Top 4 Ways to Fuel the Growth of Independent Publishing

1. Buy a book

2. Read a book

3. Leave a review

4. Repeat

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A Publisher’s Weekly and ABNA Reviewer Responds to Disappointment

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Note: Yes, fellow blizzard friends and horrible, mean, dry, warm people elsewhere in the country, I am writing this from under about 30 inches of snow. So far the power and the heat have both stayed on, and the enforced solitude will be tons of fun right up until I have to get out the shovel.


A couple of days ago, I wrote about the cancellation of the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and how my experience in the contest was too great a disappointment for me to mourn its passing. I wrote about the unsatisfactory results of the quarterfinal round, where I received my review from Publisher’s Weekly, and accused the powers-that-be of sloppiness, inattention, and general negligence when skimming through Dark the Night Descending on their way to tossing it in the trash bin.

I stand by pretty much everything I’ve said about the contest, but I was fortunate enough to receive an unsolicited email from a long-time ABNA judge and regular PW reviewer, Thriller Guy, who had a couple of salient points about what happens on the receiving end of the process.

Here is part of the very long letter, which I am reproducing here mostly just to put it on the record in the interest of fairness. I do encourage you to read the whole thing:

I’m always reading a book for review. I’ve done reviews for every genre, though I’m now primarily reviewing Thrillers. So it wasn’t me who reviewed your book last year! I always forget about the ABNA until PW asks if I’ll do it again, I say yes and forget about it again until the stack of books rolls in a few months later and I realize I’ve got to read them and review them on top of my regularly scheduled reviews. All this is to point out that I’m not exactly a bored PW intern.

I’ve never been entirely clear on what the books I’m judging have gone through before they get to me, mostly because I’ve never asked. There’s probably an intern involved somewhere, though I can assure you that by the time it gets to me — the quarter-finals, I guess — the reviewers are “professionals” who are pretty much donating their time, even though, as you say, they toss a couple of hundred dollars at us.

Since I deal with writers who are, many of them, just starting out, I can assure you that if I had to read every submission in its entirety from the earliest stages of the contest I would go insane. You’d be amazed how many folks out there can’t follow the simplest directions for submitting their books, and, I’m sorry to say, how many really, really terrible books do make it onto desks to be evaluated before being moved along or rejected. I mean terrible in that some of them look like they’ve been “written” by little children who are trying to operate in a grown-up arena.

So I consider the people who are on the front line of this book assault to be saintly in their patience at even undertaking the task. Maybe they’re interns, I don’t know, but I doubt they’re bored. Frustrated, driven mad, overworked, and unappreciated is probably more like it.

In addition to simply reading, when I write the review, PW has me note every character name in the book, reference every major plot development, quote (if used in the review), every major geographical location shift, and back up any negative impressions about the writing with references to pages. Then my saintly editor checks every one of those references to make sure I haven’t screwed up, and then his editor checks his rewrites (at which point they may ask questions to clarify what I’ve written, which I answer) and then the review goes into the magazine.

So when I write a review for the ABNA books, I have done all that same work. I don’t know who’s only reading four chapters, but it must be the folks who read the books before I get them, because I read every word of every book and make notes before I write my review. 

I suppose there are others who do less, but there are always people who do less, though I think probably it makes little difference in the long run. It’s just not my ethic to not give every book the same due diligence, and I have a feeling I am the norm rather than the exception. 

I can assure you that no book reviewer opens a book, or turns on a Kindle, looking for a bad book or a way to say that a book is bad. Every time the hope is, “OK, maybe I’ve got a prizewinner, this is going to be great, grab me by the neck and pull me into the pages.” If it doesn’t happen, the reviewer does his job and tries to explain what went wrong. And open the next book on the pile.

I had a nice discussion about all this with Thriller Guy, who seemed genuinely passionate about what he does and how he does it. While it was heartening to hear that at least some ABNA competitors probably received a thoughtful review, we both came to the conclusion that I, and pretty much everyone on this thread, probably just succumbed to the luck of the draw.

Thriller Guy seemed to think that PW was probably unaware of the vitriol sparked by the disproportionate number of inaccurate and hasty write-ups, and offered to pass it on our comments to someone in the office who might be interested to hear it. Since the contest is now kaput, there’s little to be done about it. But it’ll be nice to know that we’re being heard in some small way, regardless. I’m glad to give at least one of the judges the same courtesy.

Hark, a Contest: Dark the Night Descending Book Reviews

Hey there, cats and kittens.  Since all is quiet on the mouse-hunting front, I thought I’d give Oliver the opportunity to create a different kind of mayhem by introducing a shiny new contest for all my lovely followers.

That’s right!  Remember when I said that superstar reviewers would get the chance to win something cool?  The time is ripe, so here’s the deal:

I need some book reviews, and you guys need some super awesome nerdy hats and scarves and stuffed animals.  So I propose a trade.  From now until January 15, every time you post a review of Dark the Night Descending (with words, not just stars) on Goodreads, Amazon, Facebook, or a personal blog, you get entered to win the custom-made crochet creation of your choice.  The more you cross-post, the more chances you have to win.

What exactly am I talking about?  Pretty much anything you can describe to me.  Want a cunning hat from a certain popular space cowboy TV series?  Done, as long as you don’t tell Fox.  A Tom Baker-style scarf from Doctor Who?  A Tardis hat?  A Harry Potter house colors scarf?  A cuddly owl, penguin, lobster, teddy bear, hedgehog, cat, giraffe, or whatever?  You got it, stuffed or in hat form.  Want something from a comic book?  I’ll do my best.  Prefer something on the fashion-forward side instead?  Pick a color and a style, and I can make anything you like for guys, gals, or kids out of quality material.

All you’ve gotta do is read those books you bought!  Or buy one to read, which would be awesome, too.  Sounds like a pretty sweet deal to me.

The details are below, but the biggest caveat is this: you have to read the book. If I feel like a review was just slapped up there to qualify for the contest and doesn’t adequately reflect a genuine opinion of the full text (positive or negative), I’m going to reserve the right to discount the review and not include the author in the drawing at all.

I want real reviews.  Plain and simple.  I’m just trying to give y’all some extra motivation to publish them.  If this starts to backfire on me, I’m going to cancel everything and you can suffer along without your cozy winter accessories.  No spamming.  No lying.  No nefarious behavior of any kind.  Okay?

So there you have it.  Take some time over the holidays to ignore your relatives and curl up with a good book (or at least with my book) and get rewarded with some awesome stuff.   Please do share this page with everyone you can get your hands on.  The more the merrier.  Let’s help each other out!

***

The fine print: Reviews that have already been posted for Dark the Night Descending are eligible for the contest and will be included.  If you post a review on a personal blog, comment below to make sure I see it.  Tweets or re-tweets of a review do not add additional entries to the pool.  Entrants must be willing to give me a valid mailing address and to communicate through email to decide on the prize.

Prizes will be mailed within three weeks of finalizing the design unless otherwise specified due to complexity.  International applicants are eligible.  Doctor Who items will be typical scarf length (6’) unless you want to contribute for extra materials.  Please be sure to tell me about any wool allergies!

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Do Facebook and Goodreads ads work for self-publishing authors?

Web ads. Ugh. Flashy, annoying pop-ups and distracting sidebars; exhortations for products you don’t really care about; “targeted” pitches for lard clarifiers and chimney collars and one weird trick that will extend your life indefinitely in exchange for your first-born child. We all kind of hate online advertising, and yet internet ad revenues have reached $11.6 billion in the first quarter of 2014, according to one report. Eleven billion dollars. Eleven. Billion. So I guess someone must be clicking on them, right?

With the launch of Dark the Night Descending, I wanted to see if maybe I could expand my audience beyond the current reach of my small (read: tiny) social media presence. I chose three different publicity methods: Facebook newsfeed ads, Goodread sidebar ads, and a Goodreads book giveway. I’m here to report on my results and answer that burning question: is it worth paying for advertisements? How much of that $11.6 billion dollars could I snag for myself?

Advertising on Facebook 

Over the past year or two, Facebook has gotten pretty rapacious when it comes to advertising. After all, that’s how they make their money. Their key demographic base may be wavering, but there are still a few hundred million eyeballs to capture.

The advertising interface is very simple and intuitive. Creating an ad is easy, and setting your target audience parameters only takes a few minutes.

fbadmanager

You choose a daily budget, which will determine how many times your ad is shown to Facebook users. Based on my targeting, five dollars a day will get between 8 and 16 clicks, while 20 bucks a day might get me up to 65. Whether I run the ad for four days at $5 or one day at $20 is just a matter of balancing the math to get the most possible exposure. I chose to run the ad at $10 per day between October 7 and October 10.

The results were mixed. From a statistics point of view, I did pretty well. I reached 5,392 users and garnered 47 clicks on the ad, which directed to the Amazon shopping page for Dark the Night. That’s a 1.33 percent click through rate. Salesforce says that the general CTR for the publishing industry on Facebook is .790 percent, so I’m well above average. People seemed interested in my offer, which is nice.

fbads

But let’s look a little closer, because CTR isn’t what really matters. You could have a million people click on your ad without making a single sale…and that’s exactly what happened. Based on my KDP and CreateSpace sales manager pages, I can tell that none of those 47 Facebook users bought one of my books. I spent $24.40 on those clicks and made no money back.

The Goodreads sidebar

Pretty much the same thing happened with Goodreads. Their basic ads run on the side of the page, like this:

goodreadsside

The Goodreads self-serve ad system is in beta testing, and it shows. I couldn’t create or edit an ad in Chrome or Firefox on my Mac at home because of browser issues, so managing the campaign was kind of frustrating. Still, the ad was easy to set up on my office machine (shh, don’t tell my boss).

I purchased $30 worth of credit for my ad. At first, I set a daily cap of $7, because I wanted it to run for a while, but the ad was barely shown to users. After increasing the daily cap to $15, I got some good traction. Between October 8 and October 13, the ad was shown to 20,809 people.

But I only got 9 clicks. Nine. That’s a CTR of .04 percent. No one bought a book, but on the bright side, it only cost me $4.50 total for the campaign.

goodreads1

Goodreads has a lower average CTR than some other outlets. They state that you can expect between .05 and .5 percent. They also try to tell you that CTR isn’t what matters when it comes to their ads. The real measure of effectiveness is how many people add your book to their “to read” lists.

I can’t say whether that’s true, because a) I’m running another small giveaway right now, which has led to many people adding my book through that venue, and b) even though Dark the Night Descending has about 450 users on its “to read” list, none of them have bought the book either.

Giving away free stuff

One of my major publicity initiatives was the Goodreads giveaway I ran a few weeks before the launch date. I got a whopping 765 entries for five free books, and 365 people added the book to their “to read” lists. I’m still expecting to make some sales from that over the next few weeks or months as people work through their reading lists, but you never know. I’m also expecting at least one or two of the five winners to write me a review, which might help to boost interest down the line.

I spent about $80 on buying the paperbacks and shipping them to the winners (some of whom were international). Getting physical books into the hands of readers is a much more powerful connection than any ad could ever be, so I consider that more of a long-term investment. I would say this was the most effective strategy for increasing exposure and piquing the interest of people who are actively seeking new books to read.

The bottom line

If you are working with a very small budget, paid internet advertisements on social networking sites (even reader-specific ones like Goodreads) are not worth the money. You’d probably be better off spending your cash on physical promotional items or book copies, or even a ticket to a reader/writer convention, and hopefully produce some reviews or some positive word-of-mouth.

This study has plenty of limitations, of course. It was a relatively small experiment, and it certainly doesn’t include all possible outlets where readers congregate to look for new authors. There are tons and tons of free ways to promote your novel, and I would advise self-publishers with limited funding to seek out those avenues first.

Hopefully, the money I’ve lost on this effort will provide some interesting data for other self-publishers. As you can probably tell, sales have been a little light for Dark the Night’s first week on the market, but for me, self-publishing is all about building momentum. That doesn’t happen overnight. I’m just going to invest a little more wisely in the future as I wait, work, and WriMo my way into finishing the series this November.

Has internet advertising worked for you?  Share your stories in the comments.

On the perils of the disappointing book review

Santo_Domingo_y_los_albigenses-detalleWarning: This post was manufactured in a facility that also processes self-pity. May contain traces of nuts and stronger swear words.

Bad reviews are inevitable. As an author, you have to be thick-skinned enough to take criticism, even when it’s unconstructive. As a reader, you have the right to get what you pay for, and the right to complain about it when you don’t. We all know this when we buy or sell a book. It’s part of the social contract of readership, and that’s totally cool. We learn from our unpleasant experiences and move on from them a richer, wiser person. Right?

Well…no. Let’s be honest. Getting a bad review sucks. It stings and burns and makes you squirm in your seat like an itch you just can’t scratch, because in most cases, you can’t reach out to that reader and explain to them in painful detail what exactly you were trying to accomplish, what exactly they got wrong, and how exactly they are supposed to think about your flawless masterpiece.

It’s tough. For example, quarterfinalists in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) got their Publisher’s Weekly reviews a few days ago, and I’ve never seen a group of authors try so very, very hard to keep their chins up in the face of what a disaster it was. While people are more likely to complain about bad reviews than post the good ones, I was rather shocked and a bit appalled at the quality of reviews – not the quality of the novels – that resulted from this particular scheme.

I won’t post my review in its entirety, since Dark the Night Descending isn’t published yet and the review contains spoilers, but I was confused and disappointed to find a near-total lack of professionalism from the person who read my book. The reviewer mixed up two major characters, which caused them to harp on the fact that my plot made no sense. They pointed out inconsistencies and open-ended questions, but they would have found out the answers had they read the entire book instead of just the first four chapters. And while they seemed to enjoy the tone and the quality of writing, they panned the overall work because of their own inattention and mistakes.

When I first read this block of text, I was absolutely furious. How could they make such elemental errors? Why did my participation in the contest have to suffer for it? Who were these people who dared to call themselves professional reviewers when they couldn’t even give their full attention to the task at hand?

I ranted on Twitter. I posted a snarky message on my Facebook page. I was ready to hunt down email addresses and write strongly-worded letters and generally storm about because Amazon should know that the people Publisher’s Weekly hired were not up to the task. I’ve heard from forum members that the reviews were laypeople offered a few hundred bucks to read lots of books in five weeks, which may or may not be true, but it would certainly explain a lot.

But…then I started reading the bad reviews that other people had posted. They had the same complaints about a lack of reading comprehension. The same level of outrage from jilted authors. The same dismay and frustration and anger when a book got totally destroyed by a piqued reader. The resigned acceptance of fate’s fickle finger from long-time participants in a contest I was just entering for the first time.

I calmed down a bit when I realized I wasn’t alone. I may have gotten shafted, but it wasn’t personal. It was just how this particular system worked. The system was terrible, and it wasn’t really fair, but I had signed an open-ended contract of readership with ABNA, and in the end, I had to take what my reader was going to dish out.

So I read my review again. And it wasn’t so bad, really. “Inventive and engaging” are good words. “Shows great promise” are also good words. I hope those sentiments are just as true as the negative ones. I will keep telling myself that they are. Of course it means I won’t be moving on to the semifinals, but there was an extremely slim chance of doing so in any case, and I didn’t expect it. I got what I came for, which was a quote with a Publisher’s Weekly tag attached to it that might help me sell some copies.

After achieving nirvana, with the help of some pizza and a long heart-to-heart conversation with my cat (he counseled patience, humility, and some of his favorite chicken treats), I came to the real question. Should I write about my sour experiences in a post like this, which has the potential to be misinterpreted, or should I delete all those zingers I had plastered across my social media accounts in the heat of the moment? Will people just think I’m a sore loser, or will they see my words as intended: a way to work through negative feelings while trying to be objective and reasonable?

Because for an author, that’s where the peril lies. It’s very hard to avoid being “the problem person” when everything you say or do online is squirreled away by Google to be trotted out every time someone types in your name. You don’t want to be that guy who oozes prickly negativity. You have to handle yourself with composure, grace, fortitude, politeness, and reserve. But does that mean not complaining about anything?  Ever?

I don’t think it does. “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all” is a great rule of thumb for the internet, especially when there is so much vitriol going around in the virtual world. Finding the balance between flagging what you perceive as an injustice and simply being a Negative Nelly is hard to do.

No one should ever attack a reader for not liking something they’ve read. If the content doesn’t tickle your fancy or if the style rubs you the wrong way, you have every right, as a reader, to tell me. Please do. But if you don’t bother to read correctly?

Then I’m sorry. I will try to be polite, but you have violated the contract of readership, and I think you kind of lose your right to express an authoritative opinion. It takes a lot of effort to write a book, and it isn’t respectful to the author to half-ass a glance at a few chapters and call yourself a professional reviewer using the name of a respectable company to back you up.

ABNA bills itself as one of the most highly sought-after prizes for self-published authors, and despite what you think about Amazon’s business practices, the name carries a hell of a lot of weight with customers. I think Amazon has seriously slighted its authors by structuring the contest in a way that doesn’t allow for a full consideration of manuscripts from seasoned, accomplished reviewers, and marred the integrity of the competition.

Should I be surprised? Maybe not, considering Amazon’s other recent negative press in the publishing world. I’m a trusting soul, even when it comes to megacorporations, and perhaps that’s a personal problem. But now I know that something I respected will not respect me, and I will behave accordingly.

And so I say fie and humbug to poor reviewers. A pox upon contests I don’t end up winning. Fiddlesticks to short attention spans, and a hearty cheer for those authors who have endured disappointment and lived to try again another day. Let’s all have a pizza and get back to work.

There. I feel better. How about you?

Don’t use conjunctions and you’ll never write a best seller

I have no real idea what this chart is trying to say, but it looks cool and it was the only one with color.

I have no real idea what this chart is trying to say, but it looks cool and it was the only one with color.

Fans of the run-on sentence, rejoice!  There is some serious academic validation coming your way.  Scientists from Long Island’s very own Stony Brook University have found that the more you use connective words like but, when, and since, the more likely you are to produce a blockbuster best-seller.  Sound counterintuitive?  Yeah, I kinda thought so, too.  But with an algorithm that can identify big hits 84% of the time based on textual analysis, it’s hard to argue with the facts.

The data comes from a new study (PDF) published by the Association of Computational Linguistics that looked at more than 800 books across all genres by big-name established authors and little guys no one has ever heard of.  The research team didn’t just look at relatively subjective criteria of literary quality like character development.  Instead, they looked at word frequency and sentence structure to develop a scale that can predict what is going to be a best seller and what is going to fill up the 60% off bargain bin at Walmart.  It’s a skill that most agents and publishers would kill for.

It’s interesting to note that in addition to looking at Pulitzer and Nobel winners, to determine the literary successes, they also used Amazon’s sales rankings to pick out some unpopular books by their low numbers.  No word on how many self-published books garnered that dubious honor.

The results are pretty cool.  The math was able to accurately predict success even for something as weirdly arbitrary as poetry, flagging the blockbusters 74% of the time.    When fed into the algorithm, the computer accurately flagged Robinson Crusoe and A Tale of Two Cities as books likely to see market success. Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol bucked the trend a bit.  The algorithm gave it a thumbs down (as have most critics), but it has seen wild commercial popularity.

chart2The researchers also developed a list of words that were frequently used in each type of book.  Not surprisingly, poorly received books use a lot of basic descriptive nouns: boat, door, beach, body, face.  They also used a lot of extreme words: never, always, absolutely, perfectly.  Best-sellers seem to have more flowing prose filled with conjunctions and prepositions: and, which, though, whom, since, whenever, into, within, after.  They use “thinking verbs” like remember and recognize instead of emotional action verbs like want, went, and took.

There are a few things to note about the work, though.  Firstly, the study lumped together non-fiction books and fiction books into the same algorithm.  On once hand, the team found that “highly successful books tend to bear closer resemblance to informative articles,” a prediction that really only holds true for non-fiction.  On the other, they found an inverse relationship between “readability” and commercial success.  James Joyce fans have got the right idea about what makes an enduringly popular book, apparently.

For authors, the real life lessons here are relatively slim pickings.  Unless the researchers develop some plug-and-play software that lets you put in your first draft and come out with a million bucks or a big red REJECTED stamp, you’re just going to have to keep doing what you’ve always been doing: hoping that you don’t suck.  It’s just fascinating to see what a little natural language processing and some hardcore analytics can come up with.

Shelf Unbound Writing Competition Winners!

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You’ve waited patiently for months to hear which books topped the list of the second annual Shelf Unbound Best Indie Book Competition.  Wait no longer, people of Internetlandia!  The answer is before you in the brand new December/January edition.

Along with the grand prize winner, finalists, and a slew of notable books organized by category, you’ll find a short essay by me about the self-publishing industry and an excerpt from The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun for your perusal and delight.

All of the winners looks pretty darn fantastic, and I’m looking forward to checking them out.  I suggest you do the same, because you can never have enough good indie books taking up space in the attic and stuffed into the recesses of your Kindle.