Tag 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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Filed under book marketing, genre fiction, Publishing, Uncategorized

2015: New Challenges in Publishing

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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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Startup for the Brave New Age of Digital Publishing

Here’s another one of my articles published on Impakter – under my real name, Claude Forthomme. Find out about a neat new publishing services website where you can find all you need (if you’re a self-published writer). I interviewed one of the two founders, Richard Fayet:

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Reedsy is a startup aimed at the publishing industry. At the Women’s Fiction Festival, a writers’ conference held in Matera, Italy, I met Ricardo Fayet, Reedsy’s Chief Operating Officer and had a chance to chat with him. The website is still in beta version, here is the landing page: www.reedsy.com.

Blog Post Image

Note the lovely design with soft colors, attractive and friendly. You can open an account as a writer or as a “freelancer” or both. A freelancer is someone providing services as copy or development editor, book cover designer, illustrator etc. Even though this is still in beta version, the list is already quite long, over 100 names, and most are obviously affirmed, experienced professionals. One can filter by genre, which is very useful for a writer looking for help to finalize a particular book in a particular genre. Considering Reedsy is still in a beta phase, this is a remarkable achievement. Of course there are still some bugs and that’s normal, it’s early day. For example, the feature to enable writers to look for more specific professional help is not yet activated, but it soon will be.

Question: Richard, I just joined your site and navigated it a bit. In a few words, can you tell us what Reedsy is about, what is its role in publishing?

Answer: Reedsy is the future’s publishing house. We support independent authors in publishing their own work. We want those authors to earn a living wage from their books. We want to help them publish their best work by connecting them with the best freelancers in the publishing industry, and by giving them the best tools to work with. And, one day, we want to do this all over the world.

Q: So you are aiming directly at supporting self-publishing that, according to some professionals in the industry, will soon become a larger market than traditional publishing. One famous UK literary agent even foresaw that in five years 75% of all books would be self-published. Why is something like Reedsy needed?

You wouldn’t have needed a service like Reedsy ten years ago when there were just a handful of publishers – editors and designers looking for work knew where to go. Now, in a post-Kindle world, we want to make sure the best freelancers are aware of all the independent authors who want to work with them, and that those authors know which freelancers they want to work with and which ones they want to avoid.

The rest on Impakter, click here

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A Writer’s Life: Can Blogging Help You Sell Your Books?

Conventional wisdom has it that blogging helps to sell books, and the more successful your blog, the more books you will sell.


Not so.

Yet, marketing gurus and hugely successful bloggers like Adrienne Smith maintain that with blogging you can “make a living” (see here).

Perhaps you can if you sell something else than books.

And here is why (in my humble opinion). There are two factors at work: (1) market saturation and (2) TV competition for your free time.

No question, of late, the ebook market has become saturated. If you have an e-reader, I bet it’s full of books you haven’t read, books you uploaded when they went free. 

Over the past three years, there has been a frenzy of giveaways to “gain new readers”, and I confess that I joined the crowd and made my books free several times, with decreasing success each time. Gone are the days of 10,000 downloads (at least for me)! Of course, now 99 cents (the launch price of an ebook) is the “new free” – I plead guilty, I’ve done it too, all the first book of my series are priced like that. 

The end result is the same: way too many books around.

Because the truth is, you’re never going to read all those books you’ve stored up in your Kindle (or elsewhere). 

Another major reason is that people don’t feel like reading novels the way they used to

Don’t get me wrong, the desire to be entertained is as strong as ever – who doesn’t like to unwind at the end of a hard day’s work in front of the TV with a drink in hand? So TV series like House of Cards or Game of Thrones replace long evenings of reading novels.

People read fiction only when there’s a blockbuster around, 50 Shades of Grey and the like. 

Otherwise people prefer to read non-fiction (if they read at all). This is why Thomas Piketty‘s book, Capital in the 21st Century, is immensely successful, in spite of forbidding reams of statistics and a title reminiscent of Karl Marx. 

Ditto for the worldwide success achieved by Karl Ove Knausgaard, an unknown Norwegian writer. His novel,  bizarrely called My Struggle which translates to “Mein Kampf” in German, reminiscent of Hitler’s famous book, is less a novel than a huge memoir thousands of pages-long that traces his “growing up”, his “struggle” to understand the world around him. Book 1 starts off with a witty observation: people love to watch death on TV – war reports from the Middle East, volcanic eruptions, fires,  floods etc  – but turn their eyes away whenever someone dies around them. The corpse is immediately covered with a blanket and whisked away in an ambulance, bodies are stacked in cold storage rooms etc Why, he asks, are we afraid to see a corpse in reality when we spend our time doing so on TV? Good question.

In general, books that express a personal point of view are big successes – much more so than novels that are often seen as fantasy and therefore a “waste of time”. How else do you explain the global success of Eat, Pray and Love, the story of a woman wounded by love who goes in search of herself across the world, from Italy to Indonesia? Elizabeth Gilbert has since written other novels, like, for example, “The Signature of All Things“, that in spite of its intriguing title and subject matter, hasn’t met with the same success – probably because it didn’t give off the same whiff of personal intimacy.

And herein lies the cause of the success of such memoir-like books: they don’t read like fiction, they are one man or one woman’s exploration of their own lives. Mind you, these are people who haven’t done anything remarkable; they have just lived their lives as someone’s child, lover, parent.  

In short they are like you and me and that’s why people are curious. Such books are “literary selfies“.

So if your fondest hope is to be the author of a break-through novel, write a “selfie”…and don’t bother with blogging!

I’ll tell you a secret. Contrary to what you might think, I’m not blogging in order to sell you my books (if you’re curious, you can see them displayed in the sidebars, if not, just ignore them). I only blog because I enjoy it, I simply like to share my ideas with you and hear what you think.

So tell me, how about you, why do you blog? Have you seen a connection between your book sales and your blog traffic?

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Interview with the Father of Cli Fi: How this New Genre Was Born is Revealed

American climate activist Dan Bloom 
visiting a local university in Taiwan  to
do some research on climate change issues

My blog post about Climate Fiction, a “hot new genre” (here) led me to “virtually” meet  Dan Bloom, the journalist and “green” activist who coined the term “Cli Fi”. I was very happy to meet him, he’s a fascinating and somewhat explosive person, a Tufts graduate who’s worked in Alaska, Japan and Taiwan (where he now lives). And he’s agreed to answer a few of my questions here.

Claude: Dan, you coined the term Climate Fiction, cli-fi for short, back in 2008. When did the term start to catch on?
Dan: The term was modelled after sci-fi, of course, and at first it didn’t really catch on, not until 2013 when NPR did the first big media story on the cli-fi genre (see here ).
Claude: I took a look at that article, it has a great title “So Hot Right Now: Has Climate Change Created a New Literary genre?” and a striking introduction mentioning a best-selling cli-fi novel, as you can see on this screen shot:


Dan: Yes, and now the term is fast becoming a buzzword in the media, culminating in the recent article in the New York Times about using cli-fi in the classrooms to teach American students how to handle the challenge of global warming (see here ).
Claude: Yes, that’s how my attention was drawn to it, from reading it in the New York Times. I noticed the story was picked up by others as well, including Sadie Mason-Smith on the Melville House website (here). And now, according to the UN’s IPCC latest report on Climate Change, climate warming is fast getting worse because too many countries have dragged their feet for too many years (see here ) So there’s a definite need for Climate Change activism! I’d like to find out how the idea of “cli fi” ever occurred to you. Why did you coin the term?
Dan: I have been an independent deep-green climate activist since 2006 when the big earth-shaking IPCC report on climate came out and it was that IPCC report and the accompanying news media articles about the report that woke me up.
Claude: So your concern for global warming and its consequences is relatively new?
Dan: Yes. Before then, I was not thinking very much about climate issues. But I woke up in 2006. Not being a scientist, there was not much I could do to join the debate about climate change and global warming.
Claude: What was your “wake-up” moment?
Dan:  A 2008 blog post by New York Times science reporter Andrew C. Revkin on his “Dot Earth” sustainability blog. That’s what did it. He mentioned how artists and novelists can use “the arts” to communicate climate issues to a broad public. That made me think what I could do, if anything, to add to that concept of art and literature as tools of communication.
Claude: So, concretely, what was your next step?

Dan: One day while I was doing some PR for a climate-themed book by Jim Laughter, a Tulsa, Oklahoma author, for his novel titled Polar City Red set in Alaska in 2075 (the book came out in 2012, see here ) I hit on the cli fi term I had coined in 2008 to describe Hollywood movies focused on major environmental change like The Day After Tomorrow. I decided to inject the cli fi term as part of my press release about Jim Laughter’s Alaska novel. So I sent out some press releases to book reviewers and I called his novel a ”cli fi thriller” and slowly the term took on a life of its own. A few newspapers and blogs used the term in talking about Jim’s novel, but nothing more, although one newspaper in North America reviewed it.
Claude: Yes, a major newspaper too! I noticed that the New York Times has described his book as “a thought experiment that might prod people out of their comfort zone on climate.”
Dan: Right. And, in spite of relatively slow sales for that book, I didn’t give up and tried to keep the cli fi term alive with many blog posts and by leaving a large digital footprint on the internet, so that if any reporter googled the cli fi term, hundreds of items would show up in the Google search list.
Claude: And on Wikipedia. You can read about it here. But what was the turning point?
Dan: It came in late 2012, when a climate scientist in Atlanta, Georgia named Judith Curry got interested. She is not only a dedicated scientist with a keen interest in the science of climate change but also a woman with a deep appreciation of the humanities and the arts. So she did a big post on her ”CLIMATE  ETC” blog; it’s a very popular blog and she gets 300 to 500 comments on each post – the post about cli-fi novels she titled simply “Cli fi” (see here)

Dr. Judith Curry

Claude: She opens her post by noting that cli-fi is a “fledgling new genre in literature”. Then she immediately mentions Michael Crichton’s blockbuster State of Fear, a 2004 techno thriller against the backdrop of global warming. However it got panned  apparently because of gross scientific errors. She argues that a climate scientist could however pen such a techno thriller without losing his reputation and she cites Rex Fleming .
Dan:  Cli fi as a genre was certainly ‘fledgling’ back in December 2012. But Dr Curry herself changed that. She makes a list of about 20 or so cli fi novels, including big names like Clive Cussler, Ian McEwan and Barbara Kingsolver. And she included Jim Laughter’s Polar City Red and used my press release term of calling it a “cli fi thriller”. That led four months later to NPR interviewing Dr Curry for its CLI FI radio program announcing that a new literary genre had arrived. I had sent dozens of press releases to the NPR book department email address about the cli fi concept, but the station never replied to any of my appeals for an interview or a radio show about the new genre.
Claude: Par for the course, I suppose that was rather discouraging…Of course, Dr. Curry is a big shot at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Dan: She heads the School of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences since 2002.
Claude: Isn’t she also a rather controversial figure? There is this interesting article in the Scientific American that calls her a “climate heretic” who has “turned on her colleagues”. But that article was written in 2010 and is now probably reflecting an outdated position in the American scientific community. I rather like her position on the latest Climate Change report from the UN: she welcomes the idea of putting the Climate Change discussion behind us and focusing on the needed survival strategies rather than pursue mitigation or curbing measures… What is your take on this?
Dan: I read Dr Curry’s blog posts regularly and keep in touch with her by email from time to time, too. I deeply respect and admire the kind of scientist (and humanist) she is. She’s one of my teachers now, too.The world needs more scientists like her, who are not afraid to speak their minds and even join the debate from different sides of the table. And I am so glad she blogged about cli fi novels back in December 2012. Her post led to all this today.
Claude: You mean the interest shown by NPR?
Dan: Yes. So imagine my surprise one day in April 2013 when I see via my daily Google search for cli fi news that NPR did the story! I immediately set about doing all I could as a PR operative and a climate activist and a literary theorist to push the cli fi meme uphill, using the NPR link as the wake-up alarm. I wrote to the Guardian and asked if they could do a cli fi story for British readers. They did. I wrote to the Financial Times in the UK and asked my contacts there if they could do a cli fi story, and they did. Alison Flood, the Guardian’s book critic, did a blog post on “why cli-fi is here to stay”.
Claude: Wow, I’m impressed!
Dan: At first most media never responded to me, or even answered my email pitches. But they did line up, one by one, to add to the ”cli fi genre is rising” chorus, from Britain to Australia. I kept up the PR blitz, contacting every media outlet I could.  The New Yorker magazine followed the Brits, as did Dissent magazine last summer. There was something in the air I think, but my PR campaign was crucial. I then spent time lobbying the New York Times to report the cli fi news, and I contacted 12 reporters and met up with 6 months of rejections and emails that read “sorry not interested.” But in January 2014 I found one Times reporter I knew from earlier contacts ten years ago and I emailed him. And three months later his New York Times article came out worldwide not just in the U.S print edition and on the newspaper’s popular website, but also via the New York Times News Service which syndicated the article to over 400 newspapers worldwide, from Italy to France to Japan to Sweden.
Claude: So the New York Times article, the one I noticed, was a major turning point.
Dan: It was. Now I am focusing my media contacts on the Associated Press and Reuters News Service for wire stories about the cli-fi genre. And Nicholas Kristof, the New York Times columnist who has a keen interest in climate change issues, told me he will write a Sunday column soon about his take on the power of cli-fi literature to serve as a wake-up call. So things are happening.

Nicholas Kristof

Claude: They sure are! I’m looking forward to Kristof’s piece, I think he’s a remarkable columnist and I totally agree with the concept that climate fiction can serve as a much needed wake-up call. We need to go beyond sterile discussions about who or what is responsible for global warming and do something about it because one thing’s certain: it’s happening! Is that why the idea of cli-fi occurred to you?
Dan: Yes, as a climate activist but also as a literary activist…My major at Tufts University in the 1960s was French literature and I spent a year in Paris in 1969 absorbing the culture and drinking the coffee — I felt that a new literary term for climate-themed novels might help serve as a wake-up call for the future humankind faces now. Besides, I’ve always loved words and word games and crossword puzzles and sci-fi. I grew up with sci-fi novels in the 1950s and 1960s. I am a big sci-fi fan. So one day, my imagination just jumped over the fence and told to make a new word and call it cli-fi and see what happens. I like to see what happens. So I did it.
Claude: So are you a writer in pectore?
Dan: No, I am not a novelist or a short story writer or a screenplay scriptwriter. I don’t have those kind of writerly skills. I am just a climate activist, first, and a lifelong reader of novels, second.
Claude: I gather that Margaret Atwood was an early supporter, though she calls her own novels “speculative fiction” rather than cli-fi — while at the same time fully supporting your creation of the cli fi genre for whoever wants to work in it.

Margaret Atwood (Author page on Amazon)

Dan:  Exactly. Margaret Atwood has written three op-eds applauding the creation of the new genre that has been dubbed cli fi, one was published in the Canada Living magazine, one was published in the Huffington Post and another was published in the Financial Times recently in London. And she has often tweeted and retweeted cli fi news links to her 450,000 followers!
Claude: That’s a lot of followers on Twitter!
Dan: So yes, Ms Atwood has been instrumental in helping to popularize the cli-fi genre, come what may. I consider her my teacher, although we have never met. My other two teachers in the cli fi project are James Lovelock, whose ideas about the Earth being a kind of Gaia goddess that needs to be respected and protected or it’s curtains for the human race, and Andrew Revkin who runs the Dot Earth blog at the New York Times and which I have followed since its inception.
Claude: Okay, now let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. What is your definition of Climate Fiction?
Dan: First of all, I want to make it clear: the term I created is “cli-fi” which stands for climate fiction, of course, CLImate FIction with caps and lowercase letters, and I never use the term “climate fiction.” My PR work is not about “climate fiction” but about “cli-fi.”
Claude: I hyphenate the term by analogy with sci-fi, but I notice you don’t…
Dan:  So I want to use the term “cli fi” only in this interview and I also only use cli fi in my press releases. Why? As a lifelong journalist and PR guy, I know the power of headline buzzwords to serve as signposts along the road. So cli fi is a signpost and a wake-up call. The term “climate fiction” has been used for a long time, and I never coined that term. I just took it and tried to transform the longer version into a kind of code word and I thought of calling it “cli fi.” So let’s just talk about cli fi and leave “climate fiction” for scholars and professors to discuss. The New York Times article about cli fi just mentioned the term once in the entire 1000-word story, and not in the headline at all. 
Claude: I put it in the title of my blog!
Dan: Good! I was hoping for a headline mention of cli fi in the NYT, but in the PR business one cannot control how headlines are written or even how news articles are written. But the Times article was very important and for one special reason: cli fi has now been mentioned in the newspaper of record, The New York Times. That’s a first. This is the beginning. There is no stopping the rise of cli fi novels now.
Claude: What hopes do you have for the genre? What do you expect to achieve through it?
Dan: My hope is that cli fi will serve to bring together novelists and editors and literary agents and publishers — and readers! — as we explore the role of novelists in the ongoing debates over climate change and global warming. My hope is that the news media will start reviewing cli fi novels as cli fi novels, and stop calling them science fiction novels.
Claude: You don’t consider cli-fi as a subgenre of science fiction?
Dan: As I see things now, after several years of working on this project and getting a lot of feedback from readers and writers in both the sci-fi community and the growing cli fi community, cli fi is not a subgenre of sci-fi but a genre of its own. And sci-fi novels can also focus on climate change and still be classified as sci-fi novels, if that is how the novelists themselves want it and how literary critics see it. But at the same time, I now see cli fi as a separate genre that has attracted its own community of writers and readers worldwide. And sci-fi and cli fi are not competing genres at all; they complement each other, and they are, in a way, sister genres. I love sci-fi, and always have. 
Claude: Me too. I consider Aldous Huxley and Orwell among the greatest writers of the 20th century…
Dan: Now I am trying to popularize cli fi, too. I believe we are on the same page, sci-fi writers and cli fi writers. But one thing needs to be pointed out: While cli fi is usually filled with the moral implications of climate change issues, sci-fi is usually filled with the intention of exploring the possibilities of science and its relationship to humankind. So that is where cli fi and sci-fi go in different directions, and both genres are valid and useful.
Claude: Yes, both are useful and I love both! But what sort of future do you see for cli fi?

Dan: My hope is that a modern Nevil Shute will arise, male or female, in any country in any language, to write and publish a climate-themed cli fi novel with the same power as Shute’s 1957 novel On The Beach which served as a wake-up call about nuclear war and nuclear winter. And the movie was important, too.
Claude: The Next Big Novel that will shake society should be in “cli fi”!
Dan: Right! So I am looking for the Nevil Shute of cli fi. And to do this, I am quietly setting up what I call the international Nevil Shute Climate-Themed Novel Award to be first awarded in 2020 for the best cli fi novel in the previous ten years and to repeat the award every ten years internationally and awarding a prize of $1 million to the winner.
Claude: Hey, I’m going to candidate my soon-to-be published Forever Young! Though I must admit that cli fi is only one element, there are other things in it like the demographic explosion and growing income inequality…
Dan: Why not? You and many more writers, that’s what I’d like to see. I am now in the fundraising process of this new project, an offshoot of my cli fi PR work. I am looking for sponsors and a committee of judges to honor these kinds of cli fi novels. And I hope to see the “Nevils” — as I am dubbing the awards — keep going for 100 years, awarded every ten years for a total of ten times. And if the awards committee in 2120 wants to keep the awards going for another 100 years, I will nod yes from the grave. Literature matters. Words matter. Novels and movies made from novels can wake people up. The world is still asleep. We are facing the potential end of the human race. Wake up, world!
Claude: An impressive project! What else have you got up your sleeve?
Dan: Another thing I am working on is this: I am trying to find a reporter in New York or London who covers the book industry to find out if they can do a print newspaper or online story about how literary agents and everyone in the publishing industry view the rise of cli fi as a new genre and if they plan to use the term in future book titles or book covers. Raising the media profile worldwide of the cli fi genre is now my life’s work. And then I die. This is my way of giving back to a world that has given me so much. I go out every day to my PR office not to make money but to make a difference. I was educated to think of life this way, and now in my mid-60s, I have found a way to express myself on my own terms. I am not doing this cli fi work for myself or to benefit from it in any way. I do not want money or fame. I like to work quietly in the background and I find the internet a very pleasant place to hang my sign: “Dan Bloom, climate activist – no fees charged.”
Claude: Dan, that’s wonderful and I wish you every possible success in this most worthwhile cause. Thank you so much for joining me here and telling us about your dreams and your plans. 

I look forward to comments from my blog readers: has anyone read a cli fi novel recently? If you have, or know something about the genre that has not been covered here, please share!


Dan Bloom BIO:

Dan Bloom grew up in the Boston area, attended Tufts University where he majored in modern literature and minored in French, and has spent his adult life working as a newspaper reporter, editor and blogger in Alaska, Japan and Taiwan. He is now dedicating his life to promoting the new
literary genre of cli fi and working on it 24/7 from his “office” in a small internet cafe in southern Taiwan (as Dan does not own a computer and never has, describing himself as a Neo-Luddite.)

For readers or media people worldwide who want to contact him, his email at the internet cafe is danbloom@gmail.com and he welcomes all inquiries and in all languages. For more information, visit Dan Bloom’s bog, CLI FI CENTRAL, click here

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Customer Reviews: the Best of Marketing Tools or the Worst?

Customer reviews are the latest buzz in marketing:

Illustration of DNA

Image via Wikipedia

They are used by everyone, from hotel keepers to fiction writers. As marketing tools go, they are cheap by definition: a customer review is meant to be a customer’s own independent opinion.
It’s no surprise that when you travel, you find them on TripAdvisor, when you go to a restaurant, you find them on Zagat, when you’re looking to buy a book, you find them on Goodreads, Shelfari, LibraryThing.com, the Reading Roomand a host of virtual book clubs, both in the US, the UK and all across Europe.When Customer Reviews Boomerang
Problems have turned up with customer reviews in all these areas and for obvious reasons. Chief among them: corruption. It is understandable that in a highly competitive market, all shots are allowed. If not allowed, at least tried. Friends will write favorable reviews. Businesses will be tempted to provide incentives (say a discount) for good reviews.

But – there’s always a but! – if the customer review system is broadly corrupted, it collapses. Nobody believes in it anymore, potential clients run away. The best of marketing tool suddenly boomerangs, and turns into the worst.

So those who run customer review systems have to be very, very careful and constantly weed out the offenders.

The Amazon Solution
Amazon is probably one of the most adept at this sort of game – mainly because it uses a double prong.

On the one hand, it has set up boxes for customer reviews (with one to 5 stars) as well as buttons for “likes” just below the book title (for those who can’t be bothered to write reviews) and buttons for “tags” (to indicate agreement with descriptive keywords that help in searching for the book – you the reader can also provide the tag you feel best describes the book).

On the other hand, Amazon keeps track of every customer’s past acquisitions. In other words, it uses social feedback and buying behavior. That’s what I mean by a double prong. What doesn’t come out right with one is corrected by the other.

Very clever, and no doubt it explains to a large extent the success of Amazon as a virtual bookstore, where much of the book discovery work is already done for you, and you are directed into virtual shelves that contain books similar to what you have bought in the past and that correspond to your tastes.

Trouble is: what happens if you want to get out of your past purchases and try something new? It recently happened to a friend of mine: in a bout of enthusiasm, she had filled her newly-bought Kindle with all sorts of 99 cents books, just to see what they were like. After a while, disappointed by most of them, she had decided she wanted to try something else. A different genre, a different price range. She knew the sort of thing she liked, but Amazon didn’t. And at that point, finding a book became very, very difficult. She should have probably started from scratch and moved into the Amazon site incognito!

Why Book Discovery is so Difficult
Actually, we are touching here the core issue of what makes book discovery so very difficult.

Few books are actually genuinely “discovered”. Trouble is: social feedback – i.e. book reviews – feeds on itself.

What drives public awareness of a book are marketing dollars – especially if movies are involved. When a movie is made out of a book, it becomes the buzz of the town. Of course, that’s what all aspiring writers dream of: that a movie be made from their book. The ultimate consecration. But there are various degrees of consecration like the Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker Prize etc. No matter how you view it, the book is there because somebody – usually the Big Publishers – have spent a lot of marketing dollars on it.

So in terms of book discovery, we have a very simple equation: marketing dollars drive public awareness, this in turns drives what is discoverable and recommended. Therefore bestsellers occupy the top of the heap, simply because more people know these books exist. Presumably, that leaves a lot of very good books at the bottom of the heap, undiscovered.

Can this equation be broken?

How to Make Book Discovery Easy: the BookLamp Solution
There is one interesting, experimental website that is trying to do just that: BookLamp.Org.

Arising from the “Book Genome project” started in 2003 by a bunch of students, BookLamp started working a year ago, setting up a new kind of book recommendation engine.  Similar to what Pandora does for music, it is based on what it calls the “story DNA” or “data points” – really the book’s thematic ingredients, covering both contents (physical characteristics, history, environment etc) and the way it’s written (pacing, motion, dialogue, description, density).

So far, it has some 20,000 books in its database, currently tracking over 600 million “data points of book DNA” in their system (and growing!). They started out with  fiction but also mean to cover non-fiction, and they work only with publishers, chief among them Random House and Kensington Publishing Corp.

What’s their objective? Simple: help readers find the sort of book they like to read. As they put it in their FAQs section:  “If you think about it, what we’re basically doing is championing the idea that the contents of a book – what the author actually wrote – should be the primary consideration when finding new books for readers. It shouldn’t matter that one book has a million dollar marketing budget, and the other is from a new author with no track record at all. If the content between the covers is a good match, that should be all that matters.”

Sounds great, doesn’t it? Here is a way of discovering books independently from any marketing push, just focusing on a book’s contents. In other words, it makes the value a book potentially has for a reader the key feature, responding to a given reader’s tastes. And of course, it would be any author’s dream come true.

How does BookLamp do it? By asking you to indicate your favorite title(s), then it searches for similar stuff. The system usually works, except when some “zingers” turn up, as they call it, largely a result of not having yet a sufficiently large database to find suitable matches in every case.  For example, if you have outlying tastes and give them a book title that is unique in style (say cross genre etc), they may have trouble coming up with satisfactory choices for you.

What BookLamp Needs to Achieve its Objective
They admit themselves that they need an extra 100,000 books to smooth out all the crinkles and achieve their cruising speed and main objective – which is of course to sell their tool to publishers. They want to be the book Pandora. If you read their FAQs, you’ll see they repeatedly ask you to suggest publishers names, so that they can add more books to their database.

It is surprising that publishers are not flocking to them. Particularly since publishers have had a notoriously hard time figuring out the “next bestseller” and  finding the way to connect directly with readers. That was, as you’ll recall, the purpose of Bookish launched in May of this year, with the backing of Hachette, Penguin and Simon & Shuster but it’s still not functional. In fact, publishers act very much like huge steamships that are having a hard time turning themselves around in the digital storm.

I don’t know why publishers are reticent and it may well have something to do with being such “huge steamships” (hopefully, not the Titanic variety!).

And I don’t know why BookLamp isn’t willing to turn to Indies: that would be an inexhaustible supply of books to test their search engine with. They needn’t accept everybody: they could call the shots and specify the types of books they want to fill the “holes” in their system. After all, the stigma of self-publication has disappeared now, with the successes of John Locke, Amanda Hocking, J.A. Konrath et al. Surely BookLamp must have taken notice?

What do you think?
What is your take on this problem of book discovery and the sort of solution provided by BookLamp?

Personally, I worry that their solution is too dependent on restrictive algorithms and that good books will still remain at the bottom of the pile. But I’d be willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, until they’ve proven, with an additional 100,000 books in their database, that it really works…

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