Showing posts with label Author. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Author. Show all posts

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

How to Analyze a Free Book Promotion


In today’s post I will show you how to analyze a promotion’s financial efficacy.

Given my lackadaisical approach to marketing my Seamus McCree series of mystery/suspense/thrillers, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that I earned an A in Marketing during my MBA studies. Knowing what to do and understanding how to evaluate results are different skills than actually doing the darn thing. While I deserve an A for analysis, I’d give myself a gentlemen’s D for my actual marketing efforts.

Fortunately, that lack of marketing means I have near perfect data to analyze a recent sales tactic I employed: providing free copies of the Kindle version of book 1 of the series (Ant Farm).

My specifics:

I have so far published five books in the Seamus McCree series. All are available in paperback, and I have assumed the Kindle promotion had zero effect on paperback sales. I am currently, and have been for some time, part of the KDP select. That means the only place you can buy an electronic version of the books is on Amazon for a device that reads the Kindle format (reader, computer, phone). All my books are enrolled in Kindle Unlimited (a subscription service that allows readers to read unlimited pages each month for a fixed price and pays the authors an amount per page of their works read).

While the calculations below are based on my Amazon-only sales universe, the concepts are equally applicable to authors who have their books available for wide distribution (Nook, Kobo, iBooks, etc.).

Step 1: Determine baseline sales.

For me, this was relatively easy because I had done no marketing during the two and a half months prior to the sales campaign. Count the number of books sold (or better royalties paid) for the base period for each book in the series and divide by the length of the base period (in my example 2.5 months).

If you sell wide, you can add together your sales for each book or perform this step separately by venue. For those of us participating in KDP select, we’ll need to collect the royalties for electronic books sold and the Kindle Unlimited (include KOLL) pages read for each book in our series. Normalize these results by converting everything to a per month basis. I assume Amazon will pay an average of $0.045 per page read. That means I expect to earn $45 for every 10,000 pages read.

The reason I estimate revenue per KU page read is I am not willing to wait the extra time for Amazon to let me know exactly what each month’s actual payment rate will be. (It varies each month based on Amazon whim—er secret formula.) If I wanted, I could redo the analysis once the final figures are in.

These are your Base Level Results. If you did nothing else, these are the revenues you would expect to generate from your series.

Step 2: Determine Cost of Each Free Download

If you simply announce the giveaway on your social network feeds and to your newsletter subscribers, you have no cost (unless you have enough newsletter subscribers so you need to pay for that). I chose FreeBooksy (owned by Written Word Media) to advertise my free download opportunity for Ant Farm and paid for a feature that advertised that the giveaway was part of the Seamus McCree series. It cost $142.50.

During the five-day promotion, Amazon indicated I had “sold” 5,915 books at the bargain price of $0.

The Cost per download is Cost of Promotion)/Number of downloads. For this promotion that was $142.50/5915 = $.024.

Step 3: Determine the Revenue earned per download:

Wait a minute; it’s cost me $0.024 per download, where’s the revenue come from?

The great thing about series is that if people like the first book in the series, even though it was free, some of them will buy the second book in the series. If they like that, some will buy the third book in the series. Etc.

The most read book in a series is almost always the first book. Someone who discovers Sue Grafton’s Y is for Yesterday, likes it and wants to read more, is likely to start at the beginning with A is for Alibi. The same for me: they read Empty Promises and like it, they’ll go back to the first book, Ant Farm.

By giving away Ant Farm, I hoped to earn revenue from sales (or KU pages read) of other books in the series.

Because I haven’t run any other promotions on the Seamus McCree series after the giveaway, I can determine how long the effect of the sale lasted. For Kindle purchases, it was about 2.5 months. Interesting to me, for Kindle Unlimited pages read, I’m experiencing a new, higher, “normal” level after the promotion. Regardless of that continuing bump, I cut off the KU effect at 2.5 months as well for purposes of this analysis.

For each book I determined royalties received and Kindle Unlimited pages read during the 2.5 months following the promotion.

That’s not all extra revenue, If I hadn’t done anything, I’d expect to continue to earn all the base revenues for each book. To get the excess revenue for each book, I needed to subtract the 2.5 months of the baseline from the actual sales.

I know lots of authors go cross-eyed looking at formulae. So, using words: we take the average monthly revenue for a product after sale and subtract the average monthly revenue for the same product before the sale to get the effect of the sale. Then, if the effect lasts longer than a month (in my case it lasted 2.5 months) multiply that result by the duration.

Here’s a simple example to see how this works. Say before the sale I earned an average of $10 a month on Book 2. During the 2.5 months after the sale, I earned (say) $60. My extra profit is the $60 less what I would have expected to earn during that period ($10/mo. x 2.5 mos. = $25). The extra revenue is $35 ($60 - $25).

Since I have five books in the series and I have both Kindle sales and KU reads, my total profit on the promotion is the sum of the excess profit on Kindle purchases and pages read under Kindle Unlimited for all five books.

An Aside about Kindle Unlimited

My expectation was that by giving away Ant Farm, those possibly interested in reading it would download it for free. Kindle Unlimited folks apparently have a different mindset. They don’t need to “own” the book; they’re happy to read it and “return” it to the Amazon library. During the 2.5 months following the giveaway, KU readers read over 50,000 pages of Ant Farm, which is the equivalent of almost 100 books for revenue of $225+. That group alone more than paid for the advertising expense of $142.50.

Back to the Main Analysis – Average Revenue per Download

Adding the extra revenue earned because of advertising and giving away free Kindle copies of Ant Farm from both Kindle sales and Kindle Unlimited reads totaled $1,023.60. Dividing that by the number of downloads gives average revenue per download.

$1023.60/5915 = $0.173

Recall that each download cost $0.024. The profit per download was $0.149. Yippee!

Takeaway #1

If we assume future readers will act in the same manner as those who participated in the analyzed sale, my break-even point is 17.3 cents per download. A quick analysis of whether a promotional website delivers value to me suggests that if the cost per download is greater than 17.3 cents, I should avoid it. How can you tell in advance? You can’t, but if something doesn’t work for you, don’t repeat it in the hopes the second or third time is the charm. Also, you can search for results other authors have shared in blogs like this one.

Question: Can we learn more from the data?

Of course. I wouldn’t have posed the question otherwise. It was an unexpected bonus to discover many Kindle Unlimited readers preferred to read Ant Farm through KU rather than downloading for free. Those pages read paid for the advertisement (and more). My original expectation of where I would make money from this promotion was that enough people would like Ant Farm well enough that after reading it they would buy the next in the series, Bad Policy.

And those who also like Bad Policy would read Cabin Fever, and so on down to Doubtful Relations and Empty Promises. [Did you catch the subtle use of the alphabet for the order of the series novels?]

That follow-through from one book in the series to another is called “Conversion” in the trade.

Conversion

Good conversion, I thought, was the key to making money from giving away the first book of a series. I figured I had a good chance of converting people from Ant Farm to Bad Policy. Ant Farm has a 4.6 rating on Amazon (50+ reviews) and 4.35 rating on Goodreads (100+ ratings).

Before I saw the results of the giveaway, I only considered one kind of conversion: from giveaway to sales of books 2, 3, 4 & 5. I discovered (others already knew this, but I hadn’t thought of it) that Kindle Unlimited readers have a separate conversion from book 1 to 2 to 3, etc.

Here are my actual Kindle sales conversions during the 2.5 months following the Ant Farm giveaway:


Book From
Book To
Conversion %
Ant Farm (free)
Bad Policy (paid)
0.59%
Bad Policy
Cabin Fever
60.00%
Cabin Fever
Doubtful Relations
80.95%
Doubtful Relations
Empty Promises
88.24%


Conventional wisdom suggests that those who download free books do not buy books at market prices (in my case $3.99). In fact, some readers use free books as a no-risk way of checking out new-to-them authors. If they like what they read, they’ll buy more. During the 2.5 months following the free-giveaway, only .59% purchased Bad Policy.

That seems dismal; but in fact, taking those people and following them through the extra sales of the other three series books was sufficient to make the advertising buy profitable.

There is a HUGE drop-off between those who acquired Ant Farm for free and those willing to spend money to purchase Bad Policy. Of those who went on to buy Bad Policy, 60% purchased Cabin Fever and if they bought Cabin Fever they surely became fans: 81% bought Doubtful Relations and of those 88% bought Empty Promises.

As I thought, if I could get people to buy a book of the series, a significant percentage would really enjoy the book and buy more. They key is how many people actually read free downloads. That, I have no way of determining, but enough did that their subsequent purchases more than covered the advertising costs of the giveaway.

Takeaway #2:

Even though the only place to purchase electronic copies of my novels is on Amazon, the giveaway was profitable. Those who could also give away and sell in other markets would be even better off for ebook sales alone.

Conversion for Kindle Unlimited Readers

For Kindle Unlimited, the percentages are a bit different:

Book From
Book To
Conversion %
Ant Farm
Bad Policy
106.90%
Bad Policy
Cabin Fever
60.24%
Cabin Fever
Doubtful Relations
87.58%
Doubtful Relations
Empty Promises
75.37%

I speculate that the result of more than 100% for conversion from Ant Farm to Bad Policy reflects a group of people who did download a free copy of Ant Farm and then used Kindle Unlimited to read Bad Policy. The other percentages are consistent, except the conversion from Doubtful Relations to Empty Promises is lower for KU readers. My guess is that this reflects non-binge readers. Some will pick up Empty Promises in the coming months.

In fact, while Kindle sales have stabilized at pre-giveaway levels. Kindle Unlimited pages read are still more than twice pre-giveaway levels.

Takeaway #3:

Kindle Unlimited readers changed what would have been a modestly profitable advertising buy and book giveaway into a (relatively) huge success.

Takeaway #4:

Although Bad Policy is the second in the series, it was the first published. In my opinion it is the weakest writing of any of my books. Ant Farm, the intended first book, was not bought by a publisher until I completely rewrote it after publishing Cabin Fever. The 60% conversion from Bad Policy to Cabin Fever might be because of this weakness.

It also might be that the back-matter material in Bad Policy is not optimal for eliciting readers to immediately purchase Cabin Fever. I’ve recently changed it, and time will tell whether that will bump up the conversion to Cabin Fever. Anything I can do (other than rewriting the book) is worth money because the conversion rates after Cabin Fever are stellar.

Takeaway #5:

As expected, I earned the most money on sales and pages read of Bad Policy. What surprised me completely was that Ant Farm provided the second largest profit, both from Kindle books sold and Kindle Unlimited pages read.

This, I think, shows the power of Amazon lists and “also reads.” People who did not know of the initial giveaway discovered the book through the power of Amazon’s platform. This had everything to do with placing high on Amazon’s best seller lists. During the giveaway, Ant Farm reached #22 in the overall Kindle Store for free books, and #1 for free books for both Private investigators and Suspense within the Mystery, Thriller & Suspense category.

Takeaway #6

The overwhelming effect of Kindle Unlimited for me is the reason why I remain in the KDP select program and have not gone wide. Most people who have their ebooks available on multiple platforms say they receive anywhere from a rare low of 60% to a more typical 75-85% of their sales from Kindle sales on Amazon.

By comparison, in this sale, I received only 49% of the additional revenue from Kindle sales. The remaining 51% came from compensation based on Kindle Unlimited pages read.

Your results will vary.

You have a different series, different target audience, Mercury may be in retrograde, a tweet could cause everyone to forget to look at books for several days. You may be selling wide, whereas I am concentrated in the Amazon universe. You may have great international sales (mine are miniscule).

The point is, to figure out if your promotions work, you must do this kind of analysis. Now you know how. Questions?

This blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill 10/7/2018

* * * 

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Why I Am All In with Amazon for Ebooks

Every Indy Author (a.k.a. Self-published Author) must make a fundamental decision about how to market their electronic books. Do they jump in bed solely with Amazon or play the field, allowing readers to purchase books from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play and others?

Authors must evaluate many factors before coming to a decision about how to sell a particular book. The size and breadth of their following, including the percentage of readers in the U.S. compared to other parts of the world where Amazon is less dominant can impact their choices. The price of the book can also matter, since Amazon will only pay 70% royalties for ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99, inclusive.

Print editions have other considerations. Today I want to concentrate on electronic books.

A year ago I regained rights to Bad Policy from a small publishing company whose philosophy is to go wide, making ebooks available on every platform they could find. During the three years they controlled the distribution and pricing, 80.3% of electronic sales by both volume and royalties were through Amazon and 19.7% through other outlets. My second book, Cabin Fever, (currently, with nearly three years of sales data with the same small publisher) has Amazon at 81.9%, with 18.1% for all others.

For simplicity let’s round the split to 80/20. Choosing to become exclusive with Amazon for Bad Policy, I’d potentially give up 20% of my sales. What would I get from Amazon that could justify reducing revenue flows by 20%?

The main advantages of going exclusive with KDP (Amazon’s self-publishing platform) are (1) simplicity in the publishing process, (2) the use of a limited number of days to use countdown deals/and or give the work away for free, and (3) access to Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL).

Simplicity is nice, but not a very high hurdle. With a broad distribution, you can (with work) nearly duplicate the effect of Amazon’s countdown or free days. The difference-maker from my perspective is access to KU and KOLL.

Ant Farm, the first Seamus McCree novel, was published by Kindle Press (an Amazon imprint), so the ebook is Amazon-exclusive. KU and KOLL revenues for it represented 29.9% of revenue—greater than the 20% I was losing by cutting off alternative sales outlets.

Now, the first thing one must realize is that the extra 10% is not all additional revenue. Some people who read the book would have purchased it from Amazon had it not been available on KU. I cannot quantify that number, but my gut sense is that it is very small. In talking with people who subscribe to KU, they claim to rarely buy books, preferring to read exclusively those available through KU. Amazon probably knows for sure whether that is true, but it seems unlikely those people buy many books from non-Amazon sources—which is why Amazon pushes KU subscriptions.

Offsetting that “double-counting” are people who prefer to read electronically using their Nook or Kobo, but have a Kindle reading app they use when that is their only choice.

I decided the gains would outweigh the losses, so when I reissued Bad Policy, I made the ebook exclusive to Amazon. It’s been less than a year since the reissue. During that time, KU has generated 30% of revenue—the same result I have had for Ant Farm, which has always been exclusive to Amazon.

When I published the fourth Seamus McCree novel, Doubtful Relations, in August 2016, my experiment with Bad Policy was already producing positive results. But I was reluctant to write off the 20% of my readers who were reading my books on non-Amazon platforms. I chose to go wide, using Draft2Digital to distribute to the other platforms. Instead of the expected 20% of sales from the other retailers. I earned less than 10%.

The reasons are not all that clear to me. Perhaps since Bad Policy’s original release in 2013, fewer people are reading on alternative platforms. (I know I initially preferred Nook, partially to help keep competitiveness in the ebook market, partially because I could turn my Nook into a tablet. I gave up on using my Nook as a tablet when much more powerful tablets became ubiquitous, and because it was so difficult to navigate B&N’s website and so easy to find what I wanted on Amazon.) Although I do enjoy detailed numerical analysis, I have not taken the time to do a month-by-month comparison to determine if the Amazon ratio had been increasing in the past year.

After three months with the same low rate of non-Amazon sales, I made Doubtful Relations exclusive to Amazon and enrolled it in KU. It’s too early to know for sure how that decision will play out, but in that partial first month, KU revenue was twice what I had earned from all other retailers in the previous three months.

This past Tuesday, LowcountryCrimes: Four Novellas made its debut. I polled the other three authors to determine if they had very strong readership on non-Amazon platforms. Everyone was noncommittal, so I went with my gut, which said KU readers would be willing to take a gamble on our four novellas. It only cost them reading time to try authors they might not know, and I (technically my publishing arm, Wolf’s Echo Press) made the ebook exclusive to Amazon.

But I also decided to publish each novella separately. And there I went wide! My thinking was that if you could get all four for free in KU, there was no advantage to having individual novellas enrolled in KU. If someone wanted to read (say) Tina Whittle’s “Trouble Like a Freight TrainComing” they could order up the entire anthology and read her story. Maybe they’d give the others a try. But, if Tina did have fans who read exclusively on Nook, I’d give them an opportunity to acquire her novella at B&N as well. Plus, I found a publisher (Pronoun) who pays 70% royalties on books priced less than $2.99, double Amazon’s policy of paying only 35%. The total anthology ebook is priced at $3.99; each novella at $1.99. (So you can purchase the entire anthology for the price of two separate novellas.)

That’s my current thinking. Will it change in the future? You betcha. The publishing industry remains in flux, and any business (and being an author is a business) needs to continue to keep on top of trends and experiment.


I’m curious, dear blog readers: has your way of reading changed over the last few years? Do you expect it to change in the future? Those of you who are authors, what are you finding with your sales?

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on Writers Who Kill (2/12/17)

Monday, January 30, 2017

Five Lessons Learned as a Nano-Press

What is a nano-press? Small presses are often defined as with revenues of less than $50 million. Micro-press frequently refers to the physical size of the books (often pamphlets or comics). Wolf’s Echo Press revenues are WAY BELOW the $50 million mark, so I thought that I should come up with a distinguishing term, and nano-press sounded about right.

Last year, I decided to produce an anthology of novellas set in the lowcountry of the southeast U.S. I invited three author friends who knew the area well to participate with me. The result is Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas. It’s on Kindle pre-order for only $2.99. Once it’s officially released the price jumps to $3.99. Hurry! Hurry!

Now, the lessons:

1. Deadlines are there for a reason.

Authors are busy people. They often have multiple current writing projects, need to do their own marketing, and many have jobs in addition to their writing. For this anthology to succeed, I set target dates for each major step in the process for both the authors and the publisher: the initial submission from the authors, the first round of edits back to the authors, the second and final revisions, when the publisher owed proof copies to the authors, and when they had to give their okay.

2. Everything takes longer than expected.

I was dealing with three pros, and my first inclination was to develop a nice tight timeframe to move the project from conception to completion. The sooner revenue began coming in from book sales, the quicker authors could earn out their advances.

And then I reflected on my corporate life when I managed people. I had learned through experience that each of us has built-in biases when we estimate how long something will take. A manager’s job is to adjust the estimate for each person’s bias. Some people pad their estimates. Whatever they say can be shortened by some percent. Others assume everything will go perfectly; their estimates must be lengthened to reflect reality.

I know how long something should take, and that’s how long I want it to take. Of course, it takes longer because stuff does happen. Because I know my tendencies, I took my original timeframe and added significant “extra” time. Sure enough, we needed most of that slack.

3. The last 20% takes 80% of the resources.

Getting something close to correct takes considerable effort, but if you want to get it right, it takes a lot more effort. I didn’t measure the specific time each task took, but I suspect a version of the 80/20 rule is applicable to the effort of producing a book for publication.

I know that perfection in an 85,000-word document is impossible. However, the quality of this book reflects directly on me. Not only did I write one of the novellas in the anthology, I helped edit the others, and a quality product may lead others to want to work with me in the future on projects—or if I screw it up, convince them not to work with Wolf’s Echo Press. You can only make a first impression once!

Which means that I spent considerable time trying to ensure we had no typos (I suspect at least one is still hiding. Please let me know when you find it.) Laying out the manuscript for print meant looking at each page, finding ways to eliminate orphans, making adjustments such as inserting soft-hyphens when justified lines spaced too broadly.

And then there was all the time spent in setting up the distribution process. Choosing appropriate meta data, keywords, developing the description readers will see when they look for the book.

Etcetera. Etcetera. Thank goodness I knew my tendencies and set the timeline with “room to spare.”

4. Order Matters.

Consider this nightmare scenario: despite sign off from the publisher’s proofreader and the author, you discover a homonym somewhere in the book. My experience is that readers will tolerate a typo or two, but if they find a homonym or a character whose name changes, it pulls them right out of the story. They read it twice and then discount the author’s intelligence, the publisher’s quality standards, mentally mark down the number of stars they will give the book in their review, start looking for other errors. Not good; not good at all. We want entertainment on every page, not scrutiny of every page.

Fortunately, most homonyms have about the same number of letters as the correct word. But, let’s say it’s a name change. If this error were caught anywhere early in the process, it would be a small matter to make the fix. Late in the process, it requires change to both the print version(s) and the electronic version(s). And in the print version, if you are unlucky (I was), the change from (say) Jennifer to (say) Jess, shortens the text enough to cause one fewer line, which in turn leads to an orphan on some later page.

Decision time. Let the layout go with the orphan, or change the initial document, the print layout, and the file transferred to the distributor(s)? Of course I changed it, but it was all extra work caused by timing.

When I looked at the print proof version of the book, I discovered a major (to my mind) issue. No one—author, proofreaders, publisher (that would be me)—had noticed that one of the novellas used straight quotes (mostly) instead of curly quotes. As I paged through the paperback proof looking for anything that might be a problem, the $%^&* things jumped off the page and smacked me in the nose.

I immediately knew what had caused the problem (the author had returned edits using a program that did not recognize curly quotes) and how to fix it. However, not only did I need to fix both print versions of the book, I had to fix the two electronic versions as well—and do it in a manner that didn’t screw up the direction of the curly quote in, for example, ’cause. [Checking for the straight quote issue is now part of my processing checklist when I go from document to print layout.]

5. The mystery community is generous.

Unlike much in life, the mystery community does not consider writing and reading to be a zero-sum game. One person’s success does not take away from anyone else. We root for each other and help each other along the way.

Other nano-publishers were generous in sharing their experiences in publishing anthologies. Some people generously offered to proofread the manuscript for the thrill of finding errors and because it allowed them to read the stories first. Thank you for your eagle eyes.

I’ve had the chance to work closely with three fine authors on this project (Polly Iyer, Jonathan M. Bryant and WWK’s own Tina Whittle) and see how they each crafted stories using the lowcountry setting and instructions that the novellas were to be “north of cozy and south of noir.”

Lastly, I do want to thank readers who take the time to leave honest online reviews. I think I speak for all authors and publishers when I say we couldn’t do what we do without you, and we appreciate the reviews you write to help others know of our work.

This blog originally posted on Writers Who Kill 1/29/17

Monday, January 16, 2017

Introducing Megan McCree

On February 7, 2017, I’ll be introducing a new member of the Seamus McCree extended family to the reading world. Her creation did not come easily, and I worried whether I was doing her justice. Let me explain.

Megan first entered my consciousness four years ago. I wrote the first 40,000 words of a novel set in the future. The YA main character had an older sister, a real tomboy. I thought the kids would be Seamus McCree’s distant descendants (just to keep it all in the fictional family). As I worked through the story, the sister role faded out and the first sparks of this female character were extinguished.

Then I decided to bring the story closer to the present and made Seamus McCree’s son, Paddy, a very old man—well over a hundred (medical improvements and an organic vegetarian diet worked). But Paddy at 140 was still too close to the present. That’s when I decided to utilize Paddy’s child, Seamus’s grandchild, the very old person. As I considered what internal forces would drive this character, I decided she should be female. Eventually, that project faltered and still awaits future attention. And so this as yet unnamed Seamus McCree granddaughter faded into the background.

When I started writing Empty Promises, the fifth in the series, hopefully coming out later this year, I recalled my vision of the ancient woman, and decided to bring Megan McCree to the stage. I wanted to show in this girl the seeds of the woman who in the very distant future would became a marvelous “ancient.” Because of the planned time gap between Doubtful Relations and Empty Promises, Megan will then be age three and a half.

I worried about what I knew about three-and-a-half-year-old girls. My daughter had been that age in the mid-1980s. Even my granddaughters are now preteens and teens. Could I carry off developing this short person in a way that was realistic?

When I sent a draft of Empty Promises to my developmental editor, I specifically asked for a critique of Megan, and then I held my breath. The editor had lots of suggestions, but none of them related to Megan as a character. Whew!

While continuing to work on Empty Promises, another opportunity for Seamus and family arose: a novella set in Georgia’s Lowcountry. What could be better than to bring Seamus, his darts-throwing mother, and Megan to Tybee Island, Georgia—the barrier island near Savannah—for vacation and havoc? But for this vacation to make sense in Seamus McCree’s overall arc, this story takes place several years after Empty Promises. Megan is a shade over six.

More worries for me. Could an old guy depict a six-year-old girl that mothers would accept? (Fathers accept any daughter, right dads?) Again, my development editor had no issues with Megan. I polished the novella and recently sent it to two terrific beta readers. Both know the Seamus McCree series and have an eye for errant homonyms, misspellings, misplaced modifiers, and the like. Again, I held my breath. These folks had never heard of Megan. Would they accept her?

Beta reader one gave me her corrections. She loved the story, and particularly loved Seamus’s mother. I broke down and asked if I had drawn Megan realistically. “Oh yes, she was fine,” she said. “But I really like Mom—probably because of my age.” Her grandchildren are older than mine, all out of high school. I didn’t take that as a vote of confidence on Megan.

Just this past week I received corrections from reader number two. She started her note with, “I just now finished the book and thoroughly enjoyed it! I fell madly in love with Megan.”

I think I’ve been holding my breath for four years—a long gestation period even for a fictional character. It’s nice to breathe naturally again.

You can meet Megan in the novella titled “Low Tide at Tybee” in Lowcountry Crime: Four Novellas to be released in print and Kindle editions on February 7, 2017.

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog 1/15/17.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Author Guest Post - Donald Levin

Donald Levin describes himself as smart, ironic, perceptive, stubborn, and skeptical. His writing is realistic, engaging, moving, complex, and fast-paced. Here’s how he answered his questions:
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Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

Over two decades as a professional writer, I’ve written in almost every circumstance you can imagine . . . in cubicles in large writers’ bullpens, in private offices, in hotel rooms, in bookstore cafes, in coffee shops, in libraries, in my car, on my front porch, in client offices that were so dismal they made me happy I could get up and leave but sorry for the people who had to stay there . . . What makes a venue productive depends on what I’m trying to do. When I’m rewriting or editing, I can pretty much work anywhere, any time.

But when I’m composing something new, the game changes. I need two things: somewhere that allows for the quietude of mind necessary for me to do creative work, and someplace where I can get into a routine of settling in to write for hours. When I began drafting my latest novel, I couldn’t write in my usual home office in the basement because a flood had made it uninhabitable. I was on sabbatical from my teaching job so didn’t want to go into school, where I knew I’d be interrupted constantly. I couldn’t afford a short-term lease on an office so I tried out several of the libraries around where I live, and settled on one in particular where I felt most comfortable. It was a large, quiet, clean well-lighted place with an alcove that perfectly suited me. I went there every day at opening time and worked all day, and in four months finished the draft of 120,000 words. The place was perfect . . . it was in the middle of a small downtown so I could take lunch breaks nearby and stroll around for an hour, it was not so loud and busy that I couldn’t focus, nobody knew me, and I could settle in for hours every day. I was able to get into the habit of producing writing, and it was lovely.

I know lots of people don’t have the luxury I had, but it was perfect for me.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

When I was younger my most productive writing time was at night . . . after my day job was finished I could concentrate on writing into the night and still get up to work the next day. Ah, youth! Now that I’m, um, not so young, I find my focus is better if I start work in the morning. That doesn’t mean I always start writing right away, but I need to be sitting at my desk at the same time every day and be able to devote a substantial chunk of time to it. Flannery O’Connor used to say it was important for her to be sitting at her desk in case any ideas came so she’d be there to catch them and that’s how I feel too.

My second most productive time of the day is around 3 p.m. For some reason, after the activity of the morning and the interlude of lunch, I seem to kick into high gear again around three. It’s a mystery.

Caffeine is a must in the morning, as a stimulant and as part of the writing ritual. Park the car, grab a cuppa coffee from the local barista, spread out on a library table, and settle in to work. Nothing better! Some people I know use alcohol or marijuana to grease the wheels or focus the mind but neither of those work for me. Just like finding the best venue, the secret is to find what works for you and then go with it.

How many books do you read in a typical month? Do you read in your genre while you are writing? What’s your most recent “great” book?

I’ve been a voracious reader my entire life but in all that time I’ve never actually counted the number of books I read. Some people keep a reading journal, which I approve of but don’t seem to have the desire to do. But I’m reading constantly (usually one book at a time), and when I finish a book I feel out of sorts until I start a new one. How many I read depends on how much time I have available. Recently I had back surgery and with a lot of time on my hands I went through about a dozen hefty books in a month. I read both in and out of my genre though I’m getting pickier about books than I used to be. Once I could find something to value in even the worst book and would stick with it to the end . . . knowing how hard it is to write a book I would feel I owed it to the author to finish. As I get older I’m finding myself bailing out of more books. There seems to be a tendency to publish more massive door-stoppers than ever before, and unless it’s to my taste I find myself losing interest before the end. I love Pynchon and tried to read Bleeding Edge (which I was looking forward to because I liked Inherent Vice (not, repeat, not the movie), but around page 300 I gave up because it wasn’t working for me. I don’t feel so bad about doing that anymore . . . maybe because time is getting more precious to me.

For the past few years I’ve been reading more non-American novels, particularly mysteries, which are what I write. American mysteries IMHO are laboring in the shadow of the hard-boiled, wall-to-wall violence of an earlier time, and not only don’t I find them compelling but I feel they’re dangerous in their cavalier approach to violence and sensation with little else to recommend them.

My most recent great book is a tie between Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North and David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten. Neither of these are genre novels, though they are both energized by terrific plots and don’t have the glacial movement of the typical literary novel. It’s hard to write a great mystery, I think . . . it’s harder to break new ground when you have to honor (or upset) well-established conventions of the genre. But if you think differently about what a “great book” means and consider mystery series as one long continuous novel, then it’s possible to approach greatness in the totality of a series . . . my best candidates would be what the Swedish couple Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo did with their Martin Beck series, what Henning Mankell does with his Wallander books, and what Ian Rankin does with Rebus.

Name three not well-known authors you would recommend and tell us what you like about their writing.

It’s hard to narrow it down to three but here goes . . . All of the three authors I’m going to mention have the same joys: wonderful characters who come alive between the pages of the books, stories that capture you quickly and draw you through the entire novel, books with a crucial connection between character and plot and setting, and books that engage and enlarge our sympathies in some important way. These are, not coincidentally, exactly the characteristics I strive for in my books.

Giles Blunt is a contemporary Canadian mystery writer who has the John Cardinal series set in northern Ontario. His work is richly textured with a constant interplay between character, story, and location . . . the books couldn’t take place anywhere else than northern Ontario. Compelling stories and believable characters keep you reading.

The Dutch writer Janwillem van de Vetering published a series of Amsterdam detective stories from the late 1970s through the 1990s. Having spent time in a Zen monastery (and written about it in a couple of memoirs), he wrote novels that were inflected with a wonderfully droll sense of Buddhism. Again, he features great characters and compelling mysteries. Though in his later works he moved his trio of detectives from their native Dutch soil to the States, and in those books they lose touch with the settings that energized the books, he’s still worth reading and enjoying.

He’s not well-known today and it’s hard to find his books anymore but in his day Ross McDonald was among the top writers working in the detective genre. He opened the American hard-boiled detective novel out to encompass social critique, and in his later books began to probe the psychoanalytic underpinnings of his mysteries. I inhaled his books, sometimes two a day. For anybody who hasn’t read him, he’s indispensable in learning how to move a story along.

There are so many others . . . the Scottish novelist William McIlvaney, the Swedish authors Hakan Nesser and Kjell Eriksson, the Norwegian Karin Fossum, the Irish writer Adian McKinty . . . email me if anybody wants to know more.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

Both of my Martin Preuss novels (and the ones that will follow, including the third book that I’m writing now) are about the failure of love, the cascading consequences of greed and violence, and the cruelty and brutality we inflict on others consciously or unconsciously.

What motivates you to write?

First, I love to do it. Honestly, everything about writing is a total pleasure for me. I love to spin out a fictional world that invites readers in for an experience that engages them and leaves them changed and moved by the end of the book. I love building houses in what Fay Weldon calls “the City of Invention.” I love using language. I love the psychomotor activity of putting words on a page, either scrawled along laboriously with a pen or sped along on a keyboard. (I’m not wild about rejection, but that comes with the territory; you have to focus on the joys and not the agonies.)

Second, in a larger sense, all art for me is a way to celebrate the world. The visual arts are a way to celebrate the visual world, and music a way to celebrate the aural world. Writing is a way to celebrate the human world . . .  to touch people’s minds and hearts, and enlarge our sympathies about the joys, sorrows, and possibilities of being human.

And finally, Virginia Woolf said the artist doesn’t create, she “makes visible.” There are aspects of this world of ours that I would like to make visible, and crafting stories is my way to do that.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

Like much of my writing, The Baker’s Men—the second Martin Preuss mystery—had its genesis in a single moment, kind of like an inspirational Big Bang. One afternoon several years ago I was driving down the street in Ferndale, Michigan, the city where I live just outside Detroit, which is also the setting of my mysteries. I saw a man half-walking, half-stumbling down the sidewalk with his hands on top of his head. He didn’t seem to be in distress, just sort of dazed. And I remember thinking to myself, “Now THAT’S the beginning of a novel.”

It was ripe with the kinds of questions we want our readers to ask: Who was he? What had happened to him? Where was he going? I kept that image in my mind until I had the time and space to be able to sit down and actually start the book. I knew I had to take the story someplace from there pretty quickly, so I went to my trusty folder of story ideas and interesting articles that I save (I’m always on the lookout for ideas for my books and poems). There I found the perfect way to continue.

I found an older article I had cut out from one of the local alternative newspapers several years before. The article described a crime that took place at a small family-owned bakery in Detroit. Two men were shot (one was killed) and a third man escaped. The murder was never solved. The article was actually about the devastation the bakery owners suffered in the aftermath of the crime, but the overall situation caught my imagination when I first came across it.

That situation became the inciting incident for the book that turned into The Baker’s Men. The man I had seen walking down the sidewalk morphed into the third man who escaped from the shooting at the bakery, which I now located in Ferndale. I changed most of the details about the crime (its location, the owners and their situation, the motive, and the victims) and repopulated it to suit my purposes. Then finally put my Detective Preuss on the case and it became his book.

But that’s not the only source for this novel. The other source was a tale my parents told me years ago something that happened to one of their friends. I can't say much more about it because I'll give away too much of the mystery that’s at the heart of the book . . . but like the article in the newspaper, I carried this story in my head for a long time (in this case more than twenty years) because I knew it would wind up in a novel someday. And it finally did, in The Baker’s Men.

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received and why was it so valuable?

The best piece of advice on writing I ever read was from novelist John Gardner, who wrote this in On Becoming a Novelist:

Finally, the true novelist is the one who doesn’t quit. Novel-writing is not so much a profession as a yoga, or ‘way,’ an alternative to ordinary life-in-the-world. Its benefits are quasi-religious—a changed quality of mind and heart, satisfactions no non-novelist can understand—and its rigors generally bring no profit except to the spirit. For those who are authentically called to the profession, spiritual profits are enough.

That sentiment has seen me through some very difficult times in my writing life, including a period of almost ten years when, despairing of finding anything close to success as a novelist, I stopped writing fiction entirely. I was having no success in placing anything, and just got too discouraged to continue. I’m not sure it was writer’s block (which suggests you want to write but can’t) as much as having lost the little holy flame that keeps us going.

Finally I came to terms with what “success” means . . . it’s not fame and riches but knowing that you are doing the best, most honest work you can. It was only when I realized the thunderous truth of what Gardner was saying that I was able to understand that I needed to write, regardless of what happened to my work. Once I realized that, it freed me up and I was able once again to let my creative drive find an outlet in writing fiction.

What Gardner says is what artists in every field discover for themselves: the satisfactions are all in the work.

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Here's a quick blurb for The Baker's Men:

Easter, 2009. The nation is still reeling from the previous year’s financial crisis. Ferndale Police detective Martin Preuss is spending a quiet evening with his young son Toby when he’s called out to investigate a savage after-hours shooting at a bakery in his suburban Detroit community. Was it a random burglary gone bad? A cold-blooded execution linked to Detroit’s drug trade? Most frightening of all, is there a terrorist connection with the Iraqi War vets who work at the store? Struggling with these questions, frustrated by the dizzying uncertainties of the crime, and hindered by the treachery of his own colleagues who scheme against him, Preuss enters a whirlwind of greed, violence, and revenge that spans generations across metropolitan Detroit.

Reviewers have called this book “riveting” and “gripping,” with “the emotional unraveling of a complicated crime with well-developed characters and background drama.”

For more information about Don and his books check out his website https://donaldlevin.wordpress.com/

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Author Guest Post - Lynn Chandler Willis

Lynn Chandler Willis describes herself as a simple country girl at heart. She says her writing is fast paced, quirky, character driven. Here's how she answered her questions:
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You have a table for four at your favorite restaurant and can invite any three people, living, dead or fictional. Who are your guests (and why) and where are you eating (and why)?

My guests would be Gypsy Moran, his sister Rhonda and their grandmother “Gram,” all characters in Wink of an Eye. There are some wonderful family dynamics going on with the Moran family. Their simplicity makes them incredibly complex. Where would we eat? A Tex-Mex restaurant on the moderately priced end of the spectrum. The Morans are blue-collar people you'd have a beer with.

Describe your most productive writing venue. What makes it best for you?

Right now, I'd have to say I lean heavy on novel writing. Writing a novel is a serious time investment but it's paid off for me. I have two novels out and both are award winners. My novel, The Rising, won the 2013 Grace award for Excellence in Faith-based fiction, and Wink of an Eye won the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America Best 1st PI novel competition.

What makes a great short story?

Well placed beats, or actions. Unlike a novel, with a short story you have limited words to get in an entire story. Every single word must move the story forward.

What is your most productive time of the day (and do you need caffeine)?

Unfortunately, around 11:00 pm. I say that because I have to get up at six for the other job! For some reason, the muse starts poking me around that time. I think it may be psychological as I know I shouldn't be writing at that time when I have to get up so early so the rebel in me wants to win.

What themes do you regularly employ in your writing?

Everyone has flaws but people also have extraordinary strength in overcoming some of those flaws.

What is the most challenging area for you as a writer? What are you doing to address the issue?

Accepting that the first draft doesn't have to be perfect. I know writers who churn out 10,000 words a day while writing the first draft but may only keep 500 words of it in the final draft. I can't do that but I am upping my daily word count by just doing it. The words aren't as perfect as I want them to be but I have the foundation down on which to make them stronger.

What motivates you to write?

The characters pushing and shoving their way out of my head. They have stories to tell and I'm just the instrument they've chosen to use.

How did you develop the idea for your most recent work?

I had the character of Gypsy Moran in mind for several years. He wasn't always a private investigator but he was always in some type of investigative field. He was smart, sexy, cocky, a little bit of a jerk, and very flawed—but he was also vulnerable which made him endearing. I knew from the beginning I wanted the setting to be in the southwest but I wasn't sure exactly where until I saw the move “No Country for Old Men.” Seeing the vast openness of that area was like the proverbial ton of bricks. I knew without a doubt that was it. I started researching small towns in west Texas and when I found Wink, Texas, Gypsy found a home. I knew Wink of an Eye would be very character-driven so I wanted a setting that could hold its own as a secondary character and I found that in that tiny little town.
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To learn more about Private Investigator Gypsy Moran and Wink of an Eye, or my other books, you can connect with me at:


Here's a quick little blurb for Wink of an Eye: Twelve-year old Tatum McCallen hires reluctant PI Gypsy Moran to prove his father didn't kill himself. Gypsy, on the run from his own set of problems, soon finds himself in the middle of a case involving eight missing girls, a cowardly sheriff, and undocumented workers. Aided by a sexy reporter, Gypsy begins unraveling secrets buried deep in his tiny hometown of Wink, Texas. Secrets so deep, exposing them threatens the only woman he's ever loved, and the very life of Tatum.