Monday, December 24, 2007

Please everyone have a safe and happy holiday, and think about your New Year's writing resolutions!! Make 2008 the year you achieve your dreams.

Jennifer Ashley

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Making a Living as a Writer

I've addressed this a little bit before, but I do get asked quite a lot about how much writers really make and if it's possible to make a living writing. My answer is, yes, it is possible to make a living, but you need to go in with your eyes open and educate yourself about the business.

(I refuse to say "if you can do anything else but write to make a living, do it," because I'm sitting here making a living writing, and I can't say it's a bad life. It's hard, yes. But if it's your dream, who am I to tell you not to do it?)

It's actually pretty easy to figure out how much writers make:

The average sellthrough of a mass market paperback is 50%. So you can calculate about how much an author makes based on the print run.

A midlist author has mass market print runs anywhere from 20,000 to 100,000 per book.

A lead or top author can have mm print runs of 100,000 up to a million. This is where the bigger money is made, this is New York Times, book tours, and all the other hoop-la.

You as an author do not choose where you start--the publisher does.

(You do have some control over this--as in, if the publisher offers you a low advance and a midlist slot, you can always say no. If you get no better offers, then you'll be starting as a midlist.)

Trade and hardback print runs are smaller, anywhere from 10,000 in the midlist to 70K for leads. Of course trades and hardbacks are more expensive, so you make more per copy sold, but that's offset by the lower print run. Sellthrough is usually higher, about 70% (at least, that's what the publisher wants to see.)

In trades you make about $1.00 per book sold; hardback $2-$3 per book sold. Mass market (based on 6.99 and 7.99 retail price and 6%-8% royalty) you make about 40-50 cents per copy.

You as an author do not choose whether your book starts as hardback, trade, or mass market. (Your agent can push for what you want, but again, your power is in declining the offer.)

In mass market: A midlist author will make anywhere from $5000 to $40,000 per book (note that's per book, not per year).

A $5000 book is a beginning book that sold about 10,000 mass market copies (based on 8% royalty with the book being $6.99); I'm assuming this author had a 20K print run and sold about half.

The $40,000 mass market book sold about 80,000 copies; and since my sample author is still midlist, I'm pretending her print run was 100K. Her sales probably put her on extended bestseller lists, which might incite the publisher to boost her to a lead position.

A lead author with a print run of 250,000 can make $125K or so for that one book.

A trade book with a print run of 20,000 that sells through 70% (which is 14,000 copies), generates about $14,000 for its author. If the author is lucky, the book's mass market rights might be sold, which could get her another chunk of change.

I don't have a lot of experience in hardback, so I'm not going to speculate on its income. When I do, I'll let you know!

Now let me insert the bad stuff:

If your first book makes $25,000, that doesn't mean you get a $25,000 check dropped in your lap. Even if your advance was $25,000, it will be dribbled to you in several pieces: a. when you sign the contract; b. when you turn in the book and it's accepted by the editor. That means after you do the revisions (if any) she asks for. Then she puts in the request for your payment to her acct. dept.

If you got a $5,000 advance on that book that earned you $25,000 in royalties, you have to wait for your royalty checks to collect the other $20K. You don't get a royalty check until at least six months after the book is published. And you turn in the book anywhere from nine to 18 months before the book is published. And then the publisher holds a "reserve against returns" for a year or so in case they get more returns than they expected. So it might take you three years to collect that entire $25,000.

Oh, and if you make $25,000 in royalties and your advance was $30,000 . . . you don't get any more money. You don't have to give back what you didn't make, but they might cut your next advance or simply "pass" on your next proposal.

All this means that the first few years as a writer will be lean, even if your book is a hit. But what happens after that is what I call a snowball effect. All these bits and chunks of money from signing contracts, turning in books, receiving royalties, signing another contract, selling secondary rights, etc. start to add up.

Also, because you make your money per book, the more books you write, the more money you make. (But always take a realistic view of how many books you can comfortably write a year--sacrificing quality for quantity will hurt you in the long run.)

There are also ways to supplement your writing income:

Secondary rights. If you own your secondary rights (foreign translation; audio; movie) to your published books, your agent can sell these to get you extra money. If you and the publisher are splitting these rights (usually 50/50), then the publisher will be looking to sell secondary rights. That's what they do at all those book fairs in London and Frankfurt and at Book Expo America. As of yesterday, my agent and publisher have sold rights to several of my books to publishers in Germany, Italy, Holland, and Russia. Bookclub rights (Doubleday) is another secondary rights sale that adds to your check.

Writing for more than one publisher. If you can keep to the schedule, consider writing books for more than one publisher. Many of my author friends do this--they might write for Avon and Harlequin; Kensington and Dorchester; Berkley and Pocket, etc.

Be careful--publishers don't want you publishing the same thing for their rivals, so you may be writing two different kinds of books, perhaps under different pseudonyms. This can be fun--I love trying out new genres, and writing for multiple publishers lets me do that. But check the option clause in any and every contract you get, and change it if necessary to let you continue to write for more than one publisher.

Writing for e-publishers. The beautiful thing about e-publishers is they send you checks every month. Depending on the publisher, they might not be big checks, but again, they can add up nicely. At Ellora's Cave, sales average 900 downloads per book in the first 30 days. You can sell more than that--keep in mind that 900 is an average.

At e-publishers, your royalty rate for e-books is 37%-40%. Very short books (12K) make about $1.00 royalty per book. Novel-length (60K and up) make about $2-$3 in royalties per book. Authors who manage to write multiple books for these publishers do well for themselves. Many of them are making that their day job while they try to break in to NY publishers--plus they're busy building a following. I don't write that many stories for e-publishes, but I make a secondary income from them to let me buy groceries while waiting for my NY publishers to send out royalty statements.

As you can see, writing is not the way to instant riches. It's a job in which you have to work your behind off to succeed.

You have to be careful, you have to be smart, you have to go in with blinders removed, you have to acknowledge that you might face disappointment, hurt, anger, and rejection.

It's a hard slog, but if you educate yourself and know what you're getting into, you might just make it.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

A Writing Career vs. Getting Published

For my entry this week, pop over to The Bradford Bunch (authors of agent Laura Bradford), where I'm guest blogging, courtesy of author Denise Agnew, on the difference between just getting published versus having a true writing career.

Take care,


Saturday, December 1, 2007

Colleen Thompson--Advice from a Rising Rom. Sus. Star

I had the great pleasure to pick up Colleen Thompson's new Romantic Suspense, The Salt Maiden a few days ago. I asked her to be my guest this week, and I was able to ask her about the Romantic Suspense market, agents, and writing in general.

J: Do you have an agent? Why or why not?

Colleen Thompson: I've always worked with an agent and feel it's well worth paying the commission to have someone to run interference. This helps me keep my relationship with my editor about the book and allow the agent to deal with any potentially-contentious matters.

J: Can you talk a little about your road to publication?

Colleen Thompson: I wrote on the side for years while teaching. Only after I decided to give writing a real priority in my life and make an effort to education myself about publishing did I make progress. Both multi-genre and romance writers' groups (RWA) taught me what I needed to know and allowed me the opportunity to gain an agent's attention through entering contests. For me, this opened doors.

J: What challenges did you face once you got there?

Colleen Thompson: I first published in historical romance (under the pseudonym Gwyneth Atlee), but I found history-rich, American-set books were losing favor. In addition, I went lost several editors (three!) in rapid succession. I knew I needed to try something else at a different publishing house to break out of the tough place where I was stuck. As I result, I started over, writing romantic suspense, which I adore, under my real name. I've never been happier.

J: You write terrific romantic suspense. Tell us about the general tone of your books and what you find appealing to write about.

Colleen Thompson: Thanks so much, Jennifer. I love writing about "real people" facing the toughest crises of their lives, characters whose happiness - and very survival - hinges upon learning to accept love and embrace their own potential. My books aren't about superheroes, but flawed individuals doing their best. I enjoy developing their family lives (pets included) and exploring the Texas locales that make them who they are.

J: Can you give any “insight” into the rom. sus. market—what readers seem to like/dislike, or if you think reader tastes area all over the map (and why you think so).

Colleen Thompson: There's a great deal of variety within the subgenre, with readers gravitating toward writers that best share their own tastes. My books are a little more family-oriented and tend to feature regular people pushed to heroic acts by desperate circumstances. I think readers are responding because they're looking for a break from all the independently wealthy, super-secret agent, kick-ass experts and want to go along for the ride with people who are a little more identifiable, a little more like themselves.

J: Anything else you want to add to benefit aspiring authors?

Colleen Thompson: When you're looking to break into a market, ask yourself what's the "something different" you intend to bring to the genre. How will your take be unique and lead readers to seek out more of your books? Though you can't completely ignore market trends, emulating others will only take you so far. You have to figure out your vision and then create a consistently improving, identifiable experience for your readers with every book you add to your body of work.

J: Thanks for taking time to answer my questions. I had planned to save Salt Maiden for an upcoming plane trip, then made the mistake of peeking at the first chapter. I had to rip the book from my hands! It looks like a terrific read, and I'm looking forward to it.

More on Colleen's books can be found at:

Also, she keeps an ongoing blog with with author Joni Rodgers with tips and news about writing and the publishing industry at

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Don't Let Anything Stop You

I'm behind on my posts, because of heavy deadlines, but I recalled something last night and thought I'd post it as a motivation here.

Don't Let Anything Stop You

Last night I attended a concert of one of my favorite guitarists. The man onstage was older than me, and started this part of his career (touring and recording CDs) in his late 40s.

I'm betting he ran up against a lot of attitude obsticals when he tried to do it: "You're too old; no one wants that kind of music any more; you won't be able to sell to a major label; no one knows your name."

But now he's quite popular, has a mess of CDs (on major labels that are played on top radios stations nationwide), does two-three tours a year, and seems to be enjoying himself. Why? Because he knew what he wanted to do and did it anyway.

I don't know if this actually happened the way I describe, but I see it all the time with writers.

As a writer you will run up against all kinds of people, often very well-meaning people, who will try to stop you achieving your goals.

These people usually aren't cruel or jealous; often they are acting from the purest motives--they don't want to see you get hurt.

Well, guess what, you're going to hurt. Writing is painful and getting published is painful. There can be a lot of joy in it, too, but it's also going to hurt. No pain, no gain? (And who says working a "real" job won't have its own share of pain?)

On the other hand, some people will be jealous or mean-spirited, and they'll have varied motivations for trying to stop you.

But whatever the reason or emotion behind it, at some point you have to block out the outside voices and say "I'm going to do this anyway."

People doing their best to stop you can include: your mother, your best friend, your husband, your critique partner(s), your readers. Even after you're published, people who try to stop you will include: your agent, your editor, reviewers, readers, booksellers, and other authors.

Most of these people are not trying to stop you on purpose--far from it. But negative signals will be:

That doesn't sell

You can't put that in a: (choose one) romance / mystery / thriller / fantasy / literary novel

It's not realistic to make a living as a writer

The market for that is dead

So and so author is doing fantastic writing X; why aren't you writing it?

Editors don't want that any more

I'm tired of seeing that

When are you going to write a real book?

The above statements could be right, or they could be DEAD WRONG!

(For example, the things people told me "didn't sell" or editors "didn't want" when I started seriously pursuing publication (circa 1999-2000) sell like hotcakes now. What "doesn't sell" is relative.)

And then of course, there are the voices in your own head:

You're not good enough

That author is so much better than you

No one will want to read that

You'll never get published

You'll never make NY Times or USA Today

OK, you made it once, but you'll never make NY Times or USA Today again.

This book is pure crap

We are bombarded with this negativity all the time; it doesn't stop, no matter how high you rise in the business. (I've talked to mega-bestselling authors who feel enormous pressure to keep their sales at a certain level.)

What we have to do is find that place of strength deep inside ourselves (we all have it--some of us bury it deeper than others :-))

We have to hold onto that strength, even in times of stress, exhaustion, rejections, career problems, anger, heartache, despair.

We have to again find the reason that novel or story spoke to us, why those characters cried out for us to write that particular book.


The fiery spark that starts the novel is far more powerful than our own negative self talk or the well-meaning negativity from family, friends and writing professionals.

And who the hell knows whether it will sell or not? What editors are tired of seeing and reviewers are tearing apart might be the very thing that readers will get excited about and glom.

You just never know.

So if you find yourself saying to a newbie writer when they excitedly tell you about their idea, "Oh, editors aren't buying that any more." STOP!

It isn't being kind; it isn't helping an author not get hurt or rejected. It's planting seeds of self-doubt and drying up creativity.

Let the writer enjoy the fantastic experience of writing that book. If it truly doesn't catch an editor's attention today, it might tomorrow. Or the writer will learn how to strengthen his writing so he can sell the next one.

And if someone tells you: "That won't sell; you're not very good; that market is dead; no one likes those kinds of books; editors don't want that..."


Monday, November 5, 2007

Why You Need an Agent

While I continue to muse on what I learned in the last five years, I'm going to post something else new writers often ask me--"Do I need an agent?"

My loud, clear answer is YES.

Then I usually step back and say "It depends."

If you are small press published or e-published and want to happily stay where you are, then no.

If you want to publish at a NY house and move beyond the bottom rung at said house, then I say again, YES.

I also state clearly why:

The least part of an agent's job is selling your manuscript to a NY house. You actually can sell it yourself (e.g., through a conference contact with an editor, through a contest, through a direct query, through the few houses that still buy from the slush pile).

Why you so very definitely need an agent after that:

1. To keep from getting ripped off. Publishers do not like to give you any more money than they can possibly help. They will try to keep all the rights, give you tiny advances, and tiny royalty percentages. Your contract is a mine field of little tiny print. There are no exceptions out there--all publisher boilerplate contracts are set up to benefit the publisher, not the author (which makes sense--the publisher needs to keep the company afloat). An agent will make sure your contract is fair to you.

2. To get you the best deal, not just a deal. Publishers make standard offers to new authors, usually the lowest amount they can get away with. An agent can talk up that amount to make it more palatable to you while still keeping the publisher happy. He can also negotiate better royalties, bonuses, and other perks that most authors don't even know about.

3. To get you a deal at auction. If you've got an eager offer, your agent can let other editors who are looking at your ms. know, and possibly land you a very nice contract.

4. He talks you up to everyone he sees. Agents are constantly selling you, even when you're contracted and not shopping a specific ms. She waxes enthusiastic on your behalf to other editors, paving the way for when you have something new to sell.

5. She is the "bad cop" between you and the publisher. You want your relationship with your editor to be friendly and happy. The two of you should bubble over with creative energy and enthusiasm about your story and your writing. Getting into a contract or money dispute will ruin that very quickly. I love having an agent who will talk to the accounting and contract departments for me while I talk story with my editor. And when there's a very bad problem, I don't have to talk to the publisher at all. Saves me a fortune in Pepto Bismal.

6. She helps you keep your career on track and avoid mistakes. If your agent doesn't want you to take an offer, listen to him. You might not agree, but there will be a very good reason your agent suggests turning down money (because remember they don't get paid until you do). Don't be too proud to take advice! (Or too gullible to believe everything you're told--strike a balance.)

Now that I've said all that, I want to add a couple of cautions.

1. Don't expect your agent to run your career for you. I have my own ideas about how I want my career to go. I do a ton of market research on my own--I know what houses are publishing what kind of books, and I keep my ear open to what kind of deals the authors are getting. That way when I want to try something new or build on something I've already done, I have an idea where to suggest we go with it. Don't bury your head in the sand just because you have a good agent who takes care of you. Building your career should be something you do together.

2. NEVER, EVER, EVER, EVER, EVER sign with an agent who charges an up-front fee. They'll say, "It costs a lot to run an agency and photocopy and mail mansucripts. I need $500 from you right away." Tough! An agent makes money from selling you. If they take your $500 right away, why should they bother trying to sell you? They'll just take another $500 from another sucker, and another, and another... IT SHOULD NOT COST YOU MONEY TO SELL YOUR BOOK. The only expenses you should incur as an unpubbed author are your office supplies, postage, writer's groups dues/contests and whatever conferences you decide to attend.

3. Don't be afraid to break up with an agent. If they don't communicate with you for months and months, if they can only get you very poor offers and don't fine-tune the contracts, if they convey that they no longer like your writing and have very little interest in helping you move up--break it off. You will have to approach a new agent with a new project (read your agent contract thoroughly to see how to end it and what rights they/you retain). But if your career is not moving forward, you have to move it forward yourself. It's hard, but it has to be done. Staying with an agent who does nothing for you (or even worse, a fraudulent agent), will stagnate your career. (I will do an entire post on this subject.)

4. And I should add: Read your agent contract thoroughly and make sure you understand it before signing! (She shouldn't have you pay for her weekly hot-oil massage with Raoul to mitigate the stress of working with publishers.)

It is hard to get an agent. It's probably the hardest part (well, except writing a good book--that's pretty hard too). But in the long run, it's worth it.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Workshop Sat. Nov. 3

I will be doing a workshop at the Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, AZ Sat. Nov. 3, discussing the romance, mystery, rom. sus. and suspense markets with bookseller Barbara Peters. From 9:30 to noon.

Address and directions are on their website. It's a wonderful store.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Five years and giving back

I am working on a post about what I've learned during my 5-year career, but it's taking me a while. I've learned a lot! I want to tighten up my thoughts before posting.

Meanwhile, I was reflecting on "giving back" on my other blog, so feel free to read that as a substitute for this week's OnWriting post.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Just Writing

I've been pondering writing posts on getting back to pure creativity, or not worrying about how you plot your books (heavy outlining vs. seat of the pants), but I realized that one of the hardest roadblocks authors face is this one:

Writing pages.

This is what separates the wheat from the chaff, the women from the girls. You can go to all the workshops on plotting you want; read all the books on conflict you can get your hands on; and chart, outline, and plot your book to the smallest minutiae, but eventually one thing has to happen:

You have to write scenes.

For many people, that's enough to send them running back into the world of workshop tapes, meditation exercises, or serious closet cleaning.

I think this is where writer's block (or as I call it "writer's attitude") sets in. The realization that OMG, I actually have to write sentences, and they have to be good AND fill 400 pages.

You're panting heavily just to make it to 15K, and you have 85K more to go.

I've been there on every single book I write.

There are some days I simply can't write sentences. I don't know why, but my brain refuses to put words together that make any sense. On those days, I go back and lightly revise what I have written, brainstorm future books, or clean out my closet, whichever I think will benefit me most.

But because I have deadlines, I don't always have a choice (i.e., I have messy closets). I've devised the folowing methods to get myself to write pages:

1. Get rid of the idea that the pages have to be good. Allow yourself to be bad. You'll have time later to fix the stilted dialog, wooden description, boring introspection.

2. Don't worry about writing the book linearly (page 1 to page 400 in order). If a scene from the climax of the book is burning up your brain, write it. You'll have to write it eventually anyway; it's not wasted effort.

3. No writing is wasted. Even if you trash half of what you write; you might be able to use some of it in another book. Copy and paste it into a "saved" file instead of just erasing it. Also, any writing flexes your writing muscles and keeps your brain in practice.

4. Trick yourself to get words on paper (or computer screen). What works for me is:
  • Going to a coffee house or similar place to write for X amount of time. I am not allowed to do anything during that X amount of time but write. No games, no reading the newspaper, no chatting, no Internet. I can't leave until that time is over. (I am allowed to use the bathroom, but only if it's desperate.)
  • Writing on a computer that isn't configured for Internet. When I got my last laptop, I deliberately never activated the Internet connections. I love cruising the Net, posting on blogs, chatting on email loops, and other HUGE time wasters! I stymie myself by having to use a different computer for Internet.
  • Note: If you're on a budget and can't afford two computers, get an Alpha Smart--a text editor that's lightweight, has a battery that lasts forever, holds a ton of copy, and is easily uploaded to your computer so you can edit it.
  • Taking the computer games off the computer. I love that darned Spider game. I rock at the hardest level. I finally had to disable it on my laptop. (It's still on my desktop; I'm not that strong.)
  • Rewarding myself for X number of words. I tell myself that I have to sit down and write 1000 words (or to the end of the scene or end of the chapter), and then I can do something for myself. Indulge in my hobby, go out to lunch, write scenes for the story I'd much rather be working on, or play that darned Spider game.

I can get four thousand words a day out of myself using these techniques, and since I write so many books a year, I have to.

Now, happily, I don't always have to trick myself into writing. Often the story and characters take hold and just pour out of my head. I don't want to stop writing (not for dinner, a tv show, chatting on the Internet, calling my friends, spending time with my husband). I love it when the fire is hot!!

But realistically, the fire isn't always hot, and you can waste tons of time waiting for it to burn again. During that time, you aren't getting down the mechanics of the book, the pieces that hold it together when the fire finally returns.

Having to get words on paper, having to fill 400 pages with productive copy is truly what keeps many people with fantastic ideas and giant leaps of creativity from becoming recognized, published, paid authors.

Now that I've indulged myself in writing a blog, time to go do that next 1000 words!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Yes, you can write your own book and get it published

I was cruising the net a couple weeks ago, always alert for writer's tips to pass on. I ran across a site that had a list of tips that were at first pretty good (keep trying, shop for a good agent, etc.)

But then the list suddenly said that you should never send in a query letter that a professional writer hasn't written or edited for you. Huh?

Warming to the theme--the author of this list went on to say that the only authors who succeed are ones who have professional writers, editors, and book doctors help them! Double huh??

This list went so far as to suggest that an author who didn't hire a professional writer/editor was doomed to failure, and that's the way the business worked.

Triple huh???

That's when I realized, of course, that this "tips" list linked to the site of a book doctor. Ok, it was a sales pitch.

But jeeeeeezzzz. This site purported to "help" authors with good advice--I can imagine an aspiring author with a pile of rejections thinking--oh, maybe that's why I'm not published--I didn't spend thousands on a book doctor or ghost writer!



Hundreds of authors every day send in their query letters and partials and full manuscripts, and get picked. I write for several publishers and am on private email loops for their authors. Brand new and excited authors log in all the time, happy to be there, having sold their books via query letters (that they wrote themselves), or conference meetings, or through an agent.

It happens all the time.

This does not mean I have anything against ghost writers. I have a friend who ghosts and does well with it. Ghost writers are often used for auto-bios ("as told to") books by celebrities or government leaders who have a story to tell but know they can't put sentences together. Ghost writers can fix a manuscript that has come in to a publisher in shoddy condition but it's too late to cancel the book (the ghost writer's fee comes out of the author's royalties; and note, this is not a common occurrence). They can also work on screenplays that need to be rewritten and the original author wasn't contracted to work on the rewrites.

But for the most part, most authors, even the big, big name authors, write their own stuff (a few notable exceptions aside).

I got published by doing the following: Writing a book. Writing a query letter and polishing the heck out of it. Sending out query letters to agents and editors. Sending out partials and full mss when requested. Piling up rejections. Writing second book.

Repeating procedure until one of those mss. got bought. I did this for three years.

I got an agent via a query letter, then sending in a partial, then sending in a requested full. I made my first sale to a publisher who had requested my full manuscript via snail mail. That was in 2002.

I now have, or will have next month, twenty published books in the marketplace. I wrote every word of every dang one of them myself. My editors might have suggested changes on some of them, but I decided whether those changes helped or hurt the book, and made them myself.

I didn't hire anyone to help me (trust me, I got the tendonitis on my own).

Writing is just damn hard work. Many aspiring authors don't want to face that. They want instant success, instant riches, instant fame.

Well, guess what. I guarantee that every author out there you consider successful (bestselling or award winning or whatever), worked their little fannies off to get where they did.

I might seem easy on the outside because you weren't there for the months and months and years and years of stealing moments to finish a scene or polish a chapter, the anguish when it wasn't right, the heartbreak of rejections.

Getting published is the most delayed gratification you'll ever experience.

Your book is a gift you give the world, a piece of yourself. You want it to be the best piece of yourself you can give. Don't rush it.

You just have to keep on going, and believing. You'll get there!

Sunday, September 30, 2007

How to "Make It" to Authordom

A.C. Crispin, sci-fi fantasy writer, offers an interesting take on the kind of person who will likely "make it"; that is, become a published, working author. I thought it was a great post--these observations apply no matter what genre you write.

This blog, which A.C. Crispin writes with Victoria Strauss, is called Author Beware, and regularly lists scams and cons out there that target authors. Sadly so many people want to make money off your dreams, leaving you high and dry. Well worth checking out.


Friday, September 14, 2007

How Hollywood Gets It Wrong

I’m always baffled (not to mention irritated) by portrayals of authors in movies and television. Authors are stereotyped in the most absurd ways—romance authors in particular--which explains why so many non-writers think we’re either too glamorous to be real or too stupid to live

Here are some myths I’ve seen in movies and on television:

All authors live in New York City and carry their finished mss. personally to their publishers.

Authors published in New York live all over the United States and in England, Canada, Germany, India, Australia, New Zealand, and all points in between. Authors mail mss to their publishers via USPS, Fedex, etc, or through email. Very rarely do they deliver it in person, unless they happen to be in Manhattan with said ms. under their arm and happen to be passing their publisher’s building that day.

Manuscripts are 4-inch thick tomes bound in brown or blue vinyl or whatever.

Manuscripts should not be bound. Mss. are sent to editors loose in a box (priority mail or fedex boxes are perfect with a little bubble wrap to fill in the gaps). Put a rubber band or two around the ms. to hold it steady--that's it. These days, full mss. can be emailed (with prior editor approval!). Maybe this bound ms. myth comes from the fact that movie and TV scripts get bound? Or it's easier for the actor to carry it around the set? This is nitpicky, but it bugs me to no end.

Romance editors loathe their work and would rather be nurturing the next Ernest Hemingway.

Most romance editors are voracious genre readers and love the best authors in romance, mystery, scifi/fantasy, horror. Go on, ask any romance editor what she likes to read for pleasure. I write for editors who love J.R. Ward, Karen Marie Monig, Janet Evanovich, Charlaine Harris, and many more.

The author’s agent or editor flies to author’s house to nurse him/her through their bout of writers block. Editor/agent may stay for the entire movie.

Most publishers have large lists of authors and never enough editors. Editors work from early morning to late at night, often carrying mss. from the slush pile to read on their commute and on vacation. Agents take care of a dozen to fifty clients, and they have the same slush pile issue. These people barely have time to chat on the phone let alone fly to an author’s house to live with him for a couple weeks. Author must get over writer’s block on his/her own.

Editor meets author at coffee house or restaurant and reads ms., usually weeping and raving, while author watches.

This could happen if you and your editor both live in Manhattan. And you’re very good friends. And the editor doesn’t have anything else to do. What mostly happens is you send your finished ms. to your agent, who then passes it to your editor. The editor might send author a brief email saying “got it, thanks!” Depending on the editor’s schedule, you might not hear anything about that manuscript again for another few weeks to months.

All authors live in penthouse apartments in Manhattan, or mansions on the west coast, or both. They attend lavish cocktail parties and rub elbows with celebrities.

Maybe the top, top, top authors do. The household name ones. Cocktail parties with celebrities? Most authors get excited about meeting friends at Starbucks. Many keep on living in the communities in which they were living before they got published. If they’re very successful, they might buy a bigger house, take nice vacations, or have a second home.

An author who doesn’t make the NY Times Top 10 is considered a failure.

I saw this on Veronica Mars once. Veronica’s poor dad only made the extended list. Means his print run was pretty damn good, and he’ll probably make a nice little amount on it, especially if it was a hardback. It’s very, very, very, very, very, very, very difficult to make the top 10. Many authors never will make it, because much of making the big lists depends on print run, genre, and what the publisher and booksellers do with the book.

Addendum: Making a list doesn’t mean the book is a success either. Only the sell-through (the percentage of the print run that sold) determines success. If you make NYT top 10 and sell 30% of your print run, you’re screwed. Sell 70% and never touch a list, you’re cool. I know a couple authors who rarely appear on the lists and make a nice six-figure income every year.

Real authors won’t consider writing genre fiction, and if they do, they invent a pseudonym and hire an actor/actress to personify them so no one will know.

I saw this recently on a British murder mystery (who seem to be the worst culprits in stereotyping genre writers). This scenerio could happen, of course, and I think I remember reading about it happening once. However, most genre writers consider themselves “real” writers and live without shame. If not for genre (horror, romance, mystery, thrillers, westerns, etc.), the book industry would have died long ago.

Authors don’t write their own books. They hire ghost writers and sit back and collect the bucks.

All right, so a couple authors have come forward to say they hire a ghost writer to write while they do the marketing. But by and large, most of us type our butts off, revise our own mss., and spend a lot of our own time and money on promo. Of the writers I’ve met, and I’ve met many, all write their own books.

Plus, the author does have to pay the ghost writer himself, which comes out of his advance and /or royalties. Ghost writers don’t work for free, and the publishers don't pay them. Even if a publisher hires another writer to "clean up" someone's ms., it comes out of the original author's royalties. So it’s not a matter of having someone else work while you collect. You pay your dues one way or another.

If an author isn’t a bestseller right off the bat he/she is a failure and should shuffle back to his/her day job in shame.

Sometimes it takes several books to build an audience. Remember, it’s sell-through that determines a book’s success or failure, not lists. And many authors who weren’t hits at first changed names or genres (or both), started again, and moved on to huge success. They didn't give up. You’re a failure only if you decide to fail.

A broke author who hasn’t turned in a book in years calls his publisher to beg them for money—calling it an early advance on his next work (which he/she hasn’t written).

An author does not get paid until he/she signs a contract (whereupon he/she gets a portion of the advance), and turns in the book (getting the second half of the advance). He’s not going to get a contract unless he has at least a synopsis to show the editor. If no royalties are coming in from his previous book (because it’s out of print or off the shelves), he doesn’t get more money for that, either.

A book is written, edited, proofed, printed, shipped, and on the lists in a couple of months.

Books can be rush-printed if they’re on a timely subject, but most books take nine to eighteen months at the publisher, and that doesn’t include the time for the writer to write it. So the book you’re starting today may not see print for two years. Even the larger e-book houses now have a long lag time between sale and print. I spit my iced tea when I saw this on one of my favorite television shows.

The romance author: She is a woman in her 50s or 60s, wears flowing pastel or flowered garments and heavy make-up, calls everyone dahling and chases every man in the room (to their consternation). Sometimes accessorizes with a long cigarette holder and (horrors) a feather boa. She tells everyone to “feel the passion,” is terminally stupid, and has no clue how she’s made so much money (except, of course, her readers “feel the passion,” too).

If you meet a romance author, chances are you’ll never realize she is one unless she tells you. At conferences most authors dress business or business casual. They look like businesswomen and also grandmothers, mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, and friends, because that’s what they are (and of course some grandfathers, fathers, husbands, brothers). And I’ve never met a romance author who called me “dahling” (for real).

The “has-been” romance author. (Oh, she’s so sad.) She is anywhere from 40 to 60 and rather faded. She used to be a (na├»ve) bestselling romance author, but then her husband cheated on her or left her (or both), which made her realize that romance wasn’t reality. She can no longer write, because she no longer believes in the romance. She obviously can’t do anything else either, because she sits around in her shabby house and sadly wonders if anyone remembers her.

Most romance authors are very savvy about the real world and the world of publishing. Many are happily married or in long-term relationships—and I guarantee you, marriage will put you in touch with reality (hello?). Some authors have gone through divorce or have had more than one marriage. They understand that not all matches are perfect. And you know what? Most of them still believe in their stories, most continue to write. Even if some are turned off by romance, they might turn to another genre and keep going. Writing is their job, and they continue to do their job—or if they truly can’t write any more, they go find other employment. Romance authors do understand the difference between their own lives and their books.

The cynical romance author: She is the businesswoman who hates writing romance and loathes her audience (coldly calling them nasty names). But her books sell like hotcakes and she’s trapped. She can’t stop. Of course, she longs to write “real” books.

If you don’t buy into what you’re writing, it’s damn hard to write it. You won’t sell like hotcakes for long if you despise your audience and your genre. The cynical romance author could be true, but most romance authors love romance novels. That’s why they wanted to write them in the first place.

The author who has had writer’s block for ten or more years. This one is usually a man who writes literary fiction. He had one brilliant book or two, but he’s run dry. His publisher “understands” and will be there for him when he’s ready. (And his family understands that he won’t be bringing in any income. For ten years.)

Of course the publisher understands. There are plenty of authors to step into this guy’s slot while he’s wrestling with his demons. Sure, he might have been a big seller, but I imagine that within a year or two, the publisher will find someone else who's just as good a seller for them.. There are a lot of authors out there.

Our blocked writer has a breakthrough, produces his brilliant work (in a montage of feverish productivity), and the publisher welcomes him back with open arms.

In ten years the publisher could have been sold, merged, or closed completely. The beloved editor could move, quit, die, be fired, retire. If you don’t write anything for ten years, unless you were mega-famous (a household name) before, you’ll likely start all over again at a new house. If you can sell the book at all.

That wraps up my pet peeves of author portrayls in movies and on TV (and even in novels themselves). If you have any more, feel free to list them in the comments.

Friday, September 7, 2007

An un-scientific study of "what sells"

I enjoy looking at the bestseller lists not only to see who's doing what, but also what types of books are doing well. I grabbed some info on the USA Today bestselling romances for the entire month of August 2007, and did a quick and dirty analysis:

In the top 50

Almost Dead, Lisa Jackson (Zebra) -- Suspense

Ricochet, Sandra Brown (Pocket) -- Suspense

Dakota Born, Debbie Macomber (MIRA) -- Contemporary

The MacGregor Brides, Nora Roberts (Silhouette) -- Contemporary

Dockside, Susan Wiggs (MIRA) -- Contemporary

Tangled Up In You, Rachel Gibson (Avon) -- Contemporary

High Noon, Nora Roberts (Putnam) -- Suspense

The Devilish Pleasures of a Duke, Jillian Hunter (Ballantine) -- Historical

Into the Storm, Suzanne Brockmann (Ballantine) -- Suspense

Devil May Cry, Sherrilyn Kenyon (St. Martin's) -- Paranormal

Touch of Darkness, Christina Dodd (Signet) -- Paranormal

Tanner's Scheme, Lora Leigh (Berkley) -- Paranormal

Play Dirty, Sandra Brown (Simon & Schuster) -- Suspense

Force of Nature, Suzanne Brockmann (Ballantine) -- Suspense

To Scotland, With Love, Karen Hawkins (Pocket) -- Historical

Numbers 51-150

Never Deceive a Duke, Liz Carlyle (Pocket) -- Historical

Country Brides, Debbie Macomber (MIRA) -- Contemporary

The Secret Diaries of Miss Miranda Cheever, Julia Quinn (Avon) -- Historical

The Perfect Bride, Brenda Joyce (HQN) -- Historical

Up Close and Dangerous, Linda Howard (Ballantine) -- Suspense

Twice the Temptation, Suzanne Enoch (Avon) -- Historical

Angels Fall, Nora Roberts (Jove) -- Suspense

Highlander Untamed, Monica McCarty (Ballantine) -- Historical

Mercy, Julie Garwood (Pocket) -- Suspense

The Pleasure Trap, Elizabeth Thornton (Bantam) -- Historical

Hidden Moon, Lori Handeland (St. Martin's) -- Paranormal

Immortals: The Awakening, Joy Nash (Leisure) -- Paranormal

Scent of Darkness, Christina Dodd (Signet) -- Paranormal

On the Prowl, Patricia Briggs, Eileen Wilks, Karen Chance, Sunny (Berkley) --
Paranormal/Urban Fantasy

(The subgenre labels are mine, so if I've erred, please correct me. Also, some of these books have been on USA Today for more than a month, so they might be 51-150 here, but were in the top 50 last month.)

Totals: 29 Titles

Contemporary: 5 (four in top 50)

Paranormal: 7 (three in top 50)

Historical: 8 (two in top 50)

Rom. Suspense (or Suspense): 10 (seven in top 50)

Based on the numbers alone, you might be tempted to say: "Rom. Sus. is rocking and rolling and paranormal is dying. I'm switching to rom. sus!"

But, look again--Most of the rom. sus. books on this list are by well-established authors: Linda Howard, Sandra Brown, Suzanne Brockman, Nora Roberts. Lisa Jackson is a relative newcomer, and she's been publishing since 1998.

Next look at paranormals: Seven overall and only three in the top fifty, but almost all these authors are relative newcomers. (Christina Dodd is the exception, but she's a newcomer in the field.) This is Joy Nash's first contemp. paranormal (she's done two historicals). Lori Hadeland is relatively new, as is Patricia Briggs and others in her anthlogy. Likewise, Lora Leigh is relatively new, though she had an established audience in e-published erotic romance. ("Relatively" means began their careers within the last five years.)

What that tells me is that in paranormal an author does not already have to have a long, well-established career to make the bestseller lists. Readers are buying these books for the subject matter, not just the author. More new and relatively new authors who leapt quickly to bestsellerdom in paranormal are Angela Knight, Cheyenne McCray, Katie Macalister, Jacqueline Frank, and many others.

In suspense? I'm not seeing any newbies hitting hard. (Although Cheyenne McCray's first suspense, Chosen Prey, hit USA Today when it came out, and she reports that it sold very, very well. And like Lora Leigh, Cheyenne was well-established in e-published erotic romance before she moved to St. Martin's Press.)

From talking with other suspense authors who haven't hit the lists yet, I'm sensing that readers are following authors who are well-established rather than picking up a book simply because it's a rom. sus.

Turning to historicals, I see a good mix of well-established, relatively new, and new authors in the mix. That tells me that historicals are still holding their own even if they're not the hottest subgenre in town.

(I never listened to those who said that historicals were dead--I started publishing historical romance in 2002 and my historical sales have climbed a fairly steady slope. Of course, as soon as I wrote paranormals--bang, USA Today bestseller. Hmm.)

But historicals hold their own. They've been around a long, long time, while paranormal and rom. sus. have both boomed, busted, and boomed again.

The only weak spot I see in this list is contemporary (non-suspsense). These authors: Nora Roberts, Debbie Macomber, Rachel Gibson, and Susan Wiggs have well-established careers, and it's no surprise their books hit. Rachel Gibson is the newest, publishing since about 1998. Now, these authors sell gobs of books, but I don't see contemporary single title as a place where newcomers can spring onto the scene as a bestseller. Like suspense, I suspect it's a subgenre where you need to bulid readers before you're a hit.

My conclusions?

Paranormal is where newcomers can make a splash. (Can they stay a splash? That remains to be seen.)

Historical is also a good inroad, and is a subgenre that's proved it can stay throughout market ups and downs. New authors can make a good start in historical.

Suspense and contemporary? I'd suggest authors start in category in these two subgenres and work their way up, or start in e-publishing and establish a strong following before breaking in with a NY publisher.

Again, these are just my thoughts while musing over lists, based on a snapshot of what hit in August 2007. Take with a grain of salt and form your own conclusions!

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Top Five Signs of a Crumbling Publisher

I've been distressed lately by the number of small presses shutting their doors for various reasons, and even more distressed by the authors who are left hanging--bitter and unhappy and wondering what happened to their dreams.

The problem is compounded by the Internet and the juicy rumors that fly all over the place--some spot on, some wildly inaccurate.

The sad fact is, the demise of some publishers casts doubt on other publishers who might be doing just fine. I'm amazed at the number of rumors I hear about solid companies, while everyone seemed to be taken by surprise when the not-so-solid ones go out of business.

Writers need to not only BE CAREFUL who you sign a contract with, but also know the difference between rumors circulated by disgruntled authors and a company that's truly in trouble.

Here are some top warning signs that a publishing company is crumbling:

1. Sudden turnover in top staff.
2. Checks that are very late (like months to a year).
3. Checks that bounce (this is one of the best signs that it's time to leave--ignore excuses).
4. Staff quitting quickly and not being replaced (attrition).
5. Very rapid veering from what company is good at to strange new ventures.

Many of the rumors ("so and so ran off with the money;" "this company is in serious financial trouble;" etc.) are not always verifiable, but the five things I've listed are very good signs--gossip aside--that it's best you quietly look for another place to sell your work.

Please remember that I'm talking about extreme things--all the executives being replaced in a week, every author's check bouncing, the company going from publishing erotic e-books to print travel guides. If your check is a week late, that's not a sign of bankruptcy. If the company replaces a CFO, it might be just fine (people do move on).

So how do you avoid signing up with a shaky publisher in the first place? Research!

1. Buy the books--are they typo-free, well formatted, don't look cheap?

2. Talk to the authors (a wide cross-section, not just cheerleaders or disgruntled former authors)--ask for their good experiences and bad.

3. Ask about sales. Don't be embarrassed. It takes just as much energy and time to write a book that sells 25 e-copies as one that sells 2000. Some authors sell better than others of course, but it's good to know the potential sales you might reach.

4. Check out the publisher's website--is it professionally done and easy to use; is it easy to purchase the books?

5. Attend conferences where the publisher is presenting itself. Are the executives professional or a little flaky? Just because you and the CEO both call your cats Cuddle Poos doesn't mean she's a good person to run a publishing company.

6. Look at their boilerplate contract. Does it meet industry standard (there's a reason for industry standards). Is it negotiable? (Pray that it is.)

None of this guarantees your publisher will never have problems, but you can avoid the worst of them if you think it through beforehand. It is a new writer's instinct to leap at the first contract offered--'cause, duh, we're dying to be published--but you need to be happily published, not ripped off.

One aside about contracts---Never, EVER, sign a contract where the royalty clause says you get royalties on the "Net Proceeds" of a book. DON'T. You should get royalties on the retail cover price.

Why? Because the retail cover price is fixed. If you get a 37% royalty on an ebook that sells for $5.95, you get about $2.00 per book. Period.

"Net proceeds" might mean that the publisher says: "Oh, the reader paid 5.95, but it cost us this much for the cover, and this much to re-do the link page when it broke, and this much for the editor, and this much for my cat's manicure for the promo session . . ." whittling down your share of the pie to possibly nothing. I'm not saying all publishers who pay on net proceeds do this, but you've handed them the means to do it if they want to.

Rule of thumb: Do NOT sign a book contract (e- or print) where the royalties are paid on net proceeds. I don't care how many epublishers do this (EC does not--I have contracts with them). Authors cannot afford to let this become standard. Refuse--or get an agent to refuse for you.

People get very hung up on the "we keep the rights forever" clauses (which are negotiable--if not, don't sign), and completely miss the net proceeds garbage. The forest for the trees . . .

That is my rant about authors getting taken by shaky publishers. Research, READ your contract thoroughly, and keep an eye out for the warning signs. None of this guarantees a fantastic career, but you'll be much more comfortable on your way up.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

What Makes a Bestseller?

Before I start, let me give one caveat: This is my take on things based on observation and asking pesky questions, not a scientific study!

I've gotten to a point in my career where I've been hitting bestseller lists and many of my writer friends (at about the same point as me) are too. It's kind of fun to sit back and watch which books hit, and I've come to realize what makes a bestseller.

Five things make a book hit the top lists (USA Today, Pub. Weekly, and NY Times) upon publication:

1. A large print run
2. Excellent distribution with reorders filled quickly
3. Placement in stores
4. Marketing
5. A great book on a subject readers care about.

Now, if you look at each of those, which do writers have most control over?

Number 5 of course.

(Number 4 a little bit, but when I say "marketing" I'm talking about to distributors and booksellers, which is done long before the book is due out.)

Looking at these in turn:

1. A large print run: A good sized print run (say 65K and up) will allow you to hit USA Today if all the other factors are in place. Bigger ones let you reach higher. Let's face it, the more books out there, the more available for purchase.

2. Excellent distribution with reorders quickly filled: If no one can find the book, no one can buy it. Simple as that. The largest chunk of books are sold in Walmart, Target, Costco, drug and grocery stores, and other retail giants. Surprisingly, bookstore chains order only a small percentage of the print run. Independent bookstores are also a small percent, but Indies are good at selling! (Because they're usually owned and operated by people who truly care about books. Go Indies!)

You want the sold books replaced quickly because, duh, if the book's not on the shelf, no one can buy it (online sales can't take up the slack at this point). Good distribution where the book stays on the shelf=good sales.

3. Placement: Getting your book on an end cap, a table, face-out on a shelf, or getting a shelf-talker (those labels of the author's name on the shelf itself) help readers find the books. Placement is not up to you the author, it's up to the bookseller, and what the publisher negotiates with the bookseller. Publishers can "buy" good visual space for a book they want to push.

4: Marketing: I mean the sales reps for the publisher enthusiastically selling the books to the distributors or bookstore buyers. The more belief a publisher has in an author or title, the more enthusiastic the reps are, and the more interest the buyers have.

Author marketing can help too. If the bookseller knows you're out there with a video, bookmarks, a website, a blog, a newsletter, etc., that's a good thing.

5. A darn good book that readers want to read: Ok, writers, this one's up to you! :-) A book with a strong voice and strong characters, well plotted and well constructed, on a topic readers care about is what you need to do. (Easy, right? [snicker]). Keep trying (I am).

When I say "what readers want to read" or "a topic readers care about" I don't mean the latest paranormal trend (though catching a rising trend helps). I mean a theme like healing, coming home, finding one's self through love of another--all those universal constants that appeal to us.

And, true, a popular time period and setting doesn't hurt. It's sad but true that certain times/places sell better than others. (This varies from genre to genre, so study your genre before you start!)

Ta da! A bestseller.

I know this is simplistic. I always need to break things down into simple terms to understand them myself.

If all of these factors are in place, there's still no guarantee the book will sell well. But it's a very good possibility that it will.

There are things that can weaken the above setup:

Books being sold early, so the first week's sales are not as strong (because of the dribbles before). There's a reason J.K Rowling's publishers were trying to sue people selling the last HP book early, and not just because they might give the plot away. They wanted that huge, frantic burst of sales on day one to guarantee that it was number 1 on every list.

The print run selling out quickly and not being replaced fast enough, or at all. (No books on shelves=no sales). Interestingly, some publishers just will not reprint a book. They decide--the print run's gone, we're done. I'm sure there's some accounting reason for this--don't ask me.

A stronger selling book than yours making booksellers adjust what's on the end caps, tables, etc.

Sometimes readers just don't connect with the book, even when you've done your job. If they don't like it, they stop buying.

But enough depressing stuff. Go out and write a strong, well-plotted, well-characterized appealing book :-) If the publisher likes it enough, they'll push it--and if they get factors 1 through 4 in place, you might be on your way to bestseller-dom.


Thursday, August 2, 2007

Sometimes No isn't always a bad answer

Rejection . . .

I hate it. I can't imagine anyone likes it. I got rejected plenty before I was published, had plenty of heartbreaks seeing that SASE come back in the mail with "Not for me" scrawled on the first page of the ms.

I got "good" rejections as well, where the editor took time to tell me what she felt was weak about the book. Those hurt less, because the editor was trying to help, and a busy editor doesn't have time to waste on a writer she doesn't take seriously. (It hurt less, but it still hurt!)

I got a lot of "almost"s before I finally got a "yes."

People often ask me if I have a drawer in which I keep my rejected mss, and if I have sent those to my editors for publication (implying "ha ha ha, see what you passed up" to the editors who initially rejected them.)

The answer is a decided NO.

I do have copies of my rejected mss (somewhere), but after I got published, it was like the fog lifting. I saw very clearly why Perils of the Heart got published and the first six or seven didn't. At least one of the following was wrong with each of them:

1. Weak or implausible plotting
2. Weak voice
3. Main characters were unbelievable or not very strong people
4. Stilted writing
5. Rushed pacing (I mean really rushed!)

The things I did ok or learned quickly were dialog, setting, and love scenes--I wonder what the last says about me. :-)

If any of those six books had been accepted, they would have needed massive revisions, and even then likely would not have sold very well. A book with weak sales can hurt your career, sometimes irreparably.

So in retrospect, those particular mss. should have been rejected, and I'm even glad they were. (There are two that possibly could be saved with work and a little plot rethinking; the rest--flush!)

I'm glad I was rejected because I want my very best work to go out in front of the world. Not my self-indulgent scribbles, but a polished, well-thought-out book with solid characters and plotting. This will be for sale! With my name on it!

Second point:

Even after I was published, I still got rejected. When I was talking to one of my editors several years ago about what I'd do for the last book of a contract, I mentioned four or five ideas, and--she didn't want any of them.

At the time I didn't want to write another pirate romance (I'd done two). I wanted to expand into something else, or at least have another book between pirates. I love writing pirate romance, but I didn't want to be the "Pirate Queen" for the rest of my life.

But my editor, my wise, wise editor, turned down my ideas and advised me to write another pirate book. I was a little disappointed, but in retrospect, she was right.

Why was she right?

1. The book I was keenest on hadn't been very well thought out. I've kept the idea in mind and it's grown into something much, much better and much, much stronger, and one day everyone may see it in print. But if she'd let me write and turn in that idea as it stood, it would have been a weak book. It might have ended my career, who knows?

2. A couple ideas I had really weren't marketable. "Marketable" means the reader in the bookstore "gets" what the book is about and connects with it quickly. You can't be standing next to every reader in every store in the world, explaining what the book is about. They have to know instantly. The ideas I had then didn't have this quality (I would have had to stand by every reader for fifteen minutes--and they'd have long since decided to buy something else.)

3. The book I ended up doing, The Care and Feeding of Pirates, was probably the best of my early books. It had a bigger print run, sold out that print run fairly quickly, had a strong sell-through, got several foreign rights sales, was reprinted, and I'm still getting good royalty checks on it. It was also pure joy to write, I think the hero, Christopher Raine, was one of my best ever heroes, and readers loved it. I still get enthusiastic fan mail for Care & Feeding.

So in this case, I'm glad my editor said No to my wild ideas and steered me back to what she knew I already knew how to do. Then when I pitched my fairy-tale historicals to her for the next contract, she welcomed them with open arms.

Third point:

Sometimes when someone is rejected, I hear them say: "The market isn't ready for my work."

Maybe that's true. The cynical me, on the other hand, remembering my own rejected mss., says, "Well, you can think that if it makes you feel better."

I'll grant that the market not being ready could be partly true. When I first started writing romance, I wrote very hot love scenes. They were raw, I named body parts, and I used naughty, four-letter words.

This was greeted by critiquers and contest judges with shock and horror. I couldn't use that word, I couldn't have them do that on page 36! I, the paranoid newbie, believed everyone, and tried to learn to say manhood. (I never could quite bring myself to write it, though... I mean who, in real life says manhood? With a straight face?)

That was in 1998. See how the market has changed since then? Readers at the moment prefer scenes in which nothing is left out to coy purple prose.

BUT, while I might have been "ahead of my time" writing romance scenes, that doesn't change the fact that the rest of the ms. was crap.

My point here is that rejection isn't necessarily Them not wanting the genius of You. (Those poor befuddled editors who don't understand what readers want.)

Writers need to learn to look at their own work objectively (or at least find someone they trust to analyze it for them), and be painfully honest!!

Is your ms. really too brilliant and scary for the publishing world to deal with? or could you do better with your dialog, revise your roundabout descriptions, get rid of your adverbs, cut some characters, tighten the plotting?

Sometimes, yes, ideas are outside of the box and editors don't want to gamble their careers on them.

But if you make sure your book is well-written, well-plotted, well-characterized, with good dialog, a strong voice, etc. etc. etc., your chance of getting that off-the-wall idea accepted is much, much, much higher.

My bottom line: Rejection hurts, but it should be a challenge for you to write better and stronger, not an excuse to rail that the world doesn't understand you. :-) (Well, ok, you can, but still get back in and write stronger stories.)

And soon all the nos and maybes will become an ecstatic yes!

Saturday, July 28, 2007

More on Money--from Sabrina Jeffries

Sabrina Jeffries has a very good explanation of how print authors make money (and how much) on her site:

Read this along with my own post about money, to learn "what authors really make." I get asked a lot why I write so many books under so many different names--this is why! (well, one of the reasons why). Enjoy!

Jennifer Ashley

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

RWA Nationals

I posted the saga of my journey through RWA Nationals on my other blog:

Exciting stuff--my personal account of Nationals, plus winning the Rita and so forth. Scroll all the way down to start at Wednesday and work your way back up.

I hope once I get a little caught up to get this blog back to regular posts. I have lots to say about the industry and more interviews to post.


Saturday, June 9, 2007

Love, Double-Shots, and Lois Winston

Today, I'm talking to Lois Winston, a fairly new author (her second book, Love, Lies, & a Double-Shot of Deception is a June release from Dorchester), about humor and her venture into publishing.

Lois's first book was Talk Gertie To Me (Dorchester, April 2006) a combination chick lit/hen lit/romantic comedy with a touch of the paranormal, and has won several awards and received nominations for plenty more.

JA: Your books have fun titles, great humor, and thoughtfulness. Why were you drawn to writing these particular kind of books? What about the subgenre do you like?

Lois: I don’t know who first coined the saying, “Laughter is the best medicine,” but I’ve found it to be very true. We’re bombarded each day by television, radio, and print news containing horrific stories -- murder, rape, war, famine, poverty, disease. When I pick up a book, I don’t want to read more of the same. I want an escape. That’s why I love romance and novels with romantic elements. I know I’ll always be guaranteed a happy ending, or at least a rich, satisfying ending. Same goes for the movies I watch. You’ll never catch me at a horror flick or an art film where everyone dies at the end. I want to be entertained at the movies, not scared to death or depressed.

Because my favorite books are the ones that make me laugh, I suppose it was only natural that my writing traveled down that path. I get a tremendous amount of pleasure each time someone tells me they laughed out loud while reading one of my books. So even when I write romantic suspense, I don’t write dark, gritty, violent romantic suspense. I don’t want to be responsible for someone’s nightmares. I’d rather be responsible for that embarrassing moment when they laughed out loud while reading one of my books on a train or bus.

I have to give chick lit credit for developing my comedic voice. Even though I don’t write straight chick lit, my voice is a direct result of the chick lit influence. My characters -- no matter their age -- are infused with that wry sensibility often found in chick lit. It’s either that or my New York attitude. Or maybe a combination of both. You can exile the city girl to the suburbs, but she’ll always be a city girl at heart.

JA: Do you have any advice for writers trying to get past the “gate” and into publication?

Lois: Write the best damn book you can. Then make it even better. Voice is key. The market is so tough that it’s not good enough to have a wonderful story. It has to be a wonderful story told in a unique, engaging voice. You need to hook an editor with your very first sentence and keep her hooked through 300 - 400 pages. With so many manuscripts vying for a limited number of slots, you don’t want to give an editor any excuse to put your manuscript down. You want to be responsible for keeping her up all night because she just had to finish that manuscript.

JA: What has been your best experience about getting published? Your worst?

Lois: The best experience? I don’t know that I can winnow it down to one. Knowing that I accomplished what I set out to do is certainly high up on the list. There’s no experience like the first time you walk into a bookstore and see your book on the shelf. Fan mail would be another. That a total stranger would take the time to write to me to say how much she enjoyed my book definitely ranks up there. Reviewers who tell the world to read my books? They deserve a special place in Heaven. Judges who have bestowed awards on my books? They’re up there right next to the reviewers. Each one of these things is a Sally Field moment for me. (They like me; they really like me!) I’m both thrilled and humbled by these events. So choosing one best experience is impossible.

As for the worst? I’d have to say that’s probably the wait between sales, the worry that I’ll be a one-book-wonder or now a two-book-wonder. Selling a book is no guarantee of a lifetime of sales. The worry never goes away. (Although a multi-book contract with a fat advance would go a long way to lessening the worry!)

JA: Thank you, Lois, taking time to answer my questions, and best of luck, on your current release! I understand it's already getting fabulous reviews.

Lois also works at the Ashley Grayson Literary Agency. Her website is Since I forgot she worked at an agency, I'll have to ask her more questions about that aspect of her life!

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Research by Sandra Schwab

I am finally back and mostly recovered from RT (though I seem to be sick today). Apologies for the lapse in blogs--RT usually takes the stuffing out of me! Fun but draining.

Today, I have invited a fairly new author, Sandra Schwab, to talk about research. Her book, Castle of the Wolf, is a May release from Dorchester/Love Spell.

Sandra says: I’m one of the people who loves doing research: I love delving into the history of everyday life and digging up old gossip and scandal. However, research often proves to be a difficult hurdle for beginner-writers of historical romances.

What is the best way to research a specific era of history? How and where do I find relevant material? And how do I incorporate the research into my novel and keep the balance between historical detail and the story? So let’s have a look at this:

What is the best way to research a specific era of history?
Research should always move from the general to the specific. While most romances do not greatly touch upon political events, it is a good idea to read a general overview of the era you have chosen as a setting for your story. This enables you to gain a basic knowledge of that era, which will become the basis for all of your future research. Once you've got a general idea of the political history of the time, you'll need to find out what the everyday life of people was like. Things you should research include
  • architecture and housing (what did the houses look like? what was the set-up of a castle / a Regency town house? how was an estate run?)
  • fashion (things to wear for your heroine and hero!)
  • food (what kind of food was available for normal people / for the nobility? how was it served? how was it eaten?)
  • entertainments (what did people do in their leisure time? where there fairs or parks? what kind of games were played?), etc.
There are special overviews for writers available on different eras of history. These books contain articles on various subjects (food, fashion, shopping, etiquette, etc.) and bibliographies listing further relevant literature. Thus they can be used as starting points for your further research. E.g.
  • The Writer's Guide series from Writer's Digest Books, ranging from Sherrilyn Kenyon's The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life in the Middle Ages: The British Isles from 500 to 1500 (1999) to Marc McCutcheon's The Writer's Guide to Everyday Life from Prohibition Through World War II (1995)
  • Sharon H. Laudermilk and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.
All in all, it is relatively easy to find books on various subjects, e.g.
  • on architecture and housing: Christina Hardyment. Behind the Scenes: Domestic Arrangements in Historic Houses. London: National Trust, 1997.
  • on fashion: C. Willett Cunnington. English Women's Clothing in the Nineteenth Century. 1937. New York: Dover, 1990.
  • on food: Jane Pettigrew. A Social History of Tea. London: National Trust, 2001.
  • on entertainments: Catherine Perry Hargrave. A History of Playing Cards and a Bibliography of Cards and Gaming. 1930. Mineola, NY: Dover, 2000.
Try to go for books with many illustrations: these will help you to visualize settings and objects; e.g.
  • books which are published by museums (e.g. the V&A in London) and which highlight specific parts of their collections. These books usually contain many photographs.
  • children's books like the See Through History series or the Eyewitness Guides: they contain many, sometimes very detailed illustrations with easy explanations
  • guidebooks on specific castles or stately houses (neat for creating your hero's manor house)
Another good way to get an impression what life at a specific time in history was like, is to look at primary sources, e.g. literature, letters, and memoirs, but also cookbooks, travel guides, etc. from that specific time. When I wrote Castle of the Wolf, I used a 19th-century guidebook to add details to my heroine’s journey down the Rhine, like the fact that from Rotterdam to Cologne there was nothing much to see but dykes on either side of the river.

How and where do I find relevant material?
Thanks to the internet, research has become very easy today: you can visit websites of various libraries and museums worldwide, you'll find collections of primary literature online (e.g. the Project Gutenberg), you can order books online (I absolutely adore abebooks -- it’s wonderful for finding old books!), and you'll also find an enormous amount of pictures and photographs online. So don't be afraid of the research! It's easier than it was ever before.

How do I incorporate the research into my novel?
In fiction writing you always have to find the balance between pure background description and the story / your characters. Historical background is just one facet of this. Some suggestions how to handle historical background:
  • When you build scenes, use illustrations and photographs to help you visualize the setting.
  • Include historical background in an unobstrusive way, i.e. don't throw your readers out of the story by giving endless, most detailed descriptions. Instead, make it part of the story: in The Lily Brand, Chinese decorations add to the apprehensive atmosphere of the reunion scene and foreshadow the hero's animosity: "Lillian's gaze was caught by the black dragons that curled threateningly across the bright red wallpaper and chased each other on the Chinese lanterns on the lacquered side tables. The feet of these were formed like the paws of a lion, with sharp golden claws that might tear through a man's flesh and bone." => escalation when hero enters the room: "Black dragons curled on the walls on each side of him as he strode toward them, tall and broud-shouldered, as graceful as a big cat."
  • Try to keep explanations short.
  • Never let a character give an explanation that is obviously only included for the reader's sake.
  • Credit your readers with some intelligence: some things don't need to be explicitly explained, sometimes the context is enough, e.g. the betting book at White's is a) pretty much self-explanatory, imo, and b) by now most readers of Regency romances would know that there was a betting book at White's

And now ... Happy history hunting!


Thank you Sandy! This is terrific information. I just finished writing a book revolving around Elizabeth I, and I was up to my ears in books, maps, pictures, charts, and a ton of material from the Internet--and I already knew quite a bit about Tudor history!

Never be afraid of research, though, as she says. You will be amazed at how many ideas for characters, plots, and incidents you can find while leafing through historical material.

Read more about Sandy's intriguing and different historical romances at:

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Da Money

I’m going to post today about something everyone wants to talk about--and no one wants to talk about.

How much can you really make writing these books anyway??

A few years ago when I was giving a talk, a young woman raised her hand and told me that one of her professors told her that she couldn’t make any money writing romance novels. I replied that writers like Nora Roberts, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Christine Feehan would likely be surprised to hear that.

There is much negativity surrounding the $$ in publishing. It is true that not as many people read now as they did before. Print runs are no longer commonly in the millions. There are so many published romance authors that our share of the diminishing pot has diminished.

But guess what? There is still money out there. Some romance authors are getting high six-figure to seven-figure advances. Authors are getting 200-500K print runs per title. Not everyone, of course. The majority of romance authors get five-figure advances, anywhere from low to high.

So how much can you really make? Let’s look at some concrete numbers.

You can have your book hit USA Today top 150 with a print run of 100,000. So let’s say you signed with a publisher, their marketing dept. got excited about you because your book was so well written and so marketable, and they got the booksellers to order 95,000 total.

Your print run will likely be about 100K. (Print runs are based on how many books the booksellers decide to order, not how much your editor loves you.)

Your book sells for $6.99. I’ll round that up to $7.00 to make math easier. You signed a contract that said you get 8% royalty. So for each book sold at retail cover price, you get about 56 cents a book.

I’m going to round that down to 50 cents--because books sold through discount book clubs and the like are usually sold at both lower cover price and usually lower royalty rate (although you can negotiate this point in your contract). But let's say in this example your average is 50 cents a book.

The book releases, those first books sell quickly enough that bookstores reorder and you ship out your entire 100K run.

Good for you. But—on average, most mass market paperbacks have about a 50% sell-through. Meaning that for every book sold, one gets returned unsold. (Hopefully you’ll sell better than that, but let’s say 50% for sake of example).

50% of a 100K run = 50,000 books. On each book you earn an average of 50 cents. 50 cents times 50K books = $25,000. If your publisher gave you a $20,000 advance for this book, you’ve earned that out and are due a royalty check (for simplicity’s sake I won’t go in to the money they hold back for returns).

Now if you’re smokin’ hot and readers love your book, and you sell 80,000 of those 100K copies, then your total earning is $40,000 and your royalty check will be $20,000 (‘cause remember, you already got your $20K advance.)

You get sell through like this in six-months to a year. After that, unless you have a blockbuster, your sales will still trickle in, but nothing like what you did the first six months.

Of course, this is a very simplified example. It does not take into account secondary rights—foreign translations, movie options, TV options, audio books—any bonuses, and much, much more. It also does not take into account the reserves held against returns, usually 18% of your royalties in the first year. (We all hate reserves, but they happen.)

Please keep in mind this is for ONE book. You will not live your life on the proceeds for one book (unless it’s a huge blockbuster, and even then, people will get tired of it). You will write anywhere from one to four books a year (don’t be like me and write seven 100K word-ers—you need a life.)

That means that you’ll get your turn-in advance for book three about the same time you start getting royalties from book one. You’ll get turn-in for book four as you get royalties for book two and book one. Turn-in $$ for book five as you get royalties for books one, two, and three. Plus all those secondary things you can sell, plus what you get when you sign new contracts—it all adds up.

Trust me, royalty income is a good thing. What you have to learn is not to expect it to come to a schedule (and certainly not your schedule, LOL), and you should expect the amounts to wildly flux. A key to earning a living as a writer is good budgeting—a subject beyond the scope of my blog!

I was going to go on about the importance of marketability (so those booksellers will want to order 100,000 books), but I think that’s enough for now. Another day, another blog.

So you see what I’m getting at—you can make a living, but you have to work at it! I’m always amused by people who tell me they want to be a writer someday so they can stop working. Sorry! This is the hardest job I’ve ever done.

It’s also the most fun and most rewarding job I’ve ever had.

Be flexible, don’t get discouraged, keep writing, keep believing.

I’ll be at RT next week, so my blog will be on hold until the week after. Take care!


Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Romance Template?

AH asked a good question in the comments, and I'll answer it for this week's post:

"Jennifer, I have a question about writing Romance. Is there a general template? For example, I know there needs to be a Black Moment just before the end, but is there a general pattern to follow such as Chapter 1 "this happens", Chapter 2 "this happens" and so on? Thanks, AH"

Jennifer says: Let me preface my answer by saying that I write single-title romance, and not category/series (e.g., the line romances published by Harlequin/Silhouette). Series romance has it's own "rules," and while I don't think there's anything as hard and fast as "Chapter 1 has X," "Chapter 2 has Y," editors do like to see certain things fall in certain places. See HQ's guidelines or better still, read a gob of HQ/Sil books of a certain line to fine the rhythms and patterns.

Ok, back to single title. Single Title romance, btw, if you don't know the term, refers to most mass market paperback books on the shelves that are not line romances by HQ/Sil. I'm talking about the thick paperbacks with the glossy covers and raised, shiny letters, many by blockbuster bestsellers. Single Title publishers are Berkley, Bantam, NAL, Leisure, Kensington/Zebra, Avon, and so forth. (All right HQN, which is by Harlequin, are also single title romances, just to confuse you.)

And the answer is: No, there is no template, no rules about what's in Chapter 1, Chapter 2 etc. Anything goes!

Well, within reason. You do need to get in a couple things right up front in your romance. Those are:

Introduction of the hero, his goal, and what keeps him from it.
Introduction of the heroine, her goal, and what keeps her from it
Introduction of the villain (if you have one), his/her goal, and what keeps him/her from it

Once these characters are introduced, the main plot problem of the story will be (should be, anyway) in place, because the main plot arises from the goals/hindrances of the h/h and villain.

Whether you do Chapter 1--hero, Chapter 2--heroine, or two scenes in one chapter introducing them both, or hero, heroine, and villain all appearing on the first few pages doesn't really matter.

A Note: In single-title romance, your h/h do NOT have to meet on the first page. They should meet when the story naturally brings them together. The reader should meet them and anticipate these two meeting, but you don't have to shove them together in Chapter 1. (I personally like the h/h together as early and as often as possible, but I've read terrific books when they don't meet until page 75.)

The rest of the story: The remainder of your book follows from what your h/h are trying to or need to do and what's stopping them.

I'm obviously being very simplistic here, but I've learned one important lesson from writing nearly twenty-three books for publication: Keep it Simple!

New writers have the tendency to shove everything they possibly can into one 450 page manuscript, but resist the temptation. Put in only what is necessary, save your other brilliant ideas for your next book. Few of us any more are going to write one masterpiece and live off its royalties for the rest of our lives, so count on writing a lot if you truly want to be a writer.

To recap:

Begin your romance novel by introducing the readers to the hero, the heroine, and the villain (if you have a villain). By now the readers know the main problem your characters must overcome.

The middle of the story consists of incidents (not many, stick to three or four) that move your plot forward--things the h/h try to solve their problem(s) but which don't work, miring them in deeper.

The Black Moment, when your hero and heroine decide to risk everything even though they are certain they are in a no-win situation. (A classic example is the hero decides to let the heroine go, because he knows that as much as he needs her, he'll make her miserable if he keeps her with him. He risks his own happiness to ensure hers.)

The Reward: After the h/h risk everything, they are rewarded by gaining everything. (The heroine returns to the hero on her own, because she loves him enough to stay with him and bring happiness into his life.)

I confess I'm a "pantser," which means I don't draw out my plot in detail before I begin. I have an idea of my characters, and then I just start off and see what happens. I don't like to know how books turn out before I read them, and I don't like to know when I write them, either! :-)

So that was the long answer to "Is there a romance template?" The short answer is: "Not really."

Take care,

Monday, April 2, 2007

The Fire Within

Penny asked a very good question on the last post. First let me offer apologies for being late on this blog. I had to do back-to-back out of town trips in March and of course caught a bad cold from it, plus had to finish revisions on two books, not to mention numerous other tasks. I'm slowly catching up to myself--I'm only a few days behind schedule now, very exciting!!

All that is relevant to my post here. Penny asked how you keep writing through times of personal stress and life-changing events. Some writers tell me it's easy to write when their lives are stressful, because writing is a therapeutic escape for them. For me, on the other hand, personal and family troubles tend to intrude on the creative process and make focusing difficult.

I write best when times are peaceful and even when I’m a little bit bored—my stories are sure to be more interesting than my own life!

But sometimes you need or want to write (in my case, I often have a tight schedule) when there are stressful or even traumatic happenings in your own life. What do you do?

That's when I look for what I call "The Fire." There is s place deep inside you that no one--not family, or friends, or spouse, or your mother--can ever touch. It is the essence of you. It's what gives you your strange, unusual, or meaningful dreams, what gives you inspriation. The Fire is what gets that book out of you, what makes that story yours and no one else's.

How do you find and touch that Fire? It's not easy (of course not!). What I do is sit down and write rather mindlessly. I don't try to be good. I do what I heard from another writer about ten years ago: Allow yourself to be bad.

Just put words down that get your characters from A to B. If nothing exciting is happening in one section of the story, skip to a section where it is interesting.


No one ever needs to see it. This is you telling the story of your heart, typing until 400 pages are filled. This story belongs to you and you alone, not to critiquers or editors or the rest of the world. No one can tell you it's wrong.

If you think it's crud, no matter, you have plenty of opportunity to fix it before you send it to an editor or a contest or even your critique partner. And who knows, you might not ever want to show this story to anyone! It's perfectly ok to write a novel just to write it, just for yourself--to test your boundaries, to let go in a world all your own, to try something new.

The business of publishing books and the art of writing books are two entirely different things--always remember that.

Back to The Fire:

While you are sitting there typing mindlessly (500 words a day or 5000 words a day, it doesn't matter), the Fire will happen. When you are least looking for it, suddenly there is a spark deep inside you from that place no one knows but you. You will feel it--the excitement, the flush, the sudden light-bulb coming on--you inside your story saying: This is what I mean! When that happens, just go with it. Write. Free flow. Let it happen.

I guarantee one of two things: The Fire will either produce your very best prose writing, or it will produce your very worst. That doesn't matter. If it's the best prose, cool. If it's the worst, you can fix it--what came out of you is the heart of the story; it doesn't matter if your sentences are clunky. Clunky sentences are easy to fix. Because even if you have to polish up the words, you've found the essence of the story and dragged it onto your canvas.

I hope this makes sense. I really does happen, even when you're sick of the story, bored with your characters, and upset about something in your personal life.

Train yourself to sit and write a set amount every day (500 words, 1000 words, five pages, whatever), no matter how you feel (upset, tired, bored, angry, etc.) It doesn't matter whether the writing your sessions produce is good or not--any little amount will move you forward to the end.

Don't wait for The Fire to write--just write. It's when you are loosened up and letting it happen that The Fire will come. There's nothing quite like it.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Category vs. single title and other things

Today I'm interviewing Nalini Singh who writes both category romance for Silhouette and single title paranormal romance at Berkley. Writers who write for HQ/Sil and single title houses at the same time are becoming more and more common, so I asked her what it was like:

J.A. You have started a single-title paranormal series with Berkley, but you also write category romance for HQ. How is writing single title different from category? Is one more challenging for you than the other?

N.S. It's difficult to compare the two, because they're so different. Each utilizes different skill-sets. For my short contemporaries, it's all about focusing on the two leads, while with my paranormals, world-building plays a critical part. They are both equally challenging, in their own unique ways.

J.A. On your road to publication, how did you handle rejection? How did you keep up your belief in yourself to keep going in the face of rejection? (If you were never rejected, skip the question!)

N.S. Oh yeah, I have a stack of rejections! I think what kept me going was this hunger I had to write. That's why I always ask people why they're writing. Because in the end, all you have to pull yourself up and keep the faith is your belief in what you're doing. That hunger, that passion, is so so important.

Another thing that helped was that I didn't focus obsessively on a project. I would love it, write, send it out, then start on something else, so a rejection wouldn't hit me as hard - yes it hurt, but I knew I'd have something else to go out with.

J.A. What would be your advice to a new writer trying to "break in?"

N. S. This is a cliche but it's true - write what you love. Forget about following the market. Be true to yourself. I wrote Slave to Sensation without knowing where I was going to sell it or if anyone would buy it. But my passion for the story came through and I believe that's what made it sell.

Have faith in yourself and the stories you want to tell. And be very choosy about who you allow to criticise your work. Don't write a book by committee. Stay true to your voice.

J.A. Describe your writing day--do you write full time or have a day job as well? If you'd like, please share ways you motivate yourself to keep writing and producing your great books.

N.S. I am fairly full time - I do occasional other work to stop from becoming a hermit but otherwise, I write. But that's a new development - until a few months ago, I worked full time. As such, my work days are still developing in terms of a routine but that's part of what I like about writing - you can set your own timetable, be flexible, so long as you meet deadlines.

My motivation is mostly internal. I want to write, to tell these stories. But to kickstart myself if necessary, I'll read or take a break from everything and then come back to it fresh.

J.A. Thank you!! I'm always interested to hear other authors' points of view.

Nalini has a March release from Berkley Sensation, Visions of Heat, second in her series, and in February released Bound by Marriage with Silhoutte Desire. You can read more about Nalini at

and her blog at