Yo Ho Underpants!

DSCN2354
Ol’ Chumbucket works the young crowd – and the young crowd’s parents – at Red Canoe Bookstore.

I entered Baltimore’s Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe in full buccaneer gear last Friday. A three-year-old looked at me and said one of the things no pirate wants to hear.

“Are you Santa?”

Well, sure, I was wearing my scarlet shirt and my big boots, and my hair and whiskers have gotten a tad – what’s the word I want to describe the color of my hair? Ultrablonde! – that’s it, my hair is ultrablonde. And yes, my waist these days is, shall we say, more than ample – but I’m working on it! But still, didn’t want to hear that.

I growled at him. “Does Santa carry a pirate sword? Does Santa wear a pirate hat? I’m a pirate!”

He laughed and said, “Yo ho underpants!”

Because of course, to a three-year-old boy, underpants is far and away THE funniest word in the language. And that was an important reminder for me, because he was hardly the last kid his age I would see that day.

I had booked the appearance about two months earlier. Red Canoe is a really nice neighborhood institution. I really loved the place, the ambience, the neighborhood, everything about it. It was great. But in retrospect I have to say it probably wasn’t the right venue for me. I knew the store was oriented towards kids books, but I thought a reading of “Chrissie Warren: Pirate Hunter” would not be inappropriate. Thankfully I had made alternative plans. Because as discussions went back and forth by the owner and myself, I realized this would be a kids gathering, not a teen or young adult. And even then, the audience was a lot younger than I had expected. And fortunately, I had alternate material.

First and foremost, I was going to have to switch books. “Chrissie” is a great book and something that kids as young as 11 or so can really enjoy, and kids as young as 8 would enjoy hearing a short scene read aloud. But it’s way beyond a three year old. Cap’n Slappy and I had put together a whimsical ABC book called “A Li’l’ Pirate’s ABSeas.” We have always proudly said it’s not the book for perfect parents to buy for their perfect children. It’s a book the perfect children should get from their drunken bastard uncles so the kids won’t grow up to be insufferable little prigs. And even better, in our book, “U” is for “Underwear.” So that was obvious.

And I have a stock of material that is adaptable, so I felt pretty confident.

But kids that age have the attention spans of fruit flies. Ever try to keep a three-year-old focused for five minutes? I had a deck full of kids, the oldest of whom was probably four and the average age younger than three. And I worked them for more than an hour, by keeping these simple rules in mind:

The first of course, is “underpants.” I was a pirate so I didn’t feel the need to be perfect and polite. In a pinch, I could always get a laugh just by shouting “Yo Ho Underpants!”

Keep things moving and mix it up. I started with a song. Shifted to a bit of pirate schtick. Another song. A bit of reading from “ABSeas.” Another bit of schtick. A little sleight of hand. Another song.

There’s no way to keep that many kids focused for that long – But I could always play to their parents. Each was accompanied by at least a mother or father, some by both. I could and did play to them, and they in turn made sure their kids got the joke.

And I kept in mind why I was there. To sell books. So we spent more time on reading “ABSeas” than any other single thing. And I saved the best for last.

As I was winding up after an hour and 15 minutes, I gathered all the kids and told them I was going to teach them the single most important pirate phrase, a phrase they had to learn by heart and repeat over and over. That phrase was:

“Mommy, I want the pirate book. Buy me the pirate book mommy!”

They repeated it several times under my coaching. And we sold some books.

Another thing that paid off was that in the weeks preceding the event I had posted several reminders of my schedule on social media, and invited pirates and fans from the area to show up. I really wanted to meet them, because that’s always fun. And a couple did show up, and it was a joy meeting them and talking about how they celebrate Talk Like a Pirate Day and incorporate pirattitude in their lives. And god bless ’em! They, too, bought some books, including several copies of “Chrissie.”

And then we were on the road to the next stop.

Tales from the Road – Literally

DSCN2365
Daughter and dad – Millie and me Saturday night after a long drive.

I’m writing this Saturday from the backseat of Bubba, our Ford pickup. I’m in the back because Friday night, after our event at the Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe (about which more in a later post) we drove over to the Greyhound station and picked up daughter Millie, who had taken the bus down from New York. We haven’t seen her in like two years, so we’re very happy.

It’s great listening to Tori and Millie talking about all those things mothers and daughters talk about, and even greater when Millie starts singing along to whatever is on the radio, sounding so much better than whoever is on the radio. That sounds like proud, doting dad, and I certainly am, but it’s also true. Anyone who knows her or has ever heard her sing would know what I mean.

We drove down the freeway from Baltimore as long as we could stand, then found a pretty decent hotel in Frederick, MD, for the night. Now we’re heading to Knoxville, but we got seriously sidetracked by history.

We spent a couple of hours visiting the Harpers Ferry National Park, a kind of amazing little corner of American history, with connections to Washington and the development of the railroad and Lewis & Clark and – of course – John Brown’s abortive slave uprising in October 1859. His raid on the federal armory at Harpers Ferry, to seize the guns to give to Virginia’s 4 million slaves, was a failure, they were captured in three days and Brown was hung before the end of the year. But it was the spark that set off the Civil War.

There was a lot of action on the site during the war, it changed hands eight times during the four years of the war, and we were also able to visit one of those battle sites, Bolivar, a tribute to every foot soldier who ever lived and whose commander picked the wrong terrain to try to defend.

Anyway, a lot to take in for nerds like us. That’s kind of a capsule of this whole trip. We spent a lot of time getting to the next stop, where we flogged the book fairly successfully, alternating with geeking out at the history that’s all around you in Virginia. The ongoing archaeological excavation of Jamestown was the highlight of that side of the trip, but we also got a look at Yorktown, Fort Dickinson, and the above mentioned Harper’s Ferry. And my heart sank a little when I realized I was driving past Antietam, site of the worst conflict of the Civil War. It was closed so there was nothing I could do, even if we weren’t already late for meeting with my niece Jenny and her husband Brian – both of whom would have understood geekiness. And it was hard knowing I was within 100 miles of Gettysburg and the time simply wouldn’t stretch to take it in. Next time.

As I write this we’re back on the road, six hours and 46 minutes to Knoxville. Won’t be able to post this until tonight. We hit the road June 1 and from New Orleans have passed through Mississippi, Alabama, a corner of Georgia, Tennessee, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, back through Maryland, West Virginia, back into Virginia and we’re heading back towards Tennessee. Three of those were firsts for me, five for Tori. We have one more reading Sunday at the Knoxville Barnes & Noble.

Millie flies back to New York on Tuesday, and then it’s kind of open. There’s another possible event in Nashville Saturday the 18th, but we’re both starting to feel like we’re ready to get home. It’s been an amazing tour and we’ve met a lot of great people and sold a lot of books and showed the flag (a Jolly Roger, naturally) all over, but it’s beginning to feel like I want nothing more than to wake up in my own bed. Probably with the cat sitting on my chest, poking my face to get me to wake up.

Coming up in the next couple of days, posts on some of the events, thoughts on the things an author will do to sell books (spoiler alert – anything, a writer is or should be willing to do anything to sell a book) and some of the geeky stuff that’s happened on this June jaunt.

Notes from the Road

This has been a good first week on the road, for a lot of reasons, many of them obvious. But I’m going to give three for now.

This is the first time since I’ve known Tori that we have been together without kids for a whole week. We both had children before we met, and after we got married we had three more. (They know what causes that now.) So we have been able to get away for occasional weekends, but that was it.

Today is our seventh day on the road, a full week. And we’ve had a great time. Just driving, being silly, exploring new things together, laughing. It’s always been a “given” that she’s my best friend. How fun to see how true that really can be, when it’s just the two of us, how well it works.

DSCN1924
Ol’ Chumbucket with Constable Heartless, whose name believes the generous spirit of the man,

Speaking of friends, I left Hampton late Sunday afternoon with a slew of new ones, the many fine freebooters I met at the Blackbeard Festival, starting with the members of Blackbeard’s Crew, who were our hosts at throughout the gathering. It was an honor I feel deeply, and I’m proud to call them brothers. Constable Heartless – you’re not fooling anyone with that name. You’re a fine pirate, a fine captain and a fine man. And all the other pirates from the various crews – Hope, Rattanne, Just Gregg, Damon, Mr. Willis, Rummaker, all the crew of the Vigilant, The Moody Crew and the Loose Cannon Company and all the rest of ye – I’m proud to call you brothers – even the women.

This had been planned as a sales trip, and certainly that’s the point. We wouldn’t be doing this without the impetus of “Chrissie Warren” Pirate Hunter.” (Certainly as far as the IRS is concerned that’s all it’s about.) It wasn’t necessarily about selling books as getting it out there, meeting people, showing the flag. But it turns out, so far anyway, that we have been selling books, especially the first day of the festival when we sold quite a few. Not just “Chrissie,” although mostly that. But Tori had noticed early in our “retailing” career last year that the tables that seem to do the best have more than one title on them. So we brought with us some of our earlier efforts written with Cap’n Slappy – “A Li’l’ Pirates ABSeas,” “Well Blow Me Down,” and “Pirattitude,” and sold a few of each. In fact, I think it was the single best day of book selling I’ve had since Cap’n Slappy and I had a reading at a bookstore in our hometown and the audience was packed with our longtime friends. This has been total strangers. So we’re hopeful.

And, like I’ve always said, each book is sold one copy at a time, person to person, one to one. I actually had quite a bit of fun engaging people as they walked by, joking with them, talking about the books, and drawing them in until – Click! – they decide to buy one. You can actually feel it when they make the decision, sometimes they are as surprised as anyone. It’s fun.

We’ve got three readings/events coming up in the next five days, and we are just having fun.

Ready to Hit the Road

Been busy. So freakin’ busy. Trying to lay plans to make myself even more busy.

School’s out, and Tori and I are hitting the road for two weeks to sell books. But boy, it’s skull-numbing trying to set it up.

Because I’m self-pubbed, I have to do it myself. But honestly, even when I had a publisher (“Pirattitude!” and “The Pirate Life”) I had to do it myself. As I’ve said before, a publisher’s not going to put a lot of effort into promoting you unless you’re already selling, which seems bass-ackwards to me. So it’s up to you.

Anyway, the “tour” was all based around attending the Blackbeard Pirate Festival in Hampton, VA, the beginning of June. By a happy coincidence, my novel actually opens in Hampton, where Chrissie lives before she sets off on her adventures. (Coincidence my eye! I did it for this very reason, knowing I’d eventually be trying to sell it at the festival.)

I contacted the festival back in October, and had several very encouraging exchanges with several different members of the organizing committee. We talked about a book reading, setting up a table for sales, performing, really just doing anything we could to help out. For what it’s worth, I’m a pretty well known member of the pirate community. I’m also a ham, never met a microphone that frightened me. I was ready to help out.

Then I got to work trying to set up other events around that. And slowly but surely they started coming together. There’s a fine line between calling too early before an event and calling too late. That line is somewhere between six and four weeks. I started sticking pins in the map.

But I was never able to get any firm commitments of times or activities from the folks I’d been talking to in Hampton. I didn’t want to show up and discover no one knew who I was, why I was there or what I planned to do. Believe me, I’ve been there and it is NOT the best experience. Awkward don’t begin to describe it. I’ll tell you the story some time. As the date approached I was getting more and more nervous.

Finally, only a week ago, I heard back from one of the folks I’d been in touch with earlier. Turns out neither he nor the other two people I’d been in touch with are still on the organizing committee. Hadn’t been in months. While he tried to be helpful and was very nice about it, he really couldn’t do much. I was back at ground zero, with the clock ticking. And I had a couple of events on the calendar that I wouldn’t have dreamed of scheduling if I wasn’t already planning to be in Virginia.

I scrambled. It took a day get hold of someone at the city (the festival is a city parks and rec event) who referred me to someone else, and finally, on Thursday I was talking to the captain of Blackbeard’s Crew Inc. He was horrified, felt somehow responsible for the mess, even though it had nothing to do with him. I tried to reassure him that stuff happens, and if it doesn’t work out, that’s not the end of the world. But he wouldn’t hear of it, and by Friday Tori and I had an invitation to come to the festival under the aegis of his group, with some really nice arrangements offered. We are honored to be the guests of such a gracious crew.

And that pretty much nailed down the schedule, at least the front two thirds of it. We’re driving from New Orleans to Hampton, VA, with a one day stop in Knoxville, TN, to spend a day with Tori’s oldest, closest friend. Then on to the festival where, with any luck at all, we’ll sell many books or at least pick up email addresses for the mailing list and give out cards advertising the book. We’re going to take most of an off day to visit the Jamestown Settlement (I’m a nut for historical sites) and on to Maryland to visit my niece, then up to Wilkes-Barre, PA, for a reading at the Barnes & Noble, followed the next day by an event at the Red Canoe Bookstore and Cafe in Baltimore.

In Baltimore we’ll pick up daughter Millie, who is coming down from New York, and spend Saturday June 11 with her driving like maniacs back to Knoxville, where I have a reading at the Barnes & Noble 2 p.m. June 12. We’ll stay at the friend’s house, getting Millie to the airport where she can fly home on that Tuesday (so she only misses two days of work.)

And then we’re at loose ends for a couple of days. I’m still looking for one more opportunity in the area, maybe Chattanooga, maybe Memphis, but honestly, resting up for a couple of days sounds good, too.

Then there’s an event in Murfreesboro, TN., just outside Nashville, 5 p.m. June 18. Our friend Tom Mason and his pirate band, Blue Buccaneer, will be performing at the Mayday Brewery. I will sing along with the best of ’em, pounding my tankard on the table appropriately. And of course I’ll have books with me available for selling, because even if I don’t sell any, that makes the whole event a sales trip and deductible from my taxes. No beer tastes better than a tax deductible beer!*

And then home. We’ll have covered a lot of miles and a lot of the eastern half of the USA, and we’ll be ready to put our feet up for a few days.

There’s another event coming up in August, and another in September. So there’s always something. But you’d better believe before I hit the road Wednesday, I’m recontacting all of the venues I’ve scheduled with, just to be sure. I hate that kind of surprise.

* I would point out that I am NOT a licensed tax expert or a CPA or anything like that. I’m a pirate. Please consult your tax professional before trying this at home and remember that it’s probably never a good idea to take tax advice from a pirate. The IRS hates the competition.

“Coming Soon!” You, too Can Make a Book Trailer

The trailers are often the best part of a night at the movies. And more and more books are getting the same treatment, a minute to two-minute video trying to entice people into reading.

I decided to put one together for Chrissie. Video software is ubiquitous and fairly easy to learn – although like so many things, it’s easy to learn but takes a lot more time to master. But Tori and I have done a lot of videos for the Pirate Guys, so we figured why not.

It took a lot of time, one of the reasons I haven’t posted in a couple of weeks. I was mostly slowed because Apple keeps “improving” iMovie, in particular, the text functions, which slowed me down a lot. It was maddening. But I roughed it out, then Tori cleaned it up.

I like the way it turned out.

After you ooh and ahh over mine (kidding there,) you should go to youtube and search the words “book trailer.” you’ll be amazed how many come up. They range in quality and resources from full-blown productions with actors and budgets (I suspect these are paid for by publishers who only throw money promoting products they already think will be best sellers,) to videos of authors sitting on front of their computers camera talking about the book. Mine falls in the low-budget category. The music, which wasn’t what I was looking for but was perfect, came up on a search for “non-royalty tin whistle music.” The images were all sketches done by my cover illustrator. The words were from fans who loved the book.

We all know the story. When you self-publish, you’re not just the author. You have to do everything, and while that can be onerous, it also gives you a certain freedom. You can be a director, creating your very own video for the trailer.

It was more work than I expected. It’s easy to rough out. Harder to clean it up so that it looks good. But I had fun, probably too much.

Now back to work.

Thoughts on Using Social Media and Other Things

It’s been more than a week now since I took part in the Jambalaya Writers Conference in Houma, then I got busy last week (a string of household “incidents” that took a lot of attention and time.) So let me start wrapping up what I talked about in my session.

I told you last week how I opened, with a couple of stories that illustrated, whether you’re self-publishing or got picked up by a legacy publisher, you still have to get out there and do the work yourself. And that’s the good news, because no one loves your book as much as you do, and no one is more vested in its success than you are.

So here, in summary, is the rest of what I had to say.

It starts with your book. Make it the very best you can. Rewrite. Rewrite again. Have a few test readers. Listen to them. But keep these words from Neil Gaiman in mind: “When people tell you something’s wrong or doesn’t work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.”

Don’t scrimp or cut corners. Hiring an editor is a good idea. An outside professional can do more than clean the typos. He or she can point to problems in your story that you might be blind to. If you can’t afford one, find someone competent to read it. You must know somebody – your daughter’s fifth grade English teacherAnd DO NOT go cheap on the cover. Like it or not (and nobody does) people do judge books by their covers. Do not have your neighbor’s 14-year-old daughter do the cover because “She’s always been so artistic,” unless your neighbor’s daughter has also taken classes in art, design, typography and print technology. Money spent on a good cover is, perhaps, among the most important money you will spend. Yes, you can use a service or the “cover creator” software on your POD platform, but the best you’ll get is a thoroughly OK cover. Generic, but not embarrassing.

You don’t want to publish a book. You want to publish a great book. So don’t cut corners. People might buy a bad book from you the first time. They won’t do it twice, and you probably want to be in this for the long haul.

Social media can help you get the word out, but it will not sell your book.

Rule number one of social media is – It’s social. It’s not a marketplace or an advertising venue. It’s social.

Yes, you want the people on your friends list to buy your book. But you can’t treat them like potential customers. Treat them like – for want of a better word – friends. You don’t want to be the guy who is on their every day saying “buy my book, buy my book, but my book.” That’s a recipe for getting unfriended and unfollowed really fast.

If you have a release date coming up, if your book is about to come out or already has, you’re about three years behind the curve. The time to start cultivating your social media following is as soon as you start writing, or earlier. On Facebook (and “everybody” is on Facebook) you can start with your page, then set up a page for the book. Then act like a friend. For every time you mention the book you’re writing, try to post five things that are just chat. The picnic you went on with the family, the weather, something funny that happened on a date last night. Maybe post a picture of your cat. Those seem to be popular. And take some time every day to go through your friends’ posts and like things, comment on some of them. Be supportive and encouraging. Be a friend.

That way you’re an interesting person who happens to be writing and selling a book, not just an annoying person who is out there shamelessly flogging your book to a resentful public at the expense of everything else.

Build an email list. Your email list and newsletter is your best single selling tool. You need a web page, and a place for people to sign up for your newsletter. Don’t sign people up without their OK. Having them sign up is critical. It gives permission for you to send them your information. Otherwise they just get – here’s that word again – resentful. And resentful people are hard to sell to.

And don’t make the newsletter nothing but an ad. Give the reader something useful, some reason to want to open the email you send them once a month. That’s going to depend on your book, your genre, and your platform. (More on platform later.) In my case, I try to give the readers something funny every month. I’ve been sending short excerpts from the earlier humor books Cap’n Slappy and I wrote, then a calendar of upcoming events, and finally something about the book.

The people on your list gave you permission. Don’t abuse it.

Making and maintaining an email list and creating a newsletter are not that hard, they’re something you can do yourself. But there are services you can use that are inexpensive and even free. For instance, if your list is less than 2,000 address, MailChimp allows you to send 12,000 emails a month for free. That’d by six mailings to your entire list every month, and I think we can agree that’d be excessive. Once your list grows over that number, it goes from $40 to $65 a month, which isn’t onerous, and wouldn’t that be a nice problem to have? A list that just keeps growing? And they provide other services, templates, reports of how many of your mailings actually got opened. Stuff like that. Anyway, it’s something to think about.

There were two more pieces of my presentation, but this is long enough and I’ve got to get to work. So I’ll finish up tomorrow.

You and Your Book: It’s Up to You

Saturday I was a presenter at the Jambalaya Writers Conference in Houma. I was talking about getting the word out on your book, and I started with these two stories.

In 2005 my friend Mark and I had written a book, and our agent had tried for a year to place it with a publisher. No one said they didn’t like it, in fact most of them said they really enjoyed it. But none of them decided to take a chance on it. One publisher called it “laugh out loud funny,” but said “It doesn’t fit our list.”

After you’ve been in the book business for a while you realize “It doesn’t fit our list” is publisher speak for “It’s not like what we’re already selling and we don’t know how to sell what we don’t already sell.”

So our agent suggested we should consider self-publishing. A woman I worked with at the newspaper, Jan Roberts-Dominguez, is a well known food writer in the Northwest, and had published several cookbooks, some self-published and some traditionally. So I called her and asked if she had any advice or thoughts about our decision to go our own way.

There was a long pause, then she said, “When you self-publish, you’re spared the disappointment when you learn that your publisher doesn’t know how to sell your book either.”

So we decided to do it, figured out how much money we could afford to lose, and went ahead. And we worked our tail off. We went to book fairs, we performed all up and down the coast. We performed places where they were kind of surprised to see us walk in the door. And we sold books. Within a few months we had sold enough to cover our costs. A few months after that we had sold enough to interested a publisher. New American Library offered us a contract. New American Library. That’s a pretty big deal.

About six weeks before the release date for the new book, I got an email from someone in the NAL publicity department. She said she’d been assigned to our book and she was excited to be working with us and was sure we’d have a big hit.

And that was the last I ever heard from her.

I made calls and sent emails with suggestions or questions or ideas for promoting the book. Nothing. Eventually my agent explained, “You have to sell 50,000 copies before she’ll reply to your calls and emails to tell you she can’t help you.”

I figured, if I can sell 50,000 books, what do I need her for.

So we set to work and the book went through seven printings.

And that’s the main point of what I want to say today. It’s up to you. Whether you’re self-published or traditionally published, YOU have to be your book’s biggest promoter. You have to get the word out. It’s up to you.

And that’s good news, because nobody loves your book as much as you do. Maybe your mother, but she has to say that. No one loves your book more than you. Yes, publishers have PR departments, and you can always buy the publicity package from CreateSpace or Lulu or whatever service you use. You can hire a publicist, and I assume they do a good job. But they’re doing it for money. It’s their job. You’re doing to because you love your book and want readers to love your book too.

No one cares about it as much as you.

And then I went on with a lot of thoughts about ways you can get your book out there. And you know what was freaking AMAZING? People were listening and taking notes! I was so surprised I lost my train of thought. I have done a lot of public speaking, but I don’t remember anyone ever taking notes before. Very surprising.

I’ll have another post or two over the next week with some of the other stuff I either said or learned during the course of the weekend.