Do You Need a Marketing Guru?

If anyone had asked me that question six months ago, I would have said no. Maybe even three months ago. To be fair, I’m accustomed to doing things myself. I’ve managed this writing career, for good or ill, for thirty years. Then again…we get agents sometimes to negotiate better sales. We get lawyers to review contracts. Others design covers and format the interior. Why not a marketing guru (which is NOT the same as a publicist). Marketing has become more important than ever, particularly in the online arena.

Fortunately, I had a new perspective pressed upon me by my friend and fellow writer Sean Callahan. He has spent years researching this field and as a result, knows all the latest and greatest, what works and what’s a waste of time and cash. He tosses out terms like “conversion” and “market penetration.” and it actually makes sense. I had a two-hour conversation with him a while back and learned more about marketing than I had in my entire previous life.

This is why I’ve invited him to the Red Sneaker conference (Sept 22-24). So he can do for the rest of you what he’s already done for me.

A few things to think about:

Conversion: The idea is to turn all your online and social media activity into book sales. Interestingly, this isn’t always as direct as it might seem. The best posts don’t overtly promote or contain links sending someone to Amazon. Better in the long term, Sean says, to send people to your website and collect their email address. Then you can notify them about your latest work till the end of time. Mail Chimp is an inexpensive way to keep the addresses organized and use them effectively.

Metadata: Personally, I’m always flummoxed when sites or people ask me for keywords or other forms of metadata. I don’t know what to put. Jungle Scout is a program that will research the field and provide a ranked list of possible terms for promoting your book. And remember–you can change terms at any time. Try a few, and if they don’t work, or they’ve taken you as far as they can, try some some different ones.

Amazon Marketing Services allows you to place ads on Amazon to promote your book (or any other product). To be fair, this will cost more than Facebook ads, though possibly not as much as you might imagine. And unlike Facebook ads, they pay off. Use the search terms you’ve discovered to craft a highly effective ad. And if you haven’t been successful in getting Bookbub to promote one of your books–consider a Bookbub ad. Sean advocates a procedure know as “ad stacking” to get the biggest bang out of your buck and to get the news about your book in front of the maximum number of people.

I haven’t even started on branding or levels or online engagement…or a host of other terrific ideas. You need to talk to Sean. And you can do so–at no additional cost–at the Red Sneaker writers conference. Have I convinced you yet that you need to attend?

Here’s a link to register or get more information: https://www.rose.edu/content/business-community/community-learning-center/writers-symposium-2017/

Why Give Your Book Away for Free?

I’ve just finished the second of my summer writing retreats, which is why you haven’t heard much from me lately. First day, I always ask people what they want me to talk about. Once upon a time, the topics most frequently requested involved writing, but today, they almost always involve publishing. The publishing world is in chaos and writers don’t know where to take their books. Even at home, I frequently receive requests that I write a Red Sneaker book about publishing. The problem with that is that everything changes so frequently I would have to update it constantly. Better to keep that material in the blog, I think.

At the Georgia retreat, writers talked about using books as “loss leaders,” borrowing a term from the world of retail. The idea is that you sell a book for free, preferably the first or second book in a series. Technically, Amazon only lets you sell an eBook for free for five days out of every ninety, and then only if it is exclusive to Kindle Direct Publishing. If your book is free on other sites, however, Amazon will match the price. (In other words, let Smashwords give it away, and the omnipresent Amazon bots will soon know about it. Or you can just send an email and tell them)

Yes, you can give you book away–but should you? You worked hard to write that thing. You put enormous amounts of creativity into it. Don’t you deserve to get something back? The answer to that is a clear yes, but there are some sound marketing reasons for giving books away, either permanently or periodically. Free may make sense if:

  1. You want to build your reader base.
  2. You have a sizable backlist.
  3. You’re writing a series.
  4. You want to get more Amazon reviews.
  5. You have a a subsidiary product to sell.

If any of those things is true, go for it. But if you’re early in your career, or this is your first book, and you have the ability to set the price, my recommendation is that you set it low, but not free. Go with 99 cents for a short work and $2.99 or $3.99 for a full-length work. That’s cheap enough that anyone can buy it, but you will get some return. A lot of people will “buy” free books just because they’re free, but that doesn’t mean they will ever read them. Make them pay even a small amount, and the chances that they read it will substantially increase. You can’t turn them into fans unless they read the book, and frankly, reviews tend to be better when people have paid for a book, too. Readers tend to disrespect anything they got at no cost.

I’m in Eureka Springs this week. And it’s not too late to register for the California retreat that begins July 19. Writers who have joined my Patreon campaign may attend for free.

Keep writing!

California retreathttp://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Patreon campaignhttps://www.patreon.com/willbern

Marketing 101: Making Social Media Work for You

In a previous blog post I mentioned that social media has become crucial to promoting books. This is a double-edged sword. Yes, it’s cheaper, less time-consuming, and more effective than old-school book promotion tactics like book signings, but it may not be your first choice of how to spend your afternoon. My recommendation is that you strategize. Make a plan. How much can you do without going bonkers? What posts on what platforms will work best for you?

I also mentioned that Facebook is by far the best medium for selling books to adults, but Twitter and Instagram have adherents too, and other forums may be worthwhile if they or their participants favor the content of your book. But remember this: All these platforms are crowded and getting more so every day. You are not the only person advertising books. It is not enough to merely post. You must think of a way to make your posts distinctive. You must give people a reason to follow you.

What do your readers or potential readers like? Giveaways, warnings, updated info, laughs, inspirational words, advice, surprising truths, or fun facts? What emotions cause people to return to your posts? Happiness, compassion, the desire to be informed, career goals, support, or a feeling of being connected? The same creativity you put into your books must also be put into your social media campaign.

Here’s a checklist that may help. The most popular social media posts are:

Posts with images. Pictures grab attention more readily than text. Ideally, the image should make the reader’s eyes stop, then redirect those eyes to the text.

Posts inviting comment. Start a conversation. Ask a question. People love to have their opinions respected, and this will cause them to linger longer on your post.

Posts with secondary advertising. “Buy my book” posts are tiresome and should never be more than 10% of your media activity. A secondary ad may refer to your book without overtly asking people to buy. Upload your cover, or post a pic of you signing books or speaking to a book group.

Posts with links. Even when you aren’t overtly selling, form the habit of including a link to a site where people can find more information. This will also generate an image, which is good (see #1).

Some people have used ads on Facebook or Twitter to promote their work. I think this may have worked once but is now overdone. I’ve tried it but I’ve never felt it did me any good. I think it perhaps works best for nonfiction authors who can target readers interested in a particular topic than it does for fiction writers targeting fans of a particular genre. There are writers who have used these ads successfully, but I think they all started earlier when it was not so popular.

If you want to get in on the ground floor of something that isn’t overdone (yet), try livestreaming. Instead of posting text, try posting a video. Facebook Live is new and might be an opportunity to stand out—if you can concoct an engaging video presentation. YouTube Live may also be useful. Hold a livestreamed fundraising event to promote your book, or a livestreamed book-launch party. Recording live is not required. You could just make a video and post it. Start a YouTube channel (YouTube allows you to post longer videos of higher quality).

Start slowly and consider what will work best for your books. Don’t be shy about it. And don’t forget—no matter how much marketing you do, the majority of your day should still be spent writing.

The State of Publishing–2017

THE STATE OF PUBLISHING–2017

Publishing has probably never been more confusing, in part because people hold onto long-standing prejudices and stereotypes rather than looking at the facts. Well, that’s not the Red Sneaker way. I want you to have the most satisfying and successful writing career possible, and that means keeping one eye on your work and the other eye on the world. Some long-held beliefs are simply no longer true. When you prepare to make critical career decisions, what to write, where to send it, you need facts. Accurate information can help answer a lot of your questions. For instance:

Should I seek a big New York publisher, or a small press, or self-publish?

First let me say, as I have said before, that you must do what will make you happy, what will make you feel successful. That said, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent Author Earnings report, the Big Five New York publishers’ market share is declining and will likely continue to do so in the years to come. By contrast, independent presses, self-publishers, and Amazon imprints (more on those later) comprise over 50% of all book sales. Old stereotypes such as “the best books get picked up by New York” or “bookstore books are superior” are simply no longer true. Given the small market share they have, bookstore sales have become the tail wagging the dog. Most people buying online don’t care who published a book and don’t care whether it’s in bookstores. They just want a good read.

Here’s what Jane Friedman wrote in her blog: “I think it will be a lackluster and perhaps soul-searching year for traditional publishers. The “print is back” fanfare will diminish, with Barnes & Noble continuing to remain flat or decline, and Amazon further gaining market share across formats….Without smarter ebook pricing, traditional publishers will continue to see flat or declining sales in that format.”

There are advantages to having the backing of a New York publisher–and disadvantages too, particularly in the royalty department. What is clear is that it is not the only way to go. Figure out what will be best for you and your work.

Do I need an eBook edition? Do I need a print edition?

I like print books too, particularly hardcovers. I’m old-fashioned and I just get more out of that reading experience. But since our goal is to be successful, not just to please ourselves, let’s look at the facts. According to the most recent DBW White Paper, in 2016, over 70% of all adult fiction sold in the eBook format. That is expected to grow, not diminish, in the years to come. eBook reader sales also continue to grow, and more readers means more digital sales. So no, if you’re writing adult fiction and you’re hoping to reach readers, you can’t skip the ebook. You might be okay without a print edition (though it’s not hard to set that up at CreateSpace, whether you think it will be massively profitable or not).

If you’re writing for children or writing nonfiction, your situation may be somewhat different–but I still wouldn’t skip the eBook.

Is Amazon a major publisher?

A strong argument could be made that Amazon is THE major publisher in the US. It now has thirteen different imprints, covering virtually every imaginable genre, and the Kindle Scout program opens the door to anyone who can mount a successful campaign. In 2016, 7 out of every 10 books on the Kindle bestseller list were published by Amazon. Overall, Amazon’s market share grew last year by 4%. No other publisher even comes close.

This just makes common sense. Like every other publisher in America, Amazon favors the product in which it has a vested interest, both in its promotions and its positioning. If you can make Kindle Scout “crowdsourcing” work for you, do it. If not, tie your book to a similar successful Amazon-imprint title in your marketing, so in time it will appear on that book’s page as a “People Who Bought This Also Bought” title.

With all the books out there today, how do I draw readers to mine?

Two answers here, both obvious:
1) Write it well, and
2) Market.

This may seem simplistic, but those are in fact the correct answers. As the Amazon store is increasingly filled with eBooks, the books that attract the most attention will be the ones that please readers (because they are written well) and the ones that have authors willing to spend time and occasionally money on marketing.

Once upon a time, every successful writer wanted a personal assistant. Today, the smart ones hire a book marketer. Using email, search engine optimization, and social media is more effective than any previous book marketing ever was–but it does require time and knowhow. Most writers would rather be writing. But I suspect that in the long run, this is what will separate those who sell well from those who don’t. So I’m going to devote the next several entries in my blog to marketing. Get the app and check it out. And follow what my wife Lara is doing with her new novel, The Wantland Files. She’s mapped out a six-month marketing plan that’s a virtual textbook on modern-day marketing, starting with the online launch party on January 21. Click here to see how it’s done.

(A longer version of this post appears in the most recent edition of the Red Sneaker Newsletter email. If you’re not on the distribution list, sign up here.)

What’s New in Author Earnings?

I will return to the series on writing myths next week (probably) but I wanted to comment on the latest report from Author Earnings while the news was fresh. As many of you know, the people at AE have been using computerized data-gathering and number-crunching programs to collate book sales data, particularly at Amazon. Since Amazon never releases official sales figures, this data is invaluable. Every single time AE has released findings since it began over two years ago, it has shown indie publishing sales on the rise.

Until now.

It’s true. In the October report, for the first time ever, AE data indicates that the indie market share has declined. Not drastically, but significantly. Basically back to where it was in early 2015. Traditional publishers have gained some ground in the eBook arena, and Amazon’s publishing program continues to grow.

First, please note that these figures pertain to market share–not how much money is earned by authors. Authors at traditional houses take a much smaller royalty percentage, so the two are far from the same. Authors at small and medium-sized publishing houses take home about the same amount of money as authors at traditional houses (in the aggregate). This amazing. Two years ago it would have been inconceivable.

But it has declined since the last report.

How can this be? Everybody’s got a theory. Early speculation was that the decline was attributable to traditional publishers finally lowering their eBook prices, but this turns out to not be possible–because they haven’t. A more likely explanation is that the Big Five, and many small and medium-sized publishers as well–have started adopting the marketing strategies and tactics pioneered by indie authors. That would include price pulsing, discount newsletters, Facebook ads, retailer-specific metadata, and similar tricks. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I suppose. Especially when it works.

I think this explanation may be correct. Do you get the Bookbub daily newsletter? I do. It has a huge distribution list and it offers deeply discounted books, usually 99 cents or perhaps $1.99. I’ve bought way too many books because of this newsletter. (AE says Bookbub may be responsible for 5-6% of Amazon’s total eBook sales.) But I’ve also noticed how its content has changed. Originally, the books promoted by Bookbub were mostly indie books. These days, books from traditional publishers, who are presumably willing and able to pay more, take up an increasingly large share of the newsletter. By stealing indie thunder, they’ve managed to halt their sales decline. At least for now.

This doesn’t change anything. We are still fortunate to live in an age in which authors have options, not only publishing options but sales venue options. Your decision about how and where to publish should be based upon your book, your goals, and your personality. Digitalization and online sales have been the great equalizer and a great friend to many indie authors. Since the Old Guard has learned to imitate the first batch of tricks, indies will have to develop new ones.

I’m betting they do.

Author Earnings: http://authorearnings.com/report/october-2016/

Should You Pay for Reviews?

I’m guessing your first-glance response was, Of course not. I don’t even need to read this. I would never do such a thing.

But then again…everything else pertaining to publishing has changed in the past few years. And we all know some shoppers will only consider a book if it has 4+ stars. And it’s hard to get people to review your books…

You’ve probably read about Amazon’s discovery that some entrepreneurs had multiple Amazon accounts and were using them to upload positive reviews bought and paid for. Amazon tried to crack down on that, as well as reviews from spouses, close friends, etc., whenever detectible. But a lot of perfectly legal review sales still take place–from respected and venerable sources.

Publishers Weekly has a program called PW Select. For $149, PW will run the cover, a synopsis, and will consider the book for a full review. Blue Ink Review specializes in self-published titles, reviewed for $395. Kirkus Reviews will offer “professional, unbiased book reviews for self-publishers” in 7-9 weeks for $425. And if you’ve spent much time on Amazon book pages, you know that Kirkus reviews are often pulled out and featured prominently above all the other reviews as if they were official editorial content.

None of these sources promises glowing reviews, but of course, they wouldn’t be in business long if they were selling lousy ones. Quoting successful self-published writer Tamara Linse, “I actually have done paid reviews for all three books with PW Select, Kirkus, and IndieReader. I’ve definitely gotten some good publicity from it. I got a starred review from Publishers Weekly…” Linse essentially writes literary short fiction, and the success of the book that got the starred review led to her getting an offer of representation from a major literary agency. Another author credited his paid-for Kirkus review with getting him a film option.

As always, when self-publishing you must make your decisions for yourself. But with about half a million self-published titles coming out each year, you must seriously consider any option that will draw attention to yours. Blue Ink has now published over 5000 reviews of self-published titles since they started in 2009. They must be doing something people find valuable.

 

Your Name in Lights! (at Amazon)

In the past, I’ve told people at my writing retreats that the absolute social-media bare minimum, even before your first book is available, is: contact-info signature block on email, author-name.com domain name reserved, and Facebook Fan and Friend pages. But today I’m going to add another pre-pub must-do: Your Amazon Author Page.

Fortunately, Amazon makes this easy, so you can set it up in about ten minutes (and then keep improving it for the rest of your life). I hope the value of having a page to yourself on Amazon is already apparent. Amazon sells over 50% of all books sold in America, about 67% of all eBooks, and most adult fiction purchases. Your Author Page will be prominently featured any time anyone searches for your name (usually appearing second), and there will be a link to it on any sales page for a book you wrote. These pages often come up in Google and Bing searches too. The page gives you an opportunity to show anything you want to your readers–photos, bios, chatty posts, videos, Twitter feed, and of course book covers.

Most important: Your Amazon Author page will have a Follow feature. Readers who click on the Follow button will receive an email alert every time a new book by you comes up for order or preorder.

I recommend a short but friendly bio. Readers want personality, not boring details. You’re not applying for a job and this is not a CV. You want friendly, fun photos, nothing pompous or “writerly.” You should always post about signings, speaking engagements, or other events. If by error a book appears on your page that isn’t yours, or a title needs to be added, Amazon makes the problem easy to fix.

Barnes & Noble and Powell’s also have author pages worth your time, though they get less traffic and don’t provide as many opportunities to post material other than book titles. Still worth doing though.

Special note to other Penguin Random House authors. PRH has an author page for you already set up, and you may want to download photos and bios to make setting up your Amazon page easier.

Amazon Author Central: https://authorcentral.amazon.com

Penguin Random House: http://www.penguinrandomhouse.com

Bernhardt Summer Writing Retreats: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php