Balticon 47 Highlights, Part 1: Lessons in Self-Publishing

Attending Balticon 47 wasn’t something I did solely for entertainment (although it was, in fact, a very enjoyable event). I’m in the beginning stages of executing my own self-publishing plan, and I wanted to learn as much about that section of the industry as I could in the time that I had. Unfortunately, various commitments allowed me to attend only the last half of Saturday and the entirety of Sunday, so I wanted to cram as much learning into that time as possible.

In this two-part article, I’ll discuss the sessions that I attended and try to distill some of the major points that I derived from each session. Part 1 will cover Saturday and Part 2 will cover Sunday.

You’ll see from my choice of sessions that I was very focused on self-publishing, but that I also branched out to learn more about podcasting, voice acting and short films. These are all areas where I think my skill set is well-suited, even if I clearly have much to learn.

So, let’s explore together what Balticon had to offer for someone like me. Also, for those who share similar interests, Balticon did record the audio for most of their sessions, which they plan to release eventually as podcasts.

Saturday, May 25

I drove to Hunt Vally, MD, from northern Virginia, which took me about an hour-and-a-half. Once I got registered, and took the mandatory quick spin through the Dealer’s Room, it was a couple of minutes after 4:00 PM, so I slipped into my first session just a couple minutes after it had started,

4:00 – 5:00 PM 1. Make Your Book Shine!
A. L. Davroe, Allison Gamblin (Moderator), Starla Huchton, Betsy A. Riley

Basic information on interior formatting and layout of manuscripts and book cover design. Includes when to DIY or hire someone, how to find the right people for the job, and why all of these elements are important for a successful book.

The basic takeaway that I got from this session is that it’s a competitive market out there. The days when you could self-publish anything you wanted, and then just slap a crappy, amateur cover on it, are gone. If you’re going to succeed with self-publishing, you need to produce a quality product, including a good story, competently copy-edited text, a solid interior layout, and a professional-looking cover. Ideally, you want a prospective reader to be unable to distinguish your product from one produced by a traditional publisher.

The panelists had a mix of skill-sets, in addition to all of them being writers, which provided an interesting cross-section of perspectives. Starla Huchton is an author, an accomplished voice actor (I got to hear some of her voice work on Sunday), and a cover designer. I liked her cover samples, so consider Starla if you need a cover for your next story. Betsy Riley is an author and editor; Alison Gamblin is a WordPress consultant and blogger (and the husband of writer Brandon Gamblin); and A. L. Davroe is a writer.

5:00 – 6:00 PM 2. Put Together the Total Package
Collin Earl (Moderator), Allison Gamblin, Starla Huchton, A B Kovacs, James R. Stratton

Tips on how to make your book sell, including various self-publishing avenues and requirements, marketing strategies, and tools to promote your work.

This session echoed some aspects of the previous session. The fundamental aspect of selling a book requires that you have a solid, professional product.

There was some discussion of where to sell your self-published stories, but the consensus was that Amazon was clearly the top market. If you only had time to “do” one market, then make it Amazon. But you should promote it in other venues and formats if you can. Some very good points were made by A B Kovacs, who is essentially a publisher (teamed up with author Scott Sigler).

Numerous tools were discussed, including Google Docs, as a great collaboration tool; Google+ for its video Hangout capabilities; and others. Most of the authors, if they Twitter, used some sort of tool to manage their tweets, such as HootSuite, TweetDeck and others. There was also a mention of, to help organize re-tweets.

It was a generally informative session, but without any tips or revelations to rock my world.

6:00 – 7:00 PM 3. Google+ for Authors
Brandon Gamblin, Pamela Gay (Moderator), A B Kovacs, A. C. Wise

Google+ is built to showcase your skills and expertise. Come learn how authors can leverage this first-ever social layer to win fans and showcase their expertise across all of Google’s properties.

I have an Information Technology (IT) background. I have a pretty solid grounding in services like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and many others. But Google+ has been one of my blind spots. I just haven’t had a chance to do much with it yet. I thought I’d give myself a lift up by attending a Google+ talk at Balticon, which was nicely moderated by Dr. Pamela Gay.

Now, Pamela Gay is a smart lady. According to the Balticon Convention Program, she’s “an astronomer, writer and podcaster focused on using new media to engage people in science and technology.” She was also clearly the most knowledgable on the panel about Google+, as she uses it to promote AstronomyCast, a popular astronomy podcast, and CosmoQuest, an online portal targeted towards getting people interested in astronomy. As an aside, both initiatives are highly recommended.

My overall impression from Pamela Gay and the other panelists is that Google+ seems like a cleanly designed, tightly integrated product from a technology company — one that is trying to leverage its high-tech expertise to out-innovate competing social networks. In contrast, Facebook seems like a duller, less innovative alternative that’s having trouble matching the new media features in Google+.

I think Facebook is dominant now, but Google+ seems like a contender in the future. Additionally, the usefulness of features like Hangouts for distributed video communication, interviews, and podcasting can’t be underestimated. I came out of that session thinking that I needed to become an expert with Google+ as quickly as possible, not just for promotional purposes, but also for collaboration, communication with different groups (circles, in Google+ parlance), and using the service’s new media features.

7:00 – 8:00 PM 4. Nurturing Online Communities for Writers and Fans
Pamela Gay, Abigail Hilton, A B Kovacs, Patrick Scaffido (Moderator), Scott Sigler, Jeri Smith-Ready

How do you encourage your readers to form a rabid online fanbase? Can a writer nurture fans to gather in groups so large they rival the might of Joss Whedon’s Browncoats?

The general takeaway from this session was that, if you were lucky enough to garner fans for your work, you needed to be “genuine” with them. Having a fanbase is like having a relationship with a bunch of people — you need to be sensitive to their needs, because they can always go somewhere else. At the same time, there’s a balance to be determined, because you can’t let fans dictate how you live your life either.

Scott Sigler and his partner, A B Kovacs, mentioned that they had many Sigler fans who had formed friendships on the forums of their web site. When they periodically revamped their web site, they tried to be sensitive about preserving the history and features of the forums, so as not to “pull the rug” out from under Scott’s fans.

Jeri Smith-Ready also mentioned that she communicates with her fans, and that her fans are thrilled to hear from her. Again, she tries to be respectful and considerate to her fans. Much of her fanbase has organized itself, though, without her input. The other panelists agreed, and augmented, most of these points as well.

To me, having fans seems like a good problem to have. Treating them respectfully and taking steps to encourage them seems not just like a good idea, but common courtesy.

9:30 – 11:30 PM Concert: Ditched by Kate

Next, I had a long dinner. I missed the start of the next round of sessions, so I watched a rock concert with the band, Ditched by Kate. They weren’t superstars, but they were a solidly entertaining 5-person rock act. I had a great time. It was an excellent way to cap off a day that, for me, began at 5:00 AM. Afterwards, I drove back to northern Virginia.

Overall, I was thoroughly pleased with my first day of Balticon 47. I’ve attended the convention in the past (I think this was my fourth time since 1983), and I’d like to commend the Baltimore Science Fiction Association for hosting yet another well-run event. It was definitely well worth my investment in time and money to attend the convention.

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