Tomorrow I’m headed to Madison, WI for WisCon, a feminist/activist SF/F convention. This trip also kicks my summer convention season, which will be intense. I have two back-to-back cons this month, then three conventions back-to-back-to-back-to-FLOP at the end of June July, which will culminate in coming home after ReaderCon, dying for a night, and then rising like a Literary Phoenix to celebrate the release of Celebromancy.
I really like WisCon, and one of the big reasons is that the default level of discussion tends to be equivalent to a graduate seminar – so I get to utilize my grad school brain without the other trappings of being in school again (always having more work I should be doing, living simultaneously below the poverty line and performing high culture status, and having no chance of explaining my career choice to people on the street).
Other reasons include a chance to see friends who live in the area, the hilarity that is the Tiptree Auction (seriously, if you ever come to WisCon, you owe it to yourself to spend an hour or so at the auction. It’s awesome), a GenderFloomp Dance party, and close proximity to about 20 amazing restaurants.
This year, I’m doing a reading, several panels, and leading a novel section for the WisCon Writers’ Workshop. The rest of the time, I expect to kick around, visit friends’ readings, pop my head in on some thought-provoking panels, and generally soak in the awesomeness.
Here’s my complete schedule:
Writers’ Workshop 9AM-Noon.
Reading: Oxford Comma Bonfire 9PM-10:15PM at Michaelangelo’s coffee shop.
with Nancy Hightower, Vylar Kaftan, and LaShawn M. Wanak.
Steal Like an Artist 4:00PM – 5:!5 PM – Conference 4
with S.N. Arly, Kater Cheek, Alexandra Erin, and Brooke Wonders
Patriarchy Hurts Men Too 10:30-11:45 PM – Senate B
with Alan Bostick, Kay Johnson, Philip Kaveny, and Joselle Vanderhooft
Fear and Masculinity in SF/F 2:30 PM-3:45PM – Senate B
with Gregory G. H. Rihn, Liz Argall, and Mary Anne Mohanraj
The Sign-Out 11:30AM-12:45 PM – Capitol/Wisconsin
If you’re going to WisCon, I hope you’ll swing by one of these panel sessions or say hello during the weekend. And if you’re elsewhere (like BaltiCon), I hope you have an awesome weekend there!
A couple of weeks ago, while John Ward and I were wrapping up after the video interviews, he suggested that I write up my suggestions on marketing/sales techniques based on my experience working in publishing.
I liked the idea, and I’m trying to blog a bit more regularly, so here we are. And because ‘Lessons from the World of Sales & Marketing sounded boring, I decided to come up with a snappier (or at least shorter) title. So Tricks of the Trade it is.
First, the disclaimer: this advice, like all advice, is subjective. It may work for you, or it may lead to terrible frustration and people hating you. I think it’s not likely that this advice will lead to people hating you, but you never know.
For readers who don’t know, I work in SF/F publishing – I’m the Sales & Marketing Manager for Angry Robot Books, Strange Chemistry, and Exhibit A, covering the North American territory. Before that, I was a commission sales rep with the Wybel Marketing Group, traveling around the Midwest selling the lists of publishers to independent bookstores, small independent chains, and special markets like museum stores. It was a handselling business, built on relationships and the personal touch. And before that, I’ve worked in a bookstore, a game store, and a build-your-own-stuffed-animal store. My retail and business experience has been all about that personal connection, and that informs my approach to sales & marketing even now as an author and a professional.
Based on those years of experience, I’ve developed a fairly solid sense of how I want to present myself as an author and try to make my books a success. In this series, I’ll be sharing these experiences to provide what I hope will be a useful set of ideas and approaches, specifically for selling & marketing genre fiction, and for trying to function well in a social group more broadly.
Here’s Mike’s Rule #1 for applying Sales & Marketing skills to being a successful author:
Be Nice To People
You might think – “Mike, that’s pretty basic advice.”
Well, pretty much all of my other advice stems from the starting assumption of ‘Be nice.’ Don’t be pushy, don’t be arrogant. Don’t dominate the conversation. Listen to others & tailor your approach based on what people give you in conversation.
When I was a sales rep, I was the opposite of the Hard Sell. I talked about the books on my list, foregrounded their features, but I tried to never make a book out to be something I knew it wasn’t. I argued the books’ merits, but I wasn’t That Salesman that says ‘I won’t leave until you take 5 copies of this book’. The hard sell never worked for me when I worked retail, I hate it when people use it on me, so why would I use it when I’m operating as an author?
For me, the Hard Sellis pushy, it’s arrogant, and it often relies on the socialized push to get along to pressure people into buying the Thing just to make a tense situation (the Hard Seller’s pressure) go away.
You can make some sales in the short run with the Hard Sell.
When I started attending conventions and conferences, I was the New Guy. I had a couple of friends who very kindly introduced me around, but I was still the new person, the guest.
And when you’re a guest, you tread lightly, you try not to make a bother, and you listen a lot. The first time I attended the International Conference for the Fantastic in the Arts, I didn’t know how the convention worked. I didn’t know what all was expected. So I listened, I observed, and I tried to be polite. I met people where I could, but tried not to impose myself on anyone’s time.
When you’re the new person, either at a con, in a social circle, or the person someone just met, I think it pays to listen, ask polite, genuine questions about the other people in the situation, and to figure out what you can bring to the situation to make it more awesome for the people involved. With luck, the Thing you want to sell is one of the things you can bring into the situation to make it more awesome. Especially if the situation is ‘a group of people who love books.’
By taking this quieter, more humble approach to a social group, I think it’s easier to learn about what the group’s expectations are, and to them meet those expectations. This lets you move from ‘New Person’ to ‘new member’ more rapidly and more seamlessly, and should help you build trust. And trust, for me, is a great foundation to build a sales relationship upon.
Sneak Preview: Part Two will be about using handselling techniques to make a connection with a potential reader/customer.
This weekend I had the absolute pleasure of attending WisCon, a feminist science fiction convention in Madison, WI. Last year was my first WisCon, and I knew very early into the con that I’d be coming back. WisCon has a strong academic thread as well as a clear social justice orientation, in addition to being a SF/F writing convention. Plus, Madison is a great city, the hotel is in the middle of a great cluster of restaurants downtown, and I have local friends to visit.
This year I had even more fun than the first time. I’ve been to a number of conventions over the years, and it always takes me a few hours to rev up, but once I get going, I’m in full extrovert geek mode, happy to meet new people and wax geeky.
I had the chance to participate in programming this year, thanks to the quick work of the convention committee and the generosity of the Exotic Worlds group: Bradley P. Beaulieu, Holly McDowell, Derek Silver, and LaShawn M. Wanak. I read from chapter two of Geekomancy, and was very happy that the time I spent on preparation paid off.
Since I’ve been performing nearly my whole life, between choir, dance, and various RPGs (tabletop and LARP), I do my best to make sure that my public readings are performances, with notable value added. If I just read what is written, I wouldn’t be adding anything new. But since I have that experience, and love a crowd, I try to use those skills and inclinations as a benefit. Word on the street is that there are far fewer book tours these days in U.S. publishing, where only a small handful of authors for each publisher are supported with funds for in-person tours across the country. By developing my reading performance skills now, I can try to make a reputation as an entertaining reader…and if that leads to
The reading went very well, I think, since I was happy with it and I got good feedback over the weekend from folks that were there.
This was also my first convention after selling Geekomancy and sequel, so it was all fresh and new to be a bona fide author, with a novel coming very very soon. I had a great time talking about Geekomancy but tried not to toot my horn too often or too loudly. No one wants to listen to the writer that turns every conversation into an extended commercial for their books. I love the conversations that pipe up at conventions, from craft to life, tips to tales of publishing mishaps small and large. Conventions are where I go to bask in the awesome of the SF/F community, who are some of my favorite people in the world.
Even as I was leaving, I started yearning for the next WisCon. Each convention has its own flavor, its own feel, and it can change from year to year (especially conventions that change locations each year, like the World Fantasy Convention). But WisCon was and will likely remain one of my absolute favorites.
I got back from World Fantasy late last night.
This was the fourth WFC that I’ve been to, and the third in a row, following San Jose and Colombus. This year the con was in San Diego, which was pretty good for temperature, but it was dry as hell (maybe not hell, but dryer than the midwest).
This World Fantasy was a big one for me: I performed my first two fiction readings at a convention, with a personal reading and participating in a group reading. I also pitched Shield & Crocus to a couple of editors and spent good time talking and brainstorming with client publishers Night Shade Books, Prime Books, and ChiZine Publications.
My reading was in the first programming slot on Thursday (3pm) which turned out to be great, since many of my friends/colleagues from the Codex Writers Group were in attendance, as well as some personal friends (Scat Hardcore in the house!). I rehearsed last weekend and got feedback from my brilliant girlfriend Meg, and was prepared to bring the awesome. I read most of the first chapter of Shield & Crocus, since I’d just finished the big revision, had it fresh in my brain, and wanted to push the novel to help with things like pitching to agents/editors and such.
Thanks to practice, and my years of training as a performer (gamer, dancer, singer, sales rep), it went marvelously. I had sound effects and robot voices. I realized just after banging the wall behind me that maybe the people on the other side of the wall might be disturbed, but no one complained and it had a great effect on my audience. I’m very happy with that as the first of many public readings in my career. The group reading went well also, though I had barely 5 minutes due to a scheduling mishap. There I read from “Last Tango in Gamma Sector,” and didn’t have enough time to get to the emotional breakup scene, but the audience seemed to be amused by the awesomeness of tango-piloted starships.
Each year, socialization gets easier for me at WFC, since my circles of friends and acquaintances grow after every convention. Most delightful was seeing my friends from Bloomington, the Scat Hardcore crew who have scattered to the four winds, off to the Bay Area, Delaware, and the Big Apple. The five of us had dinner on Saturday, and it was lovely. Second best was continuing to hang with the Codex Writers posse, meeting new people and re-connecting with others.
I wear two hats at World Fantasy: Writer and Sales Rep. Having the sales-side experience has been great for my ability to contribute to conversations and present myself as a publishing professional, since I have something that lets me stand out from other aspirant and neo-pro writers. I met several folks on the Night Shade Books staff that I’d communicated with through email but hadn’t talked to in-person, which was great, since my gig on the sales side involves working with people in all departments of a publishing house: editorial, publicity, marketing, sales, and so on. I also met the main editor for Prime Books, and chatted with the Prime folks on strategy and publishing trends. I got to check in with the folks at ChiZine Publications as well, and am very excited for their upcoming titles as well as their World Fantasy Award nomination (they didn’t end up winning, but even a nomination is a big honor for any press).
The big win on the writer side was that I’d decided to try to find opportunities to pitch Shield & Crocus to editors, and managed to do so twice, each with presses that have put out work that I greatly admire. I think either could be a good home for the novel, and I’m looking forward to their responses.
I’ve decided to try out a new theme for the blog — I’m still working on making all of my social media things line up — I’d love for this blog to post to my personal LiveJournal, but haven’t put the time in making that go yet. Mostly because when I have a fair bit of free time, I’m trying to focus on writing.
My current project, while I wait for readers to get back to me on Shield & Crocus, is trying to expand and finish a flash piece I wrote this summer. Said story is making moon eyes at me and asking to become at least a novella, but it is forbidden from doing so. Stay good, story, stay good! I don’t need more long-form projects right now, you hear? I’d love to keep it under 4K, but I at least want it to stay a short story instead of becoming a novelette (as novelettes over 7000 to 7500 words are much harder to place).
The World Fantasy Convention is coming up, and my excitement grows day by day. It looks like I’ll be participating in a Crossed Genres reading, sharing a selection from “Last Tango in Gamma Sector,” which appeared in issue #19 of the magazine. It will be my first author reading at a convention, which is a big excitement multiplier.
Currently Reading: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (one of Meg’s favorite books)
Currently Playing: Deus Ex: Human Revolution
Currently Writing: “Evening Dawn”
After some very constructive comments in a revise-and-resubmit agent rejection, I’ve started a gigantic thorough revision of Shield & Crocus.
Objectives of MASSIVE EDIT:
1) Re-write all 1st person present chapters into 3rd person past tense. Yikes.
2) Re-write all 3rd person present chapters into 3rd person past tense. Not as bad.
3) Focus on characterization, drawing out the POV character’s thoughts and distinguishing them from the more neutral narration/description
4) Punch up the pacing whenever needed, cutting material that doesn’t both move the plot forward and advance character.
5) If possible, add 5-10K words of enriching description and monologue. This will take the manuscript from 90K to 95 or 100K, which are happier wordcount points for trying to sell the novel. I’ve already written at least 8K of new material, but I’ve cut about 4K of weaker scenes as well.
I’m 338 pages in, with the document currently standing at 446 pages and 94.5K words. I hope to be done with the full re-write by the end of this month. My awesome girlfriend Meg has been my first reader for this re-write, and her input is fantastic. I hope to get a couple of writer friends to read it between now and mid-October so I can make any needed tweaks on pacing or characterization to help it break through for readers.
Ultimately, I want it to be shiny and fully awesomeified by the time I attend the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego at the end of October. That way, I can talk it up to editors and agents when appropriate.
Musical inspiration for the MASSIVE EDIT brought to me by the album “Invincible” by Two Steps From Hell, the soundtrack to the video game Bastion by Darren Korb, and Jonathan Coulton’s new album, “Artificial Heart.”