Amanda Falconer is author of The Renovator’s Survival Guide. Since the book’s launch, she has been featured on Sunrise, 9am with David & Kim, A Current Affair, as well as numerous radio interviews including ABC Radio in Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane, Perth, and Adelaide, as well as 3AW and 2CA.
Amanda is a brand and marketing expert with over 20 years experience across industries ranging from the rag trade to building and now, books. Amanda is currently the national marketing manager of the Australian division of a global manufacturing company. She is executive editor of LookHome magazine and producer of myLOOKHOMEtv.
Her book has been featured in The Sunday Telegraph, New Idea, The Newcastle Herald, and The Sydney Morning Herald’s Domain section. Amanda also supports her book with a blog, videos and other social media.
With a passion for online marketing strategies, strong expertise in creating successful brands, and the benefit of her own author-experience, and she admits that not everything she’s done has been successful – and she’s willing to share it.
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* Please note these transcripts have been edited for readability
Thanks for joining us today, Amanda.
Now your book is an excellent and very entertaining resource for people who are considering renovating. Now I assume you are a renovator yourself. Why did you want to write this book?
Well, without boring people about the whole epic disaster of my own renovation, let me just say, that it was seriously pear shaped. And over six years I had to finish the building and also sue the builder. So by the end of that I really came to see that there were lots of problems that people experienced. Lots of simple pitfalls that people fall into and they could avoid them if only they knew about them in advance. So really the primary reason that I wanted to write the book was I wanted to help people avoid some of those really obvious problems and when I say obvious, obvious in hindsight.
Apart from renovating yourself you have a background in the construction or building industry in some way?
Well, yes, that is probably the extra embarrassing part because I had worked in the building industry for the last decade. So I did go through a period of time when I did seriously feel like I was the dumbest person in Sydney because I should have known better. But yes, I do understand a fair bit about construction a little bit more than the average person but even that didn’t save me, Valerie.
But you certainly have the expertise and you are coming from a well informed area in terms of writing this book. After you got the idea “I want to write a book” what did you do next? Did you just put pen to paper? Did you map it out? Did you do lots of research? How did you start?
I’ll be honest here. I started saying to people, “I’m writing a book.” in about 2003. Really nothing happened until, and I remember this very vividly, nothing happened until my birthday in November 2006. I thought, you know what, this is nuts.
I think part of it was that I found it difficult to start because all of the legal stuff was still going on. But it was substantially concluded by that point. And then I thought, I’m sick of hearing myself saying I’m going to write a book when I know I’m not doing anything. So I went and did a one-day writing course and that helped me write the introduction which has really remained intact for that entire time. So that is the introduction that is still in the book today.
But then that still wasn’t enough and actually I came and did one of your courses if you remember, Valerie, at the beginning of 2007. I did the Feature Writing course and I did it over a week. One of the reasons that I did that was not just to learn from you some of the key rules of writing for features but I really wanted to give myself a kick start and so I just did that intensive week-long course with you.
I would come and do the course in the morning, go home and write in the afternoon. That was really the beginning of starting to get the first three chapters in the structure. But it wasn’t all like I clearly had it mapped out and once again you probably remember me coming and asking you, “Would you read my first three chapters?”
And actually what you said to me at the time was really helpful because you said, “Well, have you got a book proposal?”
And I went, “No.”
And you said, “Well, I’m not even going to look at it until you have written a book proposal.”
And actually the discipline of writing a book proposal and all of the things that really need to be in it for a publisher was really helpful then in terms of structuring the book. So that then got me to stage two, if you like, and at that point I then sat down and wrote a decent book proposal, worked out the structure of each chapter, and then did the first three chapters and sent those off to publishers.
Didn’t do anything on it from probably May through to September of that year when I came back and had another go at it. I think at that point that I had a couple of rejection letters, they were form letters. But I had one rejection letter from a woman who at Allen & Unwin who actually as I was thinking about this interview this morning I thought I should send her a copy of the book because her rejection letter was one that stopped me in my tracks a little bit because she had actually obviously thought about the book.
At that point it was really a trigger for have I got the structure right. I thought it was pretty good at that point, I’ll be honest. But then I thought, well maybe I should just rethink how I’m structuring the book and actually then engaged a US-based publishing coach because I suppose the other thing that was happening was I thought well I’ve got a couple of rejection letters. It looks like I might have to publish this myself.
So I engaged her really to help me work out the marketing plan for the book. Anyway, she read the first three chapters and she basically said to me, “You know what, I think that they are pretty boring actually.” That really took me aback because obviously I was thinking that they were pretty good.
I think that her feedback then really helped me to sit back and look at the structure and one of the key things that she said to me then was this idea of snorkel and dive. So to cut a long story short, I basically sat back and hacked at the whole book, redid the structure, and then really from September to December I just sat down and wrote the rest of it. So that is the not very planned way that I did it.
But that’s the honest truth of kind of what happened and the research that I did I didn’t do in advance. I did the research as I went through each section and then went, “Okay if I were doing this again and I wanted to really help people know all of the tools that are out there, where should I research?” And so I put that in the book at that point.
You mentioned the concept of snorkel and dive. Can you expand on that a bit?
Sure, I think part of what this type setting and I think that this is something which is potentially specific to non-fiction is that not everybody who is going to pick up your book is going to want to read every single word obviously. With a non-fiction book part of what you need to do for people is to signpost the information.
I guess it’s a bit like in a feature where you have got your intro, you’ve got your great hook, and you’ve got some sub-heads, etc. But this is like on a wider scale so she said I think that you want to understand that there are at least two or three different kinds of readers. The people who if you signpost it enough they’re going to go, “I want to read this woman’s stories.”
My stories in the book are all the blonde moments and they are signposted like that. So if you wanted to you could just run your way through the book reading the blonde moments.
Or you could dive a little bit deeper if you wanted to and you can easily find where the case studies are. Or if you wanted to go really deep then read the whole thing. But the important part is that all the chunks of information are very clearly signposted.
Actually sometimes I put this to the test and I pick up some books when I’m at the airport or wherever and they might look engaging on the cover but sometimes when you open them up they’re just a huge big chunk of information. You think, “Well hang on if I’m flicking where am I going to dive in.”
So I think that is the core philosophy of that. Make it easier for readers to dive in at the point at the want to not expecting them to read it all from start to finish.
In your job you are a national marketing manager of the Australian division of a global manufacturing company. So you are an expert in marketing and you obviously call on your writing skills a lot but how is that different to the kind of writing you did for your book and how did you switch gears between the two?
I probably was a little bit basic about this to start with. I think one of the clear distinctions is that when I sat down to write the book I knew that I wanted it to be really easy and a little bit fun to read and as entertaining as I could make it whilst it was non-fiction. So I knew that I wanted to write in my own voice and I knew that I wanted it to sound like I was speaking to you.
I had that very clearly in my mind and that’s obviously not how I write at work. Typically a lot of our writing at work our brand is about being straight-forward and to the point so we do write in a very un-fluffy kind of way. But we don’t typically speak in the first person. So that was the first clear thing.
It became clearer though once I had worked with the book coach because when I started to think about the different structural elements of the book I knew that all of the blonde moments really had to be sounding just like me. So the language was looser, more casual, definitely to the point and then when I had to do what we called “devil’s in the detail” that’s much more technical and therefore it’s a different kind of writing. Every time that I got to one of those sections I really had that firmly in mind.
Was that a natural thing for you? Did that come to you naturally or did you have to switch gears in some other kind of way?
I think that it was pretty natural. I think for me it was more about being conscious before I began not just doing a brain vomit which is probably a little bit how it was in the beginning. But really once I had that structure clear I’d just make sure that I’d sit down and go “Okay what is the place in which I’m coming to write this particular part?”
I think at work I have to do a similar thing. For example I run a website called Look Home and Look Home speaks to people in a different way than some of the other things that I do at work. So I think that it is just that thing before you start, before you put pen to paper, really think well what’s the voice I’m writing in or the character that I’m writing in.
You say that during that year when you came back to it from about September to December you wrote a lot of it. Now you hold down a very demanding job. How did you juggle it all? How did you find time to write? Did you take time off? Did you write in the middle of the night? What did you do?
Well, Valerie I like to talk about the Nike method here which is “just do it” really. But I did go through a period of time when you know how every now and again you read stories of aspiring writers and you hear how they’re up until 4:00 am in the morning and they are so obsessed with their story. For a while I thought, oh my God, that’s what I should be doing.
But really that just didn’t work for me. What I ended up doing was a couple of mornings a week I would get up at 5:00 and I’d write for two hours before I went to work. But mostly I just nailed it on the weekend and I just came to the conclusion that I am too old to sit around and write until 4:00 in the morning and then back up and go to work and put in a productive day.
I just don’t have that kind of motivation but I was…
You just wake up at 5:00 in the morning.
But I was motivated to do it so I just gave up other things and I’d just sit there all weekend and I’d just write. By the end of September came I had a schedule so I knew that I had to finish chapter X by this point and that was quite markedly different from how I’d been at the beginning as well. So I had the schedule and I just had to sit down and get it done basically, so weekends were really the way that I did it.
That’s committed. So what was the hardest part of the whole process?
The last 10%, other people may find this as well. I’m a great starter but I’m not always a great finisher. Sometimes you get to the last 10% and also it’s some of the more boring things and you’ve been writing it for a while. Now you are up to like references and bibliography, and things like that. You think, oh my God.
But the helpful thing here was the fact that I had landed a publishing contract so I knew that I had to get it done. But definitely finishing that last 10% and then also going back and reviewing some things. You just need to do it but sometimes it’s easy to let yourself off the hook and go, oh, you know it’s good enough.
When I would hear myself thinking that I’d think okay put it away for the moment because obviously it’s not good enough so you are going to have to come back and review it. But reviewing it sometimes is a little bit tough.
So you landed a publishing contract because it is one thing to write a book but it’s a whole other thing to get published. Tell us about how you got your publishing deal.
I think that luck really played a bit of a part here. I had identified six publishers that I was going to pitch to and I was spectacularly unsuccessful with all six. Mind you, I think that three of those took a genuine interest and I heard back pretty quickly and I spoke to them about it. Hardie Grant has never actually given me their rejection letter but this many years down the track I kind of imagine that they don’t want to publish it.
In the end it was published by Penguin and they weren’t even on my list really because I didn’t think that they were soliciting non-fiction manuscripts at the time. But a friend of a friend worked at Penguin. She took the first three chapters, gave it to her boss and then funnily enough, nothing happened for two or three months.
Then I think around about October, she rang up suddenly one day and said, “Oh, my boss is going to read this tomorrow.”
And I had just been doing all of the restructuring work with the book coach so I said, “Oh, gosh, don’t give her the first three chapters that I originally gave you.” And I worked like a demon and then gave her these revised chapters in the new kind of surf, snorkel and dive structure.
Literally they were on the phone the next morning so really by the end of the week we’d met and they had expressed an interest and it then went to their acquisitions meeting. Really in a matter of two or three weeks the whole thing was sorted.
There was definitely the luck factor there that I just managed to jump the pile of manuscripts that are probably waiting to be reviewed. But having said that I think that I think that they found that it was reasonably well-written and structured.
That’s right, luck, but also a hell of a lot of hard work at the last minute for you to get it into shape with your new structure.
Yeah, that’s right. Just on that Valerie I think that just back to the coach thing and the better for the courses and the things like that. I don’t want to sound arrogant either when I say that I thought that my first three chapters were reasonably good. That was on the basis of a number of people having looked at it.
But you know sometimes when you are in a new area, okay yes I write marketing things for a living but when the coach started to talk to me about those structural things, the surf, snorkel and dive thing, in this example it was a bit like the light went on because I thought, oh, okay.
Now I’ve got a whole new perspective from which to actually look. I can see what was missing. Before that I was just kind of looking at it within the context of an uninformed view. I don’t know whether I’m communicating that well enough but yeah, I think that sometimes really this is the benefit of getting other people to look at your work.
So when it came to the editing stage with Penguin I know that they didn’t have to do very much to it at all. It was really quite a light edit and there were no structural changes at all. So it was really just some jargon clarification and some tidying up. They did say at the time that it was better structured than many that we get so it was really the benefit of having got that outside advice was great I think in my case.
So the key thing is don’t be precious about it. Other people can help you improve it and often always do.
You have had great success in getting media coverage for your book. That’s no surprise since you are an expert at marketing. You have been featured in The Sunday Telegraph, New Idea, Newcastle Herald, Sydney Morning Herald’s domain.
I remember opening the newspaper and saying, “Oh, there’s Amanda.” You have been recommended by The Sunday Age as well. And you also appear each fortnight on Radio Real Estate and you have a blog, videos and other social media.
Now obviously you have called on some of your marketing skills. Can you share with us your top tips on how to market a book successfully as you have done?
I think if I really think about the key ones and that sounds like an impressive list when you say it like that. And even despite that I actually think with hindsight that I could have done a couple of these things better to be honest. And I know that when I come and do the book marketing course, I’m going to share that with participants but having said that I think that the first key thing is to know who your market is and more importantly where are you going to find them.
And that’s where are you going to find them physically out there in the world but also online. Because it’s some of those extra things that you are going to do that are going to make the difference. So know who they are and know where to find them.
Then I think that the second key thing is you need to really position you and your book. And I know sometimes you might particularly if you are not a marketing person, you go what is positioning anyway. But also you might think, well, I’ve written my book, that’s what the publisher is going to do isn’t it.
But it is actually worth really thinking really seriously about. And it is probably in the area that even I have spent 20 years in marketing and it’s probably in the area that I also didn’t think deeply enough about. Not that positioning is bad but I think that I could have improved on that.
I think that the third thing is that once you have really established what that positioning is is to go out and build a web presence for yourself. It’s like web real estate in a sense. For example if you Google “renovation survivor” out of the first ten search results that come up on Google I’m in nine of them. That’s just on page one. So does everybody go searching for renovation survivor? No not necessarily. So of course then you need to build a presence which is beyond that but you need to own that position that you have established for yourself.
I think that the last top thing is you need to get out and speak often. So yes, there is media and I think that is important. That is probably one of the things that your publisher is going to do better than some other things but one of the key things that you can do that is really powerful is to get out and speak to your target group in whatever way.
So for example, I’m a guest presenter with Archicentre and Archicentre runs seminars all over the country on the ten things that you need to know about renovating. I’m on for all of their Sydney, Brisbane, Melbourne seminars as well as some other speaking engagements.
I think that is one of the key things. You need to prepare for your media interviews, yes. And you need to be able to be prepared to get out and speak and speak in a reasonably charismatic fashion so that people go, “Oh, I want to find out more about that.” So they are really the top four things from my point of view.
You’d spoke about being prepared for media interviews. Now you were on David & Kim. I remember turning on the television and there you were on Sunrise. So was that a nerve racking experience or did that come fairly naturally to you. How did you prepare for those?
I was terrified, I’ll be honest, absolutely terrified. But I think the key was preparation. So I actually go and do some media coaching. I also sat down – I have a little document that I take with me wherever I go when I am doing interviews which is “What are my key messages?”
What are my key messages about the category or industry that I’m in? What are the key messages about the book? What are the key messages about me?
I try and think about those before I go out and do those interviews. Some of those interviews will help you to prepare to an extent because some of their researchers will talk to you in advance and between the two of you you kind of knock out roughly what the structure of the story is going to be.
But even so sometimes it doesn’t always go as planned and they have their agenda but you have yours. So I think that the key is that you are out there to do a particular thing. You need to know what your messages are so that whatever is the opportunity you can communicate them.
Absolutely, otherwise they can just take the ball and run with it for whatever it is that they want to talk about. A lot of people think that when they write a book they don’t need to worry about the marketing of the book because the publisher’s publicity department does that. Is that the case?
Look publishers are great. Don’t get me wrong. But it was really interesting for me as someone who has been in marketing for a long time interacting with other marketing people. I think really what your publisher does, your publisher does publicity. Depending upon the type of book that you have that publicity is going to get less or more attention.
In my case I know that I got more attention from them because the subject matter of the book meant that it was likely that they would get more media but even so I had to push them a little bit. Like the Sunrise thing and the appearing on the 9am with David & Kim and A Current Affair.
There were some things were you really have to kind of work very proactively with them but generally speaking I think what publishers often have is a good up-to-date database of media people so they can do some publicity. But you also got to remember in Penguin’s case they publish whatever it is, 400 titles a year. You are one of a lot.
I think with that in mind you then go okay for a period of time one, two, three weeks maybe I’m going to get this intense attention from them but really after that I’m on my own. So I even need to make sure that I can get access to the media myself and I’m going to be working on a series of other things that are going to get me to my target audience group.
That’s absolutely right. I think that they do concentrate on it for a finite period of time and after that a lot of the marketing push is up to you. People like yourself, people like Tim Ferriss, the author of The 4-Hour Workweek, have really taken that on board and really made use of so many other areas of marketing which means that your books are really successful.
Now you are running a course at the Sydney Writers’ Centre on marketing your book which I’m really excited about because I think that it is such a needed course for a lot of people. Tell me why you decided to present this and what can people expect from it.
In terms of the why, I get lots of people for example the woman who lives next door, she’s also written a book. It came out a few months before me and I know…
Is it on renovating?
No, funnily enough it’s on love so its acquire the academic book which makes a little bit different. But I know that she has bemoaned to me how little her publisher has done and how can I get more copies sold. How can I get the message out about it?
She’s not alone I know because lots of authors don’t know much about marketing. When you have written your first book you have no idea about the publishing process. To a greater or lesser degree, sometimes your publisher is going to help you understand that process but often they don’t really.
You have got to be really driving to go “Okay tell me about exactly what happens.” So I think because it’s an area where you have got to get in and do far more than you really perhaps thought that you might to market your book effectively. That was one of the reasons why I wanted to write the course.
Of course I guess the other is I’m in marketing so once again it was just fascinating for me to watch other people at work in their domain. I’m not saying that they are bad marketers but I think that one of the things that happens with publishers is they are marketing the Penguin brand for argument’s sake or the Allen & Unwin brand. Not necessarily, of course they want to sell your title but the marketing is a little bit different.
So I just thought look I can see that there are lots of things that if people only knew them and they understood a little bit about marketing then the author could get into the driver’s seat and really help promote their book if they understood some of these basic things. So that was a lot of the reason why I wanted to do it.
In terms of what I think that we should cover, one of the key things to start with is positioning. It is identifying who is that audience for my book, how am I going to position both the book and myself for some longevity if you like. I think that’s when it’s important for you to think, okay, well where am I going to be on this book. What is the platform that I want to build for myself?
Then once you have looked at positioning then its time to look at what are some of the promotional tactics that you can employ. I think that the web has opened up a whole series of things to people but also speaking engagements, the importance of book trailers, direct mail, some of those other activities which can be low cost are important to understand.
I think then the second part is if you are going to get some media opportunities, how are you going to maximize those? How do you prepare those key messages?
Then if you are going to do speaking engagements, what does it take to be a great presenter and how are you going to convey your message in a way that gives value to people but also convert them to sales for your book. How are you going to approach getting media coverage after your publisher has said, “Well, okay we’ve done our part now. You‘re on your own.”
Then lastly it’s really let’s take a look at some of those online media tools, understand what it takes to actually use them because it can be very time consuming. Then work out what are your strengths and which ones of those might be appropriate for you. So in essence that’s what I’m hoping that we’ll really cover in that book marketing course.
So for people who do have a book deal whilst the publicity department of their publisher is going to get some publicity and do their part in it, it’s very important for the author themselves to be in the driver’s seat and to be in charge of their own destiny really. They can’t just be reliant on the publicity department because this way they are able to do so much more themselves. There is much more longevity in it.
If they don’t have a book deal and they want to self-publish I think that this course is absolutely vital.
Absolutely because you are going to have to do all of these things if you don’t have the extra leg up of the publicity department of the publisher. I think just the other thing that is worth saying is I think that your publisher knows that even if they don’t say this to you right up front. They’ll talk to you about what’s the effort that you are prepared to put in because they don’t entire go, “Okay we reckon that you should do A, B, C, D and E. And here’s how you do it.”
But they are watching you to see how active is this author going to be as a partner so if you have some desire to write future books then that is part of what your publisher is looking at. How much did this author come to the party and help sell this book.
So speaking of future books, Amanda, what’s next? Is there a another book in you?
Possibly but its not emerging just yet Valerie. I dedicated this year to just marketing the book kind of as an exercise to just explore some things and try them and see where that went so I won’t be sitting down to write anything. As you know yourself, it is an enormous amount of effort. So yes, I think that there is another one in me but its not bubbling up to the surface just yet.
Then for aspiring writers who are listening to this and who may be interested in writing a non-fiction book themselves whether it’s about renovating or love or whatever, what’s your advice to them?
Probably enough as with many things, I think that planning is the key really. So I think that some of the advice that you gave me right back at the beginning which is work through a book proposal. I think that is actually a place to start.
Work through what is it that you are trying to achieve, who is it for, what are they going to get out of it. Work through that planning part because in a sense that’s part of what gives you the structure and so you’ve got some map for where you are heading. Maybe it’s really different for non-fiction than fiction and I haven’t really had the urge to write a story where maybe the story just comes out of you and it takes you where it takes you.
I think that non-fiction potentially is a little bit different. Sure I had a story to tell but it was really helpful that I had a map of where I was going and I think that is the place to start.
Perfect and on that note, thank you very much for time today, Amanda.
It’s a pleasure Valerie.