12.22.16 - See You in 2017

And That’s a Wrap, Folks! 

Amy and I are taking a true blue (red and green and sparkly white?) VACATION for the next few days. We have some things programmed into the system, but we won’t be around to comment. 

We’ll be back in action here on the Tao January 3 with my annual review. 

I can’t thank you enough for an incredible 2016. You made it all worthwhile. It’s been a ride, and I can’t wait to see what the new year brings.

Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, and Happy New Year! 🎄🕎🎉

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J.T. Ellison

New York Times bestselling author J.T. Ellison writes dark psychological thrillers starring Nashville Homicide Lt. Taylor Jackson and medical examiner Dr. Samantha Owens, and pens the Nicholas Drummond series with #1 New York Times bestselling author Catherine Coulter. Cohost of the premier literary television show, A Word on Words, Ellison lives in Nashville with her husband and twin kittens.

For more insight into her wicked imagination, join J.T.’s email list at jtellison.com/subscribe, or follow her online at Facebook.com/JTEllison14 or on Twitter @thrillerchick.

12.20.16 - Getting the Most Out Of Your Creativity and Social Media

I wrote a very earnest piece back in 2009 about social media and its negative affect on creativity

It wasn’t a new concept, but I caught a lot of flack for it, especially because I was so obviously breaking all my own suggestions. Which is totally fine. Since then, the concept of minimalism has launched many a career, and I too have found ways to step back from social media, making it work for me, instead of the other way around.

Seven years later, I want to revisit this idea, and talk about how I’ve finally found a good work/life balance with my social media responsibilities.

One thing that hasn’t changed in the intervening years: with all the pressures authors have on them nowadays, writing can sometimes get lost in the shuffle. THIS is what I mean when I say social media kills the creative spirit. Thing is, it absolutely doesn’t have to.

Social media is a lot like life. You get out what you put in. Social media is no longer something we’re encouraged to do, it’s a given requirement of a publishing career. Finding readers now is all about discoverability, which means having some sort of online presence. A website at a minimum, preferably accompanied by a well-loved Facebook fan page and an active, exciting Twitter account. Now Instagram is a huge part of things, too, and blogging is making a comeback (YAY!). Newsletters are the new black, and that’s good for those of us who’ve had one for a while. 

Honestly, as much as we’re encouraged to exploit Facebook and Twitter, I think the two most important components of your social media strategy should be the newsletter and the blog.

Why?

You own it. You control it. No one can take it away from you. You get to interact directly with your readers and friends without the majorly frustrating concerns we all have about actual reach on the socials. Facebook only shows your posts to a fraction of the people who’ve signed up to receive information from you (bad move, Facebook. Perfect way to lose all your customers). Twitter is such an immediate medium that your tweet only exists for a few seconds before your readers have moved on to the next. Instagram is pretty, plain and simple, but it too rewards bigger accounts with better penetration.

For years, the conversation I’ve been having most often is: How do we get around this? How do we actually reach the people who want to be reached without annoying the crap out of everyone else?

Note what I’ve just said.

The conversation I have most often is about how to reach readers in a more efficient, successful manner. 

See something wrong?

What I should be focused on, exclusively, is writing.  

I’ve always known this. I’ve always struggled with it. Writing is lonely work, and an engaged social media platform makes it more fun. But in the long run, when I keel over at my desk, no one’s going to say, “Wow, she had an amazing Facebook page.” Nor do I want them to.

What I want them to say is she was a woman of letters, had a long, storied career, and wrote a ton of great novels. That she was loved by her friends and family. That she was kind. 

You know what I mean?

Rebecca Kaufman’s recent piece in Publisher’s Weekly really hit home for me.  This chick is seriously smart, and I hope more people listen to her story. Were I a young, just-breaking-in author, I would push back, and hard, on the idea that I MUST have an extensive social media platform. We don’t have a ton of empirical evidence that proves that social media actually sells books. It does raise awareness and name ID, which trickles down to sales, but word-of-mouth is still the #1 way people find new books.

I think it’s much more important for new writers to immerse themselves deeply into their work. The challenge of going from writing for yourself to writing to deadline is big enough without the added pressure of being responsible for growing your own readership.

Push back. Say no. Ask for help. Protect your writing time at all cost.

You can have just as much of an impact on growing a readership by writing great books as curating awesome cat videos. If you do get involved with social media, one bit of advice — be genuine, and keep it about books. Most readers are keenly interested in hearing about your work in progress and the inherent foibles of a writing life. It’s fascinating to everyone, actually — me included. The blogs and pages I come back to again and again are those that examine the writing life, writing challenges, successes and failures. Even online diaries of word counts and daily work are interesting. It shows dedication, commitment, and that’s always attractive. Ask questions, and be interested in the answers you receive.

For those of us more established, I feel like we’ve all settled into a solid groove with our platforms. I know I have. A large part of that is the Amazing Amy, who will celebrate her 2nd anniversary as my business manager in January. A few years ago, looking down the barrel of a plethora of ideas and not enough time to accomplish them, I wisely recognized I needed help. I started with automation, making my blog feed directly to my accounts. Then I moved on to hiring people on a project-by-project basis, then a monthly basis, and finally, brought Amy on as a dedicated part-timer. Last year, I hired her as my full-time assistant. 

Part of this dearth of time and too much work is my own fault. No, I don’t need to do all the things I do. I do them because I love them, and I get bored with just one thing, so I have an indie press and a wine blog in addition to this blog and my novels. It’s fun, and I enjoy it tremendously. Besides, one never knows where the industry will be in a decade, so it’s always good to know how to handle things yourself if needed. I could cut back on social media and disappear into my cave and ignore everyone — and trust me, there are moments when that urge is huge, but it’s not the smart thing to do. Instead, I look for ways to streamline, but still augment, the brand. Hence: Amy.

Now, Amy handles a lot more than social media, but with her at the helm, the brand looks MUCH prettier, and runs MUCH smoother. I can interact with my readers without having to spend the time on the back-end posting and perfecting and designing—something that I actually enjoy, but takes a great deal of time. 

Perfect example: yesterday I changed my personal privacy settings on Facebook. This morning, I received an email from Amy telling me I had severed all links to my apps by doing so, and she’d already reconnected everything, something that would have taken a solid hour out of my work day. That hour was instead spent writing 1000 words on a new book. The cost benefit is readily apparent.

I’ve written before on the importance of getting help. Amy has changed how I do business, allowing me to focus on writing and interacting, the two things that will bring in more readers. You really can’t hang a price tag on that.

But the lure of the internet is still strong. This isn’t just about social media anymore. It’s about the fragmentation of the writer’s mind. 

I’ve made no bones about how much I loved Cal Newport’s book DEEP WORK. Happily, I’ve been putting parts of his thesis into practice for many years, using a great program named Freedom to shut off my Internet while I work. I used to feel ridiculous that I needed an app to help me focus; now it’s something I take pride in, that I realize how fragmented I get when my Internet is on. I haven’t given up social media—as a business, I need it— but with Amy’s help, I feel I’ve conquered Facebook and Twitter. I am comfortable stopping in, talking to people, and leaving again, and don’t suffer any ennui or FOMO. 

Now, the rabbit hole of research and learning and interesting things on the web is still an issue for me. Then add in what I call "First Adopter Syndrome" (both a blessing and a curse in my life), AKA the tendency I have to reinvent my wheel when a new app comes along that looks like it might be a better mousetrap for my work. 

2016 was the year I settled into my apps and stopped this nonsense. Now, if I see something that might improve a portion of my workflow, I send it to Amy to check out. If she thinks it will add to our system, in it goes. I’ll say this, in two years, I can only think of two apps that have been adopted, and they were specifically designed to address workflow. Irony. 

This week, Cal Newport began exploring what I bet will become his next book, the concept of Digital Minimalism

I fully, happily endorse this. Less technology, not more. Fewer apps, not more.

Repeat after me: Not more, not more, not more.

One of the things I do regularly is examine my apps. Am I using it? Is it enhancing my workflow? If I was lost on a desert island, would I have to have it? This mindset keeps my iPhone and iPad screens down to two, my folders easy to navigate, and my laptop relatively nimble. I’m getting a new laptop for Christmas, which means downloading the apps I need to work. It’s the equivalent of moving house for me, a chance to tidy and discard, to make everything shiny again. (I’m one of those weird people who likes moving. Don’t hold it against me.) 

Things have changed since 2009. A lot. Authors are expected to engage so much more. And our readers are fantastically tuned in—reading more, engaging with us, making it all worthwhile. You don’t have to live on social media, but you don’t have to abdicate from it either. A balance can be found. Find the network that gives you joy, and focus all your efforts there. If you hate it all, hire someone to maintain your presence for you.

No matter what, write. Write every day. Write hard, write well. That is your legacy. That is what will give you satisfaction at the end of the day. Feel free to step away from the pressure of growing your readership and do it the old fashioned way—by writing spectacular books. That truly is the best way to a reader’s heart, not a great meme or pithy tweet. 

Tell me what you think. Readers, should we authors spend more time on social media, or less? Authors, do you find your own work suffering when you’re online too much? Do you have any solutions to share that work for you? 

12.18.16 - Sunday Smatterings

Hello, chickens! How was your week? Are you making lists and checking them twice? Holiday prep is winding down at Chez Ellison. The last of my Christmas cards and gifts went out this week. The decorations have gone up. Neither of the cats has eaten said decorations yet. Things are getting a bit calmer, and I'm ready to settle into a quieter week. I don't think I've ever been done with Christmas this early before. It feels VERY nice. 

 

Here's what happened on the Internets this week:

Do you ever wish you had Hermione's Time Turner so that you could go back and revisit the Christmases of your childhood? I do. Sometimes I miss the magic of Christmas, because I get caught up in the checklists, to-do lists, the calendar of social events, trying to make the holidays happen. My wonderful A WORD ON WORDS cohost, Mary Laura Philpott, gave voice to that ennui this week in the New York Times, in a piece called "Wishing Away the Wishlist." Give it a read, especially if you need to catch your breath trying to make all the things happen.

This is what the holidays are all about: a couple paid off $30,000 layaway charges at a Walmart in Memphis. Pay it forward, y'all.

This time of year, Iceland stays dark for a good portion of the day. So what do Icelanders do to pass the time? Read, of course! This is where they find their books.

Looking for wine to pair with the holiday meal? Vivino's compiled a list for almost anything you're serving. Mmm!

We talk a lot about Parnassus Books here, but there's another wholly independent bookstore in Nashville, and it only features Tennessee writers and artists. Get thee to East Side Story for a fun afternoon with proprietor Chuck Beard. You'll love it, and what a great place to buy Christmas gifts for your Nashville-loving friends!

And closer to home:

Y'all. 'Tis the season for gift giving... but sometimes, you need to give one to yourself, too! Case and point: THE FIRST DECADE ebook is on sale for only $3.99. Includes THE OMEN DAYS, a romantic Christmas ghost story* perfect for this time of year!

*Yes. I said "romantic Christmas ghost story." 👻 💕
 

If you're stuck on a unique gift for your nerdy loved one or writer friend, check out my gift guide. Three sections, ten books, lots of programs and stocking stuffers and fun things you can still pick up!

Oh, and you need this five-minute peanut butter fudge in your life. Just sayin'.


That's all I have this week. Y'all be good, do nice things for strangers, hang your stockings by the chimney with care, and we'll talk again soon!


xo,
J.T.

12.15.16 - I Have an Idea...

First, thanks so much to Amy for her great piece on the Barnes & Noble Concept Store. Don’t know about you, but I vote for more Amy blogs here, don’t you?

Okay, onward.

One of the questions I get most often is, “JT, where do you get your ideas?”

I answer the same way every time — where don’t I get my ideas?

Ideas are everywhere. They’re the easiest part of being a writer. The world, nay, the universe, is brimming with concepts and inspirations. I can’t walk down the street without coming up with four or five solid concepts.

The question that you should be asking is: “How do you decide which idea to write next?”

This is the tricker of the two questions, mainly because oftentimes, there are deadlines and reader expectations and contractual obligations for stories, especially when you write a series. It would stand to reason that, for the sake of your career, you find a great idea and funnel it directly into your next series book. 

My problem is, I write three series, all slightly different but firmly entrenched in the thriller genre. I also write standalone novels. And I write a couple of short stories every year, too. How do I decide what goes where, and in what order to proceed?

The logical answer is: I focus on deadlines, and try to channel all my energy into the book that’s due next. But sometimes, this is wishful thinking. Sometimes, an idea sparks, and you have to decide whether to abandon your current project to follow that fire.

It’s a tricky business, ideas. I often warn about finishing the story you’re working on lest the trail of half-eaten sandwiches start taking over your house. 

Less disciplined (AKA new) writers often see that shiny new object and pursue it, and end up with multiple unfinished stories. You gotta finish. Rule #1 for a successful writing career.

Because writing is hard. It is. That’s no lie. One of the biggest challenges is sticking with a story to the end when you haven’t done it multiple times and you’re being assailed by cool new ideas.

Personally, I have an Evernote folder for every book, current and upcoming. When I see a cool, shiny new idea, I clip it to Evernote, open a Scrivener file with the concept laid out (I call these “treatments”) and move on with my current story. This works 90% of the time.

But every once in a while, an idea is too good to pass up, and I all-stop on a project to write it. NO ONE KNOWS is a good example of that. So is THE OMEN DAYS. And it’s just happened again. I’ve been working on a new standalone, but something’s been holding me back — an idea that bloomed fully-formed in my head back in August. I wrote it all down, gave it a Scrivener file and an Evernote notebook, but it’s been eating at me. I finally stopped the standalone and indulged this new idea. 50 pages later, I have a super weird, surreal horror story finished, and now, at last, I can return to the standalone unencumbered.

For me, it’s a fine balance between controlling (though corralling is perhaps the better term) the new ideas (Shiny! Exciting! Happy!) and finishing the current work in progress (WIP = long hard slog). It gets easier with practice. And as Stephen King says, when an idea is so great that you don’t need to write it down, you know it’s a keeper. I still write everything down, just in case, but I’d amend King’s concept to this: the idea that won’t leave you alone is the one you need to write next.

Just make sure you FINISH!!!

12.13.16 - A Trip to the New Barnes & Noble Concept Store

A Trip to a New B&N

Hey, guys. Amy here, otherwise known as “Assistant Amy” or “The Kerr.” I answer to both. 

As you know, the way we read and obtain our reading material has changed dramatically over the past ten years. The advent of ebooks has made sitting down with your favorite stories easier than ever before—and it’s certainly changed the way we shop, if at all, at brick-and-mortar stores. Every week, I read about another neighborhood bookstore forced to shut its doors, and the small mom-and-pop shops aren’t alone. Some of the bigger box stores that foisted neighborhood bookstores out of the picture 20 years ago (you saw You’ve Got Mail, right?) are now being foisted out themselves, all thanks to the mighty ebook.

One of the biggest brick-and-mortar players left is Barnes & Noble. They’ve felt the ebook pinch over the past few years, in both their retail stores and online ventures (I’m looking at you, Nook), not to mention they’ve had significant CEO turnover in the past five years. In what seems like a last-ditch effort to keep up with the zeitgeist, Barnes & Noble has begun rolling out a new concept for their bookstores. Last week, I got to visit one of these new concept stores in Edina, Minnesota, a tony suburb of Minneapolis.

Turns out, B&N really has transformed their space—and, along with it, a new vision for their bookstores in the 21st century. And this vision is actually a surprising throwback.

A few takeaways from my visit:

(Warning: this is about to get super publishing geeky)

1. The Layout

So open! So airy! Who's breathing deeper? *raises hand*

The biggest change I see in the new concept is in the store’s layout. It’s open and airy, designed to circulate traffic throughout the entire store. Guests enter the store and dive headfirst into a sea of co-op tables positioned in the middle of the store, then circulate the perimeter to fiction, nonfiction, then music and gifts in the corners. 

I could do cartwheels down these aisles—note the clean displays of merchandise

I could do cartwheels down these aisles—note the clean displays of merchandise

If you’re looking for a particular sub-genre, they’re much easier to find in the new concept store. Fiction and Nonfiction sections are clearly marked and along the perimeters, and sub-genres reside in floating displays according to their parent group.
 

 

 

 

2. The Books

So many face-out covers

There seem to be fewer books displayed on the B&N floor (remember: open and airy layout), and a significantly higher portion of books are on display face-out. I think this has everything to do with Amazon, both online and their brick-and-mortar stores, which displays their entire stock face-out. Think about the last time you went through shelves at a bookstore looking at the spines—not looking for a particular item, but just browsing for something to catch your eye. It doesn’t happen that often, does it? With the advent of online stores, we’ve become so accustomed to seeing the entire front cover and, ergo, literally judge our books by their covers in order to make an informed purchase. I’m curious to see what this positioning does to sales.

Also, this may or may not be the case, but I detected fewer book discounts than in the old concept stores.
 

3. The Co-Ops

Perhaps the only discounted books I saw.

Good news, authors: if your book is displayed on a co-op table, the new concept store ensures your book will get more eyeballs on it than ever before, thanks to the open layout. The co-op tables are the first thing you see when you walk in the store, taking up significant square footage and prime real estate. The tables are on wheels, making the displays easily mobile. A few copies of books grace the top of the display, while larger stacks of stock are placed under the table, for easier browsing for customers and easier restocking for employees. 

Another thing: there seems to be more endcaps at the new concept store. And I’m not talking about the small, outside-of-the-bookshelf endcaps. I’m taking about entire wall displays—sometimes with one author in particular, but sometimes displays with themes. Not sure if these are paid-for promotions or if the store assembled these themes themselves, but it’s definitely noteworthy.
 

4. The Restaurant

The token coffee bar (the restaurant is tucked away behind it)

The token coffee bar
(the restaurant is tucked away behind it)

Now the fun part: the most head-scratching part (to me) of B&N’s new concept announcement was probably the full-service restaurant portion. The restaurant, Barnes & Noble Kitchen, serves beer and wine along with a selection of entrees, in addition to a coffee bar placed at the front of the restaurant a la the Starbucks of old. 

I must say: the food quality and service at this restaurant were excellent. My dining partner and I sampled some guacamole, meatballs and polenta (spectacular, especially in cold weather), a lovely kale salad, cappuccino and tea. Everything was perfect, though the price point surprised me—the entrees range from $14–$26, a little higher than I’d expect for a bookstore café.
 

 

I like the new concept. I’m just not quite sure what to do with it.

Is the store a destination spot, a gathering place for special occasions and book groups looking to splurge on a night out? The restaurant fare and prices make it seem that way. Or is the new B&N positioned to entice a reader who’s looking for a particular book or a short browse, followed by a quick cup of coffee to-go?

Yes and yes, I think. B&N is trying to play both sides of this coin, becoming multiple things to multiple buyers. It’ll be interesting to see how the restaurant acts as a sales driver for the store, both in food and book revenue.
 

Verdict: ultimately, I think B&N is creating a store highly targeted to a certain kind of buyer.

From the higher priced entrees to the lack of book discounts to its location in a tony metropolitan suburb, I’d wager B&N is looking to appeal to a very particular kind of customer: an upper-middle-class buyer who doesn’t care as much about price point as they do about the quality of their book buying experience—and they want that book-buying experience to be a traditional one. It will be telling to see where, exactly, B&N places the rest of these new concept stores, if the company converts their traditional stores to the new concept, and if they want (or are able) to keep their traditional concept stores at all.

In an age where price seems to trump the book buying experience, I wonder if B&N’s Great Big Experiment will pan out. I guess the only thing to do is get a cup of coffee and a book, and wait it out.

I know her!

P.S. – Guys: this morning, B&N's head of restaurant development "resigned." 

Now I'm even more curious about B&N's future...aren't you?