Should writers market?

I’ve been reading Seth Godin’s fascinating book Permission Marketing today and it got me thinking about how I, and other writers, seem to approach promotion. Right of the bat I have to say that I have never liked marketing. While I recognise its necessity, self promotion has never come easily to me. I find it awkward and unpleasant, but reading Permission Marketing has really lifted a weight of my shoulders and got me looking at things differently?

So, what is permission marketing? Basically, Godin outlines too kinds of marketing inhis book. The first is interruption marketing. This is the basic form of marketing that we’re all familiar with in which you attempt to draw your prospective customer’s eye away from what their doing long enough to talk them into buying your product. I’ve always hated this kind of marketing and I’m pretty sure that this is why talking about advertising makes me so uncomfortable.

Permission Marketing, Godin tells us, is the exact opposite of this. Rather than intruding upon your prospective customer, you get permission to contact them and then work to build a relationship with them over time that gradually turns them into a loyal customer. The only drawback appears to be that getting the initial permission to contact them necessitates a little of that old fashioned interruption. However, I must admit that this sits a lot better with me. I feel much more comfortable talking to people who are a little bit interested in what I have to say and going from there than standing in the middle of the street shouting “buy my book.”

I’m still in the early days of my writing career and I don’t really have a marketing strategy to speak of, but it has always been my intention to avoid becoming a spammer.  Unfortunately seems to be one of the pitfalls of the internet, you’re only a few short clicks away from the deadly Affiliate Marketing machine that seems to suck in so many good people and absorb them.

But are any of these concerns really necessary? Should self published authors really worry about marketing?

One of the great advantages to Amazon’s KDP service is that a small bit of luck can go a long way. This is partly because you are publishing to one of the most visible and reliable online stores in the world, and partly because it doesn’t take much to get Amazon working for you. While they seem to be a little more effective at sorting out the chaff than they used to be, Amazon’s algorithms are still very favourable to authors. When you combine the bestseller lists, popular lists and also-boughts, Amazon actually does a lot to generate exposure for your book once you get your feet off the ground.

A spike in sales and good reviews seem to be the only events that reliably generate more sales, with advertising and agressive marketing remaining a defunct option. One of self publishing’s biggest success stories, J.A Konrath, said not long ago that he doesn’t believe that many of his sales come from his reputation in the self publishing world. Rather, he attributes his success to writing and publishing a large number of books and giving them professional covers. This is the same advice we see repeated over and over in the self publishing community; the best promotional tool is another book. Over time the writer should seek to develop of platform of multiple books and good reputation, eventually this will create enough momentum and sales increase across the board. Sounds nice.

So, what can I contribute to this discussion?

At the moment I only have one book to my name, I’ll be sure to tell you what happens when I have a second. What I can tell you is that selling a single short story is no small job. In fact, just about the only thing that ever shifted copies was the faithful KDP Select free day that I talked about previously.

Should writers market? I’m inclined to say no. At least, not in the traditional sense. I tried marketing a short story. Though my efforts were meagre, the time I spent should have generated a few sales. That was not the case and all the self promotion in the world only seemed to count when the book was going for free. Admittedly, a short story by an unknown author is at a disavantage, but one only gets known by selling books and had it been a novel the improvements could not be huge. Writers marketing online seem to get a very small benefit compared to the effort they put in, and the success stories come, not from those who marketed, but from those who wrote the most.

The Craftsman or the Factory Line.

Finishing a piece of writing is harder than it sounds.

I know it probably shouldn’t be. I mean, as writers we should be well versed with the entire process of writing, right? We should know each and every step of a project start to finish. After all, we’re writers? We’re the people who do the writing, who else is going to know?

This doesn’t seem to be the case.

Perhaps the most common complaint I hear from other writers, and from myself, is that it’s a hassle to get projects finished. I know this was my problem. I was calling myself a writer for years, but I didn’t actually sit down and bring a story to something I could call completion until the end of last year. That was the first, and only time, I’ve turned the last page on a manuscript and said “it’s done.” Hopefully that will change soon. My deadline for Time Trial is the fifteenth and I’m probably going to meet it, but those near-deadline doubts and anxieties are creeping in. It has me thinking about how I ever made myself finish that first story, and the approach I take to my work.

I used to take The Craftsman approach. I think everyone probably does at first. The Craftsman approach is one of perfection. You start writing your story at the beginning and every time you write something you don’t like, you stop and fix it. The problem with The Craftsman approach is that it is unbearably slow. Seeking out perfection at each and every stage is impossible and this is probably the reason that so few writers actually finish projects. The other problem with this approach is that you need experience with all aspects of writing to really develop as a writer. After years of calling myself a writer, I learnt that I had no experience with anything beyond writing the first draft. I had to change the way I was doing things.

So, I moved on to the Factory Line approach. I had grown so frustrated with never finishing anything that when I wrote Christmas Past, I wrote it to a strict deadline. Too strict in fact. I started in the first week of December and told myself to be done by Christmas. It was published on the 4th of January. It has its problems, but to this day I am amazed how well that little story turned out. From there, I made a few stumbles. Firstly, I told myself that I would adopt a similar deadline approach. However, instead of working on the next story, I decided I would write a short story collection. The mistake was obvious. I had gone from setting myself a small (almost) manageable goal, to giving myself a much larger project with a much more distant deadline. The goal might have been clearly set, but the workload was too high and the date so distant that I was no better off than I had been without a deadline. It took me until June to realise this.

So, I went back to the drawing board. I gave myself a basic plan for a series of six stories, with a timeslot of six weeks to bring each to completion. This was my Factory Line. Producing a single product in a concentrated space of time, publishing and  moving on the next. The results have been satsifactory so far. The first draft of Time Trial was produced quickly and I was happy with it. After that, I have had much more time to go back and revise and edit it. However, now I’m running into some of the flaws with this approach, and I can’t decide if I’m just having reasonable doubts or I’m sniffing out major wounds in my work.

My biggest problem is that, like most writers, I get too close to my work while I’m writing it. This makes it much harder to view the work objectively, and I find I trust my judgement less and less. My Factory Line approach says I should work to get the story as perfect as I can, publish and then move on. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad idea, at this stage in my development as a writer I am probably better served moving on to the next piece than deliberating over an old one. But, I worry that if my doubts are justified, I run the risk of publishing a terrible piece and doing real damage to my reputation.

I have always said that I want to learn as I do. Not just learning about the business side, but learning more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. I like using KDP and self-publishing as a ladder, allowing writers to start small and work their way up in a way that traditional publishing no longer allows. Unfortunately, it often leaves me second guessing my actions. Wondering if I have the right to publish my early steps into professional writing. A publisher would probably reject them, therefore I have no place publishing them. But isn’t this the attitude that self-publishing exists in opposition to? At the end of the day, I’ve set myself a deadline and I intend to meet it. I try not to let my worries change my behaviour. If being too close means that I can’t trust my judgement, the best approach is probably just to stick to the plan and look back to see how I did later. I have little reputation to tarnish at the moment, and so long as I’m honest and I only publish a work that I really feel reflect my best abilities, I have no reason to feel badly.

Time Trial – Book Cover

Another quick update today, I just thought I’d share the basic cover I’m working on for my new short story.

time trail book cover

I’m not sure if I’m going to make any changes yet. It looks neat and tidy as it is and I not exactly a professional artist so I don’t want to try and out-clever myself and mess it all up.

Why I decided to self publish.

Christmas Past Book CoverThere can be no doubt that Amazon’s KDP program has changed publishing. Some would argue that it has not been a change for the better, but it has brought something undeniably new to the table. For the first time in history, people have been able to self publish for free and get their book on Amazon’s cyber shelves. This is monumental and it has completely changed how we look at self publishing. While we could debate endlessly about the lack of a gatekeeper for Amazon’s kindle story, I’d rather talk about why made my decisions. A lot of people are asking themselves, “should I self publish my book?” and I’d like to explain why self publishing your work makes real sense to me.

First, a bit of background. I have written for as long as I can remember. My early adventures online were all in writing and while I dabbled in music and art, writing was always my first love. Still, at the back of my mind, I never really expected to publish. Sure, I had the usual writer’s doubts about the quality of my work, but for me it was the feeling that getting published was more like buying a lottery ticket then making a business proposal. Even if you wrote the finest novel in the English language, you still had to find a publisher suited to it, hope they teamed you up with a decent staff and then pray that they bothered to market. Then, after all that, you had to hope they didn’t stiff you on the royalty checks.

Traditional publishing didn’t seem realistic, it didn’t seem fair, it just seemed like the only option. I just couldn’t get the motivation to write for that. Sure, I could write a book, but why spend hours writing and rewriting a manuscript nobody else would ever read. Things changed when I left University, the economy collapsed, my job sucked, I didn’t work enough hours to fill the day and I found myself writing again, only this time I was really writing. I had ideas, I wanted to tell stories even if they were just light adventures, but publishing was still a lottery. I needed another way.

First I looked into how to self publish, then how to self publish for free and finally how to self publish for free and actually make any money from it. There weren’t many options, but one that seemed to be gaining traction was the Kindle store. Some guy named Konrath was selling his books on there, though he was still telling people not to do it (at the time, ) and so I sat down and I decided to write a novel for the Kindle store.

It went well. Sort of. I never finished it, but I wrote faster and better than I ever had before. I scrapped it eventually due to personal reasons that were eating all my time, but while I was on a hiatus something happened. Amanda Hocking became a millionaire. That was when the penny dropped. I didn’t think my stories would make me a millionaire, but I decided then and there that I would sell my books on the Kindle store because I had as much chance there as anywhere else. Since then I have written everything with the intention that it will end up for sale on Amazon some day.

So, how does this apply to writing, and writers, in general?

Cover to a pulp magazine featuring a story by ayn randI think the writing industry has changed more than people realise. For the last twenty years, publishers have only been concerned with novels. Short stories, poetry and plays are much less profitable and so the industry tends to focus on only the largest, most commercial novels (most of the time.) However, breaking into writing by writing a novel is not easy. It is a huge undertaking that is, quite understandably, beyond most people. This is part of the reason that traditional publishing feels like such a lottery, there’s a whole world of wannabe writers out there writing their first novels and submitting them. You have to be exceptional to rise above a slush pile like this.

The literary world wasn’t always like this, and the big problem is the decline of the short story in magazines. Once upon a time short stories were the bread and butter of writers, but that market has completely dried up now with only a few niche literary magazines remaining. What the fiction magazine offered to writers was an entry level publishing experience, an experience that was easier to succeed in but that required a level of professionalism. How does a writer cut their teeth now, not only in storytelling but in editing and publishing? Who can write and edit a novel to a standard that will please a publisher for their first real venture into the world of writing?  It is an unrealistic standard to ask of writers and one that is seriously damaging the progression of amateurs to professionals that is necessary to keep the industry going.

Amazon and its self publishing revolution has helped rebuild the ladder from the bottom to the top. Where once a new writer could submit stories to a magazine, they can now work towards self publishing their work, gaining a lot of experience in the process of bringing a story to true completion.

So, you’re new to writing and you’re wondering if you should you publish your work? Sure, it’s the bottom rung of the ladder, but at least you’re on the ladder.

Making the most of your KDP select free days.

Part of the problem with self-publishing is finding an effective promotion strategy. It’s not that opportunities are hard to come by, but that no author wants their marketing to be intrusive, or even worse, expensive. Price and ethics, unfortunately, are not problems for traditional publishers with giant marketing branches but they’re an endless headache for an independent.

When I published my short story, Christmas Past, back in January, I had very little idea of what to expect in self publishing. I didn’t expect my story to sell at all, then after it sold a couple of copies, I expected it to sell lots. Which it didn’t. I’m at a slight disadvantage, I’m an unknown author trying to sell a single short story with Christmas in the title as we move further and further from December.

However, like many self published authors, I entered my book into Amazon’s KDP select program. I wasn’t expecting much to come from it; the only reason I went with KDP was because I didn’t intended to fight with Smashwords’ ridiculous formatting standards. If I was going to be publishing solely to Amazon anyway, I might as well take the benefits. Now, a few months on and the whole world seems to be publishing KDP select results and mulling over the advantages and disadvantages. I thought I’d join the fray and share what hasn’t worked for me, and what has.

What hasn’t? The lending library for Prime customers. Perhaps this will benefit me in the future when I have lengthier books out, but right now nobody wants to waste their valuable free book borrows on a short story. Understandable.

What I can talk about is KDP select and free promotions. Free days have been crucial to me in the last few months. Originally, they were something of a disappointment. Yes, they’d get me a bundle of free downloads but they never translated into sales. Where they did benefit me was in reviews. My story currently has three reviews on Amazon.com and three on Amazon.co.uk. This isn’t a huge amount, but they all came after a free promotion.

However, what I understand now that I didn’t understand then is that you really have to make the most of your select free days. Don’t just make the book free, couple it with a big marketing push and ask your friends and family to push it a little too. I ran another free day this week, but I also tweeted about the book, posted to google plus and asked all my friends on facebook to help share the book too. I managed to break into a few of Amazon’s rankings and ranked higher than I ever have before. More importantly, the sale ended a few days ago and Christmas Past is taken in a few real paid sales since then.

Now, I haven’t made any real money out of it, but bumping from no sales to five or six in a few days is a really dramatic increase. I’m sure these will drop off a bit once my promotion wears off, but it’s a helpful indicator as to what works and what doesn’t. My only hope is that the effect is amplified when you have a greater, more diverse platform to promote.

My little short story isn’t much of a performer and it’s a struggle to sell every copy, so not everything I say will apply to other people’s books, but I hope my own little experiences are helpful to you.