book marketing

Advertising, Hypocrisy and Other Offenses

I just finished processing today’s load of solicitations for funds masquerading as personal letters, full of smarmy sentences such as, “We know you’re passionate about [their cause] and want to be a part of making the world a better place,” followed by several more paragraphs of similar verbiage and a separate sheet with suggested dollar amounts to donate. Then there are the employees of call centres who, after interrupting your supper, writing or blog-reading session, inevitably start off their spiel by asking, “How are you?” As if they care.

This kind of hypocrisy is extremely irritating — dressing up appeals for funds to make them look like friendly, personal attempts to reach out and befriend. While I’m scribbling out my name and address on the paper junk mail before chucking it in the recycle bin, I can’t help but recall the advice I’ve read in countless blog posts about how authors should present themselves on the internet. Never say, “Buy my book.” Not even, “Please buy my book.” Don’t be annoying — instead, create content readers find so fascinating, they will rush to seek out your books without any appeals from you.

Isn’t this a kind of hypocrisy, though? Let’s face it — most of us indie authors started blogging for one reason:  to create an “author platform” from which we could launch our book marketing strategies. After a while some of us figure out that almost all the folks who follow and read our blogs are other authors, and selling books to them works about as well as selling sand to desert dwellers. By that time we may also have found other reasons for blogging — making connections with fellow authors, creating a body of writing in the form of our blog posts, and so on. But in the background is the refrain, even if faint, “Look at my books, check out my books, please buy my books.” Otherwise, why do we display our books’ cover images in our sidebars, complete with links to where they can be bought?

I admit it — I hate advertising of all kinds. That’s one reason I kissed television goodbye decades ago. I’m an expert at avoiding click-bait on websites, and if the first or second thing I see on a website or blog (yes, even fellow writers’ blogs) is a pop-up plea to sign up for a newsletter, I’m gone. When it comes to advertising my own books, I put myself in the place of the recipient of such appeals and imagine them doing what I do when I recognize a sales pitch.

Writing — creating good quality prose or poetry — is a demanding art, with perfection always receding into the distance. Some writers manage to turn themselves into marketers as well. Good for them. I don’t happen to have a natural inclination for that aspect of the book business, so am walking the indie author path in my own fashion.

 

Rose coloured specs

 

Up, Down, Sideways, Out?

A while ago, I read a pretty intense post by another indie author, answering the question, “Why do I do it?” (Write, that is). I think every one of us asks this question sometimes, usually on days when the sales graph goes flat, there are no page or post views, no reviews, comments, or any other indicators that our written creations are being noticed and appreciated.

A Milestone

I have finally finished publishing the Herbert West Series. All four books are available in print (through Amazon) and as ebooks (in Amazon’s Kindle store and through Smashwords in all the ebook stores it works with).

Publishing in print meant going through each text thoroughly, correcting all the remaining errors I could find. The books are now if not 100% error-free, at least 99%. Paying attention to details like missing quotation marks, or reversed quotation marks (“99” instead of “66” or vice versa — it does happen in Word, folks!), missing spaces, italicized question marks that should not have been italicized — stuff like this almost drove me crazy. And diacritics! Why on earth did I sprinkle French phrases all over the place? Okay, one of my narrators is Acadian, so it makes sense for him to throw in the odd bit of French, but all my narrators (the books are all in first person) do it — tete-a-tete, pied-a-terre, fin de siecle, expose, menage and more. You don’t see any acute or grave accents or circumflexes here, do you? That’s the way all these words were in my Word docs and therefore in my ebooks, until this recent overhaul. (Note to self — in future drafts, if you’re going to use a word that needs a diacritic, just put the darn thing in right at the start. None of this “Oh, I’ll deal with all that when I’m copy-editing” stuff. No — you’ll be too busy keeping track of spaces and quotation marks).

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Report Card

Now that the texts are as good as they’re going to get, and a couple of the cover images have been adjusted, it feels right to step back and ask a few questions:

  1. How good are the books?
  2. How am I doing as an indie author?
  3. Do I want to write more books? (And what about that as-yet-unpublished novel?)

So I guess this is a kind of report card. But instead of grading myself with the A through F system associated with school reports, I’ll use the 5-star system applied to books.

All right, how does Audrey Driscoll rate as an indie author?

  1. The Books: 4 stars for the writing, 5 stars for the presentation (covers and interior design — especially the print versions, which are comparable to any trad-pubbed book. In my opinion).
  2. Book sales: at most 2 stars.
  3. Marketing efforts: 1 star.
  4. Internet presence (“author platform”): 3 stars.
  5. Social media presence: 1 star, due to absence from Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest et al. This blog and a minimal presence on LinkedIn are it for me.

Overall rating: 3 stars.

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A Crossroads

So what does this mean? It depends on what I want to accomplish by writing and publishing. When I started writing in November 2000, my only goal was to complete that first novel and get it published. The traditional way. I worked on that (and wrote four other novels) until 2010, when I decided to self-publish. Ebooks only at first, and only on Smashwords, with (rather lame) homemade cover images. In 2014 I commissioned good cover images and published through KDP as well. (I’ve never yet tried KDP Select, however). Since then, I have published all four books of the Herbert West Series in print as well, through CreateSpace. Strictly speaking, I have more than attained that original goal.

But I can’t pretend my books have sold well or gained much attention. Enough that I haven’t branded myself a failure and slunk into the shrubbery (which needs pruning, incidentally), but the best word I can apply to my degree of success is “modest.” Modest! Not one of your power words.

From the blogosphere, I have certainly discovered the many ways to fail as a writer:  dull plot, flat characters, limping story arcs, bad grammar, multiple typos and other technical errors. Then the marketing part, my bête noire. (Note the circumflex!) I admit I’m allergic to marketing. But I’ll bet most people who manage to complete and even publish one or more books didn’t do it to have something to sell. Most of us discover the marketing part after the glow of getting published fades. This, of course, is the most important difference between indie and trad publishing. Unless we hire people to do the things we can’t (or won’t), we indies don’t have a team working with us.

Some writers must find marketing at least somewhat congenial. Certainly if one’s goal is to make money from selling books, it’s absolutely necessary to acquire the necessary skills. There is a wealth of resources available, and a constant stream of advice. I could even buy marketing services, just like I bought good cover images. But just now I’m not planning to do that.

Fire adj2

Spark and Flame

In the 15+ years since I began writing, I have realized that the impulse to write and the inner resources to do it are fuelled by reading, unhurried observation and open-ended mulling. And listening to music, which is a catalyst. This wealth of input combines in some mysterious way (like alchemy!) and produces an urge to write. The spark lights a fire of creation that inevitably produces something new. Not always an excellent something, but certainly a leavened lump. Creation at fever-pitch is an intoxicating, exhilarating phenomenon. For me, that’s almost the whole point. Putting the work out into the public arena is a necessary part of the whole, and any kind of appreciation is a bonus. I don’t deny that. But how much time, effort and treasure do I want to sacrifice to the (for me) less-than-congenial business of attracting that attention? Not much.

If I immerse myself in learning how to market well, I may never write anything else worth marketing.

Since I entered the self-publishing arena six years ago, I haven’t had much time for the unhurried, open-ended reading, noticing, thinking and listening that feeds the desire to write. And that’s even with the feeble stabs I’ve made at anything resembling self-promotion — writing posts for this blog, reading other blogs and commenting.

So now I’m going to turn the Herbert West Series over to its own devices. The books are out there to be acquired by the (fortunate) few who manage to find them. Like a mother sending her children out into the world, I kiss them goodbye and wish them well.

A Manifesto

In less than a month, I’ll retire from my day job. That means I’ll have a lot more time at my disposal. I intend to devote a good part of that to my garden, which I’ve neglected in the past couple of years (that’s why the garden blog posts have dwindled). I may decide to publish Winter Journeys, the novel I wrote in 2007-2008. I may write at least one more novel, possibly two or three. Maybe short stories. Maybe poetry. But all that depends on igniting the creative spark. I do plan to keep the blog going, because I value the connections I’ve made with bloggers all over the world.

It’s even possible that in this new phase of life I will discover some configuration of marketing-type activities that are not uncongenial (how’s that for tentative?), but right now that’s a road not taken.

Mozart never heard his four last and greatest symphonies performed. J.S. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos sat on a shelf somewhere, unplayed and unpublished for more than a hundred years. Most of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s poems were not published until years after his death. My four books are not in the same league as the works of these individuals, but they are available for purchase (one of them for free download), have been read and even reviewed. I’m OK with that.

Something else I’ve learned: managing my expectations is crucial. (Now where did I put those rose-coloured specs?)

 

Rose coloured specs

 

 

 

 

Writerly Pursuits

 

Looking at my current Things To Do list — specifically Writerly Things To Do (I also have such lists for the house, the garden and my day job) — got me thinking about activities that characterize the writing life. In no particular order, here is the list:

  1. Read and review the three books from the Emerging Local Authors Collection that are sitting on my bedside table.
  2. Finish writing a story (provisionally) called “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell.” Then post the story to my blog.
  3. Look through my file of stories that have never seen the light of day and select a couple to post on the blog. Then post them.
  4. Read closely and comment on three contributions to my critique group in preparation for a meeting on October 20th.
  5. Format for print publication within the next 3 months the second and third books of the Herbert West Series.
  6. Write some other stories that have been incubating way too long, before the ideas that inspired them wither and die.
  7. Prepare to write another novel — a sequel to the Herbert West Series — set in Egypt, specifically at an archaeological excavation in the 1960s. “Prepare to write?” You know — research, brooding, making notes, visualizing scenes, making more notes, etc.
  8. Read and occasionally comment on the daily stream of posts from the blogs I follow.
  9. Post to my blog at least once a week.
  10. Come to grips with the idea of marketing.

Thinking about this, it occurred to me that this is the real stuff of Being A Writer (except the marketing bit, maybe). It’s the 21st century analogue of what writers used to do in pre-computer days — getting together in cafes and bars, gossiping and arguing about the meaning of it all, writing letters, taking walks in the country and thinking about what to write next, mingling in literary salons, scraping away with their quill pens or pounding their typewriters. Nowadays much of the connection and exchange of ideas is done through social media, of course, but the dynamic is the same.

And, of course, there’s #10 on my list — marketing. Now as in the past, there are businesslike writers and those to whom that is an alien notion. Today’s indie authors don’t have to look far for reminders that to succeed, they must regard their writing and publishing as a business. Any who do not do this must resign themselves to failure.

As with the writing rules that also abound on the internet, the real situation is more complex — a compound of financial realities, creative impulses, expectations and motivations. Many self-published writers display a truly businesslike attitude, with (I assume) varying degrees of financial success and personal satisfaction. Many others do not. (Guess which of these groups I belong to. Just guess).

That’s really a side issue, though, the “marketing” aspect of being a writer. The core of it is whatever leads to new creations — writing. Whether the ferment of ideas and inspiration comes from face-to-face conversations with fellow writers, or electronically around the world, it must lead to sitting down and stringing words together. Otherwise, what’s the point?

Are Free Ebooks Evil?

Free ebooks! It’s a hot topic among indie authors these days, as we try to bring our books to readers’ attention.

Many authors say they would never give away their books for free (except for brief promotional periods). They believe this devalues the hard work of writing and publishing.

Others claim that making the first book in a series “perma-free” is a good way to generate reader interest in the other books in the series.

Who is right?

Arguments against free:

1. The time and treasure you put into writing and publishing the book is worth something.

2. People don’t value the ebooks they download just because they are free, and most never read them.

3. Free books cheapen the written word for everyone, harming authors who depend on selling their books for a living.

Arguments for free:

1. Free “outsells” any non-free book. People love free.

2. Free is frictionless. To buy a $0.99 book you have to go through the payment process. Free is an instant download.

3. People do read free ebooks and some return to buy either the print version or other ebooks in the series.

Now to my own experience: I have written and published a four-book series. In one 18-month period (September 2012 to February 2014) that the first book was free, it was downloaded several thousand times. And that was when it had its original homemade cover image. Sadly, only a small fraction of those who downloaded it returned to purchase the other 3 books in the series. But I was thrilled at the numbers that did.

Every year, Smashwords offers its authors two opportunities to make their books available in a special catalogue at reduced rates (Read an Ebook Week in March and the Summer/Winter Sale for the month of July). Prices may be reduced by 25% to 100% off the regular price. In my experience, there is little uptake for books at 50% off, but those at 100% (i.e., free) are snapped up. I suspect there are many readers who visit Smashwords only during these events, trolling for free ebooks.

Some say that making an ebook free should be part of a marketing plan, in which readers who get free books should be required to offer up something other than money in exchange — a review or an email address. A good idea, except it depends on the goodwill of the recipient reader. If a reader doesn’t produce a review, the author can’t get the book back. As for email addresses, when someone downloads my book from the Smashwords site, or from B&N, the Apple iBooks store or the other outlets to which Smashwords distributes, I have no idea who those readers are. All I see are the numbers of downloads; the readers are invisible to me. The only way I can think of to get their email addresses is to put a note at the end of the free book offering the reader the second one for free by sending me a message. (Have I done this? Not yet.)

Many authors buy advertising, which may or may not pay for itself in book sales. It may end up being a financial loss, so really, how is that different from giving away books for free?

Conclusion: do what works for you. The beauty of self-publishing is that you call the shots. If you have a number of books available, try making one of them free. Or write short prequel or spinoff story and make that free.

Of course the downside of calling all the shots is  ever-present doubts, second thoughts and what-ifs. I frequently have arguments with myself that go something like this:

If I were charging $0.99 for that book, I’d be earning $0.60 per sale. Sure, there are lots of downloads, but I’m losing $0.60 on each one!

Yes, but if the book cost even $0.99, the uptake would be way less. And so would the number of readers buying the next book.

OK, but what if it’s true that hardly anyone actually reads free ebooks? If only a fraction do, and only a fraction of those return to buy the other books in the series, is losing the $0.60 worth it?

Well, but don’t you like seeing all those downloads pile up? It’s depressing to see no sales week after week. Better to keep the first book free for a few more months.

OK, but what about…

And so it goes. For now, The Friendship of Mortals ebook is free. For the next month, anyway. Or maybe the next 6 months. Or maybe just a few more days, depending on how that argument turns out.

The Irascible Indie. Part 3: My Target Market?

Having read any number of exhortations to writers to “Know your target market,” I ask myself — what is my target market? Haven’t got a clue, except — wait for it — people who really want to read my books, of course!

Which is pretty lame.

I suspect it’s related to the fact that I don’t write in a standard genre.

But really, does every writer start writing with a specific group of people in mind, tailoring their work to please that group? I think not.

Many writers start to write because they’ve been haunted for years by a story plot or a character. Finally, the opportunity arises and they embody the plot or character in words. With luck, the piece of writing takes on a life of its own and compels the writer to keep on writing until all is resolved and an end is reached. Now that it’s so easy to publish, many works are rushed into print (or ebook format) without any thought for a potential market.

This may be naive, foolish even, but surely not evil.

The writer who wants to make a career of writing, or merely to supplement their income in a reliable way — that writer needs to think about a target market, to write within the constraints of a genre, to direct their marketing efforts toward readers of that genre, and to find ways of creating a fruitful relationship with those readers. Those of us who need not depend on our writing for our livelihoods, and have the luxury to write from inspiration alone, need not fret about markets.

But readers, fans, a devoted following? What writer doesn’t want that? The trick is to find these readers and to know who they are.

In the old days of traditional print-on-paper publishing, authors had no way of knowing who bought their books. People went to bookstores, picked up books they found interesting, paid for them and went away. Even when authors held book-signing sessions, they didn’t ask the people who wanted their books signed to leave their names and addresses. Only real “fans” (in the original sense of “fanatics”) who bothered to write to an author’s publisher would impart such information, but they were a minute minority.

Clever authors now use a variety of enticements to obtain readers’ email addresses and build contact lists they can use to inform those who have bought their books when new ones are to be issued. Not so clever (or lazy) authors do not.

Another piece of advice with apparent logic on its side is to think about the interests of potential readers and to frequent online hangouts where those folks gather. All right, so my books were inspired by a story written by H.P. Lovecraft. HPL has a huge number of fans, and there is a multitude of Lovecraft-related blogs and discussion venues to check out. Have I done that? Well, yes. Sort of. But I don’t really have much to say to video gamers and I don’t relate well to tentacles.

Well, how about other elements found in my books? The funeral business, for example. Physicians and surgeons. There are plenty of places where these topics are featured, but somehow I can’t see attempting to insinuate myself into professional discussions of these groups in any credible way, lurking and contributing until one fine day I can let slip the fact that I’ve written novels featuring a doctor who once worked as an undertaker and has an interest in revivifying corpses. Oh, and his best pal is a librarian.

For that matter, I am a librarian — a cataloguer, in fact, just like the narrator of my first book. I belong to a very active discussion list about cataloguing and related matters, but I would never dream of mentioning my books in that venue. It’s simply not done.

This business of targeting a market is yet another of the potential arenas of failure that surround the indie author/self-publisher. Even when making a living from writing isn’t a necessity, being inept at marketing is yet another club we can use to beat ourselves with. Rather than seize it and administer blows to our egos, I suggest we treat ourselves more kindly, administering humour when possible. Let’s be grateful for being able to publish our own work as easily as we now can, recognizing that some of us are better at selling our creations than others. And we’re lucky to have a community of fellow indies online with whom we can share our woes and wisdom.

 

The Irascible Indie. Part 2: Unclassifiable?

Until now, I’ve had trouble answering the question, “What kind of books do you write?” As soon as I said, “Well, they’re not really mysteries. Or science fiction. Or thrillers. They’re sort of … different,” I knew I was in trouble. Writers are supposed to be able to tell people about their books in 25 words or less. Waffling around about what they’re not is pretty lame.

The trouble is, my books are in an awkward category. Or rather, they don’t sit squarely in any category. Calling them “literary supernatural” feels right to me. My settings are 98 percent realistic, my characters are fully developed and the plots are built around their interactions and conflicts. There are elements of the magical and the unexplained, but not enough to qualify for the “fantasy” or “paranormal” labels.

And I recently found this in Wikipedia: “Supernatural fiction continues to be popular, but because it is not simple to define and is not popularly understood, it is not used as a marketing category by publishers, booksellers, libraries, etc. When marketed, supernatural fiction is often classed as mainstream fiction, or is subsumed by other subgenres.”

Dang!

Calling your book mainstream fiction is the kiss of death, I’m told. The advice is to pick a category (on Amazon, this is) not shared by thousands or tens of thousands of other books. Get specific. The trouble is, as noted in the Wikipedia entry quoted above, there is no category called Literary Supernatural. And of course “literary” comes with its own burden of perceptions — elitist, complicated and (worst of all) boring.

In fact the topic of book categories, especially on Amazon, is a popular one in the blogosphere, as authors try to figure out the optimal categories to maximize sales. Advice abounds, but somehow I’ve never managed to find the magic bullet (assuming one exists). After going through the available categories I settled on Literature and Fiction > Action & Adventure and Literature and Fiction > Literary > Psychological. I have no idea if different choices would have better results in terms of sales.

Which, of course, is a problem in itself.

I also have a small swarm of tags buzzing around the books, which do approximate their content, Here they are, in alpahbetical order (the most important ones in bold and/or UPPER CASE:
Acadians, alchemy, Arkham, artists, boys, Cape Cod, corpses, doctors, first person narrator, first world war, gay men, Gulf Islands, HERBERT WEST, journalists, librarians, miracles, Miskatonic University, Providence Rhode Island, psychological novels, raising the dead, reanimator, secrets, supernatural novels, tramp steamers, widows

And at least I’ve come up with the requisite 25-word description of my books:  psychological fiction about a man who can raise the dead — after a fashion. Why does he do it and where does it get him?

Ha! Twenty-four words!

 

 

Acceptance and Anxiety: garden blogs vs. writers’ blogs

I’m both a gardener and a writer. My blog posts are split between these two interests, which may not be the best idea for finding a readership, but it means I can usually come up with something to post about.

The blogs I follow are similarly divided, although there are more on writing than gardening. Going through the daily accumulation of posts in my reader, I’ve noticed something interesting. Garden blogs are way more relaxed than writers’ blogs. Even when reporting winter losses or projects that didn’t work out, gardeners display acceptance. They celebrate what is, even while aspiring toward new challenges (getting blue poppies to stay alive and bloom again, for example).

Writers’ blogs, on the other hand, seethe with frantic anxiety, always concerned with the right way to do this and the wrong way to do that. How to get motivated. The right way to start a novel. Ten words you should never use. Why you must hire a professional editor. The best ways to market, make sales and self-promote. Stern admonitions that Writing is a Business. There’s so much at stake for writers! They’re running as hard as they can, looking behind at the competition snapping at their heels. I see so many pleas for honest reviews and for advice on using social media. So many shoals of blue links to books, websites and blogs. Look! Buy! Read! Review!

Just writing that paragraph has made me a bit weary and discouraged. If writing is such a creative joy (and I know it is), it’s sad that bringing the fruits of one’s efforts to the attention of those who might appreciate them should be such a painful struggle. If no one buys your books, you’re a failure.

Gardening can be a struggle too, but usually it’s a physical one — moving yards of soil or compost, chopping roots, spending hours doubled over pulling up weeds, getting dirty, hot and sweaty. The rewards of these efforts, though, are immediate and unequivocal. But there’s another difference, a more subtle one: gardeners live in the hand of Nature, which is eternal. There’s always another year, another plant, another reason to hope.

September 26, 2014