Guest Post by Flying Pen Press
Headlines and Titles
To round off our discussion of Marketing Fiction, we have this Guest Post from the publisher at Flying Pen Press, David Rozansky.
Last week we examined Headlines and Titles, -- and there is much more to be said about choosing a title (which is what a Headline is). This week we hear from a publishing company that has a marketing perspective on Titles with a focus on query letters. Read carefully.
Flying Pen Press does not specialize in Romance but is widely knowledgeable in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Gaming markets, and understands mixed genre, though is not publishing Science Fiction Romance right now. Publishing is a business -- learn to think like a publisher from this post, and apply that knowledge as you shape your query letter to a Science Fiction Romance publisher.
Here are previous posts in this series on Marketing:
This guest post gives you an insight into how Marketers think, and how a publishing company shifts and changes with the marketing winds often indicated by the most recent Headlines.
You can meet David on Twitter. See the end of this post for his contact information.
I sent the following questions and got the following responses.
Absorb this information fully. It could save your writing career.
1. As a publisher, what genres do you look for especially, and how do you determine when to change the genre-mix of your output?
Our focus is mostly on marketing print, with the practice of making ebook editions a collateral product of importance.
In that regard, we have a "platform-centric" regard for the books we publish. This has three paths to pursue:
1. We seek authors who have a fan base or a viable platform like a popular blog or a bit of fame, at least within their own niches.
2. We try to create a niche platform and find books that feed that readership. Right now, we are building a tile list for readers of Colorado-focus books and another tile list aimed at writers, such as writing guides and workbooks.
3. There are natural platforms that we wish to exploit. These develop in the news or just with popular culture. Our title The Official Rules of Poker is an example of this. When poker was the hottest thing, there was no modern book of poker rules, and so I asked Kelli Mix to write one. Without much marketing at all, it has done well, simply because it fills a demand from a natural platform.
Things are always changing. We published a bit of science fiction because early in the company's life, we knew we needed a "full" catalog, and we arranged to be publicly visible at DenCon, the World Science Fiction Convention that would be in Denver--our home town--that summer. We had a good initial launch with science fiction.
Now, we are not able to sell science fiction much at all. I believe it's due to the explosion of competing publishers and self-publishing authors, which has dramatically increased the marketing costs of the genre.
The way we choose genre mix is mostly related to "return on investment." I have a really nice proprietary list of writers, and reaching Colorado readers is as easy as stepping outside with poster board and a marker. At the same time, we see holes in these two markets where books are now needed.
And as to when we make that decision, the market tends to force our hand. This summer was just terrible for us in all genres of novels. To survive, we have to do something different. The market is always in flux, and those publishers that adapt best to change are the ones that succeed over time.
2. In the Marketing end of publishing, have you run into reader-resistance at
a) certain price-points,
b) certain title keywords,
c) certain kinds of cover-images (e.g. the old fashioned brass-bras female fighter image).
The resistance the market holds is not so much related to price-points as it is to price in general. Higher-priced titles generate fewer buyers. It's also related to value, especially with non-fiction and buzzworthy novels. Competition in a subject or fiction concept is also a factor in the impact of high-pricing, so niche books often sell better despite higher prices.
As to titles, I've seen taboo words, such as Fuck and Bitch, become acceptable in humor or edgy genres. My current writing project, Fishnets and Platforms: The Writers Guide to Whoring Your Book, has drawn positive buzz because I use the word whore in the subtitle.
However, in most all cases, Carlin's Seven Words and other expletives should be avoided, especially pejorative terms. Don't toss such words into a title unless you have good reason and good market research.
As to cover graphics, each culture and generation has its own sensitivities. In addition to images, quality is important. Consumers always judge books by their covers. Art that seems amateurish or cartoony will not sell books.
3. What sells best into your market -- and would you define your target
What sells best are books by authors who have a good platform. We are acutely aware that readers follow authors, not publishers.
The target market is different for every book, and there is no way to know what submissions will appear in our inbox, so we can't say that there is a specific target market in general.
I've often said that a publishing house finds its path in the marketplace blazed by serendipity. Once we had a few successes with science fiction, we built our marketing plans around that genre and took on more science fiction.
Now we're having success with Terry Grosz's memoirs of his life as wildlife law enforcement agent, which has a strong regional interest. Are changed to regional titles.
The stiffest competition we now see comes from the self-published authors. Self-publication is now a real a game changer. It affects our business to the point that we just cannot compete.
To survive, we need our own platform reader. I come from the world of magazines, I'm used to building a leadership and then finding authors to fit content to those readers. I am now using the magazine publishing model for books via direct-response catalogs and a new title list tightly focused along niche-genre lines.
In 2014, we plan to produce catalogs for Colorado titles and catalogs for writers' guides and reference books.
Meanwhile, if we should find a manuscript with great market potential, we will certainly publish it on it's own under the Flying Pen Press imprint.
4. Looking back at the Headlines of 2013, which issues and affairs would
seem to you to be ripe for dramatization in a novel format? Which would translate best into a galactic-setting, which would fare better in Fantasy, and which do you think would sell better as comedy? Please give a basis for each judgement call.
Is a little hard to say because 2013 was "The Year We shoulda seen Coming."
For example the entire NSA surveillance story was foretold in Dan Brown's Digital Fortress. Fracking could make a good plot device, but it would just be another corporate malfeasance/man-made ecological disaster story.
Still, these are both issues that can drive thrillers and spy novels.
One news item in recent years is that of the tsunami. Nobody yet has written a novel about a California tsunami and how it would impact the city of Los Angeles.
We often see New York City hit by tsunamis in disaster films, usually as a result of an asteroid strike in the Atlantic Ocean. However, despite the news of Hurricane Sandy, we don't see a tsunami novel aimed at New York City on the East Coast.
The future of galactic-setting science-fiction is wide open. The field of astronomy has exploded with ever-increasing discoveries of exoplanets. This makes science-fiction ready for complete reinvention. There is a whole lot of new science just waiting to be developed as novels. Just recently China became the third superpower to reach the moon. It may be time to reopen plots about the three superpowers engaging in a new space race, especially regarding the Moon and the exploitable Solar System.
Fantasy, we need to pay attention to business stories, especially in the field of entertainment. Hasbro, with its Hub channel, and Disney's new success with the Disney Junior channel, have developed many new franchises that are beginning to influence fantasy novels.
Watch for structuring of rights to the Dungeons & Dragons franchise for television and film. Hasbro, through the Wizards of the Coast subsidiary, is about to publish the next edition of Dungeons & Dragons, with a big product launch. If a Dungeons & Dragons show appears on the Hub network as well as a film at the same time a new edition is published, I predict a resurgence in sword and sorcery novels, led by R.A. Salvatore.
As far as humor, I think Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert-style political satire will be the way to go in the face the next election's initial rumblings.
5. As an acquisitions editor, would you think it's too soon for writers to
use Headlines such as the 9/11 attacks as novel sources? That was 12 years ago, but is still active headline material with continued Terrorism attacks. Can Terrorism per se sell well yet?
Terrorism has always been good fodder for thriller novels. I don't think it was ever too early to use 9/11 is a setting for a story of courage.
However, the sensitivities of people directly affected and of people who watched it on television must be considered, at least until that generation passes into history. The same can be said for such horrible events as Pearl Harbor, Columbine, and the recent tsunamis.
6. Given the current media focus on individuals -- whether terrorist
connected or just crazy -- shooting or bombing crowded places, do you think there is any way for a publisher to market an entertainment vehicle such as a novel (or film, or webisodes) depicting either the shooter or a victim as Hero?
Any story where Good triumphs over Evil, even when Good resorts to violence, can be a good story.
Consider the film Inglorious Bastards. The good guys lock Hitler and top Nazi officers in a movie theater and blow it up.
Now, I live near the Century Theater that was the scene of the Aurora Theater Massacre. I know people who were caught in the crossfire and I often attend that theater myself. Nonetheless, I find Inglorious Bastards to be an enjoyable, albeit violent, story.
My stomach has completely turned against Batman, however. The day after the massacre, the Hot Topic retail chain displayed Batman-franchise clothing, including all the stores in the area. This lack of sensitivity will keep me out of Hot Topic forever, only because I feel a sense of dread just seeing the Hot Topic logo (or even just writing about it now).
That's how devastating bad taste can be to a business.
A novel of Jewish insurrectionists rising up against the Nazi incursion can also be a great novel of heroism.
Nazis make great villains upon which to unleash fictional terrorism.
When good-guy terrorists are "freedom fighters" and victims are purely evil tyrants or wartime enemies, it works. But if innocent lives are taken by the freedom fighters as collateral damage, there will be a public outcry--proximity to current events notwithstanding.
In storytelling, Good may resort to evil means against Evil so that good may prevail. Good may never harm innocents, nor allow harm to come to innocents. It's not unlike Asimov's Laws of Robotics.
7. If a writer is looking to rip a story from Headlines, how long ago
should they look to find dramatic material? When does material become "Historical" and when is it still too raw on the nerves of readers?
Have you ever noticed that schools don't teach recent history? Basically, if there are witnesses around who may dispute the history book, it's generally not taught.
Novels are marketable on current events for about the life of the news cycle. For some events, this can be one afternoon, and for others it could be a century or more.
When the news is sensitive, stories pulled from that headline must exercise great care and avoid jumping to conclusions. Many aspiring writers will likely jump on the news cycle, often in bad taste, so it's probably best to avoid the story altogether.
When the news cycle is completed, there is a period where the story is "stale." The duration of this period seems to be related to how many writers jumped on the news story in the first place. For example, we are in a period where Desert Storm stories are too stale to be marketable.
Then there comes a period where the event is "historical." The bigger the event, the sooner and longer this period. World War Two is still a marketable setting, the Vietnam War has waned (although the '60s Antiwar Movement is still a healthy setting for novels).
There are events that keep returning as popular settings for novels. Each generation has a need to relive Pearl Harbor, it seems. Nine-Eleven will likely fall into this category, I suspect.
Writing a story pulled from the news cycle usually results in an also-told story trying to sell during the stale period. The historical period does not pre-announce itself and often occurs in the wake of a bestseller that completely saturates the topic.
Thus, writers are often warned against pulling stories from headlines.
However, there is a type of news that serves well as plot devices during or shortly after the news cycle. These events spur public debate and controversy. Even when the news is ghastly or macabre, if it becomes a political issue, it loses the "raw nerve" factor. The original Law & Order TV series successfully told such stories.
An example of this would be the Terry Schiavo story, which prompted a debate of compassionate euthanasia versus the absolute value of human life. Stories based on this news item flooded the cultural panorama, apparently unable to saturate the market.
Essentially, any fiction pulled from controversial news seems to be accepted by the public as part of the debate.
8. If a writer wants to deal with a very current, raw topic, is there an
approach to marketing that would sell such a Work? What "slant" would a writer need to use?
With the previous answer in mind, I would frame the novel as part of the debate on a controversial topic.
----Comment by Jacqueline Lichtenberg -----------
As I've discussed at length in the various blog series on THEME -- what you extract from a Headline is not the setting, characters, historical veracity, or the actions of various people. The writer has to distill out the THEME that the Headline defines for a large number of people who read the specific genre the writer is working within.
9. What Headline topics work better as non-fiction or docudrama than they do as fiction?
Almost all news does better as nonfiction or docudrama. Isn't that why people watch the news? That is when the news is at its most compelling moment.
10. Staring at their inevitable rejection slip pile, a writer may become discouraged from marketing their chosen Headline topic. What personal considerations of the acquisition editor should a writer take into account when evaluating a rejection that says something simple such as "This is not for us at the current time."
Acquisition editors are extremely busy. They receive hundreds, perhaps thousands of queries, yet it takes a full two weeks to fully evaluate one submission. The reasons for rejection are usually not explained, or if they are, explain only vaguely and briefly. It just takes too much time to write even the shortest of rejection letters.
It is good practice to remember that acquisition editors and book editors are real people often under stress.
One terrible example happened on Friday, December 13, 2013, a gunman entered Arapahoe High School in Centennial, Colorado, not that far from my daughter's school. It happened right in the middle of #SciFiChat, a weekly Twitter chat I moderate.
Jacqueline Lichtenberg was the one to break the news to me live on Twitter. I quickly began to mobilize parents and journalists I know who have connections to the school. I also frantically culled all the information I could from the Internet, to find out if my daughter and her school were safe.
In my email, sandwiched between the lockdown notice for my daughter's school, and the safety procedures report from the Denver Public School District, there was a query … a query I wish I'd never seen.
The query was for a YA Thriller titled High School Hit Men. The protagonists are high school students who are secretly government assassins. These protagonists must deal with their school's ubiquitous bully delinquents.
At first, I was shocked. Was this some kind of cruel prank? No, worse; this was a legitimate query.
If this was a dystopian novel, where the protagonists are fighting the tyrannical government that has so violated them, I might not be as outraged. But this query made it seem that this is an acceptable reality.
Obviously, the author found that Flying Pen Press was the closest publishing house to Arapaho High School, or saw my frantic tweets on Twitter with the hashtag #Arapaho.
I'm still not sure which is more offensive: that this author was so opportunistic so as to query me with such a story at my moment of greatest horror and distress, or that the author was approving the exploitation of minors as government-trained killers.
Like Hot Topic, I will never forget this author's name, and I will never stop associating it with a sense of dread.
11. Give your contact information and URL for submission guidelines.
I can be reached at Publisher@FlyingPenPress.com, and our website is FlyingPenPress.com.
However, we are about to drastically change our submissions guidelines as we move to Colorado titles and writing guides, so please wait for the changes shortly after the New Year.
The best way to reach me is through my Twitter account, @DavidRozansky.
Keep 'em Flying,
David A. Rozansky, Publisher
Flying Pen Press
Address: 1660 Niagara Street, Denver CO 80220 USA
Phone and Fax: 303-375-0225