My First Query Rejection

Anyone who has submitted work to be represented in the traditional manner (by an agent, who then tries to convince editors at a publishing company to buy your work) knows how daunting it is for first-time noncelebrity authors to get representation and publication.

Now I know a lot of you who are authors, writers, or aspiring professionals in this regard have self-published material and I know there are some very opinionated bloggers on the web who are very passionate about this issue. There are pros and cons to both self- and traditionally- published books but we’ll save that for another time.

I’ve redacted the name of the agent I heard back from since it isn’t relevant for this blogpost. First off, I appreciate her very quick (1 day) AND her personalized response, even though it wasn’t what I wanted to hear:

“Dear Samuel,

Thanks so much for thinking of me for your book.
Unfortunately, this is not quite right for me. However, I really appreciate the opportunity to see your work. I’m wishing you the very best in 2015!”
Warmest Regards,
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We know the reading market has slowed down growth as it’s increasingly less likely people will sit through an entire book as opposed to watching videos or going online. This is actually not an insurmountable challenge, and stay tuned because later I will explain why we can’t give up on literacy and getting people to invest more time in reading. It isn’t just good for the industry, or for someone’s bottom line, but also for society: a more literate society is a society with less crime and poverty.
I also, having read books on publishing by publishers and on agent representation by current and former agents, know it’s tough to find that one person out of (tens of) thousands whose idea and marketability is solid enough for a publisher to put in serious effort to market and distribute a book. Sometimes we as aspiring professional authors wish there was less clutter in the agent’s e-mailbox to give ourselves a better shot, but this is unfortunately not true.
But here’s the question: How much of an eye-catching query letter is based on the plot of the book versus the author’s ability to sell it? I have a feeling your credentials or “platform” matters more than the actual book itself. Otherwise Snooki could never have gotten a contract. In other words, was the problem that she isn’t “the right fit”, or that I do not yet have a few ten thousand social media followers whom I can tweet or post about this book to get traction? (speaking of, please follow me on Twitter @sammydrf and I will follow you too). Speaking of social media, as your friendly “Millennial” social media “expert”, I have written, and will write again, about why social media platforms are overrated when judging the value of what is salable or not.
I sent out a few other representation requests, highlighting my active use of social media across multiple platforms AND my experience speaking on live commercial radio, tv, and being printed in newspapers. I actually have been published before as an author in both printed and online newspapers, but not as a fiction author. Sadly, I get the impression this does not have much bearing on my publication history for Big 5 book publishing.
If anything interesting happens with this, I will let you know. Any ideas? share ’em too. I love feedback (and I will subscribe to your blog!).

Survey Shows Fewer Children Reading for Pleasure and Why This is a Bad Thing

Scholastic Books and YouGov conducted a poll asking 2,558 parents and children on how often the children read for pleasure and the results are not good. The report is long but I picked the results which I think are most important and in some cases most troubling.

Problem 1: Roughly 54% of children ages 0-5 are read to at home 5-7 days a week. But only 34% of kids 6-8 have their parents read to them as frequently, and this drops to 17% for kids 9-11.

Some will say the kids don’t want to be with their parents. WRONG! 83% of the kids surveyed said they “loved” or “liked” when parents read to them, and 40% said they wished their parents had continued reading aloud to them. Given the high number of children who like the quality time with their parents, why do so many parents stop when the child turns six?

Schools have a huge influence on reading for pleasure but few schools really set aside time to do this. I remember being in school and getting reading assignments. Most of the books weren’t that interesting though there were some times when I was able to read in class. 52% of children surveyed said reading in school is one of their favorite parts of the day but only 33% of children have this option available.

For children from low-income homes, 61% said they read for fun mostly in school or equally at school and at home, while 32% of kids ages 6–17 from the highest-income homes say the same.

Problem 2: boys do not read as often as girls. Some of this is perceived to be genetics (girls and women are usually better at reading and writing and verbal language) but I will venture that many books just don’t appeal to boys as much as girls. Note the decline from 2010 to 2014 for both boys and girls, but especially boys:

Problem 3: More time on screens means less time reading. Screen time is increasing

 OK so what we conclude? There is a huge drop-off by parents both a) reading to kids past age 6 and b) parents themselves reading a lot. Now 5-7 nights a week might be tough for most people so I won’t go so far as to say that’s the gold standard. But let’s agree at least 2 nights a week, and at least 2 nights a week with kids, would probably help most children (especially those disinclined to read on their own).

It should not be a surprise that kids whose parents are more involved and who go to schools where literacy is encouraged are more likely to do better in school and in life. We know many children, particularly children in lower-income households, are unlikely to have one of those factors, let alone both, and thus reading for pleasure declines. One graph I did not feature shows a decline for children from wealthier backgrounds also don’t read as much, perhaps spending too much time on screens.

Here is a graph from the Annie E. Casey Foundation on reading proficiency for 4th graders. The Foundation has long-term data on their website showing the correlation between children who cannot read proficiently by the end of 3rd grade and those most likely to end up incarcerated.

Saturday is National Readathon Day #timetoread. With no football on I’ll make sure to read at least one chapter of something. I will have a special post for Saturday on this topic and the book I will read.

  • Last Call: Most children read books by print rather than e-books.

read the full survey here

Do You Need a Fine Arts Degree to Become a Successful Writer/Author?

I got an e-mail from a company called Self-Publisher’s Showcase, a company which says it aims to be a “very affordable promotional assist.” They appear to be a real company but you can decide for yourself if you want to use their services,though a look at their “About Us” section shows that none of them has a background in book publishing though their founder, Paul Martin, has a background in social media for professional use (as do I, for the record). I don’t know about Paul but you can count on me to give you social media advice for free and if you subscribe to my blog you’ll always be the first to get new social media and personal branding strategy tips.

The e-mail itself was not directly towards me, so I think I’m on someone’s list, but I don’t mind. Anyway, the website had a guest post which I wanted to talk about. Kevin J. Villeneuve is one of their “showcase” authors and in late October he wrote a post titled, “A Note to Young Aspiring Authors” (me!) which I just got but wanted to note. Here’s the passage which stood out to me:

“So what advice can I give to young, aspiring authors? Don’t get published for the money. Sure, it’s an amazing feat when someone pays you six-figures to write a book, but there are many ways that you can pay yourself to write. If you’re getting into it for the money, go get a master’s degree in literature, find a job that pays you to write, and hope that someday a publisher approaches you to write something bigger.”

Look at the second bold point. I thought it was interesting Kevin seems to think getting an MFA (Master’s of Fine Arts) is the ticket to success. Writer’s Digest seemed to think so this time a year ago. I assume this is because one has access to the professional critiques done by creative writing professors. Now to be fair I have never had a single class in literature or book writing, beyond freshman English class. This is an interesting topic which I’ll explore more in the future. But I don’t think one has to have an MFA to make it big.

It is nice to have feedback from others though I will note Chuck Sambino’s opinion from Writer’s Digest about this:

“Criticism: You might scoff, thinking you don’t need this (MFA), because you’ve lucked into a supportive, insightful writing group. Terrific! But friends, seeing how much work you’ve put into that manuscript, often hesitate to be critical. They want to be encouraging, so they’ll suggest changing scarcely a sentence. Not so in an MFA program. Red ink will cover your pages. You’ll gape in despair as you realize that, yes, your writing is crap. The advisors will encourage you, but they’ll be brutally honest about how to improve your work. This is why MFA programs are so expensive. The faculty isn’t comprised of amateurs who dabble at writing and coddle your ego, but of professionals who bring a cool eye and a scholarly approach to teaching. You’ll be exposed to smart and sometimes stinging criticism, which can be hard to take, yet is crucial to any serious writer.”

If you have an MFA or something similar, or have attended a serious writer’s course on writing, share your thoughts. Is an MFA or similar degree worth it? Or is it a waste of time and money?

Can an Author be Successful Without a Huge Social Media Platform?

Could Steven King  land a book contract today for his debut novel without celebrity status or being know by the “in-crowd?”

photo credit: blogs.denverpost.com

As I have discovered since I decided to try to have my novel published, publishers care A LOT about an author’s social media platform in order to drive sales. Now I happen to be a public relations pro and so building a platform, however cost-effective at this time, is not a problem for me to want to do and do well. Many authors, however, are not very good at doing this, and thus is one reason I provide helpful tips on social media strategies (and coming soon, media appearance tips) to anyone who reads this blog or follows me on Twitter @sammydrf.

Having a social media strategy is a good thing. As an author you have to be able to sell yourself and it is unreasonable to think a publisher or agent will just book your tours, get you media appearances, or market your book while you kick back and do nothing but sign copies between working on your next novel. However, I agree to some extend with comments made by Seth Godin, founder of the website squidoo.com. At this week’s Digital Book World 2015 conference he said (emphasis mine):

“Not all of your authors want to be good at social media. Not all of them have something to say when they’re not writing their book,” he told publishers.

In Godin’s view, the emphasis on building author platforms has gone too far. If so many authors now approach social media as a part of their jobs in the digital era, it’s at least partly thanks to their publishers, who have assiduously told them it is. But the problem is that it often looks that way to readers.

For one thing, that can make it hard to build a following, Godin says, and for another, doing so isn’t just about driving engagement on social channels, anyway.

Establishing and maintaining a loyal audience is by its nature a long-term investment, and what loyalty looks like online can sometimes differ considerably from what it looks like offline, “where the real work” gets done.

Godin points to Bob Dylan, who isn’t particularly active on social media but still has a vibrant and profitable career. “The long-tail rewards people for whom there’s passion from a few,” he says. “The Monkees had a TV show, but Dylan’s still around.”

Is this not an accurate observation, or what? It’s the quality of the book and the personality of the author which sells, not just how many social media followers he/she has. For example, Steven King (pictured above) had exactly zero (0) Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, Instagram, Pinterest, Tumblr, or Vine followers when his first book Carrie was published in 1973. Did he end up being a colossal failure because he couldn’t tweet or post to his 35,000+ fans to buy the book? Of course not. He built his reputation on being an excellent writer (my favorite King book is Firestarter) and by the time he joined Twitter he was able to secure fans based on a previously built reputation.,

Contrast this with the Jersey Shore castmember Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, who published A Shore Thing in January 2011 and sold a whopping 9,000 copies in its first month, and not much more after that (note: I actually read a full chapter of this book). The reason? It really was NOT well written. Believe me.

So assuming that because an individual has online popularity, whether via television or social media, will mean lots of sales forever is mistaken. The problem is, if the quality is sub-par, even a person’s fans will not buy future copies and thus harm his/her future sales and writing career.

Now having said this, I agree with publishers and agents that authors should have social media platforms and be regular users. The reality is, we live in the age of the internet and this is where people find you and me. Thinking you never have to market your book yourself is asking for too much from a publisher or agent. The difference is that I agree with Seth that publishing good quality literature will drive up a person’s popularity and as long as the author is willing to be a self-promoter, that has to matter more in the long-run than just expecting people to have a built-in platform based on popularity somewhere else, which is a short-term strategy.

Note: for non-fiction authors you must have credibility, whether via popularity a la Bill O’Reilly, or by being respected in your field of study a la Noam Chomsky. However, in the end it’s the content that sells and not just the platform. If O’Reilly was really that bad he would not have a list of bestsellers in his Killing series.

So going forward here’s to writing good quality literature and being a willing self-promoter, while recognizing that quality drives sales better in the long run than short-term fame.

Speaking of social media, please follow me on Twitter @sammydrf and my youtube channel Samuel Ramirez.

Also please subscribe to my blog for new posts, which generally come out Tuesday and Friday (or whenever I feel the need to post extra)

Should Celebrities Take Stances on Controversial Issues, or Avoid Them Altogether?

 Feel free to share your thoughts: Do you take stands on controversial political issues, or do you stay away from controversy so you can focus on the noncontroversial part of your platform?

Politics and entertainment have mixed for as long as human civilization has been around. In the 5th century B.C. Aristophanes, a Greek playwright, used political satire of the times in his play and was one of the founders of comedic satire (Image if the Daily Show existed back then). He was one of many examples of politics and social commentary used in fictional works in the ancient world.

Sports has also played a big part in politics. In the 20th century integration of athletes from diverse backgrounds was part of the success of ending racism in America, in 1972 the world saw Palestinian terrorists massacre 11 Israeli athletes in the Munich Olympic games which has been one history point in the century-old battle between Jews and Muslims in that part of the Middle East, and Billie Jean King’s victory over a 55-year old Bobby Riggs was one historical point in the battle for equality for women in athletics. Whether intentional or not, these points became rallying cries for the mixing of politics in sports.

However, what is unique about the 21st century is that we have social media and lots of forums for celebrities to post, tweet, keek, pin, snap, or otherwise share their photos, videos, and thoughts. Many celebrities choose to be as apolitical as possible in their public lives so no one can get angry at them for taking sides and thus hurt product sales or reputation. But some celebrities do wade into the political arena and the question is: does being political impact your brand positively or negatively, and when do you want to be involved?

I picked four recent cases of people who  were involved in controversies involving politics when they are not otherwise political people (reputations not built on politics). These are randomly picked but they all had one thing in common: New Media made their opinions much more well-known than they probably would have been in the pre-internet age where news traveled more slowly and was less readily accessible.

Rupert Murdoch, founder of News Corporation, would come off as more political since he owns Fox News and the Wall Street Journal. Last week Murdoch posted a tweet reading “Maybe most Moslems peaceful, but until they recognize and destroy their growing jihadist cancer they must be held responsible.” J.K. Rowling, the Harry Potter author, then tweeted back, “I was born Christian. If that makes Rupert Murdoch my responsibility, I’ll auto-excommunicate.” She then compared asking Muslims to be accountable to Jihadists the equivalent of holding Christians accountable for the Spanish Inquisition.

Then there were the double killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. The tension between those who believe Brown and Garner were victims of cops deliberately targeting Black youth as “criminals” versus those who believed Brown and Garner were at least partially to blame for their demise ran high (for the record I was more surprised by the Garner verdict than the Brown one, though I didn’t follow either case closely). After the verdicts athletes like LeBron James, Derrick Rose, and Reggie Bush wore  “I can’t breathe” shirts during pre-game warm-ups last month. Six St. Louis Rams players put their hands up for “hands up, don’t shoot” and angered the police in St. Louis for doing so.

And who can forget earlier in 2014 when the Clippers, during Game 4 against the Golden State Warriors, tossed their warm-ups to the ground and turned their pre-game shirts inside out to hide the Clippers logo over what they believed was a racist comment by then-owner Donald Sterling towards Black people?

The one odd one was Liam Neeson, whose Taken 3 movie was just released in theaters. He told gulfnews.com, “there’s too many [expletive] guns out there, “Especially in America…There’s over 300 million guns. Privately owned, in America. I think it’s a [expletive] disgrace. Every week now we’re picking up a newspaper and seeing, ‘Yet another few kids have been killed in schools.’” Given that his movie involves him shooting guns and is marketed towards a diverse audience I have to believe this will hurt Taken 3’s total take since I believe this comment will be perceived by many to be “Elitist” and “Hypocritical”. A similar situation happened with Exodus and they suffered at the box office because of it.

Where I am going with this is on when otherwise non-political people make political statements and whether it helps or hurts their brand. Rupert Murdoch, whose name and companies have been involved in politics in nature, might be expected to make comments (and his comments probably won’t cost him viewers or readers in the end). Ms. Rowling’s books and movies are already out so I’m not sure how much her tweet at Murdoch will hurt her in the long run. Probably none of the athletes who made statements supporting Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, or Eric Garner will suffer either, but I really do think celebrities should be careful with what they say before taking sides.

So should you be political with your brand, or not? I think it depends on what you want to be known for and who you’re trying to appeal to. Some people benefit by taking public stances on issues, exercising their rights to free speech. Others like to shut up as to not offend anyone. Your personal brand is yours and it’s entirely up to you what you want to do with it. Just accept that stating your opinions in public risks offending people who disagree with you and who will boycott you to make a statement (not saying it’s a bad thing, just stating the obvious here). And in the age of the internet and social media, anything you say absolutely will be used for and against you in the court of public opinion.

Want to Gain Website or Blog Subscribers? How Data Analytic Inaccuracies Could Affect You

Web Analytics can be a powerful tool to help understand what your page visitors are looking for and what they see on your website. Using these tools properly can make the difference between your website(s) increasing page hits and SEO ranking or getting lost in the sea of websites, of which there are close to 1 billion worldwide as of December 2014 (netcraft.com).

But how to get the most accurate number? Below are the two main ways data is collected for websites and how your analytics statistics might be impacted. I’ll keep the tech minimal to focus on the analysis and marketing/branding benefits:

  • Logfiles- data collected by your web server, logged as a text file, independent of the visitor’s browser. Data collection with logfiles suffers when people use dynamic IP addresses, which means someone might visit your page 4 times a day and count as 4 different people, if they cache your page, meaning it’s saved on their browser so it’s like they never left your page and thus their repeat visits are not measured, and if search engine “robots” are accidentally counted as page activity even though they aren’t real people.
  • Page Tags- collects data via the visitor’s web browser and sends that info to remote data-collection servers, usually captured by JavaScript code. Google Analytics uses this method.

Page tag collection is where “cookies” are used. Attaching a “cookie” to a visitor’s web browser is how most website track and collect information on who is visiting, because this is the easiest and best way to obtain demographic information. How else would you know if your visitors were male or female, old or young, or visiting your page from a mobile device or desktop?

The problem is many people delete cookies routinely or set firewalls for their personal or company web browsers. If you use page tag services like GA, data will be incomplete or missing because if this person then visits your site a month later, they will be treated as a totally new user and if they are blocking cookies important data can’t be collected. Also, you have to add the GA tracking code to every webpage you want tracked, or else you won’t have information for that page. Lastly, “Cookie time-outs”, when an analytics vendor must stop collecting data because a page visitor is no longer active on the site, can affect your statistics, as discussed in the previous post.

So what can you do to compensate for these data collection inaccuracies?

  1. Use visit metrics over unique user visits- According to Brian Clifton, author ofAdvanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics, 3rd edition, unique visits can be misleading. His example: You visit a travel booking site to search for plane fares on your personal computer, then make the purchase from your work or office computer, you visits count as two uniques but it’s still one person.
  2. Don’t assume New visitors plus repeat visitors does not equal total visitors- Consider this example: A person makes his first visit to your site then comes back later than that. He counts as both a new and returning visitor but is only one person.
  3. Wait at least 24 hours before checking data-it takes GA 24 hours to sift through the data and paint a more accurate picture of your web visits.
  4. Have a clear privacy policy (or promise not to sell, rent, or voluntarily turn over private information to anyone, except as required by law)-This way people are less likely to delete cookies from your site and mess up your analytics.

In my next post I’ll talk about how to create data spreadsheets with data and I’ll provide some examples. This is an easy and simple way to track your progress.

photo: recarga2.com

Why Understanding Web Traffic is Important to your Website Profile

I want to start off 2015 with a miniseries of articles on data analytics. The reason is because as the Caesar Rodney Institute’s Communications Director I have spent a lot of time going through data analytics for our websites and social media pages (social media analytics will come in a future blogpost). Seeing the data is one thing; knowing how it can benefit your company or personal website is another. All you aspiring authors and personal profile builders out there, you might want to take a few notes. Knowing ways to build your Search Engine Optimization (SEO) can mean the difference between being discovered and going “viral” and being stuck in the bog of roughly 644 million websites worldwide.

For this post I’ll focus on Google Analytics (GA) and the book “Advanced Web Metrics with Google Analytics, 3rd edition” by Brian Clifton (John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2012). Brian is the former head of web analytics for Google Europe, Middle East, and Africa, and I combine his lessons with my own experiences. Most of the newer editors are just slightly updated versions of previous editions, but if you have the chance to pick up a copy I’d recommend it. (author note: I do not benefit in any way from endorsing this book)

The first step in learning to use data analytics is to know why it’s so important for your website profile. Unfortunately many people just see a bunch of numbers and some pie charts and then don’t compare data from past months or try to dig into the data to spot useful trends. GA has over 100 different reports available for downloading and this is a daunting number for the new user.

Not all data points in GA are as useful as others; for example I discovered that, for CRI, measuring the average page visit was not very valuable. Part of this reason is because there is no perfect way to measure exactly how long someone really stays on your page- ever opened a new website in your browser, then gone off to do something else? At some point the website has to cut off your site visit time. Some sites cut it off after 30 minutes of inactivity, some 10.

Some useful data points which can be tracked:

  • Your daily visitor total
  • average conversion rate (if you sell things on your site)
  • top-visited pages
  • where people are searching from (location)
  • where people are searching from (web browser)
  • Your “page stickiness” (how many pages are viewed before a visitor leaves)
  • keywords being used in search engines to find you.

All of this data, and more, help you identify your Key Performance Indicators (KPI). For example, a review of CRI data shows about 1/3 of people who find us via search engine are doing so by looking for us by keywords like “prevailing wage Delaware” or “Delaware government accountability” rather than by our name, which is an indication that there is interest in our policy issues but a lot of those people didn’t know we existed prior to entering those keywords.

Having this information available allows you or your team to figure out what is working and what isn’t working with your pages and make adjustments. So for us, for example, we discovered that we had an increase in total visits in November but a lot of those views were from November 1-20. By being able to break down the month into thirds to view our total page views, we could see that November 21-30 accounted for only 26% of our visits, which we attributed to the Thanksgiving holiday. Knowing the specific cause of the late November drop into early December prevented us from being overly concerned about the drop and then making an irrational decision regarding our online presence.

In the next post I’ll talk about some of the inaccuracies in GA and some ways you can prevent these inaccuracies from adversely affecting your data points. Please feel free to comment below on ways you use data analytics for yourself or your company.

Happy New Year! My Blog’s Resolution

Happy 2015! I want to end the year with one final blogpost to welcome in the New Year and mention what I will be writing about more of in 2015:

  • More social media tips. I’m becoming more of an expert on this from my work and from reading books from industry experts. Check these out if you’re trying to build a personal platform and boost your online presence.
  • Tips on how to use data analytics (Google and otherwise) to better measure results and find out what works and what doesn’t.
  • Better ways to market and advertise.

Whether you follow my blog because you’re an author looking to build an online platform, or a social media/PR professional looking for more tips on branding and using data analytics for work, you should expect more posts from me and more things you can take away.

As always, please subscribe to my page and follow me on Twitter @sammydrf.

Happy New Year!