Monday, January 30, 2006

The "Are You a Hack?" Quiz!

You must answer yes or no or pick one of the choices offered.

No maybes or I dunnos allowed.

As Winston Churchill said: We've already established you're a whore, we're just quibbling over price...


  1. Is commercial success your goal?
  2. Would you ever write a movie or TV novelization?
  3. What's more important: Integrity or making a living as a writer?
  4. Do you rewrite based on editor or agent suggestions even if you don't entirely agree with those suggestions?
  5. Would you ever write an adaptation of a comic book or videogame?
  6. Would you ever change the ending of your book in order to make a sale?
  7. Would you write about something you didn't care about if you got a fat paycheck?
  8. If forced to choose, would you rather have artistic integrity or fame and riches?
  9. Would you rather be Dan Brown, author of The DaVinci Code, or Marilynne Robinson, winner of the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Literature?
  10. Would you rather be known as a genius by hundreds of people, or mediocre by millions of people?
  11. Would you ever write for a character you didn't create?
  12. What's more important: Getting the words right, or getting the words sold?
  13. Would you write in a genre you don't enjoy for a lot of money?
  14. Have you ever submitted something that you know isn't your best work in order to make a deadline?
  15. What is more important: Fans or awards?
  16. Would you rather have a bestseller that is critically panned, or a poor seller that is critically praised?
  17. Would you ever ghost-write another author's series?
  18. Did this quiz amuse you, or annoy you?



Webster defines a hack as: a writer who works on order; also : a writer who aims solely for commercial success.

To grade this test, check your answers with the key below, and keep track of how many times you scored as a "HACK" and how many times you scored as an "ARTIST."

  1. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  2. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  3. Making a living - HACK. Integrity - ARTIST
  4. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  5. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  6. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  7. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  8. Fame & riches - HACK. Integrity - ARTIST
  9. Dan Brown - HACK. Marylinne Robineson - ARTIST
  10. Medicore - HACK. Genius - ARTIST
  11. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  12. Words sold - HACK. Words right - ARTIST
  13. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  14. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  15. Fans - HACK. Awards - ARTIST
  16. Critically panned bestseller - HACK. Critically acclaimed poor seller - ARTIST
  17. Yes - HACK. No - ARTIST
  18. Doesn't count.



  • 0-1 HACK answers: you are an ARTIST whose integrity is solid.
  • 2-3 HACK answers: you are an ARTIST who realizes that publishing is a business
  • 4-5 HACK answers: you have some artistic integrity, but you'd rather make a living
  • 6-14 HACK answers: you are a hack, but may have some integrity left
  • 15-17 HACK answers: welcome to hacksville, population: you

Sunday, January 29, 2006


Most people have goals, and writers are no exception.

Some writers aspire to find an agent, or land a book deal, or hit the NYT list, or win awards, or gain critical praise, or sell a gazillion copies, or several of the above.

Here's a goal that most writers forget:

Entertain your readers.

Strangely, that's the most important goal of all. If your work can give people pleasure, many of the other things mentioned above will fall into place.

I find it interesting that many writers seem disdainful of those who achieve the above goals. It's easy to pick apart the flaws of The DaVinci Code, or to criticize the last several of Patricia Cornwell's books. (Boy, is it easy.)

But the fact is, someone obviously enjoyed them, because they sold like crazy. Dan Brown and Patricia Cornwell are entertaining millions of readers.

So why the sour grapes?

I believe that every writer thinks that their way is the best way. I believe that every writer believes they have the answers, and the only reason they haven't reached their goals yet is because things have happened beyond their control. And I believe when writers see other writers becoming successful, winning awards, gaining fame, it pisses them off, because they feel they are better writers and more deserving.

Of course, this doesn't apply only to writers. This is human nature.

Instead of concentrating on all of that, writers need to focus on the one thing that they do have control over: Entertaining their readers.

Looking objectively at the situation, I'd have to say that Dan Brown entertains a lot more people than whoever won the Nobel, Booker, and Pulitzer combined. Perhaps Brown, with his cardboard stereotypical characters, contrived escapes, cliched structure, and formulaic endings, is who writers need to hold up as the ideal.

Because no matter what else you can say about Dan Brown's books, he's entertained a lot of people.

My advice: Be entertaining.

You might not win any awards. You might get crummy reviews. The literati will despise you, your peers will vilify you, and many folks will dedicate themselves to knocking you down.

But trust me---an email from Jane Average in Oregon who named her cat after your main character means more than any of the above accolades I've mentioned. Because that is a goal you did reach. You entertained somebody.

Write the best book you possibly can, then dedicate yourself to getting people to read it.

And maybe, if you're lucky, you can be as despised as Dan Brown.

Friday, January 27, 2006

Ask but don't Answer

Writing is a lot like teasing your younger brother with a secret.

The longer you hold it over his head, the more worked up he gets.

All stories, no matter the genre, can benefit from suspense. The tension doesn't have to be in the form of the bad guy stalking the hero. It can be much simpler, much less dramatic, but still make the reader want to keep reading. For example:

"You seem upset," Jack said. "What's up?"

"I'll tell you later." Herb said. "In private."

And we have suspense.

Posing questions, then making the reader keep reading to get the answers, is the essence of the term "page turner."

This why why soap operas are so popular---nothing is ever solved. This is why the 10 o'clock news gives you a quick teaser of their most interesting story, and doesn't show you the full clip until 10:29.

Ask a question, but don't give the answer right away.

I'm currently writing my fourth Jack Daniels book, DIRTY MARTINI, and my wife demands to read it as I finish each chapter. She was yelling at me yesterday, because I had a scene with the villain surrounded by all of this obscure equipment, but didn't explain what the equipment was.

Wife: What's all that stuff he's using?

Me: You'll find out later.

Wife: Write faster.

Writers need to be teases. It keeps the story moving. It makes the reader want to know what happens next.

Don't give the reader everything at once. Hold stuff back. Feed it to them slowly. Even boring exposition and backstory can become unbearably dramatic if you withhold the information rather than spill it all at once:

"What's wrong with Donna?"

"Oh. She had some... problems, a few years ago."

What works about this method of building suspense is that when you do share your secret with the reader, they feel like they're a part of it. They remember the earlier reference, and are happy to be let in on the game.

This works not only with omitted information, but with seemingly unneeded details.

On page 17: "He got out of the car and pulled the tarp on top of the chemical box."

Then, on page 178, you reveal what the chemicals are for. And the reader goes, "Aha! I wondered what those were for!"

The more seeds you plant, the more fun the read. Just remember: restraint is the key.

Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Thinking POD? Think Again....

Authors often ask me if self-publishing is a viable option.

You'll have to work your butt off, but I believe it can be done. A few months ago I interviewed Sandy Tooley, who self publishes. And I really liked Jim Hansen's Night Laws.

But these folks became their own publishers.

POD vanity presses (XLibris, PublishAmerica, AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Booksurge) are another thing entirely. For a price, they'll publish your book.

Some quick definitions: POD is a technology that allows books to be created to order, as opposed to offset printing that requires books to be warehoused. Vanity presses are publishers that the author pays, rather than publishers that pay the author.

Is it possible to be successful using one of these services? Let's crunch some numbers. For this example we'll use real figures, but we'll call the POD vanity publisher "Happy Press."

Happy Press demands a minimum retail cover price of $18.99 for a standard 6 x 9" 250-350 page trade paperback. If your book is longer than 350 pages, the price goes up.

Would you pay almost twenty bucks for a trade paperback, when the current bookstore rate is between $10 and $16? You can buy bestselling hardcovers for $19, or for less on Amazon.

But, for this example, let's assume your book is so good that people will pay that much.

Tradional publishers offer between an 8% and 15% royalty, depending on the book type and print run. Happy Press offers a 25% royalty. This seems pretty good, but why the hell are you even getting a royalty? It's your book, you're paying to have it printed, so you should keep all the rights and make 100% of the profit. Right?

At least, you would be keeping the profits if you self-published on your own, instead of using Happy Press.

That aside, 25% of 18.99 is about $4.75.

Depending on the set-up package you buy (between $2k and $5k) you'd need to sell between 422 and 1052 to break even. But those would all have to be online sales (through Amazon mostly.) Why?

Because you still have the problem of getting your books into stores. For an extra $600 fee, Happy Press will get you into Baker & Taylor, which is a distributor. Newsflash: BT distributes millions of books. Do you see millions of books on the shelf at your local bookstore? No. Just because you have a distributor DOES NOT MEAN they'll stock your book. Only that they can order it.

Who is going to go into a bookstore and order your book? Considering POD won't get reviewed, no one will know about your book. And I'm betting that Happy Press doesn't offer the standard 55% discount to distributors, which means the bookstores will only be able to order copies at perhaps a 15% discount (standard for POD) which means the bookstores WILL NOT carry you on the shelves. Do you think they'll stock a $19 paperback from a POD company and an author they've never heard of? They'll know you're POD because the stock number will always be 100. Do you think the postcard you sent the bookstore will persude them to stock you?

The answer: No.

Can you sell 1000 copies through Amazon? In the first few weeks of its release, bestselling author Kay Hooper sold 35,000 copies of her last book through bookstores. How many did she sell through Amazon? 300 copies. Think your book will outsell hers online? Think again.

But perhaps there's another way to get your book into stores...

Happy Press offers authors books at up to a 70% discount if they buy 1000. That sound great, doesn't it?

Perhaps you can sell those to stores yourself and make all the profit.

Let's do the math. You've got to give the bookstore a 40% discount. So you'll sell them the books for $11.40 each. That leaves you with a $5.70 profit per book. Not bad. But out of that comes the Happy Press Package fee, the printing cost, shipping the book to bookstores, and the effort to just get the bookstores to carry you (an effort that traditionally published authors don't have to make.)

Also figure in a 50% return rate.

If you get 1000 books into stores, and sell 500, you'll make $2850. Subtract the $5700 (the cost of printing 1000 books at the 70% discount) and subtract the package cost ($5000 for all the set up fees.)

You've only lost $4900, selling 500 books.

If you sell 2000 (which means you'll have to ship 4000) your total cost would be:

$5000 set-up package
$22800 book printing costs
minus $11400 profit

Which means you're losing $16400.

Let's use a best case scenario and say you bought a lesser set-up package from Happy Press and had a 75% sell through (which is impossible, but let's dream big.)

$2000 package
$22800 to print 4000 books
$34200 profit for selling 3000.

So if you sell 3000 books out of 4000 printed you'll earn a profit of $9400.

But shipping books will cost a minimum of $1 each, so subtract $4000.

Now you're in the black $5400. Not bad. But not enough to live on for a year.

And don't forget---how did these bookstores hear about your book? You had to write them, call them, or visit them, to get them to stock you. Phone calls, mail, and gasoline all come out of your profit.

If you allow returns, you'll need a distributor, who will take an extra 15% ($5130) of the cut, plus set-up fees. And you'll still need to hustle to get the stores to carry your books.

Now let's have a reality check. Bookstores are not going to carry you. You won't get reviews. And customers won't want to buy a $19 paperback.

The only way you'll sell your books is by begging bookstores to let you do signings there and then spending several hours on your feet handselling them.

In all of my hustling, I've only handsold about 3000 copies of my books in two years. And I do a lot of hustling.

If selling your books were your full time job, and you visited a bookstore every day of the year, and sold ten books at each visit (a reasonable number) you would only sell 3650 books. Not a bad number, but for all that work, you'll be lucky to break even, let alone make enough money to compensate you for your time and effort.

My advice: Stay away from POD vanity presses.

If you want to use POD as a technology to self-publish, make sure you're hiring a printer, not a publisher. You need to keep the rights to your book.

You'll still have problems getting your books into stores and getting reviewed, but your cover price will be lower, your overall costs will be lower, and your profit margin better.

Or you can continue to improve your craft, find a good agent, and sell your book to a traditional publisher.

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Be the Bra

I'm writing this as my Amazon Shorts download FOUR PACK OF JACK sits comfortably at the #10 spot in the Amazon ranking for shorts.

It had briefly made it up to #6, and considering I don't have a new book out, and I haven't spread the word through my newsletter yet, I'm pretty impressed by the number of people who bought it in the three days it has been live.

Thanks for your support!

Which brings up the topic of today's blog: Supporting your fellow authors.

Like most people in this business, money in my household is tight. Being paid in sporadic big chunks means our family has to carefully budget, and the amount of money I spend on self-promotion is staggering (you can read about it in the current issue of Forbes) and I usually go overboard.

But I have a cardinal rule that I always try to maintain. When possible, I buy the books of my peers.

I've never asked for a blurb without owning every book the author has written (or at least those still in print.)

I buy every book by Tess Gerritsen, Anne Fraiser, Alex Kava, Julia-Spencer Fleming, MJ Rose, David Morrell, Lee Child, Gayle Lynds, Ridley Pearson, Andrew Vachss, Michael Prescott, George Chesbro, Warren Murphy, David Wiltse, Robert Walker, Barry Eisler, David Ellis, PJ Parrish, William Kent Krueger, James Born, Barb D'Amato, Libby Fisher Hellmann, Steve Alten, James Rollins, Jay Bonansinga, Jack Kerley, Bill Fitzhugh, F. Paul Wilson, Rob Kantner, Steve Spruill, Rick Hautala, and Raymond Benson---not just because they are wonderful writers, but because they've blurbed me.

Buying them is the least I could do. They generously gave of their time, and according to the laws of karma I need to give back when I can. Not only to them, but to the world. Which is one of the reasons I blurbed over 30 books last year.

Very recently, space considerations forced me to get rid of some of my books (I have a library of over 5000.) But as I perused my shelves looking for what is donatable to the local thrift store, I made a shocking discovery.

I have over 450 signed books from authors I've met. A few of these were given to me, and some were traded for signed copies of my books, but 85% of them were bought, by me.

I don't remember buying most of these. I certainly haven't read most of these. Some aren't the type of genre I like, and some don't seem the least bit interesting to me. But I bought them anyway, to support my peers.

As Tom Waits said, we're chained to the world, and we all gotta pull.

Though I've blocked these many purchases from my mind as incidental, three events do stand out from the years I've been an author.

Once, at a library event, an eager POD author came up to my table and plunked down money for my book, and then showed me her book. It didn't look like anything I'd ever read, and didn't look appealing at all, even by POD standards. I congratulated her for writing a book, thanked her for buying mine, wished her much success, but didn't buy her book.

I've bought dozens of POD books from authors I've done events with, books that I never read. But for some reason I didn't buy hers, and it has stuck in my mind as a major regret years later.

Another mind-sticky event happened during my tour last year. I did a signing with a famous author (let's call him Jasper Fforde) who had a huge line of fans compared to my tiny line. I did my book-talk and managed to sell a few books to his sloppy seconds, but not nearly the large pile that he did. We spoke a little, between him signing copies, and he seemed a nice enough bloke.

I bought a copy of his hardcover because that's what I usually do when I'm at a signing with another author. (My other cardinal rule is: Whenever I do a signing at an independent bookstore, I buy a book to show my support for the store.)

Mr. Fforde did not buy a copy of mine. Not even a paperback.

Should that have bothered me? Perhaps not. But it does.

The last one that I'll always remember was at the Magna Cum Murder convention in Indiana. I was schmoozing the book table and who approached but none other then bestselling author Alexander McCall Smith, of The Number One Ladies' Detective Agency fame. He's sold more books than everyone else I know put together, and I know some famous people.

We got to talking, exchanged a few jokes and pleasantries, and he asked if I had any books for sale. I pointed out WHISKEY SOUR and pitched him the serial killer plot, ending my speil with, "It's exactly the polar opposite of the gentle, humorous stories that you write." That was my way of saying that I in no way expected him to buy a copy, because I knew he'd dislike it.

He bought a copy anyway. Thanks again, Mr. Smith.

Naturally, I already owned a copy of his book.

Which brings this full circle. Whenever I do a library panel, or a conference, or a multiple author signing, I try to buy the books of my fellow authors. Especially if they buy my book.

Often, I'll trade copies, which is fine, but it isn't the same as plunking down the cash and supporting my peers with that miniscule royalty and tiny blip in their sales figures.

I've noticed that I've extended this show of support to many of the blogs I visit. If I find myself posting on someone's blog often, and I haven't checked out their books, I'll pick up one or two.

I'm also known to pop on over to Amazon and do reviews of many of my peers' books. Not because they ask me to. But because I want to show support.

Is this a subtle message to everyone who reads this blog to get your asses over to and buy FOUR PACK OF JACK?

Hell no. I don't think this message is subtle at all.


And not only me. Support each other. We're in this together, folks.

Also, if any of you are named "Joe" and would like to buy a personalized copy of "The Big Over Easy" by Jasper Fforde, I have one for sale. Cheap.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Get Your Hands on my Shorts is the 300 pound gorilla of Internet booksales, and in previous blog entries I've written about tricks and tips to get better Amazon exposure.

One of the things I mentioned was the Amazon Shorts program, where people can download original stories from known authors for only 49 cents.

It's a smart program for several reasons:
  1. Those who want to try a new writer, but don't want to commit to eight bucks for a paperback, can read a complete short story for the price of supersizing their french fries.

  2. If you're writing a series and are in between books, an Amazon Short can give your fans a little taste to tide them over until the next release.

  3. Authors get 20 cents for each download. It's not a fortune, but considering they only make 55 cents for each paperback sold, that's pretty good money.

  4. Like it or not, more and more people are reading fiction on their computers, laptops, e-readers, e-books, tablet PCs, PDAs, etc. This is no longer a trend---it's the future.

  5. As I've said before, short stories are the best form of advertising. The more markets you penetrate, the wider your potential readership.

Want to see what it's all about? Click HERE to look at my first offering, called A FOUR PACK OF JACK.

For 49 cents, you get four complete short stories, all related to my Lt. Jack Daniels series.

BODY SHOTS - Jack deals with one of the toughest situations in her career.

WHELP WANTED - Jack's ex partner, Harry McGlade, must catch a very stupid dognapper.


POT SHOT - Jack's partner, Herb Benedict, has someone trying to kill him.

All of this, about 12,000 words, for pocket change. You can print it up, download it, email it to yourself, or keep it in what's called a 'storage locker' at, which is yours forever.

Give it a try, and let me know what you think--both about the program, and the stories themselves.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Hope is a Four Letter Word

I hear from a lot of unpublished writers--at least a dozen a week. I can break them down into two distinct groups.

Those that will get published, and those that won't get published.

The difference between the two doesn't come down to talent, or hard work, or luck.

The difference between the two is attitude.

The ones who will never get published, hope that they eventually will.

The ones who will get published, know that they eventually will.

If you want to be a member of any club, act like you already are a member. You can watch the party going on through the window and lament that you weren't invited, or you can figure out a way to get invited.

In short, to be a professional writer, you need to act like a professional writer, even though nobody is paying you yet.

Be confidant. Be bold. You aren't buying lottery tickets, you're choosing which people you'll allow to buy your product.

And here's the secret---no one is actually confidant. Everyone is faking it.

But if you fake it long enough, you begin to believe it. The more you act like a writer, the more you become a writer.

Once you take hope out of the equation, possibilities become eventualities.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Down in the Infodumps

You know what I'm talking about. Those big chunks of information that are essential to the story, but which most readers skip.

I'm currently writing a passage about a toxic substance. The reader needs to know what this substance does, how it works, and why it is so dangerous, because that sets up the suspense in several key scenes further down the road.

But laundry lists and textbook definitions aren't interesting. So these are the sneaky tricks I'm using to force the info down the reader's throat:
  1. I'm breaking the info into snippets of dialog. One character asks an important question, the answer imparts info. Dialog is active, not passive.
  2. I'm breaking up the info with conflict--two of the characters in the scene are flirting, and one is acting like a jerk.
  3. I'm putting in just a little less information than needed, and allowing the reader to fill in the blanks and make the logic jumps. Less is more, even when infodumping.
  4. I'm purposely leaving some questions unanswered. This turns exposition into part of the tension, making readers wait a bit for more info to fully understand what is happening.
  5. I'm keeping it brief. Readers care about the story, not about information, no matter how interesting it may be.

Also, when infodumping, use style. Bland, unexciting writing can make even the most revelatory disclosure boring. Some clever turns of phrase, or even a joke, can turn an infodump into a memorable scene.

All medicine goes better with a spoon full of sugar.

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Writer's Block

I don't believe in muses.

Do plumbers need to get inspired? Do bartenders ever become blocked and unable to mix drinks? Can mechanical engineers only design a linkage when in the proper mindset?

I feel the same about writers.

Many disagree with me, including several peers of mine who have been blocked. They use words like art and creativity and magic while they mope around in a funk---sometimes lasting for months---until the magic magically returns.

I think they're crazy. Writing doesn't involve magic. It involves putting words down on paper, something most of us have been doing since we were five years old.

But surely creating a story from scratch requires more creativity and inspiration than painting a fence or hosting a talkshow?

Actually, writing a story requires exactly the same skills as hosting a talk show. And thinking that way is a helpful cure for writer's block.

Let's say you're Jerry Springer. You've got a topic like "Which of my Cousins Fathered my Baby?" Plenty of conflict inherent in that premise. As guests, you've got Holly, a cute 17-year-old fifth grade drop out and the mamma to be. Her cousin Elmer, a bad boy who races lawnmowers. Her cousin Zeke, who has loved Holly since puberty, but also has loved Holly's sister, Georgia. Let's also include Georgia on the show, a beautiful southern belle with an eating disorder, and the girl's mother, who is only eleven years older than Holly, and who has also slept with Elmer.

What is Jerry's job? He has to:
  1. Make sure the premise is intriguing.
  2. Make sure the guests have a chance to tell their sides of the story.
  3. Stir up conflict to keep things interesting.
  4. Try to come to some kind of resolution by the show's end.

Coincidentally, that's what writers need to do.

Jerry doesn't need to put words in the mouths of his guests, or put his hands on them to get them to attack each other.

He simply has to sit back and direct the action. And it works. Conflict ensues. Sparks fly. Secrets are revealed. Chairs are thrown.

Instead of thinking of yourself as a magician, waiting for inspiration to allow you the power to write a story, you should think of yourself as a director, watching the action, steering it into the directions you want it to go.

You aren't speaking for the characters. The characters are speaking for themselves. You aren't forcing the conflict. The conflict is happening all on its own.

The writer is simply the conduit for the story. Let the characters write it for you.

Jerry Springer isn't scripted. He has a few vague ideas of what he wants to see, and then runs with it.

Writing should be the same way. Don't worry about making it perfect. Don't fret over every single word. Let the characters speak for themselves, and let the story go wherever it wants to go.

Don't tie your own hands. Instead, ask your characters how they're feeling, what they want, and what they should do next.

If you relax and let things happen, you won't be blocked. In fact, you'll be excited and curious about where your story is heading.

And best of all, it's a helluva lot easier than plumbing.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

The Best Kind of Marketing

Attending conferences. Buying ads. Passing out flyers, bookmarks, and postcards. Speaking at libraries. Doing signings. Attending conferences. All of these help a writer build name-recognition.

But the best form of self promotion is one that many writers don't actively pursue. You can reach millions of demographically targeted fans, and impress them greatly. It's possible to establish a fan base before your novel is even published.

And best of all, it's free, or you get paid for it.

Sell short stories.

Ellery Queen and Alfred Hitchcock have circulations of 250k each. The Strand Magazine is 50k. (I've been in all of them, some several times) is viewed by millions (my story should be up in a day or two.)

Anthologies range in circ from 5k to 200k (the new THRILLER anthology edited by James Patterson will be out in May and received the biggest advance ever paid for an antho---I'm in it.)

I've done several Writer's Digest articles, and have appeared several times in Crimespree (very big market for the mystery world.)

Also, in the past two years, I've appeared in Cemetery Dance, Horror Garage, Horror Express, Apex, Surreal, The Many Faces of Van Helsing, Spooks, Cold Flesh, Small Bites, FMAM, Requiem for a Radioactive Monkey, and on over a dozen websites (another reason to get your own website up ASAP, so people can link to you.

I currently have ten stories on submission, and eight stories scheduled for publication within the next six months.

This amounts to several million people reading my writing. If they like it, some will seek out my books.

You won't get rich writing shorts. Many pay in contributors copies. The high end markets pay between $250 and $1200. But this isn't about money. It's about exposure.

Your query letter should be the essence of simplicity.

"My name is JA Konrath. I've been published a few dozen times, and just signed a second three book deal for my Lt. Jack Daniels thriller series. Enclosed is a 1500 word short story for your consideration. Love the mag, hope to hear from you soon."

I always include a SASE. Why? Most magazines are labors of love. They barely cover costs. Help them out. You should also help them out by buying copies of the magazine you submit to, or getting subscriptions. This is essential anyway, so you can write a story geared specifically to certain periodicals. EQMM doesn't want the same thing as AHMM or FMAM or The Strand.

Always read the submission guidelines. They're mostly pretty standard, but occasionally the editors ask for special formats or extras (a bio, a picture, a bibliography.)

If you have no prior sales, here's the query you should use:

"My name is JA Konrath. I love your magazine. Enlcosed for your consideration is a 1500 word short called 'Editors are Gods.' Hope to hear from you soon."

That's all you need. Don't give them a synopsis of the story---why should they read it if they already know what it's about? Keep it brief.

In your query heading include your address, phone number, email, website URL, and Social Security number (optional.)

In some cases, I don't even include a cover letter. The editor is smart enough know it's a submission. The story is what sells the story, not your query.

In other cases, I use an email query. Find out the submission format they prefer. Some like Word doc attachments, or txt, or rtf. Some like the submission in the body of the email, with no formatting other than paragraph breaks.

Many markets are tough to break into, but once you do break in, it gets easier and easier. The more you sell, the more you sell. And pretty soon, markets will approach you. I've had several invitations to submit, as well as several reprints that fell into my lap.

Don't know where to submit? Go to your local bookstore and check the periodicals. Buy some magazines. Read them. Write a kick ass story that the editor will find familiar, yet unique.

Much success!

Friday, January 13, 2006

On Blogging

While I often slip self-promotion into my blog, I think of it mostly as a teaching/venting opportunity, as well as a chance to interact with readers and writers.

On that front, I want it to be read, to be discussed, to be successful.

Over the past few days, several statistics hit me at once.

Someone sent me this link, which I found amusing:

The same day, someone else sent me this link:

I've done my own informal polls on how many people might be reading this blog on a daily basis, but these two links were so intriguing that I finally put some code on the blog.

And I was surprised. I'm getting about 1000 unique visitors a day.

Many are coming in from links on other blogs. I've checked out to see how many people link to me. I'm grateful for the traffic.

If you'd like to trade links, email me.

That said, I'm baffled by the amount of power some bloggers seem to have over readers. I offer advice based on my experience, and I'm flattered many folks seem to follow that advice. But remember that what worked (or didn't work) for me might not get you the same results.

Here's a quick list writers should keep in mind when surfing blogs:
  1. Remember that no one is always right, no matter who they are or claim to be.
  2. Try different approaches, and discover for yourself what works and what doesn't.
  3. Be wary of bloggers on power trips, or those who try to inspire fear.
  4. If you're ever confused by something, post questions.
  5. If you ever disagree with something, post a rebuttal. Debate is good.
  6. Name calling is not good. Try to focus on the topic, not the blogger.
  7. The blogosphere is not real life. Don't treat it as such.
  8. Anonymous posts should never carry the same weight as those who use their name.

If you're a writer, and don't have a blog, I suggest starting one. Sure, it takes up a lot of time, but there are few self-promotional efforts that can have such a targeted and direct impact.

Here are some tips for those considering starting a blog:

  1. Trade links with as many other bloggers as you can.
  2. Pick a topic for your blog, and stick to it.
  3. Add content at least once a week, and make sure your entries have a specific focus.
  4. Don't blog several times a day, every day--this won't give readers a chance to comment.
  5. Don't abuse your blogging power.
  6. Invite a little controversy--it makes things more exciting.
  7. Respond to all questions.
  8. Learn about RSS feeds.
  9. Blogs don't have to be perfect, but the same rules apply to blogs as to manuscript formatting. Proofread, spell check, avoid long paragraphs, pay attention to how your words look on the screen, edit.

See you in the blogosphere!

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Driving Miss SASE

A reader emailed me to make me aware of a post on a popular anonymous agent's blog.

Someone asked this agent if including a SASE is necessary, because on JA Konrath's website, he says don't bother including SASEs.

Now, for a moment, we'll pretend we're not all art majors and make an attempt to think rationally. Can anyone guess how the agent replied?

Here's a multiple choice:
  1. "Joe's right. It would make my job a lot easier if none of the 17 million people who submitted to me included SASEs."
  2. "Joe's right. On my website I just mention to include a SASE to test your grasp of reverse psychology."
  3. Joe is a nitwit. Include a SASE.

Goodness knows I don't mind public ridicule. And goodness knows that if I were an agent, I'd also request SASEs, because the amount of slush those folks receive is overwhelming.

But this particular agent alluded to the fact that submissions without SASEs are always thrown away, and that she sometimes uses SASEs for acceptance letters.

If we're to believe this hip, savvy agent, we can infer that when she finds a manuscript she falls in love with, she doesn't pick up the phone to call the author. She doesn't shoot her an email. She types a letter, hunts down the SASE, and then sends it off and waits for the author to contact her after 3-7 days (which is how long the US Post Office typically takes.)

We could also infer that if an author looking to change agents, or a someone with a brilliant book, contacted her by mail but didn't include a SASE, their query would be thrown away.

Does that seem like a way a hip, savvy agent would run her business?

I wonder if that same agent includes a SASE with the books she submits to publishers on behalf of her authors. And if the editors, if they want to buy the book, use that SASE to break the good news. No SASE, no book sale.

Call me a skeptic, but I ain't buying.

SASEs are used for rejections. Always. I once had an agent tell me a story about how anxious he was because he read a wonderful submission but the author didn't include a phone number. This agent called 411, tried the Internet, phone books, and a half dozen other ways to call the guy instead of trusting the good news to a SASE. But he wound up having to use the SASE, and was a nervous wreck for a week, thinking some other agent signed the guy, before the author finally called.

My advice to writers is to not bother with the SASE, because all you'll get is a form letter rejection that you can live without. If the agent likes your writing, they'll call or email.

I've mentioned that pros don't use SASEs. And that SASEs send out a subliminal message that the author is a newbie. Something used only for rejection seems to me to beg rejection. Do frat pledges get any respect? Neither do newbie authors.

Now, I can't blame this agent her reaction. Of course she has to say what she says. It's a matter of self-preservation. And if I were the one writing her blog, I would have squelched that question in much the same way.

But what intrigued me is that she doesn't understand why writers would have problems with SASEs, because they're only 39 measly cents.

I want to make a point here. It's not about the 39 cents.

It's about empowerment.

I've gotten my share of rejections. Hundreds. All delivered in SASEs. If you've gotten them, you know how demoralizing, depressing, and disheartening it is to see that envelope in your mailbox. There's that sorry/sick feeling you get in your stomach---all the hope you've been hanging onto, dashed.

By a show of hands, who likes rejection?

With my sixth novel, I stopped sending SASEs. Coincidentally, with my sixth novel, I got 12 offers of representation. And I got them within days of mailing the queries, rather than the 4 weeks to 8 months that prior rejections had taken.

So what should I preach? What they tell you to do, or what worked for me?

Of course an agent will never admit to you that all you'll ever get in a SASE is a rejection. That doesn't mean it's the truth.

I'd like to remind everyone that this is not an 'us vs. them' game. Writers want to find good agents, and agents want to find good writers. There is, however, a power dynamic that initially favors the agents. The agents are aware of this.

The person who does the rejecting, has the power. That person ain't you.

Some writers want to get that form letter rejection, to get a sense of closure. Or as proof that they're actively trying to succeed.

But I believe it's easier on the writer, and the agent, to not get a rejection letter. The agent saves time stuffing the form letter into the SASE and mailing it out, and the writer no longer fears the mailman.

When writers start out, they have no sense of their own importance in the writer/agent equation. The try to break in on bended knee, hoping someone will rep them.

Read Dale Carnegie if you believe that's the right way to do business.

Newbie writers need to have confidence. Not cockiness--that's bad. They need to believe in themselves. Trust themselves. Feel good about themselves.

I have a writing friend who doesn't call himself a writer. On his taxes, under occupation, he put "rejection collector."

Don't be a rejection collector. Be confident.

Don't be a frightened mouse who is terrified to ever bend the rules. Be a trend setter.

Don't be a sycophant. Be a leader.

Don't be afraid. Be bold.

Don't ever rely on any one person for your answers. Seek for yourself.

Double checking for typos, using 24# paper, and leaving out the SASE all have less to do with breaking into publishing than they have to do with adopting the right attitude toward publishing.

Hope is for the lottery. Winners don't need to hope.

And they don't need form letter rejections.

Monday, January 09, 2006


For the pros:

You've been working your ass off, self-promoting like crazy. You do the signings. You attend the conferences. Your website is a work of art. You've got a great Internet presence. You know a hundred booksellers by name.

And you aren't selling squat.

Are you discouraged? Hell yeah. Are you depressed? They don't make Zoloft pills big enough to fix you. Are you convinced that it's one big conspiracy to prevent you from succeeding? I can't help you there, because you're delusional and paranoid. But I can say this:

Sales aren't eveything.

What was that? Is Joe taking back everything he's been crowing about for the last four years?

No. Because sales actually are everything. But don't expect everything you do to lead directly to sales.

They do, however, lead to things that lead to sales.

What do I mean? In the last few weeks, here are some opportunities that came to me. I didn't solicit them. I wasn't fishing for them. Somehow these people tracked me down and offered me the following:
  • A spot in an anthology
  • Four website interviews
  • Two website story assignments
  • A paid gig judging a writing contest
  • A BookPage interview
  • An interview with Forbes
  • A Guest of Honor spot at a conference
  • Three paid library talks
  • An invitation to a non-fiction collection
  • Two paid teaching gigs at various colleges
  • Free attendance to a conference
  • Writing a humor article in a magazine
  • A newsletter interview

Plus over a dozen people linked to my blog, and about twenty signed up for my newsletter, in the past ten days.

This is what self-promotion does for you. The word gets out. People hear about you and track you down. Your brand continues to grow in all kinds of unexpected, intangible ways.

None of the opportunites I've listed above are the result of any one thing that I've done. They're the result of everything I've done.

And in the long run, they'll help me sell books.

So don't be upset that your best laid plans seem to be tanking. If you're self-promoting, it's helping you. Even if you don't see any immediate benefits.

Keep at it.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

More Intimidation

Meanwhile on the World Wide Web...

A site was hosting a discussion concerning my blog entry from a few days ago, about the writing contest I'm judging. The comments basically said I was being too harsh, dismissing stories for typos or incorrect formatting or too many exclamation points, because if I looked past those, the story might have actually been good.

I agree. It might have been good. Even very good.

But "very good" doesn't win contests, and doesn't get published.

"Great" gets published. "Wonderful" gets published. "Mind Blowing" gets published.

I wasn't being paid to judge each story on its own merits, or to offer detailed critiques on how to make it better.

I was being paid to find winners.

It comes down to the writing. All of the points I'd mentioned were indicators that warned me the writing wouldn't be wonderful. And the indicators were always right.

Consider the agent, going through 300 manuscripts in the slush pile that have accumulated over the last month.

She's not looking to help writers. She's panning for gold. And to do that, you have to sift through dirt.

It might be some very good dirt she's dismissing. But it is still dirt.

Be the gold.

The best way to get published, or to win a contest, is to shine. Don't be mistaken for dirt. Don't do anything that lets them reject you---because they're looking to reject you unless you can show them you're brilliant.

Here's an interesting fact. After slogging through the first thousand stories, I got irritated at several writers. Not at the inept ones--as I said, I could quickly decide if something was no longer worth reading. But I became angry at the ones that held my interest and made me finish them, even though they weren't winners.

Sometimes I knew the story wasn't good enough, but something about the piece made me read it to the end anyway.

Consider that for a moment. I know I need to pick a handful of winners out of a few thousand. I get paid the same amount, no matter how long it takes me. Logic says as soon as I can safely say, "This won't win," I should put the story aside.

But in a few dozen cases, I had to keep reading, just to see where the writer went with it. Even though I knew it wasn't going to win.

I'm sure it is the same with agents and editors. I'm sure they get sumbissions all the time that they know aren't right for them, but they finish reading them anyway.

That's tragedy. That's shooting the game-winning point at the buzzer and missing.

You need to be better than that.

I preach all the time about determination, and hard work, and luck.

And I'm right about all of that. But you still have to write a kick-ass story.

"Very good" stories are read by a few people. "Excellent" stories are published, and read by thousands.

Friday, January 06, 2006

Four Countries

For the pros:

Once you sell a book, your role changes from writer to ambassador. Like a dignitary visiting foreign countries, you must make good impressions on them so they become allies. And like that dignitary, you'll do so through meetings, promises, favors, gifts, and just being a nice person.

These are the countries you must recruit:

1. Your Publisher

Why: If they like you, what you're writing, and what you're doing, they'll do more for you. Generating in-house enthusiasm is important. The sales team will spend more time selling you. The marketing team will work harder and spend more money. The editing team will be more excited to have you as an author.

How: Visit them. An in-person meeting is crucial. Always be upbeat, gracious, and thankful. Correspond with them regularly, through phone and email. Keep them in the loop and let them know what you're doing to promote yourself. Schmooze them.

Example: On my own I've gotten blurbs from over thirty big name authors, appeared in many magazines and newspapers, signed at hundreds of bookstores, gone to dozens of conferences and conventions, handsold several thousand books, always meet my deadlines, always listen to editing suggestions, pitched ideas to them, written my own catalog and back jacket copy, written press releases, won awards, and kept them up to date on everything I'm doing.

2. Booksellers

Why: Your publisher can get your books on the shelves, but booksellers are the ones who get people to buy them. There are over 15,000 bookstores in the USA. If one person at each store sold one of your books every week, you'd be a huge bestseller.

How: Schedule signings at their stores. Do drop-ins. Go to writing conventions and work the book room. Send out personal letters. Email them. Place ads in publications that they read. Buddy up with your publisher to get invited to bookseller conferences and schmooze. Buy them drinks or food.

Example: I've visited over 400 bookstores, and this year will visit 500. I've partied with booksellers, done signings that have lasted for 8 hours, mailed them gifts, named characters after bookstore employees, thanked dozens of booksellers in my acknowledgements, advertised in publications they read, mailed out thousands of letters with signed coasters and bookplates, and kiss their asses when I see them.

3. Librarians

Why: Books are a product, and no product succeeds without branding and name recognition. Libraries are the hub of many communities. They're places to meet, learn, and be entertained. There are over 15,000 libraries in the USA, and if each bought several copies of all of your books, you'd reach millions of readers--readers who will recognize you, talk about you, and buy future books.

How: Schedule talks and events. Send out personal letters. Email them. Place ads in publications that they read. Buddy up with your publisher to get invited to library conferences and schmooze.

Example: Along with Julia Spencer-Fleming, I FINALLY finished sending out 7000 letters to libraries in the USA which include brochures, and interview, and signed coasters. I've attended library conventions, done dozens of speeches and events, and taught classes at libraries.

4. Fans

Why: They buy the books, and like all consumers, they buy what is familiar, what has worked for them before, what they like or think they'll like, and what comforts them. An avid readership of only 100,000 people will buy millions of your books as your career continues.

How: Make yourself accessible. Do signings. Speak at libraries. Attend conventions. Have a decent website, message board, and blog. Return emails. Give out freebies. Hold contests. Send out newsletters. Schmooze them.

Example: I mail out dozens of freebies a month, hold several contests a year, named characters after fans, always answer emails, consistently update my blog and website, have 10,000+ people on my newsletter list, offer advice, attend many signings and conventions, and have partied with many, many fans.

Conclusion: Be prepared to spend a lot of time and money to do all of the traveling, mailing, and schmoozing. Writing a good book is important, but that book must get into the hands of readers, and you're the best person to get that job done.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

Important Stuff: Disregard at Your Peril

For Newbies:

As a teacher, I see a lot of newbie writing. I also sometimes make myself available to new authors and critique their work (for free.) And I edited a book coming out this year called THESE GUNS FOR HIRE.

My point--I consider myself a pretty good editor.

But I never really understood what it is like to be an acquisitions editor, or an agent, until recently.

I'm a paid judge for a short story contest a magazine is holding, and I've had to read 2600 short stories.

I've learned a lot, much of it scary and bad. Namely: I can tell within ten seconds of looking at a story whether it will go on to the finals or not.

Ten freaking seconds.

This is not because I'm blessed with the ability to sniff out talent. It is not because I'm a pompous know-it-all who refuses to give anyone a chance. And it is not because I'm lazy and want to get this all over with quickly.

The writer tells me, subconsciously, whether or not their story is worth reading.

Did I say "worth reading?" Does that mean that as a PAID JUDGE I don't read every story cover to cover?

Shocking denouement: Yes. I don't read every story cover to cover. Sometimes I don't read past the first sentence.

And I know that if I'm doing this, so are professional agents and editors.

Have you ever thought that maybe the agent you submitted to didn't read your whole submission? You're probably correct.

And it is your fault why.

Here are some of the main reasons I disregard a manuscript. I'd bet good money that industry pros have the same criteria.

  1. Font. Sound silly? It's not. Read for ten hours straight, then try to squint at some joker who crammed 1000 words on a page using 8pt Helvecta. You wanted to save paper and postage. I want to save my eyes. This gets the round file. Use 12pt Times New Roman or Courier. ALWAYS!!!!!

  2. Paper. Cheap paper, thin paper, colored paper, multiple folds, stains of dubious origin, rips and tears, too many staples---999 times out of 1000, if the paper is crummy, the story is crummy. But whenever I see 24# ultra white paper (go for 104 bright) I perk right up. Sound silly? It's not. Use good paper, no folds, one paperclip. Show me the work is important.

  3. Ink. If it is dot matrix, or typewriter, or colored ink, or smeared ink, or ink that's running low, or has ballpoint pen or White Out ANYWHERE on it to make corrections, I can safely assume the story is bad. If you want to impress a date, wear expensive clothes. If you want to impress an editor, buy a decent printer.

  4. Spacing. If I see big blocky paragraphs, more than 25 lines per page, no indenting, indenting 3 spaces or less (rather than 5), line spacing between paragraphs, or a story that begins on the first line of the first page rather than halfway down the first page, my subconscious says, "I don't want to read this" and my subconscious is usually right.

    These first four criteria should tell you that the way the story looks on a page is incredibly important. Did you ever go to a website that was so hard to read you didn't bother? It's the same thing with submissions. Make it look professional, or it won't even get read.

  5. Typos. If I see a typo, grammar error, spelling mistake, or anything that says to me "The writer didn't proof read" it's in the round file. Sorry, but I have to read thousands more, and I can't waste my time. You obviously don't take this seriously, so why should I?

  6. First Sentence. If you don't draw me in at the first sentence, and you made any of the above mistakes, you're rejected. If you have a lousy first sentence (usually describing the weather, or telling instead of showing, or something awkward and confusing) I may read on if you didn't make any other mistakes, but I'm always proven correct. I haven't picked ANY finalists that didn't grab me with the first sentence.

  7. Dialog. So many submissions don't have any dialog. If there's no dialog, that's a good indicator the story is all telling, all exposition. Round file.

  8. Ending. Shocking as these stats are, I completely read only 1 out of every 40 or 50 stories. Nothing irks me more than reading an entire story, only to find a weak ending. Why did you waste my time? Don't you know I have thousands to read?

  9. Conflict. If I manage to get a page into the story, and nothing has happened yet, I don't get any further.

  10. Memoir. Unless you're one of the Rolling Stones, don't write anything autobiographical. Sorry, but you just ain't interesting to anyone other than yourself.

  11. Adjectives and Adverbs, Exclamation Points, Repeating the same words, using the passive 'was' a lot, onomatopoeia, dialects, a first paragraph of nothing but setting, explanations, preaching, and anecdotes. Attempt at your own risk.

Now I want to defend myself a little. I started off reading every story, begining to end. I really wanted to find a diamond in the coal mine.

But I soon learned that if it looks like a lemon, it's sour.

Did I perhaps judge unfairly? Did I maybe pass up something brilliant because it didn't meet one of my criteria? I doubt it. But if I did, too bad. Out of 2600 stories, 50 were decent. And of those, only 15 were real contenders.

I have a newfound respect for those on the other side of the submissions desk who wade through the slush pile. I understand why they are looking to reject---there's so much to read, and so much of it is bad. And these were 1500 word stories, not 100k word novels.

I wouldn't want to do this for a living, that's for damn sure. And you know what the irony is? I made many of these same mistakes when I was starting out.

Learn from my pain.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Is Blogging Incestuous?

These days, everyone seems to have a blog. I'm all for it. Even if the blogger is an illiterate bonehead who has nothing to say, he should be allowed to say it.

Publishing blogs seem to be on the upswing. Several NY editors and agents are blogging, their identities hidden by pseudonyms. More and more professional writers are using blogs as ways to communicate regularly with fans. Newbie authors are documenting their struggles to succeed. There's a lot of good information out there, being exchanged.

So why does it seem like the entire book blog world exists only to feed itself?

I have a blog, and I post on other writer's blogs, and then they post on my blog. I link to them, they link to me (and by the way, if I haven't linked to you yet, email me and I will.) Sometimes I'll visit ten blogs and see that the same three people have posted on every single one of them.

Now part of that may be because writers tend to know each other, and when you're on the computer ten hours a day of course you're going to waste some time. Part of that may be that writers tend to be a bit more self-important than the general population, quick to give their opinions whenever the opportunity arises. Or, it may just be one giant auto-erotic stroke job, and the entire framework of the book blog community rests on the shoulders of half a dozen men and women with nothing better to do.

If I haven't already slit my own throat here, I'd like to point out that I'm pleased with the response and traffic my blog gets. I like the regulars who hang out here (even the ones who generate debate.)

But I'd also like to know if more people are reading this than just the folks I link to.

If you read this blog and have never posted before, I'm asking you to take five seconds and post something. I've even temporarily allowed anonymous posts, so you don't have to sign up.

I want to hear from lurkers, from surfers, from the busy, the shy, the lazy, the wallflowers.

Prove to me that you're out there.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Get Off Your Ass and Do Something

Are you a writer? Here are your goals for the day:
  1. Write. One thousand words is good. Two thousand is better.
  2. Update your blog and website. Appearances, new info, contests, games, stories, articles, pictures, etc.
  3. Edit something. Your stuff, or a friend's stuff--either will help you improve as a writer.
  4. Send out a query letter to sell a story or article. Getting published is your best form of advertising.
  5. Expand your Internet presence. Leave messages and comments on listserves, blogs, boards, newsgroups, chatrooms. Trade links. Submit work to writing websites.
  6. Set up an event. Sign up for a conference, contact a library, schedule a booksigning, speak at your local Rotary club, teach a class---get out there and meet some people.

Try to do as much of the above as you can, every single day. At the very least, you should be doing one or two of them. EVERY. SINGLE. DAY.

This is your year, remember? You aren't going to become a household name nursing your hangover, watching cable.

You're a writer, dammit. Act like one.