Monday, January 25, 2010

How Readers Can Help Writers

When I visited a local book club this month, a question I hadn’t heard before came up: “How can we help writers whose books we like?”

I was impressed that these kind readers were aware that writers need help. With more titles competing in a declining overall market, books--especially fiction--no longer sell themselves on their own merit. Many fiction writers fade out of sight after their debut novel. Advances, smaller than ever, no longer allow new writers the reward of quitting their day jobs. The stolen weekends and evenings newly-published authors used to spend writing are now required to service vastly increased PR responsibilities such as maintaining a web site, blogging, and networking, in addition to constantly scrounging for whatever reviews, radio interviews, conference talks, or readings they can get. No matter how much work the author puts into book promotion, though, it doesn’t necessarily result in sales. Let’s face it: any author telling the world how wonderful his own book is comes across as being biased! And if his first book doesn’t sell, the publisher won’t print a second.

What’s needed is the elusive word-of-mouth from readers who liked the book. So, next time you read a good book, here’s what you can do to help sales and perhaps have a chance to read another book by the same writer.

First, buy the book. Publishers don’t care how many people read a book: only how many pay for it. Most people know that writers make nothing if you check out their work from the library, but many don’t realize writers get no royalties from used book or remaindered book purchases. If your budget is tight, buy discounted new books, which still provide the writers with a small percentage. Royalties for e-books are higher than print, so choosing to go green will help your favorite authors as well as the environment.

Second, don’t be silent! There are ways to speak up, and all are free.

You may already be speaking up without saying a word. Every time you read in public, you are providing a subtle ad for the book. So, take your book to work, read in the subway, read in the cafe or mall, and hold that cover high.

Writing to authors to let them know you enjoyed their books provides valuable encouragement in a lonely profession. You don’t need to be careful with your grammar or craft an elaborate letter. One sentence such as “hey, I really liked reading your book” is as welcome as an elegant essay.

Post comments on author’s blogs. Comments make a blog seem livelier and generate more interest. If you’re shy, use only your first name or be anonymous.

Post reader “reviews” on online booksellers’ sites. Keep in mind there are always disgruntled or jealous crackpots posting 1-star reviews out of pure spite, so give the highest star rating you can. 5 stars means you liked it a lot, not that it’s a masterwork of literature. Don’t stress about reviewing. Keep it short and either mention a few details you particularly enjoyed, or that it kept you reading from start to finish. While Indie Bound, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are the primary online sources, also visit book groups and independent book stores and post reviews there. With less traffic, your positive review will get more attention and mean more. Some Indie bookstores, such as Powell’s of Portland, Oregon offer a chance to win free books for posting the first review.

While you’re visiting, take a moment to “tag” the book. Sign in as a customer, then scroll down to “Tags Customers Associate with This Product” and check 15 boxes. Check the popular tags to build numbers and whatever other tags you think apply. This is not a small thing, as tagging will help the title show up in customer searches.

You can help several books with one post by creating a customer "list" on any book retailer's site which includes the titles and authors of books you like. All of this can be done anonymously or with a pseudonym. Your list can be books you recommend for reading groups, or books to read on an airplane, or books set in other countries--anything you can imagine.

Tell your friends about the book on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Goodreads, and any other social sites you use. Be sure to include the title and author’s full name. Add a link to the author’s web site or blog and get a photo of the book jacket to accompany your post. If you blog, please, oh, please mention the title and author in a post! Include links or photos whenever you can. To kick it up a level, invite the author to do an interview on your blog. Ask questions you genuinely want to know about the book, the author, or the subject. It's perfectly all right to ask just one question.

These ideas are not as much work as they seem. The same review can be posted on multiple web sites. Tagging takes only a few seconds, and commenting on blogs can be fun, even addictive. If your time is limited, keep in mind the best selling authors will do well without your help; focus on new authors and the books you’ve found off the beaten path. Usually, these authors will thank you with personal responses.

Writing is a difficult profession and success is haphazard. Spreading the word about a good book is a way to give back to the person whose writing reached you.

Sara Backer copyright 2010

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