Pre-Order Dark the Chains of Treason for Kindle!

Hello there, guys, gals, and other individuals!  I may have been very quiet so far this summer, but it’s only because I’ve been working hard.  No, really.  I have proof.

preorder

Yes, that’s right.  You can now pre-order a Kindle copy of Dark the Chains of Treason before it becomes generally available on August 29.  Paperbacks will be available for sale on the release date, as well.

So why should you pre-order?  First of all, it’s literally only one click, so that’s easy.  Second of all, it’ll make sure you don’t forget.   You’ll simply wake up on the 29th with the book in hand, feeling all magical and powerful.

And third of all, it’ll give me and my Amazon book ranking lots of warm, fuzzy feelings without actually costing you anything extra.  If those aren’t good enough reasons, then I don’t know what are.

This is, of course, the third book in the Paderborn Chronicles, and so you may not be feeling particularly excited or interested if you haven’t read the first two yet.

But you’re in luck!  Dark the Night Descending and Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow are both free through the Kindle Unlimited program, and just 99 cents and $2.99 respectively to purchase if you’re not a member.

Paperback copies are also available for $12.99, which is pretty darn economical for all the heart-stopping action and explosive thrills of following a hopelessly unlucky character who has absolutely no idea what the hell he’s doing at any point in time.

I don’t know about you, but for me, it’s pretty much just like looking in the mirror.

If you’re still on the fence, you might want to stay tuned for the next week or two so you can enter my next Goodreads giveaway.  There may be extra super prizes involved, too!

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Five Questions to Ask Yourself before Committing to Self-Publishing

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As some of my long-time readers might know, I started my self-publishing journey on a whim in 2012.  I had written a book two years before, a few friends who were interested in reading it, and I had a vague remembrance of reading something about a new-fangled publishing platform from Amazon that would let you share content easily.

The first time I uploaded a (pretty rough draft) of The Last Death of Tev Chrisini, my heart almost stopped when I saw my name on a real Amazon page.

The cover image was garbage, the PDF sloppily formatted, and the metadata clumsy, but it was my name on Amazon – the biggest bookseller in the world! – and strangers could now find and read something that I had written: a world I had created, inhabited, and loved.

It was thrilling, frightening, and frustrating in equal measure.  Sure, the book was there, but no one other than those few close friends had purchased it.  Sure, I had a weighty CreateSpace paperback in my hands, but my design abilities were rubbish, I couldn’t get the formatting just right, and I kept finding typos.

I had published a book, which is certainly a milestone.  But in the early days of the publish-on-demand industry, I was among thousands of curious new authors who had a lot to learn.

Had I planned my entry into this strange new world a little better, I might have implemented a different strategy.  I might have been more successful right off the bat…or I might have been so overwhelmed with the prospect of committing to this massive undertaking that I may never have gone through with it.

After several years of experience, including some notable high points and more than a few disappointments, I think I have a better idea of how new authors might want to approach their own first taste of self-publishing.

Any commitment should start with a cost/benefit analysis, and these are the top five questions I would ask myself if I could go back in time and do it all over again.

1. What do I hope to get out of this?

What are my goals when it comes to self-publishing?  Do I want to share a particular skill or knowledge base?  Do I want to create a revenue stream I can live on?  Do I have a unique perspective that I must share with the world?  Do I want to use self-publishing as a springboard to a traditional publishing career?  Do I just want to write for my own fulfillment?

ThinkstockPhotos-490243498Everyone has a different reason for wanting to self-publish, and I don’t think there are any invalid motivations.  Some want to write the books they wanted to read when they were kids.  Some are aiming for the money or the fame; some just like the idea of sharing fanfic stories with their chosen fandom.

It doesn’t matter what the reason is.  You just have to know why you’re doing it.  When you establish a clear idea of what you hope to accomplish, it will help you set up a platform, focus your outreach efforts, and ensure that you are not wasting your precious time and energy on activities that won’t get you to your chosen outcome.

2. What skills do I have and what do I need from others?

Let’s face it.  We’re not all experts at everything.  Yeah, that includes you, okay?  We all need a little outside help to fill the holes in our game.

Self-publishing requires a lot of specialized skills, and a lot of back-end production work.  Editing is a different competency than writing.  Web design isn’t easy.  Cover art creation isn’t for everyone.  Putting together a perfect template for publication?  Man, that still trips me up sometimes.  And when it comes to marketing…well, let’s just say I wouldn’t mind a little help in that department.

In order to bring a high quality product to market, you might have to enlist the skills of people who have expertise in one or more of these areas.  And in order to know who you need to ask for help, you need to honestly assess where you might fall short.

Understanding your strengths and recognizing your own limitations before you begin will save you a lot of frustration in the long run!  Trust me on this one.

3. Do I understand my market and the options available to me?

Market research isn’t just for smarmy guys at big corporations who try to get you to buy stuff you don’t really need.  It’s an essential part of any sales gig, and it’s vital for self-publishers.

Not only do you need to understand what the different available publishing platforms offer their authors, how to manage your rights and permissions, and how to navigate each company’s unique process for bringing a book to life, but you also need to have a clear strategy for selling the finished product.

You wouldn’t try to sell a cookbook to the same audience as a memoir or a young adult sci-fi thriller.  You wouldn’t use the same strategies to appeal to middle grade readers as you would use for erotica aficionados (I hope).

And even within your chosen genre, there are nuances and subdivisions that no outsider could ever comprehend, let alone leverage.  Vampire lovers may get miffed if they’re being offered a zombie tale in disguise.  Space opera junkies don’t want to read about…whatever the opposite of space operas are.  You get the point.

Before jumping into your first en masse Twitter following spree or joining a million reader forums, take some time to identify your perfect reader.  Find out where those people hang out, what they’re looking for, and what strategies appeal to them.  That’s going to be important for deciding how to deal with the next question.

4. How much am I willing to invest when it comes to time, money, and effort?

Self-publishing can be hard on the wallet, and it can be even harder on your initial bubbling enthusiasm.  Building an audience takes lots of time and dedication.  It can require weekends at conferences, or hours in front of the computer writing blog posts (ahem), replying to conversations in communities, and creating a presence on social media.

Buying ads, web domain names, subscriptions, contest entries, and a box of books to have on hand can easily run into the hundreds or thousands of dollars before you know it.  And there’s no guarantee that you will receive a return on your investment.

But there are some steps you can take to minimize waste and maximize your potential for seeing some fruits from your labors.

First, create a budget and stick to it.  Make a list of your possible expenses, prioritize the essentials, tailor your spending to your targeted audience, and do not spend a single penny on any product, service, or offering without reading the fine print.  Twice.

Do not sign any of your creative rights or content rights away without being 150,000% sure you understand what you’re doing.  There are unscrupulous people out there who are more than happy to promise you the impossible.  Be careful.

Second, be flexible and be willing to make changes.  If the Facebook ads aren’t generating returns or the dealer’s table at LocalCon was a bust last year, then screw ‘em.  Find something else to spend your budget on.  There’s no set path for success in self-publishing, so remember that the strategy that works for your friends may not work for you.

Third, be mindful of your limitations, obligations, and expectations.  Ambition is a fine thing, but maybe you can’t spend every Saturday and Sunday traveling around the country to every writer’s convention without stretching your bank account or your relationships to the limit.  Maybe you’re an introvert who hates networking in person, so you shouldn’t spend $500 on a ticket to that fundraising brunch.  Maybe you’re better off putting that money into a blog redesign or a copyeditor instead.

5. How good am I at dealing with disappointment?

This is a downer of a question, but it’s something you absolutely have to think about before embarking on your self-publishing career.  There simply isn’t room for everyone at the tippy-top of the charts, and chances are that the vast majority of people will not make it as far in real life as they do in their daydreams.

ThinkstockPhotos-504860101It’s okay to acknowledge that.  It’s good to understand that life is hard, and things don’t always work out the way you hoped without some struggle, some pain, and some determination.  Realistic expectations are healthy.  They keep you from overextending yourself, and they allow you to look at too-good-to-be-true possibilities with a critical, rational eye.

The publishing industry is especially good at forcing you to practice these skills.  It’s an industry based on luck, chance, preconceived notions, and first impressions.  At times, its capriciousness can seem downright cruel.

You need to be able to handle losing that big contest or never getting that phone call.  You need to have the strength to accept the fact that not everyone is going to like everything you write.  That doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer.  That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person.  It just means that you have to try again next time.

If you accept that disappointment is going to be a part of this process from the get-go, you’re going to be better equipped with the fortitude to take your knocks and shake them off.  It’s hard.  It sucks.  It happens to everyone.  But you need to ask yourself if you’re going to be able to pick yourself up out of the dirt and keep swinging.

Yes?  Then welcome to the club, self-publisher.  You’re going to do fine.

Marketing for Self-Publishers: My Successes and Failures of 2015

I think this is how investment works. I could be wrong.

I think this is how money works. I could be wrong.

It’s very tempting to believe that the exploding popularity of self-publishing has revolutionized literature in all the right ways.  After all, anyone with a computer and a word processor can instantly access millions of eager readers worldwide, with no filters, no pesky gatekeepers, and no steep cuts into the royalty checks.

In an ideal world, self-publishers would live along their traditional peers on the best sellers’ lists, as the cream of the crop rises to enthrall the same coveted, discerning audiences.  Indie books would proudly decorate the shelves at big-box book retailers, and Hollywood options would follow soon enough.  Anyone could write the next commercial smash hit – and as soon as they do, all the stigma around independent publishing will instantly vanish.

But the reality, of course, has been quite different.  The majority of self-publishers struggle to lure any readers at all to their wares.  They coast along with minimal sales, and still get plenty of flak from the traditional world for even daring to do so.

That massive pool of readers is still out there, but the right book buyers and the right book sellers have a devil of a time finding each other.  There is no established mechanism for separating the wheat from the chaff, and excellent self-publishing authors still linger in the shadows, unable to break free from the mobs of competitors offering less-than-satisfactory products to disillusioned customers.

The commonly accepted solution to these problems is marketing.  Create ads, they say.  Be seen on social media.  Rope in readers with goodies and contests.  Badger everyone you know to write reviews.  Enter contests.  Hire a professional PR agency if you really want to pull out the big guns.  Do as much as you possibly can to create that elusive buzz everyone craves.

All of these things can have a major impact on sales – but they require something that many self-publishers just don’t have.  Money.

Luckily for the destitute among us, there are some effective but low-cost ways of promoting your newest book.  Even more luckily, there are some foolish bloggers like me who will invest in these strategies for you, and let you know where you should really put your money.  You’re welcome.

Between October of 2014 and the end of 2015, I published Dark the Night Descending and Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow, and I tried a lot of different marketing strategies to try to build interest in my first proper fantasy series.  Some of them worked relatively well…and some of them didn’t.

So here’s the rundown of some of the major things I paid money for over the past few years.  Your results may vary, but I hope this anecdotal roundup will help you decide where to invest your hard-earned marketing dollars in the New Year.

Facebook and Goodreads ads

What: Basic sidebar ads on Goodreads and tailored newsfeed ads on Facebook

How much I spent:  Approximately $30.00

The verdict: Failure

Why: You can read all about this experiment in my blog post here, but basically, Goodreads and Facebook ads were a bust.  Low click-through rates, even lower customer engagement, and no actual sales means that 30 bucks is gone for good.

Neither website provides enough detailed targeting for a good enough price for this to be worthwhile for the small-time budget.  You won’t be able to reach a large enough cohort of people to maybe, possibly snag a highly qualified reader, and if you don’t have previous experience with online marketing, developing a meaningful and cost-effective ad campaign can be very difficult.

Goodreads giveaways

What: Three separate chances to win a total of twelve paperbacks of Dark the Night Descending

How much I spent: Approximately $200.00

The verdict: Success…ish?

Why: Goodreads giveaways look great at first glance.  Thousands of interested readers vying to win free books with the unspoken expectation that they will leave you a nice review appears to be a tempting offer for authors.

Goodreads-Logo-1024x576-7abf5bd8d98b9d10And indeed, you don’t have to do anything other than list your contest to garner hundreds of entries with no effort.

Most of the people entering the giveaway will also add your book to their “to-read” lists, which gives you a nice little pad of potential readers for your novel’s homepage.

Unfortunately, it’s not as wonderful as it seems.  First of all, you have to purchase hard copies of your novels (10 bucks a pop for Dark the Night), plus you have to pay for the shipping costs.  During my first contest, I made the mistake of allowing international entries.  Even a lightweight paperback is pretty expensive to ship to the UK.

And guess what?  Only three of the 845 people who added my book to their lists due to the giveaway have left a rating.  Only one of those twelve winners ever wrote me a review.  It was a great review, and I’m thankful for it.  But I’m not sure the return on the total investment is really worthwhile.

You can read more about my giveaway experience here.

Writer’s Digest contests

What: Two writing competitions sponsored by Writer’s Digest.  One short story contest in September of 2014 (“The Terracotta Girl”), and one self-published novel contest in 2013 (The Last Death of Tev Chrisini)

How much I spent: $20.00 for the short story contest; $100.00 for the novel

The verdict: Failure

Why: Well, I didn’t win.

IPR License

What: A marketplace for the display and sale of international trade rights and permissions.

How much I spent: $150.00 (USD) for a one-year membership

The verdict: Failure (with extra warning bells)

Why: This UK-based rights licensing marketplace looked really intriguing when it was first pitched to me by a very nice sales rep.  In exchange for the membership fee, I was offered a prime listing in their international book fair catalogue and the chance to be discovered by foreign agents looking for English-language best sellers for their home countries.

Danger, Will Robinson!

Danger, Will Robinson!

IPR would handle all the legal stuff, including vetting the respectability of foreign agents before passing on their offers to me, and would take the standard 15% cut of any royalties I might accrue.

My sales rep was very cagy when I asked what my chances of success would be, and how many deals they had made for self-published authors so far.  She kept bringing up a single example of a woman who parlayed international success into a US-based traditional publishing contract, but she couldn’t give me any hard numbers or other details, ostensibly because their offerings were so new.

That should really have been the clue that this is not really a sound investment.  First of all, a listing in a database means very little unless you can do something special to draw attention to yourself.  I could have paid even more for additional listings in some of their catalogues, which are distributed at the Big Five international book fairs, but the prices were a little too high when added on to my original membership.  So I’m left with nothing other than a name card and a hope that some of my keywords will help a reputable agent seek me out.  Not gonna happen, right?

I don’t think this is a scam, per se, but I don’t think it’s the best use of your money.  Unless you’re very familiar with the international rights scene, I think you should avoid this company and any offers similar to it.

NetGalley

What: A two-month listing for downloadable review copies of Dark the Night Descending

How much I spent: $50.00 through my Broad Universe membership (which costs $30.00 per year on its own, but comes with unrelated perks)

The verdict: Success!

Why: Reviews!  Seven of them!  Most of them very good!  NetGalley is really the place you want to be for gathering book reviews, because its sole purpose is to connect rabid readers and established reviewers with authors of all statures.

Half of the people who were approved for a free digital copy (no shipping costs!) of my book left a review on NetGalley, and several of those people also cross-posted to their own blogs, Amazon, and Goodreads.  Compared to the $200 review I got from the giveaways, that’s a pretty sound investment.

Listing prices are a little higher if you don’t get a special deal like I did, but they are not exorbitant, and I think it’s well worth it.  It’s also one of the few places where highbrow traditionally published books and self-published books seem to mingle with little discrimination.  I will probably put one or more of my books up for offer again at some point in the future.

WordPress blogging

What: This blog, dude.  Sheesh.

How much I spent: $26.00 per year for my domain name; $30.00 per year for additional custom blog design features

The verdict: Success!

Why: You’re here, aren’t you?  I mean, chances are that you’ll never buy a book from me, but that’s okay.  This is free content for you to enjoy, to share, and maybe even to learn from.  If you happen to remember my name when it comes time for filling a hole in your reading list, that would be fantastic, but that’s not really what an author’s blog should be about.  It should be a resource and a destination all on its own, and I hope I have provided that for you – and that I continue to do so.

Gold_Star.svgBlogging has helped me become a better writer, connected me with a few dedicated readers (to whom I am eternally grateful), and allowed me to share my meager knowledge with the rest of the world.  I’ve been so tickled and honored to be a featured member of the WordPress community, and to share bits of my life with strangers who reflect my own experiences back to me.

My blog has definitely been my best investment over the past few years, even though it costs a lot more in time than it does in money.

You can create lots of different types of blogs for free, of course, and I absolutely recommend that all self-publishers offer their readers a landing page of some sort.  At the bare minimum, it should contain an author’s bio, contact information, and a link to the place where they can buy your books.  For such a small fee each year, I think it’s worth buying a custom domain name, just to make you easy to find.

As we close out 2015 and look ahead towards a brand new year, I’d like to thank both my new followers and my long-term readers for being a part of this crazy self-publishing journey.  In 2016, I’m planning to publish the last two books of the Paderborn Chronicles, and then we’ll see what happens after that.  I hope you’ll all stay tuned!

Hey, Traditional Authors: Self-Publishing Isn’t the Easy Way Out

NB: In case you’re interested in winning a copy of Dark the Night Descending, even though it’s self-published, I’m giving away five books on Goodreads right now!


Twitter is great for many things.  It helps you share and communicate.  It provides an endless stream of adorable cat pictures.  It delivers breaking news in bite-sized nuggets, and it can satisfy your occasional need to get outraged about something a complete stranger says.  I think you can guess which one this blog post is going to be about.

cat

No, not that one.

Myke Cole, a military fantasy author, retweeted this comment and image by the magician behind Fantasy Faction, one of the biggest genre communities out there.

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And I was not happy.

First of all, despite the assertion that there are exceptions to what he obviously believes is a rule, the flow of this chart is insultingly reductive.  Let’s establish one thing as the basis for all the arguments to follow: Self-publishing does not equal giving up. 

Self-publishing is a conscious choice, not a reactive one, and it does not mean you don’t care about the quality or ongoing improvement of your work.  Self-publishing does not mean you don’t seek the help of professional editors and artists.  Self-publishing requires knowledge, talent, marketing savvy, and perseverance – all without the cozy validation of having been one of the “chosen ones” of traditional publishing.

Self-publishing is not the easy way out.

In response to the chart, I scribbled out one of my own, and it immediately sparked a flurry of responses from Fantasy Faction and others:

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Now, if you can get past the poor handwriting (and the fact that maybe it implies the use of readers as guinea pigs, which was not what I meant), you can see that a) the path that leads an author into self-publishing can be a little more complex than a single rage-inducing rejection, and b) the path that develops after self-publishing can lead to any number of amazing things.

You can kind of follow the Twitter conversation here, but I’m just going to go through and make some points that came out of that discussion and my own experiences with the perceived conflict between traditional publishing and the broad spectrum of indie options out there.

Self-publishers aren’t all hopeless, disgruntled rejects

There is a pervasive assumption among traditionally published writers that self-publishing is a secondary choice, and one that is only made when something goes wrong in the traditional publishing world.

If an agent won’t take you to the prom, you’re likely to run with tears streaming down your face into the loving arms of Amazon KDP, that perfect fairytale boyfriend who will accept you for who you are with all your flaws, not just how you sell yourself to the rest of the world.

That isn’t always true.  Yes, KDP takes anyone, because KDP makes a lot of money off of doing what they do.  Yes, a lot of self-publishers have experienced frustration and rejection from the traditional publishing world.  Yes, it is possible to upload a complete mess of a manuscript with a hand-drawn cover and a cringe-inducing storyline.

But a lot of people don’t.  Self-publishing is a gold mine for many authors.  It offers more control over content.  It offers a quicker turnaround time.  It offers opportunities for higher royalties and higher revenues.  It offers an enormous potential readership – and the number of traditionally published authors turning to self-publishing as a better alternative is growing by the day.

Sometimes they are authors who have secured an agent but not a book deal.  Sometimes their traditional contracts have lapsed with mediocre sales, and they choose not to renew their arrangements because they can get higher royalties and quality products from CreateSpace or Smashwords.  Sometimes they are traditionally published authors who know they can pursue both paths to make the most profit.

There are as many reasons for self-publishing as there are self-publishers.  To persist in the belief that we are all losers who don’t know any better is both narrow minded and ill-informed.

Quality is incredibly important to serious self-publishers

Even though Amazon and the other self-pub giants try to pitch the process as being easy as 1-2-3, it isn’t.  Let’s assume for a second that you actually care about how your product you present to the world.  Let’s assume you have some of the skills to create a quality book, but maybe not quite as many as you need.

Sure, there are people who will publish a sub-par product without editing or cover art.  But serious self-publishers who want to turn a profit will enlist the help of professional editors, talented cover artists, savvy formatters, and web design experts to make sure that they aren’t wasting their time.

Self-publishing doesn’t mean doing everything by yourself, and few people do.  Few self-publishing advice websites recommend going it alone.  Most will advise you to set up a budget for necessary services like editing and cover art – 90 percent of the discussions I had at Pi-Con this weekend were about how important it is to pay fair prices for good work from professionals in the self-publishing world.

A 2014 survey of nearly 2000 authors from Digital Book World found that more than a third of self-publishers hired a cover artist, a quarter sought formatting help, nearly 20 percent enlisted a content editor, and ten percent paid for marketing and promotion.

Source: Digital Book World

Source: Digital Book World

Crappy books don’t sell, and self-publishers know this as well as anyone.  They are willing to take money out of their own pockets to improve their products – and they don’t get advances.

There are terrible self-published books out there.  I can’t deny that.  But there are terrible traditionally published books, too.  You can’t deny that, either.

Self-publishing something does not mean you have no interest in improving your craft

One of the worst things about Fantasy Faction’s comments was the notion that self-publishers don’t care about becoming better writers.  Rejection by the gods is the only way to get better at your craft.  If you can self-publish, you’re not going to have any motivation to write books that are good enough to make it past the gatekeepers (a term, by the way, that agents absolutely hate).

Wrong.  I don’t know any writer – traditionally published, self-published, or with no interest in being published at all – who doesn’t strive to improve.  I don’t know anyone who ignores thoughtful critiques, or thinks they’re already at the top of their game, or who doesn’t try to write a better book every time they sit down to the computer.  You wouldn’t be a writer, and you certainly wouldn’t be an author, if you didn’t know that there was lots of hard work to do until you drop dead.

We are not slackers.  We are not complacent.  We are just like traditional authors – but we’ve got the balls to do it all ourselves.  Which brings me to my overall point…

There’s nothing easy about going it alone

Writers are creatures of self-doubt, and there’s nothing easy about overcoming the anxiety and uncertainty of putting time, money, and effort into publishing a book with no safety net.  Self-publishing is a risk, both financially and emotionally, and it requires just as much (if not more) courage, fortitude, and sheer bloody-minded determination as sending out queries to traditional agents.

As Myke Cole said in one of his tweets, writing is hard enough.  He couldn’t imagine how self-publishers could manage to do the rest themselves.  But surprise!  One way or another, we get it done.

Personally, I have devoted many hours to squinting at cover images while I edit my art, or screaming at Microsoft Word when my formatting is off.  I’ve stayed up late nights during the work week to finish editing a chapter or perfecting some tiny part of the publishing process.  I have spent days nervously waiting for things to get approved or shipped – only to have to go back and make changes and do it all over again.

It is hard work.  And most of the time, there are few rewards.  It’s discouraging to see my stats flatline for weeks at a time.  It’s not fun to try to urge my friends to leave reviews.  It’s not easy for me to market myself and take on all the self-promotion required to maybe, possibly get one user to add my book on Goodreads.  I have felt like a failure so many more times than I have ever felt like a success.

Self-publishing sucks…but I’ve been doing it for three years with absolutely no intention of stopping, because I love it.

I love holding a finished book in my hand and knowing that I made this.  I love having an Amazon page.  I love writing my blog.  I love those rare occasions when I get to talk to my readers and they smile and get excited and tell me what they think about my characters.  I love seeing my name in other publications, and striving every day to open up those opportunities for myself.  Even if I don’t sell very many books, I love feeling proud of what I do.

Self-publishing taught me that I can do so much more than I ever thought I could.  It taught me that it wasn’t too scary to put myself out in the world.  That I didn’t need approval from some big bad agent in the sky to express my ideas and my points of view.  That there are opportunities for everything if you’re willing to work for them.

Self-publishing is not a cop-out, and it doesn’t have to exist solely in opposition to the traditional route.  Readers want to read good stories, and I think it’s a great thing that there are now so many more ways for them to do that.  Traditional publishing will have to adjust, as all industries do when a disruptive force enters the marketplace, and holding on to damaging notions of the past will only make it harder for everyone involved.

Self-publishers want respect because we do enough to earn it.  I hope the traditional world will be able to see that someday, as the wheat separates from the chaff and it becomes easier to identify and read good self-published work.  There are wonderful, talented, amazing independent authors out there, and they don’t deserve the stigma placed upon them by the traditional publishing juggernaut.  It would be a shame to dismiss them all without taking a really hard look at what they do.

How to Make a Linked Table of Contents for Kindle eBooks

Note: The Kindle edition of Dark the Dreamer’s Shadow is now available for pre-order!  Paperbacks can be had on August 17.  Keep an eye out for fun, exclusive Launch Day stuff by liking my page on Facebook!


In this golden age of digital self-publishing, there’s only one thing harder than writing a good book: selling it.  Whether you’re going it alone or delegating some of the buzz-building to a paid PR team, marketing a self-published novel is a tough gig.  A lot of authors make it even harder by failing to develop their product to its fullest potential before sending it out into the world.

An attractive cover is a good place to start, and targeting your audience appropriately can get the right eyeballs onto your work.  But eBooks have additional mechanics that can make or break a reader’s good opinion.

While Amazon KDP, Smashwords, and other self-publishing platforms have started to do a lot of the formatting work automatically when authors upload their content, there are a few things that still have to be done manually.

One of the most important is the table of contents (TOC).  Most eBook apps will hold a user’s place between sessions, but the absence of page numbers can make it very difficult for readers to flip back and forth between chapters without tabbing endlessly through the parts they’ve already read.

It’s easy to see why that’s a problem for non-fiction books that cover distinct subject matter in each chapter, but it can also be an issue for readers who want to review or clarify a convoluted family history or new technology that you introduced three hundred pages ago.

Creating a linked table of contents is not as complicated as it seems.  If you have access to pretty much any version of Microsoft Word, the process can take just a few minutes.  Here is a simple step-by-step guide to formatting your TOC in both Word 2003 and 2013, because some of us haven’t actually updated our software in the past decade and oh boy do I really need a new computer.

Make a table of contents page

The best thing to do is keep your eBook TOC pages pretty simple.  A lot of fancy text formatting gets stripped out of your document when you upload it, so don’t worry too much about having all your chapter names or page numbers perfectly aligned or using a long string of ellipses for spacing or anything like that.  Every electronic device will render it differently, and it’ll be very frustrating to the reader.  Just do something like this:

contents

This page is going to be the first thing that your readers see when they flip past the title page and front matter, so you want it to be clean and easy to navigate.  Make sure you include every point that you want a reader to be able to find easily.  If you have fifteen chapters divided into three parts, be sure to include the “Part 1, 2, and 3” divisions so readers don’t have to guess which chapters fall under which acts.

Bookmark your chapter headings

There are two main technical tasks for creating a table of contents.  The first is to bookmark your chapter headings.

Step one: go to Chapter One in your manuscript and highlight the words that you want to use as your navigation point.

chapterone

Next, in both old and new versions of Word, you must navigate to the “insert” tab or menu.  In Word 2003, you will see a “bookmarks” option towards the bottom of the drop-down.  In Word 2013, you will also have to click on the “links” tab and choose “bookmarks” from the little pull-out menu.

bookmarksnew

That will open a dialogue box that looks very similar in both versions of Word:

bookmarks new word

Name your bookmark something really creative like “ChapterOne”.  It will have to be a single word with no spaces, but I believe underscores are okay.

Scroll through the rest of your document and repeat the same process for each navigation point.

chapter bookmark oldword

Be sure to highlight the right section of text as you move through!

Link the bookmarks to the TOC page

When you have a nice long list of bookmarks, one for each chapter or text division, you can go back to your TOC page.

I’m sure you’ve all added hyperlinks to something at some point in your lives, so this isn’t going to be that complicated.  To link Chapter One to its bookmark in the text, highlight “Chapter One” in your table of contents:

highlightnew

Right click and choose “hyperlink” from the menu (or use whatever shortcut gets you to the hyperlink menu).  Here’s where things get different depending on what version of software you’re using.  Let’s do Word 2003 first.

The hyperlink dialogue looks like this:

hyperlink

Instead of the “web page” tab in the middle there, move over to “document”

On the bottom, where it says “anchor,” you’re going to hit “locate,” which won’t be grayed out like that.  Trust me.

That’s going to bring up this new box:

bookmarks

Just choose the corresponding bookmark and hit OK.  The text on the table of contents page will turn blue and underlined, just like any other hyperlink you’ve ever seen.  Job done!  Repeat for the rest of your navigation points.

In newer versions of Word, the process is pretty much the same, but it just looks a little different.

hyperlinknew

Highlight the appropriate text and go to the hyperlink menu.  Instead of the “existing file or webpage” tab on the left-hand side, move down to the “place in this document” option.  Choose your bookmark and hit OK.  Now you’re done, too!

Profit!

You can test out your handiwork by clicking the links on the TOC page.  You should jump right to the proper chapter heading or other navigation point.  This formatting will carry over through the scraping and squishing process that most eBook uploaders use, so you shouldn’t have a problem with weird broken markup or anything like that.

Other fun things to do with this technique?  Create a choose-your-own-adventure novel!  Link unique or confusing terms to a glossary!  Create a jump to a footnote (that then links back to the place where the reader left off)!  I think you can probably even link to external webpages, but don’t quote me on that!

The possibilities for increased reader engagement and interactivity are endless, and using this simple trick can add a new dimension of polish and professionalism to your work.  Readers are starting to expect this kind of pizazz, so it’s a good skill to master.  Try it out in your next eBook and see what happens!

Should Self-Published Authors Get Paid by How Much You Read?

The Internet, that great and glorious money-making venture, has done some amazing things for the humble self-published author.  As a marketing platform, it is unparalleled in scope – and with the help of e-commerce giants like Amazon, self-published authors have gained the ability to publish, promote, and sell their properties with ease and professional finesse.

But as we are all aware, the Internet comes with a darker side…and I’m not just talking about that weird subreddit you came across late last night.  You know which one I mean.  The World Wide Web has allowed online companies to come up with some really creative ways of squeezing dollars and cents out of their customers, and our old friend Amazon is trying a new tactic that may or may not be good for the self-published among us.

Amazon makes a lot of money off its independent authors.  We provide it with its milk and meat: it gets its products from us by selling our work through the KDP marketplace, and it gives us back between 35 and 70 percent of the royalties for the privilege.

On the other side of the equation, Amazon book-buyers tend to get a good deal out of the whole Kindle thing.  They get a wide choice of content along with the instant gratification of beaming novels right to their smartphones or tablets.  And self-published authors often underprice their works or offer them for free to get noticed, which book readers love.

Amazon doesn’t love that kind of underpricing quite so much, despite spending a lot of time expanding its free Kindle offerings.  Authors can enroll their books in KDP Select, which offers a five-day free promotional period and Kindle Countdown Deals in exchange for 90 days of exclusivity to Amazon.  It also provides automatic inclusion in the Kindle Unlimited and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) programs, unless you opt out.

KOLL promises authors a piece of a monthly global fund based on how many readers download and read a portion of the book.

“We base the calculation of your share of the KDP Select Global Fund by how often Kindle Unlimited customers choose and read more than 10% of your book, and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library customers download your book,” Amazon says on its FAQ site.

“We compare these numbers to how often all participating KDP Select titles were chosen. For example, if the monthly global fund amount is $1,000,000, all participating KDP titles were read 300,000 times, and customers read your book 1,500 times, you will earn 0.5% (1,500/300,000 = 0.5%), or $5,000 for that month.”

That sounds great, right?  Sounds like a good reason to swallow the 90-day exclusivity contract in hopes of making some serious cash.  In April of 2015, the global fund was a whopping $3 million, and that’s a nice pie – if you can grab a piece of it.

The problem is that free books are often downloaded, but very rarely read.  That doesn’t do much good for anyone.  So in “response to author feedback from authors who asked us to better align payout with the length of books and how much customers read,” Amazon is ditching the ten percent metric for Kindle downloads and changing the system a bit.

Starting on July 1, “we’ll switch from paying Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL) royalties based on qualified borrows, to paying based on the number of pages read,” the website says.  “As with our current approach, we’ll continue to set a KDP Select Global Fund each month. Under the new payment method, the amount an author earns will be determined by their share of total pages read instead of their share of total qualified borrows.”

Here’s how Amazon explains it in its own words:

If the fund was $10M and 100,000,000 total pages were read in the month:

The author of a 100 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

The author of a 200 page book that was borrowed and read completely 100 times would earn $2,000 ($10 million multiplied by 20,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

The author of a 200 page book that was borrowed 100 times but only read halfway through on average would earn $1,000 ($10 million multiplied by 10,000 pages for this author divided by 100,000,000 total pages).

Now, first thing you have to remember is that the monthly fund isn’t anywhere near $10 million at the moment.  It was $3 million just a few months ago, right?  So let’s not forget to cut all these numbers by a third.  Second of all, these download numbers are for superstars only.  Very, very few self-published authors earn that much money off of their Kindle products.  I certainly don’t.

The good thing, I think, is that Amazon does not mention any new threshold for payment to replace the 10 percent mark.  It appears that you can get a (tiny) share of the money if a reader browses just one page, which means the change might actually put a few fractions of a penny into the pockets of more writers.  But it’s probably only going to benefit people who write really long books.

What do I mean?  Let’s take…oh, I dunno.  Me?  I’m less likely to hit a 10 percent threshold with my typical fare, such as a 580-page opus like The Spoil of Zanuth-Karun, than I am with Salt and Oil, Blood and Clay, a short story collection that only clocks in at 65 pages.

For The Spoil, I would want to get paid for each download and by the individual page without the burden of meeting the 10 percent threshold.  Fifty-six pages is a lot to slog through if you’re not committed, and even if the book was downloaded a lot more often than it is, my readers rarely hit the ten percent finish line.  For Salt and Oil, where ten percent of the book is only 6 and a half pages, I wouldn’t benefit much from the new per-page system at all.  I might even make less, depending on how the calculations work out.

For more on the actual numbers, you should read this great post by C.E. Kilgore, who’s done all the calculations for us.

amazon-kdp-grTo alleviate concerns over variable formatting affecting page count, Amazon is introducing a standardized system called the Kindle Edition Normalized Page Count (KENPC v1.0).  But it seems to indicate that only consecutive pages starting with Chapter 1, as determined by the Start Reading Location, will count towards pages read.  That begs the question: are you out of luck if you’ve written a non-fiction book or academic text and your reader is only interested in one or two chapters somewhere in the middle?  I’m not really sure how the Start Reading Location thing works on a technical level, so I don’t have an answer for that one.

For my own part, I don’t really see a lot of benefit from KDP Select, and I’m letting my last few titles age out of the program in July.  I don’t plan to enroll any of my works again, since I’m looking into selling some international rights (a topic for another blog post), and I’m hoping to get a lot more out of that adventure than I do out of KDP Select.  I generally don’t like the idea of exclusivity, either, just on principle.

I think in general, the changes won’t massively affect the majority of low-earning, low-expectation authors, and I’m not sure that I’m really all that put out about it.  Do I like the idea of getting paid based on how much my readers get through?  Yes and no.  On one hand, books are no longer exclusively physical objects, so why should we sell them as such?  If I write boring books, I shouldn’t get paid for making my readers drool on their keyboards when they fall asleep after page three.

On the other hand, Amazon isn’t charging book-buying customers any less for only reading half the book.  They still pay the same flat fee, on top of their Prime subscription fee, and it’s only the authors who are getting the (potentially) raw deal.  Amazon may end up keeping more of the profits – probably otherwise they wouldn’t be doing it.  And that doesn’t seem right.

Do you think Amazon is being fair about this?  Do you think it will hurt self-published authors?  Do you think it requires an advance degree in mathematics to figure it out?  Let me know in the comments, because I’m truly undecided!

Goodreads Ratings and the Curse of the One-Star Review

1star

For those returning visitors who may be finding yourselves a bit disoriented, welcome to the new Inkless, fresh from a facelift and chemical peel.  Feel free to poke around and explore!

Book reviews.  Authors love to have them.  Perspective buyers love to peruse them.  Readers can sometimes be successfully cajoled into leaving them if there is some kind of valuable bribe involved.  Those five little stars are so critically important to making sales and hitting goals that authors will bludgeon all their friends, acquaintances, Twitter followers, and blog browsers into leaving just a few kind words and a rating that might push them an inch or two higher up the best-sellers list.  We agonize over every criticism and nod our heads in agreement at every minor piece of praise, soaking up admiration like particularly snooty sponges each time a reader sees it our way.

A good review is one of the best things that can happen to a writer whose self-esteem hangs by a thread, and getting panned can sting so badly that it wipes out weeks of potential productivity as wounds are nursed and fragile egos rebuilt with the aid of cookies, kitty cuddles, and hard drugs.

But what’s worse than a bad review from a reader who didn’t like a character or felt cheated by an ending?  An unintentionally bad review, left completely by accident, that is still displayed prominently and drags down a book’s average rating.

Anyone who has browsed Goodreads has probably come across this painful phenomenon.  Books that haven’t been released yet have user ratings down in the two-and-a-halfs, or novels that have received nearly universal acclaim still have a smattering of one-star reviews next to random readers’ names.  These one-star users never leave a comment explaining their decision.  They may give four and five stars to everything else on their book list.  They appear callous, heartless, and careless: the enemy of all that is good about exchanging opinions with fellow readers; the bane of authors everywhere.

Why do they do this?  Because, most of the time, they have absolutely no idea that they are causing the author so much unwarranted angst.

In my experience, one-star reviews on Goodreads are nearly always the product of mistaken identity.  The user hasn’t the faintest recollection of having rated the book.

Before Dark the Night Descending was available for purchase, I had at least three one-star reviews on my record, and the first impression was terrible.  I was tearing my hair out.  How could anyone hate something so much when they hadn’t even read it?  No one was going to take a chance on the first book of a new, self-published series if it was already being condemned by the all-important stars.  It wasn’t fair, and it spurred me to action.

I messaged each of the users.   “It was just a stray click.  I was trying to add it to my reading list,” one said. “I had no idea – I’m so sorry,” said the others.  They were looking for an excerpt, or trying to click away, or perform some other harmless action that tripped them up.  All of the users involved retracted their reviews immediately and promised they would review my book again after they had actually read it.  Everyone was very nice, and I thanked them all profusely, but the experience wasn’t just embarrassing for both sides of the equation.  It should be totally unnecessary.

Readers trust Goodreads for advice from their peers about what to pick up during their next trip to the bookstore, and authors count on Goodreads for the publicity that keeps everyone in business.  So why is it so easy for readers to accidently mislead their fellows, hurting authors and the reputation of Goodreads in the process?  Why do we have to experience so much grief over something that seems so easy to fix?

One solution would be to require, as Amazon does, a minimum amount of text before posting a review.  But I can see why Goodreads wouldn’t want to change their dual-review system quite that much.  I like the fact that you can just leave a star without thinking of some pithy comment to put with it.  Leaving a star is easy, and encourages readers to rate more books more quickly, which is generally a good thing.

Another solution would be to ask a reader, “Are you sure you meant to leave one star?” before allowing them to submit the entry.  I suppose that might run the risk of artificially inflating the rankings of books that really are total stinkers – a snap review is often a more honest one, and I think that usually works in everyone’s favor.  You don’t want someone second-guessing themselves if they actually did hate something.

So here’s my answer: just make the reader aware of what they did.  Add a little pop-up to the review process that says, “You just gave a one-star rating to Dark the Night Descending.”  If they meant to do it, they’ll ignore the prompt.  If they didn’t mean it, maybe they’ll go back and change their mistake.  Everyone wins.  Authors won’t suffer, readers won’t be unduly inconvenienced, and the integrity of the Goodreads empire will remain whole.

Readers, does that sound fair?  Authors, wouldn’t you like to see a little more quality control?  Let’s make sure that what we’re doing matters, and that our opinions are properly counted.  That seems like a five-star idea to me.