Friday, January 23, 2009

Don't Dilute Your Brand

As an author, your brand is the name under which you write and the image associated with that name. It takes time, effort and lots of exposure to develop ‘brand recognition’, and whether you’re in the process of building that recognition or trying to maintain it, consistency in your image and message is very important. Be cognizant of how you are presenting your brand to the public, and strive to maintain that consistency.

For example, while it’s true that publishing online articles for Squidoo, eHow, or other online article repositories can get you lots of exposure, if that exposure is scattered across articles on various, unrelated subjects, those articles aren’t helping to solidify your position as a subject area expert and in fact, may be detracting from that position. Likewise, if your book is about leveraging new media but all your articles are on topics totally unrelated to that subject, you’re squandering an opportunity to connect the content of your articles back to your book. I’m not suggesting your articles all essentially boil down to a baldfaced sales pitch, just that in general, the subjects of your articles be drawn from your book and your one- to two-liner author bio at the end of the article include a more-information link or a where-to-buy link for your book. The article functions as a sneak preview of the book.

This isn’t to say you can’t publish the occasional off-topic article, or guest blog about your interests outside the subject matter of your book; doing so can be a way to show other facets of your abilities or personality. Just make sure those ‘other facets’ pieces aren’t competing with your primary message for attention.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Why I Don't Do The Red Room

Red Room is an online community for writers, publishing industry people, students and avid readers: sort of a bibliophile MySpace. Red Room’s tagline is, “where the writers are,” and sure enough, there are many famous authors listed there. The site contains links which allow visitors to join Red Room, either as a “Red Room Author” or “Red Room Member”. The “Red Room Author” application page opens with, “Red Room encourages writers from all walks of life and all areas of the globe to be a part of our community,” and one section of the About Us page says:

Red Room was named after both a place and a literary tradition. The famous Red Room of the White House is an extraordinary place where revolutionary behavior occurred in a small parlor. For example, when Franklin Roosevelt wouldn't allow female reporters at his press conferences, Eleanor Roosevelt held her own press conferences at the same time for the women. The conferences were so popular that the male reporters started attending, and the President had no choice but to integrate his press conferences in order to get any attention. A tradition of civilized revolution on behalf of disenfranchised writers is carried on in the modern-day Red Room.

Based on that bit about ‘civilized revolution on behalf of disenfranchised writers,’ I figured Red Room must be a place accepting of the ideals of indie authorship and applied to become a Red Room Author. Imagine my surprise when my application was denied due to the fact that I’m self-published—though of course I was welcome to be a Red Room Member. It seemed incredibly hypocritical to me, and I thought that whoever had reviewed my application might just need a little enlightenment. So I wrote back to present my usual case about why indie authorship is every bit as valid a path in authorship as the mainstream route, and received a reply that more or less said Red Room was totally on board with that idea, and that’s why they were preparing to launch a new, ‘Self Published Author’ level of membership, and they looked forward to my participation with that. If you’ve been following this blog for any period of time, you can guess how I felt about it. Here are some excerpts from my response to that notice:

I'm very disappointed by your response. What Red Room is proposing would relegate indie authors like myself to a ghetto neighborhood of Red Room, as you should well know if you know how the term "self-published" is received in the publishing mainstream. This is why I refer to myself and others like me as "indie authors", because to my mind, we are operating much the same as indie filmmakers and indie musicians, and for the same reasons: our industry has become far more interested in making huge quantities of money than in producing a quality or original product...

...I can appreciate that what you propose to do is a well-meaning attempt at inclusion, but so was school segregation. So is the don't-ask-don't-tell policy of the U.S. military. I could've formed an imprint for my books to "pass" for mainstream (as I'm pretty sure some Red Room Authors have done), but because I'm trying to raise awareness and foment a true indie author movement, I've chosen to be "out and proud" about my indie status. It's a shame that Red Room doesn't want to support my efforts…Not only am I not interested in becoming a Self-Published Red Room Author, I would advise any authors I know against it.

I also suggested they at least consider re-naming this proposed new level of membership to something like “Red Room Indie Authors,” “Red Room Independent Voices,” or similar—anything but that prejudicial label of “Self-Published”. Here are excerpts from their response:

…we absolutely agree with you that due to the current nature of the publishing industry, there are too many talented writers who get rejected for purely commercial considerations. Just as frustratingly, these same publishing houses seem to publish many books with little or no artistic merit.

I really appreciate the fact that despite not opting for traditional publication you’ve chosen the “Indie” route. (I like the moniker too!) I’m also sure that your book, The Indie Author Guide, is a great resource for writers, and I think our Members would really benefit from exposure to it, so I truly hope that you will reconsider staying with us on Red Room so you can spread your message.

Our reason for building out a separate Self-Published Author section is to further the same ideas—it will be a place for authors to showcase the fact that they have made their own careers, and to demonstrate that being a self-published author is a visible and viable option for aspiring writers...

But the bottom line was unchanged: at this point I could only be a Red Room Member, and at some point in the future I might be able to apply for Red Room Self-Published Author status. Indie authors may be welcome at Red Room, but not quite as welcome as mainstream-published authors. And since I don’t want to be a part of any community that treats indie authors with less respect and less inclusion than their mainstream peers, I am not a Red Room Member and will not be applying to become a Red Room Self-Published Author.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

What Is 'Value Added' & What Does It Have To Do With Indie Authorship?

I've been taking a lot of flak lately from professionals in the graphic arts and typesetting fields because in The IndieAuthor Guide, I more or less tell indie authors that in most cases, the services of those professionals are optional. The flakkers protest, in frequently ugly tones, that I'm giving bad advice in this regard and a book brought to market without their services is a "defective" product. Here's my recent response to one such complaint:

The local independent bookseller who stocks my titles has said that to his (professional) eye, apart from the lack of a recognizable imprint logo on their spines, my books are indistinguishable from mainstream books. So long as the readers and booksellers are pleased with my books, I'm meeting the demands of my target audience. And that's what indie authorship is all about: reaching and serving your readership, not slavishly following the conventions of traditional publishing, regardless of whether or not they form a value-added proposition where your intended audience is concerned...I and my books are doing pretty well. And in the final analysis, in attempting to judge the merits of what I propose and advise in The IndieAuthor Guide, isn't *that* the only benchmark that really matters?

After I posted, another flakker chimed in to berate me further, pretty much missing my point about 'value added', and it occurred to me that it may be a term that merits some further exploration. It's something one hears bandied about in the business world quite a bit, and entire books have been written on the subject. In simple terms, a 'value-added proposition' is something in which you invest time or money because there will be a commensurate payoff, or payback of that investment, in the future.

For example, let's say you manufacture protective cell phone covers. People like your covers and they're selling pretty well, but you think you could do even better if you started printing licensed cartoon characters on them. So you go through the paperwork and expense of getting the licensing rights, you re-tool your shop to print the characters on the covers and you invest in some extra advertising to let everyone know about your new product line. Naturally, you must price the new line higher to absorb the added expenses, but you're confident it'll be a hit. Three months down the line you find your old, plain covers are selling just as well as they ever did, and sales on the new covers are decidedly slow. Clearly, printing licensed cartoon characters on your covers was NOT a value-added proposition. Customers may like the new covers, and may even prefer them to the plain ones. But if they don't prefer the new covers enough to pay extra for them, it doesn't make business sense for you to be producing them.

And what does this have to do with indie authorship, you ask? When bringing your book to market, every time you make a choice that involves investment of your time or money you should be asking yourself, "Does this constitute a value-added proposition for my target audience?" Because if it doesn't, you should be looking for ways to reduce or eliminate that investment. Based on my research and experience, I've concluded the average reader doesn't know or care about the minutiae of 'proper' typesetting according to mainstream pubishing standards. So long as the text is easily legible and looks about the same as that in a mainstream book to a typical (non-industry) reader, the reader will not find fault with the layout and typesetting in a given book. I freely acknowledge that people who follow the directions I provide in The IndieAuthor Guide will end up with a book that's instantly recognizable as self-published to most industry pros, but since those pros are not the indie author's intended audience, their opinions are irrelevant in this regard. Therefore, investing hundreds or thousands of dollars in professional typesetting and layout services does not form a value-added proposition for most indie books.

In deciding whether or not to invest in this or that service or product when bringing your book to market, let your target audience be your guide. If your target audience WILL notice and care about details of typesetting and layout for instance, paying for those professional services is a necessary expenditure for your particular book. However, if paying for those services requires you to price the eventual book so high that no one is willing to buy it, then the entire book fails the value-added proposition test.

Cover design is another area where value added comes into play. The IndieAuthor Guide includes directions for designing your own book cover, but many authors feel out of their depth when it comes to graphic arts and design and will prefer to hire out for those services; even so, they must wade through a seeming ocean of possible vendors and price ranges. Of course you want a cover that will draw the potential buyer in, even when viewed as an icon on a webpage if your book will be sold online. However, spending thousands of dollars on a piece of commissioned artwork from a name artist for your cover doesn't necessarily add value for which your eventual readers will be willing to pay extra. Since increasing the retail price of your book to absorb that cost may alienate potential buyers, you need to consider how many extra books you must sell at your regular retail price to recoup the money you spent on the cover artwork. In some cases, the investment will be worth it. In other cases, not so much. You can usually get an attractive, professional-looking cover which effectively conveys the theme of your book from a journeyman graphic artist at a much lower cost, or even from an art school grad student who's willing to do the cover for free in exchange for the portfolio sample and exposure. As with any small business expenditure, you must balance the benefit against the cost when determining how much money to spend on professional services.

Let me hasten to add: I am not suggesting that indie authors try to do everything 'on the cheap' for the sake of saving money or increasing royalties. On the contrary, I advise indie authors to do all in their power to deliver a product that, to the typical book buyer, is indistinguishable from the products of their mainstream competitors. That means quality editing, paper, printing, cover design, and more. What I AM saying is that each time you're faced with decisions about whether, and how much, to spend on some aspect of your book's production or promotion, carefully consider the matter of 'value added'.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Concluding the Series on The IndieAuthor Guide

Bottom Line It For Me, Baby Version (200 words or less):
I'm taking this blog in a new direction, but don't worry: if you've been following along with the series from The IndieAuthor Guide, you will not leave empty-handed. Just because I'd like to start blogging on other topics doesn't mean you don't get to see the rest of the book.

Go On An' Run Yo Mouth, I Ain't Got Nuthin' But Time Version (can't promise it won't go on forever):
I’ve decided to conclude the serialization of my book, The IndieAuthor Guide, but I won’t cheat my readers out of the rest of the book’s content, and I will still provide it free of charge and with no strings attached. More about that later in this post.

I’m changing direction because I feel there are too many vital topics I ought to be discussing in regard to indie authorship and the state of publishing in general, but I can’t devote much blog real estate to those topics if I continue posting lengthy excerpts from my book. While many of you are very interested in the series from my book, I know some of you are also very interested in those other topics I’d like to discuss. It takes a lot of time and effort to copy content from the book and get it re-formatted to work as a blog post too, and I’m often forced to leave illustrations and graphic elements out of the posts. This problem will only get worse as I move into the chapters on designing your own book cover and promotion. I’d rather just provide the book in its original format, with all of its content intact, and give myself more time to keep blogging regularly on topics of interest to the indie author community at large.

I don’t want to leave anyone who’s been following the series to be left hanging, and I also don’t want to disappoint anyone who comes across the series in the future, so I’m making the entire book available for free download once again. Previously, I posted a link to a Wall Street Journal/Marketwatch article, in which you could find a link to a free download of the entire book in HTML format. The download page was set to expire 12/31/08, but I’m leaving it up through the end of June of 2009—about the time I expected to finish the series if I continued posting an excerpt about every two weeks. Here’s a direct link to the download page.

Some of you may be wondering if providing free copies of the book is eating into my book sales, and that's precisely the type of subject I'd like to tackle—and will!—in the New and Improved Indie Author Blog. So keep coming back for more topical blogging, and more blogging on issues surrounding indie authorship.

In other news, I’m now on Twitter—in case you haven’t noticed the huge, hard-to-ignore tweet box at right—as “indieauthor”. Feel free to follow and/or tweet me!