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The Power of an E-mail Network (10 Years in the Making)

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My Q&A with Hyla Molander—on her success finding readers with Scribd—sparked many people to contact me about their success too in using the site.

However, even before Hyla, I had met Ransom Stephens, who is further along in his journey. His novel, The God Patent, was recently released in print from Vox Novus, after reaching the Scribd E-Novel Top 10 in 2009.

Here's Ransom's story. I think it illustrates the benefits that come with experimentation, being first to a new platform, and a strong e-mail network!


Before you posted on Scribd in May 2009, tell us about your efforts to edit and traditionally publish your work.

The God Patent was read by several bestselling authors, a handful of voracious readers, much of it went through the San Francisco Writers Workshop, and various drafts were vetted by a couple of physicists, an attorney, a Baptist preacher, a reformed Baptist preacher and a retired English teacher.

I had the quantum physics right but needed to weld in enough plot tension to keep everyone interested. The plot premise requires legal understanding I didn’t have and all the religion, especially the politics of evangelical Christianity, needed external input.

All in all, nearly 20 people took a red pen to one of the five major drafts it went through including my agent.

It was ready to go at the beginning of 2009 which, you might recall, was a difficult year economically. I already had an agent who had been shopping a memoir for me the year before, which I don’t want to talk about other than: we were close, there were threats of a lawsuit, we were not close again, it’s on the shelf.

Anyway, after I implemented my agents' edits, I called to tell her it was ready. She told me how hard she’d just worked to get a few thousand dollar advance for another author. She was pretty discouraged about the whole business in that economy.

This was not what I wanted to hear so I sent a few queries to other agents. The queries went out and nibbles came back the way they do: slowly! I sent the first 50 pages, the synopsis, manuscripts, all the usual stuff, and waited.

Once Scribd opened its “door,” the process moved too quickly for the established publishing industry to respond. Once I clicked upload, I was committed and for the most part it felt like I was riding rapids downstream.

How and why Scribd?

One afternoon in April 2009, my buddy Scott James whispered a
cryptic message to me at the San Francisco Writers Workshop about “the
iTunes for books.” He swore he couldn’t tell me anymore, but added,
“Have your book ready to go, with cover art within two weeks.”

I’ve learned a lot from Scott and what I’ve learned most is to shut up
and do what he says. So I did. A month later, he told me that Scribd was about to open its store and that he and a few others were going for it.

That weekend word leaked into the press. The following Monday I uploaded The God Patent. I had fussed over the formatting all day, got what I wanted and let it go.

The funny thing is that I was, and I guess still am, one of those
authors who fears the “self-published” label. Not so much because it’s a
naughty word on the streets of New York City, but because it sounds
like an infinite amount of work, most of which I’m not qualified to do.
But when it came right down to it … all I had to do was click “upload.”

Step us through what you did to reach Scribd's E-Novel Top Ten. Did you have an existing platform? What marketing strategies worked?

I sent batches of e-mails, called in favors to give readings at bars and bookstores, got a bookmark designed and printed and started handing them out at events. The irony of a paper bookmark for an e-novel wasn’t lost on me.

I wasn’t on Facebook or Twitter yet, but I promoted the book everywhere I went. My public speaking career was starting to take off at the point, too. My speech “The Big Picture and Big Decisions,” which is all but unrelated to my book, became increasingly popular. It’s a career transition speech, so it played well to that economy. I spoke to thousands of people in transition. And every one of them got my bookmark.

One thing that helped a lot was that, at each speech, I handed out an evaluation form which did three things for me: I got people’s contact info, they referred me to other organizations that would like my speech, and they gave me promotional blurbs for my speech. It turned out that a lot of those people liked my book.

The God Patent worked its way up the Scribd chart in about two weeks. I used a few cheap Google Adwords, too. That’s about it: readings, speeches, handouts, and lots of e-mails. I can’t point at one thing that worked, the aggregate effect of those things had the desired effect. Now, getting to a position to assemble all of that took years of effort.

Everything I did seemed to have some effect except handing out bookmarks in random places.

Tell us more about your e-mail marketing strategy. How critical was it to your success?

I didn’t send e-mails to everyone at once. But I had been saving every e-mail that crossed my inbox since 1999 in anticipation of someday needing them. I separated them into categories—colleagues and friends—then subcategorized those: scientists, engineers, writers, speakers and family/friends. The first e-mails I sent were to the people closest to me. That gave me a big bump because those people forwarded my note farther along.

The first 1,000 e-mails I sent got The God Patent into the top ten, then every time I gave a speech, it got another little bump. It felt as though the little bumps kept the momentum going, kept it in the top 10.

The most important thing was building the foundation. I was in the right place at the right time and knew the right people. I’m not a great networker. I seem outgoing to a lot of people, but that’s because they don’t notice me until I’m comfortable with them.

I spent five years networking among San Francisco’s literati: going to readings, volunteering at Litquake, the San Francisco Writers Conference, contributing to the San Francisco Writers Workshop and so forth. That I was in position to find out about Scribd was key. That I knew who to ask for help drawing attention to The God Patent was huge.

?Do you think Scribd could be a tool for everyone? What’s your take on its strengths and weaknesses as a DIY tool? (Any reason you didn’t use services like Amazon DTP or Smashwords instead?)?

The problem of getting a book out there is what engineers call a signal-to-noise problem. It’s impossible for a publisher to see every good possibility in the market because there are so many. I firmly believe—because I’ve seen it so often!—that once you ascend a threshold of craft and storytelling acumen, that guessing what book will do well, what book will survive over time to become a classic, is completely subjective. Otherwise publishers would do better than their sub-25% profit-loss success ratio.

Getting The God Patent on Scribd gave it a chance on an open playing field that wasn’t already saturated. Being early to the game made a big difference. Getting attention in a field of thousands is much easier than in a field of hundreds of thousands.

I think Scribd is a great place to put your work. They have a very nice reader and lots of people come to their site to read. I think it’s better for short fiction and essays than novels because not so many people like to read long pieces on their computer.

I did not use Amazon DTP or Smashwords until after it was in print because I was focusing on being a success in one game and didn’t want to dilute the field.

If The God Patent had been in the top 100 at Smashwords and Scribd and Amazon Kindle, that probably would have added up to more readers than I had in the top 10 at Scribd, but it wouldn’t have caught the eye of any publishers.

This is an annoying facet of the industry for someone with an understanding of statistics: the legacy publishing industry is not well configured to comprehend the numbers that matter the most to their success.

You now have a deal for the print edition with Vox Novus. Tell us how that came about.?

Like most of this experience, it was a confluence of events. One of the people I met in those five years hanging around bars and art galleries with other writers turned out to be the Editor in Chief at Numina Press. I knew she was starting a company and I knew she was brilliant. But I also knew that she likes high-brow literary fiction so I wasn’t very confident of my chances. I asked her to read it early in the process, and she said she liked it, but she’s such a literary snob, I wasn’t sure.

The success on Scribd made the decision easy for her.

?Now that you have a print edition, have you seen an increase in overall sales? Are most people going for print or digital editions?

Absolutely. Like I said, the most common response I had to the electronic version was the desire to get the book in paper. In the last six months, with the iPad, cheaper Kindles, the Nook, and so forth, there are more opportunities but the printed version is the most popular.

?With a print edition, have there been things you can now do (marketing wise) that you couldn’t earlier?

Having a physical book has opened doors. My speaking business has blossomed. I have three major speeches now and am rolling out another in a few weeks. My speech, “Emmy Noether and the Fabric of Reality"—about a mathematician who ought a have a more recognizable name than Einstein because her work was that important—has been booked all over California. I even gave it at a theater on top of a mountain. A character in The God Patent, the scientist’s scientist in the battle between science and religion, is loosely based on Emmy Noether.

??You have an abundance of positive reviews on Amazon for your book. Many authors wonder how they can get that kind of reader support. Was this just serendipity for you, or did you play a role in encouraging people to review it?

The goal of promotion is to maintain that momentum and try to reach the point, like critical mass, where the feedback generates its own promotion. The God Patent has momentum, but it hasn’t reached that point yet.

I did two things that helped get those wonderful reviews. At the end of my book, in the “About the Author” section, I wrote:

ovels are capsules of thought and reading one is akin to reading the author’s mind. It’s an intimate experience that ought to breed familiarity. To that end, Ransom would like it if you were to share your thoughts with him [at e-mail].”

So when someone sends me a note, in my reply—and I reply to every note I get regarding The God Patent—I ask them if they’d mind posting a review. Getting those e-mails is a wonderful experience. It is a strange business we are in, one that is measured by how much sleep we prevent and how many tears we generate.

My thanks to Ransom for taking the time to detail his marketing strategy and share his hard-won wisdom with us. Go visit Ransom's site, or check out his book on Amazon.

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