Death to the Midlist, Long Live the Ownlist

In all the talk about types of authors (indie, traditional, blended, A-list, midlist) there is, in my view, emerging a more definitive typology. I’m calling it the “ownlist writer.”
The old designation of “midlist writer” referred to that land of lean where writers who were not of bestselling status used to hang out. These were the writers who did not get much more than catalogue placement, who were not given significant marketing dollars or push from the publisher. This often made economic sense for the company. After all, they are in business, and the goal of business is to maximize profit. The way to do that is to invest in “sure things.” In the case of a publishing company, the sure thing is the A-list author–the author whose books have already proved popular with readers and have a sales record that can be largely depended upon.
Case in point: I remember reading a Publishers Weekly article some years ago about how a publisher had decided to make one of their authors the next “big name.” This was after five or six thrillers, which were gathering great word of mouth and increasing sales. The significant marketing push behind his next book did exactly what the publisher anticipated, elevating that author to the A list, where said author is a dominant force to this day. A fellow named Child.
But only a handful of authors ever get this treatment. The overwhelming majority wind up as midlisters, where the seas are turbulent.
Now, In the very old days (pre-1980 or so) a midlist writer might actually forge something of a career. If he showed steady but not spectacular sales, accepted advances commensurate with those sales, then he could actually hang on. Almost always he’d have to supplement the writing income with a “day job.” But at least he could say he was published.
Then came the era of the blockbuster. Sidney Sheldon. Stephen King. Judith Krantz. Robert Ludlum, Michael Crichton, Tom Clancy, John Grisham and lately a guy named Patterson. They became the “tent poles” that held up the edifice for everyone else. And of course, this is who the publishers put their money behind.
And the midlist, as a place of repose, began to dry up.
Which meant that more and more writers began to lose the writing part of their lives. The only place they could go was to tiny publishing companies outside Manhattan, hoping for  placement in enough independent bookstores to make the effort worthwhile.
Then digital self-publishing became a viable alternative. Each month we hear about more writers making significant income self-publishing (we also hear about writers who have not realized that level…yet. See my post on “harsh realities.”) And we also now know that the best way to market your self-published work is by owning your own list.
That means readers who have opted to be on the writer’s list and notified directly when a new book is available. As the author adds quality product to his line, the list grows, along with the author’s income.
How do you start growing such a list?
1. Have a website which has a place for people to sign up for your list.
2. Offer an incentive to sign up. I give away a free book. It’s a win-win. 
3. Speak everywhere you can. Yes you, unknown author, go to your local library and volunteer to do a talk on the subject of your novel. Go wherever they’ll have you. At these talks pass around a legal pad and ask people to put their email on it if they’d like to be notified when something of yours comes out. What, you don’t do public speaking? Afraid? Nervous? Join Toastmasters. Or get The Quick and Easy Way to Effective Speaking by Dale Carnegie and practice!
4. Put your email list on a service like MailChimp, Constant Contact or Vertical Response.
5. Put this information in the back matter of your book. It should be a short descriptive paragraph and a link. Something like:
For a complete list of my fiction and writing books, please visit my website and sign up for my occasional updates. I will not share your info with anyone for any reason, and won’t stuff your mailbox, either.
6. Make your emails short, entertaining and with a soft sell. This, to me, is something a lot of authors are missing. I don’t send out a “newslettery” email. I don’t want to give the feel of a sales brochure, or even something that’s going to take too much time to get through. I send short emails, and try to include a bit of humor, something about what I’m working on, and a link to one or two items for sale. If it’s a book launch, I make the entire email about that.
7. Be careful with subject lines. Avoid words like FREE and DEAL and other sales-type language, because sometimes those get dumped into spam folders. Do, however, make it specific. For example, an email I sent about my online novel writing course had the subject: Especially For Writers. It did quite well. I once sent out an email with the subject line: News from James Scott Bell. That didn’t get nearly as many clicks, because it’s too generic.
8. Mail regularly, but not too frequently. My rules of thumb:
a. More than once a month is too much. If there’s some sort of really crucial news you must share in the same month, go ahead. Just don’t make a habit out of it.
b. Less than once every three months is too little. Even if you don’t have a book coming out, update your readers on your progress, a little window into your writing life. 
Nurturing your own list is the best single platform-building tool you have. Start now. Don’t stress about numbers. Some is better none, and having an ongoing process is the key. Another bonus: If you are angling to become traditionally published someday, having a list is one very good sign to a publisher that you’re out there doing something to support your books.

The Drowning Pool

I have no words of wisdom to share with you this week — I mean, why break a couple of years of consistency? — so I thought I’d be nosy and ask some questions. I’ll share my answers as well, dipping my feet in the water first to demonstrate that there aren’t any sharks waiting.

The overall theme here concerns emails. I receive about two hundred a day. Around seventy percent of those are deleted without being read — I receive a number of newsletters and such which are of irregular interest — but if I don’t trim the bush regularly they seem to be fruitful and multiply. This week was an extremely busy one and this morning when things quieted down a bit I felt a bit like Captain Kirk in the Star Trek episode, “The Trouble with Tribbles,” when he opened the cargo space and the hull was overloaded with furry round creatures. Herewith then, are my questions and my answers. I  would appreciate it if you would share your answers as well.

1) How many emails do you receive on a typical day?

175- 200

2) How many emails do you wind up reading before deleting each day?


3)  Do you faithfully delete or file away emails on a regular basis — say, daily or weekly — or do you keep everything in your inbox?

I attempt to weed my inbox daily; failing that, I don’t let it go any longer than a week before doing so.

4) How many emails — read or otherwise — are in your inbox right now?


5) What’s the date of the oldest email in your inbox?

March 11. Of this year.

6) How often do you check your email inbox?

Several times an hour.

7) Have you ever checked your email inbox during sex?

No. Who has time for sex? I’m busy checking my email.

8) How many email correspondents do you have who absolutely have to have the last word in an email exchange, regardless of who initiated the conversation?


9) Have you ever decided that, however juvenile it might be, you were going to have the last word in an email exchange, and deliberately continued it with pointless observations?


10) Did you “win?”


If so, how long did it take? 

Four days

11) If you check your email obsessively, do you get impatient or angry with someone (like your spouse, best friend, or love interest) who does not?


A Silent Society

Few people seem to make personal phone calls anymore just to say hello. In the old days, I would call my girlfriends and we’d spend hours chatting on the phone. But today, I’m lucky to get a terse email from my acquaintances asking if I want to meet for lunch.

What does this have to do with writing? Those of us who are full-time writers sit home alone all day. Our characters might keep us company, but it’s not the same as hearing a human voice. How long can you go without yearning to have a real conversation?


Despite having my retired husband at home, I still wonder why so few of my girlfriends pick up a phone anymore. Is it that they’re so involved with their busy lives? Is it because they’re afraid of interrupting my muse? Or do people nowadays consider it an inconvenience and a waste of time to talk on the phone? Our children are grown, so we don’t have to compare notes on child rearing. We’re not school kids, so we can’t moan about homework assignments or share high school angst. But in those days of starry-eyed youth, we would discuss the meaning of life, our knotty relationships with others, our fears and doubts. Do we writers just talk about them with our fingers on the keyboard now instead of our voices?


There’s great comfort in picking up the phone and hearing someone say, “I was just wondering how you’re doing.” Or, “I called to say hello.” What’s happened to those days? Is it my friends, or my attitude that’s off kilter? I still have intimate conversations with distant relatives on the phone. But that doesn’t apply to local friends. Is the telephone an outmoded device for social interaction? Are online social networks replacing real, live conversations? Texting and email are too impersonal and brief to count.

Or maybe it’s that cell phones are not as comfortable to talk on for any length of time as a landline. When speaking with this device close to my ear, I’m aware of the invisible rays boring into my head and the possible link to brain tumors. Or can it be a matter of economics, that people don’t want to use up their precious cell phone minutes on a frivolous call?

I still like to hear another human voice. Maybe that relegates me to the age of the dinosaurs.


What about you? Do you still have conversations with friends on the telephone?

Is email dead?

by Joe Moore

A recent article in The Wall Street Journal talked about the topic while discussing alternative forms of communication such as Twitter, Facebook messaging and similar services, and how social networking and instant messaging are surpassing old faithful: email.

Before you say “no way”, think back to those distant dark ages when one of the main forms of business communication was the fax. How many faxes did you send last month?

And if you really want to get into the “way-back” machine and visit historical communication methods, let’s consider letter writing. Anyone remember that. While some used a gadget called a typewriter to compose letters, the shocking truth is that others actually wrote letters longhand using an analog marking device commonly known as a pen (or pencil). I know, it’s crazy but true.

Many of us are still using email everyday and are perfectly happy with it. But technology is constantly moving forward, with or without us. It’s well documented that Egyptian Pharaoh King Tut once proclaimed, “I’m still using hieroglyphics everyday and am perfectly happy with it.” But as the article points out, email is a function left over from the bad old days of logging off and on and checking stuff in globs. Today, everyone is “always on” with the latest generation of mobile communication devices and smart phones.

As an example, my son travels a lot. We both have Google Talk installed on our PCs so we can chat. Rather than emailing me a question, comment or a simple hello, he sends me an instant message. I hear a ping and within seconds I’m chatting with him anytime in real time. Last week, he sent me an IM from 30k feet over the Midwest on his way to Washington, DC now that airlines are installing in-flight wideband WiFi.

With services like Twitter and Facebook, you can answer a question before anyone even asks it. Rather than sending me an email wanting to know how my latest thriller is selling, I can update my status to declare that it’s selling somewhere under a million copies—way under.

But like the WSJ article asks, does the new generation of hieroglyphicscommunication services save you time? Or are they eating up your day? Now that we have so many methods to instantly communicate, are we going to spend more time doing so? Or are we already wasting more time in the process? What do you think? Is email dead at your house or are you still using hieroglyphics and staying perfectly happy with it? Send me an IM and let me know.