Tuesday, October 29, 2013

What Makes Readers Buy Your Book?

Independent publishers are constantly looking for ways to sell more books. But in our never-ending quest to sell, we might be missing an important part of the equation; buyer behavior. Without a buyer, selling can't happen so if we don't sell in a way that fits the way buyers buy, we might be shooting in the dark.

Market Evolution
In the past, people roamed book stores or read bestseller lists to find books. The arbiters of taste were few and selection was based largely on the inventory of our local bookstore. Amazon, Nook and their contemporaries have changed the game. That means we need to change our methods.

A Case Study in Book Buying
I will readily admit that I don't have a qualitative flowchart model on the modern consumer book buying process. If I did have one, I'm probably not smart enough to understand it. I do know how I buy books. I'm going to bet that my process is similar enough to other regular readers. We all have the enviable problem of too many books to read, not enough time to read them and everyone clamoring for our limited attention. Based on that, I'm going to extrapolate my experience as typical enough for this exercise. Please let me know if I'm way off the mark.

Please keep in mind that I'm not suggesting that my process is better than anyone else or should be the standard in the way books are selected. This is simply a description of my personal method. My prejudices and biases are cooked into this, so it may not match your preferences at all.

How I Choose a Book
Based on my own observation,  I currently have a four step process for buying a book. I'll refer to these steps as notice, choice, testing and purchase.

I don't buy books that I never see or hear about, so a book has to cross my radar and get noticed before I can consider it. As a reader and writer, there are several ways that I might notice a book. These are generally in order of influence:

  • Suggestions from Amazon based on my previous purchases
  • Titles on specific subjects that I search for on Amazon
  • Browsing physical bookstores
  • News articles about books that pop up in my research
  • Recommendations from my favorite authors that I'm friends with on FB
  • Suggestions from Good Reads
What doesn't work: There are many books that I notice and then reject because of the way I found out about them. I generally don't consider books:
  • on general bestseller lists, 
  • random social media messages that say "please check out my book",  
  • book review websites, 
  • book press releases 
  • social media comments that are simply thinly veiled attempts to add links for the author's book.
  • book ads in newspapers, trains or on websites
After a book gets my attention, there are several factors that will influence whether I will give it a try. Sometimes this choice is subconscious and amorphous, but the selection factors include:

  • Seeing the name of an author that I have read and enjoyed before
  • An interesting cover design
  • The book blurb
  • The format the book is available in (paperback, e-book, audio book)
  • The average rating for the book (if applicable)
Things that don't work: In general, there are several factors that I know are supposed to influence my choice but don't. These include:
  • Any reference to other books the author wrote
  • Any reference to the author being a "bestseller"
  • Other readers specific reviews online
  • Excerpts of critical reviews on the back cover
  • Generic elements of cover design (i.e. the ubiquitous male shadow running away from the White House or the Capitol Building for thrillers)
  • Cliche elements in the book blurb (I read a lot of spy fiction, but I instantly stop reading the blurb when I find out the protagonist is "a burned out cop on the edge", "a maverick FBI/ CIA agent" or "the special forces soldier who answers only to the president")
Once I weed out all the possible books I see, I get a sample of the book to see if the elements hinted in the blurb and the cover are actually in the book. Amazon's "try a sample" is a fantastic tool for this, but a couple times per year I'll grab a stack of books in B&N and peruse them for content. I read the first chapter and determine if the book needs to be acquired.

What doesn't work: Unless it's one of my favorite authors (See Bloody Inspiration 4: My Top Five Thriller Authors) with a strong blurb, I don't buy books without a sample. So when publishers don't make it available, I assume they don't want me to buy it.

The decision to purchase is based on my level of excitement during the test
  • Low excitement after testing means the book gets dropped. 
  • A moderate level of interest means the book will get put on the Amazon/ Good Reads wish list where it might be read later or not at all. 
  • A high level of interest means an immediate or impeding purchase and insertion of the book into my audio, e-book or print book cue. 
At that point the author has succeeded in making money off me. Whether I read more of their work later is based on my reaction to this book and the next thing they decide to write about.

What doesn't work: When a book feels like it's priced too high for my level of excitement, I have aborted purchases. I can buy a book on a whim for $5.99 or less. A price point of $9.99 is about as high as I will go for an e-book. Anything beyond that kills my interest. Also, limiting the format is another reason I'll drop a book. I rarely buy physical books anymore. My first preference is audio, then e-book, then paper. If the publisher insists on limiting my choices, I'll probably choose not to buy.

What I Plan to Change
After taking a long look at my own buying preferences, there are several things I plan to change in my marketing of A Taste of Honey. I had a process that I used for Smooth Operator (See Marketing the Independent Novel) that I'll modify as follows:
  • Offer the book on multiple platforms to increase potential notice
  • Increased target ads to improve notice potential
  • Increased advanced book reviews to increase positive choosing
  • Offer the first quarter of my novel for free to encourage testing
  • Competitive pricing to increase potential purchase
  • Elimination of Twitter feed purchases on launch day
  • Elimination of book press releases on launch day
My hope is by focusing on how I actually buy books, I will increase my chances of selling books.

What Do You Think?
Am I missing something in my thought process?  Do you buy books in ways that I don't take into account? Do you sell books in a method that I don't mention? If you're willing to share your secret sauce, please leave a comment below.

Have fun.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Hearts and Minds: How to Connect Your Readers to Your Story

One of my beta readers ended her analysis of my new novel with the following statement:

"I didn't really feel an emotional connection to the characters. I kept reading mostly because I really wanted to know what happened next."

While this isn't the most ideal situation, it does highlight something that writers should be aware of as they build their narrative. There are two ways for readers to connect with your story, one is intellectual the other is emotional.

Mental Connection and the Spoiler Alert

When you hook a reader's mind, they become invested in the outcome of your story. They want an answer to the universal question "How does this story end?" In the best case scenario, the events of your story are magnetic and hypnotic.  Readers keep turning the pages long past their bedtime because they want to know what happens next.

The best way to understand this is to look at the concept of spoilers. The popularity of many books, movies and TV shows hinge on the mystery of the outcome. Some people feel their story experience is ruined if they find out the ending of the story before they see it unfold. In 2013, this can lead to extreme behavior as people avoid their social media, entertainment news and their real world friends to preserve the unknown quality of the story.

Emotional Connection and the Titanic Effect

There are some stories that don't need a mysterious or shocking ending. They are popular in spite of, or perhaps because, we know how the story will end. Stories that transfer the pleasure or pain of the characters to the reader have emotional resonance rather than mystery.  A high level of both empathy (where the reader relates to who the character is and what they want) and sympathy (the reader wants the character to achieve their goals) creates that emotional bond that people return to over and over again.

Films often capture this idea best, and Titanic is the ultimate example. (Spoiler Alert!) Everyone who ever went to see that movie knows the boat sinks at the end. When the movie starts, you already know who lives and who dies. But people went to see the movie anyway. Hundreds of thousands of people saw it multiple times. It is one of the highest grossing films ever and it is based on an inherent spoiler. Holiday movies like a Christmas Story and classics like Casablanca tug on the emotions, but none of them have the effect of the sinking ship.

The Best of Both Worlds

Of course, as writers we would love to capture the hearts and minds of our readers at the same time. We want to create the mental curiosity that makes them blast through the book in one night and the emotional link that drives them to tell their friends far and wide about your genius. (See On Champions, Tastemakers and True Fans). The problem is that I don't have some kind of formula for doing that. My best guess is that creating a relatable protagonist in search of universal goals is the best way to capture heats. Putting that character in a complex conflict that creates true dilemma is the path that can capture minds. The art lies in weaving both together seamlessly, without cliché or a heavy hand. I'm still working on that part. Sometimes I hit the head, sometimes I hit the heart. Hopefully at some point I’ll hit the bull’s eye.

So what do you think? Is there another way to maintain a reader's connection to your book? How do you keep the pages turning and readers rooting for your characters? Feel free to share your comments below.

Have fun

P.S. If you'd like to get updates on the business, craft and lifestyle of independent publishing, please sign up for the Independent Publisher newsletter here

Monday, October 14, 2013

One Novel, Four Books: The Case for Episodic Novels

Question: How does the independent publisher maximize their writing output and maintain fresh exposure in the market?

Answer: You have two choices. You can quit your day job and spend every minute writing or you can release episodic novels.

According to several independent publishers that I've listened to over the past few weeks, releasing a novel in parts might be the best option. While there is some logic to this method, there are some potential drawbacks too. I'd like to explore the idea here to give you something to think about for your own books. Hopefully writing this out will also help me wrap my head around the idea too.

What is an Episodic Novel?

Let's say you wrote an amazing novel of about 75,000 words. In a standard novel, you release the whole thing at once. The story succeeds or fails in the market and you move on to the next project. This method has worked for books since Gutenberg launched his printing press start up and is a completely viable method today.

But the same story could also be an episodic novel. You could take the 75,000 story and break it into several smaller segments. It could be three sequential 25,000 word novellas corresponding to the beginning, middle and end of the story (See Build a Better Novel: The Narrative Framework). In extreme cases, you could have one release for each chapter, breaking your 75,000 word book into 20 or more short story releases. The final configuration is up to you and the appetite of your readers.

While it might sound strange, episodic story telling is standard in certain types of media. Television and comics are just two media models based on a story that develops over several episodes and then sold as a collection when the story is done. Movies also had this format in the past, where a hero would jump from one ten minute cliffhanger to the next. Many independent publishers are also starting to embrace this method, creating different positive and negative results. 

The Benefits of the Episodic Novel
  • You increase the size of your catalog without having to write any faster.
  • You create multiple points of entry in the market for potential readers to find you.
  • You create anticipation among your established readers as they anticipate each new release.
  • You can generate several revenue streams for the same story.
  • You constantly have new product in the market which raises your chances for sales.
  • Each shorter story can be priced lower than a full novel

The Downside of Episodic Novels
  • The cost of producing each novel increases, since you need to pay for marketing (See Marketing the Independent Novel) and cover design (See Judging a Book by its Cover) for several releases instead of just one. 
  • Your potential audience may shrink with each subsequent release if the narrative doesn't maintain the momentum to keep people coming back. 
  • Your writing style might not be conducive to natural breaks needed in episodic writing
  • Your readers might balk at having to pay several times to get one story.

My Approach to Episodic Novels

My writing style lends itself to episodic writing. Working for companies like Marvel, and organizing my stories into a detailed plot structure (See Building a Better Novel: Plot Construction) works to my advantage here. I write so that each chapter and each act is a story in and of itself. It's connected to the larger narrative, but I try to make them able to stand on their own. 

Based on that, I've decided to try the episodic approach with my next novel, A Taste of Honey (See Taste of Honey Beta Request) with the following plan:

  • Have the novel edited as one unit to keep some of the costs fixed (See How Much Does It Cost to Publish a Book)
  • Separate the novel into three different books, making it clear in the subtitle that the books are related
  • Release the first book for free to attract new readers in February (See Selling Books like a Drug Dealer)
  • Release the next two books one month apart (in March and April), focusing my marketing budget on one book at a time
  • Release the entire story in print and e-book as a full novel, one month after the third book comes out. As an extra incentive, the full novel will be cheaper than buying all three books and will include an extra bonus short story.

So what do you think as a writer? Does it make sense for you to release a standard novel or an episodic one?

What do you think as a reader? Do you want standard novels, or would you prefer smaller, cheaper releases over time?

Have fun. 

P.S. If you'd like to get updates on the business, craft and lifestyle of independent publishing, please sign up for the Independent Publisher newsletter here!

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Sign Up Now for the Independent Publisher Newsletter!

Response to the new Independent Publishing Page (See Welcome to the Independent Publishing Page) has inspired me to expand the concept. Starting next week, I'll be posting a companion newsletter called the Independent Publisher.

What You Can Expect: The Independent Publisher will cover the business, craft and lifestyle of modern writing. It will include my own perspectives on the industry and well as links to news, blogs and podcasts that I feel will help you with your own writing. There will also be announcements about books on sale from my company, but that won't be the bulk of the coverage.

What You Wont GetI have no intention of using the Independent Publisher for third party ads, book promotion or spam. I want this to be a resource and a forum where independent writers and publishers can share ideas. It might not the the Algonquin Roundtable, but most of us can't meet to discuss writing over a three martini lunch. (Wouldn't that be great, though?)

I hope you sign up for the newsletter. If there are any topics you'd like us to tackle or resources you think we should use, please let me know.

Have fun.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Bloody Inspiration Part 4: My Top Five Thriller Authors

News of Tom Clancy's death today got me thinking about the writers who have consciously affected my craft. I'm sure that my writing has been influenced by dozens of writers on a subconscious level, but I'm going to stick to the ones that I'm aware of, because I don't want to spend hours in psychoanalysis just to write a blog post.

Here they are in order of importance to me:

1) Barry Eisler
Signature book: Winner Take All (Rain Storm)
Signature character: John Rain
The stories set in the John Rain universe resonate with detailed tradecraft and sudden violence. Eisler conveys a sense of realism that is missing from many testosterone driven espionage thrillers. He also delivers a sense of characterization and true character (See Creating Complex Characters) that is unique in a genre of cookie cutter assassins, maverick FBI agents and special forces tropes. If there is anyone I want to compare my books to, it's Eisler's.

2) John Le Carre
Signature book: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
Signature character: George Smiley
Where other authors treat spies as modern day daredevil adventurers, Le Carre offers a vision of agents and case officers that is much more human. Flawed personalities, personal distrust and institutional apathy hover over everything in his work. But there is also a charm and a wit that he will use to turn a phrase or describe a situation that is amazing to experience,  whether he is lifting you up or bringing you down. I hope one day to have both Le Carre's gift of language and his grounded characters.

3) Greg Rucka
Signature book: A Gentleman's Game (Queen and Country Book 1)
Signature character: Tara Chace
Rucka's Queen and Country story has found success both as a series of novels and comics. Rucka combines the bureaucratic infighting and troubled spies of Le Carre with the action and high body counts of James Bond. He also focuses on a female protagonist, something that is sadly rare in the espionage genre. Fortunately, I'm trying to change that with my novels.

4) Brian Azzarello
Signature book: 100 Bullets
Signature character: Agent Graves
Unlike everyone else on this list, Azzarello makes comics, not novels. But that doesn't diminish his craft in any way. 100 Bullets weaves crime, conspiracy, politics, sex, violence and social commentary seamlessly in a story that stretches from the discovery of America to the present. The visual nature of the story enhances the raw beauty of it in a way that prose can't accomplish on its own, no matter how much I try.

5) Tom Clancy
Signature book: A Clear and Present Danger
Signature character: Jack Ryan
Clancy's books don't really have a strong influence on my writing. I consciously avoid the type of highly technical descriptions that often left me confused and pulled out of the story when I read his work years ago. I also try to avoid the super patriotic undertones of good vs. evil that he fostered and the impossibly high, end of the world stakes that were common place in his books.

I do draw a lot of inspiration from the universe he created. It was through books like Patriot Games and The Sum of All Fears that I learned to appreciate the complex relationship between the US military and its intelligence services. His books taught me the importance of set ups and payoffs in a narrative that are pure art when done his way. Most of all, I constantly look to the work derived from the Ryan series and expressed in games like Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and Splinter Cell. Clancy may not have invented Sam Fisher, but he is the godfather of the techno thriller and characters like Fisher couldn't exist without him.

So who are your favorite thriller authors? Who influences what you write and read today? I'm always looking for new authors, so please provide a book title if you can.

Have fun.

See Also