Commencing countdown, engines on…

sea flight sky earth

The official, commercial launch of The Hermit of Carmel is scheduled for March 1. It’s a busy time  – controlled chaos – marked by minimal new writing. That in itself has proved frustrating. No matter how many professionals one might have working beside and behind them – some authors have many, while others go it alone – a writer has to play a proactive role in marketing his/her work. For example, here are some of the activities I’m engaged in, to prepare for the launch of Hermit.

  1. Book launch: Every book needs a launch day – that is the day it first becomes commercially available across retail and a variety of digital distribution platforms. The official public launch event for Hermit is set (tentatively) on March 5, at a very real location featured in Hermit: The Cypress Inn, in Carmel, CA. I’m excited about being back in Carmel again, and at a boutique hotel I absolutely adore. That drunken scene in Hermit, at The Cypress, was, by the way, somewhat autobiographical. One man and a decanter full of free sherry is dangerous!
  2. Distribution: Hermit can be purchased through such digital platforms (most of which allow for pre-order of the book) as Apple Books, Amazon Kindle, Kobo, Google Play Books, B&N Nook, and the latest subscriber and library platforms including Playster, 24Symbols, Scribd, Bibliotheca, Overdrive. It’s hard to say, at this early date, what retail stores will stock it. It’s in the Ingram and Baker & Taylor catalogue. Between the two, they’ve got the bulk of all retail stores covered for distribution. Chapters/Indigo, in Canada, is featuring Hermit in their online store already, but who can say if they will place a bulk order and carry it on their shelves. You can always call a store and ask for a copy to be ordered – in any store. Just give them the title and/or ISBN number.
  3. Book signings: A publicist (independent or internal at a publishing house) may play a role in contacting book stores in major markets to offer availability for book signings and or readings. I do that myself. I make the calls and pitch a book reading and/or signing. Then, I’ve got to go there to deliver. It’s a ton of effort for relatively few sales, but important to building my brand, and promoting the book. I’ll be focusing signings at both small, independent book stores (who doesn’t love them?) and chain operations in Toronto-area, and, during the first week of March, in northern California.
  4. Book reviews: Uggghhh. This is the toughest part. And be careful what you ask for. You go through the effort of engaging media and book bloggers/reviewers, with absolutely no guarantee that they will say positive things about your book. A poor review can have the opposite impact of what you intended, and be magnified across your target reader market. I think that the writing stand on its own though, and early test readings generated positive critique of the story arc, pace, character development, emotional impact and a few other metrics that I, as an author, sought feedback on. Still, writing is about as personal and subjective as any other art. One reader’s “literary masterpiece” is another’s bird cage lining.
  5. Book clubs. Some writers considered engagement with clubs to provide for very low return on investment. They’re right, of course. If you’re an author with a previous best seller, the boom clubs will wait patiently for your next book, and buy it en mass. If you’re an emerging writer like I, you’ve got to do a little work to promote your title. I’m engaging with book clubs and offering Hermit either for free or at wholesale, to try and get readers talking about it.
  6. Audiobook: I’m receiving auditions for narrators of the audiobook version of Hermit, for inclusion in digital platforms that provide this format, including Google Play, Apple iTunes, and Audible. It’s really cool listening to your words presented by someone else. I’ve otherwise only ever heard it in my own head!
  7. Promotion: Other forms of promotion I’m experimenting with, include the following. I’ll follow up, on another blog post, to provide some feedback and comment on their effectiveness.
    1. Goodreads. I’ve got a feature page now for The Hermit of Carmel (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/43265709-the-hermit-of-carmel)
    2. NetGalley: NetGalley allows authors/publishers to present an advance review copy (ARC) of a new title to reviewers. HOC was up on the platform as of last week. Will have to wait to learn the outcome. (https://www.netgalley.com/catalog/book/155911)
    3. 49th Shelf. This is a Canadian platform to showcase new Canadian writer titles, and allow readers to find them: https://49thshelf.com/Books/T/The-Hermit-of-Carmel2
    4. Author pages: I’ve created an author page, with bio, on Apple Books, Amazon, Goodreads, NetGalley, BookNet Canada/BiblioShare, and Ingram Advance. Got to create a few more, this week, including one for Google Play.
    5. Twitter. I’m going to try @booksandthebear for Twitter promotion of the title on the first week in March. Will have to wait and see how successful it may or may not be. There are a few other promotional platforms I’m considering as well.
    6. Ingram Advance. Hermit is featured (at a cost, of course) in the new release catalogue that Ingram sends to every book retailer to whom they distribute. It’s in that for the month of January. Fingers crossed.

For those reading, thanks for joining me on this journey. I appreciate you. I’m happy to send a free copy of The Hermit of Carmel (print or ePub) to the first person who correctly identifies the source reference of the title for today’s post. Just send me an email (phipps.gregory@gmail.com) and you will be duly rewarded with literary riches.

The gift that keeps on giving: my favorite Christmas book

TheBookOfMerlynWhoa. That snuck up on us quickly. Christmas is almost here again. I understand that it comes once per year. I’ll have my editor fact check that though. When I think of the holidays, I can’t help but think of my children, and Christmas of my own youth. I suspect that’s normal. Mine were mostly good. Christmas past, that is, not my children. Kidding. My kids were angels. Memories of my childhood Christmases are mostly positive. The ghost of Christmas past always presents you with long-forgotten family conflicts; embarrassingly selfish moments; tears of disappointment; and a pouting teenager who wanted to avoid parents and siblings like they carried the plague. Dickens’ ghosts have a way of holding a mirror up to your past self and forcing you to watch, and learn.

“‘Spirit,’ said Scrooge in a broken voice, ‘remove me from this place.’ ‘I told you these were shadows of the things that have been,’ said the Ghost. ‘That they are what they are, do not blame me.’ “‘Remove me!’ Scrooge exclaimed, ‘I cannot bear it!’

Because this blog is supposed to focus on books and writing, my first thought was to write about the book I most vividly remember receiving, as a gift, for Christmas. My favorite book, as a teen, was T.H. White’s – The Once and Future King. It is an absolutely masterful retelling of the King Arthur saga, and a poignant story of adventure, romance and magic. It’s way better than any Harry Potter series book, by the way. Thought I’d throw that out there just to troll Potter fans. White’s version of the Arthurian legend includes compelling character development and a delightful plot twist. He had Merlyn live his life backwards: growing younger as mere mortals get older. I’ve read TOAFK six or seven times. The epic, first published in 1958, is four books in total, though published as one, and is almost 700 pages long! That’ll keep in any teenager locked in his/her room for days on end. That might be just enough motivation for you to buy your own teenager a copy.

White had written a fifth book, to conclude the epic, named The Book of Merlyn. His publishers released the four book compilation without it. Merlyn had to wait. I can’t imagine how White might have responded to that decision. In any event, White died in 1964. The unpublished conclusion to TOAFK wasn’t released until 1978, if you can believe it. I had to have it! Imagine reading a book – any book – and having the end withheld: and for twenty years! That’s some marketing ploy. Thankfully, Santa brought the book gift wrapped. Don’t tell anyone, but I actually knew it was under the tree. Yup, I did that thing where you press the gift wrapping down tightly, and can glimpse printing underneath. It was the best present of the year and remains the most memorable book I’ve received. If memory serves, I ignored the remainder of unopened gifts and dove into the tome immediately – coming up for air only when tempted by the smell of roast turkey as it was removed from the oven.

I just pulled the hardcover version of Merlyn – the very one I received forty years ago – from my bookcase. It still wears its slightly crinkled dust jacket. And it smells like my childhood. Think I’ll go lock myself in my room for a few hours and devour it again.

Happy Holidays to all.

And now for something completely different – art.

Yes, I know this post has nothing to do with books and writing. But’s it’s my blog and I’ll do what I want. Most writers, I expect, will attest to how difficult it is to sit down (or stand) to lay down some quality prose. It’s often painful. Sure, in the end, it’s fulfilling and even cathartic, on one level. But it’s hard. Ever writer needs to take a break and enjoy some other hobby, pastime, or outlet for their creative energies. As writers are artists, it should come as no surprise that many writers engage in other forms of art. I’ve dabbled with visual art for most of my life but never really took it seriously; have yet to take a formal course, outside of grade school art class; and have never pursued painting, drawing, sculpture or carving with a sustained commitment. Wait, I just remembered. I did take wood carving course when I was about 20. I’ve carved a few decoy-like duck models. Crafted a half-size loon that remains, today, on a bookcase in my parent’s home. Haven’t done any carving in years now though.

My brother has become a pretty fair carver and woodworker though. I chose to believe that I was an early inspiration. Check out his website and see some of his fine creations: http://www.finorfeather.com

So, for shits and giggles, I thought I’d share one of my “alternative” artistic endeavors. If anyone is paying attention, and has read my works, you’ll no doubt have noticed that I’m a huge Hemingway fan. Both Hermit of Carmel and Oak include a subtle reference to the man. So, without further ado, I give you: “Half a Hemingway”.

Half a Hemingway

The incredibly sexy life of the writer or: How I learned to stop worrying and learned to love pajamas. Part 1.

Screen Shot 2018-11-29 at 7.13.31 PMThose who visit my lil’ blog may wonder what it’s like to be a writer – that is to say, one who attempts to write as a professional. You know, for money. To pay bills. And a mortgage whose principal balance never seems to get any smaller. Perhaps you have a vision of a writer’s life as one marked by joyously creative output and personal fulfillment; followed by travel to New York for the talk show circuit, where the gleeful hosts fawn shamelessly; limo rides in big cities to attend book signings with equally adoring fans lined up in the cold for a chance to meet; and a sexy lifestyle generously fuelled by monthly royalty checks and movie rights offers to be reviewed and inked. And the ascot. Don’t forget the ascot. Alternatively, you might think of a disheveled and unshaven man, (or woman) in a tee-shirt, pajama bottoms and ratty slippers padding around the house, as he struggles to find inspiration at the bottom of a coffee mug – or bottle of vodka – all the while pretending to be out so the landlord won’t bang on the door, again, to demand this month’s unpaid rent.

I suspect that the vast majority of writers experience lives that fall somewhere in between the aforementioned, purely fictional scenarios. Personally, I like the pajama bottom look, but like to class it up a little with an ascot and pipe. But seriously, most working writers either draw a salary banging out content for an employer, or have a job completely unrelated to their passion for crafting stories. The latter write part-time, when they’re able. Very few take limos, anywhere. Uber maybe.

To be honest, other than reading the blogs of other writers, I don’t know or hang out with many of them. It’s a mystery how they live, or how much they actually make. I do know it’s a tough business, and that few make enough from writing to sustain even a modest lifestyle. The economics of traditional publishing are so upside down, that even talented writers (and some that aren’t) with “book deals” earn far less than most would expect. Self-publishing on disruptive digital platforms, like Amazon’s Kindle Direct, for example, turn the economics and royalty share right way up, but limit promotion potential and reach – choking book sales and one’s payday. Indie writers today have to front the marketing expenses in the hope of recouping and reporting positive income on their respective IRS (CRA in Canada) returns.

It has occurred to me that ours might be the only profession in which one might be tempted to brag about paying tax, at a cocktail party.

Your audience awaits. Talk to them.

Screen Shot 2018-11-20 at 11.41.40 AMIn keeping with the original raison d’etre for this site – to speak to fellow writers as much as readers – I’d like to explore the connection between content and audience. I’m of the opinion that you should write about themes and subjects that you’re passionate about. Of course, I’m probably naïve. I suspect many commercially successful writers know exactly what they’re doing, when they prepare a manuscript outline – and do so on the basis of a novel’s sales potential, as a primary objective. That usually aligns with creating content with a broad market appeal, or alternatively, identifying a niche and genre large enough to drive significant book sales. But let’s put that aside. I want to talk about identifying the audience for the manuscript, as a foundation for promotion.

When I finished The Hermit of Carmel, I read a few blogs related to audience. One suggested development of a Venn diagram to capture and visualize the target market: an audience map, it’s often called. I thought it worthy of action – in part because I’m a visual learner. I find graphs, charts, and diagrams always helpful when trying to understand a complex subject, new to me, or to organize thoughts to solve a problem. Most engineering grads I’ve met take the same approach. I expect a lot of creatives do as well. So, I thought through what kind of reader might find appeal in Hermit.

My approach included an attempt to identify the demographic (by gender and age) as well as by interest. The Venn diagram (as accurate as subjective measure will allow) identifies readers as predominantly male (a natural outcome of a male protagonist?), but with lesser but some appeal to females: cross-referenced by interest, including golf; exposure to some of the primary themes of the novel, including death, grief and depression; and those with an interest in the minimalist lifestyle, the outdoors and/or adherents to simple, off-grid living. Those interests don’t have to be mutually exclusive, of course. A reader might theoretically be captivated by some or all.

Inevitably, there will be existing novels that might be comparable to yours. Find those books, and you’ll find your reader. You’ll get a sense of reader demographics and interests too. Consider the approach to marketing that author or publisher has employed. If it appears to have worked, adopt it.

If you were to boil the core themes, plot and storyline down – as one might a Thanksgiving gravy – what do you get? You get the hook. The hook should help you distill all your research into a core target market and help you focus your book promotion on those most likely to buy and enjoy your book. If you create the Venn diagram, you’ll be able to see exactly who the core reader is, where the circles overlap. I’m not suggesting you ignore all the other readers. But assuming limited time, resources, and focus on marketing cost efficiencies, it makes a ton of sense to start there. That applies to self-publishers and institutional publishers equally.

So, how do you find and speak to your audience? Given what you know about the target reader, go to where they hang out. Find and engage them in their favourite social media sites, advertise or submit content to the websites they frequent, and identify opportunities to guest-post on the blogs they love most. I, for example, pitched Carmel Magazine (published in the city in which the plot of Hermit unfolds) and Golf Digest on the concept of publishing the novel, in serial format, over a number of editions, and/or as value-added content on their websites. I argued that if we accept that frequently refreshed content is imperative to online views (fulfilling their vanity metrics of unique visits, page views and minutes spent on the site), inclusion of regular instalments of fiction that aligned with reader interests, might prove successful. Both ignored me, but it was worth the effort – and yours. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

I’d also suggest you find the readers of those comparable books you have identified, and “work” them as well – using both traditional and social media platforms.

Lastly, the cover design of your book should align with the theme(s) of the book, and appeal to the target readership. I agonized over the use of a silhouette of a golfer on the cover of Hermit. Why? The book is not “about” golf, per se. I had to make a decision. Either capitalize on the underlying theme that runs through the story, and draw in a core readership who are passionate about the sport. Doing so increases the risk of turning off potential readers who have zero interest in golf. The alternative would have been adoption of more generic cover art, or pick up on some other theme. I considered art that featured a ramshackle cabin, tucked away in a wooded ravine, as an option. In the end, I made a gut decision to run with cover art that reflects a major theme and will have to accept the consequences – positive or otherwise. You’ll face the same dilemma and, with an individual designer or team, perhaps have to make a similar choice yourself.

Do you judge a book by its cover?

HermitOfCarmel_foggy copyHermit of Carmel is done. Well, kind of. Truth is, I changed the ending a little just last week – after I swore that it was “ready to ship.” Really, it’s the hardest part of writing a novel: knowing when to stop. But, it’s my prerogative and one of the benefits of managing the publishing process yourself. I can do any damn thing I want. In the interim, I contracted the book cover design (front, back, spline) and interior layout/typesetting to a professional designer: http://www.lauraboyledesign.com. Laura is based in Toronto and has been great to work with. Ours is a collaboration limited only by budget and imagination. She employs what I assume is a consistent process – to understand the book’s themes, characters, and audience demographic – before she prepares some draft ideas. Really, I hoped she might have read the book but, after consideration, agreed that it would be unreasonable to ask a designer to read every book he/she might work on. Laura also asked me to identify other book covers that I really appreciated, so she’d have an insight into my personal design sense. That was a ton of fun in itself. There’s some great cover art out there. It’s a creative genre unto itself.

Simplicity. That was my stated objective, in the context of design. The simple, underlying theme(s) of Hermit – love, loss, grief and golf – should, I felt, guide the design aesthetic. Laura came back with four initial designs, all of which proved interesting. One caught my attention immediately. After some agonizing, consultation with family, and some feedback to Laura, we made some design revisions and zeroed in on a final version.

For new writers who are self-publishing, or are collaborating with a design team at a publishing house, this can be both an enjoyable part of the process to get a book to market, and a welcome distraction from all the angst you’re likely experiencing with final copy editing, reviewing proofs, etc. And, if what they say is true – a cover really does sell a book – you could argue this might be the most important element of marketing fiction. Of course, design is subjective, and not everyone in your target audience will appreciate the cover art. No matter. I need to like it.

In a week or so, I anticipate we’ll get to final art – including front and back cover, with leading line, book description, an area to convey social media contacts, price and ISBN. Right now, we’re debating color and tone of the cover image. I’m including the draft version with a slight bluish tone, as an example.

Stay with me. Hermit will hit the streets by January. Too late for the coveted Christmas season, I’m afraid – but better late than never. Here’s hoping the cover is judged kindly, and the words inside live up to expectations.

“More Coffee, More Writing”?

20140714-french-press-waterLike many who have a passion for writing, the commitment to the craft snuck up on me gradually. I had always written, sure – even as a boy. I excelled at the essay format in high school and university. (I also created a comic strip, at age 13, too, but that’s for another post.) In my first post-university professional role, among other responsibilities, I wrote ad copy and press releases for a marketing/PR firm. During that time, I took creative writing classes – held in the evening. I wrote on paper back then. Seems like a life ago now. Somehow, crumpling a piece of paper in frustration, over the quality of the work, reflected the sense of drama a creative man ought to: more so than pressing the delete button on a computer keyboard, for certain. Development of my career(s), the demands of entrepreneurship, raising two kids, the overwhelming impact of marital dissolution, and a multitude of other interests, hobbies and passions, always seemed to interfere with getting stories from my head onto the keyboard. I exercised my writing skills by writing content for periodicals, corporate communications and social media, but those related to my professional activities in finance and investment. That genre of writing has never allowed me to fully exercise my creativity and permitted that undeniable sense of fulfillment that comes with it.

The fictional stories, or concepts behind them, wouldn’t stop. I know it sounds terribly cliché, but they haunted my sleep. They rattled around in my head like moths trapped inside an exterior light fixture, bumping up against my brain repeatedly – trying to get out. I needed a creative outlet.

Sleep came with difficulty. Good sleep was rare. I started waking increasingly early. Coffee, dark and black, became my close friend and companion on long Canadian winter mornings. So did the keyboard. Early mornings, a pot of coffee and banging (I still two-finger type) on the keys became routine. The words, pages and plot flowed. The coffee soothed and lubricated the output. One book took shape. One, two, three re-writes. An editor took over. More re-writing. Sleeping actually became easier, though I still remember one all-night editing session. I had imposed an arbitrary deadline on finalizing The Hermit of Carmel. I was determined to adhere to it. A large carafe of coffee got me through the night, a spectacular sunrise, and into mid-morning before I finally eased myself beneath the comforter and enjoyed the satisfaction of putting myself, and the first novel, to bed.

Novel #3 is in outline form and a foil bag of dark Sumatra roast sits quietly beside the french press – patiently awaiting a pour over. I can’t imagine a scenario in which writing and coffee were not synonymous. It fuels me. It inspires me. More coffee, more writing.