Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Great American Novel 2.0

It's a brave new world for anyone who has ever harbored the dream of telling a story. Technology is radically transforming the way authors and readers connect. Pittsburgh native Dmitri Ragano tells the tale of writing his mystery 'Employee of the Year' on the frontier of electronic publishing.
By Dmitri Ragano

A few years ago, in my late 30s, I realized that I wanted to write a book.

I was staring into time's horizon, gearing up for the inevitable midlife crisis. I had friends my age who were taking up golf, tinkering with home remodeling or putting in extra time to climb the corporate ladder.

What I really loved hadn't changed much since I was 8 years old. I loved the world of fiction and literature. Growing up on a steady diet of Tolkien, Salinger, Bradbury, Joyce, Kafka and Beckett, I'd been trying to tell my own stories since I was old enough to spell my name.

I spent my 20s and 30s learning to a make a living through an eclectic mix of barely related professions, but my dream of being an author never really died. I still wanted to find my voice and then go out and find an audience. So I decided I was going to give it a try, happily aware that this endeavor might not go anywhere.

What intimidated me about this prospect wasn't actually writing a novel; that was fun. Instead it was everything that I was supposed to do after finishing the manuscript. Contacts in the book publishing industry told me I should plunge into a grueling, endless process of random submissions to literary agents and publishing houses in hopes that, against all odds, someday, somewhere, someone out there might actually read a few pages of my book.

The first thing you need to do is get a hundred rejection letters under your belt, they told me. I was always warned to make sure my novel was "marketable" -- it should be exactly like some other book that has sold well. It should not experiment with genres or contain any unproven themes or ideas that might scare the industry establishment.

For me, creative writing was just a hobby. So the idea that I had to spend my precious free moments butting up against a vast, depersonalized labyrinth was annoying to say the least.

It wasn't the prospect of failing that bothered me. As an unknown author, I knew I was more likely to get struck by lightning than land a book on the best seller list. (I have a screenwriter friend in Los Angeles who already was struck by lightning growing up in Florida. She's fine now and we're trying to figure what this does for her odds of a successful writing career.)

We've all heard about hit novels that made it into print through an impossibly random fluke. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight series only saw the light of day because a new assistant at a literary agency didn't realize the manuscript was way too long for young-adult submission requirements.

What really frustrated me about the impossible odds, the slush piles and the rejection slips was the fact that, like most writers, I wasn't trying to become a star. Most first-time authors just want a chance to find an audience. They know there is probably some community of readers out there that will connect with their work, they just don't know whether it's 50 readers or 50,000 readers.

So it's very important for novelists to have a quick, easy way to put a story out there to find an audience and get some kind of feedback, just like most other creative types. Actors and musicians aren't dependent on the machinery of Hollywood and Broadway to practice their art. There is a whole universe of outlets for them connect with a crowd, from the open mike night to community theater. Why should writers spend years pushing through a wall of faceless gatekeepers to get a chance at sharing their work with readers?

The importance of putting a new creation in an open forum was something I understood well from my "day job" building corporate websites. The iterative process of developing software, observing how people use it and then refining it based on feedback is the lifeblood of the Internet industry.

A new school of management known as Agile supports the theory of creating products in a rapid, flexible and interactive environment. Companies like Google, Amazon and Netflix typically roll out "beta" versions of new business lines, starting a conversation with their customers that will influence the evolution of the product without middlemen or buffers.

Agile is based on interdisciplinary studies where math, computer science and biology intersect, such as Complexity Science and Chaos Theory. One particularly important influence is Cybernetics, a field with origins after World War II, conceived by a diverse group of engineers, neurophysiologists, anthropologists and psychiatrists.

Cybernetics examines all systems that have goals and interact with an environment via feedback mechanisms. This includes the circular process of acting (having an effect on an environment), sensing (checking the response of the environment), evaluating (comparing the current state with the system's goal), and back again to acting.

I realized that there was an obvious connection between my work in the fast-paced world of Internet software and my personal dream of writing a novel. The future belonged to innovators who could interact with their audiences in an Agile work mode.

After all, innovations like Facebook, YouTube, WordPress and Twitter give billions of people a platform to say something, tell a story, test an idea or start a conversation. The William Faulkners and Jane Austens of tomorrow will communicate their art fully expecting the benefits of cybernetics.

Services like Create Space make it easier than ever for first-time authors to publish a professional-looking book for less than $1,000. E-reader devices like the Kindle, Nook and iPad reduce the distribution and inventory costs of books to practically nothing, allowing unknown authors to sell their titles for as little as 99 cents. It's true that do-it-yourself publishing has been around for a while.

But this is bigger than that. This is about critical mass of new ideas coming together at the right time.

At its core, the promise of a Web 2.0 world is about taking storytelling back to a time to when it was grounded in close relationships between authors and readers. Homer, Chaucer and Dante all read their stories for audiences, in their context of the social network. They received their own versions of Facebook "likes" for their authored works in the cities of ancient Greece and medieval Europe. Even after Gutenberg, most books still gained readership from town to town and colony to colony through the 17th- and 18th-century equivalent of "tweets" and "shares."

This isn't to say it's easy to find an audience on your own. Without the resources of a big publisher, I've realized how hard it is to get out word that my book exists. (After all, I have only a finite number of friends and relatives whom I can nag into buying a copy.)

My Internet career taught me the importance of setting specific goals that are ambitious but at least within the realm of possibility. For "Employee of the Year," I will try sell 1,000 copies total. I realize this will be really hard. After all, Nielsen Bookscan statistics show that each year only 20 percent of all books available in the U.S. sell more than 99 copies per title. When it comes to fiction, hardly any novels sell more than 5,000 copies, even with the support of a major publisher.

But the great thing is that, regardless of whether I reach my starry-eyed fantasies, I feel like I've already succeeded in my original intent when I started writing the novel more than two years ago. I've found a way to get my labor of love to a small but warm and receptive community of readers.

Since the book went live last month, I've been approached by friends, acquaintances and even a few strangers who told me they loved the twists and turns of "Employee of the Year" and can't wait for my next mystery. (I also have an uncle who thought the story was lousy. But getting his point-by-point critique was almost as much fun as the praise I've received.)

The most exciting thing about creating books in a Web 2.0 world is that it gives me the space to do what I love to do. Writers trying to tell a good story really want the chance to focus on trying to tell a good story. At the end of the day, that's all you can really ask for.

Dmitri Ragano, a graduate of Allderdice High School, is a writer and Internet professional based in Irvine, Calif. "Employee of the Year" is available on Amazon and

Reprinted from, December 18, 2011 at 12:00 am

Friday, October 28, 2011

"Go the F**k to Sleep" wakes up book industry!

t may have been a “fluke Hit,” but Akashic Books publisher Johnny Temple says Adam Mansbach and Ricardo Cortes’ bestselling kids book parody, Go the F**k to Sleeep, has spent six months on the bestseller lists and has more than 500,000 copies in print. It’s so successful Akashic will publish a real kids’ book based on it next year. While the parody has also spawned a TV sit-com and a horde of copycat titles it is allowing the independent house to stabilize its finances and plan for the future.

In a phone interview with Temple, he said Go the F**k to Sleep has more than 515,000 copies in print and has been licensed internationally to 31 different territories, representing about 27 languages—including the Norwegian dialect of Nynorsk. “it’s hit the bestseller lists of Germany, Australia and the U.K.,” Temple said.
Go The F**k to Sleep has been such a hit, it didn’t take Temple and the book’s creators very long to decide to create a “real kids book” based on the adult parody—“but with no profanity,” Temple said. In April 2012 Akashic will release, Seriously, Just Go to Sleep, an actual kids book that will “have the biggest initial release we’ve ever had. It will likely be tens of thousands of copies with a big promotional push,” he said. Temple described the book as “100% children’s book, rated G. It’s by the same creative team and its still about a parent trying to get a kid to go to sleep.” Temple said the book has similar rhymes and drawings to the parody original, “but they’ve added visual depth and new elements that will really appeal to kids.”
The book has also caught the attention of Hollywood: it’s been optioned for a film by Fox 2000 and Mansbach has sold the book’s concept to CBS for a new situation comedy starring Jerry O’Connell about how the author of a parody kids book ends up becoming a parenting expert. It’s generated a flood of copycat titles as well as “inundating” the publisher with proposals for “kids’ parody books. It’s amazing how many people think they’ve stumbled on a new idea,” Temple said. “It’s not like Go The F**K To Sleep is high literature, but it does have intregity,” said Temple, who was a successful rock musician before he launched Akashic, “every verse and illustration is beautifully conceived. But these copycat titles are like everything that was wrong with the music business—people copying other’s successes.”
Temple praised his distributor Consortium for guiding him through the process of handling a surprise runaway bestselling hit, a process that has wrecked some small presses. Indeed he said, a bigger publisher offered the small house “a $1 million” to takeover the publication of the book. Temple turned them down and said Akashic has made far more money than that. “There was no better better ally during a stressful situation than Consortium,” said Temple. Indeed, the book has generated so much income, Temple said he can look down the road and make plans around the houses’ future and offer his hardworking staff something rare for a small house—more money.
Akashic has signed with Benay Enterprises, an accounting and managing firm that manages the back office affairs of such independent publishers as Granta, Steerforth Press, Soho Press and the Overlook Press. “We’ve needed this a long time but couldn’t afford to do it,” Temple said, “I’m trying not to grow too fast. We’ve been unstable financially but now we can tuck some money away. We won’t get into bidding wars over authors but now we can pay the staff long-overdue bonuses. They work so hard—myself included—it’s just not sustainable; there’s a risk of burnout around here.”

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

UCLA Physicist Applies Physics To Best-selling Books

UCLA physicist and complex systems theorist Didier Sornette, who used statistical physics and mathematics to analyze 138 books that made's best-seller list between 1997 and April 2004. His team's initial results are published in Physical Review Letters Nov. 26.

"Complex systems can be understood, and the book market is a complex system," said Sornette, a professor of earth and space sciences, and a member of UCLA's Institute of Geophysics and Planetary Physics. "Each buyer is not predictable, but complex networks have a degree of predictability."

Best-selling books typically reach their sales peaks in one of two ways. The less potent way is by what Sornette calls an "exogenous shock," which is brief and abrupt. An example is "Strong Women Stay Young" by Dr. Miriam Nelson, which peaked on the list the day after a favorable review in the Sunday New York Times. A second example is Sornette's own 2002 book, "Why Stock Markets Crash: Critical Events in Complex Financial Systems," which spiked following a favorable review by Jon Markman on CNBC and "On Jan. 17, 2003, my book was ranked 2,000-something and then suddenly it was No. 17," Sornette recalled. "A few hours later, it was in the top 10. As a physicist, it looked to me like an exogenous shock to the system."

Sales are typically greater, however, when a book benefits from what Sornette calls an "endogenous shock," which progressively accelerates over time, and is illustrated in the book business by favorable word-of-mouth. Such books rise slowly, but the sales results are more enduring, and the decline in sales is slower and more much gradual, he found.

An example includes "The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood," which reached the best-seller list two years after it was published, without the benefit of a major marketing campaign. The book was popular with book clubs and inspired women to form "Ya-Ya Sisterhood" groups of their own. A second example is Nora Roberts' novel, "Heaven and Earth (Three Sisters Island Trilogy)," which peaked only after a slow rise and also fell slowly, which Sornette attributes to word of the book spreading among friends and family.

The slower peaks tend to generate more sales over time, Sornette said.

"Word-of-mouth can spread like an epidemic," he said.

The trajectories of many books' rankings are combinations of both kinds of peaks, Sornette says, which suggests that an effective, well-timed marketing campaign could combine with a strong network to enhance sales.

A specialist in the scientific prediction of catastrophes in a wide range of complex systems, Sornette said his model for analyzing peaks and falls in book sales is very similar to one he uses to understand earthquakes. He has applied techniques of physics to economic data, and has developed a quantitative model that can predict the signatures of a coming stock market crash.

"Is it possible to derive a quantitative law of how book sales behave?" Sornette asks. "We have derived a law of how a sale's shock to the system will jump up and decline over time. The books we analyzed behaved the same way. We can statistically predict how the system will evolve, how sales peaks can emerge, and we can predict the expected decline slope for books that rise sharply."

Sornette hopes this research will provide insights into complex physical systems, and will shed light on scientific questions in geophysics, biology and climatology. Sornette, who is also a research director at the University of Nice's National Center for Scientific Research in his native France, has written or co-written more than 350 papers in scholarly journals.

Complex systems in nature experience catastrophic events, such as earthquakes and climate change, but it can be difficult for scientists to tell whether these events are caused by natural, internal fluctuations or shocks from external forces. Sornette's team's success in distinguishing between internal and external causes suggests that it can be done for other extreme events in complex networks as well, he said.


Sornette's Web site is:

Friday, May 6, 2011

Lincoln Parks hosts Summer Writer's Workshop and Conference

A cool summer workshop for young writers:

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Amazon Makes More Waves in the Publishing Industry

It has been my pleasure to help many of my clients publish their books this past year, and a number of them have chosen to self-publish, partly due to Amazon's revolutionary free platform called Create Space.

Now, Amazon has announced that it is expanding its publishing arm once again by launching Montlake Romance in fall 2011 (with plans to deepen its category publishing to mystery, science fiction, and thrillers). This has many in the publishing business talking about the company’s hiring strategies. And agents have been eyeing the unfolding process closely, trying to gauge whether the retailer will become as viable a place for their books as traditional houses.

Publisher's Weekly reports as follows:

For weeks job openings at Amazon, in both editorial and publicity, have been posted online, offering positions in Seattle and New York. Rumors have surfaced that the company is recruiting a New York publishing staff and is on the hunt for a high-level executive to be the publisher of its expanded publishing wing. Amazon confirmed that it will be handling its own distribution, and that Victoria Griffith is publisher of the new Montlake imprint.

A rep for the company, who noted that Amazon "has had a New York office for some time," said that "some" of the publishing jobs with the company will be based in New York. While the rep would not comment on when Amazon will launch the other planned genre imprints, rumors have been floating that the company has already closed a deal with an author, for a sizable sum, for either its thriller or mystery imprint.

A number of sources inside New York publishing houses said there was a sour feeling about the way Amazon has, to this point, gone about its employee search. The company sent a form letter to a number of senior executives, some within the same publisher, inquiring if they would be interested in working for Amazon.

While some sources scoffed that a suite of Amazon imprints could establish respect in the industry—one insider said Amazon's publishing efforts would likely be seen as a “proprietary bookseller-publisher pretty far down the food chain of quality publishers”—agents were less damning.

One agent noted that Amazon is uniqeuly positioned to promote authors and books in a way traditional houses are not—through content on its Web site as well as by tapping into information about its customers' book-buying habits. For this reason, this agent said, there is a certain appeal to selling a book to them. He noted, though, that “when any new publishing company or imprint is created, I generally like to wait and see how they’re going to do before placing my authors’ intellectual property there.”

Regarding distribution, questions linger about whether print books from Amazon could find their way into Barnes & Noble or the independents, since both see the company as their most significant competition. One source said it would be presumptuous to assume that B&N would not stock a book simply because Amazon published it, while others added that, for the right title, having no distribution in B&N or the independents would not seriously damage sales anyway.

B&N did not respond to e-mails about whether it will carry Montlake titles. Some independent booksellers are already saying they will never carry a book published by Amazon. "Nobody that sells books needs to do business with Amazon. We don't carry titles by our competitors. We don't carry Barnes & Noble titles. Why would we carry Amazon?" said Geoffrey Jennings of the Fairway. Kans., Rainy Day Books. He added: "It doesn't matter how big you make the press, a vanity press is still a vanity press."

Steve Bercu, of Austin's BookPeople, said it is unlikely he would carry an Amazon title. "They haven't exactly endeared themselves to retailers. Maybe they're looking forward to a happy future collecting sales tax when 100% of retailers aren't mad at them."

Another insider said he thinks Amazon will likely start to “acquire big names in the editorial ranks as well as make runs at big authors.” He added: “And I think agents would sell to them, especially since they’ll probably spend big money.” Amazon has proven recently that, for the right author, it is willing to pay a lot.

After St. Martin’s Press closed a reported $4 million four-book deal with self-publishing sensation Amanda Hocking, word leaked that Amazon had put in a competitive bid in an attempt to land the author. “They probably know enough about the book business by now to do as well as, or better, than the old-school houses,” said another agent, acknowledging that he would probably sell a book to Amazon.

Of course, as the previous insider guessed, it may come down to money on the table. Yet another agent said: “The big question is whether Amazon will pay advances, and at what level. And, of course, what will their tolerance of risk be as a publisher.”

Source: Publisher's Weekly

Wednesday, April 20, 2011



Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Authors are Social Media Masters . . . or, They Should Be

There are six essential elements for successful digital marketing and when used together they make for a powerful combination. Each element is important on its own, but when you use all six together you will see a strategy that is effective, scalable and long term.

  • Website -- A professional website is the single most important step towards your digital marketing plan. Your website is your homebase, so make sure it is updated regularly and is current. Use your site as a platform for all other activities. Post your blog and photos along with links to your social networks. Always remember your audience when developing content. If a person cares enough to come to your site, you need to make sure their trip was worth the effort.
  • eNewsletter -- email is still the most powerful digital tool. Every single author should have an enewsletter. You should collect as many email addresses of your readers as you can. Overtime email addresses of your readers will be a huge asset. You can communicate with your readers through a regular enewsletter sent either once a month or once every 3 months. Just keep those lines of communication open.
  • Blog -- A blog is the best way to share your expertise and drive traffic to your site. Use your blog on your own website along with posting it on an important high-traffic website as a guest post. Everyone needs content, and it never hurts to ask a popular blog if they want to run your blog post. Blogs don't have to be long, 500-700 words tend to be the most popular lengths.
  • Facebook -- Every author should have a Facebook fan page so they can socialize and communicate with their readers. It's an important element of digital marketing and honestly at 520 million people, you can't afford to ignore it. Along with being a great place to build community, Facebook fan pages also offer Insights a great tool for monitoring your audience and your interactions.
  • Video -- There is not a better or easier way to show your passion and personality than video. It can be fun content for your Facebook fan page, your blog, and your website. Remember to post it on YouTube as well.
  • Twitter -- I know many authors are intimidated by Twitter, but it's a fabulous way to share resources and develop a following. I find Twitter to be an incredible tool for listening and for doing market research. You can listen to your readers, find out what other people are doing and saying, and build a relationship with current and future readers.

If you chose not to participate in digital marketing and social media, you are only hurting yourself and your readers. There are millions of people on social networks; they don't miss you, but you are missing out if you ignore them.

Digital marketing is a wonderful way to connect with people who care about your work. Just remember that all six elements of digital marketing working together will produce the best results. There are no short cuts here, but it is all well worth the investment of time and attention.

SOURCE: Fauzia Burke for Huffington Post. Burke is the Founder and President of FSB Associates, a publicity and social media firm specializing in creating awareness for books and authors on the web.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011


"Two questions form the foundation of all novels:

What if?
What next?

(A third question, What now?, is one the author asks himself every 10 minutes or so; but it's more a cry than a question.)

Every novel begins with the speculative question, What if 'X' happened?

That's how you start."

--Tom Clancy