Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Mentor Me Not

Couldn't find a pic for this topic, so I just went with Snoopy :).
A dear friend-slash-fellow spec-fic author posed a question recently. She wanted to know if there are any author “mentors” out there. Veteran authors who have gone from newbie nobody to multi-published and successful , and would be willing to guide a new newbie nobody through the waters.

I answered her that I would not answer in a public forum. But I do have answers to that question, at least from my own personal experience as a spec-fic author—which basically says, Nope, sorry, yer on yer own, kid.

Now, don’t get me wrong. There ARE authors out there who are willing to help. Who WANT to help. Who bend over backwards for newbies and give advice at every turn and who are genuine and wonderful people. Which is the real reason I said I didn’t want to answer this question in a public forum. I don’t want to dis a bunch of people who have truly been there for me.

Ah, but my peeps have pleaded. And I’m tellin’ ya, there is nothing more heart-wrenching than pleading peeps.

So, here we go. My random observations about why what works for them doesn’t always translate to us.
Genre matters. Target audience matters. If you write sci-fi or fantasy, the marketing techniques of romance writers, chick-lit writers, historical writers, nonfiction writers, etc., will not necessarily work for you. There may be some overlap, but as a YA fantasy writer, I’m not going to find readers the same way a romance writer will, or a women’s humor writer. My audience doesn’t shop the same places. They don’t follow blogs the same way.  We run in different circles and have different priorities. And when you factor in the Christian card—the whole system blows up. Speculative fiction is seen as truly weird and often unacceptable in the Christian market, so we’re generally not allowed in the bookstores where more mainstream books are easily found. Which brings up my next point.

Press size matters. I am published through a small press. Because of that, regardless of genre, I can’t get into bookstores. So, when a veteran author with a big press talks about doing signings at the local Barnes & Noble or whatever, the advice doesn’t apply to me. Those places want nothing to do with me. So, I have to be more creative when it comes to marketing. I can’t rely on someone stumbling across my book as they are browsing bookstore shelves. And even during online marketing, many readers who will purchase through Amazon because they’re cheaper still take the presence of a book in a bookstore as some sort of badge of validation.

And speaking of small presses, there are budget constraints. Bigger authors have review copies covered by their publishing house. Often hundreds of review copies. Small press authors can’t afford to send out hundreds. Most of the time we only sell hundreds! Yes, these days even authors at big presses are required to invest in the marketing, but when you’re with a larger press there’s more of a guarantee of a return on that investment, partially because of the reasons listed above this. With us small press authors, the stakes are much higher.

Also, as far as investment goes—one piece of advice I’ve received is to hire a promotion service. These services can cost into the thousands of dollars. You may read this as a cop-out, but here goes. I have already imposed upon my family by taking gobs of time to write. And to attend critique groups (which also require membership fees), and a couple of conference days (which also require registration fees). I can’t justify taking money from our savings to invest in a service that may or may not pay off. Writing is a dream of mine, but it is not a necessity. I will do what I can, when I can, to promote. But I will not infringe upon the generosity of my husband and children. Also, because of the things I’ve mentioned above, about bookstores and genre, that investment becomes a huge risk. It’s fine to say “only $3k” when you know it will likely come back to you in the form of thousands of book sales. But when you’re talking hundreds, and know you likely won’t break even…

One of the things I’ve heard about promotion services is that they get mailing lists and send out newsletters, and constantly remind readers to remember you, remember you, remember you. This, I think, ties in with the genre/target audience issue. These kinds of newsletters may work for romance and chick-lit, but I’ve found that spec-fic readers, myself included, aren’t big on newsletters. I have subscribed to a few, and subsequently cancelled those subscriptions. I’ve also noted that I don’t need someone constantly sticking their name in my face for me to remember them. If I love a book—and we spec-fic readers love our books passionately—I will find a way to keep up with the author’s newest releases. A way that does NOT involve having my inbox slammed with useless newsletters. Maybe I’m wrong to generalize like that, but I tend to think if I find something annoying I’m not going to subject my prospective readers to it.

Okay, I’ve just realized everything I’ve said so far has to do with marketing. But there’s a lot more to it than that. We’re talking about trying to go from small press to big press. It’s a catch-22, though. The KEY to going from small press to big press is selling lots of books. If you sell a lot, you can get noticed by a bigger press. And selling means marketing….sigh….

Case in point. I follow a particular NYT bestselling author on her blog. She gets a lot of questions from aspiring authors, including requests to see her query letter that landed her a publishing contract. She obliged, and I was soooooo thrilled I’d get to see the letter—until I saw it. It wasn’t the letter that got her first contract—that one was with a small press. It was the letter that took her from small to large, and while written with style and personality, if stripped of those attributes it boiled down to this (in other words, this is NOT a quote from the letter, it is my dried-out paraphrase):

“Dear Agent, I’ve got two books published with a small press. They are selling so well the owner is kicking himself for not contracting that he gets first rights of refusal on everything I write. I now have a book I’d like to shop around. It’s about werewolves. Let me know if you’re interested.”

There was literally only one or two sentences about the actual project, and they were pretty vague. There was NONE of the “hook” we are told to put in ours regarding the manuscript in question—it all came from her style—and more importantly, she’d proven herself with sales.

I think going from small press to large press has to do with sales, period. And what works for one author doesn’t always work for another. We’re kind of destined for our own paths. As small press authors, much of that travel is us putting one foot in front of the other. We don’t have a huge team working to help us along.

Which brings me to:

Big names in some ways *can’t* help us.

I met a fairly big name author at a writers group last year. His path to publication involved having a connection that took him straight to a large publishing house. In other words—his path was nothing like mine. I hope this doesn’t sound bitter or jealous-y. He was one of the *sweetest* people I have ever met. I am truly happy for him. But he went straight to the goal. And it’s another place where genre matters—his writing is purely mainstream.

We had a great conversation while at that meeting, too, where he mentioned he nearly never blogs, nor does a lot of those things we up-and-comings *must* do regularly. Authors with major publishers have “people”—people to schedule their speaking events and signings—and those people have pull. Which puts us back to my original point when I said that we newbies with small presses can’t get signings. That is partially why. We’re not taken as seriously, I think, when we don’t have a publishing house setting our stuff up for us. “What, you’re in here trying to sell yourself? Then you must not be very important…”

I guess what I’m saying with all that is, some authors simply don’t have the answers because their path was sooooo different, and their genre is different, and maybe things just timed right for them. Or whatever. Or maybe they did go the “long way” but it was years ago and they’ve gotten somewhat disconnected from their roots.

(Again, let me say, this has been MY experience. If it hasn’t been yours, and you were a small press author in the spec-fic genre, especially in the YA range, and you moved on to a large press, feel free to comment below and tell me HOW you did it. Maybe you can start a service for the rest of us who are struggling along.)

My last point is something I’ve wanted to blog about for a while, but haven’t really figured out how to dig in. Well, here’s my chance.

I said above, it’s about navigating waters. But by that, I don’t mean a river. Instead, think surfing. (Now, I’m not a surfer, but I think I have a grasp on this idea.) Each “generation” of writers is like a group of surfers catching a wave. Imagine a huge, long wave that a whole bunch of surfers could line up and all ride together. The next wave that comes along is going to be grabbed by a different group-but it’s a slightly different wave. The previous group can give some advice, but much of it has to do with the unique variances of the wave you are on. It’s my understanding that the really good surfers go by “feel”-and we have to, too.

Publishing is publishing and is *basically* the same as it was twenty years ago. But a LOT of the details have changed. I’m not going to itemize them all—if you aren’t keeping up with that stuff, you may have no business reading this post in the first place. My point is, the pack in front of us had slightly different challenges to face. Their wave had slightly different properties. They can give us some advice, about publishing (surfing) in general, but it truly is up to US to catch this wave—to read its subtleties and go by “feel” based on the knowledge we’ve attained.

The key is perseverance. Studying the waves, looking at the variances, reading them, feeling them out, then jumping on. Eventually, others will get tired. Or get sucked under. The ones who keep going, getting stronger, learning, will make it the farthest. But we can’t do that by copying the group in front of us. They are on shore already. We have to find *each other* and work together to get on this wave, just like the ones in front of us did.

Have you ever wondered how so many authors know each other? Did you think it was some social club they all got to enter once they hit a certain level? What I’m discovering is that they were all working on the same wave, and got to know each other along the way. Most of them didn’t have someone from the wave in front of them holding their hand and pulling them along. Some did, yes, but not most. They turned to each other. And now that they’re successful, it’s not about them not wanting to help us, it’s about them knowing they can’t necessarily. They can stand on shore and holler advice—“watch out for that shark!”—but they know that ultimately it’s about us learning to feel the waves on our own and catch the one that’s right for us.


Kessie said...

John Maxwell has lots of self help books, and my dad went on a Maxwell binge several years ago. He passed some on to me. Probably the only thing I remember from them was this one story.

The dude who has the Chicken Soup for the Soul book franchise thing was trying to figure out how to take his company from a million-dollar to a billion-dollar company. So he asked an adviser what to do. The adviser asked who the dude hung out with. The dude replied, "Millionaires." The adviser replied, "That's your problem. You need to surround yourself by billionaires and learn to think like they do."

I've done that with my art for years, and I've seen vast improvement. I think the same principle applies to writing. Every author worth his salt has written a How To book. A lot of big names in every genre has some kind of a blog. (Although a lot of them don't update much because, you know, they're off writing.)

I think also, we tend to isolate ourselves by genre. I'm having a ball getting to know people off in the mystery/thriller camp. At the end of the day, writing is just writing.

Caprice Hokstad said...

I think Snoopy was perfect for this topic. It's dog-eat-dog in the publishing world.

I think the wave we're riding is so big it's hard to tell who is on the same one and whether any particular wave really has enough power to sustain a ride. I -have- surfed before (well, I owned a surfboard and rode on my tummy and knees; I just never could stand up) and the truth of the matter is that sometimes the wave that *feels* like a winner at first, turns out to be a dud and peters out without even breaking properly. And the ONLY way to get better at predicting which waves will be "good" is by experience. Another surfer can coach you on the basics, but you have to get on your board and paddle out there yourself. And someone trying to hold your hand while you surf? It doesn't work and actually makes it harder. You have to find your own balance.

Sadly, my brother-in-law's dog can surf better than me. No joke. Dozer the English bulldog. Front cover of Surf Dog calendar and LOTS of magazines. Been in movies and parades. You name it. But he doesn't know when it's a contest with a year's worth of Purina Dog Chow on the line, and when it's just going to the beach for fun. He just loves to surf. I think there's a lesson in there somewhere.

Morgan L. Busse said...

Excellent post, Kat :)

P. Creeden said...

Hiya Kat!
Thanks for posting your thoughts. You had a lot of good ones. One of the hardest things for a 1 book out newbie is to stop marketing their book enough to get the second book written/edited/published. Often readers will see you have only one book out and think of you as a one hit wonder. Or if they love book one, you lost a sale on book two if it takes 3 years before it comes out. One of the great things about small press/indie publishing is the frequency you can get that next book out with!

Amanda Hocking had over 6 books out before the big publishers took notice of her, just saying :)

Kat Heckenbach said...

Kessie, I am certainly not saying we need to isolate ourselves or that we should never look to those who've paved the ways ahead of us.

The problem comes when we don't factor in the way things are changing. And just because you hang with billionaires doesn't mean you'll learn from them-not when they stumbled into their money, or inherited it. You first have to sort through and find ones that started where you are, and then see what they did and how it can apply to what's going on today--and filter out what does *not* apply.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Caprice, I love the addition to the surf analogy! Yes, totally agree. A coach can only go so far, then you have to get out there and just try. And waves can die, and you have to know when to move on to the next one.

I have never even tried surfing, so this was kind of a stretch for me. But I did watch Soul Surfer--does that count for anything? ;)

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thank you, Morgan!

Kat Heckenbach said...

Pauline, I agree very much on that. It's hard to see the forest for the trees on this one sometimes--the media focuses on the first-time authors like Stephenie Meyers, who went straight to fame, and we don't see that the vast majority of authors don't hit it until a few books are out. We all want to be the break-out novelist, but truth is it takes work and patience--and more than one book most of the time.

Janalyn Voigt, escape into creative worlds of fiction. said...


I love your wave analogy for another reason. Fantasy is on the cusp of a huge wave, and I do believe we've hit it just right. There are frustrations with being small-pressed published, but the long-tail effect should work out to more sales over time. There's room for a small-press fantasy author collaborative promotional group. Courage!

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thanks, Janalyn! And yes, I believe we're hitting the wave at the right time, too.

I agree about the collaborative, and I am so thankful for my fellow fantasy authors and our ability to connect and support each other!

Alan O said...

Kat, I think this is all brilliant stuff. You express it so well, and while I say "amen" to the whole post, the two concepts that connected with me the most were: a) the paragraph on "investment", and why you have to draw the line somewhere; and b) the idea that every writer has a unique path, which renders a lot of the "received wisdom" moot.

One tiny bit I would add to your list: *Not* saying this is everyone, but in the writing journey, I've come across a fairly high number of Wishers: well-meaning folks who enjoy reading, and "kinda wish" they could do that they take it up as a hobby, and dabble, and spend most of their time looking for The Secrets. This can include: spending too much time on blogs; spending too much time writing blogs; going to every conference; devouring every new How To book; and..yes..looking for mentors. And for some, all this frantic searching becomes a substitute for the real work: reading (a lot), and writing (a lot).

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thanks, Alan. I appreciate your comments! I know some people may say I "don't want it enough" because I draw the line on investment. But I think we all have to balance our lives. My family *has* to come first. I think if I honor what God wants--which is taking care of my family--He will bless my endeavors.

And yes, I agree. Some writers are just wishers. You do need to research and market and blog and all that, but if you spend more time talking about writing than actually writing, it's not going to get you anywhere. I have gone through phases where I seemed to do just that, and felt like a big faker. When I'm *writing* and focused on becoming a better writer, I feel so much better and make much more progress.

Phyllis Wheeler said...

This is really helpful, this surfing analogy! It's all about figuring out how to connect with potential readers.

Kat Heckenbach said...

Thanks, Phyllis. It's an analogy that's been rolling around in my head for a while.

Anonymous said...

Kat, I so appreciated your comments in this post. I remember about 10 or 15 years ago I told my husband I was writing Christian sci-fi. He laughed and said there was no such thing.I told him to hide and watch. Well, lookie here, Christian sci-fi. Of course, back then I was writing the stories and putting them back into the file cabinet. Now, I'm looking for a place for them and have discovered all that you've mentioned. I love my local writers' group, but it's about 10 romance writers to 1 sci-fi (me). I definitely feel out of place. Now I know why. Thanks bunches for your insight and I did so like the surfing thing. :-) Anita

Kat Heckenbach said...

Good for you for going for it, Anita! And it is a strange feeling being the only scf/f writer in the group isn't it? Been there!

Glad you enjoyed the post!