • This slow blog has received major awards usually reserved for the dailies. 
  • I read slowly, too—I hate to barrel through a book reading only for plot and missing the wit, nuances of character, and moments of insight that might expand my own mind. 
  • I eat slow food: I cook everything from scratch, buy from the local farmer's market, and never eat fast food unless I'm on the road (and it's an In-N-Out burger.) 
  • Hey, I even live in a place called SLO-town, which Oprah named the "happiest city in America."

And I'm here to tell you it's okay to be a slow writer.

Especially if you're a beginner. Write a little each day. Get joy from it. Feel pride when you get a page out.

Because a writing career is not a race or a contest.

It has to be a source of joy. It doesn't pay well enough to be anything else.

I'm not saying you can't be successful popping out a first draft at NaNoWriMo speed. In fact I encourage new writers to try NaNo at least once. It can help you overcome inhibitions and let your muse loose on the page. But afterward, you'll need to put in a lot of time editing, especially if you're a new writer.

No matter what Robert Heinlein said, I'm pretty sure no reader wants to pay money for your "sh***y first draft." As an editor, I had to read a lot of them, and I can tell you I wouldn't have finished 90% if I hadn't been paid.

If you properly edit your NaNo book, the bottom line of time spent is probably going to be about the same as if you wrote it slowly.

It's also wise to consider the following: 

1) Many editors dislike working with people who write to a high daily word count. Speed writers tend to fall in love with the very bulkiness of their own product. That high number of words feels valuable, so they can't let go.

2) It's also important to be aware that for some people, writing more than a certain number of hours a day can be dangerous to your mental health.

The New York Times reported a few years ago that scientists have discovered the part of the brain stimulated by deep thought is the same part activated in clinical depression. The reason so many writers suffer from depression isn't because we all started out miserable. Writing for long periods without a break can actually trigger the illness in some people.

I think there's a role for slow in today's publishing world. In fact, I believe it's the best way to build a career. It's worked for me. And I'm not the only one. Most writers who become "overnight successes" have actually been at it for years, maybe decades.

My friend and mentor Catherine Ryan Hyde, who became a publishing star with Pay it Forward in 2000, and has become an even bigger success (#1 seller on Amazon) since she went hybrid a couple of years ago, collected 1000s of rejections before her first novel, Funerals for Horses was accepted by a small press. She had a decade to create a body of work and learn her craft before she needed to start producing books on a regular schedule. This is how most writers build their careers.  

A slow writer who sells more than Asimov:

I've loved watching the career of sci-fi author Alex J. Cavanaugh. He's not a particularly fast writer. Yes, he's a prolific blogger, but he only puts out about a book a year. His career started out slow and he's still in "Coach class" with a small press. But last month he was outselling Isaac Asimov on Amazon.

Here's what he says:

"I am a slow writer. (Slow typist as well. Thirty words per minute if I’m lucky.) Since I also play in a band, I have to devote time to practicing my guitar every night. Plus spend time with my wife. I’m also juggling a busy blog schedule, not only with my own, but with the IWSG site and the A to Z Challenge. And yes, I work full time. So, cranking out a book or two a year just isn’t going to happen. Despite the fact my books aren’t very long. I know authors who can turn out quality books quickly, but I just don’t have that kind of time. I’d spend all my time writing and I don’t want to do that."

OMG, the man has a life.

And he's a bestselling author. Perhaps he might be a better role model for most of us than either Mr. Smith or Mr. Maass.

What about you, scriveners? Do you write slow? Have you been feeling pressure to write faster? Have you attempted NaNoWriMo? Did it improve your writing? How do you feel about being advised not to edit your work? 

We LOVE comments. If you have trouble commenting because the Blogger elves won't accept your ID (They prefer Google+ IDs, because they're owned by Google, alas) just email me through the "contact us" page and I'll personally post your comment.


It's HERE: the new, improved, deluxe version of HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE: a Self Help Guide now published by Fast Foreword.

NOT JUST FOR INDIES: It's full of advice from NYT bestseller Catherine Ryan Hyde (and moi). There's a step-by-step guide to blogging, and self-help guidance for dealing with social media overload. Lots more on how to deal with rejection, bad critiques and troll reviewsas well as how to query, how to decide the right publishing path for you, and how to market without spamming. It's all in there! Do you know who the Big 5 are? What agent-assisted self-publishing is? How to tell if your book is ready to publish? We've got the answers!

You can pick it up for only $2.99 at Amazon US, and the equivalent at Amazon UK, Amazon CA, and all the other Amazons around the world! (Paper version to follow in about 6 weeks)

"Their prose is easy to read, warm, worldly, honest...instantly we are welcomed into their fold, and serious subjects (encompassing our dreams and livelihoods) become fun."...Joanna Celeste

"I so wish there had been a book like this back when I first started….The moment I started to read 'How to be a Writer in the E-Age' I knew it was a winner in every sense. The information is not only valuable to new authors, it's relevant to published authors." ...Ryan Field 

And I have to share with you this fabulous "magazine" ad created for me by Elizabeth Ann West. Each page has a different feel and vibe, but they work perfectly together. Seriously, the artistry in it is amazing. She will soon be offering this service on a commercial basis.


Writers' Village International Short Fiction AwardEntry fee £15. This is a biggie. Stories in English up to 3000 words in any genre from anywhere in the world. £3000 First Prize. Judges include iconic mystery author Lawrence Block and Whitbread & Orange short-lister Jill Dawson. £4500 ($7200) in total prizes. The top 50 contestants also get a free critique of their stories. Deadline June 30th.

The 11th Yeovil International Literary Prize now open for entries  Prize categories for novels, short fiction, poetry. Entry fee £11 for novels. 1st prize £1000. Deadline May 31st.

Flash Prose Contest $15 ENTRY FEE. WriterAdvice seeks flash fiction, memoir, and creative non-fiction running 750 words or less. Enlighten, dazzle, and delight us. Finalists receive responses from all judges. First Place earns $200; Second Place earns $100; Third Place earns $50; Honorable Mentions will also be published. Deadline April 18th.

GLIMMER TRAIN FAMILY MATTERS CONTEST $1500 prize, plus publication in Glimmer Train Stories, plus 20 copies. $15 ENTRY FEE. They're looking for stories about families of all configurations. It's fine to draw on real experiences, but the work must read like fiction. Maximum word count: 12,000. Any shorter lengths are welcome. Deadline March 31.

 IMAGINE THIS! AN ARTPRIZE ANTHOLOGY  $20 ENTRY FEE. For writers of poetry, short stories (1,500 words) and personal essays (1,500 words), 2014. First Prize $1,000. Second Prize $500. Third Prize $250. Top 20 entries will be published in the anthology. ArtPrize is an international competition held in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with over 1,000,000 visitors and 25,900,000 page views each year. Named by Time as one of the top five festivals of the year. Deadline March 31

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