Wednesday, July 25, 2012

You CAN Tell A Book By It’s Cover

That was the title of a Book Talk I gave to readers and writers a few years ago. Today’s Blog shares segments of my talk..
 "Two things that sell a book are: Cover and Copy." That’s what the publishers say. My talk identified the elements of cover and copy that intrigue, inspire and induce the reader, using covers from books written in four different eras.
For the sake of brevity I’ve chosen two to tell you about The first book is an American Pioneer novel, A Clearing in the Wild by Jane Kirkpatrick. It is based on a true story about a communal society and the position of women in the nineteenth century.
 The cover evokes the setting - a colorful scene of mountains, prairie, and covered wagons trekking west.
A short synopsis on the cover flap invites the reader to experience
“A Community searching for refuge,
A Woman Finding her voice.”
The people of Bethel Missouri seek to live with simplicity and generosity existing in the world of the 1850’s, but remaining set apart from its distractions and vanities. Rather than finding peace in this would-be utopia, spirited young Emma Wagner chafed at the constraints of a culture that values conformity over independent thought, especially in women.
 The cover flap also gives a short blurb about the author, Jane Kirkpatrick, award winning, best selling author of eleven novels.
 A praise quote: “A Clearing in the Wild is Jane Kirkpatrick at her finest. Emma Wagner’s story feels as genuine as if she herself were telling it.”
 Could the praise induce readers to buy? I was induced, still enjoy early Americana, and highly recommend Jane’s novel. Did the Cover and Copy influence me? You bet!
 The second book in my Book talk takes the reader to the Civil War era and the story’s theme is similar to A Clearing in the Wild. Four Summers Waiting  is a Historical Romance, the  story of a young woman’s struggle to help the Union Army’s cause and balance her  sentiments with her father’s opposition to the war. In addition to historical events during the Civil War, readers experience restrictions placed on women and their roles during the 1800’s.The book is based on the true story of my children’s ancestors. Authentic family letters and diary excerpts appear throughout the novel, that true to the title, covers four summers of the couple’s war time courtship.  

Four Summers Waiting, published in 2006, was my first novel. The original cover had a muted, antiquated look portraying two figures riding in a carriage. The dusky green background was broken by a shaft of light over the American flag carried by a line of Civil War soldiers. I believe the cover lends drama and gives a strong sense of plot. The cover was intriguing enough to help sell out the first edition of the book.  It received a second edition in Large Print and it is currently available as an electronic book on Kindle.
When the book rights reverted to me I had to have a new cover for the Kindle edition. Nonetheless, the premise stated in the beginning of my Book Talk, Cover and Copy sells books will hopefully ring true again for Four Summers Waiting...

Friday, July 20, 2012

Analyzing the Dynamics of a Blockbuster Bestseller By Jacqueline Seewald

Analyzing the Dynamics of a Blockbuster Bestseller
By Jacqueline Seewald

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James is the latest blockbuster bestseller. Women are buying it in droves. What made this initially self-published novel go viral? As a writer and a reader, I’m particularly interested in analyzing the phenomenon that causes certain novels to become instant bestsellers by previously unknown authors. What makes such novels so unique? And in fact, what do they have in common? Over-the-top sex and/or violence? Something so outrageous and/or controversial that it catches the public’s attention and awareness? Perhaps.

I discussed this with a college-educated woman who fits the “Grey” demographic. She showed me how she had the novel set up on her I-pad. She is the mother of three small children, ages seven to two. She works part-time outside the home, is always busy and sleep-deprived. Yet she is finding time to read “Grey.”
I asked her: “What appeals to you about this book?”
She appeared embarrassed by the directness of the question. “I was curious I guess. It’s not my usual taste in books,” she explained with a shrug. “I’m not into S and M. And the book isn’t even well-written.”

Nevertheless, she did pay $10 for the opportunity to read the novel as an e-book.  Others are buying the trade version for $15.95, putting the novel at the very top of that bestseller list along with the other two books in the trilogy and ahead of a Nora Roberts novel.
I also discussed this with an older woman, a respected bank manager who had purchased the novel in print. She told me that she was enjoying the book and had recommended it to several fellow workers. Word of mouth clearly sells books.

Because the novel had gone viral as an e-book, the author was able to get an agent who sold the entire trilogy to a major publisher. The division of prestigious Random House that brought this novel out in print is Vintage Books. Ironically, they claim to focus on publishing “quality literary fiction.” This struck me as particularly interesting since “Grey” has been described as erotica—translation soft porn aimed at female readers. It’s also been noted that the novel degrades women. Is this the average woman’s secret sexual fantasy? Or are women now buying the novel mainly out of curiosity because there has been so much notoriety? Getting publicity seems to be crucial for sales of any novel. The big publishers still have the ability to promote and distribute a novel successfully, something small indy publishers do not.

Writing a quality book is something I always have as my main goal. But few know about my novels or read them. My latest novel DEATH LEGACY received excellent reviews from both BOOKLIST and PUBLISHERS WEEKLY. It’s a romantic suspense mystery thriller, and those who have read it said they couldn’t put down. Yet sales are meager. Libraries are apparently reluctant to order it regardless of good reviews. And libraries are the main buyers of Five Star/Gale novels.
 We come back to the initial question. What makes a particular novel stand out so that it sells well to readers? Must it be outrageous? Over-the-top in sex and/or violence? Or are there other reasons?  Is there any way to analyze how to write a bestselling blockbuster? What do readers most enjoy and value in novels? I continue to ponder these questions. Your views, comments and opinions are valued 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Dog Days of Summer

The hottest, most sultry time of year are called "the dog days of summer." I really didn't know why and as a child I just figured it was so hot even your dog didn't want to stay outside. Here's what Wikipedia says: "The Romans sacrificed a brown dog at the beginning of the Dog Days to appease the rage of Sirius (the dog star), believing that the star was the cause of the hot, sultry weather."

Poor dogs! That's just totally unfair.

I admit I'm staying inside most of the day. Except for yesterday when I was running errands and going in and out all day long. Lucy (my dog) and I only walk early in the morning (6:30 a.m. is pretty good). And if it's later in the morning then we scurry to the shaded areas of the side streets, where it's not so bad.

Do you remember the song "Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days of Summer" by Nat King Cole (1963)? That song still pops into my head around June and doesn't leave until September. I think the lyrics went something like "those days of sodas and pretzels and beer." And the photo on the album was kids playing on the beach. Not too many beaches in Kansas, that's for sure, we do enjoy grilling outside and picnics (when it's not too hot).

This doesn't have much to do with writing, except that these kinds of little memories, song lyrics and catch phrases are pretty good scene starters. They invoke feelings, which a good author wants to do, or we won't be successful. I hope you all have a happy, safe summer and enjoy some travel and reading as well.

Nat said he wished "that summer would always be here", and in some ways I do, too. (Don't forget to use sunscreen!)

Friday, July 6, 2012

Giving Advice--No Matter What

Writers' talks are part of the life of a published writer, and they are usually fun. After I get over the anxiety of standing (or sitting) in front of a group of strangers and trying to think of something to say, I usually relax and enjoy myself. But there is another hazard, one that comes after the panel or talk is over. And I'm not talking about selling books.

When my first mystery novel was published, in 1993, I went on a tour through North Carolina and other eastern seaboard states. I enjoyed meeting people and talking about mysteries, and shared my favorite writers. But I was never prepared for the young person who asked for advice because this young person invariably had a parent in tow who had already given said young person advice.

Writing and believing in the power and importance of the written word is part of my DNA. Wherever I go, I see the world in the form of a story taking shape, and I could no more give that up than I could take an oath and then perjure myself on the witness stand. Nor could I suddenly decide to write a different form of fiction because someone else thinks it's a good idea--I write what comes out of me. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it isn't, but it is mine. I think this has to be true for anyone who wants to write or create in any area--painting, sculpting, drama.

After a talk in 1993, a mother came up to me with her daughter who wanted to write mysteries, but the mother felt her daughter should write something else first--literary fiction--and her daughter objected. The mother wanted me to reinforce her view and tell her daughter to write literary fiction. I asked the girl what she liked to read and write. Without any hesitation, it was mysteries. She rattled off a number of names and clearly she was a mystery reader--she read some of my favorite writers. I told her simply, Write what you want to write. There's no other way to be happy as a writer.

The mother glared at me. Okay. The mother's not a writer, and if that young girl is ever going to be her own person as a writer or anything else, she's going to have to listen to her own inner voice. I probably lost one fan that day, but also gained another.

New writers look to more established ones as people who can tell them what they should do, why they're stuck in a hole, what's wrong with this story, how long will it take to succeed, where should they go from here. But those are questions all writers face, and at every stage in their writing careers. Those questions never go away. They might lie in the shadows for a while, but they always come back into the light. As writers we are bedeviled by them. And perhaps that's a good thing. We face questions about our choices day in and day out, and each time these questions come up, we are pushed back onto ourselves, forced to go deeper and find once again confirmation of our choices and commitment to sticking it out, no matter how difficult or dark the times are. Our accomplishments wouldn't mean much if they came easily, or at will.

To any young (or old) writer, my advice is not really different from Shakespeare's: To thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.

That young girl's mother may have gnashed her teeth when I turned to her daughter and told her to go ahead and writer mysteries, but I can't imagine living with myself if I'd told her anything different.

Susan Oleksiw is the author of two series--Mellingham series featuring Chief of Police Joe Silva and the Anita Ray series featuring the Indian American photographer living in India. Her most recent book is The Wrath of Shiva: An Anita Ray Mystery, the second in the series.