Lessons Learned From Ravencon

As I mentioned a couple weeks ago, here is everything (new) I learned from the panels and workshops at Ravencon. Before we begin, however, a little bit about how I’m going to do this:

Some of the “lessons learned” weren’t in things anyone said, but were more conclusions drawn by putting a little of what person A said, a little of what person B said, and my own experiences together, which might make it hard to properly attribute.  Besides, I didn’t properly attribute everything in my notes (hey, I couldn’t even remember who some of the speakers WERE without a program book, and I would have lost valuable information looking them up). So… sorry, but I’m not going to identify just which panel or panelist inspired these “lessons.”  Still, I’d recommend reading my Ravencon Recap to get a list of the panelists from whom these lessons were derived.

I.  On Marketing

A lot of the things that I heard from this convention on marketing were things I already knew, but maybe haven’t thought to mention on this blog before.

For example, an emphasis was made on doing things in what I would call the “set-up phase” of getting your eBook ready.  By this I mean things like making sure you add the right keywords to get in the most categories on Amazon and making sure you set up your Author Central page on Amazon (the guest who said this pointed out that he’d checked the author pages for the guests at Ravencon, and roughly two thirds of the authors attending had never filled out this page.  This is something to do even if you’re trad-pubbed, guys!).

One thing I did not know about this involved the keywords.  I knew you could get your ebook into more Amazon categories with the right keywords in the KDP set-up process, but I didn’t know that worked with Createspace as well, and you could use the keywords with your Createspace books to get you into even more categories.

I also didn’t know how many categories you could get a single book into — one of the panelists pointed out that he had his book in over fifteen different categories on Amazon.

I will note that the panelist who gave this example said the keywords you need to get into specific niche categories were listed on Amazon, but I don’t think that’s a complete listing — at any rate, I’m still not sure what specific keyword got The Kitsune Stratagem into the Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Myths & Legends > Asian category.

Another phrase I heard that I already knew (and recent experience says is pretty true) is that the best marketing you can do for Book I is to release Book II.  Now, I also know it’s kind of hard to do that if you haven’t written Book II, yet, so I was hoping for a little more advice on what to do in the interim.

Several panelists emphasized keeping up with your social media — your Facebook feed, your Twitter page, your home page, your blog (heh).  You need to be sure to not just spam your followers with “Buy my book!” type posts, but rather try to engage them with interesting posts on whatever subject matter you can — politics, cats, the paranormal, etc., and anything else that might interest the people you’re marketing to.

Blogging about writing and publishing isn’t enough (again, something I knew, but I couldn’t think of what else to focus this blog around), because then you’re marketing to other writers.  I came to the conclusion I’m just too boring for social media marketing, as most of the posts I have are either on writing or are “buy my book” type posts.  I don’t want to talk about politics, I have no interest in the paranormal, and I don’t have any cats.  And even if I did have cats, I’m too lousy of a photography to take funny pictures of them, as my pictures from the first Ravencon recap likely demonstrate.  What can you do?  I apologize to my fans for boring you all.  Sorry.

Several panelists discussed the boost (or lack thereof) in sales that giving your book away or offering some books for free can give you.  A lot of things were said, but I think the point that newer authors shouldn’t go this route (it’s entirely ineffective if you don’t have much of anything for people who liked the free book to buy when they’re done) is a good one.  On the other hand, if you have a long series, making the first book free can help… though even this is of limited worth, especially considering how long a series has been out.

One suggestion regarding the free book path that I thought made a lot of sense, though, is — instead of making the first book free — you release an entirely new prequel book that you make free, with the hope the readers of that book will move on to the completed series.  That way, you get both the “new release” buzz and the “free book” buzz.

I also heard a call for joining professional organizations, because they can offer networking opportunities and marketing opportunities you just won’t find anywhere else.  Also, for some of these organizations, being eligible to join is proof you can show to the outside world that you’ve sold a certain number of books.

I’m a bit dubious of joining the SFWA, though if I did join one it would be that one.  Once they opened the doors to self-publishers who could demonstrate certain sales figures, I was eligible through the sales of “In Treachery Forged” (and In Forgery Divided, while selling at a rate a little slower than its predecessor, should cross that same threshold this month, barring a very sudden and dramatic decline in the sales).

I’m still thinking about it.  While I’m dubious about whether such an organization has any value to self-publishers, outside of the “proof my books sell” label, there were a few pilot programs mentioned that sound like they might be useful.  Things like a program to help people who use crowdfunding platforms when launching their books.

If any of my readers are current SFWA members, contact me — I have a few questions that the “Ask SFWA” panel didn’t sound willing to answer.

One self-published writer noted that being a guest at a convention was good promotion for their book, as well (something I’ve long suspected, but had no proof of).   She said that sales for her books jumped higher than they ever had, before, once she was announced as a guest at Ravencon.  Well, I’ve started applying to be a guest at several conventions (though, as I said before, I was too late for this year’s Ravencon, or really any 2016 conventions), so hopefully I’ll be able to tell you how true this is soon.

There was some talk about “swag.”  In this case, swag refers to bookmarks, postcards, and that kind of thing, which can be given away at conventions (like Ravencon) and bookstores as promotional material.  Now I’ve heard from other sources that bookmarks and postcards are increasingly useless, with so many authors trying to be discovered using them that they appear to be nothing more than litter.

However, some forms of re-usable swag (t-shirts, tote bags, tumblers, that sort of thing) can still be good advertising, if done right — giving them away for free (or even charging for them, if you can find buyers) may target only one customer, but then everyone who wears those T-shirts or carries those tote bags displays the logo, website address, book cover, etc., just like a billboard.

Providing enough free t-shirts or tote bags for an entire convention would get pretty expensive (Ravencon requires a minimum of 600 copies of an item to include it in their swag bag.  At $14.14 per t-shirt (drawn from the bulk pricing estimate at Cafepress; you might find it cheaper elsewhere, but it’s a good enough number for this estimate) that’s well over $8000), but having a few made to give away at an event like a book signing, or offering some branded gear for sale on your website, can be worth a little expense.  (Whether you make back your money from that level of advertising is another question, but it does work)

Another interesting piece of “swag” was a small excerpt, eleven pages long, of J.T. Bock’s The Grandfather Paradox.  It’s something that might have been made by your local Kinko’s or UPS Store, or even by the author herself using a laser printer and a long-arm stapler.  The last page of this chapbook has the text “Find out what happens next!  Get a FREE ebook of A Grandfather Paradox short story.  Go to www.JTBock.com and sign up for the ezine.”  I don’t know how many sales this has generated for the author, but this is something that someone would be far more likely to pay attention to than a simple bookmark, and if you can keep the costs down by DIYing it, you might find it cheaper than purchasing a set of bookmarks.

Another thing that was discussed was cross-promotion.  By this, I mean having several authors work jointly to market their books to each others fanbases.  In my earlier Self-Publishing Roundtable post on marketing, I did discuss the theory of this type of promotion as one of the more effective (in concept, at least).  In that article, I mostly was considering the idea of anthologies, but that was the limit to what I really thought of.  At Ravencon, the idea of sharing your backmatter advertising space with other indie authors (some above you in the genre rankings, others below you, all providing quid-pro-quo for the other authors) was proposed.  It sounds intriguing enough I might just try it, next time.

Finally, there were several mentions of getting reviews out for your book.  Enough points were raised it deserves a topic of its own.

II.  On Reviews

“The hardest thing to do in publishing is getting people to review.”  (Since that’s a direct quote, I’ll note that it was Chris Kennedy who said that line).  In my experience, this is true — in terms of “natural” (unsolicited) reviews, it seems less than 0.75% of the people who purchase my books review them (it used to be 1%, but the older my books have gotten the smaller that percentage has become).  When it comes to solicited reviews, I gave away signed several signed print copies of The Kitsune Stratagem in exchange for a promise that the people getting them would give me a honest review in exchange.  Less than 25% of the people who took this offer actually provided a review of any kind.

So, I went to the conference hunting for suggestions on how to get more customer reviews.  I’m not so sure I heard anything I hadn’t tried, before (at least, not that I currently have the connections and\or other resources to try) but I did hear a few other things about reviews which either add to or contradict what I’ve heard before.

To begin with, I heard that the fantasy genre (which all of my currently published books are in) is one of the hardest to get reviews in.  I didn’t hear any explanation as to why that might be, but it seems to agree with the reality I’ve heard from authors in other genre.

Fortunately, reviews aren’t quite as important as I originally believed.  Amazon’s algorithms (Amazon has several algorithms that help an author sell something; some are used to determine sales rank, others to determine your book’s also-bot mentions, others are used to determine how much free promotion they provide, others are used to determine where your book appears in Amazon’s search engine relative to other books with a similar title… and there are probably others as well) are not as reliant on the number of reviews as much as they are by how they’re weighted.  Reviews are weighted based on how many people vote a review as being useful (or not useful), how old the review is, whether a review comes from a verified purchaser or not, and so forth.

In other words, even if you don’t write reviews, it can help support the writer to click “this review is helpful” on positive reviews.

Where the number of reviews is still important is in getting into promotional websites.  Bookbub (while it doesn’t say so on its website) and Pixel of Ink, generally regarded as the two most effective promotional websites, won’t accept your book for promotion until you get at least 20 reviews.   Ereadernewstoday has a minimum of 10.   Book Blast requires 5.  These are but a few examples where the quantity is more important than the quality of the reviews you get.

While the discussion did not come up at Ravencon, a few things said by the panelists have me looking more into the value of editorial reviews.  Editorial reviews do not get submitted to Amazon in the same way as customer reviews; they are solicited, and even “best practice” includes a fee for the service (paid for either by the author, in self-publishing, or the publisher, for some trad-pub.  I’ve heard that the prices are cheaper for trad-pub, but I can’t be sure about that).  These are the sorts of reviews journals that libraries and other bookstores look at when deciding whether to buy your book. You pay them, they write a review, and you can include a quote or two in a special section (at Amazon’s Author Central, they have a section for entering these called, curiously enough, “Editorial Reviews.”  This section is even open for trad-pub authors to add such reviews.)

Createspace offers one such editorial review service, itself, but it’s far too expensive (Kirkus; as I once mentioned in a past blog post, this is a once quite reputable review journal that went bankrupt and was bought out, and now makes its money by gouging authors for such reviews, though they do seem to be maintaining their good reputation when they deal with trad-pub).  There may be better such services, however; after hearing a few writers talk about this, I’m thinking of experimenting with one or two I know of.  If I do (still a big if), I’ll get back to you on how effective they seem to be.

III.  Story Ideas

Of course, there was more to the convention than lessons for self-publishing.

I’ve decided I need a mascot.  Too many authors have started carrying around there own mascots (dragons, treecats, buffalitos, etc.), and I have too many potential mascots in my own books (foxes, dragons, and other creatures) to ignore this trend.

An intriguing discussion of “sciences not used in science fiction” (which was really “well, everything has been done at least once, but these are far less common sciences featured in science fiction”) gave me an idea for an anthology or collection of stories featuring, well, sciences not commonly featured in the harder forms of science fiction.  Library sciences, linguistics, historians, anthropologists, geologists, meteorologists (in a non-climatological sense; there’s been a recent spate of “Cli-Fi” (Climatologically-messaged science fiction) which has become more common, but other aspects of a meteorologist’s job are still largely ignored), etc.

A tip for con-goers:  Even if you plan to do all of your dining in the hotel restaurant, bring along at least one meal you can safely store in your room that’s grab-and-go.  Even if it’s just the fixings for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.  That way, if you get talked into going to a panel that takes over the window of time you scheduled for yourself to get your dinner, you’re less likely to miss another panel you want to attend to make up for it.  I usually bring drinks and snacks, but I REALLY could have used a sandwich that Saturday night.

And I’ll conclude with one more tip for the con-goer:  If you’re going to take notes on the panels you attend, it’s so much easier to keep them on your laptop than to try and type them on your iPod or tablet device.  And those notes can be really helpful when you’re trying to write your blog on the lessons you learned at the convention.  And it’s really a good idea to remember to take that laptop with you… even on the first day of the convention.  (Oops)