Good Writers Read Good Books

Whenever I attend a networking event, I like to ask questions usually not asked at one of these things.

What’s your favorite sports team? Who was your idol growing up? What’s the last book you read?

I can always spot the sales alpha dogs in any networking crowd. When I ask about the last book they read, or their favorite book, it’s always the same thing.

How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie,” someone will say.

“Zig Ziglar’s Born To Win,'” says another.

The Art of War,” says a guy with slicked-back hair and a power tie.

How to Crush Your Enemies, See Them Driven Before You, and Hear the Lamentations of the Women,” says an unusually-muscled guy with a funny accent.

And I can spot the content marketers too.

“Ann Handley’s Everybody Writes!” someone will say.

The Rebel’s Guide to Email Marketing,” says another.

“I don’t read books, I only read Copyblogger,” says a third.

My bookshelf at home. I've whittled my books down to favorite authors and books by friends.

My home bookshelf. I’ve had to limit my books to favorite authors and books by friends.

But the writers — the good writers — will tell me about the books they love. The books they read over and over again, not because it will help them get ahead in life, but because it stirs something within them.

Those are the writers who are more concerned with their craft than with their content. Those are the writers who will produce some of the most interesting work, regardless of their employer. (What’s sad is their employer has no idea how lucky they are to have this wordsmith in their corner, and will wonder why the sales funnel got a little emptier after they left.)

Content marketers, as writers you should understand and build your craft as much as, if not more than, you understand your product, or understanding big data, SEO, the right number of items in a listicle, or A/B testing.

Good writers are good content marketers, but the reverse is not true. It doesn’t matter if you’re the leading expert in your particular industry, if you can’t make people want to learn more about it, you’ve failed.

If you can’t make people care about your product, they won’t buy it. If you can’t stir basic human emotions, they won’t care. And if you can’t move people to read your next blog article, or even your next paragraph, it doesn’t matter how much you know.

You will have failed as a marketer and as a writer.

The best thing you can do is focus on improving your writing skills.

That all starts with reading.

Stop Reading Business Books

Content marketers — at least the writers — need to stop reading business books and content marketing blogs. They’re no good for you. At best, you don’t learn anything new. At worst, they teach you bad habits.

As British mystery writer P. D. James said, “Read widely and with discrimination. Bad writing is contagious.

Read for pleasure instead. Read outside the nonfiction business genre. Read books from your favorite writers. Read mysteries, science fiction, fantasy, or literary fiction. Read history, biographies, creative nonfiction, or collections of old newspaper columns.

But. Don’t. Read. Business books.

This is input. This is how you become a better writer. You read the writers who are better than you, and you skip the writers who aren’t.

That means business books. As a business book author and reader, I can tell you there are plenty of business books that will never be accused of being “well written.” They’ll teach you plenty about the subject, but they won’t teach you about the craft of writing. Sure, you need to study the science of content marketing, but that should be a small portion of your total reading, not the majority of it.

So you study the best creative writers who are considered masters of the craft, and practice some of the techniques you see them doing.

This is why professional football players watch game film, not only of their opponents, but of players who came before them.

This is why actors watch old movies by the stars and directors from 50, 60, 70 years ago.

It’s why musicians not only listen to their idols, but their idols’ idols, and even their idols’ idols’ idols.

And this is why good writers constantly read the masters of the craft. This is why several writers have must read books and authors they recommend to everyone.

My friend, Cathy Day, a creative writing professor at Ball State University, and author of The Circus In Winter told me once,

Reading a lot teaches you what good sentences sound like, feel like, look like. If you don’t know what good sentences are, you will not be successful as a writer of words.

Stephen King, who is not a friend of mine, said something similar: “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

What’s In Your Bookshelf?

There are only so many effective headlines you can write, so reading the 87th article on “Five Effective Headlines You Need To Use RIGHT NOW” is a waste of time.

There are only so many ways of creating buyer personas that yet another “How to Build Your Buyer Personas” isn’t going to make a difference.

Erik Deckers and Jay Baer at Blog Indiana 2012

Jay Baer and me. This dude’s a rockstar no matter what.

And when you really get down to it, Jay Baer is channeling Harvey Mackay who’s channeling Zig Ziglar who’s channeling Dale Carnegie. There’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to business books and content marketing blogs. (Although I love Jay Baer’s bravery when it comes to wearing those sport coats! And he’s one of the few good business writers I admire.)

But there’s a whole world of books out there that have nothing to do with business, nothing to do with marketing, and will make you a better writer than any business book ever will.

Read Ernest Hemingway’s short stories to learn how to write with punch, using a simple vocabulary.

Read Roger Angell’s Once More Around the Ballpark to learn how to make people passionate about the thing you love.

Read Agatha Christie And Then There Were None to learn how to hook people at the start of a story, and keep them until the very end.

Identify three of your favorite authors, or at least authors you’ve heard good things about, and read one of their books. Identify passages, sentences, and techniques that move you and make you go “I wish I could do that.” Write them down in a notebook, and then practice doing them in your everyday writing — emails, blog articles, notes to friends, special reports, everything.

Once you finished those three books, read three more books. And then three more. And then three more.

When you run out of an author’s work, find a new author. When you run out of authors, ask a bookstore employee or librarian for recommendations. Or join Goodreads and ask your friends about the books they love.

Content marketing is facing an avalanche of mediocre content in the coming years, and the only way you’re going to stand out is if you can be better than the avalanche. That means being better at your craft, not producing more and more mediocre content.

It means reading more stuff by great writers and less by average writers. It means realizing you’re better off reading another mystery novel than yet another article that promises “Five Content Marketing Secrets.”

It means focusing on your craft and becoming a master of language and stories. And it all starts by reading the work of the artists who came before you.

Five Ways for Creative Writers to Make Money (And Two That Don’t Work)

I had a great discussion with a new friend, @SarahSuksiri, about creative writing, poetry — I learned a lot about poetry and poets from her — and how writers try to make money while pretending they don’t associate themselves with filthy lucre.

This attitude is especially prevalent with poets, who think they should only do poetry for their art. If this is your attitude, repeat after me:

Hello, welcome to Starbucks

For those writers who want to earn a living from your creative writing degree or MFA, here are five ways to actually make some money from writing that does not involve freelancing. Or you can at least show your parents that your 4 – 7 years of higher education were not a complete exercise in navel gazing.

1. Sell ebooks

Jim Kukral is the master of promoting self-published books. He’s made his name helping new authors and. . . let’s say, “niche” authors find an audience and sell their books. Even the unusual ones. (Books, not authors. Well, authors too.)

The numbers in self-publishing make sense. Without going too much into the entire “traditional publishing versus self-publishing debate,” let me tell you what Kukral and others say about the economics: If you sell a traditionally-published book for $20, you’ll make $1 – $1.40 per book in royalties, after you pay back your advance. If you sell a self-published e-book for $2.99, you’ll make $2. Sell it for $9.99, and you’ll make $7.

Now, you may sell more books in bookstores with a traditional publisher (plus it’s awesome to have your book on a bookstore shelf), but you have to sell 5 – 7 trad-pub books to make $7, versus selling one $10 ebook. Sell 1,000 books, and you get either $1,400 or $7,000. If all you sold is 1,000 books, you won’t get that $1,400 from your publisher; that’s all payback for your advance. But that $7,000 is yours off the bat. (Warning: this takes a lot of social media marketing and promotion.)

2. Become a speaker

Erik Deckers speaking in public

Doing this taught me to be a better writer.

Professional speakers command a fee. If you’re a nonfiction B2B writer like me, you have a system or knowledge that you can parlay into a one to six hour teaching session, and people will pay for that (see #5 below). If you write about important social issues, whether fiction or nonfiction, you may be able to get a gig as a keynote speaker. Keynotes make anywhere from $500 to $3,000, and even more. (Of course, you need to almost be a professional keynote speaker and that takes a few years. You’ll know when you’re ready for that.)

Build up your stage legs by giving readings, teaching small classes, and doing small talks around town for free. Join Toastmasters if you’re not comfortable with speaking. Promote yourself with a blog and become active on social media.

3. Give readings or host organized events

Slam poets earn money through their readings (Slammings? Happenings?), because they treat their work like a musician or a theatre troupe. They sell tickets or have a cover charge, and they sell books in the back of the room. Depending on the size of your audience and your rates, you could make a couple hundred dollars in a single night. Not enough to pay the rent, but you’re certainly earning more in one night than working three shifts at High-Priced Boots And Pants in the mall.

Promote the bejeezus out of these events, and get a big crowd. If you don’t like marketing, you’d better learn to real quick. You want a big crowd that’s interested in what you have to say. Even if you want to be a purist who never accepts money for their work (do your events for free then), you still want a big crowd of people who clap for you (or snap. Do they still snap at poetry slams?), and run up to you afterward, gushing and stumbling over their words. Promote these events with social media and old school marketing techniques to draw that crowd.

4. Combine your work with another passion and travel

Writer Chris Guillebeau, who wrote The Art of Nonconformity, has the kind of job that lets him work anywhere. So he does it while he travels to different parts of the globe in an attempt to visit every single country around the world.

As a writer, you have the flexibility to work anywhere you want, and on any kind of project you want. In some cases, you can even work in strange new locales, like the African Bush, the Canadian wilderness, or Iowa. If you can leverage your writing skills into a real money-earner, like a freelance copywriter, go where the work is, or just work from your favorite coffee shop. If you can get a nonprofit to hire you for six months, rent a short-term apartment in that city, and go to work.

5. Teach classes and seminars

Writing coach Jeff Goins is making his name not only as a writer, but as a writing coach. He’s built his reputation and living by offering several online webinars and ongoing classes per year, as well as selling educational materials to budding writers. One of his multi-week classes can cost a few hundred dollars per student. Similarly, I’ve begun teaching classes for the Indiana Writers Center, and I was happily surprised when I was handed a check at the end of the first class. I had forgotten all about it.

So what if you charged $200 for a 4 week online class and got 15 students to sign up? That’s $3,000 a month. It’s not downtown-penthouse money, but for a young writer who has a roommate or spouse-with-a-job, it’s a significant contribution to the household income. And what if you could repeat that model every month, or even run it twice a month on different days, but only did it a few times a year?

Further, if you have an MFA, you’re qualified to teach writing and English at a local college or university. (Actually, if you have a master’s degree in anything, you’re qualified to teach undergraduates in that field.) It’s not great pay — I get anywhere from $700 – $1,000 a month for a single public speaking class. And you certainly don’t want to build a career on being an adjunct. But if you’re looking for beer money, or a little something to boost your income, this is a great way to use your degree and your passion.

And now for the two don’ts: I’ve seen other people try this, and it’s rough. A lot of people have started down one of these two paths only to realize the numbers don’t work, and they’re out all that time and expense.

1. Start a website or journal that relies on banner advertising

Ad sales are a hard, scary way to make money. Even big city newspapers aren’t making a ton of money from them. Advertisers only want to pay per thousand displayed ads (some even only want to pay per click). These advertisers will only pay between $10 – $20 per thousand visitors, which works out to $.01 – $.02 per view).

So if you want to earn $50 for a single article, you have to generate between 2,500 – 5,000 visitors to that one page page. But if the advertiser is paying by the click, you may get $.20 per click, but if you want $50, you need 250 clicks. And if the click-through rate on an ad is 1% (which is actually kind of high), you need 25,000 visitors to see that ad. If you could bring in 25,000 visitors a month to your website, you need to sell ebooks, not display ads.

2. Traditional publishing

(Otherwise known as “my editor is going to hate me now!”)

While everyone wants to have that big blockbuster that makes them more money than J.K. Rowling and John Grisham combined, seriously, what are the odds of that happening? I’ve written three books and ghostwritten half of another. If I tried to live on the royalties of those books, I’d have a very fancy cardboard box under a bridge.

No Bullshit Social Media in New Release Shelf

When I saw this photo, it was one of the proudest days of my life. My mom, not so much.

Even if you’re lucky enough to get a publishing deal, you need to sell hundreds of thousands of books in order to get rich; several tens of thousand per year to earn a salary. Let’s say you get $1.20 in royalties for every published book you sell. If you want to earn $48,000 a year in royalties, you need to sell 40,000 books every single year.

Don’t get me wrong. Traditional publishing is great. I owe Que Biz-Tech and Pearson Publishing a lot. So much of what I’ve been able to do has happened because they took a chance on me. I love knowing that my books have been printed, occupy a physical space in the world, and I got a thrill knowing that No Bullshit Social Media was seen by hundreds, if not thousands, of impressionable children walking into a Barnes & Noble. I encourage many writers to try to get their books published by a real publishing house before they take up the self-publishing baton.

But — and this is the point I want to stress — traditional publishing is not how you’re going to make a long-term living. The numbers just aren’t there anymore. Not at $1.40 royalties per book. You’re going to push, promote, and shout about your book to as many people as you can, whether you self-publish, or you go the traditional route. Either method involves the same amount of work. The only difference is there’s a bigger payoff in the self-pub route than in trad-pub. (On the other hand, you’ll never see a self-published book in a Barnes & Noble.)

Having said that, having a traditionally published book is an excellent way to build your reputation, which makes numbers 2 – 5 that much easier to accomplish.

Now that I’ve crapped on your dreams or given you a great idea, what are some other ideas you have for writers who want to make money? If you’re making money from your writing, what are you doing that earns a steady (or at least significant) income? Leave a note in the comments.

Free Download of My Chapter from Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems

About 18 months ago, I was asked by authors Markus Ståhlberg and Villa Maila to contribute a chapter to their book Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems.

The book consists of 35 separate chapters written by 35 different social media experts from around the world. Ståhlberg and Maila asked, pleaded, and cajoled all of us to turn in our chapters, which they then wrestled to the ground and turned it into a heavy book about the marketing ecosystem. It’s not just online marketing, and it’s not a lot of “you should measure Return On Engagement” or “I’m the Chief Awesome Officer!” bullshit that litters the social media marketing book world.

Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems coverThis is a smart book written by smart people, talking about marketing in general, as it develops and revolves around brands, whether it’s traditional media, online, mobile, and even retail point-of sale.

With dramatic changes in consumer behavior – from online shopping to the influence of social media – marketers are finding it harder than ever to coordinate, prioritize and integrate the latest interactive channels into their overall brand-building strategy. With the emergence of the truly interactive consumer, marketers need to scrap the traditional TV-centric strategies and build their own multichannel ecosystems centered around digital channels and supported by traditional media.

Multichannel Marketing Ecosystems examines a fundamental game changer for the entire marketing industry – the seismic shift from a single TV-centric path to an interactive multichannel ecosystem that puts digital technology at the core of marketing strategy. With separate chapters on the remaking of marketing, the rise of the digital brand, conversion optimization, m-commerce, searchability in a multichannel world and predictive marketing, this book shows how marketers and brand managers can react positively to changes in consumer behavior, building customer responses and loyalty via the full spectrum of digital media.

Co-authors include Felix Velarde, CEO of Underwire; Sundeep Kapur, Allied Solutions; Cam Brown, CEO of King Fish Media; and my good friend and Branding Yourself co-author, Kyle Lacy, ExactTarget.

The book finally came out this winter, and I did what every other contributor probably did — flipped to their own chapter. I read it, I skimmed through several other chapters, tried to find typos in Kyle’s chapter (sorry, force of habit), and tried to make sense of everything in the book.

Like I said, this is a smart book. It’s packed with information — not just long blog posts, but analysis, strategies, and ideas that mid- to upper-level marketers need to know to help their brands be successful in a fracturing marketing ecosystem. This is beyond “DO TWITTER!” cheerleading. It’s heady stuff, and it’s written by the leading experts in their field.

If you’re interested in a free chapter, Ståhlberg and Vaila have allowed me to make my chapter — “What Really Counts In Metrics” — available for free download. you can download it here.

No Bullshit Social Media Interview with Peter Clayton of Total Picture Radio

I had the chance to be interviewed by Peter Clayton, producer/host of TotalPicture Radio, for his Online Strategy Channel podcast about No Bullshit Social Media. I met Peter, and spoke with him for several minutes at BlogWorld New York in June. It was at a party Pearson threw for its authors. So I was there, my No Bullshit Social Media co-author Jason Falls was there, as was our favorite editor, Katherine Bull, as were several other authors and potential authors.

I tell you, I felt like a real writer that night, boy. When people walk around handing you drinks and little deep-fried tacos while you talk about books in a New York bar, that’s when you truly feel like a writer.

(We also got to hear a young lady, one of the waitresses, sing opera that night. She was awesome.)

During our interview, Peter and I chatted about why businesses are afraid of using social media, why they need to consider social media marketing as one of their best options for it, and how companies need to rethink their attitudes toward not only social media, but how they need to change their entire mindset to be ready for the 21st century.

Peter was kind enough to share the mp3 of our interview, which you can listen to here. (Sorry, no opera.)

The No Bullshit Social Media conversation with Erik Deckers

One important issue Peter and I discussed is that if you trust your employees to answer your phones, give sales and marketing presentations, receive and count your money (and not steal it), and to pay the people who work for you, but you don’t trust your employees to use social media without being struck stupid and unproductive, then you don’t have an employee problem. You have a management problem.

We also talked about how we can monitor social media marketing efforts, and determine their ROI, even while marketers are still struggling with how to accurately measure the results from billboards, TV commercials, and newspaper ads.

Awesomize.me is Still The Awesome

I just got a very nice comment from Tatiana Sorabi from Awesomize.me very politely pointing out that I can be a big whiner at times. After my last post, Should I Cover Up the Name of No Bullshit Social Media?, Tatiana responded a couple days later with this very nice comment.no bullshit social media link cover-purchase on amazon

Erik, We are working on the issue. You jumped on this too quick. Your inquiry was forwarded to me last week. This was the first incident for us. We are still in startup phase and lacking resources.

To avoid ending up another myspace, we have put in place a strong policing system to keep the spammers and offenders away. We fully realize you are neither spammer nor offender. We are trying to come up with a solution how to separate your case with others. Once, the solution is in place, I send you a note.

Meanwhile, I encourage you to create a page for your company and book on our site. You can use the “Add Product” Template for your book.

So, I rescind my complaint, and will add my product for my book. AND I’ll rename my book to No Bullsh*t so they have plenty of time to work on their solution.

Should I Cover Up the Name of No Bullshit Social Media?

Update: Awesomize.me contacted me with a great response addressing this issue.

I wrote a book with a naughty word in the title.

My latest book, No Bullshit Social Media, which I wrote with my good friend Jason Falls, has generated surprisingly little controversy. It’s been placed cover out on all the shelves in all the Barnes & Noble bookstores. It was even on their New Arrivals shelf, top center, where everyone could see it.

Of course, there has been some controversy. I’ve given presentations where I had to refer to the book as “No BS.” One group asked that I not mention the book at all, and since they dealt with a lot of very conservative Christians, who would be attending the conference, I was fine with that. (I covered up most of the offending word, and kept the cover one the last slide of the slide deck though.)

I’m not ashamed of the title. I’m not sorry I did it. I understand that some people don’t like saying it, and I’m fine with that. If they want to call it No BS, they’re more than welcome to. I won’t tell someone to do something they’re not comfortable with.

But what’s bothering me today is a particular social network, awesomize.me is covering up the title of the book completely. In my bio, I included the title of my book, spelled out in all its 4 letter (8 letter?) glory.

However, the “no naughty words” algorithm covered up the word, and recast it as No @#$% Social Media.

This actually bothers me. I can’t tell you why. It’s not censorship, because awesomize.me is a private company, and they can do what they want. If they want to make a rule that says “no swear words,” then they’re free to do it.

But at the same time, I’m annoyed by the fact that on a social network made up of grownups, I can’t use a grownup word. Not in a gratuitous, shocking, let’s-make-everyone-giggle kind of a way. But in a this-is-a-real-book-title way.

The easy thing to do would be to just change the title of the book myself to “No BS Social Media,” or “No Bull***” or even “No Bullsh*t.” But I don’t want to. That’s not the name of the book.

Am I overreacting? Should I just toe the line and change the title of the book in my bio? Or should I stand firm on principle, and refuse to change it, even if it means that people are going to wonder what @#$% stands for?

What would you do?

When “No Bullshit Social Media” Showed Up At My House

The last time I was this excited about opening up a box was last December, when I opened a box filled with copies of Branding Yourself. The first thing I did was call Kyle Lacy and congratulate and thank him.

No Bullshit Social Media books

This is one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.

This time, when my copies of No Bullshit Social Media showed up, I called Jason Falls to congratulate him, and had to leave him a voice mail message.

There comes a time in every writer’s life where publishing blog posts aren’t enough, and they have to resort to the printed word in newspapers and magazines. Or plays. Or speeches. Then, there comes a time when those aren’t enough. Then, it’s books. Self-published, vanity published, collections, and even big boy really-and-for-true publisher books.

Writing is a drug, and blogging is the gateway.

There is no greater high to a writer than to see his or her own name on the cover of a book that they didn’t have to shell out $2,000 to have printed.

I have a lot of people to thank for giving me that opportunity: our editor, Katherine Bull, who I fooled believed in me, and was willing to put up with Jason’s bullshit quirky mannerisms; Leslie O’Neill, our development editor, who made our book awesome; Brandon Prebynski, who made sure everything in our book was correct and really worked; my business partner, Paul Lorinczi, who kept me on track at work, and made sure I had the mental bandwidth to get everything done; and, my wife, Toni, who helped me keep a writing schedule and still find time for the family, and made sure I got at least 4 hours of sleep a night.

This is a momentous time for me, and I have not felt this proud since, well, last December. I appreciate everyone who helped me accomplish a writer’s dream for the third time. I appreciate everyone who has shared their knowledge with me over the years to make me the kind of person who could write a book like this. And I appreciate everyone who will buy the book, and maybe make it a best-seller (secret goal #4).

Will there be more books? Yes. Do I know when or what subject? No. Will they have a curse word in the title? Probably not. But I’m sure going to try.