writing


In my work with nonfiction authors (and in my experience as a reader), I’m noticing that the function of nonfiction books is changing. From the perspective of a reader looking for expertise in solving a problem or in just gaining knowledge, there are so many information options out there now that – for me, at least – the nonfiction how-to book is beginning to take on a more discrete role than just an emblem of expertise.

Entrepreneurism is exploding right now. Many experts are not just writing books, but building businesses around their expertise, with full-service interactive websites, seminars, webinars, workbooks, and coaching opportunities. Experts/authors and readers have more direct contact with each other than ever before. Which is fantastic. But it also means the book is a relatively distant and static way for readers and authors to communicate. So what are readers looking for in a book?

Put simply, when a reader reads your book, it’s their first, small investment in establishing a relationship with you. I’ll put it personally: when I buy a how-to nonfiction book, it means I’ve seen it recommended by someone I trust (this could be an impersonal, trusted curation source or a personal friend). It means I’ve been to your website and I see that you really do have a depth of experience in the topic – and – this is key – you have a number of deeper-access offerings by which I can get more of your expertise. You have other, more personal ways to interact with you and keep the conversation and the learning going. The book is not the end (establishing your expertise) but the beginning (establishing a relationship). (It may seem ironic that we’re all craving relationships more and more now that our relationships are becoming more digitized, but it’s a very logical result. But that’s a topic for another post.)

Even more, I believe what readers want from books is some way of knowing that the author cares about them and about solving their real problems. And alth0ugh the book does function as a way for authors to build trust with their readers, the real proof of trustworthiness is accessibility.

The takeaway from this is that readers aren’t necessarily looking for the author/expert with the most impressive expertise, but simply expertise that meets certain standards of excellence. And perhaps the most important standard of excellence they’re looking for – the one that has the most weight – is service. Not just robotic or same-for-everyone service, but personal service. In other words, a relationship.

The book is often the first tangible investment in a business relationship a reader/prospect can make. Authors who understand this and have a clear path of accessibility and continuing the conversation beyond the book would certainly be more appealing to me than someone who has the highest awards in the field but remains aloof and self-satisfied in her own expertise.

Readers don’t just want the book anymore. They want the author.

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This post is third in a series on book blogging. See the other posts here and here.

Now that you’ve taken your manuscript through all the developmental stages of publishing, you’re reasonably confident your manuscript is the best it can be and that it will change your readers’ lives for the better. If only they could find out about it! Here’s where book bloggers come in.

Book bloggers, like all bloggers, have a variety of interests and reasons for setting up their book review sites. And if you’re researching book bloggers as part of your book’s marketing strategy, you’ve probably heard the most about how important blog traffic is. Of course, you must do the number crunching and research a site’s blog traffic. You can get the straight-up marketing perspective, number crunching and all, from a variety of other sources (for example, see this blog post from Digital Book World). But I’m not going to discuss the number crunching here – not only because others can do that far better than I can, but because I actually believe the quality of the review – and its personal appeal to your target audience – is just as important as traffic, if not more so. (Do you really want a ton of people reading a quickly rattled-off review that completely missed the point of your book?) As a reader who also has a book review site, traffic numbers have little to do with why I review books, and they certainly doesn’t influence how I choose what to read next. I have no problem being the lone voice in the wilderness if I believe it’s for a good cause.

Quality not only includes the general craft of the review, but the care with which he or she read your book in the first place. Choosing which book to read next is a very personal pursuit – which readers know very well, but promotional experts too focused on a market mentality tend to forget. Because you’re trying to reach readers who will feel personally drawn to your book, you’ll want it to appear on sites where reviews are as authentic and personal as possible, written by someone naturally drawn to the kind of work you do. I happen to be a bit turned off by review sites too focused on the bestsellers, or on doing anything possible to get traffic, or on churning out as many reviews as possible. But I am drawn toward ones that feel like I’m getting an honest review from a trusted friend with similar likes and dislikes. As you’re researching book bloggers, you’ll likely discern this quality immediately upon viewing the site – and verify it as you do some poking around.

This approach is strategic, not just emotional – a book blogger’s positive review will speak most powerfully to others like him or her, which is likely to yield more sales if the blogger is speaking to your target audience. One caveat: Remember from the first post in this series that most people trust experts more than peers right now? This means your best bet will be someone not only with the same interests as your target audience, but with some level of writing or publishing expertise. That’s not to say there’s a direct relationship between professional status and quality book reviews. Ironically, objective predictors of quality book reviews have always been hard to define, just as they have been for good writing in any form. The most influential have had to prove themselves through the quality of their writing, just like the rest of us. Their reviews, rather than their professional title, will prove their clout over the long haul. And the beauty of blogging is that the “nobodies” are much easier to find and evaluate, which makes finding the right reviewer for even obscure niches all the more possible.   

This also means that if you can imagine a number of different kinds of readers enjoying your book, you’ll want to find a representative of each of those groups. And yes, that does involve checking out blog traffic, as long as you don’t make that your only criteria. You can always clip an excellent but little-known review and broadcast it far and wide yourself.

Bottom line: book bloggers are your readers, too. Don’t view them as marketing machines – interact with them individually as potential friends and resources for valuable feedback.

This post is second in a three-part series on book blogging. The first post on the real value of book bloggers for authors is here.

News alert: we are in the midst of an information glut. Most people, myself included, can access far more potentially paradigm-shattering information and entertainment than we could possibly consume. Please, please don’t add to the clutter of the literary marketplace. Before you send your book to a book blogger, first be sure your book makes a genuine contribution to the literary marketplace.

In other words, make sure your book is professionally published, not vanity published. Definitions vary, but I consider a vanity-published book to be just what it sounds like: a book published primarily to build up an author’s vanity and not primarily to share something of value with readers. Self-serving rather than other-serving. For example, if it’s always been your dream to be a published author, and you’re finding traditional publishers’ doors consistently closed to your manuscript, you may decide to self-publish. Shocked at how expensive it is to produce a book, you’ve skimped on editing and design to save money for the printer. Unfortunately what you now have in your hands is a vanity-published book that may delight your friends and family, but is simply not suitable for the general public. If your primary motivation is simply to wear the badge of “published author,” however precariously, then I’m afraid you’ll be publishing your book in vain. Literally. Readers’ time is too tight, and the literary marketplace too glutted, for you to successfully market an amateur book. Having a beautiful cover on poorly written content is just going to make time-starved readers angry.

Yet discerning a book’s quality is a complicated business. For example, the same could be said about another global creative endeavor: the world’s population. Experts tell us the world is overpopulated, yet we still continue to have babies. Genetic tests even give us the option of “editing out” imperfections. But few of us are even tempted by that option – we continue to have baby after imperfect baby. Why? Because the life principle is simply that strong. If your book truly lives within you, needing to be born, then no matter how overpopulated the literary marketplace may seem, there is room for your book. Again, why? Because if it’s alive, and it’s yours, you’re likely to have the internal motivation necessary to care for it. (This is not always true, but it is true very, very often.) You’ll be able to hear the hard truth about its imperfections, develop your craft, and stick with your manuscript until it’s truly ready to meet your readers. Just like parenting your child – you’ll want to know when things are going wrong because you love your child and want to do what it takes to help him or her thrive and eventually become independent.

And as hard as it is to tell these days when our kids are ready to leave the nest, how can we possibly know when our book’s ready? As an editor, I know when a book’s ready when it instantly transports me to another world, without the distraction of typos, uneven margins, or incomplete plot lines. It doesn’t have to be perfect, but it does need to have an independent life of its own.

Fortunately this quality isn’t genetically determined. There is a process (that traditional publishers have followed for years, by the way) that helps ensure our books are mature enough to leave the nest of our personal computers and make a living out in the world. So if you have your published book in your hands and are now nervously wondering whether your manuscript is professionally published or published in vain, here are the crucial developmental steps of professional book publishing:

  1. Write, revise, rest, rewrite, and complete the manuscript in community with other writers. As a developmental editor and writing coach (and sometimes author therapist!), I know several writers who have made a breakthrough in their writing even after they thought their book proposal was complete. It’s worth leaving time for breakthroughs. Throw the calendar or self-created deadlines out the window. Just like there’s no rushing the birth of a child, there’s no rushing the birth of a book. It will come when it’s ready, but you have to provide the right supportive environment and be ready to catch it when it comes.
  2. Manuscript review. Once your manuscript is absolutely complete, get a manuscript review by a well-recommended and professional editor, ideally with a specialty in your field, to make sure you’re on target. (If you’re not sure where to find a trustworthy editor, check out the Editorial Freelancers Association at www.the-efa.org, a very reputable source where you can do a tailored search for a wide variety of editorial, design, and publishing consulting services.) Manuscript reviews should provide a list of general strengths and weaknesses, as well as a detailed list of writing recommendations with examples. Some even include a market analysis, so you know who your target audience is, what your competition is, and, most importantly, whether your book is different enough from what’s out there to be worth buying and reading. In my opinion, it is usually not cost effective to pay an editor to do extensive line-by-line editing for you, unless you are a bona fide publisher with upfront capital who believes so strongly in the concept of the book that it’s worth paying for extra editing to clean up poor writing. (Few trade publishers can even afford to do this anymore.) But if you don’t have the money, you’ve got to put forth the time in improving your craft if you’re going to reach your reader. There are already a lot of transformative, good books out there. Yours should be one of them!
  3. Copyediting. After you’ve incorporated any writing recommendations into your manuscript and you’ve again read it over and believe it is as good as it can possibly get, now it’s time to hire that professional fine-tooth comb: the copyeditor. Best to get an expert in Chicago Manual of Style, the trade publisher’s usual basic style guide. A good copyeditor will do at least two passes, leaving time for queries (questions to the author) and incorporating your responses.
  4. Professional book design. If you have a print version, hiring a professional typesetter with expertise in the industry standard for print publications (currently Adobe InDesign) is absolutely crucial. If you’re publishing online with a pdf (as long as it won’t be printed!), you can convert your Word document to a pdf free and instantly. If you hire a company to convert your manuscript to an e-book (whether for a flat fee or percentage of sales), make sure they allow time for you to review the final e-version with a full proofread and make corrections if needed.
  5. Proofreading. This can be done as another pass by your copyeditor after typesetting and before printing, or after final conversion if electronic. In my opinion, if you trust the editor’s quality, it’s wonderful if you can get the same person to do the copyediting and proofreading, because this person will already be familiar with your manuscript. But whether it’s your copyeditor or a separate proofreader, your manuscript needs one more careful read to get all the errors that everyone missed the first or second time, once it’s in its final form. New errors are often introduced in the book design phase – whether through document conversion errors or the designer’s misunderstanding of your intent.
  6. Review copies. Have a professionally formatted e-book version and the final print-ready pdf available to send out for review. Print copies usually aren’t necessary, but you want your electronic copy to look exactly as the print version would look. Sending review copies out too early, before those last typos or formatting issues are dealt with, can create a less-than-receptive first impression, even if your story is world-changing. If you’re self-publishing, there’s no need to put more obstacles in front of your reader than self-publishing inherently entails. (There are more armchair editors than you think who will become quickly frustrated at even a few obvious errors.)
  7. Printing. It’s very frustrating to go through all these steps meticulously and then find your printer has been sloppy – or doesn’t send a sample copy before the print run or the POD option goes live. Vet your printer as meticulously as your editor or designer.

Only if your book can compare equally well on all levels with a professionally published book should you send it to a book blogger. I don’t say this to discourage any author, but to encourage you: your book is worth your best investment, whether it’s time or money or both. Be absolutely sure this is the best work you can produce, and that you’ve hired a professional consultant at some stage of the process (ideally all) who can reassure you that the story comes through clearly and without distraction. Marketing even an excellent book takes a lot of time and effort – only if you know your book is truly transformative for your readers and is in its best form will you have the long-term stamina for intuitive and effective marketing. Readers know when an author is offering their book out of confidence and deep passion, or out of insecurity or desperation.

But here’s some more encouragement: even though writing and producing a professional book may feel like birthing a child for you, the reader’s investment is much, much less. Economically speaking, buying a book is not like buying a house, or even an airplane ticket – it’s just not a terribly high investment, and most book lovers are willing to take a chance for $10. (My bookshelves are filled with many such chances I’ve taken over the years.) So try not to let perfectionism paralyze you. No parent’s child will ever be perfect – yet we love them and invest in them no less (for little compensation, I might add). The fact is that they are alive, and they spark life in the world around them. That’s their value. So you don’t have to produce a bestseller or the newest installation in the English canon. You just want to know deep down that you’re sharing something of value that’s truly alive, that it’s been priced appropriately, and that it’s ready to stand on its own in the marketplace.

This post is first in a three-part series on book blogging’s value not just for authors’ marketing strategies, but the industry at large.

Most of us have noticed that the number of book reviews blogs (or book bloggers) has increased over the past several years. At first it seemed that these were just like any other bloggers – their pastime just happened to be reading, instead of surfing or cooking or parenting. But when they have their own convention at BEA, it’s official: book blogging is no longer merely a personal pastime. More than that, book blogging goes beyond any new hyped-up personalized marketing tool. It should be an important part of any thoughtful, authentic book marketing campaign because of three important dynamics that aren’t going away anytime soon:

  1. Dramatic increase in online buying. Once upon a time, when we wanted to find something new to read, we’d drive or bike to the local bookstore. We’d browse the displays and the shelves. We’d read book covers and page through books. And then we’d make a mental list of which books we’d like to read. If we were committed enough (or flush with cash), we’d buy it right then. If we were trying to save money, we’d go to the library and possibly put our name on their waiting list if it was a new, popular book. Or we’d ask to borrow it from a friend. Sound quaint? It doesn’t to me, either. It sounds downright luxurious – but virtually impossible (no pun intended). I desperately wish I had time to buy books that way, but most of us don’t. With the ease of online “Buy Now” buttons, all hyperlinked to instant reviews and other books by the author and other things “I might like,” it’s just too easy to get online and buy our books based on the information available there. And with the popularity of e-readers soaring, you can have a sample instantly in hand – for free. For $9.95 or less, you can have the whole book instantly delivered to your reader. No wonder many of us are more likely to look online for our next read – and are particularly influenced by online reviews linked to that book and instantly available.
  2. Social networking has become the primary filter for marketing. We’ve always gotten book recommendations from friends. But our definition of “friends” has changed significantly with social networking. Almost everyone can list a handful of “friends” whom they enjoy interacting with online but have never met face-to-face. And now that everyone has an online opinion about almost any topic, the most effective marketing has a personalized social filter, whether we’re buying clothes or hiring an accountant. Books are no different: we get book recommendations from our Facebook friends, our LinkedIn connections’ Reading Lists, and our Goodreads connections. Personal connections are key to our commerce at every level.
  3. For independently published books in particular, recommendations from trusted sources are crucial. In addition to their recommendations from friends, readers have also always had trusted (if subjective) recommendations regarding the book’s overall quality, such as the New York Times bestseller list and professional book reviews. Because social networking is the preferred method of marketing these days, it makes sense that readers are looking more to favorite bloggers for personalized recommendations. But where book bloggers’ recommendations are nice to have for traditionally published books, they are absolutely crucial for independently published books. Independent authors can’t afford to underestimate the immense investment in quality control that the traditional publishing houses provide – from their manuscript acceptance process, to their triple-layer of professional editing, to their professional, full-time designers and marketers. If you’re an independently published author, you’ve determined that you can do a better job at developing and producing your book than a traditional publishing house. Whether you’re doing all those steps of book development, editing, and design yourself, or serving as the “independent contractor” for building your book, readers need to see that a trusted source has assessed the quality of your work and can recommend it. Someone reputable has to sign off on it. And book bloggers, people who love books and love sharing great books with their friends, are beginning to step into this huge void of quality control for independently published books as one possible trusted source.

Who are these book bloggers and why should I trust them?

First of all, in the recent past, reputable surveys on customer trust have shown that people trust their peers the most – people most like them. But with the proliferation of online personal opinions, that’s beginning to change. Trust in peers is going down, and trust in experts is going up – apparently we’ve finally realized that quality control and expertise are not as overrated as we thought. So readers will not just be looking for book bloggers demographically “like them,” but book bloggers who have some demonstrable expertise that readers will trust. Authors should be looking for the same.

But book bloggers also prove their trustworthiness in the same way most other bloggers do. They’re passionate enough and committed enough to their topic to share their knowledge online freely. Even if their site includes paid advertisements, their rewards are primarily non-monetary: satisfaction at helping others with similar passions, building social connections with like-minded writers and readers, or just plain service to authors and the industry.

The bottom line? If you’re a traditionally published author, book bloggers are the new trend in personalized marketing, and researching which ones are trusted sources for your audience is well worth your time. But if you’re an independently published author, connecting with reputable book bloggers – or some other trusted source for reader recommendations – will be crucial to your book’s success.

Next post in the series: Quality control: why the first step in marketing with book bloggers has nothing to do with marketing.

My apologies – I just discovered comments were turned off for the previous post. Completely unintentional and mysterious, but it’s fixed now.

The Bloom Group, a top-tier thought leadership marketing firm, came up with a deceptively simple tool that will likely replace the white paper very soon: the topic microsite. Topic microsites are simple, single-page websites centered around a particular topic, with a place for an in-depth article, video, a curated newsstand of relevant links and blogs, polls, and community comments. (Here’s a visual.) Essentially, this is dynamic, up-to-the-moment, html content vs. static, print/pdf content.  A multimedia long-term gathering place instead of…well, a white paper.

Even though topic microsites were developed primarily for businesses to showcase their expertise, they seem to be particularly useful for author marketing – as an additional page for your website or a strategic part of your larger marketing plan. Here are some of the particular benefits I see:

  1. They focus on the topic and not on you. Let’s say you’re a nutritionist and you’ve written a book on how to naturally increase your heart health. You could use a topic microsite to laser-focus on (and keep a conversation going about) a topic that incites hot debate, like prescription medications. (A fiction writer could do the same, focusing on a personal passion or the interests of your main characters.)When readers click on the video introduction, they’ll see and hear directly from you why you think this topic is important – maybe even a personal testimonial. They can scroll down a list of in-depth articles about the signs of needing prescription medication for heart health. They can see other blogs and online sources listed in a sidebar. And they can read others’ comments about prescription medications and heart health. Nowhere will the name of your book or its Amazon link be mentioned. You’re the gracious conversation host, focused on the topic at hand, furthering knowledge and truly valuing others’ input. Just including others’ web content as a regular feature in the first place proves you value collaboration and want to help people more than grow your own ego.
  2. They provide targeted stability in making connections and strengthening your platform. By providing a trusted content filter and a gathering place where people will want to return, again and again, for updated content on a very precise topic, topic microsites can help you find like-minded contacts and potential readers perhaps more effectively than a single, ephemeral blog post (even with links and video). People will get to know you over time – your passions, your personality, and your ability to filter out the best web content to best further the conversation. Remember, this is not just about putting forth good ideas, but establishing an energetic and perhaps unusual gathering place for your readers.
  3. They’re a collaborative way to keep abreast of developments in your field. Not only will you be scanning the web for good links to put in your sidebar, your readers will also be sharing their knowledge as well. You’ll be researching slowly over time, and by being tapped in to the knowledge base and true needs of those you want to serve, you’ll know even before you start that your next book idea will be relevant, timely, and truly meet the needs of your readers.
  4. You’ll have fun meeting people who are interested in your topic as you are. Most writers are overfocused, obsessive people (aren’t we?) – with a topic microsite, you’ll encounter folks who are as obsessed about Greek mythology or the Paleolithic diet as you are. Which will inspire you to keep writing and keep diving deep.
  5. They can provide a potential income stream. Once you’ve proven yourself a hospitable host, and your microsite has become a truly valuable resource, you can allow companies that provide relevant services or products to advertise here (if you think it wouldn’t ruin the ambiance), or introduce a monthly subscription rate for full access. If known experts are guest posting articles, if you’re providing true insider information, and/or if this is an extremely cutting-edge topic, many would find a small monthly access fee well worth it.

Perhaps more than anything, topic microsites can make marketing more authentic. Nothing turns me off more than someone who is constantly mentioning their business or talking about their book, and I imagine the same is true for you. When I need information about a topic, and my search leads me to a place where the host really seems to know what he’s talking about and cares about helping his readers personally, I’ll want to learn all I can about what resources this person offers and likely spend some money. Not just because he’s knowledgeable (many others are too), but because I’ll trust him. Topic microsites are a simple tool to help authors “be their best selves,” as my son’s kindergarten teacher used to say – showing transparent passion and expertise in a humble and inviting way.

Well, I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this month for the first time, and I have to say that it has done wonders for my creatively stuck but deadline-driven self. I highly recommend it for any fiction writer who has writing work they know they need to do and simply haven’t been able to prioritize it. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words – a respectable length for a novel’s first draft – in 30 days. I’ve taken away at least two lessons in the first 10 days (the first of many, I’m sure):

1. The creative impulse of writing and the meticulous nature of editing can fully live and even thrive in the same person. You just have to keep these two impulses completely separate.  When your primary goal is to get 50,000 words out in 30 days, quantity, not quality, counts. I’ve found that I have to just keep writing through the plot, even if the tangents seem to make no sense and even if I used the totally wrong tense back there, if I am to meet this goal. Here’s a fun & frivolous video from the NaNoWriMo site on trashing your inner editor.

Now, this is obviously not about trashing editing entirely, just viewing the two capabilities as a light switch – when one is turned on, that inherently means the other is off. Otherwise the same crackling noise you hear when a light switch is hung in the middle will happen to your brain. Which leads to learning #2:

2. Editing is just as vital to the writing process as the writing itself.  As much as editors may assert the value of editing, no one recognizes their value more than writers who really care about their work – not just what their work says about THEM. Receiving good editing requires killing your inner narcissist. This may seem embarrassingly obvious, but this is as difficult to do as parents learning to personally separate from their children. If you’re called into a teacher conference with your son’s principal after he was caught cheating on a test, only the most narcissistic parent would blame the principal and the school and try to cover for her son. (Well, OK, we would all think this, but only the most narcisstic would actually do it.) A parent who really cared about her son and wanted him to be an independent and thriving adult would (until proven otherwise) give the principal and teachers the benefit of the doubt, and would do whatever it took to help her son change for the better. The same is true for writing. Otherwise we’ll have all these clingy, manipulative, perpetually adolescent stories sticking to us, because we’re as unable to let go as they are. When what we really need are independent, thriving entities capable of moving freely about in the world and having their own good and independent effect, as all great stories do. In fact, as much as we need our inner editor after we finish the plot line of our manuscript (at the very least, to save us from utter embarrassment during the workshop), we need that external editor even more to help us separate, already.

I think we guard ourselves from editors because, let’s face it, editors can be holier-than-thou perfectionists, judging our work against the annals of the Western canon. I know this because I am one. When really, that’s not why we write. (See a fantastic profile about how Poetry editor Christian Wiman broke through to writing his own authentic poetry collection in the print version of Poets & Writers this month.) Nonfiction writers have a much easier time dissociating themselves from their books, because they want to get the ideas right – sharing direct ideas with readers who can benefit from them practically is just a simpler proposition than fiction writing. Why do we write fiction, anyway? To get into Norton’s after we die? Hopefully fiction writers write because there’s no other way to give voice to this particular and complex truth that won’t feel complete until it’s expressed, and that the world probably needs to hear just as much as nonfiction. All writing needs to be shared – that’ s how it lives, right? So the best place to first share your work – the first external editing pass you should get – is from a fellow writer. The gentlest way to separate and establish objectivity is with lots of affirmation of what IS working. When you’re struggling with your children, would you rather talk to a Ed.D. with no children, or to a fellow parent? Writers understand how personal this is, and they’re a lot more apt to name the strengths and just enter into the frivolous and emotional parts of your book without criticism. They’re more apt to get it. Which is why I’ve loved being associated with local poetry and creative writing centers – we can share our work to be enjoyed, not criticized. And if any feedback comes, it’s usually couched in understanding. When I’m done with this novel, I’ll definitely be workshopping it – with other writers first. Then I’ll have the confidence to receive the cold, hard, marketable truth from professional editors and agents – whom I will be glad to hire precisely because at that point, when I believe in the intrinsic value of my work, I can be objective enough to hear it and accept it and enable them to do their job.

To come full circle: If the editor – either inner or outer – gets involved at the wrong stage – the book’s over before it begins. Which is why a full outline for this novel sat on my computer for so long – I couldn’t turn off my editor brain to just write through the thing. I’m pleased to say I’ve finally learned how to turn it off appropriately, and as of today my word count is on target – 17,525. So I’m glad I finally submitted to someone else’s whip-cracking – not an editor’s, but a writer’s.