Line between traditional, indie publishing nearly gone: The Fussy Librarian

Jeffrey Bruner, founder of The Fussy Librarian
Jeffrey Bruner, founder of The Fussy Librarian

Today’s indie authors can punch above their weight and take on traditionally published authors, says The Fussy Librarian founder Jeffrey Bruner.

The Fussy Librarian, based in Des Moines, Iowa, sends daily book recommendations to readers based on their preferences.

“The line between ‘industry’ authors and ‘self-published’ authors has just about vanished,” Bruner, a former journalist for Gannett, tells me. “An author can hire a cover designer and copy editor and produce a book that looks and reads just as well as anything by the big publishers.”

Also read: 
How indie authors can break through the noise with NoiseTrade
How to find readers and get book reviews with Story Cartel

The marketing budget possessed by big publishers might not be as big an advantage as authors think when deciding between indie and traditional publishing, he says.

“The marketing budget of the big publishers usually goes to only a handful of titles — the superstars like James Patterson, John Grisham, etc.,” says Bruner. “Everyone else is getting the crumbs.”

It’s a sentiment also voiced by Guy Kawasaki, the former chief evangelist of Apple, who wrote a book on indie publishing.

“The fact is that they only do [extensive marketing] if you are Hillary Clinton or you’re David Beckham,” Kawasaki said last year. “They don’t do it for the other 10,000 authors every year because frankly they can’t call the New York Times 10,000 times every year.”

Bruner says that indie authors can do a lot with a little. “Self-published authors don’t need to have a huge marketing budget — just enough to create what Kevin Kelly calls 1,000 true fans. Once you have established that base, they will provide the word of mouth to boost you to 50,000, 100,000, 500,000, etc. But the book has to come first and it’s got to be great.”

He points to many tools available to indie authors today, including Rafflecopter for giveaways, MailChimp for mailing list management and PayPal for e-commerce.

“I’m not saying it would have been impossible to self-publish a bestseller 15 years ago, but it’s a lot easier now.”

Meet The Fussy Librarian

The Fussy Librarian
The Fussy Librarian connects indie authors with discerning readers.

The Fussy Librarian seeks to help readers find well-written books, regardless of how they were published.

“We want to be your personal librarian, the person you can turn to when you want to read a good book,” says Bruner. “We’re like a matchmaker for readers.”

The company knows it must court authors if it wants to provide a valuable service to readers.

“Our business doesn’t exist without readers, so they have to be our primary focus … but you’re also not going to last long unless you provide great customer service for authors, too,” says Bruner.

While the Fussy Librarian is not the only game in town for book recommendations on the Web, the company tries to differentiate itself by providing more personalized recommendations to readers, he says.

“A lot of services send you a list of books. We email you a list of books that match your taste in reading.”

The Fussy Librarian breaks down book promotions into emails based on 40 genres, more than competitor BookBub, and also provides content filters for readers who don’t want to see books with profanity or sexual content, he says.

The company has tried to entice authors with competitive pricing offers. Authors pay a fee per genre, but get discounts when they promote books in more than one genre. Also, the Fussy Librarian doesn’t charge extra to promote box sets.

“Our company is privately owned, so we don’t have venture capitalists demanding a return on their investment,” says Bruner. “And we know that most authors aren’t rich, so we try to keep our prices as low as possible. The cost of living is low in Des Moines, so we don’t need to keep much for ourselves.”

How many readers see a promotion varies by the chosen genre, with anywhere from 25,000 for cookbooks to 95,000 for contemporary romance fiction, says Bruner. Readers see anywhere from three to 20 books in each email, depending on their preferences, he says.

With only one full-time and one part-time employee, the Fussy Librarian cannot read every book submitted to the site. To ensure a base-line level of quality, the website requires that books have at least 10 Amazon.com customer reviews with an average score of 4.0. If it’s a new release, the author must have a previously published book with 50 reviews on Amazon averaging 4.0.

Before starting The Fussy Librarian in 2013, Bruner worked as wire chief for Gannett’s national wire desk.

“Like a lot of people in journalism, I decided I needed a Plan B,” he explains. “I worked at the Des Moines Register and its owner, Gannett, started layoffs in 2005 whenever it decided the bottom line needed boosting. After surviving seven or eight rounds, I got tired of waking up each morning wondering if I would still have a job. I also calculated that, when adjusting for inflation, I was actually making less than when I was hired in 2000.”

At first, Bruner kept his day job at Gannett and worked on his new venture at night. Then, in October 2014, he submitted his resignation and made Fussy Librarian his full-time job.

“My only regret is I didn’t do it five years earlier,” he says.

Bruner says the service continues to evolve, with new features on the way. “We’re working on two major projects — one for readers, one for authors — over the next six months. We think they will both be innovations in the book marketing industry, so I’m reluctant to spill too many details, but they both hold tremendous potential and we’re really excited about them.”

How indie authors can break through the noise with NoiseTrade

My biggest challenge as an indie author is getting the word out about my books. In a maelstrom of self-published authors, shouting louder than everyone else is just not a viable strategy–and at worst might very well annoy the audience I’m trying to win.

Lately, I’ve been looking into innovative book marketing companies who promise to help authors reach their audience more effectively than the author can do alone. After giving Story Cartel a go, I also decided to check out NoiseTrade.

My book on NoiseTrade
My book on NoiseTrade

NoiseTrade launched in 2008 as a music website, but expanded into eBooks in 2014. It’s a place for authors and musicians to give away their latest work to hungry readers and music lovers. While NoiseTrade consumers pay nothing to download, they are required to give their email address and postal code, and provide their consent to be added to the author or musician’s e-mail list. Downloaders can decide later to tip the author.

It costs nothing to post a book on NoiseTrade. However, authors can pay $50 to $500 extra to receive promotion in NoiseTrade’s Wednesday newsletter, or $500 to $1000 for a feature in NoiseTrade’s Saturday newsletter, which usually includes an interview.

NoiseTrade counts eight people on its core team. Staff work remotely from Minneapolis, Nashville, Chicago and Atlanta.

Amanda Michelle Moon, head of NoiseTrade Books, told me that she is optimistic about indie publishing. She also gave a few tips about how to have a successful launch on NoiseTrade.

Amanda Moon is the head of NoiseTrade Books and creative coordinator.
Amanda Moon is the head of NoiseTrade Books and creative coordinator.

Q. The publishing industry is in a state of flux right now. Where do you think it’s going, and how well will self-published authors fare against industry published authors?

Amanda: My background (and degree) are both in Music Business. I’ve published two books, and the music experience has helped with the process greatly. Publishing has, and (I believe) will, continue to follow the music industry trajectory. The huge signing bonuses have already gone away, publishers are getting stingy about where they are spending money. It’s going to continue to get harder and harder to get that elusive Big 5 contract.

However, self-published authors have huge opportunities. By getting smart about the business side of publishing, they have the potential to make much more money than most ever would with a publisher. Having to do everything “yourself” is impossible, though, so I am much more an advocate of people thinking of themselves as “Indie” rather than “self” published. “Indie” is independent of a major publisher, but not alone. Very few people can actually do it alone.

Q. How can self-published authors match the marketing budgets of the big publishers?

Amanda: They can’t, and they don’t need to. A lot of publishers work through a formula for each book: Galleys on NetGalley, giveaway on Goodreads, ad in Name Your Large Publication. They can’t look at each book individually and make the strategic decisions that are right for that particular book, they don’t have time. It’s a shotgun approach. A self-published or indie author can take the time to really get to know their readers and target their marketing dollars in more effective ways. Just because a New York Times ad worked for Stephen King doesn’t mean it will work for your horror story.

Q. Could you provide a brief history of NoiseTrade, including when it expanded from music into books?

Amanda: In 2006 one of our founders, singer/songwriter Derek Webb gave away one of his albums for free online, asking in return for a little information (name, email address, and postal code). In three month’s time he gave away over 80,000 full downloads of his album and collected valuable information for as many new fans. As a direct result, Derek saw many sold out shows, increased merchandise and album sales, including a curious spike in sales of the very album that was given for free.

It was the massive success of this experiment that inspired Webb, with the help of a few trusted friends, to start NoiseTrade. Since its launch in 2008, NoiseTrade has seen incredible growth as a marketing and distribution platform for music. Books was added in early 2014. It was an idea that had been kicking around for a while–a few of the founders had ties in the book world, and the similarities between the recording and publishing industries are undeniable.

Q. How many book downloads do you get per month compared to music album downloads? How many musicians and how many authors have posted their work on the site?

Amanda: Music has about 10 times the downloads as books. There are over 20,000 musicians that have used the site in the last seven years, and almost 2,000 authors in the last 18 months.

Q. For an author looking to add their book to NoiseTrade, what tips do you have to maximize the success of a launch?

Amanda: Promote it! So many people put books on our site and don’t do any promotion around them— that has about the same success as putting a book on Amazon and then never pointing people to it. There is a ton of noise, you have to let people know what you have out there. We offer a few tools to help, including a widget that can be embedded on web pages, and a weekly, curated newsletter of paid content.

My NoiseTrade widget for We, The Watched:

Q. What do you tell authors who are worried that putting a book up for free on NoiseTrade might hurt their sales on other channels?

Amanda: Josh Garrels, an independent artist, recently released his new album with us the same day as it dropped at all the major retailers. When factoring in the tips he received, the amount of money he lost was negligible, and he added tens of thousands of new fans to his email list. These are the people who are going to support his subsequent albums, his shows, everything else he’s doing.

Authors have the same opportunity to create dedicated fans as musicians do, but they need to weigh the short-term loss against the long-term gain. We see a lot of authors put excerpts of their books on the site and see minimal engagement and high unsubscribes. It’s because they’re not offering anything other than what someone could find on iBooks or Amazon already, without having to give up their email address. The transaction has to be beneficial for both the author and the reader for it to work.

Q. When someone downloads a book, are they opting in to receive emails from the author?

Amanda:  Yes. When a fan, either music or books, submits their email address to us to download something, they are agreeing to receiving emails from us (our weekly features) and any author/artist whose work they download. We do not share or sell email addresses beyond with the content creators.

Q. Besides NoiseTrade, what other innovative companies are helping self-published authors right now?

Amanda: I’m a huge fan of the model created by InkShares. It’s crowd-funding, but one person can’t spend a bunch of money to get the book through. The crowd really does need to support the project.

WiseInk also has a really great business model. As an author, what I really want is the “Manager” from the music industry: the partner with the experience to help make decisions, coordinate all of the other moving parts, and really help think strategically and long-term for both the particular project, but also for the artist’s career. WiseInk is more of a partner than a traditional publisher, and I love what they’re doing.

Q. What’s coming next for NoiseTrade? What can you tell me about any plans to further expand or enhance your services for authors?

On the immediate horizon are some updates to our weekly emails. We’re adding descriptions to all our books, not just our main features. We’re also launching a book club, where readers are going to have access to ask authors questions on social media. We’re actively working to bring in more genres, and also new readers, and continuing to create a community on the site.

Thanks to Amanda Michelle Moon for the interview. Please also check out my interview with Story Cartel’s Joe Bunting on how authors can get more customer reviews.

How to find readers and get book reviews with Story Cartel

As an independent author, I’m always looking for new ways to promote my books. I recently came across a cool website called Story Cartel. The site is all about finding new readers–and importantly–encouraging them to write reviews on Amazon and other bookseller websites.

I’ve put both of my novels up on Story Cartel in the past few months. Essentially, the book goes up on the site and for three weeks visitors can download it for free in exchange for their email address. At the end of that period, the reader writes a customer review and submits a link to Story Cartel. When they submit the link, they are entered into a contest to win great prizes like an Amazon gift card.

The review itself does not have to be positive–Story Cartel stresses to readers that they should write honest reviews.

I asked Story Cartel founder Joe Bunting about the origins of the site and his thoughts on how authors can best succeed in a time of immense change in the publishing world. Check out his answers below and please leave your own comments.

What was the problem you were trying to solve when you created Story Cartel?

Story Cartel founder Joe Bunting

Joe: Out of the millions of books on sites like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, and all the rest, how do readers figure out which ones they actually want to read? First, they’ll ask their friends, but if their friends aren’t readers or have different taste in books, they turn to reviews.

Not professional reviews in the New York Times or Vanity Fair. Regular readers are much more interested in finding books other people like them are interested in reading.

That’s why getting reviews on their books are the first and most important thing authors can do today to market their books.

We had figured out how to get a lot of reviews on our own books, and so we built Story Cartel to help other authors get reviews on theirs. It’s working out pretty well. Since 2012, we’ve helped authors get over 15,000 reviews on their books. We’re pretty excited about that.

Why do authors need a site like Story Cartel?

Joe: Reviews, especially Amazon reviews, do three things:

  1. Reviews provide social proof. You’re much more likely to buy a book with 100 reviews than one with 3 reviews, even if the 100 reviews are lower than the book with just 3. We all like to read books other people are reading.
  2. Reviews build word of mouth buzz. And word of mouth buzz is what sells books the best.
  3. Reviews work on Amazon’s algorithm. While Amazon is always changing its algorithm, we’ve found that books with more reviews rank higher on Amazon than books with fewer reviews.

How long have you been running, where are you based, and how big is the team?

Joe: We’ve been helping authors since 2012, when we started by launching just one book a week (now we launch over 20 a week, on average). We’re based in Atlanta, Georgia (but we often travel to Santa Barbara, California to escape the heat!), and have a small, busy team of four people.

The publishing industry is in a state of flux right now. Where do you think it’s going, and how well will self-published authors fare against industry published authors?

Joe: From our perspective, publishing has always been about relationship and conversations. Now the conversation is just faster and less centralized.

Publishers in the last model were heavily reliant on book reviewers in magazines and newspapers to generate buzz for their books.

So what do you do when the magazines and newspapers are closing their book review departments and yet the average reader has more of a voice than ever?

We’re doing the same thing publicists have been doing for decades–getting books into the hands of people with influence. The difference is that now everyone has influence!

How can self-published authors match the marketing budgets of the big publishers?

Joe: Honestly, they don’t need to. They just need to make relationships with one reader at a time, one life-long fan at a time. If you have 1,000 fans who are willing to tell all their friends each time you publish a new book, that’s a career. What else do you need?

Here’s how We, The Watched looked on Story Cartel. During the giveaway period, the “Buy on Amazon” button said “Download.”

Besides Story Cartel, are there any other innovative companies in this space you like that are helping self-published authors?

Joe: Story Cartel fits really well with Bookbub, the eBook promotion service that’s helping so many authors sell books online. They require at least 25 reviews before they’ll host your book, so Story Cartel is a good first step before using them.

I like what NoiseTrade books is doing to help authors build relationships with readers by giving away free copies of their books.

There are lots of other great services, but I think it matters less which tools you use and more that you’re developing relationships with your readers online using whatever tools are at your disposal (e.g. email, Twitter, Facebook, your blog, etc).

What are the next steps for Story Cartel? Do you have any plans to expand or improve your services, for example?

Joe: We’re writers ourselves, so I think we’ll always be creating new things to help them. Our sister site, The Write Practice, is all about helping people practice the craft of writing, and we’re in the process of building a publicity agency to help handcraft custom online publicity campaigns, especially for publishers. We just want to help writers, in whatever way we can, and it’s a huge honor to get to do that every day.

Missed the giveaway of my dystopian novel We, The Watched? For a limited time get the book for just $1 at Smashwords with the coupon code JQ73E. Or get it free on NoiseTrade! And please, leave a review!

It’s a myth that New York publishers will market your book better, says Guy Kawasaki

Guy Kawasaki talks to media in Sydney. Credit: Canva
Guy Kawasaki talks to media in Sydney. Credit: Canva

I’ve always been envious of traditionally published authors.

I am the self-published author of two dystopian novels and I know there are advantages to my way, including greater control over the final product and more revenue per sale… but marketing is not easy and it’s certainly not cheap.

So, while self-publishing is going OK for me, there’s always been a voice in the back of my head saying, “This would be so much easier with a New York publisher!”

I have to admit I was a bit surprised when Guy Kawasaki said that’s all a myth.

Guy, the former chief evangelist of Apple, is the author of 12 books and recently self-published one all about this topic called APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur. At a recent media breakfast in Sydney, he said self-publishers can find just as much success as authors with New York publishers–if not more.

“The publishing industry is a very interesting place because it used to be an oligopoly where a few dozen firms in New York controlled the whole world. That is no longer true because of self-publishing and Amazon.”

It can take a year to release a book under the traditional publishing model, he said. “As a self-publisher, from the time manuscript is done–which I can determine–8 hours later it’s for sale on Kindle.”

That all sounded good, but I couldn’t help but feel that Guy might be forgetting that getting initial sales depends on marketing. Maybe Guy is famous enough to sell his own book to thousands of people, but what about the rest of us? I had to ask, wouldn’t a relatively unknown author still get better marketing from a big New York firm?

Guy said no.

“The fact is that they only do those kind of things if you are Hillary Clinton or you’re David Beckham. They don’t do it for the other 10,000 authors every year because frankly they can’t call the New York Times 10,000 times every year.”

In many cases, even traditionally published authors end up doing their own marketing, he said.

“The irony is, if you are lucky enough to garner interest from a New York publisher, one of the first questions they are going to ask you is, ‘What’s your marketing platform?’ Which is kind of ass-backwards because the reason why you’re going to them is for their marketing platform.”

If the publisher actually took care of marketing, Guy said the 90-10 revenue split between publisher and author might make sense. But if that’s not going to happen, it makes little sense for the author to give up 90% of the sales, he said.

With self-publishing through Amazon, the author keeps 70% of each sale. “That’s five times better than what you would get from a publisher,” he said.

The good news, he said, is that self-published authors today have a free marketing platform to get the word out to their audience: social media.

“I’m not saying everyone is guaranteed a bestseller, but at least everybody has a shot and you’re not at the whim of someone in New York.”

Adam Bender is the self-published author of two dystopian novels about surveillance: We, The Watched and Divided We Fall.