Amazon, book promotion, self-publishing, writing technique

The Missing Bit

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A good old while since I posted here, which is very remiss of me. I’ve got a few posts lined up (well, in my head anyway), but right now I can’t not say that the new Magali Rousseau mystery is out. Cash in Carry, number 2 in the series. Now some of you might be thinking, ‘What? Doesn’t he mean number 3?’ Nope. Cash in Carry is the second. Chronologically, that is, in Magali’s life, but yes, you’re right – it’s the third in my own writing life.

From a marketing point of view, that is of course pretty crass. But a few months back, I received an email from a reader who’d enjoyed One Green Bottle and Perfume Island, but said that between the two, there were unexplained developments. And it struck me how right she was. So I wrote Cash in Carry to fill the gap. Every once in a while, a reader takes the trouble to share their thoughts like that. It’s a wonderful moment.

To be precise, I’d written most of it already, even before I started the Magali Rousseau series. But I’d got three-quarters done when it stuttered to a halt. Something was missing, so I put it aside and thought one day I’d figure out what it was. With hindsight, it should have been obvious, because the story had a crime but no detective. It was crying out for Magali. I’ve learnt the lesson now – if you’re doing a series, plan the whole lot together. It’s what I’ve just done for a news series I’m working on. But more on that another time.

Anyway, that’s the story behind the story, but what about the story itself? Well, here’s the blurb.

One woman escaping her past, another trapped in a terrifying present.

One man with everything to live for, another with nothing to lose.

In a seaside town in the south of France, three days of anguish play out behind closed doors. And four destinies hang in the balance as events spiral out of control.

When a young woman is snatched from the centre of Marseille, no one suspects the kidnappers’ motivations. With the woman’s life in danger, and the pressure building up towards a disturbing climax, Magali Rousseau needs to show that she is the person for the job. Whilst knowing all along that she isn’t.

Cash in Carry. A kidnap story with a twist.

And here is where it can be found:

Amazon                       Apple, Barnes & Noble, Kobo

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publishing, Stories, Writers Co-op

Anthology Q&A

The Writers’ Co-op has decided to put together an anthology of short stories. To start off, here’s a short list of practical aspects to consider. All comments and suggestions welcome.

How many submissions do we need?

It depends (a) if there’s a maximum word count and (b) how long the anthology itself should be. I’d suggest a maximum word count of 5000, with a small tolerance if it goes above. For a book of 60,000 words, that’s 12 stories. But the book could be longer and the stories shorter, so 12 is a minimum and it could stretch to around 30.

How do we find them?

Invite submissions. It’s not a competition, so won’t be listed on a competition page like the one on Almond Press, which attracts a lot of views. The Book a Break got 75 the first year, 123 the second. Slightly less than a third made it into the anthology. How many submissions will we get by publicising on social media? No idea, but it would be nice to get 40-50. We can also send direct invitations to writers we know and appreciate.

Is there a theme?

The question is still open but there appears to be a majority saying no. And a theme adds virtually nothing to the marketing possibilities. A genre, on the other hand, makes it easier – readers type it as a search word on Amazon. Carl has suggested ‘weird’, which I like. It’s broad enough to allow for a lot of variety, from humour to horror by way of talking cats. Could even be stylistic.

Who will take care of selecting submissions, editing and formatting?

I’m quite happy to do that as it’s what I’ve been doing for the Book a Break, but ideally with someone I can call on for help when needed. Any volunteers?

What’s the calendar?

The Book a Break anthology will be released in September or October. I’d rather it didn’t clash with that, so either before or after, June/July, say, or November/December. But for the moment I’d rather not commit – let’s post submission invitations wherever we can with a deadline, I suggest, of 31st March. Some people might already have pieces ready but for anyone starting from scratch, that seems reasonable. We’ll see what happens.

How do we market it?

We will be creative, tenacious and cooperative! A committee of three or four people would be useful to come up with and implement ideas.

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book promotion, book sales

Another Report from the Front

Having seen my book sales stall spectacularly over the last year or so (big news, I know), I decided to hoard my pennies and buy some ad time to promote some free giveaway days on Amazon.com. (I know, I know. The irony of having to pay to give your books away is not lost on me, but I don’t want to get into that.) Simply making your books free on Amazon will get you bupkis in terms of downloads, ‘cuz who’s going to notice? So you pay for attention. The hope? That among those who download the book for free will be a fair number that will actually read it, maybe review it, maybe like it well enough to buy your other books and give them to all of his friends, including the indie movie director looking for fresh product for her next feature film production.

You get the idea. To be honest, I have done this before and reported on it here.  The results never actually pay for themselves (nor did they this time) but a giveaway does generate a few sales after the fact, and some royalties from folks who read the books on KU.

I did things a little different this time. Mostly, I made both of my older titles (Spark and Flight of the Wren) free at the same time, and ran a variety of promotions, both free and paid. I did not promote the giveaway on Facebook or Twitter, and I do not think I missed much by not doing so. I’ve never gotten a noticeable bounce from posting in either location, even when I used Facebook’s paid ads.

So where did I promote? Robin Reads, Awesome Gang, Free and Discounted Books, ebooklister, Digital Book Today, Ask David, Bookangel, Frugal Freebies… Basically, a bunch of websites and emailing services that exist precisely for that purpose (Including the rather ominously named Ignite Your Book).

Basically, it goes like this:  You make your book free for up to five days (as a member of KU, you can do that every three months). Your promoters list your book as being free in their promotional material (some are email lists, which can be pretty effective. Some are simply listings on their websites, which tend to be worthless.) Readers notice, and go to Amazon (hopefully with a simply click) and download your book for free. This downloading causes your book to climb up the Amazon lists, specifically the Top 100 Free in Kindle Store list. Only that list isn’t nearly specific enough. Your book will begin showing up on the sub-lists, like Top 100 Free Historical Fiction list, or Top 100 Free Genre Fiction list. But even that isn’t specific enough. You may get to those lists eventually, but the lists that really help you get noticed break it down even farther than that, because these lists have 100 titles (right?) which are spread out over five pages, and who’s got time to search five whole pages? No. You want to get on page one, preferably near the top.

Fortunately, the sub-category lists are made to make this possible, and your book will end up on several of them, depending on what categories and keywords you chose when you were publishing your book on Kindle Direct Publishing.

Here’s how it worked for me. On KDP, I listed Spark as Fiction>Science Fiction>Alien Contact. Since you can put it in two categories I also listed it as Juvenile Fiction>Science Fiction. These aren’t optimal, but you only get so many options to choose from. Under Keywords, I chose: female protagonist, high school, parallel universe, gnosticism, paranormal, extraterrestrial, girl’s basketball. I know, this is a pretty funny list, but I was trying to cover the bases. I wanted both some popular lists (on which my book would be obscure) and some obscure lists (on which my book would be popular, or at least prominent). During the giveaway, Spark made a good showing on the Juvenile Fiction>Science Fiction>Aliens list. Also the Juvenile Fiction>Science Fiction>First Contact list. It also got some play on the Paranormal, Occult, Supernatural list. It got to #1 on all of these lists and #4 for the Top 100 Free Science Fiction list. Even on the BIG list (Top 100 Free in Kindle Stores list) it made a tiny splash, topping out at #74.

Genre Fiction>Society>Marriage

Obviously, appearing on numerous lists in higher positions perpetuates more downloads, causing your book to climb even higher, and so on and so forth. This is what drives downloads once the initial push from promotion peters out (and it does quickly). Flight of the Wren didn’t do as well as Spark, only reaching #99 on the BIG list, but it did spend considerable time on page one of Teen & Young Adult>Coming of Age list, and the Genre Fiction lists, getting as high as #20 for Genre Fiction, putting it in company with a considerable amount of rather generic looking chick lit and a lot of gay smut. (For a long time, Renny’s face floated among the chiseled male torsos of fire fighters, navy seals, and rodeo ropers.) Spark, on the other hand, spent most of her time bobbing around among such titles as Earthkid Hero, Mickey the Martian, Starship Conquest, and Deck the Malls with Purple Peacocks.

Then, after your giveaway times out, it all ends. Abruptly. My download totals were as follows: Day One — 1822 downloads. Day Two — 2203 downloads. Day Three — 798 downloads. Day four had 26 downloads, but those were just residuals, because I had ended the promotion by then. In the three weeks since the promotion, I have sold nine books. (Don’t be jealous, kids.) Also, and more importantly, I have had 5798 page reads through KU. Probably, these have already peaked, but they could continue for a while. I’ve had a couple of near zero days, but only four days ago I had a 575 page day, so you never know. For the record, KU considers my books to have 426 and 411 pages respectively, so 5798 pages is equal to almost 14 complete readings, and royalties are roughly equal to that many sales.

So, worth it? I dunno. Certainly I lost money, but I knew I would. But for every reader I know about, there might be dozens more. Nearly 5000 people downloaded my books, and some of them will read them, eventually, maybe. Some isn’t many, probably, but it has to be something. A mere two percent would be one hundred readers.

We’ll see. It takes time. I’ve gotten a few reviews already. That takes time too.

But that seems like the subject for another day.

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About Writers, Magic and Science, reading, Uncategorized

The Magic of Science of Magic

Arthur C. Clarke famously said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” thereby wedging open the door between two things that are often viewed as being diametrically opposed: magic and science.

Trying to define science in the modern sense of the word would probably provoke a lot of hair-splitting arguments, but any reasonable definition would have to involve a description of the scientific method, which Websters defines as “principles and procedures for the systematic pursuit of knowledge involving the recognition and formulation of a problem, the collection of data through observation and experiment, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses.” Magic, on the other hand, is defined as “the use of means believed to have supernatural power over natural forces.” In reductive terms, science attempts to understand the natural world while magic operates outside of it—even above it, as the prefix super- suggests.

My interest here isn’t really in semantics or even the scientific method, so much as the way the two are presented in two genres of speculative fiction: science fiction and fantasy.

Superficially, the two genres seem to be at odds. The former traffics in spaceships and rayguns, the latter in dragons and magic wands. But even on a deeper level, there is a fundamental difference: while both present events and processes that might seem impossible or unexplainable, sci fi works from the premise that such things will be possible and explainable in the future, while fantasy tends to ignore the whole question by labeling the extraordinary as supernatural: magic.

I know, this is simplistic, so lets dive in a little deeper by looking at some examples:

One)  The Enterprise is about to blow up. Never mind how or why or which Enterprise. Maybe it’s a subspace inversion or an innerspace subversion or a race of telepathic protozoa, but either way, they need a fix and fast.  Cue the Science Officer or Engineer: “Captain, if we depolarize the ophion emitter and detonate a platonic charge in the region of 25 thousand gigahertz, it might create a plasma shock. The resulting discontinuity would only a last a few seconds, but it might give us time to warp the hell out of here. It’s so crazy, it just might work.” (Spoiler alert: It works.)

Two)  Harry, Ron and Hermione are in transfiguration class. “Bloody hell!” Ron exclaims, slashing the air in an ungainly fashion. “This stupid spell doesn’t work. Portipot Vertigo! Portipot Vertigo!” A column of blue smoke rises from the thoroughly untransfigured toad, which croaks dismally. “Ron, you insufferable pillock,” Hermione huffs. “First off, it’s Proteo Fortissimo. And don’t swing your wand so. You aren’t beating a rug.”

Okay. I admit I’ve just made fun of two venerable franchises that I’ve always enjoyed (it was done with love, people!). But let’s examine each. In the first, we have what seems to be a science-based solution to a science-based problem. Scientific investigation gives us the parameters of the problem, and our advanced technology provides the means for solving it. But it isn’t real. I mean, some of the words might be real, and maybe the tech has at least SOME connection to real technology  (or at least the concept behind it)  but it’s only the trappings of science. The context—spaceship, computers, beams and rays, big numbers—gives the impression that this is science in action, but the mechanism itself is every bit as opaque as a magic spell. It works because it works. It might as well be magic.

In the second, we have the same thing in reverse. The spell they’re trying to learn involves saying particular words and making particular gestures. If you do it right, it works. Presumably, if you do it the same way each time, the results will be consistent and repeatable, which sounds suspiciously like science. The mechanism for how it works remains unknown, but as long as you know the recipe, you can make the dish.

Now before anyone thinks I’m bashing Harry Potter, I am not. I admire Rowling’s series a lot, and though I have occasional issues with her writing, the story is fantastic. I use it here only because it is surely the best known series of its type, and because it does typify some of the challenges faced by the average writer of magical fantasy.

Rowling does play with the notion that there are deeper, more arcane magics in the world. The protection that Harry experiences in the Dursley’s house, for example, is less the result of a spell and more the product of Lily’s self-sacrifice. (These deeper magics, it should be noted—the magic of family, of love, of loyalty—could be just as applicable in a story that didn’t involve any fantasy magic at all.)

But for the most part, these are not the kind of day-today magics that occupy the story. Mostly we see very specific spells with specific names and formulas for operation and we rarely get into theory. In fact, the actual learning of magic looks pretty rote most of the time. In the Deathly Hallows Harry casts the imperious curse without any difficulty at all, even though we know he has never performed it before. We’re told it’s a high level spell (as well as an illegal one) yet use seems to be as simple as pointing your wand and saying imperio. There are similar issues with the patronus charm, which, we are told, is very advanced, yet Harry has no trouble teaching the callow kids in Dumbledore’s Army to use it. Again, it seems pretty simple. Get in the right mind set, then say the words. No problem.

I don’t want to dump on Harry Potter too much. It really is a great story, and the ambiguity about magic that JK Rowling (eventually) develops and sustains for its duration is both intriguing and enjoyable. But I think it highlights a problem that writers of science fiction and writers of fantasy must face (in different ways). Sci fi can’t explain the science because—even if it is genuine—most readers would find it incomprehensible or boring. Fantasy can’t explain the magic because there is no explanation. That’s why we often end up with science that might as well be magic, and magic that is as mundane as science.

It’s interesting to consider how some of Rowling’s predecessors tried to account for the mechanism of magic. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings features surprisingly little magic, at least in the sense of spells and incantations. Certain objects have magical properties, obvously, but the powers are often vague. The one ring allows domination of all of the other rings, but aside from invisibility, it conveys no other definable powers. Neither does Gandalf wield much in the way of curses or conjuring. He stands off the balrog by literally standing in the way and forbidding it passage. He starts a magical fire at one point, but even there, he mostly seems to be calling fire forth by force of will and knowledge of the elvish language. It is not, in the way we normally think of them, and incantation.

Possibly, Tolkien’s use of magic is closer to Ursula Leguin’s in A Wizard of Earthsea. Earthsea wizards attend an academy (of sorts) and learn spells, but underlying all of the magic is the knowledge of the names of things. Knowing the true name of anything gives you power over it.

My own relationship with and presentation of magic has varied from book to book. In Flight of the Wren, the magic was in the magic carpets themselves. and a rider’s proficiency with various related spells mostly depended on how well they connected with their nearly sentient carpets. In Whisper Blue, the manifestation of Wysteria is given a plausible science fiction style explanation, but that is as much a quirk of the character of Miles Faber as anything else. Miles needs an explanation for the unsettling events of the story, but there’s no textual reason to assume that he actually got it right (or wrong, for that matter.) In Spark, the nature of the eponymous fleck of light remains conjectural right up until the end (though I plump for the shard-of-divine-entity explanation.) Does it matter? Only, I suppose, to the rare reader who cares to read beyond the surface events of the story. Hopefully the mystery is at least a little intriguing, a small source of wonderment. I’m not sure we can, or should, hope for more than that.

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book promotion

How to Make Sure Your Book has a Beautiful Cover

[Note: I am in the process of updating and completing this post series.]

I’m sure you’ve heard something along these lines: “the [book] cover’s job is to get readers to start reading the description.”1 Think about it for a minute. How often do you buy a book with an ugly cover?  Continue reading

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About Writers

And Now, Ursula K. Le Guin

It looks like my time to blog post has come ’round again. Are Curtis, GD, Mimi, Atthys, Sue and I the only writers in regular rotation here? I’m sure I speak for all of us when I say: We’d love to hear from others! (Perry, Tom, Amber, et. al.) You’ve got a ready-made soapbox and a built-in audience here on Writers Co-op; let us know what’s on your mind these fear-fraught dystopian days, eh?

Truth is, however, that I have nothing urgent to communicate at present. Therefore, I’d like to step aside and let Ursula K. Le Guin take the stage. Here is the speech she gave when accepting the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters a couple of years ago. (After clicking on the url, scroll down and click on the embedded video link three-quarters of the way down the landing page to watch this 85-year-old dynamo in action.) Her speech is a marvel of concision, eloquence, truth and power.

:::applause-applause:::

http://www.oregonlive.com/books/index.ssf/2014/11/ursula_k_le_guin_on_reaction_t.html

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book promotion, book sales, Writers Co-op

FROM NICHE TO SCRATCH

(OR HOW TO MAKE A SIX-FIGURE INCOME WITHOUT LEAVING YOUR CHAIR)

I get these ads in my Facebook feed from time to time (all right, every day) suggesting that my lackluster book sales are the result of my unimaginative marketing plan and my lack of vision. There are fortunes to be made on the internet and, with their guidance, I too can board that boat I keep missing, grab the brass ring, quit my day job, start drinking the good stuff and enjoying wafer-thin after dinner chocolates whenever I damn well like.

I am, in case you haven’t guessed, skeptical. I have seen so many of these pitches—and yes, even done a seminar or two—and I always, ALWAYS find the same thing: tired platitudes about perseverance and “giving the people what they want.” Find out who your core audience is, they tell me, and then market directly to them. Grow your mailing list (they love to use grow as a transitive* verb, it’s market-speak doncha know?) Offer free stuff! Find your niche! Become a brand! Write a blog with a cute and catchy name! People will WANT to buy whatever you sell because they will want to buy YOU!

Or, something like that. Maybe it all sounds so unlikely to me because I really don’t find being marketed to at all appealing. You want me to buy your stuff. I get it. Don’t try to razzle-dazzle me with bling or tchotchkes or other crap I didn’t want in the first place, and don’t try and tell me that I’m part of some special club now, and I should hashtag you every time I twit. All you’ll end up doing is making me feel insulted. I don’t want to be critical of the general population (gen pop in eerily-appropriate prison parlance) but if this approach really works with a sizable number of them, well, then, I guess it’s not much wonder that I can’t connect.

Do I sound old and irritable? Check. And check.

A musician I’ve never heard of pitched my feed this morning. She makes six figures working from home (homeschooling mother of four!) selling her CD’s on the internet. She doesn’t perform live or do personal appearances (homeschooling mother of four!) It’s all internet-based marketing. And yet—six figures.

Okay. So sell me. Tell me one new thing in your pitch and I’ll sign up for your marketing course.

Probably my inner skeptic automatically prevents me from approaching this sort of thing with an open mind, but honestly? She’s got nothing. As far as I can tell, her big reveal (and yes, they love to use reveal as a noun) can be summed up in one sentence: “Why be a little fish in a big pond when you can be a big fish in a small pond?” In other words, find a niche.

Niche marketing isn’t a particularly new idea. Back in the days when brick-and-mortar bookstores (remember those?) were still a thing, there was a lot of handwringing about the big chain stores—Barnes and Noble, Borders, Waldens—driving the independents out of business. As it turned out, they had all underestimated the white whale lurking beneath the swells, a little thing called Amazon.com, but I digress. A lot of independent bookstores did go out of business, especially the be-everything-to-everyone-get-your-bestsellers-for-thirty-percent-off-but-we-also-have-a-great-backlist-and-you-can-get-a-cup-of-coffee type of bookstores. Curiously, it was often the small niche stores that survived. The New Age Salon in Santa Fe. The Knitting Book Nook in Seattle. Cats Are People, Too in Minneapolis (plus Cats Are People, Two in St. Paul.) I made all of those up, of course, but it was a real phenomenon. Providing a specialized list of books to a very specific audience can be a successful enterprise, if you’re not too fussy about your definition of success.

And with the internet at our twitchy fingertips, such specialized stores should be even more viable. Now you don’t even need a store, and you can reach millions of potential customers. Our Homeschooling Mother of Four’s niche? Celtic Heavy Metal. Christian Celtic Heavy Metal, as it happens. I admit, it’s hard for me to write those words without feeling my eyes roll, but hey, everybody likes something. I’d plug her website, but I don’t want to get curmudgeon all over her nice, shiny, heavy Celtic Christian vibe. Frankly, it was all a little slick and predictable for my tastes. She can play, and it’s a very professional production for a homemade disk, but—six figures? Really? Is she counting the ones after the decimal point?

(Yeah. That did sound bitter. I withdraw the question, your honor.)

And besides. If she’s making a hundred thousand dollars doing what she loves best, following her calling, etc, then why is she wasting her time hawking some by-the-numbers marketing program to wannabes like me? Wait. Is it because she wants to share her innovative strategies with others? Cuz she’s been so fortunate and now she wants to give something back? It’s amazing how many marketing gurus have tried that line on me. And every time they do, I feel my brain getting a little bit smaller, atrophying in its bony shell.

So niche marketing, yes or no? It certainly has many proponents. There was a guy the other day telling me that selling books on Amazon wasn’t necessarily good, because you might be selling to the wrong people. Amazon’s search-and-sell algorithms are keyed to recognize patterns. Did consumer A purchase your book? Okay. What else has she purchased? Is there a pattern? What else might she want? How can we steer her to those things? It’s all about your target audience, and selling books to people outside of your target audience only confuses the algorithms. It gums up the works, dilutes the information stream. Better to sell fewer books but to the right audience. That way, the marketing machinery will recognize your audience members and find more of them for you.

I think that’s what he was saying. I glazed over a bit around paragraph three but that was the gist. You need to focus on your target audience. Also, write a LOT of books. One a month if possible. (And no, I’m not making that part up.)

I can’t do that, but maybe I could do something like it. I have two thirds of a YA historical trilogy about the Minoan civilization. It’s fun, and has lots of magic and adventure. Plus, did I mention the Minoan civilization? You can’t get much more niche-y than that. By the time I finish book three, it’ll be somewhere in the neighborhood of 1300 pages, but I can break it up into fragments, 200 pages here, 150 pages there. That’s gotta be good for at seven or eight books. I can saturate all the pre-Hellenic Greece websites, twitter-blitz every website about ancient matrifocal cultures, haunt the linear-A chatrooms. Who knows what could happen? I could catch on, and soon a whole herd of bookish kids and history geeks will be hanging on my next installment. And then, the movie deal. Maybe Miyazaki. It’s ready made for Studio Ghibli.

And then, while plotting out this strategy, I see this quote from, of all people, Hayao Miyazaki. ”In order to grow your audience,” he says, “you must betray their expectations.”

Yeah. I don’t know whether that’s really true in the age of the instant entertainment, but it should be. It really should. Otherwise, what tipping point have we gone past where people only want more of the same? Only want what worked for them before? Cuz, wow! Culture-wise? That’s an ocean that’s barely knee-deep.

 

*Yes, I know grow can be a transitive verb when we’re talking about string beans or snapdragons, but the modern fixation with “growing your business” or “growing your client base” is definitely market-speak.

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