Jeffrey Stepakoff Dispenses His Wisdom
Last Saturday, I attended a seminar at a local library featuring Jeffrey Stepakoff, a novelist, screenwriter, and a professor at Kennesaw State University. I figured someone with his extensive experience writing in several fields would provide much wisdom for a small fish like me, and I was correct.
Stepkanoff told the participants that they should stop thinking of themselves as being at the mercy of producers and publishers. If producers and publishers did not have content, they had nothing.
"We are at the center, the epicenter," he said.
He said there are people right now looking to find the next big book or the next script for a big television show or film. However, he said this doesn't mean that one shouldn't write well and produce good content in the first place. He advised people to wait until their content was outstanding before putting it out there. If it really is good, getting it published/produced is just a matter of time.
A professional writer shouldn't just start writing without planning. One should know one's story and ensure the story works before one starts writing. Writing a script that doesn't come from a good story is a miserable process that requires a lot more work--one has to come up with stuff as one goes along. This is important when one pitches one's story to an editor--one should have a good story, not just a vague world.
Then he dropped a substantial bomb. He said if one's novel or script isn't getting traction, even after years, chances are it's not that good. Write well. "Have your killer story," he said.
He advised those writing scripts to pay attention to what the market wanted. If someone writes for cop shows, but the market is for comedies, one should ask if they've ever written something funny during one of their cop shows. If they have, they can write comedy. However, he said that doesn't mean one should take the novel one has been working on for 20 years and add vampires just because they're trendy.
Stepkanoff said if one thinks one's book is in the same vein as, say, Jodi Piccoult, one should study her work and who reads it. If the book is unpublished, find out who Piccoult's agent is. Examine the book jacket.
He warned even if one has a contract for a book, if it's not a good point, the publisher will only print a small number of copies and won't put a lot of effort into promoting it. However, if it is good, one's editor will push for the publisher to promote it. Most publishing houses put out around 1,000 books. How many books get first print runs of 20,000 to 50,000 copies? Maybe 20, and of those, 15 will have been written by established authors.
Stepkanoff described the process of "selling in." If the sales people hear from on high the publisher is psyched about the book, they'll push that one more so than the other 300 or so books they're responsible for selling.
He advised the writers they should have the book jacket in mind when they write the book. One should think about where the book should go in the bookstore. One's pitch begins with the author and will ultimately travel all the way to the book buyers. Stepkanoff designed his pitch before he even started writing the book. This doesn't mean one shouldn't have the writing space to develop good characters, but that one should have a good idea from the beginning.
He then advised writers to build a public persona. Publishers don't want just an image, but a built-in fan base. Editors are thinking about how to pitch a person.
(Hmm...I think my built-in fan base are Harry Potter and Transformers fans from my fan-fic, BattleTech people from "Skirmish at the Vale's Edge," Digital Science Fiction readers from "Coil Gun, people I know from Marietta because I grew up there, Griffin and North Fulton because I work there, and alternate-history enthusiasts due to my long posting history at AH.com.)
Audience members asked him if he wants them to write something that can be easily forwarded. Stepkanoff said this was the case. An agent once asked a colleague of his to tell her what to tell publishers. The colleague was upset, until Stepakoff told him the agent had connections and does her things so he can live in Georgia nad have a good place with his family. He recommended audience members to craft a killer letter.
Stepakoff then explained the differences between literary and film agents. A Hollywood agent, especially one who works in television, invests a lot in a single writer. A literary agent will work with a larger number of writers and, consequently, will not be as present in one's life. New York agents are more accessible--although their Web sites often say not to e-mail them, it does work.
An audience member suggested the Web site Everyone Who Is Anyone, which contains contact information for many publishers and agents. Stepakoff told people who approach agents and publishers via this method to wait until their product is darn good, as a favor to other writers who might use this site later.
Stepakoff suggested people join the Writer's Market Web site or purchase the large Writer's Market books to find agents in one's field. One should also find books in one's genre and check out the acknowledgements section. One should find the agency that represented the writer and then go to the agency's Web site to find an agent.
However, he advised them not to fire off crazy e-mails and to think long and hard about one's opening line. Agents don't just get you jobs--they're your business partners. You have to give them something.
He then discussed marketing. Most writers aren't pushed hard by their publishers and if the publisher won't put the effort into promoting one's book, one should. However, there needs to be a balance between time spent writing and time spent on things like Facebook, blogging, Twittering, or doing signings in bookstores.
He then had some advice about bookstores. If one goes to a bookstore and tries to arrange a book signing, the staff will be much more interested in you if you can point out where the book is in the store.
"Make noise on the Internet," Stepakoff advised. "Get people to review the book."
(That advice I've already implemented. I've promoted "Coil Gun" and the collection it's in, the third Digital Science Fiction anthology, via contacts I've made on AH.com.)
Stepakoff is on the fence about spending one's own money on Internet advertising. He recommended if one is in a niche market, one should focus on social networking, as well as focused events relevant to your topic. He then said every writer should have a Twitter feed.
"Nobody knows what's going to happen to publishing," he said.
His informed opinion is that consumption of stories is not going to fall and that digital media is going to be remarkably beneficial to it.
(I can agree with this wholeheartedly. My publications, including the well-paying BattleTech and Digital Science Fiction ones, were in primarily online markets. I did make a couple of sales to a smaller print magazine, but the magazine went under before they could be printed.)
Stepakoff discussed electronic readers like the Nook. Amazon is selling more e-books than print books these days and many people bring their e-readers into stores, see what interesting books are on the shelves, and download them electronically.
He suggested that independent bookstores conduct a public-service campaign. People who go to bookstores just to see what books they can download don't know they're not supporting the bookstores. He said people complained about the death of Borders, but had to be asked if they even bought books in the first place. He said Barnes and Noble is trying to integrate more with the local communities and compared them to Whole Foods. Barnes and Noble also promotes books by region. The company promoted his book Fireworks Over Toccoa heavily in the South, where it has been selling well.
Stepakoff also discussed giving out content for free as a means of enticing readers. He has a free e-book entitled "Love A La Carte," which he described as being the "deleted scenes" from his novel The Orchard. It's the number-two free item on Amazon.com at the moment. He suggested writers put their own content online or for free at a low price, but not to just spew low-quality stuff.
An audience member brought up James Patterson, who gives out the first few chapters of his books online for free--people will buy the complete product to finish it.
Stepakoff said Patterson's books are so well-designed, they hook readers. He reminded the writers it's their job to get people to read the second page.
He also weighed in n book trailers. He recommend they not mess with those and instead focus on social media, which is free. Creating a quality book trailer is expensive and it involves putting faces on characters Hollywood would like to cast. If one absolutely must do a book trailer, one should focus it on selling the writer, not just the story.
"Let the publisher pay for it," he said. "Let them do the professional version of it."
He suggested a better way to get one's name out there is to guest-write for blogs. There is a correlation between this and a high Amazon author rating.