This week on the People’s Guide to Publishing podcast, Joe and Elly answer a very frequent reader question: I’ve written a book, now how do I pitch it? Solid advice for authors on marketing, querying, and selling your manuscript ensues.
For many years, new publishers and authors have posed questions to us about distribution. They want to know why distribution is so expensive and exclusive. It’s a much more complicated answer than they were expecting so we’re going to break that out in a weekly video series over the next few months.(more…)
Recently we were approached about starting a new thing on a new platform that was all very top-secret, and we jumped at the chance (we like shiny things). That platform is Drip, Kickstarter’s new subscriptions program, and our project launched today in its inaugural class of creators.
We’ll still be using Kickstarter to fund the production of some of our individual books. Meanwhile, Drip is a little different: it’s about monthly support—it’s similar to Patreon, which we also use. It offers various levels of support; you can get ebooks or credit for our online store. By backing at our core level, you can have access to regular posts with advice about all aspects of our publishing work. You can ask us anything and we’ll do our best to talk you through it. And we’ll share regular windows into the life of our office.
Some posts we have planned for the near future include:
- How to judge a book by its cover (and make sure yours has a good one)
- How to run an effective publicity campaign in an era when traditional review outlets are dwindling and reviews don’t work as well as they used to anyway
- When you SHOULD self-publish and why (spoiler, we don’t think it’s very often, but it’s definitely not never)
- How our marketing department informs our editorial decisions (controversy alert!)
- Regular “from the desk of” diaries
- Whatever YOU want to know!
We’ve been doing this a long time, and we love sharing our books with you. Now, let us share our knowledge and lore, too.
Thank you for your support!
One of the best parts of working in publishing is that there is always something new to learn. Where do we learn it? From books, of course.
Here’s a list of some of the books that have been most helpful to Microcosm workers recently, and that we recommend to you, aspiring publisher / editor / writer / designer / production manager / roller-arounder-in-books. We added a couple in that we published, too.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, of course. We’d love to hear your recommendations!
How to Become a Famous Writer Before You’re Dead by Ariel Gore
This book rules. If you want to write or publish books, read this first. Ariel Gore shows you how to write, publish, and promote what matters to you, and how to build a readership from the ground up. If you want to get into writing or publishing is a get-rich-quick scheme, there are other books about that; this one shows you how to do it because you have a vision to make something meaningful. Full of golden advice from someone who’s done it—and is still doing it—successfully.
Make a Zine by Joe Biel and Bill Brent
We always recommend that would-be publishers start small—make something yourself that you passionately believe in, learn the trade, and start building a network and a movement before you get mixed up with Amazon, trade distributors or doing any kind of business at scale. This book contains a wealth of information for publishing a zine, comic, or book yourself, with real knowledge about everything from acquisitions to production to marketing.
Wired for Story by Lisa Cron
One of our authors recommended this book, and we in turn recommend it to you! The sad truth is that it doesn’t matter how good your writing is if you can’t captivate readers’ attention on every page. Lisa Cron shows you the neuroscience of story, and it’s invaluable. This book is great for writers, editors, and anyone doing title development, aka the publisher.
On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Learning how to tell a compelling story is essential for getting anyone to read that story… actually writing it well is still important for other reasons. William Zinsser is one of the best guides as you learn that part of your craft, as a writer or editor.
The Forest for the Trees by Betsy Lerner
This is the best book we’ve found about what it’s *like* to be an editor. Which is almost as important, if not more important, than the nuts and bolts of learning how to edit. Betsy Lerner has worked in a number of different New York publishing houses and shares stories and knowledge and her valuable experience. If you are an editor, work with one, or want to be one, you’ll glean a lot from reading this.
Understanding Comics by Scott McCloud
If you plan to have anything to do with visual storytelling—comics, picture books, art books, whatever—this guide (in comics form, of course) is very helpful for understanding how to visually tell a story.
Getting Things Done by David Allen
People go into publishing because they love books; the reality is that you spend a lot of time with data, spreadsheets, contracts, budgets, production schedules, inventory, software, email, and a gazillion little tasks, each of which is vitally important and intricately relies on many other things being done right. It can all get to be overwhelming, especially if you’re a one-person publishing shop. GTD is the gold standard for organizing your complicated life without succumbing to stress or losing sight of the big picture.
Beyond Dealmaking by Melanie Billings-Yun
Another thing most people learn after launching their publishing career rather than before is that much of the job is about negotiating—contracts, relationships, deliveries, solutions, whatever. There isn’t a lot of abundance in the industry, and people are often in it for very different reasons and with very different expectations. This is hands-down the best book on negotiation that we’ve found, and will teach you real and practical skills for building lasting, sustainable relationships beyond just closing the deal.
Publishing for Profit by Thomas Woll
This book is dense and tough to read. The slog is worth it if you’re serious about publishing as a business, and if you need that business to make money. The best time to read this book is when you have already been doing the work, have some books under your belt, and are starting to wonder if you’re ready for trade distribution and/or to hire a second person.
Our Band Could be Your Life by Michael Azerrad
Wait, what? This is a history of underground and punk music in the 80s and 90s, not a publishing manual! Actually… this is also very much a book about how to launch a scrappy, ragtag business all the way to the moon, be you a drunk and angry drummer touring in a filthy van or a teenager in your bedroom with a big dream and a cassette duplicator. Microcosm is built on similar foundations, guided much more by the DIY music industry than the book publishing world, and this book can profitably be read as a fascinating case study of businesses run—some more successfully than others—entirely without traditional resources like capital or training, but with no shortage of values, creativity, and pure energy and rage.
Good Trouble by Joe Biel
Microcosm founder and publisher Joe Biel’s memoir can be read through several lenses, and one of them is small press business manual. The company’s often bumpy, sometimes glorious, always edifying history can be found in these pages, along with background on some of the stuff that makes the gears turn—contracts, management, strategy, accounting, proofreading, and more. And if we do say so ourselves, it’s also an excellent example of reader-oriented development, which is what any memoir published today needs beyond all other qualities.
And don’t forget you can read our Business of Publishing blog series right now, without waiting for our store to open or your book to come in the mail.
Joe’s on a blog tour right now to support his new book, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life and Business with Asperger’s. He’s scribing guest posts for blogs of all kinds all over the Internet. His main theme is one of great interest to all of us: the business aspects of publishing, and the unconventional (or at times shockingly conventional) methods that have helped Microcosm survive and succeed over the years.
Here’s a list of Joe’s blog tour posts so far:
Want more publishing advice and wisdom? Read Joe Biel’s A People’s Guide to Publishing.
Many years ago, Canada’s then-independent Doormouse Distribution sent us a brilliant guide on how to pack a box. It was well-designed and fit conveniently on a single sheet of paper. We hung it on the office wall. You would not believe how many times we referenced that sheet over the years for best practices of how to put books inside of cardboard. Eventually these methods could be explained and committed to institutional memory, forever securing happy, healthy books arriving in their new homes.
A few weeks ago we sent some books to Ebullition Records for the first time in a few years and they shared their own version of “how to pack a box,” which we now know to be accurate even if it’s laden with awesome and moralizing punk-speak and asides. But it brings an important point to the fore: it’s so sad when books arrive in terrible condition and the situation was completely preventable.
The irony, of course, is that the largest distributors and wholesalers we work with don’t follow these very basic and effective best practices. When a company becomes large enough, it’s cheaper to replace books, especially if they belong to a client, then it is to purchase proper packing material and train the staff to pack the boxes correctly every time. If you are reading this post, then you are likely concerned about your books arriving in good condition rather than having the hassle of sending replacements or having copies not arriving in salable condition.
Next, stack the books face-up in the box from largest to smallest. Never pack a book sitting on its spine unless it’s okay for it to become damaged in transit. Fill the box completely. If the box is larger than the number of books that you are shipping, you can either 1) cut along the four edges of the box and fold them over to make the box smaller. If there is excess material preventing the box from being able to be folded shut, cut it off or 2) completely fill the remainder of the box with packaging material. If you do add packing material, move the valuable content into the center of the box and put the packing material on all sides and above it to cushion it from impact.
If you use an inadequate amount of packing material on the top of the box, the contents will rattle around, damaging your books. If you use an insufficient amount of tape, the loose contents will burst the top or bottom of the box open in transit.
A properly taped box will appear shiny and seem to be excessively taped. But tape is cheap; much cheaper than replacing your contents. If there is an adequate amount of packing material, the box will appear a little bit bulbous once it’s taped. This packing material adds further resistance any potential abuse that the box will undergo at the hands of the shipping company. Properly packing and taping a box also allows it to be reused on the receiving end.
When shipping too few books for a box to be practical, use a padded envelope. Similarly, the books should not be able to shift inside the envelope. If they do, add some packing material.
You have many options when shipping. There’s a certain loyalty in the publishing industry to UPS but it seems to be shifting gradually to FedEx, especially among larger companies that can bargain for bulk discounts. But for the little people like us, it’s really best to ship via the U.S. post office, using media mail. It can take a week longer to arrive and take a bit more of a beating during that time, but if you pack it properly, this should not be an issue.
If speed is a concern, the U.S. Post Office also offers flat rate priority mail and express mail flat rate envelopes and boxes. These are priced competitively against UPS or FedEx and while priority mail is not guaranteed, it almost always arrives in two to three days. The envelopes and boxes are available for free from the Post Office or usps.com but they are also quite thin. But sure to package the books correctly to avoid damage. Getting there on time does no good if they aren’t in good condition. Stacking two books side-by-side vertically to fill the box or envelope does a good job of preventing the books from shifting in transit. Putting styrofoam or cardboard around them should sufficiently protect them as well.
Congratulations on completion of your quest and avoiding future headaches of poorly packaged boxes. The time saved by not having to replace damaged books will quickly create new efficiency!
It happens all the time. I’m meeting with an author to talk about promoting their book….and they have that look in their eye—gleeful, nervous panic. “I’m going to have to start using Twitter!” they proclaim. I want to say “There, there, no you don’t.” But while that might be good advice, the opposite might also be true.
Here’s a handy list of social media book marketing tips for the uninitiated:
You don’t have to do it all
Just because you wrote a book does not mean that you have to sign up for Twitter, open accounts on every platform you’ve heard of and some you haven’t, or spend hours a day figuring out how to navigate various social media platforms while battling anxiety about spamming people or looking silly. If exploring the wide world of social media sounds fun, then go for it, but if you have limited energy for such things then choose your battles wisely.
Use the social media that you already use
If you’re already active on Facebook and feel comfortable using it, then by all means go ahead and make yourself a Facebook author page. Build it up the same way you built your personal presence there way back in the day—slowly and organically, engaging with your friends, family, author/publishing colleagues, and—increasingly as time goes by—random strangers. If you’re at ease and confident talking about your work and other topics you care about, your community will be too.
It is very likely that you’ve written a book for people with similar interests and demographics to your own, which often means you can stick to what you’re already familiar with. But then again, you might want to branch out. Here’s the real litmus test:
Go where your readers already are
Who are your readers? Where are they going to find out about and rabidly discuss your book? That’s the place you need to be. To find out, choose one to three books that are most similar to yours that came out in the last year or so and feverishly search every social media platform for the titles and authors.
Choose your social media platforms based on your readers rather than your subject matter. For instance, a vegan cookbook author might well find their biggest audience on Pinterest where food photos reign supreme. But if their book’s community is younger and hipper, Tumblr is probably the way to go. If your audience is teenagers, head to Snapchat. If you’re trying to reach men, try Twitter.
The rule of thirds
I learned this rule from Culinary Cyclist author Anna Brones. When posting on social media in your professional capacity, you want to follow these rough proportions:
1/3: Broadcasting: Promoting and linking to your own stuff
1/3: Sharing: Posting relevant links or ideas by other people, whether colleagues, fans, or experts
1/3: Conversation: Engaging with your community about topics of mutual interest, including asking questions, or letting a bit more of your personal world come through
Links are key
Try to include a link and an image with everything you post. Link to the publisher’s page for your book if at all possible. People are excited about your book—help them get their hands on it!
Some social media platforms are entirely image-based. The ones that aren’t will show your post to way more people if you include and image or a video. Images can be literal or related in some more poetic or funny way. They don’t have to be works of art—phone photos and screenshots are great. Make a game of coming up with a graphic to go with half your tweets or posts.
That said…images are what feed the algorithms this week. Next week, who knows!
Do you like social media a little too much? Don’t want to spend your entire day clicking and scrolling? Just don’t have time for this stuff? Once you’ve figured out where you want to be and have a basic understanding of how your chosen platforms work, then take a step back and do like the pros—and make a schedule. For instance, maybe you’ve decided that three posts a day on Twitter at three different times is what’s right for you. Draft out 3 ideas or topics per day for the next week. When you come across an article you want to share, see a review of your book go live, or finish a blog post, add it to your schedule instead of immediately logging in and getting caught in the vortex. Then at the appointed times, check your cheat sheet, log in and quickly post, respond to anyone who’s engaging with you, and get out unscathed.
If you love planning ahead then think about what you’ll post leading up to your book publication date, your release party, or any relevant holidays.
Never pay for social media advertising
It offers no benefits. Nuff said. [Edited, 2018: Algorithms have changed since this was originally written, and now judicious use of Facebook ads can be helpful in selling books—but that may all change again.]
Build it slow and steady
Be patient and consistent. Post every day. Try new things and keep doing them if they work. Engage with people as equals. Find people who do it really, really well and emulate them. Be yourself. Have fun.
This is an occasional series called Self-Promotion for Introverts, geared towards Microcosm authors but hopefully useful to a larger field of shy people with something to promote. The last post was about Getting Psyched for Self-Promotion. You can read more publishing lore like this in Joe Biel’s book, A People’s Guide to Publishing.
A couple of years ago, you wrote a cookbook for Elly Blue Publishing (which we’re reissuing as a Microcosm title in the fall). Can you tell us a little about the book and what you’ve been up to since?
Hello again! This is a series for Microcosm authors (and other curious bystanders) about book marketing and publicity. The first post in the series was a rapid-fire outline of our job as the publisher of the book. There’s a lot of misinformation out there about what publishers do and don’t do (and a lot of variation in the reality, too), so hopefully this is helpful.
This next post gets started on the author’s role by focusing on a pretty common anxiety among authors: Self-promotion.
Many of our authors have no problem at all with promoting their work, and some have come to us with years of building up a successful body of work or a personal brand and are ready to grab a megaphone to tell the world about the book they haven’t even written yet. Many others experience discomfort akin to panic at the idea of standing up and talking to a room full of people about their book, using social media to broadcast sales pitches and positive reviews, or even telling friends and family that they wrote a book and that there’s an opportunity to buy it.
First of all, self-promotion anxiety is so normal as to be, well, the norm. That said, you’ve gone through all this work to produce a book. The more comfortable you are with talking about it with friends and strangers alike, online or off, the more people who want or need to read it will be able to. And we’re here to help you do that.
Here are some common concerns and what I’ve learned over the years, as a nervous author myself and working with many others, about how to tackle them:
Ok, good point. But there is a huge difference between actual spam (eg, twice-daily unsolicited marketing emails in bold, red, italic letters saying BUY NOW) and book promotion. Here’s another way to think about it: You just wrote a book about topics that you care deeply about. Other people who care deeply about the same things (or about you) are going to be excited to find out about, buy, and read your book. Your promotional role is to find them and offer them the opportunity to do this as easily as possible.
Practical tip: Think about what makes your book exciting and interesting. How did you get the idea for the book? When did it really come together? What have other people or your editor said that they like about your book? Write all of those things down and refer to them when you’re trying to find something to say about your book other beyond “it exists! buy it!”
Most people won’t want to read my book
That’s true. But you didn’t write this book to please everyone in the entire world (that would be the most boring book ever). You wrote it for your readers. That’s a very particular set of people and most of the job of promoting is finding them and talking to them (often about topics other than your book). Here’s yet another way to think about it: You’re part of a movement. Whatever your book is about—teaching in inner-city schools, making soap, cats, vegan cooking—it’s now become a building block in that bigger movement, and you’ve become a leader of that piece of the movement (and maybe a much bigger piece than just the one covered by your book). So your job is less to find random people and tell them you have a book, and more to connect with your movement about your book and the ideas in and around it.
Practical tip: Starting a blog or forum where you write about many related topics (but keep a purchase link to your book in the sidebar) is one way to do this. Social media is another. For many authors it makes sense to bring readers into the conversation as much as possible. For others it works to share parts of their personal experience with the book. For yet others, the best strategy is to speak at conferences, write guest blog posts, and otherwise tap into existing platforms. Your style is up to you!
If my book is good, then I shouldn’t need to promote it.
Sadly, sadly, sadly, this is not the case. If it were, all our jobs would be much easier. Thousands of books are being published every day, readers have more choices than they can even understand, and much as we have developed your book uniquely with its title, cover, marketing, and publicity plan, it is still necessary to go out there and tell the world why it’s worth taking a look at.
Practical tip: Practice describing your book in one sentence. We call this the Five Second Pitch. Find a friend, family member, or coworker who knows very little about your book and try the pitch out on them. How do they respond? Adjust as necessary. Once you’ve mastered this, think about other things that people engaged by this will want to know. Prepare a 30-second speech with more details about the uniqueness of your book and, if relevant, how it fits into existing news stories and trends.
Help, the critics are going to eat me alive!
Yeah, reviews are scary. It’s a mixed bag out there. Many famous and well-regarded authors have a policy of never reading reviews and we think this is a great idea. The psychology of it is unfortunate—your ten good reviews might leave you cold, while the one lukewarm one could have you grinding your teeth for years. We keep track of reviews for all of our books so that we can tell the world about the good ones and issue corrections for the factually inaccurate ones. So there’s no reason that you need to read your reviews or set up a google alert for your book unless you want to. Reviews don’t affect sales as much as everyone wants to believe (though bad reviews are better for sales than no reviews at all), so our advice is not to worry about them as much as possible. Easier said than done, we know!
Practical tip: Instead of googling yourself, google other authors whose books have sold well yet gotten mixed or terrible reviews. They often have very funny (and helpful) things to say about the experience.
First of all, let me reassure you: You did a great job. Your book is awesome. Only you could have written it, and you are perfectly qualified to speak about it, and the subject matter in it, on par with anyone else on the planet. We’re selective about what books we publish, and we don’t let them go to print until and unless they are good (and unique) inside and out, with strong, well-put-together contents that are compelling to a group of readers. No exceptions.
Secondly, a lot of people feel this way. Trust me, many very accomplished people who seem utterly cool and collected on the outside are often a total mess internally when they’re up on a stage, or doing an interview, or approached by a gregarious family friend at a party who wants to know all about their book. It takes courage for anyone to step up and promote their vision. You’ve already done a lot by writing a book about it—don’t stop there!
Practical tips: Practice, practice, practice. It truly does get easier. It helps to have someone you can call on for supportive and encouraging words when you’re experiencing self-doubt or stage fright. Also, figuring out exactly what you are promoting (It may help to think of it as not being you but rather your vision, your readers, and your movement) can help you take the stage as an expert in a way that feels supportive of your community of readers rather than uncomfortably self-aggrandizing.
Go out there and promote!
All our authors ask at some point “how can I promote my book?” A lot of our authors—well, a lot of authors in general—are quite shy and don’t know where to begin with talking about their books to the public. We think a lot about how to promote books to eager readers without totally burning out. We’ll share some of what we’ve learned in the next few posts.
This is the first of a series of posts that outlines how Microcosm promotes books, what authors can do, and some tips for tying your book in with your other work, past and future. These posts are written for Microcosm’s authors and artists, and are geared towards our processes, but they should still be useful for anyone who is figuring out how to promote any book, whether you’re publishing it yourself or have a contract with a major house.
The first post is our side of the bargain.
What we do
Microcosm is a traditional-format publishing house. We solicit books from authors, and occasionally accept submissions, work with authors to produce the best possible book, have large quantities of books manufactured (in the USA!), and work hard to get those books into the hands of the right readers. Here are the basic steps:
– Marketing and development: This is the hardest part of the process to describe, but probably the most important. We spend hours researching the market for each book and figuring out a title, subtitle, cover design, and description. Sometimes this process is immediate and obvious, other times it takes months of back-and-forth and doubt. The end goal is to make sure that your book is accurately described and also that it fills a wanted and empty niche in the world of books out there so that excited readers are able to discover it.
– Editing: This is the part that you’ll see the most, in which we make sure that your book is what it says it is, is awesome to read, and has as few typos as possible.
– Production: When your book is ready, we design it and send it off to the printer. The development process informs your book’s size, color, design, paper type, how many we print, when it is printed, when it is released, and where all the copies are warehoused. We pay for the production and budget our promotional activities around selling enough books so that we recoup the investment quickly and begin paying you royalties.
– Publicity: We promote your book via printed catalogs and fliers that we distribute internationally, occasionally in targeted advertisements, and in every creative way we can possibly think of. Before your book comes out, we create digitally printed ARCs (Advance Review Copies) and both we and you distribute them to potential reviewers and interviewers. We work with book reviewers and media outlets that we have relationships with and create new connections with people whose readers we think would like your book. Sometimes we’ll run a Kickstarter campaign. We work closely with authors every step of the way to help you talk about your book and the bigger ideas behind it.
– Sales and distribution: We do our darnedest to sell the heck out of your book through many, many channels including directly to readers and fans—online, at events, and in our bookstore, to wholesalers, to distributors of various types, and more.
This is only a very brief summary of what we do in putting out a book. Hopefully it’ll help put the rest of the series into perspective!
Feel free to request topics in the comments, or by email. Read in more depth about what a publisher does in Joe Biel’s book, A People’s Guide to Publishing.