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The Rough Guide to the Texas Book Festival

If you’re headed to the Texas Book Festival this weekend, congratulations. You’ll be going to end of the book galaxy that’s 180 degrees offset from the world of ebooks, Amazon and its ilk, and that remote on your table that delivers streaming versions of Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and Mockingjay. The BookFest is thick with paper books, authors in person, and stories you’ve never heard about but will want to buy and carry home under your arm. And it’s all free, except for the books and the eats.

Location: All around the Texas Capitol, the BookFest is much more of an outdoor event than before. I’ve been going for 12 years and the Texas House and Senate floors once hosted the big-name author talks and panels. Now it’s just the House, but it’s fun to sit in a chair usually occupied by a politician. You always feel like “this government stuff is no big thing.” Massive tents go up on 11th Street, down Congress, and over on Colorado Street to the west of the Capitol.

Other talks are inside the Capitol complex. Some venues are small and others take place in the Auditorium, all of it below ground level. The chairs inside are comfy and the distractions few, but the authors speaking are less famous. That’s how you discover a book you didn’t know you’d love though: the unfamiliar. Bring a notepad (old-school) or just open your phone’s notes app. Since you’re a writer you’re sure to hear a line you’ll want to take back to your desk.

Access: Inside spots like the Capitol rooms can be crowded. Line up early for a seat if you’re intent on seeing a particular author. A few years back the BookFest organizers started up a Friends Pass for some of the higher-flying author talks. Pass holders have a VIP line for those talks, but they do open the regular line if there’s nobody in the queue in the Pass line. You can still donate your $100 right up to the moment you arrive to get that Pass.

Kids: The BookFest has been enthusiastic about making programming for children, and we’re not talking just YA here. There are hands-on booths for crafts and sing-alongs and storytime readings. Just about all of the kid activities are outdoors under one tent or another.

Food: You won’t go hungry at a BookFest, with a fleet of food trucks all up and down Congress and in front of the Capitol, too. Cookbook authors demonstrate in the Central Market tent, but alas, there’s no tastings afterward. Save your $3 a bottle and bring your own water. Prices are reasonable for an event that will draw 20,000 over a single weekend.

Parking: This is easier than you’d think for a downtown event. The State lots along 15th Street as well as the garages are free, although you want to be careful to avoid reserved spaces in the lots. From 15th it’s a short walk to the Capitol and its rooms.

Books: All you’d want for sale, including many you’d struggle to find for sale elsewhere. The authors with big distribution and traditional publishing contracts have books for sale in the Bookpeople tent. That’s where signings take place for the authors you may know. The indie authors sign at booths in the tents along Colorado. The children’s and cookbook authors sign, too. In the Bookpeople tent you tote the book from the register to the table where the author is inscribing and have your two minutes of one to one with a successful writer. Last year I chatted up Pulitzer winner Jennifer Eagan while she signed a $28 hardback of Manhattan Beach. You can get your signed book personalized with a motto for your work on your soon-to-be-finished book.

Indie authors and presses: The most fun (after those personal book moments with the authors) comes in the bazaar tents along Colorado. Individual authors, self-published and doing their own bookselling, man their booths. At about $200 these sales outlets will need to turn over 30 books over the weekend to let these authors earn back their rent. Just about everybody takes a credit card these days using a phone. If you bring cash they smile brighter, but don’t tote a checkbook (if you can even find yours anymore).

The presses include university imprints selling books from established authors and new and focused voices. Trinity has a polished array of titles, including the likes of the San Antonio Spurs history and Home Ground, the latter an amazing guidebook crammed with geography terms (know the difference between a wash and a draw?). Charms like that abound in the aisles of the book bazaar tents.

Readings: Many authors read from their work and many of them are reading in front of the biggest crowd they’ll ever see. You can go to one reading after another in a revel of author admiration, something pretty much impossible in the world where these usually happen inside bookstores. It’s usually one reading per day in the stores. Be a part of an audience that applauds an author for their work. That kind of affirmation in person is so rare, delicious, and inspiring.

The BookFest always has some surprises from one year to the next so be sure to pick up a copy of the printed guide to learn what’s new. There are handsome book totes all around on the streets to tuck away what you’ve bought. You’ll find books at the BookFest that are virtually out of print, but most of all you’ll find authors. Selling books is complex and hard work in 2018. The BookFest is an event to expose authors to audiences using the sizzle of in-person contact. Authors would like to hear your questions at the end of their reading event, so raise your hand and stick around for the session’s finale.

Did I mention it’s free?

It will inspire an author to be a part of this festival of writing. That’s what it’s done for me since 2006. That, and helped to fill a bookcase or two. Go hear an author, buy a book, and tell your friends.

Be an artist. Be a professional. Write your story and sell out, too.

This is why there are blogs for authors. Sometimes a careless comment from an entitled, successful vendor-author just shades good authors. Somebody’s got to call BS.

(See how I used the verb “shade” there to go all current on the language? It means to diss, rag on, or denigrate. But I’m all woke about English. Dude.)

What’s set me off this morning is a comment by the omnipresent Joanna Penn. She’s everywhere these days, especially in my inbox. Being interviewed for a podcast produced by distributor Ingram Spark, Penn said writing a personal memoir was really unprofessional. Or maybe she meant getting it published, by whatever means necessary, was the mark of a non-pro.

The comment stung me because I’m in the last inning of writing a baseball memoir. And no, I don’t look back on a career in a uniform. Almost 25 years ago I took my 11-year-old son Nicky on a two-week baseball trip. It was a divorced Dad’s vacation dream and a way to discover if I had the stuff, as a pitcher would say, to stay in the fatherhood zone on my own. Stay in the zone better than my dad did, the fellow who killed himself before I was 21.

It’s very personal. This may not be the kind of memoir Penn was yapping about during her 30 minutes with Ingram Spark. She might’ve been talking about a book without a pro edit. Or one that hadn’t been workshopped for years. Or one that didn’t get pro advice on querying. Or one that won’t be shopped to six hand-picked agents this month. (Don’t blast a query to everyone. Unless you like tracking no-replies and rejections on a spreadsheet. Do your comparison and deals homework and get a subscription to Publisher’s Marketplace. Sign up for Edelweiss+. Start taking a free email sub to Shelf Awareness Pro.)

I’m doing and did all of that and more for my book. Memoir is a tough sell, yes.

What’s bugged me is that her advice sounds smug. She tells a story of her own transformation in her life’s work, of being in business as a consultant before she turned to writing thrillers. While they’re workmanlike and acceptable books in their professionalism, art they are not. She’s glad to say as much, if anyone would ask her about her books which do not look like publishing advice.

I’ll be fair here and let her own words represent her opinions.

I’ve heard people want to do their granddad’s war diary or their personal memoir that they’re not intending to be turned into a movie. Lots of products which will come back to you, but books that are not necessarily part of running a business. I guess what we’re talking about is how to turn the creative side of being a writer and publishing a book into something more professional which, for me, kind of means you are thinking about the money. You are thinking about marketing and thinking about getting the book out there, which of course, you can get out there through IngramSpark.

The preceding testimonial was brought to you by IngramSpark. They won’t create sales for your book. That’s your job.

I believe Penn strong sellers are likely to be those nonfiction business books. She doesn’t seem to acknowledge that she’s writing that kind of nonfiction business book — actually a bush-load of them — while a memoirist is writing another kind of nonfiction. Memoir, she probably knows, relies on the stellar caliber of the writing to get sold. And published. And agented, to run the gauntlet backwards in the long journey of writing to selling your own books.

It helps to have a YouTube channel, a deep base of readers in place, or a television audience to get a memoir published.

There’s no doubt that memoir is a tougher sell than a series of thrilling stories. What’s really selling, it seems from the viewpoint of a guy who’s got no access to her accounts, is her nonfiction. Publishing advice and process, instead of the novels, are at the top of her landing page. I own a sea of this kind of advice in book form, even one title she’s sold. And sold and sold and sold, I’ll bet.

Because if there’s one thing this former business consultant can do very well, it’s sell. She’s allied with a deep bench of other advice-writers. Every time you go to buy advice in 2018 you learn she’s got a partnership with whoever you’ve sought out. Oh, these advisors do love one another. There’s always a discount out there for you on another product once you’ve already purchased one $497 video series or another. Read More →

Get your book in line for a prize

Prizes are important to sales of a book. The kudos make a book stand out and help convince readers to give it a shot. It seems like an easy observation, so why aren’t more indie books submitted for meaningful prizes?

Cost is always an issue, especially for the indie author. After doing your work getting a great edit, a standout cover, ebook formatting and then the crucial marketing and ad efforts, you might have exhausted your budget. The last $60 you’ve got seems like it’s better spent on five good bottles of wine at the release party—instead an entry in something like the Writer’s League of Texas annual contest.

Authors should budget for both kinds of expenses. An indie author needs all the help a traditional publisher gives its authors. Books do get entered into contests by publishers and agents. The WLT annual contest gives that kind of entry a $10 surcharge. It’s a $60 spend to get considered when an author enters the contest.

Keep an eye out for how level the playing field really is. The WLT has a separate Discovery prize in its annual contest, aimed at indie books, plus those published by smaller presses and university imprints. Nice to have the separate but equal prize, but Discovery doesn’t have a list of finalists yet. The main prizes have four runner-ups. You don’t call your book a runner up when it lands in those spots. You market it as a WLT Book Award Finalist.

This is not the same kind of contest as a writer’s prize. That’s for a book yet to be published. A good thing as well. Something like Montana Book Festival’s Emerging Writer prizes led to Cody Luff’s recent book deal with Apex Publishing. Publisher’s Weekly called it a nice deal, which makes sense when you know Apex books have won Nebula and Hugo awards for science fiction.

Cody’s Ration, about a far future society pinned down by famine, is coming out in a couple of years. Keep an eye out for what contests it might win. You can say that the Hugo and the Nebula awards are contests, very high profile ones.

Entries in the WLT contest have to written by a Texas author. The boundaries are broad for that credential. If you lives in Texas for three years or more, at any time of your life, you’re in.

Publishing services operate contests, too. Reedsy’s got a nice list of contests. It’s hard to find a book contest with a fee below $50, so you just need to add this expense to your book’s marketing category.

Hunt down the books you love which are like yours (the industry calls these comps, just like real estate) and see who’s won a prize. That’s a good start on finding the place to get in line for your prize. Even better if it’s a level playing field. It takes a bit of research to figure out who’s a Big 5 winner and who’s not, but it’s worth your time.

The ways that readers find their next book

Readers tend to choose what they already know when reaching for the next book. That’s what BookBub, one of the leading advertising hubs for books, said in a report from a recent newsletter. The ad site’s studies of book buyers showed that readers most often got their next book because they liked the author. At No. 2, and a close second, was buying the next book in a series.

The results about book choices included some surprises. Way down on the list, just 17 percent of buyers said they picked their next book because of the cover. Right underneath author and series familiarity? Plot. At the bottom of the reasons books were purchased was critical reviews.

Some of these results fly in the face of accepted wisdom. “Produce a great cover” is among that advice, along with “Go all out to get great reviews.” There’s a caveat here, in that the readers are looking for another book and will give an author who they already know the first shot — so long as they like the plot, or the previous book in the series.

The takeaway advice for an author starting their career is to have plans for more than one book. If not a series, at least multiple titles. You could always carve up that 500-page opus into two books, tying them together with a great plot. Have the same artist do both covers. If you can afford it for awhile, offer the first book for free.

This is the kind of advice a publisher should give you, should you choose to take the traditional route and give away 90 percent of your cover price in exchange for writing, rewriting after an edit, and marketing. Yes, you’ll do that last one in the list. You’re always the CEO of your books, and nobody wakes up every single day thinking about selling your book except you. Authors, start your platforms, and think about multiple books.

Sell your books easier than the Big 5 does

Independent authors can count on more resources than it seems, sometimes. The latest advice of the day is that your author website needs to be a sales portal. I don’t mean a check-out cart. The landing page for your site should have links to your sales outlets, though. You don’t have to take orders from your site. At the least, you should point to Amazon (where many of us sell books) and collect the sale there.

Amazon’s not on the list of links at the website of Juliet Marillier. She’s got a fleet of award-winning historical fantasy novels, having written since the early 2000s. The Big 5 publishing house imprint Tor publishes some of the books that run in excess of 700 pages each. Such a book demands a lot of resource to put into print. Macmillan, one of the Big 5, is Tor’s mothership company.

A Big 5 deal is supposed to include the full outfit for an author: website, reviews, publicity, editorial direction, sales resources. Marillier is a generous and accomplished author, and one whose website has no links to a sales outlet. Oops.

Fair enough oversight, and if you have 23 novels and 20 years of career, you can be excused for not driving sales. That’s supposed to be the publisher’s job, right?

Except the publisher seems casual about driving a sale, too. Marillier’s landing page at Penguin Random House doesn’t include any link to purchase a book, unless you click on a cover.

What the publisher is doing is collecting email addresses for the author. Sign Me Up for News, says the box on her Penguin Random House webpage. (It’s not clear who’s holding and using those email addresses.) It’s one more click onward to get to the Penguin Random House purchasing page, where this morning the checkout through the publisher’s sales cart is down for maintenance.

You can do better yourself. Put a link on your author website’s landing page that directs readers to an outlet to purchase. Get your book for sale on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, iBooks, and more. (Bookbaby and Draft2Digital sell books, too.) Take care of your author webpage at Goodreads as well.

You might be an independent author who wants to sell books more easily than the Big 5 do. Retail booksellers stock just a fraction of the titles available, though. An agent can argue for better sales resources on your behalf, but it’s up to the publisher to sell your books. Indies take care of their own careers. Give yourself the leg up on sales from your author website.

And so she’s become a #novelist,too

Holding PenThe #MeToo movement, also called a moment, has delivered many disturbing ones over the past months. Men have been forced to face their history with the women in their lives, and for some of them, it’s a history of failures. There’s not an ending coming for this movement anytime soon. It would seem the only repair is to raise a new generation of men who see these violations to be as senseless as genocide.

The #MeToo story spreads across unexpected subjects. Writing novels has taken a hit. One tale is being told by one woman about another, a woman she admired and held up as a role model. In the New York Times, a column by Amanda Taub tells the story of Heidi Bond. These stories all have lessons and costs. Taub’s story about Bond includes a striking comment about anyone’s career as a popular novelist. Becoming an author can be portrayed as a misfortune.

Bond has reported that Judge Alex Kozinski sexually harassed her a decade ago while she worked as a law clerk for him. Clerks, if you don’t know, are lawyers in this kind of job. Taub knew Bond while both women studied in Michigan’s law school. This time out, the harassment story led to Bond leaving her profession and slipping away from her career, and even the use of her name.

Taub explains, in the article that ran in the Times.

The harassment tainted her career so much that even though she had access to some of the most coveted jobs in the country, she wanted nothing to do with them. She left the legal profession entirely, and is now a successful romance novelist writing under the name Courtney Milan.

Bond’s transition from abused attorney to romance novelist looks like it’s painted as an utter fall from power and magnificent, meaningful work. Becoming a novelist is no small bit of work to get successful at it. Romances are read by women, by and large. The tone that I read in Taub’s writing — she’s a journalist, and so a writer like Bond — felt like the career of romance writing was some ash heap.

Bond’s accomplishment has her books in the top 500 Victorian romances at Amazon. Big list. High number. She publishes herself, which is the smart way to get books out if you write in genres.

But romance writers get dismissed, even by other writers. Romance writers get read in great numbers, a thing that separates them from some earnest, MFA-studied novelists, nominated for prizes because their readership is rooted in literature experts. Romances first came into my house in a box from a good friend, one with a Master’s degree in Library Science. Jane said she had another box of these romances waiting for me if I made my way through the ones she brought.

I’m trying comprehend Bond’s story on an emotional level. A bright and capable woman says she was abused by Kozinski and ultimately left her dream career. The place where Heidi Bond resurfaces is amid a life’s work creating stories about women and men striving to love each other. Those stories often involve women coming into their rightful places in life, where their talents and drive are rewarded with happiness. They are recognized and respected. Sometimes these heroines’ jobs in the novels make a great difference in life.

On a personal level they want it all, though, and they are entitled to that. They want to experience love, and the majority of those characters want that love from a man. The men in the romances are unlike the judge. They are sometimes mistaken and full of flaws. Few of these men have a disgraceful act against a woman in their past. They are complex nonetheless.

Complexity is something that’s been put to the side during the movement. I’d like to believe that Amanda Taub’s article did not use “romance novelist” as a tut-tut clucking of disregard. It’s possible that I read that into the piece on my own. But just after Taub delivers the report on the romance writing, she tells us that Bond’s story is about “the systemic and institutional consequences of this kind of harassment.”

Those consequences include working to become a successful novelist. This in no way forgives what the Kozinski may have done. There’s also nothing like novelist harassment, unless you count the unkind acts that Amazon reviewers do every hour of every day. Like Bond knows as an author, we sign up for that kind of abuse as writers.

Writing novels might not change the world in the same way that laws in courtrooms can. But creativity brings meaning to our lives, and few kinds of creativity aim so straight for our hearts as romance novels. Writing them can be noble work, not a consolation prize.

We have to take care here in this moment, while women and the men who support them weed out abusers and re-educate them, not to lose our grip on love. Exemplary love between men and women is no fantasy. Having a role model is a good thing for every one of us, whether it’s a top lawyer or the heroine in a novel. A model from fiction is created with imagination—the special talent that writers have to inhabit and comprehend, with compassion, every aspect of human nature and foibles.

If that sounds like I am equating being a lawyer headed to the Supreme Court with being a successful romance novelist, I’m guilty of that. Without being too glib, laws do get reversed, even the ones that do good. And so good laws can then be replaced by unfair ones. The worst thing that can happen as a result of a romance novel is that it gets pulped by a publisher who couldn’t sell it. These days even that’s unlikely, since self-publication, and success, is well within any hard-working author’s grasp.

Harassment is abuse and a sin and a crime. There’s no crime in abusing writing, but I’d rather not see it thrown onto the ash heap. We may not need to celebrate this moment by dismissing something as complex as creating a novel. We’re going to need love going forward. We’ll need it closer to our lives than just imagined in the pages of a book. Those pages are a good place to start, though.