On Purchasing a Review

In the olden days, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I had just published my first novel, purchasing a review was unheard of. Your publisher sent out review copies and you sat tight, waiting to either be savaged or praised, or simply ignored. But the explosion of self-publishing and resulting spew of new authors helped push those dinosaurs into extinction, and now buying a review or two is not looking like such a bad thing. How else can you hope to rise above the crowd?

So yes, I am setting aside some funds to assure that some professionals look at my book and give it some kind of fair assessment. The key word here is ‘professional.’ I will never buy reviews from an individual, nor any kind of shady outfit without a track record. Only recently, Amazon cracked down on that kind of practice, and deservedly so. Did you ever wonder why so many shoddy books end up with so many five star reviews? Now you know, and presumably, most of those reviews are gone now.

I mentioned Kirkus in my last post, and having overcome most of the emotional trauma associated with that publication, I am still considering them as potential reviewers. I say considering, because their asking price is very steep, and is considered quite controversial. They take pains to let you know the review will not necessarily be a praiseworthy one, and I think they have to do that, otherwise how could you trust their opinion? But is it really worth $495? I reached out to another author, Michel Sauret, whose fiction is in a similar bind to mine: Literary with some faith-based elements. Here’s the link to his post on whether Kirkus is worth it: Kirkus Reviews: Is it worth the money? | Michel Sauret – Award-Winning Army Journalist | Independent Author Not only is it a great post, he also lists affordable alternatives, such as the Midwest Book Review and the San Francisco Book Review. He does not mention it in his post, but I had a great experience with Publisher’s Weekly’s PW Select, which gave my book The Raven Girl a glowing review—for only $189, which included a year’s online subscription to PW.

I think Kirkus, alas, is still a publication many libraries and bookstores look to for help in ordering new books, so it might be worthwhile. Also, there has to be something you can pull from whatever review they issue and use as a promotional blurb. You know that old trick: “This book is a tremendous waste of ink…” can be modified to “This book…is tremendous…” Ha, ha! As for the price, well, that’s how much my daughter’s senior-prom gown cost, and she only wore it once, so…I remind myself of that when the Kirkus review seems too pricey.

Marketing Part II: Why Bother?

Someone asked me after I’d posted my last blog (“Marketing the Un-Marketable”) why, if I did not care about my book selling a million copies, I would even bother trying to ‘market’ it. It’s a good point: Since my philosophy about why I write (to learn about the world and life, and connect in a meaningful way with others, and also because I just HAVE to, no matter what) completely diverges from the practical, conventional wisdom (to be rich and famous?), I shouldn’t be worried about sales and that kind of crass nonsense. But this is why I put the effort in: Simply, to find my audience, my beloved readers.

I have a good idea who my audience is, and it’s a great audience. I spoke to a number of book groups with my first novel, and was pleased with the sort of people who went out of their way to read my book. Intelligent, thinking people who nevertheless crave a good story and strong characters, people interested in other people and how they tick, people not afraid of emotion or a little spiritual drama. My audience skews heavily toward women, educated professional women, but some men, too; suburban and urban Northeasterners and Midwesterners, and they’re all probably a little older than the average reader, maybe mid-thirties and up. My books sell nicely in the United Kingdom and ‘Down Under’ and I know I have at least one big fan in Johannesburg, South Africa, so there must be something in my work that appeals to British culture and reading habits.

I have to find a way to attract the attention of those special readers and let them know this might be a book they’d enjoy. Many self-pub authors turn to advertising; I don’t think my audience pays any attention to that stuff, so I wouldn’t bother with that investment. I find that book giveaways are helpful, even though it may seem absurd to just give your work away: I’ve always had a boost in sales after any kind of giveaway promotion. And since I live in what might be the most populous area of the US, I get out and do a lot of library programs, book clubs, and talks. I also send out press releases to local media. Forget bookstore signings: No one will come to see you unless you’re an actual super-famous bestseller. What I find I need to do most, like most genre-less authors, is to move heaven and earth to see that my book gets reviewed: By professional reviewers, as well as readers on Amazon and other venues.

Reviews are scary things. I have a sad-bad review story that I swore I’d never reveal, but enough time has passed, so here goes: Years ago, the library review journal Kirkus reviewed the traditionally published Secret Vow, and completely trashed it—called it a ‘Bridges of Madison County’ wannabee and other bad things. I was several months pregnant at the time, and read the review in the morning; that afternoon, I began to lose the pregnancy. I know perfectly well the miscarriage was not due to the stress of reading that review—it was likely due to a chromosomal problem, but for years I did blame Kirkus for the loss of that baby. I would think, “I’d have a son now, if it wasn’t for that damned review.” Yet now, I am contemplating sending the new novel to that very journal. Because I realize even a bad review is better than no review at all; also, I’m past menopause, and chances are that snippy and unhelpful #$&% of a reviewer is long gone from that publication.

The trouble with professional reviewers is you never know what their mindset or agenda is: There are some who truly go out of their way to understand the book and provide helpful feedback on what might be improved; there are others who, for whatever personal or emotional reason, have to be mean-spirited, maybe to showcase what they think is their own witty writing style. And a lot of reviewers are particularly savage when it comes to self-publishing books, because they don’t think you should be doing that, period. How dare you inflict your worthless literature on an unwitting public?

But a writer needs reviews, good or bad. So the only thing to do is send the book out, grit your teeth, and endure. But, should reviews be bought? I’ll discuss that in my next post.

Marketing the Un-Marketable

Warning: This is a very provocative post featuring sex, spirituality and chocolate…proceed at your own risk! Now that I have your attention…

This post is actually about book marketing, so you can skip it if you are not a fellow writer. But you’ll miss the sex and chocolate. Shortly after finishing my latest book, I sent a batch of relentless inquiries to various literary agents and small publishers, who let me know—through complete and utter indifference to my carefully crafted query letters—that my new novel idea probably has no place in today’s literary marketplace. This is nothing new to me. I’ve been told for decades that my work is ‘unmarketable,’ yet somehow I manage to find a decent number of readers for each of my books. Moreover, I’m hampered by the fact that with one ‘traditionally’ published book and three selfies under my belt, I can’t be considered a hot little ‘debut’ novelist, which is what everyone wants now.

But I understand what it’s really all about. As an author, I may be happy selling only a thousand books or so (if that many!) But agents and publishers have big money issues and want the sure thing, the guaranteed best-sellers, or maybe that one bold crazy work that will rake in the dough. (Not ranting! Just saying…) It’s painful, as a writer, to be reduced to your sales figures; but I think I’ve finally learned not to take it personally, or even seriously, or as any kind of true indicator of quality.

I’m excited about my new novel, but not because I think it’s going to be a big seller. It won’t. My life won’t change much, and I’m fine with that. I just want to maintain my little band of loyal readers, and believe me, my readers are the BEST. But the things I love about this novel are precisely what make it ‘unmarketable’ as the agents and publishing industry would define it. First of all, it does not fall into any identifiable genre. Nor is it what I’d call literary. It has a faintly literary sensibility, maybe, but the only way I can describe it to a publishing professional is ‘mainstream’ or ‘contemporary’ (big yawn). Because the two main characters are male, it doesn’t even fall into that huge amorphous category known as ‘women’s fiction,’ although I think most of my readers will be women (Although I do have my male fans, surprisingly enough, including one old dear now-departed gentleman, a grizzled hunting and wilderness enthusiast, who said he found Secret Vow ‘very moving.’ That still makes me smile.)

I think the biggest marketing difficulty stems from the book’s undercurrent theme of spirituality and whether the whole concept exists or not, and that word alone sends most people screaming for the exits. Which drives me crazy, because how many book blurbs have you read that blather on about a character’s ‘redemption’? Book marketers are happy to borrow religious jargon to make their offerings seem loftier and more important than they actually are. And yet when you actually try to write about that, no agent or editor wants to deal with it, or they find it off-putting. Yet, I don’t think many readers feel this way at all, and I think there’s a significant audience for books touching on the spiritual. Look at all those folks who bought Eat, Pray, Love

Now you might think: Okay, she’s written a novel that might appeal to people of a spiritual nature, if not specifically Catholics (lapsed, bitter and otherwise), and there’s an audience for that, so what’s the problem? Well…it contains some scenes of an adult nature, as they say. I use sex only sparingly in this particular book, but when I do…it’s fairly explicit. And there’s a reason for that: I feel there’s a potent connection between sex and the soul; and why be so coy and oblique about something that the reader doesn’t get the point, like in those old mid-century “women’s” novels: “…they fell into each others’ arms, onto the divan…” Dot-dot-dot, end of chapter. Besides, erotic (not pornographic) prose is a great challenge for a writer: So hard to do without sounding clinical or idiotic, and I’m really impressed when I see it done well. No doubt this all goes back to my schizophrenic reading habits in college, when my tender writer’s brain was being formed. I was reading both Anais Nin and Thomas Merton at the same time, and I still keep trying to channel the both of them in my adult books (It would be interesting to know what one thought about the other, as they were contemporaries). So will I turn off my pious readers with the sex, and then turn off my sophisticated readers with the spiritual stuff? I say, it’s like peanut butter and chocolate: Two great things, why shouldn’t they go together?!

Hmmmm. Sex and chocolate…that’s a good combination, too! But there’s no chocolate in my novel. Maybe I’ll write some in.

So, how am I going to market this unmarketable book? Beats the hell out of me! But I believe it all boils down to one single concept: Reviews. And more on that in a future post.

The Novice Master is tentatively scheduled for publication, in both print and e-book form, November 15, 2015. The print version may be available as soon as Nov 2 (All Souls Day—check your missalettes!), but the E version is dependent on Pronoun.com getting its act together soon; may have to go with old Amazon after all.

The Publishing Path

My newest book is called “The Novice Master,” and I plan to publish it as a print book first, with Createspace, so I have the hard copy to send out for review. Many reviewers seem to like actual books. I like having actual books; I like carrying a bunch of them around in my handbag to hand out randomly. Then I’ll be doing something a little different with the e-version…Feeling a little disillusioned with megalithic Amazon and their tiresome algorithms, I searched around for an alternate publishing platform, and as it turned out, the week I was looking….a new one launched. It’s called Pronoun, which strikes me as an odd and not completely inspiring name—my students always have trouble with pronouns—but I guess it’s better than Adverb or Conjunction (I think Ejaculate would be fun!). So I will be publishing electronically with Pronoun, and we’ll see how that goes.

Oh, and a note of advice to fellow literary-ish writers: Don’t do Kickstarter. Just don’t. I’m convinced that serious readers avoid that site completely; and your friends and family will not be amused by what they will see as your blatant attempt to extort money from them. I gave it a try, and only ended up with two backers: One of my closest friends (Thanks, Diane!), and the other a complete stranger, which was somewhat comforting. But mostly it was kind of an embarrassment, as well as a waste of time: Unless you write in popular genre that lends itself to a spiffy video—then you might do well.


Still Writing After All These Years

Kathy Cecala is a writer, novelist, editor and English teacher. “Teaching and editing are the only things I make money at, but writing is my passion and life’s work. I have been writing for decades, so I’ve learned a few things.”

The last thing we need on the Internet is another annoying writer’s blog. So I’ll try not to be annoying. I’ll try to avoid the blatant self-promotion (there’ll be some, but within reason); rants against that rotten old publishing industry; and I won’t throw snark at other writers, unless they really deserve it. I just hope to share some of the bitter and sweet things I’ve learned along the way to glorious midlist-dom, and the biggest lesson of all: When you’re born to write, persistence is the key.

I’m not going to linger on past successes, few and far between as they are—you can look up my work on Amazon or Goodreads. I plan to chronicle my new venture, a new novel that I am planning to self-publish. It’s not my first ‘selfie’ but will be my fourth: I think I’ve finally learned enough from the other three to get this one right. The other three were actually part of a series of historical novels for young adults, but this is a completely different kettle of fish. It’s for grown-ups. It’s contemporary. It’s serious. And it’s probably completely unmarketable. That’s why I need to publish it myself; I don’t think anyone else wants to. But more on that angle in a future blog.

This new book of mine was completed over the past summer of 2015, under somewhat unusual circumstances. I developed a terrible case of vertigo, which seemed to come out of the blue, but would be later be attributed to a secret ear infection I had somehow developed. This vertigo was so severe, I could not even stand up or walk, and I was constantly nauseous. And it lasted for quite a while. There was little I could do but take big doses of Antivert and sit perfectly still and try not to move my head. I couldn’t even watch TV or use the computer, the light did something weird to my eyes. So for about three weeks, I lived entirely inside my head. And my head said: “You need to write a new adult novel, something like your first novel, Secret Vow. Hey! You could take that character that no one understood, Ellis Barlowe, and really try to get inside him, showing him at a different point in his life.” And before I knew it, I had plotted out an entirely new book. And no, it’s not Secret Vow Redux, or the sequel; it’s a completely different book standing on its own.

When I was younger, I could keep an entire novel organized inside my head and carry it around intact for weeks, but I’ve reached the age where that’s no longer possible. The damned vertigo didn’t help either. I began scribbling down frantic notes as often as I could, and as soon as I felt well enough to sit in front of my computer, I started typing the manuscript. It was amazing how quickly it poured out, but now I feel like I’ve been editing it forever. Editing is something I always overdo. I know writers who claim they don’t have to edit or write drafts, and I say, their stuff’s never any good. But I think I’m finally done. I think…

So now it’s on to the marketplace to see how it flies. I don’t use ‘beta’ readers or critique groups; I hate to inflict my work on anyone unless they’re ready to fork over real money for it. But I am a little nervous about the whole thing: Can a vertigo-induced novel stemming from a twenty-year-old book really be any good??? That’s what we’re all here to find out.