Sunday, October 25, 2015

Confessions of a marketing skeptic.

So here we are, in week two of my test run for sharing my blog posts as Facebook Notes. It seems to be as good a time as any to make a confession: This is basically the only marketing-type thing I've done for my books in months. Why? Because I have an innate suspicion, bordering on irrational fear, of anything that has to do with marketing.

There, I said it. And I apologize in advance to my friends who work in marketing, because the rest of this post is going to be about why this is so.

For starters, I came up through journalism. It's hard to believe now, but in those days journalists thought themselves above any involvement with filthy lucre. Yes, we did our jobs and got paid for them -- but we were supposed to be discerning about the topics we covered. If we were asked to write about a new store or a new product, it had better have something more interesting going on than just being new. It had to be unique, or very nearly so. The redevelopment of a decrepit retail block? We're in. A mac-and-cheese box whose perforated, thumb-sized "open here" button actually worked? We'd like to talk to the inventor. A product that would keep one's shoes from coming untied during the course of a day? We'd be all over that. (Am I the only grownup who has trouble with her shoes? Even if I double-knot my Keens, they untie themselves in a matter of hours.)

Anyway, the point is that we had standards against running stories that amounted to unpaid infomercials. (That's one big reason why so many news releases end up in the trash: the hook is too weak. If there's no real news in your news release, it's going in the circular file.)

Sometimes it was someone from the sales department who would try to sell us on doing a story on his/her client's new something-or-other. Unfortunately for the client, the same rules applied: No hook, no story. And "cool new store in town that's going to buy a lot of advertising from us if you put it on the news" was, unfortunately, not a hook. Sorry/not sorry.

From news, I jumped into the simple living movement. And among that movement's tenets -- besides downsizing your life and reducing your footprint on the earth -- is keeping an eagle eye on your discretionary spending. Don't buy something just because your neighbor bought one; analyze your spending habits and stop buying stuff you don't need; buy the store brand if the quality's the same; kill your television; and so on. These things were pretty much second-nature to me, as my parents grew up in the Great Depression. And I never made a fabulous salary in radio, so I was doing a lot of them anyway, out of necessity.

Fast-forward to today: I've let up on simple living and I no longer work as a journalist. But I still have the sort of inquiring (all right, maybe cynical is a better word) mind that asks what's so new about this thing and do I really need to spend money on it.

And yet here I am, writing novels, which are pretty close to the top of the "stuff no one needs" pile, and asking complete strangers to take a flyer on them. Karma sucks.

Plus, to get my name out there so that people will know about my books, marketing is a necessary evil. But now I'm doing business with people whose messages I've spent decades resisting, and I am skeptical of all of them. Will Marketer X give me the return on my investment he/she claims? (Doubtful, in most cases.) How much is Marketer Y relying on me to get the word out about the promotion I'm paying him money for? (Crowdfunding sites, I'm looking at you.) Why does Marketer Z insist that I must use a particular blogging platform/book distributor/etc., even though other marketers argue for a different one? Whose pockets are being lined by all this advice, and how?

Last fall and winter, I put a fair amount of time and money into marketing, and didn't get much in return. There are a number of reasons why I've pulled back since then, the Denver saga being one of them. But I'm not planning a big push for any of my books this fall -- despite the fact that A Billion Gods and Goddesses will be out in the next week or so, and I expect to release a Pipe Woman's Legacy set for Kindle just before Thanksgiving.

Which is why I'm counting this blogging experiment as marketing. It's another avenue to get my name out there -- and a fairly unique one right now. And it's free.

Anybody else feel the same push-pull about marketing that I do, or am I the only one?

These moments of skeptical blogginess have been brought to you (on multiple platforms!) , as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

When social media worlds collide.

Crab Nebula | NASA
Starting tonight, and for the next few weeks, I'm going to try an experiment. Instead of posting at my blog and sharing the post via links on Facebook and Google Plus, I'm also going to try posting a copy of the blog post itself to Facebook's new and improved Notes feature.

You guys remember Notes, right? Back in 2009 or so, it was a place on Facebook where you could post lengthier things: screeds, diatribes, and "how many of these 100 speculative fiction books have you read?" lists. Then Facebook quietly extended its number of characters per regular post to 60,000, and Notes became kind of redundant.

This summer, Facebook resurrected Notes, and turned it into a sort of blogging platform right inside Facebook. It even looks like a Wordpress blog. It's not as robust, obviously, as a regular website -- you can't add tabs and "buy my books" buttons and all that jazz. So why would somebody want to blog on Facebook instead of, say, Wordpress or Blogger?

In a word: eyeballs. Marketers advise that you limit the number of clicks someone has to perform before you get them where you want them to go. Wherever your blog is hosted, you need to attract people to the site before they can read what you wrote. Usually that means posting a link on social media. But unless you're a blogging superstar, not many people will click through. My blog gets a little more attention since I linked the comments function with Google Plus (which you can only do with a Blogger blog), but it's still not widely read, shall we say. So I'm wondering whether cross-posting to Facebook will encourage any more interaction.

I got the idea from Mitch Joel, who wrote in a Facebook Notes post this week that he sees value in putting your posts where the readers are. People have so many choices these days in where they spend their time on social media. If they're comfortable on one platform, they may not feel comfortable clicking a link to go somewhere else. They may even be leery of external links, when so many websites annoy you with autoplay video ads and popups -- to say nothing of viruses. But a lot of people are already on Facebook; if you post a blog there, your readers don't have to leave Facebook to read it.

So I figured it's worth a try. Tonight, I'm going to post this at as usual, and also as a Facebook Note on both my author page and my timeline. Let me know if you see it, would you? Thanks!

This bloggy supernova has been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Killing one's darlings, book cover edition.

Book covers have been on my mind lately. It's mostly because I'm getting ready to publish A Billion Gods and Goddesses, but also because other indie authors are also readying their fall releases and looking for feedback on the drafts of their covers in various Facebook groups.

Despite what you've heard about stuff that's been designed by a committee, soliciting opinions on cover design can be a useful exercise. I'm no artist (I'm still pretty proud of that C I got in art class in eighth grade), but now that I've been doing this indie-author gig for a few years, I'm getting better at seeing problems in my draft designs. 

Even so, I like to run my ideas past others before I pull the trigger. Moreover, I think it's a good idea for everybody. Other authors will see flaws that you've completely overlooked. The biggest problems usually surface when the image is reduced to thumbnail size, or the size you see on Amazon. Oftentimes, particularly with newbie authors, one or more important elements of the cover will fade into obscurity when reduced to thumbnail size. Like the title. Or the author's name. Or people will pick a boring font for their cover, instead of one that says something about the genre and what's going on in the story. 

Anyway. Sometimes you can get it all right and design a kickass cover that gets everybody's seal of approval, and still the book doesn't sell.

Which brings me to the Land, Sea, Sky books. When I started to envision the cover for Crosswind, I decided I wanted to differentiate this new trilogy from the five Pipe Woman Chronicles books. So I stepped away from the glowy-animal concept that I'd used for the first series, and went for something more realistic. Crosswind got a wind turbine silhouetted against an ominous orange sky; Undertow got a bridge under a roiling cloud bank; and Scorched Earth got a menacing seedling growing in the parking lot of a bombed-out apartment building. Each cover said something important about the plot of that book.

Unfortunately, sales have not been great, and I've known for a while that I need to swap out those covers with new ones -- especially after I went back to the glowy animals for the Pipe Woman's Legacy duology. And with the god guide's imminent release, I knew it was time to make all the books look like they're part of a whole -- because they are.

Now there are authors who will change their covers at the drop of a hat, like they're rearranging the living room furniture or something. But I've been digging in my heels partly because wrestling with GIMP is not at the top of my list of things to do for fun, and partly because I really like the old covers. The one for Undertow, especially.

Anyway, enough whining from me. Here are the new covers for the Land, Sea, Sky books. (Bonus points if you can tell me why there's now a cat on the cover of Scorched Earth. Anyone? Bueller?)

You should be seeing these live at Amazon and Smashwords tomorrow, and at other retailers within the next few days. 

I'll probably be designing a new cover for the Land, Sea, Sky box set pretty soon -- even though I really like that cover, too.

These moments of bloggy whining have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

In praise (more or less) of trying new things.

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I've been working on a companion guide to the Pipe Woman Chronicles, so that folks who aren't up-to-speed with all the gods and goddesses in the series can have one place to look them all up. I'm happy to report that A Billion Gods and Goddesses is now in the capable hands of my editing team, and I'm aiming for release sometime at the end of this month.

No, really. I'm very happy to report that. Pulling this thing together was nothing like writing the novels themselves.

The writing styles are different, of course. With fiction, you just put your fingers to the keyboard and start typing, and with any luck, a story comes tumbling out. There are stops and starts, of course, and digressions, and blind alleys, and characters who creep up behind you and bash you over the head so they can run away with the story. But you don't have to stick to the facts if you don't want to. The characters' emotional reactions have to ring true, yes, but you can pretty much make up everything else.

I think most of you know that I was a journalist in my younger days. Journalism (ideally) deals in facts and only facts. Even when you're writing about someone's emotional reaction to an event, your best bet is to stick to a dispassionate reporting style. Plus the factual details are right there in front of you, or at least fresh in your mind.

Writing the god guide was like neither of these -- and like both of them, a little -- and also like writing a 20,000-word thesis. Except more entertaining than a thesis. At least, it had better be. I'm certainly not using academic prose, and mythology is fun.

The thing is that I did the research for the earliest books in the series three-plus years ago. And in the god guide, I'm reporting on mythology, if you will, rather than using the myths as a springboard for my own creative interpretation, as I did in the novels. So I didn't just have to review my sources -- I had to keep checking the details as I wrote, to make sure I wasn't going too far afield (as well as to make sure I wasn't unconsciously plagiarizing a source when retelling a myth).

In the end, though, it was a good exercise. Authors sometimes talk about the differences in writing short stories vs. novels vs. screenwriting vs. poetry. Each of these types of writing stretches different muscles. Journalism stretches yet another type of writing muscle. And a book like A Billion Gods and Goddesses is an exercise of yet another sort.

Many years ago, when I worked for WKEE Radio in Huntington, WV, one of my co-workers was Toria Tolley, who eventually went to work for CNN Headline News. She made the jump from radio into TV with an anchor job in Charleston, WV. A few weeks after she made the move, I asked her how it was going -- and she said, "Now I can go work in a bank."

That's kind of how I feel about the god guide. It was an interesting project to take on, and it was a good excuse to stretch those non-fiction-writing muscles. But now I can go back to writing novels.

These moments of muscle-stretching blogginess have been brought to you, as a public service, by Lynne Cantwell.