Archive | August 2012

Seeking guidance… and success

Independent authors: we all hope for success but sometimes we need guidance too. I’m a relative newcomer to the whole business but I’d like to pass on a few bits of help I’ve found of particular interest.

The harbour at Mousehole, near Penzance

My story

I started down the ‘indie’ publishing road about eight months ago but have only recently started to seriously explore what’s involved.

So far, I’ve put three novels and some short stories onto Kindle and started this blog. Until June, though, I was living in Portugal with a fairly busy teaching job – which meant most of my time was occupied with work, enjoying life or recovering from one or other of the former.

Now, I’ve realised that if I’m serious about trying to get lots of readers then it’s time to concentrate on what it really means to be an independent author – and in charge of the whole process from concept to marketing.

As many have already discovered, it’s a big ask. But for those relatively new to the process, I thought I’d share some guidance I’ve found useful.

Seek & ye shall find

Earlier this year, I downloaded a book by Jeff Bennington called The Indie Author’s Guide To The Universe. I was lucky enough to get a free copy and initially filed it away as ‘to be read and digested when I’ve got time’ – which means now.

I haven’t finished the book yet but have already come across some useful facts and advice – all pitched in a cheerful, easy-to-read fashion.

I’d already made use of KDP’s free promotion days but hadn’t really given a whole lot of thought to how I get the most value out of them. Thanks to Jeff’s book, however, I’ve now discovered some interesting new websites that offer to promote – for free – our free promotions.

These include – in no particular order – Pixelofink, World Literary Cafe, Digital Book Today and Author Marketing Club. I’m guessing there may be more.

I haven’t used these sites yet – but am planning to schedule some more free promotions over the next six weeks so if anyone’s interested in the outcome let me know.

This information is just a drop in the ocean of what’s out there but it’s made me think. Hopefully others will find it useful. Any other bright ideas will of course be greatly welcome.

NB: There’s no particular relevance to the image of Mousehole – other than it’s just along the road from where I’m staying. I thought about constructing some metaphor to do with independent authors being like small vessels and seeking safe harbours but decided that would be too contrived. The honest truth is it’s just there to add a bit of visual interest to (and distraction from) my latest musings.

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Playing with pricing

Being an independent author gives you a huge amount of freedom – but also means you’re responsible for some fundamental decisions. One key choice is how much to charge for your books.

So far, I’ve only ventured into publishing through Amazon’s KDP programme. Amazon set minimum and maximum prices but there’s still a lot of leeway.

To begin with, I didn’t want to overprice my books. On the other hand, I didn’t want to seem too cheap. I felt that if my books were priced really low then readers might assume I didn’t value them and that they weren’t much good.

My current book shelf

Over the past year, two of my novels have been priced at around £2.50 to £3 ($4-$5). My other novel The Vault is being sold to raise money for the charity ShelterBox, so I pitched it slightly higher at £4.50 ($7). (Exact prices seem to vary a little depending on how much sales tax is added.)

But having been reading a bit more on the issue of pricing, I’ve decided it’s time to try a new policy. I’ve just lowered the cover price of all my books to the minimum. Now I won’t make anything like so much per sale but it’ll be interesting to see if I sell many (or any) more copies!

Grammar, what is it good for?

When I was at school, English grammar seemed simple. That’s because all they taught me was the difference between a noun, adjective and a verb!

About 20 years later I decided to retrain as a teacher of English as a foreign language (EFL). Which is when I found out that I didn’t know the first thing about grammar.

In fact, my grammar was fairly good. After all, as well as being a novelist, I’d spent years working as a journalist and in PR so having a good grasp of the language was a job requirement.

But I had no idea how it worked. The mechanics of the language were lost on me. Future perfect, conditionals, dependent prepositions – although I used them, I had no idea they existed.

After completing my novel The Vault in 2007, one literary agent was interested in the book and I was sent a reader’s report. One of the things the report mentioned was the fact that I slowed down action by using past perfect to describe what was happening when past simple would have been much more immediate.

At the time I didn’t understand what this meant. However, after retraining as an EFL teacher, I went back to The Vault a year ago. Now understanding more about how English grammar works, I was able to edit the book much more effectively. (I also now know that MS Word’s grammar check is not always correct!)

The words I’d used previously weren’t grammatically wrong but the phrasing and tenses were more cumbersome than necessary. Now, the book is quite a few words lighter and flows much better.

If they’d made me learn grammar at school (England in the 1970s), I’d probably have hated it. On the other hand, it might have helped me be a better writer sooner!

Free access to The Vault

The Vault

Just a quick reminder that my latest novel The Vault is currently on a five-day free promotion on Amazon.

The book is a tale of hidden secrets, childhood drama and murder – set in a small English town and based around a young boy called Adam Strong.

The novel began life some years ago with a short scenario about a group of dark-clad intruders making a night raid on a castle. That was followed by a story about a group of young boys who encounter ‘something nasty’ in the local woods.

For a while the book struggled to go any further. Then I went on a screenwriting course and was inspired to completely rework my languishing novel as a film script. That idea never came to fruition but taking a different look at my book (and the story) gave The Vault fresh impetus.

Inspired by a number of new ideas and a different approach I went back to the novel format and never really looked back. It’s a couple of years now since I completed the novel, which was published for the first time on Kindle earlier this year. A few good reviews so far – more would be welcome!

I’ve published this book in aid of the disaster relief charity ShelterBox – a cause I particularly believe in – and, as mentioned on a previous post, I’m hoping that enough free downloads will go on to generate some real sales for me and the charity!

The Vault is available from today (Thursday) on Amazon UK or .com.

Shared language?

I was reading an interesting post yesterday by Kiwi writer Sarah Knipping on the problems of writing in her own brand of this shared language we all call English.

It reminded me of when I went to work on a newspaper in a small town called Penrith many years ago. My new colleagues used a variety of dialect words that completely baffled me – and were shocked when I told them words like ratch and sneck were not standard English!

But then it got me wondering if many authors have problems with their words getting ‘lost in translation’?

English is used by huge numbers of people in many different places: here in the UK where it was invented, over in North America where they use (what’s to me) a strange mixture of archaic grammar and funny expressions. There’s also the Kiwis, the guys on that other island down there, the South Africans, the West Indians… etc etc – all with their own version of English.

And even more people don’t speak English as their first language but learn it because it’s the international language.

Over the last few years, I’ve been teaching English in Portugal. Some of my more advanced students had a pretty good vocabulary but mixed up British and US English (influenced by the global spread of American TV and music.)

It was a battle to try and remind my students that both variations were correct but they had to be consistent. You shouldn’t have colour and civilise in the same sentence.

I also had fun drawing their attention to some of the more dangerous words. Words like fanny, bum, suspenders and fag have very different meanings – and could cause great offence – depending on which brand of English you’re using.

Currently, I’m working on a rewrite of a novel set partly in North Africa. Some dialogue is written as if spoken by someone whose first language isn’t English but unless I’m very careful it can read as though I’m just a careless writer with really bad grammar.

Anyone else having fun with our shared language?

NB. In case you’re wondering, ratch means to have a rummage or search for something, while sneck can mean either to have a sneaky peek at something or is another word for a latch. Hence the popular local ale called ‘Sneck Lifter’!

Climate change as marketing tool

I can’t remember the last time we had a decent summer here in the UK. Occasional sunny days yes. But the kind of summers where you know it’s going to be warm and sunny for day after day? Distant memories.

Now, after several years teaching in Portugal, my wife and I have moved back home. We had a bit of time to spare so decided to go camping down in Cornwall. And after several nights of huddling in our tent, mopping up leaks as the rain hammered down, we’re beginning to doubt our sanity.

Why are we giving up this?

But, being an optimistic sort at heart, I reckon there’s a silver lining to every cloud. You see, this coming weekend is a big UK public holiday – the August Bank Holiday.

Traditionally, this weekend is a time for the beach, BBQs, traffic jams, sales… and notoriously fickle weather. So, my thinking is: the climate in this country is going downhill and the weather is bound to be rubbish seeing as it’s a public holiday. Which means lots of people holed up in tents, caravans, hotels, B&Bs etc, needing something to do.

Therefore, in the interests of preserving national sanity, I’m using one of Amazon’s five-day promotions to offer my novel The Vault to my fellow citizens (and the rest of the world) for free.

Hopefully, thousands of people in need of a good read will download this tale of hidden secrets, childhood drama and murder… (it’s available from Thursday on Amazon UK or .com).

And, if enough people download it for free, then actual sales of the book should also increase over the following weeks. So, that’s how I’m hoping that climate change – and the famously bad British weather – can help market my book.

For a good cause…

But sales of The Vault won’t just help me. Half of all royalties will go to the disaster relief charity ShelterBox, which provides emergency shelter and vital aid for families who have lost their home as a result of earthquakes, floods, volcanoes etc.

The mystery of choice

So why do readers choose one book and not another? Unlocking that formula is a mystery that many authors – me included – would love to crack.

With a traditional ‘bricks & mortar’ bookshop there are many variables – cover, title, position in a display, shop lighting, staff recommendations… And that’s not even thinking about marketing.

So many cakes. Which one to choose?

So how does it work with e-publishing? As an author, I’ve not only got to create a story that is going to move, inspire or entertain my readers (hopefully all three), I’ve also got to persuade them to download my book.

On the face of it, the virtual ‘shop window’  would seem simpler. The title is obviously important, as is the cover image and the blurb that ‘sells’ my book. But what else? And how do I get it right?

I’ve previously used the option available through Amazon’s KDP to put my books on a free promotion every few months, getting anything between a few hundred and over a thousand copies downloaded.

Last month, though, I got a bit of a shock. I made my novel Thin Ice free for five days. About 250 copies were given away on Amazon.com. However, my jaw fell when visitors to Amazon’s UK site downloaded nearly 6,500 copies.

For those few days, my novel was almost at the top of Amazon UK’s top 100 free books.

What I don’t understand is why? Obviously there’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation here. Once my book appears in the Top 100 more Kindle users are likely to see it (think it must be okay) and therefore download it. Also, the more copies you ‘sell’, the more your book features in the ‘people who bought this, also bought this’ panel on Amazon pages.

Last weekend, I put another novel – The Tale Of Findo Gaskon a free promotion… and had just under 500 copies downloaded. So what made readers choose one of my books and not the other? Is it the cover, the title, the blurb, the tags, the genre or what? Any answers gratefully received.

To hop or not to hop?

Most mainstream authors tend to stick to one genre. Sometimes because that’s what they’re good at (and want to write) but also because the big publishing houses like things neatly packaged and pigeonholed.

There are some authors who ‘genre hop’. Margaret Atwood has written all kinds of stories. Iain Banks writes both mainstream fiction and sci-fi epics – although he does add his middle initial ‘M’ to let readers know when they’re going off into space.

Shall I go in a straight line or hop where I please?

Generally though, writers stick to one genre. You don’t pick up a Patricia Cornwell and expect historical romance or buy a Bernard Cornwell and find yourself with a murder mystery.

As a reader though, I genre hop all the time. I enjoy crime and thrillers but also general contemporary fiction, history, fantasy, teen and young adult books, the occasional classic etc.

So, what’s an independent author to do? The three novels I’ve published so far on Kindle are all set in contemporary Britain and have a crime/mystery element to them. Two involve young boys and deal (in different ways) with the adventure called childhood.

However, I’m currently working on a rewrite of an older novel. Pagan’s Sphinx is an archaeological thriller set in North Africa. It’s written in the first person (unlike all my other books) and is in many ways a much more straightforward adventure ‘yarn’.

But am I likely to confuse or alienate those who’ve enjoyed my other books? Will new readers who start with Pagan’s Sphinx be disappointed when they find out the others are different? Or will I attract a wider readership and (hopefully) demonstrate my versatility by tackling different genres?

One option is to publish under a different name. Or is it just a case of making sure the ‘blurbs’ inform readers what they’re getting? Do I hop or not?

Why be good?

Why don’t more of us steal the things we want? Is it because of our moral code – or because we’re afraid of getting caught?

Years ago, me and my friend Myles would sit around in the evening and speculate about all kinds of things, a glass or two of homebrew helping lubricate our thought processes. Neither of us were that keen on the whole ‘work’ thing and would often say: ‘let’s just go and rob a bank’.

Money? It’s only paper.

Needless to say, we never did get round to pulling the bank job. However, the concept of what makes the majority of us law-abiding citizens was fuel for thought. This is even more of a conundrum for an atheist: we’re here for a limited amount of time and then it’s over, so why not do whatever you feel like? What’s the point of scruples if you’ve only got one shot at existence? (Once you’re dead and gone you’ll never have to deal with the consequences.)

Personally, I do have a moral code – which is why I’m neither a gangster living on my riches on a tropical island or locked up in prison. (There’s also this thing called society – the balance varies but we all give to it and take from it in some way.)

However, as a writer, this question of why more people don’t steal things made me wonder about if we should expect our morals to apply to people with no stake in society. I thought about how an unregistered child born into poverty and never receiving any education or other benefits from ‘normal’ society would act. Should we really blame them if they take what they need?

The Tale Of Findo Gask

That was the background for my novel The Tale Of Findo Gask which in 2005 won the national prize in the Undiscovered Authors competition. (Findo came out on Kindle earlier this year – and is currently free to download!)

Basically, Findo is an adventure story. It’s about a young boy growing up in the criminal underclass of a British city, the things he does to survive and how he becomes a master thief. There’s adventure, drama… lots of crime… and even a bit of young romance.

Underneath though I hope there’s a bit of a moral. As much of a question as a message.

It was a book that I had huge fun writing, imagining all the things that a young boy with no restrictions and few hang-ups might get up to.

The Kindle version is free for the next couple of days so, whether you want to ponder the question I’ve posed or just be entertained, please download it, read, enjoy… and then recommend it to all your friends. Alternatively, any out there got any foolproof plan for robbing a bank and not getting caught?

Rekindled hope

Somewhere I’ve got a file. Inside is a collection of rejection letters from the agents and publishers that I’ve approached over the years in the hope of getting one of my books published.

I started my quest for publication back in the late 1980s when I finally finished my first novel – a sci-fi epic called Guardians. Over the years that followed, I wrote more books – and collected more rejection letters.I had moments of despair but loved writing too much to ever give up.

Then – about six years ago – I thought I’d finally made the big breakthrough. I entered a new national competition for previously unpublished British writers… and won first prize. The Tale of Findo Gask was published in October 2006 and I began to think that my dream of being a full-time writer might actually become reality.

Unfortunately, I only ever got my first royalty cheque and a while later found out that the company behind the prize had gone bust. I was lucky enough to get a substantial prize but my book never got any real publicity and soon disappeared off the shelves.

The experience was just a little bit dispiriting (to put it mildly) but I was able to tell myself that at least my work had been chosen in a national competition by a panel of independent judges. I wrote a couple more novels and started approaching more agents and publishers… and collecting more rejection letters.

Then, my wife bought me a Kindle for my last birthday. I wasn’t sure if I’d like an electronic book but took to it surprisingly quickly. And soon after I found out that – through Kindle – I could cut out the rejection process and publish my own books.

I’ve now published three novels and a collection of short stories. Sales haven’t been huge but the reviews for my work have been (mostly) very positive. I’ve also been using Amazon KDP’s option to make the books available on a free promotion once every three months.

A couple of weeks ago, I offered Thin Ice as a free download over a five-day period. I expected to give away maybe a thousand free copies. Which is why my jaw dropped when I checked the figures and saw that around 6,500 free copies had been downloaded – nearly all of them from Amazon’s UK site.

What was even better was that on the back of those free downloads I actually sold over 200 copies in the following week. Okay, I’m not rivalling Dan Brown yet and still not quite at the stage of thinking I can live purely on my writing income but it’s a major step forward. Publishing my own books has helped rekindle my hope… and my belief in myself as a writer.

From Thursday The Tale of Findo Gask will be available for free over a five-day period. I’m trying not to build my hopes up too much but I will be keeping my fingers crossed…