Windows into the Imagination

Monday, July 4, 2011

In the Ether: Being Writer, Part 3 - One Writer's Journey into Marketing and Publicity

Well, as promised, here is my convoluted journey through the marketing and publicity jungle.
What works and what does not work?
I just finished reading John Locke's book. Yes, I'm one of the hopeful fools who added to his success story. Do I feel gyped? Well, like all things, it depends on your point of view.

There isn't anything in the book that people don't already know, that is if you've taken the time to explore on your own and understand the tools available. It does give a validation, of sorts, that all of this commonsense advice is worth a damn. And in the end, that's the rub. It's fine to be given theories, but we want concrete examples of someone who actually went and did it in this brave new world of social media and publishing. Well, John Locke did.
It was reassuring to know that a lot of what made him successful eventually is what I had already decided to do in my own bumbling experimental way, but like a pencil being sharpened, he gives a few extra turns to speed up the process. He shows not only that it works, but what exactly about it works. Of course, whether anyone can duplicate his success is another matter and in that, I think everyone has to find their own unique way.
The key to the game is exposure. There are many newbie authors out there who have written their masterpieces and put it out there for all to see. They sit back expecting the reading hordes to beat down on their virtual doors. It doesn't work that way, not unless you're already famous. They become disappointed, depressed, and feel rejected. Writers tend to be a sensitive lot and their stories are their babies.
But it's nothing personal. Get over it. You didn't do your homework, that's all.
Yes, you have your book published and it's in the book inventory of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Chapters/Indigo, and if you, or your publisher, have oodles of money to throw around, you might have a few physical copies on the bookshelves.
In a bookstore at least, people entering the store MIGHT accidentally glance at the spine of your book on their way to finding their favorite author. They may pick up a few random books and look at the cover and if it doesn't entirely turn them off, turn to read the blurb in the back. And if you're lucky, there might be that magic zing that makes them crack the cover and read a few pages and hopefully be drawn enough to buy your book. Pay dirt.
But, with more eBooks being sold than print now, and with most new authors not having the luxury of being stocked on the limited shelf space in book stores, how the heck does anyone find your book? With thousands being added each day, don't expect your book to appear on the main eBook page of any major book site.
This is where tagging comes in, at least for Amazon.
How does a reader find a new mystery book if they don't know the author or the title? They do searches using key words…mystery, female detective, Victorian, murder, Jack the Ripper.
If your masterpiece is properly tagged, the search will return your book along with all the others with similar tags.
In Amazon, there are also tag counters and the higher the tag count, the higher your book will appear on a search listing for that category.
For example, for one book, there are these tags:


Notice the numbers in the brackets? Those are the number of people who 'tagged' your book in this category. That means they agreed that your book contains these elements. The higher the number, the earlier in the search list the book is place.
There is also a "Your tags" box after this list and if you type in a category, say Adventure, Amazon will give you a list of all tags with that word in the search category, along with hit counts, meaning the number of searches done in that specific category. No need to explain that you will want to populate your book with tags that are most popular.
You only get 15 tags per person, so if you want more tags for your books, try to get other people to add them. I did a little exploration of the Donovan Creed books (by John Locke) and he has a staggering minimum of 50 different tags on his books, and I highly doubt that his novels fit into all those categories, but guess what, the tags that appear on his page are the ones that have the highest search counts on Amazon. Well, well, well…interesting huh?
So, that is one way to make Amazon book technology work for you. Make sure your novels are properly tagged and ask everyone you know who has read the book to click on the tags, or add their own for you. The higher the count, the better the chance that in a search returning 3000 books, yours might turn up in the first three pages (hopefully) and the better the chance someone might see it. I mean, who wants to troll through 127 pages of adventure books if they've already found one they liked on the 5th page?
It won't guarantee sales but it gives you a better chance of being found.
Now, if you don't have enough friends or family who are willing to tag/click your books, no worries.  There are many 'tagging' groups out there. Go to a site like Goodreads and you can trade tags with other writers.
Next up are Reviews. Now, reviews are good things, especially good ones. It gives weight to your book if someone sees that your book has had positive reviews, and especially from people who don't know you. That means that at least one person thought that your work was wonderful.
That's one thing that Amazon is struggling with now and an issue that many in the profession know is a problem with the ease of self-publishing. Anyone and his dog can publish a book, regardless of the quality. But just because anyone can, shouldn't mean they should.
In the past, that was where the gatekeepers came in, the publishers and the agents. It's why self-publishing has such a tarnished reputation and no one who wants a serious career as an author would ever 'go Vanity'. Not to say that there can't be great authors who self-publish, but if we want to be honest with ourselves, there is also loads of crap because there is no one to stop these people. Not to say that traditional publishing houses can't produce junk too, but at least the books they produce have gone through a rigorous screening process.
When I go to a bookstore, I normally look at books from authors I know first. Why? Because I expect a certain level of quality and entertainment from them.
This problem also partially applies to small unknown presses. Not because books they produce haven't been vetted for quality and commercial potential, they have, but because no one yet knows if their 'eye for talent' meets the public standard enough to get sold. If I pick up a book from Tor or Del, I know they have a reputation for picking talent and books I might like.
Now, back to reviews.
I've sent over a dozen books to various reviewers, mainly on blog book review sites and a couple from paid review sites. Most of these were targeted reviewers who specialized in Science Fiction. Two-thirds of them agreed to do a review and I happily sent them a copy. A very expensive route to go, but it's one of the things that many people seem to do, like a rite of passage. Almost all of them gave me rave reviews and one a mixed review.
With those under my belt, I was expecting better numbers. And yes, there has been a smallish trickle, but I can't say if any of those were because of the reviews.
So, do reviews work? The school is out on that, but I don't think they hurt. And it gets your name out there among people in the industry and that can't be a bad thing.
Going back to Amazon a bit. One of the big problems they have now is the dross of self-published books that should never have found the light of day. Not to mention the rash of books where people have plagiarized other authors wholesale and published under their own names with crappy self-made or cheap covers. And there are a lot of books now where people regurgitate free information they've found on the internet and present it as their own.
Now, Amazon has tried to get their own system working to 'vet' books for suitability. They have a reviewer ranking system. These are amateur reviewers who are not paid for their reviews but customers have found their reviews helpful, non-biased and accurate by clicking the "Was this review helpful to you?" The top reviewers have special designations under their names, like 'Vine Voice' reviewer. Publishing houses send ARC copies of their books to these reviewers. That's how valuable they are. Other people hunt them up on Amazon lists and try to contact them, offering free copies of books.
Next are Facebook ads. You know that ad ribbon on the right of the page? Let me tell you, it can get expensive very quickly if you don't keep an eye on the hit counts, so be careful. It does get you fan Likes. I went from a couple dozen friends to over 160. But does it mean anything and does it help?
If you want exposure, then it does. If you want sales to result, don't hold your breath. There is no way to know if people who click are just nervous, bored or insane clickers who click on everything to check it out. I don't think I got a single sale from it, at all. The number looks good though, but to be honest, it means nothing. At least not for a newbie author. Does it get you exposure. Yes, it does that. Anything else is anyone's guess. So, buyer beware. Maybe someone else has had success, but it wasn't me.
One thing John Locke stresses is to know your target audience, but that is much easier said than done. Mine is a science fiction book. I never identified it as a science fiction romance, at least that was never my intention when I wrote it. Imagine my surprise—and horror—when some people began calling it SFR. What is SFR? It's a fairly young sub-genre called Science Fiction Romance. Nooo! Mine is not a romance, but that is how it is perceived by some and that's the important thing. Know your audience, even if you don't want to recognize it. John L. was right.
My editor suggested that we send the book to a SFR website, The Galaxy Express: They're the ones who gave me a mixed review, for various reasons. Generally, they liked the book baring a few details, but had some 'interesting' things to say about the cover. Well, I won't get into that, but it did get me thinking about a different direction, and acceptance that I was missing a target audience. I still refuse to acknowledge that The Empire is a romance. It isn't. But it is a sci-fi thriller with an element of romance. There.
Recently, I bought a Summer Sizzler package that enabled me to participate in a summer event at The Romance Reviews website. It included an author chat session, advertising on the main page and the event page, a book giveaway and participating in book games. No great hordes came knocking on my door but I got lots more exposure and  the trickle count increased during June and July, most likely due to the Summer Sizzler event.
So, are these useful? I definitely think so. When sending books for review and participating in events, I always look for the number of followers, especially active ones. The higher the count, the more exposure, especially if they cross-post to Facebook, Twitter, Google Buzz and other social media outlets.
Another useful tool is participating in writer and reader sites like Goodreads and Storywrite. These require a lot of work to build contacts and I haven't had much time to spend on this except on Storywrite which is my writing home.
The three  new avenues I am currently pursuing came from advice I got from other people.
One is writing short stories and submitting them to magazines. I've been meaning to do that since Ad-Astra, the sci-fi writer's conference, but haven't had much time.
A long time and well-respected publishing industry professional who works for one of the big six, said that cutting edge sci-fi is in the short stories. Many sci-fi writers made their reputations in the short story format first. I am making time to do that now, writing two stories and submitting them to one of the top sci-fi magazines. I don't expect them to be accepted, it is notoriously difficult to get into, but I like to aim high first, just in case lightning strikes. If or when I get rejected, the plan is to submit the stories to other magazines.
The next step I'm taking comes from something John Locke said, is about branding. He took one of his characters and made him into a 'name.' I'll go into that in more detail later if my own approach works.
The last is this blog.
So, that, in a convoluted nutshell is my current foray into the maze of marketing and publicity. I hope that helps someone and doesn't bore the rest J


  1. OMG Elizabeth, great post. I've subscribed via feedblitz. Will definitely keep updating on future posts. And I'm also on WRDF ning site, so I'll comment there & add you!

    Stay Lit