Using Social Media to Engage Younger Readers — Willamette Writers Con 2014 (#WillWrite14)

Kiersi Burkhart

  • Your brand
    • social media engagement is a long game. start social media engagement 1-2 years before publication.
    • Who you are. What makes your unique. What you write. Your career goals.
  • You will not see results right away. It takes time then starts to snowball. You want to accumulate some following by the time you launch so you can use that to drive initial sales.
  • Who are you?
    • You are curating yourself for this audience.
    • Who do you want to be? What’s the image you want people to have?
    • Sure, there are alcoholic children’s book writers out there, but that’s not how they project themselves.
  • The Cult of You
    • this is your ultimate goal
    • you want to create devotees or spokespeople.
    • you can’t individually talk to 10,000 people and handsell your book.
    • but you can talk to dozens or hundreds of people who are influencers, and each of those people can talk to their dozens or hundreds of friends. the net effect is 10,000 people reached.
  • What are younger readers?
    • Picture book, elementary, and middle-grade:
      • No direct marketing.
      • Indirect marketing to those with purchasing power
    • Young adult:
      • Direct marketing is OK.
      • They have money.
      • They have twitter accounts, and instagram. They are online.
  • Younger Audiences
    • Parents
    • Friends and family
    • Teachers
      • If you’ve got a book that belongs in the classroom, you want to talk to teachers.
    • Librarians
      • Place huge book orders. Both school and public libraries.
    • Grandparents
      • Have a lot of time online.
      • On Facebook.
      • have extra money to do book purchasing.
  • Young Adult
    • More than 55% of YA books buying power in adult hands
      • 78% of adults buying for themselves. (almost half of these are 30-44)
      • 22% of adults buying for teens
    • 45% of YA books are teens buying for themselves.
  • Social Media overview
    • Twitter (really important to connect with people)
    • Facebook
    • Goodreads
    • Blog / website
    • Edelweiss: a way for influencers to get books
    • Add-ons: instragram, pinterest, tumblr
  • Twitter – The Basics
    • Use keywords to find your community
      • YA, MG, picture books, author, location
      • Use has tags like #YALitChat, #MGLitChat
      • Aim small, not big. Big is not helpful.
    • Start a conversation.
  • Why Twitter
    • Direct interaction with your audience
    • Connect with other authors – your peers
      • Engagement, support, resource sharing, networking
    • Focus on delivering value in order to gain followers
      • Relevant links, personality, industry knowledge
    • Be You! Readers want to know the real you.
  • For my middle grade: what’s the value I can deliver to parents / teachers / librarians
    • food safety
    • where does the book take place
    • school lunches
    • mystery / thriller
  • There’s no point in promoting yourself to your twitter followers. They’re already following you. All you’re going to do is annoy them.
  • Twitter Tips
    • Use a twitter client like tweet deck or hoot suite
    • Create lists for:
      • writers/authors
      • agents
      • fans
  • Facebook
    • Be sure to create a public fan page
    • Be aware of your time investment
    • Pictures, links, personal status updates
    • Events — good for book signings, releases, etc.
    • Let your readers get to know you
  • Goodreads
    • A growing platform
    • To-Read lists create anticipation
    • Book / ARC giveaways
    • Review etiquette
    • Author Groups for established authors
  • Your website
    • primary brand
    • offers content readers will want to explore
    • interactivity
    • connection is key to your readers identifying with you.
  • Your blog
    • use your blog as a way to reach other bloggers
    • cross book promotion / mutual back scratching
    • let readers get to know you and your process
  • Book bloggers
    • teen book bloggers: perfect spokespeople
      • search teen on twitter to find them — not people who are blogging about teen books, but teens who are blogging about books.
      • they’re doing it to get free copies of books.
      • a close-knit group / community (get in with one, get in with the others)
      • themed blogging
      • engagement over time is key
  • Librarian Book Bloggers
    • Search librarian on Twitter or Google
    • Have a large community
    • Great way to reach parents & teachers
    • Also teacher bloggers, parent bloggers.
  • Author bloggers
    • Connect with authors in the same category or genre
    • Already interacting with them on your blog / twitter
    • cross-promotion allows you to access to one another’s audiences
    • great if you can befriend an established author
  • Talking to book bloggers
    • Building your platform is a long game
    • start engaging bloggers far in advance
    • build a relationship before you need them
    • focus giveaways on bigger blogs / platforms
  • Word-of-mouth is king
    • key way to reach teens
    • find your influencers and make them want to talk you up
    • continue to interact and engage with them
    • create a street team
    • thank them with swag
  • Street Teams
    • Your street team are your spokespeople
    • other authors, bloggers, influencers
    • cover reveals, blurbs, excerpts, interviews
    • local influence
    • provide an ARC for reviews
    • ask your friends! don’t be afraid.
  • Talking with teens
    • remember being a teen yourself
    • take them seriously
    • treat them with respect, like you would any adult
    • talk with them, not to them
    • captive vs. voluntary audience
  • Talking with teens
    • Ask questions to engage
    • Ask for stories and tell stories
    • Keep the dialogue open and never condescend
    • Always reply to them. interactivity is key
    • Let them get to know you (backstage pass)
    • Be personal, not formal
    • If you’re going to use pop culture, you’d better be totally up to date, or you’re gonna sound old.
  • Should you go local?
    • Direct sales are inefficient
    • Only do it if you have access to influencers
    • Cost/benefit analysis of signings & appearances
    • Consider conferences like ALA or BEA

Amazing talk by Luke Ryan (@lukeryansays) on The Future of Media at Willamette Writers Conference. #WillWrite14

  • What’s broken, and the challenges ahead of it
  • How to fix it
  • What’s the future
  • The Challenges
    • technological dissonance: new technologies challenge their standard technologies, leading them to change their habits of media consumption or curb them altogether.
      • there’s DVDs and blue ray, and streaming video, it’s all so challenging. I’ll just wait.
    • disruptive technology: suddenly and dramatically changes the industry.
      • 8-tape to cassette tape were a transition technology.
      • vinyl to tape: also transition.
      • CD more disruptive: because it ate everything that came before it.
      • digital is totally disruptive: because it destroys everything before it AND even destroys the outlets that sold the old stuff.
        • no record stores, no bookstores, etc.
    • film:
      • revenue is slightly up. looks healthy.
      • but reality is that ticket sales are down.
      • it’s being made up by much higher ticket prices (from $5.80 in 2002 to $8.10 in 2012)
      • ticket prices disguises unhealthy underlying economics.
    • film – key issues
      • skyrocketing marketing costs
      • substantial front-end investment
      • massive loss of home video revenue
    • film history
      • Jaws: first movie to open in all theaters at the same time. never happened before. it was the first blockbuster.
      • So then every movie had to open that way. that created competition: multiple movies opening on same weekend.
      • so they had to increase marketing spend to get attention.
      • soon they were making little money in theaters, but they were making it up in home video sales
        • home video was as much as 90% of the total theatre gross, nearly doubling total revenue.
      • marketing spend: harold and kumar go to whitecastle. Made for $4.5M, marketing department spend $28M, killing profitability of movie.
      • because the marketing department commands more money, they have more control. so soon the movie-making decisions are being made by the marketing department: remakes, toy connected stuff.
    • with netflix and other services, nearly all home video sales dead. Frozen is the rare exception.
    • TV
      • median age: 51
      • even CW, which aims to reach woman 18-34: median age is 33.
      • young people are on instagram and snapchat.
      • age breakdown:
        • mobile video: teens
        • online video: 20s
        • TV: 30s and older
    •  TV key issues
      • loss of ad revenue via demographic decline and DVR
      • competition for short-form entertainment
    • Books
      • All book sales are declining…except ebooks.
      • Legacy publishing: sales stagnant. flat projected out.
      • self-publishing: up and to the right. continual growth.
    • Book Key Issues
      • decline in traditional distribution
      • competition with other forms of media
  • Traditional Distribution Systems
    • Creator -> Distributor -> Consumer
    • traditional systems are breaking down…
    • leaving room for new paradigms to take their place
    • Creator <-> Technology <-> Consumer
    • Not only does the traditional distribution go away, but it becomes a relationship instead of a push.
  • The Long Tail
  • Fan Strategy
    • Creating spreadable content that allows every different fan type to engage on a level that is pleasurable to them and profitable for you.
    • Fan types:
      • Skimmers, Dippers, and Divers
      • Skimmer: watch the series
      • Dipper: watch the series, read the book
      • Divers: watch the series, read the books, visit the communities, buy the costume, go to the convention.
    • The more passionate fans are your evangelists. So you want to develop skimmers into dippers, dippers into divers. The divers will create more skimmers and dippers.
    • Game of Throne – Five Senses Campaign
      • Smells of Game of Thrones: tweeting about it. (Mailed out)
      • Food of Game of Thrones: on social media about it. (in NY only)
      • It creates buzz, even though only a small subset engages in it.
  • Social Media Heft
    • One’s cumulative amount of influence and reach across social platforms allowing for strategic fan engagement and expansion of overall awareness.
    • Anyone can put digital stuff online. But how can we get attention?
    • How do people find what they like? “Well, I like what Julie likes, and Julie says I should watch this, so I will.”
    • In the future, this will be monetized. You’ll pay the content creator directly, and Julie will get a little bounty.
  • Hot Tub Time Machine:
    • took $4M out of marketing budget and used it to do free screenings for people with social media heft.
    • in response to study showing that people would see the movie only if a friend recommended it
  • Brands don’t want consumers anymore. They want fans.
  • Coca-Cola is kicking Hollywood’s ass, and Hollywood doesn’t know it yet.
  • Should Coke advertise? They don’t need to. They could make TV shows, shows that they own, that strengthen their brand at the same time that they now have an asset: they own the TV show.
    • Once Coke proves this out, everyone else will follow.
  • Traditional marketing: shoot out money hoping to hit eyeballs.
  • New paradigm:
    • Money goes into content, content goes to eyeballs, that generates money, which goes back into more content.
  • How traditional media will evolve:
    • Film
      • purchase of feature film companies by tech/telecom
      • Rise of new direct distribution indie film business
      • maximization of assets by blending with video game industry
    • television
      • networks become self-selective app portals
      • rise of second-screen technology
      • independent creator distribution through tablet and web.
      • those with the greatest social media heft will win.
    • books
      • digital becomes standard
      • interactive forms of narrative and illustration.
      • authors thrive on direct interaction with consumers.
  • “It is only forms that change, not essence.” — Ram Daas
  • Transmedia
    • Narrative built across multiple platforms that is designed to grow exponentially with as little repetition as possible.
    • Avoiding the repetition is key: if you make a movie and book that is identical, you haven’t given the fan anything new.
  • Velocity
    • 1. quickness and force of motion.
    • 2. rate of occurrence, action, or turnover.
    • The velocity of money is key to what makes the economy work. $5 sitting in your pocket does nothing.
    • The velocity of entertainment
  • Narrative leverage
    • Unique narrative lines across multiple platforms of entertainment.
    • platforms: film, television, games, apps, digital, social, merchandise.
    • world: a specific and contained system in which various entities attempt to thrive, occasionally in harmony, but mostly in conflict.
    • core story: the primary narrative off which all other story assets and platforms will grow. your core story is the trunk, and the rest of the platforms are branches off it. The core story will generally settle on one platform.
    • story asset: any sequence, character, or notion that has the opportunity to be broken out and used in a more expansive way across other platforms.
  • more successful transmedia franchises
    • sesame street
    • star wars
    • the bible (jesus tweets, churches, etc.)
  • building a transmedia franchise
    • find the world and characters you want to explore
    • find the platform best suited for the core story you want to tell
    • design a narrative experience across this platform
    • take stock of your story assets
    • take stock of your audience challenges
    • begin to build other assets across their most helpful platforms in terms of both story telling and audience engagement.
  • Marketing cost
    • one of the great strains to any entertainment platforms bottom line is the marketing cost that must exist.
    • Transmedia can replace that marketing cost with engagement, distribution, and world of mouth.
  • Film
    • positive: one of most popular. communal experience. can tell a story well and with the highest quality technical assets.
    • negatives: can only go so deep into the story. same experience. not interactive. very expensive.
  • television
    • positive: convenient/casual experience.e format allows for greater story depth. story evolves over time. relative high quality. less time per visit than film.
    • negative: only slightly more interactive than film. interrupted narrative: segment to segment, show to show, season to season. reliant on large following to remain in production. relatively expensive.
  • Books
    • positive: convenient and portable. immersive mental experience. can be enjoyed at the pace of the consumer. author has the greatest control of the content.
    • negatives: portable. time and thought intensive. largest cost-to-entertainment ratio among platforms. $30 hardcover for X hours of entertainment.
  • Games
    • positive: interactive, immersion. greater story depth. possibility of open world. can be monetized in strategic ways (e.g. virtual economy)
    • negatives: often requires physical skill. specialized delivery system (xbox), very expensive to produce.
  • Apps
    • Interactive. can be consumed as a snack. relative low cost. fun, addictive style of play. portable and live on necessary device. booming virtual economies.
    • negatives: lack of in depth experience, can be repetitive. hard to get noticed.
  • Digital
    • positive: in-depth, serialized story. more ability to have a social component. can be made for relatively low cost. Can be consumed from many types of devices. can be a snack.
    • negatives
  • Social
    • positives: high interactive. intimate connection between creator, story, and consumer. builds awareness and affection for little cost. can be a unifying guide between platforms.
    • negatives: a hard platform on which to tell a story. has to be deliver in small bits. requires consistent maintenance and interaction. possible to lose control of the message/conversation.
  • Merchandise
    • positive: a tactile experience. encourages interaction. highly monetizable. serves as marketing to those beyond the initial consumer.
    • negatives: takes up space, requires up front money.
  • Homework
    • Watch one of the great trilogies (lord of rings, star wars, the matrix)
    • identify all the story assets: write them down.
    • identify all the audience challenges (e.g. males under 25…how do i reach them)
    • do this for your own IP: develop a franchise bible
      • overview of the franchise
      • overview of the world itself
      • core story
      • platform-by-platform breakdown
      • summary of connective tissue between platforms
      • marketing strategies
      • distribution strategies/timelines
      • glossary of unique terms
  • There are no gatekeepers any more.
    • climbing up the long tail is not possible.
    • that doesn’t mean it’s easy.
  • Q: how to expand beyond the literary
    • Are you creating something that’s spreadable?
    • something that’s an easy engagement beyond what exists.
  • Franchise Pitch for AMBER book series.
    • (shown as a series of slides: title, cool image, descriptive text)
    • History of the Franchise
    • The Books
    • What makes it cool.
    • what’s special inside it.
    • FILM
      • here are what the three films could be. (and i’ve got one script for you)
      • Here is what the TV show could be.
      • Non-repetitive to the movie script. Here is what you could build around it.
      • three different TV show ideas, playing off different story assets.
    • MOBILE
      • the games that can be played
      • choose your own adventure games
    • SOCIAL
    • BOOKS
      • New books in the series
      • rights to do graphic novels
    • Strategy
      • a chart showing each of the forms of media along the left side, with a timeline across the top, showing connections between specific properties.


From Inside the Artificial Brain That’s Remaking Google, a Wired article:

[P]erhaps half of the teams now using the Google Brain software are simply downloading the source code, tweaking a configuration file, and then pointing Google Brain at their own data. “If you want to do leading edge research in this area and really advance the state-of-the-art in what kinds of models make sense for new kinds of problems, then you really do need a lot of years of training in machine learning,” says Dean. “But if you want to apply this stuff, and what you’re doing is a problem that’s somewhat similar to problems that have already been solved by a deep model, then…people have had pretty good success with that, without being deep learning experts.


“Google is not really a search company. It’s a machine-learning company,” says Matthew Zeiler, the CEO of visual search startup Clarifai, who worked on Google Brain during a pair of internships. He says that all of Google’s most-important projects—autonomous cars, advertising, Google Maps—stand to gain from this type of research. “Everything in the company is really driven by machine learning.”

According to both 2006 and 2009 studies published by Raymond Mar, a psychologist at York University in Canada, and Keith Oatley, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Toronto, those who read fiction are capable of the most empathy and “theory of mind,” which is the ability to hold opinions, beliefs and interests apart from their own.

They can entertain other ideas, without rejecting them and still retain their own.


cory-doctor-beaverton-city-libraryCory Doctorow spoke at the Beaverton City Library on July 8th, 2014

  • Detergent anecdote:
    • “Make a detergent that makes clothes newer”
    • actually…
    • “Make a detergent that makes clothes LOOK newer”
    • But… that’s done with a detergent that eats fiber ends, digesting clothes, and thus actually making them older faster.
  • Everything is computerized: cars are mobile computers, houses and buildings are dependent on computerized climate control, without which they are uninhabitable. the boeing 747 is a flying solaris station in an expensive aluminum case.
  • in the future…your hearing aide is almost certainly going to be computerized. which means that a computer mediates what you hear: selectively enhancing, and minimizing different things.
  • who controls computers? who regulates them?
  • back in the 1980s, it was all about copy protection. because software was what was sold back then. copy protection on floppy disks (flaws on media, dongles, look up word in manual, etc.)
  • none of it worked.
  • why?
  • because there was something that was encrypted, and the descrambler had rules about when it would decrypt it.
  • but this isn’t real security.
  • real security is: alice and bob want to communicate. they’ve got the encrypted text, they know the protocol, and they have the secret key.
    • Carol can see the encrypted text, can guess the program/protocol. but doesn’t know the key/secret.
    • it doesn’t matter that Carol has the encrypted text or the program, only that she doesn’t have the key.
  • But in the copy protection world (scrambled book, software, etc.)…
    • Bob encrypted the program/software/book/video.
    • Everyone else in the world is Alice.
    • Bob has to provide both the encrypted text and the key. But the key is hidden.
    • Someone is the world is always going to find the key.
    • And once they do, then it’s broken.
    • It’s so prevalent, it’s actually easier to get the one that’s broken without the encryption.
    • (Will: easier to bit torrent a TV show that to get netflix player installed and up to date and authorized.)
  • Copy protection just doesn’t work. Not for software, books, or video.
  • We should oppose breaking computers for the sake of copy protection, which doesn’t work anyway.
  • World intellectual property organization: WIPO
    • WIPO copyright treaty (WCT): modern copyright protection.
    • They want to figure out how to control copies.
    • We understand this Alice and Bob problem, and we’re going to solve it legally:
      • we make it illegal to look for the keys. to share the keys. to host the keys. to tell anyone how to look for the keys. to make software to get the keys. etc.
    • It is now law virtually everywhere.
  • The effect of this law is that it makes it illegal to reverse engineer any of this software.
  • Imagine 18 years ago you went into Tower records and bought $1000 worth of CDs and $1000 worth of DVDs.
    • In 18 years, the value of those CDs actually goes up: you can use them as ringtones, as background music, you can rip them and put them on your computer, store them in the cloud, use them as background music in a home movie, etc. You can do so much more with them.
    • In 18 years, you can’t legally do anything more with the DVDs. Want to watch them on a tablet computer? Not legally. You have to buy the movie all over again. Want to use a snippet in a home movie? Not legally.
  • DRM meetings: If you want to do something evil, hide it in something boring (like standards docs).
    • they wanted to flag TV shows so that when broadcast to you, make it so you can only watch it in the same room as the receiver. charge more if you want to watch it somewhere else.
  • Because it’s against the law to tell people information about how they can add features to their DVDs, or anything else with DRM.
    • But that means that it’s also illegal to tell someone about flaws… a security flaw, a computer bug, etc. (Small exception for a certain class of security issues, but the overall effect of the law is so chilling.)
  • Heartbleed bug had a tremendous effect… and that was in open software that had been around a long time. How many hidden flaws might exist in this hidden, obscured, illegal to reverse engineer software.
  • The purpose of DRM software is to not allow you to do stuff.
    • “I want to do this.”
    • “I can’t let you do that, Dave.”
  • Antitransparency is a huge problem
    • Has to hide features from you.
    • Treats the person who owns the computer as the adversary.
    • Treated as less trustworthy than the people who made the software.
    • If you saw that a HAL9000 program was forcing you to not do stuff you want to do, you’d drag the program to the trash.
    • So in order to keep that program running, they hide it from the user.
  • SONYBMG in 2005
    • Didn’t want you to copy your CDs on your computer.
    • When the CD was inserted, the first thing it did was run a program that modified your computer so that your computer wouldn’t show you any programs starting with $SYS$.
    • The second thing it did was install software named $SYS%something, and it would watch to see if you tried to copy a CD.
    • So virus writers started naming their viruses with $SYS$ because Sony had created a blind spot in over 6 million computers.
  • So DRM and anti transparency creates security loopholes.
    • Whenever there is a hole in the immune system, there’s an opportunistic infection. DRM creates intentional holes
  • TAO: Tailored Access Operations
    • People at NSA
    • Have a catalog of exploits for all computers, smartphones, etc.
    • Tell them what device the target has, they give the agent the right exploits.
  • The NSA knew of an iPhone exploit that was serious.
    • They have a NOBUS (Nobody but us) policy: so they didn’t report the vulnerability.
  • The NSA aren’t the smartest people in the world. So you know that bug had to have been discovered and exploited by many other people: criminals.
    • they use remove access software
    • mostly young men
    • mostly target young women
    • they try to capture incidental photos of their victims in the nude. also capture their social media account passwords.
    • then they blackmail their victims to perform sexual acts or they’ll share the nude photos.
    • when some ratters were busted, they had anywhere from 100 to 150 victims each.
    • So bugs and exploits aren’t just allowing the NSA to spy on you, they’re allowing garden variety criminals to victimize everyone.
  • Lots of people get access to the exploits: other governments, other criminals, other agencies.
  • This stuff gets even scarier when it moves out of the computer in your briefcase into the computers in your body, in your car.
  • Demonstrated attacks on embedded heart defibrillator, pacemakers.
  • General purpose computing
    • seems to be a universal tendency
    • even Page Description Language (PDL) turns out to be scriptable, and can bootstrap an entire computing environment, which means that your printer can be attacked by printing.
  • We have turing complete computers. But we don’t have turing complete minus one computers.
  • When the Ghaddafi regime fell, they had ton of computers they shouldn’t have had.
  • The NSA technicians use their vast surveillance apparatus to spy on cute girls. They do it so much they even came up with a name for it: LUVINT. (like SIGINT, HUMANINT)
    • It’s not just about the government spying on bad guys, or even spying on us, but abuse of the system.
  • We choose. We’re building the systems.
    • We can choose to build in DRM. To cripple computers. To open backdoors. To create vulnerabilities. To have motes in our computers eyes.
    • Or we can choose not to do that. We can say no.
  • Netflix:
    • approaches all major browsers to prevent saving videos to disk.
    • Now putting DRM into every browser.
    • Creating long-lived reservoirs of flaws and vulnerabilities through obscurity and illegality.
  • How can we get the technology that makes us more free? How can we raise the alarm when technology takes away our freedom?
  • Work on getting our devices and computers as open and free as possible, pushing back in all ways.
  • It’s not that there aren’t problems out there. it’s that the solutions they are coming up with aren’t working. When the australian government came up with a child pornography list of banned websites, it turned out to be 98% not child pornography. When you give the government a tool to censor websites, it turns out they do it.
  • It’s urgent, as urgent as things can get. If devices aren’t open or free.
  • Today, crypto can protect data. Even if all atoms in the universe were turned into CPUs, working until the heat death of the universe.
  • People with nothing to hide must obscure their data, to make it easier for people who actually have things to hide through no fault of their own.


The Case of the Wilted Broccoli, my first detective novel for kids age 7 through 12, has been out for a few weeks now. If The Case of the Wilted Broccoli Coveryou’re one of the early buyers, thank you so much! If not, I hope you will give it a try or let a friend with kids know about it.

One of the unanticipated joys of publishing this book has been the emails I’ve gotten from parents. One said their son, who normally had to be required to read twenty minutes a day, spent an entire morning reading the novel. Another said their daughter was glued to the pages until she finished. As I kid, I loved books more than almost anything, and so hearing these stories is really rewarding.

If you (or your child) likes The Case of the Wilted Broccoli, it would be a tremendous help if you could post a review online. Reviews help prospective buyers decide if a novel is worth purchasing. And some outlets where I’d like to advertise have a minimum review requirement of twenty reviews or more. It takes just a few minutes, and can be written from the child’s or parent’s perspective, whichever is easier. A star rating and a sentence or two is all that’s needed.


Mike R. Underwood has a nice piece up about 25 Secrets of Publishing Revealed. If you’re a writer, go check it out. I know Mike from an online writers’ community we’re both part of, and I enjoyed his novel Geekomancy.

I don’t disagree with anything Mike said, but I do think his article comes from traditional publishing viewpoint. So after you’ve read his article, come back here and read a few of my reactions. (I’ve only addressed a few of his 25 items. For the most part, I think he’s spot on.)


Mike says that gatekeepers aren’t there to keep you out, but to find content of the right fit for their publisher. He gives brief mention to the option of self-publishing.

I want to emphasize: self-publishing is a very viable choice that has a whole set of advantages and disadvantages compared to traditional publishing, and shouldn’t be seen only as a fallback alternative. Self-publishing gives you the control over the creative, production, and marketing processes. Want to hire your choice of talent to edit, design, or create a cover? Want to keep a greater percentage of the royalties? Want to develop business skills? You can when you’re the publisher.

Evaluating traditional versus indie publishing is asking if you want to be the employee of a big company (little control over what happens, but lots of people to back you up) versus an entrepreneur starting your own business.


They’re key if you go the route of traditional publishing, but less important if you’re indie. However, even if you’re indie, you’ll still want an agent to help you sell foreign translation rights, film rights, etc. It’s especially challenging to reach out to publishers in other countries without an agent. If you are indie, make sure you’re agent is indie-friendly and understands you’ll be pursuing a mix of traditional and indie publication. Your contract should clarify that the agent does not get a percentage of royalties for those titles you’ve indie published.


In this point Mike argues that sometimes a bookseller will screw over (his words) a particular author or genre, and “that’s why we, as authors, are well-advised to develop a diversified publishing portfolio for ourselves and to support a diverse bookselling landscape, so that no one part of our business, no one retailer, no one project, has too much control over our overall publishing fate.”

I agree heartily, and this is an even bigger danger for indies, most of whom get the majority of their royalties from Amazon. I get more than 90% of my book income from Amazon. If Amazon changes their royalty structure (and they’ve given hints of doing so), my royalties and those of other indies could drop in half. They’ve already taken steps to drive exclusivity, reserving the highest royalties for those people who do Kindle-exclusive ebooks, and preferring Kindle-exclusive titles when doing promotions.

It’s also challenging for indies to get into bookstores, but that’s a topic worthy of a whole post by itself.


Mike said about this: “If you sell a book to a major publisher, you’re agreeing to give over a big chunk of the book’s income in order to hire an army to go to bat for your book. If you sell to a smaller publisher, you’re hiring a smaller, more focused army. A traditional publisher includes the following people helping to make your book amazing and to sell it: editor, publicist, sales representatives, sales managers, marketers, library representatives, book designers, artists, layout artists, inventory staff, finance & royalties workers, and hundreds more positions in a bigger house.”

Yes, but… That big army can on occasion be an army of mediocrity. That can happen if everyone at the publisher is just so-so in their talent and skill, or because the A-team got put on someone else’s book, and you got the B-team or the C-team, or the just-hired intern who has no idea what they’re doing. (Surely we’ve all experience the pockets of abyss that can exist inside bigger companies.)

This is my biggest fear with traditional publishing compared to the indie world. In the indie world, you can pick the people who work on your book, whether that’s hiring a great editor, an amazing cover designer. Or you can choose to do the work yourself, taking charge of social media, advertising, and marketing. The danger here is that indies often don’t know what they don’t know. You might not know you need a proofreader after your copyeditor, or you might have hired an inferior editor and can’t judge that yourself. But in the indie world, if you do make a mistake, because you’re still in control, you can fix it: hire someone better, or reedit the book after it’s already gone out. It’s very rare to find that in the traditional publishing world: forget about saying “let’s try a new cover” after the book has been out two months.


Among other points, Mike says, “The reason publishing is slow is that it’s big, and it’s powerful. In order to align the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of employees behind a book as part of a publisher’s season, there’s a ton of coordination and steps to go through to make it a powerful butt-kicking sales machine.”

Yes, there are reasons it’s slow, but they aren’t all good, and they aren’t all necessary. I’ve personally experienced this, working in large and small companies. Large companies have huge amounts of overhead as they task-switch between projects, wait on constrained resources (maybe the one interior-layout designer), or just drop the ball. In fact, the best teams inside large companies are usually the smallest, most focused ones. A small, nimble, focused team can do in a couple of months what might take a large organization a year to do. And they’ll usually do it with higher quality and better results.


Mike argues that covers are for the buyer, not the author, and that it’s best to turn that over to the people who know best: a designer with experience with book covers. With a traditional publisher, authors get zero input into the cover design.

I agree that an author should never design their own cover (unless they happen to be a talented book cover designer). But an author should be familiar with their genre and know enough to be able to pick something that matches their genre and yet stands out.

Many long-term cover designers are thinking first-and-foremost about how a cover will look as a 6×9 paperback. But if the majority of your sales will be online (as they are for many genre writers), then the cover must be amazing not at 6″ x 9″, but at 100 pixels by 150 pixels: less than an inch tall. That requires a whole other set of design principles.

I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but it’s not a given that a traditional publisher will give you the best cover. You might be allocated a cheaper cover, or an designer who isn’t designing for icon-sized covers, or someone who doesn’t know your genre. You must become educated enough to know what works and doesn’t work and involve yourself in the process of approving the cover. (Of course, as an indie you’ll get total control, and with a publisher you’ll have only minor influence.)


I completely agree with what Mike said here, and just want to add that it’s fun, too!

Unless many other types of work, writing is innately a solitary activity. So you must take steps to make it social. Find a local community and an online community. Take writing classes to meet people, attend your local conventions for writers, and tell people about what you do.


In this point Mike talks about the art of hand-selling: talking to people one-on-one at conventions and bookstores to convince them to buy your book.

I think handselling is great, but I’d be cautious about getting too distracted by it. I see a lot of authors put a tremendous amount of time into conventions or bookstores, and then go on to sell anywhere from two to five copies. Investing a weekend of work to sell a few copies isn’t a great ROI. Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s fine to do this and it might be fun. But I see it’s as something you do mostly for the fun of it.

If you want to sell books, I think it makes more sense to focus on activities with a bigger return-on-investment. If you had a weekend’s worth of time, could you sell a hundred or a thousand books? Probably not at a convention handselling to one person at a time, but you could do it with online advertising, clever promotional strategies, and so forth.

Focus on what scales, because your goal is to sell thousands of books, not dozens.


Mike explained how traditional publishers work. Most of the money you’re likely to earn comes from advances, which are paid out in thirds when the contract is signed, the final manuscript is turned over, and the book is published. Royalties (if you earn any) will usually get paid either annually or semiannually. You typically won’t know how many books you’ve sold until you get these annual or semiannual reports. Which means that if you want to know whether you should be celebrating you won’t know for a very long time. The long feedback times also make it difficult to determine the effectiveness of promotional efforts.

With indie-published books, all of the money you earn will come as royalties after the book is sold. You’ll typically get paid monthly (except for Smashwords who pays quarterly), and royalties will lag by about two months: so you’ll get paid at the end of March for the books you sold in January.

You’ll see your sales in real time, so that you can know by midnight how many books you sold that day. This means that if you run an advertising campaign, talk about your book at a convention, or get a big blog mention, you’ll immediately know the sales impact. This kind of continuous feedback helps you optimize what you to do market and promote your books. (And it’s very rare to find a big publisher who is doing this kind of continuous optimization.)


Mike argues that one downside to the indie world is that it takes a long time to become good and that new authors can put work out that is bad. Hence, maybe it makes sense to write for six or seven years, and get a couple of novels written before publishing the first one.

I agree that we get better by writing, but sometimes a first novel is good-enough. It might not be great, and it might suffer from many first-timer mistakes, but it also might contain just enough to good bits to really resonate with an audience. Avogadro Corp was my first novel, and although it went out with errors and poor writing, it’s also been very, very popular. Should I have stuck in a trunk and not published it? I think that would have been a mistake.

I come from a software background, and in particular use agile and lean methodologies. That means getting out a minimal product and then getting user (or for books, reader) feedback on it. In the case of Avogadro Corp, I received feedback after it was published, and then made improvements to it. Two years later I’m still making improvements (this last round of revisions took six months and included both copyediting and proofreading improvements).


In sum, I liked Mike’s article and agree with nearly everything he said. I hope you’ll find these additional points from the indie-perspective helpful.