Q&A: Mick Rooney, publishing consultant and author

Mick is an authority on both independent- and self-publishing, and a strong advocate for innovation across the entire industry. He is the owner of TIPM Media and offers personally tailored consultation services for authors and small publishers. Born in Ireland, Mick now lives in the Netherlands.

I’m aware that you think it’s important to promote a book before it’s published, rather than afterwards, which to me makes a lot of sense. Do you find a lot of writers fall into the trap of leaving it too late?

Unfortunately, yes. Writers understandably can get too wrapped up in the book production process, and I think it’s fair to say that many are not instinctive sellers and marketers of their work. Promotion remains one of the most critical elements of publication (and it can be the most expensive part), particularly when it comes to self-publishing. Promotion is about being proactive rather than reactive. You need to plan ahead, as far out as six months, because although the process of self-publishing allows a book to get to market easier and quicker, the book business and media outlets remain traditional and work slowly.

I think of it as being similar to planning for the birth of a child. You wouldn’t bring your new-born home from the hospital without having spent months considering the preparation, planning and support elements needed. That means connecting with potential readers, building interest and a fan base and creating a targeted database of contacts – which involves doing it both online and through your local community.

I would imagine that the problem is compounded for first-time writers, in that they don’t have previous books on the market and therefore a fan base upon which to build. In general terms, how can that be overcome?

The two biggest challenges for a writer are publishing a book of fiction and, obviously, doing it as a first-time author. That’s tough, really tough. I think it’s important to keep your expectations of success in check, whether on a personal or financial level. Even writers starting out with a serious career in mind rarely make the break for the first two or three books, even with the marketing might of a big five publisher behind them. Word of mouth and recommendations are still great ways to help sell books, whether in your local community or through reviews. I think we sometimes place too much of an emphasis on the internet and social media. An endorsement by another author, a group or someone influential in your field of expertise or genre can work wonders – sometimes far better than endless requests for reviews, or hundreds of ‘call-to-buy’ emails, social media messages and posts.

It’s true, without a doubt, that often one book by an author will help sell the next book he/she has written. A writer’s career is a marathon, not a sprint. Few writers achieve instant success and it can be a methodical but rewarding process. You must be creative about generating awareness and consider all aspects of what you can offer your audience, beyond just writing books. As creative writers, we have the ability to produce content in many relevant forms.

A writer’s fan base is the most important thing to have before a launch, and I would rather see a writer taking six to 12 months establishing a professional author website with regularly updated content (extracts of forthcoming books, free stuff etc) and a presence on writing and reading communities like Wattpad, Goodreads and WeBook. These are not just great places for building connections with reader fans, but are also excellent for helping writers develop their craft.

Another mistake first-time authors make is building a network of other writers instead of readers. I’ve generally found that most writers are very helpful, and I do think you can learn a great deal from them and avoid some pitfalls. But always remember: your network and contact database should be made up of readers or potential readers.

I have some promotional ideas for my novel, but only time will tell if they are effective. In your experience, does connecting with readers require marketing skills that most writers simply don’t possess?

I think making the connection with readers needs to be seen as more than just marketing. It goes far beyond selling a product. You are communicating ideas and experience to readers, rather than just filling their time. It’s about writing a great story or presenting information of value within a book. The best marketing ideas and budget in the world won’t turn a poor book into a good one.

Above all, writers are communicators. That’s meant to be our primary skill, and good marketing comes down to presenting your message clearly and concisely to the right people. It’s not exactly quantum mechanics, but it does require every writer to reach out – something that, in a romantic sense, they are not always renowned for doing well. Marketing is a tool of communication and you need to know how best to use that tool.

I think there are some ‘101 basics’ for writers when it comes to marketing, the most fundamental aspect of which is knowing your audience. Not everyone is a potential reader for you –people like different themes and subject matter. Think of it as attending a party with many people you have never met before. They are not all going to become your friends, and the ones who do will inevitably have similar interests and opinions to you.

Ultimately, you must be honest with yourself as a writer. If you self-publish you are also your publisher, and that includes taking on many aspects of marketing. If it really isn’t your thing, then just like any other areas of book publishing – such as design, layout and editing – you need to contract the services of a professional.

Having heard so many people say that without an online presence a writer might as well publish their book in a very deep, dark cave, I recently opened a Twitter account. While I do find it to be a great source of information and insight, I am still disinclined to air my everyday thoughts. How much trouble am I in?

Most books sold today are still marketed and sold through traditional channels and methods. I’ve always considered social media, and having an online presence, as being complementary to traditional marketing, not a replacement for it. I don’t feel writers should force themselves to create an online presence or use social media if they are not comfortable with it. Social media can and often does chew into a great deal of writing time, and it’s important to find the right balance. That said, social media marketing is far more accessible and affordable than traditional methods of marketing.

Readers today are no different than readers decades ago – they always have an innate curiosity about the author of a book they’ve just read. Social media is just one way an author can reach and communicate with readers more easily.

???????????????????????????????One of the lures of self-publishing is that we can put our work on the market quickly, whereas I’ve heard tales of writers being accepted by an agent, then a publishing house, only to wait many, many months to finally be told, ‘Actually, such and such a department isn’t sure about the viability of your work’. Is this an area where traditional publishers should perhaps try to up their game, in the same way that self-publishing writers should not put out badly edited books?

There are a lot of things traditional publishing needs to be doing, and drastically reducing a book’s publishing timeline from submission to publication is certainly one. What’s big and popular in the market now may not be so hot in 12-18 months’ time for a publisher. I’ve always felt that the ‘publishing industry machine’ needs to spend more time creating literary movements, trends and ideas, rather than simply reacting to what is currently in vogue. The old, traditional mechanism simply isn’t good at that, and some of the statistics about the number of books by big publishing houses that are remaindered and pulped, year on year, is both sad and frightening. It’s as if the book industry has been built like a precarious house of cards.

Publishers, big and small, get it in the neck quite a bit, but the obvious emergence of technology in the print world (print on demand, digital short run, the Espresso Book Machine) have changed much of the publishing landscape. Publishers are trying to quickly adapt, but it’s hard for them to watch new players such as Amazon and Apple step in, steal their thunder, diversify and develop into publishers and distributors with vertical business strategies – and without some of the age-old trappings of risk investment. Just like self-publishers, it’s easy to play catch-up, learn quickly from the mistakes of others, and embrace developments.

The biggest change in the industry, frankly, is defining what a publisher is now. Is it an author self-publishing – on their own or supported by a publishing service company? Is it a literary agent publishing e-books directly for their author clients? Is it authors like J. K. Rowling and Hugh Howey taking more control of their publishing output? Is it retailers becoming publishing platforms? The truth is, it’s all those things and more.

We are seeing a great deal of shrinkage in the publishing world now. Random House has recently merged with Penguin, and I don’t think we have seen the last of such activity. Publishers are learning that they are now promoters and producers of content in all its forms – paper, digital, audio and video – and I think we will see a great deal more media tie-ins from the wider entertainment industry, including gaming and films.

But whether you independently produce that content as an author or publisher, quality not gatekeeping should always be the overriding mark of creation. Publishers are learning that they need to be more than just publishers to survive. Authors are learning to be publishers. And, significantly, readers are learning that sometimes in this new-world publishing order, they will also have to assume the role of both gatekeeper and editor-in-chief of what they consume through any medium.

Do you find that a lot of writers leap at the chance to do everything themselves in order to keep costs down, without realising how time-consuming the process can be, not to mention the level of skill needed for elements such as editing and cover design?

I find that writers greatly underestimate the time it takes up, and I would advise them to choose the level of self-publishing support they feel is needed. They should only take on aspects of publishing if their skill set can bring something extra to the book. I think every writer can add value somewhere along the publishing path, beyond simply the book’s creation. The trick is understanding where their limits lie. That might be conceding that they just don’t have the skills or software to design a professional cover, or do the file formatting for the printer, or that they need to contract someone for the marketing side.

Self-publishing services and platforms such as CreateSpace, Lulu and Smashwords, or working directly with Ingram’s Lightning Source, are only as good as the skill level you bring to the table. It’s cheap because you often have to deliver (upload) a print-ready file or use basic and limiting online creation tools.

Finally, I always like to ask: best book you’ve read recently?

I’m fortunate in my line of work that I get to read some books before their publication dates. I’ve just finished reading and reviewing Mark Levine’s excellent The Fine Print of Self-Publishing, fifth edition (Bascom Hill), and I’m in the middle of Patrick Boland’s wonderfully entertaining and poignant Tales From A City Farmyard (self-published). Both are due to be published in e-book and print in early 2014.

Many thanks to Mick for taking time out from his busy schedule to answer my questions so comprehensively. TIPM offers a wealth of information, and to say it’s worth checking out would be an understatement. For more information visit www.theindependentpublishingmagazine.com or www.mick-rooney.com

 

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