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4 Tips for Surviving a Writers Conference

by Steve Laube

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With author Lael Arrington at The C.S. Lewis Conference.

I’ve had the fun of teaching at nearly 150 writers conferences over the years. In that time I’ve noticed a number of common things that all writers face. Let’s explore a few tips that may help you survive at the next one you attend.

Relax
The most common mistake is viewing the conference as a make-it-or-break-it evetn. The stress folks place on themselves is palatable. I’ve had people so nervous to meet with me that they burst into tears before they can even begin to talk. (I don’t think I’m THAT hideous to look at!)

Better to plan on going multiple times, like you would to an extended college course. The first time get the lay of the land and the language spoken there.

It is a Safe Place to Fail
Where else can you practice your pitch with a professional? Where else can you get a first impression reaction from a professional? Fumbling your words, pitching in the wrong genre, or to the wrong editor are not fatal mistakes. We have a number of clients who we represent who failed over and over again…until finally figuring it out.

Use the opportunity to sit with an agent, an editor, or a freelancer and see how they react to your idea.  Watch the body language. Listen to the voice for that crackle of excitement. Learn from the experience.

Beware of the False Positive
It is not fun to tell a writer that their idea won’t work and watch the light go out in their eyes. A terrible thing. Thus many editors or agents will give a word of encouragement hopefully wrapped in an honest evaluation of the work at hand. Unfortunately all the writer hears are the words “this is pretty good,” and they ignore everything after the word “but.”

However, when an editor or agent says, “I’d like to see it, please send it to me.” Believe them. BUT do not take that as an “I’m only one step away from a book contract!” I’ve see this reaction far too often. Put the positive response in the right perspective and you will save yourself a lot of grief.

The editor or agent genuinely wants to look at your material but can’t really evaluate fully during a 15 minute conversation or in a hurried glance in a hallway between sessions. Back in the office it will be judged against everything else already on their desk, as it should be. A fantastic proposal will survive every gauntlet, including this one.

I once had a person literally kneel by my chair at a conference banquet pulling at my sleeve and desperately cry, “You absolutely must become my agent because that editor over there said they liked my story idea!” This person was over-reacting to a cordial request and turning it into a false positive.

Follow Through
Don’t get me wrong. Your book has a much greater chance of being accepted if you do indeed send it to the requesting editor or agent than if you don’t. Surprised at this advice? You would be astounded how many people never send us what we ask for.

And one little hint? If you do follow through, include your picture in the proposal in the bio section. It helps us remember which person we met and where. Earlier this year I received a query letter from an author who opened with, “We met in 2007 where I pitched an earlier version of the attached story.” But there was no photo, and no indication of where we met. I have to admit, I don’t remember that meeting.

Ultimately, try to enjoy yourself. As you can see from the below photo Randy Alcorn thinks he is hilarious. And Malcolm Guite wants to talk about his book! I am an innocent bystander.

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Photos taken by Lancia Smith

Should I Respond to a One-Star Review?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

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Have you ever received a one-star review? Or do you dread the day that might happen? Or perhaps you are hoping to be published so you can get a review. Any review. When you start receiving reviews, some of them might not be as stellar as you had hoped. So what, if anything, should you do?

Good, Bad, Indifferent?

When I look at reviews of sites such as Amazon, I think it’s healthy to see a range of reviews from five stars to one star rather than all fives. Why? Because a reasonable mix of reviews indicates that strangers are reading your book. Any author can find a few friends to post five star reviews, but a mixed reaction shows that a book is being marketed to a variety of readers. It’s nice not to receive any one-star reviews and keep your mix in the five to three range, but a few lower reviews mixed in with positive comments shouldn’t mark the end of your career.

That doesn’t mean one-star reviews take you to a happy place, though. Instead, you may feel angry, defensive, offended, surprised, and perhaps tearful. No matter what, don’t let your fingers hit the keyboard to respond publicly to any review when you are feeling these emotions. Call a friend and gripe, cry to your spouse, play catch with your dog, but never post any comments until you are calm. In fact, this applies to any form of posting comments online.

A Gracious Response

The idea for this topic occurred to me when I spoke with one of my authors, Angie Breidenbach. Angie has a positive outlook on life and she wasn’t upset by her one-star review on her book, A Healing Heart

Instead, she posted a gracious response that even gained her at least one more reader:

Thank you for your review. The character reactions are actually based on the study of people I know in real life. And to be honest, Mara is based on my own journey back from being angry with God. So I suppose it’s simply a case of whether you’ve ever experienced it or seen it happen to someone you love, or not. I wish you a delightful and joyous life – one that never has to face these dilemmas. May yours be a peace-filled, happy journey :)

That’s not to say that a well-mannered response will always be successful, though. We’ve all met the person who just won’t like us or our books no matter what we do or how we write. So how to decide?

Not All One-Star Reviews Are Equal

Some reviewers will state what they disliked about the book in an honest way. The nicer ones will also say what they did like about the book as well. Chances are, as the author, you won’t agree with a negative review. Very few people would be able to respond without appearing defensive or argumentative. Approach responding with extreme caution. Or better yet, don’t offer a retort at all.

Other reviewers are looking for a safe way to vent their own anger and frustration and may attack you and your beliefs personally. There is no reason to respond to them. By virtue of name-calling, the person has lost the argument.

In the Christian publishing world, we have a problem peculiar to us in that some people will read our books and then become mad that they portray a Christian message. These readers didn’t properly review the promotional material around your book before deciding to purchase. That is on the reader, not you, as an author. No need to respond to these reviews.

I’ve seen many one-star reviews commenting that the electronic format was poor so they rate the book one star for that reason. Sadly, this will bring down a book’s average but the author’s only safe response is to alert the publisher to the problem.

Still other reviewers will rank a competing book with a one-star and then try to convince readers to buy their books instead. Usually they’ll get called on this unethical practice by other reviewers. No need to comment on such a transparent ploy.

Remember, You Have a Team

If a reviewer has made an unjustifiable attack on your work and you really feel you need to make a correction, I still recommend not responding in any way until you speak with your agent and/or editor. For example, if a reviewer says your book misstates facts, defending the integrity of your research may be in order. But by all means, consult the team of publishing professionals behind you before engaging in any public defense or explanation.

Your Obligations

Yes, you are obligated to your readers in that you must deliver the best quality work you can at all times. This shows you care about your reader and her time. But you are not obligated to respond to your reviews at all. Many authors make a firm practice not to read their reviews. The flip side of reviews is that too many glowing ones may make you feel overconfident. Sort of like the old Hollywood expression about the star who believes his own publicity. 

Whether you keep up with your reviews or not, don’t take any of them too seriously. Better to spend your time writing your next wonderful book.

Your Turn

Do one-star reviews keep you from buying a book?

Have you been disappointed in a book with glowing reviews?

What book or books do think have really lived up to their reviews?

Have you ever written a one-star review?

How to Be A Reader’s Favorite Author

by Dan Balow

Woman with book

Last week in this space, I wrote about how you could become a publisher’s favorite author (other than selling millions of books).  Today, we’ll go a little different direction and talk about what you would need to do to become a favorite author to your readers.

A key difference between how you relate to a publisher and how you relate to a reader is that one is business and one is personal.  An average publisher will invest tens of thousands of dollars to get your book to market, while a reader might only need to pay $4.99 for an Amazon Kindle ebook.

Just like I wrote last week, regardless whether you are published or not, you should think now about what sort of relationship you want to have with your readers.

Last week I suggested that you should develop a publisher relations strategy for yourself. What I suggest this week goes a lot deeper. The closest thing I can think of for this discussion is to consider yourself as a “customer service” representative for your books. 

The Nordstrom retail company is legendary for their customer service.  They even have a manual, The Nordstrom Way.  To them, customer service is not a strategy, it is a “way of life”. 

So, among all the things you need to think about as an author…your platform, financial plan, professional growth and your relationships with your publisher and agent, I am suggesting you also need to decide on a way to treat your readers that becomes a way of life for you.

How would you become a “linchpin author” who inspires a reader to buy your next book and talk about it with friends?  I said last week that the obvious answer to that for the publisher is to write a best-selling book and making them a lot of money, but readers will be even more challenging.  Other than writing a great manuscript that will inspire wonderful comments from your readers, here are some thoughts on an effective “author way of life”.

  • Be a real person.  If a reader contacts you, write them back within 48 hours or less.
  • If you receive too many responses each day than you can handle, then have a friend, intern or even hire someone part-time to help you.  For most, the volume is not a problem. If it is, let someone else answer the questions about when your next book is available or if you plan on visiting Michigan any time soon.  A few “copy and paste” templates will suffice for those. For deeper issues, handle yourself.
  • Read a book by Gary Vaynerchuk…Crush It!, or The Thank You Economy or his newest, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook.  Gary is a social media guru who is highly successful making money from his social media strategy, but his approach will surprise you.  I think you will actually feel comfortable with it. (He will urge you to be real!)
  • Follow through on commitments.  This is also in your publisher relationship, but important for readers as well.  If you say you will do something, then do it.  If you promise to answer all letters within 48 hours, then take your laptop on vacation and continue to do it.
  • Minister to the readers.  In your books, blogs, anything you do, show that you treat people with grace and with fruit of the spirit.
  • Be aware of other books or authors and recommend them.  Chances are you won’t write ten books each year, like a store recommending another store to simply serve a customer well. You don’t lose a thing, in fact you will actually grow in stature with readers because you helped them.
  • Pray for your readers without telling them.

Of course, write a powerful book that positively affects lives and you will go a long way to becoming a favorite author, but it takes more.  Be real.

What ideas do you have to make yourself a linchpin author to readers?  

Hug a Librarian

by Steve Laube

Close up of a young male student holding book in front of his face amid bookshelves in the college library

It all began in elementary school. I discovered our city’s public library with the help of my mom. I soon began walking there regularly after school. While there, in what seemed to be a massive building, I would explore the rows and rows of books. Plucking one off the shelf here and there and skimming pages. And one day discovered a complete section of books on medieval knights and their armor. I spent hours pouring over those illustrations and reading all about medieval warfare.

Later, in high school, I spent one semester as the librarian’s aide. She and I would race to see who could file things in the card catalog faster. (Yes, back then we had a card catalog.)

In college I spent my junior year, one full Summer, and the first semester senior year working in the college library. I even explored the possibility of getting a Masters degree in Library Science. There was a certain satisfaction in helping other students find the right material for their research or showing them how to use various pieces of equipment. I even spent time in the back room repairing broken bindings and cataloging the rare book collection.

This past weekend there was the Public Library Association Conference in Indianapolis and had me thinking about the impact of the Library on my life and today in my profession as a literary agent. One fascinating Pew Research study found:

Nearly “90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a ‘major’ impact. Asked about the personal impact of a public library closing, two-thirds (67%) of Americans said it would affect them and their families, including 29% who said it would have a major impact.”

It is a sad thing when municipal budgets cut library hours, services, and resource budgets. It is as if many don’t realize how vital a strong library system is to our society. Instead they see the library as a luxury. A non-essential.

I’ve said it this way, “The public library system is the largest bookstore chain in the country and few realize it. If a book is sold to only a tiny percent of the branches your book could sell thousands of copies!” Even with digital initiatives changing the nature of libraries, they still buy books. Lots of books. (Publishers are finding ways of selling ebooks to libraries so they can be checked out by the public. The link is to a Forbes article on the topic.)

One estimate claims there are 120,000 libraries in the U.S. Of those 9,000 are public libraries (which also have an additional 7,000 branches = 16,000 buildings). There are another 98,000 school libraries, both public and private.

As I was thinking about this post and the job our librarians do I stumbled across this great interview with a librarian published only a few days ago. Read it here.

For authors there is a great service called Library Insider (click here to visit the site) Developed by Books and Such Literary Agency and Judy Gann, herself a librarian, it helps writers market their books to libraries across the country.

Back to the title of this post. When was the last time you went to your local library? Have you shown appreciation for the work they do? Consider joining a local group that supports your library system. Give them a proverbial hug.

As Neil Gaiman said, in his brilliant lecture “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming“:

“Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”

How to Be A Publisher’s Favorite Author

by Dan Balow

linchpinThree years ago, Seth Godin published his book Linchpin.  Since I follow Seth’s books and blog as a personal and professional challenge, I read it and was inspired by it’s concepts.

In it, Godin speaks about some of the new realities in business relationships.  There used to be management and those who were managed.  But now, he says, there is a third group…linchpins.  These are people who make unique contributions to an organization, solve problems and make the organization better. 

To be clear, a linchpin is not someone who knows all the computer passwords and won’t tell anyone else, or the only one who knows where to find the key to the petty cash drawer. In fact, a person who bases their “indispensability” on a lot of little things is actually just the opposite…even potentially dangerous. 

If you are already published or want to be published, you should think about what sort of relationship you want to have with the publisher.

How would you become a “linchpin author” who inspires the best work from a publisher?  Other than the obvious of writing a bestseller and making them and you a lot of money, here are some ideas:

  • Know something about the publisher.  Read about their history and know who is important and what motivates them.  If you were interviewing for a job, you would learn something about the company, right?
  • Follow through on commitments.  Hit deadlines.  If you can’t, tell the publisher well in advance.  Communicate even if the publisher doesn’t.
  • Make relationship deposits. At some point you will need to make withdrawals and there needs to be something in the account.
  • Minister to the publisher.  If you are a marriage counselor, offer a free marriage seminar to the publisher staff.  If you consult ministries, offer it.  Look for a unique thing you can freely give from yourself without strings attached.
  • Be cost-conscious.  Publishers are, you should be too.  Let the publisher decide to spend $300 on dinner.
  • Contact the head of sales and marketing and ask if there anything you can do to help.  And mean it.
  • Find a book from the publisher that you really like (not one of yours) and promote it with no strings attached. You are a team player.
  • Pray for your publisher without telling them.

If you haven’t been published yet, it is never too early to devise a relationship strategy that makes you a linchpin author.  You spend time developing your marketing platform…would make sense to find ways to keep a publisher working hard for you.

Finally, in the end, your book needs to sell well in order for a publisher to continue working with you. But publishers make decisions based on money along with relationship.  If sales are borderline, the relationship might be the deciding factor.

What ideas do you have to make yourself a linchpin author?  

Why Not Take a Chance?

by Tamela Hancock Murray

great risk road sign illustration design
Often I receive queries and proposals in which the author will say his submission is out of the box. I’m not opposed to groundbreaking work, but I have to decide what will and what won’t work for me. I am the first to admit, this process is subjective. Our own Steve Laube is routinely teased by a couple of his successful author friends he turned down. If an agent as wise as Steve Laube misses a call, everyone does. But here are a few questions I’ll answer to show why it’s not easy to sell an out-of-the-box work:

Is the economy making you more selective? It’s not helping, but in any economic environment, we agents must choose the best of the best and most marketable submissions.

But you and the editors are all friends. Why not take a chance even on work you’re not sure about? I do take the occasional chance on out-of-the-box submissions that are so stellar I’m awestruck, but I’m not often awestruck. I must be mindful that I am putting my name and The Steve Laube Agency name on every submission I send. In addition, the submissions I get behind must compete with other submissions that have been vetted by other professional agents. I would venture that the quality of agented submissions is outstanding. So getting me on board is hard, but getting the publisher on board is harder.

J is for Just-in-Time

by Steve Laube

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The economics of bookselling are complex and ever changing. There is a method of inventory control called “Just-in-Time” (or JIT) that has revolutionized both the retail and manufacturing industries.

When I began as a bookseller there was no such thing as computerized inventory, at least not in the Christian bookstore business. We used a method call “Stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly.” Because “If you stack ‘em low, they won’t go.” The idea was to merchandise large amounts of inventory because there was no quick way to replenish your stock if you ran out.

We had sheets of paper with a list of “Never Out” titles in books and music. Weekly we would physically count the remaining stock and if our inventory on a title fell below a particular level we would order more. This was our attempt to time our inventory to match the consumer demand. Titles not on the list would be reordered when that publisher’s sales rep came to visit. The rep would inventory the store and together we would determine what titles to replenish and which ones to let disappear.

Technology Caused Disruption
Computerization changed everything. Using an algorithm the computer determined the speed, or rate, of sale for each title and created order quantities to match the projected demand. This was called “Just-in-Time.” The inventory would arrive just in time to meet the customer wanting that book.

Learning Every Day

by Dan Balow

Doors opening to show flying letters in a grey room

One of the favorite things I do each month is to get together with three friends to talk about life and work.  We meet for breakfast and share what we are doing.  All of us are Christ followers and have known each other for many years.  We discuss issues related to the changing world of communications as all four are involved in various aspects of the media.

For example, I recall one day that we discussed how bad news has much more velocity than good news in social media.  One of the breakfast gurus mentioned an event he was involved in promoting where comments were being posted on social media during the event, by the participants. (It was a very large race…no idea how people on racing bicycles can be Tweeting) We then discussed how public relations used to be a process of spinning a story and getting media to cover it in manner you wanted.  Now, negative comments seem to take on a life of their own before we know it.

Each month the subject is different, mostly unplanned, but always interesting and always challenging.

Each generation, there is an important skill to be practiced that is a key to working successfully.  I recall many years ago when personal computers came on the scene and thinking that I was really happy that I took a typing class in high school.  Now, the schools call it “keyboarding”, but the QWERTY keyboard is as important to every job today as good handwriting was a couple generations ago.

Back to School for You

by Steve Laube

Back to school message above open book graphic on white background with vignette

I’m of the generation that remembers the day after Labor Day being the first day of school. But no more. All through August kids of all ages have been headed back to the classroom. When our daughters were in Marching Band they had rehearsals on the field twice a day, starting two weeks before school began…which put their practices into the month of July…in Phoenix….where it was 114 degrees yesterday.

But while you may be past having to go to school you should still have a learning mindset. We all need to be open to new ideas and expand our understanding of the world around us. For writers, agents, and editors it may mean going to a writers conference or it could mean some self-study by reading something about this industry. Let me suggest a few books that could do the trick.

One Day at a Time Technology

by Dan Balow

Digital Touchdown with Cloud Computing

Computers are the perfect example of something we learn about and then must constantly update that knowledge. It’s like we have all had to become scientists or doctors. Just a few years ago, computer storage was measured in megabytes. Then it reached a thousand megabytes and we moved on to gigabytes. When we reach a thousand gigabytes we need terabytes.

As a public service, here is something to memorize so you can be as smart as a fourth grader:

1 Bit = Binary Digit

8 Bits = 1 Byte

1000 Bytes = 1 Kilobyte
1000 Kilobytes = 1 Megabyte
1000 Megabytes = 1 Gigabyte
1000 Gigabytes = 1 Terabyte
1000 Terabytes = 1 Petabyte
1000 Petabytes = 1 Exabyte
1000 Exabytes = 1 Zettabyte
1000 Zettabytes = 1 Yottabyte
1000 Yottabytes = 1 Brontobyte
1000 Brontobytes = 1 Geopbyte

In the 90’s when everyone needed to have a website, we all learned the same thing…that just having a website wasn’t enough.  We needed to update it every month, then every week, then every day just to keep the traffic growing.

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