Saturday, March 27, 2010

Learning From a Successful Teen Novelist

As a 10-year-old, Christopher Paolini started reading fantasy books, but became frustrated because he didn’t feel they were good enough. So at 14 he began writing his own book, but quickly found out he didn’t know what he was doing, so he began reading everything he could get his hands on about how to write.

At fifteen he wrote his first draft, which took him about a year. Then he took about a year to re-write it. His parents read it and thought he should publish it. They took a third year to prepare it for publication (proofing, typesetting, etc.) and self-published it through print on demand with Lightning Source. It’s name: Eragon (he took the word “dragon” and substituted an “e” for the “d”).

Here's the writing process in a bit more detail from Christopher:
“By the end of 1999, I had completed the first draft of ERAGON. At last I was able to read my own book from start to finish ... and I was dismayed by how amateurish it seemed. The story was fine, but it was mired in atrocious language and grammar. I was like a musician who has composed his first aria, only to discover that he can’t perform it because he has not yet learned to sing. I set out to rewrite ERAGON with the goal of raising the language to a professional level.

I did not entirely succeed. My second draft—which took a second year (2000)—was larger than the first and bloated with far too many words. At that point, I turned the manuscript over to my parents, both of whom are published authors.

Finally, I began to benefit from real editing. Editing and revision are two of the most important tools for forging a great book. With my parents’ advice, I was able to clarify my descriptions, streamline my logic, and quicken the pace of the story so that ERAGON read the way that I had intended it to. This consumed the bulk of 2001.

My parents and I had decided to self-publish ERAGON for financial and creative reasons.” ( )
But here’s where he deviated from most authors. Instead of sitting around waiting to see if anyone would discover his book, he went out and started selling it. I don’t get the impression that he did 1001 different things to market his book. He found one method that suited him and worked for him: doing a presentation in schools. And he worked hard at it.
“We started by doing book signings in bookstores, but quickly learned that no one shows up for an author they have never heard of. I was very determined, and would stay for eight hours straight and talk to every person who came in the store and try to sell them a book. On a good day, I might sell forty books. That’s not bad for a signing, but it’s a lot of work.”

I then learned that if I went into a school and did a presentation, in one day we could sell 300 books or more, and inspire students to read and write, so I concentrated on that. We also started charging a fee for the presentation, to help cover travel expenses.
He did most presentations dressed in a medieval costume.
"My dad and I made two trips to Houston, where my grandmother lives. I called numerous school librarians and spoke to them about my book and presentation. They didn’t know who I was, so it took a bit of persuading, but I managed to arrange to visit several schools, along with a few bookstores, that first trip. One of the librarians posted an enthusiastic recommendation of my presentation to an online teachers’ forum (pop quiz: so what does getting on this forum do for him? sm – that’s called a platform for other schools), so by the time we returned home to Montana, my mom already had a second trip to Texas planned, and I didn’t have to do any cold calls. That second trip was a solid month long, with three or four hour-long presentations every single day.”
He and his family ended up doing over 135 talks.

In the summer of 2002, American novelist Carl Hiaasen was on vacation in one of the cities that Paolini gave a talk in. While there, his stepson bought a copy of Eragon that he "immediately loved".[1] He showed it to his stepfather, who brought the book to the attention of the publishing house Alfred A. Knopf. Michelle Frey, executive editor at Knopf, contacted Paolini and his family to ask if they were interested in having Knopf publish Eragon.” Knopf re-edited it and published it in 2003.

He got two big-time reviews, but they were both rather mediocre, calling it formulaic, not that well-written, but hey, not bad for a young person. But the public voted with their dollars and Eragon placed on the New York Times Best Seller list for 121 weeks.

Then the movie came out in 2006. It tended to get lousy reviews by the critics, but I’m sure Paolini and the publishing company cried all the way to the bank since “the film’s $249 million total worldwide gross was the sixteenth highest for 2006.”

Today Paoloni continues to write books.

Takeaways for authors:

1) Take your time in writing your book. Writing is rewriting. Get input from professionals.

2) Writers without platforms can make it.

3) Market your book. I don’t think any of this would have happened had Paolini never contacted his first school to see if he could do a presentation.

(References:, ,

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Too Much Competition to Sell Books?

Someone on a forum lamented that, with so many books on the market, the competition makes it nearly impossible to sell books. So let's say that there were 400,000 new books published last year. Many are by big-time publishers and big-time authors. Are we small-time authors crazy to compete in this game?

In the end, perhaps it makes little difference whether there are 100,000 books published next year, or 2,000,000 books. Our real competition is against books that are #1 - well-written and #2 - well-marketed. Sure, there are exceptions that get a lucky break and make it big, but typically those that lack #1 or #2 (the vast majority of books) are buried so low that they're not really competing with us.

In marketing my non-fiction book, I'll e-mail (this week) about 20 popular financial blogs or financial magazines, asking if they want to look it over to bring out tips for graduates. About 4 typically respond. If I follow-up well, I get reviews out there, with links pointed back to my book on Amazon. Another small-time author friend likes radio and is finding this response rate when he queries radio. I interviewed him last week. You might like to see exactly how he goes about it:

When another friend who writes novels puts his book into local (not chain) restaurants, he's not typically finding any competition. He's the only book there. It doesn't matter if 150,000 novels were published last year. The people in line at the restaurant don't have the 150,000 before them; they see my friend's novel.

That's all to say, although it's gonna be very difficult to get into the channels that everybody's competing for, like Publisher's Weekly or Kirkus, once you go to other channels, there's lots of room to sell good books. We just have to be creative in how to get the word out there. We're not competing with all the books that are published, just all the books that people are aware of, which may be no larger a group than we were competing against 20 years ago.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Author Shares Guerilla Marketing Tips that Work

Danny Kofke doesn't have a big platform, nor does he have a lot of time. He teaches full time in a public school (special education) and is raising two young children. Yet, he's selling far more books than your typical author, largely through his own publicity efforts. On his media page, I find four radio shows and one book signing that are booked for the next couple of months. And it's not a brand new book. It's been out over two years. It's called How to Survive (And Perhaps Thrive) on a Teacher's Salary.

Here are some tips I picked up from him in a phone conversation this morning:

1) Face it, it takes time and effort to sell books. They don't sell themselves.

2) Book marketing is fun! He's been at this for over two years and still gets a charge out of doing radio interviews, TV and other media. He still fondly recalls the excitement of doing his first radio interview.

3) He takes advantage of both large and small opportunities. You never know what might pay off. He had one interview he did for Bank Rate that got picked up by the FOX site. Another went secondarily to AOL's home page. The point? Just get out there and do something, even if it's small. Do something enough and cool things start to happen.

4) His main method is to research viable media and send e-mails to them.
  • He starts with a Google search for such topics as "radio stations about teachers", "financial radio shows," etc. Then, he finds them on the Web and studies the show. If it's all about, for example, recommending stocks to buy, he doesn't pursue it.
  • Next, he finds the contact person on the site. E-mail them a pitch. The pitch must be powerful. Remember, it's not about your book, it's about their audience. With the first paragraph, share a startling statistic or something to grab them, demonstrating that their audience wants to hear what you have to say. If you've gotten publicity before, link them to your media page so that they can see or hear past interviews.
5) Follow-up and keep good records. Danny emphasized this over and over. He'll pitch anyone and everyone, then write on the calendar to follow-up in a month or so if they haven't responded. If they still don't respond, he may e-mail again several months later, saying something like, "Hey, I just spoke on this station and was mentioned in this article. If you'd like to interview me...." And he keeps following up until someone says that don't want to hear any more.

As you can imagine, good record-keeping is vital. He calendars items that he needs to do at a later time. He keeps a notebook as to who he's e-mailed, how they responded, and when to follow-up. If someone declines and wants no further pitches, he notes that as well.

Example: He contacted the "700 Club" early in his marketing. They declined to interview him. But recently he e-mailed again, telling them what other events he's done and linking them to his author site so that they can see his other interviews. This time, they booked him!

6) Interest can build over time. The media isn't just interested in new books. Once you get one interview and put it on your media site, this can leverage more reviews. Now the media has something to judge whether or not you're a fit for their program. The more interviews you get, the more impressive you look. It's called building a platform from scratch. It's called leveraging one opportunity to get other opportunities.

Danny sent 10 e-mails over time to CBS about getting on their early show. Finally, he could say in an e-mail, "Hey, I was just on CNN." This time, they replied and asked to see his interview from CNN. That's progress! Hopefully, he'll let us know if it comes through!

7) Danny uses HARO (Help a Reporter Out) to give his expertise to journalists who need to interview experts, or regular people with specialized experiences. Responding to a HARO request got him into the Wall Street Journal.

8) Set up your media page. We've already mentioned how he's using it. I like it for two reasons:
  1. It gives the media exactly what they want to know, all there on one page where they don't have to waste time searching for information. They can click on both articles and interviews and see that Danny can handle himself well on interviews.
  2. It's free and takes minimal time to maintain. I can hear marketing experts saying, "You need to post a blog every day, or at least a few times a week. You need to get links from other prominent sites. You need to post on other people's blogs." To which I'd respond, "Danny doesn't have time for all that crap. He's got something that works for him. Why ruin it?"

    Danny's blog is free and functions well for his purpose. He set it up on and didn't even bother to buy a distinct url. Apparently, he doesn't need a url, so why pay $10 a year to get one? That goes along with his book on how to live on a teacher's salary. You don't buy things you neither want nor need.

  3. It's easily up-datable. You don't have to use DreamWeaver or ExpressionWeb or have to hire a webmaster. Blogspot gives you all the basic tools you need.
9) You don't have to do everything. If I understand Danny correctly (I'll let him edit this), he isn't putting his book in book fairs, sending it off extensively for review, going for book awards, writing articles for magazines, and traveling extensively. While he has his eye on other opportunities, like presentations to school faculty, he's hung in there with something that's working for him - doing radio shows. I've heard that one of the hardest things for entrepreneurs to do is to stick with a winning formula once they've found one. Danny's making it work, and for that, I greatly admire him!

Follow-Up Interview

Out of 20 first contacts that you make, how many do you estimate end up
actually booking you?

Danny -I would say maybe 4-5 even replied to my message and maybe 2 would book me.

SM - Now that you've got interviews on your press page that they can look at
and realize that you've been in major media, is it easier to book interviews? If so, how many out of 20 responded at first and how many out of 20 now?

Danny - Yes, it's easier to book interviews now. Most producers want to see how you can fit into their show and help their listeners/viewers out. It is not about you or your book most of the time - it is about your message. Since I have been on numerous TV and radio shows, producers can take a look at these and see if I would be a good fit for them. They no longer have to guess what I would sound/look like since they can see first-hand. I would say I now get 5-6 responses (still not half) from the pitches I send out.

SM - Is 90% of what you're doing going after radio?

Danny - No, I would say about 60% radio, 30% television and the rest various print outlets. At first, before I had any television exposure, I was mainly going after radio but now, since I have had exposure in all three areas I mentioned, I pitch appropriate people in all of these areas.

SM - How many contacts (new and followup) do you think you average each week?

Danny - I would estimate 100 or so. Some weeks it is more and some less but, overall, I would say that is the average.

SM - How much time do you think you average marketing your book each week?

Danny - It is an endless job since there are so many ways to market. I have come up with a balance to be the best husband, father, teacher and marketer I can so I limit myself since I could probably work on marketing 10 hours a day! I would say I spend an average of 15-20 hours a week working on book related stuff.

Thanks Danny! That's great information. Thanks for being so generous with us!

Monday, March 8, 2010

Bookstores vs. Amazon for Sales: Part II

The New York Times article on James Patterson (James Patterson, Inc.), was instructive regarding how publishers, and thus bookstores, cater to the big-time authors. A couple of paragraphs told about how the big publishers now put most of their marketing efforts behind their best selling authors, much more so now than the past. The result is that best-selling authors sell even more books, but the mid-list authors get very little marketing dollars. Publisher pay thousands of dollars to reserve top-placement sections of bookstores for their best-selling authors. Thus, the best-selling authors keep selling more copies while the rest of us may initially get into a bookstore, but will soon be sent back to publisher if we fail to sell, never to return.

Thus, even if the smaller authors get into the bookstores, if there isn't a strong marketing campaign (either by the author or the publisher), then people won't come to the bookstore looking for the book, and it will get returned.

I'm a small-time author, and am glad that my books are offered through Baker & Taylor and Ingram, but the bulk of my sales come through Amazon. And yes, in a sense, Amazon is just passive, but isn't that the current revolution in marketing - from "interruption marketing" to "I'll help you find me marketing"?

By optimizing my Amazon pages, posting articles on popular sites and blogs, getting reviews on popular sites and newspapers, and by having all these linked back to my Amazon page, I get regular sales. And I get 35% of each sale on Amazon - much, much better than the percentage of my sales to bookstores through the big wholesalers.

So for me it's both/and, but Amazon is becoming the bigger and bigger player for me.

J. Steve Miller
President, Legacy Educational Resources
Author of Enjoy Your Money! How to Make It, Save It, Invest It and Give It
"The money book for people who hate money books."

Brick and Mortar Bookstores vs. Amazon for Authors

An experience, a stat and a reflection on brick and mortar vs. Amazon:

An Experience

I write resources for those teaching character and life skills in public schools. When the two Superbowl contenders are decided, I immediately find out who the highest profile athletes are so that I can research them for character stories (what led them to such a high level of success.)

So Kurt Warner was quarterbacking in the Superbowl a couple of years ago and I decided to read his autobiography. He'd led his team to the Superbowl several years earlier in a spectacular bag-boy to Superbowl hero story and I thought, "This is as high a profile person as you can get. The Superbowl's a week away, the most watched media event of the year; so I'm sure his autobiography will be in my local bookstores."

I called Barnes & Noble, Borders and Books a Million. None carried it. One said they couldn't even order it. I ordered from Amazon.

A Stat

A few experiences like this one and people begin defaulting to Amazon. Here are the stats from 2008:

Barnes and = $466 million
Borders/ Waldenbooks = $3.11 billion
Barnes & Nobel/ B. Dalton = $4.52 billion = $5.35 billion (book sales only)

More importantly in 2008, Amazon’s sales grew by 16% while each of the other bookstore chains lost money. If this trend continues, Amazon will rapidly become a bigger and bigger player for authors, and bookstores will become less and less - particularly for small-time authors who can't be guaranteed to get into bookstores and be continually stocked there.

A Reflection

Don't get me wrong; I love bookstores! But after a couple of experiences like that, I began defaulting to Amazon. I support bookstores. I hang out at bookstores. But I depend on Amazon. It's a time issue. A local bookstore can carry only a small percentage of the millions of books in print, even of books that are recognized classics in their fields - like a Psychology text on "Persuasion" I couldn't find locally. After signing up for Amazon Prime, we never pay postage. And books come quickly to our door.

If you're a major selling author like Sue Grafton for novels or David McCullough for biographies, traditional brick and mortar bookstores, Walmart, etc. are wonderful sales outlets. For the rest of us, they are a useful outlet that people can order from, but not likely to carry us long-term.

If a person with as high a profile as Kurt Warner's (incredibly "high platform", which all publishers are looking to publish) can't keep his autobiography in the bookstores several years after it was written (and it was truly a well-written, inspiring book), then what chance do us low-profile authors have of keeping our books in bookstores over the years? At best, for low-profile authors, I'd suggest that brick and mortar bookstores are typically a short-term rather than long-term strategy.

I have a book on church music, published 17 years ago with a traditional publisher, with no marketing done for it in the past 15 years, that still sells steadily on Amazon. It probably lasted only a couple of years in bookstores.