Brian James Freeman

Author, Editor, Publisher

Tag: editing

How Do You Deal With Reviews?

A collector on the Cemetery Dance forum asked: “Do reviews impact/affect you differently between your CD gig and your author gig? Or do you just shrug these off for both?”

Typewriter

I basically have two rules when it comes to reading reviews of my own work:

1) If the review is good, don’t pat yourself on the back; the reviewer was probably just feeling generous.

2) If the review is bad, for the love of God, DO NOT RESPOND unless your response is NOT going to make things worse.

Guess what? When it comes to rule #2, if you’re a writer and you feel the need to “defend” your work, you’re probably just going to make things worse.

But when it comes to reviews and comments about my work or what we do at Cemetery Dance, I try to evaluate what has been said for validity and valuable/useful information because you can always, always get better.

When someone critiques the books we publish at Cemetery Dance, I ask myself:

Is there something we overlooked or could do differently/better on future projects?

Is this note from someone who always complains about everything we do, to the point it seems to be the person’s hobby? (We have a few of those.)

Is this note simply from someone who doesn’t know how the small press works? For example, this was a real email I woke up to the other day: “Why didn’t you have Stephen King sign 10,000 copies!?! then everyone could have one!?!”

For my writing, again, I look at the source and I try to learn anything I can that will make the next story better if there is something to be learned.

If the person says, “There should have been more vampires!” in a story that wasn’t about vampires, you just kind of ignore that.

If the person says, “the middle was a little slow” or “the ending happened too fast” or “I didn’t understand character X’s motivations” — those are notes you can mentally file away for consideration. The reader may not be right, it could just be their personal tastes at play, but if more readers say the same thing, you can keep those points in mind for future projects. (Or even a future revision of the same work, which I’ve heard is all the rage.)

For bad customer reviews on Amazon, I consider whether the review is well-written (“this suxs!” vs a thoughtful dissection of what didn’t work) and I look at what else the person has reviewed. My genre? Different genres? Are they all bad reviews? What does the reader actually like?

Maybe my book just wasn’t a good fit for their reading tastes or maybe I dropped the ball in some fundamental way. You can learn a lot from a well-written one star review. In fact, that’s where I go first when evaluating other books.

You’re never going to please every reader. Books aren’t supposed to please every reader. Everyone has different tastes. Sometimes it’s just a swing and a miss, you know?

So how about you? Do you read your reviews? How do you approach them?

Man plans and then mice laugh at him

crisis flow chart

Two quotes come to mind when I’m managing a complicated project like a new Stephen King Limited Edition. To paraphrase:

“Man plans and the Gods laugh.”

“The best laid schemes of mice and men often go awry.”

Of course, at the end of the project, all of the stress and averted disasters and new gray hairs are almost always worth it.

The Million Dollar Book (Don’t Buy That Big House Just Yet!)

A few years ago, I was talking to an author friend who wrote a novel in the 1990s that his agent — who was one of the biggest agents in the game — thought was a “million dollar book.”

dreamhouseShe was extremely excited and she took the book out to auction, convinced it was going to make her author rich and famous and push his career into the stratosphere.

(This would hardly be the first time she had done this for one of her clients. She really understood the market well.)

She picked the five biggest editors to start with — the type of editors who didn’t even have to get approval to buy a book because they had their own imprints and a lot of power — and she gave them each a few days to read and prepare their offers for the auction.

Six months later, every editor in New York had passed.

Here was a great author with an established career, and here was an agent who was one of the best in the business because she always found “big books,” and she couldn’t sell this truly terrific novel.

The moral of the story: whether you’re trying to sell your work to a traditional publisher or you’re going the self-publishing route, the odds of being the next “million dollar author” are extremely slim. That’s why you simply sit down and write the next book and keep plugging away.

Also, it’s why you don’t buy that McMansion until the check clears.

Why you should use exactly the number of words you need to tell the story

Many years ago, someone read a 50,000 word manuscript of mine and said, “It’s great, but it’s not a novel, and you’ll never sell it to New York until you add 40,000 words.”

That ingrained the idea in my head that if I wanted to sell my work to a publisher, it had to be 90,000 words, give or take — that there was no way something in the 50,000 or 60,000 word range would ever sell.

Typewriter

Of course, in the years that followed, several of my friends sold what were essentially novellas to New York, and I realized I had a wasted a lot of time trying to find ways to add “layers” to my work to reach an arbitrary word count.

These days, especially with self-publishing being what it is, I encourage everyone who writes to simply tell the story the way it needs to be told. If 10,000 words does the trick, that’s great. 90,000 words? Also great. 150,000 words? If you’re absolutely certain they’re all really needed and there’s no fat to be cut, then that’s great, too.

The thing I hate the most when I read manuscripts is when I start wading through obvious padding that’s only there to increase the word count. Just tell the story the way it needs to be told, and tell it as well as you can, and everything else will fall into place eventually.

Of course, it took a very long time for me to shake that 90,000 word “rule” that had been planted into my head, and even today I still have trouble accepting that my 40,000 word manuscript will find its place — even though we buy manuscripts of that length at my day job just about every other month it seems.

I am getting better at accepting a lot of things in my life with each passing year, and one of those things is that the 90,000 word novel is not something I’m entirely comfortable writing. I wouldn’t be too surprised if I end up just writing novellas and short stories from here on out, even if there’s “no market” for them.

If I do my job right when I sit down to write the stories, then those stories will find readers eventually, one way or another.

Cemetery Dance magazine reopening to fiction submissions later this year

Last month, we announced that Cemetery Dance magazine would be reopening to fiction submissions later this year. A poster on the Cemetery Dance forum asked a couple of great questions, which I thought I’d discuss here.

1) “Yet, I do have a question: what is the value of opening to submissions besides the chance that some new writers will be discovered?”

It’s an excellent question and he answered it perfectly. In Cemetery Dance #66, two of the stories originally arrived unsolicited. In Cemetery Dance #65, I believe it was three of the stories. Same deal with #64. Looking forward to #67, which is shipping from the printer this week, it’s three stories. #68 will be three as well.

If you go back to the early days of the magazine, almost all of the fiction was unsolicited. A lot of those authors went on to be some of our bestselling authors in the book line.

New blood is good for any publication, and one of the reasons we keep publishing the magazine is because we love finding new voices in the genre.

2) “I may end up submitting a story (especially since it is being done through an electronic system, which I like better than postal mail), but I have to assume, simply because of statistical reality, that my work will not get accepted.”

Of course, on the surface, you are correct about the odds. If we have 2 or 3 slots in each issue for unsolicited stories, and we publish 4 issues a year (the current plan), that’s maybe 12 slots for unsolicited fiction per year. If 500 stories arrive during the reading period, those aren’t good “odds.”

But here’s what you’re missing: submitting a story to a magazine isn’t like buying a lottery ticket or playing some other game of chance. It’s not a random process.

If you’ve written an outstanding story that is perfect for a publication, your odds aren’t 12 in 500. They’re much better than that.

Why?  Simple: a lot of unsolicited submissions are poorly written, retreads of an idea the editors have read a thousand times, or just aren’t right for the publication.

Of course, maybe your story is well written and perfect for the publication, but it’s too similar to another story they just purchased.

Or maybe there are 12 other stories that came in that are just a little more perfect for the magazine than yours even though yours is awesome as well.

Submitting unsolicited stories to any publication is a combination of hard work (on your writing) and lucky timing (sending the right story at the right time).

(Of course, the reason Cemetery Dance was closed to submissions is because we have this tendency to not think about “slots” to fill. Instead, we just buy anything that we really like and want to publish, which is how we ended up buying too much and having to close to submissions for a while!)

At the end of the day, there’s nothing more thrilling than reading something great that no one else has read yet, and that’s why we read unsolicited submissions.

Dueling Minds Anthology Sales Update

Just a quick update that my anthology Dueling Minds, which features stories by Brian Keene, Gary A. Braunbeck, Tom Piccirilli, Tim Lebbon, Jenny Orosel, and Gerard Houarner, is selling out very quickly and there are no other editions planned at this time.

Even though the book was just announced on Friday, 85% of the signed Limited Edition copies are now spoken for and there are only 3 copies of the Deluxe Signed & Traycased Lettered Edition remaining.

Dueling Minds Anthology Officially Part of the Cemetery Dance Signature Series

I’m very pleased to finally be able to officially announce that my long gestating anthology Dueling Minds, which features stories by Brian Keene, Gary A. Braunbeck, Tom Piccirilli, Tim Lebbon, Jenny Orosel, and Gerard Houarner, will be published this year as part of the acclaimed Cemetery Dance Signature Series.  The cover artwork is by Alan M. Clark and the interior artwork is by Erin S. Wells, both of whom are wonderful.  For the serious book collector, I should note that this volume is a huge bargain because it is signed by all of the authors and artists, but the price is the same as the other books in the Signature Series.

This anthology is a print version of what I experimented with on my webzine, DuelingMinds.com, while in college way back at the turn of the century.  For those who never had a chance to stop by the website, each issue of the webzine had four or five stories that were all inspired by the same piece of artwork, giving readers the chance to discover how different authors interpreted (and were inspired by) the exact same image.

In 2003, a small press publisher approached me and suggested a Dueling Minds anthology would work for his newly founded company.  I agreed and quickly went to work searching for a cover artist.  Normally choosing the cover art is one of the last parts of the creative side of putting together a book, but obviously in this case I needed the cover before I ever approached the authors since it was to be the inspiration for everything that followed.

Alan M. Clark was the first artist I spoke with and he was quite agreeable to the concept.  He had also edited an anthology where authors wrote stories based on individual pieces of his artwork, so he recognized how much fun this sort of project could be. We looked through his portfolio and settled on one of my favorite pieces, which was originally inspired by a Ray Bradbury story.

Once I had the cover artwork, I contacted a handful of my favorite authors to see if they might be interested in contributing to this project.  These authors took the challenge and ran with it, turning in their amazing stories over the next couple of months.  I was already a big fan of their writing before this project, and the results of their efforts here just reinforced for me how truly creative these authors are.

In an unfortunate turn of fate, though, the original publisher closed up shop, leaving the book without a home for many years.  Fast forward to 2011 when Richard Chizmar and I were kicking around ideas for new and creative titles for the Cemetery Dance Signature Series, which features small books from the genre’s best authors that are heavily illustrated by the most talented artists working in the business today.

Cemetery Dance had never offered a mini-anthology in the Signature Series, but the series seemed like the perfect place to experiment with this sort of unusual publication.

The artist and authors were contacted, all immediately agreed that it sounded like a fine idea and, all of these years later, we hired Erin Wells to create the interior artwork for the book since the Signature Series requires more interior illustrations than almost anything else Cemetery Dance publishes.  That meant she created interior images that were inspired by stories that were inspired by Alan’s cover painting… which was originally inspired by a Ray Bradbury story.

Funny how things work out sometimes.

A Student Needs Help With A Term Paper

We receive so many emails from students who need information for term papers, articles, and research reports.  I love that they’re writing about horror, or publishing, or the authors we publish.  I hate that they think we’re idiots and will write their paper for them.

I started this post back in November because one student’s email really made me laugh, but then I decided to wait to post it until after the semester was over, just in case this somehow got back to her professor.  Who knows with the Internet, right?  Here is the email that inspired this miscellaneous thought:

From: “XXXXXXXXXXX” <XXXXXXX@capecod.edu>
Date: Thu, 10 Nov 2011 11:52:15 -0500
To: “‘info@cemeterydance.com'” <info@cemeterydance.com>
Conversation: XXXXXXXX
Subject: XXXXXXXXX

11/10/2011

Dear Sir or Madam:

Hi!  My name is XXXXXX, and I am a fan of Stephen King.  I

am doing an analytical review of Blockade Billy for my English Composition

class.  I was wondering does your publishing company have any book critics

that have reviewed Blockade Billy and have published their review on the

Internet.  Could you tell me where to find these reviews?  Where do I find

these reviews on the Internet?  Could you cite these reviews in MLA format

with the author of the review, name of article, publishing source, and date

of publication or date of when the review was written?  Where would I go on

the Internet to find more reviews on Blockade Billy?  How was Blockade Billy

originally released by your publishing company, and how and when did

Scribner originally publish Blockade Billy?  Please e-mail me with the

answers to my questions and send me any other information about the novella,

Blockade Billy.  I need the information by next Friday.  Thank-you. My

e-mail is XXXXXXX.

Thank-you.

Sincerely,

XXXXXX

There’s so much in here that I love! The way she asks three times where she can find reviews of Blockade Billy on the Internet, for example.  And there’s something about “Could you tell me where to find these reviews?  Where do I find these reviews on the Internet?” that sounds almost musical to me.

But the best part, of course, is where she asks: “Could you cite these reviews in MLA format with the author of the review, name of article, publishing source, and date of publication or date of when the review was written?”

Well, yes, I can… because I actually paid attention during my college classes and wrote my own papers.  The better question is… can you?  🙂

How I Ended Up Working at Cemetery Dance Publications

Since this is a really common question, I thought I’d answer it early: how did I end up working at Cemetery Dance Publications?

In the spring of 2002, I was graduating college, getting married, and looking for a job in the Baltimore area — and I had no idea what I was going to do.  I was graduating with a Journalism degree, but didn’t want to be a journalist.  (Now that’s planning!)

But I had been doing freelance book marketing on the Internet since I was 15 years old, which had always been fun, and I had done some freelance work for Rich Chizmar the previous summer — basic marketing stuff, putting together plans to promote a few books, etc — which I liked a lot.

I’ve always loved publishing, I’ve been fascinated by the business since I was a kid and started writing my first stories, so it made a lot of sense to me to try to land a job at Cemetery Dance — even though the company was just two employees at the time (Rich and Mindy) and Rich had never hired any outsiders before.

Instead of just emailing or calling Rich to pitch the idea, I decided I should make it blindingly obvious that I could help his company immensely so he had to say yes.

I put together a 17 page proposal, complete with charts and graphs, outlining everything I could do in the first year alone to increase the company’s visibility and alert more casual horror fans to CD’s existence.  This was a really over-the-top, well planned, kind-of-crazy proposal — complete with a presentation folder!

Off into the mail the proposal went… and then the waiting began.

I tried to follow up via the phone the next week.  Mindy said Rich was in a meeting.

The next week: he was in a meeting.

The next week: still in a meeting.

(Maybe it was just one really, really long meeting, right?)

Finally, an email arrived from Rich: “Let’s talk about this!”

The details came together quickly and by the end of the summer I was married, living in Baltimore, and working at Cemetery Dance Publications.  I have no idea what Rich and Mindy thought in those first few months when Kelly Laymon and I — the first two “real” employees as they called us — started helping out, but it was a blast for me.  Everyone at Cemetery Dance does a bunch of different jobs and no project could get finished without the help of someone else.  Like many small business, everyone works together and that’s the only way everything gets done.   It’s very much a collaborative workplace in the best sense of the phrase.

In August 2002, I started by packing orders in the basement of Rich’s house.  I can’t remember what Kelly was doing at the time… maybe reading submissions and editorial work?  My memory is pretty fuzzy now because everything was happening so fast and life was changing in so many ways that year.

In September, we moved to our current offices in Forest Hill.  (There are photos on our website of what the office looked like in those first six months.  Some things have really changed, others… not so much!)

Before too long, I was helping with the email newsletters and updating the website and selling ads in the magazine.

Not long after that, the newsletters and website were all mine and I was helping Mindy with customer service, too.

Soon after, Rich gave me my first project to take through the production process.  This is where things got really interesting!

The small press isn’t like a New York publisher where a bunch of people each have one important role to play during the publication of a book.  In the small press, when you manage the production of a book, you might handle ALL of the steps from beginning to end: negotiating and issuing contracts; editing, copyediting, and proofreading; working with the artists and the designers; sending the signature sheets to the contributors; getting review copies printed and sent out; creating the “spec sheets” that tell the printer what materials to use; working with the media to get coverage for the project, etc.

Basically, you take the manuscript and make sure everything gets done to turn it into a real book. It’s a ton of work and extremely rewarding when you hold the final product in your hands.

Thanks to Cemetery Dance, I’ve worked on projects by many of my literary heroes over the years, which is an awesome experience that I never imagined possible when I was a senior in college trying to figure out what I was going to do for a career.

Nine years later, I honestly can’t imagine working anywhere else.  There have been some stressful times over the years — after all, there are just five of us trying to do all of the work a publishing company does, so 60 hour weeks are just kind of the norm — but the work itself and the people I work with and the readers and collectors I’ve gotten to know so well can’t be beat.

PS: By the way, I’m still running the website and the newsletters and writing all of the product sales copy and announcements, so any problems you see with those are all my fault. Feel free to email me about them.  😉

Welcome!

Thanks for stopping by my new blog.  My name is Brian James Freeman and my purpose here is to discuss writing, editing, reading, and the publishing business.  In case you’re wondering if we’ve met at a convention, check out the photo to the right.  I was probably the quiet one in the corner, wearing a baseball cap and not saying much.

A little about myself to get the ball rolling:

I’m the author of The Painted Darkness, Black Fire, Blue November Storms, and The Illustrated Stephen King Trivia Book (with Bev Vincent), along with some short stories and a few essays, too.  I wrote Black Fire in college and sold it to Leisure and Cemetery Dance Publications. It was published in 2004 under the pen name James Kidman. At some point I’ll probably discuss why that pseudonym happened and how I view that decision now.  Blue November Storms was a novella for the Cemetery Dance Novella Series and The Painted Darkness is a novella I gave away to 30,000 readers for free last summer as part of a marketing experiment to promote the hardcover. Did it work?  Absolutely.  I want to discuss that and some other thoughts on eBooks and marketing in the near future.

Like most writers, I have a day job to pay the bills.  My day job happens to be kind of awesome, in my opinion. In 2002, I was hired by Richard Chizmar to work at Cemetery Dance Publications.  These days I juggle the book production (35+ books last year), handle anything on the web (like updating the website, listing new products, writing all of the sales copy for the newsletters and customer updates, updating Facebook and Twitter, etc), organize and write anything for our marketing and publicity efforts, issue contracts, and basically try to take care of whatever seems to be falling through the cracks before it falls too far.  I’m also the Managing Editor of Cemetery Dance, which is a job I started with Cemetery Dance #61 and like very much.  We’re hiring some more editorial staff right now to help me with all of the work that goes into putting a print magazine together, and we have some really exciting things in the works for readers who love horror and suspense.

I’m also the Publisher of Lonely Road Books, where I’ve worked with authors such as Stephen King, Guillermo del Toro, Chuck Hogan, Stewart O’Nan, Mick Garris, Douglas Clegg, Ray Garton, and editor Kirby McCauley to produce beautiful, high-end collectible books. I’ll post some examples of our projects soon, but you can check them all out on the official Lonely Road Books website in the meantime.

That’s probably enough to get us started. If you have any questions, comments, or ideas for future posts, feel free to comment on this post or send me an email: brianfreeman@cemeterydance.com.  You can also find me on Twitter and Facebook, or you can use the “sign me up!” button to the right to be notified via email when there are new updates. There is also a RSS feed for those who are interested in being updated that way.

Thanks again for stopping by and feel free to say “hi” in the comments if you’re so inclined.

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