“Now That My Book is Out, What is the First Thing I Should Do?”

A newly published author asked me an interesting question today: “Now that my book is ‘out,’ what is the first thing I should do?” I ought to know the answer to that since I was in the same position not that long ago and will be again next month when Daughter Am I is released, but I’m still a bit mystified about how to promote effectively online.

So much of book promotion on the internet depends on social networking sites, which means that one’s promotion efforts have to start long before the book is ever published because you need people to promote to. That was the big lesson I learned during my first months as a published author. The internet is so vast that any message thrown casually out into cyberspace has about as much impact as a child’s balloon set free to drift on the wind. If you hand a child a balloon, however, at least one person for sure will see it, maybe even two or three. If you have “friends,” on social networking sites perhaps a few of them will see the messages you post on your profile and be glad for you. Or at least they will pretend to be glad for you since chances are they are promoting a book, too, and responding to such messages is part of their promotion campaign.

(Do I sound cynical? I don’t mean to. I am a bit disappointed that promoting on the internet hasn’t had the impact on my sales that I’d hoped, but on the other hand, I’m having a wonderful time meeting new people, discovering new books, rediscovering old friends, creating new relatives. In essence, I’m developing a whole new life, which is a thrill in itself.)

Some new authors send email messages to all their contacts, but unless you know the people personally, I don’t think it’s such a good idea. I’m hearing through the grapevine that spamming generally doesn’t have much impact on sales, and it only irritates people, which might cause a backlash. On the other hand, status updates on MySpace, Facebook, Goodreads, Twitter are good, especially if you link the update to a blog article that tells about your struggles to get published or something else of an equally personal or helpful nature.

The secret to social networking is to be social. I admit I don’t do the one-on-one thing that well. I have a huge list of people I owe blog comments to, but somehow the days pass, and the list keeps getting longer. I’ve started responding to comments on my blog, though, which is a big step in the right direction. I used to think it was better to give commenters the last word, but recently my blog readers have convinced me they like a bit of dialogue, if only to let them know I read and enjoyed their comments. And I do. Read them and enjoy them, I mean.

I’m starting to ramble a bit here.

The point is . . . heck, if I knew what the point is, I’d be sitting back and counting my millions. Still, I have learned one thing — websites, blogs, tweets and status updates all work together to create something more than the individual parts. Who knows, that something may eventually turn out to be book sales.

Daughter Am I will be released by Second Wind Publishing, LLC in October, 2009

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More Blogs Than One

A year ago when I was waiting for my books to be published, I kept myself occupied with setting up a variety of blogs. I told myself I wanted to test blogging platforms so I could help my fellow authors pick the best one for their needs, but that wasn’t my excuse for setting up a bunch of WordPress blogs since I was already familiar with the site. The truth is, I became enamored with the custom colorizer, and ended up with five blogs, identical except for color.

The blue blog, this one — Bertram’s Blog — chronicles my struggles first to become a published writer and now to become a published selling writer. It was my original blog, and the one I still consider my blogging home.

The red blog, Pat Bertram Introduces, was intended to be an authors’ blog, where I introduced the writers I was coming to know via networking sites. When so many of them ignored my invitation to be a guest, I decided to turn it into a blog for interviewing my characters. (I’d forgotten that until just now. Never did introduce them!) To get the blog going, since at the time it was too soon to introduce my characters, I decided to introduce other writers’ characters. If you’d like me to introduce your character or characters, you can find the instructions on the Character Questionnaire page. At the very least, it’s a good way for you to get to know your own characters.

The purple blog, Book Marketing Floozy, was intended to be a blog to promote my books. I was talking (online, of course — that seems to be where my life is lived nowadays) to a fellow author about promotion, and she cautioned me against signing up for too many social networking sites. She said that I ran the risk of becoming a marketing floozy, just popping in to peddle my books, and then disappearing again. Since I’ve never been one to take advice, I signed up for several sites (though in the end, I did more or less take her advice — I spend most of my time on Facebook, Goodreads, and Gather.) And I started the Book Marketing Floozy blog — I decided that if I was going to be a book marketing floozy, then I should flaunt my flooziness. Again, since it was too early to start promoting my books, I started collecting articles about book marketing and promotion by different authors. The site is now indexed for easy reference, but there is no article about my books, though I did mention them in passing in one of the articles I wrote. Too bad. I did like the idea of being a book marketing floozy.

The yellow/orange blog, Dragon My Feet, was an import from Live Spaces. I set up a blog there using a gorgeous dragon template, and since I mostly talked about how I was procrastinating, I called it . . . You get the idea. So now I have a blog name that, while cute, really makes no sense. And the blog itself makes no sense. It’s become a dumping ground for any article that doesn’t fit with another of my blogs. I have guest articles that are too self-promotiony for Bertram’s Blog. I have a few of my attempts at reviewing books. I have photo essays. Checking out the blog just now, I notice that thirteen of the past fourteen posts are related to books in some way. Perhaps I should turn it into a book blog? But that would be work — finding guests, reading books and writing reviews — and I am inherently averse to work.

The green blog, Wayword Wind, is a poor, loveless thing that sits there getting greener by the moment because of all the moss it’s gathering. I have not posted a single bloggery because I have never quite figured out what to do with it. I planned to post articles about the various themes and research in my novels, but alas, I can’t think of anything to say that isn’t already in the books. I should have talked about the swine flu and how it tied into A Spark of Heavenly Fire, but I didn’t. I could talk about the twelfth planet and the various conspiracy theories I mention in my upcoming book Light Bringer, but I won’t. Been there. Done that. At one time I thought of posting quotes and then giving a commentary, but I really don’t have much to say on any subject except writing. I discovered this recently when I started yet another blog simply because I like the WordPress theme. (Do you see a pattern here?) I call it The Mind of Pat Bertram, but since I seldom post to it, you can see how little is actually on my mind. Then I thought of turning Wayword Wind into a blog for posting my progress with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way program, but since I haven’t actually been doing the program, it fits more with Dragon My Feet. Because of the way I spelled wayword, it seems the blog should be about writing, but I already have a blog about writing.

So, here’s my conundrum. It’s not as crucial as the one that haunts me about how to promote my books, but it is a niggling one. I have a blank blog!!!!! What do I do with it?

(The title of this article was once used in reference to me by Lisa Brackmann, author of the soon-to-be-released Rock Paper Tiger.)

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The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. This is the second in a three part series discussing the future of books. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

Part one looked at how the filters that keep readers from having to sort through a glut of really bad writing are breaking down.  This section will look at how authors and readers can adapt to a world where the traditional filters are less useful. Part three will look at how publishers might react to reestablish their role in filtering.  

New Types of “Brand Names”: With the glut of books, readers are looking for ways of to be sure they are getting good quality reading material.  In that environment, “brand names”-names that readers have heard of-sell books, even if the names have little to do with publishing.  Celebrity is its own brand name.  Oprah’s book selections come to mind.  Fortunately or unfortunately, talk show hosts with the ability to attract readers are scarce. We probably won’t see book recommendations from say Jerry Springer.  (Shudder) 

We will probably see celebrities of other kinds acting as filters in various ways though.  Politicians like Newt Gingrich and actors like William Shatner have gotten into the book business.  Celebrity “bookshelves” or endorsements on Amazon.com and the like would sell books too, but would probably be too expensive in most cases, though actors and celebrities in certain niches might find that it’s a good way to keep their names in the public eye.  Would you be more willing to try a book from someone you’ve never heard of if it was on an Amazon bookshelf from say Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly) or one of the actors from his shows?  If you loved those shows you might, and if the quality was high, you might try others from his shelf (assuming that he had one).  Popular bloggers sometimes get into the book filtering business too, recommending books and sometimes writing their own books. 

Popular writers can act as filters too.  Authors do recommend promising new writers to agents and publishers.  They sometimes offer blurbs to promising young authors or recommend them in their blogs.  Some popular authors near the end of their careers as writers have taken to being “co-authors” with a collection of promising young authors, basically lending their name (and probably some polish) to books written mainly by the younger or lesser known author.  The popular author’s name on the book attracts readers, acting as kind of a filter while pointing fans to good new authors. 

I could see aging but still popular and intellectually active science fiction authors like Jerry Pournelle or Robert Silverberg doing virtual bookshelves of promising new science fiction on Amazon in exchange for a share of the revenue from any traffic driven to the books on their shelves. Another possibility: publishers could set up boutique brands of “X-famous author Recommends” books, letting the author act as screener and to some extent putting his status as a brand name on the line.  That might also be a way for an up and coming independent press to differentiate itself, though the cost of bringing a big name in may be prohibitive. 

Data Mining: In a world with a glut of choices in books, figuring out reader preferences and directing them to books they’ll like can be great for both authors and readers.  Amazon is often very good at this.  Their recommendations based on previous purchases can be extremely well targeted.  To some extent their data mining replaces the old bookstore owner who knew the customers tastes and could direct them to good new authors. 

From a reader’s point of view, sites like Goodreads or Shelfari can do some of the same things.  If I see a reader with ten or twenty percent of their Goodreads library in common with mine I know that there is a good chance I’ll like the other books they’re reading too.  Sites like that would be even more helpful for finding new books to read if readers could sort other readers by percentage of books in common.  Goodreads is to some extent an amplified word of mouth. 

Word of mouth/social networking: Speaking of word of mouth, it can be important as a filter too, but for some reason doesn’t seem to work as well for books as it does for movies.  Part of the problem is our diversity of tastes in books.  Social networking may amplify the role of word of mouth, but so many aspiring authors are trying to manipulate it in various ways that it may not be particularly effective. 

Websites/blogs: Author websites and blogs may give readers some idea if they are going to like an author or not.  From a reader’s point of view it’s probably a good idea to look for an author’s blog or website if you’re not sure you want to take a chance on a book.  If the blog or website is not professional the book may not be either.  If you don’t like the writing style on the blog, that’s a good sign you won’t like the writing in the book either.  The flip side of that is that authors need to make sure their websites look professional and make a good impression.  That’s a do as I say not as I do thing.  My website badly needs remodeling.  

“The Wisdom of Crowds”: A couple of years ago someone at social networking website Gather.com had what seemed to be a brilliant idea: Stage an American Idol-style contest for unpublished authors.  The winner would get a publishing contract with Simon and Schuster and a big boost in sales from their exposure during the competition.  It would be democracy in action.  Readers would choose who got published.  Well, for a variety of reasons it didn’t work out that way, though two reasonably worthy winners did eventually emerge. 

The concept has been tried a few times since then, both by Gather and by Amazon.com, but in both cases the ‘popular vote’ element has been toned down.  In both of the subsequent Gather contests, the eventual winner received little popular attention during the contest and little advertising boost from the victory.  I still think there’s potential in the approach, but nobody seems to have found the right formula yet.  All of the contests so far have suffered from a common problem: not enough impartial readers participating.  There is also an inherent problem with the approach.  If a publisher’s marketing people don’t like a book or understand its appeal that makes it hard for them to market that book effectively. 

Web forums: As an author, it’s a good idea to have some presence on various on-line forums related to your subject matter, but you’ve got to be careful not to let them eat up too much of your writing time.  You’ll also need to learn how to avoid trolls, flame wars and the usual Internet hazards.  If a major hunk of your potential audience decides you’re a jerk, then you probably aren’t helping yourself.  If you get a good reputation on the forums but don’t get stuff written you’ve defeated the purpose of the exercise.  Also, be aware that a good reputation in an Internet forum is a very transient thing, as are boosts from blogging and web posts.  If you don’t maintain a consistent presence any impression you have made will quickly be forgotten. 

Free samples: Baen Books, a science fiction publisher, has a program where people can download free e-books of some of their authors’ older books.  The idea is that readers will get hooked on the free samples and then go out and buy the newer books from those authors.  Apparently that has worked fairly well.  The key here though is that these are books that have already been through the filtering process at a traditional publisher, and the authors have other books that have also been through that process.  Giving away e-books is probably not going to work for most aspiring authors, though some other kinds of free samples may. 

New technology: The first few good writers who hop on a new technology that takes off can often establish a good readership.  In the early days of the World Wide Web it was relatively easy to establish a good-sized niche readership if you consistently had something interesting to say.  Good writers who jumped into blogging early and consistently did well.  Those niches fill up quickly though, and it becomes more and more difficult to attract readers.  Technology advances will undoubtedly open up more niches like that.  The key for aspiring authors is to recognize technologies that are likely to take off and get into them early.  That’s much easier said than done.  You can waste a lot of time on things that look promising but never really amount to much. 

So, do I have a magic key to solving the filtering problem and getting authors together with their audiences?  Yes, but I’m going to keep it a secret and use it to become fabulously rich.  Just kidding.  I don’t think any one thing is going to fix the problems or even that all of the things I’ve mentioned are going to solve the problems.  Readers, authors and publishers are going to be living in an environment where many times readers never find authors that they would love, where good authors often never find their audience, and where publishers never find authors the public would love.  At the same time we’ll be living in an environment where readers have more choice in their reading than ever before.  They’ll have to work harder to exercise it, but it will be there. 

Finally, if you’re an aspiring writer be a reader too.  Go out and do what you have to do to find good books from authors you’ve never heard of before and from publishers you’ve never heard of before.  You’ll find some “bad karaoke” writing, but you’ll also find some gems and reading those gems will make you a better writer.  When you find good writing tell your friends about it.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 1)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

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Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at www.DaleCozort.com