The dark secret behind better book sales

People buy books for a lot of reasons. The main one is the emotional response they get from reading. And that’s true of non-fiction as well as fiction.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold in shops, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

But that isn’t the only reason. Why buy this book and not that? Why buy at all? A lot of it, it seems to me, flows from word-of-mouth. And that in turn boils down to one factor – discovery.

I would say ‘discovery’ and ‘quality’, but I can’t help thinking that Fifty Shades of Grey rather gives the lie to the notion that ‘quality’ is a factor.

Discovery is everything. Sometimes readers take a punt on an author they know nothing about, but have just stumbled across. But that still demands discovery. If your books aren’t known at all, they won’t sell – which sounds like one of those idiot ipso-facto statements, except it happens to be the biggest hurdle any author faces these days. Discovery. Going from zero to almost-zero.

It’s hard. Social media equips everybody with the same tools. It’s hard to be heard above the ‘noise’.  Everybody’s self-publishing, spamming themselves across Twitter.  Why should a potential reader click on this one – and not another one? Or any of them.

Combine that with the new age of e-convenience – where a lot of book-buyers buy even hard copy books from the comfort of their home PC – and you’ve got a lot of weight riding on whatever internet presence you can scrape up.

Advertising outside that paradigm helps. Sometimes. But that’s hard too. Back in the late 1990s, my books were being advertised on TV, in major print journals – even the Woman’s Weekly (it was a bloke book on engineering – the idea was that wives would buy it for their husbands). But even under that old model it was hard. Publishers back success. An established author will attract a good deal more advertising clout from their publisher than an unknown one.

That, I think, is why J K Rowling’s last ‘Harry Potter’ novel was splashed all over Wellington buses at around $6000 a shot, and my non-fiction history books weren’t.

Can you do anything to tip the odds? Sure. My take:

1. Professionalism counts. Sometimes, that also means paying for professional skills where your own skill set lacks – proof-editing or cover design, for instance.
2. A solid and positive social media presence. You’re an author. Your social media presence is your brand, and it takes a lot of effort to build up. Don’t break it by doing something stupid – like blurting what you really think of Politician X, or ‘flaming’ people, or pulling sock puppet tricks.
3. Actually, despite the way Fifty Shades of Grey burst upon us, quality DOES count.
4. Hard work pays off. No really.

And, of course, there’s always that indefineable – dumb luck. You can set everything up, get everything geared to go – and still, things have to go your way. But that’s life generally, isn’t it.


Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014


Shameless self promotion bit: My Bateman Illustrated History of New Zealand is available as e-book from Amazon. Go on, you know you want to …

It’s also available on iTunes:

Nook coming soon.

Buy the print edition here:

Write it now: the twelve steps to traditional publishing

Although traditional publishing is in upheaval these days, there are lessons we can learn from its processes. The new age of e-publishing hasn’t changed the need for quality control – which trad publishing has had down pat for decades.

Part of my list.

Part of my list.

The traditional publishing process breaks down into twelve broad steps. They vary a little from publisher to publisher, but the intent is always the same; quality control. The steps typically go like this:

1. Manuscript (MS) submitted.
2. MS read and confirmed for quality – or returned to the author for amendments.
3. MS sent for proof-editing. Most publishing houses operate a ‘virtual’ editorial process – they’ll have a stable of contractors who are brought in as needed for this work.
4. Proof-edited MS checked back with the author to confirm changes. The author needs to avoid the temptation to re-write at this point (and will likely incur costs if they do – this is built into contracts).
5. MS line-proofed.
6. MS sent for typesetting. Usually the design will be run past the author for comment although most contracts give final say to the publisher.
7. Typeset MS proof-checked by publisher and run past author for final comments.
8. Typeset MS line-proofed.
9. Index usually implemented at this stage (if there is one).
10. Typeset MS checked again and sent for printing.
11. Printer provides proofs (lasers, ozilit or, these days, more usually high-quality inkjet) – these are carefully line-checked.
12. Any amendments implemented – book then printed.

Usually a handful of initial copies are sent before the main delivery – and it’s about this stage that the author finds a typo. Nature of the beast.

The main focus is on change control – on making sure that amendments are contained, and that they’re always proofed. Repeated proofing pays dividends, although in these cost-conscious days, not all the proofing steps are always applied.

Traditional publishing has gone down this track for good reason. It’s quality assurance. It gives a professional edge, and in this age where one of the biggest challenges is discovery, there are lessons therein for self-publishers.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: can authors review other authors’ work?

Traditional book reviews – as opposed to the instant reader feedback via Amazon and so forth that we now call a ‘review’ – have almost always been written by writers.

I’ve written plenty of them myself, professionally, for newspapers and lit magazines. The trick to it is abstraction.

From http://public-domain.zorger.comThe problem with the process, certainly in a tiny place like New Zealand, has been that editors often give books to a rival author to review, as the only person able to make an informed comment. Some of the authors then feel obligated to indulge in worth-assassination of their competitor. This is flat out patch protection, and I’ve been at the receiving end of it often enough in the past with my military histories – people whose equivalent ‘patches’ are usually defined by their employment writing books at my expense as taxpayer, and whose public portrayal of me as incompetent affects the income I earn from my competing commercial works. Go figure.

But in the ordinary course of ‘review’, in the expression of a professional and abstract view, authors should be able to review other authors’ work. If they do it properly.

How’s it done? My usual approach is to look on the review as a specialised feature article – to give the review a theme and argument of its own.The reviewer should write something informative – something that helps a reader judge the quality of a book, something that informs. A hostile trawl for any trivia on which to condemn the worth of the author isn’t the way to do it. Nor is simply regurgitating their content in pot-summary. Reviewers have to ask questions.

One question is ‘why’ –  why did the author choose the themes that they did? Why did they take a particular topic, angle or subject? What was their intent in writing the book? How did they tackle it? Where does their work fit with that of similar authors? This doesn’t have to be a worth judgement. Remember – the review has to inform a reader.

Do you write reviews? How do you approach them? Have you ever been reviewed? How did the reviewer approach your work?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

Coming up: More writing tips, science geekery, history and more. Watch this space.

Write it now: title – the most vital words you’ll ever write

I’ve always held that the two or three most crucial words for any author are the first ones a reader sees – the title.

1195430130203966891liftarn_Writing_My_Master_s_Words_svg_medTitles have to be snappy, descriptive, catchy and short. With the cover design, they can make or break a book. They have to sum up the theme or aim – and that’s true of fiction and non-fiction. Non-fiction books often have a subtitle that further describes the content.

The phrase I’d use is ‘emotional capture’.

Figuring out the right words is one of the hardest tasks publishers ever face. Publishers? Absolutely. A publishing contract gives the power to assign title to the publisher. They ‘consult’ with the author – but that’s it. The reason is that publishing is a business, and publishers are the ones who have the sales records and a feel for the way something is going to work.

In this age of online self-publishing, that onus drops back on the author – who becomes publisher.

My books have gone through the trad system. Usually my title’s been close to my intent, though there was one time a book appeared with publisher title that accidentally matched the title of a rival book.

Another time I got into a discussion over the subtitle of my book on New Zealand’s convict-era adventures. My publisher’s marketing department wanted to call it ‘hidden’ or ‘secret’, by way of improving sales. I couldn’t fault the motive, but I objected to the word. The fact that Aussie convicts escaped across the Tasman to New Zealand in the 1820s was extremely well known – what I was adding was an understanding. What’s more, nobody usually knows the role publishers play in titles, I’d likely be credited with it.

Eleanor Catton’s comment that reviews in New Zealand are often used as devices for bullying is quite right. A large part of that is because the field is so tiny that books often get given to rival authors to review. I’ve learned in the past not to leave ‘easy kill’ options for reviewers hostile to my writing books in their private territory or field of employment.

But this time I was over-ridden… and was duly dealt to by reviewers for claiming a non-existent ‘hidden’ past. Sigh.

Have you ever wrestled with a book title?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Some of the hard realities of writing

I didn’t do National November Writing Month, though I was happy to cheer from the sidelines. I’ve been writing professionally for decades, it’s thirty years since I wrote my first book for publication, and every month is NaNoWriMo month for me.

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one...

The way books should be sold, cover out (the best way to display them). I wrote this one…

Fitting in writing obligations around everything else that has to be done in a day, including sleep, is a perennial challenge all authors have to meet.

It’s getting more challenging as the publishing industry tightens. Not least because quality MUST NOT get compromised for speed. That’s one of the realities of writing. It’s one authors have to know, understand and accept if they’re to get ahead. It’s also true for self-publishers.

Put another way, the age of authors being able to casually rise from their beds at ten thirty, drift across to the typewriter after a leisurely brunch and tap out a few words, then maybe go fishing for the afternoon, are gone. Uh…damn.

The money isn’t in it. Actually, the money was never in it, except for a lucky few.

Trad publishing is getting tight – which means authors have to write smart, and the onus is on more than ever to produce quality in ever-shorter time, to meet a specific commercial market.

Self-publishers are under pressure too. If you write something that works, readers want more – and in that sense the life-cycle of e-books is short. Yes, they’re available forever – but readers always look for something new. Soon. It’s up to the author to provide it.

Everybody, basically, has to learn how to churn out stuff at the same rate as Barbara Cartland. Without compromising quality.

It means working smart, it means working professionally – it means working hard.

It’s a challenge. But I’ve got some pointers as to how to do it. Soon. Who’s in?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Coming up: more writing tips, more humour, more science – watch this space.

Write it now, part 29: the fictions of history

I posted last week on the need for accurate research in both fiction and non-fiction writing. That’s particularly true for any historical novel where the research has to be not just accurate, but also the right sort of research.

Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Photo: 2012.

Car: 1930. Building: 1932. Something not quite authentic here. Oh yes. Photo, 2012. History as we wanted it to be – not as it actually was.

A detail that isn’t authentic blows the suspension of disbelief, and the details needed for fiction – the little everyday things, the background stuff that actors call ‘the business’ – aren’t the ones usually recorded in reference material. An eighteenth century letter-writer doesn’t describe how they dipped the ink, melted the wax and so forth, because that’s a given; unspoken parts of their lives. But a biographer might want to know that as they fill out the world of their subject – and so do novellists.

The same is true of a lot of little details about how people lived every day, what they did, even the technologies they used. Sometimes we might not even know enough to pose the questions. Anybody know what ‘dubbin’ was, for instance, or how they made it?

That’s without considering the differences in culture. The onus is on the fiction writer to understand the period properly before trying to cast a story into it. Their values are not our values; their motives, thoughts and if-then judgements will not be ours.

Some art deco street theatre - a 'movie' being shot on location. Fun stuff. I took this with an 18mm lens (see the distortions along the top of the memorial arch in the background) which meant I was bang in the middle of the action.

I leaped out of my TARDIS, and there I was, trapped in a movie set one day in 1938…(Actually I took this in 2012). Click to en-cinemascope.

But that stuff can seem very strange to us. There has to be a balance. Truly authentic ‘old stuff’ actually doesn’t work – because the past, like it or not, is effectively another culture. Some authors do it. The master, to my mind, was George McDonald Fraser, whose Flashman series captured the mind-set of the Victorian rake. Apparently the first of the series, Flashman, was mistaken for a genuine found memoir by one critic. It wasn’t.

To me there is a balance between exactly replicating the period and writing something that, to us, constitutes a good and compelling novel. It doesn’t mean bowdlerising or creating a hybrid. Too many novellists create a lead character that reflects modern values, in contrast to the period. I don’t entirely know why; perhaps they fear that their interest in times that by our standards were riddled with mysogyny, racism and licentiousness will be conflated with advocacy, perhaps?

The trick to finding the balance is being familiar with both the past world and our own, understanding the differences, and also knowing what constitutes the right detail to create that suspension of disbelief – to paint the real and genuine world of the past in appropriate detail, without rendering it in all its strangeness.  And that can only be done with a lot of hard work.

But that’s true, I guess, for all writing. Your thoughts?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sixty second writing tip: covers do sell books

I don’t often blog about the books I’m working on – but today my publishers sent me the cover of a book of mine they’re releasing in September.

You can track my phone, but you don't know what I look like. Oh wait a minute, yes you do...

What I CAN reveal is that this author portrait is being published in the book too. May cause me to be recognised and have people take a poke at me for writing in their territory, but hey…

It’s been professionally designed and looks fantastic. Cover reveal? Sure. When the moment comes – this is a commercially published book and there’ll be a marketing campaign. Soon.

Keep checking this blog…daily… :-)

It got me thinking. Covers sell books, including e-books. The days when a publisher like Victor Gollancz could brand their sci-fi in plain yellow wrappers, or when Penguin could release every book with that classic orange-and-cream design – are over.

I thought I’d share the criteria for a good cover these days. It has to be:

1. Distinctive.

2. Modern – which can also mean retro.

3. Classy and professional.

4. Reflect the content, symbolically or literally.

My covers have all been handled by my publishers – it’s part of the standard contracts. The problem for self-publishers is that the cost of hiring designers and buying rights to photographs or commissioning artwork gets pretty steep. Few authors are also designers and artists and the DIY answer is getting harder to achieve as the quality bar lifts.

A knotty problem. I don’t actually have an answer.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 15: the rise and rise of the genre monster

One of the big literary inventions of the nineteenth century was one that transformed the novel-writing scene. Genre.

When novels first emerged in the early part of the century they were, as often as not, social commentaries. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice was typical. So were Charles Dickens’ various stories. They were joined by others that we might , indeed, call ‘genre’ – notably Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. But for a long while these things were few and far between.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

Jules Verne, public domain from Wikimedia.

That changed with the commercialisation of novel writing – with the advent of the steam driven printing press, with the advent of mechanisms for mass-producing and mass-selling novels to the rising urban middle classes of the developing world who had the leisure time – and the spare cash – to buy books and then read them.

One of the earliest genres was science fiction, a device for social commentary. Jules Verne introduced the world to it, using his ‘science fiction’ stories –really, travel romances – to lampoon national cliches; German stern-ness and order (Professor Lidenbrock/Journey To The Centre of The Earth), American go-getting (From the Earth to the Moon) and British reserve (Phileas Fogg/Around The World In Eighty Days) among them.

H. G. Wells used science fiction for social commentary towards the end of the century. When five British Maxim gun crews slaughtered 1500 spear-wielding Matabele at the Battle of the Shangani river in October 1893 – and another 2500 a week or so later at Bembese - the world was horrified.  ‘Whatever happens/we have got/the Maxim gun/and they have not,’ Hilaire Belloc intoned in The Modern Traveller, a little later. From that also emerged Wells’s The War Of The Worlds, a remarkably slim book pivoting on one question; how would the British feel if a superior technology descended upon London?

Detective stories flourished. Conan Doyle effectively popularised and defined the ‘short story’ format for them at the end of the nineteenth century – giving the world one of its most iconic and enduring literary characters in the process.

And on the other side of the Atlantic, Americans thrilled to their own genre – westernsl, celebrating the myths of frontier. A form epitomised by Zane Grey, who spent periods big-game fishing in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands.

The point was that popular genres changed as society changed. Cowboy stories went in and out, detective stories rose and fell. Science fiction, which began life for social satire and comment, retained that function into the twentieth century – but became a way of popularising tech-wonders.

If anything, genre change is moving at hyper-speed on the back of the web revolution.  We have to keep up with – and ahead of – the trend if we’re to succeed.

Urban fantasy, anyone?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Write it now, part 14: what a Dickens about novels

As we saw last time, the modern novel had its genesis in the late eighteenth century as a literary form designed to carry the reader on an emotional journey.

During the nineteenth century writers refined that and took it in new directions. But perhaps the biggest change came with the way writers published.

Charles Dickens, 1858. Public domain, from Wikimedia commons.

Charles Dickens, 1858. Public domain, from Wikimedia commons.

It was the culmination of a 200-year evolution. For a long time, publishing was ‘self-publishing’, and those who wrote needed to be independently wealthy. That changed during the seventeenth century, when it became possible for writers to earn a living by being paid to write. At first this was frowned upon; paid authors – mostly, it seems, working for newspapers in London’s Grub Street – were known as ‘Hackney’ or ‘Hack’ writers, a term that remains today as a derogatory moniker for a bad journalist, or a writer who appears to write for the money, not the dream. Pretty much the meaning it started with.

Those with a yen to write books still had to self-publish. Publishing houses would take money in return for producing the title. Or they might accept a title and buy it from the author, who earned nothing more. That changed with the emerging rights of authors under copyright law, but it was a slow process. The road effectively began in Britain in 1714 with the Statute of Anne. Other developments followed in Germany.

Authors did not begin to assert real rights over their work until the nineteenth century, though copyright was still far from ‘modern’ form. But from this emerged the royalty system. By this the author licensed somebody to use (publish) their intellectual property. In return they received a fee – a ‘royalty’, which was a percentage of the returns on the sales. The publisher took on producing and marketing the work.

This was entrenched by the late nineteenth century and remains a keystone of mainstream writing today.  (I’ll post on the transactability of these rights and ‘moral right’ soon).

1197094932257185876johnny_automatic_books_svg_medThe popularity of reading -  hence opportunities for writers – grew as society changed. The rising middle classes of the nineteenth century Britain, in particular, had the leisure time to read. Many of them were also educated enough to be able to read - also new. Into this burgeoning market exploded something else – the steam driven press. Suddenly readers could get newspapers and books relatively cheaply and in bulk.

Writers had a good deal to say by this time; the nineteenth century was an age of ideological ferment as the world shook down from the trauma of the industrial revolution. Some of the world’s greatest literature emerged from the mix, and the doyen of them all was Charles Dickens, whose novels were serialised and who became the hero writer of his day. The public couldn’t get enough of his stories, at once serious, funny, sad, happy and always imbued with a razor sharp social commentary.

But behind people such as Dickens – or for that matter, Jules Verne, Charles Dodgson and Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens) were a host of lesser novelists, authors of the ‘penny dreadfuls’ – stories that appeared, serialised, in news-stands. Stories to be read once and disposed of.

And then something else emerged; genre. Stories of a particular type written to meet a specific market – something possible only as the audience for books exploded into life

Next time.

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013

Sixty second writing tips: a plan a day keeps the panic away

Ever been overwhelmed by the enormity of your writing? By the sheer scale of the task? Its complexity – especially as you start getting out to book length?

sleeping-man-with-newspapers-mdIt’s something every writer slams into sooner or later. Especially if you’ve got a publishing deadline – one agreed with a publisher, or one you’ve created yourself to release a book.

There’s the writing, the revising, the proof-editing, the line-editing, the typesetting, the production process, the marketing plan the – aaaargh! You get the picture.

To me the answer’s in the planning – in identifying what has to be done, setting out the dependencies, identifying the critical time-constraints, then systematically working through them.

The twist I put on it – which I’m sure I’m not the only one to envisage – is that this works to any scale. Not just the big-ticket project of a book, but even figuring out how a writing session is going to proceed, before plunging into it.

It means I can figure out when and how I’m going to deal with correspondence, social networking, revisions, editing, the writing itself, and so on.

At that level, fifteen minutes sorting out what has to be done that day can save hours of floundering later.

Even ten minutes, actually. Time well spent. I find it’s handy. Do you?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2013