Ether for Authors: Is Today’s Book Marketing All in the Algorithms?

In Discussion by Porter Anderson

9 July 2013 iStock_000020629363XSmall photog CastilloDominici texted story image

Table of Contents

  1. The Author’s Entre­pre­neur­ial Art: Algo­rith­mic Alchemy
  2. Pullinger at the Keyboard: Thanks for the Memories
  3. More on Translation: Aragi and Lee
  4. “Earth­shak­ing,” He Wrote
  5. Reviews, Rec­om­men­da­tions, and Rethinkings
  6. Review­ing the Reviewer
  7. Conferences
  8. Last Gas: Gen­der, Our Abid­ing Hang-Up

The Author’s Entre­pre­neur­ial Art: Algo­rith­mic Alchemy

Your job is to ensure that your book is found by the algorithms, and then you will find that your sales are perpetuated. Success does indeed breed success.

Joanna Penn

Joanna Penn

Think of Joanna Penn these days as marketing about marketing.

Announcing (and I don’t doubt her) that the only way to get back to her own creative work was to put what she’s learned about marketing into a book—there were questions from her fans everywhere but in her fortune cookies, apparently—she has, indeed, published the mercifully explicit title, How To Market a Book.

Truth has arrived. It’s time to abandon your resistance, draw near to the diodes in good faith, and let Sister Joanna lead you into the glittering nightmare. She’s been there:

You might not want to put [your book] in a box or a genre or a category, but you have to, because that’s how readers find it. The category/genre reader has expectations, and if you don’t “fit,” they will be disappointed.

How To Market a Book by Joanna Penn @TheCreativePennThe London-based author writes as the more butch-sounding J.F. Penn when she’s producing her ARKANE series of thrillers. (See today’s Last Gas for a few thoughts on this initials business in authors’ names.) It’s her fiction work she needs to get back to. So she wrote this how-to, a report from the trail ahead for many authors still skulking at the edge of the digital jungle.

Penn, as J.F. or Joanna, is a key figure in self-publishing, a lecturer on various elements of the topic, a co-panelist with me at the last FutureBook Conference in London and a go-to writer among the entrepreneurati, at times as much a pith-helmeted explorer as blogger.

She has seen the carcasses at the side of the path. Heed her:

It’s important to match reader expectations and the promise of what your book delivers with what your book is actually about. There is no point having a book with a swirly, girly pink chic-lit cover in the horror section of fiction. It won’t sell, however good it is.

She’s now on the blog circuit with her marketing guide. In our era of fewer and fewer physical-bookstore tours, and particularly in the world of self-publishing neighborhood, the “blog tour” has become the necessary pilgrimage. One schedules a round robin of columns to reach other people’s audiences with news of one’s new release. You hit the stations of the old blogged cross in a sort of RSS-feed blitz to seize one’s writer-friends’ attention.

How do you know which categories are easier to rank in? Check the number in brackets in the category on Amazon. The lower the number, the easier it probably will be.

How long ago might a guide to marketing your own book have suggested direct-snail-mail campaigns? Sorry, that no longer is optimization. Instead:

You only get to select a couple of categories, so make them count.

It’s at Jane Friedman’s site that Penn’s How to Sell More Books By Optimizing Your Book’s Metadata starts to reveal just what a new world of digital hiss and spray the whole thing has become.

David Gaughran

David Gaughran

Penn, in fact, bows to David Gaughran, another lead figure in the UK-based self-publishing community. His Let’s Get Visible, she writes, is “The very best book to read on the algorithms and how you can understand them.”

In Five Book Marketing Myths You Need To Forget, another blog-tour stop at Gaughran’s site, in fact, Penn will wipe that book-launch-y smirk right off your face:

The launch approach is something that comes from traditional publishing. Because of their business cycles, each book only gets a small window of opportunity to make an impact before everyone moves on to the next book, so the entire focus is to make the bulk of sales in the first month…In fact, launch sales are generally disappointing compared to what happens once the Amazon algorithms kick in and you get some traction around reviews and reputation. In my experience, sales can be better a few months after the book is initially available because of all the algorithm juice.

And back at Friedman’s site, Penn is taking her readers by the hand and turning them around to see the vast numbers-scape rising up behind them:

With my book Career Change, when I checked the volume of searches, I found the following: how to enjoy your job – 5,400 global monthly searches; changing careers – 27,100 global monthly searches; I need a career – 60,500 global monthly searches; choosing a career – 40,500 global monthly searches; career change – 165,000 global monthly searches.

Let's Get Visible by @DavidGaughranWhat she’s on about there is how to get your keywords and phrases right. So the readers find your work when they search for related concepts. Nor is Penn without compassion:

I know things like metadata, keywords, search engine optimization, and algorithms might be overwhelming if you’re totally new to the concept.

But it is the concept. Even the most print-focused traditional publishers are mulling their metadata, starting to realize that however their books are distributed and sold, digital entry, accuracy, profiles, and tracking simply are essential. And there are authors among us—I’d bet that Penn and Gaughran are two of them—who know more about digital book marketing than some established publishers’ staffs. How you navigate the digital tide of algorithmic data can mean your book’s success or failure in a markeplace groaning under what Bowker tells us is more than 30 million titles. Penn:

It is an important part of being an author in a world increasingly driven by search.

Your first and most influential reader may well be a machine. Back to Table of Contents

Pullinger at the Keyboard: Thanks for the Memories

Live writing events are always both exciting and unpredictable.

Kate Pullinger

Kate Pullinger

And while you may think you’re pretty much writing live every time you write (writing dead being so hard to pull off), author Kate Pullinger means something more Houdini-ish when she says “live writing.” If you’re reading this on July 9 and can catch part of the day in Queensland, Australia (GMT + 10 hours), you might be able to see what she’s producing in real time at this address. Pullinger is the Canadian author of The Mistress of Nothing (which won her the country’s Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction). Her novel Landing Gear has a May 2014 publication date with Doubleday Random House in Canada and with Simon & Schuster in the US. She teaches creative writing and digitalia at Bath Spa University.

Memory Makes Us - Pullinger and If Book AustraliaNever one to run from a goldfish bowl, Pullinger is seated (or maybe standing) at the State Library of Queensland and is using random memories contributed by people to put together something of a story. Even her output, we’re told, may be short-lived, though it will be visible for a limited time at the site.

The project is an effort of if:book Australia, and—again, pending whether you can get a jump on things from where you are in the world—you can offer a memory for Pullinger to work with or on Twitter by using the hashtag #memorymakesus during the day in Brisbane. Library goers on site will also be leaving her memories by writing them down for her.

Live typing!  Live deleting!  Maybe even some live procrastination if you are really lucky.

If Book AustraliaIn a statement, Pullinger says:

For me, the theme of memory is very rich—lost memories, memories that surface unbidden when triggered by the smell of someone’s perfume, the sound of heels crossing a floor…Memory Makes Us is an opportunity to explore what the city and its people choose to remember.

So check it out. If you can remember.

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More on Translation: Aragi and Lee

Nicole Aragi, in an image from, courtesy Deborah Treisman

Nicole Aragi, in an image from, courtesy Deborah Treisman

I don’t know what the solution is. We should have more works available in translation. I think one problem is that I don’t read in other languages, and that most agents don’t either. If you can’t read a book in its original language and form a view on it, then that’s the first barrier. You need to find a reader in that language who you can absolutely trust, but even then, where is the personal response you need in order to know you really love something?

That’s agent Nicole Aragi talking with Jonathan Lee in his fine profile of her, Literary  Culture Clash, for Guernica Magazine.

Last week here on the Ether, we referred to Publishing PerspectivesEdward Nawotka’s discussion piece on Amazon Publishing’s status as the leader in translation, Which is the US’s Most Prolific Literary Translation House?

Guernica MagazineHere, Lee points out that some figures put translated works at only some three percent of books published in the States. Aragi notes:

There’s resistance on the part of the publishing houses. There’s a belief that readers are far less likely to buy a book that has “translated by” on the cover. The feeling is that readers will see those words and think the book is more difficult, less enjoyable, than something originally written in English. That they’ll think of it as homework rather than reading pleasure.

Jonathan Lee

Jonathan Lee

And she puts her faith—while wishing that more of teh industry would do so—in the readers:

I do think readers are by and large more open-minded than we give them credit for. But publishers have to spend their lives guessing at what people will want a couple of years from the date the manuscript is sent to them by an agent. It’s not easy, and they get nervous…

We think of books in translation too earnestly and then publish them too earnestly, and then we’re surprised when they feel earnest. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This is a rich, long interview, perfect for a good summer evening read. Aragi and Lee are good company, I recommend them.

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“Earth­shak­ing,” He Wrote

This is earthshaking. I am not sure enough people in our business are seeing it that way. Or maybe they don’t talk about it much because it’s scary and there’s not much they can do about it.

Mike Shatzkin

Mike Shatzkin

And it’s almost Ether-shaking that I’ve got Mike Shatzkin in the column again. But at the risk of turning the Ether into “Mike Tonight” (we’ve had a lot of strong material from him of late), I do want to call your attention quickly to a piece that dovetails very well with another discussion of late—the advice of some that authors must give up sales links from their sites to Amazon in favor of local independent bookstores. Shatzkin’s write, An innocent story with dramatic implications, is based on reports of how Hachette UK “is seeing ‘nearly half’ of its sales taking place online.” By studying the reports and their online-vs.-offline implications, Shatzkin gets this:

The chances are that Amazon has 80% or more of the online sales in the UK (NOOK, which takes approximately 20% of the ebook sales in the US, is much less powerful there.)

This is, yes, pretty close to earthshaking in terms of what that kind of market dominance can mean for the shape and dynamic of bookselling in the UK market and elsewhere. Shatzkin’s write is not long, and well worth your time. And the suggestion from some booksellers that authors give up their Internet links to buy pages on Amazon in favor of links to independent bookstores is the topic of the latest Writing on the Ether at

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VQR Poem by @BartonSmock for Ether 9 July tumblr_mpgvaxPrSs1rmbkfqo1_1280

Reviews, Rec­om­men­da­tions, and Rethinkings

Although I haven’t paid much attention to reviews on either site, my impression has been that Goodreads offers fairly considered and balanced observations, while Amazon, more often, offers either blatant adoration of a book or a flippant rejection, all in one sentence.

Corina Koch MacLeod, left, and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing

Corina Koch MacLeod, left, and Carla Douglas of Beyond Paper Editing

Carla Douglas, who with Corina Koch MacLeod produces the Beyond Paper Editing site for writers, wrote a piece headlined Goodreads vs. Amazon Customer Reviews—What’s the Difference?

And while her conclusions aren’t final, she found a couple of surprises waiting. Her observations relate to Writing on the Ether: Let’s Review Criticism, in which a good bit of discussion revolved around what I like to think of as a recent and third leg of response to literature — the recommendation culture.

Douglas writes:

Goodreads “reviews” aren’t really reviews but recommendations, and the structure of the platform encourages any and all to contribute their opinions, considered or not.

If the original form of professional literary criticism was just that, a type of artistic criticism later joined by the second development, consumer review (which is focused on customer guidance, not necessarily on critical appraisal), then that third  element is recommendation. That’s a fairly recent phenomenon compellingly generated and made a force today, of course, by the Amazon-acquired Goodreads with its membership of more than 18 million folks.

Beyond Paper EditingTo Douglas’ surprise, she found more to commend the consumer review process at Amazon than she’d anticipated:

I learned that my opinion of Amazon’s customer reviews was not really supported by what I found on the site. Yes, there are one- and two-sentence blurbs that either trash a book or proclaim it to be the best ever written…On the whole, however, I found that most Amazon customer reviews aim to provide readers with a reason to either read a book or pass it over. And, many of the reviews I looked at were three or more paragraphs of well-supported argument. Not at all what I was expecting – this landscape is changing, and I haven’t kept up.

Douglas brings some considered input to the table to analyze what she has seen on both Amazon and Goodreads’ sites, but ends up, it seems, feeling that both approaches are two sides of the same coin.

They are all part of a great big online book club.

As such, remember, both sites may be doing exactly what their creators and owners intend them to do.

The questions that remain, as Douglas puts it, have to do with the fact that “the definition of review has changed” and that there are “questions about culture and entertainment that we aren’t pausing to ask.”

In trying to discern better, myself, what we have and could have and should have today in terms of criticism—and to be blunt about it, how to make something richer and less tied to consumerism palatable to the average reader—I welcome Douglas’ interest, as I think my colleague in some of these debates, Bethanne Patrick, will, too.

I like Douglas’ fundamental point. “Authors and their readers deserve…a language with which to examine, discuss and appreciate their work more deeply.”

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Review­ing the Reviewer

Laura Miller

Laura Miller

If you’re not fully familiar with what’s meant by “literary criticism”—and in a day when so much is consumer review and recommendation—have a look at critic Laura Miller’s “I Wear the Black Hat”: Villainy for beginners at Salon.

She’s covering pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman’s new book and thus applies the principles of critical review here to the more widely accessible nature of her subject’s work.

I can’t honestly call myself a Klosterman fan…although I did very much enjoy “I Wear the Black Hat: Grappling With Villains (Real and Imagined),” his new collection of linked essays. I’ve never read anything else by him, apart from the occasional journalism, mostly because I’ve understood him to write primarily about pop music and sports. These are subjects in which I have not only no interest, but also insufficient knowledge with which to assess such observations as, “They put way too much effort into acting like they were pretending to work hard at casual brilliance” — made about a band called the Yeah Yeah Yeahs.

I Wear the Black Hat by Chuck KlostermanThe combination of Miller’s duly announced distance from the material and Klosterman’s work and book produce a curious and revealing critical turn:

Attaching great significance to matters of taste is what rock critics do. In a byzantine account of the switchbacking reputation of Taylor Swift included in the same essay, Klosterman conveys the absurdity of the rock-critical enterprise, in which capricious style choices and public-relations moves are scrutinized for their compliance with a chimerical standard of authenticity. Recognizing this absurdity precipitated a crisis because caring about such matters was once, apparently, the organizing principle of Klosterman’s worldview.

This is an entertaining and instructive read which, true to serious criticism, never tells you to dash out and buy the book or to avoid it.

There’s no recommendation. Those are the functions of other forms of review.

SalonNo, once Miller can define the character of Klosterman’s worldview—and the world’s views of him—then she can illuminate his work through the lens of her own:

The value of arguments like Klosterman’s lies less in their ironclad validity than in the pleasure to be found in kicking them around.

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If you have a publishing conference in the offing, let me know about it via my contact page, and I’ll be happy to consider including it in my site’s listing and in columns as I have the chance. Here’s a look at conferences coming in the near term.  Please note that a listing here is not my endorsement of a conference or other event, but an informational inclusion.

July 9 London Southbank: The Bookseller Marketing & Publicity Conference: “The Bookseller Marketing & Publicity Conference launches as a full-day event (Tuesday 9th July 2013 at the Purcell Room, Southbank Centre), for the first time. The programme will reflect that the lines between publicity and marketing are blurring. The aim of the conference is to provide inspiration and practical tips to drive sales and reader engagement. We’ll be bringing marketing, publicity and brand leaders from outside the industry to give us some time to look up from our books and understand the wider trends.” List of speakers.

July 14-19 New Haven (Greenberg Conference Center): Yale Publishing Course – Leadership Strategies in Magazine & Digital Publishing: “The Yale Publishing Course is designed for mid- to senior-level professionals from all over the world. Our mission is to provide participants with the knowledge and skills that will enable them to be more effective leaders and advance their careers.” List of speakers and topics.

July 21-26  New Haven (Greenberg Conference Center): Yale Publishing Course – Leadership Strategies in Book Publishing: “The program provides a mixture of overviews of the current and future state of the industry and in-depth explorations of specific topics in editorial content, design, marketing, circulation, advertising, finance, and management. The carefully-selected industry experts and distinguished faculty from the Yale School of Management present real-world business models and case studies from both large and small publishers.” List of speakers and topics (including Publishing Perspectives’ Ed Nawotka, Perseus’ Rick Joyce, Sourcebooks’ Dominique Raccah, and Craig Mod).

July 25-28 Seattle: Pacific Northwest Writers Association: “This annual summer conference is an opportunity for writers of all levels to meet other writers, attend sessions focused on different aspects of the craft, and pitch your ideas to agents and editors. Sessions led by industry experts are crafted to address many aspects of the publishing industry. From keeping track of your expenses to crafting the perfect pitch, sessions give you a chance to interact with experts and ask questions in a friendly and open environment.” Speakers include Donald Maass, Debbie Macomber.

September 26 New York City (Metropolitan Pavilion): Marketing + Publishing Services Conference & Expo: “This innovative conference & expo is really two related shows, held together. The Marketing Conference is a full-day dedicated event that presents a comprehensive strategy for marketing in the digital age. ThePublishing Services Expo offers three finely-targeted “mini-conferences” for important and often-overlooked publishing constituencies. Each track is an affordably priced, efficiently programmed two-and-half-hour session that pairs concise educational sessions with vendor speed dating to learn about new solutions.” Produced by Digital Book World and Publishers Launch (Publishers Lunch’s Michael Cader and Mike Shatzkin). Early Bird pricing offers $50 off through July 19.

September  27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest Conference West: “You’ll make real connections with fellow writers, experience the thrill of pitching your work to literary agents and editors, and get practical publishing-industry advice and writing inspiration from successful authors at Writer’s Digest Conference West.” Speakers include: Jon Fine, Nina Amir, Philip Athans, James Scott Bell, Lisa Cron, Eric DelaBarre, and more. The program this year includes boot camp sessions, a one-day self-publishing conference, and the regular conference with agent pitch slam. (Hashtag: #WDCW13) Early Bird pricing offers $50 off through July 19.

Screenwriters World West 2013 - #SWCW13September 27-29 Los Angeles: Writers Digest’s Screenwriters World Conference West:  “Scribes from around the world unite at Screenwriters World, the annual destination for both professional and aspiring screenwriters to come together to discuss the craft, share ideas, and network with fellow creatives.” Speakers include Erik Bork, Ruth Atkinson, Josie Brown, Karl Iglesias, Jeanne V. Bowerman, and more. The schedule this year includes optional boot camp sessions.  (Hashtag: #SWCW13Early Bird pricing offers $50 off through July 19.

CONTEC Frankfurt 2013October 8 Frankfurt Book Fair: CONTEC:  “A new, highly-engaging event experience created by the Frankfurt Academy to address the complexity of the needs of today’s publishing business. CONTEC gathers stakeholders from across the publishing ecosystem – from STM and trade publishers to service providers and tech startups – in one arena to redefine and redesign the experience of publishing.” Register by July 15 and save 20 percent. 

October 12 San Francisco: Writing for Change Conference: “The Fifth San Francisco Writing for Change Conference is the place to discover whether your book can change the world. The theme of the conference is “Changing the World One Book at a Time,” and the goal is to encompass business, politics, technology, social issues, the environment, culture, the law, and much more.” The event will be held at the Unitarian Universalist Center at the corner of Geary and Franklin in San Francisco.

November 21, London: The Bookseller FutureBook Conference: Once again at the Queen Elizabeth II Centre in Westminster, the conference is industry-focused and usually includes both plenary and breakout sessions during the course of the day. Details as they become available.

February 13-16, 2014: San Francisco Writers Conference: “Attendees have access to more than fifty “how to” sessions, panels, and workshops.  An Independent Editor consultation and Ask a Pro are included in the registration fee. Our famously popular Speed Dating for Agents is still only $50 to pitch to a room full of agents.  And you will find there are plenty of one-on-one opportunities to pitch your work to well-known publishing professionals during the weekend. The Conference features large and small traditional publishing houses, but also gives attendees the latest e-publishing, social media, and self-publishing information.”

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Last Gas: Gen­der, Our Abid­ing Hang-Up


It doesn’t seem to bother anybody that I can write at least somewhat believable murderers without having killed anyone (that I can discuss). But a woman! Amazing! How does he do it?


Jeff Cohen / E.J. Copperman

Jeff Cohen / E.J. Copperman

The first thing I like about author Jeff Cohen’s blog post Sex, sex, sex! (Okay, Gender) is this line:

The best part is that they think E.J. is a woman.

See, I’ve been trying to get this across to women who write under initials for some time. Readers don’t think you’re a man when you use initials for your author name. They think you’re a woman. Like JK What’s Her Name.

I’ve been glad, for that reason, to discover that Joanna Penn’s new how-to, How To Market a Book is published under her name rather than J.F. Penn, the pseudonym she uses for fiction.

Cohen, on the other hand, is on to another interesting angle: why do so many people think gender is the ultimate barrier to writerly interpretation? He writes:

The questions one gets…are a little baffling. “How can you possibly write from a woman’s point of view?”

The Thrill of the Haunt by E.J. Copperman who is Jeff Cohen @ejAs Copperman, Cohen writes a series of “Haunted Guest House Mysteries” with puns in the titles, the newest of which, The Thrill of the Haunt, is scheduled to release November 5. And from what we read here, you can expect that one, like the others, to be written from a woman’s point of view.

Roughly half the people on the planet are female. If, as a writer of fiction, I can’t imagine their point of view, I had better restrict myself to stories in men’s correctional institutions or look for another line of work…I know it’s hard to fathom, but I’ve met a number of women in my life. I’m married to one of them. We’ve been living together for 26 years.  Another was one of the two people who raised me. I lived in her house for 20 years. Writers observe other people and use what they observe to create fiction. I have observed women. (When I was younger, I observed women a LOT, but I’m married now. To a woman.)

And just to drive home how badly some people need to get a grip, Cohen points out:

Spencer Quinn (aka Peter Abrahams, not to spoil your illusion) writes a series of mystery novels in which the narrator is the detective’s dog. I’ll give you a moment, if you haven’t read Chet and Bernie (and you should). A dog. And he’s the narrator.

Somehow, I’ve missed the pleasure of the Chet and Bernie books. I think I’ll continue to forgo that entertainment. But Cohen’s point is well taken.

It does look like people could get over the gender thing, doesn’t it?

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Porter Anderson is a Fellow with the National Critics Institute, a 32-year journalist with several newspapers and three networks of CNN, as well as a producer posted to the Rome headquarters of the United Nations’ World Food Programme. This column, Ether for Authors, appears here at Publishing Perspectives on Tuesdays. Anderson’s Writing on the Ether is read on Thursdays at, and he is a regular contributor to His all-new London on the Ether for The Bookseller was inaugurated during the London Book Fair. More about him is at

Main image / iStockphoto: CastilloDomenici

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson is a non-resident fellow of Trends Research & Advisory, and he has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson was for more than a decade a senior producer and anchor with, CNN International, and CNN USA. As an arts critic (National Critics Institute), he was with The Village Voice, the Dallas Times Herald, and the Tampa Tribune, now the Tampa Bay Times. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman.