Thursday, January 06, 2005

PAPERBACK WRITER: Vol. I of the Collected Responses To the Mad Max Author Survey

Long ago, in a land far, far away—that is, back in October ’04, just a couple of weeks after the launch of BOOKANGST 101—Mad Max sent out a “Call to Writers” survey asking for intimate responses from published authors to a series of questions about how their books had been marketed and published.

By now most of those who were brave enough to respond are surely convinced the whole thing was a hoax; the plain truth is, Max bit off more than he could chew. The writers’ experiences were so different one from another that it was impossible to extrapolate from them the kind of “quantifiable data” he’d hoped they’d yield. Each had its own distinct arc and required its own distinct narrative. Today’s is the first of those…

[GENERAL NOTE: Thanks to all the authors who've participated in this survey; and thanks, too, for your patience. More pieces based on your comments are in the works. --MMP]
One of the most unexpected responses to the survey came from a self-proclaimed "Paperback Writer," a woman who makes no bones about writing “genre” fiction—indeed, there are few genres she hasn’t mastered—who writes six to eight novels a year, under such names as S.L. Viehl, Rebecca Kelly, Jessica Hall and Gena Hale. Six of her novels have been Locus science fiction bestsellers. (Memo to tyros: don't call it "sci-fi"--the proper shorthand is "SF".) Beginning in March '05, writing as Lynn Viehl, she launches a new series called the Darkyn novels--the first of which is IF ANGELS BURN.

[Announcer's voice over p.a.: Ladies and Gentlemen, please give a warm Mad Max welcome to LYNN VIEHL!!! Crowd roars as LV enters, STAGE RIGHT, and sits in a chair across from The Host, who is wearing a handsome Brooks Bros. Haz-Mat suit. Interview begins.]

MMP: First off, Lennon & McCartney's "Paperback Writer" is one of the hippest & catchiest songs the Beatles ever recorded. It also happens to be the title of your blog. I suspect this is not a coincidence—because in the same way there's not a hint of irony or apology in the song, I get the sense that you've had your fill of authors looking down on you as a "paperback writer" and, in fact, you're pretty damn proud of what you've accomplished. Care to comment?

[As LV begins to answer, the Announcer's voice can be heard over the p.a., singing, in operatic baritone: It's a steady job/And I wanna be a paperback writer]
LYNN VIEHL: I did name the weblog after the Beatles tune, which always makes me laugh when I listen to it. I'm very proud and happy to be a working writer.

M: I have to say: of all the people who responded to my "Call to Authors," questionnaire, your story struck me as the most upbeat. You seemed not to have met the same level of disappointment and frustration that a lot of the other authors spoke about. Were you sugar-coating? Or is it that, because you're writing paperback originals, you come at this with a different—perhaps more realistic?—set of expectations than many so-called "literary" novelists? LV: I've had my disappointments, but not many, and they made me work harder. I didn't know anything about the industry and I never met another writer until after I was published, so that may have something to do with it. My only expectation was simply to see my name on the cover of a book, and I've done that twenty-six times in five years.

M: You also seemed to be among the best paid of all of the respondents.
LV: The reason my writing income is in six figures is because I write very fast, I'm aggressive about finding work, and I'm willing to work 12 to 16 hours a day at the job.

M: If you don’t mind my asking, what's the most you've ever been paid for a book? And how many do you generally write per year?
LV: The largest advance I've been paid for a single novel is $25,000.00. I write six to eight novels a year.

M: So far you've written science fiction, inspirational fiction, romance, romantic suspense... and now you're about to launch the new "Darkyn" series (from Signet), which is described on your website as "dark fantasy." The first of these, IF ANGELS BURN (great title, b.t.w.), comes out in March '05; its sequel, PRIVATE DEMON, follows in Dec. '05, and Book III, DARKNESS HAS NO NEED, about 8 months after that. Tell me a little about the series.
LV: The Darkyn novels evolved from a series of short stories about vampires that I wrote for my readers and posted on my old web site. The basic premise for the series is, what if humans were the monsters, and vampires the victims?

M: Have you finished writing Book II yet? And will the series continue on past Book III?
LV: I am right in the middle of writing book two. My contract is for three novels, but it's an open-ended series, and I've outlined five more novels. If the series does well, I'll keep writing them.

M: Back on November 22--so 3+ months prior to publication of IF ANGELS BURN--you launched a very spiffy website,, that features a nifty animation--you described it as "big, splashy, almost like the traler for a Hollywood movie," as well as dramatic use of audio, a chat room... And in a little over a month, you've already got more than 30 fans actively interacting on the message board. Whose idea was the site? Who designed it, and how did you find them? How much did it cost? And who paid--you, or Signet?
LV: The site was my idea, but it was designed by Metro DMA. I wanted the best designers in the business, and several people in the industry recommended them. The site design, hosting and publicity for it cost about 20% of my advance for the three books. I paid for the entire thing myself.

M: What do you hope to accomplish with this site?
LV: My schedule doesn't allow me time for most of the traditional methods of self-promotion, such as book signings and appearances at conventions, and I don't think they work anyway, so a web site was the logical alternative. I'd like the site to be a place where readers gather and talk as well as find out more about my work.

M: And how do you go about getting attention for it? Do you have your own database of names that you've collected from your previous books, people you notified when the site went live? Does Signet have a list?
LV: I've never done this sort of thing before, so I've never had a database. For the site launch, I contacted people in the industry I thought might be interested, obtained their permission to send them a press release, and built a one-time-only mailing list (I hate SPAM so I was careful to ask first.). I also sent PRs to all the newspapers in my home state, the major national newspapers and a select number of industry and trade magazines. Signet probably has their own list, but I didn't involve the publisher.

M: How is this potentially different from what you've done before? And what's your sense, at this point, of how well it's working?
LV: I've only ever done active promotion for one novel before this, StarDoc—my first novel, which was a LOCUS bestseller, as were all four of its sequels—and did the usual postcards/flyers/ bookmarks/book signings/convention appearances. Despite the expense and time sunk into that publicity, it did virtually nothing for the book. I wasn't comfortable with it, either. I'm not much of a public figure and a lot of traditional self-promotion has a desperate feel to it that I don't like. Or maybe I'm just not that desperate.

After StarDoc I dropped all the self-promotion, built my first web site for my readers and from there just stayed home and concentrated on writing books. My numbers gradually built and all of my books sold well. The web site became a place where I interacted with readers, and many of the stories I wrote for them eventually became novels that I sold.

The Darkyn site is basically growing at the same rate that my first web site did. If pre-orders keep rolling in, I'll probably get a larger first print run (that was one of my strategies, to build momentum for the books.) My readers are delighted with it. Signet tells me the book buyers are very interested in the first novel, and they've assigned a publicist to handle the press inquiries. I've made a bunch of new contacts in the industry. I'm invested in this for the long-term, so all this works for me.

On the down side, I had hoped to see more buzz on the internet about the Darkyn site launch, but that didn't happen. Could have something to do with the fact that my press release collided with Thanksgiving week, and I was polite and conservative with distribution, but it's easy to make excuses. I’d thought that the fact I haven’t promoted myself in quite a while, combined with Metro DMA's reputation would generate some interest, but the lack of self-promotion may have actually worked against me this time. As one industry pro told me, "I've never heard of you. Why should I bother checking out your web site?"

Even the down side is good. Writers don't like being served humble pie, but without regular helpings we become total ego monsters.

M: Aside from the online piece, what plans does Signet have to promote the series? And/or what plans do you have, separate from them?
LV: Signet has planned to promote the series over on their author promo site, They've been very supportive in providing me with everything I needed for the web site designers, too, especially the art department. I will be maintaining a presence at the web site, and sending out excerpt chapbooks to select conventions, but my writing schedule is very tight, and that's all I have time to do.

M: As I mentioned earlier, you have a blog called “Paperback Writer. Do you see blogs principally as vehicles for a more intimate kind of communication, or do you see them potentially benefiting writers in a commercial way? Differently, I mean, from the posting boards at the Darkyn site?
LV: I had some second thoughts about even mentioning my weblog in this interview. My first weblog, StarLines, became a magnet for trolls and stalkers, and I got tired of dealing with that. Paperback Writer was something I started writing privately for my friends, and I've been journaling almost daily since 1974, so I enjoy it, too. I've disabled comments, and I'm trying to be more politic, so this one might work out better than the earlier one did. It's a wait-and-see experiment.

M: In the original author survey, I'd asked what marketing efforts, in your experience, had been the least effective in terms of selling books. You answered "self promotion, going to conventions." Yet to my next question--What would you like to see happen for you/your books in the future—you gave an answer that concluded "I'll do the rest on my own." Is that not self-promotion? Can you clarify what you mean?
LV: I should have said "traditional self-promotion" because the whole booksigning/postcards/ bookmarks/convention thing is outdated and virtually worthless in a marketing sense. Writers need to pursue new, inventive avenues to market their books. That's what I've tried to do with my website.

[Announcer's voice over p.a., as author exits: Ladies and Gentlemen, IF ANGELS BURN, the launch volume of Lynn Viehl’s Darkyn series, goes on sale in March 2005. Interview ends.]


Jozef Imrich with Dragoness Malchkeon said...

"He said, 'Two dollars, girls.' Then he said, 'A dollar?' Then, 'Fifty cents?' Then, 'A quarter?' Finally, he said, 'For God's sake, just read me...'

That seems to be my advance dialogue with the agents and readers (smile)

Karen Junker said...

If I had as much money as Viehl has spent on her website alone...I'd have hired a good publicist - such as Blue Moon Communications (Theresa Meyers), the woman who got Carly Phillips on the Today show...

Anonymous said...

Hi Lynn -
One thing I find interesting is that judging by google, your blog is getting more traffic than your booksite, even though the booksite is more beautifully designed.
These are the links to your books site
and these are the links in to your blog
Now that might change over time, but my feeling is it’s better to start a buzz campaign where the people already are-- unfortunately, most web agencies just leave you with the site: it’s kind of like having a billboard delivered, unassembled, to your garage. You need links.

It can be a lot of work to get to them, but there are companies in the business who specializ in it, and if you want your site to pay off it's worth looking into them. And you should be doing these interviews on sites where vampire fans gather too.
L.A. - a reluctant marketing manager.

Anonymous said...

Let's throw the book at publishing

By Luke Johnson in UK Telegraph

They say there are three ways of achieving immortality: rear a child, plant a tree, or write a book. Quite a few of us seem to be having a go at the third category - over 1m titles a year are published around the world, according to the appropriately named book ''So Many Books'' by Mexican writer Gabriel Zaid.

This never-ending volcano of reading matter means book publishing is a wonderful service to the literary public, but a poorly paid profession and generally a terrible business.

Books are curious things. We publish over 125,000 new titles a year in Britain - more than any other nation of a comparable size - yet books are much less perishable than most other forms of media, be they newspapers, magazines, radio, television, even films. Book publishing can work as a craft trade, such that specialist titles appealing to only 2,000 readers can be economically viable. By contrast, substantial capital investment means computer games, TV shows, theatre productions, music albums and so forth have to appeal to much bigger audiences to get financed.

Book publishing really lies somewhere between art and commerce - in some aspects it is a barely rational industry. While the big four publishers have half the British market, the rest is fragmented into hundreds of small players.

Few who have much to do with books make a good living out of it - and this despite the fact that books published in English represent 27 per cent of the world's share of titles! Most authors receive pitiful advances which are rarely earned out. Salaries among staff in publishing houses are notoriously low. And owners of imprints must mostly do it for the love, since it is an endemically unprofitable industry.

I owned a book publisher for a period and found it a painful experience. I learned that the cashflow characteristics are most unattractive. You pay authors upfront for manuscripts that might not arrive for years; you then ship finished volumes to booksellers who only accept them on a sale or return basis, and demand at least 55 per cent trade discount, and pay 120 days later.

Most titles on a publisher's list lose money and sell at most a few thousand copies - editors are perpetually searching feverishly for the elusive bestseller to subsidise all the flops. It is a winner-takes-all business. Occasionally, there are windfalls from foreign or film rights, and backlists provide a degree of long-term income. But even giant trade publishers only make 5 per cent operating margins, despite spin-off benefits and global scale at multi-media conglomerates like Bertelsmann, News Corporation, Pearson and Time Warner.

Of course, that is one of the reasons book publishing is so tough: it is ferociously competitive because so many participants do it for uneconomic reasons. They understand that books are central to civilization. We do at least buy many more books than we used to - but actually read a lower proportion of them. Sadly for the book trade, persistent price deflation means the production efficiencies of technology advances in pre-press, printing, binding and logistics have all been given away to the reading public.

Moreover in Britain, enormous concentration of power among chain retailers like WH Smith, Waterstones, Borders and Ottaker's means there are now only a handful of powerful customers who demand ever better terms from suppliers. Even the emergence of online sellers like Amazon hasn't really helped: they insist on a wholesaler's discount and undermine the sale of full-price copies. And 20 per cent of Amazon's sales are now used books, a huge stimulus to the second-hand trade which doesn't help new book publishers.

The internet poses perhaps the greatest threat to the book, and yet the roughly 5 per cent annual growth in the value of the British book market in recent years suggests it is faring better than the music business.

Books have advantages: they are portable, collectable, cheap and can be skimmed. Even sales of reference books have risen in the last few years, despite the cornucopia of free information available on the web.

For the book trade, progress has meant diversity and that is probably a strength. New titles, formats and imprints help keep the business vigorous - as does originality. Ultimately, British book publishing will only be successful if it is original and creative: be it Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter, books can generate ideas and stories that fuel all other forms of entertainment. Derivative content will never grow the industry - fresh talent and imagination are needed to keep it alive.

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."