Sunday, February 10, 2013

An Open Letter to Barnes and Noble (redux)

With all the buzz about B&N's plight these days, I decided to resurrect an open letter that four of us wrote to Microsoft last May after they announced they would be B&N's white knight. Every suggestion we made has been ignored. Not that they should listen to us, of course. Then again, our recommendations weren't rocket science. Most authors and readers could have come up with the same thoughts. Including the folks who work for B&N. Will this time be different? I'm not sanguine. Anyway, here it is. Comments welcome.

Dear Microsoft,

Now that you’ve come to the rescue of Barnes and Noble (and it clearly needs rescuing), I asked a few friends to help me write this letter with our suggestions going forward. We’ve all been thinking about these issues for a while, so we hope you’ll take them in the spirit with which they’re offered.

With me are:

Rebecca Crowley, founder of RTC Publicity in NYC (full disclosure: she’s my publicist). She started her career at Penguin Group, USA but in 2004, founded RTC Publicity. With over a decade of experience in public relations and a specialization in books, Rebecca manages both traditional marketing and social marketing campaigns.
Ruth Harris is a New York Times bestselling author whose books have sold millions of copies in hard cover and paperback editions.  Translated into 19 languages, Ruth's books were Literary Guild, Book-of-the-Month Club and book club selections around the world. She’s also a former Editor, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher at Big Six and independent NY publishers.
CJ West is the very successful author of six thrillers, including THE END OF MARKING TIME. His first novel has been optioned for film. In a prior life, he helped companies solve computer networking and information management problems with firms including Arthur Andersen.
I am both a traditionally published and indie published author with 10 novels and about 20 short stories published. I’ve been nominated for a bunch of awards, and I even won a few. I spend most of my non-writing time online these days.
While I asked everyone to give me their suggestions separately, what’s pretty amazing is that all three (four if you count me) came up with virtually the same issues.

First, some general observations:
Rebecca says: I have been working with the national and regional level at B & N since the start of my career. Although we share the same goal (to sell books), over the past 9 months B & N has gotten increasingly tough to deal with. Last fall they stopped accepting events from indie authors altogether, restricting themselves to the big 6. Self-published authors always have a hard time getting their books in stores. And E-books are not selling for Nook at the pace of Kindle Books.
CJ says: Generally B&N is losing the technology and marketing battle with Amazon. B&N brings a bookstore mentality to the e-publishing business and their exclusivity has cost them the support of many indie writers.
Libby: The B&N website is clunky, not at all user-friendly, and unattractive. It’s way too difficult to find book descriptions, rankings, and reviews. Nook First, which could be a fabulous program is too restrictive. The data on the B&N website itself is often inaccurate. (E.g: my new book A BITTER VEIL was not available for over a week and when it finally showed up, its price was listed at $70.00, not $16. Really.)  Finally, it’s impossible to talk to a real person or customer service rep.

Affiliates Program
CJ: B&N missed the boat here. They had the chance to build a community around books, but didn’t do it. For example, Amazon has Kindle Boards for authors, a multitude of Customer Discussion boards as well as self-help topics. B&N has very little of this. I was an Affiliate for a while, but then they “lost” my credentials and suddenly became persona non grata. It wasn’t worth it to continue.
Libby: Comparing the Nook Boards to Amazon’s, the Nooks’ are flat and uninspiring and quite restrictive. They are not a pleasant “destination” in the way the Kindle Board and discussion groups are.
Rebecca suggests strengthening the programs by offering larger incentives to reviewers/industry insiders when they create websites/blogs specific to Nook promotion. She also suggests that B&N license and promote genre specific book clubs and offer incentives to join them.

Author Programs
All four of us are dissatisfied with B&N’s Author program.
Libby asks “What Author program?” With Amazon’s Author Central, you can talk to a real person within seconds. B&N and Pubit have nothing like this in place. ALL of us suggest much a stronger author department.
Rebecca suggests a Nook branded Author Central profile program, which should be dynamic, easy to upload. It should allow YouTube embeds, as well as other videos, Author Q&As, and even a "Conversation Corner" -- where people can directly email author thru a closed email system.
Ruth agrees and suggests an “author concierge department” which permits contact via email or phone & allows follow-up with the same person. Authors could have a personal Nook rep/butler. This dept should be located in the US and employ native English-speaking reps. It will help create American jobs.
Rebecca also suggests a partnership with authors for Nook give-aways that would allow authors to buy Nooks at cost in exchange for promotional give-aways.

Nook First/Other programs
Ruth thinks it’s great program… and wants more like it.
Libby agrees but thinks it’s too limited at the moment (Only romance authors as far as I know) and needs to be expanded. She thinks a month is a perfect time to be exclusive with one vendor. It’s much better than the 90 day Kindle Select requirement.
Rebecca agrees Nook First should be expanded and suggests other programs as well, including
• A “real deals” section
• A program like the Kindle Daily Deal would work wonders
• As would B & N genre-specific book clubs that would offer incentives to readers who join.

Website Organization/ Display
Ruth believes there should be more bestseller lists that can be sliced & diced in different ways for two reasons: Authors would have a better chance to make a list, and readers will be able to find a wider variety of books that interest them
Ruth also believes that authors and readers should see the SAME category lists. There should be MORE categories in general, and authors should be permitted to create their “own” categories now that so many cross-over genres are being written.
Rebecca would like to see more prominent links between printed books and ebooks, especially when it comes to reviews. She also believes reviews should have a more prominent placement on the page.

Other Issues
Rebecca believes that if brick and mortar stores are here to stay, virtual book events are the way to go. B&N should schedule skype and/or video chats and provide ways to download e-books in-store.
Rebecca also thinks the organization should sponsor break-out tours that link the printed book and e-book (often people buy e-books after seeing the corresponding review of the printed book)
CJ: Microsoft is a smart company. If they could figure out a way to build an e-publishing tool into Word, they can give a boost to the EPUB standard and deliver enormous benefits for the Nook. They should also consider building in an EPUB viewer compatible with the B&N store that snaps into every version of Windows.

So, Dear Microsoft, we hope you’ll take note of our suggestions and ideas. We've really just skimmed the surface, and we're happy to answer questions. We believe a healthy competitor to Amazon is always a good thing, and, over time, B&N could become that competitor.

Good luck and best wishes,

Libby, Ruth, Rebecca, and CJ

Friday, January 18, 2013

Writing Murder

Today's Guest blogger is S. M. Harding, author of 24 published short stories, photographer, and editor of  Writing Murder, a collection of essays by Midwest crime and mystery authors. The handy primer on the art of crime fiction is based on a successful lecture program held at the Mystery Company in Carmel Indiana. (Disclaimer:  I am a contributor.) 
Michael Dymmoch

This is what S. M. has to say:

"When it comes to writing crime fiction, I dislike rules. The kind that say, “You must have a body (preferably dead) in the first chapter.” I know you know what I mean: how-to writing books that are rule-bound, prescriptive, and formulaic.
As a teacher most of my life, I tried to give students the basics and then say “Go play.” I tried to give them a toolbox that they could dip into to pick and choose. Basics they could use in different ways. When I started writing crime fiction, what I wanted was a toolbox – clear, precise delineations of craft that could find different applications.
Some of the questions I had were: How can I raise the suspense level in this sagging middle? My opening sucks – what can I do to hook the reader? I’ve written a character that has less personality than a cardboard cutout – how can I breathe some life into him?
I’ve finally found my ideal toolbox: Writing Murder.
(Disclaimer: I edited the book, so I may be a tad biased.)
The book began as a series of classes at The Mystery Company, Jim Huang’s bookstore in Carmel, Indiana. Each author not only presented a wonderful class, but then wrote an essay for the book. Each of them donated their work to the Writers’ Center of Indiana, publisher of Writing Murder and co-sponsor of the lecture series. Profits from the book go to support WCI outreach programs to writers, schools and prisons of central Indiana.
Outfit members Michael Allen Dymmoch (“The Bloody Ends: Killer Openings, Killer Endings”) and Libby Hellmann (“Building Suspense”) join Jeanne Dams, Phil Dunlap, Kit Ehrman, Terence Faherty, Dana Kaye, William Kent Krueger, Beverle Graves Myers, Tony Perona, Mary Saums, Sharon Short, Barbara Shoup, and Mark Richard Zubro to offer wonderful essays in voices all their own.
Mystery author Barbara D’Amato said: “Writing Murder is a wonderful read. I found something helpful in every essay. They call it a basic guide, but there is useful material here for the beginner or the much-published author.” I agree.
So, if you’ve been playing with “this idea” for a story, start with the Introduction and with each essay, begin to fill in that idea. Get the toolbox and write – after all, we’re facing the post-holiday doldrums and what could be better than spending time with your own fictional characters?"

Writing Murder is available on Amazon, or directly from the Writers’ Center of Indiana at indianawriters dot org.