Monday, July 1, 2019

Amazon, Authors, and Asymmetric Information

By James M. Jackson

Asymmetric information occurs any time two parties to a transaction have different levels of knowledge about a situation.

Sometimes that’s a very good thing: When I go to the doctor with bothersome symptoms, I expect her to know a lot more than I do about diagnosing the problem and how to treat the underlying issue.

Sometimes it is not a good thing: for example, when you buy a used car from a stranger, the seller knows much more about the car than the buyer does. The seller knows whether the car had all its routine maintenance, whether the son red-lined the engine drag racing with friends, whether it sat for a week in a flooded garage. Unless you are a mechanic, or hire one to inspect the car, you will suffer from asymmetric information.

Let’s Focus on a self-published author’s relationship with Amazon when using KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing).

What does Amazon provide to self-published authors who use KDP (Amazon’s publishing platform)?

You know your royalty rate depending on choices you make about pricing your book and what markets you want Amazon to sell into. There are no hidden costs.

They provide information about your sales—it’s not always 100% accurate, but it’s reliable, and it’s current (at least reasonably so) to within a day.

If you enroll your books in Kindle Unlimited, you can determine the number of pages members read, again daily, with good accuracy.

Amazon provides these data sooner than what an author receives from traditional publishers.

Where does Amazon use its Asymmetric Information to its advantage?

Book Rankings: No one knows exactly how Amazon determines book rank. Sales have something to do with it: we’re sure of that. But sales over what period? What effect does sales momentum have? Sales memory (past sales)? Pages read by members enrolled in Kindle Unlimited also count toward a book’s ranking, but we don’t know how. Does your book share a level playing field with big publishers? How about with Amazon’s own imprints? (i.e. How level is the playing field level?)

One example of a non-level playing field is this: If you give your book away, Amazon assigns a separate ranking for free books. However, free downloads of Amazon Imprint books included in their “First Reads” promotion count the same as sales and are not segregated into a separate class, meaning these books can (and do) obtain the coveted #1 status in their categories.

Search Results: When you search for a book on Amazon, how does Amazon determine which books to show? Do they favor Amazon imprints? To what extent do they favor those who advertise? Do they look to maximize possible Amazon profit on a book sale?

For example, does Amazon use an algorithm that calculates their revenue for a book purchase, multiplied times the probability someone will purchase the book after seeing an ad + the profit earned from the ad itself?

Amazon does “manipulate” results to reflect its interests: recently some authors have entered their book’s name in Amazon’s search box and discovered the first page of results did not include any of their books. Most people don’t click past the first page, which means when that happens the affected author’s books become nearly invisible, even to people who specifically searched for the author.

Amazon tells authors to choose seven useful keywords to categorize their books to help readers find them when they search. Yet only Amazon knows how they use this information and what they combine it with when they deliver search results.

Amazon usually shows “Also Boughts” relative to each book. How are these determined? Is it a level playing field (i.e. do Amazon imprints get included more often as also boughts that other books?) Do books with ads automatically get different treatment?

When authors advertise on Amazon, the asymmetry becomes worse.

Only Amazon knows how it determines how much to charge for a click.

Only Amazon knows how it determines which ads it presents and where.

Amazon knows exactly who clicked on your book’s link—you don’t.

Similarly, Amazon knows which book everyone bought—you have no idea who buys your books.

What’s an author to do?

Knowledge and boycott are the primary tactics to counter asymmetric information. If you choose to self-publish, Amazon is too big a marketplace to boycott, leaving knowledge as your only choice. Knowledge takes two forms: First one should understand where asymmetric information exits (and hopefully this blog helped). Then, to the extent possible, learn strategies to counterbalance Amazon’s advantages.

It’s not just authors . . . readers, too!

Amazon’s asymmetric information advantage also affects us as readers. It knows what we read (if we use a Kindle or Kindle App, it even knows when we read). It knows what books you’ve searched for, what ads you click on, and which ad placements attract your attention.

Not that I want you to become paranoid about asymmetric information, but based on your purchases, Amazon might even know if you are naughty or nice–oh wait, that’s Santa Claus—and besides, you already know that about yourself.

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth novel in the series—this one set in the Boston area—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at

This blog was first published on Writers Who Kill.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Furthermore – When Readers Dictate Priorities

It started with my False Bottom (Seamus McCree #6) proofreaders. My ARC readers jumped in with two feet. When the local postmistress buttonholed my better half, Jan, I knew I had a strategic issue to address.

Each novel, novella, and short story in the Seamus McCree series has its own narrative arc, but the series itself has a larger arc. At the end of each tale, questions remain—not about the action in that one—about how something will affect Seamus and his family in the future. Some of the novels have a specific hook to a future book. I say future advisedly because the hook from Ant Farm (Seamus McCree #1), although it receives a nodding reference in Bad Policy (Seamus McCree #2), does not come to fruition until Empty Promises (Seamus McCree #5).

I’m not about to provide any spoilers, but it gives nothing away to confirm that at the end of False Bottom, the reader will recognize that I have left multiple issues for Seamus and his family to address. Perfect fodder for future books.

As I demonstrated with Ant Farm, I’m willing to let readers stew for a while before resolving open issues. My writing plan called for me to write a spin-off series featuring one of the secondary characters from an early Seamus McCree novel. Truth is, I’d like the experience of a big publisher contract and marketing, and that won’t happen with the Seamus McCree series (although many fans have suggested Seamus would make a great television series . . .I’m up for offers . . .).

So, once I finished False Bottom, my intent was to work on the second draft of the first novel in the new series. And, if False Bottom gained enough readers and reviews to make me think another novel was worth my time, I had an idea for it: I’d return Seamus to his camp in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and have the story revolve around his granddaughter, Megan.

Perfect until the proofreaders asked, “Who is she?” And they—and the ARC readers—predicted (without consulting me or despite consulting me) that the next novel would answer the question. Well, I had other plans that required them to wait for their answer.

Until Linda, my postmistress, told Jan she read False Bottom over the weekend and wanted to know who she was. When, she asked, was Jim coming out with the next one to answer that question?

2021 was not an acceptable answer.

As readers posted reviews on Amazon and Goodreads and contacted me by email, it became clear that if I waited two years to provide answers, I would piss off not only my rabid readers, but even folks who had read only False Bottom.

I thought my priorities were the new series and bringing Seamus back to his U.P camp. But they were not lining up well with my readers’ wish to find out who she is.

I caved. I will answer (Well, maybe. You never can be sure—this is me, after all.) my readers’ pressing question by writing a novella. It’s current working title is Furthermore. It takes place three weeks after False Bottom ends. Set in Boston, it will address both the complication hinted at in the last chapter of False Bottom and the burning question—Who is she?

I mentioned my decision to one proofreader, and she wanted to know when she would get it to proofread. When I demurred, she suggested she could set up a writing schedule for me. Talk about motivated. I expect to finish the first draft next week.

What do you think? Am I wise to accede to my readers, or should I have ignored the hubbub and worked on the spinoff?

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. False Bottom, the sixth novel in the series—this one set in the Boston area—was first available in May. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at

This blog was originally published on the Writers Who Kill blog 6/16/19.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Fishy Business

Earlier this spring, Fishy Business, the 5th Guppy Chapter anthology was released by Wildside Press. Linda Rodriquez edited the anthology, and my story “Power of Attorney” is the final of the twenty-two stories chosen by a panel of three independent judges.

I don’t write many short stories because they need to laser focus on one specific issue and my preference is to interweave multiple story lines into a satisfactory tale. I wrote this story because even after writing Cabin Fever (Seamus McCree #3), which has at its heart a financial crime directed against seniors, my concern about these kinds of crimes remains.

Statistics under-report those crimes because seniors often don’t realize they have been cheated, or if they do, they’re too embarrassed to admit it or scared their children or a court will decide they are incompetent.

Much of the information directed at seniors relates to credit card scams, phone scams, and such committed by boiler room operations. I don’t want to diminish the size of that problem, but the issue I am more interested in is the exploitation of seniors by those they trust: their children, their financial or legal advisor, their caregivers, their friends—especially, new best friends.

“Power of Attorney” features Seamus McCree and a secondary character from one of the earlier Seamus McCree novels. The title contains a play on words: On one level it refers to the name of a particular legal document; on another level, it recognizes that attorneys’ specialized knowledge that laypersons do not have gives them a special power over us.

I’ll allow you the pleasure of reading the story without spoilers from me. I’m pleased with the way it came out and delighted to be included in the anthology. You can order copies of the anthology from the publisher, your favorite physical or online bookstore, or from Amazon. I hope you enjoy.

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth novel in the series—this one set in the Boston area—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at 

Wednesday, June 5, 2019

Financial Risk for Individuals

Most people don't have a good concept about how to consider financial risk when it applies to them as individuals. Here's a start:

Another word for risk is uncertainty. Financial folks often talk about “risky assets.” By that they mean assets that do not come with a guaranteed return. Investment textbooks contain formulae to measure risk based on volatility of returns, standard deviation of returns, variance of returns, ratios of those statistics relative to expected return and so on and so forth. Lots of measures but they all have to do with how uncertain the return is.

All the mathematical equations in the world miss a very large point about real risk as applied to individuals. You are only one person, and you only get one result, not an array of possible results.

A Simple Illustrates Individual Risk

You have an opportunity to invest in a stock that after one year will be worth either nothing or earn 1,000 times the original investment. Each result has a 50/50 chance. To make this bet, you must put up everything you own up to $10 million. A math guy would tell you that your expected earnings are 500 times your investment—a very positive result. We'd all like a piece of that investment opportunity.

Except . . .

I don’t know about you, but I’m not worth $10 million. This deal requires me to invest everything I have. I’m retired and if I lose it all, I will be in very deep trouble. You could change the 1,000 multiplier to 10,000 or even 1,000,000 and I still could not afford to take the gamble. It is too risky for me because losing wipes me out, and I do not have a viable way to recover any semblance of a decent standard of living.

Bill Gates, however, could hop on this investment with little thought (other than to make sure the deal is as represented.) While he wouldn’t want to lose $10 million, the loss is less than .01% of his reported 100 billion of assets1 — a drop in the bucket. If you are rich enough that you can easily afford a $10 million loss, this is a great deal.

If I were 23 years-old again with most of my working years remaining, I’d make that bet in a heartbeat. Sure, I only had a net worth of a few thousand bucks, but at that age I’d risk all of it (say $5,000) to earn $5 million.

When we look at financial risk as an individual, we can’t just look at it as a financial wonk would and based our decision on averages or "expected values." We must consider what it means to us if the investment pays off and what happens if it doesn’t.

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth novel in the series—this one set in the Boston area—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at

1 Bloomberg Billionaires Index

* * * * *

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Full of mystery and suspense, these thrillers explore financial crimes, family relationships, and what happens when they mix. False Bottom, the sixth novel in the series—this one set in the Boston area—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at

1 Bloomberg Billionaires Index

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

A Seamus McCree Compendium

It will come as no surprise to long-time readers of the WWK blog that my heart belongs in the northwoods. It’s where Jan and I retired and is our official residence. Because of the remoteness of our place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, we don’t live there the whole year. For at least a decade, Jan has called the place we live in during the winter months “home.” She calls our U.P. residence “camp”—it’s the name locals assign to any abode in the woods outside town, regardless of whether it is a tarpaper shack or a Rockefeller mansion.

I call our U.P place “home” and refer to our winter abode by the name of the city in which it is a part. “We’re going to our Madison place,” I say.

Because Seamus has wandered around since growing up in Boston, I’ve set novels in Ohio (Ant FarmBad Policy) and Michigan’s U.P. (Cabin FeverEmpty Promises). Doubtful Relations traveled from Ohio to New Jersey with stops in South Carolina, Georgia, and North Carolina in between. The novella, Low Tide at Tybee, occurred on Tybee Island, Georgia. I’ve set short stories featuring Seamus in the U.P. and Chicago.

When talking with readers, one question I often am asked is where I’ll set the next Seamus McCree novel. It turns out I’m not the only one with geographical preferences. Ohioans want a return to Cincinnati and Chillicothe. Those who love the northwoods want it set there. Others want Seamus to visit their favorite area to live in or read about. False Bottom (May 2019) takes place in the Boston area and includes a short side-trip to Cincinnati.

Northwoods fans are disappointed. I’ve also discovered in talking with them that they often read Cabin Fever first and jump to Empty Promises. Some will then pick up other books in the series. Others return to reading William Kent Krueger or Steve Hamilton or CJ Box with the promise that if I write another novel set up north, they promise to pick it up.

I have an idea for a seventh Seamus McCree, which I’ll set in the U.P. In the meantime, I prepared a compendium to satisfy new Seamus McCree readers who prefer stories set in the wilds. It includes Cabin Fever and Empty Promises, and two short stories. “Accidents Happen” was Seamus’s debut in print and takes place in the same area of the U.P. I plan to include a bonus story, “Homework.” It’s a coming of age story. While it doesn’t feature any of the McCree clan, it is set in the U.P., and Jan says it’s her favorite of my short stories.

I titled it Seamus McCree U.P. North, playing off the using the Upper Peninsula for “up” and moving Seamus McCree into the title. For those not familiar with the U.P., I included an outline of the territory as part of the cover to help the geographically challenged. (Although in truth, it's unlikely people who don't know about the U.P. are going to be interested in this compendium.)

Here's the print version, showing the back, spine, and front.

A version of this blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Roots – Or Maybe Root Cellars

Last night I had a fine idea for this blog. False Bottom, the sixth Seamus McCree novel, is coming out later this month. In it, Seamus returns the Boston area where he grew up. I’d include descriptions and pictures of some scenes where the action occurs—a little teaser to ramp up interest in the story. To prepare for writing False Bottom, Jan and I took a trip a couple of years ago to revisit the area, so I had plenty of pictures to choose from. My photographs, 16,000 and growing, are “organized” in Adobe Lightroom with various tags for “easy” retrieval. I couldn’t find any of the Boston pictures.

So, in true pantser fashion, I changed the title from Root to Roots – Or Maybe Root Cellars (to recognize I would have to dig through cobwebs to find those pictures) and kept writing:

Seamus is a third-generation American, the son of a Boston cop. I also have roots in the Boston area. It’s where the first Jackson’s arrived in the mid-1600s. By the mid-1700s we’d moved west to the Berkshires. By the early 1800s we lived further west in Upstate New York and stayed there for seven generations. It’s where I was born.

Boston, however, keeps calling us back. My five-greats grandfather (Col. Giles Jackson) left the Berkshires to fight outside Boston at Bunker Hill (actually Breeds Hill, but Bunker Hill got the monument) during the American Revolution. My grandfather worked for a time in Boston during the Great Depression. I returned to work in the area for two years (late 1977 - early 1980) and returned to earn my MBA from Boston University in 1985.

Now’s the point when I figured to include some of those pictures in this blog. One scene takes place in Boston Public Garden and references the “Make Way for Ducklings” sculpture. That would be nice.

So would a picture of the Swan Boats or one of the statues.

I could include a picture of the apartment complex in Waltham where much of the action takes place.

Maybe the Waltham police station where I researched murder investigations in Massachusetts and Seamus spends a little time.

Heck if nothing else, I could include a picture or two of birds from Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island.

 “Aha!” I exclaimed. “I posted one of the pictures on Facebook. Let’s find that.” I did. It had a date. I found all the pictures in Lightroom based on dates. Because we were traveling, I had not labeled any with tags and then forgot to do it when we got home.

Pantsers aren’t known for their organizational skills. We find our stories through writing not plotting. By the time people read our tales, we’ve patched the holes and added the pictures, and they’d never know its original mess. Unless we choose to show them.

A version of  this blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill.

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Designing a Book Cover

One of my mother’s favorite bromides was “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” As personal philosophy, the words have a strong moral base. As a marketing tool, they are worse than useless. Everyone judges books by their covers, even those who say they don’t.

It used to be that most people browsed bookstores and/or libraries to find their next read. How to choose? An author you know and like is always a good bet, but what if you are looking for something new? A trustworthy friend’s recommendation can get you to check out a new author. Or a review in the paper (my 95-year-old mother still reads them). For many people, the first thing that catches their attention is the cover.

Today, that cover is likely to be an electronic representation of the physical cover. Maybe it’s viewed on a computer, but it could be a tablet or smart phone, which I understand more and more people use to shop. If I search for a book on my phone, the height of the cover is about one inch.

If you are a well-known author, shouting your name on that valuable bit of electronic real estate is your best bet. When former president Bill Clinton and mega-seller James Patterson linked up for last year’s top-10-selling book, they included both names in large CAPS. The title, also in capital letters is prominent – but the President portion of the title is the most prominent—in case we forgot Clinton was president?

This cover included a version of the US flag, the Capitol dome (not the White House) and a generic man. I didn’t read it, but Goodreads reports 78 editions and over 57,000 ratings, so a lot of people have.

For designing the cover for False Bottom, the sixth Seamus McCree novel, I needed to keep the trends of big title, big name, and simple graphics in mind. Here’s another recent example from one of my favorite authors, Barry Eisler. Title: BIG. Author name: BIG. Graphics: minimal but giving the sense of a group of people running.

One thing book cover designers need to keep in mind is any series branding. That’s a problem for me since the Seamus McCree series covers have been designed by several different people.

 Holy moly, what a mess: Titles range from single color to two colors and include white, yellow, red, and gray. Author name is at least consistent with James M. Jackson, but color is white or black. How do I reflect recent book cover trends and keep within the eclectic style? Should I start fresh and redesign the entire series? The time and effort and sales don’t justify a total rework.

My first draft (left) pulled the title colors from Book 5, added one graphic, played with the word Bottom. A somewhat boring background color. By the third draft (right), I had darkened the image and added texture (from a photograph of light shimmering on a lake!) 

Death runs through this book and I thought the cover might remind people of wood—a coffin to go with the Celtic cross grave monument? The monument came from a picture I took at the Gettysburg Battlefield and represented the Irish Brigade—an historical fact I liked, and it tied into Seamus’s Irish roots and a continuing character, the Happy Reaper, who sports a Celtic cross tattoo.

Comments from the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime Marketing subgroup included muddled, confusing, what genre? Everyone agreed they could read the title, but most didn’t like (or understand) the symbolism of the title reaching toward the ground.

By draft five (left) I had returned the title placement to horizontal, emphasized FALSE, and used a color border at the bottom to make the author name more prominent. I replaced the single-color textured background with fog and trees, shrank the Celtic cross and also eliminated much of the decoration on it (the regimental dog was asleep on the base of the cross in the original).

I sat with that version of the cover for several months before I considered how it would work with a print book. The colored bar at the bottom would need to wrap around the spine and back. I could place the Wolf’s Echo logo in that color on the spine, but the color would run through bar code, making it look wonky. I could increase the height of the band to solve the problem, but that didn’t feel right.

And so I played around with other ideas, and here is the current thumbnail (right). 

For those who like print, you’ll see something that looks like the version below. The back will include a teaser of the story (some of the hardest 100 words to write) and a short blurb from a wonderful author.

Would the cover make you curious enough to pick up the book and read it’s blurb?

A version of this blog first appeared on Writers Who Kill.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Wine, Bread, and Thou

For the last two months I have been consumed by changing residences. First, we decided to buy a place in Madison, Wisconsin to replace our winter residence in Savannah, GA. Closing was scheduled for the end of December. In December my mother chose to show her enthusiasm for my plan to live closer to her by falling and breaking her hip. Surgery repaired the break, and before Christmas, she moved to a rehab facility.

Jan and I drove to Madison to spend Christmas with Mom, leaving earlier than we had anticipated in order to avoid snow storms pummeling the Midwest. It was the first time in years Mom had her three children together with her for Christmas.

The purchase of our place in Madison occurred on time, but not without drama. I’ve put that trauma behind me and won’t reopen the scabs. We camped out at our place in Madison, sleeping on a blow-up bed, long enough to bring in the New Year with Mom. Then we returned to Savannah.

By mid-January, it became clear that Mom’s rehab was not going to progress sufficiently to allow her to walk again, which meant we’d have to move her from her very nice Assisted Living apartment into a Nursing Home.

My sisters found the right place for her. I came back to Madison to do the heavy lifting—literally: moving from her apartment to her new room her favorite recliner, clothes, toiletries, etc. I brought the remaining pictures, mementoes, and books to store in my recently-acquired basement. Everything else I schlepped to various charities to find new appreciative owners.

Mom’s 95th birthday was January 31st, so I remained in the area for the celebration (we had a pizza party) with my sisters and then headed back to Savannah. My first task there was to help select a mover to get our stuff from Savannah to Madison. We’ll let them pack the fragile stuff, but we’re packing everything else. But first, we went through our possessions to determine what wouldn’t go with us, donating the excess to charities if there was value, filling trash cans where there was none.

Today is packing day; Tuesday they load the truck. We’re getting low on rations in the house. Wednesday night was our last “traditional” meal. Later meals become a feast of leftovers. No more grocery shopping unless it’s something vitally important. On Tuesday, Jan announced her grocery list: Wine and bread. Both met the vitally important criterium.

“Aha,” I said, recalling a long-forgotten lesson from high school. “A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou.” I stopped, puzzled. “There’s something else about a wilderness in there, too.” Google came to my rescue.

From “The Rubaiyat” by Omar Khayyam (as translated), the line goes: “. . . A Jug of Wine, a Loaf of Bread—and Thou Beside me singing in the Wilderness . . .”

Yep, that about sums it up: Jan and I are off to our next adventure in living, singing our fool heads off. At least we have the wine and bread.

(A version of this post was first published on Writers Who Kill 2/24/19)