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.

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 idealog.com 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.

On being underrated (the MUBA)

For Christmas last year Wayne Macauley’s partner gave him a t-shirt printed with the words Most Underrated 2012. ‘I don’t wear it out that often but it’s a beautiful thing,’ Macauley quips. The t-shirt is a reference to last year’s inaugural Most Underrated Book Award (MUBA) which Macauley won for his novel The Cook. ‘[The most underrated book] is a very catchy line and I think people like the idea of it,’ Macauley says. ‘[The award] got quoted a number of times afterwards in blogs and reviews and even when the book went overseas.’ As Macauley notes, the title of this award, ‘has a hook’. The MUBA, says the Small Press Network (which organises the award), ‘aims shine a light on some of the outstanding titles that are released by small and independent publishers that, for whatever reason, did not receive their fair dues.’ This year’s shortlist was recently released. It includes Fish-Hair Woman by Merlinda Bobis (Spinifex Press), Staunch by Ginger Briggs (Affirm Press), Whiskey Charlie Foxtrot by Annabel Smith (Fremantle Press) and The Hum of Concrete by Anna Solding (MidnightSun Publishing). The winner will be announced next week.

Readings will help the MUBA shortlisted book make their way into the hands of readers. Thanks to Snipergirl for use of this image, Readings, Carlton under Creative Commons.
Readings will help the MUBA shortlisted book make their way into the hands of readers. Thanks to Snipergirl for use of this image, Readings, Carlton under Creative Commons.

‘[Last year] there was some uncertainty as to whether this was a badge that authors particularly wanted or not,’ says Martin Shaw, Books Division Manager at Readings. ‘But most people got what it was about – it was trying to make sure that nobody got completely overlooked – which does happen,’ Shaw says.

For this reason Readings gives the MUBA shortlist, ‘the biggest blast we can,’ says Shaw. The books are being promoted online, in their newsletter and on a table in store. Last year Macauley noted a contrast between the MUBA and another award he was shortlisted for (which was announced in the same week). ‘The MUBA shortlisted winners were really prominent in the Readings Carlton store… I couldn’t see anything displayed for [the other award],’ he says. As Macauley notes the MUBA’s tie with bookshops is critical, ‘If the books are not promoted in the store then the award is great for you spiritually but not really commercially.’

Readings reported a tenfold increase in sales of the full shortlist of the 2012 MUBA. ‘[The MUBA] definitely makes a difference,’ Shaw says. ‘Now that we’re into the second year it will build up as a [list on] the best of the small press.’

For Macauley, winning the MUBA also had other benefits. ‘The book had been a runner up and it was great for it to win something. But from a personal perspective I felt like I was being recognised with an independent award for an independent attitude,’ he says. That’s something he values as a person with an interest in independent publishing and theatre. That independence is relevant to buyers too says Shaw, ‘A lot of book buyers out there are looking for something a bit different, something that isn’t massively hyped about from large commercial houses.’

Looking forward Macauley is excited by the potential of independent publishing. The old structures are being broken down he says, and new possibilities are opening up.  ‘My view of that is that we should all be brave and should never be afraid to take risks,’ he says. ‘Everyone should give wholly and utterly of themselves to their work. They should make their work in their own voice. They should make it the very best that they can.’ The thing that never changes with independent publishing, says Macauley, is that ‘we’re making art out of integrity.’

The 2013 Most Underrated Book Award winner will be announced at the Independent Publishing Conference on Friday 15 November.

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’).

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.

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 slideshare.net 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 pepironalds.com/help-japan). 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 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).

future-porthole
future-porthole

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'.

Mini-magazines and long form distribution

There’s a session at the NonfictioNow conference that couldn’t be more appropriate for this blog: ‘Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution’. Four emerging practitioners of the non-fiction form will, ‘explore the role that reading and writing online have [in influencing their] work, while engaging in a form of cultural activism, in which writers are found fighting for more space for longer works of nonfiction,’ (from the precis). As the words ‘activism’ and ‘fighting’ imply, there is a certain chutzpah involved in pursuing long form these days. Aggregate sites like longform.org and longreads.com as well as initiatives such as Kindle Singles, The Atavist and Byliner have provided new US-based venues for writers. The presence of these and other digital-first publishing initiatives (like Editia in Australia) have given me cause for celebration. But, as writer Elmo Keep reminds me, things aren't ideal in the Australian context.

empty-pipe
empty-pipe

‘In terms of traditional mastheads where there’s a focus on extremely high-quality long form investigative-based journalism, we don’t really have many places to choose from in Australia. We’ve got a really rich and very alive literary journal tradition here. But that’s different to magazines. There are very few options to Australian non-fiction writers who want to write long, get published and get paid,’ Keep says.

Writers like Keep have successfully pursued overseas markets to publish their long form work. But pitching to overseas publications – such as those in the US – can be restrictive for Australians. ‘Unless it’s an exceptional Australian story that resonates universally [those stories getting published are] probably going to be something that appeals to American audiences,’ says Keep.

The US market is particularly strong (compared to Australia which can boast just a handful of print publications that publish long form work). ‘We do have places where our stories go but they’re niche places. We have nothing like a national magazine with the reach of The New Yorker for example,’ Keep says.

Keep values the opportunities overseas publications can give to Australian writers, but she is concerned about a trickle-down effect. There could be ‘a poverty of people writing Australian stories.’ The session at NonfictioNOW will consider the climate for publishing long form non-fiction in Australia. ‘We’ll be talking about that, about why our magazine culture is what it is or isn’t, and about how you can get your work out,’ says Keep.

These days, finding a publisher is just one challenge to establishing a career for new and emerging writers of long form non-fiction (this Venues and Resources page can be helpful). Another is in facing the call to ‘build’ an online ‘brand’ or ‘platform’ from which to promote our work (and/or determine how necessary this really is). To my mind, Keep has built her writerly brand relatively well. She has a strong online presence and over 3,000 Twitter followers.

Keep says acquiring this presence was organic. She’s a self-described nerd who has been online since 1995 (when the Internet was mostly about community). She was there, ‘before brands invaded the space. Before the idea of a personal brand was even a thing that someone would say.’

‘I just wanted to be someone on Twitter who you would want to follow because that person was always sharing things that were interesting or funny or hilarious... Just being like a miniature magazine,’ she says.

Having an online presence never hurts says Keep. ‘It can lead to great opportunities and it can lead to meeting great people.’ It’s useful for research, interviewing and being part of a community. But she warns that, ‘there can be a little bit of snake oil that goes around. The only thing that’s ever going to be good is [good writing. The writer’s ‘brand’] is always going to be auxiliary to everything else that goes into publicising a book. It’s not a replacement for being interviewed on Radio National or getting reviewed in The Australian,’ she says.

Using these platforms successfully is, ‘about catching a really wild tide on the Internet – which you can’t create. If you’re pouring all your time into that and not pouring that time into doing meaningful work then it’s completely self defeating.’

Elmo Keep will be presenting in the session Longform Nonfiction and Online Distribution with John Proctor, Ronnie Scott, Sam Twyford-Moore and Steve Grimwade on Friday 23 November at 3.00pm.

Visit the NonfictioNow website for more detail.

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.

 

 

 

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: blurb.com and lulu.com). 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.

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: http://www.thestoryboard.ca/so-you-want-to-publish-a-kindle-single/The 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 pepironalds.com - 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 .com.au 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?