A picture is worth a thousand sales

Okay, well probably not a thousand, but stick with me here. Pictures can tell a story. Ideally, they can tell your readers a story. And, good news, readers want good stories.

We already know that covers can sell books. By this, I mean that quality, professional covers attract readers and cut and paste, clip art covers send them running. A good cover sets the mood for your story, and ideally, gives a reader a hint of what they'll find inside.

But why stop with your cover? People are much more likely to stop what they are doing to check out an interesting picture than stop to read a 250 word excerpt or blog post. Hopefully, you know this already. Like the idea that you should always include a picture in your blog posts. And using banners and buttons for tours, giveaways and web-series to generate more buzz.

There are other ways to use pictures, and visual marketing, to attract new readers. With sites like Pinterest, Tumblr and Flickr it's easy to upload and share pictures with your readers and potential readers. And of course, social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+ allow you to include pictures in your posts.

It probably isn't earth shattering news that you should use pictures. But you may be asking, what kind of pictures should I share. Here are five ideas to get you started.

1. Visual Quotes
This one is easy and a bit of a no-brainer. You start with a picture of your cover and add a quote or tag line. That's pretty much it. Here's an example for my client, Ashelyn Drake, who has a blitz going on this week for her New Adult series.
 Now, this is really basic and I made it in less than five minutes, but hopefully you get the idea. You can use this any time you promo your book. Not only do pictures feel like less of a sales pitch, they are also more likely to be shared.

2. Excerpt Pictures
This is the same idea as the Visual Quote just with more content. The idea here is to share part of your writing in a visual way so it's easier to digest, more appealing to the reader, and more likely to be shared. Here's an example from one of our agency's clients, Rie Warren. Warning: Rie's writing is of the steamy variety.

3. Casting Call
Lots of writers create wish lists of the actors they would want to play their characters in a movie. It's a fun exercise for the writer and helps readers picture the characters the same way authors do. So why not take it one step further and create a Pinterest Board filled with pictures of the talented actors that you feel would make your story come to life.

4. Inspiration
We get inspiration for our stories from everywhere. It can be a simple object, a place we'd like to travel, stories in the news and so much more. So why not share these with your readers. You can create another board on Pinterest, but I'm a fan of sharing in the moment. Take a picture of your character's favorite flower and post it on Facebook. Tweet a picture of the desert that inspired your setting. Don't feel obligated to set up a collection of pictures. You can have just as much impact by sharing photos in the moment.

5. Fan love
If you are lucky enough to have fans send you art inspired by your writing, you'd be silly not to share it. Whether it's a simple sketch or a bust of your main character sculpted from butter, you'd better have a picture of that up and sharing it with your social media networks. Not only is this the least you can do to thank the fan who took time out of their day to do something nice for you, it's a great way to build community and show others how awesome your fans are.

A few words of caution when it comes to sharing photos. Always get your publisher's permission when it comes to using your cover art as part of a collage or altering it for quotes. They may have specific rules on how much of the cover has to be used and what you can do with colors, shading, etc. Same thing goes with other photos. You can't just go find something on the internet and use it. Be sure to stick with pictures that are part of public domain or fall under Creative Commons usage. Other than that, have fun with it and let your imagination run wild.

Is it time to give up on social media?

Lots of exciting things happening on the internet this week. First off, I've got a guest post over at The Unicorn Bell talking about the crucial elements of a query letter. Second, The IndieReCon online conference. It's a free online conference jam packed full of great information for writers. It's where I found this article from Michael Alvear about selling books without wasting time on Twitter, blogs and Facebook.

The author argues that even with years of toiling and perfection, authors won't be able to sell books using social media until they are already a highly successful author. I assume he equates selling books on social media to an author such as JK Rowling jumping on twitter, announcing she just put a new Harry Potter book out on Pottermore and then sitting back while a million readers rush to buy a copy.

Only, I completely disagree.

You see, the author punches time spent on social media and book sales into a formula and the equation ends up horribly unbalanced. But I think he misses the true value of social media.

It isn't in book sales. At least not directly. Social pays its dividends in connections. That's why it's social media and not sales media. And those connections, if cultivated and treated as friendships rather than sales opportunities, can be priceless.

Connections can introduce us to new readers, share ideas, pass along opportunities, spread the word, and dozens of other "payments" that can't be calculated with a Return On Investment formula.

So, no, you won't be able to input the hours spent crafting blog posts, updating Facebook or Tweeting into a spreadsheet and output a direct correlation to book sales. But if that's why you're using social media, you're missing the point entirely.

I'd love to hear about the benefits you've received from using social media. Let me know in the comments about all the indirect success you've found through your online connections.

Agency Lessons: Won't someone give me a chance

"You're a gifted writer."
"Your dialogue pulled me in."
"The voice of your pages is dead on."


"I don't think I can sell this."

This has to be the hardest rejection letter I write. When it's clear the author has talent and the book is a good one. But because of the genre, subject matter, writing style, etc., I don't think I can find an editor to take it on in the current market.

It must be a hard rejection letter to receive, as well. To know you did everything right except pick the right thing to write about. So I'm not surprised when authors write back, explaining they don't expect a miracle and asking me to give them a chance.

Here's the deal, though. I can't just give you a chance.

Because every "chance" represents countless hours of time that I'm not spending helping my current clients sell the books I actually thought I could sell. Next time I start  new project,  I think I'll log my full time spent getting a book ready to pitch. Until then, here's a short list of all the things an agent does in order to give a book a chance.

Initial read for offer of representation
Second read for editing
Third read after initial edits
Possible fourth read for additional edits (see why we really have to love a book)
Craft a pitch
Determine editors to pitch at each house based on imprint and editor preferences, current books they are working on and books they will release in the future (read: lots of research time here)
Send out full pitch to each editor
Track all responses, determine next editors to pitch and evaluate feedback for any needed edits
Continue until book sells or editors are exhausted, whichever comes first

And that's only the formal process. None of that includes the 3am "panic" emails, the mid-afternoon "just curious" emails or the first thing in the morning "is it supposed to take this long" emails. This is why the relationship with your agent is so important. We do more than just sell your book. We're the cheerleader, psychiatrist and industry expert there to answer questions, hold hands and reassure. I love this part of my job. Honestly, I do. But it all takes time.

And if the book doesn't sell? None of that time represents an actual paycheck. Agents don't have billable hours (so if you find one that does, run far, far away). We only get paid when the book sells. It's a risk that everyone takes and it's understood by everyone. And that's why I (or any other agent) can't take the risk of spending dozens and dozens of hours on a book we don't think has a legitimate chance of selling.

That's not to say we're always right. Sometimes agents can fight over a book, and yet it doesn't sell. Other times, an author can finally get an agent after hundreds of rejections and their agent sells the book in three weeks. It happens and if you could figure out the magic behind it, I'll be your new best friend.

Until then, I have to focus my time where I think I can be the most effective. I wish I could give every good story a chance. And I know I'm not the only agent that feels that way. After all, I ask editors just to give my clients' books a chance every day.

Standing Out Quietly

There are plenty of ways to stand out in the market. There are plenty of BAD ways to stand out in the market. You can be all me, all the time, on every social media network out there. You can make lots of noise talking about controversial, divisive topics. Or you can be Kate Hansen.

The name might not be familiar, but if you've been watching the Olympics, her dance moves probably are.
Kate is a member of the US Olympic Luge team. She's young and no one expected her to win a medal this year. Spoiler Alert: she didn't win a medal. Kate actually finished 10th. That's great, but hardly newsworthy.

But that didn't stop Kate from getting as much, if not more, news coverage than her teammate Erin Hamlin, who won Bronze. Erin's medal is the first for any USA luge competitor, men or women. It's kind of a big deal. But the cameras just couldn't get enough of Kate. All because of something she did quietly.

Before each race, Kate warmed up with Beyonce going strong in her headset and some pretty kick butt dance moves. Alone, in isolated parts of the track, Kate did what she needed to do to perform her best. At first, she had no idea the cameras were there. Once reality kicked in, she didn't change a thing.

And that's why Kate has become a story. If she had stopped dancing, made a quick "gee golly, did you see that?" statement and then conformed to what everyone else thought she should be doing, this would have been a 30 second news blip about an Olympian getting caught dancing on camera.

Instead, Kate opted to stay true to who she is, ignore the cameras and, literally, dance to the beat of her own song. And overnight, she became a media darling and internet phenom.

What can we learn from Kate? First, Beyonce makes some excellent dance music. But more importantly, it always pays to be yourself. You are wonderfully, fabulously, uniquely you. You can't find success trying to be like someone else.

So go out there and get caught being you. Do what you do, because it's the right thing for you. And when the cameras find you, you won't have to worry about what image or brand they'll see. It will always be you.

I can't afford to market my book

There are plenty of ways to market your book for free. I've highlighted plenty of them here on this blog. But there are going to be times when you want, or maybe need, to spend some money on your marketing efforts. For many authors, the issue is finding that money. Here are some ways you can find and save the cold, hard moolah to round out your marketing efforts.

1. Go freelance
If you have a skills that writers need, there are people who will pay for it. This can be anything from editing and proofreading to eBook formatting and banner creation. This can be a great way to earn extra money you can bookmark for...bookmarks? Just make sure you aren't selling a mediocre product. Only put yourself out there as a professional if you are.

2. Garage sale
I don't know about you, but I have a literal garage filled with stuff I probably don't need. If you're as much of a pack rat as I am, you can probably make enough from one garage sale to cover all your expenses. Not sure you've got enough junk to draw a crowd? Reach out to other writers in your area and host a "dreaming the dream" garage sale.

3. Sell some books
I know. I've just asked you to sell your children. I also know you've probably got way more books than you need. They're most likely spilling off your shelves, covering all your flat surfaces and stacked on the floor. If you aren't going to read it again, consider heading to your local used book store and trading those pages in for more marketing buckaroos. It'll be hard, but you can do it.

4. Trade services
If there's something that falls outside your budget, you can try to offer up a trade instead. For example, you might want a professional head shot. Those aren't free. Maybe you can find a photographer who needs a website refresh (and you know how). By trading services, you can both get what you need without collapsing the budget.

5. Co-op where you can
Sometimes, marketing costs can be shared by splitting them with others. Those glossy bookmarks are pretty, but maybe outside the budget. You could team up with another author in your genre. You each get a side and split the cost. Netgalley is a great resource, but super expensive for an individual author. You can join a co-op that gives you a few months of exposure for a small fraction of the cost. The writing community is amazingly generous. Sometimes, you just have to ask.

Always set a budget before you start marketing and know how much money you are comfortable spending before the first dime leaves your hand. But know that there are ways to stretch your dollar bills to complete the marketing plan you need to launch your book to success.

Do you have other ideas to make and/or save money for marketing? Share them in the comments so we can all learn from your genius!

Surviving a broken relationship

As an author, the relationships you build with your agent and editors is crucial. It's always easier to work through a rough spot with someone you can consider a friend. On the same hand, these relationships are part of a business, your business, with you in the driver's seat. When you sign with an agent and/or an editor, the hope is that it's just the beginning of a long and profitable relationship. That doesn't always happen. Sometimes relationships can go south for all kinds of different reasons.
The end of that relationship can be earth-shattering and potentially devastating for your career, but it doesn't have to be. There are ways to protect yourself and your work now, even if you can't imagine a day that you would need to.

When you have conversations over the phone, in person or via social media it's easy for words to get mixed up or forgotten. A safe way to avoid this is to follow up all conversations with an email. Take a few quick minutes to jot down an email summarizing the discussion, planned action items and any established expectations. This gives both parties a chance to clarify any confusion and correct any misheard or misunderstood statements. It also gives you a starting point to draw from if there are issues that arise in the future.

Anyone can make a promise, but until it's in writing with two signatures on it, a promise won't get you very far. Anytime your agent or publisher agrees to handle anything that isn't already clearly established in a contract, always request a new contract or addendum. Even if the item sounds simple or a non-issue. It's easy to think of these business partners as friends (and they should be) and who doesn't do favors for their friends? But keep in mind, that you never know what the future holds. Your publisher could make a blunder and end up bankrupt. Your agency could shut down as a result of a death or retirement. No one hopes for bad things to happen, but they still do. Without a contract you have no recourse when your plans go sour.

If it smells fishy...call it fishy. If a professional you are working with is acting in a way that makes you uncomfortable, don't wait until you have a plate full of problems to talk about it. Keep in mind that the people on your team represent you. How they behave in the industry can and does reflect on you. If something doesn't feel right, bring it up to your agent or editor. There could be a simple explanation based on a part of the industry you aren't familiar with. But it could be an early warning sign that not everything is coming up roses.

When contracts and trust are breached, it's time to move on. To finally have an agent or get that first contract is what you've been working toward for years. Turning away from that can feel like walking away from the dream. But if it's not right, you won't be doing yourself any favors by sticking with what's not working. Relationships are important, but at the end of the day, this is a business. You need to make the call to protect your business, your brand, and your work.

I hope you never experience the sour end of a professional relationship. If you're lucky every contract you sign will be honored and you'll never have cause to doubt promises made. If you're not lucky, hopefully you'll follow these simple steps to protect yourself as a person and as an author.

Finding your tribe

Writing is a solitary experience. You can workshop, use CPs, and conference yourself across the US. But when it comes to putting pen to paper, you've to do it on your own. The good news is everything else can be a team effort. The key is finding your tribe.
My tribe, when I was three.
It's important to have a group of people who are just as zany as you are, ready to hold your hand or throw on a party hat. Your tribe will keep you motivated to stay the course and help share the load of spreading your book news to the world.

If you haven't found your tribe yet, here are a few options to consider.

Many writers find a comraderie with other writers of the same genre. You all understand the current market, the pros and cons and the insider tips. You'll tend to find yourself at the same conferences and haunting the same online hangouts.

Publishing Method:
Whether you go Big 5, small press or self published, there are intricacies unique to each method. Making friends with others on a similar path can make it easier to navigate the bends in the road and get advice from others who've been there and done that.

Online relationships are wonderful, but there's nothing quite like a group of people you can talk to face to face. Even if you can only get together a few times a year, it's a great idea to find a friendly face in your area.

Publishing philosophy:
There are all kinds of groups out there with different objectives. You can find online groups that will help give each other reviews, like Facebook pages, vote in contests and all kinds of other activities that can help with your marketing efforts. There are advantages and disadvantages of all of these, just make sure you agree with how a group is operating before joining in. For example, I would recommend a group that offers to read each others' books and leave honest reviews. I would strongly discourage a group that offers to leave 5-star reviews on each others' books without reading them. To each their own, just make sure you know what you're getting into and the image that reflects on you.

If you're looking for a good tribe to dip your feet in the water, I'd like to recommend the Blog Blitz Team. The blitz is run by DL Hammons, an all around good guy. The concept is simple, several times a month DL selects a team member, from recommendations or random draws, to be blitzed. Then everyone shows up at their blog and showers them with comments and support. It's a great way to be introduced to some great new blogs and become part of a group with only good intentions. If that sounds like you're idea of a good time, stop by DL's page and sign up.

So get out there and find your tribe. Just because you wrote the book on your own doesn't mean you have to be a writer in isolation.

Agency Lessons: Conference Pitching

Last week was light on posting due to an unexpected trip to the ER. Thankfully, all is well and I'm back this week with an Agency Lessons post all about pitching at conferences.
As crazy as it sounds, it's almost time for conference season. In fact, I'll take my first pitches of the year next month! One of the best parts of conferences is the opportunity to talk to agents, both in the formal pitch sessions and while you socialize at the bar. But while most writers spend ages working on their queries, there isn't as much advice out there on how to pitch in-person.

Writer's digest recently put out these tips for pitching at conferences. There are some great tips here, though I disagree with the advice that you have a year to send your requested manuscript. While there's not a printed rule book we're operating off of, I think this is bad advice. What sounds unique and marketable right now could be overdone and unsellable next year. Only pitch a book you are ready to send out within the week (to allow for integrating any feedback you receive at the conference). The only time it's okay to pitch an incomplete book is if an agent has specifically stated this is fine with them.

My best piece of advice is to be prepared to answer questions about your book. If memorizing a pitch makes you feel comfortable, go for it. But know that agents will need more than that to make a decision about your book. Here are some questions you might prep for:
a. what makes your main character unique?
b. what is his/her goal in the manuscript?
c. what is standing in the way of this goal?
d. what are the stakes if the goal isn't achieved?
e. who is the antagonist?
f. what are the antagonists redeeming qualities?
g. how is your book different from what's already on the market?
h. what are some books you would consider comparisons?

Most of these are the kinds of questions you would answer in query letter so they should be pretty basic. Some of them are more complicated. The purpose of  questions like these aren't to stump you. If you can tell me off the top of your head why I might want to root for your bad guy, I know you've put a lot of thought into your story and have multi-faceted characters. That's a good thing.

Other than that, just try your best to relax. Agents want you to do well. We want your book to be amazing (but not so amazing we have to fight off every other agent in the house to get our hands on your pages). Just kidding. We do want it to be that amazing. Before you step up to the table find your happy place. Hopefully, it's found inside your manuscript and then we can both visit there together.

For all of you off to pitch this season, good luck. For the veterans among us, please share your best pitching tips in the comments.

#Esurancesave30 is a marketing win!

I'm pushing Agency Lessons to Wednesday this week so I can bring you a timely post that might actually win you some money.

The Superbowl was a blowout, leaving Peyton Manning, I mean, Denver fans with nothing to enjoy but a great halftime show and the now famous Superbowl commercials. The general social media consensus was that the commercials weren't that great. At the party I attended no one was really blown away by any of them. Until the game was over. And Esurance did this.

#Esurancesave30 immediately started trending on Twitter, beating out the day long Phillip Seymour Hoffman tribute trend. The Esurance.com site was basically shut down with an overwhelming amount of activity. It took 13 minutes for the home page to load on my computer, an hour after the commercial aired.

Now, you could assume that any time a company offers to give away $1.5million dollars they are going to get this kind of action. And that's probably true. But here are a few good reasons why this campaign is made of awesome and what you can learn from it without giving away millions of dollars.

1. The pitch matches their brand
Any company can give away money. It actually happens a lot. But Esurance made sure this wasn't just a giveaway. They turned it into a branding opportunity. Esurance touts their ability to save the average driver 30%, they saved 30% by waiting until the game was over to air their commercial, they are giving away 30% of what it would have cost them to air during the actual game. The number isn't pulled from thin air. 30% is their brand.

Marketing lesson: Big prizes will get attention, but it's more important to make your giveaways work for your brand. If you write romance, make your prize a romantic basket of candles, chocolate and fuzzy handcuffs. Write police procedural? Giveaway a DVD box set of Law & Order. Picture books more your style? What about a DIY picture book kit. Whatever it is, make sure that the prize is not only desirable, but also matches what you want your readers to think about when they think of you.

2. They direct contest entrants where to go
The home page is a huge win. I don't know what it normally looks like, but this is what you got when you visited esurance.com on Sunday night.

They didn't try to hide the contest. That would only have led to people clicking all over the site looking for the information. Instead they put it right on the front page, clear as day. They also put the very basic contest information there so customers don't really need to click off this page to participate. Instead, they provided a two box form, allowing visitors to get more information about the product they are selling. It is simple, visually appealing and drives site visitors exactly where Esurance can maximize the exposure from the contest.

Marketing Lesson: Don't hide your contest. Regular site viewers are going to be okay with a contest home page for one week. Also, outside of the contest information, drive your readers where it makes the most sense. For you, where can they buy your book. What if readers input their zip code and a "within x miles" option to direct them to the closest store they can buy your book. If there isn't one close by, it could direct them to the Amazon buy page. Or, offer a "How do you read?" button that directs customers on how to buy the book for Kindle, Nook, iPad, etc. This might mean a little extra work or hiring someone to create the tool, but it also means capitalizing on contest entries.

3. Focus on delivery
Esurance could have put this contest everywhere. With an audience as large and diverse as the Superbowl, they could have allowed for entries on every social media network out there. Instead, they have it limited to Twitter. I don't know what the demographic of their average customer is, but I'd guess they tend to run young and single. They probably aren't targeting soccer moms, teens, or retirees. They recognize that their target audience lives on Twitter.

Marketing Lesson: Don't try to be everywhere at once. This is where it pays to know who your target reader is. Which social media site do they use the most? How are they likely to share your content? Spreading out across too many outlets can dilute your message and cause confusion. Stick to one platform, two at the most, and really make a push.

4. Make the entries work for you
Esurance could have put an info collection form on their site that required folks to enter their personal info and sign up for the mailing list in order to get an entry. Here's what they would have gotten: a whole lot fewer entries and very little organic promotion. By organic promotion, I mean people sharing the link to enter the contest on their own, without an additional benefit. Instead, the only way to enter is to promote the contest. By including their brand name, Esurance, in the required tweet, they guarantee more visitors to their site and more eyeballs considering buying insurance from them.

Marketing Lesson: Think long term when it comes to entrants. Sure, you can require folks to sign up for your newsletter. But what's going to happen? They sign up, wait for the contest to finish, and then unsubscribe when they get your first email. Instead, think about the long game. Contests should help you spread the word about your book. Create an entry that requires contestants to tell others about you and your books.

5. Keep it simple
The commercial was easy to follow as evidenced by the immediate trend on twitter. The homepage is clear and simple. If you click on the link for more contest info, you get the same spiel on saving 30% along with a reiteration of the only way to enter, a deadline and when the winner will be announce. Entry to the contest requires nothing more than a Twitter account and a single tweet. The FAQs are provided on a separate, easy to find page with straight forward answers and a phone number to ask additional questions.

Marketing Lesson: While I doubt your contest will need an FAQ hotline, it's best to avoid any confusion with simple rules, eligibility requirements and details. Make this information easy to find, but keep it separate from the main contest page so your readers aren't distracted. Remember, you want them to click on a buy link, not a list of overly complicated answers to questions they don't have.

Giveaways by big name companies are pretty common, but by using simple techniques and staying true to your brand you can find success no matter how small your slice of the internet pie is.

Now it's your turn to get in on the action. Share this blog post on Twitter. You'll share valuable content with your followers and earn an entry into the Esurance giveaway*. It's a win-win for everyone.

*I'm not an affiliate or anything special. Tweeting a link to this blog earns you an entry because the title includes the required entry hash tag. This is not a magic entry and should not be traded to Jack for his cow.