Tag Archives: Business of Writing

Commercial Fiction and Literary Fiction

Thank you everyone who stopped by last week, and welcome to all the new people .  Because of you, it was my website’s most viewed couple of days to date.

Recently, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the relative merits commercial and literary fiction. Specifically, I’ve been struggling with how to characterize the writing I like to read and write.  Science fiction and fantasy is generally categorized as commercial genre fiction, but most of the books I love most fall somewhere in between these two broad (and ill defined) categories.

Commercial fiction at its best is a wild, enjoyable romp through an incredible plot with easily accessible characters and prose. Commercial fiction sells well because of this focus on an plot and accessibility.  Reading it should feel like watching the most exciting movie you’ve ever watched, the one that makes you forget the theater or your living room until the heart pounding finale. Bad commercial fiction, however, is a lot like watching a collage of b-rate Hollywood explosions, over the top, melodramatic love scenes, and dialog recycled from TV commercials.

Literary fiction, by contrast, generally focuses on complex and dynamic characters and artful prose. Literary critics love the poetry of language, the shifting motives of mysterious characters, the deeper questions of human experience. When done well, literary fiction feels like standing on the Acropolis staring at the Parthenon, so moved you barely notice the sun set, the moon rise, and the distant tides come in.  Done poorly, however, its nothing more than self referential art for art’s sake, the pedantic ramblings of an author convinced of their superiority to their entire audience.

Ultimately the fiction I love to read and try to write is a healthy hybrid of the two. It takes the excitement and accessibility of commercial fiction and tempers it with dynamic characters and an understanding of language. It assumes the audience is capable of understanding complexity while simultaneously appeals to as wide an audience as possible.  It understands that art is ultimately a dialog between artist and the masses, not just artists and their peers.  Finally, if it leans in one direction, it errs on the side of commercial accessibility in deference to the readers.

It is this balancing act between commercial fiction and literary fiction that draws me to an author and it is also one of the things that drive me to write.  My goal, put simply, is to write the novels that I’ve been looking for on the shelf.

How to Host a Great Book Signing

In the ten years I worked for Barnes & Noble, I have managed and attended many book signings, some very successful and some not so much. Whether we like it or not, part of being an author is being a salesman. In this post, I hope to offer advice and insights I’ve learned on how to set yourself up for a great book signing and how to hand sell your work.
1. Good Location
Having a good location is the first step to having a good book signing. What you are looking for is traffic. The more people who see you the more opportunities you have to sell your book. In a bookstore, this is often right at the front of the store or right in front of the children’s department for a YA book. At a convention, try to get a table where there will be high traffic and then during the convention watch the traffic patterns to plan for next year.
2. Good Timing
Timing is also key to good traffic. In a bookstore, for instance, Friday nights and Saturdays are busier than Monday day. You can also try to pair up with other local authors or with book fairs supporting local schools. Both options will net you more traffic with little advertisement on your part. The weekends leading up to Christmas and Fathers Day are the busiest times of year for the book industry. Book signings on these days are the most sought after so ask early. Even if they can’t fit you in this year, building a relationship with the store managers and having a few good signings may help you out next year.
3. Ask for 15 minute overhead announcements.
Some stores believe overhead announcements are best left to Kmart. Despite this, they do drive curious customers to stop by and see what’s happening. Discuss this with your contact person beforehand. If they’re willing, be ready with a short prepared copy on the day in case the store hasn’t prepared one. Something like, “Please join local author Trevor Boylan at the front of the store.  He is signing copies of his new science fiction book…”  followed by title and a one line sales pitch of your book.
3. Don’t be Passive
The worst mistake an author can make at a book signing is to passively sit back and wait for customers to come to them. Stand up, greet every person you see, and introduce yourself. The best authors will ask about a customer’s interest in their subject material then ask if family and friends might like a book on that subject. This opens up the conversation and also allows you to gauge the interest level of your potential customer.
4. Stay Calm
The second worst mistake an author can make is to sound desperate to sell. Inevitably, it will alienate customers. Stay calm, be yourself, and don’t try to sell your book to the staff unless they come to you. Your goal should be to try and sell as many copies as you can while having as much fun with it as you can.
5. Ask for the Sale.
Once you’ve initiated conversation and had a brief conversation, ask if your customer would like you to sign a book for them (or as a gift for a friend.) The simple act of asking often makes many people say yes. Even if they say no, it allows you to take another shot at convincing them or move on to the next customer. Knowing when to move on is sometimes just as important as making a sale. If ten customers walk by ungreeted while you are chatting with one customer for a half hour, you may have just lost the one customer who would be really interested.
6. Advertise
A store will only bring you so much traffic. Your best bet is to bring in more yourself. Make a poster and put it in local coffee shops. Have a website and post your signings there. Develop and email mailing list to keep those people who you’ve already sold to informed of upcoming book releases and book signings. Team up with other local authors with complementary titles to do signings together and cross advertise.
7. Sell to your Friends
One of the best pieces of advice I received from a former professor was to sell to your friends. If you can’t sell to your friends who can you sell to? Invite everyone you know to your book signings and be up front with them that in store sales will help you. The best way to be invited back or to get a better date for your next signing is to develop a relationship with the store managers and by having great sales numbers to back that relationship up.
8. Bring your own stock.
At a bookstore generally provides the stock. However, if you do your job very well you will run out of books. There are two solutions to this. First, you can use it as an opportunity to set up another signing. Secondly, some stores will allow you to use your own stock which they will then return in kind when they get a shipment.
9. Be yourself and savor the moment.
The book signing is all about you and your work. Just be yourself and savor the moment. Just like the rest of the publication process, there’s going to be a lot of hard work and a lot of rejection. The moment you become a jaded used car salesman people will start shying away from you. Your own exuberance for your work is your best weapon for success. Good luck on your next book signing.

An Open Letter To Literary Agents – The Art of Writing Letters

Dear Agents,

Authors have many resources on how to write a query letter: from books, to forums that provide feedback, to the agents themselves. In my own quest to get my novel published and the seemingly endless query process that accompanies it, I have noticed that many agents could use the very same critical eye of an editor as authors. Ultimately, authors are potential clients who might make an agent a lot of money. Failing to be professional in all communication causes that potential client to question how capable you are in the rest of your business affairs . My aim here is not to call out any individual agent but to provide advice to help improve the industry standard.

1. To agents whose guidelines request just a query letter and synopsis:

The only things you can learn from a query letter and synopsis are that an author has a good idea, knows how to summarize a novel, and knows how to market themselves. An author who can do these two things well is no guarantee of a quality novel. Asking for even just five pages of text tells you so much more about the style and quality of the work than any query or synopsis ever could.

2. To agents who only respond to queries if they’re interested:

This policy certainly saves you time, but leaves the author wondering if their query was received. At the very least, give an idea of your response time in your guidelines. Even better, send an automated response that you have received. This will save you the time spent on follow up emails asking if a query was received.

3. To agents with poorly written rejection letters:

An impersonal “Dear Author” letter is just as unprofessional as an impersonal “Dear Agent” letter. If you’ve decided to use form emails, a simple “Thank you for your query.” will substitute nicely as a salutation.

Second, avoid wordiness. Unless you’re sending feedback, a good rejection letter can easily be written in 50 words or less.

Finally, before sending out rejection letters, have a friend or colleague read over it. A poorly written letter can lose you future business. SOME EXAMPLES: Saying “I’m sorry you didn’t send enough to intrigue me” suggests the author should have sent more than your guidelines ask for. “I’m sorry your story just didn’t pan out” doesn’t really say anything relevant. Finally, “My boss has limited room for additional projects and this just ain’t it” really makes one wonder about your interpersonal communication skills.

4. To agents who do not accept electronic submissions:

All businesses of a certain scale now have email. I don’t really understand the waste of paper, postage, and time.

5. To agents who are unprofessional on social media:

Your official social media is your public face and as such a prospective client‘s first impression and should be just as professional as other correspondence. Authors do not care that your favorite TV show is back on, what your favorite food is, or that you and your friends are catching drinks when you’re in town. They do care what conferences you are attending, that your author has released their new book, that you’re closed to queries, and about the convenient resources for authors that you post. It’s unprofessional to make your prospective clients sift through the chaff to get to the wheat.

One detail I really love seeing is how many queries an agent has received and how many partials/fulls they’ve requested.

6. To agents who have responded personally:

Thank you. Almost every personalized rejection letter has been extremely professional. Several agents have even taken the time to help me improve my own query process, either in advice on their website, in their rejection letter, or in their response to my questions. I just wanted to take a moment to thank them and encourage more agents to do the same.

Trevor Boylan