Two attendees report back on their experience at this year’s WriteCon in Zürich.
Writing to Win with David Penny
What makes a book sell (Fiction Workshop)
It’s nine in the morning, there are about a dozen of us in a room upstairs at the Volkshaus, and we’re all pumped full of enthusiasm and coffee. We’re about to discuss the dark night of the soul, the pitfalls of piracy and how to craft efficient Facebook ads.
David Penny, our instructor, is the author of several science-fiction novels, traditionally published, and of self-(indie-)published historical mysteries set in the last days of Moorish Spain: the Thomas Berrington series. He began self-publishing them two years ago and is now making enough to live off the sales. Judicious marketing choices helped him increase his income exponentially. He is an apt speaker for today’s workshop, Writing to Win: What Makes a Book Sell.
A quick round of the table established that most of us had already self-published or considered self-publishing, with only a couple of authors having chosen the traditional route. David gave us a questionnaire to fill in for our own use only; the goal was to return to it a year later and measure our progress.
The schedule promised more emphasis on marketing than storytelling techniques. Still, the first part was dedicated to writing the best book we could. With the ease of self-publishing, cutting corners might seem tempting, but it would be wrong for obvious reasons (good old-fashioned dedication to the craft and respect for readers, among others). On the other hand, writers shouldn’t let perfectionism ruin their work. The goal is not to write a perfect book, but one that’s good enough.
For this, David stressed the importance of story. A compelling story, he argued, is what readers want. One of our first exercises consisted in breaking down our work-in-progress or more recent production according to a ‘beat sheet’ derived from Blake Snyder’s famous Save the Cat model for screenwriting. Major ‘beats’ include the Inciting Incident, the Dark Night of the Soul and the Break into Three.
We crossed the bridge from narrative technique to self-promotion by summarizing the same work into one word—a word that had to have ‘power’. We moved on to summing it up in a short sentence that could serve both as a tagline for ads and an elevator pitch, something that requires knowing your story inside out and can often only be managed once it’s been completed.
At that point, David walked us through the process of setting up an ad on Amazon. He also seized the opportunity to show us his Amazon author dashboard, explaining the meaning of Amazon acronyms and which percentages indicated a good return on investment.
This was the occasion to discuss two different self-publishing strategies: going wide—opting to be distributed by several distributors—or going exclusive. The holy grail of book promotion, BookBub, seems to prefer authors that are widely distributed, but David has had one run on their list even though he’s exclusively on Amazon. While this wasn’t his initial choice, he realized that he made most of his sales through Amazon. Opting for their exclusive program, KDP Select, led to an increase in his sales that more than made up for the lack of distribution. Some authors choose to opt out of exclusivity for ethical reasons.
Ethics remain a major point for authors—write the best book you can, don’t hammer your followers with ‘buy my books’ or other similar messages on social media—but what happens when readers themselves aren’t ethical and your book is pirated and offered for free online?
David argued that readers who download a pirated copy of your book aren’t lost readers because they weren’t going to pay for it anyway. If you’re obscure, nobody will pirate your work, and that is what you should actually fear more than having illegal copies of your books crop up for free. It is strongly recommended not to visit pirated books’ websites because they tend to be infested with all kinds of viruses that could damage your computer. And the pirated copies will still be around.
Another point of ethics: when someone leaves a bad review of your book, don’t reply or argue with them. Some of these reviews are not to be taken seriously anyway (David had American reviewers complain about his British spelling) and it would only make you look bad, or drive you to insanity, or both.
Instead, authors would do better focusing on getting their book out there to readers who’d enjoy it. David showed us the process of setting up Facebook ads, picking the most relevant criteria and coming up with appealing visuals. Contrary to what one might believe, having the widest audience possible for your ad might be counterproductive. Targeting the most specific segment(s) possible might yield the best results.
The pros and cons of going indie or the traditional route were also discussed. While traditional publishing might offer more opportunities to be invited to panels at book fairs and salons, and get better distribution at (physical) bookstores, self-publishing allows for more freedom overall and a higher royalty rate. The traditional route may grant access to a community of writers, but there is also a vibrant community in self-publishing.
The workshop was packed with information. I took an extensive amount of notes and David later made his slides available for download. I know I will need some time to fully comprehend and absorb the day’s lessons and materials.
The main takeaway for me was that marketing doesn’t mean being self-involved and obnoxious, but letting people know about your work and building up a rapport with readers. In today’s context, indie and traditional authors alike are expected to know about marketing because it is, or has become, their responsibility.
Sabine writes fantasy and romance in English and in French. Her work has appeared in Plays, the Winning Writers website, and in French anthologies published by Malpertuis. She lives in the canton of Zürich with her husband and daughter.
From big idea to bestseller with Diccon Bewes
Travel writing, non-fiction and the publishing landscape
Travel writing seems like the ideal gig. You get to visit cool places, stay in fancy hotels, check out the culture, then write it up and get paid. In a similar vein, for expat writers, myself included, the idea of bashing out a travel-writing-style book about your adopted country seems a natural fit. Chuck in a bit of local colour, quirky traditions and amusing anecdotes for good measure, and it’s a quick win, right?
News flash: there are no quick wins. There are no shortcuts. This is an industry where it may take up to 12 months for your book to appear on shelves post-completion. Writing and research can stretch over years. And, almost before you even begin, you should be trying to hook both an agent and publisher to greenlight your Big Idea.
Who better to explain this than Diccon Bewes, author of the 2010 bestseller Swiss Watching: Inside the Land of Milk and Money, which he followed with four other successful, Swiss-themed non-fiction titles. Diccon has also worked as a travel writer and book seller, so he knows his onions. At this year’s Zürich WriteCon, a group of 10 potential travel/location/whatever authors gathered to glean some of his specialist knowledge of the sector. So what’s the magic formula for a travel-based non-fiction bestseller? Diccon’s advice:
“Don’t jump on a bandwagon. Start the bandwagon.”
Diccon is approachable, informative and an enjoyable speaker. He is also extremely candid about How. Much. Work. is involved in producing a book such as Swiss Watching (around two years from pitch to publish) versus How. Little. Money. you will probably make (don’t give up your day job and/or it helps if you have someone willing to pay the mortgage).
The workshop covered a lot of ground. He started with the five Ws—questions you need to answer about your big idea before you get stuck into writing it. I found this very useful as, unlike with fiction, non-fiction books are generally pitched and sold before they’re written. This need for clarity of purpose, which ideally should lead to clarity in your writing, was an important lesson of the day.
There were writing exercises on conveying a sense of place, describing people, capturing experiences and using all the senses in your travel writing (and beyond). This included an excursion to a local flea market, which we wrote up afterwards. A nice exercise in travel-immersion reportage.
Diccon talked us through the many steps to getting a non-fiction book published, from the query letter and book proposal, to a rundown of how the industry operates, agent fees, royalties and bookshop placement. He touched on author profiles and outlined the differences between the Swiss non-fiction market and that of the Anglophone world (non-fiction writers in Switzerland don’t tend to use agents). It was a lot of valuable information in a short time, but Diccon’s explanations were clear and backed up with excellent real-life examples (we even got to see a chunk of his original book proposal for Swiss Watching).
It was the second WriteCon in Zürich I’ve been to and at both I’ve been impressed by the sheer amount of information that can be ‘downloaded’ in one day, providing food for thought long afterwards. Another perk of these events is meeting the other participants, who are a mix of native and non-native English speakers, women and men, and with various levels of writing and publishing experience. One of my fellow workshop attendees, Innes Welbourne, says:
“The event was a high point on my calendar. Both the speaker, Diccon Bewes, and attendees were interesting and interested. The frank participation of all involved, especially Diccon, made for a really practical and motivational talk. I feel like I have a direction now.”
Claire Doble is an Australian-born writer, poet and off-duty goth who lives in Zürich, Switzerland. Read more of her work at: clairevetica.