Monday, November 29, 2010

Twitter 101: A Beginner’s Guide for Writers (and Other Creative People)

Twitter 101: A Beginner’s Guide for Writers (and Other Creative People)

For modern writers, social media is an important, if not the most important, promotional tool available.  Major publishers all but insist writers have a substantial social media presence, and they often evaluate the marketability of an author they’re considering based on the size of that author’s online social network.
The two most important social networks are Facebook and Twitter.  While everyone including your granny seems to find Facebook easy to grasp, for some reason Twitter is much more intimidating.  It’srelative simplicity - text-messages, readable by everyone, but limited to only 140 characters - provides little structure or guidance as to how Twitter is best used.  It can leave even the most prolific and confident of writers staring at the screen asking, “What should I post?”

For Twitter users, simplicity translates to flexibility, and that means there are multiple approaches to any goal, infinite strategies available to put your message in front of other people.  As such, I can’t show you the one-true-way to become comfortable on Twitter and use it to your advantage.  It doesn’t exist. 
But I can show you some of the high points of the way I use it, and offer some less-than-obvious tips that will help you build a quality following and share your message with them using methods that won’t chase them away.  Once you’ve gotten started, you’ll undoubtedly develop tricks and strategies of your own.  It’s getting started that’s hard.

Let’s take it one step at a time...

Get a Twitter account.

Go to www.Twitter.com.  Sign up.  It’s free, it’s easy, and all you need is an email account.  There are lots of instructional materials there to help you get started.  Take advantage of them.

By the way, this would be a good time to talk about your Twitter name.  There are several important considerations in picking one, and here are a few tips.
 
First of all, if your intent is to promote yourself on Twitter, your name needs to lead people back to you and not look too silly or out of character with the public image you want to present.  “LoLTinkiePoo” might not be the best choice for a writer of legal thrillers, for instance.

One bit of common wisdom is to use your name (or your pen name, as the case may be).  Problem is, if your name is at all common (and maybe if it isn’t) there’s a good chance it’s already taken.  Another problem is that names can be very long.  Take my friend, writer @DeanWesleySmith, as an example.  The problem with this is, you not only want people to read your tweets directly, you also want them to be passed along (“retweeted,” or “RTed”).  Twitter messages are limited to 140 characters, and when people retweet things, especially when they add their own comments, your user name has to fit in that 140 characters too.  Longer user name means more editing of your words to make it fit.  Or maybe the fact that things won’t fit without editing will cause a potential retweeter to decide, “Never mind!”

An alternate approach to creating a user name is to use some combination or part of your name with a related word, like @WriteRCastle (fictional TV mystery-writer Richard Castle), or @ChristyMystery (my wife Christina York, who writes mystery as both Christy Evans and Christy Fifield).

Whatever you choose, make sure you’re happy with it.  Once you’ve established yourself under a name, it’s hard to change.

Profile Yourself

Twitter provides a public profile that helps define your identity on Twitter.  Check this as soon as you open your account, and make a habit of checking and updating it on a regular basis.  The three most important things here are:

Picture: Put a picture here -- immediately!  I don't care how camera-shy you are, a picture of you (or a painting, or a cartoon, but of you) is usually the best idea, and any picture is better than no picture.  Leaving the default icon (which as of this writing is a picture of an egg, screaming "newbie!") marks you as, at best, a know-nothing newcomer, and at worst, a spambot (programs that create fake Twitter accounts to deliver spam and malware links) to be blocked immediately.

Bio: You've got a very short space here to present an image of who you want to be seen as on Twitter.  For now, say something interesting about yourself, and maybe mention your interests (which should never include words like "marketing," "selling," or "promotion").

Link: This should be a link to your web-page or blog where people can find out more about you and your work.  It should not be a link to a social media page like Facebook, Myspace, or your own Twitter page.  If you haven't got a web page or blog, do it now, and put some content on it.  If Twitter is fishing, then your tweets there are only bait.  Your web presence, and the links to it (from your profile, and your posts) are line to reel them in.

Follow interesting people.  Observe.

Twitter will help you to find some people to follow, and that’s good, but you’ll want more.  Here are a couple of tips to help you find people worth following:

Once you find someone interesting to follow, go to their Twitter page and see who they’re following.   It’s a good rule of thumb that interesting people often follow other interesting people, and often these are people that you might never have heard of.

Likewise, pay attention to who interesting people are talking to, or talking about.  You’ll find interesting people to follow.

And mind that, when I say "interesting" I don't necessarily mean "famous."  Yes, it's okay to follow some of these, but remember that celebrities with tens or hundreds of thousands or millions of followers operate under different rules than mortals like us.  Emulate them too closely, and you'll just end up looking like a pompous fool.  You can start acting famous when you actually are famous!

Check your favorite web pages for Twitter icons.  Many news sites, magazines, newspapers, etc., also post regularly to Twitter.  Find out about things as they happen, not long after the fact.

Once you’ve found people to follow, sit back and watch for a while.  People who are popular  and well followed are usually doing something right.  Study them and try to figure out what it is.  Learn from the best before choosing to put yourself out there.

Divide and conquer

By now, you’re following enough people to be seeing quite a stream of incoming Tweets.  Maybe an overwhelming steam, like drinking from a fire-hose.  Relax.  It’s all manageable.

The first secret is to live in the moment.  If you haven’t been on for a while, never try to catch up with everything.  If something interesting seems to be going on you want to catch up on, check the Twitter feeds of key players to get the high points of what you missed.  But in general, this isn’t like email.  Anything that happened more than a couple hours ago is over, and can usually be ignored.

The next step is to divide the people you’re following into categories, so you can manage and prioritize what you chose to read at any given time.  Twitter has a built-in function to allow you to this called “lists.”  Use it.
Make a habit, every time you follow someone in whom you have more than a casual interest, assign them to one or more of your lists.  I, for instance, have an “inner-circle” list for close friends and associates, one for general news sources, one for science, space, and technology folks, a list for publishing professionals, one for professional writers, one for mystery, one for booksellers, one for entertainment people, and so on.  Come up with your own list topics based on your interests and needs.

A Twitter application, like Tweetdeck (the one I use, there are others) can help you managing these lists and handling other Twitter tasks.  I’ve got Tweetdeck on both my computers and on my Android smart-phone.  Like any tool, these Twitter applications magnify your efforts, to make a doable job easier.  Do some research and find your own, or just jump in and try Tweetdeck on my recommendation.  Find it at www.Tweetdeck.com, or at you phone’s app-store.

Decide who you are

Maybe you think you know who you are, but despite any illusions of intimacy you may have, Twitter is a public forum.  While I recommend being genuine in what you present to your public, what you’re presenting should necessarily be an edited, packaged, targeted version of yourself.  I can’t tell you what that persona should be.  You’ve got to decide that for yourself.  But it should be someone that people will be compelled enough to follow and interesting enough to read.  It should also be someone you’re completely comfortable with, like a favorite pair of shoes.  Remember, you could be living in this persona for a long time, so be happy with it.  This is marketing, but it's marketing you should be able to wear like your favorite pair of old sweats.

Decide what to share

Likewise, you need to decide how much of your personal life to put out there.  This is an important area to consider.  It can be endearing, for example, to talk about families, relationships, and children, but remember that you’re dealing with not only your own privacy, but the privacy of those around you.  And if your relationships change, if you end up in a divorce, or a child ends up in trouble with the police, or a family member passes away, then your private pain becomes public as well.  If you share your travel plans, you’re also alerting any thief that your house may be vacant and easy pickings.  As in law enforcement, everything you say can and will be used against you.

Don’t let that put you off completely.  That’s the cost of any kind of public presence.  Just be aware of it, and control what you put out there.  A little misinformation or misdirection may also be a good thing in the interest of security.  For instance, when I mention I’m going out of town, I also mention that I have scary cat-sitters equipped with guns.  This happens to be true in my case, but if it weren’t, how could you be sure?

It’s also important to realize that personal information can be off-putting.  If your intent is to promote yourself and/or your work, then consider carefully how open you want to be about your politics, and your positions on controversial topics.  Again, how you handle this is up to you.  One writer friend of mine chooses to keep her strongly-held politics completely to herself.  Other people wear their politics on their sleeves, and happily limit their following to like-minded people. 

My personal approach is not to hide those opinions and leanings I find most important, but I don’t define my persona by them either.   Occasionally, when I feel it’s important, I speak my mind (and in so doing, risk losing a few followers), but it doesn’t happen often enough to dominate what I have to say.  Anyone who can make it over the occasional political or ideological speed-bump can follow me even if we disagree on some things.

Other aspects of your life can be off-putting as well.  It’s easy to scare people off with the details of a health problem, personal tragedy, or life-challenge.  Maybe “cancer survivor,” “crime victim,” “angry divorcee,” “parent of a missing child,” or “former cult member,” is the persona you’re presenting to the world.  Maybe that’s the package you’re trying to sell to your followers.  But there’s a fine line between sharing and over-sharing, and it’s easy to send people running for the exits.
 
It’s equally true that, once you’ve released your privacy on a sensitive topic like this, you can’t easily take it back.  Consider your options carefully before you proceed.

Engage with others

Now that you’ve decided how to put yourself out there, it’s time to do it.  It’s natural to assume that means posting, and you should do that.  But simply standing on a soap-box and shouting won’t get you attention in a place where everyone is standing on a soap-box shouting.

Interaction is the key.  Comment on other people’s posts, even if they don’t seem to respond.  Retweet (share) posts that you find interesting, informative, or enjoyable.  Engage people in conversation. 
Be positive.  This isn’t high-school debate.  Find points of commonality with other people and build on that.  Disagreement is fine, but bitch-slapping strangers is no way to make friends.

Figure out who to follow

There are several schools of thought on following. 

First, a common lazy-approach to getting a lot of followers is to follow a lot of people, sometimes thousands of people.  This is done with the knowledge that some people will automatically follow anyone who follows them. 

I don’t recommend it.  People who “auto-follow” generally don’t have time to actually read anyone they follow.  The scatter-gun method of following lots of people will get you numbers without actually getting you attention.

As I’ve said, some people follow back anyone everyone who follows them, and in some circles (not the circles I care to travel) failure to do so is considered rude.  I recommend choosing your follow-backs carefully.  I don’t see much point in following people whose tweets you’re not actually interested in reading.
 
It’s also a harsh reality of Twitter that first-impressions are important, and potential followers are usually going to make judgments about you based on limited information.  The first thing a savvy Twitter user will do before following you is to check your Twitter profile, and the first thing they’ll see are your Twitter numbers.  Do you have many more followers than people you follow?  You’re probably someone important, or at least interesting enough to follow.  The masses have spoken!  But if you follow a lot of people,  as many - or worse, more - people than follow you, then your character is suspect.  (Unfortunately, that’s an area where I’ve gone wrong.  Because I find so many people I am interested in following, scientists, astronauts, writers, editors, and other potential news sources, my numbers are currently way upside down.  I don’t want to unfollow anyone, and even though I’m trying very hard to follow as few people as possible for a while, it’s still going to take several hundreds of new followers to even things out.  Learn from my mistakes.)

Become an expert in your field

People are drawn to experts, and everyone is at least a potential expert in something.  If you aren’t an expert, make yourself into one.  It’s not as difficult as you may think.  Just pick something you already know a lot about,  something that you’re passionate about, and that you may have dismissed as unimportant because you’re too close to it.  If you’re passionate about it, it’s likely other are as well, and these people can become your loyal followers and supporters.

What is this thing or things you're an expert in?  Only you can answer that question.  It could be your profession, or some aspect of your workplace.  It could be a cherished  hobby or craft.  It could be your favorite sports team, your favorite classic author, or your favorite sport.  It could be something you collect, or some charitable cause you volunteer for, or even your own home-town.  But your passion for the subject is what’s important.  People are drawn to that passion, and through it they will know you.  It’s a way of sharing yourself deeply with others, but in a way that’s  still fairly safe for you, and that maintains a screen of privacy and personal space.

And yes, you can be an expert in just yourself, or your own work, but if so, it helps if your work is already well known, and your personality is near to a force of nature.

In my case, I’ve built on a few of my favorite things.  I’m a life-long science geek, and I read widely on all aspects of science, but especially space flight and computer technology.  I’m very interested, not just in science, but in the people of science, and the way that science interacts with society and everyday life.  I’m also interested in science education, and inspiring young people to care about science as a part of their lives.  Being a bit of a nerd, I occasionally  tweet about pop-culture.  And I also talk about my work (writing), the publishing industry, and especially the cutting-edge aspects of that industry, such as ebooks and electronic publishing (again, something I’m professionally involved in).

Once you’ve figured out your area (or areas) of expertise, use it to make yourself an expert worth following.  To do that, leverage what you already know…

Find your sources

What makes an expert isn’t knowing everything.  It’s knowing where to find everything.  If someone asks a question, know where to find their answer.  Know where to find the latest news in your area of expertise to share with your followers.  You don’t have to know everything.  You just have to know interesting things that your followers don’t know.

What kind of sources?  Well, since you’re already there, start with Twitter.  Use your expertise to search Twitter and track down people who are experts in aspects of your chosen area, then follow them.  You know enough to dig beyond the obvious sources, to find the ones that others miss.  Retweet them.  Engage them.  Interact with them.  Network with them.  When you can, make them your friends.

If you’re passionate about your subject, you probably already have your own sources: clubs, professional organizations, magazines, web-sites.  But it can help to organize these sources, and make them more accessible.  Put those web-links in an easily accessible folder, and make checking news sites and journals part of your routine.  Put those magazines in a file, or give them a shelf.  Keep a file or notebook of your contacts in your field.  A little advance work to put things at your fingertips will save work as you’re looking for answers or interesting things to tweet about down the line.

One final tip is to make use of Google, and especially Google News and its Alert feature, to track down information and find interesting items to link or tweet about.
 
You’d be surprised how many people who have a question about your chosen subject area won’t even bother to try a simple Google search.  Even if they do, your knowledge of your subject will allow you to make deeper and more targeted searches to find their answers.  If you don’t know the answers, you know the questions to ask to get those answers.

If you set up a Google account, you can also set up custom sections on your Google News page.  So, for example, you can set up a news section for “Georgia History,” or “Horses,” or “Model Boats,” or “Plumbing Regulations” or anything related to your “expert” area.  As you check the day’s headlines on your computer, you can also be checking for news-worthy items to share with your followers.

Even more useful is Google’s “Alert” function.  With this you can set up a standing search of news, blogs, or the web in general, using any search terms you desire.  When it finds something, it will email you.  You can choose to have these sent immediately, or as a handy daily or weekly digest.

Take advantage of these tools, and you’ll usually be one-step-ahead the pack, and as any news person will tell you, it often isn’t who reports best, but who reports first, that gets all the credit.

Share something interesting every day

This is simple, but important.  Now that you’ve got something to tweet, tweet it.  Not all at once.  Just make this your motto: “I will tweet something interesting at least once a day.”  If you can manage that, you have just left 90% of the people on Twitter eating your dust.

Interesting how?  It can be informative, funny, amazing, or provocative, but it’s got to engage people’s interest.

Tag and Be Found

A “tag” (also known as a “hash-tag”) is simply using a pound symbol (#) in front of a key word or a string of text to mark it as a search target.  A tag can be a general topic word like #dogs, #sports, #politics, or something longer and more specific like #ThingsMyCatSays or #TheBigGameTonight.  Putting that “#” in there says, “this is a key to what this message is about.”  Tags are designed to be searched for by other Twitter users, and serve to connect like-messages together.

You can add tags at the end of the message, or you can insert the “#” in front of significant words already in your message.  Examples:

“Message from my cat overlords: I must leave the windows open, even when it gets cold. #ThingsMyCatSays"

“Message from my #cat overlords.  I must leave the windows open, even when it gets cold.”

Those single word tags are a way to tap into people looking for popular topics, and if you can imbed them in your message, they take up very little of your precious 140 characters.  But longer tags have the advantage of being specific and potentially unique.  They can help people find and follow a series of messages you post on the same topic.  It’s also possible that others may adopt a tag you’ve created and use it in their own posts.  This will tie their messages to yours, and potentially lead their followers to follow you as well.

Likewise, you can use popular hashtags to lead people into reading your messages.  A lot of “get famous instantly on Twitter” schemes hinge on various manipulations and exploitations of tags.  But you should use caution before engaging in such schemes.  Tags can be a useful tool, but they can be off-putting as well, if your posts are so littered with them that it’s obvious you’re fishing for followers, or chasing popular “trending topics” where you have nothing to contribute.

Don’t tweet too little

Of all the things you can do wrong, this is the least serious.  If you miss a day, a week, maybe even a month, odds are you won’t be missed, and it probably won’t hurt much. 

Twitter isn’t about the moment.  If you aren’t tweeting, you aren’t moving forward, and if you aren’t moving forward, you can’t make progress on Twitter.  You want to make friends, to network,  to build a following and  recognition, and the way to do that is to put yourself out there, again and again, long enough that people take notice.

Don’t tweet too much

But that doesn’t mean you should tweet everything.  People don’t need to know about every meal you eat, every errand you run, every bathroom break.  Even if you’re tweeting entirely on your area of expertise, you want to be part of your follower’s information flow, not the flow itself.  Nothing will get people to unfollow you faster than looking at their twitter feed and seeing nothing but your tweets.

Tweet at the right time

Twitter can be a time sink, and so it’s important to maximize the return on your efforts.  You want the tweets you make to appear at the time when your followers are most likely to see them.  When this is may depend on your target audience, but it’s been my experience that most Americans, at least, seem to do their social networking during office hours (no commentary here, just reporting facts).  My posts made Monday through Friday during work hours (in some mainland U.S. time zone) seem much more likely to get retweets and comments than those made during evening hours, or on the weekend.

So, if you have a blog post, public appearance, new book, contest, or other "event" post you'd like to be sure people see, try to post it in the middle of this "prime time" for your target time-zones.

Give that ye shall receive

One great way to make it about you is to make it not about you.  Offer up “Follow Friday” recommendations for people you follow.  Be supportive of other people’s work and projects, retweet other people’s links, and don’t even think about getting anything in return.  But in doing these things, you‘ll make friends, earn good will, and build support that will come back to you in unexpected ways.

Don’t be a marketer

Even if your major reason for being on Twitter is to promote yourself and your work, going at this directly is the quickest way to turn people off and to chase followers (and potential followers) away.  Strictly limit your directly promotional tweets to, I’d say, no more than one in ten tweets.  Even then, try not to be overly direct, and never use a hard sell.  Try to direct interested people to what you’re selling, not push them.  Keep your announcements informal, personal, and soft-sell.

Wrong: "Don’t miss the greatest thriller of the year!  'Blood on Toast!'  You’ll be on the edge of your seat! Now in stores!!!!"
Better: "Exciting day!  My new thriller novel “Blood on Toast” is out.  Hope you’ll check it out: (publisher, web-site or bookseller link)"

Keep in mind that people who follow that link are expressing an interest, and should be receptive to a more direct sales pitch.

Once you’ve made a promotional post, never directly repeat it.  If people see the same pitch twice without explanation they’ll be running for the exits.  If you must repeat, do something like this: “In case you missed it earlier this week, my new novel “Blood on Toast” is out.  More info here (link).”

If possible, any further post shouldn’t come without presenting some contextual reason for it.  

For example: “Very pleased today to see a stack of my new novel “Blood on Toast” at the front of the bookstore.  That just never gets old! (link)”

Enjoy Yourself

Yes, if your intent is promotion, this is work, but if it starts to feel that way, people are going to sense that in your posts.  People who are having fun are fun to (virtually) hang around with.  You’ll be most successful in your promotional activities if you’re enjoying what you’re doing on Twitter.

And finally…

Be Patient

Though things can happen quickly on Twitter, that’s usually not how it happens.  Be prepared to stay with this for the long-haul.  Don’t expect to have a thousand followers in a day, or a hundred.  Most of the time, building a following is like compound interest.  It starts out glacially slow, but it move faster over time, and with patience, it can lead to big things.

You shouldn't be obsessed with the numbers anyway.  Numbers aren't everything.  Quality of followers and the relationships you have with them is as important as quantity.  5 good followers are worth 5000 drones who read nothing and care only about building follower numbers for themselves.

Have fun, and I’ll see you on Twitter.  (Just don’t expect me to automatically follow you any time soon!)

- Steve (@JStevenYork)

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Friday, November 12, 2010

Sketch a Novel in an Hour (Orycon)


Greetings, Orycon folks.  


If you're looking for the printed version of our "Sketch a Novel in an Hour" writers brainstorming exercise, the link is below.  Feel free to link to it from your pages and share the link with friends.
  http://www.yorkwriters.com/2009/02/sketch-novel-in-hour-exercise.html

As always, if you've found this information useful, a small contribution to our tip jar is always appreciated!

Friday, November 5, 2010

Steve's Orycon Programming Schedule

Here's my schedule for the Orycon Science Fiction convention,November 12-14, 2010 at Portland Doubletree Hotel.


Sat Nov 13 1:00:pm Sat Nov 13 2:00:pm To the moon! Or ...?
Hamilton The Augustine Commission is deciding the future of space flight. Where we're going and how will we pay for it?
(*)Dan Dubrick, Elton Elliott, J. Steven York, G. David Nordley

Sat Nov 13 3:00:pm Sat Nov 13 4:00:pm Workshop: Story Outline in an hour
Roosevelt Bring something to write on and write with. You'll have an outline (or a good start) to a story by the end of this panel. Bonus--this would be a great head start to that creative writing class homework you're ignoring over the weekend.
Christina F. York; Christy Evans, J. Steven York, Video Projector

Sat Nov 13 7:00:pm Sat Nov 13 8:00:pm Promotion in the Information Age
Jefferson/Adams Corporate websites, Facebook, mass emailing, contests, twitter, ads, spam: What works, what doesn't, and why just 'drumming up business' is even more important now than ever.
(*)Cat Rambo, M.K. Hobson, Sheri Gormley, J. Steven York

Sun Nov 14 2:00:pm Sun Nov 14 3:00:pm 1 cup F, 2 cups SF, 1 tsp H in blender ...
Hawthorne Combining genres--What readers want from blended genre stories, and why some editors and agents have trouble with them.
Jessica Reisman, (*)J. Steven York, P.N. Elrod, Seanan McGuire




Monday, September 27, 2010

More Things Writers (might!) Need from Publishers

Steve writes:
I recently posted here my response to an article in the Huffington Post by writer Philip Goldberg. In his article, Goldberg champions writers continuing need for publishers in the ebook and print-on-demand (POD) age, where self-publishing has become an attractive and available option.  Goldberg based this on two major points, functions the publishers provide, and that he regarded as indispensable, namely advance payments and editing.

I agreed that writers need editing, but questioned what form this editing should take, and that it necessarily had to be provided by editors.  As for advances, well, go back and read the first post if you haven't already...

But these are hardly the only important functions provided to writers by traditional publishers, and it didn't take me long to think of three others that Goldberg's article didn't mention, including one that I (for a while, anyway) considered a possible deal-breaker, a function so important and irreplaceable that it made self-publishing, at best, a highly calculated risk.

Well, turns out I was wrong.  The more I look, the more I see that for every "indispensable" function of traditional publishers, there are alternatives.  They may not be the best options, and they may not even be advisable options for many writers, but they are there for those with the desire and the will to use them.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  Here's my short-list of additional vital functions provided to writers by publishers:

Publicity/Advertising/Sales Support
Copyright Enforcement
Legal Protection from Nuisance Lawsuits

Let's look at each of these in turn, and see how they have to be reexamined in this new digital age of publishing.

Publicity/Advertising/Sales Support
The clear advantage to writers in selling their own work through electronic and print on demand self-publication is a return of 40-70% of retail vs. the 10% or less (often far less) provided by traditional publishers.  The problem is that this is not a zero-sum game.  Does this dramatic change in royalties mean 4 to 7 times the income for writers?  Not unless the sales and retail prices remain the same, and that seems very unlikely.

We'll get back to this "new equation," but let's deal with the obvious: Traditional publishers have marketing and sales resources available to them that small publishers, much less individual authors can never touch: magazine advertising, trade publications, trade shows, catalogs, television ads, radio.  They have the ability to push a book into the public eye with a force and speed that small-source publishing can never match.

Does this make the question a no-brainer?  Must authors stay with traditional publishing as the only way to maximize their income, no matter how small it currently seems?  Not necessarily.  First, let's look at the weaknesses in the traditional marketing behemoth.

The first problem with the traditional marketing machine is that it isn't applied equally to a publisher's line.  Only a few lead titles get the full marketing push.

While nobody has an infallible way of telling which books will sell and which won't, it's a curious fact that the success of a book is, to some extent anyway, defined the moment the contract is put on the table.  The reason?  A spreadsheet called a "Profit and Loss" statement.  Really, it all comes down to the "advance," the advance payment against future sales royalties.

Negotiations aside, the advance amount is set by the anticipated sales of the book.  The intent of the P&L is that the publisher doesn't lose money on the book, and hopefully makes a profit.  If that projection doesn't work, the publisher has a Bad Day, and possibly so do some of the people who made the decision to go forward with the project.  Asses are on the line.  No matter what the projection of the P&L statement is, most everyone at the publisher has a vested interest in making it come true.

What that means is that, when the advance is plugged into that P&L, a lot of things are predetermined: the print-run size, minimum promotion budget, catalog placement, ad placement, and on down the line.  A book with a huge advance goes to the top of the promotion list because it has to.  It will sell a certain number of copies because the machine will make it sell a certain number of copies.  It will get the best cover, the best cover copy, the best advertising, the best placement, and the biggest push to the stores from the sales department.

Of course, there are limits to the machine.  Once the books are stacked in the front of every major bookstore in the country, the machine can't make people buy them.  Suggest, remind, nag, yes, but they can't be made to buy.  But still, the books are there, right where they can't be missed.  They're there in such quantity that they aren't likely to sell out (and if they do sell out, the promotion department goes into overtime).  And if you build it, usually, they will come.  A good number of them anyway.

But what about books with lower advances?  Well, if the advances are just a little lower, the print run is smaller.  Maybe the display doesn't go right at the front of the store, or maybe it's shared with another book of equal stature, or maybe it ends up on the bottom of a display under that month's lead title.  Maybe it's featured on page two of the catalog, but not the cover.  Maybe there's no TV or radio ad budget.  Maybe it shows up in a house ad rather than having its own magazine ads.  The machine knows that this book needs to make a little money, sell some copies, but not that many copies.  So long as the P&L is satisfied, so is the machine.

At this level, the small publisher simply can't compare.  Not only can't they afford to throw money at electronic media and slick ads, not only can't they position their books in stores, they're at a huge disadvantage getting their books in stores at all.

But what we're described so far covers only the top few percent of a major publisher's catalog.  For the great majority of books, the machine hardly works at all.  In fact, what service it offers is mainly a side-effect of its service to bigger books.  Most books can only hope to surf the wake of the big-machine's passage.

Just to be in the catalog, just to be at the bottom of a house ad, just to have the publisher's logo on the spine offering some endorsement of average quality and professionalism; those things have value.  With those things behind them, it's hard for a book not to sell a few copies.  A few.  Usually enough to satisfy the meager numbers on a P&L.  Usually.

Really, it doesn't concern the machine much.  It isn't likely that anybody's job will hang on the success of a little book with a $5,000, and a major publisher spits out a lot of books like that every month.  The risk on each is low, and what risk there is, is easy to spread around.  One little book is pretty much the same as any other little book.  The machine doesn't care.  Only the author of the little book cares...

Well, they care a little.  Which is why publishers are now increasingly expecting authors to do their own promotion.  In fact, it's a purchasing criteria.  See, traditional publishing has heard about this new thing called the interwebs -- or something.  Anyway, they've heard that Tweety pages and Facespaces are important, and they like authors who have lots of followers and friends.  Because while they understand that social media is now important, they aren't very good at doing it themselves.  That's the author's job.

So for most authors, they're mostly on their own for publicity and promotion.  Does that mean publishers are completely useless unless you're one of the lucky few at the top of the food chain?  Well, that depends on what you consider important, because traditional publisher have one huge advantage that small publishers can't match: the ability to place books in bookstores.

Yes, that door has cracked open a bit.  Small and self-publishers can get print-on-demand books into some of the major distributors that stores order from.  But does that mean they will order books?  No.  No it does not.  If publishing in print books, and selling through traditional stores is your goal, then there's still just one choice that makes a lot of sense.  (Talk to me again tomorrow, this situation is still in flux.)

But if, on the other hand you're willing to go after a different model, if you're willing to look at ebooks rather than print as a primary outlet, or you've got a plan to sell your own print-on-demand, then the picture is much different.  Not only might it be possible to do without traditional publishing's publicity machine, that machine might actually be doing the wrong thing for the non-traditional publishing model.

A Question of Velocity
How can that be?

Well, what do you think publicity is about?  Sales?

When we're talking about traditional publishing, the answer to that question is no.

Well, yes, but...

No.

Actually, it's about velocity.

That's the important part anyway.  Sure, they're hoping they'll sell a lot of books, but to some extent, the number of sales is predestined, by that P&L sheet, by the initial print run, by the publicity budget.  If it sells less than this "destiny," then it's a failure.

If it sells more, it's good, but it means that somebody make a mistake.  It's a mistake which they have limited short-term ability to respond to.  It's a mistake they'll try to correct.  When they print the paperback.  When they print the sequel.  Anything they can do now is just damage control.

What they want to do is sell the predestined number of books very quickly, because that's all the time a book has.  It's only in the stores a short time. The machine of publishing is always running.  It waits for no book.  Each book must march forward at its appointed time, sell its appointed number, and then get the hell out of the way for the next thing.

Everything in traditional publishing is about velocity.  Even best-seller lists, even the sales rankings on Amazon, they aren't about numbers of sales so much as they're about velocity of sales.


Velocity is a necessary part of traditional publishing's business model.  But as a writer, it doesn't have to be a part of yours.  Ultimately, what the writer wants, especially the career writer, is numbers, not velocity.


When you don't have to worry about velocity, the game changes.  You don't necessarily need reviews in major publications.  You don't necessarily need ads.  You can work small, with social media, with readings, with web-presence, with web reviews, with sale-site reviews, with word of mouth.  You've got the luxury of letting sales grow, of letting good work rise on its own merits.

That can be bad, of course, if the book doesn't have those merits, or at least, if it doesn't find an audience.  But that's okay, because then at least you know.  It isn't a matter of some destiny rubber stamped by a sales manager with a crystal ball that doesn't work.  And if it doesn't work, then nothing is lost.  If the book isn't good enough, you still have a change to fix it another day.  If it doesn't find an audience today, maybe that audience will come along later.

In this world, books don't go bad like grocery-store tomatoes.  Time isn't your enemy.  It's your friend.

Books, all kinds of books, need promotion.  But the kinds of promotion that the small and self-publisher needs, even the goals of that promotion, are different than the ones needed by traditional publishing.  The worst mistake a small publisher can make, the worst trap they can fall into, is to dump money and effort in an attempt to emulate traditional publishing's promotional model.

Small publishers and self publishers should play to their strengths, not their weaknesses.  Personal interactions with readers, social media, and small-scale publicity that builds over time, not all at once by brute force.

Leveraging the Numbers
Small publishers also have one other sales tool that traditional publisher can't (over the long term, anyway) match: Price.

Logic would seem to dictate that since a small-source published book might sell less than a New York book, it has to be priced at least as high in order not to make far less money.  But that's not necessarily the case.  It's been demonstrated again and again that low priced ebooks with no publicity can compete effectively with high-priced New York offerings, frequently appearing on Amazon's Kindle best-seller list.  But even if the sales are the same, a cheaper ebook makes for less money, right?

No.  It should be obvious, but it isn't to a lot of writers.  Get three times the royalties, cut the price by 2/3, sell the same number of copies, and you're even.  Get seven times the royalties, cut the price by 5/7ths, sell the same number, make twice as much.  Even if you sell half as many, you still break even.

The point is, the small-source publisher has lots of cost-based promotional room to play with if they don't get greedy.  Probably you've heard the old story of the monkey and the jar.  The monkey reaches into a jar full of treats and takes a whole handful, making their fist too big to take out of the jar.  If they just took the treats one at a time, they could empty the jar, but because of their greed, they get nothing (not even their hand).  That's how too many self-published writers and small-source publishers approach pricing.

That doesn't necessarily mean cheaper is always better.  It just means you can discount over traditional publishers with no strain at all, and you have lots of room to play beyond that.  There are many options and strategies open to you (for example, making the first book of a series very-low-priced or free, while putting the rest of the series at higher price points).  Don't hamstring the strongest promotional tool at your disposal because you're locked into obsolete ideas about pricing.

Okay, this post has run long again, leaving me with two remaining functions provided to writers by traditional publishing: copyright enforcement, and protection from lawsuits.  We'll save those for another post, coming soon.

Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

What Do Writers REALLY Need?

Steve writes:

In an article in the Huffington Post, writer Philip Goldberg champions writers continuing need for publishers in the ebook and print-on-demand (POD) age, where self-publishing has become an attractive and available option.

His premise is based on two main points.  The first, that writers need advances.  The second is that writers need editing.  Here's the link so you can read the article yourself if you'd like

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/philip-goldberg/who-needs-publishers-we-a_b_689763.html

I don't totally disagree with what he has to say.  There are some valid points in the article, but I think they're used to support a very flawed conclusion. Traditional publishers offer many things in their deal with writers.  Some of those things we'd rather not have.  Some we might want, but don't really need.  And some we definitely need, but publishers may not be the only, or the best, way to get them.

I think it's important when thinking about publishing these days to deconstruct it and try and rebuild the system from scratch. Just because we need Thing-A and Institution-B does Thing-A in the current system does NOT mean we NEED Institution-B unless Institution-B is the BEST and most cost-efficient way of doing Thing-A. This applies strongly to both of his points.

Let's go to point two first, that writers need editing, since this is far-and-away his strongest argument.

And actually, I'm going to skip to the past part of the second point, just to get it out of the way...

The need for editing, fact-checking, etc. in general applies much more strongly to non-fiction books than to most novels. Sure, novels need editing and fact-checking as well, but if a novel trips over a fact it's usually just an embarrassment (and usually one that most readers will completely miss). If it happens in a non-fiction biography of a contemporary person, then you might just have a lawsuit on your hands, or at least something that necessitates (as has happened several times in recent years) a recall or cancellation of a book.

In fact, in general the requirements for a non-fiction book are so much different than the requirements for novel that I'd argue that the two are FUNDAMENTALLY DIFFERENT PRODUCTS. In the physical-book world, the two share so much infrastructure and production commonality they they're usually done by the same companies in overlapping facilities. But other than that, there isn't any logical reason to cram them together than there is to combine a company that makes corn-flakes with one that makes soap-flakes, just because they both come in upright cardboard boxes of similar proportions.

Now, many of us, maybe most of us, will be writing non-fiction books at some time or another, but I'm assuming that MOST of the writers reading this blog consider themselves primarily novelists. In any case, I'd simply say that the lesson here is not automatically to think the same assumptions apply to a non-fiction project as one of your novels. They are different beasts, and as the market evolves towards ebooks and POD, those differences will become far more obvious and important. Consider their requirements on their own merits.

Now, getting back to the first part of the second point (confused yet?), I think he's made a very good case. But it isn't a case that we need a publisher, it's that we could almost always use some editing, and those two aren't the same at all. Books aren't edited by publishers (speaking of the company, and not the job-title here), they're edited by editors, and editors are just employees of publishers. Editors could be employed by anyone: themselves, the author, a temp agency, the Geek Squad at Best Buy. It doesn't matter. They're still editors, and if they're good ones, can still provide the same function. A publisher is NOT required.

And any of us who have been around the business for a while know plenty of good editors that we've enjoyed working with who are currently out of a job (or at least, an editing job).  If I want a good, experienced editor, and I'm willing to pay the right price, I'm certain I can get one.

But let's deconstruct this some more. What IS an editor? What is a GOOD editor? What element or elements separate a good editor from the average Joe/Jane on the street? Is it a matter of education or experience? Talent? Love of books? To be honest, I'm not sure, and I'd be interested to hear what people have to say about it.

The article describes a typical copy editor as "an underpaid English major who loves books." But that describes a lot of the baby editors most experienced writers have dealt with as well.  For those of us a of a certain age, it can be disconcerting meeting our editor and learning they're young enough to be our child (or grandchild!).

Yes, if they work for a New York publisher, they presumably have had the benefit of training and advice from more experienced editors. Maybe they're worked on many books in a support capacity before stepping up as a solo-editor. Presumably even a typical junior editor has had the experience of doing a good number of books (though SOMEBODY has to be their first book, and it might be you).

 Still, I keep thinking of that basic description. Underpaid (or underemployed) English Majors who love books aren't hard to find in most any town in the country. In fact, there's almost always an excessive supply. If you need an editor, how difficult would be be, really, to recruit and train your own?

For that matter, what level of editing is necessary for a given writer and project? Does a person who has written a dozen novels or a hundred need the same level of editing as one publishing their first book? (My thought is, usually not.) And if an experienced author needs less editing, do they need a full-fledged editor at all? Maybe what they need is that copy editing (I sure do!) and fact checking, plus an objective voice to spot weaknesses in the work. Maybe all they really need is a good first reader, or a couple of good readers. Is it even possible that, at some level, a strong and involved editor working with an experienced and confident writer becomes more of a hindrance than a help?

So, I agree that most all of us can benefit from editorial assistance. But I think it's quite open to debate what form that assistance should take for a given writer or project, or where it can (or should) be obtained.

Now, let's go to his first point: Advances.

As writers, we're used to advances, and who doesn't like getting big checks (commas!) in the mail? But do we NEED them? I'm not so sure, and in fact, I think we might just be far better off without them.

First of all, what IS an advance, anyway? It's a loan. It's a loan against presumed future earnings (or actually, royalties on future earnings) on a book that the publisher has purchased rights to. In general, the terms on this loan are pretty terrible. In general, the term where the bulk of the loan will be repaid (or not) is generally no more than a few years, often not much more than a year. But during that period, we can expect to pay no less than 90% of earnings on the book.

Okay, okay, that's not fair. The total income on the book isn't yours, and never would be. The publisher is taking their production expenses, retail mark-up, overhead, profit, etc., out of that 90+%, PLUS the usual interest and cost of a loan, so maybe it isn't as bad a deal as it seems. But actually, what kind of deal it is really depends on the book.

We presume that the publisher is smart enough, based on their long and vast experience, not to advance more than they expect to make on a given book, but that isn't always the case. We know that a lot of books don't (at least as far as our royalty statements are concerned, we really don't know about the publisher's internal P&L) ever make a profit. The loan isn't repaid.

Of course, that happens with conventional loans too. Some loaned money doesn't get repaid. There's risk, and presumably the cost of that risk is generally understood and built into the cost of the loan. (Not always, as the current financial crisis shows, but it SHOULD be that way, and most of the time, it is.) Some loans will not be repaid, but enough will, and with enough associated interest and fees to make the system profitable.

So, if your book earns back its advance, and not much more, than maybe it isn't a terrible deal. If your book doesn't come close to earning out, then quite possibly it's a GREAT deal. But the more successful the book, the more questionable the deal becomes in some ways. The more books you sell, the less significant the production costs and overhead become. Printing, warehousing and shipping costs should also benefit from scale. But you're still getting charged a relatively huge rate against the income you're generating.

Worse, while the advance money presumably shows up before the income stream starts, royalty income is often long-delayed. The nature of modern publishing is that the fate of most print books is decided within a few weeks, or at most a few months after it hits the shelves. But the byzantine nature of the publishing and bookselling business is such that the income may lag YEARS behind. The publisher loans you money on the front side, but on the back side, you're loaning money to THEM, and the writer is STILL paying a high interest rate on every bit of return!

That's probably part of the push amongst established best-sellers for huge advances. (Sure, there are a LOT of other factors, but...) I'm assuming that agents, and may authors, have decided that it's a far better deal to get the money up front, even if you know the publisher is going to lose out on the back-end of the deal. But that moves the problem around, because when the publisher loses money on a project, it comes from somewhere else, probably a worse deal for smaller writers who don't have as much clout.

But let's look at the other end of the spectrum. There are lots of reasons a book doesn't earn out, and as I said earlier, you'd presume that the publisher manages this risk and would never INTENTIONALLY buy a book they don't expect to pay its advance back. Unfortunately, I don't think that's always the case either. I think publishers buy a lot of "quality" books that they don't expect to earn out, books that feed someone's ego rather than the bottom-line. I think they sometimes buy vanity projects from successful authors that are far less commercial than their typical projects. I think they sometimes buy bonehead books that don't have a chance-in-hell of commercial success because somebody in the company had the clout and ego to push it through. Maybe I'm overestimating how often these things happen, or how significant the losses are, but I'm pretty confident they DO happen.

And when they do, the books have to be balanced somewhere. It won't be off the best-seller with the inflated advance. No, it will probably be in the big, gray, middle-area where most of us live.

Whatever is going on, publishers have the ability to slide risk (and profit, and loss) around a vast range of books, both in terms of volume, profitability, and type, and while I think it's safe they'll do this in a why to offer maximum benefit to themselves, there's no reason to assume that they'll do it in a way to benefit YOU, as an individual.

There's also the issue of how "advance" the advance is, anyway. If you're getting money for a book not yet written (either one you sold on proposal, or a follow-on book in a multi-book contract), that's good. At least some of the money may show up well in advance. But we know, publishers have always tried to minimize this, and they're squeezing it harder than ever. Smaller advances, broken up into more and smaller payments, coming later in the publication cycle. Even when the trigger for a payment occurs, we have to wait. Even assuming business-as-usual, the check may not be paid for weeks or months. It may have to clear through an agent. Our banks may sit on the checks for two weeks before releasing the money. If you see actual money within two months of "on signing" on "on delivery," or the dreaded and vague "on approval," then its a red-letter day.

If things AREN'T as usual, you may not see the money until months or even years later, if ever. We've all been there.

Okay, let's just assume I went too far up the crazy-tree on that rant and put it aside. Let's just agree that it's a loan, and that the terms are, at best, somewhat somewhat questionable. Now, in what business school do they tell you go borrow money for your business from the first loan provider that makes an offer, and not even INVESTIGATE other options? Yet, that's exactly what we do when we take an advance. At least we (or our agents) have a chance to negotiate the terms, but we all know that our ability to alter them is pretty limited. The basic assumption is fixed, even that we take the advance. From what I've heard, several successful authors have tried to negotiate away their advances in return for a larger and more immediate royalty payout, and I've never heard of a publisher welcoming those terms. They LIKE the way things work now. They WANT you to take an advance, so they can game the system the way they always have. They just want the amount of the advance to fall within a narrow range provided by their own P&L.

So: Loan required. Terms of loan only marginally negotiable. The only loan provider is the same guy who sets the terms for all other aspects of the agreement and reports all the costs and incomes to you. That describes a company-town setup to me, and company towns are rarely favorable to the workers.

For pretty much every writer I know, and I suspect even for people at the top of the field, publishing is a world of feast and famine. Even for people at the top of the game, it seems to be long stretches of nothing between large and unpredictable paydays.

That's just not a good way to do business. It makes it difficult to plan, and difficult to manage cash-flow. Failure to manage cash-flow can get VERY expensive, as you're often forced to borrow MORE money at outrageous fees (and yes, late fees on your utilities and overdraft charges at your bank are just a VERY expensive way of borrowing money). It makes it even harder to keep health insurance in place. It makes it hard to make cash-outlays (both personal and business) at the most advantageous times, under the most advantageous terms. And for all but the most disciplined of us, I think there's a natural tendency to go splurge-crazy when the big checks show up.

Currently, publishing is all about what my friend Kristine Rusch has quite-wisely called "the produce model." When we write something, it's produce. It's polished up, put on the shelf, and it either sells quickly, or not at all. After a few weeks or months, it stinks up the place. You sell what you can at huge discount, then dump the rest and move on to the next fresh thing. This is fine for publishers, who have no shortage of fresh things. Not so good for writers who usually would be content to ride the slow-boat of income as long as it continues to sail.

The more we move into ebooks and POD, the less we're forced to be tied to that model. We can write a book in the anticipation that it will earn money (a lot, or a little) over a long time. Write more books while still getting income from the first. Write sixth and tenth books while you still get a little income each from ALL your earlier projects. The more you write, the quicker you write, the smoother and more predictable your paydays become. If you need to borrow money, shop for a loan. Don't take whatever deal the company store will offer you.

Yes, we'll miss the big checks. Yes, it's wonderful after a long time as a starving writer to get your first advance check. But in the big picture, do we NEED that advance? Probably not. Would most of us, on most days, be far better off with a smaller, steadier flow of cash? I think we would.

This post originated as a message I posted on a private writer's message list, and has been revised slightly for blog use.  But in doing so, I've thought of several additional important functions for writers currently served by traditional editors, and which were not covered in Goldberg's post (including the one I think is most compelling of all as a reason to stay with traditional publishing).  After some thought, rather than appending discussion of them to this post and muddying the waters, I've decided to deal with them in a follow-up message.  Look for it soon.  - Steve


Thursday, June 17, 2010

eBook Sales Level Off in April. Is the iPad to Blame?

Steve:

While eBook sales remain a modest percentage of the total dollar-book business, sales have been skyrocketing at triple-digit rates that pointed them towards gobbling a significant chunk of the business in the next few years.  The question has always been, would this growth rate increase, maintain, or at some point taper off.  Until now, there's been no sign of faltering.

But Publisher's Weekly has just released sales number for April, and growth as 127.9 percent.  Now, that sounds pretty big, but it's the lowest monthly rate of the year, and the first big stumble in eBook sales in a long time.  What happened?

Well, it's hard to be sure, but one really significant thing also happened in April: the iPad was released.

Yeah, the iPad, the mega-selling, wonder-eBook platform of the age.  The horse that major publishers decided to saddle-up in their effort to corral Amazon's Kindle.  The device with the color, the flash, and the technology (oh, sorry, but not the Flash) to take us roaring into the eBook age.

I've been warning since it was just a rumor that the iPad isn't as great an eBook reader as its made out to be, especially for novels and serious prose works.  In short, it's too heavy, battery life is too limited, the screen is difficult or impossible to read in bright light or direct sun, the LCD screen may not be as suited for long-term reading, and it's too large and expensive to drag around in the habitual and casual way you'd want for a reading device.

I've also warned that, even to the extent is is useful as an eBook reader, the wealth of entertainment distractions it offers (and for which is is much better suited) may actually discourage people from reading.

Now we've got another data point supporting my premise.

To be fair, the only evidence that the iPad caused the slump is proximity.  There's no firm connection yet, and other factors could be at work.  But it does make you go, "hmmm."

I should also point out that there could be one other explanation as to how the iPad could have created a slump that will only be temporary.  Anticipation of the iPad's release was so strong that many consumers would might otherwise have bought an Amazon Kindle or other dedicated eBook reader such as the Nook or Sony Reader, may have instead delayed their purchases to get an iPad.  Since Amazon doesn't release Kindle sales figures we have no way of knowing if reader sales were down in April or in the months preceding.

If that's the case, and these consumers have instead bought iPads, and if indeed they do begin using those iPads as book readers, than sales could rapidly surge back and even increase in the months that follow.  (It should also be mentioned that Apple's iPhone 4 has also just been released, with a vastly sharper screen that makes it potentially a much better eBook device than its predecessors).

I'll say what I've said before.  The real test of the iPad's influence on the eBook market will only come over the long-term.  Will iPad owners adapt to reading on their new devices, or will they use it for other functions and consciously or unconsciously cast its eBook functions aside?  And if the iPad doesn't entice people to read eBooks, will they continue to go to dedicated readers like the Kindle for that function, continue to read dead-tree books, or reduce their reading overall.

It's this last possibility that's most worrisome, though I consider less likely than the others.  It's going to be interesting to see what happens to eBook sales numbers in the coming months.

Although here's one more fact to consider: we're heading into Summer, the time of the "beach read," and this is the area where the iPad really falls down as an eBook reader.  That James Patterson book is going to be a complete wash-out as you sit there in the sun on your beach-towel.  But on the other hand, so are any of the other reading distractions that the iPad can offer up.

Maybe a lot of iPad owners are going to sitting in their deck chairs this summer, iPads stowed away in their beach-bags, reading good, old-fashioned, dead-tree books like always.  And that that would suit a lot of traditional publishers just fine.

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Friday, June 4, 2010

Twitter 101 for Writers, Part 1

Steve:

(This is the first -- and only -- part of what was intended to be a multipart post on mastering Twitter.  Unfortunately, it ran away with me, and the specific details of Twitter's interface and operation moved on before I could continue it.  I've left it up, as there may still be a few nuggets of useful information, but in general, if you're hear, move on to my later single-part post on the same subject.  Find it at http://www.yorkwriters.com/2010/11/twitter-101-beginners-guide-for-writers.html )
Probably you've heard that for a writer to succeed these days, it's necessary to actively promote yourself on-line.  You've heard (and I'm pretty sure that, at least in some cases, this is true) that publishers will check a writers on-line presence -- their web page, number of Facebook friends and Twitter followers -- before taking on a new project.

It can be an overwhelming prospect, and it's far too big a subject for one blog post, but I'm going to try today to help you with one small part of it: establishing a presence on Twitter.

Why did I pick Twitter?  Well, of all the on-line options of potential PR value, I think it has the steepest learning curve.

Facebook is very easy to get into.  Yes, it gets complicated later, dealing with all the privacy options, filtering out all the noise, and navigating the ever changing user interface.  But in the beginning, it's a snap, part of why it's so popular.

Blogs or web pages?  These can both be complicated, but for getting started, there are a number of instant ways to set yourself up with a pre-fab blog or web page.  Anybody can get on-line in about five minutes, and most of that is just filling in your account information into forms.

Twitter is even easier to sign up for.  All you need is a name and an email address.  The process is very quick.    But when you're through, you find yourself looking at a bare bones page with not much on it.  Lots of stuff about messages and following people, but you have no messages, nobody to follow, and not much guidance as to what to do next.  (By the way, if you haven't signed up for a Twitter account yet, DON'T DO IT NOW!  I'll have some tips later you'll want to read before taking that step.)

Twitter can be confusing and overwhelming for new users.  Things seem poorly organized.  There are no easy menus or commands to help you along.  The messages are full of strange shorthand, and the users have strange customs among themselves.  Even if you do figure out how to follow others and find the messages, it can quickly bury you in information.  It's like trying to drink from a fire-hose.  So many message, so fast!  How to pull any meaning out of the noise?

But in my opinion, Twitter is worth the trouble.  It's much more a "broadcast" medium than Facebook, one that lets you potentially reach a lot of people you'd never talk to otherwise.  It's instant, immediate, and feels personal in a way that Facebook or a blog or web page don't.  It's potentially the best single promotional tool a writer can have.

Okay, let me say here that I don't claim to be a Twitter expert.  I've only been using it about a year.  As of this writing, I have just over 700 Twitter followers (and thanks to following my advice, my cat has about 400 followers!).  This is a fair number, but it doesn't make me a major Twitter personality by a long shot.

There are major Twitter marketing gurus everywhere (you can't avoid them, one drawback of Twitter) who will claim to get you 65-zillion followers instantly, and they might be right.  There are all sorts of fancy marketing programs and tools to help you get followers.  But near as I can tell, mainly what they do is funnel money to their creators and assist you in becoming annoying on a really massive scale.

What I'm talking about is a process of going for quality over quantity, of having followers (and following people) where you have some actual commonality and hope of a connection.  I'm talking about engaging people rather than impaling them on a meat-hook.

Okay, maybe I'm getting ahead of myself here.  I'll start by assuming you know little or nothing about Twitter beyond the name.  First question, what is it?

AN INTRODUCTION TO TWITTER

Like Facebook, Twitter is a social networking service.  It's a way of connecting with and communicating with other people.  Potentially a lot of other people, though that doesn't seem to have been the original intent.

The thing to know about Twitter is that, unlike Facebook, it's very simple and bare-bones (though Twitter has been adding new layers of sophistication lately, it's still pretty Spartan).  The original idea, far as I can tell, was that it was intended intially for use by people texting on their cell phones.  That's the reason for one of the signature features/limitations of Twitter, the 140 character message limit.  140 characters is the length of a cell-phone text message.

Lots of people still use Twitter from their phones, but you don't have to use a phone all the time, or at all.  I don't text and don't own a smart-phone yet, so I've never used Twitter from a phone, only from computers (and occasionally from my Amazon Kindle, but that's another story).  I'm eager to add phone access to my twitter tools, but it just hasn't happened yet.

Okay, so you sign up for a Twitter account.  This gives you an empty Twitter page on the web, and a Twitter name.  If you go to someone's Twitter page on the web you'll see a little basic information about them if they've entered it (known as a "profile"), some statistics about their usage, and a list of their recent messages, known as "tweets."  Not "twits."  Not "posts."  "Tweets."  Sounds silly at first, but you'll get used to it.

TWITTER NAMES


A Twitter name or handle is the way by which you and your Tweets will be identified on Twitter.  As so, it's important.  As a writer, it's double-important, as it's also how people have to associate your Twitter presence back to your writing.  That can be trickier than it seems.  We'll go into that in a bit.

Basic fact here, when used in a message, Twitter names normally have an "@" in front of them.  The "@" serves many functions on Twitter, but most commonly it means "at" or "attention," often both at once.  Example:  My Twitter handle is "JStevenYork", but you'd normally you'd type that as "@JStevenYork".

Examples:

Just talked to @JStevenYork about some novel projects he has in the works.

In this example, the use tells people who you're talking about, that they're on Twitter, and that people can check them out or follow them using that handle, all without interrupting the message itself.

@JStevenYork Great talking with you about those novel projects.


Putting the name at the beginning this way says "Attention Steve, message follows!"  Be sure you're aware.  This isn't private email.  Anyone can read!  It's just to draw my attention to the message to be sure I'll see it.  It's more like a conversation at a cocktail party than an email.

Thanks for the comments! @JStevenYork @BadAgentSydney @SinkTrap


A lot of thanking and acknowledgments go on on Twitter.  More on that later.  But know that it's frequent to see lists like this.  Given the limited space in Tweets, it's customary do leave out the separating comma.  Every space counts!

PICKING A TWITTER NAME (AND AN INTRODUCTION TO RETWEETS)

The obvious thing is just to use your name or byline.  That's what I do.  But there are plenty of reasons not to do that, especially if your name is longer.  Why is the length significant?  After all, it doesn't come out of your 140 characters.

No, but it comes out of everyone else's 140 characters, and for PR purposes, you want your Twitter handle repeated as often and in as favorable a context as possible.  You want to not only be a person who talks, but one who is repeated and talked about.

Which brings us to another important (yet unofficial) convention of Twitter, the "Retweet."  Retweeting is simply repeating some else's Tweet, with attribution to the source, the source being the original sender as identified by their Twitter handle.  Example:

RT @JStevenYork I'm thinking it's time for a vigorous unmanned Moon program!

or with a comment added:

Good idea! RT @JStevenYork I'm thinking it's time for a vigorous unmanned Moon program!

As you can see, my 12 character handle comes out of the 140 characters anybody else has to Retweet my post and add (hopefully positive) comments.  If my initial post is longer than 127 characters (140 less my handle plus a space), then they're going to have to edit or truncate it to fit it into a Retweet, and they won't have ANY room for comment.

My handle is already fairly long, but what if I wrote under the name Alexander Colorado Okefenokee the III?

@AlexanderColoradoOkefenokeetheIII  drops a potential Retweeter down to 105 characters before they've even started.  That's definitely time to look for a shorter name.  @Okefenokee would be better and still recognizable.  But as are many, if not most, one-word or common-name handles, it's taken.  You could go more descriptive, @OkefenokeeWrites, but that's getting long again, or creative like @AOkieWriter (fictional TV mystery novelist Richard Castle posts on Twitter as @WriteRCastle).  You if you write series books or characters, you might also mine that for potential recognizable Twitter names.

In fact, you may well want more than one Twitter name.  For example, you might want one for yourself, one for each book series, or series character.  You might also want an account for your public writer persona, and a "secret identity" just to chat casually and anonymously with your close friends and family.  Be aware that you'll need a unique email address for each account, but with Hotmail, Gmail, and the many free and pay places you can get an email address, this isn't hard.

So, the three main things you want in a Twitter name:

1. Short, distinctive, and recognizable

2. If possible associates with your writing name and/or your work.

3. Disassociates you from well-known individuals with similar names, or from unintended meanings (so if you have an open pseudonym writing "as Sam Holeman," your Twitter handle should not be @assholeman).

Since we're talking about associating your Twitter activity with your work, let's talk about your Profile.

CUSTOMIZE YOUR PROFILE

Your profile is the mini-biography and picture that appear on your Twitter page.  When one of your Tweets (or Retweets) catches someones attention, or if you follow someone and they're looking to see if you're worth following back, this is what they'll see.  IT IS VERY IMPORTANT!


First thing is, put a picture up there, and any picture is probably better than none.  If you don't put a picture, the little default icon brands you as a newbie.  At best you'll get ignored, at worst you'll get targeted by scammers and abusers.  So get SOMETHING up there quick.

Probably what you want is a head or face shot of you, with as much background cropped out as possible.  Most of the time, people will be looking at a tiny icon version of the picture, so a full-length shot, a head-and-body portrait, or a picture with a lot of extraneous stuff around the edges isn't going be recognizable.  Don't upload a postage-stamp sized picture.  Twitter will shrink it down to an icon for you.  And don't upload a 12 mega-pixel shot straight from your new camera.  Go for something mid-sized, 600-800 pixels high is good.  The reason for the larger picture is that visitors to your Twitter page have the option of seeing the full-sized picture.  Let them get a good look at you (or, as we'll see, your book).

Yes, many writers also use a book cover or a cropped version of their cover art (often featuring a lead character) as a profile picture.  Nothing wrong with that, though it can cause some people to confuse the writer with the character they write about, which can be scary at times.

Some people use professionally done cartoons or caricatures of themselves.  Again, that's okay if they're well done and recognizable.

I've heard it said that you should change your profile picture often, and I don't think that's a bad idea, but I find it jarring if the new picture isn't recognizable as the same person as the last picture.  That little picture is your FACE on Twitter.  Putting on a new mask every 15 minutes is at best off-putting, and at worst, it causes people who like you to lose you in the noise.

You also get 160 (Why not 140?  I don't know.) characters for a brief profile.  Try to sound interesting.  Be sure to tell people that you write, that you're published (assuming you are), and what kind of things you write (genre, target-age, etc.).  You don't need to include a web address, as Twitter has a separate entry for that.

Be sure to enter a web address!  If you don't have a blog or web page, get one and at least put your basic information and publication history there.  Putting a web address on the profile page creates a clickable link on your Twitter page.  Anyone who clicks that link should IMMEDIATELY see that you are a writer, what you write, and easily be able to find what you've published and where to buy it.  Don't hide this information (or links to some) down the page. This is your primary sales tool once you've got people interested in your Tweets!  Don't waste it!


FOLLOWERS

You won't see anybody else's messages unless you do one of two things: visit their Twitter page, or "follow" them.  A "follow" is like a subscription.  Once you follow them, everything that person posts will show up in your twitter-stream.

And nobody will see your posts unless they visit your Twitter page or choose to follow you.  That's part of what makes Twitter intimidating to get into.  You start out cold and lonely.  The fun comes later.

Don't worry about getting followers yet.  Worry about finding good people to follow.  Where to start?  Well, start by seeing if you have friends and associates on Twitter.  Go to your Twitter page, use the search function, and start entering names.  But if you find someone, don't follow immediately, especially if the name isn't an unusual one.  There are so many people on Twitter than all the vaguely common names are duplicated many times.

I you think a search result may be a friend, go to their Twitter page.  Check their picture, bio, recent posts, and web-page link if any to be sure it's really your friend.  Then follow them.

Once you've followed some friends, presumably they'll follow you back, and you're up and running.  That's step one.

Step two is to follow some strangers, or at least casual acquaintances and associates.  As a writer, start with other writers doing work similar to yours or working in your genre.  Also look for editors, publishers, magazines and if you want, agents, working in your area too.

Follow them, and maybe they'll follow you back.  Don't read to much into it if they do.  Some people routinely  follow anyone who follows them.  It doesn't necessarily mean you're BFF's, or even that they'll ever read your posts.  Be nice if they contact you, and don't act like a creepy stalker.

But okay, here's the secret force-multiplier.  When you follow these folks, go to their Twitter page, look over on the right for the number of people following them, and click on the "followers" under it.  This will give a list of the people that they follow.  Since you already share some interests and commonality, some of the people they follow are certainly people you'll want to follow as well.

How to identify?  Jump on over to their Twitter page.  Check their bio and web page link.  Check their recent posts and see if they're talking enough business (or at least about some random thing you're interested in) to be worth the follow.

Once you've added a number of new followers, it's time to check their follow lists, and leapfrog yourself across the wonderful work of connections that is Twitter.

How many people to follow for starters?  Don't get carried away.  No more than 50-100 people to start.  Then get your virtual sea-legs before adding more than a few more.

Time to go back to your own Twitter page.  There it is, a scrolling list of every post by everyone you've followed!  Congratulations!  You've opened the fire hose!

Overwhelmed?  Too much to read?  Too much to process?  Don't worry, this post has gone on too long, but we're not through yet.

NEXT TIME:

Next post we'll show you how to find software that will help sort, organize, and filter the flow of message on Twitter, and how to use Twitter's own features to do more of the same.

We'll teach you the basic conventions of Twitter society, and how to use them to get followers and develop connections with your followers.

We'll also tell you how to deal with the people who follow you.  Should you follow them back?  Should you not?  When should you block them from access to your account completely?  We'll warn you about some of the bad-apples on Twitter that you should watch out for and avoid (or at least not encourage).

Finally, we'll deal with the thing that seems to most vex many of my writer friends on Twitter: posting.  What to post?  How to deal with "I don't have anything to say" syndrome.  When to post.  When not to post.  How to promote your work without driving followers away.  And why you should post, even if you don't feel like talking, and even if you aren't sure if anyone is listening.  We'll even show you how you can use your posts to pick up a little honest spare-change.

See you back here soon in part 2...