Monday, January 27, 2014

Are You Suffering From Author-Related Data Overload? Here's How To Start An Information Diet

How information overload actually looks like

Are you exhausted? Do you feel dazed and dizzy and overwhelmed and just want it to stop? I'm talking about information about writing. Personally, I've had enough, and in this post I am going to describe how I got to this point and what I intend to do about it. I'll also share with you the principles and details of my new information diet, so that you'll be able to design your own one too.

How it began: About two months ago I came out of the writing closet and embarked upon a mission to make a living as a writer. Since then I have attempted to learn as much as I can about the business of writing. I began with Joe Konrath's blog, A Newbie's Guide to Publishing, and eventually subscribed to another 16 blog feeds, including the Creative Penn where I downloaded a free copy of Author 2.0,  described as "Your blueprint for writing, publishing, and marketing your book". This document spurred me to begin creating my online platform, and since then I've been busy with creating this blog and trying out various social media avenues, including Google+. I really like Google+, as I've already documented, but it has been my information downfall.  I'm following several writing communities and over a hundred authors, publishers, and book marketers, all of whom generously share their knowledge and experience with their peers. The result has been an avalanche of information, and a few weeks ago a voice in my head uncharacteristically complained: "not another article". It was then that I realized that something must change, that I must bring some kind of order into this chaos that has suddenly taken over my entire life, online and off. So I've decided to go on an information diet, meaning that until further notice, I will read only what I absolutely need to read.

The information you actually need

The first step in an information diet is deciding what you need to know. In fact, this is a principle applied by every intelligence unit (the specific term is a "Request for Information"). Resources are limited, even for large countries, and therefore must be concentrated on the most important objectives. So what are my objectives? As stated above I want to make a living from writing, and therefore I require information in these areas:

1 - The craft of writing
2 - Publishing
3 - Marketing

These can and should be broken down further in order to narrow down the range of desired information.

1- The craft of writing

This topic involves the psychological and technical aspects of writing. Psychological aspects include things like getting motivated to write, writer's block, and other dragons as specified here. Technical issues include subjects such as how many characters you should have, the use of friction between characters, the Case for Writing a Story Before Knowing How It Ends, How to write your book’s first draft like a professional, and more. For the most part, I am not interested in this kind of information. I have already solved enough of the psychological aspects of being creative, so that they are not an issue for me. Technically, I definitely have room for improvement, but I really enjoy figuring out this stuff for myself, as I write. For me, it's a very enjoyable part of the process. Nonetheless, I was happy to come across C.M Skeira's incredible cheat sheets. I haven't used them yet but I'm sure they'll come in handy at some point. These emotional and trait thesaurus's seem useful as well. World-building is a major concern of mine, so this kind of article interests me very much "Creating a Story Bible: Turning Concepts into Facts" (actually, I found out there is a great Google+ world building community). But probably the most important writing-related article I came across in the past two months had to do with writing under severe time constraints (tips for writing in short blocks of time,), which I do suffer from (This, on the same subject, is useful too). So in summary, this is not an important issue for me at the moment, and I will not be reading or subscribing to sites whose primary focus is the craft of writing.

In summary, in the field of writing, as in any other field of information, there are things I need to know, things I already know, and things I don't have to know, as follows:

➤ What I already know about writing: The psychological aspects and some of the technical ones

➤What I need to know about writing: My ideas almost invariably involve world building, so that is a subject I will want to look out for.

➤What I don't need to know about writing: most everything else, at least for now

2 - Publishing

This includes the entire publication process, from preparing the manuscript itself to how, where, and through what or with whom to publish. Let's break it down:
  • Traditional or self-publishing? The first big question here is whether you are going for traditional or self-publishing. Personally, I don't see the point of wasting my time trying to convince a publisher that I am worth publishing; I'd much rather spend it finding my audience and connecting to it directly. So for me, self-publishing is the way. This also means that the entire subject of agents is a non-starter for me, so posts like Query Letters: What Agents Love And Loathe are irrelevant.

  • Paperback or digital or both? The second big issue is whether to publish paperback, digital or both. At the moment, I am concentrating on digital only. If and when I'll have to do paperback, I am already aware of the usual options such as Createspace, Lulu, and Lightning, and there is no lack of comparisons between them on the web (see one example here). But since the quality and services offered by each platform develop and change very quickly, there is no use in studying this subject until it is actually relevant. So for now I'm self-publishing digitally.

  • Choosing a publisher: The next question is through what vendor should I publish? I published my first novella two years ago on Smashwords. I chose this platform and not Amazon because I really do not like the idea of DRM, and also Mark Coker's entire approach to the indie author and market appealed to me; I feel that he gets it. I have seen that many people have had trouble, especially with formatting, on this platform, but for me it has been a breeze. I've published, unpublished, and republished numerous times with no problem at all. I like that Smashwords distributes in every format to almost every other book selling venue in the world except Amazon, and the only quibble I have is that Smashwords pays out every three months, which is extremely unreasonable, in my opinion. Amazon has the advantage of a very wide readership; that's where the most customers are, and I will definitely publish my upcoming book there, so anything that has to do with Amazon and Kindle is of interest to me. For instance, a service that lets you create multi-region Kindle eBooks links , or a post on How to Add Global Amazon Links to Your Document are issues that would get my attention.
    In the two months I've been gathering information, I have also come to realize that there are many other publishing services used by other indie authors such as Libiro (which does not seem very professional, yet), BookBaby, Kobo, and perhaps a dozen more. But currently, and in order to save me precious time, I'm sticking with Smashwords (see here for an earlier but still interesting comparison between BookBaby and Smashwords). Nonetheless, recently the Creative Penn pointed out another very intriguing option: selling directly from your own site through Payhip. I haven't tried it out yet but this seems to me what I should be aiming for eventually: complete independence from other retailers, or at least as near as I can get to it.

  • Preparing the manuscript for publication:  This is pretty easy, and if you've heard it once you've heard it a thousand times: at the very least, you should proofread your manuscript.The cover should look professional and meet the expectations of your genre. One must add various marketing materials to the book, cross promote, and so on. These issues are discussed in Mark Coker's marketing and e-book success guides, which are free.

In summary, in the field of publishing:

➤What I need to know about publishing: How publishing on Amazon Kindle works; anything to do with the entire self-publishing process as long as it's new to me and relevant to my needs.

➤What I don't need to know about publishing: Information about printing and publishing like  "How printing your book can help you get a book deal", anything that has to do with competitions/submissions to publishers or magazines, such as "On the Subject of Submission Fees", or "3 tools that’ll make the submissions process easier for writers", and anything to do with agents (unless they have "007" after their names), such as "Eleven Steps to Finding an Agent". 

3 - Marketing

Let's begin with some data:
ISBN data by ProQuest affiliate Bowker reveals that the number of self-published titles in 2012 jumped to more than 391,000, up 59 percent over 2011 and 422 percent over 2007. Ebooks continue to gain on print, comprising 40 percent of the ISBNs that were self-published in 2012, up from just 11 percent in 2007.
In other words, in the past year nearly four hundred thousand books were published by indies alone. That's a lot of noise to get through and the question every indie has to ask is: how to do it? The answer is marketing and here we enter the most complex field, at least for me. Even though I do have some prior experience, having already established a freelance business as a translator and editor, marketing my books as an author is an entirely different beast. Thus, I feel that I have to study this subject very well before I can do anything meaningful and effective. To date I have read Mark Coker's guides and Joanna Penn's Author 2.0, both of which are free and linked above. I have also been reading voraciously on this subject in the past two months and here are my conclusions, on the basis of which I will organize and prioritize information:

Audience: First, an author must decide what his or her audience is. Quoted in the excellent "To Market Series", five-star mystery author, R.S. Guthrie, says:
[Seek] the specific reader groups for your genre on Goodreads, Facebook, or any other social site. When specifically looking for readers, you want to target forums, groups, etc. that closely match your writing. No sense spending a lot of time in Romance groups when you write Science Fiction. :)
This is probably easier for authors who write to a specific genre. Personally, I haven't been able to figure out what my genre is, even though there seem to be dozens and they keep multiplying like rabbits: Every time I look, another litter of sub-genres appears in the lists. Anyway, my first story, the Jewminator, is probably best-marketed to an American-Israeli/Jewish audience, but Captain Tofu and the Green Team is intended for vegan readers - two completely different audiences - and my next novel will deal with LGBT this is not good. I write all over the place and the only common denominator is me, the author. Therefore I've decided that I will have to do two things: market myself as an author, and market each novel to its separate audience.
Increasing discoverability and visibility can be accomplished through building an author platform, social media, reviews, book-discovery sites, and things that cost money.

The author platform: You don't need me to tell you to do this. Your platform is like a house and the guests are your readers, in other words, no house - no guests. For the moment, I've established a platform on Blogger, because I am very familiar with it and doing so was very fast for me. Also, in the past I had a really bad experience with WordPress. I'll probably have to move eventually but I am deferring that for now.  Anyway, I'm blogging, I really enjoy it, and I thinks it's a great way to let people get to know me and increase my overall visibility. Therefore, anything that has to do with blogging is of interest to me and especially regarding how to increase readership and exposure. A post like "11 Essential Ingredients Every Blog Post Needs" by Copyblogger is great, as is"How I promote my new blog posts" (an absolutely exhaustive list of options).

Social media: If your author platform is a house, then social media is like a coffee shop or pub - you meet interesting people, make friends, and then invite them to your place. The question is, which social media to use? There are dozens of options. Twitter, Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, and LinkedIn are the largest, but there are many others such as YouTube, Tumbler, Tribbler, Instagram, Reddit, and more. I've already tried out Facebook (see the post here) and I'm beginning to think that it's just a dead end for small businesses, so I refuse to invest anymore time there (For more on Facebook as a dead end see here). I didn't enjoy Twitter when I tried it as a business, and Linkedin is way too serious for me, although it could be great for non-fiction authors. Google+ is a winner for me, as I've already explained here, and I'm beginning to see the fascination of Pinterest (see the Pinterest for Authors post here). But in practical terms, I really only have time for some blogging and Google+, and maybe some Pinning on the side. After all, if you spend all day at the pub, when are you going to actually get your work done? Therefore, information that has to do with working on Google+ (such as how to do a hangout) will interest me, and I'm also keeping an eye on posts concerning Pinterest.

Book reviews and discovery services: Book reviews seem to be crucial to marketing success, according to everyone, so how to get book reviews in general and how to get helpful reviews is an important issue for me. A post like "Getting Book Reviews: The Methods Award-Winning Authors Use – A Study" definitely got my attention, as did Mike Spinak's account of how he got reviews. Clearly it's a lot of work, but at least the path has been cleared for other authors.
Book discovery sites may also be important and I'm keeping an eye on them. However I did try to use Goodreads a bit, which is one of the biggest, and I also signed up for LibraryThing, though I didn't really manage to find my way around the site; LibraryThing's interface was incomprehensible to me. Nevertheless I'm keeping my profile on Goodreads, and I'm interested in any article that explains how to better use that site.

Things that cost money: Marketing is a very tempting way to spend money, and many services are offered to authors for manuscript preparation, formatting, and distribution, promotion, reviewing, and training. These can cost anywhere from 50$ to 500$ and much more. At the moment, I'm not interested in such services, mainly because I am very far from exhausting all the free advice that is available (again, if you're just starting off, allow me to point you to Joanna Penn's Author 2.0 blueprint. She also offers many training kits and courses). In fact, I still have 6 marketing books that I haven't had the time to read, not to mention act upon. Also, I already have some marketing experience, so I'm not too shy about putting myself out there. I was extremely timid when I started my business, so I completely understand authors that need hands-on help with marketing and therefore use such services.

 In summary, in the field of marketing:

➤What I need to know about marketing: How to increase visibility, exposure, and sign-up rates of the author platform; how to work efficiently with Google+, Pinterest, and Goodreads; where the specific audience for each of my books is and how to reach it most efficiently.

 ➤What I don't need to know about marketing: All other social medias, discovery services, and services that cost money.

➤What I need to know about marketing but simply can't stomach right now: First, "The Launch". It appears that every book that is published must also be "launched". I get the importance but I simply cannot handle the extra information right now. Perhaps when I near publishing I'll take a look again. For those interested, here is a good, recent summary of the issue: "Promoting Your Self-Published Book – A Three Part Launch Strategy". Also, posts like "How to Promote Your Book Like a Pro!" are very useful but currently they just show me how much I still have to learn. Nonetheless, it's a great starting point, goes through every single step, and points to available resources of every kind. It's just too much for me right now.

Keeping the information up to date

I am already subscribed to blogs feeds on all relevant subjects. I also rely heavily on the writing communities on Google+ (after all, you have to do your part too :)

Organizing the information

Now that we know what information is important to us, we need a way to organize it, a system that tells us what to do when we encounter an article, post, or image that is part of our target information. If you don't do that then you'll end up like me, with 100 open tabs in your browser...
So here's what I decided to do. Some things can be bookmarked. For instance, I've bookmarked the sites of several editors I met on Google+. This will come in handy as I soon as I reclaim my life and finish my book. But most information cannot be handled that way. For one, sites can disappear or be down just when you need them. Also, some information has to be readily accessible. My solution is to copy and paste important information into Word files. Every subject mentioned above has a different file. Every post gets a header, and from the headers I create a table of contents. Thus, if I need information about publishing on Amazon, I open the Amazon file and look at the table of contents. Currently, this is what it looks like:

Every time I add an article I put it in its proper place, give it the appropriate heading, and update the TOC. This way I can see what information I already have and where to add new data, and the TOC makes everything easily accessible. I have files for Pinterest, Google+, blogging, getting reviews, and so on. Information that is in daily use I also print, such as the blogging checklist mentioned above.

What to do when the diet isn't working

I started writing this article about three weeks ago so I've had some time to try out this diet and I've found out that the number of articles that are part of this diet can still be quite overwhelming. Also, some things don't fit in any category, and some things are unrelated to writing but pique my interest anyway and I want to read or view them. Such articles tend to pile up, since I just don't have the time to read everything I would like. My solution, at least for now, is to keep such things open in tabs for one week. If I haven't made it to the article in one week, it's gone. I hate doing that but the alternative is working with dozens and even hundreds of open tabs. I have to accept that I won't be able to read everything that seems interesting to me, and this is perhaps the most difficult thing for me to do. Come to think of it, I may be slightly addicted to information per se. Here are some ideas that can help stem the tide of information:

1 - Keep posts open in a tab until the end of the week, at which time they are closed permanently.
2 - Set aside 20 minutes a day for reading. Everything not read in this time is deleted.
3 - Some days I randomly decide not to read anything new. It feels kind of like quitting smoking...


Bottom line for me: Working on this post made me realize that I already have a lot of information about most of the subjects that are important to me. The problem right now is that I'm not really implementing any of it on a consistent and methodical basis, and I think that until I do that, there isn't much point in reading and collecting even more information. Therefore an information diet is definitely in order. I also believe that this lag between what I have read and what I'm implementing is the cause of my data fatigue.
So, I need to rest, I need to think about what I have learned and how to use it, and I need to get back to writing on regular basis, which I haven't done since I started this social media binge. I really miss writing ☹

Bottom line for you: You must decide for yourself what information is important to you and how to organize it. The system I described here is new to me too, so I don't really know how well it works.  Keep in mind that everything I've written is tentative, since things change so fast. For instance, the decision to publish on Smashwords is valid for the upcoming book, but I will revisit the issue next time I publish, to make sure that is the best option.

I hope this post was useful to you. Any comments about the post, how you manage all this information, and other suggestions are most welcome.

About the author
Joab Cohen is the author of the psychological thriller The Jewminator and
the vegan action hero novel Captain Tofu and the Green Team (coming soon!)

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  1. I know what you mean! I've been trying to learn about all this stuff too, and there's definitely a risk of "information paralysis." Do this! No don't do this, do that!

    At some point you have to say #$!@ it, make a choice, take the plunge, then figure out what went well and how it can improve next time.

    Best of luck!

    1. "At some point you have to say #$!@ it, make a choice" - you managed to sum up nearly 4000 words in one phrase. Now that's talent!

  2. Great post, Joab. Your analysis is spot on - we can get buried in an ocean of information, advice and pitches. Be clinical, focus on what you need. Thanks.

    1. You're welcome, Tom, and thanks for stopping by!

  3. Joab, this is a fantastic article. Thank you.

    1. Hi Maggie, you're welcome. I'm glad this is turning out to be useful to some people.

  4. This is a great article. I think I'll be thinking of the things you've started to do in terms of reacting to information overload. It's very easy to get overwhelmed and even paralyzed when trying to write a book.

    1. Hi Jessica, thanks for reading. It can get overwhelming and even paralyzing, absolutely.


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