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Should You Crowdsource Your Book?

Today I want to welcome author and nature photographer Mike Spinak, who is here to talk to us about his children’s book Growing Up Humming (which is wonderful; I bought two copies), his behemoth following on Google+ (45,710 people have circled him), and why he crowdsourced his book (Mike funded the publication of Growing Up Humming through a Kickstarter campaign.) Growing_Up_Humming_Cover_Small 12-4-12

MW: Can you tell us a little about Growing Up Humming?

MS: Growing Up Humming is a fact-filled, true story photo book of a mother Anna’s hummingbird and her two chicks, as the chicks grow, mature, and leave the nest. It tells and shows the story of what happens when a mother hummingbird wants her chick to fly, but the chick isn’t ready. Between the lines, there’s a lot any parent or child will relate to, about caring for children and raising them to where they can take care of themselves and about children growing up to where they’re able to fend for themselves. As the story unfolds, it discusses hummingbird biology and behavior, including some things which have never been shown and discussed anywhere else, as far as I’m aware. It’s fully illustrated with large, clear photos of everything the story discusses, giving a front-row-seat view into the world of a hummingbird nest—like you’ve never seen before.

MW: What makes Growing Up Humming different from any other children’s book?

MS: A lot of children’s books are made in a way that doesn’t respect children much. They’re often designed for the lowest common denominator, made to appeal only through bright colors, cuteness, and the like. Often, the pictures and text are merely functional, rather than artful. Relatively few children’s books treat kids like the brilliant beings they are. I know that kids love to learn, and they absorb knowledge like sponges. My book is made to excite and inspire them, while entertainingly weaving substantial scientific concepts and perspective into a true life nature story.

By being both the writer and photographer, I was able to create a kind of book which usually can’t be done by writers who didn’t also do the photography. When an author writes about nature only from ideas in her or his head, and then finds photos to match the story, the result tends to be different than the substance of reality. Because I witnessed everything myself, I was able to make a point-for-point documentary story, rich in the kinds of authentic details and insights which can only come from firsthand experience. Combine that with knowledge as a naturalist, and the result is a children’s book like no other.

MW: While many authors are active on Facebook and Twitter, you spend most of your time on Google+. How long have you been on Google+, and how did you achieve such a leviathan following?

MS: I’ve been on Google+ for about a year and a half.

I doubt anyone can be certain what he did to get a large number of subscribers. Two people can seemingly do the same thing, but end up with very different results. Furthermore, each situation is unique enough that what one person did may have limited applicability to anyone else. That said, here’s how:

I was a well-regarded photographer and modestly well known for my photography long before Google+ came along. That notoriety started about 12 or 13 years ago. At the time, was the biggest photography website on the Internet. had a feature to rate photos 1-10 for aesthetics and 1-10 for originality. After that feature was around for a while, one day premiered a couple more features—one which ranked every photographer on the site based on the ratings for all of their pictures, and another which enabled searching pictures based on their average ratings. When those rolled out, I had the highest rated picture out of millions on their website, and I was the second highest ranked photographer on the website, among almost 300,000 ranked photographers. These lead many millions to look at my pictures and helped me gain modest notoriety. I furthered that notoriety through posting other notable photos on various sites, and that’s surely one factor behind these large numbers.

Nonetheless, there are plenty of photographers who are much better known, who have fewer subscribers on G+ than I do. For example, Frans Lanting. So, notoriety isn’t the only factor; it needs to be parlayed.

While I occasionally have few weak periods of relative inactivity where I post less frequently, I usually post between 1-3 times per day. Additionally, I try to keep the quality of the posts high, making them share something of value to others, rather than just making all my posts about trying to sell folks something. I make many of my posts inspiring and informative. I give original creative content, and/or original opinions and information, not just a re-hash of what’s already old news. Here are a few examples.

Keep the quality of your posts high, and people will take notice. They’ll read through your previous posts, remember who you are, subscribe, and share for others to discover you.

Being accessible also makes a big difference. Don’t be aloof. If you rarely post anything, rarely reply to comments, rarely “circle” people, etc., then people will ignore you as an uninteresting non-entity, no matter how well known you are. When people leave comments, engage them in a discussion. When people catch your attention, circle them.

You will also gain lots of subscribers if you frequently leave insightful comments on other people’s posts—especially if you do this on posts with many replies coming in fast, posted by people with a large readership.

In short, you get out of it what you put into it.

Also, if you want to gain attention on social media sites, in the world of publishing, the photography industry, or anything else: be assertive. Assertiveness starts with confidence in the value of your work and your thinking. Be confident that what you have to offer is substantial and is of interest to anyone, even to renowned experts, the biggest successes in the world, and key influencers. Be ambitious in asserting yourself. To give you an example, I’m going to write to Jane Goodall and Richard Dawkins tomorrow, to get one of them to write a foreword for the next edition of Growing Up Humming. Will this be successful? Hard to say, but I’ll never know until I try. You can be sure the chances of such things are zilch if you don’t try. If you’re persistent, and if you have the substance to back it up, you’ll succeed through such assertiveness at least occasionally.

MW: How many hours do you spend on social media each week? What other social networks do you use besides Google+? Which do you find the most useful?

MS: It’s hard to quantify. I keep windows open in my browser for social media websites, then use social media mostly on breaks from other work at the computer. I’d guess about 5-8 hours per week, on average.

I have at least some bare bones presence on too many to keep track. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Goodreads, Flickr, and probably a dozen more that I’m forgetting. I neglect most of them, mainly responding when I get emails. That’s necessary for efficiency. There aren’t enough hours in the day to give them each a lot of quality time, so I focus more on the ones where I get the most bang for the buck.

Different sites are useful in different ways. Despite Facebook’s bad UI design, buggy code, and ignoble management style, it may be the only one for staying in touch with family and friends who don’t use other sites, therefore the best for that purpose. For several reasons—especially the way Facebook throttles the distribution of your posts to your readership, unless you pay exorbitant fees for promoted posts—Facebook is the least useful for an author’s purposes. Google+ is the fastest, easiest one for building a large readership of people who share your interests and who actively and intelligently engage. Other aspects of Google+, such as its integration and priority with Google Search, also make it the most useful. Twitter is decent for making contacts, driving traffic to your website, and keeping up to date with events relevant to your interests. Goodreads looks like it may be promising for book promotion, but I haven’t yet pursued it enough to make an informed comment.

On the subject of the usefulness of social media websites, let me add an important clarification. Many authors see social media as an avenue for book sales, and lots of publishers are pushing for authors to “build a social media platform” for marketing purposes. While there will always be a few freak anecdotal cases of wild success, most of these authors and publishers are greatly overestimating the marketing value of social media, and they’re likely to be sorely disappointed. Social media is an indirect, multi-step, tenuous, passive method of marketing books. It’s usually extremely inefficient; expect sales conversion rates to be in the low single digit range (in good cases). In other words, most authors should realistically expect to sell well under 5 copies per 100 “followers”, “fans”, contacts, etc on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc.. That’s not to say you won’t sell any books this way, but it is to say that you can sell more books, faster and more easily, in other ways than through social media. Building a social media platform isn’t a marketing plan, even though it will likely sell some books for you. If an author is putting a big effort into building a big social media readership as the primary book marketing plan, that’s just setting herself up for failure and disappointment.

Social media is hugely useful to me. I’ve found friends, love, travel partners, business partners, and more through it. It’s great for learning techniques, getting expert advice, keeping up with news in your field, getting critiques, playing games, meeting people and socializing. However, in terms of generating book sales, it’s best viewed as an afterthought, not as a marketing strategy, nor even as a significant component of a marketing strategy.

MW: What then, is your marketing strategy for Growing Up Humming?

MS: I’m reluctant to discuss my marketing strategy—not because it’s some big secret, but because anyone who tries to emulate it will find it won’t have the same results. Each case is too individual for what I say to apply to anyone else. What may work for print books doesn’t necessarily apply for ebooks. Likewise with children’s books versus adult books, fiction versus nonfiction, photo books versus word books, first book versus fifth in a series, and so on. Furthermore, as David Vandagriff explains, “Nobody knows anything about the indie book business.” Truly.

However, since you asked:
I find that personally contacting people and making a sale is more efficient than social media. So, for example, I call up librarians to sell my book to libraries. I successfully sell my book to a fairly high percentage of librarians I call. Moreover, they usually buy several copies at a time.

So, to make up some approximate numbers: Suppose you average 10 minutes time per librarian you call and / or email; and suppose you succeed with one out of three librarians, and suppose the average is 8 books per sale. At those rates, you can sell about 16 books per hour spent selling books to librarians. And that’s a rather conservative estimate. Whereas through social media, if you sell books to three percent of your contacts, then selling 16 books requires the amount of time and effort it takes to build 533 contacts. For most authors, getting 533 “followers” takes a larger investment than an hour of phone calls and emails.

Likewise, it doesn’t take very long to arrange a book reading and signing event at some venue, and then go give a reading. You can sell dozens of books at each of such readings. I plan to do as many events as I can.

I’m also selling my book to bookstores, art galleries, museum gift shops, national and state park gift shops, arboretums, zoos, gardening shops, toy stores, and so on. I pursue any place where my book might be appropriate. My strategy is to build up thousands of outlets each carrying a half dozen or a dozen copies of my book, each one turning over and ordering more every few months.

Also, there are many hummingbird festivals and events around the country, such as the Hummingbird Days at the UCSC arboretum, I plan to sell my books at as many of those as possible.

Beyond these, I constantly come up with various wacky schemes and pursue them. Book bundles, group deals, online advertisements, book fairs, corporate sales, and so on. Most people try the social media route and little or nothing else. That’s rarely sufficient. Your initial marketing strategies rarely pan out. You have to be inventive, and you have to take an active role. You have to constantly try things and evolve the marketing.

MW: “Whereas through social media, if you sell books to three percent of your contacts …” Is that the ROI you’ve seen with social media? A three percent conversion rate? Are you going by total followers, or by your mailing list? Do you have a mailing list? How many people are on it?

First, let me be clear about separating the concept of return on investment from conversion rate. As I said earlier, I’ve found social media very valuable – just not for generating book sales. When I think of the return on investment I’ve made in social media, I think of the friendships, the important information learned, etc.

As for the conversion rate I’ve had on social media: No, my conversion rate is well below three percent. I was giving a hypothetical example for a typical author with few thousand well-earned “followers”. I’m somewhat of an outlier. I have a much larger group of enthusiasts because I’m modestly well known and well regarded within nature photography. As a broad generalization, as the numbers get much larger, they include a much bigger proportion of fluff of various types (such as spammers, as opposed to loyal enthusiasts). Moreover, in my case, the conversion rate suffered because the conversion was somewhat of a stretch – for example, converting admirers of my landscape photography into children’s book buyers. So, I meant those numbers as a hypothetical example of a good case, whereas I’m a bad case.

Anyway, a writer with a thousand or few “followers” on social media can probably expect those numbers of people to result in a few dozen sales, in all but the most exceptional cases. It’s way lower than authors and publishing houses seem to realize. If people are building a social media platform as their main marketing strategy, then they’ll probably be in for a painful surprise when they experience that the couple thousand “fans” they worked so hard for will earn them just a few dozen sales. This is what I mean when I say your social media platform is best not viewed as a marketing strategy, not even as a significant component of a marketing strategy.

To be clear, I was not referring to a mailing list, just to your numbers of contacts on Facebook, Twitter, etc. With a high quality mailing list – such as a list of people who signed up on their own initiative – the conversion rate should be quite good. Those are self-selected people who are explicitly and knowingly interested in hearing what you have to offer. Of course, if you bloat your list with false leads – such as having people sign up on your mailing list in order to enter a raffle to win a prize – then your conversion rate won’t be as good. But a well built mailing list is pure gold.

I’ve had a decent mailing list as a photographer for a while, but not as a writer. I didn’t try to use my photography related mailing list for my writing. That would not have been appropriate.

I’ve now had a couple hundred people who bought Growing Up Humming sign up for my writing mailing list, so I’m starting to build up a decent mailing list for my next books.

MW: You funded the publishing of your book through a Kickstarter campaign. What made you decide to crowdsource your book?

MS: I had my book finished but unpublished for several months, because I couldn’t afford to (self-)publish it at an uncompromisingly professional level of quality. I was looking for a way to fund the book, and my brother suggested that Kickstarter could work for me. He was right.

MW: What did you use the money for?

MS: First, keep in mind that on average, about 15% of funding doesn’t come through – backers don’t always pay what they commit to pay. Second, you’ll lose another 10% or so to Kickstarter’s commission fees and to credit card processing fees. Be sure to factor all that in, when figuring out how much you need to raise for your project.

The remaining money mostly went into a lot of the things you’d expect, such as graphic design work and and layout. There are also a lot of little things new authors might not anticipate, which in sum add up to substantial costs, such as copyright registration, ISBN codes, hiring someone to fix the formatting for each of various ebook formats, and PayPal fees.

And of course, a lot of the money went toward fulfilling the rewards promised for project backers.

MW: Did you ever consider using PubSlush instead of Kickstarter?

MS: No. I first heard of PubSlush about a month ago, so it wasn’t a consideration. I did consider Indiegogo.

MW: Do you think all wanna-be authors should try crowd sourcing their books?

MS: No. It was right for me, but it’s better suited for some cases than others.

Some people have the impression that they’ll set up a project and get it going in twenty minutes, and the money will come rolling in. The reality is somewhat different. It’s a non-trivial amount of work. You have to fill out lots of forms for signing up, for transferring money from Kickstarter to your bank account, for taxes, and so on. You also have to figure out how much funding you need, create a sensible tiered system of compelling rewards, write a script and then make a video, write up marketing material, get review blurb quotes, go out and promote your campaign to bring in backers, and so on.

For some people who can easily afford it, they might be better off just paying the publishing costs, themselves.

Additionally, some people who consider doing a crowd-sourced funding campaign have this notion that their project’s funding will come from a large set of philanthropists aimlessly poking around Kickstarter, who will randomly find their project and back it. While I don’t think those project backers are entirely mythical, they’re not likely to be of much help for most funding campaigns. For example, 98% of the people who funded my project were people I referred to my project page; 2% were all others. And that is within the context that my project was prominently displayed around the top of the front page of the most popular book projects, the whole time. So, expecting random crowd-sourced project backers to bring your project to life is relying on unrealistic miracles.

If you can’t adequately find potential backers, bring them in, and convince them, then crowd-sourcing is probably not for you.

It helps if backers have solid reasons to think you can make a good book. People who have published other good books have an advantage there. Or, in my case, having hundreds of pages of well-written online articles helped. If you’re an unknown entity with nothing to show, that could be a problem.

Photo books may have an advantage over novels, since I can show photos like this—or this—and people can quickly assess the quality of the work. Assessing the quality of a novel or such may take hours; novelists can’t just show what to expect instantly in a short blurb on their crowd-sourced funding campaign pages.

Furthermore, less speculative projects tend to fare a lot better than highly speculative ones. In other words, projects where you can say “I’ve already finished my book; I just need funding to publish it,” will usually be better received than projects where you say, “I have a great idea for a book; I need funding so I can write it.”

It also makes a big difference if your project is in some way remarkable, and if you can demonstrate that. Saying, “I’ve written a fantasy novel set in the middle ages, with elves, dwarves, and wizards; help me fund publishing it,” or, “I’ve written a paranormal romance with vampires; help me fund publishing it,” isn’t likely to get you anywhere. So has everyone else. How is your book extraordinary? An unknown wanna-be author will have a lot better chance if there is truly something special about her book, and she can compellingly convey what that is.

If you’re unknown and you can’t quickly make clear how your book is special in a way that excites readers, then crowd-sourced funding may not be for you.

As Tobias Buckell has noted, crowd-sourced funding success is likely if you can bring at least two of these three to your campaign, and unlikely if you can’t: “1) an intriguing product; 2) created by a entity that has proven it can deliver it; 3) created by an entity that has a following (or publicity reach).”

Lastly, crowd-sourcing is usually a more sensible option for those who want to self-publish than for those who want to traditionally publish. “Self-publishing versus traditionally publishing” is a big topic to get into. I strongly prefer self-publishing for a lot of reasons, but I wouldn’t recommend it to someone who would rather avoid becoming an entrepreneur.

Those who succeed with crowd-sourced funding have the advantage of starting with the book already in the black, without any money out of their own pockets, and without giving up a major stake to anyone else. They also have the advantage of knowing before proceeding with publishing that the book has public interest and approval, knowing that there is a market for the book.

For those who fit as described above, crowd-sourcing can make writing dreams a reality.

What about you? Have you considered crowdsourcing your book through Kickstarter or PubSlush? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

MikePortraitMike Spinak began photography in 1998. He’s been writing since he was young. Lifelong passions for travel nature and creative expression developed into a lifestyle and career in photography and writing.

He photographs landscapes, wildlife, flora, fungi, patterns – anything and everything nature. He uses naturalist knowledge to find subjects and themes which people rarely see; then uses photography and writing to share his experiences with others. He aspires to show people the beauty and wonder of the natural world, so that they may feel kinship with nature.

His nature photography studio is wherever he finds himself with a camera and nature’s largesse.

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