Monday, February 3, 2014

Christopher Meeks - An Author Interview in the HBS Author's Spotlight

Today our blog puts the Spotlight on Author Christopher Meeks. He is a Prizewinning novelist who writes serious and funny fiction.

Author Genre: Literature & Fiction, Short Stories

Website: Christopher Meeks, Author
Author's Blog: Christopher Meeks, Author
Twitter: @MeeksChris
Goodreads: Check Out Goodreads
Facebook: Check Out Facebook

Author Description:
Christopher Meeks was born in Minnesota, earned degrees from the University of Denver and USC, and has lived in Los Angeles since 1977. He's taught English at Santa Monica College, and creative writing at CalArts, UCLA Extension, Art Center College of Design, and USC. His fiction has appeared often in Rosebud magazine as well as other literary journals, and his books have won several awards. His short works have been collected into two volumes, "The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea" and "Months and Seasons," the latter which appeared on the long list for the Frank O'Connor International Short Story Award. He's had three plays produced, and "Who Lives?: A Drama" is published. His focus is now on longer fiction. His first novel is "The Brightest Moon of the Century," and his second, "Love At Absolute Zero."

SPOTLIGHT Questions and Answers with the Author

First things first. What do you have on the drawing board next? Can you tell us the timeline for its release and give us a little tease?

I have two things coming up. The first is a novel, A Death in Vegas. The president of a beneficial-bug company (bugs instead of pesticides for organic gardening) finds his life changes drastically one morning at a Las Vegas Convention. The model who had worked as a sexy lady bug at his booth is found dead in his hotel suite. The police think its murder and that he did it. He escapes arrest to find out who this model was and who did this to her.

The book will be out in May. The editor is finished with it, and it’s going through a final proof. Then the advance copies have to go out to reviewers. While that’s going on, I’m working on a third collection of short stories.

You have a good following on twitter. Since you started before the social media buzz, what impact has social media relationships had on your current success? How did you build your following in your niche? Did you use forums, newsletters and methods like that?

Social media is not a magic marketing bullet. It’s not as if you tweet a lot and post things on Facebook, you’re suddenly on the cover of People magazine. People who use social media tend to like it. I like Twitter because the 140 character limit is an endless challenge. I use it the way some people do crosswords. I use it mostly to draw people to my blogs.

I spend a lot of time on each blog as if it were an article for a magazine. Then I’ll find different ways to tweet about it and get people to read it. If they like something there, they might investigate my books. Last year, my blog reached 500,000 views, which pleases me.

I wrote a lot about this for Kirkus Reviews, the publishing industry paper. Click here to read “How I Did It.”

While I never intended to become a marketing expert, I’ve learned a lot. Marketers talk about “impressions.” An impression is when a product is noticed by a person, such as an ad on a bus. For about every thousand impressions of a book—an ad seen by a thousand people, a mention of your book in an article, a tweet read by a thousand people—you sell one book. A blog can up the rate slightly because people are spending time with you—more than just a mention or glance. Thus those 500,000 views likely represent more than 500 sales. That’s why I take care to write good blogs.

Ad experts say a person needs to see a product about seven times before it sinks in. The writer in me hates thinking of any of my books as a “product,” but it’s certainly a “thing.” My goal as someone trumpeting this thing is to get across I value your time. There’s the phrase that “skill sells.” My stories are designed to be entertaining and more. If you like to read books closely, then there are things in my books that resonate.

Do you do book signings, interviews, speaking and personal appearances? If so, when and where is the next place where your readers can see you? Where can they keep up with your personal contacts online?

I haven’t been on a traditional cross-country promotional tour, but I have done readings in and around Minneapolis, where I grew up, and in and around Los Angeles, where I live. For Blood Drama, we had a publication party at a wonderful bookstore that specializes in crime novels called Book ‘Em Mysteries in South Pasadena. It’s the city where the book takes place. Before that, I’ve read often at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena and also at Skylight Books in Los Angeles. These independent stores are places that promote books well and nurture writers. I’ll be at one or more of these bookstores in May.

Blood Drama and I will be on a blog tour during the month of February, and you can see the schedule by clicking here.

I’ve been on several blog radio shows, including one recently hosted by Michelle Jordan, which you can hear here by starting ten minutes in.

There are two places to keep up with my schedule. One is with my website,, where anyone can write me by using the contact form, and the other is my Red Room site here.

You have great covers. They carry a theme and your brand with them. How does your book cover creation process work? Do you hand over the basic theme or do you have more of a hands-on approach? Do you get your readers involved in its development?

I’m glad you mentioned the covers because we go through so much with each one. I say “we” because nothing in the publishing process is just me except the writing, yet I also work with an editor. While I can be an editor of other people’s books, I need another editor’s objectivity on my own.

I’ve used two designers for my books, Daniel Will-Harris and Deborah Daly, both amazing. They work with me, first by reading the manuscript and then coming up with six or more ideas to convey what they feel. I often have cover ideas, but it doesn’t mean they’re good. For The The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea, I suggested a handsome middle-aged guy standing next to a boat at the sea. “No no no,” said Daniel, and he gave me perhaps fifteen color shots of various items including a fish hook and various fish. I was drawn to black-and-white shot of a goldfish jumping out of a fishbowl.

I passed three choices around to friends and strangers, and almost everyone was drawn to the black-and-white cover.

Something similar happens with each cover. Covers often just seen as a thumbnail, one-and-a-quarter inches by two inches—on Amazon or elsewhere. You need visual punch, and most authors are simply not that powerful of a graphic designer. I’ve always believed in using experts.

I never intended to get so deeply into the production side. I started White Whisker Books solely for my short fiction. My agent at the time said there was no money in short fiction—that he believed in my abilities, but that he could only promote novels. I’d been a senior editor at a publishing company, Prelude Press, so I saw how publishing was done from the inside. I simply recreated that in my own business to bring out my first story collection, The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea. Its first review was in the Los Angeles Times, and then Entertainment Weekly mentioned it—better than my agent ever expected. He called to say he was impressed and had been wrong about not showing it.

It’s what you might call beginner’s luck. I liked the process so much, I wrote a second collection, Months and Seasons, which was a finalist in the top short fiction competition in the world, the Frank O’Connor Short Story Award. Jhumpa Lahiri won it that year for Unaccustomed Earth —a magical book—and I was happy to be in the running.

While I’ve had two agents and really liked each one, my writing hasn’t fit easily into a marketer’s hands. My last agent, Jim McCarthy at Dystel and Goderich, found three enthusiastic editors for my novel Love at Absolute Zero (which had a different title then), and the marketing departments of each publisher said to pass—that marketing a book about a quantum physics genius determined to find love just didn’t fit.

The publishing business is always changing, and I have to be fast on my feet. Thus, I’m on an interesting journey in order to be part of the conversation of contemporary books.

What has been your experience in giving your books away free? Have you been involved in any other type of giveaways and how did that work out? What was your main goal in doing this? Did you run into any obstacles?

This is a perfect example of how publishing can change quickly. Once print-on-demand technology was made affordable, and once eBook publishing was made fairly easy, do-it-yourselfers and small publishers like White Whisker could participate more easily. Sometimes it feels, though, that there are more writers than readers. There are plenty of writers now who rush too quickly into publishing, uploading their Microsoft Word file after a quick proofread on screen. They slap their name and title onto a photo to make a book cover, and they’re done. They then want to compete for attention.

Thus there are two classes of books: a sea of amateur efforts, and a smaller number of polished work that’s gone through editors and proofreaders. The big publishing companies are good at publishing this latter type of writer.

I explain this because giving away one’s eBook for free had traction for a short time. Amazon made it simple for Kindle books if you joined their KDP program. You could give your book away for five days every 90 days. The idea was that thousands of people would download your book, and its ranking would go up. Then you’d go back to charging for it, and because of the high ranking, people would buy it.

The first two of my authors I tried this with, it worked well. We gave away over ten thousand copies of each book. Their sales then went up for a couple of weeks.

However, thousands of people started giving away books every day. If you search for free books for the Kindle, there are over six thousand at any given time. How many free books can people read?

The third time I tried it, I probably gave away only 30 copies, and this was after getting the word out on Twitter and Facebook. To get readers to find my book, I then tried advertising, but now I was spending money to give away free books. It was crazy.

I also saw my own Kindle was filling up with free books—when was I going to read these things? Giving away books for free doesn’t make sense now unless it’s for a contest. Then you’re not giving it away to just anyone but to winners. You are making people want it.

How do you start your book launch process for a new book? Give a brief outline of the steps you go through to get your book to market. What methods were the most successful?

I’ve learned from better marketers than me. When Donald Trump’s show The Apprentice first came on, I was fascinated about how the teams would try out marketing ideas on strangers before committing to a strategy. Now I do that with covers.

My brief outline: The first thing I do is NOT rush out with a book. Record companies, movie studios, Broadway theatres and anyone successful in the arts announce a new project way in advance. You need to get people anticipating your book. A publishing date isn’t magic. It’s just a date three or more months down the line from when your book is done, cover and all. You need at least three months to market it.

In today’s environment, books with reviews by both customers and critics is the best way to have your book stand out.

I print Advance Reader Copies (ARCs) to send to the trade journals such as Kirkus Reviews and other traditional reviewers. I also email potential reviewers, asking would they to consider reviewing my new book, and I give a short description and publishing date. Would they like a physical copy or an eBook? More and more are asking for eBooks.

I happen to send out a monthly newsletter, The Maplewoods Mirror, about me and writing in general. There, I’ll announce upcoming books. People can get the free newsletter by filling out a short form at I’ll mention new books on my blog at Red Room, which is a site for writers. Any reviews I get are reprinted at Red Room.

Come publication date, I’ll have a reading and publication party at one of the independent bookstores in L.A. Photos can be used in my newsletter or in a press release. I’m starting to use press releases again to trumpet upcoming books, winning an award, or a success, such as my short story collections being #1 on the short story bestseller list on Amazon.

Last, I’ll put any new book on a blog tour, which is a fairly new way of doing things. You hire a blog tour operator such as Virtual Book Tours or Partners in Crime to get literary websites to commit to being part of a tour. They can review your book, interview you, or have you write a guest blog. In that way, you can be a buzz on the Internet for a short time. While you can have blog tours after a book comes out, it’s best to start with one in advance of your publication date.

Also consider places to advertise. In short, make marketing plans and follow through.

You have a great blog. You do a great job keeping readers informed, marketing your books and providing useful information to other writers. What is your primary goal? And where in the world do you find the time to create great novels, take care of the social media and maintain your blog?

I’m impressed with the research you’ve done. My blog is meant to be helpful. When I became a small publisher, so much of what I did was by trial and error. I like to give back if I can, especially if it means more great books are created. Because I teach college, I tend to take an instructor’s approach. There’s also the feeling that if I can do this, so can you.

As for time management, it’s about being efficient. I once was a member in a screenwriter’s group where almost everyone in it was a full-time screenwriter. However, I was a full-time journalist at CalArts, writing and publishing a quarterly. I only had time to write my own stuff in the mornings by waking up at 5 a.m. and writing until 7 a.m. when my family woke up. I discovered I wrote more scripts than the others in my group. There’s something to be said about NOT having enough time to write in order to take advantage of what little time you do have.

Being a self-publisher myself, I have to ask this question. How does doing everything yourself work out? Do you outsource much of the process?

My mantra is let other experts help you. You can hire editors, proofreaders, publicists, blog tour operators, book designers, and assistants to help you with press releases or some of the more tedious chores such as mailings. Everyone has a budget. I can’t afford everything all the time. Publicists and press release services can be expensive. Experiment with newcomers, such as recent graduates of an advertising program or a graphic design program. If you have an art school in your city, that’s a good place to start. I found my first editor by attending a UCLA Extension gathering, and the woman who taught others how to be a good editor freelanced as a book editor.

Being in the position of working with possible future authors, do you see much interest in tackling the new publishing environment? Do they spend much time on the business side of marketing and selling their books?

For the authors I take on, I encourage them to use social media and be an active part in promotion.

As I mentioned earlier, new authors often rush into publishing too quickly. People mistakenly assume that if you create a book, readers will come. This isn’t Field of Dreams. Once you become your own publisher, you are officially an entrepreneur. Some people focus on entrepreneurship as their major in business school. Is a new author seriously considering doing it without studying it, reading about it, or doing research?

There are a lot of companies out there eager to take a new author’s money and promise the world. Beware.

I suppose, too, that’s why big publishers will not be undone by the indie book movement. There are authors great at writing but not great at following up the details for making a quality-looking book, one with an eye-catching cover and back copy that appeals. Others are not great at marketing. A traditional agent and publisher can hold a lot of cachet.

So much about writing and publishing is also about luck. You might have to write and publish a number of books before one hits—if ever. I write because I see the world more clearly by doing so. I’m pushed as a person. Fiction writers are in many ways philosophers. You see the world in a certain way, and you show it through story. My stories are dreams that might help you if not also entertain you.

Author's Book List
Blood Drama
Blood Drama is wildly entertaining with fast-paced dialogue and plot twists caroming like a steel ball in a pinball machine." -Linda Hitchcock, BookTrib

Everyone has a bad day. In the crossover thriller BLOOD DRAMA, graduate student Ian Nash, after losing his girlfriend, gets dropped from a Ph.D. program in theatre. When he stops at a local coffee shop in the lobby of a bank to apply for a job, the proverbial organic matter hits the fan. A gang of four robs the bank, and things get bloody. Ian is taken hostage by the robbers when the police show up. Now he has to save his life.

FBI Special Agent Aleece Medina's analysis of the bloody bank heist drives her into the pursuit of a robbery gang headed by two women. She doesn't anticipate how this robbery will pit her against both the bandits and the male higher-ups in the FBI while the media heats up during a giant manhunt.

The robbers are about to kill Ian, and all he has at hand is his knowledge of the stage.

Order the Book From: Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Smashwords
Love at Absolute Zero
Love At Absolute Zero is a comic romance about Gunnar Gunderson, a 32-year-old star physicist at the University of Wisconsin who's determined to meet his soul mate within three days using the Scientific Method. As he channels his inner salmon for speed dating, he accidentally steps on the toes of a visiting Danish schoolteacher--and his life turns upside down.

Order the Book From: Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Smashwords
Who Lives?: A Play
This drama is based on a real event. In the early 1960s, an anonymous committee of ordinary citizens in Seattle selected kidney disease victims from a pool for an experiment with something new: a kidney dialysis machine. If the experiment worked, a small number of people would live instead of surely die from kidney failure. But who among the pool lives? How will the committee choose? Playwright Christopher Meeks centers the action on one person, attorney Gabriel Hornstein, who desperately needs what the committee offers.

This morality tale races against time and asks what is a life worth? What criteria should this committee and ones today use? Race, gender, net worth, family size, career, what? For readers who like moral issues and real drama, this play will get you involved.

Order the Book From: Amazon
The Brightest Moon of the Century
In his fourth award-winning book, Christopher Meeks offers a comic and compassionate coming-of-age novel. A young Minnesotan, Edward, is blessed with an abundance of "experience"--first when his mother dies and next when his father, an encyclopedia salesman, shoehorns Edward into a private boys school where he's tortured and groomed. He needs a place in the universe, but he wants an understanding of women.

Edward stumbles into romance in high school, careens through dorm life in college, whirls into a tornado of love problems as a mini-mart owner in a trailer park in Alabama, and aims for a film career in Los Angeles.

Order the Book From: Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Smashwords
Months and Seasons
Months and Seasons is the follow-up story collection to Christopher Meeks's award-winning The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea. With a combination of main characters from young to old and with drama and humor, the tales pursue such people as a supermodel who awakens after open-heart surgery, a famous playwright who faces a firestorm consuming the landscape, a reluctant man who attends a Halloween party as Dracula, and a New Yorker who thinks she's a chicken.

Order the Book From: Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Smashwords
The Middle-Aged Man and the Sea
Here is a story collection about love, death, humor, and the glue called family. In one narrative, a man wakes up one morning to find the odor of dead fish won't go away, but no one else can smell it. In another, a couple's visit with friends to watch the Academy Awards has the protagonist envying his friends' lawn and lifestyle. In these and eleven other stories, Christopher Meeks balances tragedy and wit. As novelist David Scott Milton explains, "In this collection, Christopher Meeks examines the small heartbreaks of quiet despair that are so much a part of all our lives. He does it in language that is resonant, poetic, and precise.... If you like Raymond Carver, you'll love Meeks. He may be as good--or better."

Order the Book From: Amazon - Barnes and Noble - Smashwords
Author Recommended by: HBSystems Publications
Publisher of ebooks, writing industry blogger and the sponsor of the following blogs:
eBook Author’s Corner and
HBS Mystery Reader’s Circle

No comments:

Post a Comment