Blog Archives

Families in ads are weird.

As someone who has worked in advertising, I can picture the meeting where Sharper Image’s art director is tasked with photographing a medicine safe.

Marketing: “We’re selling to people who don’t want their teens raiding the painkiller stash.”
Art director: “No prob. I can do you a sketchy boy skulking out of the john with a prescription bottle.”
Marketing: “Are you crazy? We can’t come right out and accuse their children of stealing!”
Art director: “Um…”
Marketing: “Put a teen in, but make it family friendly. I want smiles.”

Which is how you wind up with this.

Medicine safe

Medicine safe-picsay

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Engagement. Why free short stories are better promo than free books.

Your most loyal readers are invested in you, the author.

Pre-internet, “you” consisted of your writing voice, an author photo, and the occasional interview. Now we have the option of engaging our readers with stories of our lives, our writing process, and the interesting things we learn during book research — all of it augmented with pictures, videos, and the opportunity for readers to have a conversation through comments. 

This is where short stories have a serious promotional advantage over free books. 

I want you to imagine two scenarios of reader engagement.

1) Free Book Offer

You give away your book for a certain period of time. The word goes out over FB, Twitter, through your blog, and if you’re lucky, an aggregator of free book offers. Readers looking for free books click the link to your book. The best of these people first read the description of your book and only acquire if it fits their preferred genre. The worst will read anything, and if it’s not to their taste, they may leave a crappy review on Amazon or B&N (this happens). Because they went directly to the book’s purchase page, there is no need for them to visit your website or learn more about you. If your ebook is being given away through a print publisher, there may not even be a hotlink to your website at the end of the ebook. If there is, it’s often unhandy to surf the Web on a dedicated ebook device.

2) Free Short Story Offer

You give away a short story, set in your series’ universe and with your characters, on your website. The word goes out as before, ideally with a photo that is larger than the average book-cover thumbnail. The reader goes to your website, sees a photo of you, sees the covers and titles of your other books in the sidebar or banner. Ideally, they begin reading the story immediately, because it doesn’t require a big time requirement. You include photos in the text that evoke the location, any featured animals, something that sets a mood. At the bottom, within the text, you include a personal note that says you hope they enjoyed it. They should feel free to pass it on. You encourage them to sign up for your email list, so they know when more free stories come out. Look, the email sign up box is right there on the right, see? And of course, if they liked the story universe, here are links to the first few chapters of your books, with links to buy at the end.

Unlike a temporary free book offer, your short story will always be free.

That blog post will work for you ad infinitum, not for a limited time. Along with other items on your website, that story is searchable, and contains key words that bring readers to your site through Google searches. If you want, you can put your books on sale when you promote a new short story, to sweeten the deal. 

I want you to imagine that instead of selling books, we’re selling food.

Let’s say there were as many manufacturers of food products as there are authors, and they came out with new items as often as we come out with new books, and they gave them away for a week at grocery stores. What would happen?

People would never have to buy food again.

When you go to a grocery story, those food demo people aren’t giving away free dinners. No, they give away samples, and often a coupon to buy the full item at a discount. 

We should stop giving whole dinners away. Get your readers to your website and give them a free sample. Engage them with photos, stories of your life, and links to free chapters of your other books. Give them the opportunity to buy a book on sale, if you want.

When enough authors give away books, people never have to buy books again.

This blog post is a follow up to My Plea to Self-Published Authors, which talks about ways short stories are better for readers as well as authors, and one author’s success with short stories. I hope you’ll consider passing these articles along, or writing your own post on the benefits of giving away short stories rather than whole books. If you do, send me a link to your post through my Contact Page, so I can pass it around.

Next time, I’ll talk about what Amazon could do to help us sell more books.  

My Plea to Self-Published Authors

Don’t give your ebooks away.

Why?

Even one day of pricing your ebook at $0.00, multiplied by countless authors, means readers never have to buy a book again. 

Hey, I’ve given away books in the past. But then I discovered that, as a reader, I could find enough free ebooks on one Facebook page, in one genre, in one week, to meet my reading needs for the next year. Sure, some of them are dreck, but there are enough enjoyable books to keep my entire family happily reading for free. And this is not a good thing. 

There has never been a better time to be an author, if we don’t shoot ourselves in the foot. 

The ebook is a revolution right up there with the printing press. For the first time, authors can market and sell directly to consumers. Now, I understand that we don’t have any control over whether Amazon gives our books away. But Amazon provides only a fraction of the freebies out there, and they do a lot of promoting of those authors, so that compensates. Let’s take Amazon off the table and discuss what we can control.  

How can new self-published authors promote their work, if not with free stuff?

  • Write short stories set in your books’ universe, and give those away.

A good author friend of mine, Lynda Hilburn, has had tremendous success with this strategy. Every time she put out a free short story and notified the Kindle boards, all of her books got a bump in sales. She was making serious money on her self-published books – enough that a big-name agent took notice and got her a print offer she couldn’t refuse.

Free short stories instead of books benefit readers, too.

  • You can judge an author’s voice in the first couple of pages of a book, but you can’t judge their ability to tell a story until you read the whole thing — and readers often wish they had that time back. A short story lets readers know if they like an author in a fraction of the time. 
  • Short stories can be placed outside the time frame of the author’s fictional universe. Let’s say I’m offered a free book, but it’s third in the series. That’s not an ideal situation. I’d prefer to sample the author without any spoilers for books one and two. 

The lure of free is too strong. 

When Amazon made their free Kindle reading app available, my purchases of books skyrocketed. But when everyone started giving books away in promtions, my purchases plummeted to the few authors I was determined to support. The lure of free books is too strong for most of us. We wind up reading books out of order, moving on to the next free thing instead of buying an author’s other books, and spending a lot of time half-heartedly reading full-length books, trying to decide if we like the story enough to keep going. 

So that’s my plea. Give away a sample of your talent, then price the ebook such that readers don’t hesitate to buy — the cost of a nice cup of coffee seems to work well. And of course, giving one book away in a contest, or for charity, is a different thing. 

Please spread the word.

The internet is huge. If even a fraction of authors continues to give their books away, we’re screwed. I hope you’ll share this post or write your own. Get the word out. 

Don’t give your ebooks away.

Feel free to read my follow-up post, Engagement. Why free short stories are better promo than free books, which explains how to use short stories to increase reader engagement and bring more people to your website.

The number one requirement of a book title

Yesterday I spent at least an hour on the phone with my parents, working on a replacement title for what used to be called Telling Lies, a book I’m going to self-publish real soon now. This book has had that title for probably 7 years, but in the middle of last year, someone came out with a mystery of the same name. I was about to say, “Eh, screw it,” and use that title anyway (they’re not copyrightable) when I got an email from the author (whom I’ve never met) asking me to nominate her book for an Agatha. It was just too much, you know? The hunt was on.

What makes a good book title?

It makes people buy the book. That is the number one requirement of a book title. Do not get this aspect confused with how well a title fits a book after it’s read. I don’t care how much someone appreciates your clever wordplay when they’re done with the book. “See, not only was she telling lies, but the lies she told were telling – about her!” Great, but remember, the book is already paid for at that point. P.S. My dad says that if a title really doesn’t fit a book, he might find that annoying enough to shun a second book by the author, even if he really enjoyed her writing. But Daddy fits no one’s idea of the average person, so let’s move on.

How does a title sell a book?

1) The title has tension, asks a question the reader wants answered, or piques the reader’s interest so much that he buys the book. Everyone knows that telling lies is bad, but it’s also sometimes necessary. One word can convey tension, which is why there are about a million romances with reckless in them. If you don’t mind a long title, you can create a whole scenario with tension. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Sometimes tension comes from words that seem to war with each other. The Accidental Tourist. How is that possible? (Oh, look, it asks a question, too.) Try piquing their interest: Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs. WTF?

2) The title tells the reader the tone of the book. This works particularly well with books of a specific flavor, especially one that isn’t widely available but has hardcore fans. Southern lit used to be rare enough that putting Sweet Potato Queens in the title was enough to make the right reader snatch it off the shelf. I don’t know if that’s the case anymore. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Speculative fic readers LOVE that title, and for good reason. It’s frickin’ brilliant on so many levels. (In case you don’t know, that book became Bladerunner.) How ’bout The Da Vinci Code? Sounds kind of like an art-themed thriller, doesn’t it? (Btw, Da Vinci Code would also make a great self-help book title, a la The Seven Habits of Highly Lengthy Titles.)

3) No one else has used the title, at least not recently, or famously, or in a book that’s really similar. Yes, Telling Lies was a great title. I’m trying to get over it, okay?

Let’s talk about stuff to avoid.

1) Clichés. My book deals with a reluctant Tarot reader, so all kinds of card-related sayings suggested themselves. Wild Card. Full Deck. In the Cards. Meh. Clichés pass through the mind with barely a trace. You want a title that rattles around in the ear canal like a moth with fangs. 

2) Insulting potential readers. We briefly considered Mystic Lies, then realized that title would piss off every Tarot reader out there, and they might be expected to buy the book because there isn’t much fiction with Tarot in it. (Note to Tarot readers: This book is not anti-Tarot. You can safely buy it.)

3) Titles that make no damn sense. There may have been books with nonsensical titles that made it big, but I’m pretty sure they became famous because they had a publicity machine behind them. Case in point – I can’t remember any of them.

All right, so what title did we come up with? I’m not going to claim it’s great. I did use some card imagery, although I think I dodged the cliché bullet. I think it has tension. It works well with the cover art I picked, and also with the blurb. Here’s my very preliminary mock-up of the cover. Because it requires some photo manipulation (putting the card in the model’s hand), Angel Joe is going to clean it up this weekend. It will change in other ways.

And here’s the blurb.

LeeLee Moldovar’s mother is dead, leaving her debts, her angry Chihuahua, and her abandoned Tarot clients. After losing her job, LeeLee decides to read Tarot for a living. Her first client is a very attractive man, and there’s definite chemistry. The cards say Adrian should dump his newest girlfriend – or is that what LeeLee wants? It’s only after Adrian leaves that LeeLee discovers he’s dating her best friend. When the next client arrives, she’s afraid to say anything and risk another Tarot disaster. But something inside LeeLee speaks out, giving advice she doesn’t anticipate and can’t control. To silence this unwanted voice and regain her sanity, LeeLee must discover her true self, despite attractive men, best friends, and the specter of her mother’s loving wishes for her.

Oh, look, I’ve already changed the cover.

Comments? Suggestions? Lay ’em on me.

Do I really love Chihuahuas, or am I just using them?

I’ve been quoted in newspapers and on TV as saying that including Chihuahuas in my mystery series was a cold-blooded marketing decision, and I meant it – but not in the way you might think.

The internet is how we find things these days. Anyone can sell things on it, and almost everyone does. As an author, success depends on getting your writing into the hands of people who will enjoy it. You have to cut through the clutter of things clamoring for their attention and say, “Look at me. I’m what you want.” One of the easiest ways to do that is to find a place where your ideal readers are clumped together, and show them you can fill one of their unmet needs. “Excuse me, but is anyone writing fiction about this thing you love? No? Allow me to introduce myself.”

Ideally, an author’s hook should be lively and engaging, something that will add to the books’ tone. It’s even better if it doesn’t bore the general public. And wouldn’t it be great if it had authentic emotional content? It shouldn’t be done to death, or that whole “cutting through the clutter” benefit is lost. Most importantly, it needs to be something the author will enjoy writing about over the long haul. So I took a look at the various things I love: singing, playing guitar, cats, writing, Chihuahuas…hold on a minute. Only one of those things met all my criteria and then some. As a considerable side benefit, the characteristics of Chis, and the character of their owners, matches my writing style rather neatly – funny, mischievious, and very into people.

So yes, the decision to include a marketing hook in my books was cold-blooded, but Chihuahuas were there to be chosen because I am crazy about them. As a benefit, I get to own these dogs in my imagination, when my cat won’t let me in real life. Actually, she will, but she becomes a ghost in her own home. (I’ve tried  and may try again.) When Musette dies, clearing my sinuses but breaking my heart, I’ll get a Chihuahua.

——–

P.S. Years ago, before I knew what a marketing hook was, and just as I was getting into Chihuahuas, I wrote a book with one. It got me my agent and my first publisher, but has never been published. The problem, as all the complimentary rejection letters said, was that publishers didn’t know how to sell it. Well, I do, and as soon as I fix the ending and find a new title (the one I had was recently used for another book), I’ll publish it myself. Stay tuned.

P.P.S. You can experience my Chihuahua enthusiasm for free with the short story, ‘Twas the Chihuahua Before Christmas. Am I giving away a Christmas story for marketing reasons? Of course. Did I love writing it and want everyone to read it regardless of whether they buy my books? Also yes.

UPDATE: I finally succumbed to my obsession and got a Chihuahua. And by golly, she’s kind of a ringer for the Chi at the top of this page!

Help a Reporter Out

HARO is a website that puts reporters in touch with the sources they need. Their slogan is, Everyone’s an Expert at Something, and here’s how it works.

You sign up. They send you several daily digest emails of stories for which media people need interviewees. It could be a pet-insurance newsletter, InfoWorld magazine, CBS’s morning news show, Marie Claire magazine, or some dude’s blog. They might want to talk to people who have helped their arthritis through diet, or have a funny zoo experience, or have experience with cloud computing.

As an author, the best-case scenario is that I can help someone with an article or show that is directly related to my book. The worst-case scenario is that my zoo story is credited to “a reader.” Between those two ends of the spectrum is the chance that I’ll be credited as “Esri Allbritten, author of the upcoming mystery, Chihuahua of the Baskervilles,” and that it’ll happen in a forum that reaches bajillions of potential readers.

I also pass leads to friends and family, ’cause this both endears you to people and reminds them that you exist. Make sure your email signature line is in good shape.