Category Archives: Publishing

The Making of a Best Seller: Chris Colfer and the Glee Effect

Last Sunday, my teenage daughter stood outside the local bookstore with more than 300 fans–adults, parents, teenagers, tweens, and others–excitedly waiting for Glee television actor Chris Colfer to show up to sign their purchased copy of The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell. The book is Colfer’s first novel, and it’s a best seller.

I have to admit, my heart sank a bit. Here, I have been toiling for more than two decades to improve and refine the craft of storytelling through my young adult novels, and I’m barely able to get out’s cellar even with excellent reviews. The vast majority of authors are lucky to sell 300 copies of their books in a year, let alone one day. Colfer comes along with his first book and becomes an instant bestselling novelist. It’s easy to get jaded.

Colfer, however, deserves every penny he earns. And it’s not because his book is awesome, paradigm shifting, innovative or any more creative than my books or any of the books written by dozens of authors I know who have probably penned much better books. In fact, even though I haven’t read The Land of Stories, I’m sure it’s pretty good. (My daughter is a voracious reader and says it’s surprisingly good.)

What does Colfer have that gets him to the top of the best seller list that I (or my peers) don’t? Quite simply: a marketing platform.

No matter how excellent my stories are, how layered my characters are, or how much action I squeeze into my young adult novels, I don’t have anywhere near the breadth or size of the marketing platform that jettisoned Colfer to bestseller status. Colfer has 1.5 million followers on twitter. I have…somewhere significantly fewer than 1.5 million.

Jealousy and envy sometimes gets the better of those of us who are less successful. Colfer may have written a good novel, some may say, but he didn’t pay his dues. He didn’t hone his craft. He parlayed his celebrity into a book deal with a major publishing house with scads of editors who can poor over his manuscript to make sure it was worthy of an international book marketing program. Hundreds of thousands of dollars will likely be spent shuttling Colfer around to book signings, launching advertising campaigns, and leveraging social networking sites.

Didn’t Colfer just luck into being a best selling author? No. In fact, emphatically no. There is nothing about Colfer’s success that is purely a result of chance. He’s paid his dues. He just paid them in a different medium: television and film.

Colfer is a golden-globe winning actor on a television show that is an international pheonomenon. He has created on the silver screen a character that is as unique, layered and interesting as any created in a novel. While some element of luck clearly has played into Colfer’s hand, the reality is that Colfer still had to play the hand. He had to have the talent, skills, commitment, tenacity, and courage to take advantage of the opportunities when they were presented. Moreover, he had to have the personal and professional wherewithal to recognize that an idea could become a book that might, if played just right, launch his career in a new direction. I know of few successful authorst that are overnight successes, and the same is true for actors.

As a result, Colfer has a marketing platform that was capable of launching his first book to bestseller status. Call it the “Glee Effect.” That’s the real reason for his commercial success in the literarary market place, not necessarily fine prose, an innovative voice or creative story telling. And that’s fine. Why shouldn’t Colfer receive the same kinds of accolades we bestow on our peers in the writing community when they become commercially successful? Like any astute professional, Colfer has tapped into the value of a marketing platform that he developed, using the resources at his disposal and seizing the opportunities that presented themselves. After all, he didn’t have to have a twitter account. He could be a recluse, the proverbial artist who hypernates between projects and eschews contact with his fans. I can’t begrudge him for using that platform or a publisher from taking advantage of it. (I might think differently if he had written a bad book, but I don’t think that is the case.)

So, even with my books falling short of New York Times best seller status–for now–I am both impressed and pleased to see his success. Hats off to Mr. Colfer, and welcome to the literary world. May we all learn from your successes. And, I will read your book. As soon as my daughter finishes it.

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, 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.

The Hunger Games and the power of movies in reaching audiences

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.

Thus, based on these back of the envelope calculations, more people saw The Hunger Games movie in the first movie’s opening weekend than read the fist book during its first two and half years. Let’s not discount the power of film and movies in popular culture. Movies, when crafted well with the right distribution, can be much more powerful in reaching into 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.

John Locke and Donovan Creed By the Numbers

John Locke (presumably a pen name) is the prolific novelist and author of the Donovan Creed suspense novels sold in digital form through’s publishing arm Kindle Direct. He was the first self-published digital author to sell over a million copies on and was recently featured in a Huffington Post column by Laura Rowley.

As a novelist still way off any bestseller list, a couple of things popped out at me while reading Locke’s story:

  • 9: months it took for Locke’s first books to “take off”;

  • 14: books written since starting his writing career in 2009;

  • 58, age when he wrote his first book;

  • 1,200,000: ebooks sold as of June, 2011;

  • 1,200,000: Donovan Creed ebooks sold through amazon since January 2011;

  • $1,188,000: revenues roughly generated by Donovan Creed ebooks since January 2011 (they sell for 99 cents each);

  • $415,800: revenues earned by John Locke from nine Donovan Creed ebooks from January 2011 to date;

  • $46,200: average revenue generated by Donovan Creed ebooks from January 2011 to date; and

  • $3,080: average monthly income genrated by Donovan Creed ebooks.
The last two numbers are probably the most interesting. By virtually any standard, John Locke is a wildly successful author, whether published through a conventional press, an independent press, or self publishing. But, his revenues earned per book still hover around a level that of an elementary or secondary school teacher. After publishing nine books in his signature series, he’s earning about $3,000 per month, or $36,000 per year. This revenue was generated by non-stop marketing over three years and publishing over a dozen books.

This, of course, doesn’t diminish Locke’s accomplishment. Those of us struggling to make it in the publishing business, including me, are rooting for him because he’s breaking down all kinds of barriers for new authors.

Nevertheless, it’s useful to have a reality check every once in a while. Locke has “made it” by making a long-term commitment to writing, providing a product readers want to consume, and pricing his books low enough to capture a sizable market, marketing his books in a series format to build a loyal readership base, and incessant personal marketing by Locke.

Most Popular Posts of 2011

Thank you readers! I’m quite pleased with the reception my blog has received during its first seven months and logged nearly 4,000 visitors. We’ve seen traffic steadily increase since we launched in May, 2011 as well, as we are looking forward to a very productive 2012 as we continue to comment on the changing nature of book publishing with a focus on new authors and writers.

I thought I would share the most popular posts for the 2011:

  1. Your Book Costs How *#&! Much, Part 1? (May 30, 2011)

  2. Secret (Literary) Agent Math (June 15, 2011)

  3. The Long, Hard Road to Overnight Success (April 8, 2011)

  4. Your Book Costs How *#&! Much? Part 3 (June 3, 2011)

  5. What New Authors Need to Do: Market (September 23, 2011)

NOTE: We will be opening our blog posts to comments in 2012 now that we have SPAM messages under control, so feel free to comment and discuss the content. Let us know what you think and suggest ideas for future posts!

Agenting Book Prices to Marketing Success

I thought it might be interesting to report on the most popular posts in each of the last several months based on the number of hits:

November: “What Authors Need to Do: Market”

October:  “The Long, Hard Road to Overnight Success

September: “Your Book Costs How *#&! Much? Part 1

August: “Secret Literary (Agent) Math

We’ll have a year-end list in January.

Kindling Pirates

Last week, I noticed an unexpected deposit in my bank account from “Amazon digital services.” I had been getting these periodically, but they were relatively small and I figured they were probably revenues from click-through advertising on my web site for The Pirate of Panther Bay. I had a little extra time on my hands, so I decided to investigate.

Lo and behold (and a big “duh” moment later), I discovered they were royalties from the kindle version of The Pirate of Panther Bay.

I know it sounds odd, but with the release of A Warrior’s Soul last July and my focus on marketing the new book, I lost touch with the sales of my first published novel. I was aware that the print version of The Pirate of Panther Bay had picked up with the launch of A Warrior’s Soul (sales doubled in 2011), but I had neglected to track the kindle version. In part, this was because I know that most teens still don’t have amazon accounts (although this is likely changing with the spread of the Ipad).

It turns out the kindle version has been outselling the print version on for the last several years. I didn’t notice it in part because the price is low enough that the periodic royalties didn’t seem to amount to much on their own. (But, they add up over time!)

This revelation also resolved another puzzle: I couldn’t figure out why the kindle version’s sales ranking always seemed significantly higher than the print version, spiking well into the tenth percentile (top 10 percent) for kindle books.

Unfortunately, I don’t have good data on who is buying the kindle version. But, it’s nice to know a digital market exists for a novel the arrived on shelfs and on-line five years ago (even though the stories and characters are timeless).

Inside the Mind of Literary Agents

I was digging through my files and found a very interesting rejection letter from a literary agency. They were unusual in that they provided some insight into their process for deciding whether to take on new authors and books. So, I thought I would share some key parts from the letter (which I received in 2009).

“Like the rest of the arts, publishing is a very subjective business. Even though the founders of the agency have written and coauthored 14 books, most of which have been successfull, they still get rejected. And although we have sold book to more than 100 publishers since 1972, our clients’ work is still rejected. Nor do all of the books that we sell succeed.

“[We] are eager to find new books and writers, and we love to get excited about them. But the only way we can make a living is by selling books to the large and medium-sized New York publishers, and selling small books by new writers to big publshers is becoming more difficult. So, finding new writers is the hardest part of our job. And it’s getting harder.
[emphasis added.]

“Like editors, we recieve thousands of submissions a year and reject more than ninety percent of them. This forces us to use a form letter. But rejecting manuscripts that become successful books is a publishing tradition.”

(Frankly, I sometimes wonder if agents can do basic math. If they receive 1,000 books, the last statement implies they accepted 100 new authors/titles on average. This is highly unlikely. It’s probably closer to a dozen, and that probably represents new titles from current clients.)

For more, see my earlier articles on (Secret) Literary Agent Math, when it’s time to approach an agent, and literary agent “fishing.”

The Reality Behind Book Advances

Irene Watson has a useful commentary on book advances over at Blogging Authors (Nov 13, 2011) that current and prospective book authors should read. Traditional and established publishing houses often provide an “advance” to an author-an upfront cash payment for their book. Advances can range from a couple thousand dollars to hundreds of thousands of dollars depending on: 1) your ability to negotiate, and 2) how much sales potential the publisher sees in your book.

Irene, however, notes that sometimes advances come with strings attached:

“But, that’s not where it stops.  The huge misconception is that traditional/big time publishers promote authors.  They don’t…unless you have an important name.  When the author gets an “advance” it doesn’t mean the money goes into her or his pocket and he or she can take a trip they’ve always wanted to make.  It means that the marketing/publicity expense has to come out of it.  The author is expected to hire a publicist, attend signings/events (sometimes even arranged for by the publishing company,) travel, stay in hotels, promote, promote, promote, and it all has to come out of the advance. As well, the agent takes 15% off the top.  So, when we hear that an author got $800,000 advance, that’s all it is; it’s an advance for all the expenses and the higher the advance, the higher expectations for promotion by the author will be.” 

I generally agree, and it’s been my direct experience (now with seven books under my belt, five through conventional publishers), that new authors shouldn’t expect their publishers to market their book. They geneally put their resources into the authors they think will sell the most copies. If you have a weak marketing platform, or are not well known, or sell to a niche market, you probably won’t end up in that category.

Nevertheless, I think Irene might be taking this a bit far. I queried a friend who does get decent size advances on her books (and her books sell well), and her experience (as well as her published author friends) is that their publishers have not required them to hire publicists and they even usually cover travel, lodging and other costs associated with book signings, events, and book tours. This was her response to Irene’s comments:

Although it’s true authors are expected to do LOTS of promotion on their own, in my experience (and that of most writers I know), the publishing houses do a great great deal to promote our books. The advance IS yours to keep and do with as you please. There is never an obligation that you will use it for promotion, although many authors do. I’ve never known of an author “expected” to hire a publicist. I’ve always been assigned a publicist from the publishing house. Granted, that publicist is usually handling about 20 or so writers at any given time, but still, they work their *** off. I do set up a lot of events on my own, for which the publisher is very grateful. Often, even if I’ve set it up myself, the publisher pays for travel and lodging. They’ve never arranged something for me and then asked me to go on my own dime.

Despite this, I think Irene’s points are generally on the mark. An advance is an advance, and author’s should recognize it for what it is: an indication of the potential for your book to make money for the publisher. These advances are, however, deducted from royalties on book sales. Most authors would likely rationally choose to spend most of that on marketing and publicity, particularly of they are new and cultivating a reader base.

Most importantly, however, my belief is that if your publisher offers an advance, by all means take it. It shows the publisher has “skin in the game,” and they have a tangible motive to invest resources in your book. If they don’t offer you an advance, that commitment to your work will be weaker.

My takeaway from Irene’s post is that if you are negotiating with a conventional publishing house, you should be represented by a literary agent. Their job is to protect your interests while maximizing the potential for your book to do well. Irene’s post does a nice job of showing the pitfalls of not having a knowledgeable representative working for you in the publishing process.