Marketing for Muppets – Part 5

In previous instalments, I’ve looked at types of marketing at which, to put it mildly, I don’t excel. I thought I’d now talk a little about a method that has worked for me to some extent. By ‘worked’ I mean it has led to sales, either directly or indirectly. Since my ultimate aim is to become a full-time writer, sales are usually how I measure the success or otherwise of my marketing efforts. You might use a different yardstick—number of mailing list subscribers, hits to your blog, followers on social media—whatever works for you.

I’ve tried various things over the past six years:

  • Making use of the five free days for books in Kindle Unlimited (and its predecessor)
  • Giving paperbacks away on Goodreads
  • Making the first in a trilogy permafree
  • Running temporary price reductions
  • Paying to advertise with one of the many online promoters
  • Running ads for new releases on Facebook
  • Placing fixed ads on websites
  • Joining cross-author promotions in conjunction with a price reduction
  • Joining cross-author promotions in conjunction with a giveaway with a view to increasing mailing list subscribers
  • Being active on social media to try to raise my profile
  • Posting guest blogs or interviews on other authors’ websites

There are probably other things I’ve forgotten, but the above covers most of the obvious marketing methods.

If you’ve read my previous Marketing for Muppets posts, you’ll know that most of these efforts have either been spectacularly unsuccessful, or I’m simply not very good at them. For instance, I find trying to be active on social media a time sump that I don’t particularly enjoy.

I said in an earlier post that I’d concentrate on blogging regularly as a form of marketing that I do find enjoyable. Mind, difficult to know how effective it is—not particularly, I suspect. But I’m not too bothered if I sell no or few books through these efforts. It’s fun and I feel that I may have something to offer novice writers looking for, say, ideas on self-editing—it’s worth it for that alone. I was once a novice writer and found a wealth of information freely given by more experienced writers—why not give something back?

I’m digressing. What form of advertising is working for me? The answer is AMS: Amazon Marketing Services. I know—as authors making their work available on Amazon, we already pay the Zon a proportion of every sale we make. It’s around 30% for higher-priced books on sales in most countries; it’s 65% in some countries and everywhere on lower-priced books. So why, I hear you ask, would you also pay Amazon to advertise your books?

That’s a fair question. It’s also a fairly easy one to answer and I’ll come to that shortly.

But, yes, it irks me to pay Amazon to enable readers to more easily find my books on its site. The profit margin on book sales for small independent publishers is slim enough already—why eat into them further by paying the Zon advertising fees?

The answer for me is simple: to gain visibility and stand any chance of achieving sales.

In line with its tendency to keep data to itself, Amazon has made it difficult to ascertain how many books it has available in its online stores. I’ve seen recent estimates for e-books ranging from a mind-boggling 4.5 million to 7 million. That’s a lot of books and thousands more are added each day.

If readers aren’t aware of their existence, books will sink into the murky depths of the Zon’s nether regions, never to be seen again. Most independent authors can rely on a few sales of a new release, even if only from a handful of family and friends. But after that initial flurry, what then? How does the author make the wider reading community aware that the book exists?

Of course, that’s when the mailing list and social media presence may bear fruit. To a point. After all that’s been exhausted and the book’s plummeting like a stone—what then?

That is when I have found that advertising on Amazon helps. I have been running ads in the US and UK on the first books of each of my completed trilogies: The Cleansing (Earth Haven: Book 1) and The Elevator (Book 1). Especially for The Cleansing, especially in the UK, the ads have undoubtedly helped to raise visibility so that sales over the past six or seven months have increased dramatically.

Let me put it into context. My book sales had dwindled from a respectable few hundred, on average, each month during 2015 and early 2016, to barely nothing by mid-2017. There were a few reasons. Firstly, an elderly relative died in June 2016, appointing me as the executor of his estate. For the next seven or eight months, I spent a lot of time that I would otherwise have devoted to writing and marketing dealing with the administration of the estate. (I’m not bemoaning being appointed executor—it’s what I used to do for a living and it saved the family thousands in legal fees.) Secondly, I had grown increasingly disaffected with being published by a small press and yearned to gain control of my books. I’m not being critical of the publisher—let’s just say that our relationship stalled to the point that I became unwilling to spend any money on advertising. Thirdly, as a consequence of the foregoing, my marketing activity, not prolific at the best of times, became virtually non-existent.

To illustrate the turnaround, I’ll have to reveal some sales figures, which I don’t usually share, but which I think I should in this instance so you can judge how effective, or not, you feel my efforts have been. Okay, then. In April 2018 my total e-book sales on Amazon were fewer than ten. Yep, that’s all books, across all Amazon stores, in all countries. I hear you ask, if after all that time in the game you can’t even sell in double figures in an entire month, why don’t you accept that you’re never going to make it as a professional author and give up? That’s another fair question. The answer’s not as simple as ‘I’m not a quitter’, though that’s part of it.

In fact, during that April of dire sales, I was more upbeat about the publishing business than I have been for years. At the end of March, I’d parted ways with the small press publisher, all rights in all my books reverting to me. I now had full control over my books, including, for the first time, my bestselling Earth Haven series (i.e. the books that have proved most popular, not that have topped any well-known bestseller charts).

After spending a couple of months republishing my own versions of the e-books, and learning how to produce paperback editions, I was ready to turn my attention to advertising; specifically, AMS. I had already dabbled in AMS ads for a collection of short stories—only small scale; merely to get a feel for it. Now I was able to go at it head-on. I began to run AMS ads for The Cleansing and The Elevator in June.

In July, my sales on Amazon ballooned to more than one hundred and have continued to climb slowly but steadily. Still small potatoes by some standards, but a vast improvement from where I was only a few months before.

It’s possible, I suppose, that repackaging the books played some part in the improved sales—freshening up an existing product can see an increase in sales—but I put most of the upswing down to the AMS ads.

Many authors talk about paid marketing in terms of ROI: return on investment. As far as sales of the two first-in-trilogies are concerned, the ads have—especially with The Elevator—barely paid for themselves. The direct ROI has been, at best, negligible. The real value, the indirect ROI, comes in follow-through sales of the other books in the trilogies.

I am lucky to have a reasonable sell-through rate of the Earth Haven books. At present, around half of everyone who buys The Cleansing goes on to buy The Beacon. Roughly two-thirds of those buy The Reckoning. Those additional sales are not costing me anything more in terms of advertising expenditure. 

This leads to a proposition, a rather obvious one, but nevertheless worth spelling out:

Proposition 5: It can pay dividends to regularly advertise the first book in a completed series so as to raise its visibility and lead to follow-through sales of its sequels.

Once you’ve been consistently selling via the ads, there are knock-on effects that help raise visibility further. Your book may start appearing on the also-bought lists of other popular books. Amazon might notice your book starting to gain some attention and take steps to promote it themselves. As I write this, The Cleansing has been regularly in the top 10,000* books on Amazon UK, and frequently in various Top 100s in science fiction sub-categories like Alien Invasion and Colonisation, increasing its visibility again. It is rubbing shoulders with books by authors who have won major science fiction prizes, had films made of their work and are household names (at least, in households interested in science fiction). Now and again, both sequels have joined it in those bestseller charts. It might only be fleeting, but I don’t half get a thrill from it.

I was going to end this post by talking a little about how AMS ads work, but they are tweaking them and I haven’t yet made time to look into how it will affect the ads I’m running. (Bloody typical—no sooner do I get the hang of a form of advertising and make it work for me, than the advertiser moves the goalposts.) I’ll have to suss out the new forms of ads that are replacing the ones I’ve been using. A subject for a future post, maybe. Fingers crossed it’s a positive post.

* Top 10,000 might sound a little sad—why celebrate such a ludicrously low ranking?—until you consider the sheer number of books clamouring for attention. I know, from experience, how difficult it is to break into that top echelon, let alone stay there for any length of time. Goodness knows what it takes to break into the top 5,000. If I ever manage it, I’ll let you know.**

** Okay, I did it. Not only the top 5,000, but the top 500. I even gained the orange rectangle No. 1 Bestseller tag in three countries in various sub-categories of science fiction. More on this in the next Marketing for Muppets instalment. Ooh—two positive marketing posts on the trot. What is the world coming to?

Stephen King Books

I’ve mentioned it before: I am one of Stephen King’s Constant Readers. Ever since discovering his books as a young teenager, I’ve devoured them. At least, his horror and science fiction and fantasy books—not so much the crime thrillers that he’s taken to writing of late.

Despite counting him amongst my favourite authors, I don’t love everything about his stories. For instance, the endings are sometimes a bit of a let-down. Yet this doesn’t detract much from my enjoyment. The pleasure with King is in going along for the ride—if the destination occasionally disappoints, the journey is nearly always a blast.

Here are some of my favourites among his books, along with a few not-so-favourites.

Let’s start with two novellas from the collection Different Seasons, published in 1982, the year I turned eighteen. Both are a little unusual in that they resulted in that rarest of things—a superb screen adaptation of a Stephen King story. The Body is a small-town tale (like so many of King’s) about a trio of friends who go off in search of a dead body they’ve heard is lying alongside a set of rail tracks. It’s a joy (as is the film version, called Stand By Me and starring the tragic River Phoenix), a perfect slice of childhood, something that King does so well. Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption (the Rita Hayworth part of the title was dropped for the film version) is a tale set in a prison with an unforeseen and wholly satisfying ending.

Different Seasons

Next, Insomnia, which King describes as a ‘stiff, trying-too-hard’ novel. It’s where we first encounter The Crimson King, who would feature in other King works, most notably The Dark Tower series. More on that later. Also good reads are The Green Mile, the tale of death row inmate John Coffey (whose initials are probably not coincidental), and 11/22/63. I’ve long been fascinated with the Kennedy assassination and time travel—this was a great way to combine the two.

The Green Mile

Here’s a selection of what I call Meh books—they were okay, but lacked something that might have made them appeal more to my tastes. (As always, my tastes are likely to be different from yours so it’s perfectly fine to disagree with me.) Cujo, The Dead Zone, Dolores Claiborne, Christine, Needful Things and Sleeping Beauties all had something going for them that made them enjoyable to a point, but that ultimately left me feeling a little dissatisfied, a little meh. I was enjoying Revival, when the most interesting character in the story fades out of sight. When we encounter him again much later, he has changed in ways that feel unrealistic. And the ending—hugely disappointing and nowhere near as scary as I’d been hoping. Finally for the Meh books, Under the Dome. Loved the concept and the opening. No spoilers, but after such a promising start, it descends into a bit of a mess—it’s probably been eight or nine years since I read it and I couldn’t even tell you how it ends. If not for the concept and intriguing opening, this one is unlikely to have even made it onto my list of Meh books.

Some of his earliest books are amongst my favourites. The following three were published in the 1970s. Salem’s Lot is a tale of vampire infestation of a small town and presses all the right buttons. I’ve long been fascinated with the blood-sucking fiends since first reading Dracula as a young teenager—the recent trend for sparkly, prance-about-in-full-sunlight lotharios (my younger daughter made me watch a certain series of films with her; by the end of the first one, I was pleading, “Bite her, already.” It took another two or three angst-ridden films before he did) hasn’t put me off—and King’s tale resonated as strongly with me as its classic predecessor. The Stand is an apocalyptic tale that I’ve spoken about in other posts. Suffice to say here, it’s a ripping yarn about good versus evil in a world that’s gone to hell. The Long Walk was published (among others) under the pseudonym Richard Bachman. It’s a dystopian tale about an annual contest involving one hundred teenage boys. The contest is simple enough—they all set off together walking southwards from Maine and the winner will be the last boy standing. However, any boy whose walking pace drops below 4 mph receives a warning; three warnings and, well, let’s just say that nobody is allowed to retire alive from this contest.

Salem’s Lot

Another of the ‘Bachman books’ is The Running Man. (It was made into a film starring Arnie, which bears only a passing resemblance to the novel and is far inferior.) This is also set in a dystopian futuristic America and is a tale that doesn’t let up. King apparently wrote it in a week and I think it shows in that it doesn’t pause for breath. I doubt my next pick will make it onto everyone’s favourite list, but there’s something about The Tommyknockers that I love. Maybe it’s the concept of someone tripping over a tiny protruding piece of metal in the woods that turns out to be the tip of a spacecraft a mile wide, or the 50s B-movie feel of the second half of the book, but it’s a novel I’ve returned to more than once. The most recent book on my favourite list is Cell, published in 2006. It’s another tale carried by a great concept and a fun journey that makes up for a lukewarm ending.

The Tommyknockers

How about one or two that I positively disliked? The first is Gerald’s Game. I can say, without having to think about it much, that this is my least favourite of any King book I’ve read. There’s one genuinely creepy moment, but it couldn’t make up for the drudgery of trying to get through the rest of it—the only time I’ve been relieved to reach the end of one of his books, shove it back onto the shelf and forget about it. The other is the seventh novel in The Dark Tower series. I’d worked my way through the preceding six instalments with varying degrees of pleasure and I was keen to see how the series would play out—to find out, at last, after more than a million words, what Roland would discover at the end of his mission… quest… thing. (Sorry—can’t resist a LOTR reference when the opportunity arises.) Well, before reaching that point, Mr King engages in a moment of such self-indulgent author intrusion that it completely threw me out of the story and made me hesitate about continuing. I don’t want to be critical of someone whom I hold in such high regard, but I felt it was a mistake. I imagine he must have deliberated hard before deciding to do it, but I wonder whether he’s ever regretted it. Anyway, I pressed on and eventually Roland reaches the top of the Dark Tower where awaits a door with his name on it. I won’t say what happens next but it was enough to make me swear in disbelief and want to throw the book at the wall.

I’ll finish on a positive note with a mention of three more favourites. The Talisman, co-authored with another writer I admire, Peter Straub, is a fantasy tale about a boy’s search for a magical amulet that will save his dying mother. Flitting between this world and ‘the Territories’, it’s a fun-filled, dark ride. Pet Sematary contains a scene that scared me more than any other King book. It has made me go back and read it again more than once, and I don’t think I’ve finished with it yet. And, finally, the book if pressed I’d name as my favourite of all Stephen King books. IT takes place in two timelines—late-1950s and mid-1980s—because the eponymous monster feeds on a 27-year cycle. The 50s sequences, when the group of heroes and heroine are aged around eleven or twelve, once again display King’s talents at evoking childhood; downtrodden childhoods, at that, for each of our children is at some disadvantage, perhaps from an abusive parent or speech impediment or obesity. They call themselves the Losers. The 80s sequences take place when the Losers are all grown up, though not all have shaken the self-appointed loser tag. Despite a scene that many readers find, to put it mildly, disconcerting, and an ending that disappoints a little, IT is a nostalgic, horror-filled feast. There are nods to classic villains like Frankenstein’s monster and the werewolf, and it’s a book, despite its brick-like size, I’ve returned to again and again.

The Talisman

I recently did an interview (for another author’s blog) where I was asked to name one person, dead or alive, I’d like to meet. Almost impossible to pick only one from our entire history. In the end, I plumped for Stephen King. Well, I would love to sit and discuss books and writing and films with him over a beer or coffee. Since that’s never likely to happen, at least I still have his books.

Till next time… 

Editing – Part 2

If you’re a writer and anything like me, when you finish the first draft of your latest work you’ll type the words ‘THE END’ and feel a curious blend of euphoria and sadness. Although I know those two little words won’t make it into the published version, I type them every time; it’s a form of closure on my least favourite part of the writing process, producing that first draft.

But what then? Unless you’re unusually gifted, or have painstakingly edited as you’ve gone along, chances are that the manuscript will need some work—some spit and polish—before it’s in a fit state to be released into the world.

Whether you’re just starting out and haven’t the funds to spend on editing, or whether you intend sending the manuscript off to a professional editor, there are various steps you can take yourself to improve the work to make it more publishable or in a better state to present to an editor.

There are various methods of self-editing. I’m going to set out what I do for my longer works, which might be helpful to someone who doesn’t know where to begin. (For shorter works, especially short stories, some of the following steps might be truncated or missed out altogether.) Like writing itself, this is not the only way of doing it; it’s not the best or recommended way—it’s simply my way. Each writer must find what works best for him (or, as ever, her).

So, I’ve typed the two magic words ‘THE END’. What next?

Step 1: Let it Rest

After saving and backing up the Word document, I close it. Then I try to forget it about for a minimum of four weeks. Longer, where possible. Two months is better, three perfect, but I don’t have that much will power.

Step 2: The Bigger Picture

When I can’t stand ignoring the manuscript any longer, I’ll read it through from beginning to end. This is where the importance of Step 1 comes in—it’s as though I’m reading a novel someone else has written. Obviously, I know the story and recognise the style of writing, but I will come across entire passages I can’t recall drafting.

The main purpose of this step is to make sure the story works on the broadest level. It isn’t to make corrections, although I usually can’t stop myself changing any typing errors I come across. While I’m reading, I’ll keep at the back of my mind questions like:

  • is the opening interesting enough to draw the reader in?
  • does the plot flow?
  • do the characters act, um, in character?
  • are all sub-plots resolved?
  • does the story ever lag?
  • is the ending satisfying?
  • are there any themes that could be better developed or emphasised?

There are other questions, but that should give a flavour. Essentially, I’m looking at the bigger picture during this step.

Step 2A: Major Revisions

If I identified a need to rewrite part(s) of the work during Step 2, this is when I’ll do it. I’ve been lucky—only once have I needed to do a major rewrite after the first read-through. This was with the final instalment of the Earth Haven trilogy.

Even as I was writing the original ending, I knew it was too easy: the characters weren’t having to sacrifice much to achieve their ends and it lacked a final face-off between the two main groups of protagonists. In short, it was unsatisfying. Nevertheless, I let the manuscript sit for a few weeks before embarking on Step 2.

It confirmed what I already knew. I discarded the last few chapters and rewrote the ending, adding another chapter or two in the process. I knew immediately it was better, a much more satisfying end to a 300,000-word trilogy.

Then I returned to Step 1. After I’d let it rest for another four weeks or so, I embarked on Step 2 once more. This time, the bigger picture looked complete.

Step 3: Snagging

Now I’m happy with the overall structure, I’ll start the fine-tuning process. During this second read-through, I’m looking for passages of narrative or dialogue that don’t flow as well as they could, and correcting them as I go, or that don’t add value to the tale. This might involve rewording paragraphs or sentences to make the writing clearer, and deleting words, phrases, sentences or entire paragraphs that are superfluous.

Step 4: Eradicating Clunkiness and Repetition

During this third read-through, I’m looking at individual sentences and revising any that are awkward or contain unnecessary repetition. I find that when writing the first draft, I often use the same word repeatedly in places when there are perfectly good alternatives that freshen up the prose.

I will search for how many times words I tend to overuse appear, like ‘just’, ‘that’ and ‘the’, together with certain swear words, and either delete some instances or substitute alternatives. It’s about removing clunkiness and repetition to make the reading experience more pleasurable.

I’m looking, too, for inconsistencies such as referring to ‘Jenny’ as ‘Jill’, or (true example) saying a character comes from Hull when earlier in the novel he came from Grimsby.

Also, at this stage, I’ll check any facts or references are correct.

Step 4A: Rinse and Repeat

Whether I repeat Step 4 depends on how many alterations I made the first time around. If not many, I’ll move on to Step 5. If there were a lot of changes, I usually feel I have to repeat Step 4 in case the changes themselves have introduced more clunkiness or repetition. 

Step 5: The Nitty Gritty

The final read-through. The proofread. For this, I reformat the Word document into a mobi file and transfer it to my Kindle. It’s surprising how many simple errors I spot on the Kindle that I missed on the computer screen. Reading it in this different format seems to make typos jump out at me. I keep my laptop close at hand so I can change the master Word document as I find errors.

Step 6: Spellcheck

Having corrected all errors I noticed during the proofread, I’m almost ready to publish. Before I do, I run the manuscript through Word’s spell-checker. What I’m mainly looking for are any final spelling errors I missed during the proofread and things like double spaces, which sometimes go unnoticed, especially if they occur at the edge of the page.

These steps are broadly equivalent to the various types of editing mentioned in Part 1: Step 2 – developmental edit, Step 3 – line edit, Step 4 – copy edit, Step 5 – proofread. 

In theory, I should now be ready to publish a book filled with flowing narrative and sharp dialogue, free of spelling errors, grammatical mistakes and other blemishes, polished and shining like a new pin. In practice, of course, I’m unlikely to have caught every single tiny error in a ninety-thousand word novel. The aim is to achieve perfection, whilst recognising that I’m only human and am certain to have missed something.

It’s accepting that I’m not perfect which enables me to publish anything. Otherwise, I’d never get past Step 4. I could read through a draft novel a hundred times and find something to change on each occasion, though after a while it’s only because this time I prefer a particular sentence construction over another, or a particular word over the one I used, when either do the job perfectly well. We have to draw the line somewhere, say to ourselves, “Enough’s enough. Publish and be damned.”

Here are some other methods I’ve heard writers say they use. I’ve tried some of them and they’re not for me. But try them and find what works best for you.

– change the font size and/or type (this is of similar effect to what I do when transferring the book onto my Kindle, and should be useful for those who don’t own an e-reader)

– print the manuscript onto paper and edit/proofread the hard copy

– read the text, particularly the dialogue, aloud

– have someone (or the voice function, if present, on your word processing program) read it to you

– read sections of the work backwards (useful, I imagine, for proofreading rather than editing)

If there are any novice writers looking in who aren’t sure where to start when it comes to self-editing, I hope you’ve found this to be of some use. Don’t forget: this isn’t ‘one size fits all’. You’ll need to try various methods and combinations until you find what works best for you.

Good luck!

A Very Merry Christmas

It’s that time of year when we wish peace and goodwill to others. When our cups of joy overflow, often in direct proportion to the flow of alcohol. When we give each other presents and spend precious time with our loved ones. Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we treated each other as well throughout the year as we do in late December?

Despite the rampant commercialism and the pressures of shopping (I’m a bloke; I hate shopping), it’s my favourite time of year. Imagine winter without Christmas. What a bleak few months they would be.

It’s dreary here in Wales as I write this. The sky has been grey and drizzly for days. The ground is permanently wet—whenever we step in from outside, we bring in mud. Yet we don’t allow it to dampen our festive spirits. My daughters—both now in their twenties—and my wife still grow excited as the big day draws near. So do I. In fact, I’m probably the biggest kid of us all.

Whether you celebrate Christmas or not, I wish you a peaceful and happy time. As we say in Wales, Iechyd da!—Good health!

The 4th Annual Sam Kates Office Party

St Mary Street decorations

Each December I take those of my nearest and dearest who have helped me throughout the year to Cardiff and treat them to a steak dinner, with perchance a bottle of wine and a cocktail or two. The day tends to involve a fair amount of beer and a visit to Winter Wonderland.

This year the guests were my brother (for the invaluable assistance he provides in IT-related matters), my elder daughter (for being my design consultant and managing my Instagram account), and my wife (for putting up with me). If I can get my younger daughter involved in some capacity or other, next year’s party might be a full family affair.

Yours truly and bruv.
In reverse order, Mrs Kates and Miss Kates the Elder.

My wife, daughter and I travelled up to Cardiff to meet my brother in Waterstones. A book shop makes a great place to meet up because, well, books. Then it was off to find a relatively quiet pub, not so easy in the centre of Cardiff on a Friday in December. We were lucky, after only a few false starts managing to find a pub with available seats, no queues at the bar and no loud music blasting. A few relaxed beers later and we made our way to this year’s venue, Steak of the Art. Suffice it to say, good steaks, wine and a few cocktails were dispatched with practised ease. Say what you like about my family, but we’re dab hands at packing away food and drink.

Steak of the Art.

My younger daughter and her boyfriend were in town Christmas shopping so we met up with them after we’d left the restaurant. Sadly, the gusting wind and frequent prolonged showers meant we had to skip Winter Wonderland this year. Never mind—there’s always beer.

Miss Kates the Younger and boyfriend join the gang. Soon there would be singing – well, six is plenty for a choir.

And so we indulged; perhaps it would be more accurate to say over-indulged, but fun was had by all and I felt I had gone a little way towards repaying the help they have given me throughout the year. Thanks, guys—luvs ya!

Yes, the beer is flowing…
St Mary Street again.
And again.

Here are some photos from previous year’s parties that were posted on my old site.

From 2017

Probably St Mary Street, yet again.
Winter Wonderland
It was a big wheel…
Miss Kates the Elder with the Millennium Stadium in background.
One of those blurs is yours truly and bruv.
The beer flowed last year, too.

From 2016

Cardiff Castle and the tree someone in the Council ordered in feet instead of metres – mustn’t snigger.
The deer that dwarfed the tree.
Winter Wonderland again.
As you can see, there was a fair amount of beer involved on this occasion, too.

From the inaugural office party in 2015

And, yep, you guessed it, bloody St Mary Street again.
Didn’t take many photos that first year, but I did snap these rather snazzy urinals.

Guest Post – Tom East

A departure from the norm this week as, for the first time, I host a guest. I’ve known Tom East—though we both use different names in our everyday lives—for around twenty years since we were members of the local writers’ circle. We hit it off immediately, sharing a fondness for good ale and rugby, and both viewing writing as more a compulsion than a hobby. But that’s enough from me. Over to Tom.

Why Write?

Leaving aside more mundane demands like shopping lists and business writing, plus shorter things like personal e-mails (not to say some of these shouldn’t be creative), it seemed to me there are three main reasons to write. In reverse order of importance, I have always considered these to be:

  1. To make money.
  2. To express your thoughts to others.
  3. Because that demon keeps jab-jab-jabbing away at us and making us write.

N years after I first wrote for publication, this is still the way I see things. I have, though, recently modified my view to an extent.

When I lived in London, back in the Dark Ages (well, it was a long time ago), I wrote a few things commercially or semi-commercially. This first period of literary activity lasted for not much more than two years before ‘life got in the way’ and my attention went in other directions. This period of comparative dormancy went on for a number of years. I did do some creative writing in this interval—I didn’t seem to have any choice in the matter—but didn’t try to get anything published.

Then, following a trip to Romania in 1988, at the time when Nicolae Ceauşescu was still dictator, I was bursting with ideas I had to express, in prose and poetry, in fiction and non-fiction. At that time the outlet most readily available was the small press, so this was where I initially concentrated my efforts. The first thing I wrote (an essay; nothing to do with Romania as it happens) appeared in Schools Poetry Review in 1989. Over the years, I have published around 200 poems, about 80 short stories and roughly the same number of commercial features. Added to this is a large number of works of reviews, essays and things I can best describe as ‘other prose’. My first book-length work appeared in 1993 and six more followed from medium-sized and small presses. You can see samples of all this activity on my website here.

Given what I said earlier about motives for writing, you’d think I should have been happy. If I hadn’t made enormous sums of money, I do know that a large number of people have read what I’ve had to say and at least I’ve managed to keep that demon and his pitchfork still. There were, though, two large flies in the ointment. Firstly, much of my writing had to be undertaken against the background of a busy and demanding job. Secondly, several years ago life got in the way again, more negatively this time, just when my literary life was showing signs of taking off.

This year, I’ve decided to bring more focus to my literary activity. Unless you’re an ‘all-purpose sleb’ or a leading footballer, the window into ‘mainstream publication’ is getting smaller. On the other hand, independent publishing is becoming a viable alternative. So this, armed with a new nom-de-plume, is the route I’ve decided to take. First will be The Eve of St Eligius with more to follow early next year.

Wish me luck! ‘Eligius’ will appear electronically on 30th November, 2018 (which happens to be the eve of the festival of St Eligius) and as a paperback in mid-December.

Tom East

Tom’s first foray into the world of independent publishing is available now in e-book on Amazon:
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon UK
The Eve of St Eligius – Amazon US

Audiobooks

A few years ago I was approached by the same company who produced the audiobook of The Martian. They expressed interest in producing an audio version of The Cleansing. Sadly, I could not take the matter any further because I was at the time contracted to a small press publisher. But I’ve remained curious as to whether there would be any interest in my work from audiobook listeners—there’s only one way to find out, right?

It wasn’t until this summer, after I’d parted company with the publisher and all rights to my works had reverted back to me, that I was able to turn my attention to audio.

There seems a bewildering number of audiobook producers out there. Long story short, after browsing various sites and discussion forums, I eventually decided to go through Audiobook Creation Exchange (ACX). And there is quite a range of options within ACX. I toyed with the idea of narrating the book myself to limit cost, but discounted it almost immediately. I don’t have professional recording equipment and I’m hopeless at doing accents. No, it would sound like an amateur production and I wanted the opposite.

I decided to offer the book for audition on a royalty-share basis. This involves making available an extract of the book of 2 or 3 pages (around 5 minutes of recording time). The royalty share would mean I wouldn’t have to pay the narrator up front, but we would share equally a percentage of each sale. Again, my prime motivation was to cut down on up-front costs. What seemed a woefully pitiful percentage share of sales would be the trade-off.

I was aware that it was highly unlikely I would attract any experienced narrators—why would they risk their time and effort for no guaranteed return on a novel written by a virtual unknown? Not only did I not attract any experienced narrators, I didn’t attract any at all. The book extract remained available for audition for a 30-day period, but I didn’t receive a single audition.

Time for a little soul searching. It boiled down to how much did I want to have an audiobook version of The Cleansing. Turned out the answer was I wanted it a great deal. Enough to bite the bullet and offer the extract for audition in return for a fee. This way, the narrator wouldn’t have to bear any risk of the book not selling and I would benefit in the long run if the book continued to sell after I’d recouped my initial outlay. I opted for exclusivity, meaning the audiobook would only be made available in three outlets—Audible, Amazon and iTunes—but I would receive a higher percentage of each sale.

I mentioned ‘recouping my initial outlay’. Here’s the thing: I don’t know how many sales it will take to do that and start to make a profit.

Firstly, I have no say whatsoever in how much the three retailers charge for the audiobook. Being accustomed to the freedom independent publishing allows me over the prices of my books, to have no say in the price asked for the audio version is a little strange to say the least. (I suppose it has to do with protecting the market for audiobooks and ensuring the price doesn’t spiral downwards like it has with e-books.)

Secondly, I understand audiobooks may be purchased in one of three different ways: directly in the normal sense; directly by members of a subscription service at a discounted price; indirectly by members of the subscripton service by using one of their monthly credits. In each case, the amount the author receives will vary.

So, bizarrely, it’s impossible to say how many sales I need to break even. I’m guessing it’s going to take at least a few hundred, but I’m stumbling about in the dark. The Cleansing is the first in a trilogy and I’d like to have the sequels also produced as audiobooks. Before I can think of making The Beacon available for audition, I have to at least recoup my outlay on the first book. It’s mildly frustrating that I have no way of estimating how long that might take.

Anyway, I offered The Cleansing for audition on a pay-for-production basis. You can set the price range of what you’re prepared to pay and I opted for one of the lower ranges. Not the lowest, because I wanted to attract narrators with some experience, but not high enough that I would bankrupt myself in the process.

Within a few hours, I had received three auditions. Within a week, I had received eight. I had been concerned that I might have priced myself out of attracting any good narrators, but I was pleasantly surprised at the quality of the auditions I received. I narrowed it down to three—two men, one woman—and from there picked my favourite. That wasn’t easy; all three were excellent.

Before I made the chosen narrator an offer, I checked him out online. Not to be nosy, but to make sure he was someone I was happy to do business with. Here’s one of life’s little coincidences. He is an actor and musician, and had appeared in a stage musical I had been to see in Cardiff for my birthday last year. I’m not normally one for musicals, but I love sixties music and had thoroughly enjoyed Cilla – The Musical.

I made him an offer, which he accepted. I could now finalise the audiobook cover by including his name and upload that to ACX. The narrator recorded the first 15-minute segment for my approval, which I didn’t hesitate to give. He then recorded the whole book. It was my job to listen to the completed recording and feedback any mistakes.

It felt weird and wonderful listening to one of my novels being narrated. It made it sound like it had been written by someone else and I found myself getting caught up in the tale. I made a note of the errors—there were remarkably few, perhaps a dozen out a 90,000-word novel—and sent them to the narrator. He fixed the errors promptly, I paid him and we were done. A relatively painless operation—the narrator was excellent, easy to work with and earned every penny of his fee.

It was then down to ACX to make the book available on the three retail channels. That happened this week. I received notification on Wednesday, 14th November that it had gone on sale on Audible and would be available on Amazon and iTunes within the next few days.

The whole process was much quicker than I’d anticipated. I made the book available for audition the second time (on the pay-up-front basis) on 2nd August. I had chosen my favourite narrator and entered into an agreement with him by 10th August. From there, it has taken marginally over three months to complete the recording and make the book available for sale.

Now all I need to do is learn how to market it. If you’ve read any of my posts on marketing, you’ll understand what a challenge that presents.

A word of warning for any writers reading this who are considering taking the plunge into audiobooks themselves. I read an online discussion in which authors who know more about the audiobook market than me (which isn’t difficult) stated that the wider audiobook market is set to explode with lots of potentially lucrative markets becoming available through various new players about to enter the audiobook game, and cautioned against entering into an exclusive deal with anyone.

I can’t recall details, but if you’re about to embark on a new audiobook project, read up on it. If you decide, like me, to go exclusive with someone like ACX, make sure it’s an informed decision that you won’t quickly come to regret.

To finish on a high note, I noticed yesterday that the audiobook was available on Amazon and that it already had a ranking in both the US and UK. That normally only happens when a book has achieved some sales, yet my ACX dashboard wasn’t showing any. Until I looked again, a little later, and discovered to my delight that the audio version of The Cleansing has already been purchased several times. I still get a buzz from the thought of a complete stranger reading, or in this case listening, to something I’ve written.

(For a peek at the book, and to listen to the opening scene, follow one of the links to the audiobook on the Earth Haven page from the ‘Books’ dropdown menu above.)

Marketing for Muppets – Part 4

Subtitle: the ongoing chronicle of one muppet’s struggle with promoting. Yes, it’s still a struggle. Yes, I’m still a muppet when it comes to marketing.

In earlier instalments, I said I was going to try giving away one of my books as a means of building my mailing list. Well, this is what happened.

On 7th November 2017, I submitted my short dark fantasy novel The Elevator to Instafreebie. I had intended to make joining my mailing list mandatory in return for downloading the book, but Instafreebie cautioned against doing so and I listened. Readers could download the book and had the option, not requirement, of subscribing to my list. I mentioned the availability of the freebie on social media and sat back to see what happened.

You can probably guess. By 17th November, 16 people had taken advantage of the free book, but only two of them elected to join my mailing list (and one of them was already on it).

Hmm. My mailing list numbers, already pitifully low (as in, fewer than 20 subscribers—bless each and every one), had swollen by a grand total of one. I know that I hadn’t given it long, but clearly I already needed to rethink.

I changed the terms of the giveaway on Instafreebie to make it mandatory for readers to subscribe to my mailing list. This meant upgrading my account to the paid version. $20 a month was $20 more than I wanted to spend on building my mailing list, but I figured that it would be worth it, provided the tactic worked—I was still hung up on the idea that an independent author needs a large mailing list to stand any chance of being successful. Then I looked out for cross-promotions I could join.

When readers join my mailing list, I promise that I won’t share their e-mail addresses with anybody else; by the same token, I’m not interested in receiving e-mail addresses of people who haven’t specifically opted to subscribe to my list. So any promotion that involved authors exchanging lists was out.

I applied to join a promotion that ran in December. It consisted of a landing page containing details of all contributing authors’ books and links to where readers could obtain a free copy. I offered The Elevator and included the Instafreebie link. It worked quite well—I gained over 200 new subscribers.

Then I hit a slight snag. One of the conditions of taking part in the promotion was to send an e-mail to my list with details of the promotion. Fair enough, but I didn’t send the e-mail until quite a few days into the promotion, by which time my list had grown appreciably. So I sent an e-mail to readers who, in the main, had joined my list through a giveaway, to tell them about that giveaway. No wonder some readers promptly unsubscribed. Yeah, I’m a muppet with a capital M.

In January, I was ready to publish Jack’s Tale, the sequel to The Elevator. Seemed like a good time to test the value of having a mailing list. I uploaded the book for preorder and discounted the preorder price to $0.99. Then I sent an e-mail to my list with a link to the preorder. My list by then had 272 subscribers, of which 13 promptly unsubscribed. By the time Jack’s Tale was published a week later, it had a total of 17 preorders.

A month later, I was ready to publish the final book in The Elevator trilogy, The Lord of the Dance. I again discounted the preorder to $0.99 and e-mailed my list. The number of subscribers had by that point crept back up to 274. A week or so later, when the book was published, it had a grand total of 7 preorders.

Hmmm (once more with feeling). Quite honestly, I would have been disappointed with those numbers without a mailing list.

I persevered and joined a few more cross-promotions. As of now (early November 2018), my list has 589 subscribers. That’s a massive improvement on a year ago, but I’m nevertheless a little despondent. I can’t help but wonder whether giving away all those books and paying those monthly fees were worth it. The last promotion I joined was in September and I’ve resolved, for now, not to take part in another.

Around 750 copies of The Elevator were downloaded through these cross-promotions, but I have grown heartily fed up of giving the book away. Although the promotions have been useful in swelling the numbers on my list, which was the main reason for taking part, they seem to have done nothing at all for the book or sequels, which was the secondary reason. No reviews, little sell-through, no messages on Facebook or elsewhere from excited readers.

Of course, as I fully recognise, this could be because the first book isn’t grabbing readers sufficiently that they want to read the sequels. It’s certainly an unusual tale, not exactly mainstream, not a lot like anything else that’s out there. While some might view that as a book’s strength, perhaps it’s more likely to be its downfall.

It could also mean that since they acquired it for nothing, the book is sitting lost amidst hundreds of other books these readers acquired through other giveaways. Many of them might never get around to reading it. Gifting books as a promotional tactic, it seems to me, has reached saturation point.

This leads me to a proposition, an extremely subjective one, it has to be acknowledged:

Proposition 4: In my experience, the value of giving away books has diminished to the point where its worth as a marketing tool is, at best, doubtful.

I haven’t mailed my list about a new release since February. Mainly because I parted company with my publisher in March and spent the next few months revising and producing and releasing my own versions of my e-books and paperbacks, writing new stuff was forced to take a back seat. I’m also in the process of producing my first audiobook and starting up a proofreading business. It might be another few months before I’m ready to release something new.

It’s unlikely that much interest will be generated by my e-mail notifying subscribers of the new release. If anything, the unsubscribe rate will probably rocket since many subscribers will have forgotten they signed up and will have no idea who this strange person is e-mailing them. The experts say that it’s a good thing to have people unsubscribe if they were only there in the first place in expectation of receiving further free books. They say a list should be nurtured, meaning informative e-mails should be sent regularly so that you remain, if not at the forefront of your subscribers’ thoughts, at least visible to them. This comes back to the sort of person you are. If, like me, you can’t stand the thought of sending people e-mails unless it’s to tell them about a promotion or new release, not a lot of nurturing is likely to occur.

I’m well aware the vast majority of subscribers to my list are there because I offered them a free book. Most will have little or no knowledge of my work; most will be, at best, indifferent to my work because they’ve never read anything I’ve written. I’ve given them the expectation of receiving free books from me. Why the heck should I now expect them to part with a dollar to preorder my new release?

Okay, that question was largely rhetorical, but I’ll answer it anyway. I don’t expect them to buy my work. If most of them remain on my list on receiving my next e-mail, I’ll be grateful. Of course, that won’t stop me from hoping they’ll head on over to Amazon and put in their preorder, but I shan’t hold my breath. And that’s not a criticism of the subscribers who joined up through the promotions. I’m glad to have them on my list—it would remain pitifully small without them. It’s merely a recognition of the reality of the situation. And confirms my constant assertion.

When it comes to marketing, I’m a complete muppet.

That’s enough about mailing lists. Next time, I’ll talk about some other area of marketing I’m hopeless at. Or, who knows, there might be mention of something that actually seems to be working. Till Part 5…

Editing – Part 1

Any aspiring author considering self-publishing their work who seeks guidance online is likely to be furnished with three stock pieces of advice:

1. Obtain a professional-looking, genre-specific cover;
2. Write an enticing blurb*;
3. Have the book professionally edited before publishing.

This won’t be the only advice offered, but is probably the most common. It’s also sound advice—not something that can be said about every pearl of wisdom bandied about on the net.

It’s that third item I want to talk a little about: the advice to have the work professionally edited before letting it loose on the reading public.

The word ‘editing’ is often thrown about with gay abandon as a catch-all term for polishing a raw manuscript until it shines, but there are various types of editing, requiring different degrees of skill and coming with varying price tags.

Generally speaking, editing can range from in-depth analysis of a novel’s structure (developmental editing), to a final proofread to eliminate any spelling mistakes or punctuation errors remaining from previous editing passes. The various intermediate stages may be called substantive editing, mechanical editing, line editing and copy editing—there is often overlap between these terms, or they are used interchangably, or given different meanings by different editors.

And cost will range widely, perhaps from a few thousand dollars or more for a developmental edit, to less than fifty dollars for a proofread from someone who will run it through a spellchecker and little else.

That’s the thing: anyone with a computer and internet connection can set themselves up online as an editor. While there are experienced and skilled editors and proofreaders out there who fully justify their fees, there are also people claiming to be editors who I wouldn’t trust to check my shopping list. Such is the internet.

There are two main issues I see facing the new author who wants to follow the advice and have their work professionally edited. The first is cost—not many new authors are likely to have a few thousand dollars to spend on an editor. The second is finding a knowledgable, reliable editor who’s a good fit—that’s when recommendations from other authors become important, but many newbies might not have the necessary contacts. They will need to poke about online until they find a forum or group that fits their genre and personality; they’ll need to join in, get to know people (in as much as that’s possible on social media) and learn whose recommendations they can trust.

What of the new author who genuinely can’t afford to hire an editor? I’ve seen authors advised to go without whatever it takes in order to save funds for an editor. The advice I’ve seen hasn’t gone as far as to recommend selling a kidney; at least, not yet.

No matter how sincerely the well-meaning advisor believes that the newbie can find a way to raise the funds, the fact remains that for some this will simply not be possible. For some, self-editing might be the only option.

I’ll talk a little more about self-editing methods in my next post on this topic—not, I hasten to add, that I’m an expert, but I can at least talk about what I do. To someone who doesn’t know where to start, it might be useful.

Before I end, there’s one important thing to add: even if self-editing, try to get at least one other pair of eyes on your work before you publish it. Look around on Facebook and other social media for critiquing groups you might be able to join, or suggest to other writers at a similar stage as you that you get together to set one up. If all else fails, it could be a friend or family member whose opinion you trust and who, preferably, has a reasonably high standard of written English. Ask them to read through your final manuscript and note any spelling errors or other mistakes. Though not everyone on the forums will agree with me, I appreciate that in some cases this might the best a novice writer can do.

* I know that historically the word ‘blurb’ referred to a catchy phrase about the book, often by a famous author, used to promote the work, but language evolves and the word is often used nowadays to refer to the book description, and that is the sense in which I’m using it. So there.

This is the Way the World Ends

If pushed to name a favourite genre, post-apocalyptic would come close. Depending on my mood, it would often be top. That’s the thing with naming your favourite anything, from food to film to song to book: it depends how you are feeling when deliberating. I’ve talked in a previous post about my love for this genre and how I first became attracted to it by watching the film The Omega Man when I was a child, and I’m not going to rehash that. Instead, I want to mention some of my favourite apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic novels. (I’m not going to discuss dystopian books where there hasn’t been an apocalyptic event, or there has but it isn’t key to the story—dystopia has its own post.)

This is a category crammed with excellent novels. Harder to know what to leave out than include, but what follows is a mention of many of my favourites (which, of course, on another day might have included one or more of the books I’ve today omitted).

Let’s start with one of my favourite authors. If you know me, you’ll realise I refer to Stephen King. Can’t recall how old I was when I first read The Stand, but I’m guessing I was around seventeen. The tale of civilisation coming to an end through the accidental release of a lab-engineered strain of influenza blew me away and cemented SK as my go-to author. (As an aside, one or two reviewers of my own apocalyptic novel, The Cleansing, commented that it reminded them of The Stand. True, my tale also involves a manufactured virus which virtually wipes out humankind, but that’s where the resemblance ends. Tenuous though the comparison is, I usually shrug and take it as a compliment, even where it’s clear it’s not intended as one.)

Another PA novel I read in my teens was On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Set in Australia in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, it tells of the last days of humanity while the survivors wait for the fallout to reach them. It was published in 1957, which perhaps explains why I felt in some ways it was a little unrealistic. I mean, for people awaiting certain death, they behave in an awfully civilised manner—stiff upper lip and all that. Still, it’s a sombre evocation of how the world might end (‘not with a bang but a whimper’*), with the government doling out suicide capsules so the people might be spared the slow, lingering end of radiation poisoning, and entire families popping them together.


On The Beach

Another favourite of my younger days was Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut. The apocalyptic event doesn’t take place until towards the end of the tale, but when it does, it’s about as life-ending as it’s possible to imagine. And that’s all life, not only human.

A couple of books I’d describe as curious, both disturbing in their own ways. The Death of Grass by John Christopher presents a grim (grim? It’s PA—of course it’s bloody grim) look at how humankind might react in the event suggested by the title, with the British government responding to the crisis in a dramatic and overly drastic way, and what is left of society descending almost instantly into mob rule. And Night Work by Thomas Glavinic. It’s not giving anything away to say that it’s about a man who wakes up one day to find that he appears to be the only person left alive on the entire planet. Can’t say more because spoilers, but it’s a dark and intriguing read.


Night Work

The next two books have something in common: they both involve a form of vampirism. In Justin Cronin’s The Passage, we see the event unfold. The story continues in two sequels and it’s a fine trilogy indeed. In Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend (the book upon which the film The Omega Man is loosely based), the event has already taken place and we witness the aftermath. Unlike the film versions, the book’s ending is deliciously dark; pity the film makers didn’t have the courage to stick with it.


I Am Legend

Next, a Marmite novel: The Road by Cormac McCarthy. I’m firmly in the ‘love it’ camp (that’s the book, not Marmite). It’s unremittingly bleak and utterly gripping. They didn’t do a bad job with the film version, either.

A few more crackers (most of the books included in this post are crackers). Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood and Station Eleven by Emily St John Mandel.  Both captivated me for different reasons: Atwood’s for its sense of lyricism and surrealism mixed with a scenario all too realistic, Mandel’s due mainly to the intrigue I felt as to how the present would tie-in with the back story, though this is beautifully written as well. A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller is a classic PA novel, though it reads more like three long short stories, which is how they were originally written.


Oryx And Crake

For someone who’s a huge fan of TV’s The Walking Dead, strange that I’m not really one for novels about zombies. They simply don’t interest me. The exception is World War Z by Max Brooks. I bought it as one of my books to take on holiday to Greece a few years ago. It took me a while to grow used to the style of the novel—it has no central narrative, as such, but is told after the event through a series of interviews with characters who played a central role in the ‘war’—but once I had, Wow! A rip-roaring read that I didn’t want to end.


World War Z

To finish, a novel that haunted me for weeks after I’d finished it and one that I want to read again: Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban. The story is set in the south-east of England, far into the future, hundreds of years after the apocalyptic event. I’m hazy on the details because it’s been more than five years since I read it, but I still recall how the tale resonated with me. The author developed a form of pidgin English in which his characters speak and, due mainly to that, it’s a difficult book to get into. But, boy, was it worth persevering. If you enjoy works of apocalyptic fiction, I’d strongly recommend this, and every other book mentioned in this post.


Riddley Walker

Happy reading!

* this is a line from a poem by T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men, the same poem from which Shute took the title of his novel, and I took the title of this piece.