Authors Connecting With Readers

I read an article the other day telling writers they should be connecting with readers online instead of other writers. He gave a few suggestions like going on Goodreads, following people who read the same sort of book you wrote, leaving comments on their reviews or joining the same groups and responding to the same discussions they do.

Is this what online promotion has come to? Authors stalking readers like prey? Many readers do like to interact with authors, and perhaps they would be flattered if it were an author they knew, but an unknown author trying to connect with an unknown Readingreader seems tacky at best. I know I would hate it if I found myself in some author’s sights, and I can’t imagine I’m the only one who would.

I am not a reader who likes to connect with authors. (Though I love when readers connect with me!) To me, a book exists separate from its creator, a thing in and of itself. In fact, once I started coming in contact with writers, especially writers whose book I have read, I lost all interest in reading. It made me more cognizant of the person behind the story, and made the book much less personal.

I do have a group for connecting with readers on Facebook, the Genre Book Club, but most of the people who participate are authors in search of readers. The main problem is that I don’t seem to be able to get people to discuss the books they read. Everyone has different tastes, and few of the participants read the same books.

It is a conundrum, this online promotion. I do realize that connecting with other writers is not the way to sell a ton of books, but writers send me a lot more invitations to connect than readers do, and after all, many of us writers started out as readers.

The article also suggested attracting readers by blogging about the subject matter of your books. I do this, of course, when it comes to grief, but I said all I want to say about conspiracy theories, government intervention in our lives, and the scary possibility of an unstoppable epidemic in my novels. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life talking about such matters. The books were a way of my putting an end to those topics of research, and to keep them in the forefront of my mind and this blog would be appallingly boring. (For me, anyway.)

Still, this blog is a way of connecting with people, not as stalker and prey, but simply as two individuals who happen to be in the same place at the same time and like what each other has to say. And that’s more important than running after readers in the hopes they will buy my books.

***

Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

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How Do You Discover the Books You Want to Read?

Two-and-a-half-years ago, I took an informal poll to find out how people discover new authors. I posted the following on discussion boards on both Goodreads and Facebook:

It seems as if there are as many ways of discovering books as there are readers, but I’m curious as to how you choose the books you want to read. Do you go by reviews? By recommendations from friends? Because you’re familiar with other works by the author? Do you ever read a book because of an ad you saw? Because of a blog article? Because of a mention on a website such as Goodreads? Do you cruise book stores, libraries, or online sites like Amazon? Do you find them some way I haven’t mentioned, such as gifts, perhaps?

Admittedly, the questions were loaded, but I still got an interesting and probably quite accurate overview:

Favorite authors or previously read authors: 36
Word of mouth: 26
Blog reviews/Book websites: 26
Goodreads/Shelfari: 24
Local bookstores: 21
Amazon/B&N/other online stores: 15
Library: 13
Publisher sites/newsletters: 5
Social networking sites like Facebook: 5
Book Clubs: 5
Author appearances/writing conferences: 5
NY Times bestseller list: 5
Offline reviews: 5
Yard sales/second hand bookstores: 4
Advertising: 3
Saw the movie: 3
Oprah: 1
Free downloads: 1
Gifts: 1

Recently, I posed the questions and got similar responses (though from a much smaller group):

books by favorite authors: 8
recommendations from friends: 5
browsing in bookstores: 4
libraries: 2
imprints (the trade name under which the book is published): 1
newspaper reviews: 1
blog reviews:1
recommendations from Amazon: 1
book clubs: 1

So, even with small independent publishing houses springing up like new forest growth, and self-published books proliferating like elm tree seeds, the means of finding books are still the same. That means, if you are an author looking for a readership, you need to be everyone’s favorite author and have your readers recommend you. An almost impossible task when most people already have their favorite authors.

What about you? How do you discover the books you want to read? Or rather where. (A lot of people said they found books to read by the front cover or the blurb on the back, but I’m more curious as to where they saw the cover.)

Authors Who Reject Publishers

There’s been a lot of talk recently about traditionally published novelists rejecting their publishers and releasing their books themselves. I can see that these novelists don’t like making a pittance on their books, but it seems churlish to dump the very people that made them a success. Without the publicity departments of those publishing houses behind them, there is little chance that these authors would have ever attained their current popularity. If you are one among millions of unknown writers trying to sell your book to an unaware reading public, it doesn’t matter if your book is stellar. It cannot shine without readers.

Many authors have the idea that wonderful books will always find a readership. Once that might have been true, but in today’s book world, where anyone with a computer and bit of time on their hands can write a novel (sometimes in only a few weeks, including editing — yikes) the sheer numbers of available books can keep even a great book from rising above the flotsam.

Interestingly enough, only a couple of these once traditionally published authors wrote truly original novels. If the rest had to make their own way in the ocean of ebooks and self-published books, they would have not have found much of a readership. The major publishers want what I call blue-jeans books — books that are made from the same fabric as all the others in a genre but with a slightly different styling. They don’t want anything too original because it is hard to sell. (I had several editors tell me they loved Light Bringer, my latest novel, which will be released by Second Wind Publishing this March, but they turned it down because they didn’t know how to sell it.) The blue jeans quality that makes books acceptable to editors of major publishing houses is the very quality that makes them unremarkable in the self-publishing or independent publishing world.

I don’t have much use for the traditional publishers, so I don’t really care that these authors are shunning them, but it does give new writers a false idea of can be accomplished by going it alone. The very fact that these authors are dumping their publishers is news. Publicity, in other words. And it’s only newsworthy because readers know their names. And readers know their names because the authors had the benefit of a big corporation’s publicity department.

I might have been unaware of the situation, but one of these authors contacted me via Goodreads, asking me to be part of a promotional effort. He wrote that he’d send me (along with hundreds of others) an ebook if I promised to write a review and post it on a given date. I turned him down. I don’t like his books, and I don’t like being told when to post a review. Not that I would — I still have not learned the art of reviewing books. And if I did do reviews, I’d post reviews of books released by small, independent publishers. The point is, he sent me the ebook anyway. A story about vampires. Sheesh. Still doing the old blue-jeans dance.

I purposely did not mention any names in this bloggery since I don’t want to help promote the authors. And anyway, it doesn’t matter who they are. I certainly don’t care, and there’s a chance in the not-too-distant future no one else will either.

Surviving Facebook

Social networking is now touted as one of the best ways for authors to promote themselves, and perhaps it’s true. If most of us primarily sell books to friends, it makes sense, and sometimes even cents, that the more friends we have, the more books we will sell. So we sign up for MySpace and Goodreads, Twitter and Facebook and start collecting friends like so many stamps. If a thousand friends are good, then two thousand are even better. If two thousand are good, then let’s aim for ten thousand.

While frantically collecting friends, we forget two things. First, social networking is about being social. It does no good to have connections if, to them, we are merely a nameless face, or worse, a faceless name. Too many people use their book cover for an icon, though it seems to me it defeats the purpose. How does one make friends with a book cover? You are, or should be, aiming for long-term relationships. You don’t have to waste your time playing games with your connections, but you can comment on their status updates and photos, you can post interesting links and notes on your profile, you can participate in discussions.

Second, we forget that these online sites, especially Facebook and Goodreads, were set up for real-life friends to interact. They were not set up for promotion.

Goodreads automatically limits your activity, so it’s hard to abuse their system, but Facebook is a different matter. Several of my friends have had their Facebook accounts disabled because of “abusive” behavior, though they were doing what we all do — making connections with strangers. I have become good friends with many of the strangers to whom I sent friend requests, so by limiting myself to people I know would have greatly limited my Facebook experience. Still, Facebook says they aspire to be an environment where people can interact safely with their friends and people they know. Accordingly, they expect accounts to reflect mainly “real-world contacts.” They do not endorse contacting strangers through unsolicited friend requests as such requests may be considered annoying or abusive.

To prevent this type of behavior, Facebook has limits in place that restrict the rate at which you can use certain features on the site. Your account can be disabled if Facebook determines that you were going too fast when sending friend requests despite being warned to slow down, or because your friend requests were being rejected at a high rate. Your account can be disabled if you send too many of the same message, post too often to other people’s profile, or indulge in repetitive, promotional activities.

The problem is that Facebook does not tell you ahead of time what their limits are, so it’s a matter of guessing.

So far, I have survived Facebook. I have over 4, 000 friends. I administer one group and co-administer three others. I send weekly group messages informing people of the featured discussion. I have a fan page. I post daily status updates, feed my blog into my profile page, post links to sites where I am a guest.

So, how did I do it?

Every day, I added ten to fifteen friends — no more. When I reached 2500 friends, I stopped sending requests. The rest of the connections came from my accepting others’ requests. At the beginning, I accepted everyone, but now that I am nearing the limit Facebook allows, I am a bit more careful whom I accept. For example, I won’t accept requests from icon-less people unless I know them personally. (Here is the dichotomy of Facebook. You are allowed 5,000 friends, who are supposed to be people you know personally, but who in the offline world has that many friends and connections?)

Although it’s one of the things marketing coaches recommend, I never thanked people for accepting my friend request. Besides emphasizing that you’re not friends, the comment can trigger a warning from Facebook, especially if you post too many similar comments in one day. You can post almost anything you want on your own profile, but you are constrained by Facebook’s unwritten rules as to what you can post on other people’s profiles.

The best thing I can tell you about surviving Facebook is this: if you get a warning, stop. Do not use Facebook for at least a week. If you don’t heed this advice, and you get another warning within that time, your account will be disabled, and all your work will be wasted.

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I Had an Epiphany Today!

For the past six to eight months, I’ve been trying to figure out how to sell books online. I’ve been roaming the internet, experimenting with various social networking sites, but everywhere I went I ended up in a writers’ community. Not that it’s a problem — I’ve met many fine authors, found some good books, learned much about writing. Still, I want my novels to find a readership, so I roamed further afield, signed up for some author/reader sites. And guess what — there I found those same authors. Finally I decided to spend my time on Goodreads and other book sites and have found mostly . . . yep. Authors.

I’m exaggerating here. Of course I’ve met readers, voracious readers. The problem many readers are struggling with is that they already have stacks of books to read, or they read constantly and can’t afford to buy all the books they want to read so they haunt libraries and used bookstores, or else they set up books blogs and do reviews and get so many free books they don’t need to buy any. Readers also tend to stick with a single genre and the authors they’ve already read. Many, of course, are adventuresome, and will try new books by new authors, but these readers are so overwhelmed by the incredible number of books available, that the chances of them finding your book are zero to zilch.

So, what do we poor authors do? Ah, here’s where I had my epiphany. Promote to non-readers! Sounds silly, doesn’t it? Think about it though. We all talk about there being so few readers in the world, yet DB has sold zillions of books. Who is he selling the books to? It has to be people who seldom read. Somehow, someone convinced those non-readers that they had to read his books, and they rushed out to buy the novels.

How does one reach these non-reading readers? If I knew that, my name would be as well known as Dan Brown’s.

DAIDaughter Am I, my young woman/old gangsters coming of age adventure, will be available from Second Wind Publishing in two weeks!

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How Do You Choose the Books You Want to Read?

I took an informal poll to find out how people discover new authors. (Hmmmm. Wonder why I’m interested in that!) I posted the following on discussion boards on both Goodreads and Facebook:

It seems as if there are as many ways of discovering books as there are readers, but I’m curious as to how you choose the books you want to read. Do you go by reviews? By recommendations from friends? Because you’re familiar with other works by the author? Do you ever read a book because of an ad you saw? Because of a blog article? Because of a mention on a website such as Goodreads? Do you cruise book stores, libraries, or online sites like Amazon? Do you find them some way I haven’t mentioned, such as gifts, perhaps?

Admittedly, the questions were loaded, but I still got an interesting and probably quite accurate overview:

Favorite authors or previously read authors: 36
Word of mouth: 26
Blog reviews/Book websites: 26
Goodreads/Shelfari: 24
Local bookstores: 21
Amazon/B&N/other online stores: 15
Library: 13
Publisher sites/newsletters: 5
Social networking sites like Facebook: 5
Book Clubs: 5
Author appearances/writing conferences: 5
NY Times bestseller list: 5
Offline reviews: 5
Yard sales/second hand bookstores: 4
Advertising: 3
Saw the movie: 3
Oprah: 1
Free downloads: 1
Gifts: 1

I’m not sure exactly what this means in terms of promotion, except that ideally you want to become everyone’s favorite author and have them recommend you.

How do you discover the books you want to read? Or rather where. (A lot of people said they found books to read by the front cover or the blurb on the back, but I’m more curious as to where they saw the cover.)

A Shocking (And Embarrassing) Reality

I received my second royalty check yesterday and was shocked (and a bit embarrassed) by how few books I had sold online in the past couple of months. I’ve been a big advocate of online promotion, and I’ve had a great time connecting with people on Facebook, Gather, Twitter, Goodreads, this blog, and other sites. Apparently, however, while I’ve been making friends, I haven’t been making sales. I realize the economy is bad, that people are spending money for vacations and back to school clothes, that many people are without work, but that can’t be the total answer since 30% of each of my books is available as a free download on Smashwords. And people aren’t downloading them.

I’ve been saying all along that I’m missing a piece of the on-line promotion puzzle, and this just proves that I am right. To be honest, I still don’t know what that missing piece is. I get dozens of emails from authors telling me about their books, giving a synopsis and a plea to buy. I won’t follow their example. Such emails might work — people are kind and often will follow through — but I find them intrusive. And annoying. So annoying that I don’t even bother to read them. Since I won’t do unto others what I won’t let them do unto me, emailing people is out.

I know many authors who continually speak and write of their books, cramming them down our gullets until we want to scream. We can’t scream, of course, because that book is gagging us. That’s why you never hear a protest against this sort of tactic.

I could do what other authors are doing — give up on promotion to concentrate on writing another book that might be “the one.” The problem with this (for me, anyway) is that I already have two more books that will soon be published. Daughter Am I (sort of a gangsterish book with my own twist on the bootlegger story) will be published in August, and Light Bringer (sort of a science fiction, alternate history, retelling of human history novel, with my own twist on the past), will be published in November.

I can see one problem — I can’t write an elevator speech! After all this time, I still don’t know how to describe my books in a single sentence. Nor have I figured out my genre. One reader emailed me (yes, I do read and respond happily to emails from people who aren’t trying to sell me something unless it is one of those endlessly forwarded messages that no one ever reads). She commented: I now see what you mean about an unnamed genre. Kind of a big picture conspiracy, behind the scenes machinations and how that affects the little guy (or gal) on the street. (Thank you, Wanda!)

So, what’s the answer? I promise, when I figure it out, I will let you know. By November, I hope. Light Bringer is my magnum opus (of the four people who have read it, two called it brilliant; the other two merely said it was wonderful), but how magnum can an opus be if no one reads it?

Meantime, my fame, such as it is, is spreading. In the past few days, I found my name in four different blog posts and links to my blogs in a couple of surprising places:

Murder in the Wind — I won! Thank you! By Sheila Deeth

I blog, you blog, we all blog — Why? By Claire Collins

To Kindle or Not to Kindle by Norm Brown

Interview with Alan Baxter on Smashwords

Bookselling Links on the New Atlantic Independent Booksellers Association website

Yahoo Answers

It’s a good beginning.

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The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 2)

My guest blogger today is Dale Cozort, author of American Indian Victories. This is the second in a three part series discussing the future of books. Normally I don’t post such long articles, but I thought Cozort’s analysis was too important to edit down. Cozort writes: 

Part one looked at how the filters that keep readers from having to sort through a glut of really bad writing are breaking down.  This section will look at how authors and readers can adapt to a world where the traditional filters are less useful. Part three will look at how publishers might react to reestablish their role in filtering.  

New Types of “Brand Names”: With the glut of books, readers are looking for ways of to be sure they are getting good quality reading material.  In that environment, “brand names”-names that readers have heard of-sell books, even if the names have little to do with publishing.  Celebrity is its own brand name.  Oprah’s book selections come to mind.  Fortunately or unfortunately, talk show hosts with the ability to attract readers are scarce. We probably won’t see book recommendations from say Jerry Springer.  (Shudder) 

We will probably see celebrities of other kinds acting as filters in various ways though.  Politicians like Newt Gingrich and actors like William Shatner have gotten into the book business.  Celebrity “bookshelves” or endorsements on Amazon.com and the like would sell books too, but would probably be too expensive in most cases, though actors and celebrities in certain niches might find that it’s a good way to keep their names in the public eye.  Would you be more willing to try a book from someone you’ve never heard of if it was on an Amazon bookshelf from say Joss Whedon (creator of Buffy, Angel and Firefly) or one of the actors from his shows?  If you loved those shows you might, and if the quality was high, you might try others from his shelf (assuming that he had one).  Popular bloggers sometimes get into the book filtering business too, recommending books and sometimes writing their own books. 

Popular writers can act as filters too.  Authors do recommend promising new writers to agents and publishers.  They sometimes offer blurbs to promising young authors or recommend them in their blogs.  Some popular authors near the end of their careers as writers have taken to being “co-authors” with a collection of promising young authors, basically lending their name (and probably some polish) to books written mainly by the younger or lesser known author.  The popular author’s name on the book attracts readers, acting as kind of a filter while pointing fans to good new authors. 

I could see aging but still popular and intellectually active science fiction authors like Jerry Pournelle or Robert Silverberg doing virtual bookshelves of promising new science fiction on Amazon in exchange for a share of the revenue from any traffic driven to the books on their shelves. Another possibility: publishers could set up boutique brands of “X-famous author Recommends” books, letting the author act as screener and to some extent putting his status as a brand name on the line.  That might also be a way for an up and coming independent press to differentiate itself, though the cost of bringing a big name in may be prohibitive. 

Data Mining: In a world with a glut of choices in books, figuring out reader preferences and directing them to books they’ll like can be great for both authors and readers.  Amazon is often very good at this.  Their recommendations based on previous purchases can be extremely well targeted.  To some extent their data mining replaces the old bookstore owner who knew the customers tastes and could direct them to good new authors. 

From a reader’s point of view, sites like Goodreads or Shelfari can do some of the same things.  If I see a reader with ten or twenty percent of their Goodreads library in common with mine I know that there is a good chance I’ll like the other books they’re reading too.  Sites like that would be even more helpful for finding new books to read if readers could sort other readers by percentage of books in common.  Goodreads is to some extent an amplified word of mouth. 

Word of mouth/social networking: Speaking of word of mouth, it can be important as a filter too, but for some reason doesn’t seem to work as well for books as it does for movies.  Part of the problem is our diversity of tastes in books.  Social networking may amplify the role of word of mouth, but so many aspiring authors are trying to manipulate it in various ways that it may not be particularly effective. 

Websites/blogs: Author websites and blogs may give readers some idea if they are going to like an author or not.  From a reader’s point of view it’s probably a good idea to look for an author’s blog or website if you’re not sure you want to take a chance on a book.  If the blog or website is not professional the book may not be either.  If you don’t like the writing style on the blog, that’s a good sign you won’t like the writing in the book either.  The flip side of that is that authors need to make sure their websites look professional and make a good impression.  That’s a do as I say not as I do thing.  My website badly needs remodeling.  

“The Wisdom of Crowds”: A couple of years ago someone at social networking website Gather.com had what seemed to be a brilliant idea: Stage an American Idol-style contest for unpublished authors.  The winner would get a publishing contract with Simon and Schuster and a big boost in sales from their exposure during the competition.  It would be democracy in action.  Readers would choose who got published.  Well, for a variety of reasons it didn’t work out that way, though two reasonably worthy winners did eventually emerge. 

The concept has been tried a few times since then, both by Gather and by Amazon.com, but in both cases the ‘popular vote’ element has been toned down.  In both of the subsequent Gather contests, the eventual winner received little popular attention during the contest and little advertising boost from the victory.  I still think there’s potential in the approach, but nobody seems to have found the right formula yet.  All of the contests so far have suffered from a common problem: not enough impartial readers participating.  There is also an inherent problem with the approach.  If a publisher’s marketing people don’t like a book or understand its appeal that makes it hard for them to market that book effectively. 

Web forums: As an author, it’s a good idea to have some presence on various on-line forums related to your subject matter, but you’ve got to be careful not to let them eat up too much of your writing time.  You’ll also need to learn how to avoid trolls, flame wars and the usual Internet hazards.  If a major hunk of your potential audience decides you’re a jerk, then you probably aren’t helping yourself.  If you get a good reputation on the forums but don’t get stuff written you’ve defeated the purpose of the exercise.  Also, be aware that a good reputation in an Internet forum is a very transient thing, as are boosts from blogging and web posts.  If you don’t maintain a consistent presence any impression you have made will quickly be forgotten. 

Free samples: Baen Books, a science fiction publisher, has a program where people can download free e-books of some of their authors’ older books.  The idea is that readers will get hooked on the free samples and then go out and buy the newer books from those authors.  Apparently that has worked fairly well.  The key here though is that these are books that have already been through the filtering process at a traditional publisher, and the authors have other books that have also been through that process.  Giving away e-books is probably not going to work for most aspiring authors, though some other kinds of free samples may. 

New technology: The first few good writers who hop on a new technology that takes off can often establish a good readership.  In the early days of the World Wide Web it was relatively easy to establish a good-sized niche readership if you consistently had something interesting to say.  Good writers who jumped into blogging early and consistently did well.  Those niches fill up quickly though, and it becomes more and more difficult to attract readers.  Technology advances will undoubtedly open up more niches like that.  The key for aspiring authors is to recognize technologies that are likely to take off and get into them early.  That’s much easier said than done.  You can waste a lot of time on things that look promising but never really amount to much. 

So, do I have a magic key to solving the filtering problem and getting authors together with their audiences?  Yes, but I’m going to keep it a secret and use it to become fabulously rich.  Just kidding.  I don’t think any one thing is going to fix the problems or even that all of the things I’ve mentioned are going to solve the problems.  Readers, authors and publishers are going to be living in an environment where many times readers never find authors that they would love, where good authors often never find their audience, and where publishers never find authors the public would love.  At the same time we’ll be living in an environment where readers have more choice in their reading than ever before.  They’ll have to work harder to exercise it, but it will be there. 

Finally, if you’re an aspiring writer be a reader too.  Go out and do what you have to do to find good books from authors you’ve never heard of before and from publishers you’ve never heard of before.  You’ll find some “bad karaoke” writing, but you’ll also find some gems and reading those gems will make you a better writer.  When you find good writing tell your friends about it.

The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 1)
The Future of Books: The Problem of Filtering (Part 3)

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Dale Cozort is author of American Indian Victories.  Visit his website at www.DaleCozort.com