The power of the spoken word

First, to pick up on the last blog post, how has it been the past week to be back in a place where I used to do so much work? Actually, despite my fears, it’s been great. There are enough people here who still remember me and our time together, and it’s been lovely to see them, even if only for a few minutes. But if I’d left it much longer to return, it would have been too late, so the timing was about right and can’t be repeated.

Secondly, I’ve realised that what people remember, about me or anyone else in the public arena, is not the written word, but the spoken. The events of the past week have reinforced that too: we long to hear words at time of tragedy or uncertainty, not just read them. The human voice has immense emotional power and subtlety. Used well it can move, to tears, to anger, to inspiration. It can also reveal discomfort and insincerity, the tone and timing sometimes belying the actual content.

Can we learn to speak effectively, or is it a gift? For me, relying on my voice over decades in my education work, what seems to matter most is to clear my mind of everything that would come between the words in my head and their expression. Only then will the connection between me and my ‘listeners’ be as close as it needs to be. The words in my head come from careful thought, over an extended period of time, and maybe a few notes which may be discarded or used only as an occasional prompt. Never read, never look down for more than a second, look at people, connect with them, speak freely, let your mind elaborate and make connections.

Don’t rush, hold a silence if you want to, make the words count. Speaking freely and without notes has a cost: sometimes things don’t come out exactly as they should. A story or a joke may bubble up and can’t be contained, even though some might find it inappropriate. If that happens, apologise, but not too much.

It’s been interesting to discover that what people heard me say is what they remember most, and gratifying to realise that most of it is positive. I’m pleased that some remember my words as both thought-provoking and funny. In a few weeks I’m heading into the first draft of a new novel, which will mean a intense focus on the written word, not the spoken. What I will need also is the chance to speak about what I’m writing and learning, and to savour those precious opportunities.

I’m asking again – do I need an agent?

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I’m sure I’ve blogged about finding an agent before: I certainly think about it ‘ad nauseam’, but until this past week I’ve done nothing about it since about 2012. Aversion, avoidance – for whatever reason I’ve put it off, until a necessary change in my route to publication has forced me to take a next step.

The change is necessitated by the retirement of the publishing partners, editor and book designer, with whom I’ve worked since I decided to self-publish several years ago. If I want to continue writing, then I need to do something to fill that gap. There are three possible options:

  1. find an editor and a book designer, preferably closer than London, establish a relationship and work with them in the same way as before. I take their advice, and pay them for it, and keep overall control of the process and of the income generated by the books. The costs are upfront and considerable, but I’m used to that, and it works, so long as there’s a reasonable rate of sales;
  2. approach a publisher direct. It would have to be one of the few who will accept ‘unagented’ projects, and ideally they would take on my backlist too, reprints, storage, orders, distribution, and so on, leaving me more time to focus on the writing. You can find independent publishers like this, but keep an eye on the small print, and on the royalties – how much and how often. Ebook only publishers are more generous, as they should be given lower costs, but if you want to produce a paperback in larger numbers, not just Print on Demand, the number of potential publishers goes down. Some are focussed only on crime fiction, which might not suit my future writing plans;
  3. Find an agent. This is the default choice these days if you want to get ‘traditionally’ published. The majority of publishers will deal only with agents, who act as a ‘first filter’ and protect the publisher from being overwhelmed with stuff they don’t want and can’t sell. Fair enough, but it still feels like you’re dealing with the doctor’s receptionist, who may or may not have the skills to recognise symptons and do proper ‘triage’.

For the time being, I’m keeping my options open by pursuing all three of these routes simultaneously. Down comes the ‘Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook’ from the shelf and  I start combing through, doing everything I’ve advised my aspiring writers to do in my workshops and have been so reluctant to do myself.

The list I gathered of possible agents was quite long, and of course almost all of them were in London, which always pisses me off. (I had to explain to an agent in London once that ‘Cumbria’ was actually an English county, not somewhere in Italy where Islington goes on holiday.) Because I’m interested in getting my backlist re-published rather than touting a half-finished draft, it’s a different ‘submission’ process, more factual and less aspirational, but I still feel like the ‘supplicant’ rather than a prospective partner, and I still don’t like it. I’m a mature woman with a successful career, five popular novels and an enthusiastic (local) following. I fear I’m not the kind of client many agents would want to work with – too stroppy, too old, and too far from the literary action, and part of me knows that. But here I am, deserving of attention, but I fear I will get get very little. One good response in the few days since my first exploratory emails went out, one mildly curious, and three rejections so far, worded almost exactly the same way as the rejections I received last time around.

Early days yet. I understand applications to agents take a long time to process: they have to be weighed against each other, as only a small number of new clients can be handled at once. Waiting is always a drag: patience is not one of my strengths. But I am resigned to the delay. Maybe my current circumstances are different enough from five years ago to make the outcome different too.

One independent publisher has reacted fast and positively, but they want only crime books and I have yet to see what their contractual terms might be. If the potential sales are high enough then acceptance of a low royalty might work out. But what if they’re not? Publishers talk about the quality of their marketing, but how can you substantiate that? Amazon ebooks sales figures can be manipulated, and I want my books on shelves, not just in the cloud.

Reading this, I can see why I’m an unattractive proposition. I ask questions and have clear expectations, and five books self-published in five years gives me a bit of clout. Maybe I have the answer to my question, but I keep on asking it. Apart from the first step of getting published, I want some of the extras that could come through ‘traditional’ publishing – access to reviews, to the major book-chain shelves, to radio or TV, or audio book production expertise. I write good stories that people enjoy, and I want more people to be able to find them. So I wait for the responses to my search for professional help, but I’m not holding my breath.

 

 

 

Algorithms for Marketing? What?

I was talking self-publishing with an old friend who writes and publishes in a different genre to me, and does very well. Most of his sales are on Amazon, both paperback and ebook formats. ‘It’s all about algorithms,’ he said, and I nodded sagely. I should have said straight out that he’d have to explain, but I didn’t. Since then I’ve cast around to understand what this is about, and ended up – as we all do – ‘googling’ the term to see what turns up. This appeared, in an article by someone called Samuel J.Woods, who is clearly American from his spelling of ‘behavior’. It was helpful, up to a point…

16602455-abstract-word-cloud-for-algorithm-design-with-related-tags-and-terms-stock-photo“An algorithm is a set of (well-defined) instructions for carrying out a particular task. It’s, for the most part, deterministic, predictable, and not subject to chance. It works for all cases and gives a (presumably) correct answer.

Lots of people approach marketing this way, especially with the lure of “Big Data”.

You look for predictability in buyer decision-making and behavior, so you can scale a campaign.”

OK. Still not quite sure what you will do next after this analysis. And I’m wondering how much time this process might take, or at least how long it would take me as a data novice. My friend did say it took a long time, but he clearly felt it was time well spent.

Part of me thinks I should ‘get with the programme’ as the Americans say, embrace the new world of Big Data and grow my sales that way. But the other part of me thinks that life is short, especially at my advanced age, and maybe I should spend my time doing something more enjoyable than sitting at the laptop. Last year, my ‘direct’ sales, that is books sold direct to the reader by me, were greater than all sales through Amazon or my website. I know it’s wasteful to work in this way: I can only be in one place at once and sometimes I have to drive quite a way to reach my buyers. And I have to entertain my potential readers first, with a talk or discussion of some kind. Groups are sometimes quite small and I know it doesn’t make sense commercially, but here’s the thing – I enjoy it. It helps that I live in a stunningly beautiful area so the driving is often scenic. And I meet hundreds of people, mostly women, who love my stories and tell me so, and share stories of their own.

Now I’m doing a deal with a California-based book publisher and marketer who lives and breathes algorithms and reckons he could increase my digital and POD sales, especially in North America. He’s explained the dark arts of his expertise, but most of it sailed well over my head. I could do all this myself, or I could get him to do it and share the profits – if there are any. No brainer really. So we’re talking about the two crime books, for a year’s deal. I can carry on doing everything I do now, talking to my readers, publishing and selling ‘real’ books to them and the distributors and bookshops. The new deal marks my tentative entry to the brave new world of algorithms.

I’ve just noticed the title of the article from ‘Samuel J. Woods’ quoted above. The title is ‘Algorithms are cool, except they don’t work for marketing: heuristics do.’ What? Back to the definition of ‘heuristics’ that follows:

“A heuristic… is an experience-based technique that helps in problem discovery, learning, and solving. It basically helps you come to a “good enough” solution — close enough to the best, optimal, solution. It’s like a set of educated guesses or “rules of thumb”.

If you approach marketing this way, you have a greater chance of success (in generating leads, sales, or what have you). Why?

Because marketing is, inherently, unknown and disorderly.”

Back to the drawing board. Stick to what you enjoy, and don’t expect that any single approach to marketing is going to be enough.

 

‘Viral marketing’and local success

Last night at a local Women’s Institute meeting I heard a young man talk about how he and his wife have developed a plant nursery over the past seven years or so. Dull? It was rivetting, a saga of enthusiasm, aspiration, challenge, set-backs, perseverance, commitment, hard work, adverse weather and current growth – both commercial and horticultural. What kind of promotion and marketing has worked for you, he was asked. ‘Word of mouth’ he said. ‘If two people find us, a mile off the main highway and on the road to nowhere, and if those two people have a good time and each tell two, or three or ten people about it, then the business grows, and it costs us nothing that we wouldn’t be doing anyway, ie giving our customers a good experience.’My words, perhaps, not his, but that was the inference.

These people are BUSY, running a seven day a week outfit, developing the site, growing and selling their own plants and raising two young children. They won’t have time for sitting at the laptop, doing all the internet-based social media marketing stuff that we are told is the only way forward for a new business. And they are successful, doing what they love and are good at.

So what did I gather from all this, as someone trying to write and publish one novel a year, which is also pretty time-consuming? Tom Attwood’s story about the Halecat Nursery confirmed what I’ve been learning myself about the relative ‘efficiency’ of different forms of ‘promotion and marketing. We’ve learned that meeting people matters, and that nothing spreads sales faster than word of mouth. The most successful bookshop for sales of my book is the one where the person who owns and runs it tells each customer how popular my books are, that they are set in places they know, and that I live just minutes away and bring in the books myself. The single largest income stream in my book sales is the thousands of pounds I make every year through direct sales. I’ll do a talk somewhere, explain about how I write my books, the research, the stories, the challenges, and then I sell copies to people who are interested in them. It’s ‘book signing plus’, and it works.

In rural areas like ours there are many opportunities for people to come together and listen to a speaker, and an author like myself can gain an audience by simply making yourself available, and being prepared to plan as far ahead as these organisations do. Numbers may not be great, but there were forty or so people listening to Tom last night and he did a really good job. He brought lots of plants with him, made a fair amount of money from sales, garnered a small fee, and – more importantly – encouraged everyone there to come and visit the nursery, tell their friends, check the website. I’ve no doubt that the impact of his personal presence was far more effective than seeing a Tweet or an advertisement somewhere. People love plants grown locally for local conditions. People love books written locally with local stories and locations. If that’s the niche in this crowded market, then it pays both of us to address it.

That’s not to say that a writer like me can ignore all the internet-driven routes to market, but it’s clear to me that ‘viral marketing’ inspired by personal contact works really well, and it’s much more enjoyable than sitting at a keyboard.

 

 

How do people know your book exists?

If you click on the link below you’ll hear an interview I did with Paul Teague about my ‘self-publishing journey’.

http://buff.ly/1VT4rKB

Part of that interview, towards the end, deals with the business of ‘promotion’ – how do people get to know your book exists? That was a question I asked myself right at the beginning of the process, having decided that writing for myself, or just for friends and family wasn’t going to be enough for me: I wanted people to read my stories and realised that I would have first to let them know the books existed and then to encourage and enable them to find and buy them. This would have been an issue for a traditionally published book too, but the publishers have more to spend on promotion than I could afford. So, how could I promote my books at minimal cost, in order to get sales and a readership?

When Paul Teague asked me about this aspect of the project, I realised how much I’d learned along the way, and that I’ve become increasingly pro-active. If I wanted to get on local radio, I had to ask the presenter and producer to have me air-time, and did so. If I wanted a review in a local magazine, I asked for that too. Sometimes it didn’t work, sometimes it did, but it was always worth asking. Just before the new book – working title ‘Truth Will Out’ – appears in November 2016 I will send an ‘Advance Information’ sheet to my all current sales outlets and local media. This will have all the details of the new book, cover image, ISBN, synopsis etc, to alert them, and through them their customers/listeners/readers. Hopefully this will generate people willing to buy when the book is launched. It all helps. And if the local media pick up the same information, they will help too with a short piece, or a photo, and that increases the coverage. After all, you’ve given them information to fill their pages, which is what they want.

There are so many ways to promote your work beyond the usual FB page and repeated announcements on Twitter. If your work appeals only to an internet and social media savvy clientele, that’s where you pitch it, but you may need a much more wide-ranging promotion strategy. For my Cumbria-based fiction, local people and visitors are main main pitch, and a regular visible local presence helps.

If you’re going to self-publish, ask yourself – how will people know my book exists, why should they buy it, and how can I make that easy for them? It’s not rocket-science, you just have to think it through from the buyer’s perspective, not your own.

Can you make money self-publishing?

There was some very interesting discussion of this question at a workshop on self-publishing I led recently. Sixteen or so people round the table all had different goals, starting points, skills, strategies and experiences. Some did everything themselves, and used time and perseverance rather than money for the project. Others – me included -needed professional help with all or part of the process, and were able and prepared to pay for it. Others spent all their money on producing the book, but then found themselves with nothing left over to use for promotion, without which their beautiful books were still in their boxes cluttering up the house. Some just about covered their costs; some were nowhere near doing so; one or two had lost more than they could afford. I’d expected at least some stories of financial success, but heard none. Maybe the quiet ones at the table were doing better than they wanted to share.

There’s no question that almost all self-publishing projects will cost you something, either money or time, and probably both. There’s also no doubt that producing an ebook is much easier and cheaper than any other format, and you can sell heaps if you put a ludicrously low price on it, but the effect on sales is ephemeral. Publishing a paperback is a more difficult, but carries with it many more opportunities for promotion and direct sales.

I’m often surprised that many aspiring self-publishers don’t appear to have thought the process through, although that’s understandable given its complexity. If you truly understood the whole process it might be so daunting that you would never even start. One of the more unfortunate of the workshop participants regretted that she hadn’t attended a workshop like this two years before, and we realised why when she recounted – very bravely I thought – the series of mistakes she had made and the loss she’d incurred.

I may have had some advantage in this ‘business project’ game having been self-employed for many years, and having some idea of how to think ahead financially. Before I took the decision to self-publish I knew enough to calculate how many books I would need to sell, at what price, to retrieve the money I had shelled out at the start on the costs of ensuring a high quality paperback. The costs were for critique, editing, design and printing, and came to around £5000 for a 1500 print run. I also knew that bulk printing is cheaper than ‘print on demand’ (POD), and that unit costs are a function of quantity. How did I know that? I did enough initial research to think through some of the details and their implications. I was then able to work out how long it might take to recoup the money, and an approximate ‘rate of sale’. I reckoned it might take two years to recoup the outlay on the 1500 print run, and that turned out to be about right, although the necessary promotion strategy developed very slowly. I should have thought longer and harder about ‘How will people know about your book and why should they want to buy it?’

Once printed, and before sale, the books have to be stored somewhere. I ended up paying for dry secure storage, although I could at a pinch have saved that money by persuading friends and family to store a few boxes each for me. When the first print run was all sold, at a profit of about £4 per book, and I could reprint, then the the unit production cost would go down by about 50% while the price would remain the same, which makes for more profit. I priced the ebooks so that they too would generate about £3-4 each, as the up front costs are minimal. I have used Kindle Direct Publishing, which seemed very complicated to start with and required patience to reach any level of confidence. It’s paying off though: ebooks sales are steadily increasing, and £80-£100 per month is quite a healthy return, in my terms at least. The more books you have to sell, the better, but the outlay of time and investment to produce one book each year, as I currently do, is very demanding for someone with a job or a family, or both.

None of this is rocket science. But listening to people’s experiences the other day I realised what a struggle some self-publishers have. One person had sent off their precious manuscript to an outfit who promised to publish and make her rich. She has not seen any money, as the company she’d trusted went bankrupt, having sold her work on to another bunch of charlatans who also went down. What a mess. Now she has no money left to find out what she may be entitled to, and is lost the commercial maze that she tried unsuccessfully to avoid in the first place.

There’s lots more to say about the financial aspects of self-publishing, and I’ll hold some of it for future posts. I hope my recent two-hour workshop was helpful, although it could have been longer, and pressure of time didn’t enable me to get detailed feedback. There are so many writers out there considering self-publishing, and so many unscrupulous people keen to exploit that interest, that I find myself wanting to help with the basic practical details. Will running workshops on self-publishing generate greater sales of my books? I doubt it, but it feels like something that needs doing.

Hopeful anticipation or more self-doubt?

I veer between positive and fearful anticipation from hour to hour in this final run-up to the publication of ‘Cruel Tide’. Very occasionally I imagine what it would be like for it to be a runaway success, with sales off the scale and a rushed reprint. But most of the time I know I’m probably not doing enough to overcome the self-published author’s biggest challenge – getting people to read what you’ve written and created when there are so many other books out there competing for attention.

I’m actually going to get a review for this one in Lancashire Life, the offer of which was unexpected, but what if they don’t like it? Perhaps the value of getting any kind of review is greater than the downside of a bad one. I’ve put out so many feelers, and so few of these get any kind of response that it can be very disheartening. I wonder if those who don’t respond understand the impact they have. Maybe they do, and just shrug. I wish I understood that world better and could handle it with more equilibrium.

This general anxiety wasn’t helped this afternoon when I took an advance copy of ‘Cruel Tide’ to show to one of my strongest local supporters in her shop where she’s sold heaps of my books over the past few years. ‘Do you want to see it?’ I asked, preparing to pull my advanced copy of the book out of the envelope for the big reveal. She grimaced. ‘I’ve seen the poster, but I can’t look at it because I can’t bear hands.’ For a moment my heart sank. ‘I’ll sell it,’ she added, ‘and I’m sure the cover won’t bother anyone else, but I won’t be able to have it on the counter.’ What??? That’s a strong reaction: I know the cover image is striking, but it was meant to spark curiosity not revulsion. Surely someone would have advised against using the cover if it was that bad?

The front and back covers, and the offending hand.

Front and back covers, with the offending hand.

Anyway, it’s too late now. The books are printed and the full shipment will arrive on Monday. I’m taking a copy through to Waterstones in Barrow on Tuesday and will see what a professional bookseller thinks. I hope she doesn’t have a hand phobia. There must be a special word for that condition, and I hope that it’s extremely rare.

Beyond that the dates and events for presenting the book multiply, in libraries and bookshops all around the area. I’m grateful for all of them, and will enjoy them all too, but I wish I could break out into the wide sales uplands of Manchester or London. What would that take?  Maybe I should just rock up to the huge Waterstones on Manchester’s Deansgate, book in hand, and tell them how lucky they are. That’s what I need – more chutzpah.