Category Archives: MARKETING

Le Sigh

Yesterday, I blogged about writers and editors behaving badly in social media. No, I’m not talking about those writers who go after reviewers. I’m sure none of us will ever forget NB and his responses to anyone who might have ever posted a negative review to his masterpiece — and I use that therm loosely. This time it was a series of posts by different authors and editors complaining about how the authors who hired them to do work didn’t tip them after paying the agreed upon fee. Oh, that wasn’t the only complaint. There were cries of “foul!” when they weren’t greeted with profuse thanks for their work instead of question or — gasp — complaints. All that resulted in a blog about how you need to remember not to air your dirty laundry on social media because it will be seen by more folks than you think and it can — and probably will — run off business. The point of the post was that if you contract for editing or art or anything else, you need to price your services at a level where you don’t have to rely upon “tips”.

I’d expected that to be the end of the “but it’s a business, damn it!” reaction I’d had to the different Twitter and Facebook posts. Then I turned on the laptop this morning and checked the usual social media sites and, well, realized it wasn’t over. So repeat after me, “Writing is a business and needs to be treated as such.” Repeat it again and then, if it helps, print it out and put it on your desk somewhere.

Today’s post comes after seeing several folks take to social media asking how to sell more books. Usually, such a question wouldn’t bother me. After all, it’s a question we all ask ourselves on an almost daily — if not hourly — basis. Most of those asking were looking for honest answers and advice. And, again, it all comes down to treating the writing as a business. You have to know your market. You have to actually write. And you have to be able to make the hard decisions some times.

One of those decisions is when to end a series. It doesn’t matter how much you, as the author, love the series or the characters. It doesn’t even matter if the series hasn’t run the full story arc you have in mind. Sometimes, you have to step back and look at your sales numbers impartially and make the hard call to stop writing that series and move on to something else.

But, before you do that, you need to have something else already going. Again, you don’t stop making widgets without having the machinery up and running to replace them with cogs or whatchamacallits.

I’ve made the decision to end a series before I initially planned to. I liked the characters but I had to take a hard look at what was going on with sales. Oh, each new release made money, but not as much as my other books. Worse, sales did not continue. There would be an uptick after a new book was released but then sales would fall off. Sure, I got reads on KU but not enough to spend time writing more of the series. So, I back burner-ed it. One day, I may return to to it. But, for now, much as I like the series, it has taken a backseat to other books and series.

I even know what at least part of the problem with the series happens to be. It’s multi-fold and the problems are ones I see other authors having as well. The first is covers. The covers on this particular set of books don’t match the genre, especially now. The second are the tag words. These books came out before Amazon gave us the handy dandy list of words to use. I need to go back and redo those meta tags. The descriptions need work as well. Finally, the books are really a different sub-genre now than they were when they were written. That makes a lot of difference. Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t completely write that series off after all. Maybe I should put the time into updating the info and seeing what happens.

Now, before I put that particular series on the back burner, I made sure I had something else to take its place. Fortunately, I rolled the dice right and that series has far outsold the one it replaced. And no, I’m not going to tell you what series and you won’t find it because — bwahahahaha — it is under a closed pen name.Not even my fellow bloggers here know that name.

But back to the issue. If you are writing a series and it isn’t making the money you think it should and you have done every reasonable — and even some unreasonable — marketing ploy, then you have to ask yourself if it isn’t time to move on. To help make that decision, you need to look at your sales numbers, going all the way back to the beginning of the series. Look for trends. Do you get an uptick in sales when you release a new book and what is the drop off after the first few weeks and months? Is that drop off the same from book to book or does it lessen with each additional book you publish?

There are other things to look at as well, especially when it comes to what you are doing to market your work. Do you have active links in the back of your book, complete with descriptions, of your other titles? How about links to titles of books by other authors that you like and think your readers will as well? Are you blogging about your work and your writing process? Do you post on FB and other sites when you have a new book coming out?

Conversely, if you do utilize social media platforms, are you pissing folks off by spamming your notices everywhere, including on other authors’ pages? If you have an email list, do you only send out to those who asked to be included or have you captured email addresses for other people and send to them? If the latter, DON’T! That is another way to make people want to NOT buy your work.

You also need to remember that readers and fans will have a perception of you based upon your social media posts. This is why so many publishers for so long told their authors to be apolitical or, more recently, have required them to be anything but conservative in their posts. These publishers and editors thought readers wanted their authors to be liberal on all things. What they didn’t get is that, by doing so, they alienated even more readers than they were gaining — at least in a number of cases.

So, if you are busy posting on FB and elsewhere whines about how badly your sales are going, you have just shot yourself in the foot. How? By telling potential readers who might see the post that your book isn’t worth buying. Remember, it is all about perception and appearance.

But that’s not to say you can’t ask questions about how to increase sales or how to best market your book. Far from it. But what I’m suggesting is you consider who might see your post. There are any number of author-centric groups and pages on FB where you can ask such questions and get responses from people who have been there and done that. You can ask your crit group or find a mentor — waves as Sarah and Dave — all of whom can make suggestions.

Sometimes, however, you just have to admit that the series that is near and dear to your heart isn’t as special to the reading public. So, pull up your pants, tell your characters you love them but it is time you give some love to some others characters and plots and move on. You can always go back — in months, not days or weeks — and look at that series with a fresh and critical eye. Sometimes, stepping away gives you the space you need to breathe new life into it. But, if you don’t step away, you don’t give yourself that chance.

It all boils down to this: if you aren’t selling what you think you should, why? Have you looked at your work with a critical eye, compared it to the books in your genre or sub-genre to see what those other authors are doing that you aren’t? Have you looked at your social media presence with that same critical eye to see what sort of appearance you are presenting to the reading public? Remember, as a publicity tool, social media isn’t there for only your established fans but to help you read new ones as well. So what sort of impression are you giving them?

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Filed under AMANDA, MARKETING, PROMOTION, WRITING

Q&A

Thanks to those of you who left blog post ideas. Some of you left ideas here and some on Facebook. There were a number of great suggestions and questions. I’ve decided to try to discuss some of then in a modified Q&A format. I probably won’t get to all the suggestions today, but I promise to file the rest away and deal with them in another post.

Q: How to handle multitasking and switching from writing to other types of writing or to editing or layout without getting tunnel vision on any one task?

A: I’ll admit, I rarely edit and write at the same time, at least not my own work. One thing Sarah told me long ago was not to edit my work until I finished the rough draft. The reason she told me this was because I was getting caught in an endless editing loop, something that happens to a number of new writers. Since then, I’ve learned that the only time editing my own work works before I finish the draft is if I have somehow written myself into a corner and can’t find a way out. Otherwise, I wait to edit until the story is done.

That isn’t the case when I am trying to edit someone else. The only caveat I have for that is I don’t edit the same genre I am writing in at the moment. The reasons are simple. I don’t want my “voice” to bleed over into my edits. As an editor, it isn’t my job to give a voice to the client’s work. Nor am I to try to change the voice. It is their story and not mine. In fact, if you have an editor — be it a content editor, copy editor or proofreader — trying to change the voice of your work, you need to look long and hard at what they are doing and why. Yes, there are times it might be appropriate to say a scene would be better from another person’s POV, but changing the voice of a character is completely different.

As for formatting, I tend to write in the format that will be converted to e-books. I’ve built a template that I will periodically tweak for genre and appearance but basically the format I write my rough draft in is exactly the same format you see in an e-book. Also, because I try to make sure my e-books look as close to the print versions as possible, it doesn’t take long to change page sizes and substitute section breaks for page breaks. Then it is just a matter of tweaking it to make sure everything is as it should be for print.

My biggest downtime any more is between projects, especially if I am changing genres. I’ve learned I have to take at least a week after I press the publish button to just recharge the batteries. Otherwise, I almost always have to go back and rewrite — majorly rewrite — what I tried to do before I made the mental switch from one book/genre to another.

Q: What is the importance of print versions of your work?

This is kind of a loaded question where there is no right answer. The truth of the matter is, most indie authors will never sell enough print books to really justify the time, effort and money needed to put them together. Before, when you could get an ISBN through Createspace for $10, it was worth it. But now, it is hard to justify it, to be honest. Yes, having a print book makes you look more “professional” when readers go to a book’s product page on Amazon, etc. However, with more and more readers going strictly digital, I’m not sure how important that is.

Then there is the belief that having your book printed and distributed through Ingram Spark will get you into the bookstores. No, it really won’t. Yes, you are listed in the catalog store buyers (think purchasing agents) see. But it is also, or at least it was, listed at the back in the section for indie authors. And, let’s be honest, most bookstore operators — ie, B&N — hate indies almost as much as they hate Amazon. As for the owners of locally owned bookstores, you have two things you have to do before you can worry about the stocking your book. The first is making sure you have a valid ISBN so you will be listed in Books in Print. The second, and more important, is you have to establish a close relationship with the person in that store who chooses what books they stock. That means spending time in the store — and spending money — as well as getting to know those who work there. Again, it is up to each indie author to determine if that is worth time.

There is one other thing to consider when it comes to print books. If you, the indie author, make the con circuit, having print books on hand to sell or even to just hand out may be a good thing. However, for every author who manages to actually make money selling books at a con, there are dozens more who don’t make the cost of the table rental back. Then you have to consider what the tax laws are in the city/state where the con is. You most definitely do NOT want to run afoul of those.

Frankly, right now, while I do still put out print books, it is more to make the product page look like a pro page. I work through Createspace and use the Amazon ISBN (free or relatively cheap. Haven’t done it in several months, so I’m not sure what it is right now). It will list Amazon as the distributor and will not be assigned to my imprint, Hunter’s Moon Press. But, it is listed in Books in Print and it is listed in such a way the local libraries can pick the book up and stock it if they want.

I am hearing rumblings that audio is really where we need to start focusing our attention. So I am in the process of trying that out.

Q: What is the difference between using beta readers and having your work edited?

This question came from Facebook and I’ve paraphrased it. But it is a good one and one that I see a lot of writers not understanding. A beta reader, for those not familiar with the term, is a lot like beta testers for software or computer games. It is someone who reads your work before the final edits. They tell you if the book works. They should let you know if something felt wrong to them. Some will focus on proofreading and you’ll get a manuscript back that looks like someone bled all over it — hint, I’ve discovered that most of the time when that happens, the person either isn’t as great at grammar and punctuation as they think or they don’t get that, in fiction, your characters don’t have to speak proper King’s English.

Anyway, your beta readers are there to see if there is anything broken in your book. Many times, they will catch consistency errors or science/engineering/weaponry/whatever errors. This is invaluable to a writer.

Where do you find beta readers? Here is where I may upset some folks. I recommend you not use family for beta readers, at least not unless you have several other non-relatives reading the same piece. Why? Because family will often try to cushion the criticism and that doesn’t help. You want someone who will be brutally honest with you. Someone who will tell you what didn’t work for them and why. If they are really good, they might even offer a way to fix the problem.

You can find beta readers from your critique group. You can ask on social media for volunteers. The caveat here is those who volunteer this way often will not get back to you. It really is sort of a trial and error until you find a few folks you can trust to give you solid feedback.

Another way I differ from some writers is I want one beta reader who isn’t a big reader in the genre of the current project. Why? Because I want to make sure I don’t rely so much on tropes that someone picking up the book because they liked something I wrote in another series or other genre will be able to be pulled into the story. If you rely too heavily on genre-specific tropes, you risk not being able to do that.

So what is the difference between a beta reader and an editor? A beta reader will usually only be looking at if the story grabbed them and kept their attention throughout the story. They will come back with suggestions or critiques but it is still based on their enjoyment or lack thereof. An editor has a different job based on what sort of editing they are doing.

As noted above, some beta readers will give you back a manuscript marked up for spelling, punctuation and grammar errors. In other words, they will have acted as a proofreader. IF, and this is a big if, they are good at it, keep them. But take them out of the beta reading circle and give them the manuscript after it has been through the beta readers and editing cycle. They are the last eyes save yours you want to see your manuscript before publication. Believe me, you want to do this because, no matter how carefully you check your work, you will miss something and you will eventually get the review criticizing all the spelling errors or bad grammar etc.

Copy editing and content editing are two very different things. Copy edit is the step before proofreading. One of the most concise explanations of what a copy editor does comes from Wikipedia (which I normally hate but it fits here). A copy editor’s job is  “improving the formatting, style, and accuracy of the text. The goal of copy editing is to ensure that content is accurate, easy to follow, fit for its purpose, and free of error, omission, inconsistency, and repetition.” They are your fact-checkers, your person who makes sure you don’t repeat things unless such repetition is necessary, and who removes all those words that really don’t add to the story.

Unfortunately, too many writers and so-called editors think copy editing is content editing and it isn’t. A good content editor will take your book, read it, be able to increase the impact of a scene by rearranging the order of sentences in a paragraph, etc. They are the doctor instead of the technician. Not every author needs a content editor because they have a solid grasp of story structure, pacing, foreshadowing, etc. If you don’t, then you need to consider finding a solid content editor to work with.

Each of these, from beta readers to content editors play an important role in letting us put the most professional product out possible. The more you network, the more resources you will find for all of these. The key is, especially if you are going to pay for services like proofreading or editing, is to get recommendations, to ask to see finished work by the person you are considering hiring and to check to see what you can find out about them online.

Finally, I’d like to add one more note. If you decide you want to go with a “real” publisher — and I’m not talking one of the established traditional publishers but a small press — check them out. Don’t just look at the usual resources like Preditors and Editors. Do a google search to see what you can find out about them. Do they have a website and does it look professional? What is their payment history? Ask yourself what they can do for you that you aren’t doing for yourself already. Look at their covers. Does the artwork look professional? How about the lettering? Do all the covers look the same, even if the books are different series or genres? Finally, don’t sign anything without letting an IP attorney look over the contract. That is a given for any publishing contract you are considering.

More later. Keep posting your questions in the comments to the previous post. I’ll do my best to answer them later.

 

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Filed under AMANDA, MARKETING, WRITING: CRAFT, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Why not let a little reality into the room?

Let me start by saying I have not successfully carried out a coup here at MGC and taken over. Nor did I draw the short straw and get stuck with filling in for everyone. Brad did me a favor last week by switching days with me. That left me posting Sunday, his usual day, and yesterday, mine. This morning, knowing Sarah is on the homestretch of her novel, I offered to fill in for her. I blame the fact that I am in the last third of my final edits and that gives me brain mush. But, in a way, I’m glad because it lets me continue talking about about the DBW conference and some of the information coming out of it.

Once again, I want to thank The Passive Voice for pointing me in the direction of the post that is today’s inspiration. For those of you who are not currently following TPV, why not? All kidding aside, I highly recommend the site.

Ron Vitale attended the DBW conference and has blogged about the experience. I will admit up front that I don’t agree with everything Vitale has to say. That doesn’t mean he is wrong, just that my experience as an indie shows me different aspects or approaches to the subject. His comments are italicized.

The biggest take home message from Digital Book World Indie is so simple that I almost missed it while preparing for the next talk. When we as indie authors unite, we have strength. We are the sum of our individual skills.

I totally agree with this. There are very few of us who have all the skills necessary to put out a quality project. Sure, we are writers. Some better than others. Some of us are excellent self-editors and others, to be honest, suck at it. Some of us are also awesome artist or can do a beautiful job lettering a cover. However, those who can do it all are few and far between. So what are the rest of us to do? If you are like me and most of us here at MGC, you find other authors or artists who will trade services. Or you hire someone to do it for you. This is not a new idea. There are any number of loose, informal co-ops for indies out there. We do not have to work in a vacuum.

The second most important lesson I learned at DBW Indie is that traditional publishers, to quote Jane Friedman, “are kicking ass in marketing.”

Now, this is where the OP began to lose me. What? How are trad publishers “kicking ass” in marketing? The only real advantage I see with going the traditional route is that it can get you into bookstores — for a limited period of time. But, as we’ve discussed before, how much of an advantage is that really when more and more readers are going to online sites to buy their print books?

But, I’ll give the OP the benefit of the doubt and see why he believes this to be the case.

Not only are publishers creating apps such as Crave, but they are performing A/B tests with their advertising, targeting the appropriate readers with the ads as well as sending out thousands of ARCs in advance to build reviews online.

Wait, what? Publishers are creating apps and testing their marketing targeting and sending out ARCs?

First of all, as PG noted in his comments about the piece, just about anyone who wants to can create an app. So what is Crave and can it really help you, the reader?

I remembered vaguely reading something about Crave, but I didn’t remember the details. So I followed the link and, omg, all I could do was shake my head. In case you haven’t looked it up, Crave came out in 2015, iirc, and was built to keep the Twitter and Snapchat generation interested in a book. Here is a description of what Crave was meant to do:

As you scroll through an ebook on Crave, the app periodically breaks into the narrative to show you a text message conversation between two characters, a video of an actor portraying one of the characters doing an interview about the book’s events, a filmed moment (like the hero first looking up at the heroine) or even a reaction GIF.

But after around 1,000 words, you’re cut off. Crave slices each book into mini-chapters intended to take only three or four minutes to read, including multimedia. You can tune back in the next day for another bite-sized installment, generously salted with supplementary videos and text exchanges.

Now, I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want is for some idiotic text message to pop up in the middle of a scene I am reading — or a video or pretty much anything else. I sure as hell don’t want to be forced to stop after 1,000 words. Can you imagine how long it would take you to read a book that way? A 100k word book would take almost 1/3 of a year. Would you remember the beginning? Would you even care about finishing it? And yet this is supposedly one of the ways traditional publishing is winning the marketing war against indies.

The mind boggles.

As for the testing of advertising to see if it hits the right target market, hell’s bells, that is what advertising agencies have been doing since their inception. It is not new.

The sending of ARCs? Again, not new. Also not limited to traditional publishers. Indies do this as well. Indies also utilize social media, email, mailing lists, etc., to get the word out.

I’m not convinced traditional publishing wins the marketing war in any way except for getting books into bookstores and that is no longer nearly as important as it used to. Do you agree?

There is more and I’ll let you read it. The one thing the OP brings up that I will admit I have been thinking about again is diversifying my catalog beyond Amazon. For a long time, I had my books in every major online outlet. I followed the adage of not putting all my “eggs” in one basket. It made sense to make my work available on all platforms.

Then came the day when I realized I was actually losing money doing so. I wasn’t bringing in enough from the other sites to justify the time needed to put together different upload files, the time necessary to upload the files and build the product page on the different sites, the time necessary to check to make sure the other sites had the correct information on their sites, to check the sales pages, make sure I got paid on time, etc. Then Amazon started Kindle Unlimited and the monies for “borrows” went up dramatically.

There was also a change in technology. More and more people were reading their e-books on tablets and smartphones. That meant they were not tied to a single store like they were with dedicated e-book readers. Folks who had been buying solely from BN could not buy their books through Amazon and read them using the Kindle app. That was another thing that saw my sales on Amazon increasing. No longer was I getting folks asking when my books were going to come out on BN?

Now, however, more and more indies are taking part in the KU program. That is great in some ways but when you look at the bottom line, there is an impact. Just as there was after about a year of the old Kindle Lending Library. The monies being brought in are decreasing. I know this isn’t what is happening for some indies but a number of others I have spoken with are experiencing the same thing. So it is time to sit down and determine whether to remain solely with Amazon or to give up the monies coming in from Kindle Unlimited and expand my marketplace once again.

Any way, read the OP and let me know what you think. The one thing I agree with completely is the best way for indies to not only survive but to flourish is to share ideas and information. That is what we try to do here at MGC and each of you are a big part of that.

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How fast is slow?

…And other indie myths.

When talking to indies, one of the first pieces of advice you’ll hear is to have a lot of volume, putting out X stories per year. (I’ve heard anywhere from 4 to 12 on this one.) While this is good advice, it’s neither mandatory nor the only way to succeed, and “You have to write fast to succeed as indie” is fast on its way to becoming a myth masquerading as a bedrock belief in the indie universe.

Let’s break down the reasons why.

First, the indie market (in e-book) is very young. It’s still shaking out of the initial gold rush mentality and into a mature market, and isn’t there yet. (Despite being online, it doesn’t move at internet news cycle speed.) When the bad old days of trad-only were, ah, ten years ago? This is still a brand-new market. Therefore, the people who’ve come in indie-only are, at most, only on their tenth year of this. (Most haven’t been doing it for that long, either.)

Having a lot of books out there not only has more ways for readers to find you, it also lets them binge-read once they do find you – which creates fans, and plenty of royalties. However, ten years (or less) isn’t that long a time for writing a lot of books, so the indie-only authors who naturally write very quickly, and the ones who had a lot of backlog ready to put up, were able to get ahead of the trad authors whose houses didn’t upload ebooks / didn’t have rights back yet, and the newer indies who write more slowly.

However, let me show you two examples of people who don’t have to write quickly, both midlist. First, our own lovely Sarah Hoyt. Sarah has put years of effort into writing a blog, and built an audience there, as well as building fans between her mystery books, her scifi, and her fantasy. She only has one indie book out, while all the rest are trad… and when she didn’t get a book out for two years (three since the last one in that series), she still had fairly good sales, as many of her fans were happy to read anything she’d put out. (Others may be mystery-only or fantasy-only.) However, when she gets the next shifters book out, despite it being three? four? years since the last one, I guarantee you she won’t be starting from scratch on building a fanbase or selling the series.

Second, my darling husband, Peter Grant. Despite his body’s best attempts to sneak out of this marriage by hiding six feet under the soil, I’m not letting him go (and he certainly doesn’t want to go!) However, medical misadventures have seriously slowed his production schedule from the hoped-for four a year to two a year, and then only one. He’s better now (yay!) and writing again (yay!), but despite all the dire warnings of “you must do mass volume to make it as an indie…” we actually didn’t. Now, the sales do drop significantly when it’s been almost two years between books in a series (Feb 2014 to Dec 2015), but you’re not restarting from scratch. If you keep in contact with your fans, they’re excited to get the new book in the series when you help them find out it’s available.

(Caveat: if you define “making it” as “making a living”, well, yeah. Peter did not make enough off releasing one book in a brand new genre to pay the bills for all of 2016, until the December launch of Stoke the Flames Higher. I got a day job last year, and it’s both awesome and helping offset medical bills and mortgage. This is the freelance life: money does not come in steadily, and if the reserve drops too low, it’s time to supplement the income with a job until the reserve is built back up, and you want to leave. Personally, I like this job; I’ll be staying well after the reserve is rebuilt.)

When you think about it, it makes sense: back when trad pub limited us to one book a year per author, there were still plenty of people who became fans of Terry Prachett, Mercedes Lackey, Patricia Briggs and David Weber. They all started publishing well before the ebook revolution, and they still have plenty of fans even at a slow release rate today. (Heck, there are new Heinlein, Anne McCaffery, and Prachett fans being made all the time, even though those authors are no longer with us. All it takes is a body of work and visibility, or word of mouth, same as with the living.)

So if you’re a slow writer, don’t despair. Just keep writing! And if you’re a fast writer, don’t feel you have to kill yourself to keep up a schedule if your life (or health) falls apart. Just keep writing, as you can! It does help to have a place where your fans can gather and converse, so they remember they liked you and so you have an easy way to notify them that your newest book is out when it gets there. It may take a lot longer, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen. (Quick math – if the average time for word of mouth to spread noticeably for an author is about three years, how many books do you have that have been out long enough to start to get word of mouth recommendations?)

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Filed under FYNBOSSPRESS, MARKETING, WRITING: PUBLISHING

Food for thought

Instead of an article dealing with a single theme, what I’d like to do today is link to several articles that I’ve bookmarked in recent months, all of which affect us as writers to a greater or lesser degree.  I invite you to read them in full for yourselves, to assess how the issues they discuss may affect you, your family, and your writing career.

Let’s start with an important issue for writers’ health:  our eyes.  The New York Times published an article titled ‘Computer Vision Syndrome Affects Millions‘.  It’s certainly a very important subject for writers, who use computers more than most.

Studies have indicated 70 percent to 90 percent of people who use computers extensively, whether for work or play, have one or more symptoms of computer vision syndrome. The effects of prolonged computer use are not just vision-related. Complaints include neurological symptoms like chronic headaches and musculoskeletal problems like neck and back pain.

The report’s authors … cited four studies demonstrating that use of a computer for even three hours a day is likely to result in eye symptoms, low back pain, tension headache and psychosocial stress.

Still, the most common computer-related complaint involves the eyes, which can develop blurred or double vision as well as burning, itching, dryness and redness, all of which can interfere with work performance.

I regularly experience this problem.  When I’m working flat-out to complete a writing project, I may spend twelve hours or more every day in front of my computer.  Dry, itching, irritated eyes are the inevitable result.  To stave off more serious problems, I use an eye ointment when I sleep, plus moisturizing eye drops at intervals during the day.  If redness or scratchiness results, I add allergy eye drops to the mix.

Next, a couple of useful articles on Amazon algorithms.  Self-Publishing Review put out an article titled ‘Mythbusting The Amazon Algorithm – Reviews and Ranking For Authors‘.

MYTH 1 – Nobody knows how the Amazon Algorithm Works

TRUTH – Yes they do.

The Amazon Algorithm is an A9 algorithm, a pretty run-of-the-mill product search engine with a personalization built in. A9 is a company in Palo Alto that creates product algorithms, code that tells Amazon’s website how to sort and load product lists for each customer’s experience. Anyone who wants to read about how this algorithm works has to do nothing more than search for information online and read the manuals, forums, science articles, and a myriad of other documents that tell you EXACTLY how it works. You can even see samples of the code that makes it work if you look!

. . .

MYTH 3 – You can figure out keywords that people will use to find you by typing into the search bar and seeing what is autosuggested.

TRUTH – The search bar is personalized to YOU and YOU ALONE.

The article contains many other very useful and insightful comments about how Amazon searches work.  It’s important information for those of us who rely on such searches to help potential readers find our books.

Startup Brothers adds to the mix with an article titled ‘How to Rank Your Products on Amazon – The Ultimate Guide‘.  I’m not sure how ‘ultimate’ it is, but it contains some very interesting information.  Here’s an excerpt.

These 3 rules are critically important to making the most of this guide, so make sure you read them twice:

  • Amazon’s top goal in everything they do is always maximize Revenue Per Customer (RPC)
  • Amazon tracks every action that a customer takes on Amazon, right down to where their mouse hovers on the page
  • The A9 algorithm exists to connect the data tracked in #2 to the goal stated in #1

From A9’s website and from the information that Amazon makes available to us through their Seller Central (login required), we can group Amazon’s ranking factors into three equally important categories:

Conversion Rate – These are factors that Amazon has found have a statistically relevant effect on conversion rates. Examples of conversion rate factors include customer reviews, quality of images and pricing.

Relevancy – Relevancy factors tell A9 when to consider your product page for a given search term. Relevancy factors include your title and product description.

Customer Satisfaction & Retention – How do you make the most money from a single customer? Make them so happy that they keep coming back. Amazon knows that the secret to max RPC lies in customer retention. It’s a lot harder to get someone to spend $100 once than $10 ten times. Customer Retention factors include seller feedback and Order Defect Rate.

. . .

What you’ll find below are 25 Amazon ranking factors that either Amazon themselves or independent marketers have confirmed the A9 algorithm to use.

I’m taking a good, hard look at those 25 factors, and considering how to use them in marketing my books.  There’s a lot of food for thought there.

Bloomberg may be stating the obvious in an article titled ‘It’s a Writer’s Market: Digital platforms have emerged to serve midlist authors‘, but remember, many of those reading it won’t have our exposure to the market.  It reminds us that niche organizations are emerging to offer trad-pub alternatives to self-publishing authors.

A new generation of online editorial services and self-publishing platforms … offer skills and services that used to be available only through traditional publishing, plus favorable royalty splits. They also allow authors to retain the copyright to their work. The array of offerings is spurring some writers to leave their publishing houses—particularly midlist authors whose books receive scant marketing support. Some are also using the new services to put out e-book versions of their out-of-print titles.

The always interesting Simon Owens surveys technology, media and marketing issues.  I’ve used two of his articles in previous blog posts, here and at Bayou Renaissance Man.  I recommend them to your attention.  The first, ‘Book publishers are incentivizing midlist authors to abandon them for Amazon‘, is a searing indictment of how mainstream publishers are effectively cutting themselves off from the next generation of writers.

… over the past few decades, what was once a diverse publishing field has consistently coalesced, through acquisitions and mergers, into an industry with only four major publishers. What’s more, these major publishers are owned by even larger, multi-billion dollar media conglomerates.

So when you’re a company that’s dealing with revenues in the billions (with a B), suddenly a product that can only sell a few thousand units and is ultimately “unscalable,” isn’t worthy of investment. So instead they invest in products that have the potential to not only sell millions of units, but also spawn spin-off merchandise and movie deals.

Amazon, with its ecommerce system and now its Kindle publishing platform, has figured out how to scale midlist authors, and is therefore willing to gobble up those writers the big publishers turn away, offering them a bigger cut of their sales in the process.

The second article, ‘Jeff Bezos is busy building moats‘, examines how Amazon is making sure no competitor can horn in on the territory it’s carved out for itself.

By encroaching into the spaces of other industries, Bezos keeps those other industries from finding cracks in the walk with which to encroach on his main cash cows. And once he has firm moats around his main profit castles, he can start increasing the price on those castles, capitalizing on competitor-free profit margins. The more power he holds over the ebook industry, for instance, the more authors he can direct away from traditional New York publishers and into Amazon’s internal publishing platform, where Amazon takes between a 30 and 70 percent commission on all sales.

Seen this way, Bezos is more concerned with future competitors who are nipping at the edge of his margins than traditional retail companies trying to move into his space. He’s cornered the e-retail market, now he’s simply scorching the earth around it.

Simon Owens brings a very valuable business perspective to our outlook as writers and publishers.  I’ve subscribed to his newsletter, and I highly recommend it to you too.

Next, I’ve said before that the subscription model of reading books, exemplified by Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, is likely to become dominant, just as it has (and is continuing to do) in the music and video markets.  It’s not limited to entertainment, either.  It’s now penetrating other sectors of the economy.  To take just one example, the Guardian asks, ‘Is the mass sharing of driverless cars about to reshape our suburbs?‘  It’s written in the context of city rather than rural driving, but its points affect far more than just transport.

“Look at something like car parking,” Bondam told me. “It’s so old fashioned in my eyes. The private ownership of a car – that will end in the next 10 to 15 years. I think it’s going to be a combination of shared cars, of city cars, of public transport, bicycles, electric bicycles, of freight distribution by electric cargo bikes.”

This sounded like a rapid timeframe, I told him. Bondam was adamant: “I’m totally convinced about that. Why on earth would you make a big investment that you just leave outside 95% of the time and don’t use?”

Think of this in the context of reading.  More and more of our customers are asking themselves, “Why should I pay the full retail price for an item that’s going to sit on my shelves, or as a file on my electronic device, and never – or seldom – be read again?  Why not just ‘rent’ it for as long as I need it, then hand it back?”  It makes more and more economic sense for readers;  so we, as writers, are going to have to adjust our business model to take that into account.  We’ll make less on each ‘sale’ (or borrow, or rental, or whatever you want to call it), but at least we’ll make something.  This is an unavoidable wave that’s only just begun to affect our industry.  We need to be thinking very seriously about its impact on our income stream.  It’ll be considerable.

Finally, we need to accept that many of our potential readers are going to have a lot less disposable income to play with, as the ‘new economy’ takes hold and uproots long-established patterns of work and compensation.  MarketWatch warns bluntly:  ‘Workers will simply try to survive, rather than prosper, as tech takes over the economy‘.

For most people, a secure, well-paid job is the difference between a reasonable life and penury. Today, changes in the structure of the work force driven by globalization and technology make this objective increasingly elusive.

. . .

U.S. median earnings have not increased since 1975 in real terms. Average real Japanese and German household incomes have been stagnant for more than a decade. U.K. factory incomes haven’t risen since the late-1970s, after adjusting for inflation.

. . .

While there are well-paid jobs for a small portion of the workforce with the required skills, the vast majority of new employment is in the low-paid service sector, such as retail, security and health care. Youth unemployment remains high.

A large part of the population are now members of the “precariat,” a shortened version of the term “precarious proletariat” used in Japan to describe workers without job security who now make up over 30% of the country’s workforce as companies cut labor costs.

Changes in the workforce affect the nature of society. In the brave new world, a small elite, say, 5%, enjoy the significant wealth and control of much of its resources. They employ another stratum of people, say, 20%, to administer their affairs as well as control the precariat, 75% of the population.

Connections, beauty and brains will permit upward mobility, though movement between the groups may become more difficult. In the new economy, the precariat survives rather than prospers in an essentially subsistence existence.

We have to understand that a large – perhaps a very large – proportion of our readers are going to fall into the ‘precariat’, as the article puts it.  Their discretionary income to spend on luxuries such as entertainment is going to be severely circumscribed.  That’s precisely why the ‘sharing’ economic model in general, and the subscription model of entertainment for music, videos and books in particular, are becoming so widespread.  They’re all the ‘precariat’ can afford.  It’s even happening in luxury goods – for example, Cadillac has just announced a (rather expensive) car sharing scheme.  They haven’t done so out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they understand that their traditional ‘buyers’ won’t be able to afford to buy their vehicles in the same numbers as before.  They’re adapting to the changing market.

Whether we like it or not, as writers we’d better work hard to understand the wider economy, note what’s going on there, and adjust our income and expenditure plans accordingly.  It’s going to be more difficult to make a living in our field in future.  Unless we can confidently predict sales in the thousands every month, we’ll probably need to hold on to our day jobs.

Well, there you are.  That’s a selection of articles that I’ve found thought-provoking in terms of my writing career and activities over the past few months.  I hope they’re just as interesting and useful for you, too.

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Filed under MARKETING, PETER GRANT, PROMOTION, WRITING: PUBLISHING

News Roundup

First, the good news: Peter has started preliminary work on the second Western. Amusingly enough, there’s a category of videos on Youtube that are just people driving from one location to another. And while the roads have changed a lot in 150+ years, the general scenery hasn’t that much – and they still seek the lowest pass, and the easiest climb and descent over the mountains. Nor do the river crossings really stray that far from where they first went in. (I learned this when I found Peter following one with both a modern road map and a very old map of original routes.)

Second, the cautionary tale: When you choose to participate in a multi-author box set, you are, in essence, choosing a publisher. You’re going to hand some of your IP over to a person or group of people, and they will receive the money from royalties and promise to disburse it wisely and in accordance with the written contract. That’s what publishers do. So don’t gleefully leap into “awesome marketing opportunity!” without doing some careful research on the prior history of your proposed publisher. Have they done this before? Did it go well on the marketing and release end? Did it go well on the royalties disbursement and return of rights / end of box set end? Talk to authors who’ve worked with them before.

The romance / erotica markets are seeing the rise of con artists who talk sweetly about “awesome indie author box sets!” … and then never pay the money. When pressed and threatened with lawsuits as the missing royalties climb into five figures, and as the retailers yank the bundles, the “coordinator / bundler” suddenly puts up posts about being deathly ill, so sorry, have sympathy… and then when the heat drops, immediately starts seeking new marks without paying the old.

What happens in erotica hits romance six months later. What happens in romance usually hits SF/F about a year later. But cons are cons, and depending on how hot they make their original pool of marks, we may be seeing them seeking new innocents to fleece sooner than that. So walk wary when people make offers that sound buddy-buddy “just for you”, or “we’re all in this together” or “I’ll handle everything, don’t you worry.” Research as carefully as if a small press suddenly came sniffing ’round your inbox, and do your due diligence.

To Quote Rosalind James:

Here are some other sketchy things I’ve heard are happening, just as an FYI, author-beware. If you’re being asked to do any of these things, you should seriously consider getting out. Remember: it’s your account you are risking.

1) You’re asked to put a KU book into a preorder for a wide boxed set, even with the idea that once it’s published, the bundle won’t be in KU. This is NOT OK, on preorder or after release, and Amazon has bots checking for exclusive content on other sites. If somebody talks to Amazon about it, YOUR account could be in trouble.

2) You’re required to have a bunch of friends/acquaintances buy or borrow/read the 99-cent bundle to push up the ranks (not just to share in your newsletter, on social media, etc., which any author would expect to be asked to do as part of their participation).

3) If there’s no transparent/explicit explanation of how all your buy-in money will be spent. The organizer should be sharing exact costs and where the money’s gone. When I did the only 2 boxed sets I’ve organized (I don’t normally participate in them), my assistant put together a spreadsheet listing every promo site, cover/graphics designer payment, etc., when the promo would run, when it had been booked, and how much it cost.

4) If there’s any resistance/anger to your request for that kind of transparent accounting, [ETA] or unprofessional online behavior in general (esp. somebody who complains about other authors, gets involved in public feuds, etc. This kind of behavior is sadly not unknown in the indie world, esp. in group stuff, but you really don’t want to get involved with people who engage in it–next time, it might be you in the cross-hairs, or you may be asked to join in to gang up on somebody else. In any case–unprofessional behavior in one aspect of work life probably ought to make you leery.)

5) If there isn’t a detailed contract saying what your obligations are and what you’ll get in return (when/how payouts will be made). If you’re asked to do anything beyond that contract (see above).

$500 buy-in for a boxed set is a LOT. Assuming there are 10 authors, that’s obviously $5,000. You’d really want to ask exactly where that money is going, and to be assured that you’ll be shown documentation. Also: be aware that there are SOME organizers out there using a type of click-farm or reciprocal borrows/buys to make the sets hit lists. Even if they do hit the list or whatever, is that really going to result in more borrows or buys for individual-you-set-participant? If people aren’t actually reading your book, the answer is going to be “no,” beyond whatever cachet the letters get you.

Really–at this kind of buy-in–dig deep. I’m not saying it can’t be legit. I’m saying–ask the questions. Hitting a rank, any rank, doesn’t pay any bills. Actual purchases or borrows of YOUR books pays the bills.

Others may have things to add to this list. I’m certainly not the most knowledgeable about this–those are just the items that have come to my attention sitting on the periphery.

Third: Yes, some Createspace books did go unavailable for sale for about 2 hours yesterday on Amazon, due to a glitch. They should have fixed everybody’s by now, but if you have print versions available through Createspace, check your Amazon page to make sure everything’s all right. It’s not a bad idea to eyeball your older books every now and then anyway, just to make sure everything looks good, and contemplate after all this time if the blurb could be freshened up, or the cover needs tweaking look like the current covers in your subgenre, or if you think it’s in the keywords and categories where it needs to be. (This is not unlike authors strolling through a bookstore to make sure their books are really on shelves / the coop endcap really was set up, whether they’re face-out or spine out. Just because it’s online doesn’t mean we shouldn’t occasionally look at it to make sure that it looks good, sounds awesome, and is properly presented and available.)

Fourth: Print-only deals are coming back. Yes, the famed “keep your ebook & subsidiary rights” deals that we haven’t seen since Hugh Howey? Joe Konrath just signed a print-only deal with Kensington for some of his books, and Annie Bellet got a print-only deal with Simon & Schuster’s Saga imprint for her 20-sided sorceress series. It’ll be interesting to see how it works out on the second round.

Fifth: This is my last post for the year, so have a wonderful Christmas, and may your next year be far better than the last! What plans do you have for 2017?

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Maxwell 5 is almost here!

The fifth Maxwell series, Stoke the Flames Higher, by Peter Grant, will be released this week!

Edited Monday to Add: On sale now! Get it here: http://amzn.to/2g1hywz

Stoke the Flames Higher

As such, I thought I’d give you a look into the blurb writing process. Because blurb writing is akin to poetry; it has its own rules (tag line, kicker, no passive voice), and length constraints. And what is the blog for, if not to discuss how the sausage is made?

From Peter, kicking it off because I was staring at a blank page and going “uhhhhh”:

Steve Maxwell must take a diplomatic mission to Devakai aboard his unarmed communications frigate. They’re trying to figure out how to deal with the Kotai, a fundamentalist religious sect that threatens stability on that planet, and on Athi, and on other planets as well… but they’re arriving just in time to get caught up in a coup d’etat.

Can the mission escape alive? Can Steve get them out of the system in the face of missile-armed enemies? And can he reach Athi in time to warn them what’s coming? Thousands of fanatical terrorists are headed their way, determined to triumph or die in the name of their God… and Steve’s right in their line of fire.

My reply:
Too many new terms for a reader: you want at most three in a blurb. Also, too many questions. But it got my brain in gear, and after reviewing the top 50 books in the same mil sci fi category as this one’s going into (to get into the mindset of “what are customers looking at and liking?” I sent a try.

Two worlds, torn apart by a common fanaticism – and the Lancastrian forces are caught in the middle!

Major Brooks Shelby has been given an impossible mission: to be a peacekeeper on a world where fanatical guerillas want no peace. His best friend Lieutenant-Commander Maxwell, has his own problems: finding the source of their fighters and funding on another planet, while hosting a diplomat and fending off her pet journalist.

The marines are being worn down with smuggled high explosives and suicidal martyrs, while an infiltrated bureaucracy does its best to block any progress on the other end. Brooks and Steve are determined to find a way to take the fight to the fanatics – but the enemy has its own plans, already in motion, to cleanse the unbelievers from the soils of both planets…

Peter’s reply: We’ve got the basic form hammered out, now to work on minor changes. Or not so minor changes, because I write long. (Y’all may have noticed, in these blog posts.) And I write in passive voice, where active verbs are far better. So “Shelby has been given” changes to “Shelby has”. Meanwhile, Peter wants to emphasize the attractive annoyance of the journalist.

Two worlds, torn apart by the same fanatics – and Lancastrian Commonwealth forces are caught in the middle!

Major Brooks Shelby has an impossible mission: to be a peacekeeper on a planet where fanatical terrorists aren’t interested in peace. His best friend, Lieutenant-Commander Maxwell, has his own problems. He must transport a diplomatic mission to find the source of the fighters and their funding on a second planet, whilst fending off an attractive, persistent, nosy journalist.

The Marines are being worn down with smuggled high explosives and suicidal martyrs on one planet, while an infiltrated bureaucracy does its best to block any progress on the other. Brooks and Steve are determined to find a way to take the fight to the fanatics – but the enemy has his own plans, already in motion, to cleanse the unbelievers from both worlds…

A couple passes later: note that we’re not only hammering out verb forms, but also trying to remove any word that’s too similar in successive sentences. And, I may have an ellipses addiction. Beyond that, even if we increase the journalist (and the more words you spend on a person, remember, the more the reader expects them to be a major character), if you’re piling up adjectives, it’s time to move to a phrase instead.

Two worlds, torn apart by a common fanaticism – with Lancastrian forces caught in the middle!

Major Brooks Shelby’s impossible mission: being a peacekeeper on a world where radical terrorists want no peace. Lieutenant-Commander Steve Maxwell’s sticky situation: finding the source of trained fighters and funding on another planet, while transporting a diplomatic mission and fending off a journalist determined to find some sensational dirt.

The marines are being worn down with smuggled high explosives and suicidal martyrs, while an infiltrated bureaucracy is doing its best to block any inquiries. Brooks and Steve are determined to find a way to take the fight to the enemy – but the faithful are already moving to cleanse the unbelievers from the soils of both planets!

You’d think we were almost done, but now that we have a long form we’re happy with, it’s time to break out the knives and go for the drastic editing challenge: 100 words or under. Because promotion often has a character limit, so the shorter, punchier, and more attention-grabbing you can get, the better. Also, the limitations of short form can drive you to make cuts to the long-form that really make it shine, even if you don’t end up using the shortest thing you can come up with.

So first effort on under 100 words:

Two planets, torn apart by the same fanatics – and Lancastrian forces are caught in the middle!

Major Brooks Shelby must keep the peace, on a world where radical terrorists want no peace. Lieutenant-Commander Steve Maxwell must trace the source of those terrorists’ fighters and funding, dealing with diplomats and fending off a very nosy journalist.

The marines are being worn down by smuggled explosives and suicidal martyrs, while traitors are doing their best to hide the truth. Brooks and Steve must find a way to stop the enemy… but the fanatics want nothing less than Armageddon!

And second effort, wherein you can see the same removal of duplicated words, remove of any conjugation of the verb “be”, and trying to go light on clichés. (Cliches, like hot sauce, are best used sparingly. If you’re covering your blurb in clichés to convey information, or slathering your food in hot sauce to make it edible, then the underlying item needs to be removed and replaced with something better. Here you go:

Two planets, torn apart by the same fanatics – and Lancastrian forces are caught in the middle!

Major Brooks Shelby must keep the peace, on a world where radical terrorists want submission or death. Lieutenant-Commander Steve Maxwell must trace the source of their offworld fighters and funding, deal with diplomats and fend off a nosy journalist.

The marines are up against smuggled explosives and suicidal martyrs, while an infiltrated bureaucracy stymies the diplomats. Brooks and Steve must find a way to stop their enemies at all costs, because the fanatics are about to unleash their own Armageddon!

How many passes do you end up doing on your own blurbs? Do you bounce them off another person, or do you just write and edit them yourself?

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Filed under FYNBOSSPRESS, MARKETING, PROMOTION, Uncategorized, WRITING: PUBLISHING