Saturday, April 25, 2009

Nobody Wants To Take Advice From A Dabbler Or A Flake

My blog series on the most common problems I found in the self-published, non-fiction books I recently judged for The Next Generation Indie Book Awards continues. In part one, I discussed books written by authors who are not qualified experts in their chosen subjects. This time, I take on the dabbler: the author who comes across as a jack of all trades, but master of none.

Nobody wants to take advice from a dabbler, but judging by many of the supplied biographies on their book jackets, plenty of self-published, non-fiction authors seem to be totally unaware of this. They seem to think that if their qualifications in the subject matter of their book are light or spotty, their unrelated experiences and accomplishments will establish some level of general authority for them in readers' minds. This is not true.

Every non-fiction author has hobbies or interests outside of the subject matter of his book, but the only hobbies and interests his readers need to know about are those which help to establish his credibility as a subject area expert. It’s typical for non-fiction author bios in mainstream books to include some mention of the author’s general area or country of residence, and maybe a line or two about marital and family status, but that’s about it as far as personal details go.

Given that the person who buys your non-fiction book is, in a sense, 'hiring' you to educate them on some subject, your author bio is like a job application. Don't mention anything in your author bio that you wouldn't list among your qualifications in a job interview. While you may very well be "an eco-conscious lover of life, dreamer of dreams, and chaser of rainbows,” such a statement will not instill confidence in a potential employer, nor anyone perusing the jacket of your non-fiction book.

Just as in a job application, relevance matters. Nobody wants to buy a book on estate planning from an author who describes himself as a “Yoga instructor, 4th Degree Black Belt, Photographer and Community Theater Director”. Such a bio just makes the reader wonder why the author didn't write a book on yoga, martial arts, photography, or running a community theater, since those are his stated areas of expertise. If you have no experience, education or training to speak of with respect to the subject of your book, you’re not qualified to write that book.

Similarly, the longer your list of disparate professional titles, the less credibility you have in the minds of readers. The multi-gifted likes of a Leonardo DaVinci or Benjamin Franklin come along once in a generation or less, and anyone else laying claim to a half-dozen, unrelated professional titles is more than likely just padding her resume. Either that, or she's someone who's quit (or been fired from) every job she's ever had because she can't fully commit to any profession. Either way, it doesn't look good.

Invented, self-assigned titles are also a bad idea. Stating that you’re a “Spiritual Color Consultant / Themed Self-Actualization Life Coach” doesn’t make you seem important, accomplished or authoritative to the reader; it just makes you seem like a self-aggrandizing flake who has no legitimate educational or work experience.

Along those same lines…enough already with all the authors claiming to be a “Life Coach” when they can’t list any educational or career credentials justifying that title. While Life Coaching is a genuine career (just ask Tony Robbins), the title has become a trendy, umbrella term that’s frequently appropriated by people for whom a more accurate title would be “Unemployed Guy Who Thinks He’s Good At Helping His Friends Solve Their Problems”.

The fact that you helped your best friend start up her small business and provided moral support during her divorce does not make you a Life Coach, nor does the fact that all your salon clients bring their job, relationship and family problems to you because you give such great advice. A legitimate Life Coach is engaged in Life Coaching as his or her primary occupation, and typically has some kind of certification, or a degree—often an advanced degree—in a subject related to business, counseling or education. A legitimate Life Coach can usually introduce herself as the founder of, or a partner in, a thriving practice with a lengthy list of satisfied clients.

If you genuinely feel you’re in a position to advise others on how to be more organized, self-confident, driven, assertive, etc., but can’t offer degrees or a longstanding practice to back it up, then zero in on the training or career experience you feel justifies the title of Life Coach and spell that out in your author bio instead of just granting yourself the title.

Coming up next time: memoirs and reference books are entirely different things.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hubris, Not Bad Writing Or Design, Sinks Most Self-Published Nonfiction - Part 1

I recently completed a stint of judging nonfiction, indie books for The Next Generation Indie Book Awards. Popular lore holds that most self-published books are of poor quality, both in terms of layout/design and writing, but that was not my experience with these books.

Most of the books had very attractive and professional-looking covers, and many of them had excellent illustrations and interior layout details (i.e., sidebars, recurring graphic elements) as well. While a quarter of the books could’ve done with a thorough edit to ‘trim the fat’, none of the books were so flawed in terms of mechanics as to make them difficult, or even just unpleasant, to read—and I’m somewhat of a stickler for spelling and grammar.

Nevertheless, fewer than half of the books in my allotment seemed worthy of publication and sale to the public, and some clear patterns emerged among those books. In this series of blog posts, I’ll discuss my findings.

Because I am not allowed to disclose the titles of the books I judged, nor the specific category(ies), I’ve changed identifying details of the books in the following examples. (All book titles given below are fabricated, and are not meant to reference any real books)

Experience Doesn’t Always Equal Expertise

A tax attorney who’s struggled with her weight for years finds she’s somehow managed to lose fifteen pounds in one month. On reflection she realizes she’s been eating a lot of hazelnuts lately. Her internet research shows nuts are often encouraged as part of a high-protein, low-carbohydrate diet, and she finds some studies that report hazelnuts have antioxidant properties. BOOM! The Hazelnut Crash Diet book is born.

A computer programmer’s YouTube parody of a celebrity is brought to the attention of the celebrity, who mentions it on a late-night talk show. The clip goes viral in a matter of hours. In the morning, the man learns what happened and finds he has several interview requests from the media…BOOM! How YouTube Can Make You Famous is born.

A caregiver in a nursing home notices the elderly in her care seem more responsive and alert when she plays music over the facility’s public address system. BOOM! Using Music To Beat Alzheimer’s Disease is born.

The tendency of so many authors to base an entire book or belief system on false correlations, or even mere coincidence, was astonishing to me, as was their complete lack of awareness that their ability to formulate a possible cause-and-effect relationship does not make that relationship valid, nor make them experts in either the cause or the effect.

There are many possible explanations for the first woman’s weight loss, but based on little more than intuition she’s concluded that hazelnuts were the key to her success. She’s not remotely qualified to design a safe and effective diet plan, yet here she is, promoting her hazelnut diet as a surefire, safe solution for anyone wishing to lose weight quickly.

If the YouTube guy had come up with a successful strategy to get the celebrity’s attention or the late-night talk show mention, that would be worthy of sharing with the world. In this case, he simply had an incredible stroke of luck that occurred entirely outside his control or even immediate awareness. Yet here he is, claiming he can show anyone how to recreate the same outcome.

The fact that the nursing home residents perked up when they heard music is no indication of music’s efficacy in staving off Alzheimer’s, and the caregiver’s only knowledge of Alzheimer’s comes from a continuing education class she once took and her observations of the elderly in her care. Yet here she is, claiming to have found a cure for a disease that whole armies of researchers and billions of dollars have yet to crack.

Books like the diet book and the Alzheimer’s book were particularly worrying to me because they can affect the health of others. Where very challenging ailments like Alzheimer’s are concerned, sufferers and those who care about them are often desperate enough to try anything that could possibly work. While exposing Alzheimer’s sufferers to music certainly won’t harm them, sufferers or caregivers might choose “music therapy” over other, better treatment options.

One of the books actually encouraged readers to use spoken mantras to treat a common physical ailment for which numerous safe, proven treatments already exist. Furthermore, the ailment was one of those things that's not usually serious, but can develop into something serious if it's not watched closely. By the time a caregiver employing the mantra method realizes the mantra isn't working, the ailment may have progressed to the point that aggressive and risky medical treatments are required. I was dumbfounded by the author's irresponsibility.

I understand there’s such a thing as alternative medicine, and I can also believe that laypeople and amateurs sometimes make discoveries that have evaded professionals and academics. However, I’m not going to take one person’s word for it that she's discovered a new avenue in healthcare or nutrition based on her personal experiences alone—especially when she has no significant background or training in the subject of her book. Background and training are the things that allow a person to tell the difference between a genuine result or discovery and a wrong conclusion.

Many of the authors seemed to think their own, untrained, non-professional interpretations of others’ academic and scientific studies constitutes “independent confirmation”. It doesn’t. I am an animal lover and even spent a number of years studying Veterinary Science and working as a Veterinary Technician while in college. Even so, that past experience and bit of education doesn’t give me all the knowledge and background I’d need to accurately interpret the statistics reported in veterinary studies conducted by actual veterinarians and scientists.

There are very good reasons why doctors, lawyers, physical therapists, nutritionists, accountants, etc. are required to complete years of education and training before being licensed to practice. Judging by the lengthy disclaimers I saw at the front of several books, the authors knew this, yet still deemed themselves capable of going toe-to-toe with the professionals. The disclaimers variously advised readers that nothing in the book should be construed as professional advice, that the reader shouldn't rely on the information provided in the book when making medical, legal or financial decisions, and in one case, went so far as to say the reader shouldn't rely on the book's content as a reliable source of information on the subject matter of the book.

A book that needs a disclaimer like that is a book that never should've been written, and should definitely not be offered for sale to the public.

Coming up next time: nobody wants to take advice from a dabbler.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

1999 Called: It Wants Its Attitudes About Self-Publishing Back

By now, most any writer on Twitter has heard of #queryfail and the subsequent #agentfail. For those of you reading who have no idea what I'm talking about, #queryfail was a collection of Twitter posts made by literary agents in which they variously railed, joked, complained, and talked about failed queries from writers. Writers shot back with their own Twitter stream: #agentfail, in which they mostly railed and complained about how agents fail the authors who query them.

There have been many, many postmortem articles and blog posts on the matter, and when I come across them I'll generally leave a comment noting that indie authors aren't dependent on agents at all. Following one such comment, on a Guardian UK article, I got the following response:

Could we have a reality check here?

April forgot to mention that self-published and vanity published books don't sell, don't get distributed, don't get reviewed, and don't get recognition. The writer has to take on all sorts of admin and PR duties that should be left to the publisher. It's a waste of money you almost certainly don't have, and time that could be spend reading and writing.

And here's my reply:

1999 called; it wants its attitudes about self-publishing back.

My indie books DO sell.

My indie books are distributed by
Amazon, the #1 bookseller in the world. I could also get them stocked by independent brick and mortar booksellers if I wanted to, and in fact have done so in the past, but I've found it's much harder to move those brick-and-mortar store copies than to simply keep selling online.

Anyway, IMO the brick-and-mortar chain bookstore in its current incarnation is an endangered species, and investing heavily in brick-and-mortar distribution is a waste of money for all but the biggest-selling mainstream books. To be clear, yes, I AM saying that it's a waste for MOST mainstream-published books, not just indie books. I blogged about it:
Big Chain Bookstore Death Watch.

My books get reviewed on Amazon and elsewhere, and they get recognition in the form of personal recommendations, recommendations on Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, and mentions in publications as well known as The Wall Street Journal, Business Week and The Huffington Post.

Today's indie author is a far cry from the "vanity" author of yesteryear. Today's indie author is an entrepreneur who realizes he's running a business and acts accordingly. It's actually not all that difficult nor expensive to promote yourself and your books in today's web-centric Western culture, but mainstream publishers still seem to be taking a wait-and-see attitude, as if the web may yet prove to be a temporary fad.

It's no secret that the publishing industry is dragging its feet when it comes to new technology, and given that new technologies are the best ways to reach and meet readers, authors who have signed with mainstream publishers are actually at a disadvantage when it comes to fully leveraging all that the web and related technologies have to offer. Even if a given mainstream author is willing and able to leverage those technologies himself, he's hamstrung by his publisher, who controls not only his work but his image.

Come, Max. Join us here in 2009.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Why Google Book Search Is A GOOD Thing For Indies

Note: This article is a cross-posting from

You’ve probably been hearing a lot about Google Book Search lately. Mainstream publishers and authors are variously confused, angry or nervous about GBS, but for indie authors and small imprints, it’s all good.

What’s This All About, Then?


Google Book Search is a tool from
Google that searches the full text of books that Google scans, converts to text using optical character recognition, and stores in its digital database. The service was formerly known as Google Print when it was introduced at the Frankfurt Book Fair in October 2004. When relevant to a user's keyword search, up to three results from the Google Book Search index are displayed above search results in the Google Web Search service (

A user may also search just for books at the dedicated Google Book Search service. Clicking a result from Google Book Search opens an interface in which the user may view pages from the book as well as content-related advertisements and links to the publisher's website and booksellers. Through a variety of access limitations and security measures, some based on user-tracking, Google limits the number of viewable pages and attempts to prevent page printing and text copying of material under copyright.

GBS Offers Benefits To Authors And Publishers

Book search results served up by GBS include a cover image, table of contents, keywords from each chapter, excerpts from throughout the book, and where-to-buy links. GBS provides publishers and authors with a new avenue to help consumers find their books, read excerpts, and even buy those books.

In addition, authors and publishers who sign up to be a
GBS Partner (required if you want to upload your own books) receive additional benefits. Partners can view reports containing detailed information about when and how their GBS books have been accessed, as well as how frequently GBS users click on the where-to-buy links for their books. GBS book pages also contain Google AdSense ads which have been targeted based on the content of the book currently being viewed, and GBS Partners receive a portion of the ad revenue Google earns for click-throughs on those ads.

So What’s The Problem?

Exposure plus maybe enough ad revenue to buy yourself a fancy coffee once in a while...what’s not to love? If you’re an indie author or small imprint, nothing. But the mainstream has four major beefs with GBS: Google didn’t ask their permission, GBS muddies the question of when a book goes out of print, GBS introduces some level of copyright risk, and publishers and authors have no control over how GBS presents their books to the public.

Google Decided It’s Better To Beg Forgiveness Than Ask Permission

When Google came up with the idea for GBS they realized it would only work if the majority of published books are part of the GBS database, because the more complete the database, the more useful and trustworthy it becomes. Rather than go to all the publishers of the world and ask if GBS could please scan each publisher’s books into their database, Google simply issued a public statement of their intent to do so. GBS also included functionality that allows authors and publishers themselves to upload books directly to the database.

Legal wrangling eventually resulted in a
settlement agreement that allows authors and publishers to opt their books out of GBS, but the default setting for all books is opt-in: unless you specifically take action to opt out per the terms of the agreement, your books are fair game to be scanned or uploaded to the GBS database. Though the agreement was hard-won, most major publishers are not choosing to exercise the opt-out option, and that's making many mainstream authors very nervous.

This is a non-issue for indies, for two reasons. First, indie books are very low on GBS’ list of priorities where getting content for their database is concerned, and are therefore only likely to find their way into the GBS database if we upload them ourselves (effecting a post-facto ‘opt-in’). Secondly, if you don’t want your books in the database but find that someone else has scanned or uploaded them, GBS provides a
simple means to have them removed. Since we retain all rights to our work, we don’t have to go along with a publisher’s decision to opt in or out of GBS.

When Does A Google Books Book Go Out Of Print?

Mainstream publishing contracts typically stipulate that when a publisher stops manufacturing or distributing a given book for sale, publication rights for that book revert to the author. The author is then free to re-publish the book themselves, or through a different publisher. Mainstream authors are worried about the possibility that a book in the GBS database could be construed as “in print” indefinitely, though there have yet to be any court cases to settle the matter.

Indies don’t have to worry about it, because we retain all publication rights to our work from day one. Even if the courts eventually find GBS books meet some legal definition of the term “in print”, thereby allowing publishers to retain publishing rights so long as the books are in the GBS database, it won’t matter to us because we are our own publishers.

Does GBS Pose New Copyright Risks?

Publishers and authors are also worried about the risks of copyright infringement introduced by allowing an outside party to store the entire text of their books in a database, and by allowing excerpts of those books to be displayed online. While GBS provides excerpts, cover images and bibliographic data for every book in its database, it does not provide the full text of any book to GBS users, nor does it provide any easy means to download or even print any of the content shown onscreen.

Given enough time, a motivated, technically skilled pirate could theoretically steal the excerpts and cover images for re-use in some illegal fashion, but the same is possible for any book on a public library shelf. If anything, public libraries and book lending among friends pose a greater piracy threat, since anyone in possession of the entire book can scan or copy its pages for illegal re-use.

There’s also the omnipresent threat posed to any online system: that hackers may find a way to get into the database and download entire files---in this case, books---for nefarious purposes. Possible, yes. Likely, no. And unless you’re a well-known or best-selling author, the risk that a hacker might choose to copy and illegally redistribute your book is very, very small. If you’re worried about GBS security and find your book becoming so popular that piracy is a legitimate concern, you can always just
pull it out of the GBS database.

Presentation And Advertising

GBS serves up book search results in their own, fixed format, and also includes Google AdSense text ads targeted according to the content of the book being displayed on the right-hand side of the page. Authors and publishers have no control over the book display format or content, nor over the advertising display or content.
Those who want to micromanage their book’s image and exclude outside advertising are not pleased, but they don’t seem to realize that so long as their books are available for sale through any online retailer, matters of display and advertising are out of their hands anyway.

Any book available online can be found using a simple Google search, and the results page for any Google search includes targeted Google AdSense advertising links on the far right-hand side. Authors and publishers have no control over the ads, nor do they receive any portion of the revenue earned on those ads.

Furthermore, once the searcher clicks through on a link to Amazon, Borders, B&N or wherever else, the book they’re looking for will be displayed in that store’s standard format, over which authors and publishers have no control. Book listings in online stores almost always include advertising in the form of cross-sell links to other books in which the searcher may be interested---typically, competing books from other authors.

Another complaint in this area is the revenue split on advertising displayed on GBS book pages. Recall that Google splits GBS ad revenue with GBS Partners, and in the case of a mainstream publisher, the publisher will be the GBS Partner, not the author. To me, this seems a matter to be settled between mainstream authors and their publishers rather than a GBS issue.

Yet again, indies have no need for concern here. We can sign up to become GBS Partners and keep all of the ad revenue split for ourselves.

Still Not Sure Whether To Upload Your Books?

If you have concerns about the risks and possible ramifications of allowing your books to be listed on GBS, carefully review the GBS
Program Policies and the settlement agreement with an attorney versed in matters of copyright and publishing law before making any decisions. You might also want to read this Authorweb piece on GBS.

One more thing - if you're self-publishing in the hopes of attracting a mainstream publisher, it's probably best to err on the side of caution and leave your books out of GBS since you can't predict how a future publisher with which you may have dealings will feel about GBS.

My Experience With GBS

I’ve had my novels,
Adelaide Einstein and Snow Ball, listed on GBS since May of 2008. Joining the Partner program was very easy and GBS dovetails seamlessly with other Google services I already use like gmail, AdSense and the like.

From the time I uploaded the books it took about three months for them to show up in GBS searches, but the process is probably bit speedier now that the settlement agreement has again freed GBS to focus the bulk of their energies on scanning and uploading content.

My Partner reports show I’m getting a smattering of page views, but if viewers are subsequently buying my books, they’re not using the GBS where-to-buy links to do so. I’ve also yet to see any ad revenue from GBS. I suspect this meager traffic is due in large part to the fact that while GBS is widely known and discussed in author and publisher circles, the general public is largely unaware of its existence. Go ahead, ask a non-bookish friend or family member if they know about Google Book Search.

As the GBS database grows, and given Google’s track record of success in rolling out new products and services, GBS will probably become as ubiquitous as Google search and gmail eventually. I have no regrets about listing with GBS. I subscribe to the Just Get It Out There In Front Of As Many Eyeballs As Possible school where my books are concerned, and GBS is poised to deliver quite a few eyeballs indeed.