Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Author Collectives: Notting Hill Press

Formalizing the ways in which they support one another, authors worldwide are forming collectives. For an article published in the IBPA Independent (before I joined the staff), I interviewed representatives of several author collectives. The authors I interviewed were so generous that I determined all the details should be shared!

 Here, the fourth in a series of interviews on author collectives, featuring a Q & A with Michelle Gorman of Notting Hill Press.

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

Talli Roland, Belinda Jones and I started the collective as a way to share independent publishing expertise between a small group of hybrid authors. The idea behind Notting Hill Press is to have a hybrid publishing model that combines the best of traditional and independent publishing. We call it ‘the third way’.

It’s important to say that this isn’t a business model because it’s not a “business”. The collective is a group of authors who have come together to pool their knowledge and experience about independent publishing. We are all hybrid authors, which means we’re both traditionally and independently published. So all of us work with the big publishers on some of our books and independently publish others. This might be because our publishing contracts cover certain geographies, for example, my book, The Curvy Girls Club, is published by Avon (Harper Collins) in the UK, and I independently published it in the US. Or we may have a contract for a specific genre. For instance, Belinda Jones and Victoria Connelly have contracts with Hodder and Avon respectively for their women’s fiction, but independently published non-fiction this year. Or perhaps our contracts are for full-length fiction, like Talli Roland, who publishes with Montlake Romance (an Amazon Publishing imprint) and has released her Christmas novella independently under Notting Hill Press.

Each author runs his or her own independent publishing business exactly as they would if Notting Hill Press didn’t exist, except that he/she has the support and access to the expertise of the other nine authors. So when one of us runs a Facebook advert, for example, or a Bookbub promotion or puts a book into Kindle Unlimited, we share the results with the others. In this way we know what works and what doesn’t.

We also share resources - we’ve pooled a list of the best cover designers, line editors, copy editors, eBook creators and paperback options. We know which journalists, magazine editors and bloggers are nicest to work with and which ones provide the best reach (as I mentioned, we quantify and share the results of publicity and marketing initiatives wherever possible).

And we share the administration of the collective – one person looks after the website, another our twitter account, another handles Facebook, and when we publish a new book we share the promotion (e.g. contacting bloggers to offer review copies, chatting about the book on social media and working with Amazon to feature the books in their various promotions).

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

We started in 2012 and have 10 authors in total. Each author brings his or her business experience, professional contacts and promotional support to the group while retaining publishing control and royalties for their books.

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

We reach readers via social media (Twitter and Facebook), both through our individual brands and via the Notting Hill Press brand. We put out two Notting Hill Press newsletters a year listing the upcoming publications and offering advance review copies. Everyone publishes his or her own books on each eBook distribution platform (Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, etc) and decides whether to produce paperbacks. The members of the collective have complete control of their books and make all their own decisions.

How do you vet membership?

We’re not looking for new members. We chose the existing authors because they’re all women’s fiction/romcom authors with very strong reputations who are supportive of other authors. And most importantly, they’re very nice people who we knew we’d like to work with. We have a few rules that all boil down to the same thing: professionalism. The books published under the Notting Hill Press umbrella must be professionally designed and edited and we have to conduct ourselves professionally at all times. This means that we use social media to sell books but as a way to engage with our readers. We don’t respond to negative reviews or criticize other authors (or anyone!) on social media.

What are the advantages of a collective over a traditional publishing arrangement?
      It isn’t an either/or decision – we do both, depending on what’s right for each book.

For more on author collectives and other publishing alternatives, see Deb's book What Every Author Should Know, No Matter How You Publish, available in print and $2.99 e-book.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Backstory: Four Tips for Writers

image from nomapnomad.com

Author Chris Abani says writers could avoid a good many problems if they applied some simple math to their works-in-progress: Identify which parts are in present time and which are backstory. Cut all the backstory. Then add enough back to achieve a ratio of 70 percent present time to 30 percent backstory.

For effective backstory, it’s helpful to know more than you say. If your character suspects she’s falling in love, but she’s leery because of a previous relationship in which she got hurt, you as the author should know the details of that previous relationship. Then you can decide how to parse them out within the context of your book—if you decide to use them at all. Sometimes less is more, with the doling out of backstory serving as a source of tension.

A few options for introducing the backstory of that example I gave, the old love gone bad:

·         The teaser: “There was Kenny. But she wasn’t going to think of that now.”
·         The hint: “Kenny intruded, as he always did, never mind the seven years and six hundred miles that separated them.”
·         Interior monologue: “Mark wasn’t Kenny. He never would be.”
·         The scene: Add an extra return on your page, and then spin backward in time, using subtle markers for the shift. “High school was a roller coaster through hell, thanks to Kenny. On the night of their senior prom . . .” The scene can, of course, turn into a series of scenes, if you decide a good deal of the tension exists in the past and is best parceled out all at once.

The hint and the teaser involve promises to the reader—reasons to read on, to find out what the heck went on with this Kenny guy. Used judiciously, these techniques also help you avoid the herky-jerky effect of tugging the reader forward and back through too many backstory scenes. As helpful as backstory can be, the reader’s biggest concern is generally the forward momentum of the present moment, however it’s defined in the book. 

Advice on backstory and other ways to turn good books into great books can be found in Deb's newest release Write Your Best Book. Dozens of "Try This" exercises included!

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

E-Book Pricing Strategies

It's fun to watch your e-book rise in the rankings when it's free. But is it worth the cost? 

A friend whose first book came out with Hatchette two years ago complains now and again about e-book pricing, wondering how she can compete with self-published authors who can discount their books as they choose, even making them free. It only got worse for her when Amazon and Hatchette went head-to-head over e-book pricing last year; for a while, her book was part of the fallout, stricken for several months from Amazon’s inventory.

But before writers get too excited over the freedom to set and adjust e-book prices, consider this: e-book pricing strategies are more complicated than ever.

Here, for those authors who do have the freedom (and responsibility) of setting their own prices, six factors to consider in ebook pricing:

That was then, this is now: Back in 2009-2011, when e-books were a new thing, hitting the market in a big way, authors found readers by setting very low prices or offering their work for free. Especially for authors of genre fiction—mystery, science fiction, erotica, crime, etc.—this strategy worked by getting readers hooked on the first book in a series, then offering the rest of the series for free. An added perk: a free book boosted rankings, or so it appeared, in Amazon’s ever-changing and mostly secret algorithms. Flash forward four to six years. We’ve got a content flood: three million plus books available on Amazon. At any given moment, there are thousands upon thousands of free and cheap e-books—and that’s with restrictions Amazon put in place (KDP Select) to stem the flood of free and cheap books. Apply basic principles of supply and demand, and you’ll see why a few hundred downloads of a free e-book have little long-term impact on rankings unless the book actually gets amply read and reviewed, and unless it’s so exceptional that it generates word-of-mouth praise among scads of readers.
What readers want: It’s not always something for nothing. Yes, if you’re writing for speedy, high-volume readers—primarily readers of genre fiction—your readers need to be able to access lots of books at a reasonable price. But these days, subscription services like Kindle Unlimited, Scribd, and Oyster offer the best deal for genre fans, with a set monthly fee for unlimited access to their titles. Overall, authors make less per download with subscription services they do through outright sales, which accounts for much complaining in author forums. If you’re writing something other than genre fiction, your readers may be a lot more interested in value than price. When an e-book comes cheap or free—especially if it’s perpetually priced that way—the perception among such readers may be that the item has little value.
Good data can be hard to come by: The publishing industry has been notoriously secretive with the types of sales data that inform things like pricing, and none of that has changed with newer players like Amazon. Hugh Howey has made some great headway with his quarterly Author Earnings Reports, but you still need to read these carefully to make sure the take-away points apply to your circumstances; mostly, the data relates to best-selling titles, and while every author would like to be in that category, most aren’t. Mark Coker (Smashwords) and Amazon’s KDP platform both have done analyses suggesting that an author’s return is greatest on e-books priced between 2.99 (KDP) and 3.99 (Smashwords). A survey of 1200 readers conducted by The Fussy Librarian indicates that most readers believe a “fair price” for a full-length e-book to be between $2.99 and $4.99. But all of this data is skewed toward genre e-books, which occupy most of the digital shelf space at Smashwords and Amazon, as well as most of the free/cheap e-book listings in The Fussy Librarian newsletter.
Pricing sets expectations: Discounts teach consumers to wait for even more discounts, as Black Friday retailers have learned in spades. Your readers are no dummies; why would they pay the retail price for your e-book if they know you’ll eventually offer it for free? Use discounts strategically and sparingly.
Friends and fans first: These are your loyal readers. When you offer a discount, let them be the first to know. I discount sparingly, only as part of a larger promotional strategy—in other words, with a reason—and when I do, I use a plain-text email to tell my friends and fans first, because it’s more personal than a newsletter template or generic social media post.
Consider the cost: In terms of time, money, and energy, offering your e-book for free or at a discount can run up costs quickly. Many newsletters that promote e-book deals to subscribers used to list deals for free; now, most of them charge for this service, and unless it’s a vetted newsletter like Bookbub, you’re unlikely to see any sort of return on your investment. Beware especially the scams that “promise” results; unscrupulous practices by these scammers can get your book booted out of the Kindle store altogether. Even if you don’t spend money advertising your free or discounted book, getting the word out takes time and energy. Would you be better off writing?

Through Wednesday, May 13, you can get Deb’s last-ever free e-book deal*: For writers and aspiring writers, Write Your Best Book is a practical guide to writing books that rise above the rest, including dozens of “Try This” exercises to demystify the process of turning good books into best books.

*Except for the always-free Alaska Sampler

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Author Collectives: The Scriptors

Formalizing the ways in which they support one another, authors worldwide are forming collectives. For an article published in the IBPA Independent (before I joined the staff), I interviewed representatives of several author collectives. The authors I interviewed were so generous that I determined all the details should be shared!

 Here, the third in a series of interviews on author collectives, featuring a Q & A with five of the six authors in the Scriptors: Andy (Andrea) Brokaw, Brooke Johnston, Melody Daggerhart, R.A. (Rachel) Desilets, and LJ (Lisa) Cohen.  

Who started your collective? What was the initial impetus and vision behind its founding?
Rachel: I guess that was me. I wanted us to immediately start making decisions as a group with a few founding members at the core. There were plenty of authors who I knew and love from G+, so I asked around. The idea was, and still is, to become our own brand. If you like one of The Scriptors, you should like them all.
Andrea: Rachel's right: it was her. I think most of us had the vague notion that we'd like to be part of a group of some kind, but she was the one with the initiative to actually form one.
Brooke: Yeah, we were kind of already promoting each others’ work before, so it just made sense to come together and do it actively. Rachel is the one who brought us all together.
Lisa: I had gotten to know Rachel on google plus some time back when she put out a call to interview indie authors for The Examiner. When she approached me with her ideas for The Scriptors as a place to build a collective of like-minded authors with a strong sense of professionalism, I was excited to jump in.
Melody: I was invited by Andy because we used to live close to each other and have helped each other out in the past with beta reads and such. I’m guess I’m the late-comer to the group, but I’m enjoying getting to know everyone else a little more.

When was the collective started? With how many authors and books represented?
Rachel: We’re still fairly new and started back in January 2014. We have six authors with nineteen books. When we started, Brooke Johnson had two more titles, but she was lucky enough to land a deal with Harper Voyager for her Chroniker City series. We are just beginning the search for new, active members.

How does the collective reach readers? How are the books published and distributed?
Rachel: We all do our publishing separately. We use numerous platforms and means to distribute our work, including Kindle direct, CreateSpace, Smashwords, and Draft2Digital. We update our blog on a weekly basis with content for both readers and writers to drive traffic to The Scriptors’ site. In the back of our newer books, we have a link to thescriptors.com where people can find more work at the collective.
Lisa: All of us are pretty active in various social media. We post links to one another’s Scriptors blog posts in order to raise awareness about who we are.

What distinguishes your collective in the marketplace?
Rachel: Since we’re a fairly young collective, we are still actively seeking members--a lot of larger collectives are closed to new authors. We consist of both young adult and adult authors, which sometimes collectives only lean towards one or the other. We also are open to any genre, but the majority of us are science fiction and fantasy writers (with several subgenres represented).
Andrea: I think it has to do with the fact that we're all at least a little bit crazy... Either that or it's because we all honestly enjoy each other's work. But it's probably the crazy.
Brooke: We all love each other’s fiction, and I think that shows. When we promote each other, we’re doing it because we know that the book is worth reading, not just because we’re friends. And we’re different in the fact that we’re not a publishing collective; we’re not a publisher. We’re just a group of authors who want to see each other succeed.
Lisa: We come at this from a sense of wanting to be authentic, not seeing The Scriptors as a self-promotion machine, but as a group of professionals with a stake in supporting each other’s highest potential.  

How do you vet membership?
Rachel: As the core group of six, we are voting on who to invite in as potential future members. We look for authors who regularly produce good books and are active in some form of social media.
Andrea: In addition to wanting new members to have books we can honestly vouch for and a social media presence, we're also looking for authors who fit in with our quirky little group and who have the energy to devote to helping build our brand.
Brooke: Yes, beyond wanting good books, we want authors who we get along with. You can have an excellent book, but if you’re unpleasant to work with, then it’s just not going to be a good fit.
Lisa: Just as finding the right fit is crucial for critique/beta reads, finding the right people to take part in a collective like this is essential for the group to work. So much depends on core values and goals and making sure each of us is right for the collective and that the collective is right for each of us. Someone can be a great author, but not a great fit for the group.

What’s required of authors who participate? What benefits do participating authors enjoy?
Rachel: We require weekly participation on the blog. I upkeep the website with new banners. We have a G+ page and twitter account used to extend the reach of author sales and new releases. Eventually, we might expand to having a newsletter.
Andrea: There's also an expectation that members will support each other, reshare the occasional post, and try to keep up with new releases. When I say I can personally rate my fellow members' books as books that should be read, that means I need to have read the books.
Brooke: And there’s commenting on our fellow authors’ posts to promote discussion. As well as actively letting others know that we’re part of a collective. Having a link, or a note, in the back of our books, recommending the other Scriptors authors to the reader is part of our marketing strategy to reach wider audiences.
Lisa: Rachel does a great job corralling us all when it’s our time to write a blog post. One of the intangible benefits from belonging to The Scriptors is the sense that we’re not going it alone, or shouting in the wilderness. Reaching an audience is tough; there’s so much noise it’s hard to get your message through it. But having a group that supports your work helps. And it’s always easier to brag about someone else’s work.
Melody: For me it’s about feeling connected. I see it as a give and take of sharing, reviewing, commenting, etc. But I prefer to write “among” readers and writers because of the feedback. That connection is what reminds me why I write. I write for fun and pleasure, yes. And I can write in isolation and then shove the book in a closet, never seeing it reach other people in any way. But connecting to other readers and writers are what books are born for -- it breathes life into them.

What are the challenges of running a collective? What advice would you give to authors who either want to start a collective or join an existing one?
Rachel: A collective requires a lot of commitment and communication. The weekly blog posts, sharing sales and promotional posts, and reading each others work so you can properly endorse it takes time. If you are joining a newer collective, be prepared to put in the hours without immediate results. Gaining ground in a saturated market takes time, but in the long run, it will be worth it.
Andrea: I'm grateful I can't speak as to the challenges of running a collective. I can't imagine having the energy to even try running one! I do have advice for joining one though, and that is that you need to always remember that it's not just about what the collective can do for you, but about what you can do for your collective.
Brooke: I’m not the showrunner--Rachel has that honor--but I do a lot of behind-the-scenes work: reminding people when to post, helping Rachel design and edit promotional material, moderating comments, tweaking the website when something weird happens, and lending a hand when Rachel needs it. I do whatever is needed of me to keep the site running smoothly, basically. As for advice, Andy has it: “it's not just about what the collective can do for you, but about what you can do for your collective.” We’re a collective for a reason. We’re here to help each other out, and if you want to get something out of the partnership, you have to put in an equal share.  
Lisa: Make sure you understand the culture of the group you are joining and the responsibilities of each member of the group. Be honest about your time availability and know that you will get out only what you put into it.
Melody: I honestly can’t top what’s already been said. It’s a team effort. You have to know that going into it, or there’s no point in being part of a team. Communication is essential. Other people are depending on you. Professionalism means being able to see it through for the sake of everyone else, even when you’re having off days.

What are the advantages of a collective over a traditional publishing arrangement? What advantages does a traditional publisher have over a collective?
Rachel: In our collective, you remain in charge of all your own publishing. You keep the same high percentage of royalties. You get that advantage, but also have a group of other authors helping you promote through social media.
However, the collective itself doesn’t make a profit, so we don’t have the same marketing budget as traditional publishers do. But our hybrid author, Brooke Johnson, is still planning on independently publishing some titles, while taking advantage of a traditional publisher for her Chroniker City series.
Brooke: The biggest advantage of the collective (other than complete rights control, as Rachel points out) is the close-knit, almost familial atmosphere between authors. We’re all friends, and we want to support one another. We want to see each other succeed. With a traditional publisher, there is a little bit of that between authors, I think, as you tend to do events together and you do promote one another within your genre or imprint, but it’s without the same kind of closeness. Authors with a traditional house are more like colleagues. But the biggest benefit of publishing with a traditional publisher is size and market reach. While collectives can pool their audiences and cross promote, our audiences are small in comparison to traditional publishing houses.
Lisa: The Scriptors isn’t a publisher; it is essentially a marketing organization where a group of like-minded authors combine forces to help one another’s reach. The advantage of a collective for this is that it becomes an intentional community, rather than a group based on circumstance, e.g., being published by the same imprint.
Melody: I like having a personal approach to marketing and publishing, as opposed to feeling like a cog in a machine. I prefer to be a name with something fun and creative to share, rather than being a budget figuring into an even larger budget that shapes the overall picture of the product. I like having contact with my readers and other writers more than business agents. I realize the object of marketing is to sell books and make money, but connections are more important to me -- personal connections. Traditional marketing might push through the “industry” easier to reach more mainstream markets, but there’s no comparison to getting a message from someone who wants to talk with you about your book and be a part of the universe you’re shaping. And I’m free to do that in an indie collective as opposed to signing contracts with publishers about what I can or cannot talk about or what I lose control over. I used to work for a traditional publisher, and your lips are sealed the minute you sign that contract.

What do you think the future holds for author collectives?
Rachel: I’m excited about the future for author collectives. It’s a great way to work with other authors you respect and have your own work promoted in return. With so many authors out there, being part of a collective makes it easier for readers to discover you. Once a reader finds one author in the collective they enjoy, they could potentially pick up more titles.
Andrea: It's been said by many people that indie publishing is the new midlist , and I think it's true. I then go on to think that collectives are a new form of imprints. The spines of our books may say Hedgie Press, Black Cat Ink, etc, but we're under the Scriptors umbrella that tells readers these books are by great storytellers. Finding a new collective you like should mean you just found a new list of authors you'll enjoy reading.
Brooke: I’d like to think that author collectives will be a sign of professional indies in the future. Authors who take their craft seriously and work to promote their brand will tend to have better quality books. They will become a brand that readers trust, and they might try a book they might not have otherwise read because the author is in the same collective as an author they love.
Lisa: Publishing as an independent is a difficult and time/resource intensive endeavor. I believe collectives will help groups of writers combine forces and resources to ease the burden and smooth the way. I also believe that collectives can become solid brands that the reader can associate with a particular kind of product and professionalism.
Melody: I think we’ll see more and more author collectives as indie authors continue to push the envelope, challenging the publishing industry standards. I see the publishing empire a bit like the Roman empire, in that eventually it gets so big and has so much control that its size and management takes precedence over listening to what the readers have to say. When you’re small scale, and personal, you hear more. We can tailor our books to very specific tastes in the market. They say there’s a book out there for every taste … but how do you know what those tastes are if you’re giving readers the same “proven sales” formula-type of books? It’s freeing to think of all the mixes and mashes we can create for those readers who are being neglected because they want something different. So, I think just like how the Internet took us from being a nation where everyone listened to the same top 40 songs to having the whole world of music at our fingertips, indie publishing and collectives are giving a whole world of new literature to readers beyond what the traditional industry offers.