The Keepsake hits #1

Well, on one bestseller list, anyway!

Old dogs can indeed learn new tricks

I fear I have done a disservice with my last blog entry on internet vs. traditional methods of promotion. I had approached the topic as one who built a career the old-fashioned way, by finding my genre niche, reliably producing a book a year in that niche, and tirelessly going on the road to promote them. My publisher(s) pretty much decided how much promotion would be done, and what methods would be used, although in more recent years I’ve contributed my own efforts online with a website, a video book trailer, a blog on Amazon, and webzine ads. My attitude was, if it got me — a former paperback romance author — on the hardcover bestseller lists, then it must work.

But as a number of people have pointed out to me, this is a new day and age. The publishing business has changed. Traditional promotional methods are costly, print media is fading, and we have to adapt to a world that’s increasingly online. I’m trying to.

Another thing I was wrong about was focusing my comments on promotional strategy for top-tier sellers, and not for new or mid-list authors. My comments about co-op, Costco, and major print ads are better directed at those writers who are on the cusp of breaking out to the next level. Promotional efforts are not one-size-fits-all. No career is the same. And depending on where you are in your career, you will choose different ways of promoting.

If you’re just starting out, marketing money will be tight, and you’ll want to be as cost-effective as possible, which makes the internet a good place to begin. Everyone, for instance, should have a website. Everyone should take advantage of Amazon.com’s free author blog space. Throwing a fortune behind a debut novel could well be a useless extravagance, and authors should know that before going into debt to push their book, no one knows exactly what works. There are a number of things you can do, with minimal cost. Everyone should make a point of dropping into local bookstores, meeting booksellers, and signing stock. Everyone should be willing to do at least a few speaking engagements at libraries and bookstores. These will require your time and effort, but they’re free. (I continue to do all of these things, limited only by my energy and my writing deadlines.)

But the most important thing you can do as a writer is to write. Write the next book. And the next. Because every new title on the bookstore rack serves as an ad, another chance for readers to discover you. If you write two books a year, that’s twice a year readers and booksellers will encounter your name. But those books must be good books. That’s the given in all this promotional talk. The books must make a reader want to pick up your next book. There’s no point spending millions promoting a book that no one likes; all it achieves is convincing an audience that they don’t want to buy any more books by you.

You don’t have to be a bestselling author to make a living at this business. A prolific mid-list author with a devoted audience can have a rewarding life-long career. And you can do it without ads in USA Today or TV spots or national book tours. It’s breaking out to the next level where promotional strategies are subject to debate. If publishers knew exactly how to make an author a bestseller, then they’d be doing it more often.

Building an audience takes time. In my case, it wasn’t until my fourteenth novel, THE SURGEON, that I became a regular on the bestseller lists. Sometimes you just have to be patient and keep your nose to the grindstone. Keep in mind, too, that there’s something called luck involved. And that’s something you can’t bottle or pay for.

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And on a personal note, I’m happy to share that the German edition of THE KEEPSAKE (in the UK known as KEEPING THE DEAD) just hit #5 on the hardcover bestseller list in Germany.

More on internet vs. traditional marketing

I’m enjoying this conversation about the comparative efficacy of internet vs. traditional. I was especially happy to see M.J. Rose commenting on the last blog, because she’s one of the most tech-savvy authors out there, and she brings a lot of experience to bear. M.J., I’d be interested to hear more about the promotion you just finished for the author who sold 20,000 books in seven weeks — that’s an astonishing figure for a book without co-op.

However, I’m still not entirely convinced that the internet outperforms more traditional methods of book promotion. While I agree that an internet campaign has the potential of reaching 28 million people, that’s still just potential. Does that really mean twenty eight million sets of eyeballs are going to see that online book ad, much less actually look at it? Perhaps as a reader I’m unique, but when I visit online sites, I scarcely even notice the ads, because there are so many of them. But if a print ad appears in USA Today, I will notice it. I’ll even study it. And I’ll get the intended message: “This book must be important.” Granted, that USA Today print ad will cost more than any online ad. But it also has a greater psychological impact.

The effect of book tours is certainly debatable, but a lot depends on how that book tour is planned. If those signings are held in a string of chain stores hosted by indifferent event coordinators, the author is going to be sorely disappointed. But if your tour brings you to places such as Poisoned Pen or Books & Company or Mysterious Galaxy, places operated by influential and passionate book mavens who will get out the word and sell tons of books, I think the tour still has the edge over the internet.

Perhaps my enthusiasm for book tours was crystallized by my experiences abroad. In both Germany and the UK, my book sales didn’t really take off until I’d been there on book tours. The publicity that accompanies such tours, the radio interviews and the print coverage, are the real reason we go on tours. It’s not just to sit in stores and sign books.

As an author, I’ve certainly tried internet marketing. I’ve paid for online ads on news websites, blog sites, and webzines. I commissioned an expensive video book trailer, which appeared on quite a few sites. Did it make a difference in sales? I just don’t know. If so, it was hard to measure.

With a newspaper ad, though, or a radio ad, it’s easy to see the results by watching for an immediate spike on Amazon.com. As M.J. pointed out, the effect of print and radio ads is brief, and that Amazon spike will quickly dissolve — but at least it’s possible to see the effect. There were two sales spikes in particular that impressed me. One came after I was a guest on Art Bell’s night-time radio show, which had a huge listenership. Art praised my book GRAVITY on the air, and within two hours of the broadcast, GRAVITY‘s Amazon ranking went from around 30,000 to 10. (Which, I’m sorry to say, actually works out to only a few hundred extra copies sold.) Since then, I’ve heard from a number of readers who told me they were introduced to my books because of that Art Bell program.

The other time I saw an impressive spike was in the weeks after the GRAVITY hardcover came out. I’d been following my Amazon index, which to my disappointment was not too impressive. But one morning I checked and found that it had zoomed from the thousands up to 200, and I didn’t know why. Until I opened that morning’s edition of USA Today and found a glowing review in the books section.

I get a lot of fan mail, but I haven’t yet had a reader tell me they first bought my books because of an online ad. More often, it’s because their mother or sister or wife told them about my books. Yes, maybe that word of mouth came in the form of an email from mom saying “You’ve got to read this author!” Or maybe they first heard about the book on an online message board, often not even a book forum. But so far, it doesn’t seem to be from paid online advertising.

There’s no question that the internet is a powerful tool, and that we can’t ignore it. I’ll continue to pay for online promotions. I’ll probably commission more video book trailers. But as of this moment in time, I guess I’m still a traditional gal at heart.

Honesty comes back to bite you in the you-know-where

As usual, I’m late to the controversy, and I’ll probably regret commenting on it. But there seem to be quite a few ruffled feathers at various online review sites, because of some remarks made by two Avon romance editors during an interview. It all started over at the site All About Romance . The two editors, May Chen and Lucia Macro, addressed a number of general questions regarding the state of romance publishing today. What got the internet review world up in arms was this section of the interview:

Lynn S.: In our 2002 interview, you felt that the online world didn’t have much of an impact on sales. Much has changed in the intervening years, and more and more people – including more women – are online now and use reviews as a helpful guide to the buying process. Has Avon changed its thinking in this area? Avon, also, seems not to include many online reviews in books. Are there any plans to change that policy?

May Chen: In my opinion, the online world still doesn’t have much impact on sales as, anecdotally, I’ve seen books get horrible online reviews but have done well. As far as I know, we still don’t include online reviews on our books, but that can certainly change if we see them start making a difference. Right now, the best endorsements for us still seem to be from NYT bestselling authors and from major traditional print reviewers.

Lucia Macro: Do the consumers recognize the source of the quote? I’m not sure that the vast majority of readers recognize all the online sites. When checking their rankings I’m often surprised at how little traffic they really get. We are all very plugged in, but many casual readers are just picking up a book at their local Walmart and barely have time to watch tv, much less wrestle the computer away from their kids. So an author quote might carry more weight with them.

The response to those remarks has been surprisingly vociferous, both on AAR and on Dear Author. Several of the comments accuse the two editors of being wrong, misinformed, and disrespectful to online communities:

This is “How to Ruin a Business Relationship 101″ i.e. Boss gets involved and in just a few statements manage to undo lots of good work.

The response from the marketing director was dismissive and combative. Big fail. VERY big fail. …The first rule of advertising/PR is not to piss off your customers… this interview and follow up are a an excellent example of what *not* to do when making public statements.!

Chen and Macro sound like they’re talking down to women who in our own lives don’t have a clue about how business works, when maybe it’s just the two of them who are clueless.

And on it goes.

Now, I’ve never written for Avon, and I’ve never worked with either Chen or Macro. But boy, am I feeling sorry for them right now. They were asked a series of questions, they gave frank answers based on what they know of the market, and now they’re the villains. I suspect it’ll be an ice age before either editor agrees to answer any other questions from that site.

What’s being ignored is that the editors’ answers are probably in step with the beliefs of most of their publishing colleagues. They are not the outliers; they are voicing what other publishers are saying, if people would just care to listen.

Let’s talk about internet sales. If a reader gets a book recommendation online, she’ll very likely go straight to an online site to buy the book. And while it’s true that online book sales are growing, it’s still a very small part of overall sales. When I look at my own sales figures, I estimate that my Amazon.com sales only account for 3% of my overall hardcover sales, and probably less than 1% of my paperback sales. Granted, I’m talking about the mystery/thriller market, and perhaps this has no relationship whatsoever to the romance market. But I think that most editors will tell you that for frontlist (new release) books, internet sales are is still a minor part of the equation.

As for online reviews, do they actually send enough customers flocking into stores to make a difference in sales? Can they make a book a bestseller? Here’s the answer the editor gave:

We aren’t seeing that any review driven website has the power to “make” a book. Yet.

Did the editor say this just to get people upset? No, she said it because she, as an editor, has not yet seen it. She is basing this on experience, and probably cold hard numbers as well. Yes, publishers do care about numbers, and they compile a lot of them. They know when sales spike, and where. Numbers may make people angry, but there’s nothing one can do about them. They just are.

As for the vaunted power of internet marketing, it’s utterly puny against the power of bookstore co-op, a sell-in to Walmart and Costco, and a smashing good cover. You can market all you want on the internet, but if the book isn’t in Walmart and Costco, good luck getting on any bestseller lists. This is why editors put so much effort into pushing the sell-in, and getting those books on store shelves. Books sell if they’re where customers can see them and pick them up and make that impulsive decision to buy. That’s what generates book sales in huge numbers, not the fact that it got a nice review on an internet site.

As for quotes from internet review sites, again, I have to agree with Ms. Chen that reviews from newspapers still hold more power than from internet sites. If I see a great quote from USA Today or the New York Times, I’m far more likely to give it credence than if I see a quote from an internet reviewer. I know that a glowing quote from a major newspaper is a tough baby to land, but a quote from an online reviewer whom I’ve never heard of? Can I trust it?

These editors gave their honest opinions. They got burned by it. It’s experiences like this that make people avoid telling the truth, and that’s to the detriment of us all. You see, I want to hear the truth about publishing. I want to know what editors and marketing people really think. We can’t function in this business when all we’re hearing are beautiful lies that make us feel important, but don’t educate us one whit.

One good thing about following the issue is that it made me look up something that was referred to on several of the sites: Google Page Rank. I’d never heard of it before. It’s a measurement of how popular a blogsite is. If you’re curious about your own site’s popularity, you can find out its rank (ranging from 0 to 10) at this website.

(My blog, by the way, is rated at 5.)

Name that character… or not?

See my blog post about this topic over at Murderati.com.

Details do matter to readers

Yesterday, I received the following email from a reader:

I am currently reading “The Surgeon”, and I wanted to question a few technical points.While I am only a nurse practitioner, I worked in the ICU for almost 15yrs. While it seems silly and ridiculous to email over such small details that the average reader would have no clue as to their accuracy, I wanted to clarify a few points (again, as silly and ridiculous as they may be).

O positive is the “universal donor”, not O neg. The rH factor difference would cause a transfusion reaction.

While DIC a common possibility in the post-op patient who is bleeding out, I have never seen it in a trauma patient in less than 6 hours post injury. Physiologically, it takes hours for the coags to become so out of whack that DIC begins.

In addition, the use of Heparin in a DIC patient is very risky and is not done (at least in my clinical experience), unless there is a confirmation via the lab results that all other differential diagnoses are ruled out.

Finally, LR is not normally referred as Ringer’s lactate. In an ER/ICU it is referred to as Lactated Ringer’s – an isotonic fluid (NS is the same, but in TNCC certification, LR is preferred)

While I am not a physician, these details are important ro a reader who knows trauma and medicine. If I am incorrect, please feel free to let me know. No one kn\ows everything,

Oh, by the way, in future books, if you are talking about a nurse, instead of saying “nurse- do this or that” give him or her a name and refer to them by that at tag the nurse title after the name. Again, a silly minute detail.

These comments relate to an early scene in THE SURGEON, in which a trauma patient comes into the E.R. In the frantic moments that follow, my heroine, Dr. Catherine Cordell, makes a number of life-and-death decisions, and manages to save the man’s life. Although that scene is only eight pages long, this reader found a number of details that troubled her, and she took the time to write me about mistakes that she felt I had made. Did that email trouble me or irritate me?

Not at all.

Although it turned out she was mistaken about several points (O-negative is, in fact, the universal donor blood type, and “Ringer’s lactate” is what many doctors actually say when they want what’s formally known as “lactated Ringer’s”. Also, the patient had cancer, which would explain the rapid onset of DIC, aside from the trauma) I did not mind responding to her email, because her criticisms were polite and friendly — even if they were not correct.

Other readers have not been so kind. One reader sent me an email lambasting me because I’d referred to Aphrodite as the goddess of love. “Don’t you know that Venus is the goddess of love?” she wrote, amazed that I could be so misinformed. “Everyone knows that!” She included links to Botticelli’s painting of Venus rising from the sea on a clamshell, to support her stance that I was an ignoramus. I took a few deep breaths, then responded with a link to Wikipedia about the parallel pantheons of Roman and Greek gods, explaining that Venus and Aphrodite were names for the same goddess of love. (I love Wikipedia.)

I never heard back from her. Which is par for the course. The readers who build up the biggest heads of steam about my being an idiot are often not amenable to being corrected.

Still, I welcome such emails because I’ve learned so much from my readers. I’ve learned that you are never a “former” Marine. (I will never make that mistake again!) I’ve learned that Ford did not manufacture automobiles during WWII. I’ve learned that the “scleral hemorrhages” I described in Gravity should have been called “conjunctival hemorrhages” instead. I’ve learned that my understanding of the term “immaculate conception” is incorrect, and is more accurately called “virgin birth”. I’ve learned so much from my readers, and I always welcome enlightenment, if it’s offered in a friendly and non-threatening way. And when my readers are incorrect, I hope that they’re happy to be enlightened in return.

Here’s how I answered that email from the nurse:

I’m always glad to hear from someone in the field! And I deeply respect anyone who’s been an ICU nurse. Wanted to go through some of the points you bring up.

Re: universal donor blood type. According to this website, O neg is considered the “universal donor type.”

“Type O-negative blood does not have any antigens. It is called the “universal donor” type because it is compatible with any blood type. Type AB-positive blood is called the “universal recipient” type because a person who has it can receive blood of any type. Although “universal donor” and “universal recipient” types may be used to classify blood in an emergency, blood type tests are always done to prevent transfusion reactions.”

http://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/blood-type-test

Re: LR versus Ringer’s Lactate. Back in the dark ages, when I was still in practice, in the ER we’d say “Ringer’s Lactate” because it was quicker and easier to say than the five-syllable “Lactated ringer’s”. (Say it quick a few times– it’s a mouthful!) Not technically correct, perhaps, but common shorthand in a tense situation.

As for using the actual names of nurses in the stories, it’s really a matter of what works in a novel. In a quick-paced ER scene, it really slows the action down to have to introduce everyone in the room by name “Tiffany! Jennifer! Amy!”. The more names I add to a scene, the more confused a reader is likely to get by all these people. So unless the character becomes important to the plot, I tend not to name walk-on characters, but call them by their positions (Ward clerk, X-ray tech, patrolman) rather than give them each a name. I think you’ll notice that in crime scenes, I seldom name the individual crime-scene techs, either. Unless they have more than a walk-on role.

And yes, giving heparin in a situation of unconfirmed DIC is a dangerous thing to do. But novelists do get dramatic license to make a scene more exciting!

I don’t know if she welcomed the response. But I always appreciate having my mistakes corrected, so I hope she did too.

Won’t take advice? Good luck.

Check out my blog on this subject over at Murderati.com.

As you may have noticed, I’ve been missing in blog action for a few weeks. But I hope to get back to posting entries soon!