[Insert Annoying Self-Promoting Message Here]

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I’ve decided to change the way I blog.

From now on, day in and day out, all I’m going to post are blogs that consist of an image of my book’s cover, a link to where it’s for sale online and an excerpt from “another 5* review!” (the word another and the exclamation mark being the most important elements of that phrase).

Will you stick around?

I’m guessing not, and I wouldn’t expect you to. Were you to change your blog to consist exclusively of such blatant, repetitive, smug and utterly pointless – more on the pointless bit in a minute – content, I’m sure you wouldn’t expect anyone to hang around either.

And yet this is exactly how an alarming number of writers are treating Twitter every minute of every day.

I thought we all understood. I thought we had this thing down. I thought we’d all realized that people follow us on Twitter, read our blogs and “like” our Facebook pages not to be sold something but to find things that either:

  1. Entertain them
  2. Inform them
  3. Make them feel like they connect with someone else, i.e. like they can relate to you because you have a shared problem/experience

or a combination of the above. I thought incessantly tweeting updates about how many five star reviews your book has now, or asking us to vote for you in some internet-votes-decided competition, or posting nothing but advertisements for your book that promise us “fans of Dan Brown will think this is even better!” had all gone the way of thinking Cover Creator can create professional-looking covers or that editing is optional.

But it’s getting worse. Actually, I think it got much better and then got worse than ever before. I’ve noticed it myself lately and then today my Twitter friend Mariam tweeted this (see below), and I realized the increase in this activity wasn’t in my imagination, and I decided to blog about it.

So, here goes:

stopsignIT.

What is “it”?

It’s silly to say that any kind of activity should be subject to a blanket ban. We’re all trying to sell books, engage with new readers and increase our Twitter following, so of course there will always be an element of self-promotion to our online presence. Please feel free to tell us about five star reviews, and encourage us to vote for you in some competition or other, or let us know when your book is free or you have a little launch party going on (as I did recently).

But FOR THE LOVE OF FUDGE people: stop doing it all the damn time.

Permission marketing is a term coined by Seth Godin that essentially means promoting only to people who have opted-in to be promoted to. (Like when you buy something on Gap.com in September, check the box marked “Subscribe to newsletter” and then get at least two e-mails about layers every day for three months.) But I like to use the term and the idea to convey a simple instruction about your promotional activity: you must earn the right to sell me something.

If 99% of the time – or even, say, 75% of the time – you tweet hilarious observations, share links to fascinating blog posts and stroke my ego by retweeting my hilarious observations and links to fascinating blog posts, how am I going to feel when you tweet “ANOTHER 5* review for The Best Novel Ever!”?

Not that bothered. I might even go check it out. But if every other tweet before it has said the same thing, and all your tweets yesterday said the same thing, and all the tweets the day before said the same thing and so on, how am I going to feel?

It’d be more like this:

trex

Or on a good day:

wince

We’re not talking about occasional self-promotion here. We’re talking about a tweet stream infested with it. I think if it’s taking up more than 3 out of every 10 tweets – and that’s not including stuff you retweet; I mean your original tweets – then you’re in trouble, and all your followers are already pissed off.

Perfectly Pointless

The thing that really gets my goat about this kind of promotion is that it is COMPLETELY AND UTTERLY POINTLESS. It doesn’t work. It never has. It can’t work, because you can’t sell to people who are annoyed with you. So it’s not going to win you any sales and it’s going to cost you (virtual) friends. Why do it then?

I think people do it for two reasons:

  1. They don’t know any better OR
  2. They think they’re getting away with it.

What I mean by “they don’t know any better” is this: maybe Twitter doesn’t look to them the way it looks to you and me. Remember that Twitter is what you make of it. It’s an entirely different kettle of fish to each and every user. For example to me, it’s a fantastically interesting and friendly place packed full of people with a deep love of books, with some Irish and celebrity news thrown in. (Don’t judge me…) But for the person who just signed up yesterday, it may just be a place to keep up with traffic alerts and giveaways by their favorite brands. Twitter may look to them like a billboard, just because of who they’ve chosen to follow. Therefore, they may not know that it’s wrong – or pointless – to treat it as such. There’s not much we can do about them.

However if you’re in the second group, brace yourself: you’re not getting away with it. You may have a healthy follower count, but what’s your engagement level like? When you tweet “ANOTHER 5* review!” do you instantly get a string of retweets and a stream of congratulatory messages? I very much doubt it. And just because your follower count doesn’t go down doesn’t mean you’re not losing followers. You know we can “mute” you now, right? Unfollow you, for all intents and purposes, except you won’t know it. We’ll never see you in our stream and yet if you check, we’ll still be in your follower list. Except we won’t be really, because you’ve annoyed us so much we’ve put you on mute.

Check Your Content’s Value

I outlined above the three reasons people are spending their time online. I’ve blogged about it before and I cover it at length in Self-Printed, but here’s a quick recap again:

When you put something promotional online, be it a blog post, tweet or Facebook update, your goal should be to improve the internet above all else. Make it a better place – or a more interesting place, or a funnier place, or a more helpful place – than it was five minutes ago. Don’t just add to the white noise, because your content will disappear like a fleck of white in a screen full of static. (So it will be, say it with me: POINTLESS!)

Make sure your promotional content is doing one or more of the following things: entertaining (e.g. a funny book trailer), informing (e.g. sharing details of a writing competition on Facebook) or connecting (e.g. writing a blog post about how you’re feeling about NaNoWriMo this year or your struggle to get an agent).

Then, here’s the kicker: does it still do one or more of those three things when you take the advertising bit out of it?

Take these examples:

They are advertising:

  • Where’d You Go, Bernadette? (a novel)
  • Self-Printed 3.0 (my book)
  • Transworld titles (i.e. corporate account)

But pretending for a second that none of the things in that list really exist, that none of those products are really available to buy, would the items above still have a value? Yes, they would: the video is entertaining, my blog post is helpful and when we see the picture Transworld shared, I’m sure most of us think, I love that – that’s so me!

Looking at your promotional content, if your book didn’t exist, could the content still stand alone? Does it have a value of its own?

What if we took away the advertising from a tweet that read:

tweet

What would we be left with? Could it stand by itself if the book didn’t exist? If the answer is no, then forget it.

The Real Life Test

Here’s another, even easier test you can do: would you say this to me in real life? Is your tweet (or blog post or Facebook update) a reflection of how you behave in the real, 3-D world?

Last week I launched the third edition of Self-Printed, and I had a fantastic prize from eBookPartnership to give away. I confined the whole thing to two days and have not mentioned it since, as you may have noticed. And this is what I did in real life too – I e-mailed my writer friends, just the once, to say the new edition was out now and that I had a fab prize going on my blog if they knew any self-publishers who might be interested. But when I meet them for coffee, do we all sit at the table saying “I just got ANOTHER 5* star review for my book!”? I can assure you we don’t, because we wouldn’t be invited back again. But because I almost never promote my stuff to my friends, they weren’t annoyed when I did it the once – in fact, they were all congratulatory  and were happy to pass the message on. I’d earned it.

So try the Real Life test before you tweet your next “Fabulous stuff ANOTHER person said about my book!” tweet.

Twitter isn’t a billboard. Stop treating it like one . It doesn’t work and we’re all going to end up muting you.

When Story Goes Wrong: My Amber-Induced Rage

Roll up, roll up. It’s rant o’clock!

As you may or may not know, I love TV. Good TV that is. I have no time for people who are happy to stick their nose in a book but only look down their nose at television. I love stories and I love writers, and that’s what’s on and who’s behind TV. Yes, there’s bad TV, but there’s bad books too. If your argument is that TV-watching is too passive an activity, turn on your TV’s captioning service. There. Sorted.

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A few months ago, the final episode of a four-part drama series called Amber aired here on the state broadcaster’s channel RTE, and as our TV screens faded to black we took to Twitter and raged. Then we called into radio shows and raged. When we next saw our friends and family we said, ‘Were you watching Amber?’ and if the answer was yes then we raged some more.

In the first episode four nights before, a teenage girl — Amber — disappeared. She got her father to drop her to a friend’s house, waited until he’d driven away and then scurried off somewhere. We’d all stayed tuned for more than an hour each evening since to follow the investigation and the search, while flashbacks teased us about Amber’s final (?) hours. What happened to Amber? both we and the characters on the show wondered aloud. Where is she? Where did she go? The acting was mostly great, the production was sleek and the opening titles even had a touch of Top of the Lake about them. Many of us had spent numerous Saturday nights glued to subtitled Scandinavian drama on BBC4 (e.g. The Killing and The Bridge) and sat through Christmas impatient for new Sherlock, so it was a treat to have a slick crime drama of our own to watch featuring An Garda Siochana (the Irish police force) and Irish actors.

Or so we thought.

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I can’t write the rest of this without revealing the details of Amber, but since it already aired, most of you don’t live in Ireland and I feel compelled to warn those of you who live in the UK not to waste four nights of your life watching it like we did when it airs on BBC4 later this year, I think we’ll be alright.

But just to be fair:

***CRAPPY TV SHOW SPOILER ALERT***

So why the rage as the screen faded to black? Well, because the last shot was of Amber walking down a country road. Alive. The show ended without the viewer knowing what happened to Amber. Four episodes of a drama series about a girl going missing that in the end revealed… Well, nothing much of anything at all, it turned out.

That was bad enough.

That was annoying.

But what BROUGHT ON THE RED RAGE was the response of the team behind the show to our disappointment over this.

They said,* “It’s like real life, and in real life you don’t always find out what happened to the person who went missing.”

They said, “If you were really paying attention, there were plenty of clues.”

(Implying that you hadn’t paid attention at all and were too stoopid to put it altogether. You dumbarse!)

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And to pour acid into the wound they’d already poured salt into, they said, “She’s just gone and no, no character you met along the way had anything at all to do with it.”

?!?!?!?!?!?!?!?

OH HOW MY BLOOD BOILS WITH SUPERFLUOUS CAPITAL LETTERS.

When a reader sits down with a book or a viewer settles onto the sofa, they’re expecting a story. Stories have beginnings, middles and ends and the end of a story is also the resolution of it. This doesn’t necessarily mean that everything is tied up nicely in a bow and every mystery carefully explained away, but it does mean that the reader or viewer is left feeling satisfied. They feel there is a point to the story, a good reason for its existence.

That’s why the whole “but that’s what it’s like in real life” line doesn’t wash, because this wasn’t real life. It was a TV show. And TV shows get resolved.

(And also, if I wanted real life, I would’ve watched a documentary. Or looked out the window.)

I heard they also said that it wasn’t so much about the crime itself, but the effect the crime had on the family, neighborhood, etc. See Broadchurch for an excellent example of this. But what happened at the end of Broadchurch? Oh yeah, WE FOUND OUT WHAT HAPPENED AND WHO DID IT.

But that’s just the manslaughter charge in this crime against story. The murder one is the revelation that no one the viewer was introduced to in the fictional universe was responsible for the murder and/or disappearance of Amber.

Or to put it another way: cheating.

If the writer of a story that involves a crime (or other mystery) decides from the outset that they’re not going to reveal or explain to the reader/viewer what happened by its end, they are doing the writing equivalent of dictating to an assistant as they sunbathe on a beach in Bahamas while the rest of us live in a dark stone cell and scratch our story onto the walls with a pen knife.

By candlelight.

In a draught.

With no reveal/explanation, there are no rules. If there’s no rules, you don’t have to play by them. You don’t have to induce a migraine tying your plot up in knots and drawing graphs and using six different colors of Post-It notes to map out every last twist and turn. You can do whatever you like because it doesn’t all have to make sense at the end. You can fill your story with intense moments of mystery and end every chapter with a crazy cliffhanger and it all doesn’t matter because — woo-hoo! — you’re free to make this crap up as you go along.  You can do whatever you like because you haven’t committed to doing anything in particular except stringing us all along. Let’s throw in a unicorn and a ghostly apparition and a car chase and then – POOF! – deus ex machina, THE END.

I should’ve known that Amber had a plot problem because of the shambles that was Episode 2.

Amber had a non-linear narrative that kept jumping around in time as it followed different people through her disappearance and the subsequent search for her. In episode 1, we were shown Amber coming out of the city centre on the Luas (tram) carrying a shopping bag. Got that? Right. In episode 2, we focused on a very shady character who was already in prison for another crime and, in flashbacks, we saw him looking very suspicious as he sat in a parked car and watched Amber walk by on the day she went missing. But anyone with two brain cells would’ve instantly been able to deduce that Mr Suspicious had nothing to do with Amber’s disappearance, because when she walked past his car she wasn’t carrying a shopping bag. Therefore she hadn’t been into the city yet. And since we knew from Episode 1 that she stayed alive long enough to get back on the tram and come out of the city with her shopping bag, we knew this guy didn’t kill or take her.

(I’m not even going to talk about the episode where Amber’s father SAVED AMERICAN BACKPACKERS FROM HUMAN TRAFFICKERS IN EASTERN EUROPE BY WATCHING PORN AND HAVING A PROSTITUTE OVER FOR DINNER. No, really. That was actually the “plot” of the final episode.)

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If convicted for this first degree murder of what a story is supposed to be, the prosecution should seek the death penalty in this case because while leaving us hanging is bad enough, the creators admitted that (a) they know what happened (um yeah, oh-kay…) and that (b) NO ONE WE MET IN THE SHOW WAS RESPONSIBLE.

(Remembering that they told us the show was filled with clues, had we bothered to pay attention.)

Are you [BLEEP] kidding me with this?

That breaks the cardinal rule of crime and thrillers, and breaking this rule shows such a blatant disrespect for the reader/viewer that I’d need to start taking blood pressure medication if I thought about it too much. It’s just not playing fair if you don’t give the reader/viewer a chance to figure it out for themselves. Now I read crime novels and thrillers all the time, and I never figure it out. I like it that way. (I was once friends with a girl who would start every book by turning to the last chapter to appraise the ending. Only if she liked it would she go back to the start and read the book. We’re not friends anymore. Coincidence?) But when what really happened is revealed, I go ‘Oh, right! I see it now.’ I realize the clues were there all along. Readers who are cleverer than me may go ‘I KNEW it!’, but despite our different reactions we’re both feeling satisfied, we’re both feeling like the time we sunk into the book or show wasn’t wasted.

But if the person who killed/disappeared Amber WASN’T EVEN IN THE BLOODY SHOW, well, we don’t have much of a chance of figuring it out, now do we?

And of course, it also means that no one involved in writing the show had to figure it out either. Again: cheating.

It’s not that stories that aren’t neatly tied up can’t be satisfying. See Tana French’s In The Woods or series 2 of The Bridge for more on this. But they worked because even though not every plot strand was tied up in a bow, something was. And that something made sense. It also involved CHARACTERS WE’D ACTUALLY BEEN INTRODUCED TO.

I was venting my rage on Twitter the night of finale when someone suggested we send the writers a copy of Robert McKee’s Story. I suggested that that might be a bit advanced for them. Perhaps an episode of Murder She Wrote instead?

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You know something? I realize now that this blog post may not have a point. I just really needed to vent about how stoopid that bloody show was. But you know what? Maybe it’s not supposed to have a point, because that’s, like, real life. Things don’t get all neatly tied up in real life, dontcha know.

[UNICORNS DESCEND]

[A T-REX BURSTS OUT OF THE BUSHES]

[THE POWER GOES OUT]

The End.

Now, how was that for you?

Amber is apparently going to air on BBC Four sometime this year and after that it’ll infect Netflix. It’s too late for me but run, save yourselves!

UPDATE: BBC *did* show it and my blog visits have been boosted by people searching for ‘amber crap ending’ and the like. For more Amber rage, see this great piece by Daragh Keany writing for the Sunday World. Now, go watch some GOOD TV. 

What show or book had an ending that gave you the RED RAGE? Why was it so rage-inducing? Did you watch Amber? Do you think we can have some of our TV license fee back from RTE? Let me know in the comments below…

*I’m paraphrasing.

Writer/Blogger? You May Need a Contact Page Intervention

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It may be news to you but for the last year and a half or so, I’ve been doing some freelance social media work for a publishing house, helping promote other authors’ books online. As my goal is essentially to connect readers with books I believe they’ll like, a lot of my time is spent trawling through the magical interweb looking for book blogs. They’re easy enough to find. But it’s not always easy to find what I need when I get there: a way to contact the blogger in private.

It’s a particularly bad day when the coffee machine is still brewing and the contact page of a book blogger who (a) professes to love the exact kind of book I have to offer her and (b) says on her ‘Review Policy’ or ‘About Me’ page that what she loves more than anything else in the world is getting free books says something like if you want to get in touch, I’m on Twitter @thisconversationwillbepublic…

Oh, how the RED RAGE DESCENDS.

I can’t get in contact with her on Twitter, and I won’t. I don’t want everyone to see me offering her a review copy, and sometimes upcoming releases have things tied to them, like promotional activity, for example, that I can tell the blogger but not the world (yet). You might be saying now well, why don’t I just tweet her asking for her e-mail address? Well first of all my Twitter account is for Catherine Ryan Howard, the self-publisher and blogger. Not the occasional publicity assistant. And Twitter is not interchangeable with e-mail or a contact form. It’s a public forum.

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But if I can’t get in contact with a book blogger, the worst thing that happens is that they miss out on a free book and I have to go looking for someone else to take their place.

But what if you’re a self-publisher and the person trying to get in contact with you is another blogger who wants to help you promote your book, or a journalist who wants to feature you in a newspaper or magazine, or a radio show producer who wants to interview you on air, or an agent who’s interesting in representing you or a publisher who’s interested in buying your print rights or an editor in Poland who wants to talk translation rights (delete as appropriate depending on your life’s goals)? Telling them that they can contact you on Twitter is just not acceptable. Telling them they can send you a message through Facebook is laughable. And who knows what kind of opportunities you might miss out on – small, medium and big – because you put too many hoops between your online home and a way to get in touch with you directly that doesn’t come with an audience.

I think you should do one of the following:

Continue reading

A New Year, A New Routine (Or, The Problem With Goals)

As much as I detest New Year Eve’s with all its enforced fun and depressing reminders that yet another year has gone by and you haven’t achieved all the stuff you swore you would, it does have two things going for it: it comes with fireworks, and it throws open the doors on another fresh, exciting 365 days in which anything could happen.

someecards.com - I can't believe it's been a year since I didn't become a better person.

I had a bit of an epiphany in 2013 about how I go about achieving my goals. (Or not.) I’ve read a lot of books about goal setting and positive visualization and the law of attraction, and the more scientific consensus seems to be that rather than visualizing yourself having achieved your ultimate dream—sitting under an oak tree with Oprah while she insists that everyone in the world runs out right now and buys a copy of your book, for example—your time would be better spent visualizing you doing the work that might lead to it. For example, if you dream of losing 50 pounds, don’t bother closing your eyes and trying to convince yourself that you are already 50 pounds down, as per The Secret and its mystical friends. Instead, visualize yourself doing the things that would lead to such a weight loss, like getting up early every morning to hit the gym, because you know what? You’re going to have to hit the gym, and the main problem is that you’re not that doing it already.

So this New Year’s Day, I didn’t bother with my annual list of things I wanted to achieve in the next 12 months. There’s enough of them laying about the house already, and they all say the same thing. Instead I went about designing an everyday routine that looked like what a person who had achieved those things would be doing on a day-to-day basis.

(That may not be the most elegantly constructed sentence in the history of the English language, but let’s just go with it.)

For most of last year, my ‘work day’ routine looked something like this (I work from home):

  1. Wake-up
  2. Go back to sleep
  3. Wake-up again
  4. Lie in bed for a while
  5. Get up
  6. Dozily make some coffee
  7. Take coffee to computer
  8. Check e-mail
  9. Catch up on my celebrity news
  10. Oh, that looks like an interesting link my friend has posted on Facebook…
  11. Two to four hours pass by
  12. Is that the time? Why, half the day is gone! I’ll never get much of anything done now, because I didn’t start early enough. Oh, well. There’s episodes of Catfish on my Sky+ box and tomorrow is another day…

Do you think that’s what Michael Connelly’s day looks like? Karin Slaughter’s? Gillian Flynn’s?

I think not.

Things needed to change, and I knew from experience that writing ‘write every day’ or ‘finish a novel’ on my list of goals wasn’t going to cut the mustard.

I started by identifying a major problem: I didn’t get up early enough, or more to the point, I didn’t get up when my alarm went off. How could I change this? The first thing I did was I stopped using the alarm on my iPhone to wake me up. Instead I downloaded Sleep Cycle, an app which wakes you up within a 30 minute window of your alarm and at the most optimal time in your sleep cycle. Therefore you aren’t jerked awake only to feel as if you haven’t slept at all. It’s more like you’re sleeping soundly and then you start to swim to the surface and when you get there gentle music is playing and you wake-up feeling refreshed and rested.

(Most of the time, anyway.)

But the urge to snooze is strong with this one, so I needed a little extra help. I needed an incentive. The thought of a cup of coffee is usually what gets me out of bed in the end, but the problem with coffee is that you have to make it before you’ve had any.I needed something really tasty to push me the distance from my bed to my Nespresso machine, and lately I’ve been getting seriously bored of the Nespresso range of capsules.

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Then I discovered Bar Italia Nespresso compatible capsules, and I fell in love. They. Are. Delicious.  Now I am closing my eyes at night in anticipation of getting to drink a cup of it when I open my eyes on the other side.

(I know. I should really see someone about it.)

Hooray! I was up early and feeling fairly human. What could I do now to ensure that I started my day with the things that mattered, and not what Jamie Dornan was wearing as he walked to his car yesterday? Coffee takes about 20 minutes to hit the system, so that was a window in which to gently set me up for some work. And this is where it was a good idea to go and think about the big picture. I took my coffee, sat at the dining table that offers a nice view, got out my Erin Condren planner and reviewed my short, medium and long-term goals, keeping in mind that if I want these things to happen, I have to take some action on them today.

Like, next.

Now.

Then, writing time. Three hours of it. It’s taken a lot to get me to a place where I write every day and I want to, but this was what helped me the most: a few months ago I was watching crime writer Declan Burke on Writers Web TV, and he mentioned the writing advice of Lawrence Block. I went immediately to my Kindle and downloaded his book — which is actually a collection of columns he wrote for Writer’s Digest — and read it straight through. There’s lots of great advice in there, but one thing that really stuck me with that if you write first thing, you can enjoy the rest of your day guilt-free. If you don’t, you spend your day, whatever you’re doing with it, feeling guilty and anxious and regretful and unworthy and stressed, all because you haven’t written. So: DO IT FIRST.

I have a Post-It on my noticeboard of a clock-face showing noon, and a smiley face. (Well, I know that’s what it is, okay? That’s all that matters.) It’s a reminder that my day can go one of two ways. Either I can get to noon and be happy because I’ve already done my three hours writing time, OR I can get to noon and feel crappy about how I’ve wasted half the day and crappy about whatever else may happen during the day because I wasted the first half of it.

What happens at noon? Well then I do my actual work, which depending on the day might be self-publishing stuff for myself (i.e. the business side of my writing life) or one of the freelance book-related jobs I get paid by someone else to do.

Then come five or six p.m, my favourite bit of the day: LYING ON MY ARSE. Or doing whatever it is I want to do, which can be anything, because I’ve done everything I should’ve done and tomorrow morning, when I open my Erin Condren planner and look at my short, medium and long-term goals, I know that I’m a little bit closer to them than I was yesterday, because consistent effort quickly begins to add up. In just one week of this, I’ve already written 10,000 new words and I feel on top of my To Do list.

(There might also be three empty boxes of Bar Italia capsules in the bin…)

I read Commander Chris Hadfield’s book An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth just after Christmas, and Hadfield’s take on chasing dreams is wonderful: if you take pride in the every day work you do towards them, if you do everything within your control that will get you closer to your goals on a daily basis and you take pleasure and pride in that effort, you will be happy — even if the dream or goal never materializes, or doesn’t for a long time. This is how Hadfield managed to never fret about the terrible odds of him achieving his dream (he was a Canadian who decided to become an astronaut at a time when only US citizens need apply and then, once that changed, got chosen out of thousands for an Astronaut Corps that would see many of its members never fly in space). Instead did everything he could to prepare for the opportunity to fly in space should it arise, and enjoyed every minute of it. Then, when his dream did come true, it wasn’t a relief but a bonus.

How are you tackling 2014 so far? Do you write down your goals? What are you doing different this year? Let us all know in the comments below!

How To Be A Good Guest Blogger

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The road to guest posting on other bloggers’ blogs is paved with both opportunity and land mines. It seems like a simple thing: you find a blogger you like, you drop them a line asking them if they’d like one less blog post to write next week and then you put in a stint as a special guest star on their blog. The blogger gets a break and hopefully some fresh content for their blog, and you get to introduce you and your titles to a whole new audience, some of whom might even become regular readers of your blog. In reality though, these transactions are an invitation to misstep, to indulge (perhaps unwittingly) in an awful blogger faux-pas (or ten). You may never get invited back again.

So what can you do to ensure that you’ll be a great guest blogger, and that each and every one of your guest hosts would only be too delighted to have you back again? Here are my tips…

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I realize this picture has only the most tenuous of links to the subject of this blog post, but look how pretty! From Papyrus. 

Follow the rules

I clearly state on my Contact page that guest posts are by invite only, but I constantly find messages in my inbox that begin ‘I’m wondering if you would be interested in a guest post…’ Half the time the other half of that sentence describes a post that has absolutely nothing to do with anything I’ve ever talked about on my blog. The one I got this morning was about stocks and shares. Stocks and shares, people!

This happens because people just don’t pay attention to the information bloggers supply, and whenever they ignore it they are saying ‘I don’t have time to read this helpful stuff you’ve written, I only have time to ask you for a favor’. They may also think ‘Well, I know she doesn’t accept guest posts… but she’ll definitely want my one!’

The least you can do before you ask someone to take a guest post from you is to read their site. I sincerely hope you’re doing that already, but maybe now take the time to study their guest posts instructions too.

Write a good guest post—for you

A guest post, especially one that’s part of a blog tour or some other organized activity that aims to launch or promote your book, is kinda like a profile on an online dating site. It’s not just about what you’ve written, but what it reveals about you: as a blogger, as a writer and as an entertainer of the internet at large. The ideal guest post would:

  • get most people who read it commenting and/or clicking the “like” button
  • get a significant number of people who read it sharing it online, e.g. tweeting a link
  • get a good number of people clicking the link to your blog and having a look around
  • get a handful of people to subscribe to your blog, or start to follow you on Twitter
  • get at least one person to go to Amazon and look  at (or, heck, even buy!) your book.

And can we just be blatantly honest about guest posts for a second? Sometimes, people don’t read them at all. They don’t read them because, hey, they were tuning in to see a rugby game, and it’s not on because rain in Brazil made the Formula 1 qualifying session run long. So their eyes may skim the guest post but really, they’re waiting for tomorrow when the actual blogger will be back. So you have to get them to read your guest post. You have to convince them to stop and take it in. Otherwise, what’s the point? There isn’t one, and that goes for you and your host.

My personal checklist for a guest post goes something like this:

  • Would this be something I’d post on my own blog (or am I just half-assing it because it’s going on someone else’s)?
  • Is this really “me”? Am I recognisable? (Or am I trying to emulate my host too much?)
  • Is it entertaining?
  • Is it informative?
  • Is it an invitation to check out more stuff by me? (And by invitation I really mean a reason, not a long list of links the readers of my host blog won’t be clicking on.)

Write a good guest post—for your host

Don’t try to beat the blogger at their own game. It won’t appeal to the host’s regular blog readers, and you’ll look like a jerk. The worst cases of it I’ve seen have been practically rude, e.g. an advice blog where the guest blogger gave their own advice in the same style as their host, but contradicted the host’s most oft-repeated suggestions. I imagine she was gritting her teeth when she was setting that post up to publish. There’s a very fine line between tailoring your post to appeal to the blog’s loyal readers and doing a bad imitation of your host.

Let’s say that you’ve written a book of movie reviews, and you find a blog that writes hilariously sarcastic reviews of romantic comedies. That’s what the blogger is famous for, and that’s what all his readers show up to his blog to enjoy. Should you attempt to write a hilariously sarcastic review of The Notebook? No, I wouldn’t advise it. You probably won’t do it as well as your host, and the whole thing might come off as as unfunny joke, leaving everyone feeling awkward and embarrassed for you.

Don’t attempt a takeover. Just be a good guest.

Don’t be a diva

It’s perfectly acceptable to ask for your host to print a little bio at the end of your text, with links to your website, Twitter account, etc. It’s nice to provide photographs that the blogger can use, maybe one of you and one of your book cover. And as long as you’re not demanding about it, it’s fine to ask for the guest post to be published on a specific date, although I would recommend asking that in plenty of time and being prepared to allow some leeway.

Anything else though, and you risk being annoying. Don’t send eight or nine photos to accompany a 800-word blog post—especially if your host only ever includes one or two images, because that’ll just lead him or her to believe that you never actually read their blog. Don’t send six different Amazon links. One is enough, and actually I prefer just to link to your website because it’s neater and simpler and you should have all your Amazon links there. Don’t demand publication at 8:01 am Eastern Standard Time when the moon is in Gemini. And don’t suggest that the flow of traffic will be from your site to theirs, even if you think it might be. The host blogger is doing you a favor, not the other way around.

Make things easy for your host

Your host is going to copy and paste the text of your guest post into their own blog, so make things as easy as possible for them. Don’t type it in an e-mail; put in a Microsoft Word document. No fancy fonts, no weird paragraph alignments, no superfluous formatting. Make your links live and embed them in the text. Attach it to your e-mail message.

If you want to be really good, type your text into your own blog (in a draft), switch to HTML view and copy and paste that. In my book this puts you straight on my Nice list.

If you’re including photos, label them. File names like DSC00023 aren’t going to help anyone. Try ‘authorpic.jpg’ or ‘novelcover.jpg’ instead.

Be nice

It’s only common courtesy to come back on the day the post is published and respond to any comments you see, and perhaps write a little comment thanking the host for having you. You should also make it your business to promote the guest post through whatever avenues you can, such as your own blog, Twitter, Facebook, etc… BUT please don’t imply that you’ll be sending traffic to your host, i.e. more traffic than ususal. That’s a bit of an iffy statement on the annoyance scale.

Also, ask yourself. Don’t get someone who says they’re your assistant (um, oh-kay…) to e-mail and ask.

In all things, be nice.

Have you had guest posts on your blog? What could guest bloggers do to make it easier for you? Or do you have any tips for being a good guest blogger yourself? Or do you have some tales that go in the other direction, i.e. guest blogger horror stories? Let me know in the comments below… 

Did Someone Say It Would Be Easy?

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In all the time I’ve been researching self-publishing, self-publishing myself and reading about the experiences of other writers who’ve self-published (I started my self-publishing shenanigans in November 2009), I’ve never once come across a post by a self-published author that said “My book started selling 1,000s of copies every day almost from the first one. One Friday I couldn’t quite make my rent, and the next I was counting out a wad of cash in front of my landlord, saying “Heck, I’ll just buy the place!”‘ Or, ‘What really amazed me was how, mere hours after I published my e-book, it shot up to the very top of the Amazon charts and never left! All I had to do was press the “Publish” button!’ Or ‘I still can’t believe how easy it was to become a bestselling self-published author!’

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What I have seen plenty of lately, however, are what I call the ‘Woe Is Me, The Failed Self-Published Author’ posts. These are usually written, as far as I can see, by writers who came to self-publishing having previously been traditionally published and/or worked in the publishing industry, or perhaps been a journalist. There’s usually a back-story ranging somewhere on the scale from mild professional disappointment (got a good deal some years ago but the books didn’t sell as well as hoped) to red-rage bitterness seasoned with contempt (has dart board of agent’s face in office, refuses to this day to read any books published by writer’s former publishing house, rubs hands together with glee like psychopathic cartoon villain whenever bad news for the traditional publishing industry comes out), and then a more recent unhappy result to add to it: they self-published five minutes ago, and it didn’t go well.

They might put this down to the Everest of an obstacle they can’t find a way up: obscurity. With literally millions of books out there for readers to choose from, how can they possibly convince anyone to buy theirs? And that would be after they find them and tell them about it, which seems harder still. Or maybe they’re too good for that Twittering business [insert eye roll], so they haven’t used social media at all, and goddammit, they don’t even want to live in a world where no one reads anything except stuff they found out about online. (It reminds me of a participant at a workshop I was at, who told the social media expert at the end of two intensive days that ‘Books sold before all this, you know.’ His response: ‘Yes, they did, but they weren’t self-published.’) Perhaps they have failed to take in a single smidgen of the free advice that seems to now coat a large section of the blogosphere, and didn’t release an e-book edition. Or maybe they strode into this new world still carrying a map of the old one, and relied on things like print media and radio interviews (printed or aired in a specific geographical region) to sell their self-published book (available worldwide but only online).

Maybe they didn’t do anything wrong at all. Maybe they did it all right. But it still didn’t work.

The point of these articles, of course, is to try and make it work. The title of the book is mentioned plenty of times, and there might even be a cheeky link to its Amazon listing. I think that bodes well for the book’s future, because it’s a really good idea. (In a way, it’s how I’ve made my books sell. Blogging is responsible for a lot of my first book’s sales, at least in the beginning.) But what I resent about these ‘Woe is Me’ articles is that, more often than not, they seem to suggest that those of us who say you should self-publish and that you can sell books and you can begin to make a living (or at least part of one) from the thing you love to do most of all are wrong, that you can’t do it and you shouldn’t bother.

Because this writer failed at self-publishing, we must be making the stories of our success up.

(Side note: I notice that none of these articles ever ponder whether or not the author has just self-published a book that no one wants to read. See here and here for more about the No. 1 thing you need to know about self-publishing: nobody gives a tiny rodent’s arse about your book.)

Did somebody say self-publishing was easy?

Did somebody say success was guaranteed?

Did somebody say it was easy, success was guaranteed and that hitting No.1 on Amazon would happen overnight?

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I know three successful self-publishers who, at first glance, could be considered to have had an easy time of it getting to the top. The first doesn’t blog, tweet or do any sort of organized promotion, but she’s sold nearly 80,000 copies of her novel and just got a two-book traditional publishing deal. BUT she wrote an amazing novel, heavily invested in editorial input and stunning cover art and worked hard to release it on a date that corresponded to the centenary of an historic event at the novel’s core. Another has four or five books consistently high up in Amazon’s charts, and also just signed a traditional deal based on their success. BUT she has been tirelessly blogging and commenting on blogs daily since before I ever published a post, probably devoting 1-2 hours per day to it, everyday, and she writes 2-3 books a year and still manages to engage with her fans all the time online. And of course, she’s written books people really love to read. And my third Amazon bestseller who, I’m sure, is on the verge of a traditional deal, would appear to have easily sold well over 300,000 copies of novels she writes publicly plus ones in an entirely different genre that she writes under a pen-name, and even if you asked her she would say she didn’t do much promotion. BUT again, she wrote great books (and wrote lots of them), invested in editing and professional cover design, and used the contacts she had in her other life as a book reviewer to secure glowing blurbs from top names. And I know what your reaction is here: she had contacts. Yes, but once upon a time, she didn’t. She didn’t know anyone. Then she started reviewing books on her blog, and did such a great job of it that publishers started offering her the books for free, and then when it came time to publish her own books, her hard work was rewarded because it helped her give a leg up. The hard work she did was in making a name for herself as a book blogger.

I’m a big believer in the idea that succeeding at self-publishing is doable. With a book people want to read, determination, dedication and a LOT of time and hard work, you can make it happen. But it’s certainly not easy, and if you think it is, I can’t begin to imagine where you got that idea.

Because it’s not. It takes time. When I first self-published I was unemployed, and so had nothing else to do all day but work on self-publishing. Even then, it took at least six months (of working full-time on it) to get to 100 copies per month, and a year to get above that.

That was in 2009 and today, in 2013, it’s still not easy. In May I released the first installment in a collection of essays, Travelled, that has barely sold any copies at all, despite the fact that the book of mine that’s most like it is my bestselling one. I’m not surprised, but I did absolutely nothing to promote it except mention it in a blog post here the day it became available, and on my Facebook page at the same time. That’s literally all I did. (Being released in installments, I might do some promotion when the ‘full book’ is out at the end of the year.) So even though I have three successful books, truckloads of blog and Twitter followers and a FB page with over 1,000 likes, I still can’t just publish a book and sit back and relax. It never gets easier. With the continuing growth of self-publishing’s popularity, it might just get harder and harder as time goes on.

People just don’t want everything that’s put in front of them. For example, I loved The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, but I couldn’t find a thing to like about her follow-up, The Almost Noon. This isn’t the way with just books, though: it’s everything in the world. Think of an album you had on repeat for at least a year of your life, and the follow-up to it that you can’t even name. (I’m thinking of Craig David’s. And James Blunt’s. And did Damien Rice ever release anything after O?) Or the movies that come out that nobody goes to see. (I’m thinking Movie 43, one of the biggest bombs of the summer.) That’s partly why I think it’s so funny that one of the main Anti-Publishing arguments is that publishers don’t know what sells books, why one works and one doesn’t. Um… that’s, like, all of the books? In fact, it’s all of the stuff…? Some self-published books will sell, and some won’t. Some products will sell, and some won’t. That’s just the way the world works, because with so many factors influencing purchases, it’s impossible to predict what people will rush out to buy and what they’ll stay at home and ignore.

Success at self-publishing is not guaranteed. But then I can’t think of much in life where it is. What I do know is this though: you should still try.

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And here’s a thought for today, following on from my book blogger friend having contacts now but not always: in a lot of these ‘How can we combat obscurity?!’ groans, CuckooGate is frequently cited as being evidence that even great books can’t compete in today’s publishing world. You must have a leg-up, like a well-known name. JK Rowling has two Top 2 bestseller spots: one for a (many would say) mediocre novel and one for a (reportedly) fabulous crime novel that she wrote under another name. People are buying them just because JK Rowling wrote them, because she could write a Post-It note now or a shopping list, and people would buy it. And since The Cuckoo’s Calling sold less than 1,500 copies in hardcover prior to Rowling-connection reveal (which, news flash, is actually not that bad for a debut in hardcover that’s 30 times the price of most self-published e-books), this proves publishing is in the toilet, unknown authors can’t compete and in ten year’s time, the shelves of bookstores—if there’s any of those left—will only be stocked with novels James Patterson wrote the outlines for.

Except that J.K. Rowling was once nobody at all who got numerous rejections for her debut novel, was told there’s no money in children’s books and got only a £2,500 advance for a novel that not only became the first in a series of globally mega-selling books, but spawned a blockbuster movie franchise and a cash-cow for Universal Orlando, and turned Rowling into a billionaire.

Rowling wasn’t born a brand name. She earned the right to sell things just because her name is on them. She started from total obscurity, just like all of us will or did.

How have we all forgotten that?

How are you feeling about self-publishing these days? Did you think it would be easier than it proved it be, or have you been pleasantly surprised? 

Yes, my blogging break is over and I’m happy to say a draft of The Novel has been completed. Woo-hoo! To celebrate my return to the Land of the Living (Bloggers), you can purchase the PDF of Self-Printed: The Sane Person’s Guide to Self-Publishing for just 99c (normally $4.99) for a limited period. Click here for more information.

How To Get People To Read Your Blog

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Following on from The Author Platform: Are You Being Cautious… Or Just Lazy?, a few readers commented that they’d like to know more about how to go from blogging into the void, i.e. me three years ago, to having ten thousand followers and 25-30k views a month, i.e. me today.

I’ve avoided doing this thus far because I don’t think you’re going to like my answer. It’s:

  1. Write good blog posts
  2. Don’t over-think it
  3. Wait.

That’s it.

(Sorry!)

Write Good Blog Posts

I tell writers considering self-publishing that the first thing they should do is make sure their book is good, because there’s really no point doing anything else unless it is. When I use good in this way I don’t mean the ‘Oh, the Booker prize judges said that book was really good’ because that’s mostly subjective and we all like different things. I mean good as in has appeal. As in someone else is going to want to read this. Lots of someone elses, preferably.

The problem is that we all think someone is going to want to read what we’ve written. I mean, of course they are. Why wouldn’t they? We’re fascinating! But in the real world, that’s just not the case.

So this is where I tell you how to write blog posts people want to read, right? I really can’t do that. We’re not talking about a checklist, or a template, or a recipe of keywords and search topics that has been proven to work for others. You can either do it or you can’t. Like writing books, I believe you can learn to do it better, but ultimately you can either do it or you can’t.

It’s the same with all aspects of social media: you either are the type of person who does it well, or you’re not. If you’re the former, you can learn some tips that’ll help you improve, and you might pick up a few tricks that make your use of it more effective, but if you’re the kind of person who hates the idea of tweeting, thinks Facebook is for teenagers and has their blog posts set to private, then I can’t help you.

Let’s just all cut the crap and admit this, once and for all.

The only good things about the Irish version of The Voice are what Bressie, one of the judges, looks like, and what Eoghan McDermott, one of the presenters, says. A couple of weeks ago he told the contestants, “remember, if you don’t get through… it’s because you weren’t good enough.”

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Behold: The Bressie.

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