“Renegade writer” Linda Formichelli is a book business veteran.
She has written or co-authored more than a dozen traditionally or self-published books. She knows how the business works and what it takes to get her books into the hands of the people she writes them for.
But like so many of you, Linda really and truly just wants to write.
So she decided to outsource much of the marketing for her newest book, How to Do It All: The Revolutionary Plan to Create a Full, Meaningful Life – While Only Occasionally Wanting to Poke Your Eyes Out With a Sharpie. She selected the firm she hired because she felt it would be able to introduce her book to readers outside her existing network.
It didn’t work out too well, as she details in this recent blog post. In fact, hers is a tale of how one author got ripped off.
Linda overspent; her vendor undelivered (and that’s being kind).
She called me for a reality check once she realized she wasn’t getting what she paid for. She wanted someone outside the situation to tell her if she had good reason to want to see more for her money, or if she had expected too much of the service provider.
The more she told me, the more frustrated I was on her behalf. (Be sure to read her story. ) She definitely didn’t get her money’s worth. What’s more, what she’s certain she did get was almost worthless.
Then, instead of working with her to fix the situation as best he could, the business owner did some pretty unprofessional things (all documented in her article).
Answer these questions before signing a contract
I’d like to help you avoid a similar mistake by addressing what to look for and the questions to ask before spending thousands on a consultant.
This list isn’t all-encompassing and the questions aren’t foolproof, of course. But if Linda had taken some of this into account, she might have had a different outcome for her $6,500.
1. Does the firm describe the service you need on its website?
The website for Linda’s vendor emphasizes its publishing services, but there’s little information there about that, even. References to book launch services are linked to email opt-in. There’s no “services” page or anything close to that. There’s barely any information of any substance at all on the site.
These are red flags, people. Red. Flags.
In contrast, one of my favorite book publicists, Author Marketing Experts, tells you what it can do for you on its website. There’s no mystery about the services it provides.
2. Has the firm promoted books in your genre or a similar genre?
With fiction, you want someone with a track record promoting novels. That’s because publicizing fiction takes more creativity and effort than publicizing nonfiction. It requires the same skills, but with fiction, a publicist needs to know how to ferret out the news hooks and run with them.
Similarly, the Amazon optimization process is the same for nonfiction and fiction, but someone who understands what works for fiction will do a better job than someone who has only worked with nonfiction — and vice versa.
In Linda’s case, the book launches her consultant features on its website are for business books that are essentially “lead generators” that help the authors sell e-courses or coaching. The authors have massive email lists, as do their internet marketer buddies.
I suspect that the authors’ networks contributed more to their books’ success than anything else. They tend to be high-profile internet marketers who are constantly promoting each other’s books and programs. (I know this because I’m on their lists.) It would be hard for a book to fail under those circumstances.
There’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, it’s really smart. But Linda’s book doesn’t fit that model.
3. Who is on your team?
. . . and what’s their background?
Linda presumed that because the owner of the company she hired is an entrepreneur, like her, she could trust him. She’s trustworthy, after all.
Her business partner was impressed with his military background, thinking that made him honorable and trustworthy. She recognized his marketing mumbo-jumbo for what it was, though.
Me? I wasn’t impressed by any of it. What’s this guy’s book marketing experience? Where’s his longevity in the industry? How does he know how the business works? Everything about his site shouted internet marketer, not savvy, experienced, book marketer.
I want someone with directly relevant experience — and not just experience marketing their own books. I want to know what they’ve done for others, too. Linda’s consultant might have that experience — I just couldn’t find it on on the website.
In addition, is the person you’re dealing with on the proposal the person who will be doing the work?
If yes, what’s that person’s experience promoting books? If no, who will be doing it, and what’s that person’s experience? You don’t want to be sold by a pro only to be turned over to a novice or worse, an intern.
Yes, some of the work can be done by someone with less experience, but they have to be supervised by someone with a solid track record. Make sure you know who is doing what, what level of supervisions is involved, and so on.
When I was a brand publicist for a large corporation, we only hired small boutique agencies because that ensured that if the owner wasn’t doing most of the work, he or she was at least closely guiding and supervising the person who was.
4. Does the firm’s proposal for your book contain specifics?
This one is tricky. As someone who used to do this, I can tell you that publicists and others providing marketing services walk a fine line between telling prospects enough, and telling them so much that the potential client can take the proposal and execute it herself or perhaps worse, give it to a competing firm with the message: “I want you to do this, but for less money.” (Yes, that happened to me.)
You want a proposal that tells you what the agency will do for you. Leave the how up to the staff.
The “what” should be specific enough to give you a sense of scope, offering specifics on target categories — mom bloggers for a virtual book tour, for example — and quantities — say, 25 of the most appropriate mom bloggers.
That level of specificity lets you assess whether they’re on track.
You’ll note that Linda shared some of the “specifics” from her plan in her blog post. The problem with them is that they don’t tell her enough to know if they’re going after the right audience. For example, the company said it would “Conduct promotional outreach 30 – 60 days out from launch. Arrange podcasts, blogs, and other promotional opportunities with the help of the Client.”
That bullet point in the proposal should have specified the target audience for those blogs and podcasts. As it turned out, the firm pursued business and writing outlets that wouldn’t reach the target audience for Linda’s book. Had they been that specific in the proposal, she would have been able to say, “This is wrong.”
You need that level of detail, too. The agency you’re talking to doesn’t need to give you the names of the blogs and podcasts, but it needs to provide enough information to reassure you that they know who you want to reach and how they should reach them.
5. Will they provide you with references?
In an ideal world, you’ll want a couple of references in your category or niche but when that’s not possible, you want to talk to a couple of clients who are at least nonfiction if that’s your thing and fiction if it’s not.
Here are a few questions to ask:
- Were you satisfied with the work they did for you? Why or why not?
- What did you like the most about working with them? And the least?
- How responsive were they to your questions and requests?
- Would you recommend them?
- What advice would you give me about working with them?
In addition, does the company’s site include author testimonials?
6. Are they willing to work collaboratively with you?
I always advise authors to be collaborative with consultants and publishers when they have them.
How can you divide up the work so that you’re handling what you’re good at and they’re taking on what they do best? This is appropriate if you’ve got the time, skills, and interests, as many do. It will also save you money while freeing the agency up to focus on fewer tasks on your behalf.
This isn’t for everyone, of course. Some authors want to outsource every piece of the promotion process. That’s okay, too. But if you’d like to collaborate, you’ll want to work with someone who welcomes your participation.
7. What is your gut telling you?
I think Linda’s gut was telling her repeatedly that it was seeing a lot of red flags that she was ignoring.
There was something about this guy that she liked — he is probably charismatic, and she was understandably impressed by the fact that he works with some of the “big guys” in the internet marketing world. (Who wouldn’t be? ) But she responded to that, rather than to her gut.
Listen to yours. It will never steer you wrong.
Based on your experience, what would you add to this set of guidelines? Please comment below.
UPDATE, JULY 7, 2016: John Doppler, the “watchdog” for the Alliance of Independent Authors, wrote a thoughtful, objective summary of this situation that examines “how transparency, accountability, and respect are critical to service providers.” I recommend reading “Opinion: The Cautionary Tale of Insurgent Publishing,” for additional insights into what to expect from anyone providing you with a book-related service.
Tip of the Month
If you’re self-published, you probably know that bookstores will only sell your book on consignment. Consignment means that you are paid your “commission” for books sold only after the book are purchased.
It’s important to know how this works if you plan to approach your local bookstores about carrying your book. Stephanie Chandler explains the process and offers a free downloadable bookstore consignment agreement in her article, “How Authors Can Sell to Bookstores” on the Nonfiction Authors Association blog.
Read it and take action!
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