Monday, March 2, 2015

Marketing lessons from the street

I’m not, on the whole, great at getting on with marketing, as I said a couple of weeks ago. I’m pretty sure this has more to do with my reluctance to just get started rather than any lack of ability—I’ve had several jobs that involve marketing skills and had no difficulty getting good results when I applied myself to what I was doing. And above all, I’m very aware of the marketing efforts that go on all around me. Today and yesterday brought two marketing lessons to my mind, and I want to share them with you (and solidify them in my own mind by writing them down).

Lesson One: Think through your marketing strategies

Yesterday I went to the post office to pick up a registered parcel that hadn’t been delivered because there was no-one there to sign for it at my house. It turned out to be some “goodies” from an app developer I’d mentioned in a tweet or blog post, to wit: one branded versatile headband, and a whole bunch of stickers. It had been sent from overseas, so it must have cost them a bit.

Immediate problem: they’d sent it registered, which was expensive for them and also forced me to go get it. I could have been pretty annoyed about that, if I’d been having a bad day. Then their brand would be forever associated with that feeling of annoyance.

Second problem: they’d packaged it badly so that the package was torn in the sorting machine. The bubble wrap had stopped the contents falling out, but still, my impression was that these people didn’t really think about what they were doing.

Third problem: the headband/scarf thing was actually quite useful, and I wore it today. But it was branded only with the name of the app, without any indication that it IS an app or what it does. So they’ve spent a lot of money on this nice gift, but they’ll get nothing from it.

Fourth problem: what am I going to do with a hundred or so stickers? I’ll just throw them away, because I can’t use them for anything.

The moral of the story for writers: most marketing costs money, and unless you’re backed up by huge amounts of venture capital you really don’t want to throw that good money away. (Actually, even if you’re backed up by huge amounts of venture capital, it’s still going to run out and before it does, you need to make your marketing efforts pay.) You’ve got to think through where you’re going to put your marketing efforts, and study what the ROI has been for other writers. Self-publishers are very good at nitpicking even the smallest expense, and one of the things that has emerged from the collective wisdom is that for most self-published authors, materials such as bookmarks and postcards don’t result in enough sales to be worth while until you’ve built up a certain amount of brand recognition (and you know what your brand is, which most writers don’t, at first). Neither does traveling miles to bookstore signings and the like, if you’re a fiction author (if you write non-fiction and have a hook that will draw people in, getting gigs is a good idea). Writing the next book, finding and connecting with the right readers and using pricing to pull in sales are better uses of your time.

Lesson Two: Everything counts

Today’s lesson came from two places I visited today. The first was a popular upmarket (please note, upmarket) fast-food chain, the second an upmarket household retail store.

I went to the restaurant because I like their food, which of course is a restaurant’s main selling point. We walked in at the end of the lunch hour, and the place was practically empty—but we could only sit at one of two small tables.

Why? The others were covered in dirty dishes or they were just plain dirty. While we were eating, the one employee who bothered emerged, looked at the tables, tutted, and went back to stocking the drinks cabinet. After a bit she cleared three tables, then went and did some other things, including making a phone call to tell (presumably) her manager she was “dying.” Was she sick? Overwhelmed? After quite a while she cleared the other tables, and eventually wiped them.

Now, I’ve noticed problems like that with this chain before, particularly this restaurant—although a restaurant from the same chain in another nearby town is always clean. I’m not actually blaming the employee, because I think the problem resides in the upper echelons of the company. They’ve forgotten that a restaurant’s second biggest marketing advantage, far bigger than the marketing materials it hangs on its walls, is its APPEARANCE. Another similarly-priced chain in our same area has wonderful, friendly staff who are always clearing and cleaning tables. The food isn’t as good, but more people eat there.

So I’m deducing that the top levels of management aren’t doing enough to make sure that they get the right people working for them, train them well, and ensure that staffing levels are sufficiently high that you’re not relying on one discouraged employee to do all the work. Their brand is based on quality eating, they serve their food on china with real silverware, they emphasize how good their ingredients are—and then they drop the ball as the patrons move from the counter to the eating areas. Everything counts.

And then we went to The Container Store, where I once worked for three holiday seasons and a full year. It’s still one of my favorite places to shop—even though its prices are a little higher than those of big box stores, the quality and design they deliver makes buying a pleasure. Everything they do, and in particular the way the store looks, reflects their brand. They’re all about organization, so the store is organized to the nth degree. It ALWAYS looks good, and I can tell you why—the decision to make it look that way extends all the way down from the CEO.

I’m not going to give away any of their secrets but let me tell you, working there was like taking an advanced course in marketing and customer service for any employee who kept their eyes and ears open. Every bit of training and everything the employees are told to do results in boosting the store’s brand. Furthermore, they employ adequate numbers of people, but never too many, and they are set up so that every employee knows what to do if they have a spare moment (so that lone employee in the restaurant wouldn’t have been left to clean up while there were people standing around talking in the kitchen). The layout of the store, the way the shelves are organized, the branding, the way the catalogs look, the way the employees are dressed, the state of the bathrooms (clean, because the employees clean them. Yep. I actually used to choose that job over vacuuming because I hate vacuuming) reflects the company brand.

The moral of the story for writers: it’s about everything. Your attitude toward your job and your customers (that’s your readers, in case you’re wondering) is paramount. Nobody expects you to be witty, well-groomed, and in a perfectly good temper all the time, but your readers expect you to attempt the most professional and welcoming behavior you can manage under any given circumstances. Be welcoming, like a neat, tidy and colorful store is welcome. Make an effort to look like those readers have come to the right place.

Have you thought about the overall impression you’re giving people as a writer? How do we go about improving? I’d love to hear your ideas.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Death and rebirth of a blogger

I began this blog on January 1, 2009, in the way many neophytes do: I signed up for a Blogger account, grabbed a theme (it was green) and wrote a post. At the time the longest thing I’d ever written was my master’s thesis, and if you’d told me that six years hence I’d be working hard on a new career as a novelist, I’d probably have looked at you with that weird squinty-face I make when I think you’re nuts. Back then, the notion of writing fiction was a vague dream I never thought would take practical shape.

If your math’s good you’ll realize this is the seventh year of Keep Going You Fool!, which began as an obscure blog and is ending as an obscure blog. It’s not ending tomorrow, or the next day; I’m probably going to keep posting till the end of 2015 as I like things nice and squared off.

The good news

But I’m not abandoning blogging, far from it. You’ll be hearing over the next few months about a new blog that will be focused on books from and about the nineteenth century. I’ve been dreaming about it for over a year, and believe me it’s going to be AWESOME. If the very idea of the blog has reduced you to a trembling jelly of excitement, you can go right now to sign up for emails that’ll ensure you won’t miss a thing.

Why am I doing this? Well, I’ve found several wonderful book sites for other genres or for historical fiction in other eras, and some sites cover nineteenth century books well, but never have I found the niche I want to write for. Many blogs run by HF writers are more about the history than the books and there’s a whole constellation of resource sites for people interested in the era, but they don’t focus on what historical fiction readers interested in the nineteenth century are looking for—the books themselves. There’s a whole approach that readers are completely missing out on, and I know EXACTLY what needs to be done. It’s time to act.

Why not keep this blog going?

OK, there are a couple of reasons for this.

1. Commenting on this blog sucks. I am so done with Google’s constant attempts to keep commenters firmly tied into its Google+ ecosystem, and there was a point (while they were transitioning into Google+, and without informing us) when they pretty much made it impossible to comment at all. Once a reader’s tried to comment a few times and failed, they give up, and I’m sure I lost a lot of my original followers that way. Also, when I look at the blog from the front end I don’t see the comments, and have to go into individual posts to find them. The setting that’s supposed to send comments to my email has. never. worked, and the back end of the blog really doesn’t like that I use a Mac. I’m going to be basing the new blog on a much more robust platform, with properly threaded and far more user-friendly comments, and this time I’m going to do my homework before I choose!

2. This blog’s never really known what it wants to be. It started out as a lifeblog with quirky little posts about stuff that was on my mind. Then I started writing posts about writing, as I completed my first novel and started trying to figure out what kind of writer I wanted to be when I grew up. In 2011-2012 the blog veered toward book blogging, which I enjoyed but I started to get lots of submissions from writers who didn’t thrill me because they just didn’t match my reading interests, so I pulled back. It was a time when I was trying to read much more widely, so I don’t blame the writers! 2013 brought a big slowdown in posting; my life was going through a few transitions as life does, and the blog became a mix of posts about self-publishing, productivity and book reviews, with the odd life post mixed in. 2014 saw a continuation of that trend, but I also began writing about general publishing industry topics such as ethics. So I’ve ended up with a blog that looks like minestrone soup: full of good stuff but not necessarily everyone’s first choice at the food counter.

I can still blog about self-publishing, ethics, productivity and writing issues elsewhere through guest posts on bigger blogs, and that’s something I definitely want to develop over the next few months. But I’ve learned enough about myself in the last six years to know that I don’t want to be a writing or self-publishing guru and as for the ethics, while of course I’m delighted to talk or write about such things any time it’s necessary I’d rather be a writer than a campaigner. It’s time to focus on what I DO want to do, which is write fiction and write about books and my favorite hundred years in history.

What this blog has done for me

I don’t regret one single moment I’ve worked on this blog. It was my first experience of putting my own words out for just anyone to read, rather than the corporate or specialist readers I spent years catering to. It was my first experience of just writing as me, rather than being the mouthpiece of someone else’s enterprise. When the comments were working I had a little community that began gathering around the blog, and I loved connecting with these people I’d never met (for the most part) but who were reading and interacting with what I’d written. I made friends with other bloggers and have even met a couple in real life.

I wonder whether, if I hadn’t had this blog, I would have started writing that first novel. It’s hard to break through that barrier of knowing that potentially the whole world can read what you’ve just written, so putting up blog posts and finding that it wasn’t all that painful made me think that publication might be a possibility for me.

It’s been wonderful to have a space that’s entirely my own, not like social media sites where things can change without notice. The only thing that DID change without my involvement was the commenting; the rest was entirely under my control. Incidentally, once I’ve got the Dream Blog up and running I do intend to build a proper website for my fiction, and it will be built on the same platform as the Dream Blog (but totally separate from it) that will give me the option to write blog posts when I feel like it. So I’ll still have a more general blogging space for random musings.

Help me out?

I’ll keep you guys informed about what’s going on. In the meanwhile, you could be a huge help to me by emailing me and letting me know what you liked about the Keep Going You Fool! blog, and any aspects you’d like to see me carry on into 2016. keepgoingyoufool(AT)gmail(DOT)com will find me.

Monday, February 9, 2015

How I'm learning to love marketing

Biting the lemon...

I hate marketing.

There, I’ve said it. Actually, I typed “I hate marketing” into Google and found I’m not the only one. Why do I love to write, am deeply motivated to get my writing in front of as many readers as possible, and yet am reluctant to take the necessary steps to achieve that goal?

I can think of a few reasons:

Marketing feels sleazy. Let’s face it, marketing has a bad rap. We live in a world where commercial messages are pushed into our faces non-stop, usually in the most crass way possible. A few days ago I actually watched the Superbowl (possibly the first time EVER I’ve sat in front of the whole event, and in my defense I had two books on my lap and was reading much of the time) and I noticed that they’re now selling cars and beer and insurance using messages of affirmation and human interest stories. YUCK. I don’t watch much broadcast TV, so I don’t see advertising often and the change in tactics really hit me. SERIOUSLY, you use a voiceover about children dying to sell people on an insurance company?

Everything than can possibly be done has been done. Especially when it comes to indie publishing—I can tell ya, indie authors will do ANYTHING to sell a copy or two of their books. There is nothing you can think of—ethical or unethical—that they haven’t tried. Readers aren’t stupid, and these tactics generally fail. So why bother?

Marketing takes time that could be spent writing. I have a couple of lists of book marketing ideas, stuff I collect from all over the internet, from blog posts, Facebook groups, suggestions from friends, etc. These are LONG lists, and every single one involves some effort on my part. It’s overwhelming. I want to write books, not learn how to run an A/B split email campaign (actually, I know about A/B splits from my fundraising days, but applying them to readers is another matter) or gain expertise with Google Analytics.

Marketing could be really expensive. The one really solid marketing action that’s been talked about among indie authors over the last 2-3 years has been Bookbub, and Bookbub’s prices have now gone WAY up (largely because Big Publishing have noticed that it works for them too). I need my dollars to finance the next book, right?

Bottom line: I just don’t feel comfortable pimping myself all over the internet. Sure, I have no problem going on Twitter to join in chats or post links to articles I find interesting (some of which may be about marketing—ironic much?) but I have big problems going on Twitter to ask people to buy my book. I follow a lot of writers on Twitter, and that’s pretty much all they do. It’s horrible. I don’t want to be part of that.

Mom, do I have to? (and we all know what the answer ALWAYS is)

These are pretty major reasons not to market, right? And that’s fine—I’m an indie and that means I’m CEO of my own publishing company and can decide just how much time and effort to put into marketing.

Wait . . . .
If I never market . . . .
That makes me a . . . Eeeeek!

The harsh reality of the book world is that however good a writer you are, the likelihood is that you’re never going to sell all that many books. In today’s glutted market (where wonderful services like Project Gutenberg have made just about every book ever written available to us) even the cream of the writing talent, supported by major publishing houses, has trouble selling in amounts large enough to make writing a viable career. There are a few outliers whose books take off right from the beginning and keep selling well, but they’re a tiny proportion. Most of us are in the middle range where we’re good enough to possibly make a halfway decent living IF we can find ways of bringing our books to enough readers’ attention.

How I've started making that lemon into lemonade

For the last couple of years I’ve been busy with other things, including wrestling with the sequel to The House of Closed Doors, and happy to take the business side of being an author at a relaxed pace. I’ve racked up a good selection of reviews, most of them favorable, which is a pretty good reason for waiting a while before I started marketing—it’s much harder to market a book with no reviews! In 2014 I learned to write on a daily schedule, which was an important step for me, so my writing output is now at the low end of career levels (and I’m working hard to build it up).

For 2015, my goal is to keep writing at the same pace (or better) than I learned last year, but also to kick my business up to the entrepreneurial level where I want to be. This involves striking a much better balance between the tasks of creation, production, curation, administration and, yes, marketing than I’ve managed in the past.

So how do I make lemonade out of the large, sour lemon that marketing has always represented to me?

Well, the first thing I usually do when I’m contemplating action is to research what other people have done. I’ve been looking for role models and reading their accounts of their own methods. And you know what? I’m seeing that a change has happened since 2012, when I published The House of Closed Doors. The most successful authorpreneurs are a thoughtful lot who approach marketing from the mindset of how they can form relationships with their readers and give back/pay forward to them, rather than seeing their task in terms of Twitter numbers and the size of their email lists. They use freebies mindfully (instead of the scattershot approach that was being advocated a couple of years ago) and base their success on sheer hard work, getting product to market regularly and thinking of marketing as a progressive arc that moves forward into a growing relationship between writer and reader.

Well, THAT I can do. I’ve grown tired of listening to the original bad boy/outlaw self-publishers who STILL spend much of their time telling us why traditional publishing is a bad deal for authors. But I like this reader-centric approach I’m finding now—so that takes care of finding marketing sleazy. There IS a way that doesn’t feel like that.

As for everything having been done—well, actually, there’s nothing wrong with that either. The best approach appears to employ methods that have been around for decades, backed up by, as I said, good old-fashioned hard work. When I started seeing how much the best role models have in common, I also started seeing how I can evaluate the huge list of marketing opportunities I’ve been building over the last couple of years and get a good idea of where best to spend my time and money (and which opportunities to eliminate).

And talking of time and money, these tried-and-trusted methods I’m talking about are less about paying other people to provide you with the magic bullet than you’d think. I’m paying attention to where my favorite authorpreneurs put down their money, and it’s more about providing a quality product and ensuring good communications with the audience than pushing their books up the charts (although that’s the ultimate aim, of course).

I’m getting more enthused about this marketing business by the day. I’ve started a newsletter that’s about communicating with people who love my writing far more than it’s about selling my books—you can sign up for it here. I’ve been putting off this task for YEARS, but now I’ve started it, I’m excited about it.

The other thing I’ve realized is that I can learn marketing in small bites. My upcoming task is to gather together all the information I’ve been tracking since forever, come up with an overall strategy, and then figure out what to do first. Each task can be broken down into steps I can accomplish day by day, which makes the whole business much less overwhelming for me. Yes, it’s still going to involve learning techie stuff I don’t really want to learn. Even getting my head around MailChimp (which is one of the easier steps!) seemed daunting until I actually did it.

I’m not getting too specific in this post because it’s too early in the game. I like to report anything useful I find on this blog for the benefit of other writers (and because it gives me something to write about) so there’ll definitely be some more task-specific stuff coming up.

So OK, fellow writers: do you market? What works for you? Or are you like me, hiding behind a rock waiting for something magical to happen and your books to begin selling themselves? What do YOU most want to know about the process?

*There’s nothing wrong with self-publishing a book for reasons that have nothing to do with money—to honor an ancestor, to support a cause, or simply because you’ve always wanted to see your name on just one book cover. But I’m assuming that the overwhelming majority of writers produce books because they want to make writing their career. Because they’d rather be doing this than whatever other day jobs are available to them. Am I right?

Monday, February 2, 2015

Counter-intuitive productivity boosts for my (and your) writing life

Every so often I return to the topic of productivity, because like most writers I never feel I’m productive enough. I know that the most successful indie writers—those who make a full-time living from their writing—have an unbelievable work ethic, producing books at the rate of four or more a year (some go WAY faster than that) as well as blogging, podcasting, speaking gigs and online courses.

I’m not sure I can ever equal that kind of output. For one thing I’m in the wrong genre—historical fiction needs a certain amount of research and is hard to just dash off at a fast rate. For another, my experiment last year in tracking my time using toggl has shown me that what I’ve been guesstimating is true—I spend roughly half my working day doing things that are NOT writing, and which fall into the category of “unavoidables”—things that are just part of my life as a human being, houseowner and caregiver to Orangina. Some of these things could, theoretically, be shifted into evening hours or abandoned, but that wouldn’t give me or my family the life we want. And I’m prepared to make some compromise on the material gains from writing to stop it from being a tyrant that ruins my family life!

But I’ve been convinced, somewhere deep down inside, that I can acquire new habits that will make me more productive and way less overwhelmed during the time that I DO have. This past month (with much of the prep work having been done last year) has been all about acquiring those basic habits, and I’d love to share what I’ve been doing with you. The overall plan is simple:

Move from reactive to proactive—from coping with the urgent stuff to planning and being a CLOSER (one of my words for 2015)

So what’s been working? Here’s the list.

1. My Daybook

Counter intuitive because: I spent time writing stuff down instead of getting on with it. BUT IT WORKS.

This was an idea I got from Barbara Sher’s Refuse To Choose, a book I read over Christmas. I think my Daybook has departed radically from Barbara’s already, but it’s possibly the single best thing I have ever done to boost my productivity. I gave up journaling a while ago because my journal kept trying to turn into pages of to-do lists and accounts of what I got done during the day, and that wasn’t what I wanted it for—but the moment I started the Daybook I realized something. My brain NEEDS to write down the things that are on my mind. 

Duh—that’s why I started writing, right? To download the stories that kept telling themselves in my head. If I don’t write, stuff starts chasing around in my brain like a ferret on crack and really gets in the way of clear thinking, as well as important things like sleeping, paying attention to what other people are saying, and watching the road while driving.

My Daybook is the place where I give myself permission—and what’s more, actively encourage myself—to write those to-do lists and talk to myself about what I achieved, what I DIDN’T get done (and why) and what my long-term plans are. 

The current Daybook’s a notebook a friend gave me for Christmas, but the format doesn’t matter—in fact the point is that it’s completely unstructured so I can do what I like in it. I only write on the facing pages so that I can go back and make comments to myself, and I number my pages so I can refer back to them. I’m already halfway through the book and I’m finding it way easier to stay on track and plan ahead by just taking a few minutes out of every day to write down my productivity thoughts, plans and recaps.

2. The countdown calendar

Counter-intuitive because: I’m deliberately overwhelming myself. BUT IT WORKS.

That’s what’s in the picture above. It’s another idea I adapted from Barbara Sher’s book. It occupies an area of my whiteboard (I LOVE my whiteboard, but have also realized I can reproduce my whiteboard in my Daybook when I’m away from home which solves another problem). It’s simply a list of work-related things that have deadlines (either ones I impose or ones that happen externally) and the number of days left till each deadline. And here’s the kicker: EVERY MORNING I REDUCE EACH COUNT BY ONE.

Now that’s scary. Watching my days get eaten up makes me feel very uncomfortable—but it’s that sense of discomfort, I’m discovering, that makes me take action on an issue. If I feel comfortable about it, I procrastinate because I have a Ph.D. in procrastination and like to use it.

3. My morning catch-up and clean-up routine

Counter-intuitive because: These are things I thought I needed to leave till later. BUT IT WORKS.

One of my biggest problems, I’d noticed, was the way my desk would get messy when I was really busy—and I’m really busy pretty much all the time. Similarly, my email inbox would be piled high with non-urgent emails I needed to get round to but not right now. 

I kept trying to get round to those things later in the day, because I felt they were reactive matters—things I was doing just because they were THERE and not because they were moving me forward in my work. But my Daybook has helped me see that I needed to get my desk and email inbox as clear as possible as early as possible in the day, which of course means dealing with matters like opening the mail, paying bills and either dealing with the email or scheduling a task for later. 

Weirdly, this works because it means I give myself permission to NOT deal with such tasks during the day.

4. The short list

Counter-intuitive because: it’s short. BUT IT WORKS.

The one thing I DO do at the end of the day is to write a short list for the next day. I’m getting pretty good at realistically estimating how much I can do in my working day. That list goes on my whiteboard AND in my Daybook (Daybook only if I’m away) and I check tasks off as I do them. 

Naturally my list includes writing, exercise (for me AND Orangina), and chores (see below). If I haven’t done something, I note that in my Daybook along with my excuse. Sometimes I write “I forgive myself,” which sounds sappy but it really helps me to just shed that feeling of overwhelmed helplessness and guilt when my day just hasn’t gone the way I planned.

I start each day with a new list, ruthlessly erasing the day’s list whether I’ve done the tasks or not. The counter-intuitive thing is, it’s short—usually about five items—whereas my actual to-do list is a gazillion long. But you know what? I actually get more done in the week that way. Don’t ask me how it works, but it does—I can see the progress because I’m recording it in my Daybook.

5. Giving myself time off

Counter-intuitive because: well, it’s time off. BUT IT WORKS.

I’ve noticed that some of the most productive people I know don’t actually work the long hours I think they’d have to. So I’ve started trying to stop work at 7 pm; and, what’s more, there’s no list on my whiteboard or in my Daybook at the weekend. Those days are for exercising, reading, writing of a different kind (usually blog posts or book reviews) and social/family time. Or just goofing off! Some weekends I’m just plain tired, and then I allow myself to not do a whole lot. I find that a goofing-off break can result in much greater productivity on Monday morning.

6. Get chores done during the week

Counter-intuitive because I feel I should be doing ‘real’ work. BUT IT WORKS.

Again, a very counter-intuitive idea. Aren’t chores a waste of writing/working time? OK, I do leave really big chores like deep cleaning or sorting things out for the weekend. But I’ve drawn up a schedule of the essentials—laundry, cleaning bathrooms and kitchen, watering the plants—that go right into my weekday routine (delegating what I can to Orangina, who’s very helpful). 

The chores plan takes my productivity patterns into account—for example, I schedule cleaning the bathrooms (which I hate, but I hate a dirty bathroom MORE so I do it really well) for Friday afternoons, when, if I’m being honest, I’ve wound down on the productivity quite a bit. I used to do this chore on the weekends, but now—woohoo, no weekend chores! 

And if I’m not doing chores at the weekend, I’m much more likely to just start planning or get a lot of reading done or something that actually advances my life, like writing this blog post and blowing up my word count.

7. Natural sleep patterns

Counter-intuitive because I feel like I should be setting an alarm for 5. BUT IT WORKS.

I work from home and my family members’ work patterns are such that I don’t have to get up early any more. If you’re groaning over this, I served my time—I spent years as a skate mom getting up at 4:30 most days to drive Wasabi to the rink as well as all those school and summer camp routines (at one point I was driving 250 miles A DAY for camp and summer skating, and that’s not an exaggeration).

But now, I work from home etc. so for some time I’ve been experimenting with letting myself find my natural sleep patterns. I find I tend to wake with the light, which is not really surprising—at the time of writing that’s about 7:15, because sunrise is at 7:05. As an aside, Felsted has, for practially all his working life, managed to persuade his employers that he’s more productive on a “shifted” 9-5, so he gets into work later, works through lunch most days and leaves later. So getting up at 7:15 still means I get up first, so I WIN (and he has to make the bed).

I go to bed when I’m tired, which is anything from 9:30 to 11:30. Oddly enough, I find that respecting my natural sleep patterns means I’m less tired even on the days when I’ve had a late night due to activities or doing dumb things like playing computer games (I only allow myself to do this on weekends). 

Some days—due to those lovely woman-of-a-certain-age hormones—I find myself awake at 3 am, and you know what? I don’t lie there feeling sorry for myself. Once I’m sure I’m really, truly awake (usually around 4) I get up and rejoice in having those extra hours to get my stuff done. I find I catch up with the sleep deficit quite naturally, usually by wanting some early nights for two or three days.

I’ve tried at other times to set an alarm for 5, or 6, or whatever, in order to get more done. Inevitably I’ve found that after about three days I get up completely brain-dead, and sit there with my eyes watering with tiredness and barely able to string two words together. If I respect my natural sleep rhythms, when I get up I’m fully productive within about fifteen minutes.

So there you have it—my completely counter-intuitive ways of being more productive. And they work. Does any of this strike a chord with you? What do you do that works for you and possibly for no-one else?

And by the way, I’m doing the 365K Challenge again in 2015—only now it’s as part of a team challenge run by the 10 Minute Novelists’ group, who took over my idea and expanded it. My own daily word count has increased to around 1,300 words a day, and I’m gradually trying to increase that. But more about that later.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

#EthicalAuthor discussion: reviewing other people's books

One question I’m always coming up against is whether, once you make the transition from just-reader to author-who-reads, you should continue reviewing other people’s books. I’ve seen many different answers to this question, so I thought I’d write down my own thoughts and hopefully get a discussion going.

First, I want to make a couple of things clear. This isn’t going to be a discussion about how reviewers should behave in general. It’s my thoughts on how authors who are also reviewers should approach reviewing. Once you become an author, it becomes tricky to voice your thoughts on reader (or book blogger) etiquette without sounding adversarial, and in my opinion the day I became an author I forfeited my right to tell readers what to do. (OK, that’s conjuring up a picture of my reader-self refusing to do what my author-self tells her because I’m not the boss of me, but you get my drift.)

Next, if you’re an author and the very thought of reviewing books makes you curl up in a little fetal ball of fear and loathing, don’t do it despite anything you may hear about the benefits of reviewing. That oft-repeated (by me) advice that you should get on Goodreads and similar sites as a reader is no use to you if you hate writing about other people’s books, and if that’s your case then I’d advise you to blog or do Pinterest or Instagram or Quora or whatever you like doing. Or none of them if you just flat out can’t stand social media. (Of course if your publisher’s insisting you go on social media, you may need to hire someone to do the nasty job for you. You’re not going to be successful on Facebook if you fear and despise Facebook and all it stands for.)

Finally, I’m pretty sure I’ve made almost all the mistakes I’m outlining below at some time or the other. Sorry about that, and this post is about what I’ve learned by screwing up from time to time. I didn’t spring onto the scene completely formed as Saint Jane The Ethical or anything like that. I’m far from being the shiniest Girl Scout on the planet. I just think ethics are something authors need to discuss, and I’m willing to engage in that discussion.

Truthful reviewing doesn’t have to be all sharp pointy bits

Many, many years ago I was an editor in a large European law firm where all the young lawyers had English as their second or third language. As English was our working language, this meant that a lot of editing had to be done to make the documents we were producing readable. Also, these were baby lawyers still making basic mistakes like mixing up the party of the first part with the party of the third part.

In my job as editor, I found it was more productive to go easier on the newest lawyers, acting in a sense more like a writing coach and mentor. The more experienced attornies could withstand a tougher approach, although they usually didn’t need it because they’d learned from their mistakes and grown in expertise and confidence. After I left, I was told by slightly distraught former colleagues that my replacement was a brash New Yorker who reacted to the badly-written newbie documents by throwing them back with a snarl of “This is crap! Rewrite it!” I’m not at all sure this approach was helpful in ensuring the clients got their legal writings in good time.

Nowadays, I only make sure my teeth and claws are well-sharpened when dealing with authors who’ve been around long enough to know better and whose publishers should also know better. And even then, I do recognize the dilemmas that crop up in the book world—a publisher can’t, as a business, pass up on an author who guarantees them a hefty profit, no matter how bad the book, and authors are frequently rushed into deadlines that don’t allow them to do all the work they’d like to do.

When it comes to debut authors, I remember reading that back in the days when reviewers were an elite body of literary critics who really could make or break careers, they had a tradition of going easier on debuts—possibly because they were mostly authors themselves who went just a little cold all over when they thought of their own first efforts. The “tsunami of crap” that’s flooded the market due to the boom in self-publishing is composed largely of debut authors, and it’s quite possible that these aren’t just the first books those authors have ever published—they’re the first novels THEY EVER WROTE. If they’re debut authors who’ve made it into traditional publishing, they’re almost certainly not getting anything like the editorial support and mentoring they might have received twenty years ago.

There’s a way to be truthful and incisive as a reviewer (and remember, I’m talking to author-reviewers) without overdoing the snark. I’m not saying don’t criticize—I firmly believe that the literary world is healthier when we can critique each other’s writing without fear of the critiquee (does that word exist? If not, I just coined it) throwing a wobbly about it, and I do believe that if you put your writing into the public sphere, you have to grow a thick enough skin to withstand public criticism. What I’m saying is, don’t use your reviewing platform as a space from which to launch large ballistic missiles of unkind jeering and sneering at your fellow authors. Don’t be the “This is crap!” lady. It’s unproductive and professionally discourteous.

If you find you’re selecting novels to review BECAUSE they’re crap, consider your motives. Why are you reading crap? Are you trying to make yourself feel/look better as an author by laughing at what else is out there? Or are you trying to save the literary world?

You can’t save the literary world

This is very closely related to what I just said, but I think it’s worth making it a separate thought. You’re not going to be the author who single-handedly saves Literature from the Tsunami of Crap. However many craft books you’ve studied, however much blood you’ve expended in mastering your craft, and however many creative writing degrees and MFAs and heaven knows what else you’ve paid thousands of $$$ to acquire, the only writing all those wonderful achievements are going to improve is yours. Laying down the law about what makes good writing doesn’t result in a good review. You might, on the other hand, consider teaching writing courses or critiquing unpublished work, and thus make your hard work pay off AND help other writers grow. Or simply put all that knowledge and wisdom into your own books (but learn enough about marketing and business to ensure you can achieve some visibility for that wonderful writing).

Reviews aren’t essays or lectures—they’re not there to showcase your brilliance or put other people right. You’re offering up your own subjective reaction to a book in the hope that it’ll persuade other readers to try it (if it was good) or tell them the good and the bad that you found in the book so they can decide for themselves. If you find you’re getting really prescriptive in your reviews, you might consider writing craft books. Perhaps you’re just a born teacher rather than a reviewer.

And never—ever—EVER—

OK, those were my warmup remarks. What I’ve been discussing above is more a matter of common sense and courtesy than ethics. The real problem, ethically speaking, with reviewing as an author is that you might end up rating or reviewing a book as a means to an end. Examples:

  • You give a friend’s book five stars to boost their ratings.
  • You give an author’s book one star because you think she’s a bitch.
  • You give an author’s book five stars because a reader unfairly gave him one star and this “evens things up.”
  • You agree with a bunch of authors to give each other’s books five stars.
  • You agree with a bunch of authors to give another author’s book one star to teach her a lesson.
  • You get your fans to go give an author-friend’s book five stars.
  • You get your fans to go write negative reviews about someone else’s book because she’s said something nasty about yours.
  • You write a glowing review about your friend’s book even though you didn’t like it all that much because hey, he’s a friend.
  • You rate an author’s book five stars because that blog you like says she’s being bullied and bullying is bad.
  • You rate an author’s book one star because that blog you like says he’s a bully.
  • You know your spouse/best friend/writing group are doing any of the above on your behalf and you do nothing to stop it.

And I could go on . . . . Look, it doesn’t matter what readers or bloggers or other authors are doing. You’re a professional and you’re not going to do any of these things, right? Don’t review with an ulterior motive. And for crying out loud, if you’re reviewing a book because you’ve been asked to, disclose the fact. If the other author’s a friend, disclose the fact. Don’t write a review as if you’re just another reader, because the day you put your name on a book as its author, you’re representing more than yourself. You’re representing your brand, your publisher, your genre and the organizations you belong to.

So what do you think? What other advice can you give? Do you agree with my thoughts, or do you think I’m wrong in any way? I’m prepared to listen and to learn.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

#EthicalAuthor case study 1: Reviewers, be nicer to me

Every few weeks (sometimes, every few days) the internet hands me a reminder of why I started talking about ethics in the first place. Today’s example is pretty typical of a blog post I’ve seen more times than I can count.

Update: the author of the original post has taken it down, although I still have it on file if you need it for serious journalistic purposes (hey The Guardian Books Section, I'm right here!)  In any case I never wanted to aim this post at this particular author—she’s representative of a certain kind of author who’s likely to post a variant of this lament within the first six months of publishing (traditionally or indie) for the first time.

She’s had her first negative reviews, and it hurts. Most authors who’ve been out there for a while are hardened to the inevitable one- or two-star reviews (a three-star review is POSITIVE, people) and have done sufficient research to find out that negative reviews don’t have much of an impact on sales. (If you’re an author who’s been on the block for more than five years and you’re still getting upset about your reviews, you’ve got a problem.) Seasoned authors either learn not to read their reviews, to read the negative ones and learn from them, or to cry on their best friend’s shoulder if they’re having a bad day.

In case the linked post disappears, I’ll just summarize the gist of her lament:

- writing is hard work
- reviewers shouldn’t post less than a four-star review for fear of discouraging the author
- telling the author your opinion privately is kinder than posting a negative review
- reviewers are mean, power-crazed, egotistical hobbyists

You might remember that the Ethical Author Code is based on the principle of putting the reader first. So let’s look through a reader’s eyes at these statements:

Writing is hard work

Yes, writing is hard work. You know what else is hard work? Work. Jobs like the ones your readers have, which may involve more difficulty, danger, responsibility or drudgery than you have ever known. Many of your readers would love the time and the opportunity to write books instead of doing whatever it is they do. Having the time, the space and the education to write a novel puts you in a relatively small and privileged category, for all it feels like the world and its grandmother is writing a novel right now. I’m not saying that writing isn’t hard or that it’s not a real job or anything like that—just that in the scheme of things, you could be doing a worse one.

Reviewers shouldn’t post less than a four-star review for fear of discouraging the author

When a reader posts a review, she isn’t thinking about the author. She’s thinking about the book. Most of the time she doesn’t know if it’s your first book or your fiftieth; she doesn’t know or care if you’re self-published or with a Big Publishing imprint; she may well not know the rules of your genre or is trying something completely new. How you feel about her review is not her concern, and rightly so.

Telling the author your opinion privately is kinder than posting a negative review

The reader is not your editor or beta reader or critique partner or best friend. Those are the people who give you private opinions of your work. Publication implies that you have placed your work in the public sphere, to be critiqued publicly. You must be prepared for that. Plus, given the number of authors who’ve moved on from complaining to verbally abusing, stalking and even physically injuring their reviewers, readers are becoming wary of making that private contact.

Reviewers are mean, power-crazed, egotistical hobbyists

Yes, there are reviewers who enjoy reviewing badly-written books, and sadistic reviewers existed long before the current reader-reviewer system. Only way back then, there were fewer reviewers and the mean ones had way more power to make or break an author—now, reviews are aggregated so the more reviews you get, the less the impact of any individual review. It’s not the reviewer’s fault if their negative review is the only one—it’s your job, dear author, to get as many reviews as you can. The reader-reviewer system is an incredible boon to authors because it frees them from depending on just a few review sources and, over time, gives potential buyers the most balanced view possible of your books. Love it, use it well, and repeat after me: a review is just an opinion.

These are all fairly standard rebuttals to the everlasting complaints of those newbie authors (and, alas, a few seasoned ones who should know better.) Now let’s look at this from the point of view of the Ethical Author Code again. Granted, it’s not strictly unethical to moan about negative reviews. My problem with the thinking illustrated above is that it sends a hostile message to readers (your customers, in case you’ve forgotten) and that believing you’re somehow entitled to four- and five-star reviews is the first step toward finding those ever-helpful people who’ll cheerfully provide you with a five-star review in return for a small payment or a reciprocal arrangement—and those ARE unethical when, as is customary, they are posted with no mention of the arrangement made.

Moreover, the belief that reviewers are mean bullies out to get you and any other author—and this is a notion I very often see being discussed, on Facebook in particular—is not only insulting to readers who simply want to express their opinions, it’s a step away from intimidating the reviewer by commenting aggressively on their negative review—and yes, it IS intimidating to many readers when the author does that. Even some long-term book bloggers express their doubts about continuing to review under the constant barrage of abuse from authors. I recommend not commenting on reviews at all until you’ve built up some real trust with your readers, and even then only sparingly.

However nicely expressed—this author doesn’t come over as aggressive and was polite to her commenters—these blog posts are like throwing gasoline on a fire in the reader community. Not only has the author antagonized her potential readers, she’s given reviewers another reason to avoid certain categories of authors—YA authors, for example, or self-published authors, or all living authors (no kidding).

These are completely avoidable mistakes, if only the authors did a little research on how to behave online BEFORE they write these posts. My advice is, stop following your friends’ blogs and look for the better writer advice out there (my Twitter feed @janesteen has plenty of links); get on Goodreads or Booklikes as a reader, and spend some time getting to know your readership; and take a good look at the Ethical Author Code, which is there primarily to help new or newer authors with a few simple principles to get your writing career off to a good start. An understanding of author ethics and etiquette should be part of your writer’s toolbox just like those craft books you’re reading (I hope) or the advice you’re seeking on book covers, pricing, and editing.

And if you do make a mistake, just apologize. Say you got it wrong and ask for forgiveness. We’ve all learned from the dumb things we did in the first flush of Being An Author. If people are telling you you’re wrong, give their advice careful consideration instead of arguing with them and then telling everyone you’re being bullied. One of the odder features of this particular case is the fact that the author’s blog uses the same template as the infamous and discredited Stop The Goodreads Bullies site, which is sending shivers up quite a few spines—an indication of how beaten up many long-term reviewers are feeling. And they’re telling her she should change her template—they’re giving her good advice on this, as well as on several other points. At the time of writing she seems to be starting to listen and I really hope she can turn this situation around.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Asking too much: Is crowdfunding a viable replacement for the publishing advance, and do we even need one?

The latest in a seemingly never-ending series of online rows involving fiction writers, bloggers and readers isn’t just about one writer’s expectation that her readers should be prepared to pay her mortgage. Stacey Jay’s Kickstarter disaster—the YA writer attracted a storm of criticism and a huge number of tweets both for and against her when she asked for living expenses as part of a Kickstarter campaign—is a textbook example of how the fragmentation of the book market brought about by online bookselling, one-step self-publishing and POD has caused a shift away from the way authors have earned their money for the last half-century without providing a replacement with which everyone’s comfortable. Unless, that is, you’re one of the increasing number of author-entrepreneurs who use business models rather than imitate the older idea that artists need patrons.

One of the perceived advantages that traditional publishing’s had over self-publishing—and, come to that, an advantage that big publishing’s had over publishing via a small press—is the arrangement known as the advance. This is a sum of money that, in theory, allows the author to pay the mortgage and feed the family while writing their book or, if a finished manuscript already exists, while it’s being edited and produced for the market. The practice originates, I imagine, in the much older tradition of artists receiving handouts from rich patrons—a social institution that conferred high status on the patrons themselves and allowed them a certain amount of influence over the artist.

If you’re a traditionally published writer and you just read “allows the author to pay the mortgage,” you’re probably indulging in a hollow laugh or an extra sip of whiskey. But I did say, “in theory.” The reality is that most advances don’t even get close to what a writer needs to live on for three months, let alone the year it might take to research, write and edit a book. In addition, advances are typically paid in stages—you might get half on signing the contract and the other half when the manuscript is submitted and approved, or the advance might be split into smaller increments paid when you reach different milestones. So unless your advance is particularly large, it might buy you some time to write but will certainly not replace your day job.

As a very rough measure of what “replacing your day job” entails, the US Census Bureau’s report on income and poverty in the United States reveals that the median income for a man with a job is currently around $50,000, while a working woman will on average earn $39,000 (yes, ladies, I noted that too.) The same report puts the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 at around $12,000, so theoretically an advance of that size would allow you to live for a year. I’m not sure in which part of the United States you could live on $12,000, but it’s certainly not in my neighborhood.

The ever-reliable Jane Friedman, while crunching numbers for a gender-based study of advances, informs us that 46 percent of male and 42 percent of female debut authors  receive advances in the range known in the US publishing world as a “nice deal,” which means anything up to $49,000. That’s rather slippery of the publishing world, since “up to” includes no advance at all, and from what I’ve heard, amounts in the $5,000-$10,000 range are not that uncommon for a debut author. Even award-winning authors struggle to earn a wage, and most authors live in dread of falling sales figures—the result of that increasingly fragmented market—which could doom them in the eyes of their publisher, who won’t (can’t, if they’re to stay in business) agree to a new contract for an author who’s not bringing in sufficient revenue.

By her own admission that was the experience of YA author Stacey Jay, who found herself “fired from New York publishing” in early 2014. Like many traditional midlisters faced with unemployment because of falling sales she apparently first turned to self-publishing, bringing out “ten romance novels under yet ANOTHER pen name, all of which have sold well and have been well-received by reviewers.” Whatever “selling well” means, Jay has undoubtedly found that self-publishing is hard work in all respects, and that the upfront costs of bringing out books on your own are a serious investment.

A self-confessed hack writer who makes no bones about money being a driving motive behind her 2,000-4,000 word a day output, Jay then decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to support the self-publication of the sequel to her novel Princess of Thorns, shortly after its December 2014 publication by Delacorte Press. And it was the thinking behind her “ask” that led to the social media kerfuffle.

Crowdfunding is one of the latest trends to filter down through the indie author community, where typically a few brave pioneers try out a new idea, followed by a massive rush when it’s successful, followed by, usually, a change in platform rules either to fight off the screaming hordes or to profit from them—followed, eventually, by a stream of reports from latecomers that the idea’s no longer a good idea. The general practice in crowdfunding books is that writers ask for money specifically to pay for production costs, although their requests are rarely backed up by figures showing that they’ve done their research. Writers who five years ago would perhaps have been content with self-editing and a Photoshopped cover now feel the pressure to hire a professional editor, cover designer and ebook formatter, a process for which I’ve seen estimates of $2,000-4,000.

The cost of producing my own book broke down to approximately:

$1,000 for cover and interior design
$600 for editing
$200 for ebook formatting
$250 for a block of 10 ISBNs, not all used for this book
$50 for setting up the POD files and distribution
$250 for cover photography

and I should disclose for completeness that the designer, editor and photographer are all friends who charged me less than they’d have charged most clients. That money came partly from savings and partly from sales of the ebook; I estimate that producing the next book in ebook, print and audio editions at once—my preference—will set me back a good $3,000.

A couple of examples of successful Kickstarter campaigns run by members of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), of which I’m also a member, illustrate how authors have been making use of the best-known crowdfunding platform (Pubslush, Indiegogo and Patreon—which all have distinctly different funding models—are also popular with ALLi members.) Sandy Osborne funded Girl Cop in Trouble to the tune of £2,186 (about $3,500) for professional editing, typesetting, ISBN/barcode and cover design through Silverwood Press, an assisted self-publishing company. Marisha Pink got £5,821 (around $7,500) to launch her debut novel Finding Arun, expanding her ask to cover marketing costs and, apparently, a “swanky” launch party in London (which some might see as an unnecessary extra, but it seems none of her backers minded.) I asked Pink about her claim that she’d quit her job to write the novel, and she confirmed that she’d also sold her home and, at the age of 30, moved back in with her very supportive parents.

So why did Stacey Jay’s Kickstarter campaign kick up such a cloud of tweets and blog posts?

On the face of it, Jay did nothing wrong or unethical or underhand. I can’t fault her in light of the Ethical Author Code. She was completely honest about why she wanted the money, estimating the usual $2,000-3,000 to cover “editorial expenses and cover design.” Where she stepped over the edge of the cliff was the next sentence: “The remaining 7 thousand will be enough to cover mortgage, groceries, and gas for my family during the three months it will take me to write the book.” She immediately defended herself by explaining that she was asking “less than half” of what she received for Princess of Thorns from Delacorte (for which, presumably, her advance was around $25,000) as if, somehow, the fact that she was taking a pay cut was a point in her favor.

Commenters and bloggers were quick to point out that Jay wasn’t comparing like to like. An advance is a business proposition in which the publisher in effect buys the rights to a piece of intellectual property and assumes the risks and, with a bit of luck and a good sense for the market, the benefits of the deal. Nobody minds an author spending their advance on anything they like, because they’ve sold something to get it.

But crowdfunding is, essentially, free money. Even the rewards that the author promises will be funded out of the money the campaign generates, leaving, the author hopes, a substantial profit which is spent at the author’s discretion. It’s an honor system: in the words of Kickstarter’s FAQ, “Backers should look for creators who share a clear plan for how their project will be completed and who have a history of doing so . . . If a creator has no demonstrable experience in doing something like their project or doesn't share key information, backers should take that into consideration.” (Given the number of 23-page “books” composed of articles lifted from Wikipedia the self-publishing gold rush has spawned, I shudder to think what’s going to happen once the spammers and scammers apply their brand of entrepreneurship to crowdfunding.)

A debut or newer author with a vaguely-worded statement about how the money they raise will be used seems to be precisely the kind of creator targeted by Kickstarter’s gently-worded warning, and yet authors Osborne and Pink had no trouble finding supporters—helped, I’m sure, by their underlying authenticity, professionalism and creativity on social media and elsewhere. Yet when you begin thinking about it—as potential backers in the book world surely will as the crowdfunding craze escalates and the inevitable doubts begin to creep in—the handing over of money on faith is a far cry from the business arrangement represented by an advance. There the advantage is ultimately on the side of the publisher, who invariably insists on a strenuously-worded contract that ensures the house wins should the book in question do as well or better than they expect. With crowdfunding the advantage is firmly on the side of the author, with little or no risk to them—and if Stacey Jay had succeeded in turning her request for support into a partial replacement of her lost advance, the entire midlist might have immediately defected from traditional publishing with cries of a new Golden Age for authors.

So where does this leave self-funded authors like me? I’ll admit I’ve been casting an envious glance or two in the direction of authors who’ve simply asked for and received injections of cash when they needed them. But like many of my generation I’m uneasy about asking people for money, even though I spent some time in fundraising and know that an ask can be viewed as giving people an opportunity to be generous when they’re both able and willing. Yet there seems to be a huge gulf between asking for money on behalf of a non-profit and, say, the young couple on my Facebook who financed their trip home for Christmas via a crowdfunding platform. A self-published author seeking cash to publish a work of fiction seems far more like the latter example than the former, and I honestly think I’d only whip out my credit card if the author in question was such an unexampled genius that I felt it would be a crime against mankind not to support them.

As ALLi member A.W. Exley pointed out to me during a lively Facebook discussion on the organization’s group page, most self-published authors (which Stacey Jay now is, if not by choice) regard the cost of producing a book as a business expense and expect to bear it themselves, waiting and saving up if they don’t have the cash at hand. A business that’s expanding faster than its cashflow has, furthermore, the traditional options of applying for a bank loan or seeking an investor, although I’ve read many a tale in writers’ memoirs of furniture being sold to keep going for just one more month until that book’s finished. The crowdfunding model appears to propel the risk and sacrifice away from the author; British writer Jane Turley’s feeling was that “some people don't like taking risks - so they're basically putting that risk elsewhere. I do wonder if any of these folks who are trying to raise funds have made real personal sacrifices to fund their work. I bet a lot of them still go on holidays etc etc.” Will the generous impulse that has made crowdfunding possible for authors sour if a writer who’s asked for living expenses is seen buying designer coffee?

I’m grateful in a way to Stacey Jay, for raising some questions that need to be asked as more authors, of necessity, make the transition from the traditional publishing world to the independent side. They bring with them expectations of nurturing creativity that used to work well—could still work well—but are increasingly being challenged by the new breed of author-entrepreneur who draws on business rules rather than the older publishing model for inspiration. I’m grateful to her for pushing the envelope a little too far—for asking too much, or asking in the wrong way at the wrong time—and giving us a better understanding of what our readers want of us. I hope she’ll recover from her misstep and not let bitterness about the experience dampen her entrepreneurial spirit.

In this new publishing world we’re all on shifting sands, trying to find ways to make a living doing what we love. I might still crowdfund my next book, but I’ll be looking for ways to make it a solid business proposition for my backers rather than an ask to support the starving artist. All in all, I believe that the better way forward for a self-published author is to be a small business—find seed money, produce the product, market the product, take your business to the next step once you’re able, and work very, very hard. It’s quite likely that the crowdfunding model will sour once it becomes packed with authors anyway, and becoming dependent on waiting for people to give me money to write is not something I want to do.

Note: at the time of writing, Stacey Jay has deleted her social media accounts and closed her blog for comments. I would welcome her thoughts on the above, but I respect her wish to avoid any more attention and did not try to contact her.

Some nice points about crowd funding and author income are made in the following posts:

Don’t Do This…Ever?: (an advice column for writers): “Crowd Funding” edition by Jenny Trout
Stacey Jay And The Question No One Has Asked by Mahala
Stacey Jay, Crowdfunding, and the Business of Publishing by Livia Blackburne
Stacey Jay, Kickstarter & Jayne Cobb from Firefly by Dawn Metcalf
Suffering for (and with) Our Art by Justina Ireland
In Defense of Stacey Jay at WiseInk
Stacey Jay and Kickstarter at Reading With A Vengeance
Stacey Jay, Veronica Mars and the Kickstarter Controversy by Marni Bates
Publishing Isn’t a “Real Job” by Karen Kincy

Monday, October 20, 2014

The one marketing ploy authors need to walk away from*

*Yes, I KNOW the correct grammar for that sentence. But if I used it, I’d sound like a stuffy elitist dinosaur. So if you hopped onto this page to correct me, I hope you’ll read on.

All kinds of crazy

There’s all kinds of crazy going on in the book world right now. Huge corporations engaged in battles with other huge corporations about who controls book prices. Publishers suing book bloggers. Mud-slinging of all kinds between authors of different stripes who have a problem with authors whose stripes go the other way. Frenzied accusations of bullying. All these kerfuffles lead to avalanches of tweets and forum posts where the argument gets increasingly off-topic, people get increasingly upset and very few people seem to understand either the original issue or what the last poster just said.

I don’t generally talk about specific instances of kerfuffling, a) because I want to be a writer not a campaigner, b) because in order to deliver a considered opinion I’d have to get the facts right and facts tend to get a bit slippery during a media storm, and c) because all of these matters are generally trivial and icky when you sit down and think about them. But I do note them and occasionally chat about them online with a friend or two, until I reach the point where I start having half-baked opinions of my own and then I try to shut myself up.

Some crazy is more deliberate than other crazy

BUT this week I want to talk about some specific instances that might be evidence of a growing trend. They are, in chronological (I think) order:

  • The Anne Rice petition crazy (multi-published author about to launch her latest book—the first in some time—lends very well-publicized support to a petition asking Amazon to ban book reviewers from using pseudonyms)
  • The Margo Howard crazy (multi-published author complains that Amazon Vine reviewers sabotaged her latest book which, by the way, was just published)
  • The Kathleen Hale crazy (debut author with first book launched this year writes at length about her reaction to a one-star review, which included obsessive tracking of the reviewer both online and in real life)

I deliberately haven’t inserted any links in the above, because frankly, most of you who are going to go on and read this article know what I’m talking about. I would advise the rest of you not to go there, but if you do, try and read several posts/articles/roundups to get a balanced view. If that’s possible.

What I want you to notice is the fact that all of these authors are published by major traditional publishing houses, and all of them have a new book out.

Not all train wrecks are accidents

This is a different kind of crazy from the typical self-publisher/minor traditional author crazy, which usually starts with an author doing some dumb thing like suggesting a review ring or rigged voting in a forum or on Facebook, leaving nasty comments on a review, or having a good whine on his/her blog or a Facebook page. In those cases, a rookie (usually) mistake from which the author could have easily recovered by backing down and apologizing turns into a big mess of recriminations and denial because the author won’t back down, and usually ends with the author becoming an adherent of a certain discredited website.

In some ways I’m a little more sympathetic to this frequently reenacted scenario, because it stems from an ignorance of basic business principles, an uncertain grasp of ethics and a culture that regards humility and backing down from an asserted position as weakness.

The pattern I’m seeing above is more disturbing. This is not the case of an author putting her foot in her mouth in a spur-of-the-moment blog post or comment. The Howard and Hale articles were published on major media sites, New Republic in Howard’s case and The Guardian in Hale’s. Rice’s petition effort and the articles it generated received widespread coverage.

In Rice’s case, the coverage didn’t just happen—it would have been the result of a press release written by the author or her publicist or assistant, and brought to the attention of the right editors. In Howard’s and Hale’s case, the articles would have been pitched to an editor and a date chosen for their release—I’m not altogether familiar with the process, but I’m guessing a substantial exchange of emails would have taken place over, say, two weeks.

And—worse still—my guess (and, remember, it’s only a guess) is that this wasn’t a case of either Howard or Hale going rogue and agreeing to those articles behind their agents’ or publishers’ backs. (In Rice’s case, who knows—the Queen of the Vampires doesn't seem to mind what anybody else thinks.)

You want visibility? Get the bait out

As all authors know, writing the book is one thing and getting people to notice it is another. Visibility is the key to success, particularly online—with co-op space in bookstores shrinking, achieving that all-important initial burst of sales through online marketing could be what propels a book into the sweet spot in terms of Amazon algorithms and bestseller lists. Marketing ploys for authors around the time of their book launch include author interviews (yawn), giveaways (overdone), blog tours (uh-huh) and heck, if you have a great story to tell about yourself, now’s the time to pitch it to a features editor or two.

And if you REALLY want to get your name around, attack the book blogging/reviewing community. There’s a culture of loyalty among book bloggers and top reviewers that pretty much guarantees a nice fizzy reaction to any post that directly attempt to discredit or demean any one of them. The right of reviewers to anonymity is a hot-button issue, as is their right to state a negative opinion about a book (I support both rights, incidentally, as long as the underlying purpose is to provide an honest review.) Push those buttons, and you get a reaction that spreads like a wildfire in the community of avid readers most likely to influence other readers. Visibility problem? Solved.

I'm a media what?

But who wants that kind of publicity? I hear you ask. Who wants a reputation as one of THOSE authors? Well, I certainly don’t—I don’t necessarily need people to love ME rather than my writing, but I’d rather my writing came with a reputation for professionalism attached to it. And yet in terms of sales, visibility trumps professionalism. Completely hypothetically, let’s say you wrote a book you might expect 1,000 people (bloggers, media reviewers, etc.) to notice. If you can create a kerfuffle that gets your name, and your book’s, before 100,000 people instead, perhaps 70% or 70,000 might be turned off by your behavior and swear off ever reading any of your books ever again. But the other 30% or 30,000 who feel neutral or favorable toward you will boost your visibility immensely and could result in sales that will kick your books up the Amazon charts and the bestseller lists.

From a purely business viewpoint, it’s hard to argue against the power of any publicity that’ll get you into major media outlets. Furthermore, both Howard and Hale had an ‘angle’ that makes them more attractive to the news media than the average author—Howard is the daughter of Chicago advice columnist legend Ann Landers, while Hale has had success documenting some pretty bizarre episodes in her personal life. Anne Rice is, well, Anne Rice. Do I need to elaborate?

Their edge makes it easier for all three of these ladies to get a story into the news media than it would be for most writers, as most writers are pretty boring. Ergo, this is a marketing ploy that looks like a slam dunk in the short term for any one of them. It may not work as well for all authors.

Hard to ignore, aren't they?

My original title for this post was going to be something like Walk Away From The Crazy, and I was going to attempt to persuade the book-loving community to ignore the next author who goes on the attack in an attempt to drag their name (and their latest book) into the spotlight. But I don’t think I’ve got a snowball’s chance of achieving that, especially when said authors launch their missiles from highly respected media outlets with a large circulation. Instead, I’m going to end by asking those authors and readers who’ve supported Rice, Howard and Hale to think, really think, about who benefits from this kind of media kerfuffle, and analyze exactly what these authors—and, possibly, their publishers—are doing.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The best apps for productive writers

I have a firm conviction that if only I could find the right app for every occasion and link them all together, all I’d ever have to do is write and the productivity would take care of itself. I’m not there yet, but here’s a quick run-down of the the apps I always go back to in order to make my writing life and writing business run more smoothly, plus a couple of newbies that I have great hopes for. All of my suggestions are for the Mac, but Windows versions are often available or you can google “Windows substitute for——“ to find the closest counterpart in the Microsoft universe. I include the platform I use the apps on.

The old faithfuls (capital letters denote major software that has satellite softwares)

SCRIVENER (Macbook): It’s where I write. Once I got past the initial learning curve, Scrivener’s flexibility and writer-oriented mindset had me hooked. I particularly appreciate the fact that it autosaves, that I can rearrange folders and documents or move them from one Scrivener file to another so easily, that I can collect odd bits of research there, and that it’s so easy to output into just about any file format I wish. When the long-awaited mobile version comes out my life will be complete.

Aeon Timeline (Macbook): syncs with Scrivener. I’m a big fan of timelines in fiction writing, because even a vague timeline helps keep your story on track and gives your fiction a more grounded feel. And since I write historical fiction, I need to plug in actual historical events so I don’t miss anything major that my characters should know about. Aeon is the best timeline software I’ve found, and has useful features like telling you how old your characters are at the time of an event and making it easy to measure the time between two events. Once you’ve settled on your timeline you can import it into Scrivener as index cards, and voilà! You have a plot outline.

Index Card (iPad): syncs with Scrivener. Once the Scrivener iPad app comes out this one might not be necessary, but in the meanwhile it’s a great way of writing and rearranging index cards to work out a plot without the actual paper.

Scapple (Macbook): syncs with Scrivener. I love using mind maps to brainstorm ideas, and Scapple is a very simple, free-form mindmapping software. You can import your mind map into Scrivener in the form of index cards.

EVERNOTE (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): this is a bit like an electronic filing cabinet where I store articles I find on the internet, and sometimes photos I take or items I scan in. It’s a massively powerful, flexible app that can search for text (even handwritten), lets you organize your stuff into notebooks, and you can even share or publish notebooks if you wish. I swear I’ve saved about 1,000 trees by using Evernote rather than printing stuff out.

Penultimate (iPad): syncs with Evernote. When I go to meetings, I scribble my notes directly on Penultimate using my stylus, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be stored in Evernote where I can find them easily. No more meeting notes littering my desk! Penultimate is very useful for taking notes at writing conferences - I will also take a snap of the workshop presenters so I can remember them at the next conference, and paste it (virtually) into the notebook.

Skitch (Macbook): syncs with Evernote. I use Skitch mostly to take screenshots, although you can also add arrows, lines, words etc. so it’s a quick way to produce an annotated picture. And it saves in Evernote, so it doesn’t lose anything. Not a hugely important app, but I do find myself using it quite often.

Feedly (Macbook, iPad): my blog reader. I find it much nicer to sit in my armchair to read blogs, although I do use the online version on my Macbook sometimes. Feedly’s got some nice features, such as swiping between posts, sharing post links, bookmarking, etc. The Pro version saves directly into Evernote.

Flipboard (iPad): a great tool for flipping through all of those social networks I don't use constantly, just to see what's going on. I don't use it enough and haven't explored its ability to collect saved posts into a "magazine" yet, but I can definitely recommend it as a time-saver (or time-waster, depending on your point of view!)

GoodNotes (iPad): Can be used as a notebook, but I prefer Penultimate because of the Evernote syncing. I use Goodnotes to scribble on PDFs—books sent for review in PDF format, drafts from writer friends, etc. I prefer to annotate documents this way, as long as the author specifically doesn’t want me to use Track Changes in Word.

Moleskine (iPad): another notebook, but this time I use it for research (it’s based on the famed Moleskine notebook). It’s not the easiest app I have and can be a bit bug-ridden, but I love the fact that I can write, highlight, type or pull in pictures onto the page. I can also clip text from websites and paste it in. It suits the way I research, which is messy and disorganized.

Self-Control (Macbook): I use this app to disable certain distracting sites (Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I’m looking at you!) for a set time (usually an hour) while I’m writing or otherwise working. It leaves the rest of my internet connection open so I can still do research. And then I turn my phone face-down so I can’t see what I’m missing. I’m red-faced about the number of times I go to check social media when I’m working—I know SelfControl is helping me cut down on that insidious habit.

A couple of apps I don't use much, but you might:

WritingJournal (iPad): This was until recently known as WordTracker, and that's how I found it on Google. It's a very basic app that keeps track of your word counts and writing rates, but it depends on me remembering to stop and start it and I have trouble with that. In my opinion it's high time Scrivener incorporated more efficient word count tracking, with daily word counts, project word counts, words per hour and so on. Because we nerdy writers NEED TO KNOW.

MagicalPad HD (iPad): Another app I haven’t used a lot so far, but it’s a highly powerful app for organizing your thoughts and materials and I suspect I may use it more in the future. They just released a version for the Mac OS. The drawback is that it's relatively costly (I got my iPad version during a free promo period) so I hang back from going all in on it until I'm sure I need it. Might be just the thing for you, though.

Two new-to-me apps I think may have great potential:

Toggl (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): My new favorite toy. It’s a time tracker, and surprisingly sophisticated and feature-rich for a free app. It’s helping me see where my day goes, and makes me more productive by making me more aware of how I spend my time.

Trello (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): a flexible project management system. With four WIPs needing to be written, edited, produced, published, curated and marketed, I’m trying to find a way to keep track of what has to be done. Trello seems like a fast and flexible way to come up with the big-picture overview of the tasks that lie before me, and to keep track of what I’m doing.

Last but not least, I get surprising value out of good old Microsoft Excel. I have Microsoft Office on my Mac simply for compatibility with my Windows-based friends, but I find I use Excel for tracking all sorts of things: word counts, income, book publishing, etc.. It’s a hugely powerful piece of software that’s designed for analysis, and once you start taking writing seriously as a business, analysis goes hand in hand with planning.

There are hundreds of apps out there, and I recommend experimenting with as many as possible to see what works for you. I’ve tried and discarded at least as many apps as I currently use, probably a lot more, and watched two of them (Scrivener and Evernote) grow from newbies to giants in the writing world. Most of the apps I list above are low-cost; some are free, often with a Pro version that costs money. The trickiest commitments are the ones that charge a monthly subscription fee for the pro version—this is happening more and more with social media apps, but therein lies a whole new subject.