Facebook is Your Friend

I know it isn’t what you want to hear, but I won’t lie to you: Whether you self-publish or traditionally publish, you will have to promote your book, and most of that promotion will be done on social media.

I’m used to seeing crushed faces when I announce this at my writing retreats. Hey, look at it this way–It’s way better than traveling around the country taking 5 am flights to morning shows in Nowheresville, signing books at Waldenbooks when no one is there, etc. Social media is relatively quick and painless and free. Just don’t let it replace your writing time.

I also get wide-eyed expressions when I run through the gamut of social media options: Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Snapchat, Google Circles, etc. But the truth is, you don’t have to do all of them. Choose your battles. Here’s your guideline:

Facebook is king.

See the chart at the top of the page? Note the age group (though it would be no different in the 18-35 class). Facebook annihilates the competition. It is the best for meaningfully engaging an audience in a way that might lead to readers. Facebook has more people spending more time than any other platform. And it isn’t just kids. It’s the primary book-buying demographic.

Here are some rules for useful Facebooking:

  1. Start with your “Friends” account. Start a Fan page when that hits the 5000 limit. (People want to be your friend, not your fan.) On average, Americans have about 300 real social contacts. So the other 4700 will be fans masquerading at friends. Let them. I love my readers and I bet you will too.
  2. Switch the default setting to “Public” so everyone can see everything you post. Why not?
  3. Use video. Facebook now delivers more videos than YouTube. Take advantage. People love to see your smiling face. As long as it’s saying something of interest.
  4. Don’t talk about your books all the time. The hard-sell gets old. Do it maybe once a week. The rest of the time, chat. Engage in subjects of interest to others. Show your friend/fans what you’re really like. You can join up to 6000 fan groups. Is there any reason not to?
  5. Make Facebook your hub. Use Hootsuite or similar programs to post to Facebook, but send copies everywhere else, so you can effortlessly focus on Facebook but engage the other media.

Hootsuite: www.hootsuite.com

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

When to Edit–and When Not

Sneak Preview! Here’s the first-ever excerpt from my forthcoming Red Sneaker book, Excellent Editing:

Don’t try to edit yourself while writing the first draft. The time for editing will come later. Right now, you want to keep the flow flowing. I’ve heard one writer comparing premature editing to applying the clutch while you’re still driving up the hill. Don’t throw out your clutch! Keep writing!

The truth is, regardless of how much thought you’ve put into your project, no matter how smart you are, and no matter how much research you’ve done, you never know what you have till you’ve finished the first draft. Then you can see for what you’ve got and not got, what works and what doesn’t, what the strengths and weaknesses are. That brilliant denouement that only occurred to you as you wrote it may have changed the tone or focus of the entire project. Perhaps you stumbled onto your theme as you wrote and realized this new idea requires a scene to be added or subtracted.

To put it succinctly: I hope you didn’t spend a week revising and perfecting chapter three, only to realize later that chapter three has to go.

You’ve probably heard people say writers must “kill their darlings.” What this usually means is that if there’s a turn of phrase that’s particularly clever or lovely—it probably calls attention to itself. So you need to cut it, because readers should be immersed in your story, not thinking about how clever you are. Similarly, I don’t want you to waste a lot of time beautifying language that will end up on the cutting room floor.

Wait until you’ve finished the first draft to revise or you may find yourself wasting an enormous amount of time, or worse, never getting to the end. This project will take a long time even if you work with maximum efficiency. Don’t make it any worse than it needs to be.

Using Social Media to Generate Interest In Your Books

I know many of you find social media bewildering. Why do so many Americans devote so much time to it? Do they not have real friends? Wouldn’t they rather be reading a good book than reading someone’s post about lunch? And yet, social media consumes the hours and days of many, and it’s not just young people. Authors use it to promote their work.

Let me give you a dramatic example. Two poets, 2014. Louise Gluck won the National Book Award. Afterward, her new poetry book sold 20,000 copies, considered a huge success for poetry. Tyler Knott Gregson has won no big awards. But he has built a following by posting his poems on Instagram and Tumblr. Result? That same year, his new poetry book had a first printing of 100,000 copies.

Thank you, social media, for keeping poetry alive. (Lang Leav, another online poet, has sold over 300,000 copies of her self-published poetry books. Her break? Khloe Kardashian posted one of her poems on Instagram.)

WARNING: Don’t let social media consume more than 20% of your working day. Writing comes first. Following the pattern of celebrities, some writers have hired assistants to handle their social media posts. (Did you really think that was Britney Spears tweeting all day long?) Others use programs like Hootsuite to write their posts in advance at a convenient time.

You should pick and choose the social media outlets that are worth your time. The “wine chart” above, created by Chris Syme, explains how the leading media are used so you can make intelligent decisions.

Facebook: I like wine. 71% of all online adults post here to talk about their likes and dislikes. You can post information about your work, but you will put people off if you constantly post commercials to your “friends.” Vary the content. You can link directly to Amazon.

Twitter: I am drinking #wine now. Only 23% of the adult online population tweets, mostly the young. And there’s no way to sell anything here. Some authors have generated interest in their work by serializing fiction in successive tweets.

YouTube: Here’s my video on choosing wine. The second-most-used search engine on the Net. People go to learn or to be entertained, not to chat. Book “trailers” were trendy for a while, but ultimately did not spur sales. If you have a “how-to” video that relates to your book, that might work.

Instagram: Pictures of me drinking wine. Twitter with pics. Smaller percentages and even younger users. Kids think it’s a hipper alternative to Facebook, but it is in fact quietly owned by Facebook. A book cover might do you some good, but the Comments do not yet allow you to post URLs, so you can’t link to Amazon.

LinkedIn: Hire me, the wine expert. Great for nonfiction writers selling their expertise. Less so for fiction writers. Older demographic. Hosts a publishing platform that can link to your webpage.

Pinterest: Here’s my collection of wine stuff. 31% of online adults, primarily women, post here. Basically, you create an online visual catalog of your work. Poetry circulates easily because a poem can fit in a single pic, but fiction could work too.

To learn more about Hootsuite: https://hootsuite.com

How Do You Define “Book?”

If you’ve followed publishing news this week, you know there are a host of new fiction forms in cyberspace. As a writer, you can decry change or embrace it, but I see little downside in new opportunities for writers, especially opportunities that involve innovation and equal access. The Big Five largely control the books that go into bookstores, but they do not control the digital universe.

Here are a few of the new forms “books” are taking:

  1. Apps. Several new phone apps that are basically novels in disguise are getting media attention. The most successful is The Pickle Index, a SF dystopian novel that also pushes pickle recipes to your phone (to get you to return to the app). Other similar apps are The New World and The Silent History (the best of them in my opinion, discounted to 99 cents as I post this). And apps aren’t just for novels. A writer named Prerna Gupta has created an app called Hooked that provides short fiction for young adult readers. According to Gupta, 80% of all YA novels are read digitally.
  2. Phone Fiction. If you’re thinking no one would ever read a book on their phone, think again. Phone fiction is huge. The most successful platform is Wattpad, which has over 35 million users and publishes 100,000 new stories per day, primarily romance, SF, and YA. Despite the glut of material, some works have broken out, such as MJ Gary’s Flawed, a SF YA thriller compared favorably to Divergent, and Brittany Geragotelis’ Life’s a Witch, whose Wattpad success led her to a three-book deal with Simon & Schurter.
  3. Twitter Fiction. Same idea, different format. Yes, Dickens serialized many of his novels–but not in installments of 140 characters. Of course, you can post more than once a day to maintain interest. Phillip Pullman and Margaret Atwood have both done it. David Mitchell has built a strong following for his work on Twitter. Poets have done it successfully too.
  4. Serialized Fiction. Serial Box offers readers original fiction in digitalized installments (eBook or audiobook format) delivered directly each week. An online HBO for book readers.
  5. Red Sneakers App. I would be remiss if I did not mention that we have a Red Sneakers iPhone app. It’s free. Put it on your phone and you’ll be notified every time I post to this blog, add a new writing seminar or retreat, post updates on the fall writers conference, etc.

Here’s a link for the Red Sneakers app: https://itunes.apple.com/us/app/red-sneaker-writers/id1078933125?mt=8

Serial Box: https://www.serialbox.com

Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com

 

 

Is Your Amazon Book Description Doing Its Job?

At my writing retreats, one of the hardest assignments I give is this: Write a 100-150 word description of your book. Like a synopsis, only harder. I give this assignment for good reasons. First, focusing on the core of the story, its strengths and target audience, often helps students finish the book. But today there is a second reason–the brief Amazon-page book description may be the most important 100-150 words you ever write. Studies show that, more than any other element, those descriptions sell the book. If you self-publish, you’ll have to come up with the description yourself. Even if you use a traditional publisher, you may be asked to write it, and at the least should be asked to provide input or editing.

Make those all-important words count. Make them sell your book.

Here are your goals:

1) Quickly summarize or hint at what makes your book intriguing or unique. Tantalize the reader.
2) Define the genre (or subgenre). Readers must know what kind of book this is.
3) In most cases, suggesting similarity to bestselling books in your genre is a plus.
4) Integrate keyword phrases that readers might type into the Kindle search bar when looking for their next good read.

One good place to get ideas for your description is the Kindle Bestselling Books list in your genre.  (Ignore books that are free. They may only be “selling” because they’re free.) See what makes those descriptions work. See if you can create the same effect for your book (without copying). This approach may seem obvious, but you’d be amazed how few writers actually do it. Too many writers blow this description off with a few cursory lines that don’t inspire anyone to read, much less buy.

A few more tips for writing this all-important description:

1) Start with a riveting blurb about one or two sentences long. Why? Because initially, Amazon only shows the first bit of your description, followed by a hyperlink to “read more.” You need a compelling opening that will inspire readers to click on the “read more” to get the rest of your description.

2) Include some reviews of your book. If you don’t have any yet, you can add this later. If you have writer friends, see if you can persuade one to give you a blurb. You can’t control what others post in their reviews, but you can control what goes into your description, and potential buyers will see this first.

3) Show your first drafts to critique partners, friends, fellow writers, readers, anyone who will look. Ask them honestly: Would you buy this book? Listen to their input and revise accourdingly.

I know you’d rather be an artist than a salesperson. Me too. But like it or not, an author is, in addition to being an artist, someone selling a product to a consumer. In a field with much competition. A brilliant description can separate your book from the pack and give you the attention your deserve.

Are Ebook Sales Declining? Do Indie Titles Dominate the Market?

The publishing industry has always suffered from poor data control. Accurate sales information has been hard to come by, in part because no one is gathering it systematically, and in part because publishers and Amazon typically do not release raw sales data. As a result, we currently have a split of authority. The legacy publishers are claiming that ebook sales are declining, while independent publishers claim they dominate the market. Who’s right?

I will not pretend to be an expert data analyst. Rarely have I heard anyone wax nostalgically about their college Statistics class. Personally, I’d rather have a colonoscopy, or root canal, or watch Toddlers and Tiaras. But a few facts are clear: First, the traditional publishers’ claims are based upon AAP (Association of American Publishers) stats, meaning the data contributors are traditional print publishers, which of course skewers the outcome. Second, Authors Earnings has tried to fill the gap, using sophisticated computer analysis to divine Amazon sales, probably imperfectly, as they have a clear bias toward independent publishers. Third, Amazon is getting rich while Barnes & Noble is going broke, and most of Amazon’s sales do not relate to print books.

Here’s another fact: Amazon paid $140 million dollars in Kindle Unlimited (subscription book borrowing) payouts directly to authors in 2015, and not a penny of that is included in the AAP stats. Does that affect the bottom line? Obviously. Add in that plus traditional ebook sales and you have the tail wagging the publishing dog.

Personally, I don’t see it as a competition, so I don’t care who’s “winning.” If you can get a traditional publishing deal and you want to travel that path, go for it. But I’m pleased there are alternatives for entrepreneurial sorts who don’t want to wait or don’t want to work for someone else. Last year, ebook sales at Amazon generated $1,756,000 PER DAY in author earnings, and more than half of that went to independent authors. Self-publishing is not the only option, but for the first time ever, it is a viable option.

For those interested in delving deeper into the battling methodologies and earnings reports, here are a few links:

Authors Earnings: http://authorearnings.com

Publishing Industry Rebuttal: http://ow.ly/Yj670

Writing Dialogue “Off-the-Nose”

DialogueOne of the hardest aspects of writing for me to grasp was the idea that characters shouldn’t always say exactly what is foremost in their mind. After all, we don’t always do that in real life, right? Often we beat around the bush, or make elliptical comments designed to elicit information without asking for it, or make provocative suggestions hoping for a revealing response. The cliche about “the elephant in the room” reflects that often what is not being said is paramount, not the trivia that is spoken.

The preference for off-the-nose dialogue is much like the preference for showing rather than telling. When a character says, “I’m sad,” it seems obvious and, frankly, boring. The savvy writer will use an off-the-nose comment which, coupled with what the reader already knows and perhaps a bit of suggestive action, reveals the character’s true thoughts. Yes, the reader has to work a bit, but they always do in more profound works, and that causes the reader to have a more profound literary experience.

Here’s an example from my book Dynamic Dialogue:

Beth peered over the rim of her coffee cup. “I think maybe this year we shouldn’t put up a Christmas tree.”

Her husband did not look up from his newspaper. “I thought you loved putting up the tree. You always make such a big deal about it.”

“I don’t think anyone cares but me.” She took a long drag from her mug. “Especially now that the kids are gone.”

“What about the stockings? The Christmas lights.”

“I can do without them, too.”

“The wreaths? The crèche?”

“Why bother? Better to make a clean sweep of things.”

He laid down his paper. “And me?”

She held the mug in both hands, treasuring the warmth.

Looking Back on 2015–and Ahead to 2016

Everyone is saying that the two biggest trends in publishing for 2015 were adult coloring books and the surge in audiobook sales. If you’ve been reading the Red Sneaker newsletter for long, though, you knew audiobooks were hot a long time ago–and since you write books with words, you may not care much about coloring books.

Here are some more useful predictions for 2016:

  1. Two Worlds, One Family. The articles declaring that “print is winning” or “ebooks have stalled” are based upon sales data from the big NYC publishers–excluding Amazon and independent publishing sales. If you look at the whole picture, ebooks are huge and getting huger. Penguin’s recent decision to fire dozens of employees is probably due to the failure of their ebook program. The Big Five fought for agency pricing, got it, and now that they’ve raised the prices on their ebooks, the books don’t sell as well. Is this a surprise? No. But bear this in mind: according to Author Earnings, 45% of all books sold by Amazon Kindle are independently published. In other words, there are now two parallel markets, both almost equal in size. One is traditional Big Pub, which dominates print. The other is nontraditional Indie Pub, which dominates ebooks, primarily with adult genre fiction.
  2. Children’s Publishing is Poised to Explode. Audiobooks will continue to grow, but what you may not know is that children’s publishing has provided the biggest growth sector for traditional publishers for the past 3-5 years. Last year, the US market children’s book market grew by 13%. The Big Five will expand on this, not only in book publishing, but also by seeking media and licensing deals based upon children’s books. If you’ve got an idea for a children’s book, this is the time to market it.
  3. Rights Management Becomes Critical. As the Big Five become more dependent upon big authors, licenses, and multimedia partnerships, they will attempt to retain every right possible. Too often, authors have been willing to sign away rights for the thrill of getting a book in print. This has always been a mistake and will become even more so in the future. Never sign away rights unless you’re getting something of value in return. Never sign away rights unless there’s a term limit clause or a fair provision for the eventual reversion of your rights.