Friday, April 29, 2011
I took part in a discussion about audience participation over on Meredith Barnes' blog the other day. The gist was that 5% to 10% audience participation - comments, click-throughs, likes, whatever - is pretty average. Of all the people that read a post, only a small percentage will act. If the participation requires more from a reader - writing a review, purchasing a book - the percentage is even lower. It's easy to click a like button, yet only a few make the effort.
That started me thinking about other online interactions. I have hundreds of followers on twitter, hundreds of friends on facebook and Good Reads, but very few that I interact with in any meaningful way. I think the participation metric applies there as well. It takes little effort to click a follow link or friend link, but a huge personal investment to really be friends.
Of course there are other considerations. People are motivated to act by a wide variety of reasons, but often it comes down to personal benefit. Many follow to be followed, or to be associated with a popular person or group - again to gain followers for themselves. There is a give and take, a cost-to-benefit ratio. What do I get for clicking like? Do I want others to know I like something? It may sound calculated and self serving, but it is basic human nature.
The concept isn't new to the internet. People act and react much the same in everyday life, making everyday decisions. Sex sells in advertising because it offers a desired benefit that outweighs the perceived cost. The benefits of a particular action are highlighted and the costs minimized - low monthly payment and a sexy blonde in the passenger seat. It is important to know what an audience wants, and what they are willing to do for it. But friends aren't like that, are they?
Humanity is a collection of individuals trapped inside their own skins. It is the nature of things. We perceive the world through our own unique perspective, with our own desires and needs. No matter how hard we try to see things, and act, from an omni POV we are forever trapped in the first person. By nature we click a link, or buy a product, based on an often unconscious cost/benefit ratio. People gravitate to other people and groups for the same reasons.
In the context of online social media there are millions of individuals taking part in billions of interactions for an equal number of different, and often divergent, reasons. As I said, I have hundreds of online friends and each have their own unique reasons for being a friend. I am out there tweeting, blogging, posting on facebook and other sites, and people see me. They read my posts and decide if they should comment, like, friend, follow, for diverse reasons. The metrics tell me to expect 5% to react in some way, 10% if I'm lucky, but that is a cold statistical average and a bit meaningless.
I ask myself why I'm here, what do I want? Like everyone else, there is a cost/benefit calculation for what I do, why I write, why I post, who I chose to follow/friend. As a writer, I of course want to sell books. As a coder, I want customers to commission eBooks, apps, websites. But as a human being I crave interaction with my fellow writers, with readers, with people of like interests. We are, after all, a social species. When we look at participation metrics, we need to ask what are we measuring?
If all we are interested in is click-throughs, sales, and growing our audience, the participation metrics might be helpful. But most of us are interested in more than that. Social media is, after all, social. What percentage of our contacts like something, or comment is not as important as sharing the content itself. In the social context of social media there is a sharing of thoughts and ideas that may or may not require a response. Yet in the silence of a low participation metric there can be a bond of intimacy as friends learn more about each other and grow closer with every post.
I am often surprised, and delighted, when someone who has never commented on one of my posts makes a comment or sends a message that makes it clear they have been paying attention all along. I am equally amused when people who comment often are clueless what I posted yesterday. There are simply some people who post a lot, click a lot of buttons, but do so to be seen themselves, and there are others who genuinely follow/friend yet rarely click. The participation metric is oblivious to the friends that matter, socially.
I would argue that those silent, uncounted friends/followers are the most important metric of all - and not only on a personal level. They are the base, the foundation, that is rarely counted or factored into statistical equations. When I find an author or artist I like, I keep an eye on them and support them, but I rarely play the fan-boy and spam their blog or page. I'm one of those uncounted fans. I know they have something coming out, often before the ad campaign starts, and I've already purchased or pre-ordered before the statistics begin.
I'm not unique. Statistically, I'm pretty average. As the participation metrics show, over 90% rarely participate, yet they are there - reading, following, perhaps participating in ways that are not being measured. Some I consider friends and we interact in various ways, over different media. Others I may never know, but they are buying my books, reading my posts, and possibly suggesting me to their friends. How many people click a like button is often irrelevant to the quality of the fan base.
So what does this all mean, and what do we do with the information? I don't think anyone really knows. It is the Holy Grail of marketing to know why people act the way they do - why one thing is ignored while another goes viral. Unlike traditional marketing which presents a solid cost/benefit ratio designed to convince customers to purchase, social media is a popularity contest where high numbers are often hollow and substance is often overlooked. For me, I'm social to be social. Numbers are meaningless. It is more important for me to make contact with people.
Why do you participate on social networks? Be one of the few, the proud, comment below ;-)
Friday, April 22, 2011
If you are self-publishing on Kindle or Nook there is more to consider than uploading your manuscript. If you're publishing an eBook, you are publishing a book - not posting a blog. eBooks are, after all, books. That may seem self evident, but many people don't seem to think electronic books are "real books." But they are.
Books share a common format that developed of time. Go to your bookshelf and pick a book. Open it and leaf through the first few pages. Any book you chose will be similar in format and structure, from a cheap paperback to an expensive hardcover. There is a title page, a copyright page, perhaps a dedication, acknowledgments, forward. Your eBook should have all of those elements as well.
The copyright page is, perhaps the most important. That is where publishers put all of the necessary legal stuff. You are offering a literary work for sale; a book, like any paper bound book. It is a product, a piece of merchandise that people will pay money for. There are legal concerns. Ergo, the copyright page. You must assert your rights and limit you liability. Publishers have perfected the format, all you need do is look at a few of your printed books for examples.
You will need an ISBN. You can put that on your copyright page. It will also be embedded in the meta data of the book itself, but it should be where the buyer can see it. It's up to you if you'd like to register a copyright. It's a good idea. But simply putting the word copyright, your name, and the year, somewhere in the book is legally a copyright notice. Something else for the copyright page. If you do register and have a Library of Congress catalog number, you can put that as well.
All of this information about your book doesn't just make your eBook look more professional, (it does that, sure) it is the product information for a book, just like the product information on anything people buy. Again, you are producing a product for sale, not posting on your buddies facebook page.
You may also notice a disclaimer on the copyright page. "This is a work of fiction" or some such. That is added by the lawyers so Joe Usetobeafriend doesn't claim he is your main character and you stole his life, or Mary Thejealousbitch doesn't hit you with a defamation of character lawsuit for casting her as a villain. It's all fiction, any resemblance to your Aunt Kattie is unintentional.
With the legal mumbo-jumbo taken care of, there are a few elements eBooks share, that are a little different than print books. A table of contents is standard in non-fiction, though not as common in fiction. This is because readers read fiction and non-fiction differently. The TOC is a useful tool in a non-fiction, not so much in fiction, but on an eReader like Kindle or Nook the TOC is very useful regardless. So add one. Your readers will thank you.
Hyperlinks are also available in eBooks. I have yet to see the potential used to its full, though I used hyperlinks a good bit in my first novel, and plan to implement them even more in a future eBook I'm working on. Hyperlinks can transform eBook design and take it far beyond what is possible on paper. But I'll save that for another post. Just think about how hyperlinks can spice up your text.
Lastly I will jump back to the cover. I have seen a lot of awesome covers, but again we need to look at the capabilities and limits of eBook publishing. If you are publishing to Kindle your cover will appear in black and white, and many Nooks out there are B&W as well. Imagine someone holding their Kindle and surfing the Kindle store. How will your cover look to them? When you design a cover it needs to have strong contrast and look good in B&W and as a small icon on a small screen.
There are many more design concerns that effect eBooks. I've only scratched the surface with some of the more common elements. What is important is to recognize that publishing an eBook is creating a professional, commercial product that will be sold to the general public. It's not a blog post, or a note on facebook, it's a book - just like any printed book in a brick-and-mortar bookstore. Make it as professional as you can.
Friday, April 15, 2011
I'm starting to see that a lot. eBooks are not that hard to code, if you're comfortable with html, xhtml, xml, and css. But if I just lost you in the alphabet soup, you should find someone good to code your book. Trouble is, everyone who has a book on Kindle or Nook thinks they're a coder. Taking a word doc and sending it through a converter is not coding an ebook.
Converters write nasty code and often get the formatting wrong. Then there's the problem of all the different flavors of html. The code written by Word when you save as an html document may work fine in Internet Explorer - though sometimes not - but fail in other browsers. Html should follow W3C standards, but in machine written code it rarely does.
When a converter grinds up your perfectly formatted manuscript it dumps out a best effort format. Yes, you can and should download the converted file and look it over before you pub, but too often editing the mess the converter vomits out is more difficult than writing the file by hand to start with. And if you're not a coder, trying to edit the file could make things worse.
The best, and easiest way to code an eBook is to code it by hand. Forget the WYSIWYG editors, and the online converters which add clunky code to your manuscript. Pure, W3C compliant code is clear and concise and the eBook site you are uploading to will take it as is - so your formatting stays true. But there are still difficulties. Big companies like proprietary software - in other words they don't like being compatible with each other.
Kindle uses the MobiPocket code base which is based on outdated html, before css, and a limited number of tags at that. Yes, you can send an html file with css through the converter, but go back up and read what I just said. Nook uses ePub, which uses the current xhtml standard (applause to B&N for using the W3C standard and the open source ePub standard). But that means two totally incompatible formats, even though both are, strictly speaking, based on html source code.
Now Kindle says you can upload your ePub file, but don't buy it. See above again. And Nook says you can use a zipped html file - yeah, right. The best results come with the cleanest code. The cleanest code is written not converted. If you are publishing on Kindle and Nook, you need separate files, and well coded files. I take my manuscripts, strip them down to text, format in (mobi)html and xhtml then build the .mobi and .epub files for upload. I use MobiPocket Creator for the Kindle file and Sigil for the Nook file. Both are good programs if you feed them good code.
If you can't, or don't want to mess with coding, then you need a coder. But as I said, there are a lot of people out there offering to code eBooks who are not coders. They send your ms through meat-grinder converters and send you the resulting file - for a hefty fee. It may work fine. You may not notice any format problems. That's good. But Kindle and Nook update regularly, as all programs do, and the sloppy code that looks fine in today's version may break in later versions, just like badly written web pages fail in newer browsers. Industry standard code stands the test of time because it is backward compatible with earlier industry standard code.
There are good coders out there, offering reasonably priced service. I consider myself one of them. But there are also the hacks trying to cash-in on the new wave of self-publishing. As in all things publishing, Writer Beware! Know your coder, and how they will handle the manuscript you have slaved over. It's your baby, don't hand it over to someone who will do a hack job on it, and don't do a hack job on it yourself. If you are not comfortable with the code, find someone to help. Publishing your eBook is a major step. Don't cut corners.
Underground Press Publishing offers everything from consultation to complete turn-key publishing; book design and coding, cover design, editing, promotion, whatever you need.
Sunday, April 10, 2011
Our minds have the capacity to block out innocuous stimuli so that we can focus more intently on things with greater importance. When we walk into a room, we don't really see the whole room -- consciously. Our mind remembers what was there last time we entered and looks for changes. We see those changes. We don't control this selective sampling of our environment. That's why you can search in vain for your keys when they are on a table in plain view.
Magicians have used that little quirk of perception for centuries to draw our attention to the lovely assistant while the hand moves quicker than the eye. Marketers try to overcome it and draw our attention to their products. But in our modern, hyperactive, wired world, attention is a hard thing to muster. We are overloaded by competing stimuli, all screaming their importance. It all becomes innocuous, and falls beneath the threshold of conscious perception.
This is an important lesson for writers, and anyone hoping to be heard over the incessant buzz of electronic media. Sometimes a whisper draws more attention than a shout. The simple truth about our self-limiting perception is we focus on what is different, new, other. The common, no matter how loud and in-your-face, becomes innocuous and we ignore it. If everyone is shouting, all we hear is a senseless roar.
I was talking to someone the other day who said twitter, at times, is almost incestuous. That odd metaphor caught my attention. When I thought about it, she was right. It reminded me of the "dot-com boom" back in the 90's. There were thousands of internet start-ups who did marketing for, and sold ads to, other start-ups. They were all feeding on each other. When they started falling, they all fell. Incestuous... yes, I can see that.
As writers our social networks are often filled with other writers. We compare notes, help each other, bat around ideas, encourage. It's great. But when we try to market our work, we are, as the old saying goes, preaching to the choir. All of our online friends are trying to sell their books as well. Like the dot-com boomers we are selling to and buying from each other. That business model is not sustainable. If I buy your book and you buy mine -- there's no net profit. The only one making money is the publisher who published both. That's a great market strategy for them. Writers are veracious readers.
But to return to the subject at hand, the "Buzz" becomes an incoherent drone. Potential readers who stumble into our electronic web are inundated by a barrage of sales pitches, book trailers, inane ramblings about craft and market strategy. We sell a few books to friends, and friends-of-friends -- maybe even fans of friends -- then the market collapses. We shout louder, and buzz harder, but no one hears because the mind filters out the innocuous.
So what is the answer? For starters, lay off the hard-sell marketing. It has never worked and never will. People don't like to be beat over the head. If someone constantly tweets "buy my book" everyone stops listening. It's basic human nature that we are interested in what WE are interested in. That's what draws and holds our deficit attention. You can not grab someones attention with what YOU are interested in (selling your book). The way to attract readers is much the same as we have attracted each other -- common interest.
Writers have large networks of fellow writers because we are interested in writing. Some readers stumble in because they are interested in books and those who write them. But the main audience, the ones buying books in the thousands are more interested in genre, plot, and story. They like to read and like to read certain things. They couldn't care less about a writers search for an agent or the latest eBook sales trends. They like vampires, or boy wizards, or mysteries, or romance. They aren't hearing your ramblings about cons and lit events, or your constant sells pitch. If they are following your twitter feed, they have likely read your book and want more. Give it to them. More story, more content, not more sales pitches.
I do a lot of this -- writing for writers, about writing -- but I'm an Indie publisher servicing the writing community through underground press publishing, as well as a writer myself. You are my audience, and I just hit you with a sales pitch. I didn't shout, "Let me code your eBook!" I wrote an article that might just help you sell more books, and pointed out that I might be able to help in other ways as well. If you like what you've read, you just might contact me, or follow me, or tell a friend. That's what soft-sell marketing is about and why it works.
If you've written the next great romance novel -- fill your feed with poetry, advice on relationships, pics of scantily dressed men, and slip in the link to your book once in a while. If you write paranormal, haunt paranormal networks or set up a website with ghost stories and vampire lore. If you get a reader's attention, they will find your books. A quick search on Amazon or Google will do that. Readers are smart and know how to find what they like.
Remember, whispers are far more influential than shouts. In a world of incessant buzz, try humming and see how it works.
Friday, April 1, 2011
FinePrint Literary Management has been unable to rid themselves of Meredith since her arrival in January 2010. Parties have reached a gentlemanly agreement wherein it is specified, among other things, that Meredith sit as far away from the front door as possible. As it would happen, this is part of Janet Reid's agreement as well.
Meredith is not acquiring clients. She reads good writing, both fiction and non, and hawks the outstanding on Janet. Especially appealing are thrillers with worldwide stakes, quirky literary fiction, and characters that she wishes were real. Narrative nonfiction with a new story to tell and the requisite platform (yeah, yeah) is always welcome.
Convinced that technology is vital to the future of publishing, but also recognizing that it is scary and has sharp teeth, Meredith started La Vie en Prose to provide some perspective on the matter.
I discovered Meredith on another blog, Confessions from Suite 500, and liked her style. I followed her when she started La Vie en Prose and on twitter as well. We had a brief exchange awhile back when I won a contest on her blog -- a crit of my query letter. Though it didn't land the agent I was after, I found meeting Ms. Barnes to be the real prize.
In my stalking of the mysterious "Assisssssssstant to the Sharkly One" I was intrigued by her tech savvy views on the future of publishing. In an industry where some agencies still require hard copy query letters and manuscripts, Ms. Barnes, Merbear to some, is developing apps and looking for ways to leverage cutting edge technology to aid authors. When I noticed on her blog that she freelances coding eBooks for self-publishing authors, I begged her for an interview. Despite her insanely busy schedule, she magnanimously agreed.
Max: First of all, Meredith, thank you for taking time out. As you know, I'm an independent author and a strong supporter of self-published and Indie authors. Some people predicted the end of the recording industry when Indie music hit the scene. What is the reaction in New York to the success of Indie publishing and self-published authors?
Meredith: I think there was a lot of fear at first—and by "at first," I mean 2 or so years ago—when everyone was freaking out about agency models and pricing and whether Amazon was just going to buy everyone’s souls and get it over with. There’s still uncertainty. For instance, pricing is still a pretty murky issue, with lots of debate. But I think the fear has abated. As an industry, Publishing is excited about the new stuff, and excited to see new models—even models that traditional publishing isn’t involved in, like self-publishing—succeed. It’s still going to be some time before we see consistent mobilization to do anything about the new stuff, because there’s a lot to consider. And some are moving faster to the starting line than others.
Max: Where do you see literary agents and Indie authors intersecting?
Meredith: First thing with this question is to define “indie authors.” Self-published authors, ones who use Amazon's program, etc. to publish their books, don’t need agents in the traditional sense. That’s because an agent’s job is to facilitate a book’s publication—by whom and how it will be published. We also do a lot more backend stuff like marketing and promotion these days, but by whom and how are the two most important questions for an agent.
If you’re going with the publicly offered programs at Amazon, B&N, etc., the by whom and how is pretty set. They’ve got standardized models and they’re just not going to change that for one author, even if you have a hard-hitting agent on your side. So self-published authors are more looking for help with the backend. There are better people to hire for that. Say, publicists.
There’s another type of author that I think we’re talking about here: one who, for whatever reason, isn’t going to end up at a traditional publisher. Either the market is too narrow or the subject matter too specific/risqué/upmarket/downmarket/whatever for a publisher to pony up with some cash on the deal, or sales numbers haven’t been great and the agent/author worry that enthusiasm at the house is waning…or enthusiasm is just inexplicably waning (the single worst thing that can happen to a book—you just get lost). Or for whatever other reason the agent/author don’t see a house that’s the right fit.
This is where agent expertise is absolutely necessary. Their job is to strategize on your behalf, and they have the information to do so. They know what the options are—for instance there are several ePublishers getting off the ground these days and they’re working with agencies for now, not individual authors. Agents can tell you where to go to best benefit the book and you (ie make money). There are more variables involved in that decision than you can possibly imagine.
So, for self-published authors, agents aren’t really a factor—unless you choose to get one after a successful self-publishing experience makes you the next Amanda Hocking. For authors exploring the newer publishing options after being at a house or taking their debut straight to electrons (but who don’t want to do it all themselves), it’s almost impossible to do it without an agent.
Max: Copyright to a novel extends far beyond print and eBooks. What are some new areas where author's rights are finding value.
Meredith: This is one of my all-time favorite topics. The ways an author can capitalize on his or her content are literally innumerable at this point. I use our writers at FPLM for my evil experiments in PR/marketing/publicity. They seem pretty amenable, on the whole.
Right now, we’re doing a lot with QR Codes—which are scannable barcodes that can link to ANY CONTENT so long as it’s hosted online—and with (gasp) apps. Apps, as I’m working with them now, are separate content. So inspired by, but not utilizing the book’s content (a game, for instance), which keeps us out of rights disputes (for now) as we figure out the best ways to promote our authors on mobile platforms. I learned to code in Java, and freelance coding ebooks as well. All of this synergizes. It’s making me better able to get stuff up online, where most marketing and promotion is going to move, I think.
Max: Thanks again Meredith.
As you can see, Ms. Barnes is definitely someone to watch in the changing world of publishing. You can find her posting on her blog, or follow her on twitter. She isn't currently acquiring clients, but we can't imagine it being long before writers are beating down her virtual door. Best of luck in all you do, Meredith. We'll be watching.