Archive for the ‘Reviews’ Category

Every day approximately seven zillion squillion books are self published. And the world takes absolutely no notice, assuming they are all rubbish. No doubt some of them are. Others, while not rubbish, are likely flawed. But there are also perfectly decent books which are self published.

Why are they self published if they’re so good? There can be a variety of reasons. A publisher invests a deal of time and money into every title they publish. They have their own agendas and criteria to meet, and simply being ‘good’ isn’t necessarily enough. Maybe it’s good, but they can’t see a large market. Maybe it’s good, but similar to titles they already produce. Maybe it’s good, but currently unfashionable. Maybe it’s good – really good – but just not quite as good as those other ten titles that they have decided to publish.

Some authors claim they self publish by choice; they retain control over every stage of the process, and reap far greater profits. Personally I find this doubtful. Sure, you make a greater profit on each sale – but only if people are buying your book. 70% of nothing is still nothing.

The self published author’s greatest challenges are visibility and credibility. No one knows or cares about their book. The only people they can persuade to read it are likely to be friends and family (certainly early on in the process). They would love for a real, objective reviewer to read and blog about it, but without some initial credibility there is little reason for such a person to take a chance on it.

This is where you can help. Those handful of reviews the book manages to garner in its early months are vital. The bottom line is that the more reviews a book receives the greater its credibility. Unquestionably.

But not all reviews are equal. While any review is better than none (yes, even a one star review), there are things you can do which make your review really valuable to the author, and things which make it … less so.

You have the best intentions. You want to help out the author; you certainly don’t want to upset or offend them. So you go write them that review. Here are the top three pitfalls to avoid.

1) Five Stars

range of reviews

Range of reviews on Amazon for The Golem and Djinni by Helene Wecker

You may think the greatest favour you can do the author is to award the book five stars (assuming five is the maximum on whatever platform you are reviewing). Unfortunately nothing screams ‘Self published author with only friends for reviewers’ like a very small number of reviews all awarding five stars.

That is not the natural pattern of reviewing. Go check out any mainstream, popular book. It will have 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 star reviews. It will have a range, maybe a bell curve, with most of the reviews clustering around four or five stars. Even a work of renowned genius does not garner uniformly five star reviews. It doesn’t garner uniform reviews at all. People have different opinions about it, and they don’t all think they’d better give it the same number of stars as the last person, so that they don’t look stingy.

Keep it realistic. Honestly.

2) I don’t usually read this genre…

‘I don’t normally read sci-fi/children’s books/romances, but this had me captivated from the beginning.’ You might think you’re saying, ‘Read this! It’s brilliant! Even if you think you don’t like the genre. Honest. It’s fantastic.’ But what you’re actually saying is, ‘The only reason I read this book is because the author is a friend, and asked me to.’

3) Boris has done a fantastic job

So the author is your brother, your old school pal, your work colleague. Maybe you don’t know anyone else who’s written a book. It’s pretty cool, right? Referring to the author by their first name subtley lets the world know that you personally know them. You, by association, are pretty cool too.

Or not. Again, what you are really saying is, ‘I only read this book because I know the author.’ It might be true, but it damages their credibility.

Similarly, if you happen to have the same surname as the author, maybe this is the one circumstance where ‘any review at all’ is NOT better than none :-S

If you can avoid those three pitfalls then your review could really help your author pal. So that’s what not to do. But what should you do?

Be honest

I know you don’t want to offend Boris, and really he has done awfully well, and you’re proud of him, but that bit in the middle with the elephant and the volcano didn’t entirely make sense, did it? The plot got a bit confusing around the time the mermen turned up through the oceanic rift, and come to think of it, the comedy sidekick otter was actually a bit irritating.

It’s okay to say that. I know you don’t believe me, so I’m going to say it again:

It’s okay to criticise your friend’s book!

Say that it’s interesting, say that it’s funny, say that you enjoyed it* – just don’t be afraid to also say, “But…” And don’t be afraid to deduct stars accordingly. Your author pal will thank you in the long run. Hopefully, if they have a bit of realism about their situation, they will thank you immediately.

Your friend has most likely spent years writing their book. They’ve put off social events, missed playing with the kids, maybe they’ve taken time off work, with the accompanying loss in earnings. They are serious about writing books and making a success of it. Patting them on the head and saying, ‘well done, that’s brilliant’ doesn’t help them. If there are areas they need to improve on then tell them. They want to get it right. They want to improve. But if no one tells them where they’re going wrong, how will they ever get better? Meanwhile, they are sitting scratching their heads, thinking, ‘if my book is so damn fantastic, how come I’ve only sold 20 copies..?’

In conclusion, you can help your author pal with their two main problems of visibility and credibility. You help with their visibility simply by writing any review at all. You can help with their credibility by reviewing their book as though it was written by someone you don’t know; by being honest, by pointing out flaws.

With a small range of honest reviews their book stands a far greater chance of being taken seriously by other readers and reviewers than if it only has a handful of glowing, five star reviews.

On behalf of all self publishing authors, thank you for taking the time to read this – and for every review you write for self published authors. It really does help.

Other authors, do you agree with this article? What would you add to the list of review pitfalls?

* assuming those things are true.

So the promotion is finished, the stats are in. Let’s see how I did.

As discussed last week, I ran the promotion for three days over the bank holiday weekend: friday to sunday. I submitted details of my free book promotion to 16 sites – almost all of which said in their blurb that they ‘may’ feature your book – or, of course, you could buy guaranteed promotion for a small fee of generally $5-15. I elected not to buy any guaranteed promotion, but to see what I could actually get for free.

I'm a featured author at Freebooksy

Of those 16 sites, as far as I’m aware only FreeBooksy did feature Darklands, and I’m pretty sure I have them to thank for a large percentage of my total downloads.

Friday started fairly slow, but suddenly began to gather pace around 3 o’clock – presumably when FreeBooksy’s email alert came out (I had subscribed to many of the sites I submitted to, but somehow neglected that one. However, I did get an email from them at 4.30 advising me that my book was featured on the site). For the next several hours my download stats jumped by about 100 every hour.

I had intended to keep a close eye on precisely how it all panned out. However, a family emergency saw me instead having to suddenly go spend the weekend with my poorly mum, with only my laptop and intermittant internet access :-/

In any case, there wasn’t much to see after that. At six pm friday my downloads stood at around 300. At 9pm, 600. By 9am the next morning I was very close to 1000. But it all tailed off from there. My tally for the three days is 1135.

The vast majority of that total came from Amazon.com, which I am very pleased about. Although I have several excellent reviews on Amazon.co.uk, I have so far failed to make the slightest impact on the US site. I also had several downloads from other territories which I wouldn’t necessarily have expected to reach at all. Breakdown below:

US UK Germany Italy Canada Japan
1095 115 13 1 6 5

 

I estimate that my own efforts via Twitter, Facebook and generally being chatty and personable to anyone I met online over the weekend resulted in between 100-200 downloads.

My conclusion? If I run free days again I will pay for some promotion. I think I was lucky to get the freeBooksy promotion, and without it this would have been a bit of a wash out. It’s a lot of trouble to go to for possibly only 100 downloads. The promotional ads for these sites are not expensive, typically between $5-15. Extrapolating from my miniscule sample size of one, my best guess is that you could expect perhaps 1000 downloads per promotional site feature.

I wonder how many of those downloads will ever get read? I know from my own behaviour that I will often grab a free book while I can, without even reading any reviews or the sample. I will skim the description, and if it sounds even vaguely intriguing, I’ll have it. Then it sits on my kindle untouched until I happen to find myself with some time to kill and no current book. I generally read through a few samples/free books, scrapping them for not being good enough/not being my thing – until either I find one to settle with and read, or just weary of the whole proceses and go do something else.

So I know there’s a good chance that many of those downloads will never be looked at again. But I have no idea how many. From those that do get read I should hopefully get some new reviews. They may not all be good reviews, of course, but that’s all part of the process. I guess it will take weeks or even months to see what I reap from this promotion. All I can tell you right now is that four more people have added Darklands to their lists on Goodreads.

I’d be interested to hear what experiences others have had with their KDP Select free days. Similar to mine, or vastly different? Did you pay for adverts or just try to go it alone? And did you ultimately reap the increased reviews/eventual sales you were hoping for?

I’ve been umming and ahhing for some time over whether or not to offer Darklands free for a few days. I see compelling arguments on either side.

Pro: Increased exposure. Persuade doubtful readers to take a chance. Find new readers shortly before Kikimora‘s release.

Con: I spent three years writing that book. Surely it’s worth more than £0.00? Doesn’t offering free books devalue the whole writing process? Will people take me seriously if I give my hard work away?

I’ve finally decided to give it a go (thanks in part to this excellently reasoned post by Lisa M Lilly), and Darklands will be free on Amazon this weekeend, friday to sunday (though, I believe it works on US Pacific time, so I guess it won’t be free until something o clock friday morning).

Once I had set the free dates, I found as many sites as I could that would promote free books. There are a lot of them out there. Here’s a helpful list to get you started. But what I found was that although most of these sites may promote your free book for free, they also offer guaranteed promotion for a small fee of typically $5-15.

Doesn’t sound like much, does it? Part of me is thinking I probably ought to buy at least one promotion package, to ensure that this whole endeavour isn’t a big waste of time. But I’m holding out in the name of scientific curiosity; to see how effective any of these paid promotions are I first need a control result. I’ll be interested to see whether any genuinely free promotion actually happens. If it doesn’t, never mind. I’ll try again when my next free days roll around.

I’ve submitted details of my free promotion to around 20 sites. I didn’t get around to doing this until sunday/monday, and most of them request at least a week’s notice on your promotion, so that might hamper my effectiveness somewhat.

There was more I could have done, but I had already spent three hours filling in forms with the same details over and over again – apart from the ones that wanted some unique information (in fact, that was probably what took up most of the time), and I was heartily sick and tired of it by then.

What I also found during this process was the amount of other promotional tools out there – there’s a load of stuff on Goodreads that I wasn’t even aware of, although I use it fairly regularly as a reader. So I have also offered free promotional copies to reviewers on a discussion thread for that purpose.

I have discovered that there’s a lot more promotion I could be doing all the time, not just when my book is on offer! The dificulty, of course, is finding the time. For instance, this week I am off work and working hell for leather through a massive redraft of Kikimora. I want to work through all the structural changes in one fell swoop, so that I can keep mentally on top of all the story threads. I’m going to struggle to fit all the necessary work into one week (even with the bank holiday weekend), and resent even an hour of my time taken up with other tasks (like writing blog posts)!

So this free promotion is an experiment. It might be a complete fail. But I’m interested to find out, and I’ll let you know how it goes. What I really want to achieve from it is increased exposure in the US – a market I have so far failed to dent in the slightest – and more reviews, on Amazon US, Amazon UK, Goodreads, or anywhere else.

Who else has used KDP Select free days? Did you find it useful? Gain many new fans? Did you pay for any promotion of the free days, and how many downloads did you get?

I’ve been at this self publishing lark over 18 months now, and let me tell you, it is a hard slog. The greatest obstacle to overcome is the anonymity/indifference double-whammy. It often seems that no one wants to take a chance on an unknown author’s first book. Maybe you can’t blame them. Reading time is precious, and you don’t want to waste it on a stinker. But it’s a bit of a catch 22 if no one will read you cuz you have hardly any reviews, but no one will review you cuz… no one will read you :-S

With that in mind, I have decided to share a bit of Indie Love in the hope that it will help out those like me who are struggling to make a name for themselves. I don’t have half as much time as I’d like for reading, and consequently I am very picky. I haven’t read and loved that many self-published books, but from now on I’m going to share with you those I have.

Dear Bob and Sue, by Matt and Karen Smith

Dear Bob and Sue by Matt and Karen Smith

Dear Bob and Sue, by Matt and Karen Smith

In Dear Bob and Sue the authors, a 50-ish married couple from Seattle, decide to take a year off and visit every national park in America. The book takes the form of a series of emails from them to their titular friends back home. It is a delightfully simple concept, and works very well. The casual tone is fresh and involving. The warm, honest portrayal of their marriage is as entertaining as the anecdotes about the parks they visit.

It is an unassuming book, with many recognisable situations and laugh out loud moments. By the end I felt that I knew Karen and Matt quite well. Matt, the humorous grump (a male archetype I am quite familiar with!) constantly grumbling about… well, essentially other people living on the same planet as him. He also displays a nice sense of irony and a flair for the absurd (I particularly enjoyed him naming nuts in the style of Best in Show‘s Harlan Pepper, “Pea-nut, hazel nut, cashew nut, macadamia nut, pine nut, wal-nut, pistachio nut, red pistachio nut…” to Karen’s mortification.)

Karen frequently pretends not to know him, and has a steely determination of her own,

The ranger replied to Karen slowly, as if talking to a ten year old, “You need to remember that it will take two to three times longer to hike back up than it will to hike down.” Karen decided right then we would do the six mile hike in two hours, or die trying.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

Up close and personal with a huge bison in Yellowstone National Park (no, I wasn’t using a zoom!)

The book serves as a great taster for America’s many and diverse national parks. They describe hikes, recommend restaurants and tours – and sometimes cocktails.

I had the good fortune in 2011 to visit Yellowstone and Glacier. Both were wonderful, and I’d love to get back to America to visit more of their wilderness areas. Thanks to Karen and Matt I now have a few locations ear-marked.

Dear Bob and Sue is a travelogue and a warmly humorous portrait of a marriage. It is not the kind of book you devour in one sitting, but is very enjoyable to dip in and out of. I thoroughly recommend it.

You can learn more about Karen’s terror of squirrels and Matt’s hatred of caves on amazon, facebook, and dearbobandsue.com.

*****

Please note, I am not looking for manuscripts to be submitted to me for review. As stated above, I don’t have as much reading time as I’d like, and am very particular about what I read. This is just an occasional feature I will do when the mood strikes me.

I have a guest post up today on the Speculative Salon about the often close relationship between music and magic.

Music seems a kind of magic to me. It has the power to mesmerise; to alter moods; to bring exultation or despair, or unlock hidden memories. It is wreathed in a strange coded language that I don’t understand. Allegro con molto means as much to me as Abracadabra.

Music Pink and Blue by Georgia O'Keeffe

Music: Pink and Blue by Georgia O’Keeffe, picture courtesy of, http://www.tumblr.com/tagged/georgia-o%27-keeffe

Below is an additional thought on the wholeness, the completeness of music, which I didn’t manage to fit into the piece.

One of my favourite fantasy series growing up was Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake. I love the strangeness, the grotesqueness of the characters and settings. I love that it was all very recognisable, but at the same time indefinably other.

Gormenghast is the name of a castle and its immediate environs; forest, mountain, river. As well as the noble family – the delightfully named Groans – it houses a school, a museum/art gallery, a library, a doctor, a poet, various funcionaries and an encampment of serfs. It is an utterly self-contained and fully realised little world – but there is one important omission.

In three books, spanning 17 years or so, I don’t recall a single mention of music. Ever*. Not even a trumpet fanfare during one of the interminable, pointless ceremonies Lord Groan is forced to enact daily.

I find that astonishing. And the world of Gormenghast is slightly reduced in my eyes due to its lack. I can believe in a castle where a hideous but charismatic kitchen boy scales his tower prison, and seduces the daughter of the house in her secret attic; that he sees a horse bathing in a rooftop pool on the way; that a silent waif floats through the forest, as light as air; that a strange Countess prefers to spend time with a white rook than her own newborn baby. But a world without music? I find that hard to conceive of.

World building is hard. There is so much to think of, so many details to consider, so many relationships and histories to get right. It’s hardly surprising that sometimes a piece of the world gets completely forgotten. I’d be interested to hear if anyone else has read fantasy books and thought, “But what about the —- ?”

* Disclaimer: Although I have read the Gormenghast series three or four times, the last time was over 14 years ago. It is possible I have forgotten some musical interlude tucked away in there somewhere. I think the Doctor does sing a song about a frivolous cake one time while soaking in the bath, but that hardly makes up for an entire castle devoid of music and musical instruments!

Stepping stonesI first published Darklands as an eBook at the end of August 2011 (followed by a paperback in April 2012). I had always intended to do a round up of my first year in self publishing – the highs, the lows, the financial realities – but somehow, never found the time. So this is more like my first 14 months in publishing. I hope it might be useful or of interest to other writers looking at self publishing and wondering what to expect.

On the whole, I’d say I am pretty happy with how things have gone. But I would also say that I have severely readjusted my expectations from the beginning of the year. Reader feedback has been excellent, but sales have nevertheless been … s-l-o-w.

I have been extremely conservative about outlaying any money for services – possibly even too conservative (you have to speculate to accumulate, right?) This is mostly due to my paranonia about being fleeced by cynical snake oil merchants looking to milk the hopeful-writer cash cow…

I had no costs associated with the actual book production. My sister proof-read; my partner did the cover design; I did all the formatting and layout. Nor were there any production costs for publishing the paperback, or for the ISBN (though there are costs now that I want to edit the paperback. More on that below).

Even so, income has not exceeded outgoings, and I find I am out of pocket at the end of this first year.

The highs

Darklands has received seven reviews on Amazon.co.uk, all five star; four ratings on Goodreads, average 4.5 stars. I have visited a secondary school to talk to the students about writing and self publishing. I have done three radio interviews on different local stations. I’ve done four interviews for book sites, and have a guest post coming up in December for the Speculative Salon. And last weekend I encountered my first fan! An unknown (and it must be admitted, rather drunk) bloke accosted me in the pub to tell me how much he had enjoyed Darklands (which he had read to his daughters). Awesome.

The lows, the reality checks and the nitty gritty

I’ve sent out review requests to over 20 book bloggers (all hand picked as likely candidates, and sent personal messages). Seven of those I contacted back in 2011 replied sounding positive, but only two actually reviewed Darklands (Thanks, Bookstack and Hey Tara!) Of the 13 I’ve contacted this year NONE have responded except by automated reply. I wonder at this difference. Are book bloggers just becoming so saturated by review requests that they don’t have the time/inclination to respond? Are my emails getting caught in spam folders (and is it possible my surname helps with that?!)?

I’ve sent out info packs to four local libraries. None have responded to me; and I can guess from checking the County library catalogue that none have ordered Darklands. I’ve written to my old school. As yet I’ve had no written response, but I did bump into the librarian a couple of weeks back, who expressed great interest, and promised to get back to me. I’ve written to my two local branchs of Waterstones, but again had no response. Maybe I’d have better luck in person – or at least, someone who’s a better salesperson than me might…

Over this first year I have sold a little over one hundred books – about two thirds eBooks to one third paperbacks (I don’t have a definite figure, because paperbacks I’ve sold through Amazon or other wholesalers don’t appear in any figures I have access to … until they do – which happens twice a year, and hasn’t yet! That said, I can hazard a guess at how many paperbacks Amazon has sold just from keeping an eye on the sales rank). My royalties vary between £1 and £3.

I’ve so far paid £470 in book related expenses. I’ve received back £270. I am currently owed £40, $17 and €4 by retailers (I’m not sure I will ever see the dollars or euros, due to the threshholds it is necessary to accrue before Amazon will make payments).

So what costs did I encounter, given that I’ve been so parsimonious?

In initial publishing excitement I spent £20 on Facebook ads the day the eBook came out (A complete waste of money. It didn’t even have any reviews yet. No one bought it except people I know). I bought 40 paperbacks, most of which I’ve sold (six still pending payment). I paid £88 to my publisher, Feedaread, for the distribution package which makes Darklands available to Amazon. I’ve also just paid them £39 for the privilege of producing a new cover (I had been intending to tweak a couple of things inside the book as well – mainly regarding the Kikimora preview at the end. But that would have set me back an additional £39! Eagle-eyed readers will note that the price was £29 when I discussed it a few weeks back. It’s gone up. Sigh) I’ve paid £25 to book a stall at a Christmas market in Derby. I’ve had smaller incidental costs, such as display stands and stamps (I’m not even counting the petrol I use driving to radio interviews, school visits, delivering books to the bookshop, etc). It all adds up.

One hundred books in a year doesn’t sound much, does it? I had certainly expected and hoped to move more than that when I set out on this endeavour. But I underestimated many things about this process – not least how vastly over-saturated the young adult fiction market is, and therefore how competitive; how precise your marketing has to be (clue: mine hasn’t been so far).

One area I’m feeling increasingly uncertain about is whether Darklands really is young adult, or ‘middle grade’ (whatever the hell that is). I originally envisaged it as for 12-14 year olds, but several parents have told me their ten year olds read and enjoyed it. I just read this post on the difference between middle grade and young adult, but I can’t say I feel much wiser. A year ago I hadn’t the slightest notion that it would matter one way or another. I read books for any age group if they appeal to me, and always have. I’m coming to realise that it matters very much. But this subject deserves a whole blog post of its own, so I may return to it in future.

What are the lessons to be learned here?

Firstly, for all my social networking, tweeting, blogging, commenting on other people’s blogs – apparently I’m still rubbish at e-marketing. My best selling day was at Celebrating Cromford, standing at a stall – I’m hoping to replicate that success at the Derby Christmas market.

I’m still hoping to generate some word of mouth. I need to get the book out to more people. Those who read it like it, but most of the world is competely unaware of its existence. A bigger problem seems to be those who do know of its existence, but are indifferent. I think my new cover design (when it finally arrives. FeedaRead have been SO slow and awkward about the alteration) will help with this. The new cover looks slicker, more professional, and more enticing.

I really really need to get more reviews*. I’d also rather like it if they weren’t all five stars! It makes people suspicious – like my mum wrote them all (in fact I forbade my sisters from leaving reviews on Amazon, as I didn’t think it would project too professional an image to have reviews by people with the same surname as me!)

But how to get more reviews? There’s a polite suggestion at the end of the book that a review would be great. But I’m not going to harass my readers to leave reviews if it’s not the kind of thing they do, or they are uncomfortable about it. As discussed above, I’m currently having no luck interesting book bloggers. Maybe I should contact them all again, just to politely enquire if they received my initial email? But if people aren’t interested I don’t want to nag them. Indie authors have a bad enough name already. I don’t want to be annoying.

So how will my publishing adventure develop in 2013? I think the christmas market will be a good indicator of how well I can capture the public imagination. If you can’t sell children’s books the last weekend before christmas there’s probably not much hope! I’m also planning to publish Kikimora at some point in the new year (no, not summer 2012, like it says at the end of Darklands :-S). How will having two titles affect my marketing approach? How much smoother might Kikimora’s publication go, with all the Darklands lessons already under my belt?

In many ways, self publishing Darklands was completely a test; a proof of concept. I have been writing stories my whole life, but I had no idea whether I was actually any good at it, or if it was all just a silly dream. Self publishing has shown me that people enjoy reading my book; that it stands up as a story, that I can construct a proper plot that holds attention and keeps people guessing. I wasn’t sure of any of this 15 months ago – which is one reason I was so loathe to outlay any money up front.

But I suspect I have been thinking like an amateur, acting like an amateur, and selling myself short.

If I want to actually make this writing thing work and make any kind of real impact in the wider world then I suspect money will need to be spent on some kind of marketing and promotion (no, not facebook ads!)

Another area of complete ignorance for me to investigate. Woot.

Stick with me, and we’ll see how this indie publishing adventure pans out 🙂

* A recent post on a popular book blog said the author was happy to read self published books – so long as they had at least 50 reviews on Amazon, and 30 reviews from Goodreads friends!