Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Book Marketing: Your Author Brand

Image from jhgmediagroup.com

Author branding is a topic that makes me feel old. When my first novel came out back in 1997, I don’t recall anyone at Penguin advising authors of the need to brand. Certainly no one mentioned it to me. Brands were for highly commercial products, like Betty Crocker and Levis and Helly Hansen. Authors and books were thought of in different terms, more aesthetically perhaps.

These days, seemingly everything—and everyone—has a brand, or should have one, at least from the perspective of the movers and shakers of the marketplace.

In some ways, author brands were there all along. Even if no one tried to engineer them, they happened somewhat organically. A book had to fit into a category, and if you found success in one category, you were likely to stick with it. What others said about you and your work also nudged you into a brand.

My first novel involved the clashing of cultures in Southwestern Alaska, which placed it in the trending category of multicultural books for young adult readers. Because of the remote wilderness setting and the adventure elements, reviewers likened my work to books by well-known author Gary Paulsen.

Instinctively, I followed the adventure/wilderness/Paulsen-esque path—or brand, as it would be called today—into my next novel. I then wrote a third, never published, along the same lines, though featuring girls engaged by adventure and wilderness, an angle that I believed was missing for young readers.

The problem, though, was that these weren't the books I aspired to write. The novels were good enough, but what I truly wanted to write were books like the ones I loved to read: novels for grown-up readers, in which complicated relationships among characters provide much of the tension, with a rural or wilderness setting so strong that it becomes a character unto itself. These would be books only I could write, drawing from my own unique perspectives, sensibilities, and life experiences. In other words, I wanted my brand to reflect who I am as an author, as opposed to a brand boxing me into an author slot that felt not quite like me.

Easier said than done.

Enter Cindy Dyson, an author herself, of a fine novel, And She Was, and a great little volume called The Last Query. In her new role as web designer with Dyson UX Design, she offered to remake my author website, going far beyond a pretty and functional arrangement to asking all the right questions that would build a brand around me. As she put it, she began by looking for the big idea, the “uber mission” Deb Vanasse: my purpose and passion as an author.

To get there, she asked a series of questions that made me think hard about who I am and why I write. What do I want to be known for? What do I want my readers to do once they’ve finished reading one of my books? What drives me to write? What truths am I willing to sacrifice for? Following a series of such questions, she also asked about my personality, starting with adjectives that describe who I am physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually. She asked fun questions, too—about things like the last time I was raging mad and the last time I was in awe about something.

The questions were hard, but the journey they prompted has been amazing. I understand much more now about my brand. Best of all, it’s not a brand imposed by an agent or publisher who’s afraid to let me out of the box they’ve drawn around me, for fear sales might plummet. Instead, I get to be my best self, extended out toward my readers.

For the final results—the beautiful, innovative, user-based website Cindy’s constructing—you’ll have to wait a bit. But in the meantime, I offer this advice: an insightful yet disinterested third party can go a long ways toward helping you discover your brand.

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier. A regular contributor to the IBPA Independent, the views expressed here are her own.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Ten Truths You Need to Know about Publishing, No Matter How You Do It

I want to speak a moment to those of you who aren’t “making it” in publishing the way you’d hoped. J.A. Jance, Dan Brown, James Patterson, J.D. Robb: you can quit reading now.

For the rest of you—those who’ve been struggling to place your book with an agent, those who’ve placed a book but suffered disappointments when it comes to sales and readership, those who’ve published on your own but aren’t finding readers—these ten truths are for you:

No one way of publishing is better than the rest. Each route—Big Five, small press, self-publishing, hybrid blends—has its own advantages and disadvantages. Inform yourself of the options and choose the path that’s best for you and your book.

Finding readers isn’t easy. To upload an e-book or a print-on-demand file to a vendor and hit “publish” is simple. But if you want readers, you’re going to have to do a lot more, which is why authors continue to publish through traditional channels.

There’s a content flood, and it’s not going to recede anytime soon. As reported by author William Dietrich in a piece published by the Huffington Post, an estimated 130 million books have been published throughout human history. That number is growing by the minute—and with e-books, titles stay in print forever. Bottom line: the supply of books far exceeds the demand.

Statistically speaking, your chances of “making it” as an author are small. Dietrich cites a 2004 Nielson Bookscan report which found that of 1.2 million books tracked by Bookscan, only 2 percent sold more than 5,000 copies. And that was before the digital publishing revolution set off the real content flood.

Trying to second-guess the market can be frustrating—and unproductive. It’s great to know your brand and your niche, but don’t try to remake who you are to fit someone’s ideas about what’s selling and not.

Real advertising takes money—lots of it—and the returns may be slim. Publishers spend big money advertising books by celebrity authors, and not so much on the rest. The small budget they have for your book—or the little you can afford, if you self-publish—will do little to generate sales if the book isn’t one that captivates readers.

There’s no gaming the system. Yes, it helps to have connections if you’re trying to publish through traditional channels. Yes, getting in on the ground floor of the self-publishing revolution was wonderful timing. But as far as what you can do right here and now to get noticed, there are no “tricks.” Learn what you can, but don’t believe anyone who claims to know the secret to becoming a bestselling author.

Wonderful books are overlooked, and some that aren’t so wonderful sell more than anyone could have predicted. As they say, there’s no accounting for taste. But if sales are steady, and if a title stays in print long enough and is popular within a niche market, it may in the end outsell certain flash-and-burn bestsellers.

We all measure success a little differently, and that’s how it should be. Don’t appropriate someone else’s idea of what makes you successful. If your primary aim is to make money, there are better ways to do it.

Write what you love and make each book the best it can be. That’s the one aspect of publishing over which you have complete control.

The author of sixteen books with six different presses, Deb Vanasse is co-founder of the 49 Alaska Writing Center and founder of Running Fox Books, an independent press and author collective. Her most recent books are What Every Author Should Know, a 5-star Readers' Favorite, and Write Your Best Book. While Deb is a regular contributor to the IBPA Independent, the opinions expressed here are solely her own. A sought-after teacher and editor, she enjoys writing at her mountain home in Alaska. This post also ran at www.selfmadewriter.blogspot.com.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Publishing: Do You Want to Grow Your Business?

(Credit: iStockphoto/stokato)

I’ve never had any formal management training. Yet I’ve ended up running more organizations than I ever intended.

It started when I was a first year teacher, age twenty-two, and I took over leadership of a small school as a principal-teacher, which entailed doing everything that a principal does plus teaching a partial class load. From there, I developed and ran a new program at a community college—the college president even said he’d help groom me for his position, but I declined. I led a high school language arts department. I ran a real estate brokerage. I ran a writing center. I run an author’s collective.

I’ve also run a host of small businesses: educational supplies; a bed and breakfast; educational services; writing and editing services; a book publishing venture. In each of these, the only person I supervised (and answered to) is myself. That’s how I like it. Despite (or because of?) my experience, I don't enjoy running things, especially when it involves supervision.

When I started publishing on my own, I vowed from the start that I wasn’t going to get sidetracked from my creative work. I wasn’t going to start acquiring books by other authors and dealing with all the hassles that come from growing into a bigger operation. Personalities. Expectations. Production schedules that affect anyone besides me.

For me, it feels like the right decision. But from a business standpoint, it may not be the smartest.

I’m working on a series articles for The Independent, the monthly magazine of the Independent Book Publishers Association. One of them is on self-published authors who grew their own highly profitable publishing companies. Like Dominque Raccah, who founded Sourcebooks in a spare bedroom back in 1987, most of these incredibly successful businesses started with a single title.

I’m interested to discover how—and why—people like Raccah made the leap into full-fledged publishing. Who knows? Perhaps what I learn will change my publishing vision.

What about you? What sort of nudge would it take for you to expand your publishing reach—and increase your profit potential—by handling titles other than ones you’ve written yourself? If nothing could convince you to expand beyond your own work, why not?

(Feel free to leave your name and a book title with your comment if you’d like me to consider it for the article).

Co-founder of 49 Writers and founder of the independent authors cooperative Running Fox Books, Deb Vanasse has authored sixteen books. Her most recent are Write Your Best Book, a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest; What Every Author Should Know, a comprehensive guide to book publishing and promotion; and Cold Spell, a novel that “captures the harsh beauty of the terrain as well as the strain of self-doubt and complicated family bonds,” according to Booklist. Deb lives and works on Hiland Mountain outside of Anchorage, Alaska, and at a cabin near the Matanuska Glacier.

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Author Collectives: Triskele Books

For a recent article published in the IBPA Independent, I interviewed representatives of several author collectives. What I discovered was too exciting to keep to myself! Here, the second in a series of interviews on author collectives, featuring a Q & A with J.J. Marsh of Triskele Books

Who started your collective? What was the initial impetus and vision behind its founding?

The collective is formed of Gillian Hamer, Liza Perrat, Jane Dixon Smith, Catriona Troth and me, JJ Marsh. In 2011, several of us in an online writing critique group discussed collectives as the ideal ‘third way’ between trad publishing and going indie alone. So we met in London and hammered out an ethos: Triskele Books would stand for high quality writing, professional presentation and a strong sense of place, whilst maintaining full creative control.

When was the collective started? With how many authors and books represented?

December 2011. Three authors and three books.

How many authors and books are now represented?

Five core members and three associates, with a total of eighteen novels and one work of non-fiction, The Triskele Trail, which is the story of how we did it.

How does the collective reach readers? How are the books published and distributed?

We have a network of channels to reach readers: our blog, website, social media presence are all vital. We also create events such as the Indie Author Fair, and make appearances at conferences, book fairs, etc. In addition, we have an established profile in the shape of Words with JAM magazine (for writers and publishers) and Bookmuse, a review site for readers.

Publication and distribution is through all the ebook channels – Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, Nook and so on, and print books through Ingram and Createspace. Audio is through Audible and independently. 

What distinguishes your collective in the marketplace?

We have a strong brand and a high profile identity as a supportive part of the indie author community. Our books are gaining increasing respect as being well written and attractively designed, plus our USP is Time and Place - location plays a key role in all our work.

How do you vet membership?

Right now, we don’t. We recently took a decision not to take on any more associates for the moment, due to the high amount of work involved. While we are committed to supporting other writers and creating opportunities, our own writing must come first. So at least until 2016, we’re not seeking new members.

What are the challenges of running a collective? 

      Significant workload - it’s not something that runs itself so requires a great deal of effort and energy. Play to your strengths and assign roles and responsibilities accordingly.
      Four-eye principle – we have to agree on everything that goes out under our name. This is time consuming and sometimes frustrating as we live in three different countries and two time zones.
      Commitment – start with a clearly defined sense of what the collective is and what you hope to achieve. When new opportunities arise, refer back to those original principles to decide what is right for the team as a whole.

What are the advantages of a collective over a traditional publishing arrangement?

      Creative control – we decide what we write, what our books look like and how they are marketed
      Timing – we can put out a book when it’s ready, as we’re not bound to a publisher’s schedule
      Editorial input – each of us benefits from four different editors and the commitment to the brand makes us raise our game
      Marketing teamwork - our geographical and genre spread means wider networks and greater awareness of opportunities
      We keep 100% of our own profits – there’s no middle man. Any expenses are shared equally
      Differing skill sets – we get to be publishers, marketers, financiers, speakers, editors, coaches and business people as well as writers
      Good fun! We all get on well and enjoy the collaborative process

What advantages does a traditional publisher have over a collective?

Probably only marketing budget. But you only benefit from that if you are one of the big sellers. Mid-list authors are expected to do the majority of the grunt work themselves, just as we do.

What do you think the future holds for author collectives?

I’m convinced this is the way forward. The collective concept is what traditional publishing used to be, and many small publishers still are: creative minds with a variety of skills coming together to support, promote and develop good writing. Not to mention finding new routes to readers. I foresee many great books emerging, standards rising and a positive, powerful force for readers in the hands of the authors themselves.

The Triskele Books blog contains interviews, advice, tips and a book club. Check it out here.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Are You a Real Author?

Are you a real author?
It’s not a rhetorical question. There are certain practices and attitudes that separate real authors from the rest.
Allow me to illustrate. Recently, I agreed to read a manuscript for a writer. It was a swap situation, one I won’t repeat. I spent over six hours reading and commenting on the book, focusing on areas for improvement, as the writer requested. Her response: “Wow…I guess you hate my book…Thanks.”
Real author? Not yet.
For a few years, I sold real estate to help my children with their college expenses. (Want lots of money? Sell houses, not books!) Decades ago, when the real estate industry was first evolving, there was recognition of the need for industry professionals—if indeed they were to earn the right to be called professionals—to police themselves by agreeing to adhere to a code of ethics. To this day, it’s primarily the Realtor Code of Ethics that distinguishes professionals from those who are just in the biz to make a quick buck however they can.
Now more than ever, authors need to prove that they are professionals. By adhering to a few fundamental principles, they earn the right to be treated as such.
Here’s my proposed Code of Ethics for all authors, regardless of how they publish:
The Author Code of Ethics
1.      An author respects the right of readers to choose books from an open marketplace.

2.      Acknowledging that writing involves learning and growth, an author handles criticism with grace.

3.      An author respects the right of fellow authors to choose the path to publication that is best for them and their books.

4.      An author refrains from deceptive and fraudulent practices, such as plagiarism, over-inflated taglines, and purchased reviews from vendors who have not read the book.

5.      Aside from accepted forms of literary criticism such as reviews and critical studies, an author refrains from public disparagement, by name, of other authors and their work.

6.      An author’s engagement with readers and other authors is courteous and respectful.

7.      Acknowledging the importance of literature in a free and vibrant culture, an author strives to write well, within the expectations of genre and audience.

8.      As a responsible member of the literary community, an author interacts with the public in ways that exemplify the professionalism of all authors.

9.      For the purpose of improvement, an author cultivates objectivity with regard to his or her work.

10.  An author affirms the importance of open discourse.