This is the seventh installment in my periodic “Your Write Turn” series of blog posts. I’ve talked about choosing writing as a second career, assessing what personal skills and resources you bring to your writing, hauling yourself over the hump of self-doubt, writerly hygiene, getting your manuscript from draft to done, and choosing the traditional or self-publishing path. These were all about getting the words out of your head and into a book.
This time, let me share with independent or boutique-press published authors some experiences with what to do after your words are between two covers and available on Amazon. Let’s talk about competitions and ebook marketing deals.
I’m not talking about the Pulitzer or the Booker here, folks. If you’re soaring in that rarefied air, you can make better use of your time than reading my blog posts. Like writing your next book. Or counting your royalties. But for the remaining 99.999% of authors, I have a few useful things to share.
The Literary-Industrial Complex
Where there’s money and a cadre of neurotically self-doubting wannabe authors, there are going to be a lot of people—and not all of them scrupulous—ready to leverage writer neuroses for cash. This market space is occupied by all manner of “writing coaches” and “developmental editors” and “book designers” and “people who will get your book into libraries” and, and, and… I have dubbed this the Literary-Industrial Complex.
There are a lot of very skilled people out there designing beautiful book covers at a fair price, giving you solid value for the money you pay for a first-rate author website, or saving you bucketsful of embarrassment by polishing your Diamond In The Rough with a professional proofread. But there are a lot of sleazy operators and snake-oil dealers out there, too.
This is nowhere more evident than in the ever-expanding universe of Writing Competitions.
You Like Me! You Really Like Me!
Let’s face it, fellow scribblers—there’s a lot of Sally Fields in every last one of us. We soooo want to be loved and respected and honored. This is that utterly vulnerable part of our fragile psyches to which writing competitions appeal. And they play us like fiddles.
There are hundreds of writing competitions out there. Google “writing competitions” and you’ll find dozens of webpages that just list all the competitions, before you even get to actual competition websites. So how do you make any sense out of this morass? How do you protect yourself from the shady contests and sham competitions?
There are some tells. The first and most important clue is the price tag. There are free competitions and many are great. The New York Public Library’s Young Lions Fiction Award, for example, is free to enter and gives out a $10,000 prize to the winner. The Pen/FaulknerAward for Fiction is also free with a $15,000 prize. On the other hand, some “free” contests are just funnels for getting you on prospect lists for high-pressure marketing of all manner of writing “services.”
Second—and this is a bright-line no-go—do not enter ANY contest or competition that requires you to sign away intellectual property rights to your work. I mean it—run at great speed in the opposite direction. Now, some legit competitions—especially for poetry and short stories—publish collected volumes of winners’ work and may ask for limited rights, such as a reasonable exclusivity period after the collection is published. That’s OK. But take this lawyer’s advice: do NOT sign away rights to your blood-sweat-and-tears-stained manuscript for the sake of a writing contest. You will live to regret it. It’s also a sure indication you have no intention of being a professional writer.
I have nothing against fee-charging writing contests and have entered several myself, but I take to heart the advice of ALLi, the Alliance of Independent Authors, in always looking to see that the entry fee charged is commensurate with the value you’re getting. The contest charges a $45 entry fee and has a prize pool of $20,000? That’s probably fair value for money on a cash in/cash out basis. Of course, only a few people win any cash, but I take a slightly different view of value.
For me, the most important thing I want from any competition is meaningful feedback from the judging panel. This is for two reasons. First, it makes you a better writer to get honest (and anonymous) critiques of your work. Second, those judge’s reports are marketing gold mines—you can dig into them to flesh out your book’s Amazon page or for marketing copy. One of the best writing competitions for feedback I’ve found is a smallish British contest with a growing reputation called the Wishing Shelf Book Awards. Originally for children’s books—hence the slightly precious name—Wishing Shelf has expanded to adult categories, too. For the last book I entered, I received two full pages of feedback from the judging panel—including individual one-liners from each of the 15 (yes, FIFTEEN) panelist readers. That’s priceless stuff. Oh, and I won a Bronze Medal. And they send out actual metal medals, which is both a rarity and great for displaying at book signings and whatnot.
The first place I go when vetting contests is back to the ALLi page, where they have an excellent Watchdog Desk that has a regularly updated rating matrix for writing contests. My rule is if ALLi gives a Recommended, that’s good enough for me. If a contest earns a Caution rating, I’m out. If they get a Mixed rating, I’m skeptical and will need a lot of convincing. I’ve only entered one Mixed competition—the Writer’s Digest Self-Published Book Awards—because it’s sponsored by a well-known publication and attracts a very large pool of entrants. Full disclosure: I won an Honorable Mention in Mainstream/Literary Fiction, one of only 37 given from among 2,600+ entrants, for my second novel, Truly Are the Free. So a good result for me at least.
Funny thing about writing competitions—they take forever. I mean, some group of people has to read a lot of books, right? What I’ve found is that I send a book off to a contest and then forget about it. Entirely. It’s a pleasant surprise six or nine or twelve months later when you get a notice saying, “Congratulations! You’re a semifinalist!” Of course, you can forget a little too much. That coveted Honorable Mention I received from Writer’s Digest? The notification email went to spam and the first I heard of the Honor Bestowed Upon Me was six weeks later when Writer’s Digest sent a follow-up email asking if I ever intended to accept that Honorable Mention. Note to self: check spam folder regularly.
You Get What You Pay For… Sometimes
I’ll pass on discussing paid advertising for now—that’ll be a subsequent post—but what about email marketing deals? There are lot out there, especially for ebooks. Some of them are expensive and directed at wide-market audiences; some are cheaper and aimed at smaller, genre-specific audiences. In the interest of keeping this post to a readable length, I’ll share my experiences with probably the best known and broadest-market of the featured deals for ebooks, BookBub. And trust me, they are the 400-pound gorilla of ebook marketing.
BookBub is a very slick and writer-friendly operation. Which is good. They have very wide and deep market reach, based on sending daily emails to members of their email list. The beauty of BookBub—I’m also an avid member—is 1) you pick exactly what genres and sub-genres about which you want to hear the featured deals, and 2) BookBub sends you exactly one email a day that includes only the featured deals from your self-identified genres. In this world of jaw-clenchingly annoying spammy emailers, BookBub is a breath of fresh air.
As an author, you have to propose your book for a featured deal and get selected by BookBub’s editorial board. It’s generally considered hard to get selected, although I was picked up the first time I proposed my first novel. Sometimes lightning does strike, I guess. You pitch a specific genre category and whether you want a US-only deal, an international-only (UK, Canada, Australia, and India) deal, or an everywhere deal. Pricing for your featured deal, should you be selected, is based on genre and location. For example, if you get picked up for a US-only historical fiction deal, it’ll cost you $804. For that, your book will go out to BookBub’s US historical fiction email list of 3.5 million self-identified historical fiction readers. Yeah, that. (An International-only deal, with about one-fifth the mailing list size, costs $204.)
You’re required to discount your ebook for BookBub. Generally, the choices are free, $0.99, or $1.99. Which means your Amazon royalty on these would be around $0.00, $0.35, or $0.70 respectively. So you have to sell a lot of ebooks to pay for the deal. However, BookBub’s variable pricing is based on the median sales for books that previously have been featured in that genre—meaning you have a 50-50 chance of at least breaking even. So that’s the economics of a BookBub deal. (I’ll note here that as a matter of personal writer ethics, I refuse to price my work at zero. Ever. If you put zero value on your work, others will, too. Indiscriminately giving your ebooks away also encourages Very Bad Behavior by people posting reviews on Amazon and elsewhere.)
It’s not all about the money, of course. If you do a US-only deal and sell 2,000 books at $0.99, you’ll lose maybe $100. But your book will be in the Kindles or Nooks or iPads of 2,000 readers. Which means reviews. And follow-on sales to subsequent books in your series, if you have one. Also the priceless satisfaction of knowing 2,000 people are reading your book. Not a bad result for $100 out of pocket, eh?
One more thing about BookBub. By concentrating discounted sales of your ebook in a 24-hour period, you get a quick boost up the rankings. One screen capture of your book in the Top 10 of its category is probably worth every penny you have at risk. For example, I’ve had BookBub International Featured Deals for each of the three novels in my First World War and 1920’s Sweet Wine of Youth trilogy. Two of these—None of Us the Same and No Hero’s Welcome—climbed to #1 on Amazon’s Literary Fiction and #1 or #2 on their Historical Fiction bestseller lists… in Canada. I have no idea why, other than the Canadians really like World War I fiction. (The war was a much bigger event there than in the States, to be sure.) The same books did well in Australia and the UK, but nothing like in Canada. I displaced Margaret Atwood, for crying out loud. In Canada. Where she’s a listed national treasure somewhere between Niagara Falls and that red Mountie uniform.
Apparently, I am the Tim Hortons of historical novelists…
The upshot for me? After four BookBub deals in the last nine months, I’ve sold over 3,000 ebooks, broke even on the cost from sales of the featured books, made some decent money from full-priced sell-throughs to the other books in the trilogy, and now have two “Amazon #1 International Bestsellers” I can brag about. The ongoing sales of all three books outside of the featured deal windows is about triple what I was seeing previously.
I don’t own stock in BookBub and they aren’t giving me anything for plugging them here. I’m using them as a detailed example of email ebook marketing campaigns because they’re indisputably the best and hardest to get, and it’s the marketing deal I’m most familiar with.
There are other reputable marketing providers, but at least for ebooks, none is as effective or better value-for-my-money than BookBub, in my experience. A few that have fairly good reputations? BargainBooksy, FussyLibrarian, and Robin Reads. They all have both free and paid options—and keep in mind that you really do get what you pay for, so don’t just go for the free option without doing some due diligence.
More soon in my Your Write Turn series of blog posts, so stay tuned.