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Can you tweet your way to a bestseller?

30 June 2010


Justin Halpern has shown that it is possible to tweet your way to a bestseller. He created the Twitter feed www.twitter.com/shitmydadsays to share the wit and wisdom of his 74-year old father.

Twitter seems to be the ideal medium for expressing his Dad's knack of getting right to the heart of a subject. His latest advice is: "Don’t focus on the one guy who hates you. You don’t go to the park and set your picnic down next to the only pile of dog shit."

Since the feed was established last August, Halpern has attracted 1,441,919 followers who subscribe to his tweets. That's a pretty impressive audience, and it's helped to make Halpern's book inspired by the Twitter feed into a bestseller. There is now talk of William Shatner starring in a TV show inspired by the Twitter feed.

There are two key lessons from this experience for writers everywhere. The first is that if you build a large audience for your work, it's a lot easier to get a book deal. This same advice is what has been driving bands to build up their live and online following for years: if you can show there is an audience for your work, others will be willing to invest in it.

The second lesson is that Twitter can be a valuable tool for refining characters. Halpern's feed is based on a real person, but there's no reason why you couldn't create a Twitter feed for fictional characters in your book and use the brevity of the medium to refine the characters' ideas and sayings so that they really shine. If people take an interest in what your characters have to say, they will be more willing to read about them in books. Of course, this does mean you need to have something compelling for your characters to say outside the context of dialogue, which is a whole new creative challenge.

If you want to get started with Twitter, don't forget to follow me! There's a chapter on how to use Twitter in my book 'Social Networking for the Older and Wiser'.

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How to make ebook apps for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch

23 June 2010


Writers Forum June 2010 coverI've just published an article about how you can make ebook apps for the iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch. It's based on interviews with about 20 industry insiders, including bestselling app creators, authors and publishers.

A much shorter version of the feature appeared in the June 2010 issue of Writers' Forum magazine, but I've extended it online with lots of content there wasn't room for in the magazine.

It was an interesting time to be writing the article, because I think it captured a moment in time when it was easy for authors to build apps. It's already become much more difficult, even in the few months since I wrote the story. Firstly, the companies that enabled people to make apps based on RSS feeds have massively increased prices. The entry price used to be $25 and now it's many hundreds of dollars. That probably reflects the demand they've seen from big brands, and might not be a price that the market can sustain in the longer term, at least not without some consolidation in the companies offering those services. For now, with prices that high, you might as well commission a bespoke design (which the article also covers). Secondly, Apple has responded to the number of apps being created by setting much higher standards for approval.

For this project, I did try to create an iPhone app using RSS feeds, but it was unfortunately rejected by Apple for reasons unknown. It might have been a victim of a crackdown on the service I was using, or they might have visited on a day when I hadn't updated the blog for a week or two. With Apple, who knows? The process of making and submitting the app was easy from a technical point of view, but every support query took a week to get a response, and the admin was hard to navigate.

The new iPhone OS and the iPad support the iBook store, so this might create new opportunities for authors to get their content into Apple's handhelds, if they're happy to publish static ebooks. It will be interesting to see what kinds of content Apple decides to approve and reject, and how this changes over time. I suspect that once the catalogue of books is looking reasonably healthy, we'll see a lot of self-published content get deleted and new rules come into play.

To read some success stories from authors who have created apps and find out how you can create your own, see my article. (If you make audiobooks, check out my tutorial on how to get your music into iTunes and Amazon MP3 too. The same concepts apply for audiobooks).

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A question about copyright permissions

10 June 2010


Michael MacMahon, author of a guide to personal debt called 'Back To The Black: how to become debt-free and stay that way', emailed me with a question about copyright.

He says: "The last job [in writing my book] is inserting external resources, especially case studies. Most of the latter I have clipped from newspapers (or the online world) over the last couple of years. I have about 25 of them and the majority are short(maybe 150-200 words on average). For these short ones I really don't want to get into writing to loads of different newspapers / websites and waiting for permissions. (plus in some cases I don't even have a record of who published the story originally)."

He asks: "In these circs do you think I might be vulnerable to legal challenge if I insert these shorter case studies in full and without permission?"

Absolutely. That's a clear copyright infringement. Even if you can get away with it, authors should ask whether they really want to be getting away with copyright infringement at all, given their income depends on copyright.

Permissions are a massive hassle, but they're unavoidable. Getting someone to sign a permissions form is a small price to pay for all the work they've done on your behalf (finding interviewees, interviewing them, writing up the case studies, etc).

Book contracts will often make the author responsible for ensuring all the content in the book is copyright-cleared, although I was fortunate to have fantastic support from my publisher for my social networking book. The terms of the contract usually make the author financially liable for any infringement suit that follows, so it's important to get this right.

A few things to look out for:
Michael's question throws up two other interesting points. Firstly, the interviewee might also have rights to privacy in this particular case, because of the sensitive nature of the subject, so it might be good to get it cleared with them too or at least to check the legal position on this properly. Secondly, there's the issue of trust when using content from other publications. Can you be certain it's accurate?

In this case, the best approach is probably to use fictional case studies, which Michael suggested might be a solution in his email.

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