Have you ever walked into a bookstore, picked up a historical novel set in renaissance Italy and thought “my goodness WHAT is this headless woman on the cover wearing? Her gown is SO obviously Tudor!” Yeah, me too. And here’s the thing, before I started writing historical fiction I might have drawn some erroneous conclusions based on such a book cover.
First, I might have concluded that “author X” hadn’t done her research or just didn’t care that her cover model was wearing a gown from the wrong period. Since becoming an author I’ve learned that this is probably not the case. Shall I tell you a secret? Authors have VERY limited influence on the covers of their books.
I am NOT saying that good publishers don’t seek author input before holding a cover conference. My editor asked me for examples of existing covers that I loved as well as examples of covers I didn’t like. She encouraged me to explain why I felt as I did. She also asked me to collect images from fine art imbued with the feeling I wanted my cover to have, and to submit descriptions and pictures of what my 13th century sisters might have worn.
What I AM saying is my cover was still a big surprise when I saw it. So if you LOVE the cover of The Sister Queens, I am glad but, please, give credit where it is due. I did not create the cover painting (you should be thankful for this – profoundly thankful), the cover artist did. And folks in the design department picked that gorgeous lettering. So send your warm and fuzzy thoughts (or compliments) their way. And if you HATE the cover of my book (or any author’s book) please spare me a note upbraiding me.
This leads me to the second flawed conclusion I might have drawn back in my “fan-but-not-a-writer” days: covers exist to accurately portray a period of history, or a scene from a book. Nope. Sorry. Some covers may do those things, but covers in general are designed for one reason and one reason alone – to sell books. This is precisely why authors don’t (and probably shouldn’t) design them.
I never viewed covers as sales tools until I signed my book contract. But believe me once you have a book coming out selling books is foremost in your mind. I want to sell books, and more than that, I want to sell books to people who are not ME. Therefore, what I would personally like to see on the cover of my book runs a distant second to what a majority of book-buying, cash-carrying potential readers will find attractive. And the truth is I am not in a position to predict what will catch the eye of the average book buyer. I am not trained to do that, nor have I conducted studies or otherwise made it my business to keep my fingers on the pulse of such things. The folks in my publisher’s art and design departments, on the other hand, ARE in a position to predict what will make a reader reach out and lift The Sister Queens off a table full of books all looking for a home. They have been designing covers for years. That’s why design departments and not authors get the final say over what book covers looks like.
Perhaps the folks designing the cover for a historical novel know that a certain color gown makes books jump off the shelf and into readers’ hands, so they use that color even if it may not be precisely “period.” They might even (gasp) put Tudor gowns on non-Tudor-era women because books about Tudors sell like hotcakes and they are hoping to entice readers of Tudor historical fiction to pick up, and ultimately try, something new. Who can say? As an author I certainly can’t. And as a reader I am now careful to examine covers with a different eye than I did in my pre-writing days—I may still judge the book by its cover, but I no longer judge that book’s author.
Authors are in the business of writing books, design and art departments are in the business of covering them.
In September of 1939 you couldn’t find Steinbeck’s iconic The Grapes of Wrath on public library shelves in Kern County California (it had been banned by the county board of supervisors). And The Grapes of Wrath is just one of many books now considered “classics” that has come under attack over the years (Call of the Wild or Lord of the Rings anyone?). In 2010, 2008, 2007 and 2006 the most frequently challenged book in America was a picture book — And Tango Makes Three, by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell – about two (male) Penguin’s at the Central Park Aoo who are given a chance to hatch an egg that needs a home and do an admirable job (based on a true story).
Now I have NO PROBLEM with people deciding that THEY won’t read a particular book, whatever their reasons (plenty of people will doubtless choose to forgo mine). Think Harry Potter promotes witchcraft? Then for heaven’s sake don’t buy it, and walk right past the series on the library shelf. Deciding not to read something because you object to its content isn’t much different, in my opinion, than not picking up a book because you don’t like the genre, or putting a book down mid-read because you just aren’t engaged. It’s called consumer choice.
What I DO object to in the strongest possible terms are people who want to keep me or anyone else from making our own reading decisions. This is sanctimonious hooey! It’s my free time, it’s my library card (or dollar); I don’t want to be told what I can or can’t read with it. And I especially don’t want others attempting to parent my children – which is precisely what they are trying to do when they challenge a book’s inclusion in school or public library. If a card-carrying member (oooo, if they have cards do you think they show little piles of books burning) of the book challenging/banning crew doesn’t want his children to read a particular title then he should make a rule—FOR HIS OWN FAMILY and nobody else’s. Seriously, if you have so little control over your progeny that you need to keep a book off a public shelf to keep it out of Junior’s hands you have a much bigger problem to worry about than whether or not Twilight is going to turn your child into a Mormon.
So how can we support (to quote the American Library Association) “the freedom to choose or the freedom to express one’s opinions even if that opinion might be considered unorthodox or unpopular and [stress] the importance of ensuring the availability of those viewpoints to all who wish to read them?” The simplest way I can think of is to read a banned book this week in celebration of the fact that you CAN and mindful of the fact that there was a time and a place when somebody couldn’t. Better still, borrow a banned book from the library with your child and, after he/she has enjoyed it explain that “once upon a time” that book was excluded from the shelves. It is never too early to instill the values of “open access” and open mindedness in the next generation.
First a confession . . .I got the idea for this post while watching a movie—a movie I’ve seen before that always makes me cry. As I swallowed hard, trying to fight back tears during the climactic scene I found myself wondering, why do I put this film in the DVD player when I know the response it is going to evoke? Why do I take a perfectly good Sunday afternoon and willingly lower my own spirits?
A similar question can be asked about books. The first time we read a novel we don’t know that it is going to end uncomfortably. But the next time we most certainly do. So, why do we re-read such stories? When I was sixteen I thought that Ivanhoe would end up with Rebecca (totally unrealistic—I know). Decades later I know with certainty he will not. Yet I take Sir Walter Scott’s novel off my shelf again and again. What value is there to be found in reading an “unhappily ever after” tale?
1) Books where everything doesn’t end well for everyone make us think. When life is smooth sailing we tend to “go with it.” Nothing wrong with that! There isn’t much call for pondering our fate or closely examining our own actions when everything is moving along smoothly. And the same is true in reading. I tend to race through happy books, enjoying every minute, but not exactly mulling over the deeper stuff of life. That’s not to say I never think about ethical issues when reading a book that ends—who hasn’t considered the role of duty and honesty in life when confronted with the juxtaposition of Mr. Knightly and Mr. Frank Churchill? But nothing makes me confront the BIG issues like a book that ends badly. Want to tackle human evil, racism, illness, the death of a child, inequality before the law, loneliness, colonialism, religious intolerance? A novel can make you do that, but only if you read novels that put their characters through the ringer. These are the books where bad things happen to good people, but I would argue positive good comes out of reading and discussing them (even heatedly).
2) Books that don’t resolve neatly for characters we think of as “deserving” set realistic expectations for real life. Life is full of difficult stuff (see the list of issues in the last paragraph and that doesn’t scratch the surface). Stories that sanitize human existence don’t do us any favors. Look at what believing that her life would be like a romantic novel did for Emma Bovary. Seriously. Readingfor escapism has its place, but if it is all we do then it is easy to start believing the hype. And when we hit obstacles in our lives that don’t resolve with hard work or a convenient plot twist we can start to feel aggrieved, even though common sense and experience tell us that life is not fair. I call this the “where’s my happy ending” syndrome. The occasional book where the good are not rewarded and/or the bad are not punished goes a long way towards restoring our balanced view of our own lot. The Disney version of “A Little Mermaid” may have tunes I can hum but the original story resonates with me on a deeper level.
So bring on the tear-jerkers, the novels that make me grind my teeth in frustration, and the books that make me hope against reason that next time I read them they will end differently. I am ready to feel the horror as Anna Karenina realizes too late that she wants to live. I am ready to shed an angry tear with Jem when he learns Tom Robinson has been convicted. I am ready to be tied up in knots again by Richard Wright’s Native Son. I will continue to read and re-read books where bad things happen to good characters because they make me attend to matters of my own character in a way that nothing else can.
If cost were no object I would definitely make a book trailer. It would be just like a big-studio film trailer—atmospheric music, gorgeous settings, first-rate live actors, dramatic editing effects.
But cost is not irrelevant. Not in my world (if it is irrelevant in yours and you want to bankroll my big budget book trailer just let me know). So when I got my book contract and started to plan my personal promotional budget I had to look critically at every possible piece of the marketing puzzle. As part of that process I asked myself what I could reasonably expect to achieve with a book trailer for The Sister Queens, and given that did I want to invest in one?
Never one to make a decision in a vacuum (or to miss an opportunity for goofing off on YouTube when I should be reading an obscure reference work), I looked at dozens of book trailers. Along the way I realized that writers of historical fiction face special challenges because our trailers must create and populate a rich visual world removed in time and place from the present and transport the viewer there. Of course we had to do this in our novels as well, BUT we were working with words and that left the visual images up to the fertile brains of our readers. In a visual medium (a video trailer) we must craft the images ourselves (or pay someone to craft them), and they must be convincing.
Having finished my “tour de trailers” I have pretty much decided that not to do a trailer for The Sister Queens. But I’ve been known to make the wrong decision (more than once even). So I am asking you, AS READERS (fellow writers, put your “readers hat” on please) to disabuse me of the following conclusions I drew along my journey.
Lots of book trailers view like educational power point presentations. They have music, they have art. Sometimes they manage to have both from the same (and the correct) period. They might even have well-done voice-overs (don’t get me started on the trailers that just have rolling text like extensive film credits). But I have to admit a vast majority of book trailers without live action felt educational to me. This was true even of the trailers that wove a bit of author interview in (this technique reminded me of the “talking heads” used in documentary films).
I am big on education (especially history education), but I thought the purpose of a book trailer was to make me want to BUY THE BOOK. These fact-heavy trailers full of still images just didn’t sweep me up and leave me all shivery the way good film trailers (and by good I mean trailers that make me come back and plunk down money to see the full product) can. I guess when a visual medium—video—is employed I want action. So what about trailers featuring live actors?
Live-action trailers can be more gripping but NOT if they look homemade. Blame the production values I am used to seeing in costume-drama on PBS, but if I can tell that a live-action trailer for a book set at the Tudor court was made in someone’s dining room or backyard, you’ve lost me. If the costumes look homemade or, god forbid, halloweeny (if that is not a word I hereby create it), I can’t even watch to the end. My reaction to such trailers is similar to when I attend a recital at which one performer botches badly and I don’t know where to look because I am just SO embarrassed for him. I know this is unfair because creating a realistic look for a historical trailer is difficult whereas if you write a contemporary novel you can come up with a convincing setting and wardrobe pretty easily. But I guess we historical novelists ought to have thought of that before picking a genre because the bottom line is I am not willing to forgive hokey.
And then there are the acting and editing aspects of a live-action trailer. Have a look at the trailers for The Borgias or The Tudors or Game of Thrones. Setting aside any historical accuracy issues you may have, have you ever seen a book trailer that looked like them? I haven’t. They are pure, pulse-pounding drama. If these were book trailers I would crawl over broken glass to buy the books. But I suspect they cost big, BIG money (see paragraph 2 – I do not have big money).
Finally, even if I poured vast sums of money into a trailer (and was subsequently divorced by my spouse and beaten to death by my children whose tuition payments I failed to make as a result of my spendthrift ways) I am not sure how many people would see it. Yes, I know they are out there on YouTube but that is a huge pond and trailers are little fish. How can I be certain that potential readers would ever see my trailer? Many of the trailers I looked at had low “views” numbers. Of course I could put the trailer on my website as well, but presumably if I have managed to lure some unsuspecting potential reader to my site the blurb for my novel will provide her with the best way of gauging both the content of my book and her interest in it. There simply needs to be a better and more direct forum for readers to browse trailers before I would consider pouring cash into one.
I will close by admitting I saw some good trailers—trailers that did their authors and the books they represented proud. Even so, I have no way of knowing whether or not those book trailers were effective in interesting readers and generating sales. So I am back where I started, no book trailer for me. Unless one of you wants to point out my errors of reasoning. Any takers? The comment section is wide open. Do you use book trailers to select books? Has a trailer ever sold you a novel you didn’t already intend to buy anyway?
Everybody mispronounces a word or uses a malapropism now and again (well, not again in this scenario). Lighten up people.
Oh, and have a marvelous Labor Day weekend!
The best writings, like the best men, tell the truth.” (Sophie Perinot, The Sister Queens)
This past weekend I read this article in the New York Times about the increasingly prevalent practice of “buying” good reviews in on-line venues to boost sales. This is a despicable practice (and I do not use words like despicable lightly because, as a writer, I know the power of language).
The idea of offering someone a quid pro quo (whether cold hard cash, savings, or swag) to say something good about you is dishonest and demeaning. I know in the current economic climate competition – whether you are hotelier or a novelist – is fierce, but cheating is still cheating. I wouldn’t want to win a race because I put pebbles in someone else’s shoes, and, likewise, I wouldn’t want to trick anyone into buying my debut novel.
One of the idiot businesses in the New York Times article claims they are only soliciting honest positive reviews and then rewarding those “loyal” customers with discounts on return visits, but PLEASE—pecuniary interest and honest judgment have never been comfortable bedfellows. Does it matter that this hotel truly believes it is an excellent place to stay? Does it matter that the authors who purchase 5-star reviews for their books on Amazon likewise believe what they’ve produced is 5-star worthy writing? No. The truth of the matter is buying reviews is NOT the same as earning them—no matter how well deserved those stars might be.
We don’t always get what we deserve. The best man doesn’t always win, nor does the best novel. But the minute we start to think that we are just “leveling the playing field” or we make other excuses for disguising promotional materials as impartial reviews we diminish ourselves as persons of honor and integrity. As far as I am concerned honor and integrity are more important than sales.
What about the folks who write these reviews? Many of them are being hired to do so. It’s just a job, right? Surely they are less culpable. Hm. Maybe I live in the past (an occupational hazard when writing historical fiction) but what happened to the idea that a man’s word (or a woman’s word) is his bond? What is an individual’s betrayal of his own word worth? Surely more than the $5 or $10 dollars per review that he is being paid to prostitute his honor? As I the bard said, “No legacy is so rich as honesty.” (William Shakespeare, All’s Well that Ends Well, Act 3 scene 5) Continue reading Fake On-Line Reviews Hurt Readers and Writers Alike
As some of you know, I contribute monthly to a very informative writers’ blog called From the Write Angle. Today is my day to post there, and I am blogging about two subjects near and dear to my heart – the pressing desire of debut authors to avoid being “one book wonders,” and professional self-discipline. To wit, I argue that as a writer exercises of self-discipline are required to build an audience and keep them coming back for more.
So if you came here for your daily dose of Sophie only to be disappointed (yes, you Mom), head on over to From the Write Angle.
Before I got up the guts to start this solo blog, I cut my blogging teeth by becoming an active member of the writers’ blog, From the Write Angle. A group of us who met through AgentQuery Connect and had begun to inch up the ladder of publication together decided to blog together. The premise of our undertaking:
We learn best, not from our bigger than life heroes, but big brothers and sisters. We run fastest to catch the person just in front of us, not who has already finished the race. We seek The Write Angle to help you, not because we have reached the summit, but because we are in arm’s length, and when you are arm’s length ahead of us, we hope you’ll remember how you got there
I for one have learned so much from the posts of my fellows over at From the Write Angle, and I think you might enjoy their viewpoints on a variety of writing topics. Also, I continue to blog monthly at that location. So, if you just can’t get enough of me here (snort) check out From the Write Angle. My July post (new today) is called Letting Go to Help Our Book Babies Grow and addresses the need for authors to allow publishing professionals to do their jobs.
I am a long time member and BIG time fan of AgentQuery Connect. For those aspiring writers who do not know AQ run don’t walk to the website as it is a fantastic source for information on every step of the road to being repped and published, a very supportive writing community, and (most importantly for the purposes of this post) good spot to get feedback on a query letter before you send one out.
Now anyone who’s ever drafted a query letter (the pitch letter writers send to agents) knows it takes time. The letter is a vital sales document. Write it well and you snag the interest of an agent and a coveted request for a partial or full. Write it poorly and you may never even warrant a form rejection. Writing a good query is not easy (there are hundreds if not thousands of articles and blog posts offering advice on how to compose a good letter). BUT should it really take months and drafts in the double-digits?
At the risk of aggravating many I say no. In fact I say, NO, NO, NO. What I’ve noticed, watching query critique threads over the months and years, is that writers become paralyzed by fear and good intentions. Writing their query becomes a Sisyphean struggle (you remember, the guy who had to push the big rock up the hill over and over) and in the process time, enthusiasm and confidence can be lost. At some point the incremental improvements their letter is arguably making are not worth the agony. More than this, letters can lose voice (see my post on this topic at From the Write Angle). Looking at critique threads with ten, twenty, thirty, even fifty versions of a single query, I want to scream GET ON WITH IT, or SEND THE DARN THING. But that kind of verbiage in individual critique threads would hardly be appropriate.
So I am saying it here. Just DO it. Query. I am not saying send your first draft. I am not saying don’t seek critique. I am saying all things in moderation. How many drafts of my letter did I do – maybe four. How many people did I show it to for review before it went out? Five (and two of them weren’t even writers). Did it work? More than uncommonly well (I had a very high request rate, snagged an agent I adore and now have a publishing contract). Could my letter have been better? Sure. But if I were still working on polishing it, then my book wouldn’t be coming out in March 2012 would it?
The discovery that my forthcoming historical novel, The Sister Queens, had appeared on Amazon for pre-order was magic – magic with a little “humbling experience” tacked on for good measure.
I was ecstatic when a friend told me that my book was listed. Here was proof indeed that I had not imagined the whole “book deal thing.” Ha, I thought, let’s see NAL wiggle out of this now. But my enjoyment soon led to a sober realization – you are only as good as your sales and rankings. I may have a book listed on Amazon (and IndiBound and Books a Million. . .) but I am NOT a household name. I am not even close.
What, you may ask, brought this fact home to me? To paraphrase Pixar’s marvelous Toy Story, “a child’s plaything.” You see I am NOT the first “Sophie” Amazon suggests when one goes to the search window and begins to type. Doing this (when I should have been researching my next work of historical fiction) I discovered that when I get to “p” (s-o-p) Amazon kindly suggests another Sophie – obviously a sales-super-star – “Sophie the Giraffe.” I was not familiar with Ms. Giraffe before this, or with her body of work. Sophie the Giraffe is a teether, as in infants gum her with vigor, drop her on the floor and then squeal impatiently until she is returned to their grasp. I have included a picture of Sophie G so you can appreciate her magnificence.
Coming behind a rubber toy in a “suggested search” list is a humbling experience. But when I looked more closely at Sophie G, I realized I could learn a thing or two. Sophie is NUMBER ONE in the Amazon “Baby” bestseller rankings (we will not discuss how far from number one I am on any list presently). She gets an average of 4.5 stars from reviewers. And she is able to command some serious cash for a figure only 7” tall. In fact, a single giraffe teether costs $7.00 more than a copy of my novel. Wow (hint to readers, buy the book – I don’t care if you chew on it).
Sophie G is obviously doing something right. Here’s what I think.