Friday, 27 May 2011

Your Cut-Out-and-Keep SCBWI Marketing Session

Rather than pontificating at random for a few hundred words (as per usual), I thought I'd do something a bit different with the blog this week. I'm running a discussion session this evening at the SCBWI retreat about marketing and I thought I'd lay out my agenda and thoughts here. That way anyone who isn't coming gets a chance to participate too! If you are attending the retreat, you might want to wait until after the session to read this, as I'll be covering some of this material as part of the discussion.

  • What is marketing? What forms can it take?

    This is hard to answer definitively, because marketing constantly mutates, adapting to new forms of media. I work in the marketing department of a large UK brand, and our campaigns are often divided into Above the Line and Below the Line. Above the Line refers to mass campaigns which use traditional broadcast media like TV, newspapers and magazines. These campaigns have a wide reach, but are necessarily pretty generic. Below the Line is all about targeting individual customers and getting them to make a purchase, so it tends to be shorter term and you need to be very clear who your customer is.

    Publishers do very little Above the Line marketing, especially for children's books. Even the adverts in magazines or in public locations etc. are highly targeted – take a trip on the tube and see how many adverts there are for books that aren't crime, thriller or chick-lit (almost none).

    Any marketing budget that a publisher allocates to you is too precious to be spent Above the Line, it has to be used to reach consumers who have a strong chance of buying your book. This is the beauty of web advertising and social media - you can track a user from reading a tweet all the way to buying your book on Amazon. Below The Line marketing delivers measurable results.

    Of course, many of the newer forms of internet marketing blur "The Line." Is viral marketing targeted or does it just float around from person to person like a dandelion seed? And what about Twitter, which is fast becoming a massive broadcast outlet for assorted brands and public figures?

  • How much marketing will a publisher do and how much is an author expected to do themselves?

    The general rule of thumb here is: the more money your publisher has spent to acquire your book, the more marketing budget they will allocate to it. You can see the blizzard of publicity that The Emerald Atlas is attracting at the moment. You may also note the crazy auction price it achieved at Bologna last year…

    It's every writer's dream to get a six-figure book deal, but be careful what you wish for. I'm working on a project right now with a multi-million pound marketing budget and the pressure to deliver is intense. If you have a big advance, failing to meet your publisher's sales projections might mean that you never get another chance.

    The short answer to the heading question is – expect to do a lot of the marketing yourself. But you might get a nice publicist like Nina Douglas to help.

  • Your publisher's marketing budget – spending it wisely

    Assuming you do get a few quid from the petty cash tin, what should you do with it? You may be better concentrating on small-ticket promotional items like bookmarks, postcards and the like to stretch the budget as far as it will go. Should you ask your publisher to pay for your website or will you get something better for half the cost if you find someone yourself? Publisher-built websites can sometimes be quite impersonal and may struggle to include content that will bring the reader back for another visit. What about book trailers? They sound daunting, but you probably know someone with the video production skills to make a good job of it.

  • The book trailer – do you need one? Who will see it?

    Books are quite difficult to market over the internet – the cover photo is usually small and the format of a webpage makes it hard to concentrate on even a chapter presented online. Plus, words are designed to come alive in your head, not via Flash Media. What the book trailer does is to sneak your novel into one of the key places that teenagers hang out online – YouTube. By dramatising elements of your story, you can sell the theme and even the tone of your novel in a very short amount of time. And it needs to be short, because a) everybody's attention span is shot to hell b) you've probably had to make the trailer yourself on the cheap and every second is costing you money.

  • School visits

    I've never made a school visit, so my experience here is limited. I do know that they are a superb way to market a book to your actual target audience. Some authors are so popular that, if they had time, they could schedule a visit every school day of the year. And these are not the megastar authors either, in fact when your sales go into the millions you will tend to do less public appearances, not more. In some ways, visiting loads of schools can be like an apprenticeship for authors early in their career - writers like Jacqueline Wilson and Caroline Lawrence have built huge followings by really working the school circuit.

    By and large, children love school visits, but opinion amongst parents can be mixed. I know my wife objects to having to buy a book by an author she's never heard of, and there can be a lot of peer-pressure amongst the children to make a purchase. But this is also why school visits are such an effective way to reach readers, and authors do get paid for their time as well.

  • Getting spotted as an unpublished author – how to stand out from the crowd and sell yourself effectively to agents and editors

    • Step 1 – Don't be crazy, obsessive or impossibly needy.

    • Step 2 – If you are crazy, obsessive or impossibly needy, don't let anybody know.

    The internet is a wonderful device for preserving your anonymity. Unfortunately, some writers don't seem to realise that and spend a lot of time telling everyone their problems and seeking sympathy. It's one thing if their problems are personal ones, and let's face it we all go through some pretty grotty periods in our lives. But once writers start bitching about the issues they face getting into print, then they can become publishing poison.

    Google yourself right now. What do you find? Do you have a blog, an open Facebook page or a Twitter account? What have you written about yourself on the Ning? All of these resources are a keystroke away for any agent or editor. If you set the wrong tone, or don't look sufficiently professional, that glimmer of interest from an agent will become a form rejection. And you'll never know about it.

    Believe me, I've said one or two things online I've regretted in the past. But this is what making mistakes is all about...

  • Social media – getting the best out of Facebook and Twitter.

    Where to start? One thing that the internet is not short of is advice on marketing using social media. You can even pay companies to attract Twitter/Facebook followers for you – I can't imagine anyone but the most desperate taking up that option.

    Social media is ultra-low-cost and very effective if used the right way. It is also enormously time consuming, so it favours the time-rich and cash-poor. Students of the power of social media marketing might like to study the case of Talli Roland who framed the publication of her debut e-book as a David and Goliath struggle against Amazon, and managed to get it into the top 25 Kindle chart.

  • To blog or not to blog?

    The question of whether to blog might seem a bit redundant, considering what you're reading right now. But it is very pertinent. There was a time (about a year ago) when every writer felt they needed a blog, and I watched the blog roll on the SCBWI Ning expanding on a weekly basis. But recently, there's been a definite retreat from this position. Fatigue can set in quite quickly when you have a blog that no-one seems to read week-in, week-out. More than that, there are so many writers' blogs that having a good blog is no longer a guarantee of getting noticed. But there are alternatives to a personal blog, which brings me onto my next point...

  • The benefits and drawbacks of group blogging

    More and more authors, especially published ones, are scaling down their personal blogging and joining group blogs. By pooling resources, likeminded writers can provide daily content to readers but themselves only have to post on a fortnightly or even monthly basis. Being a group blogger is like getting to join a gang, and you know that the other members will rally round and comment on your posts – which looks great to any new visitor to the site.

    The drawback of group blogging is the diffusion of personal voice, because it's much harder for someone to follow your individual posts in the way they could with a personal blog. But the flipside is discovering other writers whose work is equally fascinating.

    I could say more on group blogs, but check out Candy Gourlay's great post on the subject from last week.

  • What is a platform, and how vital is it for a children's author?

    According to this blog post by the estimable Nathan Bransford:
    Platform is the number of eyeballs you can summon as you promote your book.

    Platforms are good because they allow you to build an audience before you even publish a word. You are part of my platform, along with everyone else reading this blog. I know that if I brought out a book tomorrow (ok, it won't be quite that soon), I could rely on quite a few people to buy it, even if it was dreadful (but I'm sincerely hoping it won't be). Talli Roland built a huge platform on Twitter to prepare for her book launch and priced her product low to entice them to buy.

    I remain a little unconvinced about platforms for children's authors, simply because it's so hard to get actual children involved. Maybe new initiatives like Girls Heart Books will change that.

Right, that's more than enough words from me! What's your take on all this?


Friday, 20 May 2011

Taking Responsibility

I don't read a lot of interviews with rappers, but one caught my eye the other week. The journalist was talking to Tyler The Creator of internet buzz band Odd Future (who not-at-all-coincidentally had just released his official debut album). To give them their full name, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All aspire to be the Sex Pistols of their day, and Tyler has amassed quite a reputation for the extreme self-loathing, homophobia and violent misogyny that pepper his lyrics.

What interested me wasn't so much that he was doing this (antipathy and violence towards women/gay men has pretty much been a staple of hip hop ever since it was invented) but his rejection of any responsibility towards his audience. When asked if he ever considers the effect his music might have:
"I never think of that. I just make sh*t I want to listen to. Not everyone's got to like it.

Now, Tyler is only twenty and he recorded his first album when he was sixteen. So in a very real way he is in exactly the same place as his audience. What makes him different is his undeniable musical talent and a direct line to millions of his peers. Should he censor himself? Would I even know his name if he had?

To bring things back to writing, this argument - between self-expression and self-control - is one that often troubles me as a children's author. I spoke of responsibility in an earlier post and got a range of responses. Some people applauded me, some were apprehensive at the idea of having to be more mature than their audience. I can understand this latter viewpoint - one of the things that makes a successful children's author is the ability to think (and, more importantly, feel) as your reader does.

I'm not just talking about avoiding inappropriate content in our books, because we have a raft of gatekeepers to grouse about that and make up somewhat arbitrary rules about which words are acceptable and which aren't. How about our political views? How far should we go to push our own agenda within our fiction, bearing in mind how malleable our readership might be? I've realised that my work-in-progress is quite political compared to what I've written in the past - I'm trying to temper my approach to be more sociological than socialist.

But responsibility isn't about sanitising everything contentious from what we do. After all, a writer with nothing to say is a waste of space. We can't expect to be able to hold back our views, fears and aspirations, because they bleed into every word we write. Tyler The Creator's fury towards his absent father and rejection of the female role models who tried to mould him is palpable. If not always laudable.

Creative people are often very troubled, which doesn't always make them the most appropriate people to be talking to our children. But on the other hand, who better to engage, challenge and inspire them? Life is not a bed of sweet-smelling flowers and shouldn't children be aware of the complexities and agonies of our world?

However, that gritty reality needs to be filtered through our own consciences and informed by the knowledge of how children learn and develop. In terms of taking responsibility, what we leave out of our books is as important as what we put in.


Friday, 13 May 2011

Facing the Comedown

This blog had a fine time last week, and I can't deny it was a thrill to see the retweets racking up (thanks to Keren David for kicking that off) and the comments piling in. But of course, that leaves me with the problem of what to say next. And then there's the inevitable comedown when this blog post gets less hits than the one before. It's a problem I've faced before…

In the late 90s, I began writing a satire column for a home cinema website (could you get any more niche?) It was called Reverse Spiral - in tribute to the Reverse Spiral Dual Layer process used to press DVDs - and the world of home cinema proved to be a surprisingly fertile territory for what I wanted to explore. More than that, it came with a huge in-built audience who proved unexpectedly willing to laugh at themselves. I tried to post once a week (you may be able to see a pattern emerging) and the articles quickly became quite elaborate, mixing the writing with complex graphics and HTML tricks.

I spent a lot of time riffing on censorship and control - the BBFC under James Ferman were especially keen on cutting films at the time and a conservative government in opposition were making a lot of noise about family values (as per usual). Cue a funny but fictitious flow chart showing how the BBFC decided what certificate to give a film and a fully interactive Ann Widdecombe Movie Database (sample entry: "This shocking filth has been certified B - only suitable for blind people.")

About a month in, I tapped into a hot controversy in the DVD world, producing an almost perfect spoof copy of a US website who had used a recent editorial to slag off us Brits. Suddenly, everything went crazy - I got 3,500 hits in a week. In a week! To put that in perspective, I've had about 500 hits on last week's blog post so far, and that was my best week in the last six months. But I'm still pretty lucky - a lot of people's blogs languish in single figures.

My problem came with following that up. I spent all week slaving over the next article, hoping to build an even bigger audience, but it got less than half the page views (though that was still pretty great, in hindsight). I was sure I had failed. Thereafter, though I kept at it for several months, everything else lived in the shadow of that one titanic achievement. Eventually, my day job got busy and I just let the whole thing slide. And that's a shame, because when I see things like this I have to think that I was probably way ahead of the internet curve.

Of course, one of the reasons for my lower hit rate nowadays is fragmentation. There were relatively few home cinema websites in 1999, let alone ones with a regular humour column. Whereas nowadays there are a zillion blogs by writers and it's much harder to offer quality original content. While it's nice to share practical advice, I'm aware that there are many other blogs offering that kind of information every day. And the comedy stuff is fun, but also something I might need to hold on to for my manuscript. So I tend to fall back on slightly random musings - which I think I do quite well - but I'm aware that a lack of focus could be stopping me from building a really distinct brand and audience.

One thing I won't be doing is cutting this blog loose, because what I've realised is that audiences ebb and flow. It isn't worth stressing about individual hit counts, rather a process of looking at the general trends across months and years. Internet users have to be fickle, because there is far more content posted every day (provided Blogger is working) than most people could read in their entire lives. The trick, as I see it, is to keep a level of quality that you're happy with and hope to hook people by repeat visits. Once someone has been to your blog 3 or 4 times, they are likely to want to come back regularly.

So I'll keep posting and you'll keep reading and hopefully Ann Widdecombe won't try dancing again. Then we'll all be happy.


P.S. Before you ask, that home cinema site is long defunct and my articles with it. Shame.

Friday, 6 May 2011

5 Hot Publishing Trends for 2012

Writers love trends. They love chasing them, they love worrying about them and they love being told that the book they've slaved over for the last two years is just a week too late to capitalise on one. Because publishers know this, they do everything they can to indulge writers by creating new trends on a monthly basis. So what can you do to get ahead of the game? Thanks to some intensive networking and several bottles of Pinot Grigio, I can exclusively reveal what publishers will be looking for next year. All I ask is that you remember me in your acknowledgements page. Oh and I'll accept a cut of the royalties too - cheques to the usual address.


Thanks to Bekki Hill for this catchy term to describe the burgeoning sub-genre of post-apocalyptic tree-shaping fiction. Often touted as Mad Max meets Edward Scissorhands, it's best exemplified by Brian McGloomy's The Hedge, the heartbreaking tale of a man scouring an irradiated Basingstoke for the last remaining piece of vegetation. When he finds it (after months of surviving on White Lightning cider and out-of-date Snickers bars) he constructs a poignant tribute to our lost civilisation - a perfect leafy effigy of Lauren Goodger from The Only Way is Essex.


It's quite true that this trend started by accident, when a shortsighted editor acquired a YA paranormal trilogy about undead cricket officials. But spend enough money on a book, and a trend will surely follow. Expect plenty of young, hunky gents in white linen suits and panama hats, lots of staring soulfully into the middle distance and books that go on for days and then end with absolutely no resolution whatsoever.

Octopus Illusions

I have worryingly squid-obsessed children (this is true, by the way), which means that any cephalopod-related books are fine by me. So bring on the latest craze in picture books, combining tentacled water creatures and M.C. Escher inspired seascapes. This is both hugely exciting and in no way an excuse for another cheap pun.

Urban Myths

By now, you've probably had it up to here with retellings of Greek, Roman and Egyptian myths. These are all very well if you went to a posh public school and studied the classics, but how about if you went to a scruffy comprehensive like what I did? Never fear, because those famous friend-of-a-friend stories that you heard in the playground are about to come back in a big way. Kicking off with the sidesplitting Dog in a Microwave next spring, you can expect a whole raft of tales exploring dead grannies strapped to roof racks and people being sucked down aircraft toilets. Forget Homer or Virgil, this season's hot new storyteller is Bloke Down T'Pub.

Flan Fiction

As the next beachhead in the celebrity takeover of children's literature, publishers are set to unleash a whole raft of TV chefs on our unsuspecting kiddies. Jamie Oliver's first foray into middle-grade non-fiction - Oi, Mate, Put Down the F**king Chips! comes out next February, closely followed by Gregg Wallace and John Torode's board book series Be a Mini MasterChef. Expect plenty of screaming babies after those two have finished giving their "constructive advice". The inimitable Nigella Lawson has, as ever, taken a more personal approach - her debut picture book Finella the Fabulously Flirtatious Fig and Fennel Flan is a rollicking tale of female empowerment. Let's hope it has a happier ending than Rick Stein's Seymour the Lonely Shrimp, which climaxed with the eponymous hero being sautéed in garlic butter.