The Business Workshops of #RT17

Last week, I told you a bit about the craft workshops and panels I attended at #RT17. This week, I’m all business. This is long, so you might want to digest it in chunks.


Mark Coker Smashwords founder speech on future of digital independent authorship publishing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This workshop was led by Smashwords founder Mark Coker. You can read a comprehensive recap of all ten trends at author Cecilia Tan’s blog here, and most of it you already know: digital publishing has democratized publishing; romance has led the way in professional-quality independent publishing; and that there is a glut of high quality, low-priced books. The ability to inventory digital books for basically free means that everything stays in print and on the market forever. This increased supply has pushed down prices, especially for new authors.

Coker ended the presentation with a call for author mobilization against KDP Select, Amazon’s exclusivity program with subscription-based pricing. He portrayed KDP’s system as predatory pricing, a monopolistic practice that threatens to put Amazon’s competitors out of business. This threatens the newly-found independence and choice of independent authors. We have just been released from bondage to the Big Five, and now we’re in bondage to Amazon, according to Coker. While this may be true, he did not fully recognize the prisoner’s dilemma that Amazon presents to authors. If we all stood up together as one and refused to participate in KDP, we would all be punished equally by Amazon’s algorithm—meaning none of us would be punished. This might put KDP out of business. But without collective action, pulling out of KDP will only hurt the individual author who takes the stand. Your books will be buried in Amazon, and other authors will be thrilled to take your spot at the top of the bestseller lists. In this prisoner’s dilemma, no one chooses the collective good over their own self-interest. That’s human nature, and Amazon knows it.


Mark Coker Smashwords founder reveals survey future independent publishing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This presentation was less ideological and more data-driven than the first. Some of the data followed the trends seen in his 2016 survey, but let me recap what I found particularly interesting. Note that all of this is based on averages, so your mileage may vary. The survey showed that among his authors:

  • Write as long as you need to. The top 70 bestselling romance authors at Smashwords average 92,000 words (excluding box sets) and 113,000 words (including box sets).
  • But keep the titles short. The top 100 bestsellers at Smashwords have 24.45 characters on average in the title, while the 900-1000 bestsellers have 30.11 characters on average. The last 100 surveyed (bestsellers 9,900-10,000) average 35.5 characters.
  • How much should you charge for your ebooks? Free books still get the most downloads, but among books for sale, the best range is still from $2.99-$4.99. The spot at $1.99 is a dead zone. It seems to be better for Smashwords authors to price at $0.99 or $2.99 than $1.99.
  • If you write a series—and, yes, they still dominate the romance market—you should give away the starter for free. 7 out of 10 of the bestselling series on Smashwords have a free starter. Interestingly, 4 of the 10 did not have any new book in the series published within the survey period (a year), which shows the persistence of series, even when complete or on pause.
  • Should you put your books up for preorder? Especially in the iBooks store, yes. They count your preorders as first day sales, unlike Amazon where they are counted on the day the purchase is made. Coker found that of the top 1000 bestselling authors, 61.7% released at least one book on preorder. There could be other factors at work, like the fact that the most professional and organized authors might be the one getting their act together for preorders. Maybe they have nicer covers, better writing, and better advance marketing, he suggested.
  • Should you do a box set? “Box sets are not the path to riches, but they can be a nice complement to your publishing strategy,” Coker said. Authors participating in at least one box set—whether alone or with other authors—are highly represented among bestselling authors. However, in my opinion, this may be more a function of catalog size than actual box set sales. Authors with more books in the backlist tend to have higher earnings and more followers, and these are the authors who have the material to create a box set. Moreover, the best selling box sets are $0.99, which is a pretty low value on that many words.

UPDATE: Coker has published his whole presentation here.


Written Word Media Bargain Booksy Freebooksy panel digital print marketing at Romantic Times Atlanta

This workshop featured two executives of Written Word Media, the team behind FreeBooksy and Bargain Booksy. It was a little free-form, but here are the takeaways that I think may interest fellow authors:

  • Perceived value was a very interesting concept to me. Giving a book away for free without any hurdles not only loses you revenue, but it also lowers the “perceived value” of your book. But if you take an email address from a reader in order to get the book, that adds perceived value. Perceived value can also come from a reader pay to attend an event. Another trick is to keep the price on the back of the book the same as others in industry, and then put “special price” stickers on it. This way you can give special sales at specific events while still keeping the perceived value of your book high.
  • Covers are important, but they do not make the sale. They need to accurately represent the genre, general theme, and relative professionalism of the book—but NOT the whole plot! The point of a good cover is to get someone to read the blurb. The blurb sells the book.
  • In terms of ebook sales, the panel sees people making the most at the $2.99-$4.99 range, which agrees with Coker’s findings. (And, by the way, Coker joined the panel informally.) Bargain Booksy thinks that middle-range prices ($4.99) with flash sales (“for a limited time only”) is a good strategy.
  • Not surprisingly, it is easier to bring prices down than up. If you need to increase prices, do so incrementally.
  • As you might expect, pricing will expand and contract based on the number of books being released. This is supply and demand. The last two years have seen a lot of people fall out of the market, which is why we see prices going up a bit.
Romantic stock photo of couple in the jungle with a moon from Shutterstock for Sugar Moon spoof Jennifer Hallock steamy historical
You do NOT want your cover to describe the entire plot of your book. Case in point: this Shutterstock image has so many elements that are perfect for the story of Sugar Moon, including two reasonably good models, a jungle setting, and a big frickin’ moon (or is that a white earth?). But no. Just no. (Edited 6/15 to add: see note at bottom of post.)

Sourcebooks Casablanca publisher presents publishing market data at Romantic Times Atlanta

To be honest, this workshop turned into an infomercial of why we authors needed a traditional publisher, especially Sourcebooks. Even though I am fond of Sourcebooks because they published a few of Laura Kinsale’s books, I was still annoyed by their attitude. Nevertheless, there were a few interesting bits of data:

  • There are impulse buyers out there! In a Neilsen study of romance book buyers, 23% planned to buy one specific book at specific time; 23% planned to buy the one specific book, but not at a specific time; 26% planned to buy a book at a specific time, but not any particular book; and 30% didn’t plan to buy anything at all, making it a total impulse purchase.
  • How do readers first find you? Browsing the store accounts for 15% of first discovery. Reader recommendations account for 15%, but it needs to be recommended three times. Your author marketing accounts for 14%, but people need to see your materials at least twice. Finally, print and other analog (non-internet based) publicity counts for 13%, but it needs reinforcement 2.5 times. Bottom line: your marketing has an impact, but it’s best when reinforced by another source.
  • What do readers want to hear in your marketing? 31% of book purchases are based on book message. How do they like the sound of your story? 26% buy because they like your other books or the rest of your series. 15% is based upon reader recommendations. Only 8% of purchasing decisions are based upon special pricing alone, so don’t just drop your prices without a plan. Make sure you have a good book message, too!
  • Sourcebooks’ data also suggests that “freegans” will not convert to “paygans.” Just because people download your book for free doesn’t mean they will purchase more. This seems to contradict Coker’s data. (See above.)

ReShonda Tate Billingsley workshop on getting media coverage for indie authors at Romantic Times Atlanta

Much of what I learned in this workshop is hard to describe because it was based on the attendees pitching to ReShonda. She was brutally honest in her advice, but it was totally warranted. ReShonda was definitely the best teacher at the conference. I’m a little bit in love with her. Here are a few of her points:

  • Twitter has become a requirement in many newsrooms today. Follow your local reporters and know what they cover. This helps you find the right person for your story.
  • When you call or contact a newspaper or television station, there is no “my book this” or “my book that.” Have your assistant call the newsroom, even if your “assistant” is you (under a different name). First talk about a critical issue the reporter should be aware of, and then reveal that a local expert (ahem, that’s you) wrote a book about this very problem. Give your pitch as a story, not a summary.
  • Email a pitch for a weekend feature first thing Thursday morning. If you try to do it late Wednesday, it will get buried in the pitches that come after you. And if you wait too long, they will be working on other things before yours. And why Thursday? Because it gives them time to consider your book for their weekend story planning, when it is hard to find news.
  • The email subject is your hook. Never say “new book” in your hook.
  • Paid news service promo agency stuff gets ignored. Do it yourself instead. Write a text email and attach a press release, if you have one. Do not bother sending books or promo kits. They will be thrown away.
  • Follow up. Don’t be a stalker, of course, but follow up two to three times by email. Call once if you need to.

You’ve reached the end! If you’re still here, I’m impressed. I learned a lot about the industry at #RT17. Not enough to justify the price tag, of course. In fact, that was maybe the most important business lesson: national conferences do not make financial sense if you have to pay your own way. I didn’t go to make money, though. I went to have fun, and I did. But I hope you’ve been more frugal and gotten your #RT17 value from this post. Next year, you can do the same for me.

Edited to add (6/15): Just when I poo-pooed the stock image above, I found someone who used another image from that series on a cover, and it looks pretty good! Goes to show you what a good cover designer can do. This is from Power by Sandra Marton.

The Craft Workshops of #RT17

The RT Booklovers Convention is an industry trade show more than writers’ convention. As a result, there are more bloggers, publicists, readers, and vendors than you’ll see at an average RWA event, which takes some focus off the craft of writing in favor of the business and marketing side of things. (And there’s lots of fangirling. See my previous post.) But RT does have craft workshops, even if these tend to be author discussion panels rather than instructional presentations. Learning happens! Let me prove it to you:

What's In A Name Piper Huguley Romantic Times Atlanta

Piper Huguley lead a solo workshop called “What’s in a Name?” in which she discussed onomastics, the linguistic field that studies the origins and history of personal names. She discussed considerations in naming your characters, but she went well beyond online tools—though she gave some of those, too, and I’ve added a few to my character tools site. But her sociological lessons captivated me most. For example, she talked about the history and derivation of gender crossover names. Did you know that Ashley, Beverly, Shirley, and Joyce were originally boys’ names? Many only crossed over to girls in the latter half of the twentieth century. Some are just crossing over now, like Mackenzie and Wyatt. Why? According to Huguley, names can be a symbolic armor or protection. If you have one child, and you want to give her the strongest chance at a successful life in a male-dominated society, you might give her a boys’ name. And there are “born to win” names, taken up by the African-American community when their children could not get the respect they deserved in white society. Earl, for example. Or Lloyd (for Lord). Or Piper’s relative, King Huguley. Or her character Champion Jack. Or Prince. “The Artist Formerly Known as Prince” was a legal name change forced by Prince’s dispute with Warner Bros music, but Prince itself was born that way. Prince’s father had the stage name Prince, and he gave it legally to his son—Prince Rogers Nelson—because “I wanted him to do everything I wanted to do.” Shivers, right?

Heroines You Can Have It All Alisha Rai HelenKay Dimon Sonali Dev Romantic Times Atlanta

Alisha Rai, HelenKay Dimon, and Sonali Dev led a workshop on “Heroines: You Can Have It All.” They brought up an issue that has always been prickly to me: the “TSTL” (“too stupid to live”) criticism. Readers can be hard on heroines, especially ones who make mistakes. Yet, as HelenKay pointed out, sometimes our characters have to make the wrong choices, especially if those errors fit the character or situation. The key is to allow your heroine to be strong in other ways. Alisha talked about this in terms of “competence porn,” à la My Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. In that wonderful show, Rebecca Bunch (Rachel Bloom) is an utter mess with relationships, but she is a bloody brilliant lawyer. Actually, she is a casually brilliant lawyer because it almost seems to take no effort. She’s just that good. She puts relatively little thought into her job until she needs to save the day, and then—whoosh, she’s stunning. When the show goes back to her personal life, though, she is still a freaking mess. She’s a relatable heroine, but still one we admire (most of the time). Sonali Dev talked about a different problem: turning the reader’s knee-jerk pity into a heroine’s weapon. Instead of making her heroine Mili a stereotypical child bride, she let Mili own it. Mili essentially says, “Okay, I’m a child bride—promised but not yet married. And instead of pouting about it right now, let me use that status to get educated and do what I want to do first.” This kind of nuance is really inspiring.

Bangin Hot Betas Karen Stivali Vanessa North Annabeth Albert Tamsen Parker Romantic Times Atlanta

Another great workshop was “Bangin’ Hot Betas” with Karen Stivali, Vanessa North, Annabeth Albert, and Tamsen Parker. They write hot, hot books—and they give good workshop, too. The big point was that beta does not mean boring. In fact, you can mine more complexity with a beta character but still get all the feels. The “let me teach him a thing or two in the bedroom” is pretty sexy, if you think about it. Betas can be more self-aware, more concerned for their partner’s needs, and more vulnerable. The authors acknowledged that pitching a beta hero is difficult, but their advice was to focus on what is awesome about the hero. Don’t highlight the beta bit—just write it that way. Like any book, get the tension and stakes high. Write it with the best dialogue and the hottest romance, and use those attributes to market the book. The reader may not even know why she loves the hero so much, but the point is that she does!

Historicals Welcome to Americana Beverly Jenkins Alyssa Cole Piper Huguley Joanna Shupe Kianna Alexander Kate McMurray Romantic Times Atlanta

I also loved the “Historicals: Welcome to Americana” workshop, but my notes were a little more sparse because I was too awestruck to really process everything that was being said. Why? Let me tell you the panel: Beverly Jenkins (our 2018 NECRWA Master Class presenter!), Alyssa Cole, Piper Huguley, Joanna Shupe, Kianna Alexander, and Kate McMurray. The latter two I have not read yet, but I plan to. They talked about all sorts of issues I care about, including the need to allow for a more representative slate of characters in more varied time settings, especially in American history. Ms. Bev said that a reader once told her that she couldn’t imagine an HEA between African-Americans in the nineteenth century. Ms. Bev rightly pointed out: “Even in the toughest times, people still love, still have birthday parties, still have picnics.” So true. While we all love our Regency historicals, we have to acknowledge that the real Regency period was one engulfed in war. We don’t get that in our costume dramas, which are significantly based upon Georgette Heyer’s description of the Regency rather than real history. For example, even Jane Austen spent much of her life not in the bucolic countryside—or even in Bath—but in Southampton, a “dock town filled with public drunkenness, street prostitution, and violence.” If you, like me, appreciate a little real history thrown into your entertainment, Camille Hadley Jones and I discuss this kind of thing in our new Facebook group, History Ever After. Come on by!

Smart Bitches Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party Sarah Wendell Romantic Times Atlanta

There were many great reader events, but one that really stood out was the Smart Bitches, Trashy Books Reader Recommendation Party. Here’s how it went: the Bitches gave a book recommendation each—with reasons—and then we readers got a chance. Sarah Wendell came around with her mic and briefly interviewed us on what we liked and why. Here’s the thing: Sarah is funny. Correction: Sarah is freaking hilarious. I imagine that doing a podcast for so long has sharpened her quick wit, but part of it is talent, plain and simple. What fun! Those who made recommendations got extra raffle tickets. (We had each started with one, if you were keeping score.) After a bunch of book recs, raffle prizes were awarded. Then rinse and repeat. I got to give one recommendation—just one, and it was so hard to choose! But I had to pimp #romanceclass, so I chose one that had both Manila and millennial feels, so I went to one of my favorites: Mina V. Esguerra’s Iris After the Incident. There was a lot of good book noise (“oooohhh”) when I described it, so I hope lots of people bought it! If you want to know more, read my review here.

These were just a few of the offerings in Atlanta. If I did not mention a panel or workshop, I probably just could not get to it. Despite all the awesomeness above, I actually spent most of my time at marketing or industry workshops, which will be the subject of my next post. Stay tuned!

RT Booklovers Convention 2017

The #RTRoadTrip

Jen Doyle and I were welcomed to the South by a frog with a pitchfork. (By the way, you can book this venue for your wedding, just in case you were wondering.) Our favorite ridiculous site was the Peachoid, a water tower that must have been engineered by Sir Mix a Lot.

Romantic Times Atlanta 2017 road trip by authors Jennifer Hallock and Jen Doyle


The People

There were so many people at #RT17. I met Lydia San Andres, my Edwardian Promenade co-blogger, for the first time, which was awesome. She was handing out authentic Dominican chocolate from Xocolat—not the only reason I love her, but a good one. I also saw Maita Rue, who flew all the way from the Philippines! I bought five decks of Talecraft cards off her, which will be the subject of a later post.

Authors Jennifer Hallock Lydia San Andres and Stephanie Kay at Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Atlanta 2017

I also fangirled all over Tiffany Reisz, Sonali Dev, and (of course!) Courtney Milan. I thanked Ms. Milan for her wonderful mention in Omnivoracious. I’m still blushing. All three authors were so, so nice. It was such a thrill.

Yet it is the readers who make #RT17 so incredible—and the scantily clad male cover models in the bars. Check out the two ladies with “When I think about books, I touch my shelf” t-shirts. Or the pair of librarians with their circulation card bags. Or the costume pajamas at Dreamspinner’s Cinema Craptastique. I love it all.

Wonderful crowds at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention in Atlanta in 2017


Swag

Wow, do people spend a lot of money on swag. Unfortunately, a lot of it ends up in the trash. It’s sad, but you collect so much over the course of the week that there’s no alternative. If you want to stand out from the crowd, swag-wise, you have to either give away books—see my amazing haul below, all but two of which were free—or give away an item that is both unique and useful. Next to Lydia’s chocolate, rubber duckies were my big winner. These will go to a friend who collects them.

Books swag neck wallets and rubber ducks from the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention 2017 in Atlanta

Oh yeah, and there were workshops. Learning happened! I will share some of the lessons I learned in my next post.


The way home

We passed the Peachoid again, and it looked no less obscene in the daytime. Really, what were they thinking?

The Peachoid of Gaffney South Carolina during the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention Road Trip 2017 to Atlanta

Tomorrow we will breakfast in Boonsboro at the inn owned by Nora Roberts before heading back to Boston. We hope everyone has safe travels home from #RT17!

Virginia is for Lovers sign at the welcome center on return from Romantic Times Booklovers Convention 2017 in Atlanta

Spring into Romance!

My wonderful trip to Manila may be over (sigh), but that doesn’t mean sabbatical is over. In fact, since I don’t start the day job until September, I still have half a year left. What will I do with all that time?

Character board for Sugar Moon upcoming book in the steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series set in the Philippines during the Gilded Age

  1. I am currently editing Sugar Moon, Ben Potter’s redemption story. What woman is strong enough to bring this man to heel? There’s only one. Allegra Alazas, Javier’s spitfire cousin. This story is a grittier and more suspenseful than the others. Interested? Look for a late 2017 release. (Then, yes, Sugar Communion is next. That’s Andrés’s story. He’s a tough one.)
  2. I also have some great reader and author events coming up. In addition to attending RT Booklovers Convention for the first time, I am helping to plan a smaller, more intimate conference right here in the Boston area. I am the assistant chair of the New England Chapter of RWA®’s Let Your Imagination Take Flight 2017 conference. In addition to all the amazing workshops, we have a big signing on the night of April 7th. Your favorite authors will be there, there will be over 20 baskets of books and goodies to win in our free raffle, and there’s a cash bar! See more details at the linked pages or in the banner at the top of this page.
  3. By the way, I will be donating another #MabuhayLove basket to the raffle. The books might be slightly different (I picked up new ones in Manila!), but the concept is the same: emotionally-satisfying, beautifully written global romance.
  4. Finally, I will be doing my research workshop one more time. It’s called The History Games: Using Real Events to Write the Best Fiction in Any Genre. The Hingham Public Library has invited me back to speak to their patrons on April 22nd at 1pm. As with all events I do for libraries, it is free! If you’re in the area, come check it out.

History Games research workshop in Hingham Massachusetts at the public library for authors and students studying history and writing fiction

Thank you all for helping make my sabbatical the best year ever! Another big thank you to all the authors and readers who welcomed me so warmly in Manila. It was thrilling to meet all my #romanceclass friends in person. You guys are truly the best.

And, in case you missed it, Tempting Hymn is out and has been getting some nice buzz on social media. Thank you to all those who have helped others find my books by leaving a review. I really do appreciate the time it takes to share your thoughts.

Tempting Hymn by Jennifer Hallock of steamy Sugar Sun historical romance series set in the Philippines in Gilded Age