• 100 Influential Idahoans 2015
You can find it all here in the Pacific Northwest - much of the nation's most beautiful places, some appallingly trashed-out areas; politics running from just about as far left to just about as far right as anywhere in the country; economies of all sorts from the highly prosperous to the dying. It's all here.
 

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Writing a book is hard enough. Getting book reviews can drive an author to distraction.

One of our members, C.M. Huddleston, brought our attention to a frustration many authors share: “I have spent two days trying to market my books and get reviews. So far I feel my time has been wasted. Any ideas out there?” One of her books has been out for three months, the other for more than a year. The concern is practical, obtaining good reviews is one of the best ways to generate book sales.

There are pathways through the thicket.  I wrote about some good indie review sites, and some well-established reviewers as well, my October 30 post.  But there’s much more to cover in the area of reviews, and starting with this post, members of the BookWorks team will be talking about some of the ways and places for you to go after them.

HOW TO GET THOSE ELUSIVE BOOK REVIEWS

I’d like to start with Goodreads book reviews, which in some ways are simpler and more useful for authors than those at its corporate mothership, Amazon.com.

Goodreads reviews lack proximity to the actual “buy” pages that you get on Amazon, but Goodreads reviews are well worth the effort for other reasons.

It’s an enormous system, hosting more than 10 million reviews of an estimated 700,000 titles.  Those reviews are not limited in use to Goodreads, either.  They also are syndicated and referenced and show up at Google books, USA Today, the Los Angeles Public Library, WorldCat, Better World Books and other locations.

You can also display them on your own site, too.  Once you have a book in the Goodreads system, you can take advantage of the reviews in another unusual way, slapping a review widget on your website, or your book’s landing page.  Goodreads lets you designate a book (by its ISBN number), provide a header text for it (an example on their site provides “Goodreads reviews for The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”), specify the size, and then post the Goodreads reviews – even new reviews as they come in, in real time.

Goodreads book reviews by Randy Stapilus for Bookworks.com
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Goodreads said on its site, “With our community of avid readers, Goodreads can deliver quality reviews on a scale that no individual bookstore or service can match.  By providing added content on nearly every book page, your site becomes more engaging, entertaining and informative, guaranteeing your customers will stay on each page longer.”

Writer Michael Kozlowski in August listed GoodReads as one of the best book review places on the web, saying,  “There are millions of reviews and people buzzing about new books coming out.  It has a strong social media vibe, with some books generating thousands and thousands of comments.  GoodReads is basically the Facebook of books.”

GOODREADS BOOK REVIEWS vs. AMAZON BOOK REVIEWS

As on Amazon, the more reviews you get, the more visibility you get.  And, as on Amazon, there are “top reviewers” on Goodreads who can be worth contacting directly, and pitching your book for review, if you find one who matches with your subject area.

But the whole subject of getting reviews on Goodreads is a lot different than Amazon – in most ways simpler and with a lower bar to entry.

Goodreads links itself where it can to Facebook, and there’s some encouragement for cross-linkages through the two systems.  The site Appadvice notes that, “Once you have set up an account and connected your Facebook account to Goodreads, you can see which of your friends use the app.  You can also invite friends who you think would love the app as well.  This can be done with Facebook friends or even contacts you have stored on your device.  Your friends can easily find you too and send you requests to be added to your friend network.”

Goodreads’ policies on who is allowed to review a given book appear to be less restrictive than Amazon’s.  Even authors are allowed to post reviews of their own book (though many wisely pass on that).  You may encounter fewer review take-downs at Goodreads than at Amazon.

There are limits, which do help with reader credibility.  Goodread’s guidelines on reviews say, “Commercial reviews are not allowed and will be deleted.  If you received a free copy of the book, you are required to disclose that in your review in compliance with federal law.”

Amazon and Goodreads have distinctly different review results, maybe in part because of the ways the two are structured.  An academic study at McGill University released earlier this year found “Amazon reviews have characteristics indicating that review writers are trying to ‘sell’ the book, while Goodreads reviews tend to reflect the content-orientation of the platform.  The vocabulary of Goodreads reviews favors words that highlight attributes of books, or of the experience of reading; reviews tend to be shorter and more journalistic.”

On balance, Amazon reviews were reported to be a bit more effective in selling (or discouraging purchases) of books, but that may vary according to the type of buyer reading the review.

A wise author may seek out reviews in both places – and we’ll be back shortly with suggestions for getting reviews on Amazon.

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I shouldn’t let the year end without following up on a column from one year ago last week, intended then as a bit of advice and also as a cautionary note.

My column probably had nothing to do with it, but the two newly-elected Idaho officials I wrote about – Secretary of State Lawrence Denney and Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra – have turned out better than a lot of people, including me, were expecting.

Both had given good reasons for low expectations.

Denney was a former speaker of the House whose track record was so widely criticized that House Republicans did what no majority caucus had done to a speaker in generations: Booted him from the office. A lot of Republicans in official positions, including the last SecState, Ben Ysursa, signed up with one of the other primary contestants. Concerns were that, in this office where careful record-keeping and down-the-middle fairness were essential (and had been observed for a very long time), Denney would staff up with political hacks and turn the office sharply partisan.

None of that has happened.

Denney has not been a notably controversial figure in 2015, and his office appears to be running on track. He took some flack for his handling of a bill that passed in the legislature, was rejected by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter but appeared to have missed the veto deadline. Denney sided with Otter; the Supreme Court ruled the other way, but the case was intricate, and Denney adhered to the court’s decision. His handling of this may not have been perfect, but was reasonable. His bigger test will come in the upcoming election season, but year one set a positive tone.

Ybarra was an unusual case of an out-of-nowhere candidate, with little visible organized support, winning first the primary and then the general, surprising a lot of people both times. While she had sound professional background as an educator, she had little to none in the world of education administration, state finance and politics, and ran a campaign that seemed out of touch with almost everyone. The job of a state superintendent is not teaching in a classroom; it has to do with managing budgets, mucking around in the arcane world of education policy, crafting and shepherding legislation and effectively working with a range of interest groups. The Idaho school superintendent doesn’t have a lot of power. Mostly, that person has clout to the extent it can be projected with persuasion, alliances and analysis. Ybarra showed little of that capability in the campaign.

Once in office, though, she began to do that. In the last year, a superintendent’s office formerly highly ideological has moved into working smoothly and professionally with educators and others around the state, taking a lead in solving a string of inherited problems (school broadband, a really tough nut, maybe most notable) and finding more broadly acceptable policy choices.

Why did they do so much better than expected?

A year ago, I made five suggestions. First, keep most of the existing staff in place so the office keeps running. Second, spend plenty of time in the office to get a feel for how it operates. Third, collect a group of people with expertise in the area from outside and set them up as an informal sounding board. The last two applied most strongly to Ybarra: reach out to the constituencies concerned with your office, and reach out to the public on any policy directions you’re planning.

But both of them seem to have done these things, to one degree or another. Both seem to have taken the work of their offices seriously and not used them as personal or ideological soapboxes.

Sometimes, now and again, what you elect turns out better than you expect.

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Raul Labrador, the representative from Idaho so visible in the elite media, has given us something there worth chewing over, at the heart of what this country is about, and in the heart of Raul Labrador.

You’ll find it in a December 14 article for the New Yorker by Ryan Lizza on how a smallish group of U.S. House members called the “Freedom Caucus”, for which Labrador is a spokesman, won enough clout to push out one House speaker, John Boehner, and circumscribe his replacement, Paul Ryan.

Ostensibly, the reasons concern policy: The decisions about how the country should be governed. The policy had mostly to do with the budget, and the prospect that an inability to compromise on it, as federal officials have done for a couple of hundred years and more, might shut down the government. The Caucus has insisted on conditions; noncompliance by the Senate and president may result in a shutdown.

Lizza quoted Labrador, “We don’t want a shutdown, we don’t want a default on the debt, but when the other side knows that you’re unwilling to do it you will always lose,” Labrador said. That means he considers a shutdown and fiscal default an acceptable bargaining chip. The article noted, “Unlike many Republicans, Labrador did not see the shutdown as a permanent stain on the Party. He grabbed one of two large poster-board polling charts leaning against his desk; it was titled ‘Before /After 2013 Shutdown’ and showed the Republican Party’s approval ratings quickly recovering.”

Labrador’s point: “Within a couple of months, people forgot what happened. So our favorables went back up, and our unfavorables went back down.” What was important was not that people thought a government shutdown was damaging or wrong or bad, but that (whew!) the voters have a short memory, and therefore a shutdown won’t be a liability for Republicans when they vote.

He then noted that this year, absent shutdowns, favorable ratings for Republicans have fallen from 41 percent to 32 percent. Why? The party was “governing,” he said, with air quotes. (Don’t give me any garbage about how that’s a term of art or some metaphor or joke. It was perfectly clear.) “If people just want to ‘govern,’ which means bringing more government, they’re always going to choose the Democrat,” he said.

Full stop. Re-read those last paragraphs. Or read the New Yorker article (which, as far as I can tell, Labrador has not objected to). Or what Greg Sargent of the Washington Post wrote: “That is a remarkable theory of the case: Republicans lose ground when they govern along with Democrats, because achieving bipartisan governing compromise inherently represents capitulation to Dems, in the sense that when government functions, it affirms the Dem vision.”

The way to affirm the Republican vision, by that logic, would be to force our government to collapse. That means governing at all is the problem: Republicans shouldn’t do that. If they actually, you know, “govern”, if they perform their jobs in a useful or constructive manner, they’re part of the problem. The alternative being . . . what? Civic vandalism? A sit-in at the Capitol? That our government ought to be damaged so as not to function?

Be clear about this: However much we dislike things our government does or fails to do, there will be a government of the United States as long as there is a United States. No nation ever has been without a government. Someone will rule here. The theory behind our form of government is that we the people, though our elected representatives, rule – that we govern.

Labrador’s view seems to be that the whole project of governing, or at least of self-government, is terrible. And damaging to his political party. So what does he think his job as a member of Congress is? What is he’s accomplishing if he intentionally rejects governing? And if he – and implicitly his allies too – are not governing, then who does he think should be in charge? I’d like to know who he’d hand the reins over to.

When you see him, ask.

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The age-old checklist of book marketing tactics always includes this: write a press release and send it to newspapers, broadcasters and others in your region and elsewhere.

But that may be the wrong approach.  I suggest you pitch a news story about your book to the press, rather than send out a conventional press release.

Press releases have long been a standard part of the book marketing process for good reasons.

They can be mass-delivered.  You can collect names and email addresses by scouting around the web – it’s practical, but it takes time – or you can shoot out broader blasts through a press release service.  Some of these services are inexpensive or even free, but others are quite costly.  BusinessWire, for example, considered one of the best in the business and used by many top corporations, will cost you: “US distribution begins as low as $415 for a 400-word press release.”  Many of the free services simply give you placement on the service’s web site, and an RSS feed from it, which may not generate much interest in newsrooms.

Most press releases are never even read by news organizations.  When I worked for newspapers and in television, I tossed out many more than I used, and the volume of releases has increased greatly since then, even as news space has diminished.

On occasion, though only on occasion, they are simply used as is or are slightly rewritten.  Don’t count on that happening.  If there’s much interest in your book, you’ll likely be contacted by someone who wants to write an actual story about it.  And if a release is used mostly as is, it probably will be chopped down to the length of a short news brief, which will do you little good.

If you do decide to write a release, focus on the subject matter of the book – not on the book itself.  The release should only be a single page and any specific references to the book should be made in the lower parts of the release.  News organizations dislike being put in the position of clearly promoting products, but interesting information is more welcome.  Lead with that interesting information about the subject of your book..

What’s the alternative to press releases?

Rather than focus on providing the raw materials for a news story, you might try to tell the news organization why it should take the time and effort to develop a story.  You need to pitch, in the form of a memo, the value of the story you tell in your book as something the news organization – and its audience – would find of interest.  That gets you away from being positioned as a barker for a product and into the role of someone with a newsworthy story.

The English book marketing firm PublishingPush, which reports having worked on 200 book marketing campaigns, strongly advises against press releases.  Instead, it suggests the author pitch them a good story, telling them what the contours of the story would be, what its news appeal is, what materials are available and how to access it (that is, provide contact information).

As PublishingPush put it, “Really dig deep about the newsworthy elements within your book.  What inspired you? What is your personal story?  Sell them on this.  We are all storytellers so sell them a story.”

How do you structure a story pitch?  Start, as you would in a press release, with the date and with contact information so the editor at the news organization can easily reach you.  If you have a web page devoted to your book, add a link to it.

Lead with the most compelling aspect of what your book has to offer, whether that’s a fiction story with an unusual hook, or your personal story, or a striking argument you’re making.  Get their attention with that – and give them, right up front, something they’re going to want to share with their audience.

Then provide more details supporting that first statement.  Tell them briefly how the book came about, and wrap up with a short description about what you can make available (yourself for an interview, video or pictures if you have them, or whatever else may be useful) and how the news organization can get access this information.  Keep it brief; edit your pitch ruthlessly.

What I’ve described is the subtle basis of a good news release anyway.  By converting it into a pitch, you hit the news organization closer to the center of their need for good new material.  And hitting the center of an audience’s needs is what good marketing is all about.

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When the Idaho Legislature convenes next month, it will have to place its bets on the sales tax, just as the League of Women Voters already has.

The reason is a proposed initiative just released by the Idaho League of Women Voters “reducing the sales tax rate and broadening the sales tax base.” It does that most basically, by reducing the overall rate from six percent to five, and by extending the coverage of the tax to include not just many goods but also many services, which generally have been exempt.

The whole matter of sales tax exemptions has been a heavily chewed-over bone throughout the tax’s half-century in Idaho. When passed amid high controversy in 1965, the sales tax started (originally at three percent) with few exemptions, though it didn’t reach to include services. Over the 50 or so legislative sessions since, few have adjourned without some adjustment to the tax, generally by way of exempting someone or something. Lobbyists have kept busy in Boise on that front for decades.

And just as busy blocking the periodic attempts (they seem to average about one a decade) to scale back some of the exemptions, which from time to time have been the subject of study committees, sometimes legislative. Many legislators over the years have argued that the exemptions are just too many, that almost everyone who comes before the legislature asking to be exempted gets their way. Not everyone has, but the list of happy exemptees is long.

There are good reasons for some exemptions, especially in cases where the same product, because it’s passed along through a supply and delivery chain, might be taxed multiple times. (That is why retailers do not pay a sales tax when they buy from suppliers, though they collect it upon sale to consumers.) There are other rational arguments as well, though you can move quickly into the murky waters of rationalization.

In addition to the risk of advantaging the exempted over the payers in places where they may be in competition, there’s the simple money equation: Exempt a transaction from sales tax and you’re bringing in less money. The League’s proposal, driven by decades of legislative refusal to meaningfully revisit the exemption roster, makes the point. It is able to reduce the tax by one cent on the dollar and still raise an estimated $424 million more than at present, by removing a number of exemptions and covering many services.

That is not all the 20-page initiative does; it is a highly complex piece of tax legislating, and would be one of the more complex initiatives put on the Idaho ballot in many years. If it goes to ballot, a careful parsing will be called for.

If the signatures for it can be obtained – and the guess here is that a competent effort will get them – will it be passed by voters? It can after all be presented as a tax reduction measure (even if it does wind up generating more tax revenue). It might even be presented as property tax relief, if some of the money were used to replace local property tax levies for schools. It would be bitterly opposed, but the chances of passage are not bad.

So, we get to betting time, as the legislature convenes while the initiative petition signature effort begins. The best way the legislature could cut the initiative off at the pass would be to approve substantial sales tax exemption revisions this session. The point of an initiative is to do what a legislature would not; if the legislature shows it can act, the initiative may become moot. If they essentially ignore the initiative, legislators may give it an extra boost.

The League is betting too, on passage: If signatures cannot be gotten, or if the initiative fails at the polls, exemption changes may be dead for another decade, or two.

Some high stakes are emerging here.

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