Category Archives: book marketing

2016: The Year of the Writer?

There are signs that after the dramatic 2009 digital disruption that brought in the self-publishing tsunami, the publishing industry is stabilizing. And Kristine Kathryn Rusch, a best-selling author and dispenser of cool, much sought-after advice has even decreed on her blog in a year-end post, that 2016, is going to be “The Year of the Writer”.

Kristine Kathryn Rush’s blog, click here

Hooray! Or is it too early to celebrate? KK Rusch notes that in 2015 a lot of indie writers suffered from burnout (disclosure: my case too). But she has words of wisdom to soothe the pain:

If you’re destined to be a career writer, you’ll come back to it—or rather, it’ll come back to you. One day, a story will pop into your head, a story that needs to be told. I just got an e-mail from a long-time published writer who said that very thing. For the longest time, he thought he was done writing, and now he’s turning his attention to a new novel.

So nice to hear I’m not the only one (and yes, now too I’m turning my attention to a new novel).

So why this high rate of burnout in 2015? Simple: because of marketing pressures:

  1. You have to market your book in every possible way, Twitter, Facebook, book tours, Goodreads, you name it – exhausting;
  2. You have to write your next book in the series – yes, it’s a series of course, the best way to keep your readers glued to your books – and you have to do it as fast as you can, you’ve heard that best-selling authors come out with a new book every three months (yikes, how do they manage that?) – even more exhausting, especially if coupled with (1) above.
No surprise then that authors collapse.
But as KK Rush says, why do it? The solution to burnout is simple: write what you want. And, as she notes:

It does take courage to write what you want. To follow your own creativity and see where it will lead you. To walk down a path that doesn’t exist yet.So maybe I should modify my conclusion and call 2016 the Year of the Courageous WriterBecause we’ll be seeing a lot of courage in print this year.

Ready to be courageous? Ready to do your own thing?

Well, maybe not quite yet. Also, there are many ways to deal with burnout. For example, you could step sideways – move into non-fiction. That’s what I did: since 2014, I’ve moved into a lot of non-fiction writing (mostly articles about the United Nations) and working as Senior Editor for Impakter – and it’s been a wonderful experience, I’ve come across a lot of new, hugely talented young writers contributing exciting articles to Impakter.

Impakter – The United Nations section, click here to see.

Meanwhile the number of readers on Impakter has grown exponentially, to the extent that it has become a lead magazine for Millennials, even exceeding the New Yorker…That has made my experience with burnout as a fiction writer a lot easier to bear!

But KK Rush does not stop there in her predictions. She has just published a fascinating analysis of what went wrong: “Business Musings: The Reactive Business Model“. What she is arguing is that traditional publishers, starting in the 1970’s, have been “reacting” to surprise best-sellers by imitating them.

In order to survive commercially, they’ve churned out as fast as they could books that are as close as possible to the surprise best seller. And now, indie writers have fallen in the same trap, writing in the genre that supposedly “sells”, following as closely as they can the example set by best-selling authors. And you get a slew of would-be Hunger Games, slavishly applying what KK Rusch calls the “reactive business model”. And she predicts:

More and more indie writers will leave the business if their business plan is based on the Reactive Business Model.Traditional publishers have forgotten that they used to partner with writers. Writers created the material and publishers published it to the best of their abilities. Because traditional publishers are owned by large corporate entities, the pursuit of profit has become the mantra, and if an imprint isn’t profitable in the short term (five years or so), it gets absorbed, replaced, or dissolved.
Indie writers don’t have to follow that model—and shouldn’t. They need to go back to the old model.

And of course, the “old model” – the reason writers abandoned traditional publishing and went down the road of self-publishing in the first place –  is exactly that:

Write what you want to write. Don’t think about marketing until the project—whatever it is—is done. Then consider how to market the project. Be creative in the marketing too. Don’t just imitate what was done before.

Wise words, no doubt about it. And when writing your next book, she warns:

 “Don’t act like traditional publishers and manipulate your next book to be like someone else’s success. […] Move forward in your career. Don’t look back. Following the Reactive Business Model is by definition looking backwards.

Definitely good advice.

I would only add: don’t worry about marketing at all.

I know, this may sound counter-intuitive in a time when book discovery has become incredibly difficult given the large number of available titles – more than 4 million in the Kindle store alone.

The theory that the “cream rises to the top” and that the best books will be inevitably discovered has proved wrong time and again. A book, to be properly launched, needs strong marketing. A push. And of course, be ready to do it when the time comes but don’t overdo it, and especially not at the expense of your writing time.

You can always do some more book promotion later, if and as needed. It may take longer for you to be recognized, but at least in this digital age, indie writers have an advantage over traditionally published authors of the past: their books don’t disappear from book stores after three months, digital versions stay in the cloud forever, they have a so-called “long tail” that is (eventually) working for them.

This simple technical fact ensures that your books remain available on Amazon and other platforms as long as you, the author, don’t retire them.

So hang on in there!

And Happy 2016!

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Amazon Has Done It Again for Self-Publishing!

The wonderful case of Swedish self-published author Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin is there to prove it! Thanks to Amazon, this author, a psychologist who has founded a psychological coaching company and published several “help” books in various genres since 2006, has hit the jackpot.

News came out in this summer that something strange was happening on Amazon’s printed books best selling list: big best-sellers from established authors (like Harper Lee‘s Go Set a Watchman) were being displaced from their top position by a book for children from an unknown Swedish author with the weird title The Rabbit Who Wants to Fall Asleep – a book specially designed to lull restless children to sleep.

The news were repeated in the press both in America and in the UK (for example, here and here, both pieces dated August 15) and now the New York Times has just learned that in September Mr. Forssen Ehrlin had landed a juicy deal for multiple books, including re-issuing his first book unchanged (but on better quality paper), with one of the Big Five: Penguin Random House no less.

The interview he gave to NYT is an eye-opener. Curious? You can read it here.

So what is the secret of Forssen Ehrlin’s success?

To begin with, a huge number of readers’ reviews – now already over 900 on Amazon.

Next, a well-orchestrated presentation. The NYT felt the illustrations looked a little “amateurish” – perhaps they do, but Penguin Random House is (wisely) maintaining them and (I personally think) they have a lot of charm, and obviously a lot of readers have felt the same way. As they say, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Also, an attractive, professional author website. Take a look here and see for yourself. The site is as much about the author as it is about his books, well balanced, convincing.

Last but not least, an unique sales pitch. The author presents himself as a trained psychologist and life coach, someone “in the know”, who can help parents in the delicate task of relaxing their children at bedtime. His book meets a broadly perceived problem, et voilà, you have a best-seller on your hands, with desperate parents loading up on the book!

Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of this story is the fact that this is NOT A KINDLE SUCCESS STORY. It’s a Create Space success, Amazon’s service for self-publishing printed books. 

We’ve been used to read about Amanda Hocking, Bella Andre and Hugh Howey –  they all made it first by hitting the Kindle’s best selling lists.

Carl-Johan has done it differently, with a printed book.

And, not content to break new ground format-wise, he’s done it genre-wise too. This is not a romance, this is not a thriller or science-fiction, it’s a children’s book.

Congrats Carl-Johan, well done!

 Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin’s website (Screenshot)

PS. This story can also be construed as another confirmation that the digital format is not particularly adapted to children’s books. Mr. Forssen Ehrlin was wise to choose a printed book format, that is what parents want to do with their children, sitting on their bed after dinner, thumbing a book…

Your views?

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Boomer Lit Three Years Later: What Next?

Lear and Cordelia 1849-54 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 Purchased with assistance from the Art Fund and subscribers 1916 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03065

Lear and Cordelia 1849-54 Ford Madox Brown 1821-1893 Phttp://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/N03065

In a way, Boomer Lit has been around for ever. Any book dealing with the challenges of “mature life” (meaning over 50) could be said to be “Boomer Lit”.

And now that some 78 million baby boomers in the US have reached 50 or are older – and that’s a big segment of the American population – the term Boomer Lit given to the kind of books they want to read has truly come into its own.

Why do I claim “Boomer Lit” was founded three years ago? Some people may say they’d heard the term before, that it was “floating in the air” and they could well be right.

But something specific happened three years ago that made it literally come out of its chrysalis and be born as a new genre –  a genre, I’m convinced, destined to become a great marketing success, given the sheer number of baby boomers. Not just in the US but around the world. And these are people who are rapidly reaching retirement age or are already retired…which means they’ve got plenty of time on their hands to read!

The Love Story stars, reunited today, see here

So what exactly happened three years ago to launch Boomer Lit? By chance, at this time of year (actually September 2012) I had just published a novel about a man facing a new phase in his life after retirement and the choices he makes threaten his marriage.

My problem was I didn’t know in which genre to place it. Romance since it dealt with a marriage relationship gone awry? Yes, but the man is over 60, and he has a love adventure with a woman in her 50s.

As we all know, “classic” romance is like Segal’s Love Story, all about young people. Also my book drilled in depth with how it feels like when you stop working and the rug is pulled out under your feet. Not the usual stuff of romance!

How to market such an odd book that didn’t fit anywhere?

That’s when I turned to a Kindle Forum thread for listing new books under specific genres and asked the moderator to allow the addition of a new genre aimed at Baby Boomers (I figured they were my audience). My request was granted and that boosted my confidence. I felt I was on the right road.

Happily armed with this new Amazon avenue that had opened up for marketing my book, I turned to Goodreads, looking for a group to discuss Baby Boomer novels and possibly get a chance to talk about my book and list it and reach out to more people.

Tough luck. I found no such group anywhere on Goodreads (and there are thousands of groups dealing with thousands of different themes!).

Determined to launch my book, I wasn’t discouraged. I’d been already fairly active on Goodreads for years and achieved the status of “librarian”, so it was a no-brainer to found a group to discuss Baby Boomer novels – or BB novels as I called them, I liked the humorous, facetious aspect of this term. If YA was for Young Adults, surely BB was for Baby Boomers?

I started the group in October 2012 with an explanatory pitch around this BB novel concept and put up a photo-shopped picture of my husband reading his Kindle ( washed over in blue color letting his hair show white – he actually has dark hair!).

By December 2012, the group had attracted over 50 extremely enthusiastic and active members and I started to write about in several online publications  and the Baby Boomer ball got rolling (for details on how it went, click my Boomer Lit tab above)…

In fact, today, three years later, the group has grown to nearly 600 – most of them, if not all, Boomer Lit authors.

That’s a lot of writers who claim to be writing Boomer Lit!  Writers who belong to the Group know that they also have at their disposal a Facebook page to announce their books or special events and a Twitter account (@boomerlit. To support Boomer Lit events, there is a dedicated hashtag: #boomerlit

To go to page, click here

In the spring of 2013, the Goodreads member of our BB novel group discussed the title of the group and there was a unanimous agreement that it should be called “Boomer Lit” because it didn’t cover just novels but also memoirs, poetry etc.

And there was a pointed discussion about the very nature of Boomer Lit: did it cover just challenges facing the “third age” or did it  also evoke the past, what it was like growing up in the 1960’s and 1970’s? I’ve always felt that the former was truly Boomer Lit while the latter was not. In my opinion, nostalgia pieces – whether a poem, a novel or a short story –  that deal with, say, a first love that happened some 40 years ago should still be classified as YA romance and not Boomer Lit. Why? Because it features, yes, a “young adult” (or maybe not so young, perhaps someone in their twenties) – but surely not anyone over 50!

At least that was my view and I fought for it, but not always winning that battle. Many Group members felt nostalgia was definitely part of Boomer Lit even if it dealt with a first love.

I believe this is the kind of intellectual “battle” only a Big Publisher could win.

That’s why Boomer Lit, to get truly established and go mainstream, needs to have a traditional publisher, preferably one of the Big Five, set up a Boomer Lit imprint. With a clear definition of what the term Boomer Lit covers and a clear outreach strategy to Baby Boomers.

I’m convinced such an imprint, correctly launched, would automatically access a huge market. Some authors have already made a splash with books that are clearly “Boomer Lit”, notably “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel” that’s been turned into two films, and there’s no reason that many more Boomer Lit authors of quality cannot be found.

Source: click here

For a partial list of Boomer Lit books, check the Wikipedia entry, here. A publisher could also ask its editors to look among the members of the Goodreads Boomer Lit group. The group discussed a number of books and those discussions were very fruitful in helping to define what was and what was not quality Boomer Lit. And all those discussion threads are online, easy to access.

Furthermore, I’m pleased to report that the Goodreads Boomer Lit Group has started a particularly interesting thread about Boomer Lit, its challenges and potential as a major genre, to read it click here.

Yes, Boomer Lit has a future and in America, its future is 78 million strong! The first publisher who wakes up to this opportunity and establishes a Boomer Lit imprint is likely to be richly rewarded.

Your views? What do you think you can do to help put Boomer Lit on the map?

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2015: New Challenges in Publishing

https://claudenougat.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/7a36f-zuhano.jpg?w=500

Now that the dust has settled on 2014, we begin to see what 2015 will bring. Is the e-book market crashing? Too soon to say, but there are some worrying signs of trouble. Here are the most likely:

1. A growing glut in books. The fast growth in titles in the Kindle Store will continue unabated: in August 2014, the number of books available was around 3.3 million, now, six months later, it’s getting to 3.7 million (as per the data available in the Amazon Associates search box; I just checked, the exact number of e-books is 3,647,578). At this rate, expect it to get close to 5 million by the end of this year.

2. Adding to the overflow in everyone’s Kindle is the fact that traditional publishers have now woken up to the market-effectiveness of low-priced e-books.

That’s a big change for 2015. Low prices and going free were the marketing strategies of choice for indies – no more. And Russell Blake was one of the first to catch on to this change (see here).

Big Publishers are no longer afraid that e-books will “gobble up” sales from their printed books. They’ve finally understood that e-books are no threat simply because they are not the same product. A printed book is an object, something you show off to your friends, give your family or use to scribble comments in the margin. An e-book is not an object, it’s a reading service: it’s hard to give as a gift (though it can be done) and it’s not even clear if it’s something you can bequeath to your children when you die. So now self-published authors must bear the onslaught of low prices on current New York Times best sellers – and that already happened at Christmas when Amazon showcased on its website a big sale of Hachette’s best sellers at $2.50 apiece.

Life was always hard for new self-published authors who had to withstand competition not only from the traditional, established “mega sellers” but from fellow “midlist” authors with huge back lists to self-publish and a big fan base acquired in earlier days when they were traditionally published.

Now life has just become a lot harder.

3. A breakdown in the e-book market caused by book subscription services. The latest arrival, Kindle Unlimited (KU), with 700,000 titles that KU members can access for the modest sum of $9.99 per month, is the biggest, potentially a much larger market than the other two, Oyster and Scribd. It is also the one that happens to pay its authors least, provoking the ire of many indies that have decided to “leave” KU (to do so is simple: all an author has to do is to get out of KDP Select).

Some argue that both Oyster and Scribd that pay authors better don’t have a sustainable business model, yet Scribd just raised $22 million to fund its e-book service (see here). Scribd’s aim? To get on board “all the significant publishers”.

No doubt Amazon wants the same for KU.

Perhaps it won’t be so easy, as a result of the possible withdrawal of some best-selling indie authors, the likes of J.A. Konrath who trumpetted he left KU or H.M. Ward who announced on the K-boards that “KU crushed my sales”, as the New York Times recently reported (see here). But KU will no doubt rely on traditional publishers, not to mention Amazon’s own imprints, and one can expect that eventually, KU will contain plenty of NYT best sellers as well as a myriad of unknown indies and better known indies who have smartly cut up their longer books in independent sections, creating out of each title, 3 or 4 books, as Bob Meyer suggested.

The strategy to deal with KU is simple. For example, if you have a trilogy, put all the books of the trilogy into KU and keep the omnibus edition out. If you have serialized your novel, publish every episode as a separate book on KU and keep the omnibus edition out – and available of course in the Kindle Store and on all other platforms (ibooks, Kobo, Barnes and Noble etc).

The implication of this strategy?

Expect the number of titles available on KU to grow exponentially this year. And the pay-out per book read to drop (Amazon pays the author as soon as readers have passed the 10% mark). It’s now around $1.40 per book read – overtime, expect it to drop to around 50 cents and below.

Are subscription services, and KU in particular, like Spotify?  More to the point, should we expect the destruction of the book industry?

The answer is complex, KU is not Spotify, books are not songs. Printed books will survive, what is at stake here are e-books.

First, an observation. So far, indies who became best-selling authors usually made big sales thanks to their “voracious readers”, i.e. people addicted to a certain kind of literature, like the teenager who reads every western that comes out, or the lady who reads every book about zombies, regardless of whether it is written by a big name or an unknown author.

In short, “voracious readers” are the ones who have made best-selling authors out of indies. They’re the ones who, because of their reading habits, were always looking for low-priced books in order to stretch their budget as far as it would go. That’s why going free or setting your book at 99 cents worked so well during the “indie gold rush” that began in 2010 and ended now with KU. It is clear that those price strategies are not likely to work all that well anymore. You can try them for your books that are outside of KDP Select, but not for those inside (there’s no need). And voracious readers are not going to respond to your price campaigns because they are safely esconced in KU and have plenty to read. Indeed, even for them, their Kindle may start looking like it’s over-flowing.

But, hold your breath, there’s a silver lining to KU. For an excellent, balanced and dispassionate analysis, read Jake Kerr on the subject (here); he’s had experience with the music industry and is probably one of the persons best placed to understand what is happening.

Kerr points out that KU won’t really make that much difference to big names like Rowling or best sellers in a niche, but “of all people who should consider KU, new authors are the safest bets for making the most of it”. Why? Because, bottom line, it provides them with excellent exposure to “voracious readers”, the real beneficiaries  of book subscription services and the ones who are likely to stay in KU.

4. Book marketing strategies in 2015 will have to take into account the “non-voracious reader”, that kind of reader who is more picking, more difficult to convince but once convinced, more effective at spreading the word about a book in a convincing way.  And they care about what is said about the book by people who can make professional reviews.They are always looking for a good read but like to check out on the author, they want to hear what is being said about books in the media, they are out to pick the ones that give them something more than mere entertainment from a “genre” novel, they don’t want to waste time with poor quality books. These are people who probably are not going to join KU or any other subscription service. They read less and they read in many genres and they are demanding. They buy fewer books than voracious readers but they do buy books – maybe 5 or 6 a year – and when they do, they are ready to spend more on a book if they think it’s worth it. Price is less important for that kind of reader than content. And what is important to understand: These are the people that turn books into lasting mega best-sellers because there are so many more people like them than there are voracious readers, the voracious ones have always been in a minority.

In a way, we are back to the traditional publisher’s eco-system of literary critics publishing thoughtful articles reviewing books in the mainstream media (from the New York Times to Granta magazine).

This is why Amazon will have to consider doing something to improve the review system in the Kindle Store. Fellow readers have told me that on Amazon they tend to ignore book reviews.  Given the quality of reviews now, they’re probably right to ignore them.

So what’s the problem?  Amazon, so far, has relied on “customer reviews” and the only effort at identifying top reviewers is through the Vine Program  – unfortunately, if you check them out, you will see that those “top Vine reviewers” were not necessarily knowledgeable about books and literature; they just happened to reach the top because of all the other reviews they did on Amazon products, from cameras to jewelry. For example, one of the Vine Program’s top reviewers for books is someone who likes to read and reviews exclusively a sub-sector of science fiction, military sci-fi, and nothing else. That is fine, it’s his right to do so. It is clear that he enjoys spending his time reviewing products like electronic gear which he gets to try out than the (few) books he gets to read.

What Amazon needs to do is to pull together a body of top book reviewers, thus creating a special Book Vine Program, showcasing those professional-level reviews separately from customer reviews. If this were done, book reviews would really help readers in selecting the right read – something that doesn’t happen now.

The digital age so far has been in the hands of Amazon’s commercial eco-system, where books are ranked based on sales in real time – no doubt, an interesting statistic that appeals to the competitive instinct in human nature but that also has a practical use: it allows Amazon to efficiently organize its bookselling website. Makes sense: you search for your favorite genre or sub-genre by refining your keywords, and you get a list of the top best-selling titles in that particular area. But you’re human too, you don’t really read beyond the 25th title in the list before choosing something on the basis of a catchy book description (pitch). Fair enough and a rather clever way to organize a website. But more can be done by adding a new feature, a ranking based on professional-level book reviews – not merely a filter for selecting books that have 4-star-customer-reviews-and-above, as is the case now.

That’s just one thing Amazon could do. And it could do more now that the Amazon-Hachette dispute is settled. Expect growing cooperation between Amazon and the Big Publishers in 2015 and some big surprises – probably not all of them going the indies way, but some might, I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

And this gets us to the crux of the matter:

5. Book discovery remains the #1 problem, still waiting for a solution. Can Amazon propose a solution? I suggested above an upgrading in their Vine Program to make it more appropriate to the book market.

Surely more can be done – for example, in terms of more book fairs aimed at readers rather than at publishing professionals. Let’s make books fun to read! Let’s usher in the Age of the Enhanced E-book, mixing words with images, music and video! Let’s link with Hollywood, with the videogame industry, let’s expand e-book markets around the world, making it easier to buy digital…For example, Google books is using a better payments model than Amazon, easier to use for people who live in  countries like India, and that should probably be the payments model for the future.

6. The rise in tie-in novels. As Amazon famously pointed out to Hachette, books need to be priced low because they compete with other forms of entertainment, from video-games and TV series to sport and travel. But low-pricing is not the only rejoinder to that challenge. Remember the saying? If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em! That’s why you can expect tie-in novels to play an ever more important part in the industry, as the New York Times recently noted (see here).

As authors, we’ve always dreamt of seeing our work turned into movies, like the Hunger Games or Game of Thrones – this is the reverse: books are written after movies have become stellar, like Star Wars or the recent case reported by the NYT, Sons of Anarchy, that recently ended its 7-year run on FX and needed a boost from good old-fashioned books.

7. The world of self-publishing is changing fast and the gold rush is over.  Now everyone acknowledges this and it is no longer the subject of debate as it still was last year. Everyone has also become keenly aware that publishing is a fast-changing and highly complex industry, as it continues to be buffetted by the digital revolution (not least by KU and book subscription services). The way forward for aspiring authors is hard to see and they would be well-advised to carefully consider their options and not rush into self-publishing. This is precisely the kind of advice they can get from veteran blogger and best-selling author Anne R. Allen, see here. I recommend a careful read of that thoughtful post full of interesting information. It’s the first time I see what happened to the first generation of self-published stars like Amanda Hocking who, after selling a million copies on Amazon, had joined traditional publishing (with a huge advance that drew admiration from the press): we are finally getting the bottom line from an editor at St Martin’s press who confesses the disappointment of Big Publishers with their newly acquired self-published authors, saying they discovered the “market was tapped out”.

So, as Anne R. Allen puts it, “the self-published e-book is no longer the new query“. Even if you sell hundreds of thousands of copies, don’t expect a Big Publisher to approach you. And bookstore chains like Barnes and Noble and W.H.Smith and Waterstone won’t like you. Amazon is no longer the “indie playground it used to be”, bonuses are awarded to big star authors who belong to traditional publishers and Amazon imprints. Bookbub, the top advertising venue for indies, has become overrun by “trad pub” titles at the expense of indies. “Social media has been spammed to death. Facebook has become pretty much useless for authors” – and I would add, so has Twitter and Pinterest. The final, most striking comment comes once again from Bob Meyer who told the New York Times: “If you’re not an author with a slavish fan following, you’re in a lot of trouble. Everyone already has a ton of things on their Kindle they haven’t opened.”

In short, if you have chosen the self-published route, be aware that you have to stay in it forever (or change name and genre). You may never get the Pulitzer or the Booker, but you will probably make a lot of money. Provided you sell hundreds of thousands of books of course…So yes, don’t expect self-publishing to wither away, there are still plenty of self-pubbed authors who make a lot of sales (and money), particularly in well-defined niche genres (romantic suspense is probably the biggest, as Bella Andre’s success shows). But the days of the successful “hybrid” author, with one foot in trad publishing and the other in self-publishing, could be soon over. One of the main reasons why a self-pubbed super star went with a trad publisher was to get books in print and into bookstores – but that may no longer be needed with the recent improvements in Ingram’s services (see Porter Anderson’s interesting post on this, here).

Your views about the changes 2015 will bring? Please share in the comments. What else do you see as a big challenge in 2015?

 

Post-scriptum: To usher in the New Year, I’ve lowered the price of my latest book, Gateway to Forever,  at 99 cents. Wonder what that will do to KU (chuckle), but if you’re curious, you can see it here, and this is the new cover:

A love story set 200 years from now…

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2014: A Pivotal Year in Publishing

This is the end of the year, a perfect day to draw lessons from the main publishing events in 2014.

First, one bit of good news for 2014: it will be remembered as the year audio-book sales took off. In 2013, downloaded audio books hit an all time high in both revenue and units, and that trend continued in 2014 (see Bookstats.org). In February, I wrote on this blog about audio-books (here) reporting on the fast rise of audiobook titles. On Audible there are more than 150,000 titles in every genre – up from less than 5,000 in 2009, an amazing growth.  And 2014 was the year that saw the creation of the Deyan Institute of Voice Artististry and Technology (see here), the world’s first campus dedicated to audiobook production. Yes, audiobooks have come of age! Enhanced e-books, containing music and possibly video clips, long announced but not yet really successful, may come next as the technology progresses.
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But the news were not all good. We were all captivated by the show put on by Amazon and Hachette in their long, drawn-out dispute that took up half the year. As a result, we tended to overlook what was happening to the e-book market as a whole. Few of us listened when Amazon told Hachette that books should be priced low – maybe like a cup of coffee? – because books in our society are competing with other forms of entertainment, like TV series, videogames, travel and sports. Yet, if we had taken that argument on board, we might not have been so surprised at what happened next – specifically, when Amazon created in July its new subscription service, Kindle Unlimited or KU, that allows you free access to some 700,000 titles for just $9.99 a month – that’s a lot of cups of coffee -.

Actually 2014 had started on the heels of a lackluster year for the e-book market. Here is a chart that shows sales revenues from e-books since 2008 (remember, the starting point was November 2007 when Amazon launched the new publishing digital age with its famous first Kindle sale):

As you can see, US publishers collected $3 billion from e-book sales in 2013 – and (another reminder!) e-books are the preferred environment for self-published authors . $3 billion may look like a big number, but it’s not so big if you set it against revenues from the whole US publishing industry: $27 billion if you include journals, and $14.6 for “trade” (fiction and non-fiction books).

What is striking in this chart is the way e-book sales started to flatten out after 2012, suggesting that the e-book market by 2014 had actually reached “maturity” (there’s a typo in that chart: 2011 is repeated twice, but the data is correct). It is still too early for definitive data for 2014, but the available quarterly data suggests that sales have continued to plateau through the year. I won’t bother you further with statistics, but the data is in and tells a discomforting story for self-published authors that have come to rely on the e-book market (though they produce printed books too, they typically launch their books on e-platforms). In fact, if the stigma has been successfully removed from self-publishing and vanity presses have become a thing of the past, it is entirely due to the remarkable e-book sales of a score of self-published authors, including Amanda Hocking, JA Konrath, Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, HM Ward, Russell Blake, Elizbeth Spann Craig and many others (no space here to mention them all!).

The sense of discomfort was strong among self-published authors through the year and I felt it acutely, often blogging about it. Many of you, dear readers, must have felt the same way, because the blog posts that attracted the most traffic all had to do with the problems facing us as independent book publishers (being indies, we run our book selling as a small business). Out of a total 103 posts published in 2014, 35 attracted three to four times the average number of views and they all concerned publishing issues, from book discovery and how to improve the Amazon review system to  marketing advice you can get straight from Amazon’s Marketing Central (published in January 2014, that was the most viewed post in the whole year, see here).

Only one non-publishing post made it in the top 35, and this was about Putin and his “New Russia” dream (here). In a way, I regret that, because I enjoy writing about other things, such as politics and art. The best traffic I had on an art post this year was the one about the Mandela monument in South Africa (here).

The conclusion is inescapable: all the posts that attracted traffic were focused on publishing and book marketing (no surprise there, after all, I’m an economist by training). Noteworthy among them:

  • The tsunami of books, particularly in the Kindle Store (see here): when I wrote that post last August, the number of titles was around 3.4 million – now, I just checked, it’s close to… 3.8 million! This flood of books that fill up our e-readers is all the more worrisome that publishing as a whole is threatened by our obsession with visuals (here);  books need to be short to grab the distracted reader’s attention, hence the sudden success of the serialized novel (here); by the end of summer, I had become sufficiently preoccupied with the whole issue to try and summarize what was really happening to the digital publishing environment dominated by Amazon (here); remarkably, my concerns were not reflected in any of the debates about e-publishing held at the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera, the biggest writers’ conference on the European continent, bringing together editors and writers from both sides of the Atlantic: here the sun was still shining brightly on the e-book market, with Bella Andre and many others explaining how they had achieved success;
  • The role of book reviews as we all drown into a tsunami of books (here) and the urgent need to improve Amazon’s review system by strengthening its Vine Program (here); I suggested that there is space on Amazon for two different types of reviews: the customer review and the literary critique; this would be an important first step to strengthen the e-book market, as it lacks what the traditional printed book market has, i.e. literary authorities who can help guide readers to good reads;
  • The rise of a new genre, cli-fi or what Margaret Atwood prefers to call “speculative fiction”; several posts revolved around the climate change issue and the kind of books inspired by it, notably here , here and here – including an interview of the father of cli-fi, Dan Bloom (here)- clearly, having just finished writing a cli-fi novel of my own, Gateway to Forever, and bursting with the research I did for that book, I plead guilty – please, consider it “content marketing”!

Looking to 2015, some clouds are accumulating on the horizon.

  • First, in Europe where Amazon (and other American corporations) have been clobbered by the European Union. They have been forced throughout the EU to apply national taxes on e-books – and the VAT on e-books happens to be high everywhere except in France and of course Luxembourg, a place that, as of 2015, will no longer be the tax haven it used to be for American corporations (see here for more on this question – yes, published in January 2014, I could see it coming!)
  • Second, in America, the growing furor over Kindle Unlimited; first, JA Konrath annoucing he is pulling out of KDP Select (the way for self-published authors to have their books listed in KU); next, a notable article in the New York Times reporting on authors “snubbing their nose” at KU, including HM Ward; most recently, a remarkable blog post by author John Scalzi who wonders how the damage can be undone. And the latest blog post on the subject that is a must read, is this one, on the Ebook Bargains UK blog. Is publishing about to go the way the music industry went with Spotify? Are authors going to be left high and dry the way musicians are? That is something that requires some serious thinking – I will post about this early next year.

What about you, dear reader? What would you like to see on my blog? More interviews of authors? I did a few, including one with romantic suspense best-selling author Liz Jennings published by Impakter (see here) that got shared many times and one with Marsha Roberts and Bob Rector. This is an unusual couple in many ways: they are both professional writers, Bob is also a film producer and Marsha a theater producer, and they have been happily married for 39 years, something of a feat for two persons working in the same sector and who are artists to boot, each with a strong independent streak. That post, published in May, got a flood of visits (here). I also reported for Publishing Perspectives on several events in Italy, including, inter alia, a reality show for authors on Italian TV that “ignored the psychology of authors”, the Women’s Fiction Festival in Matera (it’s next September, do try and come!) and a publishing startup, Reedsy, a great place to find freelance professional editors and book cover designers. I also covered Reedsy on Impakter, but from a different angle and with some extraordinary images provided by Impakter (strong visuals are a characteristic feature of that site).

And for the first time this year, responding to a request from Impakter, I started to use my real name (Claude Forthomme) whenever I published articles based on my 25 year experience in the United Nations. The Impakter editor argued people were interested in the United Nations, that this was something people knew little about, beyond some (often boring) newspaper headlines. I complied and furnished Impakter with over a dozen articles and much to my surprise, the response was excellent – here is the Impakter section on the United Nations (to go to it, click here):

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As you can see, not all the articles are mine: many more people are now writing on Impakter, including a major FAO official, Laurent Thomas, Assistant Director General.

I’d love to know how you feel about what you read here and what other subjects you’d want me to cover…And how about yourself if you’re a blogger? What do you plan to write about in 2015? Please share.

Since today is 30 December and it’s Holiday time,  let’s ignore the gathering clouds for the moment. Look up, the sky is blue and allow me to wish you a very Happy New Year!

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Is the Amazon Customer Review System Broken?

English: Studio publicity portrait of the Amer...

In principle, book reviews spur sales. But on Amazon, they don’t seem to. Any author who’s following the sales of his/her books can testify to this: when good reviews come in, they rarely signal a spurt in sales. Yet book reviews are needed to be able to use the better advertisers like BookBub that will not take an author’s books unless a sizeable number of reviews can be shown, and particularly reviews from “authoritative” sources.

Add to this the now confirmed fact that e-book sales have gone very badly in recent months and Amazon’s bottom line is showing it. David Streitfeld in an article in the Business Standard, (see here, it was then picked up by the New York Times) has drawn attention to the fact that “to secure its upper hand, Amazon disrupts its own model.”

What Streitfeld is talking about is this: some $250 million in profits that had been expected by analysts somehow went missing last summer. Why? It seems Amazon practiced deep discounts and giveaways, offering free music, videos and e-books and that hurt profits. And of course Wall Street took note.  The argument is that Amazon is doing this on purpose to secure an ever-increasing share of the market – until it will be the only retail colossus on the scene.

But a lot of people have rushed forward with other reasons for the slowdown in Amazon sales, in particular attributing it to the long drawn-out Amazon-Hachette dispute (it last 6 months!) and continuing disaffection from once-loyal clients.

Whatever the reason, there is one thing that works poorly on Amazon and it’s their customer reviews of books. As long as Amazon doesn’t make an effort to organize it better, Amazon’s hope to compete with Hachette or any other “Big Publisher” is doomed. Because traditional publishers have got their buzz-around-books model down pat: they get top reviewers to write in major newspapers and magazines, they organize big prizes like the National Book Award or the Puliter, all events that drive traffic and draw the public. All stuff that’s closed to self-published authors and where authors published by Amazon imprints get little space, if any.

But we all know the arguments: This is the digital revolution that has enabled self-published authors to compete with traditional publishers. And Amazon rankings work to show who are the top sellers. And Amazon’s system in the Kindle Store is totally democratic, driven by the customers likes and dislikes, allowing everyone to express his or her opinion and the sales numbers speak for themselves.

Until they don’t.

You have books with thousands of reviews…and they don’t sell or don’t sell as much as you might expect. You don’t believe me? Look here (a book with over 2,000 reviews and a ranking on Amazon above #6,000) and here (over 800 reviews and a ranking above #10,000). Of course, there’s a high correlation if you check out the pages with books that have over 1,000 four-star reviews and above (see here) – there are nearly a million titles there, and the correlation is strong at first, as long as the number of reviews is above one thousand, but as you keep going through them, the correlation starts to fail you.

First lesson: you need at least a thousand reviews (more or less) to hope to sell steadily in the Kindle Store. But your book can still peter out, like this one, the Shadow of the Wind: over 1500 reviews and a ranking that doesn’t reflect it, at over #5,000 – and that happens to be one of my favorite books, I highly recommend it, it’s an extraordinary combination of dark poetry and suspense.

Second lesson: reviews on Amazon mean relatively little. In spite of Amazon’s policing efforts (they’ve gone after “sock-puppet reviews” in a systematic way since the 2012 scandal), it is still a fact that a 5-star review can be written by a friend or by someone who has absolutely no idea of literature or more simply, doesn’t know the difference between a good read and a bad one.  Ditto of one and two-star reviews.

Consider this one, about Elizabeth Taylor’s performance (click here), a particularly juicy dyad of 2-star reviews; here’s the screenshot:

As the friend who drew my attention to this said: “I’d like to know what Tennessee Williams would have said.”

Indeed. And to think that the second reviewer (“Kona”) is ranked by Amazon as a “vine voice” and “top 1,000 reviewer”… In short, someone whose reviews are appreciated by both Amazon and its customers. Someone who presumably has an “experienced” taste and a professional touch: you get up there in the Amazon Hall of Fame of reviewers by doing lots and lots of reviews and having lots and lots of people clicking that button which says that “they found the following review helpful”.

So what is wrong? I am not going to go into what happens with reviews of other products on sale on Amazon, the endless electronic gadgets, apparel etc – I shall limit myself here to books (a product I happen to know something about).

And books require special handling. You can like or dislike a book but that is not enough to constitute a helpful review. The next person doesn’t know you and may not share your tastes. So anyone doing a review should always explain the how and the why a book is likeable or detestable: that’s only fair to whoever is going to read your review. And the reviewer needs to come to some sort of conclusion that is reflected in the number of stars awarded. You can’t say something is absolutely transcendentally wonderful and then give it 3 stars because it’s not the kind of book you normally read or like. If something is transcendentally wonderful, then it deserves 5 stars, full stop. There is an organic linkage between the value judgments expressed and the number of stars given.

Reviews are not easy to do.

In fact, since the 19th century at least, book reviews have been in the hands of literary experts, people who are both widely read and know how to express a judgment clearly. This is far from simple and not everyone can do it or has the time to do it. Professors of literature at universities can do this successfully, they have the time and in a way it’s part of their job; best-selling authors can do this, and in general writers are good at this because they were all born readers first. You are never going to be a good writer if you’re not an avid reader in the first place; and someone able to read critically, as Francine Prose has so masterfully explained in her book Reading like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and For Those Who Want to Write Them (HarperCollins, 2006) By the way, if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it!

On this blog, I have argued in the past (see here) that Amazon should provide help in guiding book reviews, ensuring that major points normally covered in a professional book review are in fact covered (for example, the setting, the development of characters, plot pace, language/dialogues etc). But if Amazon is not willing to help and possibly fears that this type of guidance would be viewed by its customers as an unbearable intrusion, then there is another way to do this.

Amazon already has in place this Vine Program for reviewers (I blogged about it here). But at the moment, the program covers reviews of any sort, and top reviewers tend to review anything they wish, and remarkably enough, the very top reviewers (highest rank) cover all sorts of products but no books!  No books at all, or very few books, and in a most desultory way, reaping in fact very few votes from online viewers.

What Amazon should do is establish a Vine Program for Books Only. Book review guidelines should be issued and reviewers would be able to maintain their rank only if they follow the guidelines. And, once the system is up and running, the ranking of reviewers could start to take place, in order to arrive overtime at 1,000 top-notch book reviewers. My guess is that those reviewers are likely to be literary types of all kinds, including bloggers who specialize in reading  books in given genres.

Once Amazon has got a Vine Program for Books going, they should consider revamping the book description page, separating customer reviews from Vine Program reviews. That would be very important. Because at a glance, you could read the reviews that you can trust, that you know come from people who love books, read them all the time and can talk about them in a meaningful way.

At that point, and at that point only, would book reviews start to make sense and jumpstart the famous book buzz everyone is looking for, readers and writers alike…

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Why a Best Selling Author Turns to Crowdfunding

I interviewed indie author Marsha Roberts for Impakter to find out why she is turning to crowdfunding for her book, “Confessions of an Instinctively Mutinous Baby Boomer“, a highly acclaimed inspirational memoir that has sold very well so far, many thousands of copies. Here’s the article:

 

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Marsha Roberts, a “Mutinous Baby Boomer”, Turns to Crowdfunding

on 17 November, 2014 at 07:00

Memoirs are all the rage lately, as one Norwegian writer famously proved by reporting minutely on his daily life including his breakfast (no need to refer to him by name here), and Marsha Roberts’ Confessions of an Instinctively Mutinous Baby Boomer recounting major events in her life, has turned out to be one of the most popular self-published books with the Boomer generation. And it’s also a big deal with other generations, including younger people, basically with  all those curious about life and its challenges. It has been acclaimed by customers on Amazon that showered it with 5-star reviews (38 to date, a strikingly high number), the prestigious Kirkus Review has praised it as “an optimistic look at the magic of life”, and the book was an instant success in the Goodreads group I created to discuss Boomer Lit. People have said “I’ve enjoyed this so much that I read it twice”, a rare occurrence.

I wondered why Marsha would use Indiegogo for an already published book, and a successful one at that, and she kindly agreed to answer my questions.

Your book is so popular, why did you go to Indiegogo, what obstacles are you facing and that you hope to remove with funding?

First off, Claude, thank you so much for having me here and for supporting my IndieGoGo campaign. I really appreciate it. As far as what obstacles I hope to remove with funding, in two words: marketing issues! You have researched and written extensively about the world of indie publishing and you know better than most the difficulties we face.

I certainly do, indie publishing is perhaps the toughest marketplace any entrepreneur could get into. How do you see it?

From my perspective, the biggest drawback to being an indie author is that we don’t have the professional publicity and marketing machine that major publishers use to push their main authors. You can only take your book so far without spending a significant amount of money, just like the publishers do. It’s the way business works.

 …

To read the full article and find out more about why Marsha is doing this, go to Impakter, click here.

Marsha, thanks for taking the time to speak to me, and I urge everyone who’s read this to contribute. As little as $5 will go a long way! Click here to go to Marsha’s Indiegogo campaign and help a writer with an undisputed and remarkable talent so she can get her book known to a broader public. There are tons of people out there who need to read this book and don’t know that they need to!

 

Available here

 

 

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Filed under Baby Boomers, book marketing, memoirs, social media