In this article you will discover how the guy behind Humble Nations, owner of book cover design company, Go On Write, promoted his new short story collection, and why he feels honesty is the best policy when it comes to trying to sell more books.
You will discover how he took two years to write his book, how he decided which stories to keep and which to kill, and why asking readers for “honest” reviews helped to promote his book. Finally you’ll learn what you can do to help promote your book.
Q: Let me start with a tough question. Is this a serious book or just a bit of self-promotion?
I can’t see how you can say it’s self-promotion. Because—if you mean, promoting my book cover design company—then it’s completely the other way around. I used my cover design website (i.e., my newsletter/mailing list) to promote my actual book.
But I think that this might actually be two questions here. Is the book a serious book in terms of my writing? Is that what you mean? Or is it just me promoting my silly brand of the self? Because we both know I have a bit of an ego.
Q: Yes. That’s the question. Is this about branding or about being an author?
Author. Definitely. I don’t hang with the way that people are trying to build author brands on Kindle. That’s not where I come from. It’s not what I’m about. I’ve been writing for more than twenty years, and, to me, it’s about enjoyment and craft. You need to love something to want to do it. To do it, you learn about it. You get better.
“Brand” suggests some sort of marketing effort. “Marketing” suggests money. In fact, if we look at this in a wholly monetary sense, then I’m down some bucks. Because I gave away a few free premade book covers for people to read the book. And I’ve not made a penny from it. What’s important to me is just for people to be entertained by my writing. To raise a smile or a chuckle and, if I’m lucky, then for that reader to maybe think about something I’ve said that touched them emotionally. Emotional manipulation with my writing is something I like the thought of.
Q: In the premise of the book, which is a collection of short stories, an alien race has invaded Earth. You then use each short story to examine a little facet of human nature. Is this a fair assessment?
To a certain extent, yes. But you can’t forget the dick jokes as well. There are dick jokes in there. Sometimes the most facile stories in the collection are the most profound though. I guess it comes down to what a reader sees in my writing. I like working both on the surface and below at the same time. Like, the joke is the icing on the cake, and the point of the story below is the Christmas cake. I like the juxtaposition of stupidity on top of something a little deeper. And the book is a mixture of our human condition and sort of where we are as a society. The book did offend some readers, because, where I used offense as the icing in a number of stories, they did not really get the narrator irony.
Q: Tell us a little about your writing process. I know you wrote it over a period of time and lived in a couple European cities in the process. How’d all this work out?
This book took me two years to complete, because I don’t have a great amount of free time. Not as many hours as I would like on a weekly basis. But this book actually started to take form when I was living back in Leeds, England, but I took five weeks off from designing book covers and went to Barcelona and just spent every day writing. Lots of projects came out of that process. Over the space of that five weeks, I filled five notebooks with stories. Lots of ideas but this was the one that I enjoyed the most, so I carried through on it.
I probably ended up writing about two hundred stories for the book, but I kept only about eighty of the strongest ones in the final version.
By the end, I just wanted it to be finished and to move on to something else.
In terms of living in different cities, it didn’t really matter. I just needed to find a place where I could write. Which means, not at home. Usually a pub or bar I like. Somewhere quiet but not completely quiet. The hubbub is always the sound track to my writing. Oddly enough where I started the book was this fantastic outside place in Barcelona, but, when I returned to the city, I couldn’t write there anymore and had to find a new place. The strange fact is that the old place was just fifty meters from an Airbnb place I had moved into over the summer, but I guess it was too close. My new place was a craft beer place called Black Lab, which is just about one hundred meters from where I live now, in my new place. I still go there to write. Location is everything to me.
Q: So not all stories made the final cut? How’d you decide what to drop and what to keep?
That was easy. The ones that I could not be bothered to finish and polish. Some were dropped because it would have just been too hard to smooth them into something readable. Some of the ideas just weren’t as strong. Some seemed too long and didn’t fit. Some didn’t make me laugh or touch me too strongly. So it was mostly self-curation and some laziness.
The responses were quite interesting when the book went out to the prerelease readers. What they enjoyed differed wildly. Some hated some stories that others loved. I think this is a good indication that I picked wisely, because it made me feel that all the stories weren’t that “samey.” Which is always a view when you stare at something too long. Wood for the trees and all that.
Q: Let me return to something I found really interesting, and that’s the way you promoted the book. Can you give a bit of detail?
Yeah, I asked for honest reviews from my mailing list people. These are other authors who come to me for premade book covers for their own work. Now, when I said “honest,” I was quite specific about this. Let me dig out the email and give you the wording. Here we go:
I require you to be honest. If you just want to pay me lip service to not offend me, then please don’t review the book. If you think it was not that good, have the honor to put that in your review. Say what you liked and didn’t like. It’s a great opportunity to look inside yourself and just be as blunt or as open as you want. Authors should always be about the truth.
Q: I noticed that you had a couple three-star reviews. Do you think your request backfired?
Now, reading what I wrote, do you think it backfired? It’s about what you want. I got what I wanted. I gave them that opportunity. They took it with both hands. You can’t be upset if someone doesn’t like what you write. You’re taking away their honest opinion otherwise.
Authors are brittle creatures. And really they shouldn’t be. You need to take a deep-breath sometimes, but, if you can’t accept emotional criticism … because that’s what we’re talking about here—someone being critical about your emotions that you poured from your heart into your work. It’s very personal. Learning about the responses from others is part of the craft of being any sort of artist.
Q: It is funny you should mention honest feedback. We have a testimonials section on our site, actually written by authors after we have edited their books. The authors are free to write whatever they feel is fair. In all the time we’ve given authors the freedom to write what they feel, we’ve removed only two testimonials. One was just offensive. The other was in relation to them being unhappy with the ebook conversion—a service that we didn’t offer, as she’d paid someone else to convert her book.
That’s a bit different though from an actual book review as compared to a review of a service paid for. We’re talking about your business here, on one hand, and, on the other, we’re talking about my brain vomit. Two different things. I’m the same with my book cover design business. Business is business. I try to make everyone happy. I deal with hundreds of authors a month, and, over the last three years doing cover design, I can count on one hand the amount of “bad” customers I’ve had. So, if you look at the percentages, you having two negative feedbacks and me having two or three frustrating experiences, I think that represents amazing customer service and the willingness to try to fix problems. What other business could say that, over the years, they’ve only had two or three complaints? That’s what it takes to make a good business: the willingness not to please but to fix.
Q: BubbleCow and Go On Write have been partnered for a number of years, and, during this time, I’ve been a huge fan of your newsletter, your “voice” and the way you promote your business. What can authors learn from your promotional activities? What can authors do to help sell more books?
I’m just being myself on my newsletter. My “voice,” as you call it, it’s just me. I don’t do the marketing speak. I get a good response to this. I’m honest about how I feel or how things are going in my life. And, if there is anything that other authors could take away from this, it’s the one word: honesty. If you’re writing a book, because everyone else is writing that style of book, and it’s not in sync with what you’re feeling or thinking at the time, it will come across as fake. It has to be what you truly feel, because it always shows in the writing. You can’t fake it.
And I have no idea what authors can do to sell more books. Because I’m not really doing too well with that, to be honest. And I am being honest here. But what I can say to other authors, enjoy what you’re doing. And always have a backup plan, financially speaking.
Humble Nations’s short story collection is called Alien Baggage Allowance. It has been described as:
Forget the Fermi Paradox, we’re not alone and we’ve been visited. Visited by a new book from the celestial body that is Humble Nations. Presented as eighty-two whimsical funny little tales he speculated what it would mean for mankind if we were to be visited by aliens. The silliness of the writing shines like little stars from every page.