Sex and the American Novel

Sexuality and gender identity-based culturesImage via WikipediaJ.A.Konrath recently fumed about sex: when his books contain explicit sex scenes, his readers are unhappy and call him a pervert! Amazing! 

Although I know America well and am a keen observer of American mores, I'm still puzzled by the way Americans view sex. This is particularly evident in politics. The on-going Dominique Strauss Kahn affair or scandal if you prefer to put it that way, certainly shows the complexities and innuendoes of how sex is viewed in America.

And it's not just a reaction to the sexual habits of a French celebrity, American politicians have repeatedly fallen prey to American public opinion. 

Most recently, it was Rep. Anthony Weiner (D - N.Y.) who sent nude photos on Twitter to some woman in Texas. He caused quite a stir and subsequently the Washington Post explored the question, polling some women on how exciting they found "naked man-parts" (not very), and what research had turned up. Unsurprisingly, research shows that women, as the Post delicately put it, are "nuanced sexual beings whose arousal depends on context, mood and a whole bunch of things they aren’t even aware of. Men are different. Men do tend to find the equivalent naked pictures of women titillating."

If this is the way it is in politics and American society, where does it leave the American novelist writing for adults?

It would seem, on the face of it, that a writer should figure out who are the majority of his/her readers, men or women, before sticking torrid sex scenes in novels.

Now, if you write romance or what used to be called "chick lit", it's pretty clear that the majority of your readers are women. So, no explicit sex scenes please!

But if you write mysteries/thrillers? Science fiction? These are genres that presumably are read by both men and women - perhaps more men than women. So some sex should be okay.

Yet, if you insist on your torrid sex scenes, you're in trouble, as J.A.Konrath found out. It is a fact that the genre he writes in - mysteries, thrillers, detective stories - has traditionally very little sex: it's there but it "fades to black".  Readers don't expect to find it in that kind of book. In fact, two of his followers who left comments on his blog, were quick to point that out.

I can agree with them on one thing: people don't expect torrid sex scenes from someone like Konrath. One goes to his books for the suspense: violence is right smack in the middle but sex is peripheral. Still, here is a writer who would like to write sex scenes: he enjoys writing them, he feels they forward his story plot, they enable him to better describe his characters and their relationships.

Sex scenes have definitely a place in literature, and why deny them to a writer?

A way out of that conundrum, and it has been chosen by many of my professional writer friends, is to write erotica under another name (I could name at least three...all women). To write sex scenes, if they don't fit into your genre, you have to hide behind a pseudonym.

In short, you can't write the way you feel like because your novel won't find a market.

And that's the whole point about pushing novels into genres. Yes, genre is a STRAIGHTJACKET! This can be very frustrating to an author: it conflicts with (part of) his inspiration. But, hey, you can't get out of it, you're in America, this is a business matter! It makes business sense! Genre, as everybody knows, is a marketing tool. It picks out the main features of your novel and shoves your book in a box where people who like that particular genre will find it. Past sales history shows how a given genre fares, so you know what sort of sales to expect.

Books that are "cross genre" are trouble: they're difficult to categorize, and therefore to market. Hence you have to be careful not to cross over: in the mystery/thriller genre, too much sex means crossing over. Konrath beware!

As I see it, there really are only two ways out:
(1) you pick a pseudonym and write as many sex scenes as you like turning your novel into booming erotica, or
(2) you move up to the "literary" category where anything goes, and indeed where erotica and violence work well together!

How do you feel about sex and the American novel? Is it easier to work in sex scenes in French, German, Spanish or Italian novels? Or is it about the same as in America, with genre acting as a straighjacket?

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AUTHOR INTERVIEW: ELIZABETH JENNINGS, writer and founder of the best writers conference in Italy

Elizabeth Jennings, a writer with twenty years of experience, has just published Darkness at Dawn with Berkley Sensation (Penguin). When you meet Liz (that’s how her friends call her), you are immediately reminded of Carol Joyce Oates line: “this is a person of surpassing integrity; a man of utmost sincerity; somewhat larger than life”.

But of course, she’s not a man! 

She’s very much a woman, a dedicated mother and wife, and a prolific writer (three books a year don’t scare her). She is not only a shoot-from-the-hip suspense author with a poetic streak when she sticks in romance in her novels – like in Darkness at Dawn, so far, one of my favorites! – she is also an amazing conference organizer. 

She founded nine years ago, and is personally running, what has become the best writers conference outside the US and UK: the Women’s Writers Festival in Matera, Italy. It claims to be and is in fact the only international writers' conference in the world, bringing together writers, agents and editors from across Europe and the United States. The next session is scheduled for 29 September-2 October 2011.

Try to be there, it’s bound to be full of interesting people, from agents and editors to published writers and newbies. I know she’s got lots of goodies in store for participants and I’ll let her explain it all in the interview below. And, icing on the cake: Matera, a UNESCO-classified town in Southern Italy, is a great place to visit!

Most recently Elizabeth organized a 4-day session of “brainstorming at the Spa” in a lovely hotel in Matera, with a thermal pool in troglodyte caves. That was a blast! Some twenty writers, both newbies and multi-published, participated along with one literary agent, Christine Witthohn of Book Cents Literary (link to her site: http://www.bookcentsliteraryagency.com/).   

None of the participants is about to forget that experience: rather than focusing on fine points of writing technique (can be very boring!), the group was prodded along by Elizabeth and Christine who never tired of asking pointed questions. We very literally “brainstormed” ideas for stories – digging into what makes a good story, the very basis of literature…

Here I’d like to take you through an interview I was lucky to do with her just a few days ago...

Question: What is your new novel, Darkness at Dawn, about?
Answer:  Darkness at Dawn is a romantic suspense, a genre I love writing. It allows such latitude for digging into characters, into their lives, into what has shaped them, into how they grow. The suspense element is often a pressure cooker reducing them to the bedrock of their personalities. My heroes and heroines (that’s the name for the male and female protagonists in Romancelandia) are complex creatures but their bedrock is a sense of honour and loyalty, and they are courageous, not always in ways you’d expect.

Darkness at Dawn is essentially a quest. The heroine, Lucy Merritt, leads a very quiet life immersed in the arcane art of manuscript restoration. It fulfils her on several levels—it requires deep scientific and artistic knowledge, it is painstaking (being narrowly focused on something you excel in and which is difficult and rewarding is one of life’s greatest pleasures). Her job and her life are tailored to fit her psychological need to have a safe and controlled environment because her childhood was anything but.

Her parents were cultural anthropologists who used their profession as a cover for espionage. In truth, they were CIA operators, and very good ones, who were able to go into the world’s hotspots as scholars and gather intel. This was the life of adventure they chose but it wasn’t the life their little daughter would have chosen. Her life was following her parents around to dangerous places where her parents did dangerous things and where a wrong word could blow their cover and endanger their lives. She watched her parents die in a blazing gunfight in the Himalayan Kingdom of Nhala when she was fourteen.

No wonder she prefers the quiet life and no wonder she wants to refuse when the CIA calls her to infiltrate Nhala once more because there is a dangerous threat to the world—a deathly virus which, if unleashed, could cause millions of deaths.

But Lucy is the very definition of a brave person—one who can overcome her fears—and she accepts.

The hero, Mike Shafer, of the Army’s famed 10th Mountain Division doesn’t shy from danger in any way. The 10th forges its men from steel and then makes them harder. No, Mike’s problem is accepting that all his expertise and courage and fighting skills make no difference in the cat and mouse game of international intrigue, where Lucy shines. And by the time his skills do come into play, carrying a grievously wounded Lucy through a snowstorm, he is head over heels in love with the bravest woman he’s ever met.

I love writing about these kind of people—the kind who step up to bat, the kind who don’t shirk their duty, the kind who show bravery in every way there is. And when they fall in love, it isn’t ‘sunshine love’ just as their patriotism isn’t ‘sunshine patriotism’. I fully expect my heroes and heroines to stay in love and with each other to their dying day.
So, dear reader, if love and danger and adventure and just a little hot sex entice you, you might want to give Darkness at Dawn a try!

Q: How long did it take you to write it? What inspired you?

A: Like most romance writers I have (per force) learned to become a fast writer. We have contracts and publishers are not amused when we don’t meet deadlines. Many writers have scarred welts across their backs from publishers’ lashes. (Just kidding. Sort of). So I wrote Darkness at Dawn at my usual pace. Start to finish, rough draft to final, four months.

For some time now I’ve been wanting to write about a girly-girl who likes a real cushy and danger-free existence (which would be moi in a younger, thinner version) who completely confounds expectations and is immensely, incredibly brave when it becomes necessary. And as a foil, I needed an incredibly physically brave man who underestimates her and has to reassess his image of bravery.

Because, dear reader, Lucy does something amazingly courageous. Something very few people would have the courage to do, knowing full well the consequences. Read the novel to find out.
Anyway, I wanted those two elements, I read a fascinating article about bioweapons and by the magical alchemy of a writer’s mind the book was born.

Q: When did you start writing?
A: I started writing in 1991, the year my son was born. The year the Soviet Union collapsed. An epochal year. And the year I turned forty (which had nothing to do with the collapse of the Soviet Union, promise). I turned forty. I was a successful simultaneous interpreter, but the cost of success was high and getting higher. I'd always wanted to write. And so the classic question--if not now--when?

So I did what all US writers do, I turned to the amazing amount of information online. I now, with hindsight, realize how privileged we all are because there is tons of help on tap. Not so for Italian or German or French writers.

I joined the Romance Writers of America, the only large writers organization open to unpublished writers, which is amazing. An unpublished author can access reams of information on how to structure a novel, how to write a query letter, the names of agents and editors...priceless. What is an impossible hurdle in Europe is made available to Americans.

Anyway, I starting writing my first novel in 1991. It sucked. I sent it around to friends who kindly, gently told me it sucked. I joined critique groups who said...you get the idea. I rewrote that book eight times. Eight. I sent it out and sent it out. I wrote book after book and sent them out and sent them out.

In March, 1998, while I was in Brussels working for the EU, someone called me in my hotel room. An editor for Kensington. She loved one of my books and was acquiring for a new romance line. Did I have anything else? Yes, I did. Five more books. And they were published in the space of a year and a half. The first book I wrote was the fifth book I published.
So I guess the moral of the tale is--persevere.

Q: Did you pick a genre first, then wrote a book to fit in, or was it the reverse, I mean: did you write the book you felt like writing, then tried to determine the genre once it was finished?

A: Oh man, this is a toughie because at the same time that I decided I was going to give writing a real try, I was also getting sick of the travel involved in simultaneous interpreting. I worked for the European Parliament which meets in Strasbourg one week, Luxembourg another week, Brussels another week and one week in capitals, depending on the working group. I lived on the road, slept in hotels much much more than I slept in my own bed. I was away two-three weeks a month. And I had a husband and a small child, both of whom I loved.

So in the back of my mind when thinking of writing was also--I need to earn a living.And, well, romance is a commercial genre. So it's the chicken and the egg. Which came first?

The stories that came to me were romances, mostly. And the romance market was knowable. So that's where I went.

I note also that you said--the book you felt like writing. I don't think anyone makes a living as a writer with only one book in them. I very definitely felt like I was wading into a new life, not writing one book. Because if you are of the opinion that you are becoming a writer, as opposed to writing a book, then the genre makes no difference. you'll knock at the door that opens. and once you walk in--the whole world awaits you.

Q: This is, of course, a novel of romantic suspense. Are you working on something else? A novella? Do you like shorter fiction? What is the advantage (drawback) in your opinion?

A: I love novellas. The novella length (about 30-40,000 words) is a sort of invention of the romance genre. Other genres, such as mysteries and science fiction, have perfected the art of the short story, because their roots are in the genre magazines like Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Analog. The romance novella comes from readers liking the short form, and publishers have discovered that anthologies are a very good way to introduce new authors to readers.

Most romance anthologies have three novellas. The headliner, whose name is in bright lights, is a very popular romance author (Nora Roberts has been in dozens of anthologies) and then come two relatively unknown names and if the unknown writer is lucky, in about ten years’ time she’ll be the headliner for an anthology with two younger writers.

I don’t see any disadvantages, really. A good novella is essentially a full blown novel, with a complete narrative arc and character development, only shorter. Delicious reading on a short trip or at bedtime. Often the anthologies have a theme and it’s fun to watch three gifted writers riff on Christmas, or vampires or those rakes in London during the Regency. So you get three flavors in one book. Win win.

Q: Have you ever considered writing in another genre? And if so, in what genre and why?
A: I wrote a women’s fiction, Homecoming. It would now be called a women’s fiction with romantic elements. And I wrote a murder mystery, Dying for Siena, set in Siena during the Palio. I love writing thrillers (romantic suspense books are thrillers with better sex than the men can write) but I don’t think I’ll be writing any other mysteries, the puzzle element doesn’t fascinate me. I like adventure and strong emotions, not someone puzzling over something in a room.

I’m back to reading my very first love, science fiction, and am seriously contemplating making a switch for a while—science fiction with romantic elements. I love apocalypse stories because they respond to a deep-lying anxiety in me that society is headed off the rails. Maybe writing about the world collapsing with exorcise my fears.

Q: What is your opinion on the sea changes the digital revolution is bringing in the lives of writers? I know you believe it opens up new opportunities that have never existed before, in particular the possibility of self-publishing e-books without incurring the stigma attached to vanity publishing. This adds a whole new dimension to the options an aspiring author may have: going through publishing with a “legacy publisher” is no longer a must. For those already published like you, it opens up the possibility of e-publishing their backlist. Would you consider self-publishing in future?

A: This is a very interesting topic. Contrary to widely-held opinion, it’s not that hard to be published nowadays. Certainly compared to when I started publishing in the late 90s. (God that feels like a generation ago now!). It’s arguably harder to land contracts with the big 6 ‘legacy’ conglomerates, but there is a plethora of epublishers and small presses who are looking for content as long as you are writing a commercial genre.

What’s really exciting about the digital revolution is not HOW you are published (legacy publisher, self publishing) but rather that the digital revolution has solved the age old enormous problem of distribution which was once a huge wall between reader and writer. That wall has come down as clangingly as the Berlin Wall. What’s exciting is that a reader in Buenos Aires can enjoy your steampunk fiction and a reader in Thailand your romance and a reader in South Africa your thriller. That’s big. That’s epochal. That’s revolutionary.

As for me—for complex reasons I don’t own the rights to any of my backlist and won’t until about 2019 by which time either the publishing industry will have established a direct tube in my veins to suck my blood, or the ice caps will have melted taking southern Italy with it, or I won’t be interested in writing anymore because I’ll be so rich I’ll have servants to breathe for me.

Take your pick.

Q: You have established the Women’s Writers Festival in Matera as a must venue on continental Europe for writers and agents. How did you get started?

A: When I was a beginner writer I got an AMAZING amount of help from writers’ conferences in the USA, notably the Romance Writers of America’s national conferences. You cannot believe what it is like to have the entire publishing industry at your fingertips while spending all your time with fellow writers. It is just such an amazing vibe and it sheds such light on this most closed of professions, writing and publishing. I knew nothing like this existed in Europe where publishing was still an industry shrouded in mystery. For all we knew, editors made decisions by consulting the I Ching or their horoscopes.

I am also a translator. I translated a book for the Italian Harlequin, Harlequin Mondadori, and established a telephonic friendship with its editorial director, Maria Paola Romeo. We were chatting and talking about establishing a writer’s retreat in Matera, which is quite beautiful and quite conducive to writing.

The writers’ retreat morphed into a writers’ conference and voilà! The International Women’s Fiction Festival.

Q: How do you ever find the time to both write your novels and organize the Festival? It sounds daunting!

A: Well, some writers write 7-8 books a year (Nora Roberts again). Here’s a link to an interview with Maya Banks, who writes close to a million words a year and earns close to a million dollars a year. It’s mind-boggling:

Now THAT’S a hard worker! It’s also an interesting post because Maya got her start with a digital publisher, Samhain, whose founder worked at Ellora’s Cave. Erotic romance gave digital publishing its first big push.

That’s the long answer. The short answer is—it’s not easy to get everything done. And sometimes I freak when I’m close to a deadline and sometimes I am stressed to the max.

Q: Will you organize another “Brainstorming at the Spa” with writers in future? As you say, it is better and cheaper than therapy, and this first session was a huge success.

A: Absolutely! And look for SEVERAL Brainstorming at the Spa sessions in 2012!

It was, hands down, the single most effective writing-boosting event I’ve ever been to. Amazingly effective in pushing you forward with your story, eliminating false starts and things that don’t work. It’s like pressing ‘fast forward’ on your writing. So check the website of the International Women’s Fiction Festival for the dates. We’re already thinking around April for 2012. Maybe April and November!

Thank you, Liz, for being so forthcoming and giving us all this information about yourself and your exciting writers’ conference. I know people who read us will want to buy your books and get in touch with you! 

Here’s the link to Elizabeth Jennings’ blog, do visit her and make comments: http://www.elizabeth-jennings.com/

Here's the link to the Writers' Conference home page: Women's Writers Festival in Matera
or Join on Facebook: Women's Fiction Festival


The Euro Summit: A Failure or a Step Forward?

sarkozy-merkelImage by Chesi - Fotos CC via FlickrWhat happened at the Sarkozy-Merkel Euro Summit?
Very little, judging from the drop in stock markets and the Euro exchange rate the next morning, August 17. We'll see how the rest of week goes, but markets are manifesting their disappointment, no doubt about that, while the Swiss Franc keeps rising.

The media had also expected a lot from the meeting, announcing it as a "Euro Summit"  because France and Germany are the two biggest economies in the Eurozone and have historically led forward the movement towards European Union.

Financial experts and investors, including big guys like Soros, had hoped for a lot more from the odd couple (Sarkozy and Merkel - their kisses deserve a post on its own). They had hoped for concrete proposals to save the Euro and in particular, the launching of Eurobonds backed by all 17 members of the Eurozone.

How could Eurobonds save the Euro?

They would be much like US Treasury bills. The Eurozone guarantee would help spread the burden among members, and be an obvious bonus for governments in trouble, foremost Greece, Portugal and Ireland, but also Spain and Italy. They would create a "firewall" against speculators, and overtime, secure the Euro's claim to become a world reserve currency. There had even been specific proposals: issue "blue eurobonds" backed by all member governments for a portion of the debt not exceeding 60% of GDP (in line with the Stability Pact that created the Euro) and allow governments to issue at their convenience "red bonds" to finance any debt above that, but without the backing of Eurozone members.

Unfortunately, the Eurobonds proposal, no matter how attractive, is frought with political and institutional uncertainties. Who would issue and manage them? How would national parliaments react? Germany, the best pupil in the class, has decidedly rejected so far the notion that it should pay for the more profligate and unruly members of the Eurozone ( because a Eurobond would mean that it would have to pay something in the form of a higher interest rate to finance its own debt). It has worked into its constitution the notion of a balanced budget and wants everybody else in Europe to do the same.

Results of the Euro Summit:

So what happened? Of course, we got no Eurobonds. Merkel said maybe in future one might consider them, but not for now. And we got a reaffirmation that the mechamisms presently in place to save the Euro are, in their opinion, quite sufficient as they are. In other words, no increase in the allocation of additional funds to save the Euro, no additinal responsibility to the European Central Bank.

So what did they propose? Three things: tax Euro financial transactions (Sarkozy's pet idea), get all Eurozone members to toe the line and balance their budgets (Merkel's pet idea) and create a mechanism for economic governance of the Eurozone. Under the chairmanship of EU President Van Rompuy, heads of governments are to meet twice a year and more if needed.

Of the three proposals, the last is the most important.

The harmonization of economic policies in the Eurozone may not sound like a sexy solution, but it is an essential, long-run one that could lay the basis for full integration. And it is rather clever to put it under the chairmanship of Van Rompuy who is both an excellent economist and an experienced negotiator. Moreover, from an institutional point of view, to force heads of government to meet means they have to prepare themselves for the meetings by pulling together all the best minds in their countries from the several ministries involved, in particular those dealing with finance and with economic policies, usually not the same ministries. This will enforce increased cohesion at the national level and ensure that "economic government" meetings become just that: economic government.

Yes, this also means "the end of the nation state", but that is the whole point of the unification of Europe, isn't it? A united Europe means the end of wars that have threatened not only the European continent but the whole of the civilized world. Because it is a lofty ideal, it is too often derided by people who seem to have either a hidden agenda or confused values, putting chauvinism above the love for peace. One Italian blogger defined it as a "return of European pride". And, as he pointed out, until the Eurozone has acquired an overseeing Ministry for Finance, it is impossible to launch the Eurobond proposal.

US Treasury Bills are America's best weapon to maintain its world economic and financial supremacy. The Eurozone cannot hope to achieve the same if it hasn't got the equivalent of the American Treasury.

To solve the Euro crisis requires the setting up of a Eurozone Treasury. That is the whole point of the Sarkozy-Merkel "economic government" proposal. Definitely a step forward!

Now will the rest of the Eurozone members agree? That is the whole question.

What do you think will happen? More dithering but a solution in the end? Or more dithering and Euro collapse, which, by the way, will cause a world-wide collapse. Don't kid yourself: a collapse of the Euro means a return to the 1930s and the Great Depression, worldwide!

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Marketing on Twitter: What Works and What doesn't

Free twitter badgeOh Sweet Twitter! Image via Wikipedia
How Twitter works for you depends on the number of followers, and, more importantly, on the kind of followers you have. 

Marketing will make sense if you've pitched it at the RIGHT audience. If not, it's a waste of time, this much is obvious.

Problem number One: Know your audience.

Too much emphasis has been placed on the NUMBER of followers you've got. To have a lot is good, but who they are is what counts if you want your marketing to be successful.
If you're a businessman, you know your market, you know what your interests are, no problem there. The first article I've attached below gives you all you need to know.

For artists and especially writers, it's different. And it is very surprising how few writers really know what audience they are writing for. Most writers see themselves as fitting into a genre - romance, sci-fi, fantasy, thrillers, whatever - and feel that if they've got a majority of people interested in that genre following them, they're ok. Trouble is: most of those followers are likely to be other writers belonging to that same genre. That's fine, they're readers too, but, remember, other writers are NOT an author's major market. 

The potential fan base for any writer is obviously much large than the writing/publishing community.

So how do you reach out of the writing/publishing community? Very difficult. My advice would be to seek out readers in readers' clubs, like Goodreads, Shelfari etc. and join groups reading in your genre. Make comments, make yourself known on the forums, and...get them on Twitter!

Now there may be other ways to do this. If you have any idea, please tell me!

Problem number two: How to market on Twitter

So now you're pretty sure you've got the right audience out there and you're ready to market your book on Twitter. There’s the direct pitch: "buy my book, it's available on Amazon, Barnes & Noble etc"! You can do it yourself or get your friends to do it – better the latter, at least it’s not you standing up there alone, hollering ‘buy my book’, which, let’s face it, makes you look pretty silly…

Not only that, but there's a real danger on Twitter: too many tweets on the same subject and soon enough you're considered a spammer! People will turn you off and unfollow you.
So you need to be considerably more savvy about this: use the indirect pitch!

How does an Indirect Pitch Work?

Allow me to explain. It all came out in the course of a recent discussion I was having with a friend of mine, who’s both a professional writer and a passionate reader. I was telling her how I have NEVER bought a book on the basis of a tweet, and she explained to me how Twitter works for her.
Her attention is caught by a clever tweet – either a line from the book or from a review of the book – and then since she has a Kindle, she goes straight to the Kindle Store and downloads the book – usually a 99 cents one. 

So here’s the winning equation:
Twitter on phone + Kindle = instant access to books = impulse buying of books that are cheap (99 cents - maximum $2.99).

Looks neat and easy, doesn't it? 

You're probably wondering how many people have both Twitter and Kindle. Quite a few, actually, so it is a very plausible strategy. But this strategy, the way my friend reported it, has another aspect that I'm sure you noticed: she bought a low-priced book. How determining is the 99 cents price? Pretty important for impulse buying. Actually, impulse buying probably also works well for $2.99 (the better price level for the author since that's where royalties kick in at the higher 70% level). 

We’ll never know whether it’s Twitter or the 99 cents price that works the magic!
Still, something useful can be concluded from all this:
  • The kind of tweet you send has to be attention-grabbing: for example, a “line from the book” will work if it hits you in 140 characters; this means you have to really work hard to perfect the pitch for your book: a short line is a lot harder than a long paragraph!
  • A line from someone’s review can be equally effective: this means you have to extract from your reviews just such a line and you better use the name of an authoritative reviewer, someone who has his/her own following!
What about Twitter contests? I have my doubts. A Twitter contest will work if you have a broad audience going well beyond other like-minded, like-genre writers. Otherwise, it will fall flat on its face. It will work if the Twitter re-tweeting feature works its magic, as people re-tweet news of your contest to their own followers.

But all this assumes that your followers actually read your tweets. Now, if you have a few and they are close friends, they surely will. If you have a lot, well...a lot of them probably won't. There's a sort of game  on Twitter where the point is to get the largest possible number of followers, playing on Twitter etiquette which requires you to follow back. But this is of course not an iron rule, and a lot of people have caught on and don't follow back. And all these people who are into this game of building up their numbers hardly take the time to read...

So, to what extent is Twitter marketing effective if most (a lot? some?) people don't read their tweet stream? And when you're beyond a certain number - say 200, or 500, or worse 1000 - how can you possibly read the Twitter stream coming out of so many people? Of course, you can't. So you go to Tweetdeck (or whatever) and set up a column of the people you actually want to read...probably no more than 50 or 60! 

Surely that defeats Twitter as a useful book promotion tool...

But maybe I'm overly pessimistic. What's your take?  
It's your turn to tell me what you think of Twitter as a marketing tool!

PS. An early and slightly different version of this post was published on authopublisher.com where I contribute articles once a week.

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Niche Blogging: the Key to Success?

The storefront of Niche in 2008Image via Wikipedia
Niche blogging has become the name of the blogging game.

It used to concern only a handful of bloggers who tried to provide "useful content" so that their readers were enticed to buy specific products (see Wikipedia on this). This was a very commercial approach, with blogs full of advertising (or linked to a commercial site). There are even robot systems that automatically write niche posts for you! But of course, these are perfect scams (see article below).

The trouble is: the concept has expanded to all bloggers, including non-commercial ones. Not only is it conventional wisdom to fit into a "niche" but also good marketing: know your audience, belong to a community. Pitch your posts at your community. Twitter about it. Find your Twitter or Google+ circle and stick to it. Be a niche expert because that's what people like: experts!

Grow your blog with niche blogging, dammit! Listen to the marketing gurus, niche and learn!

So if you're into writing, write about publishing. If you're an artist, write about art. If you're politically involved, write about politics, if you love music, etc etc You get the idea.

And what if you're interested in all sorts of things, from writing to politics and art (like me)? 

Ah, then you're in BIG, BIG TROUBLE! Don't mix issues, don't mix genres, don't mix audiences: remember, when you write for one, you lose the other. Right?

I can accept that this makes marketing sense. But I do think it's a great pity. As a writer, you are tendentially interested in just about anything that happens around you, aren't you?

Isn't a pathological interest in others, in the world, in the human condition a fundamental trait of all writers and would-be writers? 

Historically, this was certainly the case for writers in Europe and Latin America. They have always been fascinated with and sometimes gotten themselves deep into politics and art. For example, Tolstoy, Zola, Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, just to name a few. It's just in the US that I've noticed many of my fellow writers shy away from discussing politics, I don't quite know why. 

You see author blog after author blog strictly devoted to publishing and writing.

Why? Is it the result of believing in the rules of good marketing? Probably. 

They are  perfectly right if the objective is to have maximum traffic on their blog. 

I've noticed that whenever I stray too much, and swing from politics to art to publishing, I lose readers. I have astonishing peaks of readership whenever I cover publishing issues - makes me think there must be thousands upon thousands of writers out there keen to know what's going on in publishing. And small wonder, given the way the digital revolution has rocked the boat of all publishers, threatening to sink the weaker ones... 

But do you really think that straying out of your "niche" will make you lose readers? As a writer, are other writers your main readers? What's wrong with talking about all sorts of things, that have nothing to do with writing? Aren't readers broadly interested in the world around them? Is politics a bad mix with publishing and writing issues? Of course, there are some American writers who aren't afraid of going political, like Barry Eisler.  But it is a fact that writers' blogs tend to be focused on publishing: what makes a book sell, why, how to deal with agents and publishers, how to write a smashing query letter, how to edit your book into a masterpiece etc etc 

And if you're not a writer and you don't care about this sort of thing? Tough luck, look for another blog!

Of course, I realize that I'm not pleasing half (or more) of my readers. I should stick to one thing. Makes business sense.


There, I said it.

I can't do it, sorry. I want to be me, I enjoy writing about all sorts of unrelated things, and I hope you can forgive me. I even dare hope you might enjoy the variety. Why not? What do you have for breakfast every morning, tea or coffee? Whatever it is, isn't it nice to break the routine? If you're a habitual tea-drinker, doesn't coffee taste wonderful and new? Okay, not all the time, but sometimes...And that's the point, isn't it?

I'd like to be your morning cup of coffee...or is it tea?

Do you mind not knowing what's coming up?

Tell me how you feel about niche blogging? Do you go to a blog because you expect a specific content or do you tell yourself, wonder what Claude Nougat (or whoever else you like) wrote today?

Okay, tell me I have to stop dreaming...

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The Euro-Crisis: Has the European Central Bank Woken Up at Last?!

A euro light sculpture at the European Central...Euro Sculpture at the ECB in FrankfurtImage via Wikipedia
With Standard & Poor's downgrading of the US debt, we got one step closer to global financial meltdown.

And of course, the weakest link in the system, i.e. the Euro-zone, got hit first.

With interests soaring last week on the Italian and Spanish bonds, the signals the markets were sending to our political leaders (if you can call them that) were crystal clear: After Greece, Portugal and Ireland, Spain and Italy are next!

Trouble is: no one can allow Italy (or even Spain for that matter) to go down the drain. That would make a $1.4 trillion hole, by some accounts. Whatever the size of the hole, it's obviously too big and makes the Lehman Brothers debacle look like a kiddy game, by comparison.

Let's be clear: it would mean the end of the world as we know it - and the Chinese, inter alia, are very, very worried. And so they should be. And so should we be all.

Sunday, the European Central Bank finally came out with a communiqué that left no doubt as to its intentions: it would buy Italian and Spanish bonds - in other words, it came out at last with a real, responsible position as central banker and defender of the Euro.

We'll see how the markets react this week. The proof is in the speculative pudding. But even speculators betting against the Euro are ultimately fools: they might (momentarily) make a lot of money, but they'll bring down the system and then where will they be?? Naked, of course.

The only problem in all this is that we shall be naked too!

Let's keep our fingers crossed!

Please let me know how you feel about this issue. This is something that has me very, very worried (like the Chinese!). But I'm hopeful that reason will somehow prevail in the end...
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What's in a Pen Name?

Montelimar's Nougat. Photograph taken in Redon...Montelimar's Nougat Image via Wikipedia
What's in a name?  People hide behind pseudonyms and pen names, or what the French so nicely call "nom de plume", and I've always wondered why.

Do you have a pen name? And if you do, why? Is it to hide from family and friends and gain more freedom? Is it to make a statement or maybe indicate the kind of writing you do, like a different pen name for a different genre (lots of writers do that, it's a question of "branding")? Or does it better express the kind of person you are than the name you were born with?

Charles Dodgson is a famous example of picking a pen name to hide behind:  he wrote Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass under the name Lewis Carroll to preserve his reputation as a serious mathematician. Famous authors also use pen names to get away from their fame or intrigue their readers. Carmela Ciuraru's Nom de Plume, recently published by Harper's, is full of fascinating information about this.

And how did you come about your pen name? 

Many friends have asked me why I picked Nougat as a pen name. My mother (age 97) was rather annoyed at this: "why did you pick such a silly name when you were born with a perfectly good one?"

Well, I don't think Nougat is a silly name. Actually, nougat is rather a yummy thing, isn't it? You know what nougat is, don't you? It's a wonderful traditional sweet made of almonds and honey, usually white and sticky, but it can be covered with chocolate, dark or light, and filled with crunchy nuts. In Italy (where I live), it comes in all kinds and shapes: small, big, long, short, soft and gooey, hard and crunchy.

A fellow writer, Martin King, recently approached me via Twitter with a neat idea. He had decided to run a #blogfest as he called it, a "100 Blogs Festival" this August, and to give it focus he'd picked on childhood memories, and asked me to contribute one of my own.  If you want to read about childhood memories (some rather weird and intriguing), here's the link: http://martinkingauthor.com/blog/7094550076

That got me thinking, and I remembered that my pen name actually came about through a childhood memory of sorts.

One day, when I was fourteen, my father idly wondered how one makes such extraordinarily different types of nougat, particularly the crunchy vs. the gooey sort .

I had a ready answer: it all depends on how it's cooked. He looked interested so I went on, explaining that for the crunchy variety you have to beat the egg whites hard and dry the whole thing in a slow oven, while the gooey sort only uses the yolk and you have to carefully cook it in a double-boiler. 

"How do you know that?" he asked. 

I told him I didn't, I just guessed that's the way it had to be. I never lied to my father - that's the generation I belong to, the one that was still submissive through adolescence - and that was, of course, my downfall. 

He laughed and immediately made a verb of it: "Claude, you are nougatizing!"

I was annoyed at first, but then gave in. It's true: I do nougatize about everything. I did then, I do now. I make up theories, I feel good about them. I think that's the fun side of life! And I've never stopped nougatizing since!

Whether this pen name will help me in my writing career, I don't know. One writer, Jamie Hall, really delved into the question and if you're thinking of crafting a pen name for yourself, this is a must read (see here). He even came up with the notion that you should avoid a name in the second part of the alphabet (from N to Z) because your books would be shelved out of sight!

Yikes! Nougat starts with N!

Well, so far, my book is only digital and that's the advantage of virtual shelves: not only are they up there forever, but you're not sitting in any specific alphabet-determined location! Phew, I feel reassured!

So if you have a pen name, why did you chose it? Are you happy with it?

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