Nuance and new media: the challenge of e-books

If a writer sends a message in the new media galaxy, can it be heard? It’s not as if (like the tree in the proverbial forest) there isn’t anyone listening. It’s a highly populated and active space. It’s a space that readers frequent and a space where they spend money. It’s a space, it seems, with a lot of potential for writers. Indeed, self-publishing e-books has proven a boon for many. Stories abound of humble scribes who upload a file and soon find themselves climbing the best-seller lists and being celebrated in front of packed houses or better yet, being signed by traditional publishers (as happened recently to Darrell Pitt). Previous successes in self-publishing such as Marcel Proust and Matthew Reilly are also noted (despite the fact that they self-published to print). With these inspiring stories, the low cost of access (and the high profits on royalties) it’s no wonder that many writers are launching their work online.

Bundling e-books with those of  established writers is an effective way to bring readers to new and emerging writers says O'Brien. Thanks to Rachel Ford James for use of this image Stacks of Free O'Reilly Books at Ignite Boston 5 under Creative Commons.
Bundling e-books with those of established writers is an effective way to bring readers to new and emerging writers says O'Brien. Thanks to Rachel Ford James for use of this image Stacks of Free O'Reilly Books at Ignite Boston 5 under Creative Commons.

Connor Tomas O’Brien (writer and co-founder of Tomely, a DRM free e-bookstore) says that unlike other forms of online publishing, the e-book brings a little more to writers. ‘The book has historically been purchased with real currency – so when you transfer that to the electronic realm there’s an expectation that it’s being bought and sold,’ he says. The e-book therefore, has more potential to yield an income.

In parallel with traditional publishing, entrepreneurial writers are advised to establish mini-marketing departments. They must self-promote, advertise and build themselves ‘a platform’ on social media. But O’Brien cautions against the rhetoric, ‘A lot of writers are working on the assumption that if they can build up a critical mass of followers on Twitter or Facebook (or wherever) they can translate that into sales [of self-published work],’ he says. But the problem with this assumption is that although we can measure the number of followers we have, we can’t measure how much these followers care. (Some people follow on a whim - thus their true interest is negligible – and who knows how often your followers read their social media). ‘I’ve seen people who have thousands of Twitter followers promoting their work and finding it really, really hard to sell a handful of copies,’ says O’Brien.

He believes the main way self-published writers get recognition (and sales) is via the endorsement of an established writer. ‘It’s the same in film and music. Independent musicians get the ball rolling when they are promoted by an incredibly well known musician,’ he says. Some writers try to reach new readers through paid advertising (such as Google Adwords, Goodreads or Facebook). But as O’Brien notes, ‘When you’re a writer, you’re trying to do something that’s nuanced. You’re not trying to do something derivative. It’s hard to get that across quickly.’ (Note: I’ll be publishing O’Brien’s tips on Facebook advertising in a future post).

At Tomely books are often sold in bundles (curated groupings that include work from both established and emerging writers). These are the best way for Tomely to sell the work of new writers says, O’Brien ‘The one or two authors that are well known are pulling up the other authors.’ It’s a model that echoes traditional publishing – both the editorial package, and the mix of trusted and new work.

In traditional publishing models, A-List authors ultimately fund new writers. ‘A lot of self-publishers don’t realise that most authors with [traditional] publishers don’t return what the publisher’s put in. They’re not making money either,’ says O’Brien. ‘Self-publishing is a lot more difficult than most people consider it.’

‘I don’t think self-publishing is this thing that’s going to destroy publishing and I don’t think it’s going to make lots of people particularly rich. But I don’t think the opposite either,’ says O’Brien. Like all mediums, there’s a lot in between, ‘That’s where you get the interesting stuff.’

This post was originally published 6 August 2013.

Social situation, business corporation: Promoting your work on Facebook

On one level, Facebook is a social situation (a virtual place where writers can combat some of the isolation our environments bring). There we can chat, network, share ideas, research and find inspiration. But Facebook is also a business tool. It has potential to deliver us to new readers and (in the case of self-published writers) to generate sales. Navigating Facebook offerings requires some deft though – both in terms of free (‘organic’) opportunities and paid ads.

Successfully advertising via Facebook is all in the pitch says Connor Tomas O'Brien. Thanks to Big West Conference for use of this image BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - April 12-18, 2010 under Creative Commons.
Successfully advertising via Facebook is all in the pitch says Connor Tomas O'Brien. Thanks to Big West Conference for use of this image BASEBALL Pitcher of the Week - April 12-18, 2010 under Creative Commons.

‘If a stranger pitches something to you on a Facebook ad it’s going to be viewed as spam (unless it’s immediately obvious that it’s something you will be interested in),’ says Connor Tomas O’Brien (writer and co-founder of Tomely, a DRM free e-bookstore). He’s used paid ads to promote Tomely’s work with some success. ‘It works fairly well, but when people are talking about us organically it works a hundred times better,’ he says.

The minimum daily budget for a Facebook ad campaign is USD$1.00 per day, the minimum cost per click is 1 cent. Facebook’s big drawcard is that you can target your ads to specific demographics. Facebook’s challenge is that the person you’re serving the ad to isn’t necessarily online to consume your writing (they’re there to see what their friends are up to). This advertising environment contrasts sharply with ads served in the context of searches. Ads served on Google respond to the information you put into a search. Ads served on Facebook, as O’Brien says, are more often than not, ‘some horrible, stupid, annoying interruption.’

Because of this, targeting your Facebook ads and defining a strong pitch is central says O’Brien. ‘Make it obvious that what you’re advertising is something that person will care about and explain simply why they need to care.’

O’Brien noticed significantly different responses to his paid ads promoting Tomely as a bookstore and those promoting Tomely’s book bundles. ‘The bundles did a lot better because it’s easier to understand and more shareable. You could explain it in a couple of sentences, a sound bite, “Save money. Get in quick. Get all these books,”’ he says. Describing Tomely required more nuance (read more in my post Nuance and new media: the challenge of e-books)

Consider the reaction to your organic posts before spending on a paid ad. ‘If an author can’t get an organic buzz around what they’re doing a paid ad isn't going to help at all,’ says O’Brien. An ad needs to be engaging to get picked up. ‘If you can’t get anyone to pick it up just by telling them, then throwing it in their face and paying for that still won’t help,’ he says.

And as I learned, if you don’t set up your Facebook presence properly you won’t be able to maximise organic posts.

There’s a difference between signing up to Facebook and setting up a Facebook page. Choosing the wrong one can have implications.* A page is simply a presence on Facebook that those who’ve signed up to Facebook can ‘like’. It enables you (as the page owner) to write posts, but doesn’t allow you to engage with others unless they’ve specifically engaged with you. A page is more like a platform for very limited narrowcasting.

Signing up enables you to actively participate in the discussion. In signing up you are essentially creating a personal Facebook page (which you can make into your writing-promotion page by putting all privacy settings to public). Unlike when you have a page, you can post to others’ walls, comment and engage.

If you like your privacy, you might be inclined to set up a page rather than sign up. However there’s a crucial difference between the two: when you have a page, and you post to it, Facebook doesn’t deliver all of your posts to all of the users who’ve liked your page. In order for that to happen, you have to pay money. The only way for cash-strapped writers to maximise organic posts on Facebook is to sign up.

Facebook’s odd mix of social situation and big corporation makes its a tricky forum to promote the work of writers. But you can get some benefits – and even use its ambiguity in your favour. Paid Facebook posts are displayed both in the timeline and the sidebar. ‘It’s the ones that are interspersed in the timeline that are more popular,’ says O’Brien noting the blurring lines between advertising and editorial.

‘People don’t immediately peg to the fact that it’s an ad (which is really cheeky). I don’t know if that’s a strategy that’s going to work in the long term – but for the moment it does.’

*Once you’ve set up a page in your name it’s possible to change it to a personal account - but there is a drawback. By getting Facebook to change the type of user you are you’re very likely to lose your ‘likers’ (the page equivalent to ‘friends’).

A rocket around the future of long form

It’s time for our annual orbit around the future of long form. In last year’s post, The Future of Long Form: An Odyssey we visited seven virtual space stations in the new media galaxy. This year we’ll fly past each one in a rocket travelling at 475 kilometres a minute. We’re cleared for launch and counting down; five, four, three, two….  

Station 1: Traditional Print

If you look through the porthole to the right of the rocket you’ll see this, the oldest station in the long form galaxy – coming out of the Guttenberg inspired revolution: publishing your words in print.

The view from a rocket. Thanks to NASA for use of this image.
The view from a rocket. Thanks to NASA for use of this image.

Despite its so-called retro look, I still love to see my byline printed at this station. In fact, I think I have more faith in traditional print than I did before I started using my e-reader. (I don’t like e-reading as much as print-reading).

Yet, despite my enthusiasm, the print world continues to be challenged by the disruption new media has brought. I’m not aware of any newcoming Australian or international print-based publications of long form (please enlighten me if you know of any). However, I am aware of print publications moving to entirely digital delivery.

Station 2: Traditional Online

This station is surrounded by a constellation of newly documented stars marking the increase in opportunities to pitch your long form work to online publications. This year saw the introduction of high-profile sites The Big Round Table (US) and Matter (UK). Both were seeded by crowd sourcing campaigns and both are using paywalls (Matter has since sold to Medium). The Big Round Table is donation based (which means that you may not be paid if you are published or you may be paid a lot). Matter uses a subscription/pay-per-read model.

Locally, Tincture Journal has appeared as a venue for long form non-fiction. In contrast to The Big Round Table and Matter (which publish individual articles), Tincture provides an editorial package. It sells in E-pub and Kindle formats. The package includes fiction, creative non-fiction and poetry. Tincture will consider up to 15,000 words of creative non-fiction (and recently tweeted that they find it difficult to source non-fiction work – so pitch!)

There are also opportunities to submit your long form work for e-publishing by some of the leading publishing houses. (Certainly before their merger both Penguin and Random House were keen on more long form, no doubt Penguin Random House will be too).

Station 3: Enterprise Journalism / Community Funded Reporting / Crowd sourcing

Slightly behind the rocket here you may catch a few falling stars. These are the international and local initiatives that provided platforms to crowd fund articles. Our local version youcommnews.com has disappeared offline altogether (perhaps one day it will reappear) and the US version Spot.us might sadly be fading (at time of publishing, the most recent funding requests date back to 2012).

Some journalists (not just writers) have succeeded in using generic crowd sourcing sites to fund their stories (like pozible.com, kickstarter.com and indiegogo.com). However this model is yet to be proven for long form writing.

While the community funded reporting model may be dimming, there is a little sparkle when it comes to crowd sourcing long form publishing houses. Both The Big Round Table and Matter were seeded in this way.

Station 4: Publishers Funded by Philanthropists

Thanks to the generosity of Wotif founder Graeme Wood, Australia still has The Global Mail (funded by a grant from Wood) and now our own masthead of the UK’s Guardian (an investment rather than a donation). In the past 12 months Wood has also donated $1.5 million to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. He’s certainly committed to the idea of  ‘Philanthrojournalism’.

Shimmering brightly in this cluster of stars is the long-standing Centre for Public Integrity – more substantive proof of the viability of this model.*

Station 5: Writers funding philanthropy

There are initiatives such as Write for Life that are compiling articles into books which are then sold to raise funds for charity. It’s a nice idea but no doubt suffers from the same challenges all small publishing does – namely finding enough readers.

Incidentally, in the past year I’ve tried to raise funds by selling my long form article online. I got a lot of exposure, but didn’t raise a lot money. You can read all about that in my post Goodwill Hunting.

Station 6: Writing for free / Self Publishing

As always, if you don’t want or need to get paid for your work, you can publish your long form article on your own site or blog.

Be aware however (to reformat the old adage) if you publish it, they may not necessarily come. Readers can be as elusive as those stars you only see from the corner of your eye.

Station 7: Entrepreneurial Journalism / Self Publishing

It’s vast – but despite this, station seven is the most crowded in our orbit. Literary-astronauts are lured by the ease of access and the promise of 70% royalties. But setting a long form piece into the new media galaxy alone is not enough. It has to be heavily marketed, and even then may not find readers. Most of the work published from this station just drifts aimlessly into space.

That’s our 2013 rocket trip on the future of long form in the new media galaxy concluded! I’ll be most interested to see what the journey will show in another year’s time. Keep checking the Venues and Resources page of this blog to learn of new publishing opportunities.

* If you’re interested in a good overview of journalism funded by philanthropy read this recent post by Matthew Knott on Crikey.

In their shoes

I often wonder what it’s like to be in an editor’s shoes. Not only am I curious about the lives of others, but also I have a desire for professionalism and teamwork. I want to make publishing as seamless and as easy as possible. I figure it’s the least I can do in the writer:editor equation. Whenever I submit to a new publication I try not to inadvertently drop a stone into my editor’s shoes. I seek out its style guide and if there isn’t one, I make my own by noting the publication’s spelling and punctuation choices. I check my work against my pitch and try to write my best. I worry about things like grammar too. But Jo Case Senior Writer / Editor at the Wheeler Centre (and author of Boomer and Me: a memoir of motherhood and Asperger’s) says, ‘Grammar is the least important because it’s the easiest to fix.’

It's good to put ourselves in our editors' shoes every now and again. Thanks to sfgamchick for use of this image, Shoe Repair Sign, under Creative Commons.
It's good to put ourselves in our editors' shoes every now and again. Thanks to sfgamchick for use of this image, Shoe Repair Sign, under Creative Commons.

I’m heartened when she tells me this. But I still wonder, are there things we commonly do that can make life difficult for an editor like Case? She says that writers don’t commonly make the same mistakes, but there are a few things we could avoid – things might that set an editor’s feet tapping impatiently.

Using all caps is a no-no for example, ‘An editor has to take them out and actually retype them,’ says Case. Likewise putting spaces where there ought not to be spaces or using single quotes when the publication uses double quotes. These can be addressed with a ‘find and replace’ but they still require manual intervention and editorial time. Case advises against using acronyms too, ‘Because you often have to be an insider to understand them.’

Another difficulty for editors is when writers fail to meet the agreed word count. ‘Sometimes writers think if they go a bit over it doesn’t matter so much because the editor can just cut it out. But you can’t just lop off the end of an article. You need to find the spot to cut it,’ says Case. This again, can take some time. Stick to the word count – particularly if writing for print.

After receiving a submission, the first thing that Case assesses is how a piece flows and whether it works as a whole. She says she most frequently adds more punctuation to improve the rhythm (things like dashes, semicolons and commas). ‘I’m just punctuating it as you would speak it,’ she says. Before submitting, always read your work aloud.

In ensuring the coherent argument of a piece, Case finds herself tinkering with introductions and conclusions the most. Sometimes the piece doesn’t flow because writers fail to include something important or obvious. ‘Because you know it in your head you might forget that you haven’t written something in, or that you took it out,’ says Case. Ask yourself what the reader needs to know. ‘If there are complex ideas in there, make sure that they are explained,’ she says.

Little niggly things are easy enough to fix – but it’s good teamwork to have them addressed before you submit. Of course, the most important thing from an editor’s perspective is an interesting idea that’s expressed in an interesting way, says Case. ‘Because that’s what you can’t fix.’

Social limits

A challenge to being an aspiring writer in the new media galaxy is in building a platform. These three words refer to being active in social media rather than writing well, generating good ideas, being approachable or reliable. As much as I love the tweets and enjoy Facebook, the words build a platform always evoke swirls of frustration in me. They rest on the notion that a writer active on social media will soon yield a huge virtual platform. A place from which to spruik their message to hordes of eager readers/buyers. Mmmm.

I’ve thought this notion dubious for some time. Not only do I have a sense that social media platforms are becoming saturated, but also I have pondered the limits of social media as a ‘platform’ for emerging writers. Many say it’s an asset to establishing a writing career but I’m not yet convinced. Two weeks ago, in a post about my fundraiser I demonstrated the limits I found (and these were despite assistance from influential Tweeters). My old boss, Tim O’Neill, Joint Managing Director of digital agency Reactive and AIMIA National President was an early adopter to Twitter. When he recently noted its limitations he had me listening.

Reckon we can all fit up there and still be heard on the information superhighway? I'm not so sure. Thanks to caribb for use of this image 12 Birds under Creative Commons.
Reckon we can all fit up there and still be heard on the information superhighway? I'm not so sure. Thanks to caribb for use of this image 12 Birds under Creative Commons.

‘In the earlier days (maybe two years ago when everyone was new to Twitter) everyone was out to find new followers. Everyone would follow people quite easily,’ O’Neill says. Back then a person could be strategic about generating followers. They could devise logical strategies to draw them in. ‘It would be quite achievable to get ten or twenty or thirty followers in a day just because people would sign up quickly,’ says O’Neill. But now? Not so much. These days most people think they have enough followees in their feed.

‘I’m personally really reluctant to follow anyone,’ says O’Neill, describing himself as somewhat mercenary. ‘It’s nothing personal. If I see lots of tweets from someone that are not relevant to me, then I’ll just unfollow – so that my tweet stream is interesting to me all the time,’ he says. Most of O’Neill’s 1,800+ followers were obtained in his first year on Twitter, the rest have just dripped in, on by one. It used to be different.

‘The classic way to manufacture more followers is to get someone who’s really popular on Twitter to retweet (or to mention you),’ says O’Neill. In the early days this would yield followers who presumed that you had something in common with the retweeter. (The hashtag #FF ‘Follow Friday’ is a part of this culture). ‘You’d get 100 followers straight away but now you don’t. You get maybe two or three,’ says O’Neill.

‘Part of [this challenge] is how Twitter handles retweets now,’ he explains. ‘Before Twitter had its inbuilt retweet function you used to have to do an RT (a manual retweet) and a manual retweet has a higher visibility of the person who’s retweeting,’ he explains. This would alert potential followers that the retweetee had the same interests as the retweeter. O’Neill notes that the more-recent inbuilt retweet function maligns the name of the retweeter to tiny font, and renders their endorsement far less influential.

If you want to draw attention to someone’s Twitter presence you would be better to include their @ handle in the body of the tweet, says O’Neill. More than that, tell the reader what’s in it for them. ‘It needs to be a simple and clear message and be obvious what it’s for or what it will do,’ he says.

I’ve interviewed a few publishers over the past year, and while they are all adamant that good writing is central to getting published, they also admit that a social media ‘platform’ can help. From an independent publisher’s perspective a bigger platform can simply save them time (in the same way that a flawless manuscript can). The more you can contribute from a marketing (and editing) perspective, the more attractive you are to them. A larger publisher stated clearly that many writers don’t get involved in social media. However she noted that the authors who do make an effort via social media can be more successful in getting reviews and attention.

So I suppose we all have to persist.

Goodwill hunting

In March this year I undertook an unusual project that merged long form non-fiction and fundraising. I tried to sell my long form article After Shock (about my experience of the 2011 earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in Japan) to raise money for victims. It was an idea that appeared in the lead-up to the second anniversary of the disaster. Once I had the idea I didn’t feel I could ignore it. I owed it to the people of Northern Japan to at least give it a try. My goals were to raise money for the Japan Red Cross and raise awareness that there is much work left to do in Japan. With the second anniversary as my signpost I aimed to leverage peoples’ curiosity about my experience into a purchase of the article. All royalties would go to the Japan Red Cross.

I tried to sell my long form to raise money for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.
I tried to sell my long form to raise money for victims of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan.

It was punt, and I knew it. No one knows what’s going to take hold in the zeitgeist and the odds of success were low. But as this was a fundraiser I knew there’d be some goodwill and it was worth a try. My strategy was to focus the attention in one week (the week of the anniversary) and ask other people and organisations to promote it. I had no budget but I did have time.

I sent an email to friends and colleagues asking them to promote the fundraiser on their social networks. I also sent more personalised emails to people and organisations who were either interested in Japan, long form non-fiction or writing/reading generally. I sent tweets and got retweets, plus many friends and colleagues wrote their own tweets and Facebook posts. If it wasn't for these people and organisations I wouldn't have had a penny to donate. So a big thank you everyone who helped promote the initiative. These included high profile organisations like the Melbourne Writers Festival, the Wheeler Centre, the Emerging Writers Festival and JETAA. I also approached influential tweeters like Yoko Ono and David Grann (don’t ask, don’t get!). But I didn’t get any retweets from them (and I can appreciate their hesitation given that I am a stranger to them and not a registered charity).

I even managed to get an interview with Lindy Burns on my local (Melbourne) radio station, ABC774. Burns broadcast my web address at least twice and during the 15 minute live-to-air interview she made my goals clear to her listeners. She also sent out a retweet after the event. (Thanks again to Lindy and the ABC team!)

Here’s all of the exposure I managed to achieve:

  • Various messages posted in:
    • Twitter feeds of at least 53,000 users.
    • Facebook feeds of at least 10,000 users.
    • Interview broadcast to between 10,000 and 20,000 listeners in my home state of Victoria.

This totals around 83,000 points of exposure to potential buyers (53k + 10k + 20k). Because I can’t know the exact numbers let’s be conservative and say that I managed to get the message in front of around 60,000 people.

The response I got (as measured by traffic to my website, pepironalds.com) comprised in the order of 135 visits. That is, of the 60,000, 135 decided to learn more.

66 of the 135 went to my website on the first day of promotions (and the day I was broadcast on ABC774), 41 went to my website the next day. Within four days traffic had returned to its usual (non-fundraising) amount. I don’t know how many people went directly to the article on Amazon (that information isn’t available).

These numbers say a lot about the challenges of marketing long form non-fiction in this format, as well as the limitations of social media as a viable platform for writers. Because of the huge goodwill, my message was exposed to 60,000 people. Yet I received 135 visits to my site. That’s a return of 0.22%.

And how many copies did I sell? 24 (yes, twenty-four). That’s a return of 0.04% on all that social media exposure. Or, if we’d like to be more generous, a return of 17% on the traffic to my website.

The picture with this article shows a bank draft for 9,585 yen. It sounds impressive but actually, it's only around 100 Australian dollars. But even this is not how much I finally raised. Despite all that goodwill, exposure, time and effort I raised a grand total of US$28.33 for the Japan Red Cross. The rest of the AUD$100 in the bank draft is my own. I’ve paid this against the anticipation of future royalties because I’ve decided to continue selling this essay as a fundraiser indefinitely.

There were clear weaknesses in my strategy for this fundraiser. For example, I got the idea a week before the anniversary, so there wasn’t a lot of lobbying beforehand. (Yet all in all I spent at least three days, full-time, getting the message out there). The amount of royalties I made was also limited by my location in Australia. Kindle saturation is low here and Amazon grants only 35% royalty to sales within Australia (which is most of my sales) US sales would have yielded 70% in royalties.

Furthermore there would be a resistance to buying an e-book by an unknown writer. I hoped the fundraising aspect would offset that (and perhaps it did). But I wonder how difficult it would be for emerging writers to sell their long form without this goodwill?

I share this information because I promised to let everyone know how my fundraiser fared. But also, as a case study, I think this says a lot about the rhetoric versus the reality in selling our long form non-fiction online. Plus it shows the challenges in harnessing social media to promote our work. Still, we did manage to raise a small amount and for this I am extremely grateful to all those whose goodwill enabled this. Thank you so much everyone!!

I have since decided to continue to donate my royalties. So if you want to help out it’s not too late! http://www.pepironalds.com/help-japan

If you found this post helpful, be sure to read E-books: starting with a big bang.

A contractual obligation

Looking from a tall city window I see the uniform shape of panes in the building opposite. Each gives me a little scene (of desks, chairs, shelving and cabinets) in a cookie-cutter tableau. I see a world of difference between these offices and my humble desk at home. It’s a distance from ‘business’ that is typical of writers. I even nurture it: I vary my hours daily, I don’t have a filing cabinet and some days I start work in my pajamas. But there’s one thing about business from which distance is non-negotiable and that is understanding contracts – particularly for writers who want to be paid. Shrinking newsrooms, merging publishing houses and the proliferation of free content all sit on the not-so-great side of the income-earning ledger. On the other hand new initiatives like digital-first or digital-only publishing houses and print-on-demand technology have been encouraging. For some writers there may be potential income in exploring in these new spaces but Alex Adsett, Consultant and Literary Agent with Alex Adsett Publishing Services, says we should check the fine print.

You may be contracted for life if you don't take care! Thanks to Michael Cory for use of this image Empty Office under Creative Commons.
You may be contracted for life if you don't take care! Thanks to Michael Cory for use of this image Empty Office under Creative Commons.

‘Writers should be aware that a lot of digital-first or digital-only contracts still try to get everything,’ she says. By ‘everything’ Adsett is referring to rights (such as film rights, translation rights, audio, merchandise, serialisations, the right to on-license, print rights and more). ‘If [the publisher is] going to do something with them then that’s fine and that’s always a decision the author needs to make... But if they’re just some little company that just wants to sell your e-book then they shouldn’t be getting that broad a range of rights,’ says Adsett. Limit rights where appropriate (for example with a digital-only company writers should try to license only digital). Keep in mind what’s appropriate. (Writers often take care with regional rights, but in a digital setting world-rights might be needed given the costs of geolocating / blocking and the small profit margins involved in publishing).

Those of us excited by the opportunities new technologies bring need to understand the affect of these on the old ‘out-of-print’ clause. Traditionally this clause reverted rights back to the author when a work was no longer in stock. ‘With e-books and with print-on-demand technology, that’s just not realistic anymore. A book is always going to be available for sale,’ says Adsett. She warns that the out-of-print clause applied to digital or print-on-demand technologies could mean a publisher holding rights to your work in perpetuity (even if they have no intention of making that work available).

Adsett says that good publishers are applying new ‘reversion’ clauses to cover out-of-print in both e-book and print contracts. In these contracts out-of-print is defined as either relating to a sales limit (for example, if less than 50 or 100 copies are sold in a 12 month period) or it’s defined as relating to an expiry date (in the form of a fixed-term contract). The dwindling sales or the expiry date trigger a reversion of rights back to the writer. On self-publishing platforms Adsett says we should check for similar ‘escape’ clauses. She warns that publishers refusing to negotiate fairly on rights may be a part of a new numbers-oriented breed that has emerged alongside new technologies.

‘There was always a high cost to publishing. You had to actually believe in a book to put your money into the printing of it,’ says Adsett. Because of this, traditional publishers invested in editorial, design and marketing. They contributed their expertise and hard work and in doing so they gave writers a stamp of quality. By contrast, new technologies have reduced the cost of publishing significantly. Some new publishers are adopting a more hardnosed model. They sign up hundreds of pieces and invest in little or no editorial.

In this scenario if one in 100 pieces sell through, the numbers add up and the publishing business (and one writer) is successful. But it’s a poor deal for most writers says Adsett, ‘All of the other 99 authors have signed away their rights for almost nothing, for almost no sales, and not a lot of chance of getting their rights back.’ If you send your work into that cookie-cutter framework you’re likely to be worse off. You may even find yourself sitting, in a suit, at a desk, from 9 to 5 in one of those tall office buildings making back the income you lost.

Contracts may be complex, but our contractual obligation is simple. ‘Even through all that excitement of [getting a publishing offer] think about what you’re actually signing and why,’ says Adsett.

International research: it’s enough to give you a nosebleed

When I was in Japan earlier this year I tried to interview a local friend of mine. I’d hoped to capture her story on audio for later use in some kind of podcast or radio documentary. She’d already spoken about her experience in English (her second language) with great depth and lucidity. When I asked her if I could record an interview she was pleased. And then she said, ‘Would it be OK if you gave me the questions first, so that I can write the answers and read them to you?’ She wasn’t prepared to go on the record without perfect English, yet  I wasn’t interested in a perfect answer. It was an awkward situation both practically and culturally.

airplane-wing-tswartz
airplane-wing-tswartz

As I pursued that ill-fated international story I frequently found myself in quagmires of cultural difference. I came to the conclusion that I’d best improve my processes before I visit the country again.

At NonfictioNow this Saturday, four writers (Benjamin Law, Desmond Barry, Mieke Eerkens and Stephanie Elizondo Griest with David Carlin) will front a session, International Research and the Nonfiction Writer. They’ll provide us with practical information and encouragement on writing and researching in lands far away.

Australian writer, Benjamin Law (The Family Law, Gaysia) is fast becoming an expert on researching and writing overseas. For his most recent book, Gaysia he traveled to seven different countries over 18 months, ‘I got used to writing the book in windowless hostel rooms in Malaysia, overnight train compartments in India and airports,’ he says.

Traveling in itself can be food for frustration. Add to that the desire to research a story and you need to develop a high level of flexibility. Language and cultural barriers can take you to the wrong place. Like the train Law accidentally took in India, ‘Think: kids in the luggage compartment, peanut shells all over the floor, human shit on the toilet walls (no joke) and such a density of people that grown men insisted on sitting on my lap.’

But frustration and inspiration often come hand-in-hand. ‘That sort of stuff was hilarious too, and I can remember laughing like a madman throughout it all, thinking it'd make for great material,’ says Law. (Indeed, in writing this post, I’ve just rehashed my own frustration in my first paragraph).

Those of us who are interested in international stories are also interested in being overseas. ‘Going to a country I've never been to before makes me feel 10-years-old over again. Everything is interesting and new and stimulating, and the people you meet are constantly surprising. It's enough to give you a nosebleed,’ Law says.

In a bid to ensure he understands the fundamentals before leaving home, Law reads up a lot. He organises a quota interviews including one close to his arrival, ‘with someone who could give me the lay of the land… [and] more stories and leads to follow,’ he says. When he knows he’s traveling a lot he buys a year of travel insurance.

Like me, Law has been frustrated by language. ‘Good interpreters and translators are expensive, and sometimes the subject matter calls for people who are sensitive to what you're writing about,’ he says. And then there’s budget. Even with an advance on his book Law, ‘also dug deep into my savings. By the time I'd filed the final edit, I was the poorest I'd ever been.’

Writing and researching overseas ‘is sort of humbling too… it was a good reminder that writers are supremely lucky… All I needed was my laptop, my notepad, pens, backpack, good plumbing and a lockable room every night,’ says Law.

This session could be a corker for anyone planning or writing stories away from home. (Speaking with Law has alone buoyed my plans for another Japanese story).

Researching internationally isn’t easy. But Law insists we must not be discouraged. A good story is a good story, no matter where it is. ‘I've got two ideas for follow-up books… that are driving me insane every time I think of the logistics, but screw it – they have to be written!’

Benjamin Law will be presenting in the session International Research and the Nonfiction Writer with Desmond Barry, Mieke Eerkens and Stephanie Elizondo Griest and David Carlin on Saturday 24 November at 10.00am.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.

Yes, but did you ask?

‘One of the primary joys of being a writer comes from the people you meet and the situations you get in.’ Sarah Marshal, Portland Review (April 2012). Getting into these situations takes a little chutzpah. Personally I’m an advocate of the ‘don’t ask, don’t get’ philosophy. If I’m really interested in a topic or a person I will ask for interviews. I wouldn’t say that I was ‘ballsy’ but I don’t see the benefit of staying mute.

For example, as a first year writing student I approached Toby Young, author of the hilarious book, How to Lose Friends and Alienate People. Young generously gave me the interview, and I wrote up my piece. My teacher (David Astle) allocated points for chutzpah but David chided me for my final line. It read:

‘“I love being married and I love being a dad,” Young tells me. But when I ask him to elaborate, he declines.’

The goal of this line was to draw on the idea that there was a public Toby Young and a private one (or that’s what I told myself). But David saw that it revealed something else: I wasn’t prepared to ask the difficult question.

‘It’s a really common fault in emerging writers,’ says Margaret Simons, award-winning journalist, Director of the Centre for Advanced Journalism and coordinator of Masters in Journalism at the University of Melbourne. She’s referring to, ‘an unwillingness to do the difficult interview’ – a trade skill that has traditionally been taught in the newsroom.

Toby Young's book (also made into a movie) is about a writer who asks difficult questions.

Most emerging writers fear that an interviewee could become angry. Some simply don’t want to interview those with highly contentious or disagreeable opinions. Others don’t ask for interviews because we think we know what the interviewee will say. But as Simons says, ‘You don’t know. We’ve basically got to discipline ourselves to do those difficult interviews. It’s part of the job. It’s not an escapable part of the job.’

You may think you can fudge over your lack of questioning. But Simons says it's evident in your work. In its simplest form it shows in a bias (because you’ve interviewed people from only one side of the debate). More subtly it can be evident in the quotes (or lack of) from your main interviewee - like my first-year profile on Toby Young. (I didn’t want to push it. After all, Young is a hero of mine).

I ask Simons if she has any tips for those who do find themselves in an awkward situation with an interviewee. ‘Well,’ she takes pause, ‘Deal with it.’ We both laugh - but that’s the sum of it. ‘It’s not necessarily wrong to make people angry,’ she says. ‘They might not like the line of your questioning. But most people are mature enough to handle that. Usually what happens is that the reporter’s own discomfort with emotion in an interview… prevents us from doing the best possible job.’

Simons says her newsroom training taught her to ask the difficult questions, ‘If you filed a piece that didn’t have the other point of view, then you were told to go and get it.’ She recalls one incident during her cadetship where, ‘I was being fed a line by one side of [a] campaign and failed to get the other point of view.’ She ended up being on the receiving end of, ‘an extremely stiff and entirely justified,’ letter to the editor. She says she’d effectively ‘taken the drip… and people tend not to see it as taking the drip when it’s a point of view which they agree with.’

I like to think of myself as media savvy. I watch our local program, the ABC’s Media Watch. I think I can recognise bias in work. But I take heed in the fact that I am outside a newsroom of any description, working alone and very much within my own head. Though I like to see myself as objective I know I must take care. In the new media galaxy writers must be certain that we’ve asked the difficult questions.

If you’re in Melbourne (or will be in late August) checkout the schedule for the New News conference at this year’s Melbourne Writers Festival.

For writers of long form non-fiction Simons recommends:

What cost news’ ($19.50/$21.50) and the discussion afterwards ‘New News: Future of Journalism’ (free).

Also, Alan Missen’s Keynote ‘Oration Literature and Global Citizenship’ ($27/$30).

Tweet like it’s 1999

Writers’ lore states that though writing for publication is a challenge, the bigger challenge is in promoting your published work: getting sales and readers. Without the support or contacts of a big publishing house, promoting your work as a self-published writer surely has to be harder. I imagine self-published writers as lone hitchhikers, holding their thumbs up along the shoulder of the information superhighway, trying to get noticed.

They say that social networks of the digital kind are crucial to getting picked up. Yet apart from ‘Don’t spam,’ solid tips on promoting your work this way are absent.

I confess that Twitter – and how to approach it – puzzled me for quite a while. But I think I get it now: Twitter is just one big party. Thus, when promoting your work on twitter, party etiquette applies.

 

1. Don’t stay in your clique or be anti-social

The day I published my article I sent out a tweet with a link:

My long form essay about my experience in Japan is now available to download on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007F8M7Y2

Are you still awake?! Apart from its dearth of worthwhile prose this tweet failed because it was addressed only to friends who knew what, ‘my experience in Japan’ actually meant. I didn’t specify the topic of the essay. Had anyone retweeted it (they didn’t) it would have been meaningless to others. It was the same as going to a party and only hanging out with people I knew.

Tweets promoting your work must be able to be understood and accessible by complete strangers.

 

2. Be charming and interesting

A few days later I tweeted again:

'After Shock', Experiencing the 2011 Japanese earthquake http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007F8M7Y2  #longreads

This at least referred to the topic of my essay - but the writing is still dull as! I had over 6,000 words which I’d laboured over. Yet all I did was tweet the title (a title which I now regret). A pull-quote from the article may have piqued more curiosity. I did better with this one but it’s still lame:

One week until the anniversary of the disaster in Japan. I remember the experience in my essay, 'After Shock' http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007F8M7Y2  Please RT

Hah! ‘Please RT’ (retweet) I’m not surprised that only four friends did.

Tweets promoting your work are as important as your article’s opening line. Make those tweets take potential readers right into what you are writing about. Take it as seriously as your lead.

 

3. Be polite

After a few days I used hashtags and included @ handles of people and organisations that I thought would be interested in my topic. Here’s one I sent to the US Ambassador in Japan:

@AmbassadorRoos I was in Sendai 3/11. I thought you & your followers might be interested in my essay http://www.amazon.com/dp/B007F8M7Y2  よろしくおねがいあします 

[This last part in Japanese roughly translates a classic Japanese saying, ‘Please be good to me.’]

Had I been at a party, I’m not sure I would have walked up to Ambassador Roos and said ‘Oh Hai! Can you promote my essay? Thanks! Please be good to me!’ and then walked away. I would introduce myself. I would take the time to learn a bit about him. I might comment on things we had in common. And once I develop that rapport I would mention my essay and ask Ambassador Roos what suggestions he had on how I could promote it.

Before you send a tweet to a stranger make sure you’re approaching them the way you would in person. Don’t barrel right in. Start a dialogue.

 

4. Make introductions and join conversations

A part of the challenge of using Twitter is getting a sufficient number of followers who are interested in your work and will help you promote it. You can do this using Twitter search (http://search.twitter.com). Search for keywords relevant to your work or knowledge then:

  1. See what strangers are tweeting about and join their conversation.
  2. Find people who are asking questions and answer them (or refer them to another twitterer/writer/subject matter expert who can [including @ handles]).

This is a great way to meet interesting people whom you might never have met otherwise!

Introduce people who have something in common, and when you hear people talking about something you are interested in, join the conversation.

 

5. Avoid boors and don’t become one

It's one thing to follow sources for news, information and entertainment. But just like at a party, there are occasionally people who monopolise the conversation. I have a few people that I follow who follow me back. This reciprocal arrangement can be nice. But beware of being a followee among hundreds (or thousands).

Tweeps who follow hundreds of people are generally boors. They follow anyone (and everyone) only because they want to be followed . When someone with a huge number of followers follows me I seldom follow back. Most of the time they’re only interested in their agenda. They don’t read tweets – they just write them. (How could they read those hundreds of tweets each day?!).*

Conversely, be thoughtful about who and how you follow others. Don’t ask your followers to retweet then not return the favour. Don’t expect them to read your tweets while blissfully ignoring theirs.

Avoid bores and don’t become one: read tweets, respond to tweets - engage with your followers and those you follow.

So, remember to twitiquette as to etiquette.