In this special bonus issue of The Hot Sheet: Google and SEO: How much does it affect novelists?; agent Robert Gottlieb responds to changes at Penguin Random House; Book Country: It was part of the Author Solutions sale; what bestselling authors earn in the U.K.
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The Hot Sheet
Hello, dear readers!

It’s your lucky day: this is a special bonus issue of The Hot Sheet with important follow-ups from last week’s Jan. 13 edition. Because this issue isn’t part of our usual schedule, you won’t find our recurring features (such as the Index), but we’ll be back with a full, regular issue on Jan. 27.

We hope you enjoy, and feel free to share this special issue on social media and elsewhere.

—Porter Anderson & Jane Friedman
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January 20 Bonus Edition

Google and Search Engine Optimization: How Much Does It Affect Novelists?

In last week’s issue of The Hot Sheet, we linked to a blog post by Mike Shatzkin in which he wrote, “Google Plus author pages are nearly as important as Amazon author pages.”

We received some feedback and follow-up questions on this point: Is Google or Google Plus really that important? And, more specifically, doesn’t search or SEO mostly affect nonfiction writers, not novelists?

A quick definition of SEO: SEO stands for “search engine optimization.” SEO involves maximizing traffic to your website when people use search engines such as Google. (Google is the number-one search engine; therefore Google and its services are considered very important when thinking about search and SEO.) As a general rule, your author website, if optimized, should receive considerable search traffic from Google based on your author name, book or series titles, and character names.

We asked Peter McCarthy, former VP of marketing innovation for Random House as well as VP of Penguin Group (USA) Online, to explain the importance of Google and SEO for fiction writers. He offered the following useful insight for authors.

SEO-ing for one’s name, book titles, and characters is super—if the reader knows them and/or can find out about them elsewhere. Branded terms will typically drive the most traffic to a person’s site (author or otherwise). But that is often not the most interesting or useful traffic, and it tends to be truer the more famous one is.

It’s the more specific terms that often matter much more—for example, “detective series” and “set in New Orleans” and “featuring a deaf detective with two basset hounds.” Details. It also matters where you put those terms on the page—and how fast the page loads. (You lose 10 percent of your traffic per half second, depending on the study. That would matter for anyone.) Et cetera, et cetera. SEO is comprised of many tactics.

The more people you can get coming to your site who don’t already know who you are, the better. Then you have to keep them on your site, which is half of SEO—you have to provide the right content.

One uses Google Plus because most people don't have a Wikipedia entry. It is very hard to get Google to understand who you are in any exact manner, especially if other people have the same name and are more well-known than you. So, the more reputable profiles one has, and the more they are tied to other reputable platforms, and the more they mention that you are the author of X and Y books, which are set in Z place, the more virtuous things happen.

People often think it is merely about ranking highly for a keyword. It is also about associating yourself with other things so that Google knows to, for example, show an image of your book jacket (SEO best practices make that occur), or suggest you as a “people also look for” when someone searches for another author in your genre—which you must make clear on your site and profiles, if you aren't already well-known to readers.

As for search ranking, it is lovely to rank for your name—until you get trolled or legitimately reviewed poorly. That’s when it’s great to have a presence on high domain authority sites like Goodreads, Google Plus, Twitter, and Facebook to knock the bad stuff off page one.

Basically, add up the number of queries for which one can or should rank beyond one’s name and think about what happens when someone finds you that way. For example, it could be someone compiling the best fiction set in Virginia this year, and they find the SEO’d author, not the other one. Depending on who is doing the compiling, that could be a huge win.

Try this search experiment yourself: search Amazon (within the Books category) for “horror set in New Orleans,” then run it as a Google search. Admittedly, this is something of a long-tail [specific] term, but is representative of an unbranded search that illustrates how lousy the results are for readers. Shouldn’t Anne Rice be there? What if a kid can’t remember the name of the obscure author of the vampire book set in New Orleans? So, try “vampire book set in New Orleans.” Those poor results equal missed sales and frustrated potential readers. I also think they show why SEO is as critical for fiction as for nonfiction.

Contrary to what I often hear, it is not an enormous undertaking or distraction to get it right; craft copy that says what your book is and who you are in simple, consumer-friendly terms, put it in reputable places, and leave it at that. One day Google Plus will be a primary source, the next day it won’t be, then again yes, then again sort of. Ditto Wikipedia. Ditto Twitter. The sources used will change every day. What doesn't change is that being in multiple major places with good, solid, consumer-friendly content is SEO. And SEO matters. Do it, or you may find yourself lost.

Bottom line: When people want something, they look for it. If you have it, get found. Note: Peter McCarthy co-founded Logical Marketing with Mike Shatzkin; Logical Marketing works with publishers and authors on digital marketing.

Agent Robert Gottlieb Responds to Changes at Penguin Random House

Last week, we briefly mentioned that Penguin had merged its Berkley imprint into the unified Putnam and Dutton group, and we linked to the Publishers Weekly coverage. The main concern of the article is what direction Berkley will take with its mass-market business.

What we missed was a literary agent’s public response to the news.

Robert Gottlieb, chairman of Trident Media Group, commented, “My immediate concerns are for those authors who are under contract and are caught up in the continuing downsizing of Random and Penguin. There is more to come.… Just a handful of months ago the publisher of Berkley sent her editorial team out to tell agents that Berkley was now focusing on the hardcover business....”

Bottom line: Gottlieb’s commentary goes on to express worry about lower advances and less risk-taking among publishers in light of the ongoing consolidation at Penguin Random House. Read the full story and Gottlieb’s response here.

Book Country: It Was Part of the Author Solutions Sale

We covered the Author Solutions sale last week, but there was an aspect of that sale that escaped just about everyone’s attention: Book Country. It’s now part of Author Solutions, not Penguin.

Let’s recap Book Country’s history, because even we had trouble remembering its genesis and evolution.

  • April 2011: Penguin launched the public beta of Book Country, a free online writing community focused on writers of genre fiction. The effort was launched by Molly Barton, former director of business development at Penguin and president of Book Country, who pitched the concept to the Pearson Innovation Fund. (Pearson was the parent company of Penguin at the time.) During coverage of the launch, Barton said that Book Country would eventually offer self-publishing services for a fee, and that it was formed as a company separate from Penguin.

  • November 2011: Book Country announced the addition of self-publishing services. This marked the first time one of the Big Six (now Big Five) entered the self-publishing market. All services were provided in-house, rather than being outsourced. The development was met with considerable negative commentary from the self-publishing establishment, but at the time, Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware studied the service’s operations and found them reasonable and above board.

  • February 2012: Book Country announced its first member to be “discovered” on the site and picked up by Penguin in a traditional publishing deal.

  • July 2012: Pearson (parent company of Penguin) acquired Author Solutions.

  • October 2012: Penguin and Random House announced their plans to merge; the merger became official in July 2013.

  • January 2013: Book Country announced changes to their services. They abandoned print self-publishing services and focused on ebook distribution. Royalty rates for ebooks were increased from 70 to 85 percent, presumably to compete better against services such as Smashwords. Barton acknowledged help from developers at Author Solutions. While it was not formally announced at the time, Author Solutions began providing some of Book Country’s services.

  • July 2013: Book Country announced another round of changes: they added many more categories to the community, departing from their original focus on genre fiction. Also, they added an online bookstore where members and readers could purchase ebooks published through the site’s publishing platform. It was formally acknowledged that services offered through Book Country, such as book cover design and line editing, were performed by Author Solutions, and that customer service lines were manned by Author Solutions.

  • July/August 2013: Booktango, an ebook distribution service of Author Solutions, merged its bookstore with Book Country’s.

  • November 2013: Book Country launched a curated page on Kickstarter to help writers get their projects funded.

  • January 2014: Molly Barton left Penguin for academia and consulting work, and now leads the startup Serial Box, which she has co-founded with Julian Yap.

Bottom line: As of today, you’ll still find Penguin Random House branding all over the Book Country website and social media profiles. We asked Keith Ogorek, senior vice president of marketing at Author Solutions, what the sale means for Book Country. He said: “Book Country has been reporting to Author Solutions for two years while we were under PRH [Penguin Random House] ownership. We designed and maintained the technology that supports the website, and we have also been managing community engagement and outreach since then. That will not change under new ownership.”

For Richer and Poorer, and Something In-Between

Following our much-discussed coverage of the international author contract reform coalition being led by the Authors Guild and Society of Authors, we’re reminded there are more ways than one to “mind the gap,” as they say in the U.K.

Normally, “mind the gap” is the helpful advice of railway and Underground signage about stepping carefully from the train to the platform, of course.

But a big gap of another kind appears in a roundup of 2015 sale figures based on Nielsen BookScan data. The Bookseller’s Tom Tivnan has revealed that “the top 50 authors (perhaps around 0.1 percent of all authors)” in the U.K. market “earned a massive 13 percent of BookScan sales last year.”

The top-earning 200 authors, Tivnan writes in his commentary on the data, represented just 0.3 percent of authors being tracked in that marketplace, and they earned 23 percent of the takings.

What’s more, the data reveals a sharp jump in the upper bracket’s earning power: Tivnan’s top fifty authors’ sales “rose a massive 21 percent” in 2015 over the same subset in 2014.

Remember that these are trade authors, not self-published writers. (Neither Nielsen nor the rest of us can track or count self-published sales with any accuracy because the biggest retailers hold those numbers close to their chests as proprietary information.)

Here are the ten top-earning U.K. authors, based on sales data, in 2015, per Tivnan’s report, in pounds sterling and U.S. dollars:

  1. Julia Donaldson, earning £13,854,045 [$19,611,093]

  2. David Walliams, £10,967,099 [$15,519,651]

  3. J. K. Rowling, £8,315,667 [$11,771,242]

  4. J. Hazeley/J. Morris, £7,352,534 [$10,407,181]

  5. Jamie Oliver, £7,250,232 [$10,262,377]

  6. James Patterson, £7,166,337 [$10,144,308]

  7. Jeff Kinney, £6,842,231 [$9,681,346]

  8. Paula Hawkins, £6,115,022 [$8,656,119]

  9. E. L. James, £5,990,604 [$8,477,603]

  10. Harper Lee, £5,798,661 [$8,204,757]

But here’s something we might not have expected to see—a strongly earning cohort of trade authors on the upper end of the next tier down. Tivnan describes it as “a massive amount of money [being] made by the author serf class.”

In his original report (paywall), Tivnan writes, “The top 5,000 authors of 2015 … rang up £866.5 million [about $1.22 billion] through the tills, 57 percent of print sales.… This means that a sizeable part of the market—£651 million [$920 million], or to put it more evocatively, roughly equivalent to what Penguin Random House, Hachette and HarperCollins combined earned through the total consumer market last year—was generated by authors earning low five-figure returns. It is not just the mega-selling authors who generate cash for publishers.”

Bottom line: While there’s a big (and growing) gap to be minded between what the haves and the have-nots earn, that 5,000-author contingent on a continental shelf of earnings just below the celebrity archipelago suggests a robust midlist population of authors. More analysis will be needed. Meanwhile, Tivnan characterizes what he’s seeing as the top authors “standing not on the shoulders of giants but on the backs of tens of thousands of authors who generate low five-figure totals—and who are arguably just as important to publishers’ bottom lines as the mega-sellers.”

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