Marketing a Book (or any Creative Work)

You as a Brand

If you are a writer or artist of any kind, you are a brand. I tell my students, every person is a brand: you become associated with a product or service. Your reputation for integrity and quality will proceed you. I could write a long essay on the value of being honest, hardworking, and so on.

Writers rely on building a following, usually based on consistently good works. But, even that’s not enough. You also have to get people interested enough that they will read or see your works. Marketing matters.

One of the mistakes authors and artists make is assuming that a publisher, producer, agent, or someone else will deal with marketing and promoting the work — and your career. You might tell yourself, “My success is their success.” Unfortunately, you’re likely one of many. Yes, you might be viewed as a commodity by the people you expect to market you.

Agents, publishers, publishers… they do love you while your career is hot. Become the next big thing, and everyone will be more than happy to work to promote you. This is not because everyone is greedy or selfish; it is more complex. Since these people represent dozens, hundreds, or thousands of artists, they have to invest their energy (and money) wisely.

An author recently told me that he didn’t want to be the one promoting his works. It felt like pride or conceit to be claiming people should buy his book. As an artist, you created your work for an audience, though we sometimes tell ourselves differently. You must reach out to that potential audience, somehow.

The Marketing Steps

Step 1: Ask Permission

Be honest with your agent or others involved in promoting your work. Ask if you can do some of the legwork to promote yourself and your work. Keep things positive, explaining that you understand your work is one of many and you simply want to help.

Step 2: Review Existing Plans

You should know what has been or will be done to promote your work. Compare any existing plan to the remainder of this quick and simple marketing guide. Only do those things that won’t undercut the efforts of marketing experts. Just as you should let an editor do what an editor does best, let the marketing pro do his or her job. But… you might need to help fill in some gaps.

Step 3: Web Presence!

If you don’t have an “official” website and/or Facebook page, create those. (If you need help, we are available to guide you.) If your works are available on Amazon, also create an Amazon “Author’s Page” and link that to your other Web presences.

Have your online sites complete and ready before moving to the next steps. You should include links to your website and Facebook page within your email signature, on business cards, and in any marketing materials.

Step 4: Create a Media List

Create a list of the local media. Starting local is much easier than trying to contact national media. Start with local newspapers and broadcast media. Once you identify those organizations, identify particular columnists, reporters, and show hosts with a history of covering authors and artists. Sending press releases, marketing materials, and review copies of a work to “Editor” or “Manager” is ineffective. You need specific names. You also need to know enough that you can connect your work to others the media personality has mentioned.

Step 5: Write a Template Letter

Personal letters work better than press releases. Compose a template letter that can be customized to each media personality you hope to reach. The template will be the “body” of the letter, and then you will write custom openings and closings for each recipient. Today, most people will send an email. Still, use the template approach instead of sending “off-the-cuff” letters to strangers.

Step 6: Customize the Template

Your customized letters should begin with a mention of some the media personality has done that enjoyed and that connects to the work you are promoting. For example:

Your interview with Beverly Smith, author of Knights of Nowhere, was a great introduction to a master of young adult fantasy. As a fantasy author, I appreciated your respect for the genre. My new work, Middling Squire No Longer, was recently mentioned by Smith on her website.

End the letter with a similar connection to the personality.

Step 7: Contact… and Follow-Up

After you are satisfied with your template letter and the customized versions, start sending them. Send only two or three at a time, instead of sending every letter at once. Keep a week or two interval between the mailings, until you have contacted every media outlet on your list.

Two weeks after each mailing (or emailing), send one follow-up note to each personality contacted. Do not contact anyone a third or fourth time, unless you are asked to do so.

Step 8: Local Organizations

As you contact local media outlets, also begin compiling a list of local organizations with a history of having guest speakers. As a writer or artist, libraries and museums are certain to be on this list. Search online for other organizations, too. Sadly, many people have forgotten local service organizations are still active: Lions Clubs, Rotary, Soroptimists, and others. (Maybe you should join some groups, too.)

Additional Suggestions

Never say “No” to an interview or public appearance, no matter how small the group or media outlet. Remember, you need an audience — readers, viewers, listeners, et cetera. They have plenty of choices. Be accessible and it will be rewarded over time.

Help other writers and artists with kind words — and online links. On your website, Facebook page, and elsewhere, be sure to support other writers and artists.

Participate in any “niche” organizations related to your works. If you write romance, join the Romance Writers of America. If you are a playwright, join the Dramatists Guild of America. Connecting to colleagues builds a network that will help your career. Do not merely join groups, either — be an active member.

Be patient. Marketing takes time.

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The Librarian

This weekend, TNT aired “The Librarian” movies. It reminds me of other great references to books and libraries.

From The Mummy (1999):

Evelyn: I may not be an explorer, or an adventurer, or a treasure-seeker, or a gunfighter, Mr. O’Connell, but I am proud of what I am.
Rick: And what is that?
Evelyn: I… am a librarian.

From the Doctor Who episode “Tooth and Claw” (2006):

Sir Robert: Nevertheless, that creature won’t give up, Doctor, and we still don’t possess an actual weapon!
The Doctor: Oh, your dad got all the brains, didn’t he?
Rose Tyler: Being rude again!
The Doctor: Good, I meant that one. You want weapons? We’re in a library! Books! The best weapons in the world! This room’s the greatest arsenal we could have – arm yourselves!

I found the idea of being a librarian very appealing—working in a place where people had to whisper and only speak when necessary. If only the world were like that!
― Peter Cameron, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You

Google can bring you back 100,000 answers, a librarian can bring you back the right one.
― Neil Gaiman

When the going gets tough, the tough get a librarian.
― Joan Bauer

A book is a fragile creature, it suffers the wear of time, it fears rodents, the elements and clumsy hands. so the librarian protects the books not only against mankind but also against nature and devotes his life to this war with the forces of oblivion.
— Umberto Eco

Not all librarians are evil cultists. Some librarians are instead vengeful undead who want to suck your soul.
― Brandon Sanderson, Alcatraz Versus the Scrivener’s Bones

Reviewing a Book, Part II

Before exploring the mis-named “impartial” book review format, I want to mention the most influential form of book review today: the customer review. Just as “word-of-mouth” reviews by friends and colleagues can help you select a book (or avoid it), the online customer reviews found on Amazon, Goodreads, and elsewhere can help or hurt a book more than any traditional published review. When a book has thousands of positive reviews, who cares what the critics believe? Likewise, a torrent of negative reviews can condemn a critically acclaimed work.

Online Customer Reviews

Many online comment forms permit only 250 to 500 word reviews. The result is online reviews more like blurbs than reviews. Even negative comments posted online resemble blurbs more than in-depth reviews. “Don’t waste your money,” is not a review because it offers no explanation or insights. A proper review demonstrates the strengths and weaknesses of a book.

Do not waste any words in your comments. To write a useful customer review within the limited space available, try to select the best or the worst passage from the book. If your complaint is that the characters are one-dimensional — a common complaint about low-rated books — give an example of the weak description used by the author.

Posting more reviews does not always translate into influence. Most online systems allow readers a chance to evaluate other reviewers. If you post a thousand five-star reviews, that’s going to cast doubt on your critical thinking abilities. If, however, you post a hundred reviews that demonstrate careful consideration of the works, then other readers will pay attention.

I look to see what someone reads when I judge book ratings online. If you read science fiction and post a negative review of a history of World War I, that’s not persuasive. However, your reviews of science fiction books might be insightful. If you like some authors and not others, that information is useful to other readers and reviewers.

While most reviews are posted on merchant sites, such as Amazon, I encourage you to consider Goodreads. Also, there are websites dedicated to particular genres.

(Somewhat) Impartial Book Reviews

Writing a full-length book review for a newspaper, magazine, or online publication involves analyzing the book and defending your opinions. A good book review educates readers, explaining what the ideal qualities of a text might be and how the book being reviewed does or does not reflect the criteria you have established. A good review is craftwork.

The label “impartial” suggests that the reviewer did not receive money or other perks in return for writing a review. Most publications have strict policies to foster impartial reviews. However, many publications feature reviews by authors and there might be some hesitation before criticizing a colleague. Ideally, a reviewer does not share a publisher, agent, or any other financial connection to the author being reviewed. At the end of a review, you should disclose any potential conflicts of interest, if only to insulate yourself from claims of bias.

The Intro and Overall Assessment

The first paragraph or two of a book review need to state the work’s title, the author’s persona, and your overall assessment of the work. The introduction demonstrates your understanding of the genre, the author, and other readers. You need to hook review readers, just as you do readers of any work.

Francine Franklin’s A Stitch in Crime, her latest humorous mystery, keeps a reader in stitches while medical examiner Barney Bumble stumbles his way through a complex scheme to dominate the clothing industry. Unfortunately, much of the laughter comes at the expense of Franklin, who resorts to the tired formula that seemed so original in her first two novels. Some might consider A Stitch in Crime literary comfort food, but most readers will want more from such a talented writer.

The sample intro offers the big details: Francine Franklin’s book A Stitch in Crime is, at best, a mediocre book. The remainder of the review needs to explain this claim with evidence and comparisons to other works.

About the Author

The second section of a book review needs to balance its appeal to readers new to the author and the loyal followers likely to defend the work. By proving you know about the author and his or her works, you are more likely to persuade readers to take your analysis seriously. Some of the information you might address includes:

  • What else has the author written?
  • Does the author stick to one genre?
  • Does the work (or previous works) resemble those of another writer(s)?
  • Does the author have any special qualifications?
  • Are there any biographical facts that might help readers?
  • Are the any great bits of trivia about the author that readers might not know?

Other works written by the author, especially if they are well known works, should be mentioned. First, this shows you have the most basic knowledge of the author. Second, it tells readers something about what they might expect from a new book. When you mention these past works, indicate if the author tends to favor one genre. If the author writes in a few genres, do the works in one sell better? Are they better written?

Readers… read. Therefore, they are likely to be familiar with other authors within the same genre as the book being reviewed. Mention similar authors, and later in the review you should expand on any comparisons or contrasts. When you do compare authors, realize that comparisons are imperfect. Readers do not want writers that mimic each other, but they do recognize that some writers are more alike than others.

After you establish what the author writes, explore any unique qualifications brought to the topic. A former police officer writing about urban crime? A doctor writing medical thrillers? Those are special qualifications. It isn’t that a writer must have career experience related to a book, but it does help readers take the author more seriously.

Non-fiction works might not require a doctorate in the field explored, but it helps to have a broad knowledge of the book’s topic. I happen to prefer books at least co-written by scientists, historians, and other experts. There are good books by journalists — they are often self-taught experts — but I do give more credence to books by researchers. Be sure to verify how qualified a non-fiction author is and share that information with review readers.

What if the author is a pen name? Some reviewers choose to reveal the writers behind pseudonymous works, while others treat author personas as unique creations. Some authors have made their pen names part of marketing strategies. Nora Roberts is one good example of this.

Telling a Good Story

Does the work tell a good story? Most readers want a story, with more than a basic linear recounting of events. A story might be either plot-driven or character-driven, but it is always “driven” by something. Do we follow the growth of one or more characters? Do we watch an event unfold? Some readers are passionate about characters, while others focus on plot points.

I cannot recall much about the character in the film Titanic. The film was event-driven with characters serving to help us relate to the disaster. Yet, there are also characters we know better than their stories. I enjoy the character Sherlock Holmes; the stories seem to be vehicles for the character. One approach is not superior to the other.

When you review a book, indicate if the book emphasizes memorable characters or plot points. Of course, a good story has interesting characters and an interesting chain of events, but which are the readers more likely to remember? Series tend to need great central characters that become familiar to readers.

Themes and Theses

Books tend to teach lessons — at least they attempt to teach lessons. The lesson might be shallow, serving no real purpose. The theme is the overall topic, usually with some moral leaning. For example, a theme might be “friendship.” The thesis might be, “We need friends to achieve great things.” The thesis is an opinion on the theme — an argument that the book attempts to support. A theme is simply a short topic, which might not be a complete sentence. The thesis about the theme is not only a complete thought, but it is at the core of the story.

A good review tells readers if the theme and thesis are developed and realized. It is disappointing (and common) when a book fails to defend the author’s thesis. A book that tries to teach about love, yet conveys to readers that marrying the richest man is the best choice, has failed to realize its thesis.

An academic book review might spend more time on the theme and thesis of a book than a general review. An academic review tends to favor conceptual and historical comparisons, while a general review needs to focus on the reading experience. The themes and theses of popular fiction tend to be simple and familiar, which is another reason you can keep this section of a review short.

When you do encounter a book with an unusual theme or a thesis that challenges popular values, then you can spend more time addressing these aspects of the story. If a book about love suggests that an affair or two might be okay, readers might want you to challenge the thesis in a review. Plenty of literary works do challenge norms, which is why they tend to be outside the mass market.

Characters that Count

Having covered the basics, a review should address specifics about characters and plot points. I suggest addressing characters first, since they tend to be what sells mass market books. Even popular non-fiction often highlights the “characters” behind the events discussed. Does the book have characters who will be remembered? You don’t have to like characters to find them interesting, but dull characters can ruin a story.

We like to read about people (or creatures) caught in situations we’d rather avoid. For all the dystopian stories in our culture, we still like heroes rising against the odds. Because I write scripts, I tend to favor the “Hero’s Journey” story model common to screen and stage. A good story follows a character as he or she becomes a better person in the process of solving a problem.

A book review needs to address the following:

  • Are the characters interesting or dull?
  • Do the characters have backstories?
  • How does the author develop characters?
  • Are any characters “wasted” space?
  • Do you want to know more about them after reading the book?

Good, evil, or neutral, a character needs to be interesting. What is the character’s motivation? How does the character justify his or her choices and actions? You want to avoid characters that do things for no reason. Even an insane villain has a reason (however illogical) for actions. When you review a book, offer readers an explanation for why characterization worked or failed.

When you read the works of some authors, you end up with a complete history for main characters. Other authors offer only allusions to the origins of characters. Both approaches can work, depending on the requirements of the story. Tell readers what to expect: details or hints.

Wasted characters annoy readers. A “waste of space” character is one that doesn’t contribute to the plot or the emotional development of other characters. When reviewing a book, tell readers if there are wasted characters. It is not a waste to have a “red herring” among the characters; misleading readers makes for a good story. A common wasted character is the sidekick who does nothing to help advance the plot. Sidekicks need to be useful.

Some characters are based on real people or composites of real people. A review should mention anything known about the real life inspirations behind characters.

Good characters are complex. Heroes tend to have flaws and the plot helps the protagonist recognize his or her flaws. A villain should have some “reasonable” motivation. Often, a villain’s perspective offers an explanation for his or her actions. Pure evil often is less interesting than the evil that was created by experiences.

What readers want are characters worth meeting again and again, either by rereading a favorite book or by reading new books in a series. A good review tells readers if the characters are compelling.

Plot Points

Do not give away the major plot points in a book review. Do not get cute with “spoiler alerts” in a review. Your job is to critique a book, not to summarize it. How do you address the plot in a review? You give the one-sentence “log line” that would appear in a TV Guide listing. For a reviewer, the challenge is to describe the plot without giving away the details.

To save his beloved swamp, an ogre rescues a princess and accidentally discovers the beauty of true love.

A review might include the following:

  • What is the problem that advances the plot?
  • What happens if the problem is not resolved?
  • Are there any subplots?

A story needs a problem that one of the characters must solve. If the problem is not solved, something bad will happen, usually to some other character or group. The Hero’s Journey model suggests that the protagonist decides to make a self-sacrifice to save others.

Sub-plots are important, but they can also overwhelm a story. Let readers know if there are too many sub-plots in a story. In my experience, romantic sub-plots can distract from stories, but they are included because authors and editors assume romance humanizes characters. In romance stories, sub-plots about money (or the lack of money) can be overwrought and annoying.

Style Points

Reviews should award style point — and penalize authors for poor style. Spend a fair amount of the review exploring style. A good story deserves to be delivered well. It is possible to have a good story, decent plot, interesting characters… and weak style. Readers won’t forgive poor style, so a review must address the readability of a book. The style section of a book review should address topics including:

  • Narrative point-of-view,
  • Tone of the narrative,
  • Voice of the author, and
  • Style of the writing, in general.

I am not a fan of present tense first or second-person narrative. Most readers are not, either. The second-person narrative was common in the 1940s. The short story and radio drama series “The Whistler” featured a narrator talking about the actions of the main character as he or she committed a crime and then tried to escape the consequences. It is an interesting approach to storytelling, but it can be confusing. Is “you” the reader or a character?

You don’t see the gun he has hidden under the table. You move. He shoots.

Does the author/narrator have a sense of humor? Are plot points themselves humorous? What is the “mood” and “tone” of the author? I love A Series of Unfortunate Events because the narration is dark and depressing, yet that is also part of the humor of the books. Such satire is amazing when done well.

There are style norms within genres. One of the norms includes the vocabulary used by the authors. Does the author prefer concise sentences or flowery prose? Is the vocabulary unusual in some way? How does the language reflect genre conventions, or does the author resist the conventions?

Closing the Review

A review concludes by restating your recommendation: should someone read this book? The last paragraph or two should remind readers of the strengths and weaknesses you have discovered. Your role as a reviewer is to promote good writing to readers. If you dislike a book, maybe you can suggest an alternative to read. If you like a book, be sure to remind readers of other works by the same author.

Reviewers foster reading, and they do so by offering honest critiques of the works they read.

Create PDFs from DOC, not DOCX Files

We learned a lesson tonight when I was trying to submit a script to a production company: PDFs from DOC files are much, much smaller than PDFs generated from DOCX files.

Microsoft Word migrated from the familiar “.DOC” format of Word 97-2004 with the release of Word 2007/2008 (Windows/OS X). I recall the painful transition from Word 95 to Word 97, but nothing has compared to the nightmare that is the DOCX “Office XML” file format. I appreciate the idea of XML-based documents. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s DOCX seems to cause a fair amount of pain.

The 101-page script stored as a DOCX refused to convert to a compressed and optimized PDF with Acrobat Distiller, Acrobat Pro, or Apple’s built-in PDF driver. This left me able to create only an uncompressed PDF. The file was 62 megabytes! A 184 kilobyte document exploded to 62MB… and it couldn’t be emailed through our server.

Saving the document as a DOC file, the document grew to 214KB, a bit larger than the DOCX. However, when a PDF was generated it was only 800KB. Not that 800KB is great, but it is much better than megabytes of bloat.

I often tell my students to save documents in DOC format, instead of DOCX, if they intend to email a document. I never considered that the DOC/DOCX differences would affect PDF output.

In trying to “help” the layout, Microsoft’s DOCX format includes a lot of redundant font and layout information. Although I didn’t have any graphics in my script, the DOCX format also links to higher resolution images than the DOC format supports. I examined the PDF output from Word 2011 (OS X) and discovered nearly 100 font “embed” occurrences. The problem is that Word styles are assigned multiple times — for no apparent reason.

You might imagine “Character Name” would be a single style that is assigned to all paragraphs. But, no, Microsoft’s DOCX included two dozen “Character Name” styles, each assigned to varying number of paragraphs. It makes no sense at all to me. During the PDF creation, it seems fonts are embedded repeatedly with the styles. I’d have to do some forensic work to discover what is happening in greater detail.

No matter what the cause, the best way to create a PDF from Word appears to be saving a document as a “DOC” file first.

I get that hard drives are cheap and broadband is fast, but that’s no defense for lousy file formats. More is not always better, as Microsoft’s bloated file formats constantly demonstrate. Unfortunately, Microsoft’s bloat adds to Adobe’s bloat.

Design Changes – Coming November 19, 2012

The Tameri Guide for Writers had fallen behind the times. In Internet time, we were a generation behind the latest design and feature trends. The site had been moved to a three-column “fluid” layout a few years ago, accommodating a variety of computer screen sizes from 800 to 1024 pixels wide. Today, however, people have huge screens on the desktop and little screens of 320 pixels in their pockets or purses thanks to smartphones. The Tameri site wasn’t working well for many visitors.

Writers and publishers once could assume words would appear on a page that didn’t change from reader to reader. If two people purchased copies of a book in the same format, the books were the same. Today, however, digital texts are unpredictable. My iPhone has one display, my wife’s iPad has another. Plus, both devices “auto-rotate” pages depending on how you hold them: portrait or landscape is up to the user, not the designer.

I am now testing a layout that seems to work well on my phone, okay on a tablet, and perfectly on a standard screen from 1024 to 2048 pixels wide. That’s the new design conundrum: each layout has to be at least good enough, if not perfect. I’m still designing with the assumption people will have a 1024-pixel or wider screen, with phone and tablet access for convenience. Design is a compromise.

When we do unveil the new template, we will be converting one page at a time. That will allow us to catch problems as we update the entire site. Once we are certain things are working well, we will bulk convert the remaining content. Expect a few glitches, though.

For the technically minded, the new site will be using a mix of fluid and responsive grid templates from Adobe Dreamweaver’s library [link] and the 1140 Grid System by Andy Taylor [link:]. Merging two basic template sets has resulted in a better overall design for website visitors.

As always, please let us know if you locate any design or content errors. We are dedicating more time to Tameri projects in coming months.