I love Asian food. When I was in college, I experimented with cooking Asian food myself, but there was one problem. Most Asian dishes involve rice, but I found cooking rice on the stove to be a hassle. I had to babysit the rice to make sure it didn’t burn, and it never tasted very good.
Then one of my Asian friends said, “Thomas, why don’t you just get a rice cooker?”
I had never heard of a rice cooker, but we went to an Asian grocery store, where I bought one. It had one button: The “Cook Rice Button.” It did one thing: It cooked rice perfectly every time.
Suddenly, I had the right tool for the job, and prepping Asian dishes got much easier. While I never got very good at cooking Chinese food, I always had great rice because I had the right tool for the job.
So, what does this have to do with writing?
Well, many writers waste time doing things the hard way because they don’t have the right tools for the job. But it’s hard to find the right tool if you don’t know it exists.
The following interview is a departure from our normal format. Derek Doepker actually interviewed me about tools authors can use to make writing and marketing easier. The interview first aired on the Bestseller Secrets Summit, and Derek kindly agreed to let me share a portion of that interview here.
Derek Doepker: Thomas, you’re one of my go-to guys for learning about book marketing strategies as well as tools and technology. In fact, I’m using the Samson Q9 microphone that you recommended.
What tools that can help authors improve the craft of writing?
Thomas: For fiction, I really like Plottr (Affiliate Link). Plottr helps you create and organize a plot or timeline for your book.
It can help keep your various characters and scenes straight. If you want to put together a historical timeline for your epic fantasy land, it will help you keep track of when the first war of the dwarves happened.
Plottr is a great tool, and it’s compatible with the snowflake method or the hero’s journey or romancing the beat. The plotting method you prefer can be put into Plottr.
Grammarly and ProWritingAid
Personally, I like Grammarly (Affiliate Link), which I think works better for nonfiction. ProWritingAid (Affiliate Link) is a little better for fiction, but they both act as copy editors, helping you clean up your writing so that you can have a more productive conversation with your human editor.
Sudowrite (Affiliate Link) is an AI writing assistant that helps boost your creativity, get you unstuck, and supercharge your descriptions. I interviewed the developer, who explained many of its features. Sudowrite isn’t meant to write your book for you, but it does help get you out of a rut.
One cool feature is the show-don’t-tell button. You can input a paragraph and tell the tool to rewrite it with smells or sounds or how things look.
Few novelists think about how things smell when they’re writing a scene, but the “Describe” button will return sensory descriptions for all five senses as well as metaphorical descriptions. You may get terms or phrases that won’t work in your story but will spark inspiration. Suddenly, your story is more immersive.
Derek: I’ve checked out Plottr, and there’s something great about having the visual layout, where you can externalize things, move things around, and keep track of all kinds of stuff.
I use Grammarly nearly every day, and I can confirm that it’s very helpful. I haven’t played around with Sudowrite yet, but I imagine it might help you become a better writer. Just as you learn from an editor’s feedback, I can see Sudowrite offering suggestions and prompts that help you start to notice opportunities to improve your writing.
Maybe you don’t think about how things smell, but Sudowrite could act as a writing trainer in that it might catch things or show you different possibilities.
Many of these AI tools are helpful in that way. Some people are swearing off any type of AI, and others are depending on it to do all the work. I take the middle ground. AI can be a useful tool that shows me my habits or biases.
Is there a tool that shows words you repeatedly use?
Text to Speech
Thomas: The Text-to-Speech tool is already on your computer. Whether you’re on a Mac or PC, you can have your computer read your manuscript to you in a toneless AI voice.
If your writing sings when read by a deadpan robot, it will really sing when read by a professional narrator.
Angela Hunt uses this technique. For her fourth draft, she prints out a chapter, turns her back to the computer, and lets her computer read her book to her.
Hearing the book read aloud causes things to jump out. As she’s listening, she highlights on her printed draft the places that aren’t quite right.
Her method is deliciously high-tech because AI is reading the book, but it’s also low-tech in that you mark your paper where something needs to be fixed.
Authors AI is a tool that provides a 30-page report on your book. It will show you how many times you used words you’re prone to use too frequently. It can also flag cliches and potentially offensive language and point out your repeated use of adjectives and adverbs.
Derek: I haven’t heard of turning your back and listening to your computer read, but I like that tip. I can see how it would bring out phrases that are hard to say.
If you’re going to have an audiobook, you want to catch that stuff before you record it. It’s like having the computer do another editing pass for you, and it’s a great tip that’s probably available for almost everyone.
Thomas: When you read it aloud to yourself, you’ll read what you meant to say, and you’ll accidentally overlook missing words you meant to write. But your computer will read what you actually wrote.
What tools can help you format the book for publication?
Thomas: Once you’ve written your book, you should hire a human to edit your AI-edited version. AI tools don’t replace humans. The robots are impressive, but humans are a critical part of the process.
After your book has been edited by a human, it will need to be typeset. There are two tools authors can use for typesetting.
The best tool is Vellum, but the downside of Vellum is that it’s a Mac-only tool. Many authors will buy a Mac just to get Vellum, which makes it kind of expensive. However, I think Macs are cheaper in the long run. A PC you buy for $500 will last you two years, but the Mac you buy for $1,000 will last you five. Plus, Macs are faster and have a better battery.
If you’re on a PC, you can’t run Vellum, but Atticus is a really good alternative.
The Atticus team is racing as fast as they can to catch up with Vellum. Atticus is also trying to compete with Scrivener, which is another tool for writing and organizing your book. Atticus can replace both Scrivener and Vellum at a lower price, but I don’t know if it’s quite there yet. They’re adding new features every couple of months.
If you’re writing your book in Microsoft Word and using its spellchecker, your world will be transformed when you switch to one of these other tools.
Word is the Swiss Army Knife of writing tools. A Swiss Army Knife is nice to have when you don’t have a better tool. But you wouldn’t use a Swiss Army Knife in the kitchen or for skinning a deer. A Swiss Army Knife is good as a backup, but you don’t want to use it as your primary tool for specialized work.
What tools can help authors sell more books?
Thomas: To market a book, every author needs a website and an email list.
Author Email List
MailChimp used to be a good service, but now it’s an absolute dumpster fire. I used to recommend MailChimp, but it has gotten so much worse in the last ten years, and its competitors have gotten better.
Substack is a new tool, and it’s the freest option. It scales infinitely. You can have 10,000 subscribers on Substack and pay zero dollars. You even could get paid for your writing on Substack.
The premise behind Substack is that your newsletter is so valuable that you can offer a version of your newsletter that people can pay for. It’s a blog-email-platform hybrid. The downside is that you can’t deliver reader magnets or do any kind of automation. It lacks many of the normal tools for growing an email, but it’s free, and it scales.
Tools to Grow Your Email List
If you want to grow your email list by giving away reader magnets like a free short story or a tip sheet, I recommend using BookFunnel or StoryOrigin. Both tools integrate with ConvertKit and MailerLite.
BookFunnel makes it a little easier to sell books, ebooks, or audiobooks directly to readers, but StoryOrigin has cool list-building tools that Book Funnel doesn’t have. Many authors use both tools.
AuthorsXP is a tool to help you grow your email list through newsletter swaps and giveaways, but it offers other services like matching authors with beta readers.
BookSweeps (Affiliate Link) can also help you grow your list very quickly.
Derek: I’ve used email marketing services like Aweber and GetResponse, and technically, most email services will get the job done.
Whatever you use, start an email list. Even if you have zero subscribers, get signed up with a service. Most of them offer free accounts for up to a certain number of subscribers.
Thomas: ConvertKit and MailerLite offer free versions for up to 1,000 subscribers. MailChimp only allows 500 free subscribers, making them the worst option. There are roughly 1,400 different email service providers available. Most of them are good.
If you don’t know which to choose, check out my episode on How to Pick an Email Marketing Service.
Avoid MailChimp and Constant Contact. They are the worst.
Thomas: I offer a free course on building an amazing author website that walks you through how to do it.
I recommend building your site on WordPress. WordPress runs over 60% of the internet, and you’d need a good reason not to use it.
Website tools that run all those ads have to run ads because they don’t have the market share. Wix has about 2% of the market share. Squarespace and Weebly are dancing around 1%.
WordPress is by far the best. The theme I like for WordPress is Divi (Affiliate Link) by Elegant Themes.
In my free course, I show you how to build a website with Divi in about 30 minutes. Divi has recently added AI to generate photos or text based on the other information on your page.
Divi is a drag-and-drop tool like a Squarespace. You can fiddle with the look of it without having to use any code. It’s like a page builder, and it reduces the technical savvy needed to make a really pretty website.
Building a website is staggeringly easy.
How can authors leverage something like Substack?
Thomas: Substack replaces your email program and a tool like Patreon. Substack can also host your podcast.
Check out my episode about Substack.
Let’s say you want to release your novel one chapter at a time to your super fans. They get early access to your book and can read it as you release the chapters. When you’re done releasing it to your superfans, you can publish the whole thing as a book for your regular fans.
Substack allows your super fans to pay $5 per month to get early access to your latest chapter or that month’s slice of the story. You pick the pace and price, and your readers decide if they want to pay or not.
Substack does more than Patreon to help you grow your audience. Patreon won’t lift a finger to help you get more patrons. I have 270 patrons for my podcast, Novel Marketing, and zero of those came from Patreon. I brought each patron to Patreon myself.
On Substack, once you become successful, it will help you become more successful.
It also has good free speech rules. It initially took off among journalists. Some of the first Substacks I followed were military experts breaking down actual battles in real-world conflicts. That kind of footage and analysis would potentially break the terms of service on YouTube.
Substack says that as long as you’re not posting spam or porn, you can publish what you want. The only people who see what you post are people who choose to subscribe. You’re not forcing anyone to watch. There’s no algorithm feeding readers content. People choose what to subscribe to.
Substack can also replace an RSS reader like a Google Reader or Feedly because it has one built in. It also allows you to subscribe to blogs that aren’t on Substack.
How does Substack help you grow your audience?
Derek: You hooked me on the note that Substack can help give exposure and attract new people to your writing.
If I got the Bestseller Secret Substack going, would Substack recommend it to authors who would be interested?
Thomas: Yes, it works that way, but there’s a manual process as well.
If you had a Substack, Substack would ask you to recommend three other Substacks that are similar to yours. You might recommend mine, and I’d recommend yours, so we’d exchange that kind of promo.
If you’re writing on a nonfiction topic, you can connect with others who write on that topic as well. If you’re writing a LitRPG novel, you can feature similar authors in your Substack and ask them to feature yours.
The platform encourages you to promote other Substacks, whereas each Patreon page is a world unto itself.
Substack’s Best Feature
On Substack, you own your audience. If you want to leave the platform, you can export your subscribers and move somewhere else. It’s unlike any of the social media platforms in that way, where you lose your connections when you leave or the social media company deprioritizes your content.
If you’re unhappy with Elon Musk and you want to stick it to the man and leave X/Twitter, you’ll have to leave all your Twitter connections on Twitter. You can’t export them and take them to Threads.
Substack lets you take your followers with you if you leave. That feature alone elevates Substack, in my opinion. They’re treating you like a customer rather than a product they’re selling to someone else. There’s no advertising, and they’re not trying to sell your audience to advertisers. That’s not their model.
Derek: That’s an important point. You own the data. You have access to your customers, and that’s why email is important. That’s not to say you can’t build a Facebook group, but just realize that if Facebook decides to shut down groups because they’re changing their platform, you’ll lose your connections and your ability to communicate with followers easily.
Thomas: Facebook can just change the algorithm, and suddenly, no one in your group will see your posts. You could spend two years building your group, and one algorithm change can undo all that work. They typically start making you pay for what was originally organic reach.
Facebook will yank you around on their chain. Every two years, whatever you’re doing will stop working, so you’ll have to switch to something else. It’s exhausting. The best way to win is not to play. Don’t build your platform on Facebook or Twitter or any of the other platforms trying to clone Facebook or Twitter. They’re good places to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there.
What tools will help authors be more productive in their writing lives?
Thomas: Once you get published, you start to do lots of podcast interviews, conference sessions, and summits.
The right tool can save you a lot of time and headaches when scheduling interviews and meetings.
For example, when Derek and I set up this interview, Derek shot me an email saying, “Would you like to do the Bestseller Secret Summit again?”
I replied, “Yes, I would,” And then I typed “-call” which is my shortcut for inserting a block of text about scheduling calls. The Chrome extension called Textexpander is the tool I use to do that.
Textexpander allows you to create code words, so to speak, or shortcut text. When you type in a code you created, textexpander will drop in a block of text that you’ve created previously.
For instance, right before we went live, Derek asked for my bio. I just typed in “-bio,” and textexpander dropped in the text of my bio, which I’ve already written.
If I want to invite someone to be a guest on my podcast, I just type “-interview” and it drops in a three-paragraph email saying who I am, what the podcast is about, and how they can join me. I can also tweak the email so I don’t have to start from scratch every time.
When I was a literary agent, I had “-no,” which was a standard rejection. I had “-nice no,” which was a friendly rejection, and then I had “-heckno,” which basically said please never pitch me again.
Text expander has saved me 1.2 million characters typed. That means, at 40 words per minute, it has saved me 106 hours since I started using it.
My code “-call” is connected to Calendly, which helps with scheduling. You can apply different rules, and Calendly will connect to your calendar on Google, Apple, or Outlook, so it will know when you’re free. You can set parameters and say, “I only want to do interviews between these hours but not within two hours of another event.”
Derek can connect it to his calendar if he wants to, and it will only show him times when both of us are free. It integrates with Zoom, so once he chooses a time, it drops in my Zoom link right there and accounts for the different time zones.
Derek selected the time, and there was no back-and-forth. Derek’s assistant didn’t need to talk to my assistant. He sent me one email, and I responded to him one time. Once we had selected the time, I was able to textexpand the bio right to him.
If you’re scheduling one event, it doesn’t seem like a huge time saver. But if you’re scheduling multiple events or interviews, it saves you a lot of time and back-and-forth emails.
Google Calendar or an online equivalent, plus Calendly and TextExpander, can save you a ton of time.
We decided to do this interview in Riverside.fm (Affiliate Link) rather than Zoom because it provides slightly higher quality, but I like Zoom for meetings.
I also have Zoom on my phone. For an extra $15.00 per month, Zoom will give you a phone number from which you can make and receive calls. It allows you to keep it separate from your main cell phone.
If somebody in the publishing world wants my phone number, I can give them my Zoom number and keep it separate from my cell phone, which is basically just for my family and close friends.
Derek: Once you get a repeated system working, it makes your process so much faster and easier.
I talk to authors who say they just don’t have the bandwidth to add anything. But when I look at their processes, I can see it’s taking them 20 minutes to do what would take me 20 seconds because of the systems and shortcuts I have in place.
Thomas: Some of these tools have a free version. Some of them cost money, but if you value your time, you might be better off paying for more functionality.
I want to spend my time on the things that are important to me and not on the things a computer can do. If a computer can do it, it’s not important to me. It’s not valuable.
A computer cannot wrestle with my children. A computer cannot go on a date with my wife. But a computer can schedule an appointment with somebody, and that frees me to do things that really matter.
Derek: That’s such an important point. I used to hesitate to pay the $5.00 or $10.00 just because I knew there were free tools, but once I started paying for certain tools, I saved a lot of time, and I was glad I’d paid. Many of these tools are worth the modest investment.
Watch for the ways you are losing time.
I get messages from people who’ve lost their login information, and they waste a lot of time having to reset passwords.
Years ago, I started using Evernote to record my passwords. I don’t type the entire password, but I enter my bank name, username, and a password reminder.
Thomas: I recommend using a password management tool.
First, everyone needs a password manager. Derek’s system is better than trying to keep it in your head because if you’re trying to keep it in your head, you end up using the same password on multiple websites, which is a great way to get hacked.
Since Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter have all been hacked, I could look up the password that you’ve used on multiple sites and get into your account without hesitation.
1Password is a bit more secure, and I like it a little better, especially on Mac. It’s an unbelievably wonderful experience. It will generate a unique and secure password and remember that password and username for that site.
It’s such a stress reliever!
The number-one customer support issue email I receive on my courses is forgotten email addresses.
People typically sign up for a free course with an email address they never check because they don’t know me very well. But once they got to know me better and bought a more expensive course, they wanted to use their good email address. Now they have two accounts, and it’s a confusing mess, but it all could have been avoided with a password manager.
1Password costs a few dollars per month, and it’s so worth it. All my passwords are in an encrypted vault that I can access on all my computers and devices. If someone would put a gun to my head and ask for my PayPal password, I literally couldn’t tell them because it’s some 20-character-long nonsense that only 1Password knows.
I have a single password to unlock 1Password, but all the other passwords are secured and super-duper encrypted.
LastPass has been hacked a few times, and the user list has been stolen, but because they follow best practices, each individual vault is uniquely encrypted and the damage has been mitigated.
Think of it like this: Someone broke into the bank and got into the vault where the safe deposit boxes are, but each individual safe deposit box was locked. Since they couldn’t get to anyone’s valuables, they just stole the ledger of all the people who had boxes.
As far as I know, 1Password (Affiliate Link) has never been compromised. It’s not perfect, but it’s safer than using the same password on more than one website. If you use the same password on multiple sites, your password is available right now for anyone who bothers to look it up.
Derek: How can people find out more about you?
Thomas: I created a special search engine for my brain called PickThomasBrain.com. It searches through all my Novel Marketing episodes, Christian Publishing Show episodes, and hundreds of my blog posts. If you want to pick my brain, but you don’t want to pay me money, just go to PickThomasBrain.com.
You can type in the whole question:
- How do I get more email subscribers?
- How do I get more visits to my website?
- How do I get more book sales?
The search engine will return a list of episodes and articles I’ve written, all available for free. If you want to go deeper, I have courses and training, but I recommend you start by listening to my free podcast, Novel Marketing, which is available wherever good podcasts are found.
If you’re writing for the Christian market, I also host the Christian Publishing Show. Christian books are a different genre, and they have their own publishers, distribution channels, and retail outlets.
Christian books are different from normal books in the same way that comic books are different from normal books. You can get comic books at Barnes and Noble, but some stores only sell comic books. If you’ve never been to a comic book store, you owe it to yourself to hang with the nerds at least one time. And if you’ve never been to a Christian bookstore, you owe it to yourself to hang with the Jesus people, just to expand your horizons and get out of your bubble.
Jenny Fratzke, who writes non-stop, action-oriented Christian Suspense about friendship and forgiveness in Montana.