We’ve crossed the halfway point for 2017. What have you accomplished so far this year in terms of your writing? What would you put under the category “Needs Improvement”?
I’m in the air today on yet another cross country sojourn, so I thought I’d share with you one of my favorite TED Talks. In this talk author Elizabeth Gilbert (of EAT, PRAY, LOVE… fame) is inspiring and refreshingly candid as she discusses how to manage life when you suspect that your best writing is behind you. In the Comments, please share your own favorite sources of inspiration, from TED talk or aother!
You’re wandering through a bookstore on a random Saturday morning in late summer, looking for something promising to read. What makes you pull a book off the shelf? What convinces you to purchase it?
2. Cover Art
3. Author’s Name
4. Review Blurbs
5. Scanning first page
6. Review or recommendation
7. Combination of previous factors, or something else.
Please give us more information in the Comments. Thanks!
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By Debbie Burke
Kindle Scout is Amazon’s innovative program where readers “scout” for new books and vote for ones they believe should be published. Back in April, I covered the basics of Scout for TKZ. Since then, I submitted my thriller Instrument of the Devil and went through my own 30-day campaign. Today, let’s open the Scout door and take a tour inside.
To submit to Scout, Amazon requires a cover (at author’s expense), a complete, never-before-published, edited manuscript of 50+K words, a 45-character one-liner (logline), a 500-character book description, author bio, and a thank-you note to readers who nominated the book (more on this later).
After Scout accepts the submission, they select the dates for the 30-day campaign, and provide a link that shows the preview exactly as it will appear on the Scout site. The first 25 or so pages of the book are excerpted as a sample for readers to vote on.
The contest is ongoing, with new entries appearing each day. At any given time, more than 150 books are in various stages of their campaigns. Categories include: literature/fiction, mystery/thriller/suspense, romance, sci-fi/fantasy, and teen/young adult.
Entries are further classified as “Hot and Trending,” “Recently Added,” and “Ending Soon.”
Readers love FREE. Amazon rewards anyone who nominates a Scout entry that’s selected for publication with a FREE eBook.
BEGGING FOR VOTES:
The hardest part for many authors, who are often averse to self-promotion, is what I call begging for votes. It’s a tough balance to strike, asking people to nominate your novel without sounding cheesy. You’re requesting a favor, but fortunately you’re able to offer something in return—a free book.
Publicity drives your campaign, using social media like Facebook and Twitter, business cards and bookmarks printed with your Scout link, and direct emails. My email list started with 130+ names, which I divided into different categories, each receiving a different message tailored to that particular group.
First tier consisted of close writing associates, critique buddies and beta readers who’d been intimately involved with the book’s creation. All previously promised support, so asking them to nominate and share on social media was easy, and they came through like true friends.
Second Tier listed other writers, people I’d met at conferences or had interviewed for articles, and business acquaintances. Their note specifically addressed our mutual writing interest and asked them to take a peek at the excerpt.
Third Tier were friends who don’t write—and who think writers are a pretty weird bunch! That was the trickiest email to craft. Mass mailings can be mistaken for spam or scam, especially to people with whom contact is infrequent. In fact, my college roommate wrote back, asking, “Is this email really from you?” because the IT guy at her job warned her about clicking on an unknown link. We wound up having a nice catch-up conversation by phone.
After I sent out 130+ emails, friends responded with terrific support. Instrument of the Devil hit “Hot and Trending” (H&T) off and on during the first six days.
Scout provides statistics you can access privately (not accessible to others) that count how many views your entry has received. However, views are not the same as nominations, and Amazon doesn’t reveal the number of nominations. The stats are further broken down by how many hours in H&T, number of views from internal links (the Scout site) compared to external links (social media, your website, other websites, etc.), plus how many hits from each source. The stats are updated daily, while H&T updates approximately hourly.
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That loud smack you heard were my stats hitting the wall. After the initial rush of 200-300 views per day, they dropped to six on one day, nine the next, with a high of 19 that second week. Zero time in H&T. Underwhelming and discouraging.
Kboards are online discussion groups specifically focused on publishing through Kindle. At this low point, I dug deep in Kboards, especially one thread devoted to Scout experiences and requests for nominations.
LESSON #2: LEARN FROM SCOUT VETERANS
Many Scout entries come from multi-published authors with substantial backlists. They discovered Scout is a great no cost launching pad for a new book. Some authors don’t even care if their book is chosen because they parlay reader views into a larger customer base when they publish it themselves.
That’s the philosophy of Lincoln Cole, previous Scout winner and author of the indispensable Kindle Scout Guide, as well as an excellent vetted list of marketing resources. With 12 books published, and refined promotional skills, his most recent Scout entry garnered more than 11,000 views with over 90% of the time on H&T. When the book wasn’t selected, Kboard members were stunned.
Although Amazon describes Scout as “reader-powered publishing,” great stats are not the only factor that determines if a book is chosen or not, as Lincoln’s experience demonstrates. But the reasoning behind their editorial choices remains mysterious.
Nevertheless, Lincoln shrugged off the rejection and plans to launch The Everett Exorcism himself on Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), fortified by his thank-you note.
NOW…MORE ABOUT THOSE THANK-YOU NOTES
At the end of the Scout campaign, the note you’d submitted with your entry is sent to everyone who nominated the book, win or lose. If it’s chosen, they receive a free copy. If it’s not chosen, Amazon still sends nominators a notice when the book goes on sale through KDP.
Lincoln takes that one step further. His thank-you note promises a free book, win or lose, if readers sign up at his website. He understands a large email subscription list is vital to authors, who use it to keep in touch with fans, make special offers, and announce new releases. Plus readers who discover him on Scout may also buy from his backlist. This guy knows how to maximize marketing.
Since my own website subscription list was at the high one-figure level, I rewrote my thank-you note, making the same free-book offer, and resubmitted it to Scout. Considering the dismal second-week stats, I prepared to self-publish Instrument of the Devil on KDP.
LESSON #3 – “YOU DON’T HAVE TO SPEND A BUNCH OF MONEY TO GET DECENT STATS.”
Those words of wisdom came from Scout veteran Julianne Q. Johnson, whose fifth entry Ghost in the Park is now up for nominations. Cash-strapped authors are understandably reluctant to front money on advertising, particularly for books they’re giving away.
According to Julianne, “Stats don’t get you selected, but better numbers get you much more attention when you launch it yourself.” She invested only $15 in her last campaign, generating a respectable 3800 views and 90+% of the time on H&T. Although not selected by Scout, Nick of Time is her highest ranked book so far, with thousands of page views on Kindle Unlimited (a subscription program that pays the author based on how many pages are read).
I consulted Lincoln’s list of marketing resources for promotions specifically tailored to Scout. My advertising budget totaled a whopping $40—$10 to boost a friend’s Facebook reach to 9800 readers, $20 on a one-day social media promo by Just Kindle Books, $10 to Author Shout for a 30-day newsletter campaign. All three delivered significant bumps in page views, but the best ROI came from Author Shout.
I re-contacted my email list, with a follow-up offer of the free eBook, win or lose. This also served as a subtle reminder to people who might have forgotten to nominate without bugging them. Friends responded positively and again shared on Facebook.
Meanwhile, back at Kboards, I contacted more Scout winners to learn about their experiences.
Jada Ryker’s mystery Take the Body and Run was published by Kindle Press in 2016. “Before Scout,” Jada says, “I was lucky to break even on cover and editing costs, let alone paid promotions. I’ve sold more copies of the KS winner than all my other books combined.” She adds, “Winning the contract tells me the book was good enough to stand out in a field of excellent offerings, and be chosen for publication. That feeling is priceless.”
William Bernhardt has over 40 published titles, with more than 10 million books sold, yet still entered Scout with his new novel, Justice Returns. Why? Bill’s answer: “I think Amazon Publishing is the best place to be today, and Kindle Scout was the quickest and agent-free way to get there. NYC publishers are not offering anything close to a 50% royalty. And I’m retaining most of my subsidiary rights.” Although Bill still pursues traditional contracts, he says, “More and more, Scout is attracting professionals who see it as a way to attract attention to their books and get them into the Amazon Publishing network quickly and without giving away a large percentage of their profits to an agent.”
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The final tally was 3000+ views, far lower than many Scout submissions, but I was happy and had discovered tricks I planned to use when self-publishing the book on KDP. Then I learned…
LESSON #4 – NOBODY CAN PREDICT WHAT AMAZON WILL CHOOSE
Two days after my Scout campaign ended, at 10:30 on Saturday night, the email arrived.
Congratulations! Our readers have spoken, and your book Instrument of the Devil has been selected for publication.
Talk about gob-smacked!
Why did the unseen gods of Amazon smile on my book instead of any number of books with thousands more views? Danged if I know.
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A recently published book, Legendary Idols And The Clothes They Wore, by fashion journalist Terry Newman, is replete with stories about famous authors who are known for their trademark fashion styles. Newman argues that there is a close connection between a writer’s wardrobe and his or her writing persona.
For example, James Joyce, Mark Twain, and Tom Wolfe all favored variations on southern style white suits; Fran Lebowitz is famous for wearing men’s clothing; Jacqueline Susann donned modish prints and styled her hair in a bouffant sixties flip when she became famous for writing glamorous Hollywood characters.
Sylvia Plath, on the other hand, used her wardrobe choices as protective camouflage.
“(Plath) wore precise, neat and prettily prim 1950s twinsets and print dresses that worked as a shield for her psyche,” writes Newman in her book.
Joyce Carol Oates “predated geek chic by decades” in the 80’s by wearing oversized, wiry glasses, Newman writes. Nowadays the glasses are scaled down somewhat, but they remain an important element in the author’s quirky-but-cool style. As an emerging author in the mid-80’s Brett Easton Ellis wore suits and favored “low end Hugo Boss” for nights on the town.
Question for our writer/readers: do you have a signature sartorial style? Does your personal style reflect or resonate with the characters you write?
By Debbie Burke
A log line or logline is a brief (usually one-sentence) summary of a television program, film, or book that states the central conflict of the story, often providing both a synopsis of the story’s plot, and an emotional “hook” to stimulate interest. – Wikipedia
A blurb “is a short description that praises something (such as a book) so that people will want to buy it.” – Merriam Webster
Okay, the definitions sound simple enough, but the truth is, most authors would rather write an entire novel than struggle over these few words that are critical to successful marketing. How do you condense your 100K-word masterpiece into a few lines that are so intriguing, so compelling, readers will drop everything and click on the “buy” button?
The quote by Mark Twain comes to mind: “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” Brevity is essential. Elevator pitches used to last 10 floors. Now they better fit between the lobby and the mezzanine.
For instance, the Kindle Scout contest requires a book one-liner of 45 characters or less. Yikes! That’s only one-third of a tweet. The book description itself allows a slightly more generous 500 characters (fewer than 100 words), but is still tight, compared to a typical synopsis length of 250-500 words.
I checked out a number of successful authors we all know to discover how they handled these daunting tasks.
A few examples of loglines:
“When he sleeps, the hunt begins.” – Jordan Dane
“She was beautiful and naked and dying…” – James Scott Bell
“No names. No feds. No trace evidence.” – John Gilstrap
“Welcome to Durham, North Carolina, the diet capital of the world.” – Kathryn Lilley
“Three women. A cursed house. Generations of lives at stake.” – Laura Benedict
“When the old money façade fails, the lies come to light.” – Elaine Viets
Six different approaches, yet each reflects their particular subgenre, showcases a distinctive voice, and sinks a hook that draws the reader in. Jim’s is a paean to Raymond Chandler noir. John’s is stark and no-nonsense. Kathryn’s hints at her ironic humor.
For the slightly longer blurb, consider these examples:
“In darkness…. Two strangers meet. A woman without inhibitions…a man without limits…for a private game between two consenting adults.” – Larry Brooks
“They say it’s better to battle the devil you know. But what if you don’t recognize him before it’s too late?” – PJ Parrish
“Exchanging their bodies for machines, these teens will defy expectations, brave danger, and defend civilization. They are The Six.” – Mark Alpert
“Ursula Marlow thought she was done with death, but when her fiancé, Lord Wrotham, is arrested on charges of treason, her world is turned upside down.” – Claire Langley-Hawthorne
And last, but not least, Joe Hartlaub knows how to sum up books in his reviews that are both pithy and intriguing: “BRONX REQUIEM serves up a heady, dark, double shot of urban noir.”
Why are loglines so stinkin’ hard to write?
For authors new to marketing, loglines and blurbs are especially intimidating. Let’s break down the reasons for the difficulty and, one by one, find ways to overcome them.
- Overwhelming – How do you distill 60-100K words into 45 characters? Or 100 words?
- Hard choices – What do you include? What do you leave out? Will the story make sense to a reader who is unfamiliar with the plot, characters, or your intentions?
- Lack of objectivity – You’re too close to the story. You no longer have any idea what will capture the interest of readers.
How to overcome being overwhelmed:
First, identify what elements must be in a logline: Character, conflict, stakes, and reader engagement.
Consider the legendary Hemingway six-word novel:
While questions still swirl whether or not Papa actually wrote the story, it illustrates a skillful example of a logline.
Even though no specific characters are mentioned, we understand the inference that a baby has died, leaving behind grieving parents.
The conflict is how/why the death of the child occurred.
The stakes are also inferred. Can the parents survive the unimaginable nightmare?
Reader engagement comes from the need to learn the details behind the tragedy.
How to overcome hard choices:
Again, the focus must be limited to only essential elements. No matter how attached you are to subplots, minor characters, and lyrical setting details, there’s no room for them in loglines and blurbs. Stick to “just the facts, ma’am.”
Who is the protagonist? Who is the antagonist? What does each want/need? How do their respective wants/needs come into conflict? What happens if they don’t achieve their goals?
Which qualities of your story are universally understandable?
What is unique, that only you could have written? If your voice is distinctive, let it show through.
How to overcome lack of objectivity:
This is where you enlist the help of coworkers, friends, critique partners, beta readers, book club members, and sometimes total strangers. They offer fresh eyes and fresh perspectives because they are not as intimately involved with the story as you are. You’re lost deep in the trees, while they see the whole forest.
Write at least 10, preferably 20, different one-liners and short descriptions. Show the examples to some (but not all) of the consultants described above.
What are their reactions? What intrigues them? What makes them yawn?
What questions do they raise?
What isn’t clear to them (even though it seems obvious to you)? Does the story make sense?
Would they buy the book based on your logline?
Next, combine the best elements of your examples and rewrite.
Put yourself into the mind of a potential customer. What qualities of your story might fascinate a reader living in a different region, or in a different socio-economic strata? Would a reader who’s younger or older than you identify with the story?
Winnow the choices down to three loglines and three blurbs. Show these to different consultants than you approached in the first round. You’re seeking fresh perspectives on the revised versions. Ask the same questions as before and see if you’ve resolved confusion, filled in missing parts, and deleted unnecessary information.
Like Blanche DuBois, rely on the kindness of strangers.
Strangers and casual acquaintances can be more accurate barometers of typical customer reaction because, unlike family and friends, they’re not as concerned with hurting your feelings. You don’t need to be embarrassed because you may never see these people again.
Visit your local librarian and verbally audition your short description to him/her. Librarians read thousands of blurbs and decide from a few words whether to stock a book or not. Ask if your book would be ordered or passed over based on your description. If a librarian offers a suggestion for improvement, take it!
On a plane trip, find out what your seatmate likes to read. Then ask, “What do you think of this idea for a book?” and recite your logline. If the person expresses further interest, try out your blurb. Pay close attention to their questions and opinions. You’re seeking honesty, not compliments.
One caution: if someone responds positively, don’t become a pest and regale him/her with a scene-by-scene outline. Thank the person for helpful input and offer your business card (which of course lists all your books for sale).
Based on feedback, refine your examples further. The process should yield several solid, compelling variations on a theme to use for different applications. One might be appropriate for entering contests, another for submitting to agents or editors, yet another can be your Amazon description and the back cover of your book.
Barter with other writers – You write my blurb and I’ll write yours. My beta readers and I have successfully come up with titles, loglines, and blurbs for each other. Sometimes you’ve already written the perfect logline, but it’s buried in your novel. A helpful beta will spot it and point it out.
When a stranger can read your precious few words, understand the gist, and wants to know more about your book, you’ve succeeded.
TKZers, do you have a secret formula for crafting loglines and blurbs?
Debbie Burke just endured the ordeal of writing a 40-character logline and an 83-word blurb for her entry in the Kindle Scout contest. A sample of her thriller Instrument of the Devil is online until July 7. If the book is selected for publication, everyone who nominates it will receive the eBook for free. Thanks for checking out the link.
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The Kill Zone is honored to have literary agent Mark Gottlieb as our guest today, from the Trident Media Group. Feel free to ask him those burning questions you may have about what he’s looking for, or how he sees publishing trends, or his insights into publishing and the role of literary agents. Welcome, Mark.
Mark Gottlieb attended Emerson College where he helped establish Wilde Press, from a publishing club of students. After graduating with a degree in writing, literature & publishing, he began his career with the VP of Berkley Books (Penguin). Mark’s first position at Publishers Marketplace’s #1-ranked literary agency, Trident Media Group, was in foreign rights. Mark was Exec Assistant to Trident’s Chairman and ran the Audio Department. Mark is currently working with his own client list, helping to manage and grow author careers with the unique resources available to Trident. He has ranked #1 among Literary Agents on publishersmarketplace.com in Overall Deals and other categories.
As a literary agent in major trade publishing at the Trident Media Group literary agency, I receive hundreds of query letters a week. I find that there are so many things an author can do wrong in querying an agent with a submission letter, while there are very few things an author can do right in querying an agent with a submission letter, so it’s really hard to say every single thing an author should avoid in a query letter… Though if I could throw just five glaring problems I tend to see:
1) FINISH THAT MANUSCRIPT: Authors querying an agent before their fiction manuscript is finished/fully-written, or before their nonfiction book proposal is finished/fully-written, is certainly a pet peeve. It makes no sense querying an agent with unfinished work.
2) DON’T AVOID THE LETTER: I would advise against writing query letters that state that the author does not want to write a query letter but has instead opted to merely attach a manuscript or synopsis to let the work speak for itself. Right away the literary agent will know that the author is going to be difficult to work with. The query letter is also essential so it really can’t be skipped.
3) PERSONALIZE THE ADDRESS: It is very impersonal seeing a query letter email from an author addressed to dozens of agents at various literary agencies with a “Dear Agent” greeting. Smaller agencies on those lists might think to themselves that they might not be able to compete with the bigger agencies on that list, opting to bow out, while bigger agencies will think to themselves that they shouldn’t have to put up with that, also opting to bow out. So where would that really leave an author? It’s better to do one’s research and approach the very best agency.
4) READ THE INSTRUCTIONS: Reading and respecting a literary agency’s submission guidelines (usually listed on the agency’s website) is also a good way to get a foot in the door, whereas bucking the system will seldom get a good result. New authors call all the time, asking if they can query us over the phone, and I must always refer them back to our website since we prefer to receive query letters there as a matter of company policy.
5) THINK OF BENDING THE RULES BEFORE BREAKING THEM: Knowing the rules before breaking them is also important, as going outside of genre-specific conventions and norms can be difficult for an author trying to make their major debut. For instance, a book written for elementary schoolchildren should not contain explicit language and content only appropriate for an adult audience. Knowing the proper book-length for the type of book written is also important, since publishers consider their cost of printing/production as well as shipping and warehousing, alongside how to price a shorter versus a longer book.
Trident Media Group, LLC
41 Madison Avenue, Floor 36
New York, NY 10010
Mark has consented to answering your questions. Feel free to ask away. Thank you for being our guest, Mark.
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How did I manage to miss this elegant little contest/game–The New Yorker Cartoon Caption Contest–which offers a new way for writers to procrastinate and waste precious writing time? The New Yorker cartoons were a cherished element of my childhood reading experience (I confess I skipped reading the articles until I was well into high school years).
Check out the weekly New Yorker cartoon (by clicking this link) and tell us what caption you’d write for it. Here’s my entry for the caption:
“My doctor says it’s an off-label use for energy drink withdrawal.”
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