Monthly Archives: October 2012

Prime Real Estate…

The Boston Book Festival was yesterday, and I must admit I’ve become hooked on Writer’s Idol. This year the panel was much less brutal than last year (I was not the only person to comment on this), but there were two interesting themes in their comments I thought I would share:

  • This year, description seemed to be the item that the panel focused on. Not that authors used too much or too little, but rather that most of the descriptions were bland. One of the panelists, Esmond Harmsworth of Zachary Shuster Harmsworth, noted that you don’t want to describe a place the way you see it, but rather as a “68-year-old Croatian refugee” sees it. In short, you want to your descriptions to reflect your character’s personality, which is far more likely to make descriptions interesting.
  • One of the entries said the genre was “Paranormal Historical Comedy,” and all the panelists rolled their eyes at that one. I can understand why. As a publisher, I have to assign a set of BISAC codes to every book we publish; these codes tell bookstores where to place the book in stores. If you check the BISAC code list, you’ll notice “paranormal historical comedy” does not have a code (and probably never will). The lesson is that you should not be overly creative in describing the genre of your work in your query – an agent or publisher will be less likely to make it through your query if the question sitting in the back of their head is “Does this cross-genre work really have a market” or “Just where would a bookstore shelve this work?”

I must admit my “I get it” moment about Writer’s Idol came during another session on the future of publishing. A woman asked a question about downloading samples on her Kindle. It occurred to me that this is what most people probably do now; once they’ve “discovered” a book (either through recommendations or by other means), the first thing they are likely to do is download a sample of the book. It used to be that to sample a book required going to the library or bookstore, but now it can be done right from your computer or smart phone. This probably means that more people are sampling books before they buy them than in the past. Thus, in a digital age, the first few pages of your manuscript really are prime real estate – they are the words that will make a person buy your book or move on to the next recommendation. While I consider Writer’s Idol to be entertaining, I also think it serves to remind authors just how important their choice of the first 250 words in their manuscript is.

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Hitting the Amazon Lottery…

Yesterday I received an email from Amazon. It started:

Divertir Publishing,
Are you looking for something in our Mystery, Thriller & Suspense books department? If so, you might be interested in these items.

The initially amusing thing is that the first book in the list was The 8th Doll by Chris Rakunas, a book we published last month. I say initially amusing because they were basically asking me to purchase a book I published, but in the end it has turned out to be a lot more interesting. I forwarded the email to Chris, who replied that he had received the same email and had chalked it up to how often he has checked the Amazon ranking of his book.

This morning I noticed something pretty interesting. The Amazon ranking for the paperback version of The 8th Doll had dropped by over 700,000 (from a little over 1,000,000 to a little over 300,000), while the Kindle ranking had dropped by about 250,000 (meaning a lot more copies sold over the past 24 hours than on average). I also noticed that most of the other books in the email were in the “Customers who viewed this book also viewed” list on The 8th Doll’s Amazon page, and that both of Chris’s book were on some of their pages. So clearly the email had resulted in customers viewing most of the books in the list and, in our case, an increase in sales.

I called Amazon customer support, eager to find out why our book had made this esteemed list that had obviously resulted in sales. Was some Gnome who feasted on dragon’s  hearts secretly reading these books in the bowels of some building in Seattle? As a small publisher, this seemed like important information to know – mostly so I could help our other authors achieve this same visibility. The woman in support initially had no idea what I was talking about or that emails even went out, but none-the-less was very courteous and eventually found the answer. After a lot of research by Amazon customer support, the answer is far less exciting than anything to do with Gnomes:

  • Amazon tracks every time you look at a book page, whether you purchase the book or not. Thus, because Chris and I had looked at his page several times, we ended up on the Thriller/Suspense email list.
  • The books selected for the list are selected completely at random by a computer. In fact, the best customer support could find out was that the list is not even tailored based on an individual’s viewing habits, and the same list is sent to everyone.

So the short answer is that Chris apparently hit the “Amazon Lottery,” where out of over 10 million-plus balls his came randomly shooting out of the machine. But this has also shown me something about the importance of the “Customers who viewed” lists on Amazon, in that Chris’s book now also appears on all of their pages, just like their books appear on his page. It will be interesting to see if this helps sales in the long run.

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Rapid-fire Submissions…

Lately I’ve noticed an interesting trend – no sooner do we send a rejection letter to an author than another manuscript shows up in the query email box from the same author. It could be days or even months later, but it’s happening with far greater regularity. In one way I’m a bit flattered by this; it says that people want to publish their books with us (or that we were the only publisher to actually respond to the hundreds of queries they sent out). But I want to give some advice to authors who do this. I’ll break that advice down by the type of query:

  • A Completely Different Manuscript. Before you send a second manuscript, you might want to ask “Why did they reject my first manuscript?” Have they ever published a manuscript about hunky-cursed-immortal-servants-of-the-Underworld or novels written entirely in Haiku? If not, are they likely to accept a second manuscript about these topics after rejecting the first? Did my query make it past a cursory review of the cover letter and synopsis to an actual human being reading the sample chapters that doesn’t sound like a telecom helpdesk worker? It may not be your manuscript at all that got rejected, but rather your query letter, and that would be good information to know. Is it that there are still areas of your style and voice that you need to work on that will make you really stand out?
    Truth be told, although I get over 100 emails a day, if you send a polite email asking for further explanation I will try to reply (but can’t make promises). But you need to be prepared for an answer as short as “the reviewer didn’t like the manuscript,” because sometimes that’s all the feedback I get from a reviewer (I’m working on that). Also, it might be good not to start your request for information with “Dear Tool-of-the-Publishing-Elite” or “Dear Visionless Hack” and ending with “I will be laughing at you from the top of the New York Times Best Sellers List.” Yes, we have really gotten those letters, and you can probably guess what happens to them.
  • The Same Manuscript. We have a policy that we will re-review a manuscript that has been significantly changed, especially if it has been changed based on our critique or review. The key here is that you need to let me know it’s an updated manuscript, complete with ours (or another publishers) suggested changes. Otherwise, I must admit my assumption is that there is a glitch in your query tracking software, especially if the query letter is exactly the same both times. I keep an extensive database of all the queries we receive, so that is pretty easy for me to figure out.
  • The Name Game. This happened more often than I probably wish it would. An author submits “The Light and the Scepter of the Covenant,” which gets rejected. A few months later I get a query from the  same author with the title “The Dark and the Scepter of Doom.” Back to the database. Same query letter (usually exactly), same plot, same word count on the sample chapters (if you take the name change into account). Now while I’m not the most observant person at times (especially when it comes to women), it doesn’t take my Ph.D. to figure out this is the same query. People who do this are added to the blocked email filter on our firewall.

The real secret to getting noticed by a publisher is not gimmicks or clichés. It’s demonstrating that you are willing to work with a publisher to make your manuscript the best it can be, even on those days you feel your editor is in fact a Hell-spawn in human form. I’m much more likely to respond favorably to a query that shows a genuine love of writing over one filled with one-liners meant to produce “shock and awe”, and I’m much more likely to give an author a second chance who demonstrates a willingness to work with us – even if their editor ascended from the 9th plane of hell (yes, we’ve been accused of trolling Hell for editors)…

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