Tag Archives: San Francisco Writers Conference

Want to Get Published? Sell More Books? You Need This: Q&A w Mike Larsen

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Feeling a little fatigued or overwhelmed by the sheer amount of publishing advice out there today? There are so many options that it can leave us creative types wanting to bury our heads and surrender. But that’s not an option. Whether you plan to self publish or to garner an agent and secure a publishing deal—small or big house—you need to get on top of your own brand, marketing plan, sales goals, and platform. It’s a new world order demanding that we balance our time between business and creating. It’s not easy for everyone to juggle. Which means that some extremely talented writers may push out a book that fizzles out with low sales, making it more challenging to publish later with traditional houses. If that’s happened to you, don’t give up until you consider all the other areas to your writing career that you may not be on top of yet. For advice, I turned to Mike Larsen, author, agent with Larsen-Pomada Literary Agency since 1972, and currently an author coach.

I met Mike at the San Francisco Writers Conference (SFWC) this past February. If you don’t know Mike, and you’re a writer, you need to get to know him and his work. He is the author of How to Write a Book Proposal, which is in its fourth edition and has sold more than 100,000 copies. He also wrote How to Get a Literary Agent and coauthored Guerrilla Marketing for Writers: 100 Weapons for Selling Your Work. Mike and wife Elizabeth Pomada also coauthored the six book Painted Ladies series about Victorian houses, selling more than 500,000 copies. As agents from 1972-2015, Larsen-Pomada, sold hundreds of books to hundreds of publishers and imprints, before declining to accept new clients in 2015. As an author coach, and co-founder of the SFWC, Mike speaks at writing conferences across the country and firmly believes writers need to support and network with other writers.

Being on both aisles of publishing as an agent and an author since the 1970s—as well as currently coaching authors—Mike has a wide-range view of the industry and solid, positive advice. Today’s marketplace demands that authors do more than ever to make their books succeed—even when securing a book deal with a publishing house. For many, it’s hard to navigate time spent on business and promotion (and what that looks like or costs), verses time spent on the craft (why we are doing this in the first place). Time spent on promotion can often induce fear, thwarting, or delaying, time spent on creation. This is why inspiring writers conferences where experts such as Mike speak, are so important. (See Mike this June at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference.)

 I firmly believe, as Mike does, that writing is a life-long, ever-evolving career. You and I are already a success if we love what we do and have found the way to carve time out every week to create. Control what you can, with a positive mindset, and embrace Mike’s belief that “Now is the best time ever to be a writer.”

         Skeptical? Fearful? Daunted? Then this Q&A is for you!

Q: Friends who self publish and have not broken even financially moan about how much money they invested in marketing, editing, cover art and design, SEO optimization, travel, promotion and printing. I suggested they teach for additional income. What advice do you have for them?  

MIKE: Writers have more ways to earn money from their books than ever: movie, audio and foreign rights; a blog or newsletter that attracts advertising. For nonfiction authors, speaking, coaching, consulting, training for individuals and groups, online or off, may be a possibility. Get to know other authors in your field and see what they are doing. Maybe you can partner with them.

Q: I’m assuming that you are not just suggesting submitting to online writing contests, but are referring to crowdfunding publishing options and Patreon?

MIKE: They may be able to bring in additional funds through those tools. But an author needs to learn who his/her readers are, where they are, and reach them on the platforms were they congregate: video, podcasts, or blogging, and social media.

Writers need to go events. They can give readings or interviews, attend book clubs, in person or by phone or Skype. Whether writers self-publish or sell their books to a publisher, the challenge of promotion will be mostly on their shoulders. Big and midsize publishers expect authors to be on top of their promotion. Being as visible as possible in as many ways and places helps sell books. Writers have to look at building their platform as an investment in their career.

Q: Some of my friends cringe at the idea of using Patreon as an additional revenue stream, as if it is the equivalent of begging.

MIKE: It’s high-tech patronage. Hundreds of years ago, it was fashionable for patrons to support artists whose work they enjoyed. Patrons have a deep appreciation for the arts: for playwrights, authors, painters, musicians. One must build up a following first. Then fans will want to contribute to help you keep writing. I think it is brilliant, especially at a time when writers are often expected to write for free. Writing is a noble endeavor that takes time, skill and effort. It deserves support.

Q: As a former agent and now a coach, where do you see writers most often slipping up? What are the most common mistakes writers make?

MIKE: New writers usually have no platform or promotion plan. They have to know more and do more than ever, including building communities of fans and writers. The moment you decide to write a book, maximize your visibility platform. They need clear writing and publishing goals. How big a house do you want? Do you want to self-publish? How many copies do you want to sell? At what price? Be consistent in how you communicate, building a brand to create your identity as a writer.

Q: It sounds like you’re saying writers need to take charge of their career and treat it like a business and write a business proposal.

MIKE: Yes. And it’s also important for writers to stay visible and accessible. Go to events. Support other writers, network, stay engaged. There are so many opportunities for writers to build communities of fans. But they have to be both writers and merchants, and balance between the yin and the yang of creating and writing with sharing their passion for the value of their books.

Q: Any other advice to budding authors trying to publish traditionally?

MIKE: Agents and editors need to know two recent, successful books that prove that your book is salable. Publishers are relying on authors. Prove that you can promote the book. The bigger the house you want, the more they will expect of you. If you’ll be happy with a small house, platform and promotion aren’t as important.    

Q: Parting words of advice?

MIKE: You can do anything you want. Social media can make any book sell. Be clear about where you want to go and the best way to get there. Assume it will take you five books to build an audience. Find an author to model your career after. Keep turning out books that sell each other. If you love what you do and keep doing it, nothing can stop you.

 

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Voice, Authenticity & the Right to Write

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Is it OK for a writer to create main characters of the opposite sex, sexual orientation or with a different ethnic background from her own? Is it believable? Will the readers trust the voice of the protagonist? And IF I write a novel where the characters live in another country, is that stepping too far outside of my zone of authenticity? Since both of my novels that I’m currently selling to agents have crossed these barriers, have I now become an author that is too hard to sell in todays restrictive fiction marketplace?

These are questions that kept surfacing for me while at the San Francisco Writer’s Conference this past weekend. First, let me say Wow! What an amazing four day journey! The SFWC had more than 100 workshops, pitches to agents, meetings with editors, authors, publicists, experts and lectures by famous authors, poets at the Mark Hopkins Hotel on Nob Hill. There were hundreds of authors from all over the globe with manuscripts in hand. The level of creativity was intoxicating. I highly recommend writers go next year!

What I heard from agents, and a few published authors, however, was confusing. Two agents (after hearing my short pitch) told me I would be ‘hard to sell’ to top 5 publishers because my main character of Between Thoughts of You is a Japanese-Hawaiian woman and I’m not Hawaiian. Yup. These comments were made before reading a word of the manuscript and without asking me why I chose this character, or how much research I did, or how I felt compelled to create this person who is a strong, yet gentle and spiritual female—the perfect combination to be the hospice nurse to trigger an old man who misses the love of his life, a Japanese woman he met after WW11.

A published author who spoke at the conference, expressed her trepidation over crossing ethnic and socio-economic barriers in her first novel inspired by an NPR story. Because her protagonist was a woman from Mexico and she, a college-educated, middle class woman from San Francisco, she said she feared whether she had the right to create her. “I worried. Who am I to write about someone from Guatemala or Mexico?” she said to a large audience of writers.

As a journalist who studied with the BBC in London, researched documentary journalists such as John McPhee, and who studied and published with the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Maine, where I was asked to live with islanders and sailors for months and write about them, I was dumbfounded by her statement. I sat in the audience and thought, “Who are you NOT to write about a Mexican immigrant?”

IF a writer is inspired by a true story and wants to fictionalize the experience to create more awareness, the writer is hearing a calling. IF a story beckons to the writer, it will become inflamed with passion and purpose. And IF, even in the face of fear and doubts, the writer can’t kick the idea of the story, much like a buzzing of a bee at his ear, then the writer must follow the calling and write the damn story. The mission, then, becomes to open the eyes and hearts of the reader so that they can become compassionate towards a human whose experience they might not otherwise care about. I would then say that it becomes imperative that we cross those borders, of ethnicity, walk that tightrope of place and voice as an author, to enter into the international language of emotion. And, of course, much research needs to be done to make the voice of the writer and the sense of place and location believable. But this is achievable.

It’s not surprising that my first novel Lucifer’s Laughter, a murder mystery and my MFA thesis when in New York, has a main character that is a lobsterman in Maine. I lived there and documented that region and had been a crime reporter for years prior. My second novel, Uriel’s Mask, is inspired by a newspaper article I read back in 1991 when I was a reporter in North Carolina. I kept the newspaper clipping with me through multiple moves, knowing I would write about this character, an illiterate daughter of a freed slave, who created masks in honor of the spirits who visited her while she sat by the French Broad River in Asheville. See, I knew that I’d write about her one day, but I didn’t know exactly how. It was a story that called to me. In Uriel’s Mask, her masks (like in real life) are sold in New York, allowing all her grandchildren to become educated. One of the main characters is a southern black man, a talented musician and her grandchild, who becomes one of the first black students at University of North Carolina. As a southerner, Uriel’s Mask, may be easier to ‘sell’ to agents, but I am not black, nor am I a man or the grandchild of a freed slave. And, to make things more complicated (I write with a laugh) I also created a side character who I adore. He is a gay man having an affair with a married man in the closet. Once inside Chris’s head, we see his heart, so full and kind. At the children’s library where he works, he is more patient and compassionate with the children then most of the strict, uptight southern mothers.

When we step outside our comfort zone and allow ourselves to see another viewpoint—to enter into the heart and mind of another human being—we accept the fact that there really are no chasms too great to justify our differences, our racism, our sexism, our superior judgements.

So my reaction to the agents who want authors to look like their main characters is this: Give us a chance. If a writer does a lot of research, like a documentary journalist, there is no location too far, or background too different, to write about. We would not have Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden (as Michael Larsen, Co-Founder of the SFWC so kindly pointed out to me) or The Pearl by John Steinbeck, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William Styron’s Sophie’s Choice, Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland,or even the JK Rowling Harry Potter series.

To write Between Thoughts of You, my latest novel and the one I pitched at the SFWC, I returned to Italy, I travelled four times to Hawaii, and I researched WW11 documents regarding northern California internment camps for the elite of the German, Italian and Japanese forces to await trial. So much research went into this book that called to me simply from a conversation with a dying old man I once loved. Our conversation in Tuscany was one where he pondered how his life would have evolved, had he followed his heart, and not his fear, after the War. If he had married his true love, what would have happened? Another inspiration for the novel came from conversations with an 89-year-old German woman whose father was high up in the SS. She, her mother and father were sent to a Northern California camp after the War…Both stories merged in my consciousness and birthed the idea behind Between Thoughts of You. It is the story that called to me. It is the story that only I could tell. And it is one fueled by the power of love, the destructive forces of fear, and the dying desire to follow one’s heart.

These are universal truths no matter sex, sexual orientation, or ethnic background—for the characters & the writer. 🙂

If you enjoyed this conversation, you may also be interested in the following articles:

When Authors Create Title Characters of the Opposite Sex, HuffPost.

The Four Rs of Writing Characters of the Opposite Gender Writers Digest.

Whose Life is it Anyway? Novelists Have Their Say on Cultural Appropriation The Guardian.

Should Authors Write Characters Outside Their Race? The Good Man Project.