Friday, October 21, 2005

Story vs. Marketing

In a recent post to an LDS author's forum, the question was brought up of story vs. marketing. Most authors would prefer to do nothing but write. Why spend what precious little spare time you have attending book signings, doing promotions, worrying over contracts? It's kind of the, "If you build it they will come," philosophy of writing. Just write a good enough story and you won't have to do marketing. This is my response:

In the Pigalle district of France, in the attic apartment of a crumbling brownstone not far from the Moulin Rouge, lived a moderately successful painter. Every morning he gathered his latest works and traveled from gallery to gallery offering his creations to the tourists that browsed the shops.

One day the painter asked himself, Why must I spend my time toiling like a beast of burden? I am an artist. I will spend my time creating. I will paint such a masterpiece that I will never again have to bother with selling my wares.

And so, he locked himself into his apartment. He set up his canvas and began to paint.

But this time he was not merely brushing colored oils onto fabric. He was laying his soul bare for all the world to see. With every ounce of talent and energy he possessed, he applied his lifeblood to the surface in front of him. He wept, and the tears blended with his paints giving them greater clarity. He screamed in despair at his lack of ability to communicate what was inside him and the despair took on a life of its own on his canvas. He imbued his work with every sin, error, and folly of his life, and in doing so gained absolution.

Forgoing sleep, food, or any outside interruptions of any kind, he toiled night and day until, at least, he was finished. Standing back, he looked at what he had created, and beheld . . . a masterpiece. I’ve done it, he said to himself. No one who sees this work will ever question my genius. Years from now, centuries, scholars will study this piece and shake their heads in wonderment.

And so, after carefully wrapping the painting he’d sacrificed so much for, he started toward his door. But a voice spoke up in his head. A voice which asked, Why must you take your creation out to the masses? Does the sun come calling to the planets? Does the ocean beg like a street urchin for others to bathe in it? Do the heavens shout out, “Here am I. Look at me!” No. I will not take my work from the place of its creation.

No longer will I beg the gallery owners to display my work, he decided. My masterpiece will not adorn the side of coffee mugs or be splashed across the covers of calendars. I will stay here with my work and wait for the patrons of the arts to come to me.

Two weeks later, starving and penniless, he wondered out into the street and was run over by a passing bus. Because he was so emaciated, no one recognized him and he was buried in a pauper’s grave.

At the end of the month, when the landlord had not received his rent, the nearly blind old man opened the painter’s apartment and gathered up all the belongings to sell in the market. On top of the linens, pots, pans, easels, and paints he placed the masterpiece. On his way to the market, the old man’s cart hit a bump and the painting slid from the pile to land in a farmer’s field.

A goat quickly discovered the painting there. After giving it careful scrutiny, he took first one bite, then another, and another, until at last he had eaten the entire painting, frame and all. With a loud belch, the goat thought to himself, I may not know art, but I know what I like.

The moral of this overly long story is (to alter one of my favorite sayings): Write as though everything depends on your story and market as though everything depends on you.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

The LDS Book Market

Something is happening in the LDS book market. No one seems entirely sure how it will shake out and whether it will be good or bad, but it is happening. As an LDS author I have to react to it, but how do you react to something you can't even clearly define.

On the one hand, the number of independent LDS bookstores is decreasing rather dramatically. Also, from everything I've heard, Deseret Book stores are cutting back on the number of LDS novels they carry. This would lead you to believe that fewer people are buying LDS books. But, if anything, the number of LDS readers seems to be going up. There are more LDS books, higher quality writing, and a greater variety of books than ever before. So what gives?

Is it possible that the very increase in available books is hurting LDS bookstores? Imagine there are only twenty LDS novelists cranking out 1 book per year. There are two or three publishers. An LDS bookstore has it pretty easy. Order lots of each of those books, get a good discount, and make money.

But now imagine there are 80 LDS novelists representing a dozen publishers. How do you pick and choose which books to carry? Obviously you focus on the top sellers. But there are only a handful of LDS authors that really guarantee high sales and those titles are heavily discounted by everyone from Wal-Mart to Amazon. The rest of the titles all kind of fall into a mid-list hodgepodge. Instead of ordering twenty of each book, you order four of each.

Now, you don't get the best discount, you need more shelf space to give each book decent exposure, and with more new books coming out each month, the shelf life of the average book is much shorter. Jack Weyland's books stayed on the shelf for decades. The typical new LDS novel may only be available for a year or two now in most stores. That means you may end up taking a loss on the books that don't sell quickly enough.

So what does this mean to me as an LDS author? First and foremost, the increase in variety and quality of fiction is good for everyone. If each new book wins over twenty people who didn't read LDS fiction before, everyone wins. Five years ago I hadn't read an LDS book other than the Work and The Glory. In the last month I've read 6 excellent LDS novels ranging from humor to fantasy. As a reader I have definitely benefited.

On the other hand, with fewer stores I am more dependant than ever on the big chains. It’s also harder to stand out from the crowd. It’s not enough just to be a good writer. You have to be a very good writer, with marketing and sales skill at your disposal. We may very well begin to see the stratification that has taken place in the national market where there are so many titles coming out, but most people have only heard of JK Rowling, Danielle Steele, John Grisham, etc.

As a writer, I have to decide whether I am content being one of the mid-list or if I want to be one of the handful of bestsellers. Obviously I choose the latter. Over the next twenty-four months I will be trying to climb that very slippery slope. I started when I decided on my new mystery series. I am trying a variety of new marketing strategies. I am putting more time into selling this book than I ever have before. I'll keep you updated on how it goes.

Friday, October 07, 2005

Hardback vs paperback

When Covenant told me they planned on publishing House of Secrets in hardback, I was ecstatic. What's not to like about hardback? It looks better, lasts longer, the % I make on royalty is better. I imagined how good the novels in the Shandra Covington series would look sitting side by side on someone's bookshelf. Great stuff right?

But then some of the negatives started showing up. Because the cost is a few dollars higher, some bookstores worried the new series might not sell as well. A major LDS bookstore chain suggested they might not be willing to carry HOS in their stores because of it being in hardback. How would these things affect my numbers and ultimately the long term success of the series?

In the LDS market most novels are published in a hardback-sized soft cover version. There are a few exceptions, but they are almost exclusively historical fiction. The reason for that is simple; hardbacks cost more. In general people try new authors in mass market paperback. Hardback is for non-fiction (i.e. reference), gift books, and well established authors.

However, the LDS market is a little different. For one thing, paperbacks are not as cheap as the national market because print runs are smaller. So while a Mary Higgins Clark PB might list for $8 in the national market, a typical LDS mystery PB lists for about $15. You would assume then, that hardbacks would also be more expensive. Mary Higgins Clark in HB lists for about $26. However, a typical LDS HB lists for around $20.

So while the difference between HB and PB for a national mystery is about $18, the difference for an LDS mystery is only about $5. Now we all know that Mormons are a thrifty people. So maybe $5 is a big enough difference to dissuade people from buying my new book. But considering how much longer a hardback will last and how much nicer it looks, how much difference will it really make?

I guess that remains to be seen. Of course we are heading into the gift buying season and hardbacks definitely sell better than paperbacks as gifts. But do LDS people buy mysteries for gifts or do we stick with non-fiction and historicals? Also, if readers find the first book gripping enough they may have less hesitance to buy the next one.

What about you? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

24 Hours of Non-stop Promotion

Wow, what a busy 24 hours! It started last night with the Covenant mystery dinner. It was much bigger and better than I expected. Major kudos to Kerry Lynn Blair who wrote the whole thing and did a fantastic job. We had in excess of 180 people at the Hampton Inn by the Salt Lake airport. Michelle Ashman Bell was a hoot as a Soap Opera Diva. Seeing her with a long blond wig, false eyelashes, and a slinky gown was quite the change. Don't know if I can ever look at her the same way again.

Of course I was the sleazy business partner. Talk about typecasting. However I did get to run around from table to table, flirting, eating of peoples plates, and checking the bouquet of their fruit punch. Lot's of fun.

It was also nice to get back into the swing of things with my books. I actually signed several copies of Cutting Edge which I wrote close to five years ago. Nice to know people still remember me. I had one woman tell me she'd listened to Cutting Edge on tape 12x! Even I'm not that big of a glutton for punishment. But it brought tears of gratitude to me eyes. I think I sold about a dozen copies of House of Secrets. Definitely something I want to do again next year.

Today I did two book signings. The first was at the Provo Seagull. Great group of employees who I enjoyed very much. I only sold one book as things were pretty dead between conference sessions, but had fun anyway. I realized that I need to start off conversations but mentioning my previous books as no one knows who the heck I am until I mention Cutting Edge and Into the Fire. Close to three years between books will do that. Guess I've got some work to do before I become a household name.

The second signing was a Lady's Night at the Spanish Fork Seagull. It was a roaring success. Not sure how many books I sold, but I would guess over twenty. The manager said they did something like 5x the usual sales. Kerri Robinson was there signing A Banner is Unfurled. I bought a copy from her and she bought a copy of House of Secrets.

I also met Lee Ann Setzer who writes the Tiny Talk books. She publishes with CFI. Both Kerri and Lee Ann seemed to do well also. Hopefully I'll have a new Shandra book out in time to do this again in April.

One thing I tried for the first time was bringing book flyers. It worked amazingly well. People are sometimes uncomfortable talking to an author when they first come into the store, but they'll take a flyer every time. Lot's of them got left on shelves, but probably a dozen people came back over and bought books.

Good night.