What’s coming in 2014

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Ready for a Christmas party? So am I. Almost. Maybe not so much.

My blog has been an accurate reflection of my writing time once school started. Some of you know I have returned to the classroom as a high school literature and journalism teacher.

In between the lessons and grading, I don’t have very much time to blog or write, or party, for that matter. I snatch the moments I can and work with them, meaning to others, I might seem antisocial for not hanging out.

For 2014, I commit to blog and even vlog (yes, a video blog) once a week with information on my writing and marketing journey. There has to be something from my triumphs and/or mistakes that can be of use to you. I plan on sharing those.

Also, in 2014, my fifth novel, Sophomore Freak, will bow right before the summer. It’s the second book in my teen sci-fi novel series, Reject High. The third installment has been languishing on my flash drive for some time. That’s on my to-do list, too. There’s also a sequel to The Revelation Gate there. As you can see, I’m asking Santa for some extra writing time.

I hope you’ll join me on this journey. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

If you’re an author and you don’t have Beta Readers, there’s something seriously wrong with you

Beta Readers are a test audience for your new material.

For example, in the movie The Break Up, Vince Vaughn’s character originally came out looking better than Jennifer Aniston’s character. That ending did not rate well with its test audience, so the ending was changed.

If The Break Up was a novel, the test audience would have been Beta Readers.

For my next novel, Sophomore Freak I’m following the advice of Allen D’Angelo of Archer Ellison, Inc. Here it is:

  1. Find 100 Beta Readers. How do you find them? Research your target market. (Mine’s a YA, so I want both YA and adults, which is 15-35. Adults read YA more than YA read YA). Then ask around — relatives, friends, friends of relatives. Cast a wide net, but not TOO wide. Nobody has an “audience of everybody.”
  2. Get them to rate every chapter you write between 1 (“hot rotting trash on a summer day with no breeze”) to 10 (“That chapter was so good, I just cheated on my husband/wife/significant other by reading it”).
  3. If it’s not at least an 8, ask them why. Were they confused? What needs to be improved?
  4. Revise and resubmit. By the time you get to a finished product, it should be UH-MA-ZING.

The ultimate goal is getting “pass along” value. “Pass along value” equals “People talking about you.” This is what you want. Try it along with me!

Hope this helps!

Digital Books: The Price Is Wrong

I went to the store and almost bought the second season of Superman: The Animated Series. Not for my five-year-old, for me.

Don’t judge me — I have a bigger point to make about it.

The reason why I didn’t buy it is because I saw the price, paused, and thought about it. You never  want a consumer to do that. Logically, you want their interest plus access to the money for purchase to equal an actual purchase.

If they have to think about it, chances are you’ve lost the sale. In a former life, I used to sell men’s suits. The “I’ll-be-back-to-buy-it” folks are looking for something — a lower price, a cheaper product — but whatever it is, you don’t have it.

Recently, I read a blog where the author advised against pricing your e-books at .99 cents. Yes, it worked for Amanda Hocking, Darcy Chan, and a number of other authors. But he said it devalues your work to price it that low, and he’s right. I’ve seen a bunch of books priced .99 cents and they looked like they shouldn’t have cost any more than .99 cents.

This is a group I do not want to belong to, and neither should you.

Instead, experiment with your pricing and watch your sales numbers. Find a price point where your buyers don’t pause and think about it, and your numbers stay the same. Stick with what works.

Hope this helps!

KDP Success: No rhyme or reason

I’m a fan of Ecclesiastes 9:11:  “I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”

It reminds me that no matter how many marketing books I read, courses I take, people I hire, or things I do — to a fair degree — timing and opportunity play into success as much as all of those aforementioned things. I believe God orchestrates that timing and opportunity.

You however, may not. But, you have to agree that if you hopped on Apple stock when it first went public (timing and opportunity), you’d be a lot better off than you are now.

For example: I have enrolled my first novel, The Lost Testament, in Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing program several times since its 2010 release. Each time, my sales haven’t gone above 1,000 on the free download days.

However, on its most recent day, it sold almost 6,000 copies. I didn’t do anything different this time — no marketing collateral, extra scheduled tweets, or promotion on my social networking sites. I set the date and let it ride.

What does this tell you? Should I write a book on how I didn’t do anything special and ended up with the biggest free download date in the history of Great Nation Publishing? Unfortunately — and any experienced publisher will tell you this (if they’re honest) there’s no magic bullet. You can always position yourself well to win the battle or the race, but in the end, aren’t you at the mercy of timing and opportunity?

Self-publishing. . .a bit easy?

While sifting through comments on this blog, I came across someone who said “self-publishing is a bit easy” these days.

Argh.

Well, I admit — anyone can write a novel, upload it to Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Smashwords, or Pub It for the Nook, set a ..99 cent price tag and call themselves “self-published.” As a matter of fact, of the hundreds of thousands of books published last year, I’m willing to bet quite a few of them did just that.

We all want the dream: to write books for a living. It sounds so glamorous — you get that one hit, which sells your backlist, and the next thing you know, you’re rolling in the dough. Very few self-publishers can do that, but it’s more than it used to be.

Anyone can self-publish, just like anyone can dribble a basketball, sing a song, or program a computer. But, not everyone is Amanda Hocking, Kobe Bryant, Christian Aguilera, or Bill Gates.

To me, saying “anyone can do that” is a cop out. Tell me about someone who does self-publishing well, and how they worked their tail off to be recognized — not just write anything by anyone and press “upload.”

You market yourself. . .how? (Part 1)

Recently, a friend asked me, “How do you market yourself [as an indie/self-publisher]?”

Aye, there’s the rub.

Indie and self-pubbed authors want to sell books, but don’t necessarily know how. Witness almost any self-publishing outfit that will offer you bookmarks, business cards, placards, postcards, and the like as marketing collateral (don’t fall for it — do it at Vistaprint for less). To date, I’ve never bought a book because I received one of those things alone. Have you?

So then, we go to Facebook, Twitter, Linkedin and other free forums to promote ourselves. I’ve unfriended/unfollowed quite a few people, due to the “Check out my book/buy my book/like my status/watch my trailer” flurry of automated tweets.

I can’t speak for you, but ad nauseum sales pitching turns me off. Be doubly-concerned with your consumers and what they want, not always just what your bottom line demands. It’s my belief that investing in the former will take care of the latter.

So, how do you market yourself? Honestly, without investing time or money, you can’t do it effectively. Trust me, I’ve tried. Pumping out a book a year is a lot more difficult to do when you’re learning how to market, actively marketing, and putting it into practice. Either your sales or your writing will suffer.

Here are two tried and true tips that worked for me.

  1. Come up with a marketing plan (with achievable goals) and follow it. You don’t have a marketing plan? Why not? I found a template online and then asked Stacey Shearer (here’s a link to her Facebook) over at Shearer Message  to help me polish it. Convince yourself that you don’t need a marketing plan. Then, try to get your books into Barnes and Noble, or Lifeway, or just your average, run-of-the-mill bookstore. They’ll all want to know how you plan to sell books before they shelve you. A plan on how to sell books sounds awfully like a marketing plan to me.
  2. Run a contest. Fine, you have a “limited budget.” Do what I did for The Anarchists. Run a “Name a Character Contest,” where you receive entries via your Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, however you want to do it. Promote it on your social networks. Use a randomizer to select the winners and promise them a free book and a mention in your book as long as they sign over the rights to the character (a.k.a. they promise not to sue you if it’s the next Hunger Games). In the end, you have created people who will promote your brand. They have a connection to you and your work. So, they got a free copy. You don’t think they’ll tell other people about their character in your book? That’s word-of-mouth advertising, and anybody in marketing worth their salt will tell you that’s worth its weight in gold — if you can generate it.

Hope this helps! Stay tuned for my take on Kindle Direct Publishing and whether it’s worth it (or not).

Barnes and Noble: The inside details (or lack thereof) of a rejection letter

When I talk about publishing, I use quirky comparisons for effect. For example, my “ketchup and cheese” rule:  just because it’s cheap, doesn’t mean it’s good.

Have you ever bought generic ketchup or cheese? Off-brand ketchup and Heinz have one thing in common — they’re both red. Cheap cheese melts like hot glue, and while I’ve never tried eating Elmer’s, it can’t taste much worse than budget cheese.

For me, rejection letters are like asking out a pretty high school girl and being told “no.” She’ll never tell the real reason why she rejected you. It could be your personality, or your wardrobe, among other things. It’s an unsolvable mystery with no closure.

I recently applied for all three of my books to be shelved at B&N. Shelving is one of the nine streams of income you need as an author. If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you’ll know that this is a discussion you can only have if you are listed as the author of your book(s), and not a self-publishing company.

And yes, I got rejected. I won’t be dating that particular pretty girl anytime soon.

The buyer responsible for religious fiction decided not to stock my books, The Lost Testament, The Revelation Gate, and The Anarchists because: a.) the jackets (covers) weren’t compelling, b.) they did not have good advance reviews in trade magazines, c.) they did not have quotes from other writers working in the genre, d.) they did not have articles/reviews in the “usual consumer media,” or e.) my marketing and promotion plan wasn’t good enough.

How do you determine the poison pill(s) from five, very different reasons? 

What makes a jacket or cover “compelling”? Good art design and engaging back cover copy that will sell the book. But what’s “good”?

To a degree, book selling is science, but it’s also a crap shoot. When a legacy publisher picks up a novel, it’s thinking the book is good enough to sell at least two years in the future (it takes that long to edit, produce and market it). That’s a HUGE risk.

For indie/self-pub authors (some places consider you self-pub if you’re indie), advance reviews in places like ForeWord, and Kirkus (the ones you don’t pay almost $500 for) are hard to come by, as are quotes from authors in the genre. The Lost Testament and The Revelation Gate were endorsed by Christian fiction authors Stephanie Perry-Moore  and Michelle Sutton, respectively. My marketing plan for both was involved.

So, that at least narrows the field to three possible reasons for rejection, right?

The moral of the story is this: these details are not really details — it’s a form letter. The key is to do all of the things they request to the best of your ability anyway, and if you’re not good enough to “date,” there are other shelves in the world. Try becoming a Follett vendor (giving you the ability to be shelved in 800 college bookstores across North America). Also, solicit your local small bookstores. They usually love indie authors.

Hope this helps!

What’s the toughest part about self-publishing?

Author Fair 2007

Self-Publishing or indie publishing? Choose what’s best for you.

Last month, me and Kemya Scott of Phisco Marketing held a Social Media and Self-Publishing Facebook Chat. There, a chatter asked me, “What’s the toughest part about self-publishing?”

That was a few weeks ago, and I still don’t have a better answer than, “it depends.”

Where do you want to go as an author? If it’s “just to get your name out there,” most of the well-publicized self-pub places specialize in that. The aim of those places is to get 100,000 authors selling hundreds of books, not hundreds of authors selling 100,000 books. That’s not a secret, but it’s also not the toughest part — deciding how to go.

Say your plans are bigger than a couple hundred copies. In that case, go indie with your own company.

Indie authors are automatically anonymous, and there are lots of us, good and bad, out there. Changing that — getting shelved, notoriety in media and social media circle, etc — is an uphill battle. You need trade reviews (which are hard to get unless you pay for them), an attractive cover, snappy back cover copy, and engaging writing in order to even be considered.

Still, in my opinion, not the toughest part.

When you succeed, the bookseller will shelve you and take between 45%-55% of your retail on each sale. You get what’s left, minus your Cost Of Goods, 90 days after the sale occurred (60 for digital on Amazon after your total owed reaches above $10).

That part is pretty tough to swallow.

I spent a few thousand dollars promoting The Lost Testament. We had a book launch party and invited 50 guests (about 20 showed) and the media (none). I hired a publicist for a few months, flew to Philadelphia for two book signings, and did the virtual book tour rounds.

I don’t know what I expected my sales to be after all of that, but I wanted it to be more than what I got.

For my second and third books, I did more of it myself. Part of that was necessity because my advertising budget had shrunken considerably. The other side of the coin is that I wanted more bang for my buck, and either you spend time learning a new craft, or pay someone who knows that craft. In my case, the knowledge was valuable enough to sacrifice the time to learn.

THAT’S the toughest part, to me — all of the D-I-Y. If you’re an author, what was yours?

Editing: really, it’s nothing personal

In another life, I was a professional journalist.

Steve Berlin, my copy editor, tore my first article to shreds and made me redo it. If I told you what I imagined doing to him, you’d think I wrote scripts for the Saw franchise.

Prior to Steve, no one had really bloodbathed my journalistic writing before. In my eyes, that article needed, no, deserved 20″ of editorial copy. Push that quarter-page ad to the back — I don’t care.

He won that round, and the next ten or so before I stopped being stubborn and learned from my mistakes.

I remember R&B singer Erykah Badu once telling her audience that she’s an artist who’s sensitive about her craft. Aren’t we all? Prior to the birth of my daughter, and my career in teaching, my creations were my babies. Nobody wants to be told their baby has crooked feet – something correctable, but maybe painful, time-consuming, and possibly, a little embarrassing to admit to other people.

This might be the reason why some self-published authors skip the professional editing process. They don’t want to be told their manuscript doesn’t walk as well as it should, or worse, they claim they can’t afford to fix it.

Honestly, editing is nothing personal. I’ve edited a few manuscripts in my day, and I don’t cackle in an evil voice, “Haha, a comma splice error!” It’s an editor’s job to preserve the author’s voice, as much as he can, while providing the author constructive ways to fix their stories and grow in the process. In other words, you’re paying them to be Steve Berlin – a nice guy who just wants you to get the job done.

FYI: For those of you who can’t afford editing (it goes between .012 cents per word to .045 cents), e-mail me at brian@authorbrianthompson.com, or try the freelance route at Elance.com.

Hope this helps!

B

The war over e-book prices

Do you own an e-reader? Are you an avid reader and/or author? If you answered “yes,” read up on the current e-book pricing decisions of the Big 6 legacy publishers (Hatchette, MacMillan, Simon and Shuster, Penguin, HarperCollins, Random House). Here’s a quick 

Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

primer.  Otherwise, you might get sticker shock the next time you go e-book shopping.
What’s the beef? From a publishing standpoint, e-books are very lucrative. They cost very little to distribute and the production costs are one-time. Inflating the price of an e-book is one sure way for a publisher to make money, which is why legacy-published books won’t EVER be cheap again.

Recently, the Big 6 have banded together to fix their prices much higher than consumers are used to paying for e-books. One of the most expensive e-books in the Kindle Library is The Greater Journeyby David McCullough. Published by Simon and Shuster, the e-book costs $19.99. Figure a few cents to transfer the file, $6 to Amazon, there’s $14 left over. At a 15% royalty rate (the average is between 6%-15% of retail), Mr. McCullough gets $3, Simon and Schuster makes $11. Multiply it out to 200,000 books sold. McCullough makes about $600,000; Simon and Schuster makes $2.2 million with no overhead (printing costs, shipping, storage, etc.) to subtract.

In a Twitter chat last week, I asked an author about their opinion regarding e-book pricing. They said “don’t have one.”

Wait, what? 

As a relatively unknown author, it’s an uphill battle to get new readers no matter how much marketing you do or how outstanding your product is. In fact, after two books, I still have to get past the friends and family that ask for free copies. Price your book at .99 cents, and you get the “impulse buy” crowd. But when the natural ebb-and-flow of sales happens (or boom and bust, depending on your vantage point), what do you do to position yourself for more sales? Drop it to .50 cents, or free?

If you are a writer, or aspire to be legacy-published, the Big 6’s stance should outrage you. In addition to all of the other obstacles you face, now you have to wonder if a reader will shell out $20 for your book or go to an online pirating site and get it for free. Indie authors, like me, are stuck between offering books for close to nothing, or pricing them as high as the market goes and seeing our sales suffer.

What do you think?

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