The site’s a mess at the moment – I’m in the middle of a re-branding exercise, so mind your head on the scaffolding. But with the news today, I just couldn’t not post …
I’m surprised that with all the column inches devoted to Osama bin Laden today, there’s not a single mention of his one great claim to fame. He was probably the most successful indie writer, artist, performer of our age. When Osama spoke, the whole world listened and trembled. Even when we didn’t have a clue what he was saying.
You have to feel for the poor guy. Imagine how he felt when he saw his other buddies, Bush and Blair, landing big book deals with proper publishers. Even Saddam, for goodness sake, has 12 books on Goodreads – and now Sacha Baron Cohen’s turning one into a film. But Osama, what did he get? An interview. One lousy interview, way back in 1997 with CNN’s Peter Arnett and produced by Peter Bergen.
I mention Bergen because he immediately spotted Osama’s potential. I remember a couple of hours after the 9/11 attacks a fresh-faced, English-accented young analyst assuring the CNN audience that the outrage bore all the hallmarks of Bin Laden and an organization I’d never heard of before, Al Qaeda. Gospel truth. And while Osama never got his publishing deal, Bergen hit the big-time. He’s had three best-sellers already, including ‘The Osama Bin Laden I Know‘, and I notice today, less than 48 hours after the dramatic end to the manhunt, Bergen has been commissioned to write the definitive book. By George W Bush’s publishers.
Can you imagine how Osama must have felt? Is it any surprise that he was bitter and twisted? Everyone cashing in except him. What’s a guy gotta do to get a deal?
# # #
We were talking about Osama this evening, my daughter and I. A newspaper, folded, between us. The headline: OBAMA WATCHED .. But they weren’t Obama’s eyes staring out at us – they were Osama’s.
- Do you think it’s true?
- Dunno. Dunno if it was ever true.
- He had such kind eyes.
Trust Josie. She’s always been immune to mental re-conditioning, praise the Lord.
I looked again. Sure enough, he did have kind eyes. Only problem was, turn the paper over and below the fold he had a curling sneer and a zealous uncompromising beard. The devil incarnate.
And I got to thinking. Now he’s gone, who do we have to replace him in the public imagination? Ayman al-Zawahari? Has a beard, but not the right kind of beard. No sneer. Who else is bad enough? Julian Assange? Young enough to terrify us for years. But just look at him. The face of an angel. Gaddafi then? All the right credentials, and I suppose the evidence is that he’s the West’s favorite for the role: after all, we know exactly where he lives, but we haven’t sent Seal Team 6 to batter down his doors. The problem is, he wears silly hats and looks like a pantomime version of Richard III. And he still doesn’t have a proper beard. So who’s going to scare children and grandmothers to bed? Where’s the face that will make us all believe our cause is right?
It’s a rhetorical question. I already know the answer. It’s my face. I’ll need to fashion the beard a bit. But in the right light, at the right angle, I can do the sneer. I have a bit of background too – with all those years I spent in the Mid-East. Why? – I ask you to ask me.
Of course, I’ll need to cut back on some of my other activities to do the job properly. Being Santa at Christmas – that would have to go, for a start.
I’ll have to work a bit on evil too. But I think I know just the man who can help me. Peter Bergen, if you happen to be reading this, you’ll find me in the cave at the end of my garden. No, any time’s OK – just tweet me.
FOOTNOTE:Huffington Post reports ‘Bin Laden’ Google searches increase 1 million percent. Peter – seriously, call me. We could be HUGE together. And look at the graph. Your numbers are falling. You need me.
When Alain was a little lad he proved so brave and daring,
His father thought he’d ‘prentice him to some career seafaring.
If you’d known me as a youth, you’d hardly recognize the wretch who stands before you today. With a stout heart and an unyielding arm, I fought piracy with the best of them. When someone offered to lend me a book, I steadfastly refused to accept it, preferring to buy my own copy. When our school started handing out photocopied pages from text-books, I poured sugar in the toner – and it wasn’t long before I could dismantle the drum and make off with it in less than 30 seconds.
From my lofty moral plateau, how far I was to fall!
Oh, better far to live and die
Under the brave black flag I fly
How did I become a pirate?
Was it a thirst for freedom and adventure? Was it my love of words, the sensuous thrill of ‘swashbuckling’ as it surged forward in my mouth to break on my lips, then fell back exhausted? Was it Johnny Depp?
I’d served my apprenticeship and was an articled writer with a book of my own, written and reader-ready. It was then that Pirate-King Mark Coker came marching into town, recruiting for the bad ship Smashwords. His rallying-call had a beauty and purity I found irresistible. “God is dead.” Ah, Nietzche! “Big Publishing is built upon a broken business model.” And he pressed me to answer a question, neatly bringing the old JFK proposition into tune with the times.
Ask not what you can do for your publisher – ask what your publisher can do for you.
A few days later I was camped at the mouth of the Amazon with the motley Smashwords crew. Every morning we set sail, me and ten thousand other ragged writers with the wind in our faces, bent on mutiny and mischief. We hacked at prices, strangled the old trade-routes, thumbed our noses at authority and tradition. Pirates, of course, but good pirates, only intent on the redistribution of opportunity. Every evening newcomers flocked into the camp, ready to serve under the skull and crossbones.
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes! …
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.
Unperturbed, the ships of the great publishers continued their stately progress, laden with the works of fine writers and Tony Blair. (No sir, ‘laden’, not ‘bin Laden’ – they’re still working on the terms.) Let Coker and his mutineers slash prices, and cut their own throats into the bargain. Quality and influence would win the day, as it always had. The croaking chorus would soon be silent.
And besides, there were more important battles to fight, against the age-old foe of my youth – the copy-pirate. Now he was digital and doubly dangerous. But with so many years of experience, this was a battle publishers knew they could win. What’s more, they knew who would pay: their own loyal authors of course, on whose behalf the battle was being fought.
Although we live by strife,
We’re always sorry to begin it,
For what, we ask, is life
Without a touch of Poetry in it?
I have a vision.
In dark Amazonian alleyways, heroes rub shoulders with villains. The New Pirates are now the New Publishers. There are no readers, only writers, and on every corner, they plead with one other:
- Read my book, guv? Please read my book. I’m sure you’re going to like it. OK, don’t read it. Just Like it. Or maybe you could just Like me.
What of the Old Publishers? They’re still fighting the Old Pirates, and they’re still winning. Copy-protection’s easier now they no longer work with living writers. And dead writers are far less likely to mutiny.
I have seen the error of my ways.
Resume your ranks and legislative duties,
And take my daughters, all of whom are beauties.
Is it too late to say I’m sorry? Too late to renounce my boorish behavior, and fall back into line with the good and the great?
Ever since ‘independent’ became fashionable, I feel like I’ve been losing my independence. A few days ago, word came round that we’re not to call ourselves pirates any more, we Smashwords people. We’re ‘Smashers’ – official! Institutionalized nihilism! I didn’t get into this to be an institution. Or to smash. Just to change, and to have some fun.
And another thing, it’s slim pickings these days, being a writer-pirate. With all the competition, you have to work so hard.
So, what about it publishers, you who are trying so hard to help writers by maintaining the old order? Won’t you take me back? I’m not even asking for much, not like that audacious Hocking woman. A few thousand would suit me just fine.
Ah yes. Yes, of course – I’d forgotten. This is where we came in.
# # #
If you expected to see me revealing the secrets of how to hypnotize your readers today, well I’m sorry to disappoint you. But my lips are sealed – as I said they would be unless we had at least 10 Likes for the post. No likee – no tellee. You’ll need to speak to a few of your friends if you want the lowdown.
I’ve got to hand it to Marketing. They’re smart. Even if they screw up sometimes.
A few weeks back, they suggested a new campaign for the novel, all based on price. People will buy anything if you price it cheap enough, they told me, passing across the latest best-selling fiction figures. I scanned the list -- John Locke, Amanda Hocking, Heather Killough Walden -- each of them notching up thousands of $0.99 Kindle sales a week.
That could be you, Alain. Look, readers don’t even like the books much.
They had a point:
‘messy and predictable’
‘I would recommend this book for some mindless poolside reading’
‘a book that contains less than two dozen truly dirty words’
‘Too bad you can’t pick zero stars for the rating.’
If they’re selling thousands, you could be selling millions. All you need to do is come up with the right pitch.
And that’s how my Potato Campaign was born. “Buy my book because it costs less than a large potato.”
But my advisers were wrong. I didn’t sell millions. Or thousands. Or hundreds. Not even tens. It was time for a re-think. So last night, I called a team meeting. Marketing, Editing, the Publisher -- they were all there. It wasn’t going to be easy. Marketing was already looking defensive.
- Guys, the Potato Campaign isn’t working.
- Says who?
- Says me. Here, look at the figures.
The Publisher took off his glasses, polished them carefully, put them back on, and read again. Editing sat low on their chairs, wishing they weren’t there. But Marketing came right back at me, bristling. They weren’t going to take this sort of thing from an author.
- Not in the title, no. But I certainly mentioned potato in the post.
- How many times do we have to tell you? It’s all about keywords. People don’t read posts. They read headlines. You gotta have your keywords in the headline.
- But people don’t care about potatoes.
- They might not care about them, but they eat them, right? Millions of potatoes a day. A potato doesn’t need love. It just needs to be affordable. It needs to be nutritious. And it needs to be there, right there in front of you, every time you step into the food-mart. So where was the potato in your food-mart, Alain?
- I’m sorry?
- How many times did you even mention potato in your blog?
- What, after the first time?
- After the first time.
- I didn’t.
- Well there you are. How do you expect us to help you?
He snapped a pencil in two between his fingers and slammed the pieces onto the desk. No-one breathed. But he wasn’t finished with me yet.
- The problem with you, Alain, is that you give us nothing to work with. We need something that people care about, something they think is important.
- What, like a potato, you mean?
- Forget the friggin’ potato. Like I said, that was just a pitch. No, what we need is less of that Look-at me-I’m-an-author-This-is-literary-fiction bullshit. We need believable characters -- American preferably -- a detective, a hero, a love interest. And maybe you should think about a rewrite for the YA market.
Someone in Editing was trying to catch my eye. There was an almost imperceptible shake of the head. So at least I had their support. I rallied.
- There is a love interest.
- And how does that turn out?
He didn’t even bother to reply. But then a thought came to me.
- Listen, I’ve been reading …
- Oh you’ve been reading again, have you? Sweet.
- Yes. Seth Godin.
With those two magical words, the initiative swung back to me. Show me a marketer in the world who can resist Seth Godin. They snapped to attention, leaned forward across the table, waiting.
- Seth said …
- Seth said: ‘It’s probably true that a low price increases the negative feedback. That’s because a low price exposes the work to individuals that might not be raving fans.’
- ‘Price is often a signalling mechanism, and perhaps nowhere more than in the area of content.’
We paused to absorb the impact of the words.
- So that means ..?
- That means that if we sell the book at the price of a large potato, readers may come to associate it with a large potato. That’s how we’re signalling it. Useful, convenient, but not an object of desire.
Still Marketing wasn’t convinced.
- But I thought the aim was to maximize the sales of your book. Who said anything about desire? You’re not trying to tell me you want people to read the thing as well, are you?
- That’s exactly what I’m saying. Seth says: ‘Mass shouldn’t always be the goal. Impact may matter more.’
That was the turning-point. Mistakes were forgotten, hostilities put on ice, and we were back working as a team.
- So we need to use price to trigger a different expectation. Not a potato, but …
- Two potatoes?
By this time, we’d clearly left the Publisher lagging some way behind, but our minds were racing.
- An object of desire with a price proposition to match, something our reader wants, longs for at the end of a busy day. Who is this reader, Alain?
- An adult. Gotta be an adult, male or female, probably mid-twenties upward.
- And this adult gets from your book? Remind me, Alain. What do they get? Gimme the words.
- Well … mystery, adventure … a hint of the exotic … humor … excitement … sex … danger … retro …
- I see it! I see it! I think I’ve got it. You know that ad they’re running on TV for the beer … you know the one -- Triple Filtrée … a Smooth Outcome.
- Yeah, I see where you’re coming from. Sixties setting -- the beautiful bored wife -- the suave debonair hero sweeping her away from her husband -- the sexy French overdub. That’s brilliant.
- But guys. My hero’s not suave and debonair.
- No matter. This is advertising. Nothing has to be true. D’you think when you drink the stuff you’re gonna turn into the guy in the ad? Or the girl? It’s not about truth. It’s about aspiration.
- Where are we going with this?
- It’s the price-point, don’t you see? Not a large potato. We sell it for the price of a large beer. And -- God, this is amazing -- that’s our campaign too.
- Go on.
- Triple filtrée. You ever seen a book promoted like that before?
- No, never. Er … maybe, I’m slow but I’m not getting it.
- Triple filtrée. So you say the book’s been edited three times. Not once, not twice, but three times … and now it has less than 3 really dirty words. We might even make it into the YA market, who knows?
This was getting exciting. Next we had to work out how to handle the Smooth Outcome, and we were all busy swapping ideas -- when my wife suddenly popped her head round the door.
- Have you any idea what time it is?
- I’m sorry … were we too loud?
- Oh, is there someone with you?
- Yes. Have you met …
But as I swung back round to the table, they were gone. Every last one of them. Only the broken pencil remained on the table.
- Er, no. It’s just me.
- I worry about you. Don’t you think you should be coming to bed? It’s 2:30.
By daybreak, the new pricing was set, the campaign was in place, and we were ready to go.
That’s the thing about being an indie writer. You can make decisions quickly, change your mind if you’re getting the strategy wrong, implement immediately, call meetings any time of the day or night.
But if you’re doing it at night, just try to keep the noise down.
# # #
The Lebanese Troubles is now available for the price of a large beer. ‘Triple Filtrée … No Smooth Outcome.’
If you’re thinking about buying the book, DON’T. Marketing came up with a few other ideas, which we’ll be announcing here tomorrow. If you can’t wait to get started though, you can now download the first 50% of the novel free at Smashwords. Works on any e-reader or your laptop/PC.
Well two-and-a-half cheers! eBook-sharing is back on the agenda again.
One day after stopping Lendle in its tracks, Amazon relented and they’re back in business again, with just a teensy bit of sync-ing goodness (‘useful but non-essential’ say Lendle triumphantly) removed. If only we could deal with all the world’s great crises so amicably!
And for indie publishers and writers, it’s an important victory too, because it leaves us the right to choose whether we want to share our books or not. If Lendle is to survive, so will Booklending.com, and both figure in my long-term marketing plan.
… With Reservations
But the news doesn’t quite get the full three cheers.
First there was a thumbs down from Shiori, the Japanese student who’s been living with us for several months now. I used ‘Lendle’ for a few harmless pronunciation exercises. Sadly, she now hates the word, and says the thing would never catch on in Japan anyway, with a name like that.
Not that she needs to worry, not yet anyway. Because when I started the sign-up process with Lendle, this was the Welcome I got:
Please note that Lendle is currently only available in the United States. We expect Amazon to allow book lending elsewhere soon.
Well, I’m a Brit, and the news wasn’t entirely a surprise. You know what we’re like, we’d be awful at returning books on time – though perhaps not as bad as your George Washington who, I hear, had a book out on loan from 1789 until last year – and then got off without paying the $300,000 late fee.
But the Japanese, the Germans, the Swedes … surely you could have trusted them!?
My guess is that Amazon will want to install a GPS book-sniffing device inside each eBook before introducing sharing outside the US, so that recalcitrant foreign libracriminals can be hunted down. Whether the expiry of the Patriot Act at the end of May will have any impact is hard to say.
But at least the principle seems now to have been accepted – that writers should have the choice whether to offer their books for sharing or not.
With big reservations
Of course, there will still be writers who think that Amazon’s change-of-heart will open the door to unspeakable evils, and this view has been eloquently expressed by Steven Lewis on the Kindle Writers blog. In an open letter to Jeff Croft, co-founder of Lendle, he writes:
Maybe I don’t have Mr Croft’s vision thing. Have I even understood your business correctly? (It is a business, right?) After all, as a publisher, I have what Mr Croft calls an old school business model, that’s the one where I expect to be paid for my work.
Perhaps you agree with Steven. That’s fine. If so then you don’t need to offer up your books for sharing. Everyone should have the right to opt out too. But before you come to a decision about it, take a look at the comments following Steven’s post. As well as a response from Croft, you’ll find other writers making a cogent case for participating in a book-sharing scheme – because they’re convinced it will increase both readers AND income.
Getting started with sharing
We’ll let the argument rage over there. Assuming you have made the decision to be a book-sharer, where do you go from there?
The starting-point is your copyright notice – and I was delighted today to get a ringing endorsement for the wording I’ve proposed from none other than Andy Woodworth, the co-sponsor of the eBook User’s Bill of Rights. So you could share this too.
Treat this ebook as you would a printed book. If you enjoy it and want to share it with friends and family – as we hope you will – then please do so. The best support you can give is by helping to spread the word about a (publisher’s) author or book. All we ask is that you respect the author’s right to make a living from his art: so please do not re-distribute this book in any format for commercial purposes, or modify the content in any way.
Do you feel you’re treated as a potential criminal every time you download an ebook?
That’s how Andy Woodworth feels. In his eBook User’s Bill of Rights, he writes:
I am a reader. As a customer, I am entitled to be treated with respect and not as a potential criminal. As a consumer, I am entitled to make my own decisions about the eBooks that I buy or borrow.
And what makes him feel like this? The copyright notice that most of us add at the front of our ebooks. Thousands of us have followed the excellent Smashwords Style-Guide as we make multi-format versions available, using the suggested wording:
This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient…
So who reads copyright notices? Well, clearly some people do, and you can understand Andy’s indignation. Just imagine if the same rules applied to print books, and you needed a separate copy for every member of your family. A library in every room!
But it’s not just that the demand is unreasonable. We indie authors need sales and income, certainly, but that’s unlikely to happen unless we can first create a buzz. What’s the best way to do that? With family members and friends. I remember 20 years ago, when my son was about 7, I spent weeks reading Lord of the Rings to him. He doesn’t hate me for it, although he still thinks he’s Aragorn today. We shared our delight in Pratchett together. And later, he introduced me to Wilbur Smith and Jason Fforde. Now, as adults we each buy our own copies.
So, maybe our copyright notice should be active, not passive. Not just allowing sharing, but encouraging it. Here then is my new copyright notice:
Treat this ebook as you would a printed book. If you enjoy it and want to share it with friends and family – as we hope you will – then please do so. The best support you can give is by helping to spread the word about a Rapscallion author or book. All we ask is that you respect the author’s right to make a living from his art: so please do not re-distribute this book in any format for commercial purposes, or modify the content in any way.
If you distribute through Amazon you might have noticed a new checkbox that appeared at the turn of the year as you upload your masterpieces. By default, you opt in to Kindle’s lending program. So, in effect, unless you uncheck the box, you’re probably nullifying any restrictive copyright notice anyway. (To set your mind at rest, if you’re worried this could mean you’ll never see another dime for your work, Amazon only allows each purchased book to be lent once.)
Again we can be pro-active about this and actually encourage our readers to lend. Booklending.com is a free site, not affiliated to Amazon, that makes lending and borrowing Kindle (or Kindle for PC) books a breeze. You log in and enter the details of the book you want to borrow. As soon as someone’s ready to lend it, the deal is done, and like all matchmaking sites, you both live happily ever after – well, for 14 days at least, until the title is automatically transferred back to the book owner’s Kindle.
You may not be a best-selling author yet. You may not have thousands or even dozens of your books in circulation yet, with people willing to lend. People may not be clamouring to get a copy of your book. So much the better – that’s why you need Booklending.com to help build reputation.
Just tell both the readers you have – who love your book of course – that you want them to think of someone whose life would also be forever changed after reading The Lebanese Troubles (er … you can substitute your title here of course, although I’m not forcing you). They both go to the site. One lends; the other borrows. Oh and you might also mention that the owner is welcome to leave a short Amazon review, and that the borrower can at least click the ‘Like’ button and check the content-tags at the bottom of the Amazon page – so that other potential readers will know you’re getting popular, and won’t be shy to buy.
‘Worth more than my novel?’ Answers are not required in ‘Comments’
A year ago, as I was getting ready to publish my first novel, I set myself a target. If I was going to be a real writer, then I had to be able to make a proper living through writing. So how have I done so far?
In English English: ‘Not quite as well as I might have done.”
So that’s 157 copies and around $96 earned for the year. Call me cautious, but somehow I don’t think I’ll be able to give up the day job just yet. I’ll need to do better: about 500 times better. Excluding taxation.
So one solution could be to increase the price by a factor of 500. ‘That will be $495, sir. Thank you.’ You know, I have a funny feeling that might just work. I could make it a limited edition, probably grab a few headlines for the most expensive book in the world, and I bet I’d get a few takers.
But that’s not what I’m going to do. I’m going to leave the price exactly where it has been for most of the year – $0.99 or £0.74 (+VAT). The price of a large potato.
Is that what my novel’s worth? I guess it depends how hungry you are. A potato’s certainly more nutritious. It fills a spot. Even if 157 people seem to have opted for my book instead.
Actually, that’s not quite true. The vast majority of my Smashwords ‘sales’ have come when I’ve offered a free copy as part of a promotion – there were 70 just last week during Read An Ebook Week. So these readers probably didn’t have to sacrifice their daily potato. And I suspect that some – maybe most – will be book-hoarders, accumulating books just in case they need them some rainy day. They’ll probably never read mine.
This is why there’s huge debate about what an ebook price ought to be. My Facebook friend and fellow-Brit-lit-author, Ali M Cooper, fulminated recently against price-cutting:
My UK kindle sales continue to drop as the market is flooded by under £1 ‘bargains’ as authors try to undercut each other … My personal guideline is that if I don’t think a full length novel is worth the price of a pint of beer then I shouldn’t be publishing it.
Several other writers agreed with Ali that price-cutting writers should take account of the ‘long-term perceived value of books’ and encouraged a firm stand on pricing. Selling at a low price implied a lack of confidence in your own book, they said.
But then there was another point of view expressed by Carolyn McCray, founder of the Indie Book Collective, in a post this week on understanding the Amazon book-page. You need to get at least 5 – 10 reviews, she said, and fill the ‘Customers-Who-Bought-This-Item-Also-Bought‘ bar. Her advice is:
Price your book at 99 cents (the lowest allowed by Amazon) and drive as much traffic as you can during your ‘soft’ launch window. Once you have the bar filled you can re-price your book.
There’s my problem. My amazon.com page has fantastic reviews – but only three of them. And the books other people bought with mine? A book on Lebanese cuisine, three books on quantum physics and .. oh yes, this is bound to bring the customers flooding in – The Grand Jihad: How Islam and the Left Sabotage America. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t allow me to re-design my ‘associated books’ bar. I’ll just have to wait until some future customer chooses better bedfellows.
And as for my UK Amazon page. No reviews. No book-links. Nada.
So you see, I’ve got a way to go to establish any kind of credibility. Pricing is just one way I can persuade people to take a peek, maybe download the sample.
Free is probably not the best way – not for novels anyway, although there may be a case for free short stories to introduce people to your work.
But working at the price of least resistance does seem sensible, at least until my reputation begins to grow outside my immediate circle of friends and acquaintances. Perhaps that time will come with The Lebanese Troubles. Perhaps it will be the next novel. Or the third.
If it was just about pricing it would be easy. Unfortunately, it isn’t. A year on, I’m still learning about how to position and present my book, and this week I’ve been busy updating my promotional pages, and even the book content. You may have noticed changes in this blog too – all designed to make it easier for the potential reader to say ‘Yes’, and inspired largely by Carolyn McCray’s article.
There’s another important requirement. Hard work. Talking to your friends and supporters constantly, not necessarily beating your author-drum all the time, but just communicating. Let me return to Ali Cooper. I don’t know how she’d describe her last 12 months, but I’d call it a success.
Ali published her first novel, The Girl on the Swing around 12 months ago, at about the same time as me. It’s a beautifully-controlled, tightly written psycho-drama, the sort of novel I enjoy reading (especially since it follows in the Hardy/Fowles tradition of featuring Lyme Regis). But since Ali’s book is entirely devoid of vampires, cops and wizards … and is not priced at less than a dollar … it’s pretty unlikely to knock Amanda Hocking or J.A.Konrath from their perch at the top of the indie popularity list.
Carefully, steadily, Ali has nurtured her readership, maintaining the writer contacts she built while developing the novel, making new friends (like me) through the various Kindle boards, maintaining a daily presence through Facebook. In all of this, Ali has been much more consistent than me, and now her hard work is really beginning to pay off. Just look at the reviews she’s accumulated. From results she’s mentioned publicly over the past couple of months, I should think that she has a very real chance of achieving my target, self-sufficiency through writing, as she releases her next novel, Cave, at Easter. And from a potato’s-eye view, that’s inspiring!
Revolution, it seems, is all around us. Last time I talked about a publishing revolution, led by writers. But not to be left behind, readers are getting into the act too. Led by a fiery librarian, Andy Woodworth.
His blog post begins with a banner headline – “START A REVOLUTION”. Goodness, Andy, where did you get that typeface, with it’s dagger T’s, arrowhead V’s, and battleaxe L’s? This revolution promises violence.
But fear not, gentle reader. Andy’s not calling for blood – not yet, anyway. All he wants is a perfectly reasonable eBook User’s Bill of Rights. Essentially, these are the four demands:
eBooks should not be locked or limited, preventing readers from taking back-ups, or allowing publishers or writers to remove them at a whim. In others words, readers want to buy and own books, not receive a version under license.
When you purchase an eBook it should be available to you in the format of your choice. You should not need to buy a new copy if, for example, you decide to move your library from an IPad to a Kindle – or any new electronic reading device that may appear in coming years.
Readers should have the right to annotate, quote passages, print, and share eBook content within the spirit of fair use and copyright.
The eBook purchaser should be able to share and resell the book.
Is that a sharp intake of breath I hear from my friends up in the gods – the writers – after that last demand? What did you say? Something about a ‘dead body’?
Well, I’ll come back to demand four in a moment. But let’s look at the first three. From an independent writer’s standpoint, there’s nothing too outrageous here. I’m sure I speak for most writers when I say that I don’t want to lock my e-words away. I want them to float freely through the ether, available to potential readers at any place and at any time, unencumbered. And where my book seeds take root, I want them to grow. Sure, I want to make a fair living from my writing – a good living if possible – but unlike some operating system providers I could mention, I’m not interested in making my readers pay for an ‘updated’ version of the same book every couple of years.
I guess it’s different for the publishers and hardware suppliers. No soft and fluffy approach for them. There’s not the same emotional attachment to readers. They’re in business, they have stakeholders to satisfy, and in these straitened times, they need to make money every which way. Licensing, digital rights management, these are inventions hatched by the commercial folk, not by the artist.
The beauty of independent e-publishing is that authority remains in the author’s hands. We can choose, even when we publish with Amazon these days, not to lock our books with DRM. And we have a very important tool at our disposal. Smashwords.
Smashwords deserves all the recognition and support it can get, both from readers and writers. Smashwords may not yet be the sales powerhouse that Amazon is, but founder Mark Coker is clearly committed to the principle of author control. By following clear guidelines, our Smashwords books are available in all formats, for all readers, including PC readers. We can choose to distribute to any of the major outlets (except Amazon – I needed to make a separate version for them). We can sell at any price, including free. It’s easy to generate discounted or free vouchers.
And with this degree of control, here’s a way that we independents can meet Andy’s first and second demands. If we ask those who purchase to register their copy, then if their current copy is lost for whatever reason, or their hardware changes, we could issue a voucher via Smashwords for a replacement – in the format of their choice. It’s not quite as simple as it sounds. We need to think this through and perhaps develop a common approach or a simple tool … but it’s do-able. It’s on next week’s task-list.
Sharing ebooks would be word of mouth on steroids for authors since it means making a recommendation and the ability to put the book almost instantly in the (virtual) hands of another. Sharing is not a lost sale, but a new marketing foray into a previously unrealized potential fan.
OK, sharing, but what about re-selling? Even Andy admits that ‘I do not have a perfect answer on this point’, and flounders a little, suggesting a ‘limited DRM’.
Writers will have different views about this – likely formed by where they stand in the market. Those who have already made their fortune from books will probably be perfectly happy to lend. Mid-market authors struggling to make a living will probably resist.
Where do I stand? I’m perhaps a rather unusual writer: I’m not intending to publish paper editions of my current novel because it’s been designed as an e-book: my approach to dialog for example, would work less well on a printed page with its spacing limitations. But no print copy means no bookshop displays, no book signings. For that reason, word of mouth recommendations, viral marketing, reader reviews are essential. Even more so because of The Lebanese Troubles‘ genre. If the novel has to be categorized, it sits on the ‘literary’ shelf. And that’s not exactly where readers are massing.
So for me, Andy’s advice is a no-brainer. It’s all about engaging with readers, gradually gaining their commitment and support. So yes, I will encourage readers to share, and even to sell on their copies – and I’ll be making changes to the copyright notices as soon as Read an Ebook Week is over.
And nothing would please me more than offering my book through libraries. Andy, are you listening?
‘Stormbound and trapped in a desolate cottage with a beautiful stranger, an amnesiac boy discovers that he has been there before and that the ghosts haunting the place are there for him.’
That’s the trailer for Paul Story’s book, Dreamwords. And the cottage is real. Nestled beneath a 1000-foot hillside on the craggy Isle of Arran, off the west coast of Scotland, facing the mainland across an expanse of sea. Remote. A couple of miles from the nearest road, four miles from the nearest village. No electricity, no services, a lonely landmark for the island’s walkers.
We’ve talked before about innovation on this blog. How it’s the fiercely independent writers who are most likely to exploit the potential of new media and find new routes to market. And you may remember how in an early post, I described how Cambridge author, Pimbo, sold 80,000 books door-to-door a couple of decades back. Well, here’s an approach to book marketing that turns Pimbo’s story on its head. Instead of taking books to the readers, Paul Story takes his books to a place where readers come to him. Where? Not a bookshop. Not an airport. Not even Amazon -- well not the print version anyway. Where better than the cottage on the north-east coast of Arran where the novel takes place? Laggan Cottage -- one of the most desolate places in the British Isles.
Paul has pitched a tent alongside the cottage, lays out his books every morning, carefully protecting them from the elements, and that’s where he intends to stay for the next two months, till early July. So who will his readers be? Walkers, hikers -- because Laggan happens to be on one of the favourite trails for those exploring the island on foot. People who are likely to be enchanted by the rugged beauty of the island, already captivated by its legends. Dreamwords adds another legend. And on the trail, how can they not be fascinated to find a real live author living out in the wild, and stop to spend a few minutes talking?
But innovation doesn’t stop there. A hiker stops, talks to the writer, gets interested in the book, wants to take one. What then? Chances are the walker’s not carrying cash. A credit card transaction then? Laggan’s hardly the place. There’s a different way. Paul calls it the ‘Honesty Edition’. If someone wants to take a book, they don’t pay now but later, through the Dreamwords website. No sales record is kept. Paul relies entirely on the honesty of the customer. In today’s world that’s astonishingly, refreshingly different.
The writer has no illusions: ‘Of course there will be some who don’t pay, others who forget. But on the whole, I think most people will remember the experience of meeting me at Laggan. They’ll think of me not as some remote unapproachable novelist, but as a living, breathing, working (and sometimes shivering) writer. I hope most will actually read my book, and that some will love it. I’ve printed 10,000 books. If I stay in the minds and thoughts of 1,000 readers, and they’re looking out for the next book in the Dreamwords series, then I can count this adventure a success.’
Crazy? Some will think so. But I don’t. What Paul Story has realized is that when tens of thousands of other writers, now freed from the shackles of traditional publishing, are competing for reader attention, it’s not enough just to have a good book. You need a good story (- and a good surname doesn’t hurt either!) What he’s done, in classic marketing terms, is to identify his niche -- he knows who will love to read his book, and he’s thought very hard about how to reach them. More than that, he’s found a way to engage -- not with a 20-second encounter at a book-signing, but by creating an event where readers can interact with the writer one by one and in their own time.
It’s early in the walking season, and as I write, Britain has just had its coldest May night in fifteen years. Yesterday a conversation with interested walkers was interrupted by hail. It’s not going to be easy for Paul, but it’s an extraordinary example of commitment to writing and left-field marketing. Follow along with Paul on his Facebook page, join up, and cheer him along.
And now for something completely different -- and to put you in a Scottish mood -- here’s the story of Ewan McTeagle, a poet who took a more commercial approach to writing.
‘Postbox in Cambridge’ Not my bike – but it could be!
I’m hosting this post on behalf of Paul Story, author of Dreamwords,who came up with an excellent suggestion on the Kindle Community forum today. His idea is that a community of talented independent writers should seek out books which will ‘twin’ with their own. The twin would be in the same genre, might have a similar theme, would appeal to similar readers, and would maintain the same high standard.
We’ve agreed that we now need to discuss the details off-line – so today, A Real Writer takes on a new role – it’s a gleaming, freshly painted postbox. If you’re interested in the idea or you’d like to learn more, just post a response to this post. I’ll then pick up your email address and forward it to Paul.
There must be something in the air. Paul wasn’t the only one talking about collaboration today. I’ve been talking to Ali Cooper, author of The Girl On The Swing, who’s also keen to cross-review with other literary fiction writers.
What unites Paul, Ali and myself is that we’re all disenchanted with the constant beating of the self-promotion drum that seems to afflict indie writers. Yes, of course we all want to draw attention to ‘the best book you’ve ever read’. As a reader – a fan of indie books – commented on Paul’s thread today: ‘…a lot of writers shoot themselves in the foot when it comes to promotion.’ Better than self-promotion, we think, is building a strong community of talented writers, and reviewing the work of those we most admire. If we do so fairly, intelligently and professionally, this is surely an important step on the road to indie credibility and a wider readership.
Continuing the discussion on the formation of Rapscallion – a framework for shared resources and marketing for indie writers.
In responses to my post on the Rapscallion framework, several of you were concerned about the apparent complexity of the plan. The aim is to minimize complexity. Like everyone else, I want to write more and to achieve better sales, not to tie up myself – or anyone else – in administration.
Your concern was that there would need to be some system of tracking time or earning credit hours in order to pay people for services rendered. I’d be against that. It would leave the door wide open for dispute and disagreement. And administration would be a nightmare.
The system I’d like to see is a lot simpler. For the writer, a standard set of services is supplied, making sure the book is edited and published to a high standard, marketing it alongside others in the same category, and making sure that the book gets plenty of reviews. Marketing advice is also given. In return for editing, preparation and marketing support, a set percentage amount is deducted from the author’s royalty (just as an agent’s commission is deducted from royalties paid).
It’s then up to the writer to decide if she wants to hire in other services – cover design, maybe someone to write publicity, legal guidance etc. In its writer-only/members-only web-site, Rapscallion would list resources provided by its own members, or third-parties whose products and services meet a high standard. Rapscallion would also try to negotiate decent rates for its members. But best, I think, if the writer deals directly with the supplier for these supplementary services. Some would need them; others wouldn’t.
Take my position right now, for example. I may need to hire an artist. Let me tell you why.
I wasn’t expecting early sales of my novel to be sensational, but I’ve not managed to make any real impact yet. Friends and colleagues have been very supportive, but there are still only two or three readers outside my immediate circle. Why are we finding readers for the Rapscallion short stories reasonably well, but not for the novel? The problem doesn’t appear to be that readers are finding the book, trying it, and deciding it’s not for them. It seems to be more a question of not catching the reader’s attention. And that makes me question a number of important elements: the title, the cover, the blurb, the price, the number of reviews … and possibly the way the opening 1-page chapter begins. Let’s take just one aspect, the cover.
I adore the cover on The Lebanese Troubles. Key themes in the book are invisibility, emptiness, loneliness, and Tom Young’s painting perfectly captures the mood at the end of the story. However, I’m beginning to think that in an ebook context where covers are generally seen as thumbnails, it doesn’t really work. I look at the various forums and everyone’s advice is to have a strong single central image. My cover contradicts all the advice … while appropriate, it may not be commercial. If I’d been working in a team, a more experienced team-leader might have warned me. So now I’m thinking about a change, and I have an idea – which I’ve tested on a few people. In Rapscallion, I might have discussed it with my team-leader. Now, the question is, can I execute the idea?
I’ve told you before that when it comes to design, I don’t know my art from my elbow. However, the most effective ebook covers are simple – clever but simple. With the wonderful tools now available, even I, like many other indie authors, can assemble a decent cover. (That’s what it is, assembly, not design.) I produced the covers for two of our Rapscallion short stories, Waiting for Orders and Mirage, and I’m pleased with the impact they make.
But the design I have in mind now will require more than cutting and pasting. This time I’m not sure I’m going to manage. I’m going to try. If I can’t make it look good, then I know I’ll have to ask someone with better skills to help.
So how would this work with Rapscallion? First, the writer would discuss ideas for the cover with the team-leader. She’d refer to our writers’ blog to find guidance on best practice and best tools, examples of Rapscallion covers, and simple tutorials. At this point, she might decide to hire an artist – and she’d find a list of artists and pricing guidelines in the blog’s reference pages. Or, like me, she might try to go it alone. After completing the design, she’d pass it back to the team-leader, who would ensure that the standard Rapscallion guidelines had been followed. The team-leader would also probably have a view – will the cover sell the book or not? If the leader’s opinion was negative, then she might decide to ask someone else in Rapscallion – preferably someone she doesn’t know well, for the sake of objectivity. Ultimately the decision will be hers: is she happy with her design despite the advice? Or would it be better to hire an artist, after all? If that’s her decision, she’d make the arrangements (perhaps asking for two or three quotations) – and she’d pay, because this is not within the standard Rapscallion agreement./p>
I hope that makes it clearer. A set of clearly defined services is supplied to the writer for a fixed royalty deduction. Rapscallion will make it easy to find additional help, but if this is required, it’s in the writer’s own hands. Service providers will be free to set their own rates; Rapscallion will promote those that appear to offer excellent value at a fair price.
For the team leaders, calculations would be just as simple. After training and approval, they would try to identify authors whose books complement their own, appealing to the same kind of reader. Their job would be to identify authors, and then do the work required to make their books market-ready, editing, preparing them for e-publication (no technical skills are required, just training), passing on knowledge and advice, ensuring that all Rapscallion procedures have been followed. They will benefit in two ways: joint-marketing should help sales of their own book. And in recognition of their work, they will receive a fixed percentage of the royalties earned by the books they have helped to bring to market. Again, no complex administration – and if Rapscallion’s going to work that’s the way it must be: clear guidelines and procedures, and administration stripped to the bone.