Monday 13 January 2014

Print vs. Online

Once you've written something you want to share with the world, you're faced with a choice. Do you aim to put it online, taking advantage of that unlimited audience and ease of sharing via links on social media and the like - or do you send it off to a print publication, with all its old-fashion prestige and the undeniable thrill of seeing your work in actual, proper ink?
Which is best? As Harry Hill says, There's only one way to find out...
Until recently, I've always favoured getting things published online. I'll admit it, it feels good to put a link on Facebook or Twitter and have friends and followers click through to read the story. I like the fact that it's 'out there' - sometimes just for a while, sometimes much longer - and virtually anyone might stumble across it. It's all part of the platform we writers are supposed to be building. I treat online publication like having a publicly accessible CV - people who've enjoyed one of my stories can come to this site and read several others, without having to pay a penny. I don't actually know if anyone does this, but the possibility's there and that's a good thing as far as I'm concerned.

With print markets, it's difficult to know whether the reduced exposure is worth the increased prestige. There's the question of economics, in terms of who among my potential readers would go to the trouble of buying a print-only magazine - which in many cases, once you pay for postage, can cost a lot more than a paperback book from your local Waterstones. There's also the problem of targeting the right markets for your work - it would cost a fortune to buy an edition of a good selection of literary magazines, and chances are many of them would be a disappointment in terms of (a) not publishing the kinds of stories I like to read, and (b) not publishing the kinds of stories I like to write. It always seems strange that so few of the more established magazines don't offer any kind of free sample (like an ebook or PDF version of an old edition), so that writers - and readers - can see what they're getting before they submit (and perhaps even subscribe - I'm all for supporting small press magazines, but not when I've no idea what they print!).

I've also focused almost exclusively on writing competitions. Some writers baulk at the idea of paying an entry fee (though not all competitions charge them), others find the whole concept of 'competitive' writing a bit distasteful. I can see where they're coming from. However, I've always seen competitions like doing an exam, while submitting your story to a magazine (whether print or online) is more akin to coursework. Submit your work to an editor, and if it's almost but not quite there, you'll probably get a chance to tweak things and generally knock it into shape. With a competition, you only get one shot at it - so everything has to be perfect: your characters, plot, pacing, language, beginning and ending, spelling, grammar, it all has to mesh precisely. It's a good test of your abilities, and the deadline provides all the motivation you could wish for to get on and write your masterpiece. Also, with a competition, there's no rejection to worry about. You get placed or you don't; nobody emails you to say your story isn't up to scratch. For some writers (i.e. me) that's a distinct advantage.

But, after a year when my competition mojo appeared to desert me, I've been reassessing my stance on this. Some of the very big story competitions (the BBC National Short Story Prize and the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Competition, both run by Booktrust) essentially say your previous work doesn't count unless it's been in print, and when you look at the biographies of the people who do well in the major contests, very few (if any) mention online publications, whereas some of the more established print markets crop up time and time again. So I'm convinced the general consensus is that print still rules the roost, and if I want to continue to develop my writing I'm going to need to try harder to get some stories into one or two of those magazines.

This doesn't mean giving up on competitions (the Bridport and Bristol short story competition winners are printed in beautiful anthologies, after all) or online markets, but it does mean trying to widen my horizons in terms of where I look when I have a story ready to go. Fortunately, there are many fantastic resources online and elsewhere to help identify potential markets - for instance the brilliant Short Stops, or Thresholds, or any of the many online lists other people have put together. I don't have any particular targets in mind, but if I score any hits, you'll be the first to know about it.

How do you decide where to send your writing?

Friday 3 January 2014

Free Books - Still a Hard Sell?

For the whole month of October, I made the electronic version of my collection of short stories, Somewhere to Start From, free. All people needed to do was log in to Smashwords, input the discount code, and download the file to their computer or e-reader. It turned out to be a far from irresistible offer. Here's where I think I went wrong.

Also available in paperback
I didn't expect a huge response, to be honest. The book's been available for a while, and in some ways it's probably close to the end of its shelf-life. However, it's been a remarkably quiet year for me (in terms of publications or competition results), and I'd picked up another couple of hundred followers on Twitter since the last time I did any significant promotional stuff. Plus I still haven't managed to inflict a copy on everyone I know in the real world, so I thought it was worth another go.

I didn't take a screenshot of the book's page visits and downloads statistics, so you're spared another graph. Suffice to say things got off to a good start, with plenty of visits spurred on by people retweeting my initial link to this blog. Five copies were downloaded within 24 hours, which seemed like a good start. But from then on it was a case of diminishing interest, with fewer visits each day and the occasional spike when I tweeted about it or put a post on Facebook. Downloads cropped up sporadically, one or two at a time. Overall, I think the number of e-copies I 'sold' was in the low teens, so hardly a runaway success.

But... all of it was useful, because I feel like I have a better insight into how a successful promotion might be managed. Most of this is probably common sense, and anyone with any marketing experience will probably roll their eyes at how obvious this all is, but here are the lessons I'm taking from this:

A month is too long. If you're promoting something, you need to instil a sense of urgency. Your potential customers should feel like the opportunity to grab the glittering treasure on offer is fleeting. That initial spurt of attention might be all the interest you get - so don't give potential customers three or four weeks to think about whether they actually want the book. Because by then something else will have come along and they'll have forgotten all about you.

A quid off is not the bargain of the century. The ebook version of STSF has always been priced at 99p (or thereabouts). I've never been sure if this is too cheap or whether it's a sensible price for people who stumble across my work somewhere and might fancy reading more. I'm not trying to make a living from the collection, so my aim was to price it at a level appropriate to the possibility of an impulse buy. Still, I think making an already very cheap thing free was never going to trigger a torrent of downloads - chances are the majority of people who were interested in buying it wouldn't have been put off by having to shell out a pound.

Nobody knows who I am anymore. I, or at least my writing, was not particularly visible during 2013. With only a couple of stories (which I'd submitted in 2012) going online in the early part of the year - and only one of those featuring a link to this website - I've not done a great job of bringing my work to the attention of new readers. Success begets success, and with almost nothing new of mine making its way into the world, it's understandable that my offer didn't cause much of a stir. A few more published stories, even a competition shortlisting or two, might have helped ensure people thought my work was worth reading.

A few tweets do not a 'campaign' make. There's little more annoying than a Facebook or Twitter account that does nothing but pump out promotional tweets for the owner's latest book. It's a bitter pill to swallow, but only a small proportion of those who bother to read your output on social media are actually going to be interested in reading anything else you've written. I'm possibly over-cautious in this regard, worried about annoying my followers and friends, and the half-dozen mentions I made over the course of the month weren't enough to ensure a good cross-section of my online following saw at least one of the links. I didn't update the blog very often, and I also did nothing at all offline to promote the book, which ought to be an important part of any successful publicity campaign.

Everyone else is doing it. Seriously, is there anybody out there who isn't promoting a book? Mine was just another, fairly feeble, voice in a sea of thousands, all shouting more or less the same thing. I didn't give much thought to how I would make my offer stand out from the crowd, I didn't tie it in with any particular event, in short I didn't make it seem unique or relevant - two factors I'm sure would have helped convince people it was worth taking a look.

People are lazy and suspicious. This may seem a harsh thing to say, but I think it's true - to some extent, at least. One thing I noticed was that although the entire book was available without charge, people were still downloading the free sample (effectively the same as Amazon's 'Look Inside' feature). I was wondering why this was - if you were interested enough to read the first few pages, why not have the whole thing if it didn't cost you anything? Then I realised - you can get the sample without opening a Smashwords account. This made sense. I don't like joining new sites, so I try to limit it to occasions when it's the only way of getting something I really want.  Most people I know have never self-published an ebook, and so have never heard of Smashwords. Were potential readers worried about signing up to an unknown site? Concerned about ending up on a spammy mailing list? Did it all seem too much hassle? I suspect that unfamiliarity played a part - things might have been different if I'd made the book available on Amazon, which most people don't necessarily like but at least know and trust.

So, although it was a long way from an unqualified success, it was a worthwhile experiment. Plus, two reviews appeared soon after the end of the promotion (although I think only one was directly linked with the giveaway). A glowing one from Shirley Golden, and a more reserved one from Paul Isaac. As ever, I'm very grateful to both these readers for taking the time to review my book, especially considering -as Paul points out on his blog- how difficult (even nonsensical) it is to attempt to rate a collection of stories when they differ wildly in tone and genre.