Thursday, December 29, 2011

An Interview with a Reviewer: Fran Lewis

This week, I am glad to interview Fran Lewis, radio host, book reviewer and author of many books, including Because We Care, Memories Are Precious, and many other titles. Visit Barnes and Noble to learn more about Fran's books.

Since book reviews are an essential part of book promotion, Fran is here to answer some questions about what authors should know about how to get reviews for their books.

What type of books do you review?I review fiction, non-fiction, memoirs, children’s books, YA books, self-help, biographies, murder/thrillers, legal thrillers, romance novels that are not graphic, science fiction and humor.

Ten books is a lot of books to read in a short about of time. Do you read the whole book, or just sections? I read every word in every book. I never read sections because I might miss an important of the plot development. I have learned to speed read. If the author includes too much scenery that is not needed for me to complete the review I might skip it. But, otherwise I read every page and every word. I take notes while reading a book to make sure I have the important plot and character information I want to include in my review.

How’s the best way to get your book reviewed?An author can email be at with a short summary of their book, genre and title. If the author understands that my reviews are detailed and what I write stands then I will review the book. My reviews will never give away the ending, include any spoilers and I never pan a book. If I feel a book does not warrant five stars I will provide the author with a detailed summary of the book and not give my opinion.
What’s the best thing to put in a query for a book review that will make you want to read a book?A summary of the book, a press release, information about the author and what genre the book is in. The type of review you are looking for and if you want something shorter I will provide an endorsement. An understanding that what I write stands and that I will post it. I always, as a courtesy, send the review to the author after reviewing the book. But, I will post my review.
Is it a good idea to include reviews from other reviewers in a query letter to a reviewer?That is up to the author. I prefer to read the book and create a review based on my own opinion and what I think about the book.
I’ve heard about phony reviewers. What are phony book reviewers and how can an author spot them?A phony reviewer will not summarize the book but say I like it but give very few reasons based on the plot as to why. A phony reviewer will not have a regular website, a following of authors that they review for and sites where you can read their reviews. When requesting a review the author should ask where the reviews are posted to get an idea of the reviewer’s style and what type of review they write.
What about paying for reviews? Is it a good idea for authors to pay for a review of their book?I never ask and never will ask any author to pay for a review that I do. It do not think anyone should have to pay for my opinion. Reviews are subjective and each reviewer has his/her own style. I have never gotten paid for my reviews and I review books because I enjoy helping authors get their work out there, spotlighted. It has helped me grow as a writer to learn from the outstanding work of other authors.

Do you have any other suggestions for new authors looking for book reviews?Ask someone who has given you a review that you feel is fair and just to suggest other people they might know to review their books. I review for Book Pleasures and any author can fill out the submission form and get a review from an outstanding reviewer on that site. I often recommend other reviewers that have reviewed by books to review books for some of my authors.
Thank you very much for your time, Fran!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

What Can Indie Authors Learn from the Tortoise and the Hare?

My post last week caused a slight stir on Self-Publish Review. Ironically, it wasn’t authors versus publishers arguing. Rather, my post caused a debate among independent authors on the matter of publishing a high volume of books fast versus publishing a lower number of quality titles.

You might call this the debate of which is better: The slow and steady Tortoise or the fast and furious Hare?

Since I average one book every nine months to a year, you can guess where I fall on this debate. My last book, Old Loves Die Hard went through thirteen drafts and two editors over the course of nine months before its release in April 2011. My work in progress, Stages of Murder, will take one year because I’m doing a rewrite that I have chosen to do on my own in order to improve the plotline.

Why should I, an independent author, care if you, another self-publishing author, release six so-so titles a year instead of one high-quality book? What does it matter to me if you’re churning out books that have gone through three drafts, run through a spell checker, proofed by your administrative assistant for a hundred bucks (Like in this economy she’s going to tell you the plotline is laughable?), and posted up on Kindle with cover art whipped together in Photoshop by your thirteen-year-old son? It isn’t like I should care about writers in forums pasting links to your book on Amazon and poking fun at your cardboard characters. (I’ve seen this done.)

I care because your poor quality books are negatively affecting my and other independent writers’ efforts to be taken seriously by readers and the publishing community.

Plain and simple, it’s a numbers game.

Let’s take three authors who work long and hard on their books. Call us the Tortoise Authors. Between drafts, we step away in order to come back at our manuscript from a different angle with fresh eyes. We write and rewrite. We hire editors and stay up at night thinking about just the right cover for our book. At the end of twelve months, the three of us will produce five quality independent books of which we are very proud.

During that same year, three other independent authors are churning out four books each, one book every three months. (One author told me that a blogger had recommended four books released per year for independent authors, more if possible.) We’ll call them the Harey Authors. I’ll give these books credit and say that they have been proofed for grammatical errors and typos. Granted, while the Harey Authors may admit their books aren't of Ernest Hemingway quality, they will argue that their stories are enjoyable reads and they have every right to be equally proud of them.

However, personally, I’m not optimistic in believing that a well written book can be produced from story idea to release in ninety-days. I doubt the ability of any writer to put together a strong plot, create fully-developed characters, put in the research necessary for believability, and compose a whole book without leaving any loose ends in such a short time frame.

Now, I know someone is going to come back with examples like Nora Roberts who churn out title after title. But for the sake of this post, I’m talking about self-published authors who don’t have people working for them to take their rough drafts and turn them into published books. The Harey Authors are those writers sitting at their laptop in the lunch room trying to squeeze out that last paragraph to finish the chapter before it’s time to go back to their cubicle. You know, he’s like the rest of us.

Let’s get back to the numbers. Between the Tortoise Authors and the Harey Authors, we have a total of seventeen books. Five are quality books. Twelve are not. That’s a whopping seventy percent worth of self-published junk!

This, some within the book community argue, is why they’ll not even consider self-published books for reviews, or invite independent authors to sit on author panels, or promote self-published books on their blogs or in their magazines. There are some public libraries that won’t allow self-published books on their shelves.

This being the case, the Tortoise Authors, even though they have worked hard on their five books, are paying the price for the Harey authors publishing junk. The Harey writers are not only hurting themselves by publishing second-rate books with their own names on them, they are damaging the reputation of all self-published authors.

Yes, we indie authors argue, there are a lot of well written, high quality books produced by independent writers. If you flip my scenario, that’s thirty percent of quality books. But, as one reviewer who refuses to consider looking at a self-published book argues, “It’s like finding a needle in a haystack.”

Looking at these numbers, that can be believable.

The danger is, as more independent authors jump on board and start churning out books because they can, the battle to change the perception of self-published authors being second rate can get harder instead of easier.

Granted our numbers of independent authors will rise, but if most of them are churning out garbage at an accelerated rate, it won’t do much for our cause. It’s unfortunate that at a time that technology has made it fast and simple for any writer to see their book come to life, that authors serious about their careers and the future of self- publishing have to hold up our hands and say, “Whoa, Nellie! Not so fast!”

What’s the solution? Education (mixed with begging, threatening, with some tough love thrown in) for the independent author.

Just because you can type up, upload, and release your own book at lightning fast speed, doesn’t mean you should. If you want to be taken seriously as an author, put on your brakes.

That is not to argue that Harey Author's books should never have been published. On the contrary. I believe Harey's books could very well be outstanding books--if Harey practices patience and takes the time to make his books the best they can be.

This is easier said than done. During the process of writing and producing a book, for every book, for every author, there comes a time when he is sick of seeing it and just want to “Get ‘er out!”

It’s not unlike a woman in labor. You’ve been pregnant for nine months. For months you’ve been planning and thinking about this baby that is so close to being a reality. Then, you’re in labor and now all you want is to get it over with and show your prize to the world. But, if you rush your way through labor, the cord could get wrapped around the baby’s neck. Without the doctor or mid-wife there telling you to wait, your dream can turn into a disaster.

It is the same with publishing a book. After writing and re-writing and nurturing your baby, it can be hard to listen to an editor suggesting that you take a second look at your research, or make a change to a character that doesn’t ring true. The temptation to turn a deaf ear to those suggestions can be pretty strong when you could see your name on a book cover in only thirty days.

As an independent author, that is why I am virtually reaching out to slap you on the back of the head and say, “Don’t, do it!”

Consider this:

Take a lesson from the Tortoise and the Hare.

Everyone knows the story. (Please tell me you know this story!). The Tortoise (Turtle) and Hare (Rabbit) are set up for a race. Everyone knows that rabbits are fast and turtles are slow. The gun goes off and the Rabbit speeds off. Knowing he is fast, he gets cocky and goofs off during the race while the turtle goes along slow and steady. The Tortoise thinks about every move he is taking every step of the way.

By the end of the race, the Hare blows it. He’s the loser.

The Tortoise wins, because he took his time.

That’s the only way independent authors are going to change the perception of us as second rate—by taking it slow and steady and running a quality—not quantity—race.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Authors vs. Publishers: It's a Revolution

A couple of weeks ago, I was cornered after a speaking appearance by a publisher who poked me in the chest repeatedly while saying, “You should be writing. You shouldn’t be publishing. Let me do the work. You write.”
Well, that was what I started out wanting to do. I’ve always wanted to be a writer. From the beginning, I dreamed of making it to the point in my career where I could stay home all day in my writer’s studio and do nothing but think about murder and write my mysteries.
But something happened to that dream as happens to all dreams. It was a fantasy. It is not the reality. The lack of this happening is not a reflection on my talent or writing ability. Rather, it is a reflection on how the publishing world works.
The truth is: Unless you’re Stephen King, Dan Brown, or J.K. Rowlings, the publishers are only going to throw you the scraps when it comes from the profits of your books. The rest will go to them, the literary agents, and publicists. If you want anyone to know about your book, you will need to spend your advance and beyond, plus your time and energy on marketing it, because the publisher isn’t going to do it for you—unless you’re one of their top one percent selling authors.
Then, to thank you for all your hard work, they take over ninety-percent.
So, writers started thinking, “Hey, since I’m going to have to do all the work anyway to make my book a success, why not publish it myself and; instead of eating scraps, help myself to the filet mignon?”
Signs of the revolution can be seen in the success of self-publishing companies like CreateSpace, iUniverse, and LuLu. Saying, “I don’t need you anymore,” more authors are turning their backs on literary agents who a few years ago read their query letters for laughs. 
The funny thing is, I have found that I’m good at publishing my own books. Not only am I good at it. I like doing it.
Yes, instead of spending my days thinking about murder and writing mysteries, I’ve been beating the drum to change the course of publishing. From the looks of things, independent authors are gaining territory:
  • Barry Eisler turned down a half million dollar advance to renew his contract in favor of self-publishing.
  • Penquin Books has dived into self-publishing. That must have caused quite a stir among their fellow big publisher buddies.
  • Independent author, Amanda Hocking has sold more than a million books online with Kindle, joining the ranks of Nora Roberts, Dan Brown, and other traditionally published authors.
So much for self-published authors being second rate hacks.  Tell Amanda Hocking and Barry Eisler that they’re wannabees.
This is not to say that I think traditional publishers should go away. I have as much respect for an agented author who publishes through Random House as I do an independent author who puts in all the work into self-publish through LuLu.
Aimply, I expect the same respect from that author, his agent, and his publisher … and others in the literary arena.
Yes, many in the literary arena still think of independent authors as second-class writers:
  1. Many conferences refuse to let us sit on their author panels simply because we’ve invested in our own books.
  2. Most of the big literary magazines will only review our books if we pay them hundreds of dollars for the privilege of them doing so, which diminishes credibility among many of our peers.
  3. Some of the bigger bookstore chains (Barnes and Nobel and Books-A-Million) still won’t let us hold events in their stores, even after our books have proven themselves with reviews and sales.
Yes, some days, these injustices do irk at me. When it does, I think back on a quote by Theodore Roosevelt:
“Believe you can, and you’re halfway there.”
How about that, dear authors? We’re halfway there!


Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Talking Apples and Oranges

Seven years ago, when I received my proof copy of A Small Case of Murder, I squealed with delight. I looked at it’s shiny cover. The artwork was fabulous. It looked even better live and in person. Plus, it was my book that I had written.
It looked great. So I picked up the phone, called the publisher and told him to let it rip. Let’s release that baby on the world.

Days later, I receive a frantic phone call from my mother. She had received her copy of A Small Case of Murder and quickly sat down to read her daughter the writer’s book. To her horror, she found it riddled with typos!

No one told me that the purpose of a proof is to read it to check for errors. I had invested in an editor! I had edited it and proofed it inside and out. How could there be typos?

By the time I had received that proof of A Small Case of Murder, I didn’t want to read it. I had read it so many times that I thought my eyes would bleed if I had to read it one more time. But my responsibility  as the author was to read that proof, or have someone else read it because this was the last chance to correct mistakes before it is released to the public—and reviewers. (That’s another blog post.)

I didn’t know that then. I do now.

I had graduated from college with the Bachelors in English, literature, and journalism. I took tons of classes on writing suspense, the great American novel, point of view, description, etc. I had worked for tenn years as an editor and layout artist for the federal government. But when it came to what to do after writing my first mystery, I didn't have a clue.

Who do I call? A literary agent or a publisher? Do you need a literary agent? Where do you find a literary agent?

Seven years ago, without the benefit of Internet for social networking with other authors and people in the business, I never came in contact with anyone who could instruct me about this mysterious world centered in New York and these faceless gatekeepers and gods who had the power to either make my dreams of being a published author come true or have them wither away like those dreams of so many others.

I still didn’t know what I was supposed to do with a proof except to say, “This sure is a pretty book.”

Most of the mistakes that I have made are based on misconceptions that I had about how publishing works and the motivations of those involved. There’s way more to publishing than can be addressed in one blog post, and I hope to not make it too simplistic, but here it is in a nutshell:

Publishing is a Business.

When you’re writing your book, you are a writer. You are an artist.

After your book is written, and you seek to have it published, then you become an author.

At this point, whether you are seeking to be traditionally published or independently publishing, you are a business person.

In other words, when you talk about writing and publishing, you are talking about apples and oranges.

When it comes to publishing, think about it and treat it as a business. This will help to alleviate a lot of artistic frustration when you’re able to wrap your head around this.

Whether it be traditional publishers or self-publishing businesses, the mission is about producing a product (books) to sell to the public. If the product doesn’t sell, the company (the publisher if the book is published traditionally; the author if it is self-published) doesn’t make money, or even worse, loses it.

Publishers don’t care about art and publishing great literature. They are very different from the way they were back in the days of Hemingway and Steinbeck.
Traditional publishers only care about selling books and making money and right now they are losing it hand over fist for a variety of reasons. At the top of the list of those reasons, poor executive decisions and advances in technology that have upset their apple carts.

Therefore, publishers will only invest in what they consider guaranteed money-makers. That’s why when you walk into Barnes and Noble you see whole aisles devoted to vampire love stories and another aisle filled with memoirs from politicians, and another devoted to has-been child stars who tripped over a literary agent waiting at the prison gate with a seven-figure contract from Random House to write their story. (The ghost writer that will actually write that book was stuffed in the trunk of the limo and will be eating a tuna fish sandwich for dinner while the child star will be sipping champagne.) You will also find books by authors with a proven track record of making big money for their publisher, which is only one percent of the overall author population.
Proven authors, celebrities, and big named politicians have no trouble getting contracts because, financially, publishers can’t take the risk of investing in an unknown quantity.

Whether you, as an author want to fight this battle to get in with a traditional publisher, or go the independent route of self-publishing, you do need to accept that in many aspects, no matter how much it turns your stomach, this part of the publishers’ thinking is right.

Publishing is a business. It is the selling of books to the public. If a traditional publisher doesn’t invest his money in publishing your book in order to put it out there to the public, then the only other option for you as an author is the self-publishing route. In this case, you will be investing your money in it. Unless you’re Bill Gates with money to burn and too much time on your hands, your book needs to be a product that the public will buy.

That means you, dear author, need to make your book salable. By that, I'm not saying your book needs to be the subject matter of the month.

I'm talking about quality. You, dear author, need to do everything in your power and talent to make your book the best it can be in in order to stand up against the thousands upon thousands of books being published every year.

Don't get scared. This is possible.

Even without a big publisher backing you, it is possible to produce a book capable of standing up against the big guys' books. It takes a lot of hard work and diligence, but it can be done when care is given to editing and proofing, and design.

It was after I had this Ah-hah moment, after having been around the block and making a few mistakes (like releasing A Small Case of Murder without reading the proof because no one told me that I was supposed to read it!) that I set up Acorn Book Services. (I have since revised and re-released A Small Case of Murder, along with A Reunion to Die For.)

With four (going on five) books under my belt, I want to pass on what I have learned along the way, which is the purpose of this blog. 

So, now I open this site up to you. What questions do you have about writing or publishing? Remember they are two different things, whichever you want to talk about. Apples or oranges. I'm ready to take them both on.

Send your questions to me and let's get to work.