Book Marketing

Author Interview – Laura Lee

I was interviewed by author Ron Herron for his blog Painting with Light.

Painting With Light

Today I’m not posting about my own books, or talking about any of the ins-and-outs of indie publishing. I’m returning a favor by interviewing another Michigan author who was kind enough to tell her own blog followers about my writing adventures.

Today’s author, Laura Lee, not only plans to publish her next book as an indie, but already has quite a few traditionally published books to her credit.

Laura Lee, Author
Laura Lee, Traditional and Indie Author

Welcome to “Painting With Light,” Laura.
Thank you, Ron.

Laura, I’m embarrassed to admit I haven’t read any of your work. Can you tell us a little about yourself?
I’m mostly known for non-fiction in the humorous reference category. My best seller was “The Pocket Encyclopedia of Aggravation.” Last year I did a book with Reader’s Digest called “Don’t Screw It Up.”

Lately, I’m more focused on fiction and other projects. My first novel “Angel”

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A Call to Action for the Betwixt and the Between

I now have a name for my marketing problem as an author. It is the “betwixt and between” problem.

I recently received this rejection of a biography I’ve been trying to sell: ” It is well researched, and it does have the elements… But while I think the premise has merit, I am concerned the book falls betwixt and between…in its positioning.”

Betwixt and between.

Betwixt and between is where most of my books fall.

My novels tend to land squarely betwixt. Identity Theft is more literary than a romantic comedy, more narrative and accessible than experimental fiction, more humorous than a thriller and more philosophical than a comedy.

I once tried to explain my thoughts about the book’s more philosophical themes to a potential agent. He had read the first three chapters and deemed it a romantic comedy. He liked what he had read, and thought he could make the book a hit. He had strong ideas about how it should be structured and when I explained my thinking– why I wanted to go a bit betwixt and a bit between– he literally laughed out loud. “Do you think you’re (name of some artsy literary writer)?”

I said, “No.”

What I should have said is, “No, I think I’m Laura Lee.”

My first novel Angel was about a Christian minister whose worldview is challenged when he falls in love with another man. In the words of one publishing pro it was “too gay for the Christians and too Christian for the gays.”

There is a niche for the experimental and edgy. There are books that get labeled high art. Mine do not follow their conventions. They are too “accessible.” (I personally think this is a good thing.) Yet they are also more philosophical and literary than mainstream popular fiction is often expected to be.

Is “betwixt and between” really a problem– or can it be my strength? Can “betwixt and between” be my calling card, my brand?

Independent publishing and crowd funding have given the power back to you, the readers. You have the power.

It is not up to the gatekeepers any more to tell us which stories are worth hearing and which fall betwixt and between their marketing niches.

Something is happening.

We can decide for ourselves, beyond the marketing machine, what stories we value, what we want to write, read and share.

But self-publishing is not easy. There are many pitfalls along the way. Sometimes it feels like pulling a boulder up hill with a rope.

Let me tell you about two of the stumbles I have encountered using the literary crowdfunging site Pubslush. I chose Pubslush because the site said it had a niche audience of enthusiastic readers looking for new literary projects to support. In fact, I have seen no evidence of this. Although my Identity Theft campaign took off with more enthusiasm than I imagined, all of it came from people in my own social circle. Unlike Kickstarter where there really is an audience of enthusiastic people looking for projects to back, Pubslush is a bring your own crowd platform.

The second problem is that Pubslush gives authors an opportunity to chose a goal– the amount they feel they need to do the project well– and also a lower minimum goal. The idea with the minimum goal is that you don’t run into that problem with Kickstarter where you’re $50 short and lose all of the backing. With Pubslush you can say “if I get less than X it is not worth doing the project” and set that as a minimum goal. So if you reach that, you get that funding. I set a minimum that was half of what I hoped to get.

Once the minimum was hit Pubslush sent out e-mails to all the backers saying my project was successful. I had been building a regular stream of support,but the moment that happened it nearly ground to a halt. Yes, I have passed the threshold where it is worth doing– but the project is only 61% of the way towards its goal. It still has a ways go to. Don’t stop now, please!

We are creating a new world in publishing. New worlds are not created easily. But remember that you, gentle readers, have the power. You decide who will write your stories, who will succeed, who will fail.

There are only three days to go to fund Identity Theft. Only three.

Please strike a blow for all of those who fall somewhere betwixt and between.

Follow this link. Go to Pubslush and support this project.

For the cost of a book you can be part of a book’s creation.

You have the power to make it happen. Become part of the Identity Theft team.

Ego and Economics: Bad Reviews, Stalking Authors and the sense of Existential Threat

I’ve been following much of the discussion surrounding the controversial Guardian article by author Kathleen Hale. Hale became obsessed with a reviewer who had given her book a negative review and she tracked her down, drove to her house, tried to confront her and wrote about her stalking in The Guardian.

There is a good chance if you’re involved in the world of books at all, as a reader, reviewer or writer, you are already familiar with the details of this disturbing story. If you’re not, a few articles I would recommend are On the Importance of Pseudonymous Activity; The Choices of Kathleen Hale; Author Studies, Kathleen Hale, Native Authors; The Choices of Kathleen Hale.

Initially, I must admit, I wanted to write something about this case because it shares so many elements with the novel I am crowdfunding– Identity Theft and I thought there might be a marketing connection. (Identity Theft is about a worker in a rock star’s office who decides to catfish a fan which eventually leads to her being confused for a celebrity stalker.)

But today when I was reading a response story in The Guardian (Inside the World of Amazon Vie Book Reviewers by Suzanne McGee) a quote jumped out at me:

“There is no industry that combines ego and economics like book publishing, however. It is now customary for authors to regard any negative review as a vast threat to their livelihoods and future book sales.”

While it is wrong to take the actions and attitudes of a couple of badly behaving authors as representative of the whole lot of us, there is a lot of truth to this statement. Increasingly, we authors are made to feel as though our careers, indeed our very ability to survive, pay our bills, feed our families, depends upon our online reputations.

Just the other day I clipped an article on marketing for the writer that repeated the conventional wisdom. I wanted to find it again for his article, but I don’t know what I did with it. No matter, you can look at just about any blogging author’s twitter feed to find multiple examples.  The key to having a career as a writer is to form relationships with readers, to build a social community. You need to connect to readers and get them invested in you as a person. Some time ago I wrote about the changing expectations of a writer’s role in the process in an article about Amazon’s @author program for Kindle. The article I was commenting on called the new relationship between author and reader the “digital commodification of authorship that takes place by way of community and conversation.”

In any case, the Nieman article proposes that this assumption, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after completing the book, changes expectations about what a “book” is about. A book becomes a dialogue, never entirely finished and closed. It seems likely that the ways we conceive of “books” and literature will evolve because of this technology. This is an interesting development and we’ll see where it goes.

This notion, that the author will continue to be available to the reader after the book is published, was not the norm in traditional publishing.  The idea that you have to be available, sociable, likeable and connected personally to the audience is a challenging one for a field famously made up of introverts and near hermits. What we socially awkward literary types are being asked to sell is not our work but our personalities. Just when you think you’ve found the career that perfectly suits your solitary nature you’re told that the only way to have a career is to build up your social following, have more “friends” and “likes” and “followers.”

And make no mistake, this social pose is a matter of survival.

“In absolute numbers, more self-published authors are earning a living wage today than Big-5 authors,” says The Tenured vs. Debut Author Report.

Those traditional publishing gigs, complete with professional PR people are fewer and father between. The delays between books make it impossible for a writer to keep career momentum and income flowing. The best way to actually have a living wage as a writer these days is to publish yourself, build a brand, get out there and be social.  Those reputations are built one Goodreads review at a time.  To a less stable individual, a single unflattering comment can become a threat to her very identity and ability to survive.

Debbie Reese wrote an excellent article on why authors and their works cannot be entirely separated.  It is true that your enjoyment of a book does not depend upon your love of the author as a person. Some of the artists we most admire had some of the most problematic personalities. But the identity of the author continues to be part of our legitimate literary discussion:

Teachers assign author studies. There are guides on how to do them. Publishers like Scholastic offer guides, too. In them, students are asked to do research on the author’s life, and that author’s body of work. They are asked to make connections between the author’s life and work. They are also asked to make personal connections between their own life experiences and those of the author and/or characters in the author’s books.

As long as that remains true authors will continue to worry about their online reputations (as we all do) and to feel a bit threatened when they discover something negative is being said about them or their work. The book becomes part of your public identity.

The fact is, no one controls her image or how she comes across to others. No one can guarantee that everyone will love her and think wonderful things about her. We’d all love to be able to ensure that, but we can’t. We all have to come to terms with the fact that not everyone likes us. Writers just have the fortune and misfortune of having this process (when it comes to their work) be more public. Thanks to reviews and sites like Goodreads, we get to hear what people say behind our backs in a way that people generally don’t in every day life. When you read a review you don’t like, it is probably best to treat it as a bit of overheard conversation. The reviewer was not talking to you, but to other readers.  The best thing to do for your own sanity as well as the general peace is to pretend you never heard it. If it’s unfair let other reviewers plead your case. If there is merit to it, file it away for next time you write.

Absolutely do not go on a clue hunting expedition to expose the blogger’s identity and under no circumstances should you leave dog poop in anyone’s mailbox.

The Only Way We Can Make Your Entry Correct Is To Give You a False Name

When I visited the Audible page for the new audiobook version of my novel Angel, I noticed that there were a couple of books that I did not write listed as “more from this author.”

I wrote to Audible and asked them if they would correct this error.

They replied: “The only way we can adjust this is by having you change the author name you are currently using…If this is something you’d be interested in please let us know and we’d be more than happy to adjust that for you so that no more titles show up under ‘More From the Same’.”

Yeah, sure. How about changing my author name to J.K. Rowling.

Sometimes When You Dance Like an Idiot Amazing Things Happen

I have loved this Youtube video, Leadership From a Dancing Guy, since I first saw it when a friend of mine posted it on Facebook a while back. It shows how it is the first followers and not the leader who create a movement. “The first follower transforms a lone nut into a leader.”

I have seen the theory of this video demonstrated in the past week. I have been plugging my crowdfunding project to get my next novel Identity Theft into print.  I have to tell you that I have, much of the time, felt like an idiot. I was metaphorically dancing around, arms flailing, drawing attention to myself (and I’m not a drawing-attention-to-myself kind of gal). There were times when I felt like  combination beggar and clown.

One of my writer friends Ronald L. Herron, who maintains the blog Painting with Light, published some sobering and discouraging figures about the reach of social media.

When you consider maybe half the people in a social network will actually see a posting (assuming they aren’t following so much stuff they don’t have time to read any of it), and maybe one percent of those who see it will respond, and about five percent of the responders will buy, you’ll understand why marketing types today use this formula to evaluate social media:

(followers) x (50% see it) x (1% pay attention) x (5 % buy it) = sales.

Using this as gospel, you can figure out what the outcome will be for any given social networking post. For the sake of example, I’ve chosen an audience following of 100,000 (I should be so lucky). It works out something like this:

100,000 x 50% x 1% x 5% = 25

You read that right. Assuming you have something to sell, a posting to 100,000 followers on your social media site (your blog, the Twitter, the Book of Face, or whatever else you use) could possibly translate into 25 sales. Maybe.

Twenty-five. That’s it.

Considering all the time I spend on those sites, those numbers made me feel sick, too.

I have almost 2000 follows here. Another 1650 on The Twitter. Only about 53 on the Book of Face (I’m not real active there). I’m not at all sure about Pinterest or Tumblr or LinkedIn or any of the others I’m on and vaguely familiar with, so I won’t count them.

So let’s say it’s about 4000.

Let’s see … 4000 followers x 50% x 1% x 5% = 1.

Eek!

I read a lot of advice on how to have an effective crowdfunding campaign and it always said you have to keep plugging away. Don’t lose enthusiasm.

That is hard for a number of reasons. You’re afraid of driving away the friends and followers you do have with spam. You (ok, I) hate drawing attention to yourself and again, there is the person begging in a clown suit aspect. When the results fail to come quickly you’re inclined to hide in shame, remove your campaign post and say, “Sorry, I was only joking.”

But if you believe in your project and want to see it happen, you soldier on. You double down and dance even more wildly.  (“All arms and legs and no control” as the world famous ballet dancer David Hallberg once uncharitably said of his student self.)

Then one day something amazing happens.

You can’t control it. You can’t make it happen. It just does. When you’ve nearly given up.

A couple of days ago Identity Theft suddenly jumped from 27% funded to 44% funded in a single day.

I didn’t know why until someone I know from church forwarded me an e-mail message that had been going around. Two friends were spreading the word about the project and personally inviting their contacts to support it.

When they talk about crowdfunding on marketing sites and they use words like “activate your network” it doesn’t begin to describe what that means. I was deeply touched by my friends’ support. That simple act transformed my campaign from one that was floundering to one that has momentum and looks likely to reach its minimum goal (it is only $90 away) and maybe even to reach its upper goal. We are nearly half way there. (Pubslush is fairly unique among crowdfunding sites in that it allows authors to chose both a minimum and an upper funding goal. That way you can seek the bare minimum to do the project and not lose that backing, and you can also propose a figure to do the project as you would like and not cut so many corners.)

Sometimes when you dance like an idiot amazing things happen.

The Problem with Crowdfunding: Crowds Don’t Do Anything. Individuals Do.

Uncle Sam

My post yesterday about identity and masks mentioned a book called Situations Matter by Sam Sommers. And as I am in the middle of a crowdfunding campaign that is very important to me, I paid special attention to a section of the book dealing with the psychology of crowds. People, in a crowd, are much less likely to offer help. They assume that someone else will take up the slack.

We’re so used to feeling anonymous and detached in crowds that simply asking people to imagine being surrounded by others is enough to make them less helpful. In one creative set of studies, researchers instructed participants to visualize themselves in a crowded movie theater or out to dinner with thirty friends. 5 After answering several unimportant questions —like, what room temperature would they prefer in the theater—participants moved on to an ostensibly unrelated charity survey. Having just pictured themselves in a crowd, respondents pledged smaller donations compared to participants who had earlier been instructed to visualize an empty theater or more intimate dinner for two… Even being with imaginary people shapes how we think about helping. You can understand why we get used to feeling this way in crowds… Over time, we learn to associate these two ideas: on the one hand, being in a crowd, and on the other, relinquishing responsibility. Crowd. Lack of responsibility. Crowd. Someone else will take care of this. Make the connection enough times, and eventually the mere thought of a group of people is enough to trigger passivity.

So here you come to the great challenge of motivating people to do something as a group. It is the power of the group that makes it achievable and yet the sense of being part of a group is demotivating in itself. Imagine Stephen Rhea in the movie Shine here: It’s a mystery. It’s a mystery.

So I am going to do a bit of a test here and take some of the suggestions Sommers made for overcoming the innate inertia of the crowd.

“In short,” he wrote, “the characteristics of the helpee are more important than those of the helper. Instead of focusing on the types of people most likely to offer you assistance, you should spend your energy framing the person( s) who needs help in the most sympathetic light possible”.

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Laura Lee, the Helpee

So let me tell you a little bit about myself. This is me, last winter, in Phoenix, Arizona. From the time I was a little girl I had an aptitude for language inherited, no doubt, from my late father who was also an author. When I was a girl I wanted to be an actress. My grandmother was a professional radio actress and she encouraged me in this. I suspect my acting dream, though, had more to do with exposure to actors on television than any family legacy.

Acting was never natural to me, and I thought that the fact that I had to work at it somehow made it a true calling. My father continued to insist that I was “a born writer.”

I was always attracted to performers. I admire them. (Probably because I loved it but was no good at it myself.) In high school and college I became deeply interested in popular music and decided to pursue a career in radio. Radio was a good compromise. You could be a performer but also remain hidden. I had a decent radio voice and it suited my introverted personality.  Little by little, though, it became clear that I had a special ability to express things in writing. I could dash off radio commercial or news copy where others struggled. At some point I caught on that this was the logical path for me. Writing was my calling and it has been both the path of least resistance and the hardest career path I could imagine.

My new novel, Identity Theft, comes from an idea that I have been wrestling with, on and off, for fifteen years. After many reworkings and revisions, I feel it is ready to share. It is quite different from my first novel, Angel. It highlights other aspects of my writing, personality and experience. It involves more humor. One reader even called it a dark comedy. I’m proud of it, and I want to get it out there.

Although I have generally been traditionally published, and plan to continue to publish my non-fiction that way, I have taken a cue from musicians who are all running their own record labels these days. I want to publish Identity Theft myself. (Writers don’t have the wonderful advantage musicians have of being able to earn money performing their composed works.) So that is me– the helpee. I hope you find me sufficiently sympathetic to want to lend a hand to make this dream a reality.

So what next? I turn back to Sommers.

The key, as you now know, is to break through the barriers of anonymity and ambiguity that come with crowds. The next time you’re desperate for assistance, your best bet is to ask for it specifically and directly… You can see this advice in action in those other Sally Struthers commercials, the charitable ones asking viewers to sponsor an individual child for a low daily rate. The ads make an unambiguous case that assistance is needed. They tell the individual donor that she can actually make a difference. Then they show her precisely how to do so, right down to the exact dollar amount. Each of these factors renders helping a more reasonable, realistic course of action offering concrete benefits.

So let me tell you the truth– I can’t do this without your help.

As I mentioned before, for most of my adult life I have chosen to follow my particular aptitudes. These have also been some of the most challenging paths in terms of making a living. When you work with a traditional publisher (I have done 14 books or so with them), you get an advance to do the work and then the publisher pays for the editing, layout, design and printing. In order to produce Identity Theft to the professional level I am used to with traditional publishers, I need to hire skilled people and I will need backing.

The good news is that I am not asking for anything more than the cover price of the book– $15. If you are willing to order the book now, in advance, you can help a writer share work she has been laboring on for more than a decade. Only $15– the price of a book. If that is a financial stretch, you can place an advance order for the ebook for $10. You get a book, for the regular price of a book. Hopefully it is a book you will enjoy. Movie tickets cost that much and provide an hour and a half of entertainment. A book is something you can spend hours with.  So this is my pitch. It is not a donation or charity, just an advance order, and it will make a huge difference in the life of a struggling author.

Right now I am pleased to say that after only two days the project is 21% funded, but Pubslush is an all-or-nothing platform. If it does not reach its goal it will not be funded. You will not be charged until the campaign ends 17 days from now.

So I need you. Yes, you. Sitting there reading this.

Please visit the Pubslush page, read about Identity Theft, and if it sounds like a book that you think should exist, please pledge your support.  Thank you.

Is Anyone Able to Make a Living in Publishing?… Anyone?

I was browsing Kickstarter today. The first page on the site highlighted a favorite staff pick, it looked clever, so I clicked on it. Coffee House Press wants to put out a book on the appeal of cat videos.  They have gone to Kickstarter because “we want to pay these people well for their work. We think what they’re doing is cool and important and we respect the time and thought that goes into writing something as compelling as a great cat video. The funds we raise here will make sure that the writers are compensated properly.”

I started to wonder– if authors like me are on Kickstarter trying to get funds to do the research that publishers once funded, and if writers are pitching to publishers in the vain hopes of being paid, and if the publishers meanwhile are on Kickstarter because otherwise they can’t pay writers…. seriously, does anyone make any money with books?