Showing posts with label Writing Life. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Writing Life. Show all posts

Monday, October 22, 2018

Autumn as a Metaphor

Earlier this week, I crossed the 50,000-word mark in the first draft of my newest novel. I’ve set a target of 1,000 words a day, which I have been meeting and exceeding. I’m enjoying the process of getting to know characters and their challenges, and at this pace, I’ll have the first draft complete by the end of November.

This is a perfect time for me to be working on a first draft: Autumn is a metaphor for my writing process. Hey, you’re thinking: You're a numbers guy, not exactly poet material. Let me try anyway—Autumn is a time for planting seeds, and only in Spring do we discover which ones will grow into something.

With leaves off the trees, my view of the woods changes. The gaudy colors that draw tourists now coat the ground, still a beautiful sight though it will soon be covered by snow. With Summer’s dress stripped by cold and wind, what’s left to observe are the structural bones of the
land.

Rocks, once hidden by ferns and grasses are now visible, poking from morning-frosted ground. I can see the mosses and lichen, indicators of clean air, covering the now visible rock. These rocks are a physical reminder of the region’s geology, of how glaciers scraped topsoil from the ground and dropped erratics (rocks from other areas) as the ice melted.

This is the ancient history of my woods. I can “see” them today without knowing the effect of glaciers, but I can’t know them and understand the hows and whys of their existence without this deep knowledge. Glaciers are to my woods as the Irish Famine is to the McCree family as it brought Seamus McCree’s ancestors to the New World. Nothing that comes after will be the same.

In Summer, the forest appears as a unified whole, composed of many species and generations. With the leaves off, each tree shows its complete form, from which nature will hang a new set of clothes the following Spring. Each tree tells its individual story in straight or twisted trunk, in limbs broken by wind storms or sheared off by the weight of snow storms when they still held their leaves. Some trees lean in toward an opening in the canopy. Those exposed to prevailing winds lean away from it. In the slanting rays of Autumn’s sun, each tree casts its own long shadow across the land.

Some trees are survivors of earlier trauma. Trees that years ago had their central shoot broken have a crook in their trunk where a branch turned upward to become the new central lead. A few seem to grow straight from rocks, their long roots exposed before they plunge into the ground. A half-dozen trees grow in a straight line. Not planted by humans, they came into existence because a long-dead nurse tree that crashed to the ground fed them with its rot, allowing this next generation to fill the space its falling created.

The evergreens stick out from their deciduous brethren: two separate survival strategies on display. The ground and water determining which will work better for this acre or that.

What a dull forest (novel) I would have if every tree (character) were the same. How shallow my understanding if all I can see is their Summer finery.

Plants alone do not make a forest. Without animals, they couldn’t last long. Strategies for animal survival become more obvious as Autumn sets in. Chipmunks and red squirrels forage under my sunflower feeders, stuffing their cheeks with seeds to store for Winter. Bucks and bull moose thrash about leaving scratchings on trees and bushes where they try to scrape off the itchy, drying velvet covering their antlers.

Insect-feeding birds migrate south where they can still find bugs. Geese pass overhead in long, honking skeins. Ducks and kingfishers leave the lake before it freezes over. Sometimes a few stay too late and the ice catches them, forcing them to wait for an Indian Summer to give them one last chance.

Autumn brings with it tiny disasters that suggest how the plants and animals will react when Winter comes: the early snow when leaves are still on the trees; heavy rains that flood low-lying areas; hunters looking for food or trophies. These character tests set the stage for Winter’s ultimate challenge to survive. But that’s a blog for another day, another season.

After my daily writing, planting seeds for the future rewriting that eventually becomes a publishable novel, I often take long rambles in my woods. And every day I learn something new about them.
* * *
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.

This post is a slightly modified version of a blog that first ran on Writers Who Kill on 10/21/18.

Friday, April 6, 2018

Six Rules of Author Self-Promotion


Whether you are with a big five publisher or publishing a novel yourself, you must promote your book. I’ve learned six rules to do it right.

Rule One: It’s not all about YOU

Self-promotion should be about building relationships. As an author, your goal is to build long-term relationships with your readers. Naturally, your writing is what ultimately makes the difference, and you need to make it as compelling as possible. That does not mean you start building relationships once you have something about to be published. That would be all about you.

Relationships are two-way streets. If self-promotion is you force-feeding your promotions, you will not be effective for long.

Rule Two: Add Value to the Relationship

You have experiences and expertise that you can share with others to make their life [fill in your adjectives here.] Try to provide value within any promotion. Entertain, provide new insights into your writing, your work, your life—help others improve their writing, their work, their lives. Let people know what didn’t work and why so they can learn from your mistakes.

Help them along their paths without asking for a return favor. I will be forever grateful to Hank Phillipi Ryan and Steve Hamilton, two high-powered authors who took the time from their busy schedules to write blurbs for my books. Don’t you think I let people know about their helpfulness? (You bet. I just did, didn’t I?)

Rule Three: Be Yourself

I am a math guy; always was, always will be. I know that’s not everyone’s cup-o-tea, but it is mine. With my math background and ability to translate complicated concepts into English, I can help people understand the world in a different way. That’s my niche. And I write financial crime novels, so there is a practical tie-in.

Show your sense of humor. Some won’t get it—they never do, do they?—but those who are tuned to your sensibilities will form a stronger link with you.

Rule Four: Have Permission

How do you feel when a robocall interrupts your family dinner? For me, that’s a perfect reason to never buy the product, vote for the politician, or do whatever they had in mind for me to do. All because they did not have my permission to interrupt what I was doing.

I receive unsolicited author newsletters and email promotions all the time. The first time it happens, I chalk it up to inexperience. But when it keeps happening, I employ email junk filters to toss them into the spam pile that is deleted without delay. How likely am I to buy their books or retweet that their latest is on sale? You guessed it: not likely.

Make sure you have permission before sending newsletters. When someone like the ELF asks you to write a guest blog, follow their rules regarding content and promotion. It’s a courtesy to the blog’s owner, and its readers will be more apt to appreciate what you have to say.

Rule Five: If you don’t ask for assistance, you won’t get it.

If there is something you would like people to do, you need to make a direct, clear ask. I’d like you to buy my book, and maybe you would based on this blog. What I will ask you to do is to read the first four chapters of Empty Promises for free and decide for yourself if you enjoy my kind of writing. (If you prefer starting a series with the first book, Ant Farm’s first four chapters are here.)

Nothing works as well as a direct ask.

My order of preference is to ask in person. If that’s not possible, then by phone where two-way communication is still possible. Email or your favorite messenger app is a distant third because it is more distant. Of course, in a promotional situation like this, you need to incorporate your ask in a way you think makes sense.

Rule Six: Thank People When They Help You

Strangers, friends, and family do not owe authors their support. So when someone offers it, tell the individual or community that you appreciate the time and effort they took to help you out. This common courtesy goes a long way when people know you mean it.

That’s it: six rules that make self-promotion acceptable to my sensibilities. What’s been your experience?

A version of this blog appeared as part of the Empty Promises Virtual Book Tour (4/2/18 - 4/20/18)

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

A Sense of Place

Clifton Area of Cincinnati, OH

If you are going to be a successful liar, you need a great memory. Lies accumulate over the years, and it takes more and more effort to keep them straight. By the time I started writing the Seamus McCree novels, (Empty Promises is #5), my steel-trap mind was already suspect. I reasoned that if I wrote using settings I knew, it was one less thing I had to worry about remembering. Oh sure, I could have developed a detailed series bible with all the invented places and so forth, but that’s a lot of work—and for me, organization is more a wish than a reality. Since it’s easy to forget where the closets are, I housed characters in residences I used to inhabit.

For Ant Farm and Bad Policy, I gave Seamus my house in the Clifton neighborhood of Cincinnati (but moved it to another street). Uncle Mike, a continuing character, resides in the apartment complex in Waltham, MA where I lived in 1978.

Cabin Fever is set in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan where Seamus happens to have a camp located on the same lake where I have my home. For Empty Promises, I wanted to return to the U.P. and the story was willing. Our place—er Seamus’s place—is fifteen miles from the nearest place you can buy anything. Fourteen of those miles are gravel or dirt roads. Cabin Fever was set in the dead of winter and in that story weather and the gradual movement toward spring were their own character. Empty Promises occurs during summer, and although our place is not as isolated as in winter, it is still remote, which is an important ingredient in the story. And best of all, I don’t have to think about where the doors are or which side of the house has the screened porch.

I’ll be interested to hear in the comments how as readers y’all feel about using real locations for novels. Do you enjoy reading about real places, or would you prefer authors construct their own locations?

This blog was originally published as a guest post for part of the Empty Promises Virtual Book Tour.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Choices

With less than three weeks before the official launch of Empty Promises, my life is consumed with marketing efforts. I have blogs to write, interviews to complete, reviews to post. The list is as endless as I want to make it, and therein lies the problem.

I think that the biggest issue I have with the Seamus McCree series is exposure. Goodreads reviews for books in the series average 4.4 out of 5. Except on those days of self-doubt when I’m convinced I can’t write anything more engaging than a grocery list, I realize readers who enjoy my kind of story, enjoy my stories. But only if I can get my books into their hands. And so I search for blogs and reviewers with the right audiences.

So many choices, so many unknowns.

Iceberg off Antarctica in the early morning
One mistake businesses (and writing is most assuredly a business) make in attempting to gain new customers is to neglect their current customers. JC Penney provides a wonderful example unrelated to books. The brand was in difficulty, as were most of its competitors. Their new CEO tried to make the store a “hip” place to shop. Its customer base wanted traditional goods at a fair price. The CEO decided a fair price meant low everyday prices: reduced retail prices, but no more coupons and sales.

The net result was the hipper crowd never thought JC Penney was the place to go, and their loyal customers liked feeling special with coupons and sales events—even if it meant higher list prices and the same net prices. The CEO managed to alienate his base and attract no one to replace it.

The Three Tenors (Chinstrap penguins)
Now, besides writing more great books, how can I keep my fans happy customers? I provide my newsletter subscribers with discounts, free stories, and inside scoops. But I write at the tortoise pace of one book a year. How can I keep fans engaged in between book launches?

It turns out lots of my readers like my photography, especially shots taken while on trips. Since I recently finished an excursion to Antarctica, I’ve been taking time away from what I “should” be doing to promote Empty Promises and, instead, selecting and posting pictures from the Antarctica trip. My approach was to have people take the trip with me by posting a day at a time. (Sometimes with really busy days, I posted morning and afternoon separately.)

Gentoo Penguins in the rain
Antarctica has nothing to do with Empty Promises, which takes place in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, but I’ve discovered that penguins may be better than cats for getting likes on Facebook. Who knows how I might use that information in the future? Maybe Megan McCree (Seamus’s granddaughter who debuts in Empty Promises) will get a penguin doll for the next book.

That’s the choice I made: share commentary along with a very small subset of the 2,700 pictures I took rather than spending the time on more traditional marketing activities. The “vacation reprise” ended earlier this week, and now I’m full bore on writing interesting blogs. I hope my fans have been entertained and maybe even mentioned my posts to a friend or two and remembered to include the information that I write the Seamus McCree series. Well, that’s my hope anyway.

Readers, do you ever discover an author from an activity divorced from their writing—like, say, Facebook posts about an Antarctica trip? Authors – how do you balance promoting to new audiences with keeping fans happy? 

A version of this blog first appeared 3/12/18 on the Writers Who Kill blog.

Monday, February 26, 2018

A Writer Unplugged


Antarctic Peninsula

Earlier this week we returned from our 23-day journey in and around Antarctica. During that time, I had no access to electronic news feeds. I missed the Super Bowl – although I did hear the score the next day. I missed five shootings in or around schools: Lincoln High School in Philadelphia (1/31), an “unintentional” shooting of two in Sal Castro Middle School in LA (2/1), Oxon Hill High School, Oxon Hill, MD (2/5), the parking lot of Pearl-Cohn High School, Nashville, TN (2/9), and mass murder at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, FL (2/14). I missed (I think) Congress passing a budget. I returned to find Dreamers are still caught in a nightmare and the Olympics in full swing.

Sheep with Magellanic Penguins on Falkland Islands
Each day, the ship I was on printed a multi-page news summary. It covered the world. Cricket, Tennis, Golf, and English Premier League Football each had more lines of coverage than the two or three allocated daily to US news, which was included under the subhead “The Americas” (lumping our bit of drama with that from the rest of North, Central, and South America).

Striated Caracara - Falkland Islands
While all those events (and much, much more) transpired, I spent oodles of hours on deck watching pelagic birds, cloud patterns, the work of wind on the water. During our numerous landings, we visited new places (Argentina, the Falkland Islands, South Georgia Island, the Antarctic Peninsula and surrounding islands), saw thousands of birds and unique landscapes.

The only time I consciously spent in writerly activities was during one day at sea. The birds had mostly left us, and it rained or drizzled all day. I stayed in my cabin and wrote the drafts of two blogs related to the April 3 release of Empty Promises. I suppose I should also count time I spent talking with fellow passengers about my writing. That should probably be counted as sales activity.

young Black-browed Albatross - Falkland Islands
Life itself is grist for the writer’s mill, and this was an experience unlike any other I have had. The problem is, if you tried to pin me down about what I learned or how I might incorporate something into my writing, I’ll have to admit that I have no clue. Maybe an expression I heard will pop up in a character’s dialogue. Perhaps I’ll describe how one passenger walked using a stabilizing boot on one foot—the way she shifted her body to compensate for the additional weight and bulk, or how she had to navigate the stairways in rolling seas. Wait! Maybe I’ll have a passenger use a fake boot to hoodwink an airport worker into moving her to the head of the customs line.

Or perhaps a character will incorporate some trait I saw a passenger exhibit: how they approached eating each meal, a sideways shift of his eyes when he didn’t agree with a statement but chose not to engage in argument, a chuckle that turned into a giggle that turned into a knee-slapping roar.

Chinstrap Penguin in the Southern Ocean
I’m sure some writers would have recorded everything in a notebook so they could tap those recollections as needed. I am not that kind of writer. I have no patience for that kind of recording. For some time I kept a diary—sort of. A typical entry might read.

Weather good. Beat Olympia 3-2. (Only by the date could I know if this was soccer or baseball!)

King Penguin colony on South Georgia Island
I’d rather experience something than worry about trying to record it. I only take pictures as something of an after-thought. I want to experience the scenery before recording it. I want to watch the bird, how it uses lift from the waves to pop high into the air, how it uses its tail as a braking device, how it hops on the ground kicking over leaves. Oh yes, I like taking bird photographs, but sometimes I forget in the joy of watching them.

Magellanic Penguin
"If I turn my back on you will you stop squeaking?
The trip reminded me how much I enjoy being outdoors and how little I enjoy talking back to politicians on the television when they lie or avoid tackling hard topics. I missed the part of social media that keeps me in touch with friends and acquaintances; I did not miss the part of social media railing against others (regardless of whether I agreed or disagreed with their position).

I could choose to remain a Writer Unplugged. In some ways it would be easier to ignore all that’s wrong with the world and go my merry way without a care. Except, I prefer making decisions based on facts rather than beliefs, and by ignoring injustice, I’d lose the part of my core being that cares about the plight of others.

Cape Petrel in Southern Ocean
So, I shall return to being a Plugged-In Writer but commit to controlling how I gather news and interact with others about interpreting it. I shall not allow it to regain control of my time or my energy.

Oh, and so I don’t leave you with any false impressions, let me confess: I did manage to take 2,740 non-blurry pictures during the trip. How about you—what’s your biggest take-away from your latest trip or vacation?

This blog was originally posted on Writers Who Kill (2/25/18).



P.S.  I am posting photos and commentary of this trip on Facebook, as though you were traveling with me with a 20-day delay. You can follow me on Facebook at  https://www.facebook.com/james.m.jackson.author Be sure to check the Album as well as the daily posts. ~ Jim

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Parting is Such Sweet Sorrow

Later today I begin the Great Antarctica Adventure. I’ve read all the preparatory material—at least twice. My camera equipment is packed. Batteries charged. Clothing checked against my master list and set aside. Bird books studied. Google translate loaded onto phone (to make up for my nonexistent Spanish skills). Twenty-five days’ worth of medicine set aside. Passport and cash in wallet. Boarding tickets printed out.


I’m ready to go, already . . . except for one thing. I’m not ready to give up my connection to the internet. We’ll probably have internet access in airports and hotels, but for the nineteen days we are on the ship, it is unavailable—at least at a price I want to think about.

I’ve been working on curbing my obsession to the news of the moment. That’s gone about as well as when I tried to quit smoking by gradually cutting down. Something would happen and poof (or puff), I’d be back at my two-pack a day habit. I’m wondering if constant irritation over the news isn’t as dangerous as my smoking habit was. So, I’m going cold turkey. If there’s a newspaper available at port stops, I’ll catch up, but no more checking eighty-seven times a day to see what . . .well, you fill in the blank; I’d just get upset again.

I’m giving up Facebook, too, but only for the trip. I’ll go missing to my 886 friends (as of this writing), and they will go missing to me. I won’t experience three and a half weeks of their lives, because—and I’m just being honest here—I’m not going to check my friends’ back posts when I return. That admission may even cost me a few friends. You mean I don’t care enough about them and their cat Fluffy that I won’t check out each cat shot, each annoying GIF, each political rant. Yep, and I won’t be able to celebrate your book launch or new grandchild, either. When I return to Facebook, it might be like reading a Russian novel and discovering six pages from the middle are missing. I’ll just plow ahead. I’ll miss about 0.08% of each person’s total life. Sure, some important things will happen, but not many—the effect over my total friends is about 2/3rds of one life.

Admit it—you won’t miss my occasional math-geek or writer-geek post, either. Maybe I’ll schedule one or two, just to remind everyone I’m still alive. I have a Writers Who Kill blog due while I’m traveling, and I turned that in ahead of time.

I won’t waste a second mourning the loss of not having access to my Twitter feed.

Email is something else. I remember when all important communications were delivered by the US Postal Service. Back in those distant times, it might take a week or more for a letter to move from sender to receiver. Only businesses used express mail, and faxes were of low quality, slow (two pages a minute) and were sent over long-distance lines you had to pay for by the minute. Oh, and remember telegrams, with their pre-Twitter form of clipped communication as every letter was expensive. STOP.

I’m a writer – what will happen if an agent or publisher wants to contact me? Or a book club wants to schedule me for a meeting? Or someone wants to buy a signed paperback? I’ll employ an automatic responder: “Sorry, it will take me some time to respond to your email. I’m traveling to Antarctica. Be back on 2/22.” Actually, I won't. Turns out my email program (Thunderbird) doesn't have a way to do that and anyone who writes a message to an account with @jamesmjackson.com will hear nothing from me until I return.

That reminds me of the time my boss insisted he have a way to contact me while I was on vacation. I was whitewater rafting down the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers. I thought a while and then told him that I supposed he could hire a helicopter rescue company to track down our raft and airlift me from the sandbar or beach we camped at that night.

Today, however, we’re used to being connected 24/7. One might still be forgiven for not answering an email for a day or two if you’d just had quadruple bypass surgery, but otherwise, we expect immediate responses. Well, that just isn’t going to happen. Unlike my days working for corporations where there was someone to back me up, I’m a sole proprietor. It’s me or it’s not.

If that costs me some book sales, so be it. I’m confident the potential loss won’t cause me any sleepless nights or worrisome days. To find out, you’ll have to wait for my return.

A version of this blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog on 1/28/18.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Cowriting a Short Story

As a writer of the Seamus McCree Mystery/Suspense series, my marketing aim is to expose more potential readers to my novels. When Teresa Inge asked if I’d be interested in submitting a story for the 50 Shades of Cabernet anthology, I immediately agreed. It fit my marketing needs: a Seamus short story in an anthology with lots of excellent writers that would expose a new group of mystery readers to him. [Pre-order links for Amazon and B&N.]

Over the last few years I had worked closely with Tina Whittle in founding the Low Country Sisters in Crime Chapter and become a fan of her Tai Randolph series. In the back of my mind, I hoped we might find an opportunity to work on a joint project. After receiving permission from Teresa to submit a cowritten story, I approached Tina and she agreed. Now we had to figure out what to write.

Tai is a southern girl born and raised. Seamus is a guy of the north and was going to have to travel south for this adventure to happen. Tai buys and sells Civil War antiquities in Atlanta; Seamus is a Civil War buff. That was enough of a nexus, and at the end of two email exchanges, we had the basic outline of the story. Now, how to write it?

Having talked to writing duos at mystery conferences, I knew there were as many ways to approach the writing as there are pairs who write. Tina’s series is written from Tai’s point of view in first person. My series often uses multiple POVs, but scenes in which Seamus has the POV are also written in first person. We agreed to write the first draft of those scenes in which our character was the more important POV character. We’d write the scenes in order of the story and write everything in first person. To remove reader confusion about who the “I” in the scene was, we stole a technique from the 19th century and introduced each scene with a very brief descriptor. For example, the opening scene is introduced as Seamus McCree Meets a Daughter of the Confederacy at a Soiree.

Tina Whittle
I had responsibility for writing the first scene. Tina provided me background information on what Tai and Trey would wear and how they might act in the setting I planned. After I completed the first scene, Tina composed the second, at which point we agreed to straighten out little plot inconsistencies after we had a first draft completed. (I was happy with that solution because even though I outlined the story, I’m a pantser by nature and don’t want to be strictly constrained by any outline.)

After we wrote “The End,” it was time to revise. I took the first crack to straighten out a couple of plot bobbles and smooth our first draft writing. We traded the manuscript back and forth until we both liked what we had. Version four became our submitted.

The editor had only small suggestions. Looking through the edits, it was as if we had performed a Vulcan mind-meld. (Which you understand if you are a Trekkie fan; otherwise replace with “we thought exactly alike.”) Tina and I were pleased to discover we agreed on which of the editor’s suggestions to take, which to agree she had diagnosed a problem but to develop our own solution rather than accept her suggested approach, and which ones we felt needed push-back. One sentence proved particularly troubling, and we batted that one back and forth in a series of emails until we wrestled it to the ground.

Bottom line, would I do it again? Any time Tina wants, I’m up for it. I not only enjoyed working with her, I believe that our combined story was stronger than either of us might have produced on our own. (Now, of course, she might think that’s because I dragged her brilliance down, but if she thought that, she was kind enough to never mention it!)

Would I partner with anyone? I’d be open to discussing a project, but I’d have to feel comfortable that our styles were compatible. Check out how we did. [Pre-order links for 50 Shades of Cabernet: Amazon and B&N.]

~ Jim

Monday, February 27, 2017

Cover Wars


For the past week, I have been filling out a questionnaire that will provide the basis for an interview to appear in a magazine later this year. I’ll leave you in suspense about the details so I have fodder for a future blog. One of the questions was, “How did getting/being published change your life?” My response was that after publication I spend much less time on pure writing and significantly more time on sales and marketing activities.

To my way of thinking, it’s all about exposure. I have faith that my novels are well-written and a certain segment of the reading public will like them—but only if they get a chance to read them. The problem is to find ways to make those potential readers aware of my books so they can find out for themselves just how good they are.

Since you never know what works until you try it, I experiment with different promotional opportunities. One I tried last year is called “Cover Wars.” The concept is simple: every week fifteen book covers are displayed on a webpage. The public can vote for the best cover, and the winner receives some free promotion on the website that sponsors the contest. It costs nothing for an author to participate.

Now, I think my Doubtful Relations cover is a really good cover – the kind of cover that makes you want to pick up the book and find out more. I’m prejudiced, of course, but you can judge for yourself. I signed up, waited a couple of months for my turn to participate, and early one Sunday morning the contest including my book opened.

I checked out the competition. There was only one other book that I thought was a contender. Now, those of you who personally know me know I am a teeny, weeny, bit competitive. I wanted to win. The rules were that repeat voting was allowed, but no more than once a day. But the reason I had signed up wasn’t to win; I hoped the exposure would intrigue some folks who did not know my books to give this one a try.

I posted about the contest on Facebook and mentioned it to the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, where I am currently the president. And, of course, I voted once a day for the best cover!

The other cover that should have been my competition garnered very few votes. The book that turned out to be my major competition was not a particularly strong cover; it was so busy the key message (title and author) was lost.

Some of my Guppy chapter associates got behind the contest in a big way, voting daily and encouraging others to vote. Had each of the chapter’s 700 members voted for my cover just once, it would have won by a landslide. Which tells you the contest exposure was small. The fifteen contest authors ginned up various amounts of support from friends, but there wasn’t a large group of folks out there in cyberland using this contest to find some great new books.

And that led to the marketing result: During the week of the contest, sales of Doubtful Relations declined compared to the average for the previous few weeks.

I also quickly recognized that the free contest was only free in terms of me not spending any money. I spent lots of time thanking people who let me know they had voted for my cover. And Mr. Competitive wasted mucho time tracking how my cover was doing compared to the competition.

I went to bed Saturday night with a very small lead, and woke up Sunday morning having lost by a bunch of votes. The winner had rallied her troops or bots or whatever for a last-minute push.

Lessons for me: Measure all the costs of a promotion, not just the cash outlay. Check some prior results to see the number of votes – that would have given me a clue that the contest was thin on reader engagement. Remember that whatever I tell myself about being disengaged from the result of a contest, I won’t be, so make sure to factor in all that wasted time checking to see how my entry in the race is faring.

So dear friends who are readers, where do you find out about new-to-you books that seem to be worth trying?

A version of  this blog was first posted at Writers Who Kill on 2/26/17.

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)