Roz Morris @Roz_Morris

Former ghostwriter coming out of the shadows with books of my own. My Memories of a Future Life. Lifeform Three (longlisted for the World Fantasy Award). Humorous memoir: Not Quite Lost: Travels Without A Sense of Direction. Series for writers: Nail Your Novel.

Homepage: http://rozmorris.wordpress.com

Building readership: a quiet rebellion against three pieces of conventional marketing wisdom

I’ll readily admit that book marketing is not my expertise, but some commonly accepted maxims really chafe for me. Indeed, my gut tells me I should do the opposite. So here they are, for better or perverse.

Rebellion 1: Social media – use pictures and videos for greater engagement

We all know the equation. A picture is worth a thousand words. Facebook certainly thinks so, and constantly reminds me with helpful messages. ‘Increase reader engagement with pictures! And videos!’

This is because most of my posts – on my page and my personal space – are text.

I love pictures and I’m not shy to use them, but my medium is words, not images.

As a user of Facebook, the people I cleave to most are those who write thoughtfully, beguilingly, provokingly. Though pictures might attract my eye, I take more notice of the accompanying caption or story. I tune out most of the videos because they are not made by the user. I have never made or posted a gif.

This probably makes me an unsporting FB citizen, but for me the joy of the platform is people’s voices, preoccupations, the way they speak their minds or sing their souls and the conversations that follow. Words. Because I want to meet people who like reading.

More successful with whom? (Here’s my page, BTW.)

Rebellion 2: Newsletters – keep readers keen with special offers and deals

I was a late starter with newsletters because I didn’t know what I’d put in them. I don’t produce books fast so I don’t have many new launches to write about. I have a small catalogue and can’t keep up a pace of constant special offers.

This sale-sale-sale mentality suits some writers, but it’s unsustainable for people like me. Besides, I would never subscribe to a newsletter with bargain mentality, so how would I write one?

It’s taken me a while to realise I could do something else. Although the books take shape slowly and there might be little progress from issue to issue, I am a full time wordperson.

I write about other work I’m doing. Adventures that arise from books past, present and future. I wrote about a highway that had been returned to nature – continuing the spirit of my travel memoir Not Quite Lost. I wrote about meeting a friend from my teen years and discovering how we had both turned into professional creators. I write a diary of what’s mattered to me in a month, as a human whose main delight is storytelling (and, yes, taking pictures).

Rebellion 3: Find out what your readers want

This is excellent advice in most types of commercial life. If you make running shoes, coffee, pens. It’s good for writers of how-to books – and yes, I have a list of Nail Your Novel book requests that I’ve not yet tackled because I don’t have a clone.

Researching reader preferences might be good for certain kinds of fiction writers. To find out which series characters to write about next; or which locations or historical situations might be popular. There are plenty of writers for whom this advice makes good sense.

But not for writers like me. You can’t tell me what you want to read from me. It’s my job to invent a book that only I could think of. Here’s Husband Dave, dreaming up his next one.

So this is the Roz manifesto for book marketing

1 Social media – to find people who enjoy reading … try text-only posts

2 Newsletters – invite readers into your creative life and share its milestones

3 Don’t ask others what you should write; follow your own star

But does it work, Roz?

Good question. I can’t produce evidence that this marvellously maverick approach is helping people discover my work. And without such evidence, articles like this can sound smug and insubstantial. Here are a few observations:

Facebook regularly hints that I should post more pictures, but the stats tell a different story. Posts that are pure text actually get better engagement.

My newsletter is not to everyone’s taste, but whose is? Some of the new subscribers fall away, but my list is slowly growing and some of the recipients reply to me by email or Twitter, continuing the conversation or just saying hello. (PS My latest is here.)

Most of all, I don’t find any of this to be a chore. It feels honest and genuine. As a sustainable policy, that seems like a good one.

Do you have any quiet rebellions, either in the writing/publishing life or elsewhere? Let’s discuss!

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A plea to authors – please speak out about piracy

I’ve had a worrying experience with a local book club. I’m not sure it is as it appears, so I won’t name names. But either way, it raises worrying questions about the way authors’ work is valued.

Recently, a book club invited me to make a presentation about Lifeform Three. The club voted to read it. The organiser went out of the room. Ten minutes later she returned. The books were ordered, she said! So quick. Everyone went home happy.

Except. I should have seen seven UK sales within 24 hours but there was only one. An ebook. Being indie, I know the local bookshops don’t have that many copies. Also, cheap second-hand copies on Amazon are scarce. Did the club just pretend they were going to read it?

It was sweet of them to spare my blushes. And I couldn’t exactly ask.

I shrugged it off. But this week I was talking to an author friend. She said she’d had the same puzzling situation, several times. She said that local book clubs had contacted her because they were reading one of her titles. They asked her questions about the text. But she saw no corresponding rise in UK sales. Like me, she knows local shops don’t have that many copies. The libraries don’t stock her books. Secondhand copies are in short supply. Each time a book club takes up one of her titles, she sees just one UK sale – one ebook.

It seems to be a pattern.

Finally, she said, she found the answer. She said that one club admitted that it buys one ebook and shares it among all its members. Could they be passing one copy between them all? Unlikely as they all needed to read it at once. She strongly suspected they were making duplicates.

Was this also the explanation for my book club experience? I saw just one sale, remember.

I asked. I was told: ‘We mostly get our books through Amazon, and often from the second-hand sellers. I like to read a real book and don’t have a Kindle’. So be it.

But why was I ready to believe villainy?

Because it fits a bigger picture. Because I frequently meet people who think piracy, file copying and illegal downloading hurts nobody. They say it’s a ‘victimless’ crime. They defend their right to do it. These are people in well-paid jobs, BTW.

What harm can it do? Let’s illustrate that by giving book clubs a fair hearing. Let’s show the good that just one group can – and does – do for an author’s reputation and sustainability and why we appreciate them so much.

The power of book clubs

Imagine if one club orders seven copies in a store. That puts the author in the store owner’s good books. If they’re bought online it spreads beneficial juice through the chart algorithms. Just seven copies can make a real impression. Many clubs are a lot bigger.

You might think traditionally published authors don’t have to worry as much because they’re funded by the publisher, but if the book doesn’t gain traction, the publisher drops the author.

So a book club is not only putting money where it deserves to be. It is doing a lot of good for that author’s long-term career. Thank you, BTW.

Money, money, money

I’m sorry to mention money so much, but I think this is one of the stumbling blocks. How many times have you had to explain to non-authors that books have not made you steaming rich?

Indeed, I wonder if we’ve helped create that impression? All these carefree pictures of authors signing heaps of books in crowded bookstores; holding launches in front of appreciative audiences.

Films and TV are even worse. I’ve seen LitHub articles that laugh at the kind of blissful artistic life that moviemakers think is the norm for writers.

Of course we like to share our highlights, but the public is getting an erroneous message that we’re all living the dream in a utopia of wordy fulfilment. So what’s a lost sale? Or 10?

We’ve failed to emphasise how much of an impact lost sales and piracy have (thanks for the pic Leo Reynolds on Flickr).

Selling ourselves too cheaply?

And obviously the freebie culture hasn’t helped – that’s a rot we can’t reverse. Neither have subscription services, where content is an all-you-can-eat buffet. We often hear people say they can’t afford to buy books, but many of those people can fund foreign holidays, concert tickets and regular doses of frothy coffee. They can’t fund their reading?

Because they don’t think they should have to.

Stealing is the new black

Yesterday I saw a sign in a charity shop: ‘If you steal from this shop, you are stealing from animals.’

Think about that. Who would steal from a charity shop? But it happens so frequently that the shop had to display a sign. How did the thieves justify that to themselves? The stock was donated so the theft harms no one? Another kind of victimless crime?

Unfortunately, there have always been ways to share files and cheat their creators. Ask any musician. It’s too late to change some people’s minds. But we can speak up so that more people don’t drift into it unawares. Ebook copying is damaging authors’ careers.

I don’t know how we’ll change people’s minds about this. Suggestions?

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Feel the fear and put yourself out there – advice for shy authors

A while ago I was at an author event about book publicity. Finding magazines, blogs and broadcast media that will review our book or interview us. How do we do that? The first thing to do, said my friend Ben Cameron of Cameron PR, is to get the right mindset. Think of it as creative. And fun.

Afterwards, I fell into conversation with Tina, who didn’t see it as fun. She said: ‘I don’t feel comfortable putting myself out there. Asking people if they’ll interview me or feature my book. I just can’t. How do you do that?’

I’d just been conducting my own campaign for Not Quite Lost. It went better than I expected. I managed to pitch successfully to bloggers, mainstream print magazines and BBC radio stations. The first time I pressed Send I had to gird my courage, but after that it didn’t feel embarrassing.

I told Tina that. She wasn’t convinced.

This interested me because Tina wasn’t exactly a mouse. She taught workshops. She controlled groups of creative people and made them do stuff. She was also a playwright, and accustomed to plain-speaking feedback from actors and directors. Yet she was saying: ‘Asking for publicity … it’s like walking into a roomful of strangers and trying to talk to them. Don’t tell me you find that easy?’

I agreed I didn’t. Not remotely.  ‘But that other stuff is different.’

‘Why?’ asked Tina, which made me think.

Obviously, you get used to pitching. You learn that magazines, newspapers and radio shows are looking for material. They don’t open your email and cackle at your ridiculous hubris. You’re all in a day’s work. They actually hope you’ll match their requirements.

But the biggest realisation – the one that let me pitch without a qualm – was the realisation that none of it, actually, was about me. I was not seeking attention for me. It was for my books.

So it’s not about you, tiny naked vulnerable mind being dragged into a big bright light to explain yourself. It’s not even about personal confidence, whatever that is. It’s about confidence in your work.

This week I had a book club event for My Memories of a Future Life. It went well, but last night, I had the anxiety dream. In it, I was talking to a presenter from BBC radio who said: ‘I think I’ll cancel this interview. I don’t like you very much.’

And this is the thing. Whether we’re seeking publicity or releasing a book, it will always take a little of our skin. But I think this is like the anxiety that puts a performer on their mettle, or makes a doctor careful with their responsibility for a human life. It’s unavoidable, so we might as use it as a strength.

Though I still have problems walking into a roomful of strangers – and had reason to consider this in my latest newsletter.

Give me your thoughts!

PS I had a nice surprise this week when Feedspot nominated me as one of their top 3 UK blogs for selfpublishers. If I should thank any of you guys for this – then thank you!

 

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What I wish I’d known at school: two instructions for making a creative life

A few weeks ago I posted about exercise and my ineptitude at school sports. In the far warrens of the internet, somebody at my old school pricked up her ears and wrote me an email.

We love hearing what alumnae are up to. Would you write a few words for our magazine, with advice to current pupils? Not in sport, obvs.’

What would I have liked to know at that age? I remember my main worry was what I would do in the outside world. I dearly wanted a life that was creative, but I had no artistic family members or role models to show the way. How would I become the sort of person who made an art my profession?

Obviously skills would be necessary, but I think it starts before that; a crusade at an intrinsic, instinctive level.

So this is the advice I’d have appreciated.

First, follow your interest.

In my day, the school was housed in three handsome old houses, joined by their gardens. Our classrooms had tantalising remnants of their times as family homes – stucco ceilings and fireplaces, which I would gaze at, daydreaming.

The maths room was in a small Gothic building and was particularly delightful. Outside its window was a set of grassed-over steps that led to the original front door. I had no aptitude for maths, and anyway those old rooms suggested mental exercises that were much more beguiling – to imagine the people who had lived here, with their own dramas, before it was a school.

After a few years we moved to new classrooms with breeze-block walls and my maths improved considerably. But that old building started me on a lifetime habit to roam in my imagination. It also gave me an abiding love of lost places – which still entertain me today (you’ll certainly see evidence of that in Lifeform Three and Not Quite Lost).

My second tip is this: make your own rules.

In those days, English O level had two papers, one of which was an essay. Our teacher advised us to avoid the story option. ‘Because no one does the story well,’ he said. I was a quiet, law-abiding pupil and took every instruction seriously, but this was a maxim I couldn’t follow.

All that term, I turned in story after story, as I always had, and the teacher didn’t mind at all. When it came to the O level, the examiners didn’t mind either. Sometimes when you defy the rules, you find your true path.

So, to pursue an artistic life:

  • Follow your interest.
  • Discover your own rules.
  • Definitely stare out of the window.
  • Don’t worry about the sport.

But perhaps pay a bit more attention in maths.

What am I working on at the moment? Here’s my newsletter. Click here to receive updates

Tell me your thoughts. What would your school-age self like to have known about making a creative life? What advice would you give?

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Five tips for writing good prose

How do we learn to write good prose? Indeed, what is it? How do we develop our use of language, play our literary instrument with more elan and flair?

We were probably all encouraged at school to use difficult words instead of simple ones. I see plenty of work that still seems in thrall to that, thinking that ‘printable writing’ must mean to use the thesaurus as often as possible.

Now I’ll happily use a thesaurus to find the bon mot that’s slipped my mind. But we’ve all seen writing that waxes far too lyrical, looks self-conscious and overdone.

The other huge sin is tortuous obfuscation, as if the writer is trying to prove they are clever. Just for a giggle, look at this example in The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest. Here’s a taster:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’

I sense this writer imagines he is being profound and much more clever than his readers. This kind of writing is an act of bullying superiority, not communication. The writer who committed it, BTW, is an English professor. Heaven help those who wish to learn from him.

We certainly want readers to be impressed by our writing, but for the right reasons. So how do we do that? Here’s my totally subjective account of what impresses me.

Tip 1: Be clear

Good prose doesn’t try to put up barriers. It might make interesting word choices and deploy an image stylishly, but it wants to be understood – deeply and completely.

This means that before we write a good sentence we need clarity ourselves. Especially on this point: what do we want the reader to feel?

Let’s take an example – describing characters. These are probably some of the most complex descriptions we might attempt as writers. Try these:

Someone advanced from the sea of faces, someone tall and gaunt, dressed in deep black, whose prominent cheekbones and great, hollow eyes gave her a skull’s face…’ Daphne du Maurier

And

He was a snub-nosed, flat-browed, common-faced boy enough, and as dirty a juvenile as one would wish to see, but he had about him all the airs and manners of a man.’ Charles Dickens

There is not a difficult word in either of those descriptions. The effectiveness comes from the writer knowing what they want to say and wanting the reader to understand it.

Tip 2: Develop an ear

Note also that those two examples are long sentences, but effortless to read. The writer has a sense for how the words beat in the reader’s mind.

By contrast, here’s a famous sentence by Edward Bulwer-Lytton that strangles itself, quoted, funnily enough, on Wikipedia’s Purple Prose entry:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness.’

It’s not a bad concept and it’s certainly vivid – but the writing is full of tripwires:

  • ‘Except at occasional intervals’ destroys the storyteller’s spell by wresting the reader’s attention away and sounding like a news bulletin.
  • ‘When it was checked by’ is another leaden construction, and indirect for no good reason.
  • ‘Fiercely agitating the scanty….. blah’ – there is too much going on here for me to stay with the thread. ‘Scanty flame of the lamps…’ with everything else we have to process in the sentence, does it even matter if the flames are scanty? And do we need to detain the reader with the thought that life is hard for the lamps? While we’re at it, is it the darkness the lamps are struggling against or the wind? If the writing was handled gracefully we’d allow a struggle against darkness as a poetic idea, but as it’s so clumsy it is merely ridiculous.

As I said, there’s nothing wrong with the concept of the sentence, following the wind and rain through the streets. But the writer’s thinking is cluttered, clogged and complicated.

And look back at our very first example from the English professor. He stuffed so many words into his sentence that he had to use italics to add stress. A well-written sentence doesn’t need typographical tics. It leads the reader perfectly well with the usual tools of punctuation and the careful use of word order.

Tip 3: Suit the occasion

Language dictates the way a story is experienced. It’s the filter over the lens, the music on the soundtrack, the way the shots linger or race across the screen.

For instance, thriller writers want to grip you with a pacy beat. They use a vocabulary that tingles with action.

I downshifted into third as I zoomed past him and shot toward the upcoming climb with a fresh boost of torque and enough raw power and confidence to soar past anybody or anything that might be blocking my way on the curving ascent ahead.’ Jonathan Kellerman

It’s a long sentence, but it’s lean and spare. And it’s not even describing a crucial piece of action, merely the character’s drive home.

More than that, language can operate other senses. Patrick Suskind’s Perfume begins with a description of Paris purely through its smells. Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker is told in its own post-apocalyptic pidgen English to connect you to the narrator’s mind and the details that will tell you the story.

All these choices of language are deliberate and serve the material.

Tip 4: Find books you want to savour

I’ve always been a slow reader. I can’t skim through a good book, and often find myself trapped by an exquisite phrase or a startling sentence. I’ll keep rereading it, hoping to decode its power, discover its trick. When I studied for my degree in English literature, I found the workload impossible because I couldn’t gallop through the reading list like everyone else could. Charles Dickens on his own could have kept me profitably occupied for a year. While I may not have been the widest-read English student, that habit of pausing over good sentences has tuned my ear.

Tip 5: Try many styles

A tenuous reason to use this picture, but I hope you’ll agree it’s lovely. Now – back to the matter in hand.

Every now and again you’ll discover a writer who blows a hole through your idea of what good prose is. Let it; soak up the possibilities it opens for you. Try to emulate it, if you’re so inclined. Mimic the rhythms, the sentence structure, the tone, the types of things they would notice. You won’t be able to keep it up, and after a while you’ll be back to your own evolving style. But you’ll have learned a new trick or two. Then read, repeat and repeat.

Ultimately, becoming a good wordsmith is a process of self-examination and gradual evolution, like getting fit or mastering an instrument.

Here it is in a nutshell:

1 Strive to be understood

2 Develop an ear

3 Suit the occasion

4 Find books you want to savour

5 Try many styles

Or: to avoid this

Do this

Purple prose pic by Leslie Nicole on Flickr. Glass and instrument pics by Pixabay. Other pics by me

Psst …. Remember, the words are only the skin. If you’re still working on the underlayers of characters, dialogue, structure, themes etc, you might like my Nail Your Novel books – process, characters and plot.

 

What am I working on at the moment? Here’s my newsletter. Click here to receive updates

Let’s discuss! How do you develop your literary ear?

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Thinking on your feet: writing and my love-hate relationship with exercise

At school I loathed exercise. I had all the left feet possible. I couldn’t catch a ball and I couldn’t see balls anyway without specs. All creatures know when they are disliked, and I sensed how the games teachers loathed me. By the same token, they surely knew I did not hold their subject in high esteem. This is my school magazine. None of these people are me.

Looking back, that might have been one of the first signs that I should be a writer. Writers are creatures of brain and imagination. The sports offered by my school were the opposite – charmless, inane and pointless. Nature abhors a vacuum, or at least my nature does. Especially a vacuum of interest. Nothing on earth could make me interested in netball, hockey, rounders, and the summer torments that involved throwing, jumping and running. Again, none of these people are me.

These days, though, I run or take a class most days a week. What’s changed? Certainly I’ve learned to love movement a little more in its own right. But chiefly I value it as headspace.

Well it’s not news that exercise helps you think. If you want a bit of science, here’s a piece about it in the New Yorker by Ferris Jabr @ferrisjabr. If you like hiking, hop along to the blog of my friend Jane Davis @janedavisauthor , who recently published a collection of interviews with number of writers who walk including Yours Truly.

For me, exercise is a chance to unplug an idea from the clutter of desk life. It’s not just escape. The movement adds its own seasoning. I notice that endorphins make thoughts travel lighter, along straighter lines. I’m more confident to consider radical changes. Fatigue is also my friend. Impatient for a tiring session to end, I discover – and solve – problems I didn’t know were there. Some of the grit drops into my thoughts, adding an interesting edge. Amy X Wang @amyxwang talks about this in Glimmer Train, where the pain of intense exercise brings vigour to the page. Sometimes I find the results, back at the desk, are sublime. Sometimes they are ridiculous, but hey.

The Prime Writers @theprimewriters , on their blog, posted about exercise for contemplation,  inspired by literary running addict Haruki Murakami. Some, though, were looking for exercise to provide a drastic escape from their thoughts. Jon Teckman @jontwothreefour said he started taking military Boot Camp training, because it was so agonising that thought was impossible.

I’ve yet to find that state of oblivion myself. No matter how gruelling the exercise, nothing turns off the tyrant book. Not quivering through my 160th rep in Body Pump. Not pummelling a pair of sparring pads while being yelled at by a boxing instructor. If I’ve got a book in my bonnet, nothing can dislodge it. I can keep the brain in one dimension while the body battles in another. (With just one exception. Riding a horse, you’d better pay full attention or you’re sure of a big surprise.)

If you’re ever in a class with me and I appear to look meditative, don’t be fooled. I had a yoga phase about twelve years ago, which coincided with one of my ghostwritten thrillers. I remember standing and bending through the Sun Salutation, while I figured out what it felt like to drown in an ornamental pond.

Yes, I’ve certainly considered that I might be just as irksome to fitness instructors of 2018 as I was in the Class of 1970-whatnot, because they know I’m only half-there.

And here’s the thing. At school, what I hated was the mindlessness of exercise, the lack of mental entertainment. I need an occupation for the head while the hands and feet are doing their thing. I’m afraid this means I’ll never be the kind of person who seeks a state of mindfulness; it’s not the way I’m wired. But I definitely seek mind fullness. And now, exercise provides a very agreeable space to take an idea for a spin.

Actually, not Spin. I don’t think I’ll ever like Spin.

Tell me your thoughts! Love exercise? Hate it? How does it fit with your creative life?

PS if you want to know more about the books I’m wrangling while I run or test the patience of a fitness instructor, sign up for my newsletter.

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Umming and ermine – how to avoid getting in a right royal mess

As royals get hitched in London again, I thought this might be useful…

Nail Your Novel

Thank you, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, for the pic

If the little wedding in London is sending your head awhirl with thoughts of court and nobility, you might like to know how to get your royals right

First of all, there’s a general hierarchy. Emperor beats king; king beats viceroy; viceroy beats archduke; archduke beats grand duke, who beats duke, then prince, marquess, count, earl, viscount, baron, baronet, hereditary knight, knight and dame. Of course, we don’t have all of those in England. And plenty of other countries have their very own courtlies such as csars. More about royal hierarchy here, plus how long those titles have been in use for all you historical fans.

Then there’s how you address them. If you’re talking to a duke, it’s ‘I say, Duke’, as though you were addressing John Wayne. Marquesses and their wives are Lord and Lady with their place name…

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Movements, movers and shakers: publishers and authors as literary citizens .. an interview

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Pressin Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. Part 3 is here. This is the final instalment. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz How much do you consider an author’s platform when deciding whether to offer on a manuscript?

Laura Our submission readers do consider marketing potential, whether the author has relationships with well-known authors who might blurb, and—most importantly—whether the author has built genuine community and relationships with indie bookstores.

We don’t measure social media account followers or anything of that sort, though.

Roz Speaking of which … You’ve built a great relationship with authors and bookshops and a supportive community within the writing world.

Laura I moved to Portland in 2001, founded a writing group at a local bookstore, and then proceeded to watch the literary scene and write fiction for 10 years. I didn’t know how to engage—or that I should engage. I didn’t realize I could speak up, or be part of the community, besides as a witness. When I founded the press, I built on those years of being present on the scene, and that credibility helped me earn respect, blurbs, and consignment deals with local bookstores.

Roz I follow you on Facebook and often see lovely pictures of you at your authors’ readings.

Laura Showing up and listening and supporting others is important, of course, and that’s really how I built my community. I founded my press nearly six years ago now, but I also had that decade of being present, of walking into indie bookstores and listening. Going to other authors’ and presses’ events is still very important to me. I encourage writers not only to show up at events, but to say hi to the people sitting next to them, to introduce themselves to the presenting author(s) when they ask for an autograph, and always bring business cards.

Roz What about the Main St Writers Movement? (Reader, if that’s familiar to you, you might have seen it here.)

Laura I founded Main Street in February 2017 to urge writers to support each other at the local level—and their indie bookstores—as a way to strengthen the literary ecosystem. The movement crystallized out of the core values I have as a publisher. One component of Main Street is amplifying underrepresented voices. If your voice is well represented, or if you have social capital, use your voice to direct attention to stories that need to be heard. Don’t hog the mic; pass it. Don’t take up all the space with your words; leave space for others. We’re in this together; we need to have parades for each other and celebrate each other’s achievements. This is an anti-competition movement, a togetherness movement, and quite frankly, a quest to get writers who want to establish professional careers to actually support publishers, literary magazines, and booksellers, which strengthens the industry and then in theory creates more space for more voices. It’s really, at its most basic level, what I’m doing to fight the erosion of reading culture.

We have a Main Street pledge and newsletter, which is on hiatus right now, because I’m focused on a publishers’ speaking tour. I talk about community at every gig, no matter what the topic. Then I challenge my audience to do something: attend a reading at an indie bookstore, or volunteer at a school, for instance. I’ve been to Pasadena, Tucson, and several Portland events already this spring promoting these values and trying to inspire others to do this work too. Because a movement isn’t about a founder; it takes all of us.

Michael Ferro, author of Title 13 (Harvard Square Editions) has been quoted publicly about reaching out to me for advice, only to have me connect him with publishing community members in his own city, Ann Arbor, Michigan. He’s a great example of what Main Street can be, because he took the example I set and is now passing on what he knows to others. If we all reach out and share what we can, we’re going to uplift each other.

Roz Michael Ferro? Small world. I saw that post, tweeted it, we then got chatting on Twitter and he’s writing a post for The Undercover Soundtrack. I love what we can do simply by saying hello.

Any advice for an author thinking of setting up a publishing house?

Laura Figure out your business model, your distribution method, your initial number of titles, and the cost of running the business for the first two years. Don’t forget to factor in printing costs, mailing costs, design software, freelancers, Internet access, and everything else you’ll need to make your business run. You’ll find helpful and accessible information in Joe Biel’s forthcoming People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business, forthcoming in late 2018 through Microcosm Publishing. If you want to do some reading right now, Thomas Woll’s classic Publishing for Profit is a great resource.

Laura – thanks so much. This has been fascinating, inspiring and empowering. Guys, you can find Laura at the Forest Avenue website, on Twitter @forestavepress, on Facebook and on Instagram

Meanwhile, in my own little literary world, if you’re curious to know what I’m cooking up, here’s my latest newsletter

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A week in the life of a small press .. an interview

Laura Stanfill (left) and designer Gigi Little

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. Part 2 is here. This is Part 3. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz Do you have staff?

Laura I don’t have a staff, but I have some wonderful editors, advisers, submissions readers, and a top-notch graphic designer, Gigi Little @gigiblittle , who has been with me since the earliest days. She created our gorgeous logo, and I love the aesthetic she brings to our covers. They’re unlike anyone else’s covers, and recognizable as ours. My editor-at-large Liz Prato is an invaluable team member who helps with building camaraderie among our authors as well as with submissions, social media, big-picture decision making, and organizing us to celebrate milestones. Everyone interested in learning more about submissions—and what not to do—should follow her on Twitter @liz_prato .

Roz What’s a typical day (or week or month)?

Laura Forest Ave is run from my office in the basement and my kitchen table as necessary. Sometimes from the couch. I spend a lot of my time emailing with other publishers and authors, helping them with questions or questions of access. In any given week I:

  • Help other publishers, or other publishers’ authors, because a few minutes of my time can help others succeed
  • Send out ARCs of upcoming titles
  • Communicate with multiple authors about where their titles are in the publishing process
  • Set up interviews, excerpt placements, etc.
  • Reach out to booksellers
  • Design, whether it’s promo materials or upcoming titles
  • Work on backlist titles
  • Work on my own writing

Gigi Little, Forest Avenue’s designer, also performs in opera

Roz How much editorial work do you outsource?

Laura I outsource covers, copy editing, and ebook production; I do the rest in house because of my newspaper background. I used to teach QuarkXpress to newsrooms with a focus on time-saving shortcuts, so it wasn’t too much of a stretch to teach myself InDesign.

I have long lead times for each title because my sales reps want advance copies, marketing data, blurbs, and other metadata nine months before pub date. I also have a higher risk on each title, because distribution is expensive, we need to print a lot more advance copies than pre-distribution, and we have higher print runs than when I was selling books out of the back of my car.

Roz How many submissions do you get a month? How much time do you devote to looking for new material?

Laura I am officially closed year-round except for a period of weeks each year. Our most recent open submission period was four weeks, and it closed in mid-March.

Roz Do you read all the submissions yourself or do you have a team?

Laura We gather a committee of eight (or more) women readers to help us make decisions. We give as much personal feedback as we can, since we gear up for this intense period. Moreover, we only publish two or three titles per year, so it doesn’t make sense to be open when we don’t have any slots in our catalog to fill.

This schedule also allows me to do the volunteer outreach I am so passionate about, helping mentor other presses and answering questions from authors who aren’t mine. That’s time I would otherwise spend combing through manuscripts. Occasionally I take a look at manuscripts when we’re closed—often from agents who have a strong sense of our brand or who have connected with me personally. And I keep a shortlist of possible acquisitions at all times—those books that almost made it, or would have made it if I had more openings.

Roz What’s been been successful for Forest Avenue? I’m thinking many readers here might be prospective Forest Avenue types…

Laura We’ve had success lately with shorter titles with some magical elements—playful, joyfully written manuscripts that don’t fit into a neat literary fiction box. Our bestseller is actually a regional short story anthology, City of Weird: 30 Otherworldly Portland Tales, which received a lot of love from local booksellers and continues to sell to locals and visitors.

My sweet spot for length is 60,000- to 80,000-words. But in 2018, we have two novels that are longer than 100,000 words. Parts per Million is an activist novel, set in Portland, Oregon, and a finalist for the PEN/Bellwether for Socially Engaged Fiction. The Alehouse at the End of the World by Stevan Allred—out in November—is a comic epic set on the Isle of the Dead, which is ruled by six-foot talking birds. It’s the most fantastical of all our fiction to-date, while Parts per Million fits more into the category of recent historical fiction, which we established with Ellen Urbani’s Landfall in 2015. Landfall is set in the South during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and it was our bestseller for quite a while.

Roz Are there any common features of books you reject?

Laura I avoid misogynistic protagonists in fiction, even if the character grows into himself and changes throughout the course of the novel. There’s too much of that material in the world already.

Roz Should an author get their book professionally edited before submitting to you?

Laura We work very closely with our authors over multiple revision passes. That being said, authors have one chance to capture a publisher’s interest, so we highly recommend submitting polished manuscripts. Others’ input, whether it’s from a critique partner, a writing group, a teacher, or a professional editor can help writers put their best work forward.

Recently at a conference, I met a woman whose manuscript came quite far in our recent open submission period; I was astonished that she hadn’t workshopped the book, hired an editor, or worked with beta readers. What she accomplished without that outside perspective was phenomenal, and I immediately started introducing her around to writers so she can start building community. I have no doubt that with some revision, she’s going to find a place for this book in the world. It was so well-written and original.

Roz What’s your view of creative writing courses?

Laura I am a do-it-yourself publisher, and I founded my press without studying publishing or getting my MFA in creative writing. There’s no wrong way to become a writer, but I don’t think there’s one right way, either.

Roz I’m not sure if this will be a welcome subject or not, but many fine authors are now selfpublishing. The tools are mature and sophisticated, and some beautiful books are being produced. What do you think a publisher does that authors can’t do by themselves?

Laura When authors ask me this, I tell them to dig deep into why they want their book out, whether they have a specific timeline, what they want the publishing experience to be like, and if they are comfortable with creating and implementing a comprehensive marketing plan. It’s also important for self-publishing authors to set a timeline that allows for ample pre-publication publicity. All of that is doable.

Author Joyce Cherry Cresswell self-published after we had coffee and talked about her goals. She used Indigo: Editing, Design, and More, which is a Portland-based, woman-owned, full-service editing business, to polish and publish her debut novel. A Great Length of Time became the first self-published book to win the Oregon Book Award in fiction.

Laura and friends – a lot of friends – at the launch of Froelich’s Ladder by Jamie Yourdon

When I publish a book, an author gets years of my dedicated time and attention, developmental editing, a cover by an award-winning designer, hundreds of galleys sent to hundreds of booksellers and reviewers, high-quality photographs of any events I’m near enough to attend, and sometimes snacks from my purse. I also organize launch events, print postcards, advertise, and act as a publicist and author coach, especially for debut titles.

Plus Forest Avenue has a national and international presence, not to mention full-service distribution, which means we get books on shelves, and we can reach far beyond the author’s personal contacts.

Roz As I said in my comment on the previous post…

But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that you also write. Tell me about that. Are you working on a book at the moment?

Laura I write literary fiction and am represented by Laurie Fox of the Linda Chester Agency. And yes, I’m always working on a book! Or two. I am polishing the latest draft of my novel, and I earned a residency in September at the Mineral School in Mineral, Washington, to dig into a new project.

Roz You have an agent … is it too obvious to ask whether you’d ever publish your own work?

Laura I get this question all the time! And I’ve thought about it. After all, Forest Ave gets books on the shelves of indie bookstores, and when I break down the writer dream I’ve had my whole life, that’s the key component. Discoverability. Shelf space. Doing events at bookstores.

And I’m ready to step up and promote my work. But I’d rather have someone else choose my manuscript, and let me focus on the author role. I’ve wanted a debut novel out my whole life—since I was writing books in first grade and “publishing” them with staples.

Roz Obviously a press is a vocation as well as an occupation. Most of us in the literary community adore what we do – I simply love making books, so I relish the whole editing and production process. But we’re writers too and we need to protect our creative time. How do you protect yours? 

Creating community – Laura Stanfill

Laura Perhaps I should respond with what I hope to do to create more space for my work!

It’s been a struggle to justify working with my stories, and my voice, when I have advance copies of upcoming releases to come out, another speaking gig to prepare for, or emails from my authors to answer. I do take time off, usually during writing retreats, and I often find 30 minutes or an hour per day to work on a draft of new work. It’s harder for me to revise big novel chunks in compressed time periods.

Before starting Forest Avenue, I woke up early and wrote for an hour or two every day before work; that time these days is often used managing emails and handling kids who wake up too early.

Coming next time: publishers and authors as literary citizens

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Marketing literary fiction – ‘There are readers who need these stories…’ an interview

Laura Stanfill

This week I’m interviewing Laura Stanfill, author, all-round literary citizen and founder of the literary imprint Forest Avenue Press in Portland, Oregon. Part 1 is here. This is Part 2. Find her on Twitter as @ForestAvePress

Roz There’s no getting away from the fact that literary fiction is trickiest to market.

Laura Oh it’s so hard! Every time I create marketing plans and metadata for a new novel, I am envious of publishers putting out subject-based nonfiction books, because it’s so much easier to identify and connect with a target audience.

Novels are tools to build empathy, they are self-care objects, they are escapes and escapades and circuses to entertain your mind. There are readers out there for them, readers who need these stories, who deserve to find themselves in books and those who deserve to escape by reading about people completely unlike them. But if I were doing, say, a paleo cookbook, with a few clicks I could find statistics on the number of people eating that way, do a price comparison and fit my book into a hole I’ve identified in the market.

Literary fiction is trickier. And so many people I meet on my travels say, “How do you find time to read?”

“How can you survive without reading?” I want to ask them, but instead I shrug, and say that I make time.

Roz You’ve found readers, though. I’d guess that’s by building a reputation in the right places?

Laura Yes – the reputation of Forest Ave and our authors. A lot of that, especially after we went national, was connecting with booksellers in other parts of the country, so they could become fans and handsellers of our authors’ titles. Then I started going to national conferences where I could meet more book-related media and other mover-and-shaker types who might choose one of our titles to review, feature, or list in an article.

Forest Ave has gotten a phenomenal amount of press in the past year or two, but we still don’t get a lot of reviews from the established trade journals. That’s frustrating; we make it into these journals as a press, but our books aren’t consistently picked up for reviews.

Roz I’m surprised by that. And I shouldn’t be, if I think about the sheer number of titles being published. I guess this shows how much time it takes to get on reviewers’ radar.

Laura I’m not sure if that’s because we aren’t having New York lunches all the time or if the literary fiction slots are reserved generally for small presses with larger catalogs or what. But I treasure the publications that regularly cover our titles, especially Foreword Reviews, which amplifies new titles by many small presses. And I’m going to keep showing up on the scene and publishing great books.

Roz Slow and steady. Another reminder – as if we needed it – that this is such a long game.

You’ve said that getting word out about your books is essential so that you aren’t swamped with returns and the business remains viable. How do you do that?

Renee Macalino Rutledge launches The Hour of Daydreams

Laura We definitely had a sales lag last year, and in brainstorming with other US fiction publishers, we have theorised it’s due to the 2016 election. Many readers started anxiously following the news instead of picking up another book. Book Riot named one of our titles from 2017, Renee Macalino Rutledge’s The Hour of Daydreams, one of 9 Debut Novels You Might Have Missed Because the World Is on Fire.

Roz You have a distribution deal – how does that work?

Laura Getting distribution totally changed my business—increasing its national and international reach, helping me grow my brand, and allowing me to fulfill my mission of urging readers to buy at indie bookstores. My field sales reps at Publishers Group West do an excellent job getting us shelf space across the US, and that allows me to say ‘find this novel at your local bookstore’. Our titles are also available online, but I want readers to go to their local bookstores, have conversations with authors and other readers, and shop locally. Without distribution, it’d be much harder to make our books available in those channels.

Roz I’m going to say a few words here as an author who’s so far been indie. With Forest Ave you’ve got something that few indie authors can. Availability is one thing – a line in a catalogue, on paper or on line. But you’ve got champions talking about your titles to booksellers, who then recommend them to customers who’ll love them. We’ll talk about this more in later posts, but I wanted to emphasise this. Certain kinds of books thrive with this personal touch; ambassadors do better for them than algorithms.

Coming next time: a week in the life of a small press

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