Category Archives: Book industry

I wanna be a middle-grade ninja, too!

I had the opportunity to write a guest post on Middle Grade Ninja, a great industry blog I follow. Check it out here. I wrote about the nonfiction market as a path to publishing novels. There’s more than one way in the door. 

The Ninja is Robert Kent, author of All Together Now: A Zombie Story and the forthcoming Banneker Bones and the Giant Robot Bees (coming this fall).

His blog has reviews, interviews and posts about the writing life. It’s my blog role model. It’s what my blog wants to be when it grows up. Maybe he gives lessons.

Meanwhile, enjoy.

Tomorrow I’ll be posting about my publication countdown for The Graham Cracker Plot. The release is Sept. 2 and I’ve got a long to-do list–including posting about my to-do list.



I’m small in Japan

I got the style but not the grace
I got the clothes but not the face
I got the bread but not the butter
I got the winda but not the shutter

But I’m big in Japan I’m big in Japan But heh I’m big in Japan

“Big in Japan.” From Tom Wait‘s 1999 album Mule Variations.

Thank you, Internet, for allowing artists to be “big” anywhere. Last night I learned my new kid nonfiction book Girls Rule! is big in Indonesia. How big? The Indonesian online bookstore site says, “Stock is low!”

Yup. That’s me. Almost sold out in Indonesia.

Now if I could just conquer America. Or even Japan.

Hi, Holden. I’m Shelley. We’ve met, right?

I blogged yesterday about buying Catcher in the Rye to get reacquainted with Holden Caulfield. I read the novel in high school. The years have flown by, and they’ve taken my book memories with them.

All I remember about Catcher in the Rye is the following: I liked it, the main character’s name is Holden, and maybe he’s in a hospital.

My house has bookshelves full of forgotten stories. I simply don’t remember plot lines or characters from classic lit I read in high school, college and, yes, sometimes voluntarily.

When I go to author receptions, parties with literary types, or take a writing class, I either stutter my way through classic book discussions or take a sudden interest in the food table. Another glass of wine also helps.

Here are some of those books and what I remember.

The Bridge of San Luis Rey. Some people on a bridge. The bridge collapses. Other things happen.

Don Quixote. Crazy guy and windmills.

Antonia who?

Antonia who?

My Antonia. My Amnesia.

The Red Badge of Courage. War. I think.

A Separate Peace. Did one kid jump on the branch, which caused another boy to fall, or was it an accident?

A Tale of Two Cities. Can’t remember either city.

Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. A river, a boat and two buddies.

Great Expectations. A poor kid does some stuff.

A Doll’s House. Amnesia.

Tender is the Night. Partying in France.

A Farewell to Arms: A war and a dead baby.

The Odyssey. Huh?

The Canterbury Tales: Someone farted.

Candide: Funny.

Last of the Mohicans. I remember the movie with Daniel Day Lewis, especially when he spits as he passionately urges Madeline Stowe to be tough. “I will find you! Stay alive. No matter how far, no matter how long, I will find you.”

All is not lost. I have fond and detailed memories of a few from the canon. To Kill a Mockingbird, Age of Innocence, East of Eden, Lolita – assuming these are part of the canon. And should canon be capitalized? I forget.

Second Novel Syndrome

I was talking to my friend Mike yesterday about writing the second novel in a two-book deal. It’s exciting and terrifying, but my enemy Self Doubt hovers. Will my sophomore performance be as good as book one? What if my editor hates it? What if my readers hate it? What if I hate it?

Everyone knows that sophomore year sucks, right? The novelty’s gone. Now you’re just an older geek, stuck behind the juniors and seniors.

And parents simply don’t love their second child as much as the first. (An inside joke with my little sister Cheryl.) Better stated: Parents don’t pay as much attention to baby two because baby one has already dazzled them with performances. Rolling over in the crib. Sucking on  toes. Smiling. Puking and peeing and pooping.

With the exception of Empire Strikes Back – which I saw 28 times in one summer – sequels rarely live up to the first story. Revenge of the Nerds II, Ocean’s 12, Speed II: Cruise Control, Staying Alive.

Mike’s advice: Just write. Write and write and write. Let other writers read it; then write more. And that’s what I will do.

But first, here are some quotes from writers about Second Novel Syndrome.

I started a second novel seven times and I had to throw them away.

Amy Tan. Second book: The Kitchen God’s Wife

No one is waiting for you to write your first book. No one cares if you finish it. But after your first, if it goes well, everyone seems to be waiting. You’re suddenly considered to be a professional writer, a fiction machine, but you know very well that you’re just getting going. You go from having nothing to lose to having everything to lose, and that’s what creates the panic.

Jeffrey Eugenides. Second book: Middlesex

The problem with a second novel is that it takes almost no time to write compared with a first novel. … If I write my first novel in a month at the age of 23, and my second novel takes me two years, which have I written more quickly? The second of course. …The first took 23 years, and contains all the experience, pain, stored-up artistry, anger, love, hope, comic invention and despair of that lifetime. The second is an act of professional writing. That is why it is so much more difficult.

Stephen Frye. Second book: Moab is My Washpot

A second book is jittery-making, because chances are it’s been sold on a one-page outline, when you weren’t entirely surely what was going to happen. You don’t know if anyone’s going to like it. It might sprout off in unintended directions. It might develop Excess Plot Syndrome or Prologue-orrhea …

Claire McGowan. Second book: The Lost

Off to slay Self Doubt. Then work on novel two.

Shelley’s technology manifesto … from a non-techie

Commenter Ewan had a great question about aspiring writers entering the tech world: how do you start? What options should you consider?

The truth? I still feel like an aspiring writer. I still feel like an aspiring techie. But I’m happy to share my experience and lessons learned. Other writers – aspiring or otherwise – may completely disagree. So find yourself a grain of salt. And let’s begin.

Web stuff

Until you’ve got a contract or some cash, use a free platform. WordPress is great because it works beautifully as a blended web site and blog. And it’s free unless you upgrade. Be careful about spending a lot of money on technology until you’re getting writing contracts or paychecks. Instead, I’d spend my money on conferences and classes and books. Keep all those receipts for tax time.

I tried GoDaddy, the company that takes care of my domain name, but I felt like a crop duster on the space shuttle. Hours of frustration. The company’s sites are wonderful, but trying to construct one made me want to toss my precious laptop through a window. I also have a private Google blog with my writing group, but overall, Google blogs have limited functionality.

I guess Tumblr is the latest web toy. It synthesizes the microblog, web site, macroblog; and it’s easy to use and follow. Check out my friend and author Rachael Hanel’s Tumblr site.

I wouldn’t do a full web site unless you’ve got creative endeavors to showcase.


If you’re trying to build an audience, a pre-book audience, blogging is a great way to go.

Content is everything. Fresh content. I’ve Googled subjects, clicked on blogs, and see the last post was 2012. I won’t be going back there. My goal for this site is blogging every weekday with weekends off. I consider blogging part of my writing job, so it’s actually more than a goal. It’s an assigned task.

That said, the first thing a potential blogger should do is open a Word document. Trying writing (mostly) meaningful posts three times a week for a month. Can you do it? Or do you feel dry after week three? If you can’t keep up the practice run, you probably will struggle to post fresh content. (Remember, if your practice posts are good, you’ve got 12 posts in the vault.)

Know you’re audience and write mostly for them. I narrowed my subjects, and I suspect my audience is primarily book industry people, including librarians, teachers, and other writers. I have wonderful friends who follow me. I hope adult readers will find this blog, too. Yours might be the life of an aspiring writer. Research other blogs and see what you like.

I’m not trying to attract teens and tweens. I don’t think they’re interested in reading about the writing life, unless they love to write. I do plan, however, to make parts of my blog interesting to tweens and teens – book trailers, for example.

Bloggers build their Google position, and therefore audience, with “search engine optimization.” Google that phrase because I haven’t figured it out.

See? My own dirty dishes!

See? My own dirty dishes!

The bigger tech world

You probably already have a Facebook page. You’ll need a separate author page on Facebook when you publish, plus a Twitter account. It’s pretty easy to connect subjects on all three.

I’ve neglected Twitter. I’ve spent blog space making fun of Twitter. I don’t completely understand it, but I’m back to my Twitter account and giving it a good try.

See? My own lamp!

See? My own lamp!

Take lots of photos and keep them in a separate folder. Pictures you think you’d never use, pictures of yourself, pictures of books. Tons of pictures. I’ve managed to use photos of my overflowing stack of dirty dishes and even my living room lamp. You need art on your blog, especially if your posts get long. Copyright on Internet photos is something you have to consider.

That’s my tech advice. If anyone has time to add to it, or disagree, please comment.

Starving writers. Mansion-buying writers. Who decides?

Before I continue with the second list of six, I want to share a link to author Maggie Stiefvate’s blog.

Maggie is the successful author of Shiver, Ballad, Lament and many others. (I hope I get a chance to meet Maggie someday.) Maggie is prolific, she’s brilliant, and she was “discovered” by a Minnesota publisher. That warms my Minnesota heart on a 20-degree spring day.

In a response to a writer’s question, Maggie delivered this bottom line: Publishing is run by readers.

I get her point, but I want to share some general disagreement.

I think publishing is run by editors going through a nail-biting process of figuring out what readers will want two years from now. For editors, it’s part guessing game, part experience, part marketing.

Functionally, there isn’t one big circle of readers. “Audience” is segments of different people. In data-driven marketing, companies have a process to engage consumers, collect responses, disaggregate the information, and use that data to make product decisions.

The other kind of marketing, the Don Draper model, is “Mad Men’s” ad team theorizing about what the product represents to a certain segment – and Don’s segments are very limited – and then throwing ads at them.

Publishers aren’t stupid. They understand modern marketing.

But the process of publishing is so slow – I’ve compared it to a snail crossing a pool of pancake syrup – the data loses its value. For example, Pepsi can spend millions on new messages and deliver new products quickly. They’re always developing new products, or twists on the old products, and keeping them at the ready. Because you never know.

They generate new data and experiment with new products based on data and then retest the product. Learning what people want is a circle. Don Draper is a line with some arrows.

Unlike Pepsi, publishers’ marketing budgets are relatively small. The budget goes to books they think – fingers crossed – have the best chance of being a hit. A handful of hits keeps the publishing business afloat. Most books never earn out their advances.

A publishing example: a company does a thorough marketing analysis of middle-grade boys. By the time they secure the “right” books, edit them and publish them, those boys are now teens with different interests. The new group of middle graders also might have entirely different interests.

Some things/events that change boys’ interests: (Remember, even middle-grade boys can be further segmented by income, reading levels, ethnicity, etc.)

  • New video games
  • New aps
  • A breakout television show
  • A novel goes viral
  • A book with a girl protagonist is megahit (Hunger Games), so they might dabble in a book or two with a girl protagonist
  • A megahit movie
  • New educational approaches in their classrooms
  • Teachers and librarians loving a new book and “hand selling” it to kids (awards and great reviews are motivators)
  • Sci-fi gets bumped by a new genre, like magic, thanks to books about wizard kids going to wizard school
  • A new, young celebrity hits the scene

So, what might have been a fabulous book to middle-grade boys in 2010 turns to mold in 2012.

I agree with Maggie generally. Readers want a good book. Writers, agents and editors are trying to deliver books readers want.

But bottom line, the decision-makers in publishing are often throwing darts at a big circle cut into lots of slices.

Good writers can starve. Bad writers can buy mansions.

Readers have a big role in deciding who starves and who buys mansions. But so do luck, timing, rapidly changing tastes, viral capacity, and the size of that year’s marketing budget.

The randomness makes me shiver. (Thanks, Maggie, for that awesome title.)

Baby, it’s cold outside

If you’re a writer, then you’ve been found by the investigative arm of Writer’s Digest. WD is the best in the business, and I strongly recommend you contact them if you ever lose your dog.

This week’s WD flyer is for its annual writing competition. The marketing copying:


is the SINGLE MOST VALUABLE COMMODITY in the publishing world – and that’s what you’ll get if you win.

Actually, exposure is among the most valuable commodities in the art world. Artists will do almost anything to increase their exposure, which translates to paychecks and strangers waving at you in the grocery store.

Exposure is a box with lots of tools. Winning a respected contest is great exposure, whether you’re a painter or a writer. Other tools: media coverage, a popular blog, ads, public events, or, most importantly, good work.

Exposure also is code for “free.” Because people see art as a hobby, or they think art is too expensive, they offer exposure instead of money.

When I was working on my MFA, I took a creative nonfiction class. The students complained that David Sedaris was reading/speaking in Minneapolis and charging $50. We were outraged. Didn’t he realize his appearance would sell books? Didn’t he realize wannabe writers needed $50 for next semester’s groceries?

The professor, an extraordinary woman, writer, and teacher, said this: Writers deserve to get paid for what they do. If David Sedaris gets an auditorium full of people who paid $50 to see him, that speaks to his talent and brilliance. Good for him. Artists deserve to get paid for what we do, just like doctors or accountants or janitors.

Amen and thanks for that, Diana Joseph, author of I’m Sorry You Feel That Way. The Astonishing but True Story of a Daughter, Sister, Slut, Wife, Mother and Friend to Man and Dog.

The Frye: Joe Tougas (my X) and Ann Rosenquist Fee. They've played with the Indigo Girls, they've played in Memphis bars and, apparently, at construction sites.

The Frye: Joe Tougas (my X) and Ann Rosenquist Fee. They’ve played with the Indigo Girls, they’ve played in Memphis bars and, apparently, at construction sites.

Regardless, fine artists donate works of art to charity auctions. Some give workshops and donate the money to a cause. Writers read, for free, to near-empty bookstores. Writers visit classrooms and book clubs and writing groups, making a fan base one person at a time. That’s good strategy, and it’s fun, too.

But you can’t do it forever. You need to write. You need to eat.

Musicians get the most requests. My X is in a popular band, The Frye. At least once a month, if not more, The Frye is asked to play for a charitable event. They usually agree because they can’t say no to cancer research, political rallies, a family overwhelmed with medical bills from grandma’s treatments. Who could?

Diana would agree that artist donations – whether it’s a reading or a giveaway – are yes, exposure, and reasonable things to do from time to time. Decent people support charities. Some people write checks; some play banjo for free at a fundraiser. It’s called having a heart.

But there are borderline “causes,” the groups with real budgets that prefer to spend money on decorations instead of the band.

Frankly, artists get tired. Most have other jobs. They need to actually work at their art. Those acrylics aren’t paint-by-numbers. And, bottom line, they need a paycheck so their art can continue.

When you finally tell the organization, sorry, I can’t do it this time, maybe next year, what you hear is this: Consider it free marketing. It’s such good exposure!

My artist friend had a wonderful response: Did you know you can die from exposure? 

Amen and thanks for that Amy Kortuem, a musician, singer, and writer.

Check it out … Bob Krech and others

I’ve found a great blog written by a group of YA and middle grade authors: Smack Dab in the Middle.  This particular post struck me. At first glance, it’s one of those sad-and-mean publisher stories, but it’s really about revising, revising, and more revising. There are people who revise by trimming sentences, fixing awkward paragraphs, and adding some depth to character. Nothing to sweat about it. Then there are writers who need to revise in a way that’s so much work, it feels impossible.

That’s what Bob wrote about in his post. I appreciate authors who are willing to share their lessons learned, which feel like horror stories when they’re happening to you. Find Bob’s here:

Bob is the author of  Love Puppies and Corner Kicks and Rebound.