How to Talk About Your Novel in Public

Lemony Snicket (aka Daniel Handler)

The best novelist I’ve ever seen present? Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) … especially when he brings his accordion.
(Photo by Rod Searcey)

Because I spent 16 years running the Stanford Publishing Courses, I’ve seen far more than my share of book talks–the good, the bad and the ugly.

It’s tricky, creating a talk that pulls people in. You can’t just read passages from your book. You’ve got to give them some kind of show. Or you’ve got to reveal some part of yourself–real or imaginary–that relates to your book.

And if you’re talking to a literary crowd, it’s also useful to tell the tale of how the book came to you, how you got it down on paper, and what your writing process looks like.

Here’s some thoughtful advice on how to talk about your novel from Josh Cook, author of An Exaggerated Murder.


Four reasons to publish your ebook exclusively with Amazon

Depositphotos_11555495_xsWhen it comes to publishing ebooks, I’ve often helped writers make their books available on all the e-readers in the marketplace—Kindle, iPad, Nook, Kobo and a dozen or so smaller ones. Usually, we’ve accomplished this by using the services of an ebook distributor such as Bookbaby.

But in the past year, I’ve come to think that it’s smarter to publish exclusively on Kindle through Amazon’s KDP platform. Here’s why:

• When you publish with KDP exclusively, you can take advantage of several powerful promotional programs through KDP Select. Some of these programs allow you to temporarily reduce the price of your book to spark initial interest.

• KDP tracks and reports sales figures daily—which allows you to immediately see the effects of your promotional efforts. With Bookbaby, sales figures are reported several months after the sales are made—and so you have no idea which promotion might have caused that spike in sales several weeks ago.

• With KDP, you can fix typos, change your pricing, and publish updated editions of your book easily and cheaply. You just re-upload your data whenever you need to. With Bookbaby, the process costs money and takes weeks as your files are pulled from a dozen different e-reader stores.

• Kindle currently has about 70% of the e-reader market in the US, and if you take into consideration the fact that Kindle books can be read on the Apple iPad using the free Kindle App, then that figure jumps to over 90%. The readers you disappoint are those who own Nooks or Kobos—a small percentage of the market.

How to get permission from copyright owners

CopyrightAh, permissions. This is one of the knottiest areas of publishing for writers who are trying to do things right.

When do you need to ask permission to use a quote, or a graph, or a poem, or a photo in your book? How do you find the rights holder? What constitutes “fair use?” And what do you do if you can’t get permission or won’t pay the licensing fee?

For answers to these and related questions, check out Jane Friedman’s comprehensive blogpost, including a sample permissions letter. In one short post with links, she has put together an excellent resource for writers.

And what happens if you ignore this step? If you’re lucky, you’ll get a cease-and-desist letter from the copyright-holder’s lawyer, and you’ll have to pull from the marketplace any books that have already been printed. Penalties increase from there–and can include a day in court. Don’t overlook this crucial step in preparing your book for publication.

Hachette vs. Amazon: Do Writers Benefit?

P1000708_JPGJeff Bezos spoke at the Stanford Publishing Course for several years running in the ‘90s. At the time, the only thing Amazon was selling was books, and we loved books.

But he tipped his hand one day as he was leaving campus. “I don’t know why you ask me back every year,” he mused before ducking into a town car headed to the airport.

What an odd comment, I thought. Now, of course, it has become clear. We saw him as a highly inventive book distributor. He saw himself as something entirely different.

Now there’s a wicked fight going on between Hachette and Amazon over the price of ebooks. Hachette wants to keep those prices higher than Amazon does, and since they can’t come to agreement, Amazon has slowed the sale of Hachette books by various means—including blocking preorders and removing listing of some titles.

If you want a roadmap of the current controversy, which is now being debated by Clay Shirkey, Mike Shatzkin and Brian O’Leary, start with Jane Friedman’s excellent summary here.

Bezos himself has been mum on this issue, but his team did respond—somewhat obliquely. On August 8, they sent a mass email to their Kindle authors, asking them to rally around Amazon’s efforts to keep ebook prices low. Here’s the crux of Amazon’s argument:

Many inside the echo-chamber of the industry often draw the box too small. They think books only compete against books. But in reality, books compete against mobile games, television, movies, Facebook, blogs, free news sites and more. If we want a healthy reading culture, we have to work hard to be sure books actually are competitive against these other media types, and a big part of that is working hard to make books less expensive.

Moreover, e-books are highly price elastic. This means that when the price goes down, customers buy much more. We’ve quantified the price elasticity of e-books from repeated measurements across many titles. For every copy an e-book would sell at $14.99, it would sell 1.74 copies if priced at $9.99. So, for example, if customers would buy 100,000 copies of a particular e-book at $14.99, then customers would buy 174,000 copies of that same e-book at $9.99. Total revenue at $14.99 would be $1,499,000. Total revenue at $9.99 is $1,738,000. The important thing to note here is that the lower price is good for all parties involved: the customer is paying 33% less and the author is getting a royalty check 16% larger and being read by an audience that’s 74% larger. The pie is simply bigger.

(Read the entire email here).

It’s unusual for Amazon to provide hard numbers such as these. But the argument is a cogent one, and that’s probably why Amazon decided to open the kimono.

I do not think traditional publishers have it right when they argue that Amazon threatens the future of literary culture. I believe that we are seeing the birth of a new publishing business model that offers serious authors greater control and a better shot at connecting with their readers—and lower prices for ebooks are part of that model.

But having worked for the past four years with authors who publish directly through Amazon, I also see how slim the profit margins are for these authors after all the bills are paid. (See my post here. ) I would love to see Amazon seize this crucial moment not by strong-arming Hachette, but rather by rethinking its own business model and sharing more of the revenue with authors. If we’re talking about “promoting a healthier reading culture,” wouldn’t this would be a far more powerful and effective tactic?

So…take the high road, Jeff. Support a healthy reading culture. Don’t block the sale of Hachette books. Rather, spend your time and money nurturing the authors who are experimenting with it and with you. Share more of the profits generated under the new publishing model with the entrepreneurial authors who are building it together with Amazon.

Goodreads offers authors a new way to connect with readers

Ask a Questiof of AuthorsOne of the most intriguing announcements at Book Expo 2014 was about Goodreads’ new “Ask the Author” feature. If you’re signed up as an author on Goodreads, you can now host your own Q&A sessions, thus making new connections with your readers.

Goodreads beta-tested the program with 54 well-known authors, including James Patterson, Dan Brown, Margaret Atwood, Khaled Hosseini and Isabel Allende. Now they’re opening up the feature to all authors.

Patrick Brown, Goodreads Director of Author Marketing, offered suggestions on how to get the best out of this new feature. Among them:

• Set expectations early: Tell your readers which topics you’ll answer and when. Don’t feel as though you have to answer every question every day.

• Choose the questions you want to answer carefully, and post legitimate answers to them. You have control over which questions you want to show up on your page. Choose questions whose answers you’re happy to feature on your profile.

• Participate in the Goodreads reader community. Ask questions of other authors and review their books. You don’t have to give star ratings to every book you discuss. Just be thoughtful. Sometimes showing up with a thoughtful comment on another author’s page inspires interest in your own work.

Check out the list of bestselling authors already answering questions on Goodreads. Very impressive.

Book Expo 2014 photo album

Martin Short


A selfie taken with Martin Short, one of the celebrity authors featured at BEA 2014.

Book Expo America (BEA) is one of the largest and most prestigious book conferences in the world. Over a thousand exhibitors, 750 authors, and booksellers and publishers all together in one big hall. A book lover’s paradise.

For a few more photos of all the craziness, check out my Pinterest board below.

Holly’s board of Book Expo America sights – 2014 on Pinterest.

CreateSpace vs. Ingram Spark: How They Stack Up

Comparing Apples to ApplesEver since Ingram Spark launched late last summer, we’ve been keenly interested in it for many reasons, among them: 1) Spark offers the first print-on-demand service for hardcover books with jackets; and 2) Spark provides writers with a friendlier path into bookstores than Amazon/CreateSpace. (Some bookstores won’t stock CreateSpace books because they believe Amazon is killing their business.)

I’ve just finished a project in which we published a book both on CreateSpace and Ingram Spark. Here’s what we learned:

• CreateSpace is faster to publish. Ingram Spark requires 3-5 days to produce a book once an order is placed. CreateSpace produced and shipped our book on the same day we placed the order–and that was a Saturday.

• Royalties are about equal–unless you plan to sell your book from your own site. Spark offers you a flat royalty of 45% of list price minus production costs for each book sold. Amazon offers you 40% less production costs. But if the buyer purchases the book through a link from your website to Amazon, you get 60%.

• CreateSpace gets books to market quicker. This was a surprise: after we approved our proof copy, Spark asked us to allow 6-8 weeks to get the book into their distribution channels. Yike–and we had already planned a series of bookstore signings. With Createspace, we were able to get the book up on Amazon in 48 hours.

• CreateSpace offers lower “author pricing.” For the exact same book, Spark charges our author $3.43, while CreateSpace charges $3.15.

• CreateSpace’s shipping costs are considerably lower. Whether you’re ordering a single proof copy or cartons of your books, shipping costs can be significant. Why Ingram Spark doesn’t understand this and choose less expensive shipping partners is a mystery. In our case, a single proof copy of our book shipped across country cost the following:

Ingram Spark:
Ground $46
2nd day $173

Standard $23
Expedited $51

• CreateSpace customer service is better. Their email turnaround time is a day or less–and you can get a live person on the phone if you’re desperate. With Spark, you must email your question, and turnaround time (for us) turned out to be 2-3 days. 

• CreateSpace charges no service fee. Spark charges $49 setup fee and a $12 “POD market access fee”–whatever that is.

Ingram Spark is an important player in this new world of publishing–and I hope they succeed in offering writers more choices in how to publish their books. But Spark need to do a little tweaking of their offerings if they expect to co-exist with ultra-competitive Amazon.

How much does it cost to self-publish a book?

two birds2Plenty of people will tell you that self-publishing a book is free. And it is free if all you’re talking about is the cost of uploading your files to CreateSpace or Kindle or Bookbaby.

But publishing a book that can compete in today’s overstuffed marketplace requires a number of skill sets, some of which you’re going to have to job out. And that requires an investment on your part.

Here’s how the numbers break out for the average self-published writer:

  • $1,500 for a simple copyedit. More if your book is long or if you need structural help.
  • $800 for a cover design (front, back, spine). That’s after you realize that the cover templates offered on self-publishing websites are so bad as to be unusable. (No extra cost for using that same design for your ebook.)
  • $0 for page layout. Most people use the free templates offered on self-publishing websites to format their books. But it’s a huge time sink, trust me on that.
  • $0 for technical help. Once you have pdfs of your cover and interior, it’s relatively easy to upload the files if you have any tech savvy.
  • $250 for ISBN numbers. If you want to avoid CreateSpace being listed as your publisher of record on Amazon, you’ll buy your own ISBN numbers at One costs $125. Ten cost $250. You’ll need two–one for your print book and one for your ebook. You can’t buy two, of course.
  • $25 for a barcode. You buy that from, too, and put it on your back cover.
  • $? for marketing. You’ll be spending lots of time and some money in marketing your book. Perhaps the most common cost comes when you decide to submit your book to Kirkus, Foreword or Publishers Weekly for review. Cost: around $450.

Add it up, and you realize that you’ll be investing at least $2,500 in your publishing endeavor. Then the question becomes: are you, the publisher, willing to invest $2,500+ into you, the author?

Best Fonts for Book Covers

Pentecost, by Joanna Penn uses League Gothic font

Pentecost, by Joanna Penn uses League Gothic font

I’m working with an author on a book cover for a nonfiction book with strong commercial potential.

Since the cover is among the top 3 reasons why readers buy a book, we’re working closely with our designer to choose the exact right fonts for the cover.

In doing research, I came across an excellent article by Joel Friedlander, the Book Designer, on the 5 best fonts for book covers. His picks:
5 best cover fonts
I tend to prefer chunkier fonts because they read better when reduced to the postage-stamp size image displayed on Amazon pages. But that Trajan, which is used for many movie posters, is an excellent choice when you’re going for a more elegant look.

You can’t go wrong with any of these choices. But if you want more, check out the huge collection of commercially available fonts on MyFonts or the free fonts available on Font Squirrel.


How To Approach a Bookstore: Tips for Authors

Wendy Taylor, author of No Longer Strangers, speaks at Books, Inc., Palo Alto

Author Wendy Taylor speaks at Books, Inc., Palo Alto. Photo by Rod Searcey

I’m often asked by authors how to get their books into local bookstores. I recently sat down with Tanya Landsberger, manager of Books, Inc., just off the Stanford campus in Palo Alto, to find out how they like to be approached. While her advice might not apply to all independent bookstores, it’s a good benchmark.

How often do you get approached by local authors?
In general, we hear from authors two or three times a week.

We get two kinds of authors. First is the local author whose book is nationally distributed. We may already have the book in our store. If not, we’ll order it either through the Big Seven [publishers] or through wholesalers—Ingram or Baker & Taylor.

The second is the author whose book isn’t available through traditional distribution channels. We may take that book on consignment. If we decide we want it, our consignment deal is a 50-50 split of the revenue. We keep the book on our shelves for about 2-3 months and send a check to the author at the end of that time, along with any unsold books. The only kinds of books we tend to keep in constant stock are local historical titles. They sell well on an ongoing basis.

How do you decide which books you want in your store?
We want the topic to be right for our store and for the local market. If an author who lives out of town approaches us, she has to convince us she has a tight support network in the area. The book also needs to have good design, sturdy binding and high production values—no spiral bounds, except maybe for cookbooks.

What’s the average number of titles you take on consignment?
If we’re just stocking the book, we generally take about 5. If we’re doing an event with the author, then we usually take about 20 copies, and give back all but 5-8 at the end of the event.

Does it matter to you if a book is done through CreateSpace?
It does. We don’t provide shelf space or events for books published under any Amazon imprint—including CreateSpace. We don’t appreciate their business model because we don’t think their model ultimately benefits us and the community.

What about similar self-publishing vendors? Do you feel the same way about books published through Lulu, for example?
They’re fine. We’re just hoping to open the eyes of self-published authors that there are options other than Amazon.

Such as?
Such as Ingram Spark! They’re relatively new. We’re hoping to get authors to consider their services.

How should authors approach you?
We prefer that they send us an email with a photo of the cover and a short description of the book, and then follow up with a phone call. It’s useful if they also have a sell-sheet with ISBN number, price, publication date, and so forth. And they need to let us know: Is the book available through Ingram or Baker & Taylor? Is it returnable? And what’s the discount to us if we stock the book? The average discount offered by the big distributors is 45%–so if it’s 30% or less, we hesitate to order because it may end up costing us quite a bit to stock and potentially return that title.

How important is price in your decision whether to bring in a book?
Well, if disproportionately expensive, say $25 for a tiny book, we’d think twice about bringing it in.

And returnability?
It’s got to be returnable or we’re not interested.

Does it help if the author drops off a book?
Not really: we can decide from the information they send.

What if they want to speak? How should they approach you then?
We’re pulling back on events because there are only a handful of authors who have proven successful at events. The majority, unfortunately, just don’t do very well.

Don’t do very well because they’re bad speakers, or because they don’t attract a crowd?
They don’t attract a crowd. Even the big speakers do their own marketing these days. If an author can convince us that he or she has a big network of followers in the area, we’re interested—but for most it’s hard to tell or they simply don’t have the right amount of draw.

Do you have a shelf for local authors?
We had one, but it didn’t sell particularly well. Every once in awhile we get someone who asks who are the local authors, but not too often–and many folks already know who the Stanford Stegner [Creative Writing] Fellows are.