Monthly Archives: April 2012

Pirate of Panther Bay Cracks Top 100

Today, I reached a milestone of sorts: The kindle version of The Pirate of Panther Bay cracked the top 100 in the kindle store for childrens books on self esteem and self respect. That’s not bad for a novel that was published five years ago.

Of course, this is a fleeting achievement and needs to be placed in context. The overall ranking is 97,910. I’ve also had other days when The Pirate of Panther Bay has cracked the top 100,000, a respectable achievement for an independently published book that also suffered from a non-existent disribution system. (I’ve blogged on this extensively before, for example see here.)

But, this time the ranking seemed a little different, at least for me personally, largely because of the category.

As I’ve been “finding” my voice as a novelist, I’ve discovered a couple of recurring stylistic themes:



  1. My stories are largely character driven. Plot and setting take decidedly less important roles and I rely on my characters and their personalities to drive the action.

  2. My characters are everyday heroes. They aren’t comic book characters or two dimensional; they are put in very difficult realworld circumstances and required to dig deep to summon up the courage to do the right thing. (Okay, so Isbella is a pirate captain in 1781, not exactly realistic, but her dilemmas and personal challenges are decidedly 21st century and recognizable to anyone today.)

Thus, my books are about coming face-to-face with self-doubt, moral dilemmas, ethics and the most basic meaning of courage. They are about self-discovery. Self esteem and self respect are critical dimensions to everything I write.

So, I’ll embrace my ranking as a needed creative boost, even if lasts just a few hours.

Don’t forget to follow me on twitter! @SamRStaley

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Why All Writing is Persuasive Writing

I was recently asked to give a talk to a persuasive writing class at Tallahasee Community College. This is really in my wheelhouse since, as a public policy analyst and researcher, I’ve been writing commentary (argumentative writing) for nearly three decades. In fact, my first commentary appeared in the Chicago Tribune in 1985 (on Sweden’s then failing economy). Since then, I have written hundreds of opeds and commentaries, many of them nationally syndicated and some appearing in leading newspaper such as The Wasington Post, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal. I’ve also edited hundreds of others by other authors.

So, I thought I would open up by talking about some of these commentaries and what makes a good commentary. There is both skill and art in distilling a major public policy issue into 700 words or less.

But, as I was putting my notes together, I realized that just about everything I write is persuasive or argumentative. In fact, anything anyone writes is implicitly persuasive, whether someone is writing conventional commentary or a novel.

Why? Because authors write with intent: We are trying to communicate ideas to our readers, whether through plot, action, characters, setting, or staightforward argumentation in an editorial. Thus, everytime we put pen to paper, we are engaged in persuasion. In fiction, we are trying to convince our readers that our characters really are good, evil, or just like them. We are crafting our stories so that our readers can see the same things we do as the originators of the story (although they often see more). Our characters serve a purpose. Our plots serve a purpose. Our setting serves a purpose. And the way we combine them tells a story; it works when we craft a story that is persuasive to our readers.

This is one reason why the old writing addage “every word counts” is so important. Any extraneous word dilutes the message or story. This is true for fiction and non-fiction.

Thanks Paula Anderson for requiring me to be self-reflective enough with my own writing to come to this realization!

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How Technology is Saving Our Lives in Books

I spent the day recently at Springtime Tallahassee, a festival held annually in my newly adopted hometown to celebrate the beginning of spring (as if winter really arrives this far south!). I really enjoyed meeting the other writers who are members of the Tallahassee Writers Association, buying a couple of their books, and selling (and signing) my own. Many of these authors are “independently” published, either through small presses like Wild Women Writers, CyPress, self-publishers like iuniverse, or through hybrid presses like Wheatmark (my publisher). Our books target “small markets” (under 10,000 copies), a market abandoned by the large New York publishing houses.

It’s at Springtime Tallahassee, in the TWA booth, that I ran across Kate Kerr and her autobiography, Emergence. I don’t usually read biographies, let alone buy autobiographies. But, as I was chatting with Kate, she sparked my interest in her life growing up on a farm in the 1920s and 1930s. I bought her book. And I started reading it. And I discovered a gem. Kate wrote the book for her family, not for a mass market, and it includes a richness and texture that will enthrall anyone interested in the stuff of American life. Each time I pick it up, I find some new fascinating part of her personal journey that I can relate to my own (or my parents, or my grandparents). Whether she’s writing about the trials of her first marriage, working in a World War II airplane factory in Michigan (she was literally Kate the Riveter working on B-24 bombers), the anxiety of her son going off to Vietnam, her attending college for the first time at 38 years old (and then on to a Ph.D.), or discovering the love of her life well into middle age, each page has a slice of truth that is part of the mosaic of the American experience. There’s plenty of inspiration in these pages, but the real value is in her generosity as a writer to let us peek in, see, and experience it with her.

This is definitely not a book conventional New York publishers would pick up, or a literary agent would represent, in today’s market. But Kate’s book deserves, and hopefully one day will be read by, a wide audience. Its cover and layout are professional. The manuscript was well edited and proofread. The quality of the book is excellent.

Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Kate’s book is in my hands because of the hundreds of independent and so-called “vanity presses” that have used technology to bring costs down far enough that I can afford to buy it. The cost of her book would have been north of $75 in the old(er) days of publishing, or, more likely, would not have been published at all even then. With modern print-on-demand technology, the print book is financially accessible to just about anyone with a job. The digital version, at $9.99, is accessible to just about anyone at all.

We don’t have St. Martins Press, Random House, Penguin, or any of the big presses to thank for this. We should be thanking amazon.com, Wheatmark, iuniverse, Cypress Press, and Wild Women Writers; they’re the ones that allow the Kates of the world to publish. They are the ones ensuring America’s literary tradition survives and prospers.

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Blogs: What Are They Good For?

My publisher, Wheatmark, recently has a series of on-line discussions as part of their Author’s Academy discussing blogs and their importance for selling books. Blogs and bloggers have become an essential marketing tool for authors. I’ve been blogging for more than ten years. But, it’s important to distinguish between marketing and book sales. Marketing is about raising awareness about yourself, your ideas, and your book. This should translate into sales, but only if your marketing efforts are tied to the explicit goal of selling books.

Alas, my blogging has had little impact on sales of my fiction books, largely because I haven’t engaged the blogging community very effectively on the substance of my young-adult novels. My blogging for my non-fiction books has been more successful because the commentary and posts have been better targeted.

A friend recently asked me about the effectiveness of blogs, so I thought I would repeat my advice in a blog post here. Feel free to comment or react, because everyone will have different experiences.


In general, for new authors in a genre, I believe a blog that merely promotes the content of your book is not likely to be successful in stimulating sales because it presumes you have an existing audience and people care about your book. For writers starting off, I think the key is to invest in a long-term strategy (say 12 months) of slowly building awareness of your work as an author and, by extension, build an audience for your book. A blog and a web site will be the most effective tools you have for building your audience and readership, but they are *long term* investments and labor intensive. The key is to stick with it and not give up.

 

A blog, unlike a web site, is also an interactive tool. Not only do you need to post on your own blog, you need to interact with other bloggers. And some reader communities are more connected in the new media than others. The sci-fi and fantasy reading communities, for example, are very engaged and plugged in on-line, so blogging and commenting on blogs will be easier and more effective than in my fiction genre of young-adult literature. It’s virtually impossible for me to get directly to my readers (young teenagers), so I have to focus on their parents and teachers. I’ve slowly started to crack into these blogs (with the help of readerviews.com and bloggingauthors.com).

 

To date, few fiction book sales can be traced to my blogging efforts. This is largely because, as I mentioned above, I’ve not positioned myself or this blog strategically for this market. My primary blog Adaptation is successful for just starting out (less than a year), and I’ve received a number of hits and site referrals, but it doesn’t really do much to promote A Warrior’s Soul: The is blog about the business of writing. So, most visitors are writers, not readers. Ergo, I don’t sell young-adult novels through this blog.

 

I’ve toyed with establishing a blog for A Warrior’s Soul, but don’t think I really have the time to make that kind of investment. So, I’m using my web site as a poorman’s substitute. Also, complicating my approach is two books that are in the same genre but completely different in tone, characters, and storylines (one is a pirate themed historical romance targeted toward older teens and the other is a contemporary martial arts action story targeted toward young teans). Thus, I am spread way too thin trying to reach too wide of an audience.

 

So, what’s the bottom line? I think the keys to a successful blog that sells books are:




  • Strategic focus for content;


  • A clear target audience that includes readers;


  • Consistent and high quality content, 4-6 posts per week, that mixes promoting your own work (e.g., good news & reviews) as well as content of more general interest to you audience/readers;


  • A long-term, multiyear focus;


  • Interaction with the similar blogs and bloggers.
If these elements are in place, I think blogs are effective marketing tools and can really help sell books; it’s also just good ol’ marketing adapted to the Internet. 

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The Power of Movies (Versus Books)

Here’s a reality check for us book authors.

The Hunger Games movie took in $153 million during its opening weekend. That translates into about 19.5 million people seeing the film over over a three-day period (based on an average ticket price of $7.83).
 
Scholastic, the publisher of the blockbuster trilogy by Suzanne Collins, reports that 17.5 million copies of the first book are in print as of April 1, 2012. The first book was published in September 2008, two and a half years ago.

Let’s not discount the power of film and movies in popular culture.

Quick observation: Appealing to a broader audience naturally means narrowing the focus of the story, reducing its complexity and nuance as a result.

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