Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Ghostwriting: Q&A with Ghostwriter Heather Hummel

"So, what exactly does a ghostwriter do?"

That question has been asked of me repeatedly during my over decade long career as a ghostwriter. Some already have guesses or an idea of what the career entails, while others have not a clue. Therefore, when David Wogahn approached me about including a chapter in his eBook titled Successful eBook Publishing: The Complete How-to Guide for Creating and Launching Your Amazon Kindle eBook, I jumped at the chance. The following is an excerpt from his book, a Q&A with yours truly that takes the mystique out of ghostwriting.

For the Time or Writing Challenged

Let's face it, as much as we recognize the value of being called an author and basking in the expert status it conveys not all of us have the time or skills to write a book. In these situations it makes sense to work with a ghostwriter--someone with the skills and qualifications to write on your behalf.

For this topic I sought out the advice of my friend Heather Hummel, a ghostwriter and successful author in her own right. Heather has worked with a number of professionals to help them either write their book or shape what they already have into a book. As an author she also brings a strong sense of marketing and what it takes to produce something commercially viable.

David Wogahn: What is ghostwriting?

Heather Hummel: In my role as a novelist, the characters in my fictional Journals from the Heart series come into my head and tell me how it's going to be! They show up in my mind and take me along each step of their journey...in other words, my protagonists own me while I write their novel!

But, my role as a ghostwriter is quite different. I wear a different pen for each client. Despite what might be envisioned, being a ghostwriter does not mean hiding away behind the scenes pounding words out for a client. It's a very interactive approach that requires give and take on both sides. That means I adapt my technique to match the client's needs.

Some clients are able to write and simply need editing and coaching on the direction of their book, others need help writing, but know the direction of their book. Clients hire me for my expertise in writing, formula and format of a manuscript. But, I still need a gist of their story, their message and purpose. It truly becomes such a collaborative effort that by time the first draft is complete, I have to step aside and touch base with Heather Hummel again.

DW: What is the hardest part about ghostwriting?

Heather Hummel: The number one challenge is writing in the client's voice. This means leaving any personal agenda (i.e. ego) aside while stepping into their shoes, learning their voice, their message, and their agenda for delivering it. In fact, one of my first paid writing gigs was for Albemarle Family magazine in 2005. I went on to write over a dozen feature articles for them, and even though I hadn't been married, let alone birthed any kids, I was the top writer for this family focused magazine.

DW: How did you get started?

Heather Hummel: The ghostwriting project that landed me an agent and a book deal, essentially launching my career, was Gracefully: Looking and Being Your Best at Any Age (McGraw-Hill, 2008), co-written with Valerie Ramsey (my mother), who became a model at the age of 63. It's often assumed that it was easy for me to write from my mother's voice. But it's not that simple, especially when penning a self-help book. The key is to constantly think about the reader and what they would get out of the message. In this case it was to seek new challenges at any age while staying healthy in body, mind and spirit. As the ghostwriter, I interviewed nutritionists, healthy aging experts and a Pilates instructor.

DW: How or does a ghostwriter receive writing credit? Heather Hummel: There are varying levels of ghostwriting--from pure ghost where no one knows you wrote it (this is often the case with politicians) to "with" credit to "coauthor." In Gracefully's case, I received public recognition as coauthor "with Heather Hummel" acknowledgment on the book's cover. Each has its advantages and can be negotiated in different ways. Some clients might benefit from their association with an award winning coauthor because the coauthor may have their own following. Other clients may not wish to publicize they did not actually write the book themselves. This is usually to protect their personal or corporate branding. In cases such as these, where a ghostwriter doesn't receive public credit, they can negotiate higher royalties and pay in trade for nondisclosure. It's the old adage...do you want the fame or the fortune?

DW: What should someone expect to pay a ghostwriter?

Heather Hummel: The ghostwriter's fee depends on the type of project, the advance [upfront financial payment from the publisher], and whether or not they receive royalties and a portion of the advance. Some ghostwriters, such as myself, charge a flat fee of $100 per page. This includes all of the time spent researching, performing relevant interviews, writing, and editing. For a book, a general fee would range between $20,000 and $75,000 if no royalties or percentage of advance. However, there are so many ways to negotiate different options, that there really is no "average fee." Since royalties and advances vary greatly per book and client, it's always a risk for the ghostwriter to write based solely on these two factors. This is why I've gone to a flat fee or per page fee.

DW: Are there ghostwriter "associations"? How do you find a ghostwriter?

Heather Hummel:

Association of Ghostwriters

International Association of Ghostwriters

And, of course you can visit my own website at www.HeatherHummelAuthor.com

*Originally published in Successful eBook Publishing: The Complete How-to Guide for Creating and Launching Your Amazon Kindle eBook; by David Wogahn

Monday, June 29, 2015

The Relevance of a Professional Author Photo

Due to social media, an author photo connects authors with their audience now more than ever. Since these images are not only long lasting on books, but are also shared on social media outlets, isn't it worth making sure they're great? The answer ought to be an obvious: "yes!" So, why are there so many unprofessional author photos out there, when it is the one visual expression that says: "This is the person who created the work you're about to read,"?

A quality author photo is one of the most important aspects of becoming an author, and yet it often slips through the cracks. Indeed, there are some very professional, well done author photos out there, but for as many great ones, there are a plethora of faulty ones. I am not one to use clichés, but as a photographer, I completely agree that a picture does say a thousand words. I look at it this way: If an author is trying to attract readers to read the tens of thousands of words they've spent months or years writing, they should use their best author photo possible.

This is where my experience as a photographer lets me address the author photo from both sides of the lens.
If you spend months or years writing a book, spend at least a day preparing for your author photo, because it is a critical part of your brand. Here is my take on some common problems and their solutions.

Problem: Too serious of an expression.

Some authors' facial expressions are overly serious -- as though such an expression depicts intelligence and print worthiness. Yet, depending on their genre, a serious expression isn't always appropriate.

Photo Credit: Rankin
For James Patterson, author of Truth or Die, Zoo, and countless other books, it completely works. But, if you are a romance author, it won't work.

Solution: Genre considerations.

Before going into a photo shoot, consider your genre and what overall tone it depicts. If you are indeed a romance author, a pleasant expression of contentment is more acceptable than an intense and serious expression. This is one genre that the head tilted to the side and looking off into the distance, works. If you're a thriller writer, go for the intense, James Patterson-type expression. No matter what, keep your expression as natural as possible. A forced expression of any kind will be picked up by the camera.

Problem: Unflattering pose or posture.

When the camera is on you, pay attention to your body language. An author with their arms crossed will come off as defensive. Not everyone is "a natural" in front of the camera, but simple body language concepts go a long way with author photos.

Solution: Depict an inviting image. 

A simple change in position can make a big difference. For example, a person's arms crossed over their lap, while leaning into the camera, is more inviting than arms crossed over a chest and standing upright.
One common pose that works is when an author candidly places their hand on their chin or temple. This is surely an expression of thinking, which is true -- thinking about what to write next is a huge part of being an author. Be sure the look is authentic and not forced, which borders on cliché.
Women, as mentioned above, have the habit of tilting their head to the side, gazing at the camera or off into the distance. This does work for certain genres.

Problem: Photo processing.
An image that is off in tone, color, exposure and contrast/brightness, will look unprofessional. These are common problems that are usually fixable by someone who is talented with Photoshop. The ones that frighten me the most, however, are photos where the flash lights up the author's face in all the wrong areas (i.e. forehead and nose).

Solution: Hire a professional photographer. 

A professional photographer will help with not only producing a quality image, but they should also be able to assist with body language and posing.

In terms of a color versus black and white image, many old school male authors tend to lean toward black and white. This can be a great choice, and is often more flattering for those who have a few decades behind them. However, if you are a romance author, I believe your photo should be in color. If you're starting to see a trend between the relevance between genre and your author photo, give yourself a pat on the back.

Problem: Cluttered background.

The backgrounds that scream amateur are the ones with merely a white wall behind the author, or worse yet, but still a popular pick, the author standing in front of shrubbery (oops, did I just describe your own author photo?) Don't get me started on the backgrounds with too many distractions, like a plate hanging on the wall next to their head, or curtains that have busy patterns or aren't framed right in the image.

Solution: Find a background that enhances, not distracts from, your portrait. 

For the most professional results, it makes sense to hire a professional photographer. One great example is that they will know how to work with depth of field. Using "shallow depth of field" in your image will blur out your background, making you pop. "Large depth of field" keeps everything in the background in focus. A busy background, especially one that is in focus, competes with the main subject -- you!


Photo Credit: Euan Myles
I love this photo of Kate Atkinson, author of Life After Life: A Novel, among others . The background is relevant and doesn't compete with, but enhances, her image.

Final thoughts: An unprofessional author photo sends the wrong message.

I realize that I have mentioned hiring a professional photographer as the solution for some of these problems. The reason is that I strongly feel that being an author is a business, and much like you would hire a CPA to do your books, you should hire a professional photographer to take care of your looks. There are several reasonably priced photographers out there who can do a great job. Don't ask a friend or family member to do it unless they have experience as a photographer.

Lastly, I recommend spending some time browsing Amazon for authors in your genre. Take notice of what their images depict, and use it to create the visual you want to send to your readers.

Note: My own author photo was captured by the talented Doug Ellis at Ribera Beach, C.A.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Two Facebook Features Every Author Should Be Using

The number of titles available on Amazon has increased at an unfathomable rate. For example, when I first published through McGraw-Hill in 2008, there were two million books on Amazon. Kindle wasn't a contender at the time, so this number represented paperback and hardcovers. Today, there are over 24 million paperbacks, over 8.5 million hardcovers, and almost 1.3 million Kindle titles. At the time of writing this post: in the last 30 days, 104,606 new Kindle titles were released. That's a lot of authors.

With the need to make their book stand out against tens of millions of others, an author needs every tool in their toolbox. So, image my surprise when many of them weren't taking advantage of two critical Facebook features.

Works At

I continued to be amazed by the number of times I went to a Facebook friend's "About" section on their timeline only to discover they didn't have their Facebook author fan page linked as their "Works At." Worse yet, many times it simply gave the generic term of "Writer at Author" and when clicked, it went through to a generic "Author" page.

I realized rather quickly that too any authors simply didn't know about the Facebook feature that allows them to link their fan page as their "Works At" on their personal profile. When I posted both on my timeline and in one of my writing groups asking if authors knew about this option, the responses in the comments confirmed that many of my friends and fellow writers hadn't known about this option, and they quickly went and added it.

Michelle Miles, a romance author of A Knight to Remember: 3 (Realm of Honor), and well over a dozen other novels, was one of those authors who took the tip to heart and quickly updated her "Works At" to lead her friends to her fan page. Miles is the perfect example of the point I was making. She has nearly 3,000 personal Facebook friends and just over 800 Likes on her author fan page (rather than the other way around). Now that her "Works At" reads "Michelle Miles, Romance Author," rather than "Author," the expectation is to drive those few thousand friends who haven't already Liked her fan page over to her page as new Likes.

I'm focusing on authors here because they are the ones I interact with the most on Facebook. However, any self-employed individual who has a Facebook fan page should consider doing this.

It's easy to update the "Works At" section. Simply follow these steps to update your profile:

• In the "About" section, click on Edit
• In the box that says, "Where have you worked?" start typing the name of your fan page.
• Click on it when it pops up as an option.
• Be sure to also remove any titles that click through to a generic page.
It's that simple.

Cover Photos

While we are on the subject of fan pages, I should point out that one of the features Michelle Miles was already taking advantage of was optimizing her cover photo. While Miles has over a dozen books in publication, her fan page's cover photo strictly features her Realm of Honor series. Had she used more, let alone all 15 book covers, she would have overwhelmed visitors with visual overload. Reducing it to the Realm of Honor series attracts readers to that series who will likely go on to find and read her other books as well.

For best results, your cover photo should be sized at 851 pixels wide and 315 pixels tall. Any smaller and the image will be stretched. Any larger and part of the image will be hidden. Your cover photo essentially works as a billboard for your books (or service/product). As a professional author, your cover photo should be professional in design and branding.

Author and public speaker, Valerie Ramsey, utilizes her cover photo with images of her book cover and two of her modeling images with a few keywords laid in to describe her. In this cover photo, her brand is represented and visitors instantly establish a feel for who she is when they visit her fan page.


All photographers should be utilizing both of these Facebook features as well. One example is my own Heather Hummel Photography fan page, which has this image as my cover photo. The four images used in the cover photo showcase a sample of my work that is represented by Agora Gallery in New York City. I intentionally chose four images that shows both the diversity of my subjects as well as the continuity.

These are two simple features that should be used by every author, public, speaker, photographer, and anyone else with a business they are promoting. If you aren't sure how to create a cover photo and have a limited budget, go on www.Fiverr.com and hire someone. It's not that difficult with the right tools, and as an author, you already have the graphics -- your book cover and author photo.

Note: Speaking of author photos, be sure to read my article on the Relevance of a Professional Author Photo.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Why Agents Reject 96% of Author Submissions

Did you know that 96% of authors seeking agents are rejected? Flip it around, and it can be said that only 4% of them land an agent. Peruse through Writer's Market and you'll see that right alongside an agent's address is their acceptance rate.

The reason for rejections typically comes down to a few key issues. Follow these solutions, and my bet is doors will start opening.

Photo Credit: Heather Hummel Photography
1. Problem: Failure to Follow Submission Guidelines.

Every literary agent has their own, specific submission guidelines. Failure to adhere to these guidelines will often put your query letter in the trashcan, either the virtual one or the metal one, faster than a shooting star disappears into the galaxy.


Pay close attention to each agent's individual submission guidelines. Visit their website and click on Submission Guidelines. Read them in detail and find out the answer to these types of questions: Do they only want a query letter? Do they want a query with the first five pages? Do they want a query and the first three chapters? Do they only accept queries via e-mail or via snail mail? Are the submission guidelines the same for e-mail as they are for snail mail?

Once you know their guidelines, follow them to a T. Remember that each agent has different guidelines, so expect to spend a lot of time researching them.

2. Problem: Genre Confusion.

Not all men prefer blonds and not all women prefer tall, dark and handsome. The same rings true here. Not all agents want whatever genre you're selling. Sending a query for a romance novel to an agent who only accepts nonfiction genres is a huge waste of time. Not finding out what genres grab an agent's attention will only set you up for rejection.


Use resources such as Writer's Market or AgentQuery.com and perform a search of agents who represent your specific genre. From there, visit your selected agents' website and verify that their bio matches what the resource says. Agent information from an outside resource can differ from the agent's website; therefore, always defer to the agent's website.

3. Problem: Let's Face It: Your Query Letter Sucks.

A bit harsh? Consider that in a recent informal survey I did on Facebook, 10 out of 10 people said they hate writing query letters. The reason was unanimous...because they simply aren't good at writing them. If someone is not good at writing them, I am certain agents will agree.

I am the minority in that I embrace the query letter challenge like a kangaroo to her joey in the pouch.


A rock solid query letter needs a few components to grab the attention of an agent.
The opening paragraph should not rave about how your book is the next (fill in the blank famous book/author). Instead, the opening paragraph is meant to stylistically make a pitch regarding your protagonist and book in a way that the agent will fall in love with them.

The second paragraph ought to provide the synopsis. Do not include every little detail like the color of the protagonist's hair, what day of the week she gets her manicure, or all the friends she meets along the way. The synopsis is meant to summarize the essence of the obstacles she overcomes. Stick to the big picture details.

The third paragraph is all about you. What relevant credentials, honors, and awards have you or your books achieved? In other words, why you and not the next author in their inbox?

Lastly, the closing paragraph should recognize the agent's submission guidelines, why you felt they were a good fit for your novel, and an action to take...i.e. requesting the full manuscript.

Note: Include all of your contact information: address, e-mail address, and phone number.

4. Problem: Nonfiction is a Different Beast than Fiction.

Did you know that 70% of nonfiction books are ghostwritten? What most people don't know is that rather than hiring a ghostwriter to write their entire book, what they really need first is a complete book proposal, three sample chapters, and a cover letter. A book proposal is made up of many components, such as an overview, competitive titles, marketing, etc., and runs at least 10 pages.

The problem in this case is that most people don't know that to pitch to an agent, they need a proposal and only three chapters written, not the entire manuscript. Once the book sells to a publisher, the rest of the book is written.


If a nonfiction author is going to write their book rather than hire a ghostwriter, they're best served educating themselves on how to write and pitch a proposal to an agent. Alternatively, they can hire a professional ghostwriter to write their proposal and sample chapters. Because 70% of nonfiction books are ghostwritten, agents expect a nonfiction author with a big platform to hire a ghostwriter for their book(s).

5. Problem: Spelling and Grammar

I shouldn't have to state this, but I will. If you're submitting a query letter to agents, ensure that all spelling and grammar issues are resolved. This industry thrives on the written word, and typos or shortcuts are a turnoff.


Hire a professional (not your Aunt Rose) to read your letter. You should also read it out loud. It is amazing how many errors you can catch when you read material out loud.

The query letter editing and reworking that I have done with clients has increased their agent response rate from almost 0% to at least 75%. Many of them have gone on to land agents and multi-book deals. Following these five guidelines ought to help increase your odds of landing an agent.

One last note. Patience and persistence are a huge part of being successful in this industry. I'm sure you've read enough about all the big authors who were rejected, but, it was their persistence that paid off in the long run.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

What Compels an Agent to Sign an Author? Q&A With Literary Agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower (Part III of III)

In this Part III of the series from my interview with literary agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management; they continue to shed light on the industry by discussing what compels them to sign an author and how willing they are to edit. 

Q: What compelled you to make offers to the last authors you signed?


Michelle Brower
Photo Credit: Folio Literary Management
Michelle: I have two very different examples of authors who came to me, and they are both really great in their own ways. One author I signed earlier this year came through my slush pile. Her novel is literary women's fiction, and we are in the process of selling it now. The great part is that we didn't know each other at all. She really was a blind submission. The one thing that made me sign her was that the quality of her novel really drew me in. It worked in terms of pacing and plot, and it had a really interesting concept. All of those pieces came together and made me pull it out of the slush pile, read it and decide to offer on it. She has a career, but being a novelist is what she always wanted to do, and now we are making it happen. I really love when that happens because I do think there are a lot of very talented writers out there who aren't living in New York or attending the same parties or know colleagues who referred them to me or who don't have that kind of connectedness to the industry; and yet, they are good writers who have an excellent book. I hope to be the person who helps get them out there into the world.

The other example, which is a very different way of going about landing an agent, occurred while I was working with an author who published her first novel with a major publisher 10 years ago. It didn't do very well and her agent has since left the industry. She wrote a new novel and hired a freelance editor for it, and that editor contacted me and suggested I read it. I read it. I loved it. I offered representation and found out that there were seven other agents who also offered her representation! So, I had to really, really fight for her to choose me. I fought very hard, and so I'm very, very excited about that one as well. She wrote a great book, and as I said earlier, that's the heart of what is really important.

Having connections is better than a platform because, honestly, when one of my authors recommends a friend who's in their writing group, I pay attention, even if they're not always for me. There's something about having somebody I already know, like, and whose work I respect pass me something to look at.

For self-published books, I don't know that it takes an immediate platform, but what it takes is a lot of engagement, especially community engagement. We certainly encourage all of our authors to be on Facebook, Twitter, GoodReads and Instagram. It's really important to actually connect with a reading community, and for self-published authors that's pretty much the best and only way they can get the word out about their book.

I have definitely picked up authors who have been self-published because I've seen that they've managed to find an audience without anyone's help. Then I read their book, and I can see where I can actually be of help to that author. That's when it works.

Q: Do you edit clients' work?

Jeff Kleinman
Photo Credit: Folio Literary Management

Jeff: I have been known to sit down with an author, develop the concept with characters and an outline, and then they send me three chapters at a time. That kind of incredible micro-level attention, however, is only the case for clients I already represent. For example, I was reading a revised version of a novel, and while reading it I got lightheaded, my fingers went numb, and I was hyperventilating! It was amazing. But, about halfway through it disintegrated. We had a long discussion about it, and he is now sitting down and reworking the outline. So, yes, I will work incredibly hands-on, but almost only ever for someone I have a relationship with.

Ultimately, an author needs to submit the best manuscript they can possibly deliver. The worst that can happen is when I pass on a submission, and I tell the author that I liked everything except X, Y and Z. and they respond with, "Gosh, I was afraid of that." Or "I hoped you wouldn't notice." Believe me, we notice. So, although we are willing to work with people, we want to work with people who are ready to be worked with.

Q:If you had one message for Indie authors, what would it be?
Michelle: We are not here to be mean to them. We are not here to keep them out. We are here to let in the books we think can work with. We are gatekeepers, but it's not because we don't like an author, and it's not because we don't think their work is good or that we don't think it has an audience. We just don't know how to find that specific audience. We're not out to say no to authors, we actually want to say yes. But, if you look back at the numbers I gave you about my slush pile (see Part II) we just can't. There are a lot of Indie authors who want to stay Indie. I think that's a great choice for many of them. However, some want to use the fact that they found their audience as a way to break into traditional publishing. I think both of those scenarios can work.

Jeff: The reality is, it's a brave new world of publishing, and agents are only one part of it.

Thank you to Jeff and Michelle for sharing their industry expertise, views, and stories!

Read Part I of the series
Read Part II of the series

Monday, June 22, 2015

Indie Authors Seeking an Agent: Take Note! Q&A With Literary Agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower (Part II of III)

"If a book has 250 reviews with 4 and 5 stars, and 70,000 in sales, 
this author has a lot of promise." 
-- Michelle Brower

If you're an Indie author looking for an agent, take note! In this Part II of my interview with literary agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower of Folio Literary Management, they open up about industry numbers that tend to grab their attention by sharing the importance of Amazon rankings, reviews, price points, and book sales.
Michelle Brower: Photo Courtesy of Folio Literary Management
Q: How many book sales does it take to impress an agent?

Michelle: It definitely depends on genre because an author would need more romance sales to actually impress an editor in that market; whereas in women's fiction, historical fiction, or literary fiction, an author doesn't need quite as many sales. What I'm ultimately looking for is sales north of 60,000. But, a book's price point is also important. I cross-reference those two numbers to calculate about how many sales a publisher would be able to reasonably expect.

Price point matters because 50,000 sales is not just 50,000 sales. 50,000 sales at $.99 is one thing. 50,000 sales at $3.99 is another. 50,000 sales at $6.99 is entirely another. We can't sell books at $.99 and make money. Because of these factors, we find the e-book market to be very price sensitive.

As for free, if an author had 30,000 free downloads, we can't really use that as a number to determine whether or not it would translate well into the traditional market.
Q: How important are Amazon rankings?

Michelle: Amazon rankings are important for different reasons. I actually think they are really important if you want to grab the attention of an agent because that's mostly how someone would see a book... when it pops up higher in rankings. Those could have halo effects. For self-published authors, I would generally recommend starting with a little bit higher price point, but getting sales so that the rankings improve. The more readers hear about and buy a book, the more the book gets reviews, and it sort of all snowballs.

Ultimately, the ranking for us is really not what we are looking at though. Why? Because it doesn't matter at the end of the day if a book ranks #2 on Amazon because it sold 1,000 copies in one day but it never sold anymore or very few.

Q: How important is it for an author to have more than one book?

Michelle: It's critical for an author to create a relationship with their readers by having more than one piece of material. I always look at the relationship between the author and their readers. Most of the successful self-published authors will get a new reader on their second book who will go back and read the first one.
If an author has a series, that can definitely help, but I also think it's just the book. If a reader likes an author, they are more likely to go back and purchase something else or wait for the next release. I think that that's something in publishing that's not really considered the brand. It's actually the author who is the brand. If an author is doing well, readers will come back whether they are sci-fi, fantasy, or romance.

Jeff Kleinman: Photo Courtesy of Folio Literary Management
Jeff: Michelle is right because readers who like an author's Book X would also be interested in Book Y. I had an author who wrote three books, and the first two were stand-alone. The third one has a really, really great character that everybody wanted to read about. However, readers didn't necessarily read the other two books because the character wasn't in it. So, it's not going to be just about the author. It depends on how strong a character is. That is something any author should be thinking about as they write because in order to have a loyal fan base, you need to make a character who is strong, quirky, and interesting enough to support multiple books.

Keep in mind that readers buy the successor books for one of two reasons. One is an author whose name they start to trust and the other is because of a character they start to trust. For example, a lot of times they won't know the author, and they just want to read more because of the character. Jack Reacher is a great example. A reader can know Jack Reacher, but they might not know Lee Child is the author.

Q: How influential are reviews?

Michelle: We tend to put reviews into two sections: customer reviews from Amazon or GoodReads only and "other reviews," because we know there are a lot of services out there providing reviews. Some of those "other reviews" have made a big difference for authors. For example, Darcie Chan had a Kirkus Review that ended up really launching her.

Reviews are intensely important for visibility. I'm generally looking for a book with upwards of 100 reviews, and that they're good reviews because certainly if a book has 200 reviews with several 2 star reviews, that won't interest me. So even though I'm looking at upwards of 100, I'm more comfortable somewhere in the 300 range. I think that at 100 reviews, a book doesn't have the sales yet to necessarily translate into traditional publishing.

Reviews are important because they affect visibility in the Amazon system. Amazon has algorithms I don't pretend to begin to understand, but one of the pieces is the number of reviews and at what level. It's important for self-publishers to work at increasing reviews and hopefully having them snowball into more reviews and sales.

Ultimately, when presenting to a publisher, I provide a cross-section. If a book has 250 reviews with 4 and 5 stars, and 70,000 in sales, this author has a lot of promise. Alternatively, if a book has 200 reviews and only 10,000 sales, it's going to be so much more challenging to present them and say, "You should invest money in this author."

Did you miss Part I? Click here.

This post originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

The Author Success Story Behind ABC's Resurrection: Q&A With Literary Agents Jeff Kleinman and Michelle Brower (Part I of III)

Photo: ABC
What began as an interview with literary agents Jeff Kleinman, Founding Partner, and Michelle Brower, Senior Vice President, of Folio Literary Management turned into enough material for a three part Q&A series on what agents really want from authors. The forthcoming second and third parts of the interview touch on what they're looking for in both a manuscript and an author, as well as advice for self-published authors looking for an agent. This part, however, dives into the incredible story behind author Jason Mott, whose best-selling novel The Returned became ABC's breakout success, Resurrection. I've decided to start with Mott's story because it exemplifies how good things really do happen to good people.

Q: We all love a great author success story, and the one of Jason Mott's novel, The Returned, turning into the hit ABC series, Resurrection, is now at the top of my list of favorite breakout successes. How did Mott transition from his job as a customer service representative for Verizon to the best-selling author success story he is today?

Michelle Brower: Photo Courtesy of Folio Literary Management
Michelle: I'm actually looking at the Resurrection poster on my office wall right now. Jason is a great example of how traditional publishing can work out best for an author. He was working at Verizon as a customer service representative at the time. He had an MFA in poetry, so he really had committed himself to writing.

I found his novel, The Returned, in my slush pile, making him an unsolicited author. I read it. I loved it. We worked together on it by doing lots of edits. When I sent it out, it turned out that it was very popular. Mira bought it for a significant deal. We then took the manuscript and connected with a co-agent who specializes in film and television. They then sold it to Plan B in an auction where other TV production companies were involved. That was when we made the pilot. After that, we hoped and prayed! ABC decided to order the series, which meant it launched on air, and the book became a best-seller. As evidenced by Mott, everything can hit on all cylinders.

Q: What was the time frame from book publishing to television launch?

Michelle: The Returned actually became a TV show before it came out in paperback. It never happens that fast. We had a lot of luck and a good set of circumstances. They bought the book before it was actually published and then produced it shortly after the hardcover came out, which was when we moved into making the pilot. I doubt it will ever happen like that for me again. It was just so good, and all the right things happened. That's not the typical experience, but we are all really thrilled about it. Jason is the nicest man. I have to be completely honest... he is so sweet; he is kind; he's hard-working; he is a dream author.

Q: For fiction authors, how important is platform over good writing?

Jeff Kleinman: Photo Courtesy of Folio Literary Management
Jeff: I can't reiterate enough the impact of a great concept, as evidence with Mott, who is a really talented writer. He has an MFA in poetry, so he knows how to craft words. I am going to sound like a broken record, but it really does come down to excellent writing. Too many authors try to find a "formula" or the "key" that will get things through. I am afraid authors will think too much about platforms and connections and then they'll go out and do LinkedIn with every celebrity. That's not what it's about. The bottom line is you have to have some housewife in Dayton, Ohio, pick up your book and say, "Oh, my God, I love this book!" and pass it to their friend, also in Dayton, who then passes it to a friend in Indianapolis. That's how books sell. Word-of-mouth. Ultimately, to do this, a book has to deliver.

Q: How often do books go to auction? 

Jeff: It is not unusual to have a battle over books. Michelle will get a book, and then she'll say, "You won't believe this, but six other agents have it!"

She is always fighting for an author. This happens with the publishers, too. If we send them a book that publishers are excited about, there will be multiple offers. The problem is the authors think it's through some kind of formula: that it's about platform or the exact right query letter. They don't think it's because they actually wrote a book worth reading. A query letter can be really good, but if there isn't a good book behind it, it doesn't mean anything. Authors can't jockey into the system. They sit down one day and decide to write a book, but they must think about the voice and developing quality characters.

Michelle: For me, a fiction writer with a platform is icing on the cake. If the author has a platform, that's great, that helps me sell the book better. But what really counts is how good the book is.

Q: What are your slush pile statistics? 

Michelle: I primarily work with literary fiction, which takes a lot more work editorially; whereas, a romance agent might have more volume overall.

A few years ago I did the math for my slush pile when I created a database for a blog post. I receive about 15 query letters daily and request between 10 and 15 full or partial manuscripts in a year. The maximum number of authors I sign out of my slush pile per year is four. That would be maximum; I usually only sign between two and four.

Discouraged? Don't be. Jeff and Michelle give great advice on landing an agent in the next two articles.
Also see my previous article: "Why Agents Reject 96% of Author Submissions"

Friday, June 19, 2015

Wrestling with the Wrath of Writer's Block

Staring at a blank page and not having the words flow the way they did last week, or even yesterday, is every writer's nightmare. Writer's block can feel paralyzing, especially with a deadline fast approaching, and it can often leave writers wondering if they should give up on their craft. Some would say it's a rite of passage. Others would argue it just takes shaking things up.
To help out, I tracked down willing writers of various genres who have faced the plague of writer's block, and who were willing to share their cures or tips for preventative maintenance.

Novelist: Hildie McQueen

Writer's Block, or "Where was I going with this" syndrome affects all authors at some point. While working on my latest book The Rancher, I became so frustrated. My poor hero, Grant Gentry, sat on his horse without a clear destination and I thought, well crud, nobody wants to read this boring crap. So I did what I normally do, I walked away from the story.
That is my secret. When you hit a brick wall, turn around and walk away. For me there's nothing like a drive down long country roads to clear the mind and get the story back on the right path. Sometimes I even invite the hero or heroine along.
It's amazing what drives in rural Georgia does to the characters in my head. They loosen up and start talking. Maybe it's the fresh air, or maybe they're afraid I'm going to kill them off?

Playwright: Everett Robert

As a playwright, the most important thing for me to write is dialogue. When I'm struggling to hear a character's voice, I'll often stop whatever I'm doing, turn off the music or noise and go to a coffee shop, walk around a college campus, or go to a retail store. I find that writer's block doesn't come from a lack of "ideas," but rather a lack of "voice." Listening to other voices helps me tune in my muse to the character voices I'm struggling to hear.

Novelist: Julie Benson

When I wrote Bet On a Cowboy I suffered from writer's block. The charismatic man I loved enough to give his own story clammed up on me. My heroine wouldn't share her internal conflict with me. I feared I'd miss my deadline for my first book written under contract. At a workshop I attended with Jayne Ann Krentz and Susan Elizabeth Phillips, they said to keep writing until the story makes sense. Trusting them, that's what I did. When I hit the major love scene on page 137, suddenly everything made sense. I knew the answer -- my heroine wanted children but didn't think she'd ever have a meaningful relationship. I added a scene at the beginning with her checking into having a child through artificial insemination. The rest of the book practically wrote itself from there. Now when writer's block hits I know that as long as I keep writing, eventually everything will make sense.

Fiction Writer: Daniel Sherrier

Exercise is a wonderful remedy for writer's block. Writing, obviously, is a sedentary activity, but being sedentary is how cobwebs form in your brain. That might help if you're writing about cobwebs, but otherwise, they'll just get you stuck. So, go out for a run, take a kickboxing class, or even just a brisk walk might do the trick. You'll come back to your work feeling energized, and you'll have done something your body needs anyway. Your entire self wins -- and your book does, too.

Ghostwriter and Novelist: Heather Hummel

As a ghostwriter, my clients often provide me with the basic concepts for their books, sometimes even an outline and some material. However, it's up to me to organize and write the rest of the material to complete their book for them. To do this, and to write my own novels, I've always had two effective muses that prevent writer's block.
One is cycling, as I have been known to write entire chapters in my head while pedaling on long bike rides. I see my laptop as the tool for putting the words down, but much of my writing actually formulates in my head while riding. (The trick is remembering them later when I go to type the words on my laptop.) For this reason, I tend to ride alone, so I can quiet my mind with only the whirl of tires on the pavement beneath me.
My other muse is photography. Because I'm also a land and seascape photographer, I find the cross-creative roles feed on one another. If I'm feeling stuck with a chapter, I load up my car with my camera gear and my two dogs (they make great assistants) and head out to spend time photographing Mother Nature. By the time I return home, I am always refreshed and ready to write again. Having the mix of visual and written careers keeps me motivated on both fronts.

If you have a favorite muse, please share them in the comments below.

Q&A With Author Darcie Chan


Darcie Chan is the famed author of the eBook breakaway sensation The Mill River Recluse: A Novel, and the sequel, The Mill River Redemption: A Novel. Set in the fictional sleepy town of Mill River, Vermont both novels portray the deep complexities of its small town characters and their bigger than life problems. I read both books back to back, and quite frankly, I was glad to have waited to read The Mill River Recluse: A Novel until right before I was given an ARC of The Mill River Redemption: A Novel because I don't know how fans waited for the sequel! Darcie was kind enough to put her author pen down for a few moments to answer some of my have-to-know question.

HH: What do you think is the real reason there is a trend of attorneys who become successful authors?

DC: Probably the main reasons that lots of attorneys become authors are that attorneys are required to do a huge amount of writing, and that people inclined to pursue a career in law (as opposed to a career in the sciences) are more likely to enjoy it. Some lawyers do more writing than others, of course, but when I was working as an attorney, my job was primarily to draft environmental and natural resource legislation. Writing was something I did about 90 percent of each work day, and I really loved that part of my job.

That said, legal writing is very different than writing fiction. Both require creativity (which is something that many people might find surprising, given how "dry" and rigid legal language can be), but writing fiction is far more freeing and fun for the imagination. At least, that's how it was for me, and that's the reason I started working on a novel once I'd settled into my legal job. I wanted to spend more time with a different kind of creative outlet, one that I'd always enjoyed.

HH: Father O'Brien...a priest with a penchant for pilfering silver spoons? How did that concept come to you?

DC: Strangely, I remember the exact moment I thought of it. I was in the process of thinking through my concept for a first novel, working out the plot and naming characters. I liked the idea of an older priest being involved, since he would be an ideal person to know what was going on with lots of people in a small town, but I wanted him to be quirky. I'd just eaten a yogurt, and I was staring at the spoon in my hand while I pondered what quirk the priest should have. The "spoon problem" suddenly seemed so obvious and funny, particularly because a spoon is such a mundane object to most people, but to Father O'Brien, it would be simultaneously precious and a source of shame.

HH: The Mill River Recluse was one of the unusual breakaway Indie hits. Has your approach changed with both writing and marketing The Mill River Redemption via Ballantine?

DC: In terms of writing the first draft, it wasn't all the different, except that Redemption flowed onto the page in about six months (versus the 2.5 years it took me to finish a first draft of Recluse). I was working under a contract deadline for Redemption, but the story took shape and came out so much easier, which I attribute to having been through the process of writing a novel once before. The editing, though, was much improved for Redemption. (It was basically nonexistent for Recluse, which wasn't professionally edited until Ballantine picked up the rights to it and reissued it.) I could see how my editor's suggestions really improved my writing and the story. For that and other reasons, I truly believe Redemption is a stronger book than my first.

The marketing of The Mill River Redemption is being handled largely by Ballantine, which is a great relief, because I'm no marketing expert! The marketing that I did for The Mill River Recluse as a self-published e-book was basically a series of cheap trial-and-error features and online ads that I designed myself. I had no idea what would be effective, if anything. This time around, I have a wonderful marketing manager assigned by my publisher who is coordinating a whole campaign for my books. I appreciate her so much, as well as everyone else at Ballantine who has worked to introduce my second novel to the world!

I should also add that I'm still heavily involved in doing publicity for my books. I'm finding that now, though, my publicist is able to access many more review sources and media outlets than I could have as a self-published author. She's also taken charge of arranging and coordinating appearances and interviews. The happy result is that I've had more time to focus on writing and more time for my family. I truly couldn't be more thrilled with the supportive and collaborative team I have at Ballantine!

HH: There are mixed reviews, so to speak, about Kirkus Reviews, who were instrumental in helping The Mill River Recluse gain recognition. What advice do you have for authors about approaching them for their own reviews?

DC: I used a Kirkus review because, for indie authors, very few professional review services exist. Yes, there are lots of great and popular blogs that review self-published books, but I was looking for a review of the same caliber as a traditionally published book might receive. Kirkus uses the same standards and reviewers for both traditionally published and self-published books. I was also interested in using pull-quotes from my review (if it turned out to be positive, which was not guaranteed) for marketing purposes, because Kirkus has a highly recognizable and respected name in the book world.

I think a Kirkus review can be very useful for authors, both in the credibility it gives a story and in the industry-wide exposure it provides. I don't have data to quantify how many additional sales of The Mill River Recluse might have been attributable to having the review, but I do believe that the review provided some measure of reassurance to readers who might not otherwise have taken a chance on a first novel by an unknown author.

HH: I appreciated your approach to The Mill River Redemption as a sequel in that it didn't streamline where Recluse left off. Instead, Redemption weaves over, under, around, backwards and forwards in a very well-crafted manner. What advice do you have for authors who are working on a series?

DC: I'm glad you liked the structure of Redemption! I crafted it that way because I wanted to tell a new story while imparting the "feel" of Mill River from my first book. I also wanted to involve several of the town's residents in this new novel. I thought the best way to do both of those things was to write a new story that partially overlapped, and was interwoven, with the one in my first novel.

Since I've only written two books and the first draft of a third, I'm not sure I have solid advice for a series just yet, but I'm very concerned with character progression and consistency. I'd like for my characters -- if they're featured in more than one book -- to learn and grow as people from one story to the next, but it's also important that their personalities are consistent, without any dramatic or unexplained shifts in their thoughts or behavior.

The other aspect I tried to focus on was storytelling. I tried to build a fresh, new, emotion-filled story around strong characters -- both new ones and the holdovers from Recluse. As a reader, I find that compelling, interesting stories, coupled with characters and a setting I love, keep me returning to books in a series. As a writer, I'm hoping with everything in me that readers find my Mill River books to have those same characteristics.

Thank you, Darcie!
Read my review of The Mill River Redemption on the New York Journal of Books.