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.

Sinking independents into libraries

There’s a quote on the Internet that is attributed to Virginia Woolf. ‘I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunk treasure,’ it reads. In order to find its source I paste the full quote into a search box, held together by inverted commas. ‘Did you mean: “I ransack public libraries, and find them full of sunken treasure.”’ Google asks me. Hmmm, I wonder – did I? Be they sunk or sunken treasure, libraries are certainly the places to find them. A library’s collection policy, as Tricia Genat, Managing Director of ALS Library Services says, ‘is not just about working to the mean but also making sure that you’ve got some outliers in your collection.’

It's not so difficult to get independent treasures into our libraries says Tricia Genat. Thanks to ballina70 for use of this image Readiscover under Creative Commons.
It's not so difficult to get independent treasures into our libraries says Tricia Genat. Thanks to ballina70 for use of this image Readiscover under Creative Commons.

Where both libraries and bookshops will stock bestsellers, libraries are looking for a little bit more. ‘People are interested in all sorts of weird and wonderful things,’ says Genat. Librarians want to make sure that they’re, ‘expanding the collection to include more unusual [publications] or some new trends or different kinds of formats,’ she says.

Verily libraries provide a solid opportunity for independent publishers to get their work to readers. In contrast to being included in bookstores (which can be complex and difficult for independent publishers), Genat says that there are no disadvantages to getting books into libraries. ‘One of the major advantages for small publishers is that they’re in an open field competitively,’ Genat explains. Librarians have wider mandates and make their decisions about buying a book on a computer screen using filters based on genre, category etc. ‘When the library selector is scrolling through those titles your book has as much chance of getting picked as one from [a major publisher],’ Genat says. There are however, a few provisos.

To be noticed on the computer screen you’ll need a decent cover and a well-written blurb. ‘If you’re a small publisher and you spend absolutely no money on your cover (and it’s going up against lovely covers) then a library selector is just going to scroll past yours and not select it,’ Genat warns. ‘If the blurb that you’ve written is correct, up-to-date, informative and helpful then that’s the second thing that the library selector looks at,’ she says. If you make these elements the best you possibly can your book will be in contention for selection.

Library selectors read blogs, newspapers and sites like Goodreads. ‘If [a library selector] sees a name that pops up as they scroll through the list (ie a brand new author, a brand new publisher, a tiny publisher that’s causing a little buzz) they will [remember it],’ says Genat. The selector’s decision is only a $20 or $30 one – at times they can just order a book and see what happens. ‘If it gets borrowed half a dozen times then that’s a publisher or author [the selector] might add to the standing order,’ says Genat. She says that social media is absolutely essential for publishers in this context. ‘If it’s out there people will be reading it,’ she says. (For more on publishers and social media read this post on vertical marketing).

In addition to considering cover designs and blurbs, independent publishers also need to pay attention to things like ensuring page numbers are correct, that there’s a bar code on the back and that the book has an ISBN. ‘The physical quality is also important. It can’t fall apart,’ says Genat. Recently she had to return an order of over 30 books because of their poor quality. ‘There was absolutely nothing wrong with the content of the book. The printer just did a bad job,’ she says.

In a panel at this week’s Independent Publishing Conference Genat (as chair), Anita Cattogio (Yarra Plenty Library), Michael Mackenzie (Boyd Library) and Leesa Lambert (Little Bookroom) will share some of the joys and frustrations of putting together a library collection. They’ll discuss what a collection policy does, what’s available, what the price points are, what captures people’s attention and what’s important to have on the shelves in the context of independent publishing. (They’ll  give advice on sinking independent treasures into libraries!)

In the meantime my Internet searches aren’t confirming whether Woolf said sunk or sunken (or where she said it). I can see that the British Library are going for sunk, and I figure that’s a reliable source… but I might just need an excuse to ransack my local library this afternoon. You never know what independent treasure I’ll find.

Genat’s panel Libraries and Librarians will be held at 1.15pm, Friday 14 November at the Independent Publishing Conference.

Molecular verticality: trends in book marketing

‘I think molecular specialisation is the only way that book publishers are going to survive in something that resembles their traditional format,’ says Anne Treasure, a digital marketing enthusiast. This molecular specialisation is spawning vertical marketing – or customer / reader focused marketing. In the context of publishing vertical marketing recognises, as Mike Shatzkin writes on that publishers are no longer dependent on books being displayed in stores and that, ‘the marketing that used to take place around store inventory is becoming digital’. Vertical marketing is particularly useful to small and independent publishers (as well as to writers). ‘It used to be that publishers would market a lot through their retailers,’ says Treasure, ‘But retailer relationships aren’t so important any more, and in publishing it’s more about the direct-to-consumer relationship,’ she says. Not surprisingly social media is one of the key vertical marketing tools available to the literary community. On social media writers and publishers can converse directly with their readers and build communities of interest. It’s quite a contrast from old school broadcasting and one that many publishers are already harnessing. Treasure cites Meanjin, Overland, Kill Your Darlings and Seizure as journals that are doing a good job. ‘They bring [their publication’s] personality into the social media space so that readers can get to know them as well as the writers therein.’

Vertical marketing is about publishers and writers communicating directly to their readers. Thanks to Ed Yourdon for use of this image Web 2.0 conference/San Francisco, Nov 2008 - 08 under Creative Commons.
Vertical marketing is about publishers and writers communicating directly to their readers. Thanks to Ed Yourdon for use of this image Web 2.0 conference/San Francisco, Nov 2008 - 08 under Creative Commons.

But it’s not just journals that are capitalising on vertical marketing. Treasure adds that, ‘all kinds of publishers are becoming involved in the conversations around reading, books, literature and writing (rather than just being the gatekeepers and broadcasters).’ Genre publishers – particularly romance and science fiction – are leading the charge. ‘[Some publishers are] getting to the point where whatever they publish, readers in the community will trust that it’s going to be good and something that they’re interested in,’ Treasure says. This is the vision for vertical marketing – writers and publishers producing such high quality and relevant publications, communities and conversations that readers, ‘will trust them and be willing to buy whatever they publish.’

There is a lot of noise in social media and this is one of the challenges says Treasure. But it can be overcome. ‘It’s about being authentic, about showing personality, seeing through all of the boring chatter and engaging your readers in a space where they already are,’ she says. Publishers should also take care to include and train their writers . ‘No matter how much the market fragments it’s going to be hard for a publisher to have as loyal a following as an author or a writer,’ says Treasure.

While social media is one of the major tools for vertical marketing it isn’t the only one. Treasure notes a good example of offline vertical marketing in 2013 newcomer Tincture Journal. It placed promotional stickers on street crossings in Darlinghurst (Sydney). ‘They’re right where you’re going to press the button – so you can’t fail to see them,’ Treasure says. In this respect vertical marketing is nothing new. ‘It’s marketing that has been going on for 20 or 30 years… marketing that you would see for rock or pop gigs (except that now we’re bringing it to books and literature),’ she says.

Vertical marketing has created unprecedented opportunity for the independent publishing sector in particular. As Treasure says, ‘It’s definitely leveling the playing field and it means that independent publishers have more opportunities to engage with communities of readers.’

Anne Treasure will chair the panel Vertical Marketing (with panelists Kate Cuthbert [Escape Publishing] and Mark Robinson [Exisle Publishing] at this week’s Independent Publishing Conference. Treasure's session will be held 10.15am on Friday 15 November.

Big things and humble beginnings: The 2013 Independent Publishing Conference

Anyone in publishing knows the wonderful things that can happen in small spaces. Award winning manuscripts have been produced in back yard huts, burgeoning publishing empires started on kitchen tables and literary classics typed out clack-by-clack at lonely desks. So too this year’s Independent Publishing Conference (14 to 16 November) - for the past few months Tim Coronel, Conference Coordinator, has had his laptop perched on the edge of the only desk in Small Press Network’s office (a space he once described as a fishbowl). ‘It’s a small office which is three by three metres (if that). Like all publishing spaces it’s full of books and bits of paper and a carton of wine – which is very useful at times,’ Coronel quips. This year’s conference came together with the work of an impressive planning committee (Michael Webster, Emmett Stinson, Aaron Manion, Andrea Hanke, Catherine Lewis, Mary Masters and Nathan Hollier – with Coronel bringing it all together). It’s the second of its kind but 2013 promises new ideas. ‘We’ve made a conscious effort not to double up – not to get the same faces back again,’ says Coronel. ‘There’s probably twice as many sessions and speakers as there were last year - both days of the conference are going to be running parallel sessions.’ (ie two sessions in each time slot).

Big things can happen in little spaces. Thanks to PetitPlat - Stephanie Kilgast for use of this image Tiny Study Room #3 under Creative Commons.
Big things can happen in little spaces. Thanks to PetitPlat - Stephanie Kilgast for use of this image Tiny Study Room #3 under Creative Commons.

Coronel hopes the conference will soon become an ‘annual destination’ for the Australian publishing sector. ‘It’s the only opportunity in Australia for publishing professionals to get together like this. You can be tweeting with people and emailing people back and forth for years and never have the chance to actually meet them face-to-face,’ he says.

Both the industry and academic day programs have been shaped to meet the needs of these independent publishing individuals. There’s over 16 sessions on the topics of markets, marketing, trends, different genres, rights, distribution, reviews, libraries and all manner of publishing. Funding: from crowds to grants will feature a panel including Anna Maguire, author of Crowdfund it!, Sophie Cunningham, Chair of the Literature Board with the Australia Council and Zoe Rodriguez, Cultural Fund Manager at Copyright Agency Limited (chaired by Sam Twyford-Moore, Director of the Emerging Writer's Festival).

Earlier on the same day Charlotte Harper (Editia) will lead Business Models, a self-explanatory session which will include input from publishers at all ends of the spectrum. ‘Those nuts and bolts sessions will be very useful,’ says Coronel. ‘They’ll explore how you do it, how you run your little business and hopefully make a bigger business out of it and make it viable.’

Coronel notes that the act of publishing has become far less exclusive than it once was. ‘I think it’s getting easier and easier to publish in the most basic sense – to get your words out is simple,’ he says. To wit one of the biggest challenges for publishers these days is in finding an audience. ‘To find a paying audience is even more of a challenge and to generate enough revenue to make a sustainable business is hard. It always has been,’ he says.

Still that’s not to say that humble beginnings can’t result in big things – after all this year’s Independent Publishing Conference has been brought together by the efforts of Coronel – a solitary figure with a laptop perched on the edge of a desk.

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’).

On poetic openings: Katie Keys

‘My preference for poetry is to find the fewest words to say the biggest thing. To carve it down until you’ve got something that evokes a much bigger world and opens it up rather than closes it,’ says poet, Katie Keys. True to her preference, Keys’ poems are tiny (less than 140 characters). She harnesses the new media galaxy by publishing a poem daily via the Twitter handle @tinylittlepoems. New media is to poetry as it is to long form: a medium that has both disrupted traditional channels and provided new ones. ‘I’m a big advocate of Twitter in particular as an amazing creative catalyst for poetry,’ says Keys. Twitter's brevity promotes the clarity and distillation of language she likes to read in poetry. But another big part of Twitter’s appeal is that it often reaches people who might not buy a poetry book.

If you want to be a writer, find an opening in your schedule to write. Thanks to Rupert Ganzer (loop_oh) for use of this image Open lock box at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main / Germany under Creative Commons.
If you want to be a writer, find an opening in your schedule to write. Thanks to Rupert Ganzer (loop_oh) for use of this image Open lock box at the Senckenberg Museum in Frankfurt am Main / Germany under Creative Commons.

‘Poetry is still (unfortunately) fighting off the bias of being an elite impenetrable art form. The general populace is still recovering from poetry as an idea of something you learn by rote, that is not enjoyable, not for them and not accessible,’ she says. Twitter provides a mechanism for Keys to talk to others about poetry. ‘I spoke to a guy recently who said, “I’m still struggling with it, but you’ve made me think about poetry as something that doesn’t rhyme,” Well great! I’m excited by that,’ she says.

The conversational aspect of Twitter has also helped Keys with her professional development. ‘You get automatic feedback on what’s working and what isn’t. I very rarely get direct critique – but I can see from the number of retweets or favourites which ones are stronger. Over four years that’s helped me hone and develop,’ she says. In addition, publishing poetry via Twitter has lead to Keys’ participation in conferences and events where she works as a poet in residence. At a recent event in Alice Springs she busted out 170 tweets in four days! (And next week she’ll be poet in residence at Melbourne’s Art Centre).

Over time Keys has adjusted not only to Twitter’s size limitations but also to the discipline of publishing daily. ‘I’m a compulsive editor. I had to let go of that in order just to push it out, to be writing everyday and to meet my own deadlines,’ she says. She writes most of her tiny little poems in long hand first – scribbling, crossing out and editing. Like all of us, she has good days and bad.

‘[Before I was a writer] I spent a lot of time and energy getting upset at myself for not doing what I know I love to do: I neglected my writing,’ says Keys. Ahead of starting @tinylittlepoems Keys often told herself she was too busy to write. (Yet she noticed increased productivity when she set her own arbitrary deadlines – such as that for NaNoWriMo!) One day she stopped making excuses and set herself the task of writing and publishing a poem to Twitter every day. This was clearly a turning point in her writing career and something she encourages for all writers.

‘Write every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s good – it’s just about getting it down and working out whether it’s good later. It’s taken a long time for me to feel comfortable with this; but [thanks to writing everyday] I can now happily call myself a writer.’

From July 27 to August 2 Katie Keys will be the poet in residence at Arts Centre Melbourne, she’ll be sending tiny little poems via Twitter as well as the Arts Centre’s LED signage.

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 has disappeared offline altogether (perhaps one day it will reappear) and the US version 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, and 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.

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, 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!

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

E-books: starting with a big bang

New media technology empowers writers to avail their work to billions of readers and tap new sources of income. Well… in theory anyhow. The truth is it’s difficult to reach readers and get an income. If you simply publish they will not come. For any chance of readers (and returns) you’ll have to do some marketing too. But how does a lone writer with no marketing budget promote their new e-book? The common advice in writing communities includes sharing via social media, getting reviews and getting yourself and your work profiled on traditional media. These are all good strategies. But it isn’t until I put the question to someone outside of the writing community that I realise there are good ways and bad ways to apply these. Tim O’Neill, Joint Managing Director of digital agency Reactive, AIMIA National President (and, full disclosure, my old boss) draws a useful parallel between marketing e-books and marketing apps.

Promoting on a budget? Harness your marketing efforts into one big bang, says Tim O'Neill. Thanks to continis for use of this image, Fireworks, under Creative Commons.
Promoting on a budget? Harness your marketing efforts into one big bang, says Tim O'Neill. Thanks to continis for use of this image, Fireworks, under Creative Commons.

Concentration is at the core of app marketing. ‘You want to get a real peak of downloads in one go so that it flies up the charts because you get noticed,’ says O’Neill. Getting noticed means the opportunity to be featured on New and Noteworthy charts – places that app buyers (and e-book readers) regularly frequent. A concentration of marketing activity can also help get your work into the zeitgeist. If people are exposed to your message via different sources they may soon become curious and download or discuss it themselves. This is another component of app marketing: ‘trending’, which can be carried over to e-books.

‘The easiest way to get trending is to get all that attention bundled as opposed to drip-feeding it over time,’ says O’Neill. He calls it the big bang theory of marketing. ‘The big bang theory of marketing is to work out what you can do and do it all at once. You spend all your media in one big go,’ he says. Concentrating all of your marketing activity to a single day or a single week is the difference between standing in a crowd lighting little sparklers one-by-one or blasting your message above that crowd through a single firework.

Writers with no ‘marketing spend’ will need to gather their gunpowder nimbly. ‘Part of marketing your e-book would be having the book [or information about it] in as many free places as possible,’ O’Neill says. He cites as one example. Free sites like this give you a chance to be discovered. ‘Especially if you do the meta tagging and descriptions correctly,’ says O’Neill.

Consider also who can promote on your behalf. Taking the example of my recent fundraiser, O’Neill suggested asking the Red Cross to promote it or retweet about it. Asking for retweets is particularly easy, ‘It’s definitely an appropriate way to go about promotion because you’re asking someone to do something in the medium,’ says O’Neill. (Do a logic test first however, because it needs to make sense that this person or organisation would retweet). Calling on friends and family for their pyrotechnic assistance will also help. ‘It’s getting other people to amplify it for you rather than you having to do all the work,’ O’Neill says.

As a professional digital expert O’Neill knows the value that search engines can bring. ‘Search is definitely going to play a role and search optimisation should play a big role if you don't have a media budget,’ says O’Neill. First decide on a page or domain where you will concentrate all of your marketing efforts (for example mine is Then use search optimisation techniques to get that page ranking highly on search engines like Google (this is a complex venture, so I won’t try to explain it here: try this PDF instead ). You may even want to invest in a paid campaign (but take care to set it up correctly as these ads can cost more than your royalties).

‘In the product development phase app developers will ask things like who the audience is and whether there is a need and a demand for it. If there’s no immediate need or demand they ask how they will create that demand,’ says O’Neill. These are the kinds of questions that will define the avenues on which you market your e-book. What’s it about? Who would like to read it? Who needs to read it?

The trick to big-bang marketing is preparing all of this information in advance, making the contacts and setting up the day, or week for all of the marketing to happen. As with handling explosives you will need to take particular care and concentration. But this might be the difference between a blast of sales or a disappointing implosion.

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.

A big change

‘The book of my enemy has been remaindered / And I am pleased,’ wrote Clive James in his 2003 poem of the same title. Ten years ago, the remainder table was considered a literary backwash. It was reasonable for James to use it as a place to celebrate the failure of a literary foe. But in this last decade? My, how things have changed… ‘If you think that the most dire thing would be to be remaindered, then I’d suggest these days that’s almost an honour,’ wrote Martin Shaw in a recent issue of The Victorian Writer. Shaw is Books Division Manager at Readings. He’s one of the people responsible for choosing which books make it beyond the publisher’s door and onto bookshop shelves. His article was enlightening, and helped me realise that a book in print with a reputable publisher does not alone define success.

The new dilemma for authors: where to pass go. Thanks to toastie14 for this image Monopoly in the Park (10) under Creative Commons.
The new dilemma for authors: where to pass go. Thanks to toastie14 for this image Monopoly in the Park (10) under Creative Commons.

Getting your book into bookstores is a major challenge in itself. ‘I would ingest information about several hundred titles in the course of about one and a half to two hours,’ Shaw writes of his monthly sell-in meeting with just one publisher. ‘The simple fact is you’re competing with a whole lot of other hopefuls every month…’ Stores stock just a fraction of the publications offered in the sell-ins (and not all of those stocked actually sell). Of those that fail, a lucky few are remaindered. ‘It’s much more likely that the unsolds will be pulped, that they have no commercial value whatsoever,’ writes Shaw.

Until reading that article, I thought the hoops to be jumped in acquiring a publishing deal were the biggest. Clearly that’s not the case. And once again, I find myself wondering: now that there are alternatives, is print publishing everything it’s cracked up to be?

‘One of the things that’s really different now is that established publishers have lost some of their market power with authors,’ Mark Davis Associate Professor (University of Melbourne) and non-fiction writer (Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism) says. He’s looking at authors in the context of both new media, and ongoing changes in the publishing environment (like those outlined in his 2006 article The Decline of the Literary Paradigm in Australian Publishing).

Authors now have choice, says Davis. ‘If I wanted to publish a book ten years ago I needed an agent, I needed a publisher, I needed a contract, I needed someone to tell me how to negotiate that contract, I needed to be able to get my foot in the door, off the slush pile and actually onto someone’s desk. And the reason I had to do that is because publishers had a monopoly.’

The monopoly was over marketing, distribution and even review pages, all of which have been undermined in various ways by new media alternatives. And while publishers are still considered doyens of sorts, it’s not unreasonable for a writer (particularly a new writer) to wonder what a publisher offers over self-publishing options.

An advance of some kind? Well, perhaps not. According to Shaw in some instances advances aren’t offered at all. Royalties? Both avenues offer them, but 70% via Amazon is difficult to match with the 7.5% many authors would get through a publishing house. Marketing efforts? The industry zings with the message that authors must develop their own ‘platforms’ and help drive their own marketing. Distribution? Yes, a publisher can offer that. But given what Shaw tells us about our chances of landing a spot on a bookshelf I wonder how useful that really is. And while harnessing electronic distribution is a major challenge, how advantageous is the printed path in reality today?

As Davis argues, the main thing publishers can offer, ‘is the very thing that publishers have been worst at over the last 20 or 30 years: editing.’ He says that publishers have neglected the substance of books in order to release them quickly (irrespective of whether manuscripts are ready or not). This, combined with downsizing of publishing houses (that are shedding staff) weakens the monopoly further. As Davis says, ‘What’s to stop me self-publishing and just hiring a freelance editor? The same freelancer who might be editing the book if it’s published through [a publishing house]?’

The differences between being published and self-publishing are great, but given the changes to the publishing industry, is one still necessarily better than the other? What's interesting about the current environment is that the monopoly publishers once had, has been eroded by new platforms for authors. As a result Davis says, publishers will need to become more service oriented toward their writers. ‘[Publishers] can no longer take [authors] for granted. That’s a big change.’

A voice from the future

‘Cliff hanger’ and ‘conference’ are words that don’t often play in the same scenario. But when Malcolm Neil was cut off mid-presentation at last week’s Independent Publishers Conference these words came to mind. Neil is Director, Content Acquisition and Publisher Relations, APAC at Kobo Inc. Kobo provides e-reading services (including e-readers and e-books) to over 200 countries. When Neil’s presentation abruptly concluded, he was sharing some choice insights into the behaviors of e-book purchasers. This is an advantage that e-books have on the ‘device’ of a hard copy book: detailed metrics. Although providing the ‘detailed’ part would be commercially sensitive, Neil still gave interesting metrics to conference delegates. For example, Kobo has configured their email marketing to book-buying prime times: 10am and 8pm (you’ll notice a change in my social media habits as a consequence). Women are the predominant e-book and e-reader buyers (no surprises there). Women 65+ buy more than 12 e-books per year (that one did surprise me).


Neil spoke to us onscreen as if from the future. In fact he presented from his Singapore hotel room via Skype. And then his video-face froze, and a little ‘bzit’ line went across the screen and we all said, ‘Oh dear’. Neil did try to call back, but we lost him again and went on with the other presentations.

Speaking to him after the event I mentioned the technology had let us down. In fact it was the electricity at his hotel – not the Internet – that failed us. It’s an important point, given our subject matter.

Neil provided a few more choice stats to me. The bad news for non-fiction writers is the e-book market is predominantly a fiction one (more like 80/20 fiction/non-fiction in contrast to 60/40 in the print market). On the upside, there are more opportunities to find readers for self-published work, which as Neil says, ‘Is a little obvious when you think that in a physical book store you’ll find next to no self-published books.’ Still, it’s always good to see the theory reflected in the stats. Around 5% of e-books purchased are self-published.

I came from the conference with a sense that publishing had perhaps made amends with the ‘threat’ of e-books. Maybe it’s because I’m semi-converted (I’m distributing my own work and reading others’ electronically). Perhaps there’s room for both print and electronic. Maybe the change in publishing will hit a point of disruption to traditional publishing rather than complete annihilation.

‘That notion [of disruption] is not borne out by the evidence,’ Neil says. ‘Where you might have sold 3,000 copies of the [print] book you might sell 1,000 in the future. And those numbers will continue to change.’ Bookstores everywhere have modified their stock to include products that – unlike books – bring in strong margins. In the Australian context this need is exacerbated by fluctuating exchange rates.

‘I think there’ll still be bookstores and print sales because it’s an object, and people like buying objects. But ultimately as the economy of e-reading becomes more affordable [the print book is] in danger of becoming a secondary part of publishing.’ As well as that, once readers buy into an electronic provider (such as Amazon) they’re within that eco-system. ‘They’re going to get other emails about physical books. So they’re going to start purchasing [those] online as well,’ Neil says. He reminds me to look at job cuts in publishing and, ‘the way large publishers are nervously reconfiguring their businesses.’ (Although, as Mark Davis tells us, technology isn’t the only reason these changes have occurred).

Paper-book lovers will be glad to know that while in Singapore Neil bought a print book. It was a hand-stitched artifact by Math Paper Press. But he says, ‘In terms of the last mass-market [print] book that I bought… I can’t remember the last time I did that.’

Watch a video of Malcolm Neil presenting more choice info at the Copyright Agency's 2012 Annual Seminar 'Digital Publishing Today'.

Writing tight and loving hard arses

Revise your work. Write tight. Kill your darlings. Schya! I believe in these tenents. I do. But actioning them can be easier said than done. When I’m at the tightening phase of my work I check against Sol Stein’s 'Solutions for Writers', ‘Liposuctioning Flab’ chapter. This chapter has helped to surgically remove some baaad writing habits. And I workshop, too. Still, I have a sense that my work remains flabby. There are love-handles hidden that I am yet to grasp.


‘I think it’s pretty hard to review your own work,’ says Ann Bolch, freelance Writer/Editor with ‘A Story to Tell…’ and ‘Clarity in Words’. I’ve known Bolch for a few years but it wasn’t until she reviewed my essay, ‘After shock’ that I realised she’s a literary nutritionist, a writing personal trainer. She grabbed those wordy love-handles and trimmed my essay.

While it’s true reviewing your own work is hard (distance and objectivity are often missing), Bolch gave me the kind of feedback that I take to every piece I write. She says that our common mistakes fall into a triad of ‘writing, trust and music’.

Review your work with these in mind to burn excess fat. I asked her to tell more and to edit this post to show you an exercise in writing tight.

‘Of course, writing is about the nuts and bolts. The grammar, the punctuation, the words ... and getting them in the right order,’ Bolch says. Failing to be tight on the writing level can make a piece, ‘just a bit overlong’. Beware of prepositions (for example ‘get up on top of’ when all we need is ‘get up’), adverbs (in ‘We finally wandered up the hill’ axe  ‘finally’) and superlatives.

Superlatives such as, ‘It was spectacular day’ take up too much space while at the same time getting in the way of description. Writers try to, ‘make sure that people understand where they’re going in the first sentence of a paragraph and then give a beautiful example. I call this a tell-show. Sometimes writers will even go the tell-show-tell just to make completely sure the reader has understood,’ says Bolch. We need to either tell or show. ‘If efficiency requires it, then tell. [There’s] nothing better than a quick this-is-what-we’re-talking-about to introduce [an idea],’ she says.

We should trust our readers says Bolch, ‘it’s also about trusting that you will have another brilliant idea sometime in the near future. You don’t have to get them all down in one go,’ she says. Kill your multiple-birth darlings. Remember also that the presence of a superlative, ‘can be a kind of throat clearing. It’s about getting that first sentence of the paragraph started,’ she says. Once that is on its way, piff the superlative.

‘The writing and trust aspects [also] affect the voice and rhythm of your work. Too many adverbs, superlatives or prepositions get in the way of the voice,’ says Bolch. ‘Voices are bound in word choice but it’s also about the rhythm.’ To check the rhythm, read everything aloud. Your unique voice will be in the way you describe what you feel, hear and smell.

Bolch believes that every writer needs to find a loving hard arse, ‘Someone who wants the best for you and your work and isn’t afraid to help you get it.’ A loving hard arse leaves their ego at their own desk, cares for what you’re doing and is both capable and brave enough to help you meet your goals.

‘Just a few pages of your work reviewed by a loving hard arse can improve your writing no end,’ Bolch says. ‘The flaws that you have, or the improvements you need to make in your short writing are going to be very similar [to your long form work]. All you need to do is add structural elements to longer pieces. [You’ll] probably learn 90% of what you need to learn,’ she says.

Rewriting those pages using the feedback will help reveal your voice and rhythm.

Need a loving hard arse? Hiring an editor can be an option. But Bolch warns against choosing an editor based on testimonials. Instead look at the editor’s work. See how they’ve marked up other writers’ manuscripts. Communication is crucial – so make sure an editor’s style is not too assertive or couchy for your needs. ‘If an editor can’t communicate [with you] then so what? Their [other skills] won't amount to anything,’ Bolch says.

‘All writers need a few people to draw on. And that’s what you need to be for yourself as well,’ she says.

At my desk I now have a list of action items: bad habits Bolch squeezed from my essay, which must not appear in the next. Like any weight loss program, slimming will take persistence. Let’s hope I can also develop a hard arse.

See this post with Bolch’s edits marked up.

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).

Do you have a Kindle alternative?

A book is a book is a book is a book. But an e-book? If only it were that simple. Once you’re ready to send your long form non-fiction into the new media galaxy, you will be presented with a smorgasbord of publishing choices – each with benefits and limitations. Eventually you will choose from them. It will be a very personal choice.

Before I hung up my shingle as a writer I worked in the digital industry. In over decade with that sector I learned that technologies come and go and that with each new development a new set of complications occurs. (If you’re interested, I wrote an article about this quagmire).

When I made my choice of publishing platform I went with the monolith, the dominant: Amazon. It was not only among the most popular formats, but also could be accessed through platforms beyond the Kindle. Readers could download it to their iPad or iPhone Newsstands (via the Apple store) or install a plug-in for their standard browser. Still the question came from a few readers, ‘I don’t have a Kindle. Do you have an alternative?’

The idea of an alternative ignited anxiety. I knew that if these readers couldn’t download a plug-in for their browser they needed something as simple as an attachment in an email. I wondered how I could control my copyright once I’d sent someone an attachment. How could I stop them from uploading my e-book to an Internet site, or forwarding it to others? (Whether they did it deliberately or not).

At first I looked into online systems developed to address this very dilemma. These systems manage the entire sales and copyright cycle. Users select the ‘digital goods’ they’re seeking, pay and get an electronic copy that is smart enough to control how the recipient distributes it (well, most recipients anyhow). This was exactly what I needed, but there are set up costs. And I’m just a writer, already behind on this particular venture.

Payment gateways (like Paypal) can be set up very quickly and with no cost. Paypal can even be used to sell digital goods automatically. (ie. Once the user has paid, Paypal will provide the digital file directly). But alone, a payment gateway like this couldn’t help with copyright control.

I pondered for weeks. How I could get my essay to this handful of readers? Eventually I came up with a simple, manual solution, which is based on an automated system I’d read about.

Once I have a payment receipt from Paypal I make a PDF of the article with the recipient’s name and email address in the footer, then email it as an attachment.

With their personal details on every page of the e-book, I hope a reader is deterred from passing the file on. And if the PDF does accidentally appear on a website, I’ll know where it came from. It’s not going to stop someone who is genuinely determined to undermine my copyright, but it should at least make some people think about it.

If you’re going to follow the same route that I did, make sure you understand the fine print in your Amazon agreement. Mine stipulates that the Amazon price has to be 20% less than anywhere else (even my own site). I didn’t notice this at first, but when they adjusted my Amazon sale price without telling me I soon realised my mistake. Still, it’s worth having the alternative: with the Paypal / PDF model you’ll get closer to 80% of the sale price (verses 35% on Amazon – depending on your pricing).

I will say one other thing about people who ask for an alternative. Of the half a dozen who have asked, none of them actually bought a copy via me. So if the idea of making fiddly PDFs doesn’t appeal I wouldn’t worry too much. Truth be told, I think most of them were hoping that I’d give them a copy for free. I have no problem giving out review copies, but I’m too determined to gain an income from my writing to give free copies willy-nilly. If I must do that, I at least ask the reader to make a donation that supports the community that my article is about.

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

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  #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'  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  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 ( 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.




Would you like a book with that?

A couple of weeks ago an octogenarian friend of mine asked to read some of my writing, ‘None of that Internet stuff though,’ she said, swatting the idea away with her hand, ‘only real writing.’ She is a little old-fashioned, but the truth is octogenarians aren’t the only ones who value a printed page. At this year’s Emerging Writer’s Festival I heard three young writers express their desire for a real book to, ‘show Mum and Dad’. On hearing this, audiences giggled nervously. E-books seem such a given these days that there’s something a little naughty in the desire for print. With the demise of the newsroom, the fracturing of traditional publishing models and the ongoing evolution of digital communications I have accepted that print is not a place my byline will often be. But what I haven’t considered is that while the digital world evolves, so does the physical. The field of print on demand (POD) has recently made a nice addition.

Many writers are aware of POD outfits that produce a book in a cost effective way (for example: and Just like an e-book, these outfits generally allows you to prepare and upload your cover and content. You then pay a fee for the cost of printing. You can print as few or as many copies as you like. And in a short while they will appear at your door, ready for you to show your parents and your elderly friends.

Before POD, self-published writers desirous of hard copies had to pay for print runs in the hundreds.  To this end, POD has been liberating. But whether it’s three or 300, POD doesn’t help to resolve the challenge of getting your work out there. Or does it?

The Espresso Book Machine (made by On Demand Books) captured my imagination recently. It looks like a photocopier retrofitted by an enthusiastic geek. But looks aren’t everything. The Espresso Book Machine prints and binds an entire book in minutes and has mobility due to its size. Thus, Espresso Book Machines are popping up all over the industrialised world. For now they seem to be focused in bookshops, libraries and academic institutions.

It’s early days for initiatives like this. But their geographical and intellectual locations make these machines a potential boon for self-published writers. It will literally put our work within reach of readers (currently at libraries and bookstores). It could also enable writers to promote our work in particular locations that have both geographical relevance and social impact. This might involve a community you have written about, or a topic that affects that community. Or it could be targeted to people who are interested in your work simply because you are near them.

As the name implies these machines could appear in other places too. Like cafes! Readers who prefer our work in print could order an article with their coffee (both take the same time to produce). The reader’s choice could be based on word-count or time available (though the Espresso Book Machine currently requires a minimum of 40 pages).  In this scheme, local writers could be promoted.

The truth is that my folio lacks what my friend called ‘real writing’. The Internet was well entrenched when I started. The plastic bag of work I eventually took to her was diminutive. Air ballooned around the magazines. Were it not transparent, the bag would be mistaken as empty. She was very polite in receiving it. But I can’t help but wonder, would I have genuinely impressed her if I could take her for coffee, and when the waiters ask, ‘Would you like a book with that?’ I could answer in the affirmative, then dazzle her luddite-like ways with a version of the ‘real’ writing.

Crowd-funding is the new black

Life is peppered with turning points - those ‘ah-ha’ moments, or forks in the road. In my first post I wrote about a turning point I’d had at the Wheeler Centre last year. It was when I finally realised that the traditional publishing models were floundering, and that I would need to find new ways to get my work to readers. I had sat amongst the crowd with my focus on the speakers – stalwarts from the old publishing institutions. I looked to them for direction. Now I wonder if I was looking the wrong way. Should I have been looking at the crowd instead?

Crowd-funding is what its name implies. Anyone can make a pledge (from a few dollars upwards) towards a project they’re interested in. Just about anything can constitute a project. Most of us are aware that Barak Obama used crowd funding to help fund his 2008 US presidential campaign. Some of us have performer-friends who have used crowd-funding to finance performances and CDs.

It wasn’t until I saw a presentation by Kate Toon and Rick Chen at the Melbourne Emerging Writers’ Festival that I realised writers could use crowd-funding too. Duh!

In trying to find markets for my article I had looked at community-funded reporting like and (which are essentially crowd-funding initiatives). But though established writers have had success with this, I questioned the viability of Communit-funded reporting for an emerging writer. The stakes are high (often tens of thousands of dollars). Who would pledge that kind of money to an emerging writer?

Yet asking for a smaller amount through a general crowd-funding site is an idea that has legs. Toon used crowd-funding to raise money for her book of poetry, ‘Gone Dotty’. Elmo Keep successfully funded a spot on a Kiss cruise. New Matilda stayed afloat with the help of crowd-funding. More recently a campaign was undertaken to fund an online magazine-to-be that will focus on long form journalism (Crowd-funding and long form journalism = double points for this post!).

The popular crowd-funding sites include:

Also check out to help get your head around it (including this video about crowd sourcing).

For now I’m going to be staring at strangers wondering what non-fiction topics they might like to fund. Meanwhile, have you had any experience with crowd-funding your long form non-fiction projects?

Things I wish I knew: self publishing

Here's a list of the things I wish I knew when I decided to publish my long form non-fiction article as a Kindle Single (I will update this regularly!):  

1. What constitutes being accepted into the Kindle Singles 'imprint'

  • I pitched my article to the editors at Kindle Singles, and a few days later I got a generic email from Amazon telling me how I could publish my work on Amazon.  I took the generic response to mean that Singles was not as exclusive as I'd thought, and that publishing a Single must be a matter of implementing a particular setting when I uploaded my work. It didn't.Once I had published to Amazon I searched again and again for the setting. And then followed up with another email to the Singles editors. I was told then that my story was rejected. A little cheeky of the team at Amazon I think, but a little foolish of me too.

2. Uploading to Amazon is not the difficult part. Not by a long shot.

  • So many writers ask me about uploading my article to Amazon, convinced that it is really technical and complicated. It's not. It will take you 20 minutes (if you do it wisely - which basically means keep your format simple. Mine was Times New Roman font, double spaced, indented first line of pars - no pictures). This video shows just how easy it is: difficult part - as *all* writers who've published will tell you - is the promotion. I thought I knew and understood this before I started... but there was (and is) still a lot to learn...

2. Marketing is not predictable

  • Don't count on any personal networks to help you promote your work. I'm not just talking about your friends and family, but rather associations that you might have (that are relevant to the story or your career - I include writers' organisations here). Plan to go out wider to markets that better fit your niche. For example, my article was recently included on a website that listed stories about disaster. This created a little bump in sales.
  • When you first promote the story to your personal networks, ask them not to buy but instead to promote your work to their networks. You'll probably get a better result this way.
  • If you manage to get yourself onto the radio or TV be shameless. Make every statement refer back to your book and where viewers / listeners can buy it. This is wayeee easier said than done. I haven't managed to do it yet, but in my daydreams it goes something like [Interviewer] 'So, where were you when the earthquake happened?' [Me] 'Well, Joe, I write about this exact thing in my essay - which by the way, your listeners can download via my site - that's p-e-p-i,' etc. ] Also, if you do insist that your project is mentioned, insist that it's mentioned at the bottom of your interview, not the top.
  • I haven't tried this yet, but you might want to offer a free copy to the first x number of listeners / viewers who contact you directly.
  • Put a link to your article in your email signature. I took my time doing that. I have no proof that it results in sales but it does result in people talking about my article. Which is a start!

3. Pricing is a quagmire. Royalties aren't always what they seem to be.

  • Beware: if you publish to Kindle, and you want to sell on other platforms, your agreement with Kindle may mean that you have to mark up your price 20% on other platforms.
  • You'll only get 70% royalties if you sell in  markets with an Amazon presence. So if you, like me, sell to a mostly Australian audience (with no Amazon) via the .com site you will mostly get 35% royalties.
  • Better to be telling everyone you've dropped the price rather than increased it. Also, better to make hay while the initial launch goodwill-sun shines. So start your pricing high and then go lower if you need to.

4. Don't rush the title

  • I was really struggling with the title of my piece, and when I did finally settle on one I was really happy. That is, until I realised I liked it because it was a popular a one for stories about earthquakes. The wonder of modern technology is that I can change it. But I want to keep it consistent. Don't rush into a title. See what else is out there with the title that you like.


Heh - just a short list of regrets - what things do you wish you knew?