Here is the second chat in response to questions we’ve received. Topics include inserting images into ebooks and print books, writing to the market, developing a niche, and more. Find it all HERE.
In January, I wrote a post on WSW asking writers for questions that we could answer in our video chats. We received seven questions in the comments to that post, and in this month’s chat we tackled three of them. In addition, Mark Paxson has added some further thoughts on the question about the rules of marketing, asked by Liz Gauffreau.
You can find the chat HERE
I found Lucinda Clarke’s thoughts about ads, email lists, and newsletters to be especially interesting. They start at about 29:40.
Our latest video chat welcomed a new writer–Lucinda E. Clarke. She lives in Spain and has written and published more than a dozen books, including two fiction series. Watch and listen HERE.
The book as product: specific word count, story arc, number and types of characters, type of ending, and a cover suited to the genre. It may help its author make a living. Or it may not.
The book as work of art: whatever gives the writer the feeling of having a hand on the lever of creation. It may or may not become a “classic.” A posthumous one.
This is what happens when I’ve been reading too many “how to do it right” posts for writers. (Snarky aside: Judging by the vast amounts of advice we need, we writers are self-indulgent, impractical airheads, fumbling our way through the real world.)
The author of a recent such post expressed acute distress (“I almost cried!”) when a writer admitted they didn’t know the target audience for their book.
OK, all you writers hiding behind your computer screens, is this you? You don’t write your novels for a defined demographic? Well, I suppose YA authors do, but what about the rest of us? I certainly don’t. I feel a ghostly reader peering over my shoulder as I write, but I don’t know anything about them except they’re reading my book and I owe them a good experience.
I write from a need to embody in written language the stories churning in my brain. That’s what makes me sit down and crank out the words, not a market survey that indicates a taste for a specific type of novel in a particular slice of the population.
“What if they find out that … ?” and “Let me tell you how it happened. There was this thing–” These are the sources of story. Not market studies.
Many indie authors see their writing and publishing as a business. Authors with contracts to traditional publishers are nudged to deliver the correct book-shaped products with cover images accurately labelling their genres. Products must be packaged to match customer needs and expectations. That’s totally fine and logical.
Trouble is, not every writer thinks of the books they write as “products,” even if they publish them using the same platforms as do businesslike, marketing-oriented indies. Today, publishing takes many forms.
As they prepare to publish, writers may find it helpful to examine their intentions and expectations. In private, in secret if necessary. Do you want to sell a million copies? Be #1 on some list? Connect with a few readers, a secret society of people like you? Achieve perfection? Become famous? Just be able to call yourself a “published author”? Produce a printed book you can hold in your hands and post pictures of on social media? Every writer fits into one of these categories, or the infinity of spaces between them.
As in other areas of life, it helps to know what you want and act accordingly, with your expectations set to “realistic.” Then you can read and absorb only the advice that’s relevant to you, and cheerfully ignore the rest.
Despite all the expert advice, there are many indies who don’t conform, whose books straddle genres, or mix them up, or don’t belong to any genre at all. What about all those off-beat or zany cover images? (Airheads, right?) From experience I can say those books aren’t all terrible and worthless. Some are excellent, but prospective readers have to be adventurous and take a chance. Think farmers’ market or craft fair, not big box store. Spend a dollar or three and maybe discover a new and wonderful reading experience.
The Irascible Indie is back! She’s emerged from her dark and dusty corner (coughing and sneezing), insisting she must opine on that perpetual bugbear: MARKETING
I’ve just reread four blog posts from 2015, written by my grumpy alter ego, the Irascible Indie. They are mild rants about various aspects of being a self-published (aka “indie”) author. I was actually quite impressed with how
well-written readable they are. Anyone who’s interested can find them here:
- Part 1: Writing By Feel
- Part 2: Unclassifiable?
- Part 3: My Target Market?
- Part 4: Who Are the Real Writers?
And now, here are the Irascible One’s views on marketing…
Not a day passes without at least one blog post popping into my reader about marketing — lists of tips and tricks, how-to articles, and stern warnings that failure to market means failure as an author. Marketing is the bitter pill you must swallow after the thrill of pressing the “publish” button.
Okay, I admit it. I have a skeptical attitude toward marketing. As soon as I see certain words — SEO, clickthroughs, keywords, analytics — I get that uh-oh feeling. After reading multiple posts about picking the right keywords and other magic formulas to romance “the algorithms,” I’m left with the feeling that the authors of those posts live in a different universe. Their screenshots (which are hard on my eyeballs) do not resemble anything I see when I try to follow their instructions.
Reading about marketing makes me feel like a kid forced to wear a scratchy woollen sweater — you know, the kind that drives you crazy and makes you want to scream and stomp your feet. It’s itchy! I hate it!
Not good enough? Okay, let’s take a look at my reasons and figure out if there’s anything to them besides a contrarian attitude.
Reason #1 I hate advertising. I’ve perfected techniques to ignore ads, both in real life and online. I don’t want to inflict ads on anyone but enemies. Besides, ads cost money. Why should I pay someone to say “Buy my book!” for me?
Reason #2 I don’t want to be responsible for anyone’s personal info, especially now. Look how Google and Facebook messed up with that. I’m not going there. And I don’t want to send emails that are disguised “Buy my book!” pleas to people who trusted me with their addresses.
Reason #3 What could I possibly say in a newsletter that I’m not saying right here in my blog? I’d rather spend my time writing stories, novels, and blog posts than trying to manufacture stuff for which someone would be happy to exchange their email address. And too many newsletters are offered via annoying popups. (A popup, by the way, pretty much guarantees that I’ll never sign up for a newsletter.)
Reason #4 Advertising is expensive, and not always effective. We authors (wannabees, aspiring, self-published, and indie) are a huge market for legitimate and bogus services alike. Even with a budget and plan for advertising, you need to sift through all the options, recognize the scams as such, and figure out how to
leverage use the legitimate ones optimally. Unless you get it right, your ROI is likely to be poor. (See, I can throw jargon around too!) Don’t get sucked into believing that liberal applications of cash will do the trick.
Reason #5 Getting reviews to improve sales is a tricky business. For one thing, it’s too easy to offend the Mighty ‘Zon. You can’t buy reviews (not that I would), you can’t exchange books for reviews, you can’t do review swaps with other authors, reviews have to include disclaimers, etc. Even an honest mistake can result in reviews being pulled, reviewers losing their privileges, authors losing their Amazon accounts — forever. And then there’s the torturous process of finding reviewers. In my random visits to book bloggers’ Review Policy pages, I inevitably see variations on the “No longer accepting books for review” theme. Natural, organic reviews from real readers are the best, but they can be few and far between, and an author has no direct control over that process.
Reason #6 Marketing isn’t simple. That’s why trad publishers
used to have staff for it. For this indie author, there are too many options, too much advice, too many services with cutesy names and acronyms. It’s all a blur, and the prospect of figuring out what might work is dizzying. I’d rather be writing, or reading. (Hell, I’d rather be cleaning the bathroom.) The answer, of course, is to select one or two of the least daunting strategies, take small steps, and refuse to be overwhelmed by the flood of advice. And keep an eye on your expectations.
There’s an idea floating around that authors who don’t embrace marketing aren’t as hard-working and “savvy” as they should be. They don’t treat their writing as a business, so they deserve to fail. I resist these labels. I’ve happily put my energy into writing, editing, book descriptions, formatting, cover design, and presenting information about my books on my blog and elsewhere. Patience is my middle name (well, not really, but you know what I mean). I’ve whittled my expectations into elegantly slender shapes. If that’s not enough, so be it.
And yes, having said all this, I know enough not to whine about my sales!
Thank you, Irascible Indie, for your views on marketing. Now, back to your dusty niche, leaving me with a nice target to wear on my blog. I’ll relay any comments to you, including those that try to change your mind (such as it is). Bring ’em on!
Gargoyle and “target” images courtesy of Pixabay
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.
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.
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).
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:
- How good are the books?
- How am I doing as an indie author?
- 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?
- 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).
- Book sales: at most 2 stars.
- Marketing efforts: 1 star.
- Internet presence (“author platform”): 3 stars.
- 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.
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.
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.
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?)
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:
- Read and review the three books from the Emerging Local Authors Collection that are sitting on my bedside table.
- Finish writing a story (provisionally) called “The Ice Cream Truck From Hell.” Then post the story to my blog.
- 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.
- Read closely and comment on three contributions to my critique group in preparation for a meeting on October 20th.
- Format for print publication within the next 3 months the second and third books of the Herbert West Series.
- Write some other stories that have been incubating way too long, before the ideas that inspired them wither and die.
- 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.
- Read and occasionally comment on the daily stream of posts from the blogs I follow.
- Post to my blog at least once a week.
- 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?
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.