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How to work with a writing coach

This week I had the privilege of working on my novel with Cathy Yardley of RockYourWriting.com.

Cathy is a novelist and writing coach who offers Plot Brainstorming sessions.

I turned to Cathy for some coaching, because whenever I start something new, I always think of this Donald Rumsfeld quote:

There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know . . . . it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones.

No matter how many books and articles I read, there is no way I’m going to know everything about planning my book.

Working on my own, I’m always going to miss problems, holes and mistakes lurking under the surface.

So I jumped at the chance to get on the phone with Cathy and let her rip my story apart, so we could put it back together again in the right way.

Of course, whenever someone critiques your storytelling, certain emotions are going to come up.

The Critique: From the Ridiculous to the Sublime

At first, I felt embarrassed.

My story has wizards and assassins and castles and kings. Telling Cathy about my story was the first time I had said the whole thing out loud, and honestly, it felt ridiculous.

I kept thinking, “Oh, this is so cliché!” and “Dear god, she’s probably regretting getting on the phone to hear this drivel.” I had to push through that inner resistance.

Then I felt defensive.

Some of the characters and twists in my story were things that I liked. I didn’t want to give them up.

But I listened to her reasoning, and in all but one instance, she talked me into seeing her side of things.

Then I felt relieved.

At the end of session, Cathy said I had a strong story, and that it was ready to start being written.

Now, I know on a logical level that I’m allowed to sit down and start writing fiction whenever I damn well please. But having a professional give me permission to get started was very motivating.

As we moved through the session, she walked me through my characters, noting strengths and weaknesses in my inciting incident, plot points, the final “black moment,” and the resolution.

As with any good coach, she didn’t necessarily tell me any new information, so much as help me recognize problems and important elements that I was missing.

Working with a Writing Coach: The Positives

There are so many things to keep straight when writing a novel, that it’s easy to miss important factors.

Here are the biggest takeaways I gained from the session:

1. My main character has to grow and evolve throughout the course of the story.

I’ve read about this idea. But it wasn’t until Cathy asked, “How will your character have changed, grown or fallen by the end of the story?” and I heard myself answer “I don’t know,” that I realized I’d totally missed that important development.

Cathy walked me back through the entire story arc for my character, and helped me identify places he could grow and learn.

2. My middle was sloppy.

I needed two characters to end up in a certain place at a certain time, and had solved that problem in a very forced, contrived way — three kidnappings and two escapes, all in a row.

Cathy help me straighten this out, making that part of the story more interesting and exciting.

3. I was starting too slowly.

I was waiting to bring in my “inciting incident,” which starts my character’s quest, until seven scenes into the book.

BOR-ing.

Here’s the thing: You may read the above list and say, “Well yeah, of course.”

But I’d bet good money that you have similar problems happening in your book — the unknowns that are unknown to you.

I’ve learned, whether it’s working on your car, starting a business, writing a book or marketing one, that there will always be obvious things you are missing and need to know about.

And the fastest, most direct way to find your weak spots is to work with a professional who has done it a thousand times and can easily point them out.

Working with a Writing Coach: A Few Tips

At the end of the session, I asked Cathy to rate how I well I’d done as a client, on a scale of 1 to 10.

She gave me a 7.5. So of course, I asked for tips on how best to work with a writing coach.

Here’s the list we put together:

1. Prepare.

Most writing coaches are going to give you a few tasks to do ahead of your session. Do that homework.

I showed up with my characters and plot in place. This allowed us to immediately get to work, instead of sorting out the foundational details of who, when and where.

This will save you time and your coach frustration.

2. Kill your ego.

Any good writing coach is going to make you kill your darlings.

It’s not just a question of changing or deleting things that we like about our story. It’s admitting that some of our basic beliefs and assumptions about writing are wrong as well.

That’s not fun. However, keep the goal – writing a great story that readers love – constantly in sight, and sacrifice your pride on that altar.

3. Argue, but not too much.

Cathy told me “Be open to suggestions, but know your deal breakers before you start.”

On four or five points, I pushed back against Cathy’s suggestion. She won on all but one of them.

Pushing back isn’t a problem to a good coach, because it gave her a chance to explain why she was suggesting the change. That gave me a solid understanding of that point so I wouldn’t have to make that mistake again.

It’s OK to push back for the sake of discussion and clarity. However, don’t be a jerk.

When I wrote the second draft of Your First 1000 Copies, I had a good friend read it. We then got on the phone and she started giving me notes on things she thought needed to be changed.

I argued. A lot.

Not because she was wrong, but because I was mad that she was ripping apart my precious manuscript.

It was rude of me, and very counter-productive.

It’s OK to disagree with your writing coach, but fundamentally, you should trust them and take their advice.

When I wrote the first draft Your First 1000 Copies, I ended up throwing out over half of what I’d written. Then it took a lot of mental energy and procrastination before I started working on the second draft.

Looking back now, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration if I had worked with a writing coach before writing 20,000 unnecessary words.

It’s not a shameful act to admit we need help, especially when you’re starting something new. Get a coach and save yourself the headache and lost time of flailing alone.

Start getting those “unknown unknowns” out into the open.

If you’re interested in working with Cathy Yardley (whom I highly recommend) you can buy her book Rock Your Plot: A Simple System for Plotting Your Novel or schedule a plot coaching session of your own.

Also, as a bonus for reading this far, Cathy was kind enough to provide her Rock the Plot Workbook for free.

Download Your Free Rock the Plot Workbook

 

How to launch your book with at least 25+ Amazon reviews

I was speaking with an Amazon employee recently.

I asked her, “What’s the most helpful thing an author can do to improve conversion of their book page?”

This is what she told me:

“By far, the most important thing an author can do is get more customer reviews.”

I was able to launch my own book with more than 25 book reviews on Day One, and recently saw it click past 200 customer reviews.

If your book hasn’t hit 200 reviews yet (or 25), don’t despair.

I’ve developed a tried and true method that will ensure that, when you launch your next book, you’ll immediately get more than 25 customer reviews the first day your book is released.

I’m going to walk you step-by-step through that process, so that you’ll have this system working for you when you launch your next book:

First Step: Get Your Thinking Straight

In coaching many authors through this process, I’ve found that it’s important to dissolve the common mental blocks that can try to keep you from success.

1. It’s OK to ask people to help you.

Of course, if you’re going to ask someone to write a review of your book, you need to it do it correctly and politely.

But that aside, it really is OK to ask someone to be a part of your book launch. The person on the other end is a grownup — they can say “No” if they need to.

Also, this is a huge event in your life! You’re publishing a book!

When you ask people to be a part of that — and trust them to give an honest, intelligent opinion — you’re actually paying them a compliment.

2. It’s not unethical to request Amazon reviews.

I’ve studied the official Amazon Review Creation Guidelines, and nothing that I recommend in this article breaks any of their rules.

3. You won’t be cannibalizing your book sales.

Having a lot of customer reviews reaps you more sales. It’s a great investment.

So don’t worry that the people you’re sending free review copies to would have otherwise paid for a copy. Most of them probably wouldn’t have bought a copy anyway — and now you’re getting a review from them!

4. Believe me, you can do this.

Everything I outline in this article is stuff any author can do.

Once you see how it works, you’ll realize that it’s a simple process that you can do over and over again, to get the same great results.

So now that we have our thinking straight, let’s jump in!

The step-by-step process for launching your book with at least 25 Amazon reviews

1. Start early.

Start this process at least 8 weeks before your book comes out.

2. Make a list of people to ask.

Make a list of all the people in your life whom you’d like to have review the book. This is the time to call in favors from friends, colleagues and family.

The great thing about Amazon reviews is, they all count the same!

Whether it’s a bestselling New York Times author or your crazy Aunt Martha, the reviews all look the same on the Amazon book page.

Bonus Tip: Put each name and email address onto a spreadsheet so you can keep track of the entire process.

How it works: In my experience, you need to ask about three times more people than the number of reviews you’re working for. So you need to come up with at least 75 names to end up with 25 reviews.

That number allows for the one-third who will say “No” to the request, and the one-third who will forget to put their review up on launch day.

3. Offer each of them a free copy of your book.

Email each of these people individually, and offer them a free Advanced Reader Copy (ARC) to review.

How you fulfill these orders is going to depend on your publisher or your means:

* If you’re self-published: I recommend sending out a .MOBI, .EPUB or .PDF file, with directions on how to open the file.

You’ll also want to order 15 to 20 print copies of the book for those who either can’t or won’t read it in digital format.

* If you’re traditionally published: Coordinate with your publisher on the best way to send out ARCs.

In most cases, they are not going to allow you to send out the digital file to readers, so you’ll be stuck with print copies. However, your publisher should ship these copies for you.

Below is the exact copy you can use to offer an ARC to everyone on your list.

SUBJECT: My New Book

Hi [FIRST NAME],

Hope you’re doing well! [And other niceties . . . “It’s been a long time!” etc.]

Over the last [X MONTHS/YEARS], I’ve been working on a new book titled [TITLE OF YOUR BOOK].

I’m excited to announce that in just [X WEEKS] it’s going to be available on Amazon!

One of the most important things an author can do for their book is to launch it with a lot of Amazon customer reviews.

I’d love your help with this.

May I send you a free copy of my book to read? All I ask is that you leave your honest feedback/thoughts as a customer review on [XX/XX/XX <— pub date] — the day my book comes out.

[SELF-PUB] I’d be happy to send you a digital copy that you can read on any of your devices. Or, if you’d rather have a print copy, I have a few available. Just reply with your address and I’ll drop it in the mail right away.

[TRADE PUB] I’d be happy to send you a copy of the book. Just reply to this email with your mailing address and I’ll drop it in the mail right away.

Let me know what you think, and if you have any questions.

Thanks so much!

[YOUR NAME]

Send this as a personal email to each individual on your list.

Bonus Tip: Keep track of everything on your spreadsheet, including when you sent the original email, when they responded, what their response was and, if applicable, their mailing address.

How it works: You have to make the condition that, if they want a book, they have to agree to leave a review on Amazon on the launch date.

Because if you just send out books and hope people will leave reviews . . . they won’t.

Let them know up front that you are asking them for a review in return for the book.

4. Immediately send them a copy of the book.

Don’t delay. Immediately get the book sent to them via email or shipping, depending on which format they request.

Bonus Tip: Create a .ZIP file that includes the .MOBI, .EPUB and .PDF of your book, with a separate PDF with instructions on how to load the book onto their device. That will make your life easier.

Then whenever someone requests a review copy, you can immediately reply and attach the .ZIP file, and know they have everything they need.

How it works: You need to give them plenty of time to read the book, so get them a copy immediately.

5. Put all of the reviewers on an email list.

Create an email list in MailChimp, or your email marketing platform of choice, and name it “ARC Reviewers.” From here on, you’ll want to be able to email them en masse.

But don’t add them to that MailChimp list until you’ve sent them their review copy.

6. Email your reviewers one week before launch date.

One week before your book launches, send an email to everyone on your ARC Reviewer list, reminding them of both your publication date and their commitment to leave a review.

You can do this in a very polite way. Here’s the copy I recommend using:

SUBJECT: One Week Left!

Hi [FIRST NAME],

Thanks again for agreeing to review my new book [TITLE OF THE BOOK]!

I’m so excited to be putting this book out into the world next [DAY OF THE WEEK — TUESDAY, ETC].

I just wanted to follow up to see if you had any questions before you leave your review on launch day.

If you don’t know what to say in the review, just leave a couple sentences with your thoughts and feedback.

Also, be sure to mention that you received a free review copy of the book.

Have a great rest of the week!

[YOUR NAME]

How it works: This is a polite way to remind your reviewers that they agreed to leave a review on launch day.

And for those who forgot about their commitment to review the book, it lets them know that they still have a week to read it!

7. Email them early on your launch day.

The night before your book launch, schedule an email to go out to your ARC Reviewer MailChimp list at 6:00 am Eastern Time the following morning.

The purpose of this email is to give everyone one last reminder to leave a review.

Here is the copy I suggest you use:

SUBJECT: Launch Day!

Hi [FIRST NAME],

I just wanted to send you a quick reminder that today my new book *[TITLE OF THE BOOK*] is available! This means you’re now able to leave a review.

Click here to leave an Amazon customer review for my new book. [<— Link that sentence to the actual review page on Amazon.com]

Thanks so much for helping me with this launch! I truly appreciate it.

And please let me know if there’s anything I can do for you!

[YOUR NAME]

Keep the email short and be sure to include a link directly to where they can leave their review on Amazon.

You want to make the path between your email and their review as short as possible.

How it works: The people who agreed to review your book are well-meaning, but are apt to forget about your launch.

This final reminder email will make sure many of them follow through.

8. Send a personalized follow-up email.

After the first week of your launch, send every single person on your list who posted a review (even if they didn’t post it on launch day) a personalized Thank You email.

Each of them took the time to read your book and to leave a review, and that deserves a big Thank You!

Bonus Tip: Mail each of them a handwritten Thank You note!

____

That’s it — that’s the entire process!

It’s not difficult or complex, just a bit time-consuming.

To help it all run more quickly and smoothly for you, I’ve created a downloadable package that includes:

  • A sample spreadsheet, so you can see how to track all of your reviewers
  • A PDF containing all of the email content
  • A PDF with instructions on how to download .EPUB, .MOBI and .PDF files onto electronic readers

Download Your Amazon Reviews Launch Package

 

 

What is the future of publishing?

You may have read about the heated contract dispute now going on between French publishing conglomerate Hatchette Livre and Amazon.com.

There’s a lot of media mudslinging happening between these two entities. So much in fact, that I decided not to publish links to any of it in this article. There’s just too many sides to the argument.

Of course, the people losing out the worst are the authors.

The ongoing disagreement between the two companies underscores the worries of what could happen for authors as publishing continues to shift and change.

The new era in publishing: an untraveled road

In a recent interview, I was asked to predict the future of publishing.

My answer?

“I don’t know.”

That was the only honest answer I could give.

Nobody knows what’s going to happen next with the publishing industry. Will big box book stores like Barnes & Noble survive? Will indie book stores survive?

Will traditional publishers be able to compete with self-publishing long term?

And what about self-publishing? What new restrictions or requirements will Amazon impose as self-publishers increase in numbers and revenue?

All valid questions, and there are many more. And we have answers to none of them.

Jumping the fence: the power of direct access

Despite all the uncertainty, here’s one thing I know beyond a doubt:

If you have direct access to your fans, you’ll be successful no matter what happens in the big picture.

Connect with your fans

Nathan Barry is a friend of mine who self-publishes. He doesn’t sell his books for $0.99 or even $9.99 on Amazon.com. In fact, you can’t even buy his latest book, Authority, on Amazon.

It’s only available on his website. It costs $39, and he’s been extremely successful with it.

How is he able to shun the biggest online bookstore in the world, price his books at more than 4 times that of most self-published books, and still be successful?

Easy. He’s established a line of communication straight to his potential buyers.

He has direct access to his fans.

Who do you depend on to sell your books?

There are a lot of different entities authors rely on to bring them readers, and all of them have built-in problems.

Publicists. You pay a publicist to find people who will talk about your book, or to find you opportunities to talk about your book. While there are times when this is a good move, it’s more often a waste of money.

It’s getting harder and harder, in the current fractured media landscape, to get a lot of attention drawn toward your book through individual promotions or appearances.

Even if you do get media attention and manage to sell some copies of your book that way, that method doesn’t build direct relationships with your readers. The next time you release a book, you’ll end up paying even more money, for fewer results.

Publishers. This point has been made in many places, but if you’re relying on your publisher to help you sell your book, even they will tell you that’s not their job.

Yes, they can get your book placed in bookstores, but that doesn’t turn into sales like it used to. Publishers play a role in creating your book, but it’s your responsibility to sell the book.

Retailers. Currently, the retailer of choice is Amazon. More than 90% of online sales go through them.

But merely listing your book for sale there is not going to get you the results you would like. And as mentioned above, it’s impossible to tell what will happen with them in future.

Who should you depend on?

Simply put: You can only depend upon your fans.

I point out how vital this fact is in Chapter 2 of my book Your First 1000 Copies. And the only way to depend upon your fans is to make sure you have permission to communicate with them in a way that gets their attention and drives them to action.

So what are your long-term plans?

Do you want to be a professional writer, or just someone who wrote a book once?

Do you want to be a writer?

The only way to ensure your long-term success — and know that you can weather any storm the publishing industry conjures — is to connect directly with your fans.

Then it doesn’t matter where you sell your book, who your publisher is, or how you make it available.

Your fans will be excited about each release — and will know exactly where to go to buy it.

How do you find new readers?

Finding new readers and growing your audience is often the most difficult and perplexing part of the author platform process.

In my book Your First 1000 Copies, I define Outreach as simply “moving people from not knowing you exist to knowing you exist.”

The vast majority of people don’t know that you and I — or our books — even exist. So what’s the answer to this problem?

The fastest way to grow your own audience is to tap into someone else’s.

We know this on a fundamental level. It’s why everyone wants Oprah to recommend their book. It’s why they want a spot on the Today show. Or to have a big name blogger review their book.

If you’re able to do any of these things, your audience grows because you’ve been introduced to an existing audience.

These are the fundamental truths of finding new fans of your work:

  1. You have to move people from not knowing you exist to knowing you exist
  2. The fastest way to do this is to get introduced to existing groups of people

It sounds simple enough. But when people try the usual methods, their plans can unravel pretty quickly. Here’s why:

Two examples of Outreach errors, from my own inbox

In the past week I’ve received two non-spam emails from people who wanted something from me. Both addressed me as “Dear Sir/Madam.”

What? It’s pretty obvious from my email address (tim@outthinkgroup.com) that I’m a guy. If they were confused, spending 30 seconds on my website would have helped them out.

Not to mention, how did they think I would take an email with such an obviously impersonal, spammy opening?

I also received an offer this week from a company that helps authors get Amazon reviews for their books. Besides the moral gray area of paying to get Amazon reviews, it was obvious the sender hadn’t actually looked at my Amazon page.

He offered me a chance to pay for 5 reviews, when I already have 140 reviews with a 4.7 average rating.

If he’d put himself in my shoes, he’d have seen that I’ve gotten 140 reviews on my own. Why would I pay for just 5 more?

Again — 30 seconds of research would have changed the tone of his email and shifted his offer into something that made more sense for my situation.

But because he didn’t do his research, his email was annoying instead of helpful.

Which brings us to the most fundamental, most common Outreach mistake.

Do you have empathy?

Empathy’s definition from dictionary.com is:

“The intellectual identification with or vicarious experiencing of the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.”

In other words, put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Imagine what they’ll think and feel when they get your email, phone call or message.

Even top authors forget to do this sometimes.

Recently I was walking a popular author through the process of asking a blogger to promote their latest book. When I read over the author’s email draft, I was surprised at how self-involved it was.

It talked all about the virtues of the book, why it was so great, and how the author would really appreciate the blogger’s help.

There was nothing in it about the blogger!

No mention of why this was a good fit for his audience. No mention of how the author is going to make it easy on the blogger to promote the book.

In other words, no empathy.

How do you show empathy?

Even the best of us sometimes forget the basic rules. We start thinking about what we can get out of a situation, instead of how we can set it up as a win-win.

Here are the steps I go through before doing any Outreach, to ensure that I approach it with the right attitude:

1. Help First
Instead of first approaching the person with what you can get out of the situation, start by looking for ways to help the other person get what they need help with.

2. Start with the right questions
Before you send that email, ask yourself these questions:

  • What does this person want out of life?
  • What stresses her out?
  • What is her daily job? Could I make that easier in some way?

3. Do your research
I discuss this thoroughly in the How to Connect with Successful Authors post.

To apply those same ideas to Outreach, take the time to actually read through their website, social media, bio and other online resources before reaching out. Once you see how they normally interact with and promote other people, you can tailor your pitch to their platform.

4. Revoke your right to be offended
You are not allowed to be offended if the person you reach out to says “No” or doesn’t respond. These are busy people with many demands on their time.

If you walk around hurt and offended every time someone doesn’t respond the way you’d like, you’ll have a hard road ahead.

Instead, look for ways to help them. Reach out graciously, and assume they will make the best decision for their current situation.

Here’s an example

A while back, I was working on a book launch for an author. I really wanted a particular blogger to help promote my client’s book.

I knew that this blogger probably got pitched on a regular basis by people looking to promote their stuff. I needed to make sure I cut through all of that noise — to show that I’ve done my research, and to let them know I’m trying to make their life easier.

I spent ten minutes on that site, scanning the previous few months of blog posts, reading here and there, and getting an overall sense for the kind of content that blogger produces.

Then I noticed something: Whenever he wrote about a book, he combined it with a Skype video interview. He also clearly liked to dive into the personal story behind the author’s writing.

So when I emailed him, I did two things:

  1. I shared a very short, three-sentence back-story on my author client. I knew the importance of doing this, because I’d read through a lot of this blogger’s content and had gotten a feel for what resonates with him.
  2. I also said I’d noticed he liked to do Skype interviews with authors, and that my client would be happy to do one with him whenever his schedule allowed.

Later that day I got an email back from the blogger, thanking me for how I’d reached out to him and saying he would be glad to have my client do an author interview.

Why did this work?

  1. I took the time to do my research and got to know how the blogger usually operates
  2. I offered to fit easily into the methods that blogger already uses
  3. I tried to offer content that would be a great fit for his audience

Is this a slower process than blasting the same generic email to 50 different bloggers?

Sure. But it also gets exponentially better results.

Good Outreach is much more than just pitches and press releases

While we are all trying to introduce ourselves to new audiences and grow our following, we all have to start with Empathy.

When doing Outreach, we have to focus on how we can help other people, before trying to get what we need.

If you do this long enough, you will find a long-term, sustainable success that is otherwise almost impossible to create.

The #1 way to get more writing done

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For a writer, there’s nothing more sacred that uninterrupted time spent writing.

It can also be the hardest time to come by.

Especially when you add in all of this marketing stuff I’m always telling you to do.

Writing can then start to feel like an additional full-time job.

As your list of writing and marketing tasks grows, there seem to be just two options:

  1. Do it all yourself
  2. Get some help

Going it alone: the downside

At first, it’s tempting to do everything yourself.

It’s cheaper, and it can be good to have a deep understanding of how all the moving parts operate.

But at some point, as you grow, you have to learn to let go of things of some of those tasks, and start building a team around you to support what you do.

When I was writing Your First 1000 Copies, for the first time I had to rely heavily on a lot of other people who weren’t sitting in my office as full-time employees.

It was a real test of my control freak nature.

I had to trust people with:

  • Reading the first draft and giving honest feedback
  • Reading the second draft and giving honest feedback
  • Editing the book
  • Converting the book into Kindle format
  • Designing the interior of the book
  • Designing the exterior of the book
  • Designing and building the website
  • Reading the final version and giving honest feedback

Most of it went smoothly, but only because I already had years of experience in having people work for me.

I knew how to avoid some of the common pitfalls and problems. But outsourcing to those you’ve never met before can be a challenge.

Outsourcing sounds like it should be easy. Hire someone, give them a job to do, and receive the final product.

But if you’ve never built a virtual team before, it won’t necessarily go that smoothly.

This is why I’m so jealous of you

I envy you. Because I had to learn some of the biggest outsourcing lessons the hard way, while wasting a lot of time and money.

Now, there’s a new resource that will help you learn how to do it right straight from the start.

My friend Chris Ducker just released a new book that is already an Amazon bestseller:

Virtual Freedom: How to Work With Virtual Staff to Buy More Time, Become More Productive, and Build Your Dream Business.

It’s a fantastic read.

Ducker is founder and CEO of Virtual Staff Finder and the Live2Sell group of companies.

He’s known as the “Virtual CEO.”

He’s a thought leader in the outsourcing industry, and has helped thousands of entrepreneurs create their virtual team-building strategies.

I rarely recommend other books on this blog. But after reading this one, I couldn’t keep this a secret.

Any author who is spinning their wheels and trying to do it all themselves should stop now, buy this book, and read it from cover to cover.

It’s packed with great advice on how to hire people, what to hire them for, and how to manage them successfully.

It also includes proven scripts, tools and services to use to build your team.

Most of us, when we start delegating tasks, quickly drop into control freak mode and become what Ducker calls a “Virtual Vulture.”

The following excerpt from Virtual Freedom will walk you through exactly how to avoid this problem.

So read this and the rest of Virtual Freedom now, and save yourself months and years of outsourcing headaches.


 Excerpt from Virtual Freedom

[You shouldn’t] just assign tasks and walk away. Instead, you need to develop a management process that incorporates

  • A clear objective — vagueness is your enemy
  • Examples of what you want — offering examples is like giving your VA a target
  • Benchmarks and checkpoints along the way that will help you see if the VA is making progress and staying on track
  • The freedom for the VA to do his or her job — or to demonstrate that he or she isn’t a good fit. I’ll explain this one in detail in just a bit, so keep reading.

As you can see, there’s a process to production. Let’s take a closer look at each of these elements.

1. A Clear Objective

If you can’t articulate what you want, there’s no way your Virtual Assistant (VA) can be expected to give you what you want. Right? Right!

Now, I know there’s going to be times when you really don’t know what you want, and that’s why you’ve hired a VA — to create the work and give you ideas.

If this is the case, you’ll need to understand a couple things:

  • Don’t expect your VA to get it right the first time. If you give your VA a few ideas and tell him or her to run with them, then understand that your first phase is a discovery process so that the VA can figure out exactly what you want.
  • Even if your VA is giving you ideas and concepts, it’s still your responsibility to give direction and to narrow down the process to a clear objective.

Here are a few tips on developing and delivering clear task and project objectives to your VA:

  • Use bullet points. Bullet points force you to break down your ideas and give your VA a checklist to reference. They’re also easy on the eyes.
  • Ask yourself how the project or task can be measured. How many pages do you want your website to have? What colors should your logo contain? How many different options should the VA give you when doing online research? What five points should the article include? How long do you want the video to be?
  • Share the overall objective. Even if a VA is working on just one piece of a larger puzzle— such as a graphic designer creating custom images for your website—it’s helpful to share the overall objective with him or her. Let your VA know what the purpose of the website is and give him or her a description of your ideal client. All of these clues will affect the outcome of your project.

2. Examples of What You Want

Once you have a clear objective in mind, your next step is to give your VA specific examples of what you want.

Giving your VA an example is like giving him or her a target to shoot at. You’ll be the judge of whether or not your VA hits the bull’s-eye, but at least you’ll get him or her shooting in the right direction. Provide examples for everything and anything and use all types of mediums.

This means you should feel free to

  • Take a picture of a product’s packaging in a store and use it as an example of how you’d like your digital product images to look.
  • Send your VA a link to an article you recently read and let him or her know what you liked about it and what aspects you’d like to see incorporated into future articles you request.
  • Send your VA a YouTube video as an example of the type of editing you’d like to see.
  • Use a flyer as an example of the type of layout you’d like your website to have.
  • If you see a piece of clothing or a car with a color you like, take a picture of it so that your VA can incorporate the color into a logo design or image.
  • If you hear a song and think it would make great background music for your video, send a sample of it to your VA and ask him or her to find something similar to use in the editing process.

3. Benchmarks and Checkpoints

As I mentioned earlier, the last thing you’ll want to do is assign a task or project and then walk away and wait for it to be completed. There are hundreds — if not thousands — of decisions that go into creating something, which means it’s very easy to get off track. Benchmarking is the most powerful technique you can use to keep your virtual vulture at bay because it presents a clear picture of how your project is coming along.

Just as mountain climbers set multiple safety hooks as they climb to prevent complete free falls, you can use benchmarks with your virtual staff to prevent large mistakes and failures in your project.

Benchmarking is useful for VAs and it is also helpful for you as an outsourcer. The process forces you to think of the task or project in smaller pieces that fit together, which can help you to focus your objective.

But wait! What if you don’t really understand all of the moving parts that go into completing a project? How can you expect yourself to set proper benchmarks in an area you don’t really understand?

Let’s say you’re working with a programmer to design a custom piece of software, such as a mobile app. You know exactly what you’d like the software to do but you have no idea what’s involved in getting it done.

Here’s a two-step trick you can use to figure out guidelines for your benchmarks:

  1. Get as clear as you can about your desired objective or outcome. What do you want the software to do? What type of experience should the user have? These nontechnical questions will ultimately direct the development.
  2. Put your project on Elance or oDesk with your objective and ask anyone who bids on it to answer the following questions:
    • How long do you think this project will take to complete?
    • Break down the project into benchmarks or steps. How long will you take to complete each one?

By doing this, you’re allowing potential VAs to tell you how long it will take to get this project completed — along with the most important benchmarks they should be hitting. But the real beauty of this strategy is that you’ll be able to see the average time and common benchmarks proposed from multiple VAs. This information will educate you and equip you to set proper expectations for you and the VA you choose.

4. The Freedom for the VA to Do His or Her Job

Once you’ve given your VA a clear objective, examples of what you want, and several benchmarks to hit, your next job is to get out of the way. You hired this person for a reason — to do a job and to be responsible enough to keep himself or herself on task. Now is the time to let your VA loose and see what he or she does with that freedom.

Does your VA hit the benchmarks on time? Does he or she come back with questions after getting stuck? Or does your VA wait until you follow up on a benchmark only to tell you that the task isn’t completed because he or she didn’t understand it?

These are the kinds of habits you won’t see if you’re a virtual vulture. You’re hiring someone for his or her time, talents, and ability to actually do the work. It does you no good to have someone on your team who is talented but requires constant supervision to get things done.

With that said, here are some tips to help you manage your VA:

  • Tell your VA to come to you with any questions at any time. Let the VA know that if you don’t hear from him or her, you will expect that everything is okay and that the next benchmark will be hit as scheduled.
  • If your VA misses a benchmark, make sure to ask what prevented him or her from meeting the deadline. Find out if your VA will need more time to hit the next benchmark.
  • If your VA does not deliver work on the set benchmark date and did not inform you of the delay, do not contact him or her. Wait for the VA to contact you and immediately address the missed date. Let him or her know that you expect the next benchmark to be different.

These three tips will allow you be a fair manager who doesn’t have to micromanage, get angry, or use harsh words to get things done.


 ___________________________

There are so many things that you can potentially delegate.

These include but are definitely not limited to:

  • Editing
  • Web development
  • Web design
  • Cover design
  • Reading and answering email
  • Managing your calendar
  • Outreach
  • Planning your travel

If you’ve wanted to finally take the weight of doing-it-all off your shoulders and start delegating to other people, but have been too scared to do it, then I can’t recommend Ducker’s book Virtual Freedom highly enough.

Take the right steps to delegate the jobs you’re not good at, so you can free up time to do the thing you do best … write!

 

Top 8 things to know about the Google eBookstore

Yesterday Google announced their eBookstore. While at first glance another online bookstore doesn’t seem to matter all that much, but Google has a history of knocking down giants. So what do you need to know about this initial launch of the Google eBookstore?

1. Distributed/social comments

To leave a comment on Amazon.com you have to be logged in with your account. They also take steps to make sure people aren’t spamming the comments or running multiple accounts. Google eBookstore on the other hand is aggregating comments from several different sources. GoodReads.com is the main source but there are also comments from editorial sources and Kirkus.com. You can also leave your review directly in the Google eBookstore.

My question is, what are they doing to protect from people spamming comments? Are they checking for people using multiple accounts either through Google or GoodReads? The consumer reviews are very important in online sales so I would love to see more information on what they are doing to protect the process.

2. Device Agnostic

The Google eBookstore launches with support of reading on the web, Android phones, iPhone, iPad, iPod, Barnes & Noble Nook and Sony eReader. Curiously left off the list is the Amazon Kindle although I would assume that will happen in the near future. Google’s site says, “Currently, Google eBooks are not compatible with Amazon Kindle devices, though we are open to supporting them in the future.” Once it does, I would start to wonder why anyone would buy an ebook anywhere BUT a store like Google’s that allows you to remain device agnostic. Hopefully this will twist the arm of the other major players to decide on a single format for ebooks that can be used (and protected) across all devices.

3. Huge amount of titles available

Google launched with over 3,000,000 titles! That is bigger than any other store currently.

4. Google is crawling the entire book

Depending on the copyright of the book and the publisher’s requirements, Google is crawling the content of the entire book. The most exciting thing about this is that books will start showing up in search engines for terms outside of the authors name, book title and short description. What this will do to actual book sales is yet to be seen, but I can only assume this increased exposure will increase sales as well.

I’ll pause here and mention that the launch of the Google eBookstore was made possible by a settlement in the class action lawsuit brought against Google by the Authors Guild, the Association of American Publishers and a handful of authors and publishers over three years ago. By reading through some of the information on this lawsuit it sounds like a lot of decisions have been tentatively made and there is a lot of progress yet to come.

5. Book previews

Publishers will have the option of making 20% to 100% of their book available for preview to readers. It will also make it very easy to embed portions of the book in your website. This is exciting as it will make it much easier to share portions of the book and make them available to potential readers.

6. Analytics

The Google eBookstore will integrate with their analytics software as well. From Google site:

Online reports let you manage your account information, view how many consumers have looked at your titles, see click rates on purchase links, and review other stats related to the Google Books program.

For those of us that focus on analytics and website optimizations to drive sales, this is an exciting feature. I would love to see the other retailers follow suit on this one. The ability to see stats and user actions will help make decisions on how we are driving people to the various online book stores.

7. Adwords integration

An obvious move, the Google eBookstore integrates with their Adwords product to make it easier to purchase and track advertising campaigns.

8. Resources and Education for Authors and Publishers

While it is current pretty sparse, Google has created a resources section to help authors and publishers take advantage of their new platform. Keep an eye here as this section is sure to grow quickly.

I’m most excited about what this move by Google will force the other online retailers to do, especially Amazon.com. Will Amazon open their Kindle format? Will they allow authors and publishers to track their analytics? I’m very interested to see what comes next.

I could not locate very much information on how much control authors and publishers will have in the listing of their books. Will you be able to change the primary category for your book? Will you be able to customize the author’s page with video and other content?

Google has a history of launching a product and then quickly growing it and adding additional features. What will be next for the Google eBookstore and what will they continue to push the other major retailers to do? Time will tell.

My top 10 favorite TED.com talks

If you’re going to spend time watching videos online, skip YouTube and head to TED.com for the most inspiring, knowledgeable and mind blowing presentations I’ve ever seen.  Below are my 10 favorites:

What are your favorites?

WordPress as CMS: Extra template files

Previously I wrote about the Template file hierarchy in WordPress and what your options are. However, when you’re using WordPress as a content management system (CMS), you’ll often find yourself in a position where you need extra template files outside of the normal hierarchy.

In this post I’ll describe two common examples and how to accomplish them. But first, here’s the piece of code we’ll be using:

<?php
include(TEMPLATE . '/template-file.php');
?>

This bit of code is extremely useful as it can be used in any template file to include any other template file. Here’s the two most common uses:

Category Sidebars

If you would like to show a different sidebar based on which category the current post is in:

<?php
if(in_category(1)) {
include(TEMPLATE . '/sidebar-1.php');
} else if (in_category(2)) {
include(TEMPLATE . '/sidebar-2.php');
} else {
include(TEMPLATE . '/sidebar-post.php');
}
?>

This could be useful to show a different FAQ for a product category, a different set of widgets if it’s the News category, etc.

Homepage Header

Since the homepage is often a separate layout from the rest of the site, you may want to have a header-home.php template file that is used on the home page and then the default header for the rest of the site.

So you can continue using the default get_header() call on all the template files, here’s the best way to go about it:

1. Duplicate your header.php file and name it header-default.php

2. Create a header-home.php file and insert your markup for the home page header

3. Open your header.php file and delete everything (only after step #1 of course) and add this code:

<?php
if(is_front_page()) {
include(TEMPLATE . '/header-home.php');
} else {
include(TEMPLATE . '/header-default.php');
}
?>

User Experience FAIL: Woot.com

Woot.com is a shopping site that sells one item a day. I love Woot (and their shirt site) and have spent an embarrassing amount of money with them. It’s often the first thing I check when I get to my desk in the morning.

In purchasing a Flip for my wife the week before Christmas, Woot did an extraordinary FAIL in user experience and pissed me off in the process.

Most of the time I ship my purchases to my home address. For obvious reasons, I was having this item shipped to my PO Box instead. And since this was just a few business days prior to Christmas, they were running a special on a free upgrade to 2-day Fedex shipping.

When it shipped I received a link for shipping confirmation and it said the item was shipped via Fedex SmartPost and wouldn’t arrive until the 27th. So I sent their support an email:

Hi there, my order # is xxxxxxxx.

I went back and checked here:

(http://www.woot.com/Forums/ViewPost.aspx?PostID=2869013)

and judging by the thumbnail I was supposed to get two day shipping to make sure the Flip would get here by Christmas.

I just checked the Fedex tracking link I was emailed:

http://www.fedex.com/Tracking?tracknumbers=xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

And it says it was mailed by SmartPost and won’t get here until the 27th.

Am I missing something? Was it not supposed to be 2 day shipping?

Just let me know. Thanks!

And their response:

Since FedEx won’t ship to a PO Box, we sent your package via Smart Post so it would be delivered. This is the address you had the package shipped to:

Timothy Grahl
PO Box 4112
Lynchburg, VA 24502

Thanks for Wooting

I didn’t realize FedEx doesn’t ship to PO Boxes and I thought it was weird that it didn’t give me a warning about the shipping method not working when I entered my shipping address. Since I’m not always the most thorough person, I went back and ran through a test order to make sure I didn’t miss something. On the day I took these screenshots they were running a free upgrade to overnight shipping.

Here’s the screen where you input your shipping address:

wootscreen2
And the order confirmation screen:

wootscreen1

Absolutely NO indication that they wouldn’t actually be shipping the product overnight (or in my case, 2-day).

I attached these images to my email response back to Woot’s customer service:

To be honest, this is pretty frustrating. There is no notice on your site that Fedex doesn’t ship to PO Boxes and I didn’t know that they didn’t. In fact, on your address line 1 it says:

(street address, P.O. box, company name, c/o)

If there had been any indication that the 2 day shipping method wouldn’t work with a PO Box and therefore, make the item late for Christmas, I would have changed the shipping address. However, as it stands I won’t be getting the item in time for Christmas even though I ordered it in plenty of time and was promised two day shipping.

In fact, in doing a test order today the attached screenshot shows up. I think it’s absolutely ridiculous that on the same screen you show the shipping address, you also show “Fedex Overnight Shipping” and give no indication that the combination is impossible.

Is there any way at all I can get another Flip shipped overnight so it will be here in time for Christmas? I’ll pay the extra to ship back the first one once it arrives if need be.

And their response back:

It’s understood that po box addresses cannot receive FedEx 2 Day, Ground, or Overnight shipments. Our system will not stop you from providing a po box address should a buyer decide to have the item shipped there instead of their physical address. We will always ship FedEx Smartpost to po box addresses. If we do not allow it, then we will request the physical address or not allow you purchase the product. Unfortunately we cannot ship another unit to you in time for Christmas. Sorry for the inconvenience.

Woot.com doesn’t do a very simple check to see if their shipping method matches my address and it’s my fault?

The first issue of not checking my address against the shipping method is forgivable. But then blaming it on me and refusing to help me out is absolutely ridiculous

Woot customer serviced did a fantastic job pissing off a customer that has made over 30 purchases in the last 12 months.

Woot.com gets a FAIL for user experience.

GIF vs PNG

I sometimes get so used to doing something a certain way, I don’t stop to ask why, or why not another way? This has been the case for me when developing web sites using PNGs instead of GIFs. I’ve often thought when looking at other sites, “Should I use GIFs?”.

I spent a little bit of time experimenting with the transparency of the GIF format vs the PNG format. I know there’s a lot of technical stuff that goes into the differences, but I’m just going to present my findings.

I started with a pretty simple, quick and dirty web 2.0 badge. I saved it with transparency using 256 color GIF, 256 color PNG-8, then PNG-24. I was pleased with my findings, see the image below:

It's not hard to see who wins this one.

It's not hard to see who wins this one.

I was suprised to see that GIF’s compression was suprisingly bad. The PNG-8 did much better, at 3/4 the size, and with better transparency to boot. The PNG-24, which I have used extensively, has true Alpha Channel Transparency which is pretty great for absolutely positioning things like logos on top of other items. For GIF’s lack of compression, I might as well use PNG-24 instead.

So based on this very quick and not very thorough test, PNG wins out.

I must issue this one caveat, due to IE’s PNG Issues, you might have to do a little more work to your site. But I promise it’ll look better.