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Successful authors give tips on writing, selling books

While many fantasize about quitting their jobs to become writers, bestselling author Brandt Legg says being a successful writer can take far more time than any job.

He writes seven days a week with a goal to write 3,000 words daily.

“It’s your job. It’s what you do,” Legg told an audience during the Local Author Fair at the Ashland Public Library on Sunday.

Legg was one of more than 60 local authors presenting their books for sale at the fair, which also featured fast-paced talks on writing and selling books.

After putting his dream of becoming an author on hold for too long, Legg decided to spend his life savings and devote a year to writing. He had three books when his money ran out, but they weren’t selling.

A series of trials and errors taught him the secrets to selling books.

Legg says many authors resist paying for advertising, but it’s almost impossible to sustain yourself as a working writer without marketing. Telling your Facebook friends to buy your book isn’t enough.

Legg also resisted giving away free copies of his books, but he’s since learned readers turn into fans who will spread the word about a book to their friends and through reviews.

He recommends the service BookFunnel at bookfunnel.com to get advanced copies of your book circulating.

Authors should never overestimate the importance of a good cover, Legg notes.

“You’ve written this book. You want it to sell,” he says.

Even if you have graphic arts experience, don’t design your own cover — unless you have extensive knowledge of the industry. Paying someone to design a cover costs about $100-$500. Look at other books the person has designed and whether they are selling, Legg advises.

Be sure the cover of your book matches other books in the genre and subgenre. For example, even in the romance genre, covers look very different for erotic romance versus Christian romance. Your book has to fit in and let readers know what to expect, he says.

The cover also has to look good in the small image size customers see when they’re browsing for books online, Legg says.

A concise, intriguing blurb describing a book is another critical element in making online sales. Authors have only seconds to catch a potential customer’s attention.

“You have to get them to buy your book while they’re there,” Legg says.

Electronic versions of books are key to earning income and gaining market share. Avid readers usually can’t afford to buy a lot of physical books each month, but they will spend 99 cents to $2.99 on ebooks, he says.

With millions of books out there, it’s so hard and time-consuming to gain a reader Legg recommends always writing a series of books rather than a stand-alone book. That might mean breaking one tome down into three volumes.

On a similar vein, genre-hopping makes it hard for an author to gain recognition and a following. Most successful authors stick to one genre, whether that’s thrillers, romance or horror, Legg says.

He recommends seeking more advice on writing, publishing and marketing books from knowledgeable sources like Joanna Penn at thecreativepenn.com and Mark Dawson at selfpublishing.com.

“Selling books is hard, but it can be done,” Legg says.

Children’s book author Kim Griswell was another successful writer offering advice at the book fair.

She gave an inside look at writing a picture book and then working with an illustrator.

If a publishing company is interested in a picture book manuscript from an unknown writer, it will likely team the author with a well-known illustrator. The writer has little say about the pick, Griswell says.

She recommends being open to creative ideas from illustrators. They may have clever ideas for injecting humor into a book, for example.

“Picture books aren’t just about the words. They’re about the illustrations,” she says.

Most big publishing houses no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts. Getting an agent can help, or shop a manuscript around at smaller, regional publishers. Attending conferences and making personal connections with editors and publishers also helps, Griswell says.

Be open to changes from editors and the sales team.

The author of a series of picture books about an adventurous pig, Griswell was already a published author when she wrote a manuscript about the pig traveling to the moon.

“The sales team said, ‘Oh, the moon. That’s been done,’” she says.

Griswell had to rethink her story and send her character to Mars instead. That meant thinking up activities to keep the pig occupied during an eight-month journey to the red planet.

“They said, ‘You’ll figure it out,’” she recalls.

Griswell solved the problem by having the pig ask repeatedly, “Are we there yet?”

Finally she put him to bed in a sleeping chamber.

With the sales team wanting to get the book into a NASA gift shop, Griswell helped out illustrator Valeri Gorbachev by researching authentic interiors of space ships.

For award-winning international espionage thriller writer Michael Niemann, turning back the clock thousands of years helps him come up with plots that will engage readers.

He follows Aristotle’s advice that a good plot needs to incite both pity and fear in an audience. People feel pity when unmerited misfortune befalls a character, and they feel fear when something bad happens to someone like them.

Niemann says a good plot for the ancient Greeks meant tragedy would strike because of a defect or frailty in a person’s character, not just because the person was evil.

Niemann says believable villains are trying to fulfill their needs — just like everyone else — but choose nasty strategies to meet those needs.

“We need to have complex characters in crime fiction,” he says. “A 100% bad person doesn’t exist. A villain has to be complex.”

Another piece of advice from Aristotle is to have a distinct beginning, middle and end. For a crime novel, start the action as close to the actual crime as possible so the reader jumps into the story quickly, Niemann says.

Resist the urge to write a prologue or drag things out with an epilogue.

“Just stop. It’s done,” Niemann says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

An author's fair in Ashland Sunday gave budding writers tips to write, sell and market their work. [123rf.com photo]