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.

Shopping for Writers

It’s that time again, like it or not. We were at the mall yesterday to see a movie, but we could barely get there for all the holiday shoppers scurrying frantically about. Is Christmas shopping still fun? Was it ever?

I bet you have some writers on your shopping list. I know I do. And this past week, I’ve seen several proposed shopping lists floating around the internet, all of which I thought terrible, filled with expensive tech gewgaws more likely to distract a writer than to aid one. So of course, I decided to prepare a list of my own.

Editing Tools. I’ve written a previous blog about the importance of outside editing for all writers, and I’m always available to help you find an incisive copyeditor. But some people are seeking advice on technical matters. Hemingway is an app that helps you improve readability. It tells you if you’re being too wordy or technical. Deadline and Grammarly are apps that check grammar and punctuation, but if you’re giving a gift, I suggest the more in-depth (and expensive) analysis provided by ProWritingAid. You paste in your text and it will give you many different reports (how many depends on how much you pay) and an overall summary. It will not only correct grammar but point out cliches, redundancies, vagaries, excessive dialogue tags, and much more.

Writing Tools. The most stylish writer in the house, Kadey, suggests a Tiffany & Co pen, preferably in the iconic baby blue. Diamonds are optional. I’m a fountain pen man myself, but I have to admit, they are lovely. If you don’t want to spend quite that much, try the Knock Knock Note Pads. They are hilarious. I prefer the Pep Talk version, because it seems to be speaking to writers with check boxes labeled “You Can Do It!” or “It Is What It Is.”

Consider an Assistant. Overwhelmed by the social media necessary to publicize a book these days? Consider an author assistant. The cost might be less than you imagine–find a bright English major by posting at your local community college. Every time you punt some chore like media posting or manuscript formatting or managing email or fact-checking or website management, you’ve bought yourself more time to write.

Illumination. Lara (author of the acclaimed novel The Wantland Files) suggests candles. This may be influenced by the fact that she writes in the bathtub (don’t laugh, so did Voltaire), and what’s the point of a bath without candles? Bath & Body Works is currently having a sale on their aromatherapy line.

Education. I would be remiss (and excessively modest) if I didn’t mention my summer writing retreats, which are also more affordable than you might imagine–I haven’t raised the price in ten years. My 2017 schedule is finalized, and if you register before the end of 2016, you get a 20% discount. I love working with aspiring writers, and the fact that more than two dozen of my students have gone on to publish with major publishers suggests that the retreats work. I know they’re a lot of fun. Here’s the schedule:

June 21-25, 2017 East Coast Retreat
Dolliver’s Neck Road
Gloucester MA 01930 (near Boston and Freeport)

June 28-July 2, 2017 Deep South Retreat
The Veranda
252 Seavy Street
Senoia GA 30276 (near Atlanta)

July 5-9, 2017 Ozark Mountains Retreat
The Writers Colony at Dairy Hollow
515 Spring Street
Eureka Springs AR 72632

July 19-23, 2017 West Coast Retreat
Huntington Beach CA 92647 (near LA and Anaheim)

July 26-30, 2017 Southwest Retreat
2801 Parklawn Drive
Midwest City OK 73110 (near OKC)

For information about the retreats, call 405 203 8641 or visit my website: http://www.williambernhardt.com/red_sneaker_wc/writing_retreats.php

Here are some more links:

Tiffany pens 

Knock Knock Notes

Hemingway

Grammarly

ProWriting Aid

Candles

Don’t forget to enjoy Christmas!

Is Social Media the Key to Publishing Success?

If you would much rather spend time writing your book than posting on social media–you’re not alone. But there’s no denying that social media has become an indispensible tool for spurring book sales.

In the early days (my first novel was published by Random House in 1991), publicity was primarily print ads (ineffectual), book tours (largely ineffectual), and book signings (boring and largely ineffectual). At least social media can work–and doesn’t cost anything, except of course the precious hours of your life.

Here’s a startling statistic: According to Statista, 78% of all Americans have a social media profile. You would think that just eliminating the elderly and children under ten would make 78% impossible–but it doesn’t. And 2.72 billion people worldwide will be social media users by 2019. Internet users have an average of five social media accounts.

But that doesn’t mean they use all five equally. As I’ve written before, Facebook seems to me to be the most effective for promoting books, book events, and authors. But you have to find the platform that works best for you, the one that allows you to engage readers most effectively. I like Facebook, but my pal Mel Odom swears by Google Groups, and Instagram has created the most popular poets writing today. So don’t try to do everything. Do what works best for you. That means you must:

  1. Know your target audience
  2. Know where they hang out, and
  3. Build your outpost there–and work it regularly.

One final thought you may not have considered. According to Technorati’s Digital Influence Report, blogs are the third-most-influential digital  information source for consumers making purchases, following only retail sites (like Amazon) and name-brand sites (like a publisher’s webpage). Are you blogging? Are you guest-blogging? A simple Google search would turn up fifty potential blogs that might be a good fit for your book, and most of the blog hosts would welcome a guest columnist with something interesting to say. Send them a short query and you may find yourself selling books in an unexpected way.

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