This time last week, I was on the train to London to attend the 20Books London writers’ conference. The event was a great success for me personally, and I heard nothing but praise from the other writers there. Since a lot of busy people gave up a great deal of their time to make this possible, I thought the least I could do is write up my experiences, and maybe persuade someone who would get a great deal out of these conferences to attend a future event. I want to thank the many people who made this event possible and such a great success, and in particular Craig Martelle for organizing and wearing the loudest shirts, and Michael Anderle for many reasons)
The event took place over the weekend at the Runnymede-on-Thames hotel (which was an excellent venue) and was billed at an education and networking event for (IIRC) 170 attendees. The conference sold out. I’ve mentioned the 20Booksto50K Facebook group recently here, and you can get details of speakers and timetable at the event website here: http://20bookslondon.com/ .
If you spend a lot of time with online groups of writer-publishers, you will have encountered most of the ideas explained by the guest speakers before, at least in outline. However, I can honestly tell you that every speaker introduced me to something that was both valuable and new to me, and that I can and will introduce into my writing business. Topics included keeping mental and physical health, advertising good practices, retailers beyond Amazon, how to engage readers at an emotional level, combining cover art and book descriptions to grab reader interest, professional networking, and many other topics besides (the list of topics is here). At one point, I found myself scribbling frantically through 8 pages of my notebook when a passing comment made by one of the speakers triggered a complete rethink of my new series launch later in 2018 (thanks AL Knorr (Abby)).
Then in the breakout sessions, meals, and evening drinks there were plenty more discussions on potentially any and every aspect of writing and publishing. For example, one topic raised over beers was the return on investment for advertising English language books in Germany. Is it a good idea? The answer is… it depends. But that’s where this works so well, because several people had actively marketed in Germany, and those who hadn’t knew the right questions to ask to relate the experiences of other writers to their own context. And that’s what the 20Books attitude is all about: thinking of ways to hack publishing to make it work for you; hacking the way you write and work to increase the chances of achieving the success that you define on your own terms.
Personally, I found it very helpful to critically examine so many perspectives of my craft and my business in a single concentrated weekend. That whole-picture perspective was even more useful than I expected, and has helped me to prioritize changes to the way I work, which will make themselves felt when I move to my next book series in a few weeks.
As writers, we often look for the telling details that allow us to imply with a few carefully chosen words a great deal of depth to our imaginary worlds and their inhabitants. So, rather than list everything that happened in detail, I’m going to give you a telling detail that, to me, summarized the event, the people, and what the 20Books movement means to me.
A couple of writers mentioned that they had succeeded in making small changes to an existing book in a series that had led to a big increase in readthrough rates. One added an epilogue; the other added a few sentences to deepen the emotional engagement with a secondary character, who was an unexpectedly great hit with readers judging from their online reviews.
Just a single paragraph. Doesn’t sound much, does it? But I think the attitude behind that advice is something that the kind of writer who gets the 20Books idea will find natural, but I don’t think comes so easily to everyone in this business.
So let’s unpack that paragraph a little.
First off, readthrough rate for a title in a series is simply the proportion of readers who go on to read the next book. It’s true that it is partially a measure of your success in putting your product in front of the readers who will enjoy it, but assuming your marketing is largely consistent, it is also a very good measure of product quality.
When you take your artist’s hat off, and your business one on, your books are products, just the same as chocolate bars, phones, and guitar amplifiers. In my own neck of the publishing woods – science fiction – there are currently about 150,000 science fiction books available on the Amazon Kindle store. Every one is a substitute product for mine. Why on Earth would anyone buy another book from an author if their previous ones were poor quality? Well, maybe they could earn a second chance if they had written a great book the reader enjoyed previously, but that’s it. You simply cannot succeed as a professional author if you churn out mediocre books, because consumers will desert you.
You can attract consumers through effective packaging and marketing, but once you’ve got them reading your book, the only way you can compete with all the other authors is through quality. That consumer on that day must feel that they are enjoying a quality reading experience. All the comments from critics, and reviewers in magazines and newspapers, comments made at convention panels, Goodreads reviews and all the rest is utterly irrelevant by that point. Does that reader on that day think your book is good enough to pay more to read another one of your books? That’s the only quality assessment that determines whether or not you can earn a living through the sales of your books.
In every other business where consumers can switch with frictionless ease between product suppliers, successful producers try very hard to measure customer perception of product quality. Publishing is no different; not anymore. And for those authors who choose to write in series, readthrough rates are a gold standard in quality metrics.
So here’s what those two authors did, expressed in non-writerly business language.
- They measured customer perception of product quality (readthrough rate).
- They made incremental changes to an existing product in order to improve quality (in both cases, by increasing reader engagement).
- They remeasured their quality metric to see the effect.
- Good or bad, they fed anything they learned into improving the quality of their other products, including those not yet built.
Now, I have to admit that my background is with quality management, so all this talk of quality metrics and the like is as natural as breathing to me. But strip out the business jargon, and this is really just common sense. Succeeding in business is hard, but success usually comes from a flexible attitude rooted in the bedrock of common sense.
Being a career novelist is a business too, and succeeding commercially is hard, just as with any other business. In some ways, to succeed in the US and UK markets today is even harder than a decade ago, because there are so many new authors attracted by the money that flows to authors so much more readily these days, and some of those authors are very smart at the business side too.
But there are still people new to writing and new to publishing who are succeeding at this today, as measured by their own idea of success. And there are people like me who have been around a lot longer but are upping their game (I was surprised how many writers at the conference regarded me as a veteran novelist – I hadn’t thought of myself that way). And the key to doing this is networking with your peers, and keeping abreast with the smorgasbord of techniques and good practice that professional writer-publishers are so generous at sharing. None of that is prescriptive. 20Books to 50K has never been about writing 20 books to earn $50k, it’s about having that flexible approach rooted in common sense, and using it to take advantage of both your network, and the techniques you learn or develop yourself, to hack publishing so you can succeed on the terms you desire.
There are no guarantees of success in this business, but nor is success down to random chance. Most authors who are succeeding today have engineered their own luck. And a perfect example of how to do that is to attend a writers’ conference such as 20Books London, where not everyone has published their first novel, but everyone has the attitude of a professional.
There’s another conference in Las Vegas November 2018, and one in Bali early in 2019. There may be more to come in Europe too. I recommend them to all professional authors. Fiction or non-fiction. Tradpub, Newpub, or SelfPub. Fifty books into your career, or gearing up for your debut release. It is well worth your time.
Crikey! I feel like I should be on commission! But that would be highly inappropriate, and I’ll leave you with the reason why. The speaker and organizers were volunteers, and the modest ticket price was meant to cover costs of putting on the event and no more. As it turned out, the costs were not as high as budgeted for in the ticket price, and so attendees are being refunded the difference. Perhaps that’s another telling detail.
Start reading Hill 435 today.
In the brutality of the Human Marine Corps, there had been no room for Marines who grew old; you served the alien masters until your usefulness ended, and then you were ended too. But then Marines rebelled to form the Human Legion and fight the War of Liberation. What now for Marines at the end of their career?
Tim C. Taylor is a British author of popular science fiction who quit the day job in 2011. For a free starter library of ‘Hill 435’ and other exclusive stories, which make great jumping off points into his multiple book series, join the Legionaries by following THIS LINK.