Monday, September 29, 2014

GUEST POST: "The Magic of Middle Grade Book Marketing" by Daniel Harvell

After writing, publishing and marketing my first novel, The Survivors, I thought I knew everything there was to know about getting a book out there. The process isn’t easy, and there’s no one single path to take – a writer has to employ a variety of methods to get his or her material in the hands of readers. With my first book, I tried a lot of different things, learned some valuable lessons that would save me time and money with future releases, and plotted a general strategy I thought I could employ with all upcoming novels.

The Survivors is young adult contemporary fantasy. Wishing Will, my second book, is middle grade contemporary fantasy. They have different audiences, sure, but what difference does that make? As I came to find out – it’s as big of a difference as night and day.

A huge component of my marketing strategy is online-based – social media posts, online reviews, e-book sales, blog tours and interviews, and so on. But guess what? My target market of 8 to 12-year-olds aren’t online yet. They don’t have social media accounts (nor should they). I realized that going in, which is why I attempted to market to moms and the younger teen crowd. It didn’t work. Sure, some adults saw the cross-market potential of the book and have snatched it up (and loved it). But I was still left with the question of how to reach my core audience.

I did a lot of reading on middle grade book marketing, and even though the answer was staring me right in the face, it wasn’t until I got a real world invitation to participate in the perfect middle grade marketing event that it dawned on me – I had to visit schools. Two friends who are elementary school teachers first offered to have me visit their classrooms, read an excerpt of Wishing Will to their students and talk about being a writer. The idea was a great one – I remember being in fifth grade and meeting my first author (James Howe of the Bunnicula series) and finding the entire experience exhilarating. But I didn’t know many other elementary and middle grade teachers. How was I going to make this work on a mass scale?

It turned out to be a lot easier than I’d expected. The first thing I did was compile a list of all the area schools (and their principals) that met the age requirements of my target market. Next, I searched for the direct email addresses of the principals, which required a few hours of my time, but it wasn’t difficult – it just required persistence. Finally, I sent an email to each principal individually, addressing them and their school by name, briefly describing my book, what I was offering (copies of the book donated to their library and a brief classroom visit to discuss creative writing and/or read an excerpt of the book), background information on me, and then the book synopsis and the book cover image (embedded into the email, NOT as an attachment).

I scheduled all 85 emails to go out at 6am the following morning since it’s important to get to those inboxes before the administrators are overwhelmed by the day’s events. By the end of the day, I’d heard back from 20% of those I’d emailed – every single one was a positive response. Some wanted to review the book first, others were ready to sign me up immediately to come for a classroom visit. Some principals copied their librarians and teachers, and they were all very enthusiastic about having me to their school.

I’m still in the process of scheduling visits and handing out review copies of the book – but judging by the responses, I may have solved the mystery of middle grade book marketing.


Daniel Harvell is author of the middle grade contemporary fantasy novel WISHING WILL, which was named by Amazon.com as a “hot new release” for children’s fantasy coming of age novels during its debut in July 2014.  His first novel, THE SURVIVORS, was a #1 download for “superhero” fiction at Amazon.com in July 2013 and maintains a five-star rating. For more information about the book, upcoming novels, tips on writing fantasy and more, visit his website at http://DanielHarvell.com.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Ninja Stuff: The Making of My First Audiobook

Do you love a good audiobook, Esteemed Reader? You know I do. At least half the books I read each year are read to me by talented narrators. If you're a writer (and you're here, so odds are good you are), I don't see how you can afford not to listen to audiobooks.

You know I love sitting down and reading a good book. More, I consider it an essential activity for an author. I want to see how the author/editor formatted the book. I want to see the length of the author's paragraphs and their use of white space. I want to imagine the characters speaking dialogue the way it sounds to me. I even read the occasional print book just so I can experience the difference between it and my kindle screen.

That experience alone is enough for the casual reader, but a Ninja like myself mourns that there just aren't enough hours in the day to read more books. Sure, I take my kindle with me everywhere I go so that if I'm waiting in a line I can whip that sucker out (or sometimes my phone) and get in some extra reading time. But there are all sorts of other activities I have to do such as exercising, washing the dishes, driving my son 45 minutes away so Grandma Ninja can watch him, etc. during which I can't read. I could simply stare off and think about whatever story I'm writing (and I do), but I only have so many interesting thoughts in a day (not half as many as I think I do) and I have a forever long list of books to read.

I try to sit and read most middle grade books so I can highlight passages to share here if I decide to write a review. As I'm also a horror author, I make it my business to read new horror novels as well. Since I'm not reviewing them, most horror books get downloaded from audible as do nonfiction works (Robert Reich never sounds so eloquent as when he narrates his own economic complaints). And it occurred to me early on that if my horror titles were written by someone else I'd be in danger of skipping them as there's no audio version available.

Well, no more. My first audiobook, a brilliant narration of Pizza Delivery by David Radtke, hit the market last week. You could be listening to it now! And David reads the first four chapters of All Together Now after the story to preview my next audiobook, which will be out in October. I'm coming at readers on all formats! I'm in your ears and in your head! You try to shake me, but I just keep coming, and eventually you will succumb to my tale of haunted pizza (not actually what the story is about, but I kind of like that idea so maybe I'll write a sequel).

I've said it before and I'll say it again: there has never been a better time in the history of the world to be an author. Without ever leaving the comfort of my office (though I'll be doing a handful of public appearances in the near future) and while wearing Batman pajama pants, I've published three ebooks, a print book, and now two audiobooks (with lots of help). I've even sold the T-shirts. All these things are available all around the world and people are buying them. People I don't know who live in other countries write me emails to tell me how much they liked my scary stories.

I'm not telling you this to brag, or not just to brag. I'm telling you this in case you're an author on the fence about whether or not to join the indie revolution like I was for years. I can't tell you what to do or the best way to publish--only you can know that. But I'm less than a year into this whole indie author thing and I'm having more fun writing than ever before. It's a lot of work, but it's work I love. There has been and continues to be cost involved, but I've made it back and a whole lot more. No one's sent me a "request" for revision that I have to do to be published in over a year and it's freaking awesome.

Perhaps most important, I hold all my rights and I'll never consider giving them away again, though I might lease them. If I had signed those rights away to a publisher as I nearly did many times, I couldn't slap covers on T-shirts without permission and I certainly couldn't commission my own audiobooks. Some traditionally published author friends of mine have told me privately they're quite jealous. "You mean you can just DO that?" they ask. "Nobody has to let you?"

I learned my lesson after readers hated my version of the All Together Now cover. Unless a task is something I'm qualified to do, I now partner with a professional. I looked into setting up my own recording studio in a closet to record an audiobook and I may still record one some day, but for now I'm better off letting the pros handle things. It's true that no one could perform my writing the way I would, but I've found someone who's done it far better than I could've.

So how did I, mild-mannered writer dad in Indiana have my book professionally recorded and produced in another country all while feeding Little Ninja, who was also wearing Batman pajamas? Because I own my rights and don't need anyone's permission, I was able to join up at Audiobook Creation Exchange for free and partner with my choice of brilliant narrators. If you're in a position to do this with your own book, I can't recommend it enough as it's a lot of fun and produced results surpassing my highest expectations.

Upon joining, I posted a sample from each of my books and various narrators auditioned. Within a week, I had dozens of recordings to listen to, all variations of the same poor pizza delivery driver on his way to Hell (still not actually what the story is about, but I like that idea too, so I think I'll save it for the threequel). I wish I could do this with rough drafts as I gained new perspective on my writing by hearing so many talented folks lend their voice. Sure, a couple were clearly just starting out and had no previous credits to their name, but I don't exactly have a full body of work to my name yet either, and I'll be watching for their future recordings as everyone who auditioned was passionate and professional.

I also had auditions from seasoned narrators whose work I'd heard previously as someone who listens to a lot of audiobooks. Choosing between them was one of the hardest things I've ever done as I know I shut the door to some incredible performances, but it's a good problem to have.

When I heard David Radtke read my words I knew in the first paragraph I had my narrator. I stalked him online, which is something I advocate doing when considering any publishing partner and David stalked me back, which is one of the many reasons it's important for authors to maintain a professional web presence. This blog's address appears on all my books, my business cards, my email signature, and anyplace else I can sneak it in. It's not the most professional site I've ever seen, but I work hard on it and it's opened more doors for me than almost anything else I've done in my writing career.

David maintains an incredible online presence and it's immediately clear to anyone who visits that he's passionate about audiobooks and extremely professional. Even if I hadn't had the opportunity to work with him, I enjoyed reading his blog and wanted to have a cup of coffee with him so I could learn more about audiobook creation. We emailed back and fourth and very quickly I realized David was a kindred spirit and my book was in good hands, so I convinced him to narrate All Together Now and some other upcoming releases as well.

I've been an actor and I've certainly had my share of rejection, so I reached out to all the narrators kind enough to audition and thanked them. Every writer should do this. Auditioning for a project requires a lot of work and the courage to put yourself out there. In a perfect world, I could release multiple versions of every book and listen to them all, but being an author means making hard choices. The good news is these folks are still available to narrate your audiobook, Esteemed Reader.

I've directed a couple films and plays and collaborated with a lot of really talented, creative people. I've learned the best way to work with such folks is first pick the right person for the job, then get out of their way and let them do it. David has been very good about taking my feedback and making any changes I requested, but I haven't requested many. We had upfront conversations about the characters and tone of the story, but once heread my books, he had his own unique take, which is why I picked them in the first place.

My job is to listen and offer my input. Not one chapter makes it into an audiobook without my approval and I won't lie, I enjoying having that power (and try never to abuse it). But honestly, after some up front discussion, David knew what I wanted and the chapters he turned in for me to obsessively listen to four or five times through almost always blew me away, and his reading of All Together Now is still blowing me away. I may ask for a word change here or there or I may have the occasional performance note, but I always feel like the princess atop all those mattresses complaining about a pea beneath.

I was nervous signing up through ACX, but it's been one of the most rewarding experiences I've ever had and soon all my books will be available in audio form all around the world. If you're nervous about entrusting your book to a narrator, Esteemed Reader, I'll remind you you were probably nervous when you first started writing the book and then when you published it. As with anything, a writer should plan for success, employ their best judgement, and take the first step forward. The result may not be what you thought you'd get, but it's certainly more than you'll get doing nothing, and a lot of times what you get is better than what you hoped for.

I love being an author in the modern age. Anything is possible and there are no boundries. So go fourth and buy a copy of the Pizza Delivery audiobook:) Also, take your first step toward your dream and don't stop until you reach it.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

GUEST POST: "Publishing Middle Grade in the Indie Age" by J.B. Cantwell

I am not one of those writers who has been penning stories since I was five, dreaming of the day that I would see my work on store shelves. I started writing just sixteen months ago, practically by accident, and twenty pages into what was supposed to be a companion guide for a video game, I realized I had a novel on my hands.

Excited by my new, unexpected hobby, I took the story and ran with it, completing the first draft of 75K words six months later. But there were problems. The story was too descriptive, lacked solid structure, conflict, hard choices on the part of the protagonist. I was lucky to have a dear friend point these problems out to me, and committed enough to learn how to fix them.

Not long after the second draft was completed, I started querying agents. I probably contacted just about every agent listed on this website and many, many more. And so began the oh-so-long string of rejections. The work was still quite thick, not catchy enough, perhaps, for the mainstream MG crowd. I tore that novel apart and put it back together more than once (something I don’t recommend if you want to keep your sanity). But by the time I was done, it was too late. Over a hundred agents had been queried in my haste to see if I had what it takes to make a go at writing. And over a hundred “no thank you” notes have come my way since, despite a smattering of full and partial requests. They all sounded something like…

Too long
Something too similar on her list already
Voice isn’t right for MG
Voice is great, but character problems
Polished and accomplished, but not right for me
Portal stories are overdone in today’s market
Sorry I didn’t read it for six months, but turns out I don’t like it anyways

So, somewhere around rejection #70, I realized I was in trouble. I entered a contest called “Pitch Wars” in a desperate attempt to get help from an editor or intern or anybody so that I could get my query and first fifty into a better place. This was where I made the extremely fortunate choice of Brent Taylor as mentor/victim. You query the mentors just like an agent and then sit back and pray that somebody picks your story to lend their expertise to. Participants who are chosen get a fair amount of attention, winners get a real shot at getting agented.

Brent was interested in the story, and so kind in his critique. But in the end he also chose to pass. My experience with him had been so good that I decided to pursue working with him further. At the time, Brent was heading up a small editing service called “Teen Eyes Editorial.” I sent him my manuscript after the contest was through, and his sharp eye and immensely supportive nature really carried me through a difficult time in my writing. It still does.

It was only later that I realized that Teen Eyes is run by…wait for it…teenagers.  Yes, it was quite a facepalm moment when I realized that my dear Brent was eighteen years old. But months and months of working closely together had already taught me that he was a gem. I’d still scramble to work with Brent if he was twelve; it wouldn’t matter. You should, too, or any of the other talented young people at Teen Eyes.

But I was too late, in many ways, to succeed at going mainstream. Really, there are only so many agents in the world, and it seemed most of them had already rejected me, despite the hefty revisions I had worked on with Brent that had turned my story around. Now, I had what was shaping up to be a pretty decent book on my hands, but nobody left to query about it.

That was when I stumbled across Kboards, and my understanding and attitude about publishing was eventually changed forever. Here was a forum chock full of writers, some good, some not-so-good, who were making a go at indie publishing. I was fascinated, but refused to commit to the idea of going indie. At first, the whole idea left a bad taste in my mouth. If I couldn’t make it past the gatekeepers of the big houses, wasn’t I simply not good enough? Maybe. Or maybe, just as every rejection said, I just wasn’t the right fit at the right nanosecond of time for any of the agents I was coveting.

After a few months of reading Kboards every day, I decided I was going to go for it. I wasn’t ready to abandon my project, to chalk it up to that first book that ends up in the drawer and move on to something different.  All those hours reading the board had taught me that I already had all the right pieces of the puzzle in hand to have a shot at success

I had:
·       -- A five book series
·        --Experience with design
·        --Experience with art direction
·        --Some money to put into good covers and marketing
·        --General tech/internet savvy
·        --A kick-ass editor

I got to writing the second book and devised a strategy.

The Plan
·        --Complete first two books
·        --Commission professional, beautiful artwork for covers
·        --Release both books at the same (roughly) time
·        --Set first book to permafree on all outlets
·        --Use free status of first book to attract readers who may be wary of brand new authors
·        --Use first book to funnel readers to the other, paid, books in the series
·        --Promote first book like gangbusters
·        --Learn as much as possible about Amazon algorithms
·        --Build website
·        --Build mailing list

Challenges
·       -- Kids in my target age range don’t always have access to electronic reading devices, but this is something that’s changing rapidly.
·        --Kids in my target age range may not have permission to buy books on their own.
·        --Need to figure out how to target Mom and Kid

“The Plan” may sound nutty to some. Why would anyone want to give away a book that took a year to write and revise (and revise and revise)? The proof is in the pudding. Permafree works very well as a marketing strategy, and though it isn’t quite as powerful a tool as it was a year ago, it’s still quite effective.

The thing about going indie that gets me excited is the fact that independent authors have total control over their final product. We have the freedom to experiment with covers, typeface, book descriptions (or blurbs), keywords, and all advertising. You may read this and think, “But I don’t want to do all that.” But I think it’s fun and extremely empowering to know that if a mistake is made, I have the power to fix it with just a few clicks. True, it would be glorious to be able to tell the whole world that the pearly gates of Scholastic were opened up to me amidst fanfare and worship. But the reality is that, from a business perspective, I’m much more likely to make money in the indie world than with a traditional publisher.

Last month, a month early, I released the first book in my Aster Wood series. I’ve barely told anybody before now about the release because I wanted to learn the process so that I didn’t crash and burn in the middle of a promotion. Now I understand how to create the ebooks, upload them to each vendor, tweak keywords, make changes, experiment with tiny promotions to see how they affect the ranking, and a zillion other miniscule things. I am currently getting about 70 downloads a day without promoting the book in any way. Will any of these readers turn into “conversions”? That is to say, will they buy Book 2 and the rest? Standard conversion rates from permafree titles vary from 2%-25%, so only time will tell.

But I feel good. Really good and really excited. How did I get here, claw myself up from the rejection of the query trenches? Reading Kboards every day. There are so many successful authors in the Writer’s Café who will share their knowledge with you. And when I say successful, I mean some of these people are making millions of dollars a year. There are also many up-and-comers who are testing the water, like me, who will share their first experiences with marketing, design, mailing lists, and anything else you can think of that’s relevant to the independent publishing world. And plenty who are making $10 a month. No matter what level of writing and/or marketing/luck you find yourself at, you can find support on Kboards.

The indie landscape is changing daily. What works to promote changes daily. So I read and study daily.

I don’t know if I’ll make any money on Aster Wood. But from what I hear, traditionally published authors don’t usually make much, anyways. I feel that, armed with the knowledge I have of my audience, the process of going indie, as well as how to work with Amazon to get my books in front of as many eyes as possible, that I have a better shot at making a living than many traditionally published authors ever could.

I may not have the prestige of the Big 5, but I have control

J. B. Cantwell

You can find the first FREE book in the Aster Wood series, Aster Wood and the Lost Maps of Almara, here:

And my website here: