Sunday, 31 July 2011

Under the influence - social networks

I'm going to engage in a little bit of harmless ebook marketing, by way of illustration, so please bear with me.

Every week I throw out food that is spoilt, has passed its sell-buy date or just isn't wanted anymore. I imagine many of you do too. Dollars, euros, pounds worth of food thrown away, wasted. What do you get for that wasted money? Nothing. In contrast, my quirky crime novel Peril is yours for just $0.99 or thereabouts. For $0.99 you get a 4 / 5 star rated ebook of 90,000 words. Why am I almost giving it away, this full-length novel? Because I want people to read it. [1]
It gets better. During summer 2011 Peril is available for free. Absolutely free. No strings. If you would like to leave a review on amazon, smashwords, goodreads or anywhere then that's appreciated, but it's your decision. If you like it, you might tell your friends and colleagues, and you might like the upcoming novel The Baptist, by the same author. [2]

A quick word to the several hundred people that already took the plunge and bought Peril or downloaded it free from Smashwords since it was launched in March 2011 -  The Baptist will be available in time for Christmas 2011. You can give it as a present to yourselves, family and friends. (Not for children - parental advisory). [3]
Many people have left their honest opinion of Peril in the ether of amazon, goodreads, smashwords and various other websites. People enjoy this book. There have been almost no bad reviews. If you haven't read it already then these people say you're in for a treat! [4]
Who am I to thrust my book upon you? I'm just an independent, self-kindled author, writing in memory of my grandfather Robert Barnes who slaved in the shipyards of Glasgow, building great ships during a bygone, golden era. These days I live in beautiful Ireland, the Emerald Isle. A land of tranquility to which so many people can trace their roots. My only claim on this proud and ancient Ireland is that some of my ancestors originated here and I am truly thankful to God and society for providing me with a living, three beautiful children and a supportive and understanding wife. [5]

It humbles me that Peril is endorsed by authors of note in several genres on five continents. In all honesty and modesty I never expected that my work would sit before them and be enjoyed. [6]
Just another mention that Peril is free on Smashwords for summer 2011, but only a further fifty copies are available under this offer. In autumn Peril's pricetag will revert to $7.99 or thereabouts. At year end it will likely be permanently withdrawn, left in ownership of those select readers that have ventured to add a little Peril to their lives. [7]

Disclaimer: the above is an exercise! Is it overwhelming? Nauseating, repulsive? In parts perhaps. But there is nothing in there, nothing, that isn't present in modern-day marketing.

One of my favourite business books is Robert Cialdini's 'Influence - the Psychology of Persuasion'. There are many books on how to apply influence but this book is fun to read, thanks to many anecdotes and case studies. It'll leave the hairs standing up on your neck as you fully realise just how manipulative the marketing process can be. Cialdini identifies a number of principles - weapons of influence - that you will recognise. The little skit above attempts to use these in the context of promoting an ebook, but I'm going to expand upon eight identified weapons of influence in the context of social network marketing (blog, Twitter, Facebook etc.)

[1] Perceptual contrast
The idea here is to make the target (yes, target!) feel that their purchase isn't of financial consequence but, nevertheless, is of great value, a no-brainer. This can be done with a price reduction, if credible. It can also be done by comparison with traditional printed books. Why pay $14.99 for a paperback that will fall to pieces when you drop it in the bath (okay, bad example, don't drop your e-reader or laptop in the bath, shows what an intrinsically bad marketeer I am!) Let's try this: the facilities available for ebooks - speech to text, bookmarking, updates etc etc - far exceed paper books and yet you can get your ebook for somewhere between 99c and $5. What are you waiting for?

[2] Reciprocation
This is where you make the customer feel obligated by giving them something extra. In real life the dinner invitation is a good example. Only sociopaths don't feel the need to reciprocate a pleasant dinner invitation. In fact, the rule of reciprocation is so strong that it can lead to a lifetime pattern of tit-for-tat dinners with people that you eventually come to classify as friends.
In the ebook social network marketing context, a free giveaway is often used but care has to be taken not to devalue the product. Other manifestations are mutual reviews between authors and requests for beta readers.
At this point, and in the spirit of reciprocation, I should mention that I was triggered into writing this blogpost by a piece by DL Larson on
If you are asked and agree to take a book for review, and then don't do that review, it will burn a hole in your conscience. If you write a review it is likely to be favourable.
Another reciprocation favourite is the retweeting of Twitter 'influencers'. They'll be beholden to you and that credit can be cashed whenever you want. That's the pleasure of giving!

[3] Commitment and consistency
Once the target reader has made their purchase of your ebook, or has taken up the free 'no strings attached' offer, they are on a track that will take a special effort on their part to leave. Build up that readership by any of the methods mentioned here and that same readership will substantially follow your next release (at full price) and review it favourably. Of course, a fanbase is built upon satisfied customers but what you are looking to do is built brand loyalty. The product has to be reasonably good and well packaged, but needn't be exceptional.

[4] Social proof
I'm going to refer to Cialdini's example of canned laughter. With your influence radar switched on, canned laughter is a ridiculous artificial contruct. But you'll likely find that most of the successful TV sitcoms are continuously swaddled in the stuff. Friends, for example. Compare that with the true life audience mirth of Fawlty Towers or Monty Python (who? okay, you're not all as ancient as me) or live comedy.
If you have the impression that the populace approves the product then you, if you want to conform to the image of a discerning consumer, are likely to follow suit. Nine out of ten owners (who expressed a preference) said their cats preferred it, sort of thing. In the case of ebooks, viral marketing can build a self-perpetuating myth. Program your tweetdeck or other tool with repetitive messages to tell the world that the world is approving your product.

[5] Liking
People buy things from people that they like. The important thing here is to understand the target demographic. A select number of people might like an author who is ironic. Other readers will like an underdog. Some will be looking for admirable virtues. A bio that makes potential readers like the author can make the difference between carry-on-browsing and click-to-purchase.

[6] Authority
Endorsement carries great weight. I'll come clean and say that section 6 of the skit above is PERIL's weakest link. If I could evidence written endorsements from successful authors in different geographic markets - quirky, award winning, best selling US and UK authors - then my ebook would ride upon their wave.

[7] Scarcity
People like to know that what they purchase has an even greater value due to constricted availability. People pay good money for limited edition prints and first edition hardback books. For ebooks it's more of a challenge but might include special versions with artwork or personal messages and electronically signed copies.

So thanks for that. Now what?

Next time you're on the receiving end of social network marketing, stop for a second and consider whether you are being manipulated by weapons of influence. We've all been the targets of influence strategies throughout our lives.

Recognising and differentiating a genuine offer from an influence strategy is only the first step. Resisting influence tactics is very difficult. The rule of reciprocation, for example, will make you feel guilty if you don't respond. Understanding the sincerity of the sentiment can help you to override intuitive reaction. A skilful marketeer can dress weapons of influence such that they appear genuine.

For those who are or would be influential marketeers, can you build your marketing plan based upon the principles of persuasion and maintain your integrity? I'm not sure that I can. I'm just not clever enough.


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Sunday, 24 July 2011

Muse defused? Careful with that blue touch paper!

Until recently I was unamused. Muse desertion.
There were good enough reasons for that sad state of affairs:
  • too much social networking (um, does blogging count as writing?)
  • in the middle of a rewrite / edit since forever
  • a new day-job that sucked my energy and time (they sure have some cheek, those employer types) and destroyed my writing space (commuting by train was over).
In the bumble through life that I call destiny, excuses are like plentiful windfall fruit. I pick them up, take a bite and say 'That's why I've been fumbling around on the internet. That's why I haven't been writing creatively. I've been building an online presence, establishing a network. Experimenting with establishing a new writing discipline. Plus, I've been rewriting.'

Well, one of my windfall excuses passed its sell-by date last week. I finished the rewrite / edit of the first two thirds of a psychological thriller. There had been a few thousand new words added but the process had mainly been sharpening of key characters, strengthening their voices and aligning them to the correct moral compass. Full excel-of-doom analysis model, chapter by chapter.

It was an essential but museless task, a trudge through thick mud. I sat looking at the last few pages, originally written some months ago, and pondered what might happen next. If I muttered the right incantations would my muse reappear? Might I face a period of writer's block? Poor tormented author? Unsure of the outcome, I lit the blue touchpaper and sent a signal into the heavens. Muse, I need you back.

The next morning I had a long train journey for a meeting in the capital. Melody Gardot on earphones. Hot coffee. Back in the old writing office. The voice of the protagonist came through loud and clear. Several pages later and I was being thrown off the train, end station. All I wanted to do was continue typing on my laptop. Return of the Muse.

That evening I floundered a little. The protag and the DI had discovered a key piece of evidence that would need changes to a few earlier chapters. In my head I switched to the excel-of-doom and prepared to re-enter the edit / rewrite zone. Then I thought NO! No more delaying until completion of first draft. Muse, I am yours, do your worst.

She caught me in the night, spun her intrigue and let me wake on the strands of that web. I struggled against the threads and she felt the vibrations, running at me from her dark corner. I was braced for the bite but she leapt upon my back and propelled me into the spare bedroom. There, she held me captive for an hour before the family awoke. I threw the words onto my page, set up the grisly double suicide and was released for my day job with a sense of elation.

The next day, Saturday, I was pleased to see that I had ten new Twitter followers, three new friends on Goodreads, a couple of facebook friend requests, a smattering of fresh sales on Amazon and twenty free downloads on Smashwords. For two hours I social networked and kept my muse in the closet. That was until I happened across the J A Konrath's blog post 'Are you writing'. It didn't say anything I didn't already know and I paraphrase JAK here: stop spending valuable time reading blogs and generally arsing around. Go write! Produce, produce, PRODUCE! If you are an author you must produce.

This hurt. It hurt a lot. Before I stumbled upon the otherworld of social networking, blogging, online writers' forums etc, I had been a prodigeous writer. Konrath was talking to me and, at the same time, the Muse was screaming in my ear.

An immediate reaction occurred. I ran into the other room, put on some music and started to write...this blog post. After half an hour of typing, deleting, rewriting, I re-read JAK's post. Then I switched off the computer. I took out the other computer, the old one that can't connect to internet anymore, and completed the sad demise of a murder victim's family. The Muse stroked my hair as she clung to my back.

I'm in her sway. The whispering mystery that is my Muse. Her name is Virtue.

Okay, enough blogging, gotta go write!


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Sunday, 17 July 2011

The novel contortionist: genre-bending to fit a pigeonhole

I first saw pickled eggs many years ago in a fish & chip shop called Chophards. A huge glass jar squatted on the counter, the kind of jar that might contain unspeakable specimens in a nightmare laboratory. It was a permanent fixture, as though the contents needed to mature for a century. Those eggs swayed in a light yellow fluid and were things of terrible mystery and horror.

Random people ordered them with their fish and chips over the course of the years. There was no typical pickled egg consumer. Young, old, affluent, breadline. A gasp in the queue always followed that rare occasion when someone said 'Cod and chips please. Oh, and a pickled egg.'

Back to the future and I found a jar of pickled eggs in a local supermarket. Had to have them.

'Are they raw when they're put in the vinegar?' asked my 10 year-old daughter. 'Do they still have the shell on? Why are they pickled? Who eats them? Why? I mean, why would anybody pickle an egg, Dad?'

'Try one,' I said.

We both bit into the cold white. It was resilient with a mild pickle taste. The yolk was a contrast, crumbly and vinegary. Within a few hours the two of us had consumed all of the things.

A couple of days later and I decided to reorganise the bookshelves, as I couldn't find a particular book (again!). I'm not particularly obsessive about keeping things in order, and often can't remember book titles or author names, so sorting into genre made sense. It seemed manageable. Just genre, no alphabetical order of authors or titles.

Classics, crime thrillers, action adventure, chick lit, literary fiction, non-fiction (sub-section on Africa), fantasy, childrens. Then the leftovers. Those leftovers included nearly all of my favourite books. They defied genre. Not enough pace for a thriller. The crime aspects too incidental. Language not sufficiently literary. Maybe a classic when I'm long gone, but not yet. No chicks or chocolate. My favourite books, all genre benders. Misfits. Pickled eggs.

Not everyone would agree. Some might say that John Irving's 'A Prayer for Owen meany' is literary fiction.The same for Ian McEwan's 'Enduring Love' or Steve Toltz's 'A Fraction of the Whole'. But they don't fit comfortably into the company of John Banville's 'The Infinities' or Salman Rushdie's 'Satanic Verses'. Nevertheless, that's where you'll find them in the bookshop, alongside Cormac McCarthy and the heavy lads.

My favourites shelf is a shelf of quirkiness. Inexplicably enjoyable, not sufficiently aligned to any one genre. The books that I remember most fondly are all a bit weird in one way or another. They're pickled eggs, well, some are gherkins or onions. Little wonder, then, that my first ebook, Peril, is undeniably a pickled egg. There's too much of me in it to be anything else.

Tutors, mentors and peer groups are likely to advise an unknown author to stay within the genre rules. I did try and write within a genre - two action adventure novels. Unfortunately I was belly prone on the authorial learning curve and the results were quite deplorable. When I found a voice the genre rules had been thrown to the wind and writing became a true joy. But the result didn't fit a pigeonhole.

Many writers' seeds of inspiration germinate and nudge tender green shoots up through fertile soil and into a warm sun. Some find themselves in the midst of a humid jungle. It's crowded, competitive for the sunlight of attention. The young plants flourish, blossom and bloom.

Out on a dry plain another seed follows nature's call to be greeted by a scorching heat. Tumbleweeds roll rootless across the wilderness, driven by a dessicating wind. Our brave new shoot develops a tough skin and puts out prickles to dissuade predators. The young cactus flourishes in that baking desert. A prickly pear. Maybe that would have been a better analogy than a pickled egg, but cactii are few and far between in rainy Ireland.

Genre rules aren't hard to find on the internet and in tutorial guides. I'm not a big fan of 'how to' books but maybe I should become one. I prefer the 'how not to' type of tongue-in-cheek guide eg. 'How Not to Write a Novel' by Mittelmark & Newman. That particular book is great entertainment but trying to write with rules (or don't rules) can make the author self-conscious of style, stymie their spontaneity, crush any creativity and generally over-alliterate.

Are you a reader or writer of genre-challenged novels? Does an 'inappropriate' mix of crime, thriller, mystery, romance, murder, intrigue and naughty bits do it for you? Have a pickled egg. Surprising and lovely.


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