Ep 5 New publication for News Corp, buffaloes on the loose, the most unusual use of Shakespeare ever and why Writer in Residence John Purcell writes as "Natasha Walker"

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In Episode 5 of So you want to be a writer, we chat about the newest News Corp publication, buffaloes on the loose in Sydney, the most unusual use of Shakespeare, James Scott Bell's book Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between and we speak with John Purcell about Booktopia and his well-kept secret.

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Show Notes

NewsCorp launches new publication in Adelaide
http://mumbrella.com.au/news-corp-launches-new-print-publication-adelaide-215973

Net-A-Porter's print venture PORTER
http://fashion.telegraph.co.uk/news-features/TMG10291331/Net-A-Porters-The-Edit-magazine-rechristened-as-PORTER.html

The rise and rise of branded journalism
https://www.writerscentre.com.au/the-rise-and-rise-of-branded-journalism/

Korean agency Cheil apologises for losing control of two water buffaloes in Sydney
http://mumbrella.com.au/ad-agency-cheil-apologises-losing-control-two-water-buffaloes-sydney-216210

The most unusual use of Shakespeare ever
http://www.derbytelegraph.co.uk/Edd-Joseph-gets-revenge-texting-works-Shakespeare/story-20828521-detail/story.html

Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between
http://www.amazon.com/Write-Your-Novel-From-Middle-ebook/dp/B00IMIXI6U

Rebecca Bradley asks different authors about their first drafts:
http://rebeccabradleycrime.com/tag/first-draft/

Writing is all about trust
http://www.allisontait.com/2013/09/writing-all-about-trust/

Web Pick –  Elizabeth Craig
https://twitter.com/elizabethscraig
http://elizabethspanncraig.com/blog/

Working Writer's Tip
How frequently should you pitch stories to a magazine editor?

John Purcell's latest books (under pen name Natasha Walker)

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You’ll find your hosts at:
Allison Tait
http://www.allisontait.com/

Valerie Khoo
http://valeriekhoo.com/

Australian Writers’ Centre
https://www.writerscentre.com.au/

Transcript

 

Allison 

John Purcell is the Book Guru, aka the chief book buyer and head of marketing, at Booktopia, Australia’s fastest-growing online bookstore. Booktopia offers more than 4 million books, both print and eBooks, and ships all over the world. John has more than 20 years’ experience in the book industry – and also has a secret… the married father of two writes best-selling erotic fiction under the name Natasha Walker.

John
Thank you for having me.

Allison
Very, very nice to have you. Let’s just talk a little bit about the Natasha first, because she sounds so exciting. Is the Secret Lies of Emma trilogy your first foray into writing fiction?

John
Oh no. I've been writing since I was about 18, and, yeah, so it’s been a long time. I actually wrote sort of the draft of Emma way back in 2003.

Allison
The timing wasn't right for her at that point?

John
I didn't even it expect it too… it was just a bit of fun that I was having with a few friends who were interested in reading that sort of thing. It sort of developed from some short stories that turned into more of a novel and I got sort of tied up and caught up, and it got a bit messy, so I put it on a drawer and left it alone.

Allison
So you sort of just didn't necessarily set out to write a erotica, or you did?

John
No, it wasn't — the erotic novel side of things was — it came from a short stories that I was sending back between friends, and what I found was if was going set a story in the contemporary world I found, at that time, that there was so much going on in the sexual world, which is sort of one step behind the veneer that we show everyone. That sort of took over the novel. But, it’s more of a novel about personal freedom than it is — I mean it has lots of sex in it, but it’s about trying to remain in a relationship while remaining yourself.

Allison
That’s really interesting. Given the number of books that you've bought and sold over the years, because you've been in this game for a long time, how did it feel to see your own out there in the world?

John
It was a very strange feeling, because it didn't have my name on it, and I wasn't allowed to tell anyone. So, only a few family and friends knew from the beginning. My boss here at Booktopia, Tony Nash, he knew. I approached him and said, “Look, would you mind if I do this?” And he said, “No, I love it.”

Yeah, so I had to sit on this secret and it was a long time, because I didn't really start to tell people until way after the second book came out. I told some work colleagues, because it became necessary to try to explain certain moments of distraction.

Allison
Oh, see. I saw the first inklings of it on the Women’s Weekly website, and then there was a feature, is that correct?

John
Yeah.

Allison
Why did you suddenly decide to come out?

John
When Random House first took it they didn't know who it was, who wrote it. And then one of them pretty much said, “We need to know for legal reasons who wrote it.” So, the secret was kept by this person there. And when I met them they were, “Well, you’re a young bloke, you’re a busy kind of guy. You sort of suit the audience, so we should reveal you at some stage, I don’t think there’s any harm in it to sales or for the market or anything or like that, if you were to come out.”

Allison
Right.

John
At that stage I was sort of talking about coming out after the second book, but nothing more was said apart that initial meeting. So, in my mind I wasn't really going to come out at all. I was just going to let the three books go and that was that.

But when the third book came out — I wanted to just give it another push. I was trying to work out ways in which I could do it. At first — books in series are very difficult, you generally sell most in the first volume, less in the second, and less in the third. Knowing Caroline Overington through this [Booktopia] job and through doing bits and bits with her over the years I thought it was quite natural to give her a call and see if she wanted the story.

Allison
Fair enough, the exposé, sort of speak.

John
Yeah. She loved it. She kept laughing, for about two weeks I think she was laughing.

Allison
I don’t blame her, I’m kind of laughing myself just a little bit, OK?

Through your experience of selling books over the years and talking about books and all of the other things that you do with books, did you use any of that experience or the things that you learned from that when your own book came out? I mean it wasn't like you could kind of come out and shout on high and promote it that way. Was there anything that you were able to do? That you could do?

John
Yeah, I was very eager to ensure that Random House was going to back it and get it placed in the right places. I guess this is the one key thing I think for anyone who is getting that exciting moment when they’re signing a contract for a book to be published, is that moment is really your one chance, because even though you feel like you have absolutely no power in that moment and you’re just so glad you’re getting it published it really is the time to ensure they either get you some sort of advance, which they then have to make up, which then means they have to put some marketing into it to recover investment, and that moment is vital.

And a lot of people just get published, there’s no commitment from the publisher that they’re going to market it or put any effort into it at all, and their wonderful book just gets plunked on a shelf, spine outwards and has to fend for itself. Having the publisher behind you is massive.

Allison
When you say that’s your moment of power, what can I do in that point to give my book its best shot?

John
Well, they've given over, they've said they’re interested in your book, they think they have some value in the book and they want to publish this book. Now, it’s probably best then to try to suss them out and ask them questions about where they think it fits in the market, because on the selling sheets that come to me I will have super-lead titles, lead titles, and sort of middle of the range titles, and then things that we agreed to publish and no one can understand why we did lists.

Allison
OK.

John
It’s really hard to see some really great names and some great stories on those lists and where they land. And being anonymous allowed me — because the rep that came in from Random to sell to me did not know. So, I was able to see how they were presenting my own book to the book buyers in Australia.

Allison
That’s a massive advantage, isn't it? You got to see the inside workings that most authors never get to see.

John
Yeah, so some people sit back and go, “Why didn't my book do well? What was going wrong there? What was…” and it was only because it’s a one-hour meeting, the rep has spent 30 percent of that time on the first three titles, talking about how they’re going to promote it and what are you going to do, you’re going to put it in the front window, you’re going to put it on the front of your website, and your book ended up being one that was spent, a minute or two, at the end of the meeting when everyone is sort of over the subject —

Allison
Ready to move on?

John
Yeah, ready to move on. So, finding out right early — I mean getting a publisher is great, and if you have a lot of motivation you can sell a lot of copies. If you can self-publicize and market your own book you can do quite well. And if you just want to be published, and it’s just a nice little boost for your writing career and your esteem and your next book is going to be bigger and they’re going to ask for it, give you a massive advance for it, if that’s the case then you don’t feel like you can rock the boat at that vital stage, then don’t. But, if you feel like you have a product that has a market, you already know that you've sussed it out and that there’s a great opportunity and great potential in your work, then I would ask those questions, just what sort of marketing dollar will they put behind it.

Allison
Do you think author platform makes a difference when it comes to this kind of stuff? Because writers are constantly told about this author platform we have to build, that you have to be out there, you've got to do stuff. One of the questions that I get asked really regularly through my website and things is, “If I put all of my time into that I don’t have time to write,” you know?

John
Yep.

Allison
It’s a real conundrum for people. Do you see, through Booktopia, can you see the difference of people who are making a big effort in that area and people who aren't?

John
Yes, I can — yes and no, for this. I've had people who have a million followers in the US retweet a number of times their book on our website and we've gotten nothing. The publisher sold that this person has so much reach on the social networks, it’s impossible to fail. And I've seen people with 300 followers on Twitter generate a great deal of trust in their brand and enthusiasm about their product that leads to direct sales that influence — and their relationships, so that people feel that they want to then express their enjoyment of the work through social media or through blogging. That sort of relationship on social media, when it’s real human-to-human communication, honesty, respect, that sort of relationship sometimes has much greater value than a million followers.

Allison
The quality of quantity thing is actually a real thing?

John
Yeah, absolutely. For us, as online booksellers, it certainly plays a part. If I have a debut novel, or if I have a celebrity who has written a memoir, and I look it up and they've got very few followers on Twitter it does mean we’re starting from a standing start. And so when we do our blogs and when we do that, on their side they’re not going to be retweeting it or sharing it with their followers. So, the bloggers there’s all our effort and our newsletters that go out, we’ll be doing most of the work.

On that side I sometimes feel little bit more persuaded if someone has at least a footprint on social media to order more stock, or to put it a little bit higher up in my newsletters and have a greater faith in it in my marketing spend.

Allison
Then from your perspective what would you say [are] the most effective things that an author can do to help market their own books? Obviously having a footprint online is important, particularly when it comes to online sales. Is there anything else from a bookseller’s perspective that you think are worth doing? Are the launches worth doing? Are the library talks worth doing? Like, what do you think?

John
I think community radio, library talks, I think getting out and meeting people is really important in this world, in this digital world. It creates bonds that last. I mean Matthew Riley when he started made an effort to go everywhere. And there are people now who met him back in the early ‘90s who refer to the first time they met Matthew Riley, and they've been advocates whenever a new book comes out. They’re little mouthpieces for him, because they met him before he was famous. They have that sort of, “We’re longtime friends,” kind of feeling.

Allison
We met him first. Yep.

John
Exactly. And it seems strange, but I notice that Greg Barron, who wrote a couple of thrillers for Harper Collins, he’s been tireless. And his reach is getting bigger, and his putting that book in people’s faces consistently through social media and through visits, physical visits to bookshops and the like. And it is terrifying to me when I think of what he does. His courage and his determination is to be applauded. I quell at that sort of stuff, of turning up to libraries and talking about — talking to smaller audiences, but it works. It actually does work. I think that’s something that we all try to shortcut, because the social media is so much easier, you can sit on your couch watching Game of Thrones in your pajamas and have that social reach.

Allison
That’s so true, isn't it? It’s so much easier than having to get dressed and stand up in front of people.

John
And they’re audiences all over Australia, there are groups, there are committees, there are libraries and book groups everywhere. And they’re all looking for content just like the internet is looking for content, a nice physical author to actually take the time and meet them and chat will be remembered.

Allison
Let’s move onto just a couple of general questions about book buying and things like that. Do you see that shopping online has changed the way that people buy books?

John
Yes. It seems to be — one of the things that is diluting the market is access to everything. So, when you went into your local bookshop, no matter how big it was, you would walk through a barrage of what they want you to buy before you got into the stacks and you got into the shelves where the rest of the books were. And very few humans made it through that barrage, they were generally attracted by some wonderful glossy new thing that was sitting there, and they didn't get to the book that was published 20 years ago that’s in the back.

Now, if you are talking with an old friend, or a psychiatrist gives you a recommendation, or your doctor says this is the best help book he’s ever read, you look it up online and you can get it, and that’s sort of your reading time, is given over to that particular book. Family histories, strange little histories you found interesting because you saw half a documentary on SPS one night and you decided to look something up and you found a link to Booktopia and there was a book on the subject.

In our warehouse we have all of the mainstream bestsellers that are coming out, and we stock all of those and we advertise all of those, but if you spend 20 minutes down there you’ll notice that the depth and variety of Australian readers and the books they’re reading is incredible, and that’s just because there’s now access to it.

So, that long tail is really changing book buying, because it takes as long to read a book that you looked very hard to find and you finally got it, as it does to read the latest lead title. You have the market for that time —

Allison
Do I pop onto buy my strange little family history that has pique my interest and then pick up something else while I’m there? Or am I specifically like, “I've come for that title, I’m buying that title, and I’m out the door.”

John
My job is to make sure you don’t leave without buying something else, that’s pretty much my job.

Allison
And is it working for you?

John
We have sort of figures that come through and the figures for number of books per order keeps growing.

Allison
That’s great.

John
So people are buying more per order everyday. So, yes, in a sense it’s working. When you get in the middle of something like a Fifty Shades moment people come in for
Fifty Shades and do the rest of their shopping. With Fifty Shades you saw Sylvia Day, and then you saw Thomas the Tank, you saw… you know? It’s the strangest thing. Yeah, people do, once they’re there. And, especially because some people buy at home, so they have to go to the post office to pick up their books and they go, “Well, I might as well get it all in one go.” Or, if they’re paying the shipping, then they think, “Well, I’ll put it all on, the shipping’s less.”

Allison
Yep, it makes more sense.

John
Yeah, and also they’re always on the side saying, “Buy this… buy this…”

Allison
That’s you over there waving a flag, isn't it?

John
Yep.

Allison
Just to sum up, let’s do your best three tips for authors to help booksellers to help them. Top three tips.

John
Ensure that you've got some commitment from your publisher to market you and to present you.

An easy tip is I would ask the marketing or publishing people whether or not they can get a banner for your book onto one of the big websites, or get a poster made if you want to get it into shop.

Allison
OK.

John
Very basic stuff.

Allison
I would never have thought of that. I’m so glad you said that, because I would have even thought of asking about that, so that’s a great tip.

John
Because that doesn't cost much at all for design, just to whip up a — especially if you've got an area — you know, if you’re selling a book that’s in a particular area of non-fiction, generally there’s no other competition for that space for a banner. So, if your book is there and there’s a nice little banner sitting beside it saying — if they’re looking through that section on the website and there’s a banner talking about your book they’re more likely to sell.

I suppose the other one would be if you are going to use social media be yourself and have conversations, don’t spruik your book. Just sort of dead links with another review of my book, and just sort of constantly going out there. The most successful social media people I've seen actively engage with their audience. I mean even Jackie Collins actively engages in her audience, she answers back.

Allison
Does she?

John
Yes. She was amazing. She’s a great lesson for anyone who wants to get somewhere in publishing. She says, “Yes.” So, when someone say, a blogger says, “Will you answer the questions for my blog she says ‘yes’ and she rattles them off in that time. If someone says, “I want to interview you,” she says, “Yes — yes. I’ll take time to do that.” “Will you come to visit our bookshop?” “Oh, yes, I would. I will come.”

And there are people who don’t make time and some people who don’t make time — I sometimes wonder whether they think they are sitting in the realm of bookselling and publishing, I think to myself, if I’m given the opportunity to be semi successful in a field like publishing you would try and do your utmost to answer yes and appear and do the things, if people are asking, if people are asking — wow, you’re way ahead of everyone else.

Allison
Yes. You’re right, because most people out there trying to flog themselves, aren't they? Without people asking.

John
Yep, yep.

Allison
All right. That’s fantastic, thank you so much for your insight today. I really appreciate your time and we’ll look forward to seeing you on Booktopia.

John
Thank you very much, it was fun.

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