“This podcast is guaranteed”

door-to-doorSalesmanMy email inbox is getting crowded with a lot of surefire offers lately.

So many people offer online courses to help me learn marketing so I can sell more books. Here are some examples from my inbox.

  • Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10,000 Readers
  • Bryan Cohen Selling for Authors
  • Joanna Penn, the Creative Penn—three courses, including “How to Make a Living with your Writing”
  • Juliet Dillon Clark of the Winsome Media Group has a number of courses and packages on “building your author platform” and using that to increase sales, and on how to launch a new book
  • Mark Dawson has Advertising for Authors courses as well as shorter tutorials and lots of videos.

These are just some of the online courses targeted specifically at marketing for self-published authors. They join a huge list of similar online programs:

  • Ray Edwards offers the Copywriting Academy, a series of online seminars on writing effective advertising—not just for writers, but for any business.
  • Rebecca Dickson, once a professional editor with a spicy vocabulary (she edited a book of mine, Army of Worn Soles), has the Entrepreneur Incubator program
  • Wilco de Kreij teaches e-commerce
  • The most recent to my inbox is Joei Chan’s branding blog and courses.

They may have different names and slightly different foci, but they have a lot in common, too. They claim to have found a formula for increasing book sales. The blog posts contain a tip that I usually know, but mostly they’re long ads for the courses, webinars, videos, books or other materials that make the same promises: more book sales for independent authors.

There are often videos, some free, some behind pay walls. The free videos and free webinars, however, are usually more drawn-out ads for the courses. What’s most annoying about them is that they always promise a free, bonus, sure-fire tip, one thing you can do to boost your sales, or your email subscriptions or whatever, if you watch the whole thing to the end. Some have disabled the fast-forward function (I hate it when TV shows do that in their on-demand versions.) And most of the time, when I do watch till the end, it’s not worth the wait.

The course is the whole point of all this stuff. It’s presented like a university-level program with several hours of video, whiteboard animations, info-graphics and support materials like workbooks in .pdf format. There are often downloadable videos, too, to help you remember some of the information (I guess).

What’s wrong with that? you ask

I suppose these must work, because more people seem to be doing them all the time, and the people already doing them seem keep publishing their teaser videos.

They remind me of late-night infomercials, with some sketchy guy or overenthusiastic woman hawking a product that, even with good lighting and photography, looks too flimsy to last more than day if used for whatever the hawker tell us to use it for.

Or like a timeshare salesperson, with a sales pitch that promises you a free TV or car just for listening. And goes on and on and on…

They’re expensive, too

But the worst part is the cost. Joanna Penn’s Self-Publishing Success course is one of the most reasonable, at under $300. And for the time and materials, and if it actually delivers results, it might be worth it.

Nick Stephenson’s Your First 10,000 Readers is even more expensive, at about $80 a month for a year. Ryan Deiss’s Digital Marketer courses are just under $1000. Others don’t tell you how much they cost until you already agree to give them your email address.

Do they work?

The marketers tell us they do. And they all provide testimonials.

But I signed up for one—I won’t say which—and soon dropped it, because I already knew most of the content: write a good book, know your audience, stay focused; use email to engage readers, make sure you have a full “author’s platform,” meaning a blog, website and a presence on just about every social medium.

I’m in a quandary. I’d like to know the secrets to selling books, but I just don’t see anything from these courses that convinces me that the authors know, either.

What do you think?

What’s your experience, if any, with online courses or programs that guarantee you the ability to sell to strangers? Leave a comment.

Monday blog for writers: Don’t ignore e-books

Image from Jorghex’s collection in Wikimedia Commons,  published under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unreported License. – See more at: 
It baffles me that there are still authors, intelligent professionals who want to reach an audience, yet who do not use the most effective and cheapest way of doing that — ebooks.

Last Saturday, I participated in the first Ottawa Book Fest held by the National Capital branch of the Canadian Authors Association. While it wasn’t what I hoped for in terms of selling books or engaging with readers, I did enjoy talking with many other local authors. Two things struck me: the number of authors who don’t bother with e-books, and the number who use expensive “publishing services” companies — vanity publishers.

“You can’t wrap an e-book,” was one typical comment. True, there is something very appealing about the tactile experience of holding a book. That’s one reason I went to the trouble and expense of getting paperbacks of my own titles.

Paper has a number of advantages over e-books. I will take a paperback to the beach or poolside, but I hesitate to bring my iPad there. It’s hard to read my iPad in bright sunlight (although the E-Ink screens of the Kobo, Kindle and others don’t have this problem). If you drop a paperback or get it dirty, it’s no big deal. At worst, you might have to spend ten to fifteen dollars to replace it. Or maybe $50 for a big hardcover. If I were to drop my iPad in the bathtub, that would be a major disaster.

Image courtesy Steve
Taffee’s Blogg-Ed Indetermination

And yes, you can wrap up a paperback book and enjoy the recipient opening it.
On the other hand, the e-book’s advantages include:
  • they’re lighter, important when travelling
  • they shouldbe cheaper — the publisher doesn’t have to pay for paper, ink or shipping
  • it’s a lot easier to give copies to people who are not in the same room with you — or the same country.

Let’s look at some facts.

E-books outsell paper books. More than two years ago, Amazon reported that its sales of e-books had surpassed paper books, and while that’s just one (the biggest in the world) outlet, the Association of American Publishers also announced that e-books outsold hardcovers in the adult fiction category as of 2011. E-books are the fastest growing sector of the book market, and even though the AAP reported that growth slowed in 2013, it was still growing and hit $800 million, while sales of paperbacks fell to $898 million.

As Hugh Howey pointed out on his blog (which I referenced in my post in February), the book e-tailers don’t report their sales numbers.  That means those numbers do not include any self-published e-books, which according to Howey’s research, outsell all the e-books from all Big Five publishers combined.

Why limit yourself?

E-book technology sparked an explosion in the number of independent authors self-publishing books. It’s an enabling technology.

And it’s not difficult to use. It helps to know about publishing, but if you can create a word processing file, you can create an e-book. Not necessarily a good e-book, but that’s a different discussion.

That’s why it astounds me to hear writers denigrate the e-book format. For an author to choose not to publish an e-books would be like a travel agent choosing not to book air travel and sell train tickets only. Sure, there’s a market for train travel, and trains can be more romantic and evocative than airplanes, but that choice severely limits the travel agent’s career.
Photo by Alexander Henning
Drachmann (Creative Commons)

Need advice? Ask me

Some writers may feel intimidated by e-books and the need to learn a new format. But as I said, it’s easier to format an e-book. There are plenty of free resources on the net, in the blogosphere, even on Facebook. Mark Coker’s excellent and free Smashwords Style Guidegives you step-by-step instructions, with lots of time-saving tips.

Or ask another author who has gone through the process. Most are happy to share what they’ve learned. For free. Ask me.

If you still feel unsure, or want to get someone to produce your e-book for you, then I’ll certainly charge a lot less than any vanity publisher.

If we work together, we’ll all succeed.

Thrillers for geeks: Helen Hanson on writing style

She should have dialyzed last night, but she’d fallen asleep too soon, cocooned in fading dreams, down, and enchantment.

The next round of belly noises came with spikes.

“That shit was good. You ever think of going into politics?”
“Only with a bulldozer.”

Helen Hanson is an Amazon bestselling thriller author of 3 Lies and Dark Pool, novels that mix action, intrigue, humour and tenderness, and a strong writing style comprising dialogue, description — and as you can see from the examples above, she likes a good metaphor.

Helen is also one of the driving forces behind the BestSelling Reads authors cooperative. She took time from her incredibly busy schedule to tell Written Words just how she writes the way she does.

How would you describe your own writing style?

This question makes me want to tip my Fedora and dangle a cigarette holder from my lips, dahling.

Thrillers tend to be dour works, so I weave a thread of humor throughout because that’s how I live my life. I’m the kind of person who finds something to giggle about at a funeral.

The Avengers aside, I don’t believe in superheroes. I prefer to watch the everyman rise to an occasion. See what he’s capable of when pushed to an extreme. Count his beads of sweat as he faces danger.

Are there any authors whose style you admire? Do you try to emulate them?

John le Carré, Len Deighton, even the put-upon John Grisham. All of these authors inspired my work in some way, but I write nothing like they do.

My first completed novel will never see daylight. It’s like that scene in Apocalypse Now where Captain Willard loses it and trashes his hotel room. That’s what a first effort should be: messy, destructive, and ultimately defining. When you come out, you know there’s some stuff you don’t want to do again.

Are there authors whose writing style you dislike?

Yes, but it’s not my place to call them out. I just don’t read them. Some are commercial giants. I often disagree with millions of people over matters of taste. In the end, I have to acknowledge that the author did the job—emotionally connecting the reader to the story world.

You seem to like metaphors. How important is your writing style to you? Are you happy with your style, or are there aspects of it you try to change during rewriting or editing?

I enjoy juxtaposing ideas and creating metaphors that ring true. Technology imbues my story lines, so I hide the occasional Easter eggs for liked-minded geeks. I really do write to please myself. I figure if I’m having a good time others will too.

Mechanically, I tend toward short, choppy thoughts in my first draft, and when I edit, I restring the pearls.

What are the important elements of your style? What are you trying to achieve?

I don’t see life in particularly black-and-white terms. I may have decided how I plan to live, but it doesn’t mean I don’t see the other facets of a thing. When I write, I try to turn the gem over a bit and give the other sides a chance to glint.

How can readers identify your writing style? Are there particular words or kinds of words that you tend to favour? Sentence structures? Or is it more in the story, the pacing or the characters?

Thrillers for Geeks. That’s what I call my novels. My protagonists all understand and use technology for their work and survival. Hackers, spammers, robotics engineers, satellite tech executives. None of this capability was around fifty years ago.

But people haven’t changed. They still want hot dates for Saturday night and wonder if they appear too needy.

I try to write smart, deadly, witty and to end every chapter with something hanging.

Do you think your genre imposes certain restrictions on writing style?

No. The thriller genre isn’t a monolithic entity. It runs the gamut from the literary lyricism of John le Carré to the raspy rhythm of Dashiell Hammett.

To quote from the Rodgers and Hammerstein version of Cinderella: In my own little corner, in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be.

Do you think your audience responds to your writing style, consciously or unconsciously?

I hope both. I absolutely expect them to laugh out loud on particular lines because I did when I wrote them. I plan for them to wonder if the guy is going to make it out alive. But I trust the finer points to return for a reader’s consideration when he least expects it.

How important do you think writing style is to an author’s commercial success?

It’s everything. Or nothing. I’m not sure how one measures the effect of style. One can fail miserably in grand style.

Eye of the beholder, baby. Eye of the beholder.

Thank you, Helen.

Visit Helen Hanson’s Amazon Author page.
Get 3 Lies on Amazon.
Get Dark Pool on Amazon.
And visit her website: Helen Hanson, Thriller Author.

Writing Tips: Smashwords allows direct uploading of EPUB files

This is big news for indie authors: Smashwords is now supporting the direct uploading of EPUB-formatted books for sale through its e-retail network.

According to the Smashwords Official Blog, the new Smashwords Direct “allows our authors and publishers to upload their own professionally formatted EPUB files for sale at the Smashwords store, and for distribution to the Smashwords retail distribution network.”

Until now, listing your book on the Smashwords e-catalog meant starting with a .doc file, formatted exactly according to Smashwords’ specifications, and uploading it into their proprietary Meatgrinder software. If you do everything just right (which isn’t that hard), Smashwords will give you back an e-book in whatever format you wanted, and list it on their e-bookstore.
If you follow all of Smashwords’ recommendations, it will also list your book in other e-bookstores: Barnes & Noble, Apple’s iBookstore, Diesel, Kobo and all the others — except for Amazon. And that’s because of Amazon, not because of Smashwords.

The Meatgrinder system is fully automatic. If you feel proficient with a word processor that can save a .doc format, you don’t have to learn another software application. Meatgrinder takes care of the formatting, program codes and everything else.

However, it is a little limiting. As someone who learned desktop publishing way back when, I like the ability to choose my typeface and format my pages the way I want them to look. Learning to use an EPUB creation program like Caliber is no sweat to someone who learned, successively, PageMaker, QuarkXPress, InDesign and then HTML.

To quote Smashwords itself:

EPUB files uploaded through this new Smashwords Direction option must still adhere to the formatting best practices listed in the Smashwords Style Guide. Books will still be reviewed by our vetting team before shipping out to our retailers.

The company points out some limitations to the new option. First, Meatgrinder converts a .doc file into nine different formats for just about every e-reader there is, including PDF and .MOBI for the Kindle. If you upload an EPUB file, that won’t happen. “Nor will you get the downloadable samples,” Smashwords says, although it promises to improve sampling and add the ability to upload PDF and .MOBI files directly, as well.

You can upload your book as a Word .doc file first, formatted to the Style Guide, and then replace our EPUB with your own (assuming your EPUB is higher quality). This way, you’ll have the major formats covered.

The author’s best friend

While Amazon is by far the biggest e-bookstore (although I have not found any reliable market statistics), I think that Smashwords is the indie author’s best friend. Amazon’s Kindle Publishing System works in much the same way as Smashwords’, but the output is restricted to Amazon’s e-retailing system. What’s more, Amazon takes 30% of the selling price of the book, while Smashwords takes only 15%. (That commission rises, of course, for books sold through other bookstores like B&N, as each player gets a cut.)

Smashwords head honcho Mark Coker’s Secrets to EBook Publishing Success is the clearest and most useful explanation of how to create e-books that I have ever read, and the Style Guide is an indispensible tool. Amazon just doesn’t have anything like it.

Smashwords also has an easy-t0-use coupon system, which allows the author or publisher to offer discounts, even free books, to individuals.

You can also set your price to zero. Amazon only allows you to do that for five days out of ninety, and only if your book is exclusive to Amazon. I have tried it with some success, but overall, I prefer having my books on more than one retailer.

In short, Smashwords, the little guy, gives authors a whole lot more.

Check out the documentation for Smashwords Direct at https://www.smashwords.com/swdirect. And tell Written Words if you’ll try it.