Thursday, January 24, 2013

Self-Publishing: Avoiding, "It's too short!" Bad Reviews

A common reason for a bad review is the criticism that a short story or novella is "Too short." Whenever I hear authors complain about this type of review, they also are grinding their teeth because they mention in the product description and/or the cover that the book is a novella or short story. Thus the readers didn't read (or notice) that a book is a novella or short story, or they forgot by the time they got around to reading the story on their ereader.

When I self-published my first collection of short stories, Montana Sky Christmas, I worried about receiving these kinds of negative reviews. To prevent these type of reviews as much as possible, I took four proactive steps to avoid reader confusion.

1. I made "short stories" part of the title. The whole title is, Montana Sky Christmas: A Short Story Collection.

2. I made sure the subtitle was on the cover and as visible as the main title. I did this by changing the font and making the color "pop."

3. I put "Short Stories" in all caps in the product description:  In Montana Sky Christmas, USA Today bestselling author Debra Holland offers seven SHORT STORIES set in the small town of Sweetwater Springs, Montana in 1894.

4. In my email blast to my fans, I made sure to communicate the book was short stories.

In a lucky stroke that I didn't anticipates, when the reviews started coming in, the reviewers often mentioned that the book was composed of short stories. Some even mentioned which stories they liked the best.

To date, a little over four and a half months after publication and with 55 reviews, I don't have any reviews dinging me because Montana Sky Christmas was short stories, instead of one long story. I do have one or two who wistfully mention that they wish there were more.

For my novella, Painted Montana Sky, I did the same thing. I put in the subtitle that the story was a novella--Painted Montana Sky: A Montana Sky Series Novella. The subtitle also identified the novella as part of the series.

The only difficulty I encountered before publication was people asking me what a "novella" was. So when I sent out the fan email announcement, I used novella/novelette as a descriptor.

The first line of the product description reads: In Painted Montana Sky, a NOVELLA from the acclaimed Montana Sky Series, USA Today bestselling author Debra Holland brings together two people who have turned their backs on love and relationships.

I self-published Painted Montana Sky on December 22, and in slightly over a month it has acquired 21 reviews, none of which complain about the length.

So while I might not have forewarned every potential reader about the type and length of these stories, I did everything I think is possible to give them the knowledge, thus preventing future disappointment.

Monday, January 7, 2013

An Agent Bashes Self-Publishing and Amazon

Over the weekend, I attended a wonderful conference on story mastery, which was fun, inspirational, and chock full of interesting attendees. I had a marvelous time--with one exception--the agent who was a guest speaker. It wasn't the first time I've heard agents bash self-publishing and Amazon, but since it's important to me to educate authors about self-publishing, I wanted to write out some of what the agent said, and my opinion of his opinion. :)

First of all, I want to be clear. I am NOT bashing agents. I know and respect many agents. I have one of my own, whom I admire. Nor am I bashing traditional publishing. I'm also traditionally published and may be again in the future.

Before yesterday, I'd heard this agent/literary attorney speak several times. This weekend, when he was discussing selling a screenplay to Hollywood, including what should and should not be in the contracts, I thought he was very sharp and knowledgable, and I considered pitching my screenplay to him.

That opinion changed when he started talking about the importance of having an agent for books. He said editors will ONLY read agented submissions. (There was no mention that authors can pitch to editors at conferences or that editors now troll for best selling self-published books and make offers directly to the authors.) The implication is that an agent is vital for your publishing career.

However, that wasn't what annoyed me.

Someone in the audience asked his opinion of self-publishing. The agent responded by giving the audience opinionated, misleading, and sometimes false information, some of which I will detail here.

The agent was obviously against self-publishing, quoting the old statistic that 97% of authors sell less than 100 books. I know there are more recent surveys, and I also know that these surveys don't tap into much of the self-publishing community. I know a LOT of self-publishers who sell more than 100 books. They sell more than 100 books a year, a month, a week, a day, or an hour. Granted I hang out in the romance author circles, and romance fiction is a big percentage of the market, but I also know authors of other genres who have sold more than 100 books.

I spoke up, not to challenge the guy, but to educate the audience. I stated that I was a successful self-published author who had made the USA Today list and sold almost 100,000 books in a year. The speaker then made his point by saying that I was obviously one of the 3%.

The agent stated that with self-publishing you have to be your own editor and do your own marketing. He said that you want to go with a traditional publisher because they have wider distribution and can get you into brick and mortar stores. All true. But he didn't present the complete picture--that with self-publishing, you pay others to edit your work, and that no matter how you are published, you have to do promotion. Also most new or midlist authors don't receive a lot of promotion from their traditional publisher--so it doesn't matter if the possibility exists for wider distribution and promotion.

The agent was against small publishers, not even mentioning that there are some hot small pubs now that are doing far more for their authors than traditional publishers do for most of their authors. I think you have to be careful and do your research to discover them, but some small publishers are making exciting inroads into the market.

As for brick and mortar stores.... They are less and less viable for authors because many of them don't exist anymore. When my local Borders closed, I started buying my books at Amazon. Stores offer limited shelf-space, that mostly goes to well-known authors. And there's a limited amount of time a book will be available in the store.

The agent did grudging admit that a self-published author could receive higher royalties, but he mentioned that you could make 70% on a $10.00 book. (Untrue, you make 35% on a $10.00 book. You make 70% on a $9.99 book.) Granted, I'm being picky here. But if you are educating your audience, you have to give them the correct information.

Someone asked the agent more about Amazon. The audience member seemed to be asking about Amazon's traditional imprints, but the agent kept referring to Amazon's self-publishing platform. I spoke up and said that Amazon has traditional imprints. The agent responded by saying, "I would never submit to them because Amazon is destroying publishing. And I don't know any other agent who submits to them either."

Wow, really? No other agents submit to Amazon imprints?

I knew some of my fellow Montlakers had their books submitted by agents. Today, I took a survey of my Montlake friends and found a large percentage of authors had their books submitted by their agents. And if you look at Publisher's Marketplace, you'll also see agented sales to Amazon Imprints. I can't believe this agent wouldn't read PM.

Here is a guy who may be acting to detriment of his clients due to his own ideology. This agent is denying his clients the opportunity to have offers from the Amazon imprints, which may be much better than traditional publishing offers--or at the least spark some kind of bidding war. In my case, I had a big six editor approach me for my Montana Sky series. Her terms weren't as good as Montlake's, so I declined her offer. I know several other Montlake authors who had offers from big six publishers, and they, too, went with Amazon's better offers.

Then there is the potential for promotion and generating sales (and thus making money) that Amazon imprints offer. For example, my two Montlake books have sold about 100,000 in four months and a week. Much of those sales are due to Amazon's promotions. I know authors who've had way better sales with Amazon than I have. I certainly know I wouldn't have sold as many so quickly with a traditional publisher.

Amazon is destroying traditional publishing. Yep, that's true. And it's not true. Traditional publishing has been destroying itself. I won't go into the ways it has done so. There are plenty of blogs and articles that address this issue.

One of the things Amazon has done to strike a blow to traditional publishing is opened opportunities for authors. The company made the Kindle a viable option for readers and established a free, easy to use, self-publishing platform. Authors are flocking to self-publishing, many combining a career that includes self-publishing and traditional publishing as a way to have the best of both worlds. However, in the process, agents are becoming less and less important, and may, at times, be a detriment to an author's career.

Think carefully and do your research before you decide you want an agent. Then before submitting to agents, carefully check them out. You want an agent who's future oriented, not stuck in the past. Read their websites and blogs, and speak with their clients. Read PM and see what they've sold. Listen to their podcasts or CDs of when they speak at conferences. A good agent will be gold and do marvelous things for your career. Make sure that's the kind you have.