Goodreads Blog

Marketing Advice from Scott Hawkins

Posted by Cynthia on May 27, 2016
Calling The Library at Mount Char Scott Hawkins’ first book is technically not accurate–his Goodreads Author profile shows several computer reference books he wrote before then. However, the overwhelming majority of the 7,000 ratings and 1,200 reviews he’s received are on his debut novel, which is was originally published in 2015, received a Goodreads Choice Award nod, and is now out in paperback. We asked Scott a few questions about how he’s navigated Goodreads so successfully. Here’s what he said:

How has Goodreads played a role in your overall promotion campaign?

As a debut novelist, the biggest challenge is getting people to notice the book in the first place. To that end, [my publisher and I] used banner ads targeted at fans of authors working in the same space—Neil Gaiman, Joe Hill and so forth. That has generated a good bit of awareness. I’ve had in-real-life friends tell me they saw the ad, which is encouraging.

I personally focus on connecting with readers. I get quite a few questions and messages, which is great. Writing the book was my main hobby for a couple of years, so I love talking about it with other people.

What’s your approach to responding to reader questions via Ask the Author?

Overall it’s pretty casual. Honestly, I’m always thrilled that there are questions, so I tend to gush. I’ve also found that I tend to clinch up if I think in terms of a zillion people reading, so I make an effort to respond if I were talking to whoever asked one-on-one. For me that makes it easier.

Sometimes the Q&A turns into conversation and spills over into comments—the other day a guy asked me something and we ended up getting into a back and forth on Joseph Campbell. A couple months back a lady in South Africa confirmed that a little Afrikaans quote from the book did, in fact, say what I hoped it said. I’ve also made a couple of goodreads buddies that way.

In practical terms, I check for questions every couple of days, usually at the end of the day. I’ll answer anything new that’s come in the next morning as I’m having coffee. I try not to let stuff sit.


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What’s your favorite thing about Goodreads?

In terms of fun, I like the updates screen. I’ve buddied up with a couple dozen people. Some of them read a lot. If they liked my book, our tastes tend to overlap at least a little bit, so I’ve found a lot of good stuff just by looking at what they liked.

On the professional side, reading the reviews has also been hugely helpful. A minority seemed to love my book without reservation, which is of course fun, but a lot of the people who liked it seemed to have the same general concerns—“a little confusing in the early stages” is something I see mentioned a lot. I’m trying to be mindful of that while I work on the follow up. That sort of thing is an absolute gold mine in terms of feedback.

Last but not least, quite a few of the people who straight-up hated it wrote about why they hated it at length, using thoughtful and well-supported arguments. Often they were quite convincing. I have a tear-stained notebook where I keep the best ones.

How do you encourage reviews of your book on Goodreads?

I have the widgets installed on my blog and on my Facebook page, and I have WordPress set up so that it publishes automatically to Goodreads.

What’s one exciting, possibly hidden feature you’ve discovered on Goodreads?

The author dashboard has a feature called "Work Stats." It gives you a listing of how many readers added your book(s), by date. That can give you insight into the impact your promotional work is having.

What are you working on right now?

Right now I’m working on a new fantasy/mystery set in the modern world:

Jackie Hadder is a middle-aged murderer working as a fry cook. One day the pretzel billionaire Bob Thackeray approaches her with a job offer. Bob thinks Jackie’s experience as a fugitive might be useful in investigating an old school shooting, and he pays very well.

The shooter was never caught. Now, ten years later, his formerly unremarkable hostages seem to be up to something. Megan Hodges just set off a nuclear bomb in Antarctica. Beth Portier is running a bond trading operation out of a Chicago office staffed mostly by anacondas. Mark Lambert, who rarely leaves the basement of his Boston home, seems to be secretly in charge of the Russian Navy.

They seem like the sorts of people who might have an evil plan, but what is it, exactly? And why are they so interested in Jackie? And whose side is she on?

For any authors interested in follow up questions to this interview, Scott will respond in the comments section below on Monday, June 13, at 4 p.m. EST/1 p.m. PST (and to anyone who comes across this post throughout the week).

Also, be sure to check out the great Ask the Author answers Scott provides for his readers here and be sure to follow him to be inspired by his ongoing great activity.


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Comments Showing 1-16 of 16 (16 new)

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message 1: by Cynthia (last edited Jun 13, 2016 11:02AM) (new)

Cynthia Shannon Scott will be answering questions in the comment section here today, June 13, at 4 p.m. EST. Leave him a note or friendly comment to discuss debut author marketing success!


message 2: by Michael Ben (new)

Michael Ben Silva III Hey Scott, I listened to and loved the audiobook version of The Library at Mount Char -- so well done for whatever input (beyond the story) you had there!

Your setting and characters have such a giant scope; occasionally the world would seem bigger through surreal tricky references to a great big Something, like Q-33 North, but mostly the story is simply Big.

My question is, how did you manage to keep it straight in your head over the course of years? Once I get beyond writing something the length of a short story, I lose track of the characters and pacing in my head, and at best I end up with this disjointed jumble of scenes. Notes tend to fail me, but it's possible I'm not taking notes correctly. What worked for you?


message 3: by Stoyan (new)

Stoyan Velikov Congratulations on the book Scott,

I plan to read it after my girlfriend finishes it. I am a big fan of fantasy and sci-fi and the hunger for quality in the genre is worldwide. I am currently reading Malazan book of the Fallen (Reaper's Gale) and plan to start Metro 2035. Thank you in advance for the time that you share with us. I have a couple of questions:
1. Do you believe that a good book can get exposure without heavy marketing?
2. How much should a new author be willing to spare to promote his book and where?
3. This is actually my main question, that consist of a few smaller ones, but I decided to respect the topic. What is your approach to technical writing and are there any tips you can share? How much of your writing is on instincts and how much is a calculated effort? Did you receive any special writing education to hone your skills or read some book that inspired you?

Best Regards,


message 4: by Michael Ben (new)

Michael Ben Silva III Michael Ben wrote: "Hey Scott, I listened to and loved the audiobook version of The Library at Mount Char -- so well done for whatever input (beyond the story) you had there!

Your setting and characters have such a g..."


Just saw another post and realized I hadn't asked about marketing. I certainly hope this isn't disrespecting the topic! Thank you in any case for your time.


message 5: by Scott (new)

Scott Hawkins Michael Ben wrote: "Hey Scott, I listened to and loved the audiobook version of The Library at Mount Char -- so well done for whatever input (beyond the story) you had there!

Thanks! The audio book was pretty much all on the narrator (Hillary Huber). I absolutely LOVED what she did. I've been a big fan of audio books for years (Atlanta is a bad place to commute), so I was really tickled when Mount Char got picked up for audio, and doubly so when I heard the final product. I wish I could claim credit for the way it turned out, but it was pretty much all her. She and I talked a little bit about accents, and I gave her a guide for how to pronounce the made-up words. The rest was on her, and she was spooky good.

My question is, how did you manage to keep it straight in your head over the course of years? Once I get beyond writing something the length of a short story, I lose track of the characters and pacing in my head, and at best I end up with this disjointed jumble of scenes.

With Mount Char it was mostly old-school. I always keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas. Toward the end I was using a spreadsheet to keep track of word count, what character was in what scene, to-do lists per scene--stuff like that.

I also had about a two page checklist that I ran through for each scene--stuff like 1) make sure there's a detail or two for setting 2) how is this scene advancing character? 3) are the characters speaking in a consistent voice... and about thirty other things. Basically it was a collection of all the stuff I learned in writing workshops over the years. When I had a decent-ish draft I ran through and did a fine-tuning based on that.

But a lot of it was just repetition--working on that book was pretty much 100% of my free time for about a year, so towards the end I pretty much had it all in my head. "If I change X in chapter 7, I need to go back and rewrite line Y in chapter 3."

For the latest one, I've started working with the program Scrivener. It's pretty neat, and cheapish--maybe $20? There's a free trial too, IIRC. It's designed for creative writers. I'm still learning it, but there's a lot of features you don't get in MS-Word -- stuff like color-coding scenes by characters and custom metadata fields. You can add to-do lists to your scenes. It will do a lot of stuff for you that I was doing via spreadsheet.

I lose track of the characters and pacing in my head, and at best I end up with this disjointed jumble of scenes.

Transitions are tough for me too. I can't remember whether it was Walter Jon Williams or Nancy Kress who told me this, but I found it hugely helpful: anchor each scene in time and place, ideally in the first couple of sentence of the scene. When I started being super-rigorous about that it made a biiiig difference in readability.

BTW, when I say "scene" as it applies to Mount Char, it's everything with a roman numeral. I like the formalism of numbered scenes both for note-taking (e.g. "2.i needs more blood") and because it facilitates shifting from one POV to another within a chapter. That's a risky thing to do, but occasionally handy.

Just saw another post and realized I hadn't asked about marketing. I certainly hope this isn't disrespecting the topic!

I'm okay with it if you are--I like talking shop with writers. My wife pretends to kill herself when I do it to her.


message 6: by Joyce (new)

Joyce Brown What percentage of your advertising was paid? Was the paid promotion more successful than the free promotion?


message 7: by Scott (last edited Jun 13, 2016 01:53PM) (new)

Scott Hawkins 1. Do you believe that a good book can get exposure without heavy marketing?

The answer to this one is an unambiguous "yes."

Some of the biggest publishing successes of recent decades have started out as self-published books with modest or even non-existent marketing budgets: For instance, The Martian. was originally a series of blog posts, later expanded to a novel length manuscript and self-published. An astute editor (he's actually my editor too, but he & I never talked about this that I recall) was combing through the self-pub stats on amazon.com and saw one book that was moving a lot of copies.

Similarly, 50 Shades of Grey started life as self-published fan-fiction, as (I think) did Eragon. Having a popular social media presence--blog, twitter, whatever--will take you a long way toward getting your book noticed.

2. How much should a new author be willing to spare to promote his book and where?

That's a tough question. It's possible to spend tens of millions of dollars on marketing and still not get the result you want--just look at some of this summer's movies. But at the same time, you have to do something. I would say "don't go into debt, but spend all you can afford."

To whatever degree that you have a budget, I would suggest you spend it on targeted advertising--banner ads in particular seem like good bang for the buck. That's "targeted advertising" as opposed to, say, a 1/4 page ad in a general-interest newspaper / magazine. (Which are surprisingly affordable.)

Nobody asked me to say this, but I do in fact think that goodreads probably is one of the best places you can advertise. You pretty much know that anyone who sees an ad here is a big reader, and you can target your ads to titles that are comparable to your book. I promise no one paid me to say that nor asked me to say that.

Book bloggers are another group I'd talk to. These guys read a lot. They can reach a lot of people, and it doesn't cost much to send a review copy.

3. This is actually my main question, that consist of a few smaller ones, but I decided to respect the topic. What is your approach to technical writing and are there any tips you can share?

My technical writing is pretty much specific to computer topics, and for those there happens to be an easy answer: test EVERYTHING.

When I was doing the Linux / Apache / shell scripting books my approach was this:
1. First, create a list of things that I thought a user might want to do. For instance, with the Apache book, I started by setting up a really simple web server and then made it progressively more intricate. (Set up virtual hosting, add SSL, add PHP, do some mod_rewrite stuff)...
2. Actually do the stuff from step 1.
3. Type up exactly what you did in step 2 as you are doing it. I found that if I waited even a couple of hours, I invariably forgot something. Basically, copy / paste the commands you used and, in some cases, the output. Write your explanations around that.

The computer books were essentially just the notes I kept for myself as a systems administrator, expanded and neatly formatted.
Also: be as clear and specific as possible. Use short declarative sentences. Test EVERYTHING.

Let me emphasize that technical writing bears almost no resemblance to writing fiction. I find them to be qualitatively different for a lot of reasons, not least because writing fiction is fun and technical writing is not. To me, writing a computer book is like writing twenty or thirty term papers in a row.

How much of your writing is on instincts and how much is a calculated effort?

Hmm. Good question. I think a lot of the sentence-level stuff is a conditioned reflex at this point. I just know when a sentence doesn't sound right to me. I pretty much don't stop revising until I can read a book from end to end without my eye catching on something. But for the most part I don't really think about why a particular passage doesn't sound right. As a for-instance, I try not to use the word "and" any more than absolutely necessary. I had to have picked that up somewhere, but I couldn't tell you where. (The reason for this is that I think a series of short sentences is usually stronger than a single longer sentence.)

I bet most writers are the same way. That might be an interesting experiment: give Writer A a first draft of a paragraph of Writer B's work. Have Writer A do four or five revisions. I bet that at the end the passage would sound more like Writer A than Writer B, even if the passage still conveyed the same information.

The stuff I have to think about is mostly at the chapter and larger levels. So, like, I consciously worry about where the tension in a scene is coming from. Is it action? Is it banter? Is a character agonized over some internal struggle? Much too often I find that my first drafts lack tension. That's where most of the conscious planning goes in, at least for me--how do I make a scene not be dull?

Did you receive any special writing education to hone your skills or read some book that inspired you?

Yes and no. My degree is in computer science. I minored in technical writing, which sort of counts, but I only had to take three courses (IIRC). So there was a little bit of formal education.

I've done a lot of writing workshops over the years. Taos Toolbox was the most recent one. If you write fantasy and SF, I'd highly recommend it. I hear good things about Clarion, but I never attended. I liked Viable Paradise as well.

I have a lot of internet buddies that I swap manuscripts with--that's almost a necessity, I think. You need people who are not your family to be blunt about what is not working in your manuscript, or you will not get better.

I make a point of reading every writing book I can get my hands on (time permitting). I have not read even a single one that didn't have something that made it worth my time, but my three favorites are:

1. Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
2. The Art of Fiction by John Gardner
3. Self-Editing for Fiction Writers.

I think it's also a good idea to read literary agent blogs--that will tell you a lot about how the industry works.

Pardon the wall-o-text. Hope that helps!

Scott



message 8: by Scott (new)

Scott Hawkins Joyce wrote: "What percentage of your advertising was paid? Was the paid promotion more successful than the free promotion?"

Hi Joyce

That's a tough question to answer, unfortunately. Some of the paid promotion came from my publisher--I don't have those numbers, and I probably shouldn't post them publicly even if I did. As to what helped the most, I would tell you if I could, but I can't say with any confidence. There was a lot going on all at once, and I'm not aware of a good way to sort out what caused what.

For instance, when the paperback launched we simultaneously got a lot of new reviews from bloggers, a lot of new reviews from the contests on goodreads, some paid advertising (all banner ads), and a lot of guest articles that I wrote for "free." I'm putting "free" in quotes because it was literally all that I did for weeks--no other work of any kind. (Surely that must count as some sort of cost? ;-)

At the end of all this, sales spiked. As to what percentage of that spike came from each action, I just don't know. I know that's not very helpful, sorry.

I have read a couple of books on marketing, but I'm not an expert. My understanding is that one-time ads, even if highly visible, tend to be quickly forgotten. So, like, a big one-pager in USA Today, while expensive and highly visible to readers who buy a paper that day, may not achieve much in the way of results. I mention this because I've seen people spend a lot of money on one-time ads--like five figures--without much result.

Some other ideas:

* Give away review copies freely to any reviewer who asks. Turn down no one.
* Have goodreads giveaways for general readers as well. In the early stages, the point is to build awareness and momentum, not sales.
* Make yourself available to do guest articles / blog tours.
* Allocate your advertising dollars to highly targeted markets via banner ads or some other data-driven platform. (For instance, I might hang an ad off all the google or goodreads searches for "Neil Gaiman")

There's also one ironclad "don't":

* The rule is to never engage with reviewers, but extra-specially NEVER engage with people who wrote negative reviews. Once or twice I've hit the "Like" button if the negative review made painfully good points, but even that was probably a bad idea. You're not going to be able to argue someone into liking your book, and I've seen at least one case where somebody committed career suicide by trying.

Last but not least, for what it's worth, I've noticed that some of the biggest self-marketing successes seem to be bloggers who build a large readership. (Andy Weir, Ernest Cline, Allie Brosh) I myself am a lousy blogger, but if you're good at it that is not a bad venue. There are a hundred million cubicle drones with internet access who are just looking to get through the day. If they like what you give away for free on your blog, they may well take a chance on your book.

Hope that helps,

Scott


message 9: by Scott (new)

Scott Hawkins I guess that's it for today. If any late-comers didn't see the announcement in time, feel free to ask anyway. I'll swing back by in the next couple of days and answer any stragglers.

Thanks!


message 10: by C.F. (new)

C.F. Corbett Hi Scott. I really enjoyed reading your comments and advice. I'm also a new author and I'd like to congratulate you on your success. I will definitely try some of your ideas for marketing.


message 11: by James (new)

James Oinam Hello There,

Some of the comments above said there is an audiobook version of your work. Is that in your own voice? How did that version work out with your publisher? Is it the same publisher bringing out your print version or a different one? If it was a third party, how did you approach the same?

Thanks in advance.


message 12: by Scott (new)

Scott Hawkins C.F. wrote: "Hi Scott. I really enjoyed reading your comments and advice. I'm also a new author and I'd like to congratulate you on your success. I will definitely try some of your ideas for marketing."

Hi C.F. - Thanks! Good luck and keep at it. Definitely take a look at those three writing books I mentioned, particularly the one by Donald Maass. Maass is a literary agent and novelist--there's a lot of good stuff in there.


message 13: by Scott (last edited Jun 14, 2016 05:13AM) (new)

Scott Hawkins James wrote: "Hello There,

Some of the comments above said there is an audiobook version of your work. Is that in your own voice?


Hi James,

No, that's not my voice. (Also, LOL--My voice sounds like a garbage truck backing up down a gravel road. :-) The book was done by a professional narrator named Hillary Huber. The main character of my book is a woman, and maybe 2/3 of the story is from her point of view. My voice is such that at one point when I suggested I do the narration everyone laughed.

How did that version work out with your publisher? Is it the same publisher bringing out your print version or a different one? Is it the same publisher bringing out your print version or a different one? If it was a third party, how did you approach the same?"

So, when my agent made the sale, she/we sold most of the subrights to the publisher (the Random House imprint Crown) as well. Random House does have their own audio production department, but for whatever reason those guys chose not to run with it. Instead, Crown sold the rights to Highbridge Audio.

This is a little outside the scope of the question, but I thought it was interesting so I'll include it. I talked a little to the lady who did the recording. Apparently the way the industry works is that there are a bunch of subcontractors like her who record books in their home(?) studios. I think she did the audio mixing herself as well, but I'm not 100% on that.

I honestly don't know the mechanics of how subright sales works--my only involvement with that part of things is a little email after something has been sold.

My understanding is that the way it went in my case is one of several common options--for instance, sometimes the literary agency hangs onto foreign language and audio rights and sells them independently of the publisher.

If you're interested in producing your own audiobook, there's a thing called Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX) where you the writer can talk directly to the same contractors who do audiobooks for a living. I *think* you can submit your own audio resume as well, if that's the angle you're looking at?

I haven't personally worked with ACX, but I did take a hard look at it at one point. If you're a DIY-er, you can also get near-studio quality with affordable microphones and open source software. (I used one called audigy.)

Let me know if you have any other questions. It occurred to me while i was writing this that "audiobooks" might be a good blog post, and I bet the people involved in mine would answer some questions.


message 14: by Michael Ben (new)

Michael Ben Silva III Scott wrote: "Michael Ben wrote: "Hey Scott, I listened to and loved the audiobook version of The Library at Mount Char -- so well done for whatever input (beyond the story) you had there!

Thanks! The audio boo..."


Scott,

This is all great advice and insight--thank you so much! Your wife sounds hilarious.


message 15: by Sue (new)

Sue Rovens This is all great information. Thank you for sharing. It's so difficult to even get noticed when there is so much out there competing for everyone's time and dollars.


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