How You Should Be Launching Your Books in 2015 - An Interview with Eliot Peper
“For someone who loves a book, what would make their day? What would make them happy or make them think of it again or think that it’s cool? I’m always struggling with that.”
This is a quote that defines startup-fiction author Eliot Peper. He writes for his readers and would do anything to make them happy.
Dedicated readers here at the Reedsy blog may recall that we interviewed Eliot back in July of this year, a few months after the release of his first ever book, Uncommon Stock. If you do, you might also remember the mood in which we left the interview: “Eliot Peper is the nicest man in the world.” He’s a great, positive guy to be around, and overflows with excitement not just when he’s talking about his writing, but also the aftercare of publishing and promotion.
So we’ve brought him back again! And what better day for it than today, for the official launch of the second book in the Uncommon series, ‘Uncommon Stock: Power Play’!
What’s changed for Eliot since he launched his first book? One one hand, a lot: the first book was a real success and garnered some fantastic reviews. On the other hand, not much: Eliot stays true to his credo: “At the end of the day the people who read my books, my actual readers, they just want the next book”.
How do you successfully launch a book? How do you connect with readers? How do you work hand-in-hand with your publisher to spread the word? All this gravitates around the fundamental notion of “creative marketing.”
If you’re a writer, the big takeaway from this interview is that promoting your book isn’t something to be afraid of. It’s not, as Eliot put it, ‘a black box.’ You need to approach it as a creative challenge, just like you would writing a book. You don’t need to worry about doing what everyone else is doing - in fact, marketing, just like writing, just like anything creative, marketing is one of those disciplines where you win by breaking the rules, by being bold, by experimenting. If you think of something that sounds cool, that sounds interesting, like it’s something you haven’t seen done before - that’s a sign you should give it a try. Because, generally, those are the people you remember.
As the saying goes, “here’s to the crazy ones.”
I recommend you first read our previous interview with him and then put your headphones on, grab a cup of coffee, and join our hangout here. For the unconditional lovers of the written word (like myself), I’ve transcribed below some of the most insightful parts of the hangout.
Apart from granting us this great interview, what are you doing for the launch of Uncommon Stock: Power Play?
We’re trying to line up a bunch of fun stuff. Book launches are interesting, and particularly for fiction, because it’s not obvious what a book launch should be. Many authors, aspiring authors, or readers sort of assume that if you work with a big publisher, they have a big marketing plan ready for you: maybe you’ll have billboards on the subway, or maybe you’ll be in a private jet flying around the country to do book signings or stuff like that.
Obviously, that doesn’t really happen. But even the less sort of over-the-top versions either don’t happen, or don’t work very well. I have a friend who published a major business book this year. They had a lot of traditional marketing behind the book; they actually had billboards and stuff like that. And they were still frustrated, they actually felt that it didn’t really allow them to capture new readers.
Of course, for non-fiction it’s a little different, but for fiction, it’s actually pretty simple. The way that I try to think about our launch efforts, and the way I then try to work with independent publisher, FG Press, is to consider the book’s launch from the readers’ perspective.
It’s very tempting to thinking of it from the publisher’s perspective – and that equally applies to the author’s perspective if you’re self-publishing – to think through “How would I want to get the word out.” But that doesn’t work very well. Really, what you need to think about is: “Why do readers check out new books in the first place?” Those are the people that you are trying to reach.
Now, I am a voracious reader – I read dozens and dozens of books a year – and I know that, especially for fiction, the way that I discover a new author, a new series or a new book is because someone recommends it to me. It’s really straightforward. A friend says: “Hey Eliot, I just read X and you would really like it, so you should probably check it out.” And I do the same - if I read a book I really like, and I know I have a friend who would get a kick out of it, I let them know. A couple of books I recommended this year are Whisky Tango Foxtrott, by David Schaeffer, which is great; The Martian, by Andi Weir; The Magicians, by Lev Grossman, which I just got into even if it was released back in 2009… That’s how many readers discover new books. So when we think about what a book launch even means aside from just allowing people to buy it, we try to think about it from that point of view.
For example, this conversation is great because there are people who are following Reedsy and who are interested in becoming independent authors, who think about what it means to be an independent author, and if they get a kick out of this conversation maybe they are going to go check out Uncommon Stock, right?
One thing that is also definitely worth mentioning is that today, the book Uncommon Stock 1.0, the first one in the series that we released back in March, is actually free on Amazon. It is free today, tomorrow, and Friday. So you can check out the story for free, and if you like it, do me a solid and leave a review and buy the sequel! That’s a fun experiment that we’re doing. [The promo has since ended, but Uncommon Stock can be purchased here! -Ed]
In addition to that, over the past six weeks we’ve been releasing the entire first book serially on Medium, which is a sort of new blogging platform. We broke the book up into 10 parts and we’ve been releasing each part along the way, so you can follow the story (one new part comes up a week). Right now, we’re about to release part 6, and by the end of the year the whole book will be available for free on Medium, forever.
This is really interesting, because I think there’s a bit of a controversy, even among independent publishing, around the whole “giving away your book for free”. So it’s really fantastic to see a publisher encouraging authors to do that!
Absolutely. And you know, that controversy bears debate - it’s not a no-brainer. Some people think: “Oh, you make something free and everybody wants it,” and sometimes what happens is actually the opposite: people want things because they have value. So if they see that something is free, that might connote to them that that doesn’t have value: “If it’s worth something, shouldn’t I be paying for it?“
And this is actually why we did not make the book permanently free on Amazon. We’re celebrating the launch of the new sequel, so we’re doing these three free days right alongside. Now, on Medium, it’s different, because you’re not actually downloading a book and getting it for free, you’re just accessing a serial through the platform. And the expectations that readers bring to Medium are very different to the ones they have when browsing Amazon.
But yeah, I was really surprised! I think most publishers, both major and indie would balk at, in any way, giving a book away for free. So I was really pleased when FG Press agreed to do it as an experiment.
I love it. In fact, when I first read that you were doing that, I hadn’t bought your book yet, so I decided to do the experiment and read your book on Medium, instalment after instalment. Well, I think that this good intention lasted 2 or 3 chapters, or 3… And then I bought the book. So I confirm it definitely works!
That’s great to know! There’s also some other fun things that we are doing for this launch that you could get a kick out of, and that might be interesting to other authors.
To give a bit of background, the books, Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 and Uncommon Stock: Power Play, are part of a startup thriller series. They’re an adventure story about two college students who drop out to start a new tech company and the product is called “Mozaik”. It’s actually a spell-check for financial fraud: they can look at a bank’s data and tease out where there might be fraud schemes or money-laundering schemes, and the two get caught up in this whole conspiracy.
So when the first book came out, we did something fun: we actually created a real website for the fictional startup, and a major capital fund officially announced that they were investing in this tech startup on April Fool’s day. We tried this way to blur the line between fact and fiction because the book plays a lot between fact and fiction: there’s a lot of real tech and startup content in there even though it’s really a thriller.
Now, this week, we actually have Mara, who is the protagonist and CEO in the book, profiled on Tech Cocktail: she has a proper CEO interview there. And that’s fun, you know, that’s really an example of what we’re trying to do. The idea is that if you’re a fan of the books, you get a kick out of reading stuff like that: it might remind you about them, get you excited, and maybe, when you’re going to have a cocktail later on that day, you might mention it to a friend. That’s sort of the word-of-mouth engine that we’re trying to start.
And does the fact that you’ve previously been an entrepreneur, and an entrepreneur-in-residence at a VC firm help you come up with ideas for the book launches? I mean, in the end launching a book is pretty similar to launching a new feature when you’re in a startup, right?
Yeah absolutely. There is this book that I was reading lately on this subject: Discoverability, by Kristine Kathryn Rusch, and if you’re an author thinking about these issues (especially if you write fiction) it’s definitely a good one for reference. I like the way she puts it: when you’re writing a book, be it fiction or non-fiction, it’s hard, it really is. And you shouldn’t try to let how you think about marketing, promotion, or any of that stuff influence the art you are trying to make, your craft.
When you’re in the writing process, that’s all it’s about: write something that’s true to you, that’s true to your ideal reader, whether it’s for entertainment, for inspiration, for education or whatever. But once the book is written, it’s now a product. Then the question becomes the one of business model, strategy, understanding market dynamics, understanding your customers (your readers) and finding ways to engage, connect and share the story with them.
So, yes, definitely: my previous work (and hard work!) at startups and venture capital has certainly influenced the way I look at that equation. One of the funny and sort of counter-intuitive ways that I like to shape it is that when you work in startups, it can be really tempting, especially when you’re at the aspirational stage, to try to temper your thoughts or shape your strategies based on what you can find out there in the world. So you go on the internet, you read 100 blog posts about your sector, all the industry reports, you read what all the competitors are doing and how they’re positioning themselves; you do all of this stuff and then try to allow that to inform what you’re doing.
And often, it just doesn’t matter. All that information, you can easily drown in it, and it rarely actually helps. Part of that is because if you actually start a business that has legs, you’re not trying to fit in with the competition: your approach will be different enough that you’ll displace them if it works. That’s why I think that competitive analysis is much more relevant once you’re a more mature, established business.
For authors who are just starting to get their books out into the marketplace, remember that you’re a startup, right? Your book is your first product and you’re a startup. So when you do that, again, there are so many blogs about launching books, marketing books, understanding publishing, etc., that I think it’s really easy to fill your head – and I know I’ve done it. However, at the end of the day it’s all about expressing yourself and helping to share the story in whatever way the reader would find interesting. Putting yourself in the reader’s shoes is pretty much all you need to do, and I have met very few authors who aren’t readers – usually most of them are serious readers – so you have all the market information you need: you are a potential customer. If you think of it from that perspective you can already skip a big part of that research process and just go straight into it.
For example: having an interview with the fictional CEO who is the protagonist of my book - I didn’t get this idea from reading a marketing blog. I just thought: this could be fun, why not?
I think there is a lot of room to experiment in book marketing. Not many authors are doing it because, well, what’s very tempting for authors to do is just go on the internet, google “book marketing”, maybe hire someone, instead of just having the creativity they had while writing the book kick in and help them actually market it. So I think it is really important to get this message across that the best marketing techniques in book publishing have yet to be discovered I think.
I couldn’t agree more. And I think that you’re right: a lot of authors view not just marketing but even the book production process as this black box. The funny thing is, some of these authors are really talented and creative and as you say, if they applied that creativity to the production and marketing of their books, they would be in the top 1%.
So I think that is really the silver lining: there is a lot you can do if you just think about it. There’s this annoying middle ground of when folks go out and hire people for help with book marketing, there are very very few people who are worth the money. Arguably, none. Of course, the tricky part is that they don’t tell you that, they don’t tell you: “you shouldn’t hire me”. So we end up with an enormous amount of sales material online, and when you talk to them they make you feel like they’re going to send you to the top of the NYT bestellers list, and usually, even if it’s not necessarily intentionally disingenuous, it’s not how books get successful in marketing.
If you think that it’s a black box and someone tells you they know how to do it, it’s very tempting to say “great, let me hire you”. But you’re going to learn pretty quickly that actually, you’re going to be the one driving it no matter what. And that is true whether you’re self-publishing, published by Reedsy, or published by Random house: the author drives most of the marketing for almost any book, even if they don’t want to.
So, really, it’s something that you might as well get creative with, because at least it’ll be fun!
Exactly, and I think that most of the successful authors we see out there during the marketing. I can recall you interviewing Joanna Penn on a similar Hangout a few weeks ago; and I see Joanna at a lot of conferences and events. Basically, these conferences are a way for her to get her message across, let people know about her, her blog, her advice, etc. and she always seems to have fun doing it.
So I think lots of authors see marketing as a hustle, when it should be seen as something to experiment and get creative with, just as you’re doing.
Yes, I think Joanna does this phenomenally well: she’s found a niche where her message is also relevant, that’s why people want her to speak at those conferences. And authors can do that in different ways. Hugh Howey for example has been writing a lot about the publishing industry, as do a number of author authors. You’re going to attract different people by writing about different things.
But you know, here’s an example of something fun: I was recently in Boulder to visit with FG Press, and we recorded a series of video interviews where I spend 20 minutes just talking to each member of their team about what they did to make the book a reality. I talked to their editorial director about the editorial process for the book, what it looked like behind the scenes, to the designer about typography and cover design, etc.
And that second interview has an interesting story: for the cover design, it’s a top-down still-light photo of a laptop with a cappuccino, a book and a handgun on the table. It looks pretty cool, I’m really happy with it. That was our concept and FG Press actually did the photoshoot. They’re in Boulder, which is this nice little mountain town. So they got a gun, and went to the different coffee shops around the office, but none of the coffee shop owners would allow them inside with a gun! And that became a huge problem because they really wanted to have a nice ceramic cup with a cappuccino in it and a nice drawing in the foam… So if they couldn’t bring the gun into the coffee shop, how could they bring the cappuccino in the cup to the gun, without the latte on top degrading?
In the end they had to come up with this system where they had to have everything ready in their office to take the picture and then rush the cappuccino over there. So it’s cute, you know, it makes for a really interesting story.
Also, they re-did the cover for Uncommon Stock: Version 1.0 as well. You’ll notice that it has these leaves in the background, there’s a knife and a backpack, and this burning paperwork. Well, that burning paperwork are real termsheets from Foundry Group that they actually issued to Mozaik, per that press release that we were mentioning.
So they went outside, they were on the street in Boulder, collected leaves from the whole neighborhood, made this whole setup, and started burning the termsheets under the camera taking a time-lapse (see below). Obviously, people were stopping, looking at that and asking what the hell they were doing…
So the good thing with these little stories is that if you pick up the book, you’ll think (hopefully) “oh, that’s a nice cover”. And then you read it and you think “oh, that’s a cool book”. Well, if you liked the book it might be fun for you to know that background story, it’s like a “behind the scenes” for a DVD extra.
Now, we’re going to be able to show these videos, and you could call that marketing, but it is certainly not how it felt! We didn’t feel like we were trying to sell something, we were just thinking: this is a funny story, let’s talk about it.
No, absolutely. And I’ve heard of something similar that some authors do: they intentionally cut scenes from their book – often also because the scene wasn’t 100% necessary or relevant – and release that scene a few months after the book’s launch to keep readers engaged, which I think is very important.
Now the great thing for you now is that for this second launch, you already have an established reader base, right? So how does that change things?
Oh yes, there’s actually a number of dynamics that this changes and which should be very obvious but I haven’t really been thinking about. Like, in the beta process of writing the second book it felt very different from writing the first. Because when writing the first, nobody cares, it’s really just you… When writing book 2, you feel more like you’re writing for an audience, because there are these people who’ve been leaving reviews on Amazon for the first one and are waiting for the second one.
And that’s true on the launch end too. For example, here’s something that I think every author should do, especially if you’re writing a series: I went on Goodreads, a book review platform, and also on Amazon to check the reviews of the first book. Now, on Goodreads, you can actually message the people who leave you a review. On Amazon, you can’t do that, but you can comment on their review. So I went through these, and for every reviewer who liked the book, I messaged or commented them and said: “thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on the book. As a writer, that really makes my day because I get feedback from people and it seems you got something out of the book so it’s really rewarding to know about it. If you’re interested, I’d like to thank you by offering you a free Advanced Review Copy (ARC) of the sequel.”
Because these people have already proved that they’ve liked the first book enough to leave a review, so getting a direct message from the author offering you an early version of the sequel, that’s pretty awesome, right?
And I was really shocked at the results. Our “conversion rate” (the number of people who responded to that) was extremely high. So I’m hoping, now that they have the ARC and have read it, that when the book comes out they’ll write another review and share it with their friends. Being able to do that is really something that makes the second launch different from the first one.
Thanks for your time Eliot.