Agency Lessons: How much is too much self promotion?

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

I'm answering another question from the mail bag today:
How do you balance self-promotion with actual author to reader interaction that doesn't come off as spamming?

This is a great question and one that I see a lot of authors struggling with.

We've all found ourselves with a new follower on Twitter. We go to check out their account and all their tweets are self-promotion. So we click the little red 'x' and move on. Because no one wants to sign up for a constant commercial.

Which is what authors are doing when they fail to include the social in their social media.

A good rule of thumb is 80/20. Any of your social media posts should be 80% for your followers in the form of genuine interaction and 20% can be reserved for promotion.  That 80% can be so many things. Ask genuine questions to start a conversation, share an article that your really enjoyed, promote the author of a book you read, or, you know, cat pictures. Because the internet loves cat pictures. The idea is to make sure you are being a social user. That means genuine interaction, not just throwing book promos into the wind.

By creating an account that is mostly social, your followers will not mind the occasional "hey, check out my book" post. In fact, they will probably be happy to support you.

Perhaps the 80/20 rule seems to close to doing actual math and you swore to your algebra teacher that you'd never touch the stuff again. If that's the case, then just follow the WAM principal, otherwise known as What About Me.

In general, people like to know what they are going to get out of a relationship, including the people they follow on social media. This can be as simple as getting a quick laugh from the guy who always posts funny cat gifs. So when you are trying to decide what to post, and how much of it can be about your books, think first about what your followers will get out of your post. If your answer is always something along the lines of "they get to learn about my book", you're doing it wrong.

Above and beyond any rule or mantra, social media should be fun. It can also be a great way to share your love of books and reading and it can be helpful in letting people know about your own book. But social media is not an advertising platform. If you keep that in mind, you should be fine.

February Book Lessons

As part of my continued quest to read more, I dove into February with quite a few books on my TBR list. Sadly, February wasn't nearly as productive as January, but here are the books I got in and my take-aways.

Scarlet by Marissa Meyer

This novel has done something that is rarely done so well, converging story lines. If you have two main characters that don't cross paths until well into your story, you should read this one and study it done the right way. Meyer does a great job of not only weaving two story paths that seem to be completely separate from each other, she knows exactly when to cut back and forth. This is a skill in itself, knowing how long you can go before you've got to get your reader back to your other characters while leaving them on enough of a cliff to keep reading. The pacing in this book is also great and one to study to see it done well.
 Breeder by Casey Hays

First, I learned from this one that you can't always judge a book by the cover. I almost passed this one by because nothing about the cover drew me in and that would have been a loss since it's a great story. I was also reminded that while there really aren't any new stories, subtle changes and variations that each author brings can take an old story and give it new life. I thought I knew what I was getting with this dystopian, but I was wrong...and it was in the best possible way.

The Anatomy of Story by John Truby

So this one is on the list because I never finished it. In fact, I barely got through any of it. It came highly recommended by an author of another craft book I really enjoyed so I was looking forward to reading it. But this one didn't work for me and that's okay. This was a reminder that there will never be enough craft books for writers. Because even if the information is the same, the delivery can make all the difference. What clicks with one author will be a dense mess for another. Everyone learns differently, so if a craft book doesn't meet your needs, go out and find a new one.

Become by Ali Cross

This book was a perfect reminder for me in a time when I really needed it. I really enjoyed this book and bought into the story being told. That said, I didn't think the writing was amazing and it definitely had its flaws. But I still liked it and will likely read the next book in the series. Because, and this is a biggie, a book doesn't have to be perfect for readers to enjoy it. As I finish up the first draft for Rite of Redemption, I need to remind myself that I don't have to seek perfection on the page.While I want my books to be the best they can be with engaging characters, strong plots and solid world-building, I also want them to be written. And I can't do that if I'm analyzing every sentence for perfection. Readers don't demand a perfect story, they want a great book.

I'd love to find some new indie authors so if you have a great book you think I should read, leave me a suggestion in the comments

Reasons your book isn't selling: Failure to toot your horn

Welcome back to Reasons your book isn't selling, where every Wednesday I discuss common mistakes I see authors make that are hurting their book sales. Last time I talked about assuming good books sell themselves.

Today's reason your book isn't selling: Failure to toot your own horn

There are all different types of people who decide to become writers, so I hate to make generalizations. However, the vast majority of authors I meet and interact with tend to be of the introverted  persuasion. Much happier behind a keyboard and 300 pages of printed goodness than a room full of people. Writers also tend to be an insecure bunch, despite the fact that they've accomplished something over half of the American population claims to want to do, but very few every see to fruition.

It's because of this introversion and insecurity that many writers suck rocks at telling people about their books. It took over six months before I discovered that a local mommy friend of mine is also an author. Let's call her Jane. Jane has been writing much longer than me and has a ton more books out there. But Jane never tells anyone about them.

When I got invited to a signing event that was taking place literally down the street from Jane's house, I had to beg her to come with me. And the librarian, who also lives super close to Jane, had no idea there was another author in the area. When mutual friends introduce me to others, they all call me their author friend and are surprised when I tell them that Jane is also an author.

These same in-person tendencies continue to the online world. Jane doesn't ever talk about her books on social media or share blog posts. She doesn't promote her launches or talk up the books she's working on. I have to practically torture it out of her to find out when she is putting out her next book.

When I asked Jane why she doesn't talk about her books more, she simply shrugs her shoulders and says, "I'm not you. I'm not good at that stuff."

So let me say that I get it. I get that I am an abnormal author in that I actually enjoy marketing and I'm an extrovert in every sense of the word. I get that this is all a bit easier for me and I appreciate that for others it isn't as easy.

Too bad.

Yep, I said it.

If all you want to do is write books and put them out there for the couple dozen of committed readers, then that's fine. If you don't care about reaching a larger audience, expanding your reach, or (gasp) actually making money, then by all means, stay tucked away in your author cocoon. But if you'd like to actually have something to report on your annual taxes each year, then it's time to suck it up.

I'm not saying you have to climb the nearest rooftop and start shouting about your books. But you also can't be afraid to talk about them either. If this all sounds like medieval torture, here are a few tips to start small.

1. Claim your status
When you are meeting new people, they are bound to ask what you do. Go ahead and tell them. If you're feeling adventurous, don't stop with the generic "I'm an author". You'd be surprised how many conversations you can start by saying, "I write books for/about_____".

2. Pre-schedule some posts
If social media sounds awful, then ease into it. Use a scheduling program such as Hootsuite. Start with a handful of posts each week. You can go very basic and just do a quick promo post. Some other simple ideas are sharing a favorite review or tying your book into a holiday or timely event. If this feels too spammy to you, schedule an equal number of posts to promote someone else's book. Not only does this spice up your feed, but it earns you some goodwill with other authors.

3. Hand out swag
Okay, this one may feel scarier, but it doesn't have to be. I always carry bookmarks in my purse. This is a great way to give someone a physical reminder if the conversation from tip #1 develops. It's also a conversation starter. If I see someone reading, I'll offer them a bookmark. After all, I already know they enjoy reading and everyone likes getting something for free.

Talking about your books doesn't have to be scary or a huge time suck. But not talking about your books is never a good way to sell more of them.

Agency Lessons: email etiquette

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today's post comes from the mail bag:

Hello! If an agent requests a revise and resubmit, does that make the query a solicited query, or is it still unsolicited? If solicited, should it be sent directly to the agent's email address, or should it be sent to the general query email for the literary agency? Thanks!

Ah, all the minute details of querying that can send authors into an absolute tailspin of indecision and second guessing. 

First off, breathe and congratulations! An R&R is a great step. While, not yet an offer of representation, it is a sign that an agent saw enough potential in your work to take another look. It means you're on the right track and that's something to celebrate.

Next, let's tackle solicited versus unsolicited. 

When it comes to agents, this isn't a term we use. Either an agent is open to queries or they are not. The unsolicited business is used when we are dealing with pitches sent to editors at publishing houses. 

A pitch sent by an agent is considered solicited. This is how editors get the bulk of their submissions. An unsolicited pitch is sent directly from the author. Some houses are okay with this, others are not. If they state "No unsolicited queries", this means your work has to be submitted through an agent.

Now that we've got the definitions out of the way, let's tackle the real heart of your question. Where should you send your newly polished, sure to dazzle manuscript?

Your safest bet is always to send it back to the same email an agent used to ask for the R&R. For example, I respond to queries through the query email at our agency. However, when I ask for manuscripts, I ask for them to be sent to my personal agency email. So go back and look to see where that email was sent from and if there were any specific instructions.

If you're still not sure, just ask.

I promise that agents are not trying to destroy the tender souls of authors at every chance we get. If you send the agent a simple, polite email that states you are ready with the revised manuscript and want to double check where the agent would like it sent, the agent will respond with an address. Believe me, if an agent took the time to read your work, provide commentary and edits, and agree to read it again, she is actually interested and wants to read it. So an email to double check will not be a reason to squash your dreams and stomp on your heart.

This is really a great general rule to follow when it comes to agents. If you aren't sure, just ask. Now, I say that with a grain of salt. If the answer is clearly available on our website, your email will likely go ignored. But genuine questions are always welcome.          

Don't be a puppybabymonkey

So, if you watched the Super Bowl (and probably even if you didn't) chances are you saw this:

Yeah, I'm sorry.

The Super Bowl is a great opportunity to study marketing and this is an example of just how badly marketing can go when it's done wrong. And to think, someone was paid big bucks to come up with this and then an entire group of people in charge of brand marketing approved it. Scary.

Here's the deal.

For a lot of authors, our biggest obstacle can be discoverability. People can't read our book if they don't know it exists.

And that's when authors can get desperate. They think that any exposure is a good thing, even if it results in negative reactions. But this really isn't the case anymore. Bad exposure can just be bad for business.

When it comes to this commercial, yes, everyone is talking about it. An internet search for Puppy Baby Monkey yields more results than I ever wanted to see. But without watching the commercial again, I wouldn't be able to tell you what the name of the drink is that disturbing hybrid is trying to sell. And i certainly have no desire to go buy it.

If everyone is talking about you or your book because of negative behavior or a disturbing or offensive marketing strategy, don't be surprised if it doesn't result in book sales. Go out there and get your name out, but make sure you aren't confusing, scaring, or offending the people you're trying to reach.

Reasons your book isn't selling: Assuming good books sell themselves

Welcome back to Reasons your book isn't selling, where every Wednesday I discuss common mistakes I see authors make that are hurting their book sales. Last time I talked about Negative Nancys.

Today's reason your book isn't selling: Assuming good books sell themselves

I've seen it more times than I care to count. An author works for months, sometimes years, perfecting their book. They work with beta readers, critique partners and editors to whip it into shape and do all the right pre-publication work to get their book looking good.

And then they launch it.

And only put in 1% of the work they put into the actual book into their marketing efforts.

So it bombs.

Not because it's a bad book, or because they cut corners, or even because it's not what readers are looking for. It bombs because no one knows it exists.

Because books don't sell themselves.

In addition to working hard at creating the best possible book for your readers, you absolutely must put the effort into marketing that book. This never stops. You will never be able to just release a book without marketing it. Think about it. Even the new Harper Lee book had tons of marketing and PR efforts behind it.

Some authors hold firm to the belief that good books will eventually float their way to the top. They opperate on the assumption that readers will figure out what isn't worth their time and then they'll discover all these wonderful books out there.

This is not how your book will be discovered

Wrong! Wrong, wrong, wrong. This is how it would work if the world were perfect and someone put me in charge of everything. But this is not how it works and I'm barely in charge of my living room, let alone the world.

Here's the reality. There are a lot of subpar books out there. Really, I know. And yes, those book usually find their way to the abyss. But by the time they do, another dozen (or one hundred) really poor books will release and you'll find yourself vying for reader attention against those. There is no end game here. You can't trust that readers will find your genius and do all your marketing for you. Does that sometimes happen? Sure, once in a blue moon when the stars align and some poor author makes a deal with the devil. For the rest of us, we're the ones who have to put in the work.

Readers are not going to find your book on their own. If you want to see success with your books, you need to put just as much effort into your marketing efforts as you did when you crafted your words.

Agency Lessons: Word counts

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today's post answers a question from my mail bag. Don't forget that if you have a question you'd like me to answer about agenting, marketing, or authoring, you can leave it in the comments section or fill out this nifty anonymous form. 

Now for today's question:
What word count range do you personally think is OK for a YA fantasy?

There have been countless posts written about how long books should be and not all of them give the same advice. It can be daunting for a new writer to figure out how how many words should end up on the finished page.

Unfortunately, there isn't an easy answer to this one. Just like reader preferences in genres and topics tend to change over the years, their preferences in word counts also tend to change. For example, in YA, word counts have been creeping upwards over the past several years to the point that many books being published today are comparable to the word counts of adult books. 

Here are a few articles that give actual word counts, but make sure you note the dates of any articles you read and keep in mind that nothing in publishing ever stays the same.

Writer's Digest definitive post

LitReactor: Ask the Agent

Janet Reid: Agent extraordinaire

I have a few pieces of advice for deciding if your novel is too short, too long, or just right.

First, is your story complete? Do you have a fully developed world, with fleshed out characters and a plot that provides readers with plenty of highs, lows and unexpected twists? If not, your story isn't long enough.

Second, is your story bloated? Is it filled with excessive description, purple prose or scenes that don't drive your plot or character development? If so, your story is too long.

Last, what genre is your story? Now, go to the web and find a list of at least twenty debut books in your genre that came out in the last year. Look up their word counts online. If you can't find their word count, look for their page count (you can always find this on Amazon). Then multiply the page count by 250 to get a very rough word count.

Now, compare all these and find a happy medium between them. You should aim for your book to fall in a happy resting place between all these debuts. Not too short, not too long, just right.

There is no clear line in the sand that says your book must be more than X and less than Y. And there are always outliers that defy even conventional wisdom. The reality is that your book should be just long enough to tell an amazing story and not one word longer.

Reasons your book isn't selling: Negative Nancy

Welcome back to Reasons your book isn't selling, where every Wednesday I discuss common mistakes I see authors make that are hurting their book sales. Last time I talked about saying no.

Today's reason your book isn't selling: turning into a Negative Nancy

We all know those people are are always complaining about something. They are convinced that the whole publishing game is one big roll of the dice and everyone but them has a weighted pair. Nothing you say can convince them that there is still hope for them and their books and they are determined to be souless, life-crushing authors who write into ignominy forever. These people aren't even reading this blog, because any marketing advice I might offer them is irrelevant. It's all a big luck showdown. They are convinced that they'll never sell any books and their attitude becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

But then there are those authors who are really trying. They want to get their book out there and are genuinely seeking out opportunities to improve sales. In general they are positive people and they probably started out their journey into authorship with pie-in-the-sky dreams and a big smile. But then, success doesn't come as easy as they thought. Their book isn't the run-away smash hit they dreamed about and they find their efforts are less effective than they had hoped or planned. And the negative language starts slipping in.

They don't mean to come off as negative. Many times, their blog posts and social media messages are meant to be marketing focused. "Hey guys, I'd love to get a few more reviews for my book, XYZ. Let me know if you're interested in a free review copy!" turns into "My book tour turned out to be a waste of time so I'm trying anything to get more reviews. Let me know if you can help out with a review of my book, XYZ."

Both options are asking the same thing, but one comes out as upbeat and engaging, while the other comes across as whiny and desperate. Sadly, I see too many examples of the latter.

The reality is that publishing is hard regardless of whether you are with a big publisher or going on your own. There are so many books released every week and only a tiny fraction of them ever make real money and an even smaller percent become the books that all the readers are talking about. It's a trying and difficult process. And every other author out there knows it.

But the readers are not interested in your blog tour woes. They don't care that your publisher isn't helping as much as you want or that you got turned down for a BookBub ad...again. To readers, you are living the dream, achieving near god-like status as the creator of magical portals to endless stories. I'm not saying you can't get real from time to time and share your woes with your readers, but these should be rare instances, not a daily occurrence.

Go back and read the last five posts you wrote about your book. They can be from your blog, website, or any social media platform. Now check the tone. Is it positive and hopeful, or are you setting the stage for disappointment?

Readers will take their cue from you. If you constantly add little lines into your posts about how hard it is to find readers, get your book into libraries, or earn reviews, readers will get the impression that your book isn't good enough. In their mind, a book that is causing that much trouble must not be worth the read. And that's the exact opposite impression that you want readers to have.

I know how tempting it can be to get out a little steam, but social media is not the place. Instead, find a safe group of people who can sympathize and (if you can) take the conversation offline where it's less likely your words will come back to haunt you.

Agency Lessons: Let's talk about sex

Agency Lessons is a weekly post that gives authors and readers an inside look into the mind of a literary agent and a peek behind the curtain of how books are made.

Today, I'm tackling a question from the mail bag, and it's a doozy so let's jump right in.
Hey, Sarah! I was wondering, if there are characters in your book that have sex (not graphically, but it still happens in the PG-13 version), does that automatically take it to NA or can it still be YA? OR (cause I like options ;) ) What are the differences between YA and NA?

Here's the dealieo; YA is not what it used to be. Back in the days when  I was actually a teen reading the few books for teens that were available, they were as clean as they come. No cursing, no drinking and absolutely no sex.

But times they are a changing. Today's YA is much more reflective of the plethora of challenges that teens face. That means they deal with tough situations like poverty and sexual violence. They also include behavior that, while not exactly encouraged, is certainly present in a lot of teens lives. So sex in a YA isn't the taboo that it used to be.

The general rule for YA is that once the clothes start coming off, the door is closed and we fade to black. That isn't a hard and fast rule and authors are constantly pushing that line. However, I would say any descriptions that involve detailed body parts are probably better left for the older kids.

So, sex is definitely okay for YA. But make sure it's there to advance the story and not just turn your character into a book boyfriend.

As far as NA goes, that's a different story. NA toes the line between YA and Adult, but definitely leans heavier on the adult side and that is where it would be shelved in a book store. NA is really about the audience. These are books for readers who are in college or just graduated. They are on their own in the big world, unlike YA, but they aren't ready for the big commitments of Adult novels. 

When it comes to NA, since it leans heavier on the Adult side of things, sex is much more prevalent and...descriptive. And that's okay, because the characters are all over the age of 18 and it's all good.

Just keep in mind that the difference between YA and NA isn't just the sex content. It's also the audience and the very different issues that those two groups face. There's a big difference between a 16-yr-old and a 21-yr-old. 

This is a topic that could be discussed ad nauseam. If you're interested in more info on sex in YA, I was recently part of a great discussion with Blaze Publishing where several authors and bloggers talked about the dirty deed and its place in YA. 

Also, remember, if you have questions you'd like to see me answer as part of Agency Lessons, you can leave them in the comments or send them anonymously via this easy peasy form.