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My Top Takeaways From the Hottest Event in Indie Publishing

This week, I had the privilege of attending the third annual Smarter Artist Summit in Austin, Texas. It’s organized by Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright — the voices behind the hit podcast, “The Story Studio” (formerly “The Self-Publishing Podcast”).

Every year I go to this thing, and every year I reunite with a bunch of awesome people who’ve become my good friends. I first attended when I was brand new to the full-time author life, and now, three years later, many more attendees have joined that club.

If you haven’t heard of the Summit or didn’t have a chance to go this year, don’t worry. I’ve summarized the takeaways I found most valuable and highlighted the speakers’ most memorable quotes.

Honoree Corder: Author Like a Boss

Honoree Corder is the author of Prosperity for Writers, Write Like a Boss, and dozens of other nonfiction books. Her session focused on motivation, “turning pro,” and how to hire an all-star publishing team that includes an editor, cover designer, copywriter, business attorney, and an accountant.

As indie authors, we’re all guilty of bootstrapping a little at the beginning of our careers, but her talk reminded me that it’s important to invest in your business like any other business.

She also discussed the 40% rule — the Navy SEAL secret to mental toughness. It goes like this: If you think you’ve given it all you’ve got, you’ve only given about 40%. Talk about hard-core.

One of the most valuable takeaways I got from her talk was the necessity of two separate business savings accounts: one for quarterly taxes and one for “opportunities” such as Facebook advertising, BookBub promotions, new cover designs, or audiobooks.

Favorite quote:

“You must write consistently, authentically, and enthusiastically.”

Michael Anderle: The Author’s Million-Dollar Formula

Michael Anderle is the author of 21 books, an indie publishing magnate, and creator of the enormous Facebook author community, 20Booksto50K. He allows other authors to write within his fictional world, and he had a lot of good tips for getting readers invested in your stories.

The most valuable thing I took away from his talk was the idea of open loops. Michaels suggests opening lots of small loops not related to the main storyline. One example he used was the subplot of a few secondary characters that his readers liked trying to open the first-ever bar in space. Although their storyline did not have a direct impact on the plot, readers wanted to know what happened to these characters.

Favorite quote:

“Your greatest strength is also your greatest weakness.”

The Sterling and Stone Story Studio: What We Learned From Crafting More Than 100 Stories in 2017

In the first session with Johnny, Sean, and Dave, the masterminds behind the Smarter Artist Summit pulled back the curtain at their company to show the audience how they craft commercial fiction quickly with an entire staff of writers.

I found two aspects of this session incredibly instructive.

The Brief

First, the guys unveiled an example of a creative brief they use to write fiction targeted at a specific audience. They break down audience demographics, comparable books and movies, similar characters in fiction, and tropes their story might hit on. (See my amended version of the brief below.)

Screen Shot 2018-03-02 at 2.37.56 PM

One common misconception with fiction is that your story must be totally unique and that you should try to circumvent reader expectations at every turn. In fact, readers of genre fiction (e.g., romance, science fiction) have certain expectations coming into each book.

For instance, romance readers expect the characters to have a “happily ever after.” If your main character’s love interest dies tragically in the last chapter, readers are going to be upset. You shouldn’t use tropes to the point that your story seems cliché, but you should work to meet those basic reader expectations.

The 40-Sentence Outline

For years I have been using the guys’ “beat system” for outlining fiction. Think CliffNotes for your story written by someone who’s only half paying attention. The 40-sentence outline takes this process to a whole new level.

The concept is simple: Instead of thinking of fiction in the traditional three-act formula of a screenplay, Sean said he prefers to think of his stories in four acts. He writes 10 sentences summarizing the plot under each of the four acts, and then he turns those 40 sentences into 40 small paragraphs. Those single chapter paragraphs turn into three paragraphs (120 paragraphs total), and the story starts to take shape. He compares the process to writing jokes: You start by telling yourself the crappy version of a joke and then refine it until it’s polished.

Favorite quote:

“Don’t change lanes without intention and purpose.”

Sean admits that he’s guilty of so-called “shiny-object syndrome” when it comes to his business. But, he says, you should run your business the way you should drive. Don’t chase trends. Don’t change your entire business just because a certain tactic is working right now. Don’t go after a genre just because it’s hot. Run your business with purpose and intention, and stay in your lane.

BookBub’s Carlyn Robertson and Julianne LaBrecque: Data-Driven Marketing Best Practices

For indie authors hoping to boost their sales, BookBub promotions have long been the Holy Grail of marketing. So, of course, I was excited when Carlyn and Julianne laid out a few best practices for using their service and dropped some data-driven copywriting hacks they’ve seen work for their book blurbs.

Best Practices Based on Objective

To promote a series –> Discount the first book to free

To hit a bestseller list –> Discount most popular book to $0.99

To launch a new book –> Discount a backlist look (free or $0.99)

To promote a box set –> Discount to $1.99 or $2.99

Copywriting Hacks

  1. Improve click-through rates by mentioning the number of five-star reviews the book has earned.

  2. Include editorial reviews from well-known sources or a quote from a famous author.

  3. Compare your book to other books or authors within your genre. (E.g., “This book is a delight for fans of Nicholas Sparks.”)

  4. End blurbs with a positive statement (e.g., “A powerful, captivating story!”).

Industry Panel: What’s the Word for 2018

For day two, the Summit organizers assembled an industry panel with some of the hottest companies in indie publishing. Representatives from Kobo, Draft2Digital, BookBub, Findaway Voices, Reedsy, and BookFunnel were all there to answer questions.

For those of you who don’t know, here’s what’s up with each of those companies…

Kobo: Author-focused international e-book retailer with their own line of e-reading devices. Kobo recently partnered with Walmart to sell e-books through their site and sell devices in Walmart stores.

Draft2Digital: The best self-publishing platform that distributes authors’ books to Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Scribd, and more. Authors can format their books through the site, view their sales, and use the platform to keep their front and back matter up to date. Draft2Digital has no up-front cost to use, but they keep 10% of the retail price.

BookBub: A service that alerts readers to free and discounted e-books. They are probably the No. 1 marketing engine for indie authors, and their selection process is extremely competitive.

Findaway Voices: Think ACX, but with total control. Findaway Voices is a new platform that allows authors to partner with professional narrators to produce audiobooks. The platform allows authors to control pricing everywhere except for Audible and distribute their audiobooks to the largest network of retailers.

Pro tip: If you go through Draft2Digital, you don’t have to pay a fee to use Findaway Voices.

Reedsy: Reedsy makes it easy to collaborate with vetted editors, cover designers, and marketing professionals. Their platform provides collaborative writing tools, automated contracts, and a secure payment portal.

BookFunnel: BookFunnel allows authors to go directly to readers by delivering both free and paid books to readers’ devices. BookFunnel makes the process seamless for both authors and readers and even provides technical support.

Favorite takeaway: Get more personal with readers. One of my favorite suggestions was to send a short story a month to readers on my mailing list or use short stories as an incentive on Patreon.

Michelle Spiva: Provacative, Prolific Publishing

I met Michelle Spiva at the Summit last year, and she gave me some truly disarming insights into my personal writer psyche. Her session seemed to move at the speed of light, and there was so much information that my head almost exploded.

However, looking back at my notes, I gleaned a few important insights that I will be implementing into my own business.

First, Michelle gave a primer on marketing for authors. It’s kind of business school basics, but it was a nice review of what works and what doesn’t.

Mind-blowing insight No. 1: Facebook ads are not a strategy. Facebook ads, Amazon ads, BookBub promos — these are all tactics. Tactics have a shelf life. The more they are used, the shorter the shelf life becomes. Therefore, tactics will change while your strategy/goal remains static.

A true strategy is like a goal. Who are you? (It’s helpful to me to think of this like brand.) Michelle suggests creating an “I am” statement to hone in on strategy. For instance, “I am the No.1 writer of sci-fi page-turners featuring strong female leads.” This is what I’m aiming for.

An event is either “push” or “pull”: You are “pushing” your name/book in front of cold traffic (e.g., Facebook ads). This marketing must be repetitive to warm the audience to your message. In other words, they have to see your name or your book 7-23 times before they recognize and trust you as an author.

“Pull” marketing is for warm traffic (e.g., your personal email list). In “pull” marketing, you cannot have an intermediary between you. This is where you convert.

The true hierarchy of marketing goes:


The 6 P’s of Publishing

This was another of Michelle’s insights. She says to succeed long term, you must fulfill these six criteria:

  1. You must be a publisher (not just a writer).

  2. You must be prolific. More books equal more success.

  3. You must focus on presentation. Write words so that they sound good spoken aloud. This results in stories that are ready-made for audio and allows the author to bypass the prefrontal cortex to get right to readers’ “lizard brain.”

  4. You must be perennial. Write for the committed, not the interested. Don’t chase genres. Find readers who will love you always.

  5. You must practice. And be willing to put out books that aren’t perfect.

  6. You must persevere.

Favorite quote:

“You will see a lot of shooting stars in this business. You have to be the one who outlasts them all.”

The most valuable insight I got from Michelle was that as an author, it’s best to go after those true fans — readers who will buy everything you write no matter what. She says to look for those people who have Harry Potter tattoos and Hunger Games posters all over their rooms. These are the raving fans who will do anything for you.

Photo by Nathan Anderson

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