Tuesday, March 27, 2018

More Talk About Swag

            Beginning in April, I’m going to need some author swag. (I wrote a post about swag last July—read it here—and since I’m always thinking about it, I’m writing another one)

            Here’s the thing about swag: have you ever bought a book because of the stuff the author gave away with it? Do you even remember most of the swag you’ve been given?

            My husband’s theory on swag is as follows: “I don’t know why you bother. No one buys books because the author gives away pens or bookmarks or anything else. They buy books based on word-of-mouth if they don’t already know the author.”

I’m paraphrasing (except for the first sentence, which is a direct quote).

He makes a good point, but there’s more to the argument than just getting people to buy books. There’s the name recognition factor, which has to be worth something, right?


A lot of the swag I pick up is at conferences. The piles of postcards, business cards, bookmarks, pens (see aforementioned July post—I cancelled my pen order), flyers, etc. seems endless, and there’s something to be said for an author who can think outside the box and give away something that stands out. One especially memorable giveaway was a seed packet printed with the author’s book cover. The main character is an organic farmer, so that swag makes perfect sense and I won’t forget that author’s name (Wendy Tyson, by the way).

Last year I gave away little packets of Scottish shortbread attached to postcards for Highland Peril, my book set in the Scottish Highlands (see aforementioned July post for some lovely photos). I’d like to think that was a great idea, but I’m basing my opinion on my obsessive love of shortbread.

At Christmastime I gave away handmade gift tags as swag. They were stamped, inked, sparkled, buttoned, and beribboned, and I thought (and still think) they were perfect. I was promoting a Christmas novel, so the giveaway had to have a Christmas theme, too.

And that, I think, was the best swag I’ve given out. It was themed, fun, and—best of all—handmade. I wrote my website URL in tiny letters on the back of each tag so that people could locate the brilliant artist who created it.

So I think I’m sticking with handmade swag for my upcoming appearances. I haven’t decided yet what I’ll make; maybe I’ll do more gift tags, maybe bookmarks, maybe something completely different. Sure, it takes a little longer, but I’m amazed at how much fun I have making things to give away. And it’s cheaper to make my own swag, too, which is always good. And finally, I can tailor the swag to individual events. I hope people find my handmade giveaways memorable.

What do you think? Any ideas for handmade swag? Do you have giveaways when you make an appearance at a conference or other author event? What kinds of giveaways do you prefer?

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Short stories: How to satisfy the reader who wants “more”

Recently I had a conversation with a well-read young couple. Like me, they enjoyed mysteries, the classics, and literary fiction. When they asked me what I was working on, I said I was finishing my third novel and planned to focus on short stories for a while.

"Really?" The man looked doubtful. "I know that writers like writing short stories, but do readers like reading them?"

“What do you think about short stories?” I had a pretty good idea what they thought. Still I asked.

“They’re too, well, short.”

The woman added, “Just when I’m getting into the characters, the story ends.”

Is their reaction a common one? I expected that it was. I’ve heard that the popularity of the ebook has made short stories attractive to readers. I didn’t do extensive research, but a quick Google search told me that readers, while they did read short stories, preferred a novel. As for ebooks, I hear different stats on them as well. But that’s a subject for another post.  

I didn’t think to ask my young couple how they would feel about a story collection. I just finished Shooting Hollywood: The Diana Poole Stories by Melodie Johnson Howe. These mysteries are not only beautifully written, but they all feature Diana Poole, an actress/amateur sleuth, as well as other recurring characters. So if you take a liking to Diana, you’ll find her in the next story. And the next. Perfect for the reader who wants continuity and character growth. If you really like Diana, she's also the sleuth in the author's novels. Isn't the cover for Shooting Hollywood exceptional?

Some authors feature different characters in each story in their collections. One example is Maile Meloy’s Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It. In Elizabeth Strout's Olive Kitteridge, the title character appears in each interrelated story. When I turned the last page I felt like I had read a novel. Then there's Art Taylor's On the Road with Del and Louise: A Novel in Stories.    

Other authors with published collections include Marcia Muller, Bill Pronzini, Katherine Mansfield, and Gayle Bartos-Pool. There are hundreds more.

And so I have a collection on my TBW (to be written) list. The stories will definitely include the same main character—maybe Hazel Rose, but … maybe not—with different story lines. I will allow for character growth from story to story. I will keep the reader who wants “more” in mind.  

I’ve posted about short stories before, here on Novelspaces, and on Will Kill for a Story. 

Last year at Malice Domestic I was part of a panel on short stories with Leone Ciporin, Teresa Inge, Alan Orloff, K.M. Rockwood, and Mo Walsh. I get to do it again next month, this time with Michael Bracken, Eleanor Cawood Jones, Rosemary Shomaker, and Mary Sutton. James Lincoln Warren will moderate. I’m so excited!  

What do you think about writing short stories? What do your readers think?

Maggie King is the author of the Hazel Rose Book Group mysteries, including Murder at the Book Group and Murder at the Moonshine Inn. She has contributed stories to the Virginia is for Mysteries anthologies and to the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology. She lives in Richmond, Virginia with her husband and two overly-indulged cats.

Instagram: authormaggieking

Amazon author page: http://amzn.to/2Bj4uIL

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Beta Readers

Don’t you just love that wonderful feeling of finishing your manuscript? The characters have been living with you for months. You thought you’d never get that scene right. You changed the build up to the ending, yet again. Then suddenly it all falls into place and your journey is ended.

Well, actually, it’s just starting. You love your story. But will anyone else? Is it really as good as you hoped, as you aimed for? Perhaps no one will love the hero. What if readers feel antagonistic toward the heroine? Did you overlook any loose ends?

Whilst your own final read through can allay some of your concerns, there is nothing like having a fresh pair of eyes to reassure, or help, you. And that’s where a beta reader can be invaluable.

Beta readers are generally non-professional readers who will read a manuscript following initial completion and prior to publication. They may comment on grammatical errors, anomalies in the plot, a way to improve the story, or any combination of some or all of these issues. They are that fresh pair of eyes.

I think a lot of authors use betas, and I find them invaluable. But they’re not for everyone. When I approached an author friend to see if she used them, she said, “Definitely not.” She didn’t want different opinions on her work and was happy to work only with her editor. So it’s personal preference. That said, whether you chose to use betas or not, I strongly advocate any writer to have their work independently edited, even if you intend to self-publish. It will add polish to your manuscript, and it’s amazing what a good editor will find, no matter how well you think you have written your story.

But back to betas. There are pros and cons to using them and there needs to be the inevitable caveats. So here are my thoughts and recommendations.

1. Ask a friend or family member.
We all know the disadvantage of asking someone you know to provide feedback on your book. The chances are they will not tell you that they hate it, or that they think it’s badly written. But they will no doubt give encouragement and if you are at the early stages of your writing adventure, that is no bad thing. It’s great. Plus they are easier to find, in general.

2. Ask someone from a reading group.
They will have a love of books, and  an experience of an array of writing styles, plots and characterisations. They will also be accustomed to hearing differing views. This could be your own opinion if you don’t agree with everything they say. Remember this is your story—you own it. But also remember the beta reader is being kind enough to read your manuscript. It takes time and time is precious.

3. Make sure it’s someone who likes the genre you write under.
I see little point in asking someone who is an avid crime reader to read a medieval romance. It may not be a pleasant experience for anyone.

4. Ask someone from a writing group.
This is particularly useful if you feel you need help with grammar or flow of the story. These people should be able to spot errors and suggest ways to improve a certain narrative if necessary. But a note of caution. These people can also be too critical. Many may never have finished their own manuscript for that reason. You are writing a story, not an essay.

5.  Create a private group on your Facebook page.
As you create an identity for yourself as an author, it is always good to have a Facebook “business” page, in addition to your personal page. Readers will “like” you page and hopefully join in any discussions generated. This will have its own challenges but that discussion is for another day… Back to beta readers. Try inviting people to join a private group to beta read your drafts. This is something I am considering, the aim being to reach a mix of people including some you don’t know, but knowing that they enjoy your genre. If you take this option up, let me know how you get on and we can exchange notes J

6. Consider members of other Facebook groups who do reviews.
I have included this category as it is a possibility that some readers, who normally read published books and submit reviews, may like to be a beta reader. I personally only put up my published book for review in these groups, but I guess it’s an option.

7. Ask a book blogger
I believe many would be happy to act as beta readers. These guys read books like we breathe air and you should get some great feedback. It may not always be what you want to hear, but if you choose to take their advice it could improve your writing.

8. Followers of a fanzine
These are publications produced by enthusiasts. So for example, if your story has some bearing to Star Trek, join their fanzine and connect with members who could become your beta reader. Fifty Shades started in a Twilight fanzine.

9. Consider any schemes run in organisations where you are a member.
I am a member of the Romantic Novelists Association in the UK and they run a New Writers Scheme (NWS). There is a fee for this and it goes much further than beta reading, with events and critique of your manuscript by an assigned reader. However it is only for first time writers. Once you’ve published a book it’s time to move on.

And now I guess it’s time for me to move on and wrap up. Remember, a beta reader is more than a reviewer. They should want to help you make your book even better. Of course, at the end of the day it is your book. You should be keen to accept any recommendations, or not be afraid to stick your own convictions if you choose to. In any event always remember to thank the readers, maybe gift them a copy of the final version of your book. After all, they have gifted you their time to read, make notes, and feedback to you.

Good luck with your writing and your route to final publication.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

Let's Cozy Up or Not

by Linda Thorne

Anything you hear regarding cozy mysteries will likely slot them into a sub-genre that promises the reader escape from things objectionable, real-life hardships and horrors. Profanity is eliminated or so imperceptible to hardly be noticed. If sex is written into the book, it will always be low key and definitely off-stage. The protagonist is never physically harmed or subjected to true violence. I recently read a post online that said crime in a cozy would be “bloodless.”

The setting is a small town and characters drink tea, have cats or dogs for pets, sometimes other animals. The lead character will be a female amateur sleuth, often described as a sincerely nice person in an endearing sense. The definition offered here is what I've read in posts and articles. It’s the same when I listen to authors speak on the subject.

Okay, that said, why do the cozies I read (and write) not meet the criteria? I’ll give you some examples.

Before my debut novel, Just Another Termination, was contracted for publication, I’d submit it to agents, publishers, contests, always referencing it as a mystery. My reject letters referred to it as a cozy mystery. One year when I entered Just Another Termination in the Colorado Gold Writers Contest, one of the judges wrote notes in the margin beside my description of the first dead body, a crime scene far from “bloodless.” He said I was stepping outside the bounds of cozy. I made all the other changes both judges suggested, but held on to the initial grizzly, real life, description of the dead body as it seemed important to my story. When I found a publisher, the graphic details of my murder scene survived their edits, yet my book is still called a cozy, along with other names like traditional mystery.

Are there cozies that are a hybrid, mostly mystery with a touch of cozy? I presented the question to a panel of authors of cozies at a Killer Nashville Writers Conference many years ago, before I was published. I used Carolyn Haines’ Sarah Booth Delaney Bones series as an example. I told the group that I’d noticed Sara Booth’s sex life escalating in each new book and her consumption of Jack Daniels increasing. After some pause, one of the panel authors said, “Maybe we could call her books naughty cozies.” The whole room had a good laugh, but then the questions and responses moved back to the elements of cozies.

Goldy Schultz, the caterer protagonist in Diane Mott Davidson’s series, has been knocked down, bonked, bruised, and stabbed. She’s been left unconscious numerous times and has found herself confronted by many murderers after her. Any reader of the series should find solid reason to believe she is in true danger of physical harm or death. Often. 

As for M.C. Beaton’s series character, Agatha Raisin, I’d hardly describe the character as nice. Certainly not endearing. To me, Agatha, is a fun protagonist in her sarcastic, grumpy cigarette-smoking self-centered way.

Jennie Bentley has some horrific things happen in her cozy renovation series. The skeleton of a baby is found in a crawl space above an attic, a 98 year-old woman is pushed to her death down steep stairs, and more.

In Sunny Frazier’s second book in her Christy Bristol series, Where Angels Fear, Christy gets involved in a membership-only S&M sex club. I have to say, the subject added spice to the story, but an objectionable topic to some? I would think so.

Okay, so the books I’ve mentioned are missing a lot of tea drinkers and in one way or another have taken a brazen step outside the boundary of their subgenre. Regardless, I came away from reading these books with a feeling I’d been on had a fun ride. One without gloomy afterthoughts or bad dreams. As these authors’ examples illustrate, books called cozies can move outside their definition and still hold their label, cozy, so long as they leave the reader with their hallmark - a warm and comfy feeling. It works for me.


Friday, March 2, 2018

Traditional Publishing: School of Hard Knocks?

Author Stephanie Bond, who has sold 2 million books and one of whose titles has been adapted for a Hallmark movie, credits her success as an indie author to the hard knocks education she got in traditional publishing. As I read her interview on Indie Reader I found myself nodding at the parallels with my own publishing experience.

While I haven't sold 2 million books, I too started out in traditional publishing (Dorchester Publishing, Montlake Romance) and I can verify the prevalence of those hard knocks. Here are a few, from my experience alone:

1. Publisher goes out of business, chaotically, over a period of years. Your titles with them, including option books (and scheduled-to-be released books, as some of my co-authors learned) are tied up, sometimes for years. My indie venture never goes out of business unless I want it to, my books are never tied up, and they never go out of print.

2. Bond, in the interview mentioned, also stated that "digital publishing in general is simply a better fit for my hybrid books that are part mystery, part relationship; traditional publishers never knew how to categorize my books or where they should be shelved in brick and mortar stores." When my option book finally emerged from the ashes of Dorchester, I had this same problem with my own part romance, part mystery, noir-ish title. The agent said she loved the story but couldn't settle on a genre, so she decided not to send it out to publishers. That book became my first indie title.

3. Authors generally have zero control of their intellectual properties once they sign that traditional publishing contract: not over covers, editing, pricing, release schedule, making changes, and myriad other things. As an indie I can alter anything at will, and the changes go live in hours or a day at most.

4. I was told to stick to one genre and build up a readership there before branching into side alleys. But I don't write that way: I write what I'm moved to write when I'm moved. I've written romance, historical, literary, memoir, and am currently dabbling in mystery. I write and publish short stories and novellas, standalone and in series, as well as novels. I'm all over the map. Indie publishing allows me to write and publish the way I want to rather than some way that's prescribed for me. I don't wear prescriptions well.

5. Making money through trad pubbing is extremely difficult once that advance has been paid. I made more money through my indie books last year than in all the years since I was first pubbed in 2008 -- all of them combined.

6. If you happen to earn out your advance and royalties start trickling in, you have to wait 6 months or longer to see that money, depending on your publisher's payment schedule. If you're agented, like I am for the traditionally published book, you have to wait longer yet for those pennies -- minus the agent's commission -- with all sorts of attendant issues that I won't get into. I get paid in 2 months for my indie titles. 2 months. With one aggregator that I use to get my books on Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo etc., those royalties are in my bank account two days after the payment goes through. If I opt to use a service like Payoneer, the payment goes into my account immediately. IMHO, that's hard to beat.

The traditional publishing experience isn't all negative. Amazon's Montlake Romance acquired my first title, Cafe au Lait, in 2013, 5 years after its first publication, propelling it to the UK Kindle Top 100 list several times during dedicated promotions over subsequent years and generating significant royalties (finally). I doubt I could have done that on my own; an indie author simply does not have the promotional clout of Amazon's mega-machine. Conversely, indie publishing is not a walk in the park: it is a hell of a lot of work, and if often takes time for returns to start coming in: it was three years before I began to see regular royalties, and another year before I saw significant royalties. 

I don't regret my hard knocks in the school of traditional publishing: they smashed my rose-colored perspective on publishing forever, and equipped me with something that money can't buy: invaluable experience. To the hybrid authors out there: How would you compare your traditional vs. your indie publishing experience? I'm aware that everyone's mileage differs.

Liane Spicer