Questions from Indie Authors

I was asked to speak this past Saturday, at an Indie Author Day at my local library.  It’s interesting to me that even when I speak to people who have heard me several times, there are always new questions.  I love that, because it gives me insight into what the world is like out there for indie authors–even those who have been doing this for quite some time.

For our Thanksgiving Week post, I decided to share some of what was asked and answered.

  1. I hired someone to do my Facebook and Twitter who was an expert in my subject area, but after six months I didn’t see a bump in sales.  I also had some speaking events and didn’t get any new attendees from the social media outreach.   Why is social media important given what I’ve experienced?   First of all, social media does not increase sales on it’s own.  Social media helps you build an audience or community, but you still need to motivate your followers to do something in order to see a result.  Combining consistent social media with some marketing of your pages or books (boosting posts on Facebook is an example) is a more strategic plan for generating book sales.  Also, I asked her why she was using Twitter and why not Instagram?  As it happens her books are about animals–and animals (especially cats) are super popular on photo based platforms like Instagram.  I explained that social media isn’t a generic platform.  It is made up of various tools that you can use based on what you are trying to accomplish and who you are trying to reach.
  2. I’ve tried to get reviewed in the major newspaper in my area.  When I reached the book person she said because my book was published by a self-publishing platform it wasn’t eligible for review.  Is that true and how am I supposed to get book reviews?  Yes, it is true that the major newspapers–think of the top 25 by circulation–will not review self-published books and even those published by very small indie presses.  There are simply too many books and too little space.  Also, reviewers haven’t achieved the level of trust yet with indie authors or perhaps your publisher, to determine what is going to be worth their time to cover.  Book reviews on blogs and in publications that favor indie books as well as some local papers and online sites are obtainable.  Some examples are Foreword Magazine, San Francisco Book Review, and Publishers Weekly’s “Book Life” platform.
  3. I was in the newspaper business but the local papers are all gone.  Or they’ve been bought out by corporate syndicates and they have little to no staff on hand to cover books.   How can I get local coverage?  It’s true that there are many local papers that have been absorbed into corporations.  Usually there is one features person who covers several at one time.   But there are also local glossy magazines, which tend to have staff writers because they reap the benefits of local businesses advertising.  Indie authors can check out people who are freelancing, because they may be submitting pieces to the syndicates or some of the locally focused online outlets.  Finally, try the “free” papers in your area.  They are often looking for very locally based stories and will copy information from a press release.

If you have a question email me at claire@clairemckinneypr.com and put “Question for Blog” in the subject line.  I will answer in a forthcoming blog.  I would love to hear from you!

Book Publishing 101: 1 Million Self-Published Books Means Quality is Key

Guess what?  Last week Publishers Weekly reported that, according to Bowker, over 1 million books were self-published in 2017.  You may ask yourself what this means to authors and potential book buyers?

Ten years ago, when I stopped working in-house and became an independent publicist and business owner I was introduced to the indie-author market.  There had been a swelling of this part of the market to which I and others in NY traditional publishing were unaware.  It was alarming to find that a significant portion of the titles that were being self-published, were of substandard quality.  One of the reasons for this was the plethora of inexpensive online book services that made a lot of money on DIY projects by aspiring writers.   The quality of the printing, the interiors, the jackets were often terrible.  Clearly there was a lot the indie author population needed to learn, and a network of bloggers and newsletters began to spring up to teach them the ropes.  But even with the resources that are available today, I still see a lot of titles that have quality issues and these problems will make it difficult for a book to compete in today’s marketplace.  With over 1 million books out there every year, appearance is at least 50% of the marketing effort.

Since I really dislike seeing books that look “self-published”, I’m going to share the beginnings of a list of telltale signs that I run into all the time, and some ways authors can avoid them.

1. A glossy jacket when it should be matte and a cover image that looks like a cheap template.

Narrative fiction and non-fiction should have a matte cover in paperback.  It looks wrong to have a glossy cover, in my strong opinion, and it doesn’t help sell the book.  To research this, go to your local bookstore and look at what is on the new in paperback tables.  Also, have a designer do your jacket.  Don’t use the templates provided online because a) you are likely to produce a jacket just like a bunch of others already out there; b) it will look like what it is; and c) you get what you pay for especially when it is free.  Visit websites for indie authors, especially the Independent Book Publishers Association, which has resources you can check out for different publishing services.  You can even call them on the phone!

2. Print is too small for the page or is printed in courier font.

Whatever you choose, please understand that courier font is not acceptable for a book unless it’s a narrative device.  Almost anything is better than that including the old standard Times New Roman.  Also, if you print using an online service get a copy or proof first to see what the type looks like.  You don’t want to publish a book that half of your market (over 40) can’t read because the type is too small.  I’ve seen it happen.

3. Printing your book straight from a word doc is not a good idea.

It looks like the book is “word processed” and not designed properly.  I believe some of the online publishers have interior formatting help that can give you some design options if you can’t pay for a professional.  If you can spend a bit of money, I suggest finding someone who does interior design in InDesign.

4. Empty rear jacket.

The back of the jacket needs to have a bar code, a brief author bio, a quote from a credible source (if available), and a brief snappy piece of selling copy.  Again, the local bookstore is a great place to do research.  Just because you are self-publishing, doesn’t mean you don’t need to meet publishing standards.  Ebook sales are declining, so the presentation of your print book is going to make a difference.

5. No Library-of-Congress number

Do you want libraries to have access to your book?  You need a “PCN” number, which you can obtain here and it’s free.  All you need to do is send a copy to the Library of Congress when your book is ready.

I will continue to add to this list over the next several months.  I hope sharing my observations as we all continue to navigate the indie market will be helpful.

Book Review: Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover

Educated Tara Westover

Educated: A Memoir from Penguin Random House

Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover is a book I initially didn’t want to pick up when it released earlier this year, as it didn’t sound like a book I’d be interested in.

I admit it: I was wrong! Although I regret not reading Educated earlier, I’m still glad that I had the opportunity to read it after purchasing it in an awesome independent bookstore perfectly titled “Books, Lines, and Thinkers” during my vacation in Rangeley, Maine.

Educated is the story of Tara Westover and her life growing up in the mountains of Idaho with a father who had her lugging metal for his junkyard, and a mother who was a self-taught herbalist and midwife. She was raised as a fundamentalist Mormon, and her family believed that even the Mormons they went to church with were sinful and weren’t going to be saved when the apocalypse came. As part of preparation for the apocalypse, they stocked up on food, water, and weapons and buried them on their property.

Her father was paranoid and against the federal government and public education, so Tara never went to school. She never had a birth certificate until she was older and asked her mother to help her get one, but she and her mother had conflicting dates on her DOB (although they both agreed that she was born toward the end of September). At one point when 16-year-old Tara got into an argument with her mother about school, her mother replied that she was 20 years old at this point. Her parents didn’t know the day she was born, let alone her age.

The hardest part about reading this book is that I had to keep reminding myself that this didn’t happen in the ’60s or ’70s—this all takes place in the ’90s through current times. But the way that Tara lived was so backwards you can’t help but keep thinking that her story took place much longer before the ’90s. While other kids were watching Nickelodeon and Disney movies or establishing grade-school friendships, Tara’s father was forcing her to jump into dumpsters full of sharp aluminum and tin (without a tetanus shot—because her father didn’t believe in doctors and medicine).

Throughout her crazy childhood, Tara slowly began dating and assimilating herself into modern society by taking part in school plays (until her father would eventually nix most of these plans), and she was eventually able to break away by getting accepted into Brigham Young University in Utah. She had a lot of trouble fitting in, whether it was because her roommates were disgusted by her lack of hygiene, or her own prejudices against other female college students and the way they dressed in class. At one point in a lecture, she raised her hand and asked for the professor to explain what the word “Holocaust” meant, and she is reprimanded for making a mean joke.

How someone can live in the world yet know so little about it is absolutely mind-boggling and unbelievable. Tara goes through so many problems that no child should go through—a physically abusive brother, parents that disown her for being “against the family,” not getting a proper education or medical treatment—but she is not asking for a pity party in Educated. She just wants to tell the story of her life, as far-fetched as we may think it is.

Educated is one of the best memoirs I’ve read, not only because it is a literal page turner and a book that you will not be able to put down from the moment you read the first page. It’s worth reading because there are other people who grew up like Tara who exist in the U.S. today, and don’t have proper access to education or medicine. It also puts a spotlight on mental illness (her father and brother) and depression (her own), along with how it can affect not just one’s self but their family and friends. My only issue with the book is that it feels that Tara wrote it too soon. Although the raw emotion is what makes it a great memoir, it does feel like she still has not come to terms with the abuse she suffered by the hands of her family members.

Author Brand? How Do I Get One?

Last year I published my own book based on an article I wrote for Publisher’s Weekly many years ago, Do You Know What a Book Publicist Does? A Guide for Creating Your Own Campaigns.  To promote it, I hit the road and spoke to writers at universities conferences, festivals, libraries, etc.  What was the one thing writers looking to promote their books really wanted to understand?  What is an Author Brand? And further, how do they develop their own?  While I can’t present all the information I provide in a 45-minute keynote or afternoon workshop, I’m going to express some of the points that should start you on your way.

  1. What is an Author Brand?  A brand represents a product or person in different ways.  Primarily it’s about how people “feel” and “respond” when they hear the brand’s name; see the product; read about it; etc.  Recognizable brands are ones that the market knows like Coca Cola.  In the book world some recognizable brands are James Patterson, John Grisham, Janet Evanovich, David Brooks, and David McCullough.  Audiences know what these writers represent and have a good idea of what kinds of books they publish, what causes they might represent, their political affiliations, where they come from or live, and what they look like.  These characteristics are parts of their “brands”.
  2. I’m not famous, I’m just a “…”, I don’t have a brand: These are some of the things I’ve heard from writers when faced with the concept of Author Brand.  Part of the answer is that all of those people I mentioned above were once where you are.  James Patterson published his first book in 1976.  He started publishing more than one book every year in the late 1990s.  I’m not saying that you have to wait twenty years before you establish your brand.  The point is everyone has to start somewhere so take any negative thoughts out of your mind and focus on what you have to offer.
  3. How do I get an Author Brand?  Here’s my favorite part of all of my lectures and speeches–you don’t have to “get” a brand because you already have/are one!  I don’t care if you train animals, have a podcast on car repair, and write romances–all of these things together constitute your brand.  What you really need to know is how to become your brand.
  4. Becoming your Author Brand: Take a moment to write down a list of items that describe you.  Think of answering the fundamental questions–who, what, where, why, and how.  Now, write down what you consider to be your best assets or what your are “known” for.  Even in the smallest community, you might be the one who always brings muffins to a book club meeting; or you have an interesting tattoo; you take hiking trips in the summer; you speak a foreign language and like to surf; and/or you are good with numbers.  Finally, note the kinds of books you want to or are writing; what the characters are like; where they are set; are there any common threads in your work?  All of the lists you have just made are the pieces of what can be your brand.  Look at what you have and highlight the ones that you want to project virtually or in person.  The intent is to become familiar to an audience that will respond to your author brand, and ultimately to create a community or people that will become your army of fans who will spread word-of-mouth about your work.  Having completed these exercises, you have the potential to accomplish different goals such as, sell your book(s), grow your business, gain visibility in the publishing world and get noticed by agents and editors, secure speaking engagements, and provide a much easier base to create a marketing strategy.
  5. Image as Author Brand: After you’ve dissected all of the parts of yourself and your life that can be used to promote you, consider some of the more cosmetic aspects of your brand.  Coca Cola has a distinct font, color, and packaging.  Even before you get to the taste of it, this is what we recognize.  What about you?  Look at some of your favorite personalities in entertainment, yes authors are part of the entertainment industry, and see what you like.  For a few years James Patterson always wore a crew neck sweater in public, in his ads, for his author photo.  He chose this look on purpose.  Amy Tan used to carry her dog in a Pucci Bag wherever she went.  What signature item would you like to have?  How do you want to look when you are in front of an audience?

All of what I’ve shared here will help you recognize and develop your Author Brand.  Most important is that you don’t try to twist yourself into what you imagine to be the RIGHT brand.   I’m not saying that you shouldn’t try to create a brand that best represents all of you and what you hope to achieve.  But, It’s important that you feel comfortable with what you are selling and projecting.  You need to be able to maintain and protect the brand you create and develop.  So if you feel most powerful and connected to your work in the form of a superhero, don your Spider Man costume and head out on the town.  But if jeans and a T-shirt with a baseball cap is more your style; you are from a suburb of X city; and you write books about a bail bondsman named Al, you might want to tailor your brand.  Just a touch.

Book Review: The Man Who Caught the Storm by Brantley Hargrove

The Man Who Caught the Storm

The Man Who Caught the Storm by Brantley Hargrove, published by Simon & Schuster (April 2018).

Videos of tornadoes ripping through homes is one thing, but translating that power into the written word is a feat in itself–and in THE MAN WHO CAUGHT THE STORM: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras, Brantley Hargrove is unbelievably good at capturing that raw emotion.

I never watched Storm Chasers, where Tim Samaras got his fame. I didn’t know he existed until I picked up Hargrove’s book. But I have always been interested in the weather and grew up watching Helen Hunt and Bill Paxton in Twister, so the idea of learning more about the actual career of tornado chasing–not the Hollywood version of it–sounded interesting.

And boy, is THE MAN WHO CAUGHT THE STORM interesting. Even if you aren’t curious about the weather, it’s worth reading a true story about passion and following your dreams. Except this is no ordinary passion, and certainly not an ordinary dream. Samaras was not focused on making money or becoming the next Bill Gates. His greatest desire was to figure out what really goes on inside of the belly of a tornado.

Samaras grew up outside of Denver, Colorado, and was always good with technology. As he got older he loved to park on a hill and watch the storms roll in. Eventually, he decided to start chasing tornadoes. Once he started getting more involved he realized that if meteorologists knew what was going on inside the tornado, maybe lives could be saved.  Somtimes, even with predictive safety measures in place, tornado sirens didn’t go off in a town until the tornado had already hit the ground. Samaras decided to build his own inventions that would measure the wind speed, barometric pressure, and eventually, film the action inside the funnel.

The problem was, Samaras had to get close to a tornado in order to deploy these tools. And as he did it more and more, he began to realize what a dangerous game it was to play. And yet, he was addicted to the thrill of getting so close to a tornado, and wedded to the idea that one day his concepts and documentation of events could save hundreds of lives.

Samaras’s story is elevated by Hargrove’s intelligent and crisp writing. Although he drops numerous scientific and technical terms, he’s never convoluted or makes the reader feel ignorant for not understanding a specific concept. He explains things quickly and easily, and continues his storytelling without a major break in the narrative. The way that Hargrove describes these weather forms is so vivid, it feels like you are watching a movie:

“Wedge tornado on the ground,” Tim says. “Oh, my God. It’s huge.”

“We gonna deploy on that thing?” asks Porter, his voice betraying more than a little trepidation.

“Damn right.”

They approach from the west down Highway 14, the main route between Huron and Manchester. The tornado is half a mile to the south of the road and moving steadily northeast, refracting sunlight like a prism. One moment the mile-wide funnel is the color of sand. The next, it is smoke, ash, sod. Tim slows up, pulling into the oncoming lane. His distance narrows to hundreds of yards, but the approach is all wrong. There is the intuitive trimming along the margins of safety, and then there is the bet whose odds are unknown. From here, Tim can’t discern the tornado’s heading or ground speed with any certainty. This isn’t the weakening Stratford twister. This is unlike anything he’s ever seen. The tornado before him is the giant of plains legend, the breed a chaser may see once in his life.

-From THE MAN WHO CAUGHT THE STORM

Hargrove sadly also has to tell the story we know already–Samaras’s tragic death “at the hands” of these great vortexes. For Hargrove to fill 250 pages of tornado action in a way that is exciting and unique in each chapter–while being aware that the reader knows what ultimately happens–is a challenge that he accomplishes, exceptionally.

THE MAN WHO CAUGHT THE STORM is a fantastic, superbly written biography of a man who literally lived and died by his passion, and in the process was instrumental to advancing meteorology as we know it today.

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