The Business Rusch: With A Little Help From My Friends (Discoverability Part 11)
When we set up the anthology workshop that we held last week, Dean Wesley Smith told everyone that they would have a great opportunity to network. After all, 50 professional writers whose work runs the gamut of the fiction genres would be there from all over the world.
A few of the new attendees worried about that admonition because, as introverts, being in a new setting with that large a crowd (however sympathetic) was difficult.
But Dean’s comment wasn’t about the usual meet-and-greet stuff. Most writers are not good at that glad-handing hail-fellow-well-met thing that happens at most conferences. Dean was referring to the fact that throughout the week, writers would meet fellow writers with similar interests, similar tastes, and similar problems. Even the most reclusive introvert could find a friend at the workshop.
We spent a lot of time talking about stories, filling anthologies, and discussing business. But we also had unscheduled down time. Writers either slept or walked on the beach with new friends or made plans. Several books will come out of this workshop, and so did some discoverability plans, from guest blogging to group websites.
Plus we had fun.
The writer/editors had fun as well. We invited John Helfers, Kerrie L. Hughes, Kevin J. Anderson, and Rebecca Moesta because we liked their editing skills, yes, but also because we knew that their reading tastes were different than ours—and because we like them. As you can see from this weirdo gif that Google+ assembled from photos taken by Dayle A. Dermatis and Annie Reed. (Click on the image to get it to move.)
I don’t know where the synergy started with the six editors. We’ve all known each other for a long, long time. But I do know that introvert-me met Kevin (less of an introvert) at a creative writing class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We have been friends ever since. Over the years, we have written novels together, planned parties together, stood up for each other at weddings, helped each other in times of need, and oh, yeah, boosted each other up in our writing careers.
I met Dean (even less of an introvert) at a workshop as well, then introduced him to Kevin. Kevin introduced us to Rebecca. We met John when Martin H. Greenberg hired him to work at Tekno Books, and were friends damn near from hello. Then he introduced us to Kerrie. And all six of us, in combination and separately, came up with some truly fantastic ideas at this workshop as well.
I could go on like this about the whole workshop because writer networking leads to great projects. It also leads to discoverability. At the workshop, we introduced Kevin and Rebecca to the great writers who are part of our writing network (formed through our Coast Workshops). They have introduced us to great writers through their Superstars network.
Writer networking also happens online. Sometimes it happens in forums, and other times it happens on websites. The Business Rusch blog is a small community that shares information. Some writers share via the comments. Others send me e-mails. And still others donate to support the blog, keeping the information going.
Dean’s blog has a different community. In fact, every major blogger has attracted a community to his/her work. It’s networking at both its best and its worst. (Best when the information is shared through thoughtful discussion, worst when those networks turn into paranoid sound vacuums. See my post last week about politics and religion and blogging.)
There are a variety of networks. Some are informal, like the blog communities. Others are formal. The formal networks have contractual agreements that the members have to sign before they join. Some of these networks also have dues or volunteer time requirements.
One of the formal networks that I’m familiar with is Bookview Café. It’s a cooperative publisher, which it defines thusly:
Our members are authors across all genres, from science fiction to romance to historical to mainstream. We function as editors, copyeditors, ebook formatters, cover artists, website maintainers and more. We offer both reprints and new titles, currently in ebook form, but we’re looking at expanding to print…
Bookview Café does not prevent its members from placing their ebooks in other stores, like Amazon, B&N, or iTunes. But it does prefer to sell the books through its website. How all this works, aside from the fact that there are legal documents governing the relationship, is not something I’m really privy to. Some of the answers can be found on their FAQ. I know some others, because I know members, but I have no idea what information is private or not.
I mention them here, not because they’re the only cooperative publisher I know of, but because I spoke via e-mail with friends from the café for this piece. Also, BVC has been around almost as long as this e-book revolution, so they’re very well informed about what works and what does not.
They have a fluid business model, which adapts to the changes in the industry—in a smart way, as far as I can tell.
Less formal networks exist in all sorts of ways, which I will list below.
I will say this: If you’re forming a network, and that network involves financial transactions and/or expectations of work, then you absolutely need a legal agreement. Too many lawsuits occur because someone handled money incorrectly or feelings got hurt over volunteer work. I used to work for a nonprofit staffed by volunteers, and believe me, we had the most difficulty when there was no legal contract governing the relationship.
So, if you’re setting up a network, and someone handles money—even on one project—make certain you have a contract between all parties involved.
That said, networks are a generally a good thing. Yes, they can get toxic and yes, there’s always going to be someone who pisses in the pool. If no finances or division of labor is involved, make sure the network is run by one person who decides which direction it goes. If there are finances or expected division of labor, you need that contract to get rid of the troublemakers. (And you will never be able to predict in advance who those troublemakers will be.)
For the purposes of this blog, we’ll talk only about the way networks aid discoverability. Networks can be invaluable in helping writers get discovered. There are a million ways to do it.
I asked a few of my writer friends who are very good at discoverability in 2014 how they or their organization is doing the work. I was going to ask more, but I didn’t have as much time as I expected to have last week. My bad. So I would love it if you folks add what innovative ways you’ve worked on discoverability with the help of your friends in the comments below.
In no particular order, here’s how networks can aid discoverability:
1. Call To Arms:
I put this one first because it’s the one everyone thinks of. It’s the obvious way to use a network. You give the network members information, then ask them to use their social media/bookstore connections to promote your work.
Honestly, I rarely do a call-to-arms. When I do, I don’t do it for my work. I do it for a charity or a good cause. Once, Dean and I did a call-to-arms for a friend’s business being badly misrepresented on a recommendation site. We asked anyone who had direct personal experience with the friend’s business to write about that experience. Dozens of people did, and the problem got resolved.
A call-to-arms is different than a notification. A notification is a single post or tweet or message letting your fans know that something new is available. A call-to-arms directly asks people to retweet, tell their friends, or do some kind of action for you. The more you do it, the less your network pays attention—and the less people outside the network pay attention.
Fantasy, historical, and mystery writer Pati Nagle, who publishes her work through Bookview Café, says that group learned this the hard way.
In an e-mail, she wrote,
One thing we’ve learned from past experience is that just having everyone share and retweet each other’s book posts isn’t all that effective—especially when we have friends in common and they start seeing the same post multiple times. That gets regarded as spam.
A call-to-arms is huge, easily misused weapon. Do this rarely, if at all.
Some of you know that last month, I was in a book bundle with several writers. I’m in a bundle this month too, through Storybundle.com. Kevin curated this bundle, and asked me to be part of it, not just because we’re buds, but because I had a series that fit with it. (He’s done other bundles without me.)
This bundle offers nine books. I put in the first book in my Fey series. Kevin has included a book, of course, and so have David Farland, James A. Owen, Peter Wacks & Mark Ryan, Peter David, Brandon Sanderson, Tracy Hickman, and Neil Gaiman.
Readers can set their own price for the bundle (no lower than $3), and some of the money goes to a charitable cause dear to all of us, The Challenger Center.
It sounds like a super-powered bundle, and it is, but I urge you to go to the site to see how it came about. If you click on the book covers on the home page, you’ll see Kevin’s curated comments. They’re not about the books. Each one describes how Kevin met or knows the writers in question.
The comments go like this one for Neil:
How can I not have a soft spot for Neil Gaiman? Fans know him as a god among writers, one of the most successful authors working today. For me, though, I got to know Neil when his young son (now a successful doctor!) was a big fan of our Star Wars Young Jedi Knights series. OK, Neil, we’ll let you in the StoryBundle… – Kevin J. Anderson
If you read the curated comments all together, you’ll see a network at work, and the center of that network is Kevin.
You’d think that this group doesn’t need discoverability, but every writer is unknown to a vast majority of readers. In fact, when I told one of my best friends (an avid reader [not a writer] who also knows Kevin) that this bundle was starting this week, my friend said, “Who’s Neil Gaiman?”
My friend was serious. He has read some of the other writers, but Neil has somehow never crossed his radar. Even when I told my friend the name of Neil’s books and the movies made from his work, my friend had still never heard of Neil. So if my friend buys the bundle, one of the authors he will discover will be Neil Gaiman.
Bundles like this one are run by a bundling company. The company brings its own newsletter to the table, plus hosts the bundle and does the work getting the books ready for download, etc. For that the company gets a percentage. The charity gets a set percentage. The rest is split with the authors.
And yes, absolutely, we have a contract.
Bundles like this, which are available for only a few weeks, only work when the writer-participants inform their own networks that the bundle exists. The pooled networks invite readers to try writers they’ve never heard of.
If the readers like that writer’s work, then the readers will buy more of the work.
The magic doesn’t happen quickly, and sometimes it doesn’t happen at all. Readers will respond—good or bad—when they get the books. We writers are gambling that readers who buy the bundle will like at least one other writer in that bundle. (And if the reader’s not one of our regular readers, then we’re hoping the writer the reader likes is us.)
What I love best about the book bundles is that the power of the bundle lies entirely in the work itself. You’re gambling that readers who have never seen your writing before will like it.
I did one bundle last summer with the first book of the Retrieval Artist series, and I watched the readers work their way through the rest of the series like a mouse through a snake. I thought it was done until my sales for the series went up last fall on non-DRM sites. Bundles like this attract non-DRM readers, who will then buy the remaining works through sites that don’t use proprietary technology.
But bundles don’t have to be through a formal bundling site. There are other ways to do this.
She got the idea from another group of writers in a collective called The Indie Voice, which I had not heard of until Anthea e-mailed me this week. I urge you to go to the Indie Voice’s About page so that you see how writer networking can lead to Something Good. Here’s a sample:
Eight writers met, many for the first time, on a windy day at an all-inclusive hotel in Cancun, Mexico on February 22, 2013 in a big ass hot tub. What began as a mere spark of an idea to join together to promote and market literally exploded … Needless to say, bonds were made, friendships were forged, and the moment everyone got home, big ideas did not disappear within hectic work schedules, but instead became reality amongst a deluge of Facebook comments and emails. In hopes of realizing widespread results, two more writers…were suckered into joining The Indie Voice, completing this unique partnership.
(And yes, this is one of those formal groups with a contract. It required everyone to put in up-front money.) I just clicked on the book that came from their newsletter which Anthea mentioned in her e-mail, and these women are going to get a sale—because of our networking here.
In March of 2013, according to Anthea, these women started doing multi-author bundles that were very successful. Anthea did what any good businessperson does—she studied the model and tried to see how to adapt it to her own work.
While some authors were banding together to try and hit lists, I know that YA fantasy (without vampires/werewolves/fallen angels) is a soft market. My goal was to try and reach new readers within my genre and cross-pollinate and promote with [similar] authors. I also knew I wanted to position the bundle as a long-term loss leader if it ended up taking off.
She adds that having a large mailing list or bestseller status was not the point of including an author.
Having a good fae-fantasy YA book with a follow-on series was the baseline.
The plan included putting all the proceeds into advertising the bundle. They launched in June at $2.99, but over time, decided to lower the price to 99 cents.
By October, we were selling thousands of copies a month. Collectively, we decided to keep the .99 price point going. In December, we sold 15K copies of the bundle and at this point everyone’s follow-on books in their series were taking off. Sales of my Feyland books more than quadrupled…
As of now (March 2014) we have sold over 50K copies of the Faery Worlds bundle. Our ranking on Amazon has finally dropped out of the top 1,000 overall but we’re still selling plenty of copies and reaching LOTS of new readers, not only on Amazon, but B&N and Kobo as well…
There’s a lot more to her e-mail, and I will use some comments from it in future posts, but suffice to say, this is how networking can work—with some smarts, targeted marketing, and set goals. If you want to see the bundle, check this link (with all the buy buttons).
Sidebar: Be Prepared
If you’re going to tap into vast fan networks other than your own, you need to be prepared. At minimum, you’ll need a newsletter. The staff at WMG Publishing worked really hard to have my Fey series website up and running properly before the bundle hit. (Believe me, these folks worked their tails off!)
If you want to see how the website redesigns that I’ve been talking about are going to go, look here. Note that there’s a newsletter signup, so that fans can be notified about the upcoming books.
You want your site to be as professional as possible, even if it’s a static site, so that people will find the information they’re looking for and maybe give you their e-mail address.
But if you don’t want to do all the work of a bundle, then here’s something less complicated, but which seems like fun:
Last week on Facebook, writer Esther Schindler tagged me with this sentence:
I rather like this idea for fiction authors (and maybe us non-fiction authors): a blog hop.
Then she sent me a link to two participants in a blog hop that occurred on December 21, 2013. To celebrate the longest night of the year (in the Western hemisphere), 31 writers “cast light into darkness.” That was what they were supposed to blog about.
It was the blogging equivalent of a progressive dinner party (or safari supper, as you Brits call it) where you eat a different part of the meal at a different home. Readers start with the first blog, then “hop” to the next. All 31 were up that day, and readers could spend the long night reading about light.
I’m going to link to the blog that intrigued me. Scroll to the bottom and you’ll find the entire list.
4. Joint Giveaways
Kathryn Loch e-mailed me in the middle of February to let me know that “a bunch of us romance authors get together and chip in for a Kindle giveaway or Amazon gift card.” I don’t have a link for you, but she tells me that she’s gotten a lot of exposure and sales that way.
5. Your Turn
I’m bumping up against my self-imposed word limit, so I’m going to let you folks discuss what worked for you in the comments. I’m interested in sharing networking ideas that had a true impact on sales (such as Anthea’s example), something that actually spiked your sales or raised your profile in a lasting way. Let me be clear: this is work that you’ve done in conjunction with other authors, not information you received on a site, but a group promotion or group marketing of some type. I will monitor these comments closely. If they don’t adhere to the commenting assumptions below, I won’t post.
Not all networks that aid discoverability need to be networks of fiction writers. Because of the blogging post I did a few weeks ago, Bonnie Koenig contacted me. Bonnie runs a site called The Cat Post Intelligencer , which focuses on…you guessed it…cats. I had mentioned that I wouldn’t mind blogging about cats and she gave me the opportunity—plus, completely unasked, she promoted my books. (Pleased me, I tell you.)
That one contact put me in touch with The Catblogosphere, a website devoted to cat blogging. A number of cat bloggers now follow me on Twitter and Facebook and are retweeting my (almost weekly) cat pictures. I have no idea how many new readers this has brought to my books or website (if any), but it’s a network I can tap, particularly for some animal-based charities that I have peripheral involvement with.
Links, connections, ideas, discussions.
I’m only just now digging out from last week’s deluge of information, and the new connections I made there. I’ve agreed to some things, and am working on promotions—particularly for Fiction River—that would not have occurred without the workshop.
It’s fun, but like everything to do with discoverability, it’s also a time sink.
As you develop your own discoverability plan, remember that you will be using up some of your writing time for every project you agree to. Also remember, the most important thing you do is write.
If the things you do for discoverability interfere with that, then you need to clear the promotions and marketing out of your office and get back to work—writing the next story.
Which is what I need to do. My office looks like a tornado hit it. (Maybe it did: Tornado Kris, zooming in and out while teaching a workshop.) I’ll be more responsive this week than in previous weeks, but I’m still buried.
So…for the sake of brevity: comments, ideas, e-mails, and opinions welcome. Donations gratefully received to help me continue the blog on a weekly basis.
Thanks so much for your time and your visits!
“The Business Rusch: With A Little Help From My Friends” copyright 2014 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
Please Read These Assumptions Before Commenting:
I’m going to make some assumptions in the next group of blog posts, and I’ll repeat those assumptions each week until I’m done.
Assumption #1: I’m going to assume you’ve read the previous posts, which you can find here.
Assumption #2: With only a few exceptions, we will be talking about fiction here. There are promotion techniques that work for nonfiction—even on the first book—that do not work for fiction. I don’t want to muddy the waters here. We’re discussing fiction in these posts.
Assumption #3: You have learned your craft well enough to intrigue readers. You know how to tell a good story, you have grammar, spelling, and punctuation under control, you create interesting characters, and you write what you love.
Assumption #4: If you have indie published your work, then your work has a good blurb, a great cover, and a well-designed interior. Your work is available in ebook and trade paper formats. (I also hope you have audio books, but for our purposes here, I’m not going to assume it.)
Assumption #5: If you have indie published your work, your ebooks are available in every ebook venue you can find. Your paper novels are in extended distribution on CreateSpace or Lightning Source. In other words, if a bookseller whom you don’t know and never will know wants to order your paper book, that bookseller can call up a catalogue from a major distributor (Baker & Taylor, Ingrams) and order your book at a bookseller’s discount.
Assumption #6: If you are traditionally published, your books are with a company that makes the books available in e-book and paper formats, and your books are still in print. (If they aren’t, ask for those rights back and then publish the books yourself.)
Assumption #7: You have at least a minimal web presence. You have a website that readers can easily find. You have a list of your published books somewhere, also findable. You have some passive marketing in place. (A mailing list, a social media presence, or a contact button on your website. Something.)
Assumption #8: You have published more than one book. Most of what I tell you won’t work on one novel. You’ll need several—or at least a novel and some short stories. If you’re haven’t published much, make sure you’ve done 2-7, and write the next book.
Assumption #9: You will finish this discoverability series before you decide which of the things I mention is for you. Because one of the last posts I’m going to write is how to measure success. That should have been one of the first posts I wrote, but of course, I write out of order, and so it’ll go at the end. [VBG]
Those are the assumptions.
Now, I have one big WARNING:
Everything I say here, everything, MUST take place after you’ve finished writing your story/book/novel. Do NOT take ANY of this advice into your writing office. None of it. Be an artist: write what you love. When you’re done, then worry about marketing it. This new world of publishing allows us to write whatever we want and publish it. Please take advantage of that. When you write, be an artist, be a great storyteller, not a marketer or a salesperson.
I know, I know. Lots of warnings and assumptions. But I had to be clear, because these points are extremely important. I won’t get to everything this week or even the next week. So…you need to be on the page that I’m on to understand what I’m talking about.