Buzz vs Word-of-Mouth: What Hollywood Could Learn From Publishing

This post appeared originally on From the Write Angle in February, 2013. Gaining at least a basic understanding of marketing will help you identify and target work to your audience. In this post, R.S. Mellette offers a snapshot of his experience with buzz and word of mouth from the film industry. Shared with permission of the author, whose two novels, Billy Bobble Makes a Magic Wand (2014) and Billy Bobble and the Witch Hunt (2016) were published by Elephant’s Bookshelf Press.

Buzz vs Word-of-Mouth: What Hollywood Could Learn From Publishing
by R.S. Mellette

I moderated a conference of film industry professors a while back, and when one of them said that Hollywood relies heavily on word-of-mouth marketing, I laughed.

I couldn’t help myself. Here is an industry that considers a 20% or 30% drop in sales a success! That’s not word-of-mouth. Or if it is, good words are not being spoken.

Interestingly, the Hollywood insiders on the panel thought I was the crazy one for doing a spit-take with the Kool Aid they were serving. But of course, none of them had theatre or publishing experience.

In those disciplines, word-of-mouth marketing means sales INCREASE with time, not drop. A play that is worth the time, money, and effort of going to see will build an audience. A book worth the read will see an increase in sales.

In Hollywood, my filmmaking brothers and sisters have forgotten the difference between Buzz and Word-of-Mouth. So, let’s take a look at them side-by-side.

Buzz: “I want to see that movie,” says one friend to another before it premieres. “Yes,” says the friend, “I’ve heard it’s good.”

Word-Of-Mouth: “I saw the best movie this weekend, you should see it.”

In writing, we call that passive vs. active voice. In court, it’s called a firsthand account vs. hearsay.

Marketing generates buzz. The product itself creates word-of-mouth.

Why is that a distinction worth discussing? Because buzz owes only a passing fealty to the quality of the product. Producers in Hollywood will actually judge a script on “trailer beats,” meaning juicy stuff they can put in the preview to create buzz. A script that tells a good story but has no trailer beats will be passed over in favor of another script that is more easily marketable.

Compare this to the world of self-publishing today. Sure, sure, there is a sub-culture of writers trying to get good reviews—or spam their competition with bad ones—to increase buzz. There is nothing wrong with an honest pursuit of good buzz, but the runaway hits in the self-publishing world come almost exclusively from word-of-mouth marketing.

And word-of-mouth marketing is entirely dependent on the quality of the work. It is first-person, active, marketing. One friend telling another, “I enjoyed that, and I think you’ll like it, too.”

What does this product-oriented marketing technique look like on the sales charts, graphs, and tables? That’s easy. No drop off. Sales go up the longer the product is available. And when the same people create a new product, their sales start higher because they have become a trusted brand. As long as they keep up the quality, then their work will generate its own buzz.

The opposite is also true. How many of us have been fooled so many times by a great preview for a lousy film that we no longer trust the studios? Like so much of the rest of American Industry, studios have lost sight of long term success in favor of instant gratification. They have confused buzz with word-of-mouth.

So the work suffers. We, as consumers, suffer. And worst of all, we artists who must try to make a living in this environment suffer.

R.S. Mellette is an author and filmmaker. Prior to the Billy Bobble series of novels, Mellette had Sci-Fi short stories published by Elephant’s Bookshelf Press in the anthologies: The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse, Spring Fevers and Summer’s Edge. Mellette is an Associate Director of Dances With Films (one of MovieMaker Magazine’s top 25 coolest film festivals in the world). He wrote and directed the multi-festival winner, Jacks or Better. He also wrote the first web-to-television intellectual property, “The Xena Scrolls,” for Universal Studio’s Xena: Warrior Princess. On Blue Crush and Nutty Professor II he served as script coordinator. He’s acted in Looney Tunes: Back In Action, Star Trek: Enterprise, Days of Our Lives, Too Young The Hero, and countless stage productions across the U.S.

The business of being a writer

Not long after I’d graduated from college, I had a phone conversation with a longtime friend. He was heading to med school and was on a path that would lead to his becoming a prominent surgeon. Ever since we were kids, he talked about how he intended to become a doctor. Even as he earned an engineering degree in college, he knew his destiny lay in medicine, and he really believed he would become a surgeon. It’s what he always wanted to do.

I was also certain I wanted to become a writer, and I really believed I would be a novelist. My friend was amazed at my goals of becoming an author. To him, it would be more sensible for me to pursue a career that would be more lucrative and enable me to write on the side. And sometimes when I look at my bank statements and bills, I wonder if perhaps he was right. But that night, after he asked how long it would take to write a novel, I said, “Well, if I just write a page a day, by the end of the year, I’d have a novel.”

The logic of the statement — which was just off the top of my head — surprised me then, and to a degree it still does. The answer encapsulated much of what would lead me to become the writer I am today; it’s my job. I write most every day. You can say it’s a discipline, but I just look at it as what I do. And when I’m not physically writing or typing, I’m often thinking about characters and story arcs.

Frankly, it took me a long time to finish my first novel, which I trunked years ago (though trunks can be opened…) In the years out of college, I spent most of my writing time on short stories, and the novels I began quickly died on the vine. Back then, I spent more time writing songs than novels.

I’m not working on a novel at the moment, either. And if I’m honest with myself, I would say I haven’t worked on one of my own seriously since I created Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. I have only so much time away from work, and I spend what I can with my wife and children. Anyone who’s seen me on the train heading home knows I’m always on my laptop. That’s where the bulk of EBP takes shape: reading stories, editing novels, putting together media packages, recording and analyzing data, and all the other administrative responsibilities I need to address to maintain and build my little publishing house.

To me, being a professional writer starts with those two things: dedicating yourself to your craft – writing every day – and taking a business approach to your craft. It’s your job, after all.
Over the years, I’ve also learned the power of planning. I’m a believer in setting goals – even New Year’s resolutions – and reviewing the progress I make regularly. It may seem like a simple thing, but I’d be lost without a calendar. Yet, even though I write my plans down and review them, I’m still shocked when the fourth quarter of the year begins and I’m still scrambling to finish things that are weeks behind.

Recently, my friend Mindy McGinnis posted a blog about her schedule and all the work that goes into a typical day in her writing career. And this is someone who has a half-dozen novels published, including the recently released This Darkness Mine. It just goes to show that, no matter how much “success” we experience in our writing careers, life is still packed with a lot of unexciting but necessary busy work.

Now that we’re in the home stretch of 2017, what are you doing to prepare your writing business for 2018? Have you found any answers or solutions to the problems that have plagued you this year? What do you need in the new year to accomplish your goals? Maybe we can find a way to help each other. One of my goals in 2018 is to share more. (A goal my daughters have suggested.)

I’m looking forward to sharing with you.

A few minutes with Jean Oram, author of The Wedding Plan

One of the many wonderful writers I have met at AgentQuery Connect is Jean Oram, who is described as the “super moderator” of that writers’ community. In the fiction realm, she tends to write romance, and in the nonfiction area, she focuses on child’s play, with sites like It’s All Kid’s Play.

Jean’s latest new release, The Wedding Plan, is about a secret marriage between ex-lovers. But with their past and being stuck in a cabin out in the small, nosy little town of Blueberry Springs you can be sure their secrets will be difficult to keep! The Wedding Plan is from her new Veils and Vows series and can be found on all major online bookstores.

She also has been an important supporter of Elephant’s Bookshelf Press since its beginning and served as copy editor of our best-selling anthology, The Fall. For this interview, we talked about marketing and her approach to building her audience.

Do you have a mailing list and newsletter?

I sure do!

How often do you send anything to your mailing list?

It depends on a lot of different things, but typically I try to reach out to my subscribers every 4-6 weeks so they don’t forget who I am. 😉 It has to be meaningful though—I never want to annoy my subscribers.

Do you have a blog?

Yes.

How often do you post on your blog?

That, like my newsletter, depends on what’s going on. My blog is a place for my readers to find updated news, items of interest, giveaway entry forms, and the like. Sometimes there will be four posts in a week, sometimes nothing for 6-8 weeks.

What else do you do to market yourself as an author?

I try everything and an answer to this question could fill an entire book.

Basically, you never know what’s going to work for you, so you’ve got to experiment. Some things that haven’t worked for others work for me. Some things that work for others don’t work for me. Things that worked two years ago no longer have the same effect now. For example, doing a basic signed paperback giveaway used to create avid fans—like a 90 percent conversion rate. Now it’s more like 25 percent which makes it less financially feasible to use those kinds of giveaways in that manner. So, now I use few signed paperback giveaways and use them for different purposes. Why has it changed? Who knows, but if you’re going to keep selling your books, you have to stay hungry, stay smart ,and keep rolling with the punches.

Do you offer services like editing, query review, etc.?

I do not.

What do you consider success for your marketing efforts?

It really depends on what the purpose/goal on a particular marketing effort was. Recently, I wanted to increase the number of people in my reader group (on Facebook), and so I gave it a push from several different angles and met my numerical goal for new members. My next goal is to get them active, make friends with those members. After that will be to find rewarding ways for them to help me share the word about my books—that’s going to be a more difficult thing to measure. Because what are my goals? Visibility? Then having a few members share a post can help. If it’s getting sales directly from posts being shared…well, that’s more difficult to measure directly.

Thanks, Jean!

Jean Oram is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling romance author who loves making opposites attract in tear-jerking, laugh-out-loud romances set in small towns. She grew up in a town of 100 (cats and dogs not included) and owns one pair of high heels, which she has worn approximately three times in the past twenty years.

Her life contains an ongoing school theme, having grown up in an old school house, then becoming a ski instructor in the Canadian Rockies, then going on to marry a teacher and becoming a high school librarian. She now runs a fundraising committee for her daughter’s school.

Jean lives in Canada with her husband and two kids. She can often be found outdoors hiking up mountains, playing with kids on the soccer field, racing her dog on her bicycle–sometimes the dog lets her win–or inside writing her next novel.

Subscribe to Jean’s newsletter and get a taste of her small-town comedies that will have you laughing while falling in love. Get your FREE ebook by signing up here: www.JeanOram.com/FREEBOOK.

Why I Didn’t Pay for the Most Important Lesson in College

Did you learn a lot when you were in college? I know I did. But the most important lesson I learned when I was in college wasn’t during a classroom experience. It didn’t happen while I was doing research in the library. It wasn’t even a boozy revelation during a game of beer pong. It was a far more basic moment than any of those.

I was crossing a street with two blind curves. Most of the drivers were my age, which meant they weren’t really thinking about pedestrian safety. I don’t remember exactly why I felt I needed to cross at that spot, but I’m sure it wasn’t necessary. So, I looked both ways, hoped I wasn’t doing something stupid, and ran.

Obviously, I lived to write about it. Nothing happened. Well, nothing bad happened. But at that moment, I realized that I was the only person holding myself back from accomplishing the things I wanted to accomplish.

I might have remembered something and needed to change direction. I might have seen a pretty girl who I briefly chatted with and privately mused about what might have been if I’d ever asked her out. It’s all fuzzy now. What mattered is that, at that very moment, I realized what the biggest obstacle to my success in life was: me.

That was the lesson: I’m the one getting in my way.

Speaking as a middle-aged guy with young children, I know now that the lesson I learned is not the one I’d get today if I were standing at that same spot. Today, I’d encourage my daughter to find a safer spot.

But playing it safe can be an obstacle too.

I still strive to overcome myself. Sometimes I succeed, like when I decided to create Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. I was already deep into the process of creating Spring Fevers, the first anthology from EBP. I had created the Elephant’s Bookshelf blog years before ever thinking about creating a publishing company. From there, it was an easy step to naming Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. Soon after, I was applying for an LLC. It seemed like a no-brainer.

But there are still lots of moments where I discover the speed bumps that my intellect constructs, and I suspect the same is true for you. How do you overcome your fears and your own nay-saying? Are you filled with self-doubt? Most writers I know still would admit to harboring that bugaboo.

Here’s what works for me:

Read and write voraciously. I’m lucky to work as a journalist, so I’m paid to read and write every day. But I also read as much as I can. And as widely as I can. This helps me to:

Think elastically. A creative mind is one that can stretch an old idea into something new or connect seemingly disparate concepts into something that feels altogether different. It may be the most important element of:

Innovation. Take what has worked in the past and break it down into its vital elephants… er, elements. Can any of those pieces be upgraded? If so, what happens?

Ask questions. Do you know how your favorite author got started? …

“Write” every day: Though I physically write at least five or six days a week, I keep a loose definition of writing here. To me, writing includes imagining. Many of my best ideas come when I’m not able to jot them down or expand on them. I often come up with ideas while watching my daughters in their swimming lessons. Perhaps I should, but I don’t take notebooks with me to the pool. But I love musing on where some characters or settings might go, even if it’s just 15-20 minutes to mentally play that day. Write every day and you’ll see your writing flourish.

Plan and schedule. I used to write on the fly and see where a story took me. I read an article by an author who broke down her routine on her blog and later built a book on how she turned her writing routine into a 10,000 word a day habit. The key was starting with a light outline of what she wanted to accomplish that day. It helped her organize her thoughts and focus her mind. I’ve tried to apply that not only to my personal writing but also the day of writing and editing in my day job. In many ways, I still write by my pants, but I know when I’m going to write now and have goals for words or tasks. Which leads to the next item …

Create – and stick to – deadlines: I apply deadlines to all goals: daily goals, weekly goals, monthly goals, quarterly goals, and annual goals. When I know I have a busy Saturday ahead with family stuff, I usually list all the things I need to accomplish and scratch them off when they’re done. Sometimes I even write down things I’ve already done before starting the list – run 3 miles, feed the cats – to mess with my own mind and convince myself I’m getting things done. Sometimes it also helps my wife know where I am and what I’m hoping to do; she’s been known to add to the list, too.

Establish some sort of accountability system. This is the tough one for me. The truth is, keeping accountable is very difficult for a lot of writers. It’s too easy to say, “Oh, I just don’t feel it today. I’ll write twice as long tomorrow.” Or to be distracted by any of the myriad legitimate interruptions that occur from day to day. Sick kid? Sick parent? Got to take the car to the shop? Any of these things can ruin a day or drag on to several. Having a good friend or a touchy acquaintance whose job is to harass you when you’re trying to blow off your writing time is a good idea in theory, but I’ve learned that it doesn’t work every time.

Reward yourself for your accomplishments. In contrast to the accountability issue, this can be too easy sometimes. It’s important to recognize your accomplishments, but celebrate worthy goals and with supportive techniques. You obviously don’t want to say, “if I finish 100 words today, I’ll celebrate by not writing at all tomorrow.” It’s not only too few words and likely to have accomplished little, but you’d be taking a step back by not writing the next day. But if your goal was 50,000 words for a month and you reached your goal, take your significant other out to dinner, or for some ice cream, or something else pleasant and festive. You deserve it.

Of course, you may have different issues that get in your way of your writing. I can only imagine. But maybe you have found ways to overcome them too. I’d love to hear from you. Please share!

Lost Wings Is Live!

We are so proud to announce the release of Lost Wings, the first urban fantasy novel from Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. I know it seems everything I’ve posted this year has been about Lost Wings (that may even be the case; I haven’t checked), but the book has brought about a real shift in my thinking, especially with regard to promotion. It’s really a significant book for EBP.

Lost Wings, by Don M. Vail.

Over the past several months, I’ve listened to dozens of videos and read at least a dozen books and blog posts about the various nuances of book promotion, but the way I see it is: If you don’t have a great book to promote, no one will care.

In my opinion, Lost Wings fits that description. But the opinion of readers is what’s going to determine whether it does well in the marketplace.

I’d love to hear what you guys think.

You can order a copy on Amazon, available as an ebook and in paperback. If you post a review on Amazon by October 1, I’ll have the author send you a signed copy of the paperback! Just send me an email with the link to your review and your mailing address, and we’ll take care of the rest — even if you hated the book. (Of course, why would anyone who hated the book want a signed copy?)

The first-ever interview with Don M. Vail, author of Lost Wings

With just a week to go until the launch of Lost Wings by Don M. Vail, I wanted to share the first-ever interview with this mysterious debut author.

Enjoy!

And there’s still time if you want to get an advance PDF version of Lost Wings. Send me an email at matt@elephantsbookshelfpress.com and I’ll send it to you. And if you post a review to Amazon (doesn’t matter whether you liked the book or not, we’re just looking for honest reviews) by October 1, we’ll send you a signed copy of the paperback!

I set out to interview Don M. Vail, the author of the next book from Elephant’s Bookshelf Press. It’s a very different novel for EBP, which to date has published novels written for young adult and middle grade audiences, though many of the stories in EBP’s anthologies are written with adult protagonists and with adult audiences in mind.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Tenderloin. Don came with his alter ego, Robert K. Lewis, author of the Mark Mallen crime fiction trilogy: Untold Damage, Critical Damage, and Damage. Of course, Don is the pseudonym of Robert, and he explains the genesis of not only the pen name but also the story behind Lost Wings, Don’s “debut” novel.

Elephant’s Bookshelf: What inspired the character of Richard Eastman and this story?

Don M. Vail/Robert K. Lewis: Well, it’s really about redemption. With me, it’s always about redemption. With the Damage Series, the protagonist, Mark Mallen, is on a road to redemption. He had a life that he lost. A home, a wife, and a child. All that Mallen wants to do is make it right, win back what he’s lost. That’s of course what redemption is all about for me: an attempt to make things right, to atone for past sins. This sense of redemption is what fuels Richard Eastman. He finds his chance in helping this wingless angel named Avesta. And given who Richard is, I feel sorry for anyone who wants to stop him.

When did you complete your initial draft of Lost Wings?

Jesus, I think it was about twelve years ago. Lost Wings was the third book I’d written, and it’s been said that it takes two or three books before you really get a handle on the form. From the beginning, Lost Wings felt like my first “real” book. So, yeah, I think about 2005 is accurate regarding the time I finished the first draft.

Why did it take so long?

(Laughs) Well, because nobody wanted to run with it. Like I said, Lost Wings was the first book that really felt like “a book.” I queried every agent out there, and also any publishers that dealt with Urban Fantasy, Sci Fi, or even Horror. I got close, but no cigars. So, after getting nowhere, I put it away in my desk drawer and went on to the next project, the one that would eventually get me published, Untold Damage. However, over all those long years since its inception, I would take Lost Wings out of the drawer and rewrite it again. Like so many other authors, I had “that” book; the one a writer just can’t let go of and always keeps around in the hope that at some point in time, it would see the light of day. For me, Lost Wings was that book.

What was it about the story that kept coming back to you?

(Pauses) I believe that every person has a small kernel of hero inside them, and that this kernel is just waiting to come out, given the circumstances. In Lost Wings, Richard is not a hero in the classical sense, like the paladin figure of Aragorn from The Lord of the Rings. He’s, in my opinion, closer to Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone where the hero is the reluctant hero, called by the “horn of fate.” Maybe in a more modern, non-sword iteration, Richard Eastman is more akin to John McClane from the movie Die Hard. I love a story about a person that crawls from the wreckage and keeps on moving forward. That’s Richard Eastman in a nutshell. You can’t stop him. Yes, he’s a derelict war vet. Yes, he’s drowning in his own pain, and also the pain of the Tenderloin. But even then, when that horn sounds, he stands up and starts down that road of redemption. I love pain-filled heroes, but then again… I guess all heroes are filled with pain.

Aside from your affinity for down-and-out characters living in San Francisco, there isn’t much that is similar to your crime novels. How is writing urban fantasy different from your other work and what do you see as similar?

The first thing that comes to mind is that when I’m writing crime fiction, there is an inherent reality in the world that I’m working with. It’s San Francisco. It’s the Tenderloin. Along with that reality comes a certain set of expectations. There are cars on the street, there are criminals that have to be arrested. There will be bullets and blood. However, I found writing urban fantasy to be incredibly freeing. I mean, sure, there is the Tenderloin, there is San Francisco, there are bullets and blood, but now I’m free to add a wingless angel, or Lucifer as a little girl who runs a pawnshop, or even a hero that both visually and metaphorically takes a trip through hell. In crime fiction there is no visual trip through hell, that trip only exists in a metaphorical sense. Again, it was incredibly freeing to write urban fantasy, especially after growing up on Michael Moorcock’s Elric of Melnibone series, and Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels. However, at its core, the similarity lies with the fact that both Richard Eastman and my detective Mark Mallen walk the same hero’s road, and that they both possess a moral compass that is always kept, well… pointing north.

Where did you come up with the back story of Don M. Vail?

All three Mark Mallen novels are dedicated to my best friend, life partner, and spouse, Dawn M. Vail. This time, since I took a pen name, I thought I should shake it up, and so Don M. Vail was born. She’s had to put up with so much in regard to me being a writer, and since I can’t afford to give her combat pay, I felt that this was the best homage I could come up with under the circumstances.

The book noticeably has “Book One” on the cover. What can we expect of Richard and Avesta in book two?

(Pauses) How can I say anything without giving away too much? All I can say is that the seed that is planted in book one will come home to roost in book two, x 2.

Rowing on the ocean

I was talking with a writer friend recently who was feeling down in the dumps. She had seen her first book published, but the experience with her publisher had not been ideal. Inadequate communication, a lack of a cohesive launch and promotion plan, and ultimately a company that fell apart left her fighting to regain her rights.

A prolific writer, she ended up self-publishing a book that had been committed but not yet published. But that hasn’t been exactly what she hoped for either. She learned what many of us discover: It’s difficult to shift gears from writer to publisher. Frankly, there are different skill sets involved, and it takes a while to develop new skills. Moreover, it’s frustrating, especially when you feel like you’ve failed somehow even though you grabbed hold of the brass ring.

Or to use a different metaphor, imagine discovering that you’ve been set adrift on a raft without a motor. You have a couple oars and you know the basics of setting the raft in motion, but it’s a big ocean and you have no sign of land on the horizon. In my friend’s case, she has some advantages. She has an agent who is providing guidance. For sure, it’s better to have direction and a compass than to attempt to rediscover how our ancestors navigated by the stars, but guidance is not propulsion. Wherever you are on the journey, one thing is clear: Publishing takes energy. Continue reading Rowing on the ocean

Revamping the Elephant’s Bookshelf Blogging Experience

Hey guys. It’s been a while, I know. Though it’s not obvious from the number of posts on this blog, I have been busy, and I believe the busy-ness will become evident very soon.

In a nutshell, I’ve spent the past several months working on expanding and developing Elephant’s Bookshelf Press, especially from a marketing perspective. What this means in the short term is that two books are being made ready for publication this year, with the possibility of a third also (though that one may run into 2018).

I’ve also been rethinking my blogging. Not just my schedule but also my purpose. Continue reading Revamping the Elephant’s Bookshelf Blogging Experience

Delayed by the Apocalypse

Tales from the apocalypse
Published 11/1/12

Before I say anything else, thank you to the editorial board of Elephant’s Bookshelf Press, LLC, who helped publicize and promote our newly released anthology, The Fall: Tales from the Apocalypse, which felt the wrath of Hurricane Sandy. As a resident of New Jersey, I was (and am) left without power to do the final steps of publishing the book. But it is live in two of our intended formats: Electronically for Kindle and in paperback via Amazon.

We’d love to hear what you think: positive, negative, even indifferent.

Welcome to Elephant’s Bookshelf Press

Welcome to Elephant’s Bookshelf Press, a small but growing traditional publisher. In 2012, we published Spring Fevers, a collection of short stories about relationships in their many forms, and will publish The Fall in October, a collection of tales from the apocalypse.

Looking to 2013, we will publish at least one new anthology in the summer and are preparing to launch our fiction department.