Debut Author lessons: Signing stock for bookstores

This entry is part 1 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

I spent much of today tromping around Manhattan and heading into bookstores to sign copies of Shades of Milk and Honey. Interesting thing about selling a book: your job doesn’t stop there.

The reason I trekked over the city is that signing books at a store does a number of things:

  1. It makes it easy to meet the staff
  2. Autographed books are placed face out
  3. They tend to sell better
  4. There are typically fewer bookstore returns of signed books
  5. Let me repeat the bit about meeting the staff. They are the ones who can handsell your book to a customer.

Blake Charlton and Paolo Bacigalupi took me on a ride-along when they dropped in to sign stock in Boston.  Watching them was interesting especially since I’d no clue how to go about it.

Here are the steps as I understand them for a drop-in signing, as opposed to a pre-arranged visit.

  1. Find your book on the shelf
  2. Carry the books to the nearest information desk
  3. Introduce yourself, ask if they want you to sign them.
  4. They will say yes.
  5. Have your own pen. Be charming while signing (Blake is very good at this) and thank them.

Today I employed those steps and hit the Barnes and Nobles in town. All of the ones in Manhattan have signed copies now, except for the 86th street store which was already sold out of Shades of Milk and Honey.  (Yay!) Tomorrow, in between meetings, I’ll hit the independent stores. Or rather, I and my phone will find out which stores carry it.

Any other useful tricks?

Debut Author Lessons: The importance of Brick and Mortar stores

This entry is part 2 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

People have already been asking when the sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey is coming out. I have an answer for you. Glamour in Glass is going to come out in early 2012.

The reason that the release has been pushed back is that there aren’t as many copies of Shades of Milk and Honey out as we would like for the initial print run. I mentioned that some stores are already sold out. That’s good, but I should also mention that they are sold out of all two copies.  By pushing the release of the second book out, we’re giving more of a chance for demand to build.

It’s interesting, I didn’t realize how much brick and mortar sales matter but they are really important for a number of reasons.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  1. Bookstores pay attention to what books walk out the door.
  2. They keep a log of what people request.
  3. If people special order a book, there’s a fair chance that the bookseller might stock a second copy.
  4. If enough people request or order the book, the bookseller is more likely to read and then handsell the book.
  5. Shoppers will browse in a bookstore in ways that they don’t in online stores.
  6. A book on the shelf has a greater chance of being picked up on an impulse buy, thus widening the audience.

So, it turns out that generally speaking buying a book from a brick and mortar store is better for the author than ordering it online. While the royalty amount doesn’t change, what does change is the engagement of the sales force which can lead to higher sales. Plus, a good bookstore will be able to pair books with appropriate readers.

In other words, if you like an author — any author — and want to see a book succeed, go to your local brick and mortar store and ask for the book.

Debut Author Lessons: 10 things about signing books

This entry is part 3 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

One of the ways that an author connects to the reader is by signing books.  Here are some of the things that I’ve learned about signing things — not having a signing event, but the actual act of autographing.

  1. Pick a pen color other than black. Collectors and book sellers tell me that when a customer picks up a book to look for the autograph that it’s easier to spot when it’s not the same color as the rest of the book.
  2. Get a permanent pen with archival ink. What permanent means is that you want a pen which won’t smear.  Archival pens… Some pens have a little bit of acid in the ink which causes things to degrade. To avoid that, when buying your pen look for ones that say “Acid-Free” or “Archival Safe”
  3. Always carry the pen with you. I have been asked to sign books in the oddest places.
  4. Carry bookplates with you. Particularly at conventions, I’ve already had people say that they would have brought the book if they’d known I was going to be there.  Being able to offer a book plate on the spot has pleased folks.
  5. Practice your signature. I spent years signing posters after elementary school shows. For that I had to have a legible signature because it frustrated the kids, for whom reading was new, to be unable to read what I’d written.  Most authors don’t and that’s no big deal. The point is that you need to be able to sign something while talking to the person.
  6. Have about three stock phrases of varying lengths that you can rotate when personalizing books. Again, this is all about being able to chat while writing.
  7. Sign on the title page. If you are signing an anthology, sign on the first page of your story.
  8. Date all your signatures during the first month. A collector told me that the closer to release day a book is signed, the more valuable it is. I had no idea. He suggested dating all signatures during the first month of release, by default
  9. Always ask people to spell their names, even if you know them. The number of ways to misspell names like Tracy, Traci, Tracey, or Tracie are astounding. When you are a debut author you will be missing half your brain and will misspell your own name at least once.
  10. Have a different signature for your legal signature. Your autograph will wind up on the internet on ebay. Having a different one for legal papers, checks or credit cards reduces the chances of identity theft.

For readers:

  1. Put a postit with the name you want the book address to on the page you want the author to sign.
  2. Hand the book to them with it open to the page you want them to sign.
  3. Don’t be surprised when they have only half a brain, particularly if it is a new author.

Readers or writers, what other tricks do you have?

Debut Author Lessons: Mail and P.O. Boxes

This entry is part 4 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

I had not planned to get a P.O. box.  Truly, I just hadn’t thought about how I wanted to handle folks who wanted to have things signed.

My plan, if I had one, was that if someone needed to mail me things that I would just give them my home address.  Since I’m not comfortable listing my home address on the website, this adds an extra layer of complication to receiving things. Not a big one, granted, but it means that folks needed to email me before they could mail me. It’s silly.

So, I decided to get a P.O. box. Here’s what I’ve learned about them.

  1. A P.O. box is not expensive. The box I got is only $55 for six months. I had thought that the monthly expense would be much higher.
  2. Boxes come in multiple sizes. The #3 is large enough for a magazine to lay down flat and hence can easily hold manuscripts and novels. I’ll let you know if the #3 turns out to be too small, but the Postal worker I talked to seemed to think it would work well based on the other authors that frequent this post office. Who knew there were so many.
  3. There’s a waiting list for P.O. boxes that varies from post office to post office. Mine said their wait was between 2 days to 2 months. I got it about two weeks after I applied.
  4. You can apply online. I applied in person, but golly online is so much easier.
  5. Small downside. This does mean I have to go to the post office on a regular basis to check it. The box is easy walking distance and I pass it on my way to the library so this is a small thing.

Overall, this is going to be something that will vary between individual authors.  If you do decide to get a P.O. box, I’d suggest that you apply well in advance and pick someplace that you will routinely pass.

And finally, my mailing address is:

Mary Robinette Kowal
P.O. Box 221298
Chicago, IL 60622

Debut Author Lessons: The Q & A

This entry is part 5 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

I’ve been attending readings at conventions and booktours for years now. So when I started doing my own readings I followed more or less the model that I’d seen others do. First I’d read, then I’d ask if there were any questions.

I got pretty much the same response that I saw most other authors get. Crickets. Then, eventually, someone would feel sorry for the author and dredge up a question. It was awkward.

When I started the book tour for Shades of Milk and Honey I added a tiny little puppet show to the mix and suddenly started getting questions during the Q&A. they weren’t all about the puppetry either.  When I added the puppet show was that I fell back into the rhythms built from 20 years of performing in children’s theater where almost every show was followed by a Q & A.

Here’s what I’ve learned.

  1. Signposting – This is a term from public speaking, which means that you let the audience know what’s coming up next. So when I begin, I say “I’ll start by reading from the novel, followed by a short puppet show from Chapter 10, and then answer any questions you might have.” After the reading, I signpost again, to remind them where we are. Continue reading ›

Debut Author Lessons: Surviving on tour

This entry is part 6 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

Tour can really count as conventions or book tours. The thing is that as an author you will probably wind up traveling a lot.  It can be exhausting, even when everything goes right.

Back in the day, I spent five years touring for a living as a puppeteer. I found that the same tricks I used on the road for puppets work when I’m traveling as a writer.

Here’s what I pack so I don’t die on the road a painful, exhausted, and dehydrated death of dying.

Pack tour food.
This is healthy snack food that can double as a meal in a pinch. You will get hungry on the road, even in a hotel, and the temptation will be to grab the nearest thing available which is usually junk.

Food that travels well:

  • Apples
  • Bagels
  • Snack bars (read the ingredients and calories before settling on one)
  • Dried fruit
  • Rice crackers/cakes
  • Nuts
  • Trail mix (read the ingredients and calories before settling on one)

If it is going to be a really long haul, taking a small softside cooler that can hold cheese or leftovers, will be handy. Usually don’t need anything larger than a thermal lunchbag, which can tuck in your carry-on bag.

Pack Utensils
The number of times where I needed utensils was surprising.  It’s everything from having a yogurt cup with no spoon to just getting tired of all the plastic.  I carry a utensil set from To-Go Ware with me.  Actually, I’ve started carrying this with me all the time, along with a cloth napkin. It’s surprising how useful these are.

Buy a reusable water bottle and keep it with you at all times. If you are uncertain about the water quality, there are a number of bottles that will filter for you.  It’s very easy to get dehydrated while traveling, particularly at conventions where so much of the action happens in the bar.

Eye mask and ear plugs
You need your sleep and there’s no telling what the environment will be like. Start sleeping with them a few days before leaving home so they seem familiar by the time you hit the road. This is particularly handy for grabbing a nap.

Pashmina Shawl
Easier for a girl than a boy, given unfair gender breakdowns, BUT, they fold up very compactly and are good for when places are colder than you expect, or for napping on the train/plane.

Quiet Time
Even if you are an extrovert, plan some quiet time into your schedule where you can be “off” for awhile.  Part of why touring can be so exhausting is that you are essentially performing the entire time you are in public.  Make sure to plan some time for just you.  Hot baths are often a way to get this because everyone seems to recognize baths as sacred.

Debut Author Lessons: Frequent Flyer miles

This entry is part 7 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

Among the things I didn’t think about when entering into the writing business was the sheer amount of travel that I’d be doing.  Now, it is possible to be a writer without going to a bajillion conventions, but if you are going to travel do yourself a favor and sign up for a frequent flyer program.

Actually, to start out, sign up for programs with every airline. You’ll quickly realize that there is one that seems to cover most of your routes.  Once that happens, be consistent about booking with them unless the savings for that flight is huge.

Here’s the trick. Most of the time airlines are within a couple of bucks from each other.  By accruing frequent flyer miles, you get perks like upgrades to first class, free checked baggage, and — more importantly — free travel.

Two of my trips this year are from frequent flyer miles. That’ll wind up saving me around $800.

The other thing you can do which can help with travel expenses is to volunteer to be bumped. If you have the flexibility to change your arrival. As soon as you arrive at the gate, ask them if they need a volunteer. Most of the time, they won’t. But when they do, you’ll be at the top of the list for a free voucher.  It differs by airline, but you can usually use one of these to cover your travel for another trip.

Clearly the program will depend on where you are traveling from and to most frequently, but it’s a simple way to help ease some of the expense of travel.

Plus, did I mention upgrades to first class? Have a drink!

Debut Author Lessons: How to deal with self-promotion and award season

This entry is part 8 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

Let’s talk about self-promotion and how it feels icky.

Yes, self-promotion is awkward to do the first time. Yes, it is very easy to do badly. But–it is incredibly important to your career. Someone asked, “Isn’t it enough to write a good story?”


A brilliant story? Okay, that’ll probably get some notice on its own, but think about the number of good stories you read. Think about how many of them don’t get on the ballot. The ones that do are the ones that are visible. You are the first cheerleader for your story/novel/performance art. If you love it enough to write it, submit it, and accept money for it… why don’t you love it enough to tell other people the story is out there?

Probably because you’re afraid of coming off as a pompous jerk, or an ass, or you’ve seen the person who is a complete bore and don’t want to be that person.

So… here are some tricks on how to avoid looking like an ass:

  • Ask people about what they are working on, first. And be interested, not just patient.
  • Remember the wonder. If you can retain that sense of “OMG! This is amazing that I sold/published/did this.” People will be charmed and excited for you.
  • Have a change of topic prepared, so you don’t spend the entire day talking about yourself
  • Have an educational component in there. Like I’m doing right now… Seriously, if you can talk about how you got to the place you are at, so that other people can try the same path, folks like that.
  • Don’t harp on it. Make your announcement once at the beginning of awards season and once as nominations wind down.
  • Don’t say “Vote for me!” It sounds desperate. All you need to do is let people know the work exists.
  • Talk about other and multiple things you are passionate about. Otherwise, people will avoid you because you only talk about one topic.
  • Promote other people. First of all, it’s nice. Second, it will make people think you are nice, even if you are cold-blooded bastard.

Allow me to give a concrete example of these in motion. This is, by the way, the blog post I had prepped to roll out as my end of year wrap-up, so you’ll be able to see alllll of my tricks. The backstage peek on this particular topic, by the way, makes me a little nervous.

Hey! Awards season has started and I’m afraid I’m going to miss some stories because there’s so much good stuff out there. Will you drop me a line if you’ve read a story that I ought to pay attention to? Or if you’ve got a story you’re particularly proud of?

Nervous? Me too, so I’ll go first.

I had only two things come out this year.

  • “Goodhouse Keeping” a short story in the anthology Courts of the Fey
  • Kiss Me Twice” a novella appeared in Asimov’s this year

I was feeling like I hadn’t published much until a friend pointed out that I also wrote two novels this year and that a novella is a heck of a lot of words. Um… yeah. I will stop feeling bad about myself now.

Isn’t that ridiculous that we do that to ourselves? I mean, I’m still over the moon about both of those stories and yet… Imposter syndrome sets in and I think I should be doing more.

The interesting thing about both of those sales is that they were originally NaNoWriMo novels.

For those of you who just finished NaNo– This is an interesting alternative. “Kiss Me Twice” this started life as my first NaNoWriMo project back in 2004. This year, I cut it down to novella length rather than beefing it up to a full length novel. I liked the story but recognized that, because we’re pushing me as a historical fantasy writer, it was unlikely an SF murder mystery would sell. I mean the elevator pitch was “CSI with a Mae West AI.”

It was also a little bit of a mess. The advantage of letting it sit for several years is that I’m a better writer now than I was then. I used Scrivener to break it apart into scenes and pull out the subplots I didn’t need. Then I rewrote from the beginning to fix it. The story went from 60k down to 25k.

“Goodhouse Keeping” is the first chapter, plus some other scenes from my third NaNo, reconfigured to be a short story. That one is all urban fantasy. Or rather, suburban fantasy. Elves in the burbs…

Anyway, the point is if you are looking at your NaNo and think that you can’t possibly flesh it out, consider cutting it down. Or look at it to see if there’s a short story in it that you can pull out. The words, they aren’t wasted even if you don’t sell it as a novel.

Whew. I rambled about that more than I meant to. Now it’s your turn. Drop me a line, or post in the comments below to talk about stories that you are excited about. Yours or someone else’s.

I got a lot of reading to catch up on.

See what I was doing? If you ran across that on my blog, without me calling attention to what I was doing, you might even link to it because I have some content there that doesn’t look self-promotional. It all totally is.

What this all comes down to is, weirdly, manners. But in the old sense. Manners — back in the Regency — used to be considered “an outward expression of your opinion of others.” If your manner to other people is such that you think of them, and treat them, as only people who will get you votes, then they will be able to tell and be irritated about it. If your manner is that these are people who you esteem and want to share the joy — yours and theirs — then they will respond accordingly. If you treat them like people you want to help get to where you are, they will keep coming back. The real secret is to be sincere about this.

Does that make sense?

Now the true test is to see how many of you think I’m a manipulative puppeteer– oh. Wait.

Darn. Busted.

Now… it’s your turn to practice self-promotion. Tell me what you’ve been working on this year. I really do have a lot of reading to catch up on and awards season is only beginning. What should I read?

January 3, 2014 EDITED TO ADD: “Kiss Me Twice,” the story I used as an example here made the Hugo ballot. Note that of the two, it was the one that was available online. Also, if you are curious about how I handled this year’s list, it’s a slightly different take on the helpful thing.

ETA: Here’s 2016 and 2017‘s posts, all different takes on the same thing.

Debut Author Lesson: How to be a professional when you want to fangirl

This entry is part 9 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

There will come a moment in your career when you will meet your writing idol. This may happen more than once, but at least once, you will meet someone for whom it is impossible to deny the urge to be a fan. A giant squeeing fan.

But you also want to be professional.

Here are the thoughts I offer for consideration to balance these two things.

First remember that the author you admire once stood in your shoes. Impossible to believe, I know, but consider that once upon a time, no one had read Ender’s Game, or The Sandman, or Lincoln’s Dreams.  That’s right. There was a point when no one knew who Connie Willis was, besides her friends. So the author that you want to squee at, knows exactly what it is like to be you, the debut author.

Next, recall how weird it feels for you when people you don’t know admit to having read your work and liking it. It creates a social imbalance. We are used to being able to return a compliment and in this case, it is not possible. They liked your book? Great! But you can’t compliment them back because you haven’t read anything of theirs, and that feels awkward. That does not go away as one publishes more books. The author in question might become more skilled at accepting the compliment, but there’s still that awkwardness. You don’t want to start a professional relationship with awkwardness.

So is the choice to say nothing?

No. But you don’t open the conversation as the fan, because that will set the social dynamic between you and your hero-writer.

When you meet the author you idolize:

  1. Approach them the same way you would any other person you meet at a convention.
  2. Keep your professional game face on for the first day. This is about first impressions. It is better to be viewed, in this context, as a colleague than as a fan. Authors develop defensive strategies to cope with fans, even if they aren’t aware of it. You don’t want to engage those in your direction.
  3. Later, after they have you established in their brains as another author you can step over to fan.
  4. Sign post that you are going to change roles. “May I take a moment to fan girl at you?”
  5. Be very specific in your compliments and don’t go on too long. “I liked your book” is too vague. “I think you’re one of the best 1st person writers out there. The way you use handle it made me understand what that voice could really do,” is specific.
  6. Have an exit strategy so that you can step back across into professional colleague. I am sometimes blatant. “Thank you for indulging me. I promise I won’t do that again,” and then I talk about the weather.

Can you ask them to sign something? Of course. They know what it’s like to be you.

Debut Author Lesson: On Facebook

This entry is part 10 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

Like many authors, I use a lot of different social media sites to make it as easy as possible for folks to keep up with me. Some of them make it easy for me to stay in touch with others, some seem to just frustrate me. What I want to do today is talk about how I would have used Facebook, if I were signing up for it today.

And I do need to stress today because Facebook changes their policies and what is available so quickly that this will become outdated.

When I originally signed up for it, the only way for fans to see what I was posting was if I friended them back. This meant I had 3000+ friends, which, you know, isn’t entirely realistic. I was getting lots of event invitations from people I didn’t know, and endless requests to play games. So, I changed to an author page, because from the information Facebook provided, this seemed to provide the ability to connect with fans without having the confusing “friend” relationship with people I didn’t actually know.

I did so thinking that I’d be able to engage with fans as readily as I could with my personal profile.

This is not the case.

  • When you tag me, I can’t respond.
  • My posts don’t appear in the feeds of some people unless I pay Facebook to put them there.
  • I can’t tag people when I want to direct attention to them, like with the My Featured Bit posts.

Further, the FAQ on the transfer says that my username would transfer to the new page. It did not, so for a lot of people it looks like I just deleted my page. Meanwhile, it has the unwieldy url I’ve tried picking a new one, but the variations of my name are already taken– by me. But I can’t transfer them.  I tried to contact Facebook for help three times and finally gave up.

I now have to maintain two pages. The author page and my personal profile. It’s a hassle with no perceptible benefit.

So if I were a new author starting today, I would create a series of lists for my Facebook profile rather than creating a separate author page. Lists allow you to decide who gets to see content when you post it. If I want to post a rant only for my friends — by which I mean people I actually know — I can designate a subset of my overall Friends list and limit that post to be seen only by them.

For the rest of my posts, I set them to public and have my privacy settings to allow anyone to see the public posts, even if they are not logged into Facebook. It creates a useful divide for the private things, without requiring me to post the same public content on both my personal profile and my Author page. It also means that I don’t have to friend everyone back in order to allow them to see what I’m posting.

More importantly, for me, it allows me to engage with my fans more thoroughly than my Author page does. It is very frustrating to see a fan link to my Author page with a nice review and be unable to reply to them. I can only reply to people who post directly on the page.

So, to review, if I were a new author today I would:

  1. Not create an author page
  2. Create lists to give me flexibility about who I share content with
  3. Not friend people I don’t know but allow them to subscribe
  4. Set my default post to “public” so that subscribers can see it.

I expect this will change. Again.

Here’s the part that won’t change.

  1. Your goal with social media is to allow you to connect with your readers and allows them to engage with you.
  2. You need to do this in a way that allows you to be genuine and retain the amount of privacy that you need to be comfortable.
  3. It should not take up the time when you should be writing.

Debut Author Lesson: Audio books

This entry is part 11 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

So you’ve sold the audio rights to your novel. Yay! What should you do now? Allow me to offer some tips from my experience as both an author and as an audio book narrator.

Read your book aloud. Yes. The whole thing. Even a 700 page monster should not take you more than a week to read aloud. Even if it took two weeks…. you spent how long writing the thing and now you are balking at spending two weeks to read it aloud? Do it when you’re proofing it. You’ll spot things that you wouldn’t have otherwise. For audio, you’ll also spot things that are just going to sound strange when read aloud. Here are some samples from actual books (one of them is mine).

  • Then Seaman erupted from the bush.
  • You know, Ainho did it. (Ainho is pronounced, “I know.”)
  • How well do you know the knowe?
  • Aye, I’ve had my eye on him for a wee bit of time.
  • It lay on her neck like a necklace of jet.
  • He ran into the copse. (Note: copse is pronounced like “cops.” This character had just evaded the police.)

Make sure that your editor, your agent, and the audio book company know that you are available to answer pronunciation questions. Most narrators want to talk to the author because they are professionals and want to do the job right. Give them your phone number or set up a time to call them.

Some publishers “protect” their authors by ensuring that all the contact has to go through them. Not only is this slow, it means that the narrator is often relying on a written transcription for pronunciation, instead of just being able to listen to the author say it out loud. It increases the chance of error exponentially.

Have the pronunciation of your name and the characters on your website. Even if you think it is self-evident, if there’s a way to mispronounce it, someone will find that way. Ideally, have a recording as well as a the phonetic description.

If you have a multi-book deal, make a list of recurring characters and give it to the narrator. When I recorded Seanan McGuire’s October Daye books, the Sea Witch had a brief cameo appearance with maybe three lines in it. I gave her a harsh guttural voice. She then turned into a major character and I’m stuck with this voice.

Make a list of character voices and accents, you can even go so far as to do a fantasy casting and match each character to an actor as a voice model. That doesn’t mean the narrator will do an impression, but it will give them a rough guide. I had to record a set of books out of sequence and when we hit the first book in the series, after I had recorded books 2 and 3, we discovered that one of the characters was described as having a distinct accent. Whoops. If I’d had a list of character voices we could have avoided that.

Relax if the narrator ‘s choice doesn’t sound like the character in your head. Sometimes in order to make a story clear, a narrator has to choose voices that might not be what you have in your head. A lot of times this is because they are trying to distinguish the characters for an audience who doesn’t have the benefit of looking back to the page to see who is talking. The larger your cast of characters, the more likely it is that a narrator is going to have to start reaching into a broader range of voices. For instance, in Seanan’s October Daye books, Sylvester Torquill does not have an Irish accent. In the audio books, he does because of the large number of male characters. I talked to Seanan about it and the accent was justifiable, but not what she had in her head. What it does is make the story clearer in audio. If you’ve made yourself available to them then they can clear choices like that with you. Otherwise, they have to make their own judgment calls. When a narrator makes a choice like that, they are doing it to serve the story in the medium in which they are performing it, not to screw with you.

And just as a side note, here are some commonly mis-pronounced words. In audio, they are read with the dictionary correct pronunciation which may not sound they way you want it to sound.

  • short-lived – Lived is with a long I. As in “short-life”
  • dour – do-er
  • riffled – Most people say “rifled” but it’s a short I.
  • copse – like cops
  • forte – Unless discussing music, this is “fort.”


Debut author lessons: Writing is no longer a hobby.

This entry is part 12 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

This is one of the hardest parts of the writing life. For a long time, writing probably was your hobby. Even if you didn’t approach the writing itself that way, it was still something that you had to fit in to the cracks in your life. You had to “make time” for it in the way you structured it into your life. You might have even felt selfish for it.

You are writers. If you want a career in this, then all of the advice in the world can boil down to “don’t treat writing like a hobby.”

If you have a full time job, in addition to being a writer, then you have to deal with balancing things in the same way that anyone else who works two jobs does. If you feel like you are still in the learning phase of your career, then it’s no different from someone who is going to school part time and working a full-time job. Either way, writing is not a hobby.

My husband and I use these coping strategies.

  1. I set boundaries and expectations. I have a tri-fold sign that says, “Writing,” “Other Work,” and “Goofing off” because I recognize that my husband cannot tell, when he walks up to me, if I’m at work. “Writing” means “do not speak.” “Other Work” means “approach with caution” and “Goofing off” is a green light.  It’s just like working at home, because that’s what I’m doing.
  2. I do not take my husband with me to cons just as I would not take him to a professional conference. We’ve tried. It splits my focus and I am there to work. Socialize and have fun? Sure, but I’m going to the conventions because it’s part of my career. I write him letters when I’m on the road at a convention. I call him. When I come home we go for a walk. But when I am at work, I’m working.
  3. We had serious talks about criticism and the creative process. As a result, I give him things to read, I flag it as such so that he knows if he should be reading it in his role of “supportive spouse” or in his role as “critic.” I only ask for the “critic” role when I know that I am in a receptive place to hear it. This is the same dynamic that I’ve had when I’ve worked with anyone else that I’ve had a relationship with. Marking the transition between work and personal makes it easier.
  4. We have strategic planning sessions. I recognize that my work has an impact on our life and we periodically have business planning sessions in which we’ll talk about convention travel, budget, and upcoming projects.
  5. We also have a marriage. When I am excited by something and just want to share that with my love, I also flag that, so he knows that it is not the time to think of it as business. Examples of conversations gone wrong– Me: “I’ve been invited to England!” Him: “How much will that cost?” So now I start off by saying, “I’m excited by this!” and then later we can have the business conversation.

The path you will follow will vary based on the pieces of your life, but the place you should start from is that writing is your job.

Debut Author lessons: The author photo

This entry is part 13 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

You’ve sold a book. They are going to ask you for a photo of you to put on it. And if that doesn’t happen, then a convention will ask for a headshot to go on the program book, or a short story market will want one for the website. Someone, at some point, is going to need your author photo.

Here’s how to be ready.

First, let’s discuss the function of the author photo.

  1. It is a selling tool that makes you, the author, look like someone the reader wants to spend the next several hours with.
  2. It is a selling tool that reinforces the tone and style of fiction you write.
  3. It is a selling tool that makes the book/magazine/convention look better.
  4. It is a selling tool that helps provide recognition on the next project.

It is not something that makes your mom feel good about the way you look, although that can be a side effect.

Now, understanding the function, the next thing to do is to understand that you will probably have to spend money. Yes, it is possible to get a good snapshot from a friend, but you can tell the difference.

Mary_Robinette_Kowal_at_2008_Nebula_AwardsMary Robinette Kowal, puppeteer

The photo on the left is the photo of me on Wikipedia, snapped by Eric James Stone. I quite like it and my hair is doing what I want it to do.

It is also, obviously a snapshot, even if I changed the framing so that it wasn’t centered like a passport photo, this is still clearly a snapshot.

The photo on the right is the one that I use on my books. I have a cropped version when they need head only. It is clearly a professional photograph. Even if you know nothing about photography you can tell the difference between the two.

Why is this important?

Because the level of professionalism you show here reflects on how seriously you take the whole package. People do, in fact, judge a book by its cover and you, my dear, are part of the cover.

How do you find a photographer?

If you have a local friend who is an actor, ask them who takes their headshots. If you don’t, contact the best theater in town and ask them if they can recommend a photographer who does headshots.

Why someone who specializes in headshots as opposed to portraits?

Honestly, it’s because this is an easy filter. There’s a very wide range of portraiture styles and options, and it adds a layer of decision making to an already unfamiliar process. Photographers who do actors headshots are used to the requirements needed to reproduce a image in program books, including licensing terms. They know how to tell a story about the person while at the same time creating something that is relatively neutral. They also won’t give you a photo that looks like it should be used in your obituary or high school yearbook.  You know the type I’m talking about.

What makes a good headshot?

I’m going to assume that your photo will be well-lit, in focus, and high resolution. From there you are looking for an image that:

  1. looks like you
  2. represents your public persona
  3. is not overly theatrical

Looks like you

Actors get new headshots every two to five years because the body can change during that time. Fashions can change. You update the photograph in the same way you update your clothes. There’s often a temptation to stay with an older photograph because you’ve aged, or put on weight, or been ill, or some other thing so that you feel like your past self looked better.

If someone, like a fan or a bookseller, knows you only through your photograph, when they see you they will compare the Now you with the Past you. You don’t want the first thought in someone’s head to be, “Wow. He got old” or “I wonder what happened to her?” You want them to have a sense of familiarity, because that is part of the connection you’re trying to build. So that means a photograph that actually looks like you.

I’m changing my headshot from the one on the left, taken in early 2010, to the one on the right, taken in 2012 because I’ve put on a little weight and grown my hair out. Both of these are great shots, but I don’t look as much like the left anymore. Updating regularly means that it isn’t as jarring for me when I change photos.



Representing your public persona

At the same time, you probably have a writer uniform that you wear to conventions and appearances. Think about the type of fiction you write and how you represent yourself on panels. Do you tend to write dark fiction? Then you might lean toward leather or deep colors. Do you write historical fiction? Then maybe you opt for a top that has vintage elements. Whatever it is– think about having your uniform and photograph reflect that so that it gives the viewer a visual cue. Remember, this will be on the jacket of your book.

Not overly theatrical

It’s fine to stage a photograph that’s not naturalistic, but you don’t want the story of the photograph to outweigh the connection with you. For instance, I write historical fantasy. Wearing a Regency dress and staging a tea in one of my photos would be distracting to a viewer. Instead of giving the illusion that they are seeing Me, and thus building a connection, an overly theatrical photo will keep them at a distance by putting the narrative of the photo between us. Does that make sense?

Check out this photo of Ray Bradbury by Rod Searcey as an example.

Ray Bradbury (c) Rod Searcey

Ray Bradbury (c) Rod Searcey

Do you see how it 1) looks like Ray Bradbury, 2) represents his public persona by reminding us of Fahrenheit 451, 3) is not overly theatrical, because he’s still engaged with the viewer. The firefighters are just background, not part of the story.

Other than that, it’s a lot of stylistic preferences that are going to vary wildly based on the image you want to present of yourself. Look at a lot of author and actor photos to decide what you want. Talk to the photographer and make sure you are comfortable with her or him. If you aren’t comfortable, that will show in the photos.

For the shoot itself

  1. Take multiple outfits with you so you have options.
  2. Plan for multiple locations, or backgrounds.
  3. Pay for the session rather than per photograph. It’s more up front, but better in the long term.
  4. Make sure that you negotiate the right to reproduce the photos so you don’t need to keep coming back to get permission every time you have a new book. Studios that cater to actors are used to this.
  5. Wear make-up. Yes, you too, gentlemen. It doesn’t have to be visible makeup, but it will help your features pop. In person, the animation of your face is enough, but a photograph is a static image.

Once you have the photos

  1. Narrow it down to no more than a dozen that you like.
  2. Get second opinions before you make your choice.
  3. Ask your editor, agent, and the marketing department at your publisher for their opinion. This is a selling tool, remember.
  4.  Look at your photos and ask yourself, “Would I want to read a book written by this person?”

It’s a lot to think about, but I hope that having an understanding of the purpose of the author photograph will help make the whole thing a little easier. At the end of the day, the author photograph is a way to help you sell your book.

And just to close out, here are some photographers that I recommend.

Debut author lessons: Hate mail

This entry is part 14 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

Yesterday, I got some hate mail for a short story that’s running on EscapePod right now. My reaction to it was to laugh and share it with some friends. At some point in your career, someone will write hate mail for the story or novel you have written.

As a general rule: Do not respond. 

Just chalk this person up as not your audience and move one. Responding can be momentarily satisfying, but is not likely to win the person over and will just waste time that you could spend writing.

Don’t let it affect your writing.

Let me take a moment to talk about this particular piece of hate mail in an alternate history sort of way.


I just listened to a podcast of your story “Cerbo un Vitra ujo” and it was such a miserably unpleasant experience I felt compelled to contact you and urgently implore you to take other avocation, _anything_ else will surely bring greater reward to humankind than the threat of you producing another work of similar “art”. Even as snuff porn I have seen dramatically better and more elegant prose. It was a pointless, poorly written, obnoxious waste of my time. The only remotely redeeming aspect to it is that I now know I will never have to expend another second bothering to read anything you write.

Please, for the sake of humanity, give up writing and find something else to do with your time.

Fortunately, I just laughed but…

This is a story that I wrote back in 2005, and I was writing way outside my comfort zone. I don’t write horror so I was taking a chance and stretching. Let’s just pretend that I received this in 2005.

I wonder if I would have taken it more seriously. I was a new writer and I can tell you that I hadn’t received any fan mail yet. If this was the first reaction a story of mine provoked… it would have been harder to laugh off.

Even if I didn’t stop writing, would I have played it safe with my fiction? The scene that most people object to is is the rape scene, which is graphic. In my first draft, I faded to black and got the very good advice that it wasn’t fair to skip the difficult scenes. The fact that it was uncomfortable meant that it needed to be on the page or the protagonist wouldn’t earn the scars.

What if I’d gotten this letter and as a takeaway concluded that the advice to write the difficult scenes was wrong? I mean, authors already tend to live with a certain amount of self-doubt. I suspect I wouldn’t have won the Campbell Award, or the Hugo. The man who sent this might have gotten his wish that he would never have to read anything else I wrote.

All of which is to say these things:

  1. If you get hate mail, laugh it off. Your future self will.
  2. Write fan mail if you like stories, particularly to authors you haven’t heard of before.

It’s okay that people don’t like your stories.

People will give you this line about how hate mail means that you are winning. Not really. Hate mailers are just bullies with words. The real thing to understand is that you are writing fiction that you want to read. There are other people who do enjoy the work you produce. Expecting everyone to like every book is as silly as expecting everyone to like [insert favorite niche musical style of your choice here]. People come with a wide variety of styles, tastes, and expectations. Don’t freak out that your work doesn’t appeal to everyone.

If you are going to write back, do it when you’re in a good mood.

But really, don’t waste your time. If you are going to do it, wait until you are in a good mood so you don’t feed the anger. Flame wars eat fiction. Now… I’ll admit I did break my rules and respond to this one, since he had taken the trouble to write to me. If it had been on a blog, or a review site, I would have ignored it. And this is important — people have a right to dislike your work and express that in their own space. Do NOT respond on blogs or to reviewers. The only time you have any leeway to respond is if they enter your space and even then… best to file and ignore.

I’m cognizant of the fact that this is not setting a good example for you, but… I also know that at some point you’ll reply anyway, and this sums up why I think there are worse things than getting hate mail.

Dear [redacted],

Thank you so much for your email. I’m delighted that my work had such an impact on you. I have often felt that the only thing worse than writing a story that someone doesn’t like, is to be an asshole.



Debut Author Lesson: Your first Guest of Honor gig

This entry is part 15 of 22 in the series Debut Author Lessons

I will grant that this is not likely to be something a debut author hits, but at some point in your career, you will receive your first invitation to be a Guest of Honor at a convention. My first was MidSouthCon, which was fun, but I felt like I was flying a little blind. Thank heavens they were very kind. Here’s what I’ve learned since then.

Before the convention

What does being a Guest of Honor mean?

On the surface it means that the convention is going to honor you by promoting your work and introducing you to their audience. In practice, this is a two-way street. You are there to make the convention a success by bringing your audience and helping the attendees have fun. Your role is to attract people to the convention and to provide engaging programming while there. This means being present, being friendly, and working hard.

Travel/Accommodations/Per diem

The convention should offer to cover your travel expenses, room, and food while you are there. That should be in the invitation they send you. If it’s not, make sure to clarify before accepting. You are going to be working hard. Here’s a sample letter.

Dear Mary:

I have the pleasure of extending an invitation to you on behalf of [convention], [description of con], to discover your availability and interest in being our Author Guest of Honor for our upcoming [convention]. The dates are [dates], held in [place].

[description paragraph of convention]

We would be honored to have you join us in [date]! Typical compensation includes coach airfare, accommodations and meals for you and a travel partner. If you’re able to reply as soon as possible, it would be very appreciated.

Some conventions will give you a cash per diem. Some will ask you to charge meals to your room. Make sure you get clarification. Do not, under any circumstances, use your own credit card to pay for the hotel room if they have said they will cover it. At a reputable convention, this won’t be an issue but some new cons have cash flow issues which could mean that you’d never be repaid. Which brings us to…

Research the convention

If you know the con, fine. If you don’t, make sure that there haven’t been problems in the past. You can do this by posting a query in the SFWA forums, contacting the previous GoH, or doing a quick google search. Do this before accepting. Later, you’ll also be looking to see if you are a good fit with their audience, but for your first one you’ll probably say yes, even if it’s a Death Metal SF Horror con and you write Regency Fantasy.

Your Schedule

Arrive the day before the convention, leave the day after. You will be more rested and it will also give the people running the con a chance to hang out with you. They invited you there because they like your work, but during the con they are buried with work.

For the con itself, be as available as possible, while recognizing your own needs. I can do eight hours of programming a day without a problem, but I have to have regular meal breaks. What I usually say is, “I like to be busy and I’m there to work. Schedule me as heavily as you like, but please make sure I have regular meal breaks.”  Other people can only handle three program items a day. Some can do fourteen. Know what you can manage and offer that. Offering more is a disservice to everyone involved because it means you will be dragging.


Part of your role as GoH is to attract people to the convention. Some authors can do this passively, simply by letting the convention use their name. For a newer author, you have to tell your existing audience about the con and try to encourage them to come. This does not mean endless flogging. Just making sure it’s posted on your site, that you use the social media of your choice to point people to it, and that you express your excitement about going.

Bio and Headshot — They will ask for this very early, because they need to set up the website. Send it as soon as they put in the request. Here are what mine look like.

The Gift Basket

Conventions want to treat you well. They know how hard you will work when you’re there and want to make sure you are taken care of so they’ll ask you if there’s anything you want. What they are looking for are cues about what to put into a gift basket for you.

Be kind and give your preferences, but don’t be a dick and take advantage of their generosity. I ask for water, granola bars, and some fresh fruit because that will help me get through the weekend. If they ask any specific questions, like favorite drink or chocolate preference, don’t hem and haw in an effort to be polite. Just tell them. If you don’t, it increases the amount of work they have to do because then they have to do research.

They will ask you if you want to bring someone with you. Say yes.

My impulse was to say “No thanks” because I didn’t want to be a bother. At MidSouthCon, I had my nephew with me since he could drive over. Although he was great at fetching things for me, he was not the same as having a minder, which is what they are really asking when they ask about bringing someone. They are wanting to make things easy for you by letting you bring someone who will be good for your mental health. That can be a spouse, or an assistant.

At BayCon, I had Sandra Tayler as my +1.  Let me tell you, Sandra is better than a saving throw any day.  Besides being a friend, she’s also been a minder for her husband Howard Tayler, of Schlock Mercenary. She knows how to keep you at peak levels all the way through the convention.

They will offer you a liasion/wrangler/minder. Say yes.

Your job is to be present and help guests have a good experience. This makes it very hard to say no to fans. A minder can say it for you. “I’m so sorry, you can’t have an hour long conversation about every book ever written. You have to be at the next panel right now.” A minder can make sure that you eat. They can remind you that you have time to go take a break in your room. They can walk you from one panel to the next so you don’t have to remember where you need to be, navigate there, and can help you avoid getting stopped en route.

At the Convention

Set up cues with your minder ahead of time.

If you are talking to a fan/guest, you will look engaged and interested. Sometimes, you get trapped by someone who doesn’t realize that this is your only break during the con, or that you need to talk to other fans too, or just need to pee.  The trouble is that your minder may not know you well enough to recognize when the conversation has moved from engaging to trapped. A hand signal will help.

Yes, like in baseball, but more subtle.

Pick something that you might do in normal conversation but that isn’t part of your regular body language. A tap on the side of your neck, resting a finger along your nose, fiddling with your name badge… whatever, just make sure you have something. I only find I have to deploy that once or maybe twice at a con. And no, sorry, I won’t tell you what my signal is.

Once your minder gets your signal, all they have to do is step forward and say, “I’m sorry, but I need to get you to the next thing,” or “We need to keep moving, I’m afraid,” or something similarly generic. It shouldn’t be some elaborate lie. You, in fact, do need to get moving.

You can use the same signal when you receive an invitation to game/have drinks/dinner/party. Just look at your minder and ask them if you have time to do [x]. If you do not want to accept, use your hand signal while asking.

Your minder will regretfully say that you don’t have time. This allows you to be gracious to the person asking, which lets them have a better con experience.

If you want to accept, still ask your minder if you have time because you might have forgotten about something on the schedule.

There’s also an old trick from the vaudeville mind-reading days. You insert the word “no” into the sentence when you ask the minder, to tell them which answer to give.

  • “No time to do [x] is there?”
  • “I don’t suppose we can squeeze that in?”
  • “No way would I want to miss that!”

Again, this is something you probably won’t have to use, but it is better to have it set up than not.

Take host gifts

You know how you go to someone’s home for dinner and take flowers, or a bottle of wine? I do the same when I go to cons as GoH. From Portland, I would take a box of Voodoo Donuts to go in the volunteer room, and bars of chocolate for people I had direct contact with. Head of programming, my liaison. Remember, these are almost all volunteers.  They are there because they love the genre and since you are Guest of Honor, they are essentially throwing a large party in your honor. Be nice to them.

Don’t expect recognition

Your first GoH gig does not mean you’ve made it. It means that the people running the convention like your work and want to introduce you to their audience. Be prepared for people to have no idea who you are. It’s okay. At one of my first GoH gigs, my name and photo were on everything and I had this conversation.

Fan: You look familiar. Are you famous?

Me: Um… I’m the literary Guest of Honor.

Fan: Oh. I thought you were famous. (turns and walks away.)

The point of that, isn’t that he was rude, but that he voiced what other people will think. That person looks familiar… but they don’t know you. Yet. Don’t be depressed by that.

What are these SMoFs that people mention? — The Secret Masters of Fandom

This started as a joke description, but actually there really is a sort of inner circle in SF/F fandom that runs the conventions. They are dedicated volunteers who do this because they love it. They also want things to go smoothly so they ask other SMoFs about guests. This means that even if your natural inclinations are to be an jerk, if you want to do more conventions be nice to everyoneToday’s gopher may be tomorrow’s conrunner, or might be today’s conrunner’s daughter. People talk. I mean, in general, one should be nice because that’s just the right thing to do, but even if you aren’t a nice person at least learn to act like it for the good of your career.

What will the programming be like?

This is actually not that much different from what you do at a normal con, except that you might be scheduled more heavily.

When you aren’t on programming, try to spend at least some time in the bar and green room, so you can talk to people in an informal setting. It will make it seem less like work. Do remember to be aware of your own limits though. If you need downtime, go back to your room and rest, just make sure your minder knows where you are.

They might schedule an interview. If you can arrange with the interviewer to do a pre-interview, it will be easier for you both. They’ll know how to steer the conversation, and you’ll have rehearsed some answers so will spend less time saying “um.” If nothing else, ask for a list of topics. And if there’s anything you don’t want to talk about, make sure to tell them.

Post Convention

  • Do some form of blog/tweet/FB/social media about your experience and be as glowing as you can genuinely be. It’s the tail end of your publicity duties.
  • Send a thank you note. Because it’s nice.

What tricks do you have?