Book Reviews:  Are They Useful to Writers?

“Don’t read your reviews.” “Don’t read your reviews.” I had the same advice given to me twice by two different writer acquaintances. Both are million-plus sellers, and both are people I highly respect. Despite their experience and financial success, I don’t necessarily know if they’re right about this. That leads me to this rant post about book reviews and the question of ‘are they useful to writers’.

At their core, book reviews are sales tools. Publishers have long promoted good reviews as social proof of a book’s value. They want to positively influence readers to buy a copy. That leads to the issue of why expose negative reviews when they probably hurt sales, but that’s for a different philosophical discussion.

The problem with book reviews, as I see it, is subjectivity. Reviews are based on the reviewer’s opinion. Reviewers are readers, and readers have an enormous variety of takes, tastes, and tolerances. What is a good read to one may be bad to another.

I suppose an objective review would be thoughtful and helpful. It does no good for a writer to be lavishly praised or mercilessly trashed without the reviewer stating why they liked or disliked the work. We, as writers, learn from our work, and constructive criticism or accurate feedback is a wonderful learning tool.

I have to say I’m a bad reviewer. I don’t mean I leave bad reviews. (I won’t write a review if I can’t say something positive—that’s my nice guy nature). I mean, I rarely leave even a good review after I finish a book, and that makes me a hypocrite when I ask readers to leave a review on my publications.

Back to subjectively. We writers are readers, too, with personal likes and dislikes. When it comes to reading genre fiction, I’m on Team King, not Team Patterson. In my subjective opinion, Stephen King blows James Patterson out of the water when it comes to talented storytelling. However, I understand Patterson makes more money selling books than King, so who’s the better writer?

Not everybody likes J.K. Rowling and the Harry Potter series. I read there are nearly 200,000 one-star Harry Potter reviews on GoodReads. Twilight  apparently got eviscerated over there. So did Fifty Shades. Even Garry Rodgers takes the odd dart in the eye on the GR site.

Speaking of me, let’s see how I’ve fared on Amazon. I’ve worn everything from the crown of honor to the cone of shame. Here’s a review snapshot of my book In The Attic which has 262 Amazon reviews (ratings) that average 4.2 on the 5-Star scale. 51% are 5, 29% are 4, 15% are 3, 1% are 2, and 4% of my reviewers (raters or haters) think I suck and awarded me a 1-Star.

But what do these Amazon stars actually mean? GoodReads uses a 5-Star rating system, too. I haven’t looked under that bridge in over two years, but out of curiosity for this post, I checked the Amazon-affiliate site. GoodReads has 184 hits on In The Attic, and they give it an average of 3.77 out of a possible 5.0.

I Googled around and found a subjective article titled How Are Product Star Ratings Calculated? The author tells me that Amazon is more generous than GoodReads when it comes to the stars aligning. Here’s how the writer says Amazon and GoodReads interpret ratings:

5 Stars — On AZ “I love it.” On GR “It was amazing.”
4 Stars — On AZ “I like it.” On GR “Really like it.”
3 Stars — On AZ “It’s okay.” On GR “Liked it.”
2 Stars — On AZ “I don’t like it.” On GR “It was okay.”
1 Star   — On AZ “I hate it.” On GR “Did not like it.”

I found another piece where the contributor equated star rating to a school report:

5 Stars — B+ to A
4 Stars — C+ to B
3 Stars — C to C-
2 Stars — D or D-
1 Star   — F for Fail

Fair enough. The star rating is obviously subjective. What about written reviews? Is this where the rubber meets the road and we writers can find useful criticism? Let’s look at In The Attic again and take the ice cream with the ugly sweaters. At least the way Amazon sees it.

Reviewed in the United Kingdom on November 25, 2020
***** Brilliant story.

Reviewed in the United States on January 5, 2020
* Horrible. The worst book I have ever read, I tried to like it but could not get past the first few chapters. This is the only book (in my life) I could not finish.

Reviewed in the United States on May 13, 2020
***** Caveat: This is not for the faint of heart. And that it is a true story just blows my mind. The author does not lie about the content being graphic. If you are prone to nightmares, this is a warning. I literally prayed last night that I would not have a nightmare (thankfully, I did not).

Reviewed in the United Kingdom on June 26, 2020
* All I can say is thank goodness I didn’t pay for this book. Author wasted many chapters on absolute rubbish. At least I know not to read any more from him. A true story but he so missed the mark and could have had a winner if told only from his perspective. Sorry but true.

Reviewed in the United States on September 10, 2020
*** Mr. Rodgers, are you are (sp) of your subject matter? And that it’s based on TRUE events? Sir, only true psychopaths would get decent entertainment value from this book. (I just needed to point this out while I remembered!).

One tool every writer needs is a hide thickener. We can’t always get ego-praising, “If I could give it 10 stars, I would” reviews as one reader left for me. We have to endure comments such as, “Never have I given a bad report on a book because it really is a huge undertaking and hard work for the author… but THIS book… OMGosh…talk about sensational drivel. I’m speechless. Most of it was hard core fluff to fill out a book that should have been 30 pages instead of 155, with sexual content jabber, sensationalism, and …well…let’s just say Do yourself a favor and pass this one by. Or…go ahead and read it and then hit yourself in the forehead for not paying attention to an honest one star rating. Sorry, author…. “I wish I hadn’t….” I’m sure your other books are better.”

The problem with reviews like these, good-neutral-bad, is they’re not particularly useful to improve my craft. I want to know why my writing is brilliant on one hand and horrible on the other. Why do I appeal to psychopaths and blow people’s minds? How is it my senseless drivel leaves a reader speechless? A little elaboration would be handy.

I know the trolls are out there. I also recognize a butt-kisser, and that goes with travelling in writing country. As an online crime writer, I’ve had everything from marriage proposals to death threats (not joking). By the way, In The Attic is 167 pages and contains no hardcore sexual stuff. The reviewer must have read a different In The Attic.

I’m still early in my writing travels. I might be a “C or D” on the popularity list, and I have no problem with honest criticism that’s meant to be helpful instead of hurtful. It’s somewhat comforting to know that A-listers who’ve gone before me have worn sweaters uglier than my driver’s license photo. Here are some slams I found on the net:

On Herman Melville and Moby DickSheer moonstruck lunacy.

On J.D. Salinger and Catcher In The RyeThe greatest mind ever to stay in prep school.

On George Moore’s work — He leads his readers to the latrine and locks them in.

By Samuel Johnson to an aspiring writer — Your book is both good and original. Unfortunately, the parts that are original are not good, and the parts that are good are not original.

On James A, Michener and ChesapeakeTwo recommendations. First, don’t buy the book. Second, if you do buy the book, don’t drop it on your foot.

By Randall James on a poetry book — This reads like it was written on a typewriter—by a typewriter.

By Mark Twain on Henry James — Once you’ve put down one of his books, you simply can’t pick it up again.

By Oscar Wilde on George Meredith — As a writer he has mastered everything except language; as novelist he can do everything except tell a story; as an artist he is everything except articulate.

How about you folks on the Kill Zone? Do you read your book reviews, and are book reviews useful to writers?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner responsible for investigating unnatural and unexplained deaths. Now, Garry is a crime writer and indie publisher working on a based-on-true-crime series. His seventh book in the collection, Beyond The Limits, is coming out this month on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island at Canada’s left coast. When not writing, Garry putts around the Pacific Ocean and drinks boxed wine—not necessarily at the same time. Check out DyingWords.net (Garry’s blog & website) and follow him on Twitter.

+9

What’s on Your Nightstand?

There’s a saying that goes, “Where you’ll be five years from now depends on the people you meet, the conversations you have, and the books you read”. I don’t know who said it, but I say it holds truth. Especially books you read… like the ones on your nightstand.

I’ve always been a reader. Not sure if the right adjective is voracious, avid, or anal, but I love to read. It’s in my blood, and the blood I begat, and the blood I married. My family members are all readers. So are most of my friends and colleagues.

My dad got lost for hours reading everything from newspapers to classics. My sister, who’s a lioness of a reader, said if my dad were alive when the internet arrived, we’d never have gotten him off it. My mum held a Masters in English Lit, and she wrote her thesis on Thomas Hardy. To no surprise, mum was a teacher who loved to teach kids to love to read.

Our kids were very young when they were born, so it was easy for my wife and I to mould them into our reading cult. I turned Aesop’s Fables into “stupid stories” to get bedtime bladder-relieving belly laughs from Emily and Alan. Rita, my wife, sensibly read Harry Potter to them so convincingly that they hated the movies because they didn’t sound like their mom’s character versions.

Now our kids are all growed up. Thankfully, they turned out all right because they’d rather read than work, and that’s proven because both took leave from their jobs and went back to university. At least this time, mom and dad aren’t paying.

Now mom and dad are empty nesters who love nothing better than hang around and read. Rita and I read a lot. We have so many books that our insurance provider required a structural engineer to approve our book cases for fear of someone being killed in a catastrophic collapse.

Seriously, though, we have serious stuff on our nightstands. But as close as Rita and I have been during our 37 married years, we have significantly different reading interests. Same with our kids—Emily, 32 and Alan, 30—and that’s a good thing because we all keep on reading.

My wife and kids stepped up for this Kill Zone piece. I polled them on their nightstands. I asked them to list five books they recently read, were currently reading, or had purchased and intended to read next (the TBR list). Here’s five reads on each of the Rodgers family nightstands.

Garry Rodgers

  1. Podcasting For Dummies — Tee Morris / Chuck Tomasi (Take note, Sue Coletta) 🙂
  2. Profiles in Folly – History’s Worst Decisions & Why They Went Wrong — Alan Axelrod
  3. Sapiens – A Brief History of Humankind — Yuval Noah Harari
  4. Fortunate Son — John Fogerty
  5. The Cobra — Frederick Forsyth (re-read)

Rita Rodgers

  1. The Blue Moth of Morning — Poems by P.C. Vandall (Rita’s friend)
  2. If It Bleeds — Stephen King
  3. The Goldfinch — Donna Tartt
  4. Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine — Gail Honeyman
  5. The Alice Network — Kate Quinn

Emily Rodgers

  1. The Flames — Leonard Cohen
  2. The Story of the Human Body — Daniel E. Lieberman
  3. Saints for All Seasons — John J. Delaney
  4. Ten Poems for Difficult Times — Roger Housden
  5. The Bible

Alan Rodgers

  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People — Stephen R. Covey
  2. How to Win Friends and Influence People — Dale Carnegie
  3. The Daily Stoic — Ryan Holiday
  4. Rogue Trader — Andy Hoare
  5. Johnathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke

That’s the Rodgers reads. What about you Kill Zoners? Let’s read what TKZ contributors and followers have on the nightstands. Go ahead and list five books you’ve recently read, are now reading, or have on the TBR list. That includes paper, digital, or however you like to read.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired murder cop with a second career as a guy no one wanted an appointment with — Dr. Death, the coroner. Now Garry passes himself off as an indie crime writer who checks his Amazon sales stats every half hour.

Speaking of crime writing, Garry Rodgers has six books out in a twelve part Based-On-True-Crime series. Garry’s first one, In The Attic, is available for FREE on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook. Help yourself to one for the holidays!

+10

Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

There’s a famous quip from Woody Allen that goes like this, “I took a course in speed reading. I read War and Peace in twenty minutes. It was about Russia.” There’s a lot of truth in those lines because when writers read for research (and pleasure) they need to find that balance between speed, comprehension, and production. It all comes down to efficiency.

Some folks naturally read faster than others. During my research for this Kill Zone piece, I sourced statistics that the average person reads at the speed of about 200 to 250 words per minute (wpm). That’s like a typical 12 point page spaced at 1.15 inches in 60 seconds. Speed demons can go as high as 400 wpm, but there’s a distinct line where speed becomes counter-productive, and the ability to comprehend and retain those words drastically diminishes.

Other stats I found compared reading speed to conversation cadence. Most of us talk at about 150 wpm which, I read, is the optimal spacing for podcasting and audio books. Cattle auctioneers bark at around 250 wpm, and I once worked with a cop who spoke so fast that no one could understand him—probably blurting out about 300 or more. It was a thing of beauty to listen to his evidence in court.

Here are some other speed reading tidbits.US President John Kennedy reportedly read three major newspapers before his morning coffee cooled. JFK’s rate was around 1,100 and he, himself, said it was his ability to skim for what he was interested in. The World Speed Reading Championship has a six-time winner, Anne Jones, who read at 4,200 wpm with a recorded comprehension at 67 percent.

Then there’s Kim Peek. He’s a savant who has memorized over 9,600 books. No one knows how he does it because Kim’s corpus callosum has been missing since birth. That’s the nerve bundle connecting the right and left cerebral hemispheres.

Anyway, back to us mortal writers. We have to read to be able to produce writing. Most of us, myself included, are bookies. We love to read as well as write. Like me, you’re probably a closet bibliomaniac who practices the art of tsundoku. (I linked these words to Wikipedia—you’re welcome.)

Another quote, while I’m in quoting mode, is from Stephen King himself who savantly said, “To be a good writer you must do two things. Read a lot and write a lot. If you don’t have the time for reading, then you do not have the tools for writing.” I’ll take King’s advice any day, but the 64-thousand dollar question is, “How do I read quickly but still write efficiently?”

To start with, there are certain limitations built into us writing mortals. They involve interactions between the eye and the brain. Brains are linguistically programmed through instinct. We naturally learn to speak. However, we have to be taught to read, and then we have to practice. A lot, if we’re going to be good readers who can efficiently transpose information into intelligible writing.

When you look at images on a page—letters, words, sentences, paragraphs, and symbols—light reflects from the page or screen to the back of your retina. Here a tiny, dot-like feature called your fovea centralis takes the information and passes it to your cerebral cortex for processing. Your cortex decides whether to use the information, store it, or chuck it.

As amazing as your fovea is, it has a limited capacity to function with speed. Foveas are focused fellas, and they only see about three words at a time. That’s because only so much light passes into cell cones in the center of the fovea. Light coming from peripheral page regions, like words to the left and right, fades into the fog of cell rods that aren’t so good at transmitting useful reading information.

There’s more to this reading science than meets the eye. You’re programmed to read in small chunks at a time. Reading scientists call this fixations and saccades. Fixations are the spots where your fovea stops and saccades are the jerk actions between the stops that keep your eye moving across the page.

From what I read and retained, your fovea fixation lasts from about a quarter-second to a full-second. This depends on your mental focus and how much your brain decides that particular info-bit is worth to you. A saccade period is about a tenth-second. Saccades are pretty predictable, and the only control you have is to decide how much you want to skim.

You can’t will or teach your fovea to act faster or look farther. It’s only going to take in about three words between stops. What you can do, however, is to exercise your cortex to retain more, and that comes from reading lots.

When you read a lot, you become more familiar with words that your brain can find useful. You expand your vocabulary as well as your overall knowledge. More understood and informative words equals higher efficiency when it comes to reading fast and retaining more. However, there comes a point where you’re reading too fast and miss too much.

So, is there such a thing as efficient speed reading? A balance? Well, let’s look back to where this craze came from and went to. Travel back to 1958 and meet Evelyn Wood who wrote Reading Skills. She was a Utah school teacher who used a three-point system to make her kids better readers. Evelyn recognized these three efficient reading methods:

Method 1 — Take more information in at a time. She encouraged scanning by moving a finger or pen across a page to increase saccade action.

Method 2 — Eliminate subvocalization. This is the little voice in your head that wants to read out loud rather than be still and absorb information.

Method 3 — Eliminate regressive eye movements. Evelyn encouraged students to read it right the first time and not to keep going back over things.

Evelyn Wood was probably the mother of all speed reading courses. She went on to offer Reading Dynamics and made a ton of money by teaching adults to read faster and absorb better. Some historians question Wood’s effectiveness at significantly improving speed, but you can’t argue with her worldwide exposure.

Forward to 2020 and the app age. This speed reading thing hasn’t gone away. Google “speed reading” and you’ll find tools like Spritz, Spreeder, Outread, Acceleread, and Reedy to help reduce your TBR pile. Do any of these apps really work? I don’t know, because I have my own system for researching and writing that I’d like to share with you.

As I mused, there’s a balance between time and efficiency. It depends on what you want to do with your reading material. I’m not one to “speed read” a novel, but it pays to rip through resource material as quickly as possible to write an article like this.

Case Study: Is Speed Reading Efficient for Writers?

I spent five hours researching this post. I have a fair amount of experience doing online articles, as I spent two years working with my daughter in her content writing agency. That business pays by the article. Not the word count or by time. A typical content piece is 2,200 words and to make a decent hourly return, you have to be somewhat speedy in reading your research.

I used the keywords “Speed Read” to “Google” information. I found 14 suitable articles online ranging from Psychology Wiki (which I had no idea existed—you’re welcome again) to Wired, Lifehacker, and the BBC. I copied the content and pasted it on a Word.doc which is what I religiously do for research. I formatted the doc in Ariel 10 point with 1.15 spacing and set the color on black with a white background.

Then, I printed each article on 8 ½ x 11 and went at them with a yellow highlighter and a red pen. I used a side page for black-inked notes. By this time, my cortex knew what it was looking for so, as my fovea followed my saccade spacing, I yellow-highlighted interesting stuff and red underlined really interesting stuff. I then made black notes of key points and I moved it along.

The printed 14 documents contained 21,823 words. That’s an average of 1,559 per piece. Out of the 5 hours in research time, about 2 ½ were spent in reading the printed docs and making notes. 2 ½ hours is 150 minutes, so my words-per-minute was 145. That’s no speed demon by any measure.

However, my comprehension, retention, and piece production were (in my opinion) reasonably efficient. Sure, I could probably have scanned the stuff at 3 times the rate. But, I wouldn’t have been able to efficiently write this 1,593-word article in 1.75 hours. That’s composing at 906 words per hour or 15.1 words per minute.

Do I have room to increase my writing efficiency? Certainly. Probably we all do. But is speed reading to save research time worth the reduced value of the final product? I say no.

What about you Kill Zoners? What’s your view on speed reading, and what tips on writing efficiency do you have? Please drop them in the comment box.

___

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner investigating sudden, strange, and unexplained deaths. Now Garry has reinvented himself as an indie writer who’s working on a series of based-on-true-crime stories. His latest venture, Beyond The Limits – Book #7, is scheduled for release in early January, 2021.

Besides writing at the Kill Zone and on his popular blog at www.DyingWords.net, Garry Rodgers spends his spare time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. To his aghast, there was a skim of frost on Garry’s windshield this morning.

+9

Are You a Writing Success or an Imposter?

Success, by definition, means different things to different folks. Most writers probably see “success” as being published—repeatedly. They work hard, take risks, and accept that being exposed to failure is part of success. They’re confident souls and keep-on-writing regardless of what others think. Then, there are those who outwardly “make it” but, deep inside, see themselves as imposters.

Yesterday morning, I was reading an online article at Global News which is one of Canada’s leading media sites. The piece was occasionally interrupted with paid ads by prominent players like Ford, Ikea, Microsoft, Audible, and Formica who financially support Global so they can survive in the commercial news biz. All of a sudden I went, “Whoa! Am I really seeing this?”

Before my eyes was an advertisement from Rakuten Kobo, and there was the cover of my newest publication. Kobo chose my book Between The Bikers as their featured promotion and exposed it before I don’t know how many critical eyes. And this Global ad was bought and paid for by Kobo—not me. I knew nothing about the promo before stumbling upon it.

I said to Rita, “Well, will you look at this…” My wife glanced, smiled, and replied, “You’re quite the success.” I had to agree, but then I immediately thought of an earlier email exchange with a highly successful UK writer friend who told me he suffers from Imposter Syndrome (IS).

Before going into what Imposter Syndrome might be, I had to click on Dictionary.com for two definitions:

Successnoun

  1. the favorable or prosperous termination of attempts or endeavors; the accomplishment of one’s goals.
  2. the attainment of wealth, position, honors, or the like.
  3. a performance or achievement that is marked by success, as by the attainment of honors: The play was an instant success.
  4. a person or thing that has had success, as measured by attainment of goals, wealth, etc.: She was a great success on the talk show.

Imposternoun

  1. a person who practices deception under an assumed character, identity, or name.

This got me thinking, What if I’m just an imposter, a bullshit clown, and this Kobo recognition hasn’t been honestly earned? I know that friends, family, and former police colleagues—as well as fellow writers—are going to see this thing, click on it, and expose me for what I might truly be. Oh, the humiliation…

I don’t know who, or how many, saw the Kobo ad. I guess upcoming stats will tell if the promo was successful, but the startling experience made me think of my UK friend and what was going on with his IS insecurity. So, I did some Googling and came up with a fascinating article and self-examination on the New York Spirit psychology-therapy site titled What Is Imposter Syndrome? It opens like this:

“Welcome to the world of the Imposter Syndrome. It is a secret world, inhabited by successful people from all walks of life who have one thing in common – they believe that they are not really good enough. They might be men or women, young or old. And imposter beliefs are not always related to work; I have met ‘imposters’ who feel they are not good enough parents, husbands, wives, friends or even not good enough human beings. These are all variations of Imposter Syndrome, especially when there is little objective evidence to support the sufferers firmly held self-beliefs that they are frauds.

The term ‘Imposter Syndrome’ or ‘Imposter Phenomenon’, was first coined in 1978 by clinical psychologists Pauline R. Clance and Suzanne A. Imes in a paper entitled ‘The Imposter Phenomenon in High Achieving Women: Dynamics and Therapeutic Intervention’.

 The condition was described as being ‘an internal experience of intellectual phonies’ that afflicted some high-achieving women. In their paper, Clance and Imes described their sample group of 150 women as follows, ‘despite their earned degrees, scholastic honors, high achievement on standardized tests, praise and professional recognition from colleagues and respected authorities… [they] do not experience an internal sense of success. They consider themselves to be “impostors”.’ They go on to explain that these women believe they have only achieved their success due to errors in selection processes, or because someone has overestimated their abilities, or that it is due to some other external source.”

Drs. Clance and Imes list three characteristics that define Imposter Syndrome:

  1. Persistently attributing your success to external factors like luck or others.
  2. Believing others have an inflated view of your skills, abilities, and talents.
  3. Fearing you’ll be found out and exposed as a fake.

The New York Spirit piece notes that Imposter Syndrome isn’t a recognized mental health condition. (I checked with the DSM-5 and it’s not.) However, through Wikipedia I found a book by researcher Valerie Young titled The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women: Why Capable People Suffer From the Impostor Syndrome and How to Thrive in Spite of It. In her book, Ms. Young identified five subgroups this syndrome falls into.

  1. The perfectionist
  2. The superwoman/man
  3. The natural genius
  4. The soloist
  5. The expert

Ms. Young states more than 70% of people experience impostor syndrome at some point in their career. That’s regardless if they’re a rocket surgeon, brain scientist, or crime/thriller/mystery writer.

Back to the New York Spirit article. I love quizzes and was most interested in taking their short self-assessment to see whether or not I had Imposter Syndrome. This is how NY Spirit described it: This quiz is based on the common symptoms outlined above and is not meant to be a diagnostic mental health tool, but rather a quick and simple way to ascertain to what degree you feel like you are an imposter. It goes like this…

How easy do you find it to accept praise?
Very hard — 1    Quite hard — 2    Quite easy — 3    Very easy — 4

When you do something well, how likely are you to dismiss it as not really much (eg it was easy, anyone could have done that, it was nothing special).
Very likely — 1    Quite likely — 2    Not very likely — 3    Not at all likely — 4

When you do something well, how likely are you to attribute your success to luck?
Very likely — 1    Quite likely — 2    Not very likely — 3    Not at all likely — 4

When you do something less well, how likely are you to attribute your failure to luck?
Not at all likely — 1    Not very likely — 2    Quite likely — 3    Very likely — 4

When you perform poorly, or fail, how likely are you to attribute your failure to your own lack of skill or not working hard enough?
Very likely — 1    Quite likely — 2    Not very likely — 3    Not at all likely — 4

When you do something well how likely are you to attribute your success to other people’s input (‘they helped me’)?
Very likely — 1    Quite likely — 2    Not very likely — 3    Not at all likely — 4

When you do something poorly how likely are you to attribute your failure to other people (‘it was their fault’)?
Not at all likely — 1    Not very likely — 2    Quite likely — 3    Very likely — 4

How important is it for you to be the best at something that matters to you?
Very important — 1    Quite important — 2    Not very important — 3    Not at all important — 4

How important is success for you?
Very important — 1    Quite important — 2    Not very important — 3    Not at all important — 4

How likely are you to focus on what you have not done well compared to what you have done well?
Very likely — 1    Quite likely — 2    Not very likely — 3    Not at all likely — 4

How important is it to you to find a ‘hero’ to befriend and impress?
Very important — 1    Quite important — 2    Not very important — 3    Not at all important — 4

How often do you feel afraid to express your views lest people discover your lack of knowledge?
Very often — 1    Quite often — 2    Not very often — 3    Not at all/rarely — 4

How often do you find yourself unable to start a project for fear of failing?
Very often — 1    Quite often — 2    Not very often — 3    Not at all/rarely — 4

How often do you find yourself unwilling to finish a project because it isn’t yet good enough?
Very often — 1    Quite often — 2    Not very often — 3    Not at all/rarely — 4

How happy are you to live with a piece of work you have done that you know isn’t perfect?
Not at all happy — 1    Not very happy — 2    Quite happy — 3    Very happy — 4

How often do you find yourself thinking that you are a fraud?
Very often — 1    Quite often — 2    Not very often — 3    Not at all/rarely — 4

How worried are you that your lack of skill/talent/ability will be discovered?
Very worried — 1    Quite worried — 2    Not very worried — 3    Not at all worried — 4

How important is validation from others to you (e.g. praise)?
Very important — 1    Quite important — 2    Not very important — 3    Not at all important — 4

How To Score

According to the piece, the lower your numeric score, the more likely it is you have Imposter Syndrome. The scoring range is from 18 to 72 and (as a rough guide) any score below 36 indicates some sort of IS element is going on in your personality. Again, this is not an accredited test and has to be looked at with a bit of “ooo-kaaay…”.

You’re probably wondering how I made out. I tried to be as honest as possible, and I scored 55. I suppose that indicates I’m relatively comfortable with my butt in the chair with my fingers on the keys. What about you? Go ahead. Take the IS quiz and share your score with your fellow Kill Zoners.

Another thing for Kill Zoners… how do you define “success”? While I was surfing the New York Spirit site, I found an article by Jessica Kitching titled How Do We Measure Success? In it, she says, “If you wake up with a passion for what you do, a purpose that excites you, and a momentum to keep going, then you are a success. I am not ashamed to label myself a writer. I am a writer. I love what I do. How many other people can say that?”

*   *   *

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a coroner. Now, Garry has reinvented himself as a crime thriller writer who masquerades as a commercial success.

He lives on Vancouver Island at British Columbia’s southwest coast and regularly imposters as an old boat skipper. Visit DyingWords.net which is the real website and popular blog for Garry Rodgers.

+7

What MasterClass Can Do For A Writer

Most writers constantly try to improve their craft. Whether you write thrillers, mystery, romance, sci-fi, dystopian, non-fiction, web content, blogs or whatever, you always feel your work can be better. At least that’s what goes on in my mind.

I like to say I’m a life-long learner. I’ve gone to school for sixty-four years and still don’t know what I’m going to be when I grow up. Maybe that’s why I’m hooked on watching MasterClass.

What’s MasterClass, you ask? Well, it’s “an American online education platform on which students can access tutorials and lectures pre-recorded by experts in various fields’. (I didn’t write that line. I copied and pasted it from Wikipedia.)

No underhanded plagiarism intended, though, as I believe MasterClass is the most helpful and professional resource that’s hit the net. It started as an idea floated between David Rogier and Aaron Rasmussen in 2014. They formed Yanka Industries Inc. and published their first MasterClass on May 12, 2015. Within the first few months, they signed over 30,000 subscribers,

MasterClass snagged a big fish for their first day in the derby. James Patterson, one of the world’s top-selling thriller writers, opened the show. I was among the first with a front-row seat, popcorn, and a drink. Since then, I’ve taken 21 MasterClasses in subjects ranging from writing to film production to cooking to motivation to science. You could say I’m a master class junkie.

If you’re not familiar with the MasterClass format, let me give you a brief introduction before we take a close look at how James Patterson’s thriller writing MasterClass unfolds. I truly believe subscribing to MasterClass and getting a wide exposure to A-List resources can do a lot for you as a writer. You’ll take your craft to the next level as well as increase your confidence, amplify your motivation, and create satisfaction (i.e. happiness).

Nothing in a MasterClass production is amateurish or cheesy. Their course material is audience appropriate and their film works rival anything you’ll see on Netflix. From the instructor’s poise to the perfect setting, you’ll fall under the MasterClass spell and stick to it through each session. Qualification—that’s as long as you’re passionate about the subject.

A typical MasterClass runs between 15 and 25 sessions. The segments range in time from 3-minute intros to more than 20-minute lessons. That makes for a class series of blocks at around 3 to 5 hours of total film time. It depends on the subject and the presenter.

There are three parts to a MasterClass production. One is the on-camera time where the presenter lectures and/or demonstrates. Two is a PDF workbook that acts as a script guide and notebook. Three is behind-the-scene access to material that adds value to your purchase.

Speaking of purchase, MasterClass has two fees. One is $90 for a single class. Two is $180 annually for an “All Pass”. For under two hundred bucks, you can buy an unlimited subscription that gives you access to all classes. Given there are well over 50 classes, that’s an exceptional value.

To say MasterClass recruits knowledgeable instructors is an understatement. These are the best-of-the-best in their field, and the MasterClass producers know that success sells. Like the promise in Steven Covey’s The 7 Habits Of Highly Effective People, MasterClass delivers on the logic that successful people have it figured out, so be more like them.

I’ve swallowed the MasterClass KoolAid as you can tell from the tone of this piece. I make no apologies that I believe watching a MasterClass can do one thing for you, as a writer, above all else. I’ll tell you at the end, but first I want to list some MasterClasses I’ve watched and highly recommend to other writers.

James Patterson — Thriller Writing
Dan Brown — Thriller Writing
David Baldacci — Thriller Writing
Neil Gaiman — Storytelling
Malcolm Gladwell — General Writing
Joyce Carol Oates — Fiction Writing
Margaret Atwood — Fiction Writing
R.L. Stine — Children’s Writing
Judy Blume — Fiction Writing
David Mamet — Plot Writing
Aaron Sorkin — Screen Writing
Shondra Rimes — TV Writing
Ron Howard — Film Directing
Martin Scorsese — Film Producing
Bob Woodward — Journalism

My MasterClass interests go outside of what information I can glean on writing. Chris Hadfield’s class on space exploration is out of this world and Gordon Ramsey taught me how to make the best scrambled eggs without swearing at the stove. Wolfgang Puck? Excellent show. So was Annie Leibowitz on photography.

I’ll stop with name-naming. I want to take you inside an actual MasterClass, and I can think of no more applicable class for the Kill Zone bunch than James Patterson’s. Here’s his MasterClass curriculum taken from the show’s PDF.

01 Introduction: Your instructor, James Patterson—currently the best-selling author in the world—lets you know what he has planned for your class and what you’ll need to learn to start writing your own best-sellers.

02 Passion + Habit: Getting into the proper mindset is an essential first step to writing a best-seller. This lesson explores James’s secrets for staying focused, productive, and motivated.

03 Raw Ideas: How do you recognize a great idea? How do you figure out if it’s worthy of your effort? James spells out the techniques he uses to generate his ideas and then separate the good ones from the less compelling ones.

04 Plot: With the right plot, your reader won’t be able to stop turning the pages. In this lesson, James measures out his unique approach to developing plot lines that keep readers wanting more.

05 Research: For James, conducting in-depth research not only makes his writing better, it also boosts his credibility with his readers. Find out when and how James conducts his research and how he incorporates it into his writing in a thoughtful way.

06 Outlines — Part 1: James’ secret weapon is a comprehensive outline. Learn how he sets himself up for a fast and successful first draft. No matter what, don’t skip this lesson!

 07 Outlines — Part 2: James has never shown the outline for his best-seller Honeymoon to anyone (not even his publisher) until now. Follow along with the outline provided in your Class Workbook as James further explains his process.

08 Writer’s Block: Even when you’ve written as many books as James has (76 best sellers and counting), there’s still nothing scarier than staring at the blank page. Here’s how to conquer those fears.

09 Creating Characters: From Alex Cross to Michael Bennett, James has mastered the art of creating complex and memorable characters. Hero to villain, learn how to make your character stay with your reader well beyond the last page.

10 First Lines: Grab your reader’s attention quickly and make them hold on for dear life. James shares his tips for getting your reader hooked from the very first line.

11 Writing Dialogue: Dialogue should always push the story forward. Listen to James explain a few common dialogue pitfalls and easy ways to avoid them.

12 Building A Chapter: James is well known for his numerous short and snappy chapters. Learn how he propels the reader through the book with an outline as his roadmap.

13 Writing Suspense: The secret to suspense is…

14 Ending The Book: We’ve all read great books with terrible endings. Of the infinite possible endings, learn how James chooses the right one.

15 Editing: James is liberal with a red pen; his editing is key to keeping the reader engaged. Learn how to trim the fat with our interactive editing assignment.

16 Working With A Co-Author: When does James decide to use a co-author and is it a true collaboration? In this lesson, we meet two of his most trusted co-authors who share their process for making a collaboration truly successful.

17 Getting Published: Author of 76 best-sellers and holder of the Guinness World Record for the first person to sell over 1 million eBooks, James knows a thing or two about getting published. In this lesson, he shares what he’s learned.

18 Book Titles And Covers: Readers do judge books by their covers. What should they think about yours?

19 Marketing The Patterson Way: Before publishing his first book, James was an executive at a top ad agency in New York. Find out what James learned from his time in advertising and how he used it to change the book marketing game.

20 Hollywood: What happens when Hollywood takes an interest in your story? Sit back and listen as James shares the best and worst moments from his time on the set.

21 Personal Story: Every master begins as a student. James shares his long, winding path to becoming the world’s best-selling author.

22 Closing: You’ve been given the tools to help write your next book. Now what?

It’s hard to say the main takeaway, but I’d have to say it’s how much James Patterson stresses about outlining your work before starting the overall draft. He’s a plotter, through & through. Me? I’m more of a pantster, but I’m not here to argue with James Patterson’s success.

Nor do I dispute the amazing success following the names Brown, Baldacci, Gaiman, Attwood, Blume, Oates, Sorkin, and so on. These are top-caliber craftspeople. But as I watched their personalities unfold on the screen, I got the distinct impression these are not born-on-third-base people. They’re self-made professionals.

This realization made me think. If they can make it, maybe I can, too. So I looked for common denominators running through each class and what their experiences presented in their MasterClasses can do for a writer. Here’s what I found.

All presenters say there’s no set formula for success—no magic bullet.

There are processes to follow and there are principles to follow. However, each success story comes from trying new things and finding what works for the individual.

All presenters find the story.

They intimately understand their craft whether it’s fiction writing, screenwriting, directing and producing films, cooking, or flying a starship. In the spine of every success, there’s a story. A successful story they made happen by improving their craft.

All presenters do the work.

They didn’t slide into home from third. Most, if not all, struck out many times before they got a line-drive to first base never mind cracked it over the Green Monster. These MasterClass writers sat alone with their sore butts in the chair and their blistered fingers on the keys for a long, long time. They did the work.

All presenters have critics.

They get 1-Stars on Amazon and rotten tomatoes thrown at them. It goes with the game, and they grow tough hide. They learn from valid criticism, they trashcan the trolls, and many no longer bother to read their reviews.

All presenters have passion.

Some MasterClass instructors say this directly. With some, passion naturally flows from their style. Their words, their body language, their dress, and their demeanor show it. Everything about them oozes passion—controlled passion—and it infectiously slides onto the student.

Gordon Ramsay says, “Find a passion because everything else falls into place once you’ve got that track set.” Chris Hadfield’s quote is this. “Every single step you take in the direction of your dreams is one that will make you happier and more satisfied with yourself.” I think the space-man sends a universal message.

I’m passionate about writing. I know that improving my craft by watching MasterClass leads to greater satisfaction and happiness. And, I believe that’s what Masterclass can, above all else, do for you as a writer—make you feel happy.

*   *   *

Garry Rodgers is a retired RCMP homicide detective. He went on to a second career as the person no one wants an appointment with — a coroner. Garry’s business card used to say, “When Your Day Ends, My Day Starts”. His boss made him get rid of it.

Since then, Garry Rodgers reinvented himself as a crime writer who constantly strives to improve his craft and find satisfaction through indie-publishing electronic words. Garry also finds happiness by putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s Pacific coast.

+14

How Understanding Songs Benefit Novel Writers

Songs are ancient storytelling forms. Thousands of years ago—long before scripted language evolved—indigenous people got their message across by vocally singing as well as orally telling structured stories. This primal people-connection still resonates and you, as today’s novel writer, can benefit by understanding timeless song-structured forms.

I don’t pretend to be a songwriter or musician. I can barely play the radio, and my only rhythmic venture was a limerick unfit to print. However, I’m a moderately-skilled written storyteller who tries to improve by studying other storytelling venues including songs.

Novels are only one type of storytelling. We find stories in all sorts of artwork. Music, dance, songs, film, and plays come to mind. I think there’re stories to be found in abstract art like ice-sculpting and graffiti-painting. All art forms tell a story, and one of the most powerful connectors is a song.

This piece started the other day when I opened my inbox and Amazon offered me a free three-month subscription to their newest line called Amazon Music. I downloaded the app and checked it out. I was still up at 2 a.m. because this awesome and easy-to-use platform has stuff that took me back… a way, way back. Amazon Music is so good that it’ll make you want to throw rocks at Spotify.

Enough of pumping up the ’ZON. While listening to hours of songs with vocals ranging from Chubby Checker to Reba McIntyre to Celine Dionne to Brian Johnson, I felt a common thread. All their songs—as varied as their voices and lyrics are—have defined structures. I decided to explore this and see how understanding song forms could benefit me as a novelist. Hopefully, what I learned will benefit you, too.

The Three Main Song Forms

In songwriting, form and structure mean the same. They’re interchangeable terms that describe a framework for building time-proven and marketable products. Having said “for sale”, there are endless variations of the three song categories. It’s the same as breaking down the classic beginning, middle, and end novel structures into microcosms.

Think of a song—any song. Let’s go with Rock Around The Clock by Bill Haley and the Comets. It has a mix of all three forms in the tune, and it’s one of the catchiest dance pieces ever recorded. Jolene by Dolly Parton takes a classic form and reverses its structure. And Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody is in a form-league of its own. I found a Rolling Stone quote saying this rock opera was so unique that it could only be sung by an entity like Freddie Mercury with God doing backup.

As different as Bohemian Rhapsody, Jolene, and Rock Around The Clock are, they still conform to recognized structures. It’s no different than taking novels like Wuthering Heights, Fifty Shades of Gray, and Harry Potter. Where there’s story, there’s form and structure. Let’s do a dive into the three main song forms with a caveat that I am not a songwriter by any score.

Verse-Chorus Form

This is the simplest and safest songwriting structure, especially in pop music. It’s highly effective at getting the story across. However, verse-chorus is not the oldest form. We’ll get to that in a minute.

There are two distinct parts in a verse-chorus song. The verse is the story and the chorus is emphasizing the message or theme. Songwriters refer to this as the ABAB structure where A is the verse and B is the chorus (which is also called the refrain).

The same thing happens in a novel where the story (verse) unfolds in the narrative through exposition, dialogue, and the treasure-trove of devices available to the novelist while the theme (quiet chorus) unfolds through plotting, characterization, and whatever else a novelist can dream of.

A typical song verse contains lyrics that build on the story. Verse lyrics change as the song progresses. A typical chorus repeats itself. It’s here where the hook or earworm resides. You know. The catchy part—the one that pops-in while you’re having a shower. (Think “Chevy to the Levy” in American Pie)

Good verse-chorus song examples are Penny Lane (Beatles), California Girls (Beach Boys), and That’ll Be The Day (Buddy Holly).

Verse-Chorus-Bridge Form

This is an expansive form of the simple ABAB song structure. Songwriters term it the ABABCB form as it stretches the multi verse-chorus style by adding a musical or lyrical bridge to it. The bridge addition is often called a rift, solo, or a Middle 8.

Part of song structure expansion includes adding extras to the ABADCB form. They include an opening or introduction (intro) that is usually musical without lyrics. Then, songwriters go with one to three verses, throw in a single chorus, add a bridge/rift/solo/ Middle 8, and then finish off with a final chorus and an outro. The ABABCB outro is also known as a tag, coda, or conclusion.

Songwriters say they get more mileage with their music with the verse-chorus-bridge form. It allows a great change of pace from the twang-twang felt in the ABAB structure. Today, the ABABCB song form leads the pack of popularity.

Good verse-chorus-bridge song examples are Hot N Cold (Katy Perry), High and Dry (Radiohead), and What’s Love Got To Do With It (Tina Turner).

Strophic Form

Strophic form is by far the oldest song structure. It’s also the cleanest. It’s been around from the dawn of time and led to the early church hymns.

The only part in a strophic-structured song is the verse. That’s it. Sure, some songwriters clever it up with a hidden chorus built into the verse or slip in a rift as an interlude. But, purists stick with the strophic program when they really want to put story over strings, symbols, and saxophones.

Strophic songs can be simplex or complex. In pure form are children’s lullabies like Hush Little Baby. Put a little flare to a strophic structure and you get the incredibly annoying It’s A Small World. Or, you can stretch strophic style to the magnificent Amazing Grace.

Some of the finest songs ever written fall in the strophic category. They are timeless treasures telling tragedy and triumph. As a rule, strophic-structure songs are much longer than ABAB and ABABCB forms.

Good strophic song examples are Wreck of The Edmund Fitzgerald (Gordon Lightfoot), Maggie May (Rod Stewart), and Mack The Knife (Bobby Darrin).

Analyzing Actual Song Forms

This piece wouldn’t be fun without grabbing an ABAB song, an ABABCB song, and a Strophic song and having a look at what makes them tick. Doing this can make you relate to your novel structure, and we can always improve on that—at least I can improve on mine. Here are three highly-successful songs that use common songwriting forms.

ABAB Song Form — Bad Moon Rising (John Fogerty)

(verse)
I see the bad moon a-rising
I see trouble on the way
I see earthquakes and lightnin’
I see bad times today

(chorus)
Don’t go around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise

(verse)
I hear hurricanes a-blowing
I know the end is coming soon
I fear rivers overflowing
I hear the voice of rage and ruin

(chorus)
Well don’t go around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise, all right

(guitar bridge/rift/Middle8)

(verse)
Hope you got your things together
Hope you are quite prepared to die
Looks like we’re in for nasty weather
One eye is taken for an eye

(chorus)
Well don’t go around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise

(chorus)
Don’t come around tonight
Well it’s bound to take your life
There’s a bad moon on the rise

ABABCB Song Form — Hotel California (The Eagles)

(horn/guitar/drum intro)

(verse)
On a dark desert highway
Cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas
Rising up through the air
Up ahead in the distance
I saw a shimmering light
My head grew heavy and my sight grew dim
I had to stop for the night

(verse)
There she stood in the doorway
I heard the mission bell
And I was thinkin’ to myself
‘This could be heaven or this could be hell
Then she lit up a candle
And she showed me the way
There were voices down the corridor
I thought I heard them say

(chorus)
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place such a lovely place
Such a lovely face
Plenty of room at the Hotel California
Any time of year any time of year
You can find it here

(verse)
Her mind is Tiffany-twisted
She got the Mercedes Benz, uh
She got a lot of pretty, pretty boys
That she calls friends
How they dance in the courtyard
Sweet summer sweat
Some dance to remember
Some dance to forget

(verse)
So I called up the Captain
“Please bring me my wine”
He said, “We haven’t had that spirit here since 1969”
And still those voices are calling from far away
Wake you up in the middle of the night
Just to hear them say

(chorus)
Welcome to the Hotel California
Such a lovely place such a lovely place
Such a lovely face
They livin’ it up at the Hotel California
What a nice surprise what a nice surprise
Bring your alibis

(verse)
Mirrors on the ceiling
The pink champagne on ice
And she said, “We are all just prisoners here of our own device”
And in the master’s chambers
They gathered for the feast
They stab it with their steely knives
But they just can’t kill the beast

(verse)
Last thing I remember
I was running for the door
I had to find the passage back
To the place I was before
“Relax”, said the night man
“We are programmed to receive
You can check out any time you like
But you can never leave”

(long guitar bridge/rift/outro)

Strophic Song Form — The Times They Are A Changing (Bob Dylan)

(short harmonica intro)

(verse)
Come gather ’round, people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
And you better start swimmin’
Or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(short harmonica bridge)

(verse)
Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who
That it’s namin’
For the loser now
Will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(long harmonica bridge)

(verse)
Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
The battle outside ragin’
Will soon shake your windows
And rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(short harmonica bridge)

(verse)
Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(long harmonica bridge)

(verse)
The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now
Will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’ (chorus)

(short harmonica outro)

Let Song Forms Benefit Your Novel Writing

Songwriters, like novelists, know rules need followin’. The three-form rule is basic to writing gold-record songs as the three-act rule is to penning blockbuster novels. Some things work, and these three forms or structures are proven.

The basics—guidelines more than rules, they say—and they say it’s okay to break the rules as long as you know what you’re doing when you break them. I agree, and from what I observed in the three ABAB, ABABCB, and Strophic styles, they are full of rule breaking. And I think Fogerty, Felder/Frey/Henley, and Dylan knew exactly what they were doing when they did so.

Your novel writing is your personal craft. It’s your expression and it’s your freedom of individuality. Go ahead and break the rules if you want. Just like the songwriters do. But, understand what conventional structures are before you color outside the lines.

What about you KZ writers? What’s your experience with story form and how songwriting applies to your work? And you KZ readers? What do you see in similarities between songs and novels? Please feel free to comment!

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and exhausted coroner, now an energetic crime writer and indie publisher. He’s also an avid song-writing student and wishes he could write like Bob Dylan instead of sing like him.

Check out DyingWords.net which is Garry’s website and popular personal blog. He’s also out there on Twitter. Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in beautiful British Columbia on Canada’s west coast where he spends non-writing time putzing around the Pacific Ocean.

+9

Kobo — A Truly International Indie Publishing Platform

Eight years ago, if I told you I was an internationally-published indie author with a global scale you’d go, “Right. You can’t find an agent or traditional publisher to peddle your pages so you’re forced to self-pub through a vanity press and you mailed five copies to your Scottish-bred mother.” I’d lower my eyes and mumble, “…. …” Today, that’s no longer my self-conscious indie state—thanks to Kobo.

Kobo (an anagram for Book) is a godsend for indie authors like me who operate a growing online publishing business. I avoid the word “self-publishing” because no one in this business truly publishes by themselves. It takes a team to produce a book, whether that’s in print, eBook, or audio form. That includes a cover designer, editor, proofreader, formatter, narrator, writer, and of course, the folks at Kobo who distribute the final product to a worldwide reading audience.

Before going into how Kobo operates and what Kobo has done for me, let me tell you a bit about this leading-edge publishing company. Kobo started in 2009. It was a Toronto, Canada-based online start-up promoting ShortCovers as a cloud e-reading service for Indigo/Chapters. In 2012, Kobo merged with the Japanese e-commerce conglomerate Rakuten, and the e-publishing company is now officially listed as Kobo-Rakuten Inc. Most call it Kobo for short.

Kobo has grown enormously in the past eight years. It’s absorbed brand-names like Waterstones, Borders, Sony Books, and W.H. Smith. In 2018, Kobo partnered with Walmart intending to make Amazon nervous. After all, Rakuten is the Asian version of the American ’Zon.

Today, Kobo-Rakuten has well over 5 million titles in their store. They’re available online in 190 countries and 97 different languages. If that isn’t a truly international indie-publishing platform, then I don’t know what is.

How Kobo is Structured

Kobo-Rakuten focuses on its core products. That’s electronic publication. Their business model, or structure, has three parts. One is digital printing or eBooks. Two is electronic audio books. Three is electronic reading devices like Kobo e-readers and Kobo tablets. At this time, Kobo does not do print-on-demand like Amazon and Ingram. That may happen through Walmart’s Espresso machines.

Kobo’s corporate statement says it’s a “company built by booklovers for booklovers through talented and passionate people taking the top of their game to the next level”. Kobo’s primary management team is in Toronto, and it has a prominent software development division in Dublin, Ireland. International sub-teams work in the US, UK, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Spain, Japan, Brazil, and Australia.

Besides corporate white-shirts and hipster geeks, Kobo has a down-to-earth bunch of ladies in their reader and writer service department. It’s these with-it women that an indie like me communicates with. And by communicate, I mean I can send them an email or arrange a phone call and I’ll get prompt human contact with someone whose accent I understand.

Publishing on Kobo

I have indie-publishing experience in three electronic platforms—Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Kobo. I’m here to tell you that Kobo is far superior to the other two when it comes to diminished operator frustration. I think the Kobo techs must indie-publish themselves because they’ve built a dashboard that doesn’t suck.

Kobo’s user-friendly dashboard has five distinct parts laid-out in this easy-to-follow order:

Part 1  Describe Your Book — This is where you enter “metadata” into the boxes. It’s basic information like title, series number, author name, publisher, ISBN, etc. You’re allowed up to three placement categories to check off from a comprehensive drop-down list. You also copy & paste your synopsis (product description/blurb) into an html-friendly format. It’s far better than Amazon’s product description block that makes you write html by letter-code.

Part 2  Add Your eBook Content — Here is where you upload your manuscript e-file. Kobo is so easy to add content to. Unlike Amazon that dictates a proprietary e-file called Mobi or AZW, Kobo lets you upload a Microsoft document directly, and it uses its own e-Pub conversion program to convert your document into an e-Pub file. Kobo will convert .doc, .docX, .mobi, and .ode files automatically. They also have a pay-to-convert affiliate called Aptara.

Note: If there’s one secret to successful Word-to-e-file conversion, it’s making sure your Word.doc is properly formatted to start with. This is crucial! I covered the steps in a previous Kill Zone post titled Top Ten Tips on Formatting eBooks From MS Word. Once your file is uploaded to Kobo, they have a one-click preview feature.

Part 3  Determine Your Rights and Distribution — This is straightforward but necessary metadata. Leave your Digital Rights Management (DRM) slide off. Activate your slide for Geographic – Own All Territories. Allow Kobo Plus Subscription. (This is akin to Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU). It’s only available in a few countries but will probably go worldwide.) Also, allow library purchases through Overdrive. Just make sure to increase your price from your regular retail listing. If libraries want your works, they’ll gladly pay $4.99 instead of $2.99. (It’s called a profit center.)

Part 4  Set Your Price — Setting your price point is entirely up to you. It depends on what you think you can charge to get the maximum return from sales. I’ve found my sweet spot is $2.99 per e-Book. If I bump up the price to $3.99 or $4.99, I find my sale numbers drop considerably so I actually make less net income by charging more.

I’ve refined my eBook prices to $2.99 everywhere. That includes all publications on Amazon (20 eBooks), Kobo (8 eBooks), and Barnes and Noble (7 eBooks). I have one perma-free on all platforms, and I could write another entire post on how beneficial perma-frees can be.

Kobo pays 70% royalty on $2.99 and over which is the same as Amazon. Drop below $2.99 and Kobo pays 45% where Amazon squeezes you to 30%. Them’s the rules… and so you must play.

A distinct advantage of publishing “Wide” with Kobo is they won’t penalize you if you’re not exclusive the way Amazon enslaves you under the Kindle Direct Publishing Select (KDPS) program. Trust me. The advantages you lose by moving off exclusive KDPS are far exceeded by publishing perks on Kobo. The only issue might be if you have a large KU page reading and you’ll stop this income stream if you go wide. I didn’t, and I have absolutely no regrets going Wide and hooking up with Kobo.

I’ve been told that using the “.99” trick is important when pricing eBooks, and I believe it. This is a tried & true marketing technique that’s been around forever. That’s because it works. Kobo is truly an international publishing platform that allows you to set individual prices per country and in its currency. Kobo also has an automatic currency converter built-in to the dashboard. However, don’t let Kobo automatically convert and post a $2.99 USD equivalent in a foreign currency or it’ll look like doggy-doo with ugly-weird figures, ie 2.31, 8.47, 28.01, etc.

To get the 70% royalty at $2.99 USD and keep with the “.99” strategy, here’s how I manually set pricing on my Kobo international dashboard:

United States Dollar – 2.99
Canadian Dollar – 2.99
United Kingdom Pound – 2.99
Australian Dollar – 2.99
New Zealand Dollar – 2.99
Brazilian Real – 9.99
European Euro – 2,99
Hong Kong Dollar – 19.99
Indian Rupee – 99.99
Japanese Yen – 299.00
Mexican Peso – 99.99
New Taiwan Dollar – 79.99
Philippine Peso – 99.99
South African Rand – 29.99
Swiss Franc – 2.99

By the way, Kobo pays in half the time Amazon does. You’ll receive your Kobo direct deposit 45 days after the last day of the month. This becomes a monthly cycle and is disbursed provided you make at least $50.00 in sales during that period. Otherwise, Kobo will defer payment until you have a $50.00 payable account. Don’t worry about not getting paid if you have a slow month. It’s like money in the bank, and it motivates you to promote sales and get regular checks.

Kobo Promotions

Kobo has a unique promotion program built into your dashboard. When you first open a Kobo account, the promo tab won’t appear. You have to send Kobo a quick email request and… presto! It’s there and really easy to understand, never mind use.

Kobo’s internal e-Book promotion system is entirely pay-to-play. You have to apply for a particular Kobo promotion feature and you get declined more times than accepted. Looking at my Kobo dashboard, I have 2 active promos running, 1 forthcoming, 7 completed, and I was declined 19 times. Don’t get hurt feelings over being declined for a Kobo promotion. You have to apply quite a bit in advance (2-4 weeks) and they’ll overlook you if they think you’re trying to game or monopolize the system by hogging spots. It didn’t take me long before I got that memo.

Kobo has two promotion packages. One is a flat rate where you pay a fixed-fee (up-front) for a particular exposure. Two is a shared percentage based on sales volume that’s deducted from your pay. Here’s a sample of Kobo promotions and costs:

Daily Deal Homepage – $100.00 flat rate
Free Page – Fiction and Non-fiction – $5.00 or $10.00 flat rate
Double Daily Deal – 10% share
First in Series – $10.00 or $30.00 flat rate
Editor’s Pick – $30.00 flat rate

Kobo has no restrictions about you running independent ads on the email list discount sites. You just have to make sure you adjust your Kobo price to match your privately-advertised promo price. If you don’t, they’ll cut your Kobo promo in a flash. The algorithm-powered bots have a way of knowing this… so be diligent here.

Be aware that “FREE” is the most-searched word in Kobo’s engine. Kobo readers love their free stuff, and it’s a wise move to offer a freebie from time to time… or a .99 cent discount. I only have one free book on Kobo. That’s the first in a multi-book series, and it’s a very profitable loss-leader. The read-through sales rate triggered by a free offering is significant.

Kobo Resources

Kobo-Rakuten is here to help indie authors and publishers. The Kobo dashboard has great links to all sorts of practical assistance. The “live voice” is also only a click or call away. Value-added author/publisher services on the dashboard include:

ISBN issuance
Review sources
Cover designs
Editor referrals
Language translation
Rights management
Audio book recording

Kobo has another excellent writer/publishing portal. It’s called Kobo Writing Life (KWL) which is a blog about writing and self-publishing. Besides the dozens and dozens of helpful posts, KWL has an excellent podcast series featuring their help-ladies, inspiring success stories, and featured events.

So, how is Garry Rodgers Doing on Kobo?

Very well, thank you. That’s considering the short time I’ve been indie-publishing there. I was told by other Kobo indies to be patient and promote. They said it takes a while to gain Kobo traction… give it six months before assessing Kobo’s worth, they said.

It’s been six months now. I put out my shingle at Kobo on April 24, 2020. The first bit… crickets… nuthin’… zilch. Then, I ran some strategic promotions and Kobo took right off for me. I originally started with 5 Kobo publications. I added 3 more eBooks in the summer and, by August 2020, it was all worthwhile.

In July and August, I ran “stacked promotions” on Kobo along with paid ads on sites like Booksy, EReader News Today, and Robin Reads. My Kobo sales jumped to an average of around 20 downloads per day or 600 for the month. Now, in mid-October, I’ve had 3,849 all-time Kobo downloads in 68 international markets. This is growing exponentially, and it’s key to eBook sales success. It’s the same principle as compound interest.

Here are stats on where Kobo sold books for me in the last 6 months. Note: These figures include all regular priced sales and discounted promotions.

Canada – 1817
United States – 510
United Kingdom – 466
Australia – 290
South Africa – 160
New Zealand – 106
India – 69
Netherlands – 45
Nigeria – 33
Ireland – 30

The remaining 58 countries range from 1 to 30 downloads each. In no particular order, they are:

Mexico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, St. Vincent & Grenadines, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Ecuador, Argentina, Brazil, Tonga, Belgium, Germany, Andorra, France, Denmark, Portugal, Spain, Switzerland, Greece, Romania, Italy, Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, Hungary, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Malta, Libya, Israel, Lebanon, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, United Arab Emirates, Oman, Ghana, Uganda, Zambia, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Mauritius, Cocos Islands, Turkmenistan, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Hong Kong, Japan, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia.

Kobo is a Truly International Indie-Publishing Platform

A marvelous feature built into Kobo is their deep-analytics distribution map of the world. It shows your total sales volume per country represented in blue circles. The bigger the circle, the more books you’ve sold in that country. The more circles you have on the world map, the wider your global distribution is. You can custom-adjust your stats review by the day, the week, the month, or all-time.

Seeing my Kobo sales growth is encouraging and rewarding. I still have limited experience in Kobo publishing, but what I’ve found is consistent with what more experienced (and much more successful) indies have told me about working with Kobo. These are the factors that’ll make Kobo work for you on an international scale… not possible with any other publisher:

Multiple Products — This includes eBooks and audio books (which I haven’t tried yet). It’s unrealistic to expect decent and expanding sales figures from one stand-alone product. Indie writing and publishing is a “numbers game”. The more products you offer for sale, and the more platforms you offer them on, the more you stand to sell.

Series Production — Most of my Kobo downloads are in a series. I have 6 books in a Based-On-True Crime Series and 2 stand-alone products offered on Kobo. The series beats the stand-alones ten-fold. I see a read-through sales pattern, and it’s growing with more readers recognizing my brand and being confident enough to buy into it.

Pay-To-Play — You have to spend money to make money in the indie writing and publishing business. Paid promotions work. That includes Kobo’s in-house program (which isn’t expensive) and boosting the Kobo promos with “stacked” independent ads. Those include the discount email sites and click-through ads on BookBub. I haven’t tried FaceBook yet, and Amazon won’t allow you to say “Kobo” in their presence.

A Positive Indie Author/Publisher Mindset — This is the most important factor of all. Once I made the decision (February 17, 2020) to treat my indie writing and publishing as a business, things really changed. It takes time and persistence, but it’s worth it. It fits with this quote I have on my writing space wall:

Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to drawback. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in ones favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no one could have dreamed would have come their way. ~ Johan Wolfgang von Goethe

How about you Kill Zoners? Do you have any words to share about Kobo or writing and publishing in general? Let us know in the comments!

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second run as a forensic coroner investigating unexpected and unexplained human deaths. Now, Garry has reinvented himself in a third career as an indie author/publisher and admits at struggling to make sense of it all.

When not being indie, Garry Rodgers spends his of time putting around the Pacific saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast. Follow Garry’s regular blog at DyingWords.net and connect with him on Twitter and Facebook.

+9

Inspiring Quotes From Inspiring Crime Thriller Writers

If you’re a writer—crime thriller or otherwise—sometimes you need a break… then a kick in the butt to get back in the chair and your fingers on the keys. I’m going through this after taking a two-week writing hiatus. Rita (my wife of 37 years) and I took a vacation, and Rita forbid (forbade?) me to write during our time away.

So, I’m back home and started to type a new manuscript that’s book 6 in my based-on-true-crime series. Although I know the story inside out, I confess I had a hard time getting in the chair and placing my fingers on the keyboard. Knowing I also had a Kill Zone post due this week, I decided to do a two-birds-with-one stone thing and get something stirring.

I spent an evening surfing the net and searching for motivation and creativity support. It worked. In the past three days, I’ve written 8991 words in my Between The Bikers manuscript. My renewed energy and creative juice is partly thanks to taking a writing break and finding inspiring quotes from inspiring crime thriller writers. I’d like to share some of them with you.

——

The way to write a thriller is to ask a question at the beginning, and answer it at the end. ~Lee Child

Place the body near the beginning of your book—preferably on the first page, perhaps the first sentence. ~Louise Penny

I’m interested in starting stories at the moment of some crisis to see how the character deals with it. ~Paul Auster

Figure out what exactly is at stake, and how to establish it quickly. That’s your conflict. ~Katia Lief

I’m always pretending that I’m sitting across from somebody. I’m telling a story, and I don’t want them to get up until I’m finished. ~James Patterson

Life is about working out who the bad guy is. ~Sophie Hannah

An initial crisis may produce a question, one that takes the form of a challenge to the reader: Can they solve the puzzle before the answer is revealed? In its simplest form the crisis is a murder and the question is whodunit? ~Unknown

I can’t start writing until I have a closing line. ~Joseph Heller

Often know how the book will end and have imagined a number of major scenes throughout, but not always how I will get there. When I’m about two-thirds done I re-outline the whole book so I know that I’m delivering on all I promised. ~Jeff Abbott

Crime stories are rarely about crime. They’re a study of its aftermath. ~Unknown

The only writers who survive the ages are those who understand the need for action in a novel. ~Dean Koontz

People don’t read books to get to the middle. They read to get to the end. ~Mickey Spillane

I do extensive outlines before I write a single word. ~Jeffrey Deaver

Plot develops from the initial setup of the characters, their conflicts and the location. This development is fueled by the characters’ decisions. These choices should be tough and compromising with high risks of failure. ~Unknown

I like to come up with a massive scale concept and throw in very ordinary characters because I think if you have a massive scale concept with massive scale characters they tend to cancel each other out. People have more fun if they can imagine how either themselves or the type of people they know would react in a bizarre situation. It’s a bit boring if you know how some highly trained soldier is going to react to a situation. It’s not very interesting compared to how someone who is an electrician or a schoolteacher might react to a situation. ~Christopher Brookmyre

The first chapter sells the book; the last chapter sells the next book. ~Mickey Spillane

Readers have to feel you know what you’re talking about. ~Margaret Murphy

Keep asking ‘Who wants something?’ ‘Why do they need it?’ and ‘What’ll happen if they don’t get it? ~Unknown

A man’s grammar, like Caesar’s wife, should not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity. ~Edgar Allan Poe

Chapters are shorter than they used to be, and I have to be creative about ways to keep the pace moving: varying my sentence length, making sure each chapter ends on a note of suspense, keeping excess narration to a minimum. ~Joseph Finder

My ideas? Headlines. The human heart. My deepest fears. The inner voice that says: if it scares you, it’ll scare readers too. ~Meg Gardiner

Surprise is when a leader is unexpectedly shot whilst giving a speech. Suspense is when the leader is delivering a speech while an assassin waits in the audience. ~Unknown

I’d have to say that most of my ideas originate with everyday anxieties. What if I forgot to lock the door? What if a horrific crime happened next door? What if my daughter didn’t show up at work? What if I woke up one day and the house was empty? ~Linwood Barclay

Ideas are not the hard part of writing. I have ideas all the time. The challenge is understanding which ideas are the most interesting and powerful and dramatic, and then finding the best way to bring them to life. It’s all in the execution, because the idea is where the work begins, not where it ends. ~Jeff Abbott

If you don’t understand that story is character and not just idea, you will not be able to breathe life into even the most intriguing flash of inspiration. ~Elizabeth George

 The character that lasts is an ordinary guy with some extraordinary qualities. ~Raymond Chandler

You’re looking for your character who’s got the absolute most at stake, and that’s the person who you want your story to be about. ~Daniel Palmer

Keep a plate spinning until the final paragraph. Then let it fall. ~Unknown

Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it… ~Michael Crichton 

You can always edit a bad page. You can’t edit a blank page. ~Jodi Picoult

When you’re editing write the following words onto a Post-it note in big red letters and stick it on your monitor: ‘Who Cares?’. If something has no bearing on the story, leave it out. ~Stuart MacBride

If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word. ~Margaret Atwood 

The best advice is the simplest. Write what you love. And do it everyday. There’s only one way to learn how to write, and that’s to write. ~Steve Berry

Don’t go into great detail describing places and things… You don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill. ~Elmore Leonard

Read aloud. And not just your own work. Read good writing aloud.

Listen to the sound the words make. ~Unknown

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author. ~G K Chesterton

Write about what you never want to know. ~Michael Connelly 

I always refer to style as sound. The sound of the writing. ~Elmore Leonard

Before you can be a writer you have to experience some things, see some of the world, go through things – love, heartbreak, and so on -, because you need to have something to say. ~John  Grisham

Writing is work. It’s also gambling. You don’t get a pension plan. Other people can help you a bit, but ­essentially you’re on your own. ­Nobody is making you do this: you chose it, so don’t whine. ~Margaret Atwood

The words characters use and the gestures they make should be enough for the reader to know who is talking and how they’re feeling. ~Unknown

I try to leave out the parts that people skip. ~Elmore Leonard

Writing is the flip side of sex – it’s good only when it’s over. ~Hunter S Thompson

My task, which I am trying to achieve, is, by the power of the written word, to make you hear, to make you feel – it is, before all, to make you see. ~Joseph Conrad

Write every day even if it is just a paragraph. ~Michael Connelly

All the information you need can be given in dialogue. ~Elmore Leonard

Have something you want to say. ~Ian Rankin

Any author, like their protagonist, must endure sacrifice, or be willing to do so, ~Unknown

There are only two pieces of advice any would-be writer needs. The first is Give up. Those who heed that don’t need to hear the second, which is Don’t give up. ~Mick Herron

My purpose is to entertain myself first and other people secondly. ~John D MacDonald

I never read a review of my own work. Either it was going to depress me or puff me up in ways that are useless. ~Paul Auster

I owe my success to having listened respectfully to the best advice, and then going away and doing the exact opposite. ~G K Chesterton

I abhor crime novels in which the main character can behave however he or she pleases, or do things that normal people do not do, without those actions having social consequences. ~Steig Larsson

The best crime novels are all based on people keeping secrets. All lying – you may think a lie is harmless, but you put them all together and there’s a calamity. ~Alafair Burke

With the crime novels, it’s delightful to have protagonists I can revisit in book after book. It’s like having a fictitious family. ~John Banville

I think the “crime novel” has replaced the sociological novel of the 1930s. I think the progenitor of that tradition is James M. Cain, who in my view is the most neglected writer in American literature. ~James Lee Burke

The most difficult part of any crime novel is the plotting. It all begins simply enough, but soon you’re dealing with a multitude of linked characters, strands, themes and red herrings – and you need to try to control these unruly elements and weave them into a pattern. ~Ian Rankin

Crime fiction makes money. It may be harder for writers to get published, but crime is doing better than most of what we like to call CanLit. It’s elementary, plot-driven, character-rich story-telling at its best. ~Linwood Barclay

Crime fiction confirms our belief, despite some evidence to the contrary, that we live in a rational, comprehensible, and moral universe. ~P.D. James

Most crime fiction, no matter how ‘hard-boiled’ or bloodily forensic, is essentially sentimental, for most crime writers are disappointed romantics. ~John Banveiile

And there are rules for crime fiction. Or if not rules, at least expectations and you have to give the audience what it wants. ~Tod Goldberg

Crime fiction is the fiction of social history. Societies get the crimes they deserve. ~Denise Mina

One of the surprising things I hadn’t expected when I decided to write crime fiction is how much you are expected to be out in front of the public. Some writers aren’t comfortable with that. I don’t have a problem with that. ~Kathy Reichs

The mainstream has lost its way. Crime fiction is an objective, realistic genre because it’s about the real world, real bodies really being killed by somebody. And this involves the investigator in trying to understand the society that the person lived in. ~Michael Dibin

Anyone who says, ‘Books don’t change anything,’ or – more commonly – that crime fiction is the wrong genre for promoting social change – should take a closer look. ~Andrew Vachss

The danger that may really threaten (crime fiction) is that soon there will be more writers than readers. ~Jacques Barzun

I’ll bet you $10 right now that there are an awful lot of literary writers who started a long time ago and now they find themselves in this place where secretly they feel trapped. And you know what they really read for fun? They read crime fiction. ~Robert Crais

There is sometimes a feeling in crime fiction that good writing gets in the way of story. I have never felt that way. All you have is language. Why write beneath yourself? It’s an act of respect for the reader as much as yourself. ~John Connolly

It wasn’t a decision to become a writer. I wanted to become a writer of crime fiction. I was very specific. ~Michael Connelly

Crime fiction, especially noir and hardboiled, is the literature of the proletariat. ~Adrian McKinty

There are a number of writers who believe it is their duty to throw as many curve balls at the reader as possible. To twist and twist again. These are the Chubby Checkers of crime fiction and, while I admire the craft, I think that it can actually work against genuine suspense. ~Mark Billingham

I had done 12 little romance books, and I decided I wanted to move into crime fiction. ~Janet Evanovich

I respond very well to rules. If there are certain parameters it’s much easier to do something really good. Especially when readers know what those are. They know what to expect and then you have to wrong-foot them. That is the trick of crime fiction. And readers come to crime and graphic novels wanting to be entertained, or disgusted. ~Denise Mina

Most crime fiction plots are not ambitious enough for me. I want something really labyrinthine with clues and puzzles that will reward careful attention. ~Sophie Hannah

I’ve always been drawn to the extremes of human behavior, and crime fiction is a great way to explore the lives and stories of fascinating people. ~Nick Petrie

The best crime stories are not about how cops work on cases. It’s about how cases work on cops. ~Joseph Wambaugh

If you don’t have the time to read, you simply don’t have the tools to write. ~Stephen King

What about you, Kill Zoners? What great writing quotes do you have? What would you like to share?

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner, now a struggling crime writer and indie publisher. Garry has twenty pieces up on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook including his Based-On-True-Crime Series featuring investigations he was involved in while attached to the RCMP’s Serious Crimes Section.

Garry Rodgers also has a popular website and regular blog at www.DyingWords.net. When not writing, Garry spends time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s southwest coast.

+9

Top Ten Tips on Formatting eBooks from MS Word

Indie publishing an eBook is a lot of work. It takes creative imagination along with some technical knowledge. And, it requires a lot of commitment mixed with dogged determination and a blind belief that someone is actually going to read the stuff.

Sometimes I wonder why I subject myself to this nonsense. I’ve been indie writing eBooks for eight years now, and I’ve put twenty for-sale publications online. But, I keep at it day-in and day-out—partly thanks to a simple system of formatting eBooks from Microsoft Word.

Notice how I used the term “indie” instead of “self” publishing. That’s because I don’t publish all by myself. Rather, I have a lot of help from a proofreader, a cover artist, and a whole bunch of friendly folks who I don’t know at Amazon, Kobo, and Nook. Someday I’ll make new online friends at Apple and Google as well.

It takes money to indie publish eBooks, and there’s no getting around it. Mary, my proofreader, and Elle, my cover designer, like to get paid and they’re totally worth it. I also pay for promotions through discount email sites like Booksy (Free and Bargain), Ereader News Today, and Fussy Librarian as well as click-ads on BookBub and Amazon.

However, I don’t pay for eBook formatting services which could run $100.00 or more for a proper and professional product (not a ten-buck Fiver special). Doing the math… at a $2.00 royalty that’d be at least 50 sales to break even on formatting costs. Besides, I’ve found the formatting process to be one of the best self-editing tools out there.

I know many writers detest using a PC infested with Word. They’d rather use a tool like Scrivener or their Mac equipped with Vellum. That’s fine, but I’m sticking with what I know, and I’d like to share my top ten tips for formatting eBooks from MS Word.

Tip #1 — Understand What eBooks Really Are

This sounds basic, and it is. If you look up “eBook” in the dictionary, you’ll find it’s a noun meaning “a book composed in, or converted to, digital format for display on a computer screen or handheld device.” An eBook is really a collection of digital characters forming a readable document.

There are two main eBook types. The most popular format is a Standard eBook that uses real-time, flowable text where the end-user can make personal changes to features like font type and size (settings). There are no page numbers (pagation) on standard eBooks because the total page numbers change according to the user’s size preference. Most novels are formatted as standard eBooks so they can be conveniently read on all types of devices like eReaders, desktops, laptops, and smartphones.

The other format is a fixed-layout eBook. These are popular for graphic-laden publications with images, graphs, tables, and charts where the material size can’t be changed. The graphics won’t “flow” across the page if you change settings but you can zoom in and out. Fixed-layout eBooks are popular with publications like cookbooks, children’s books, comic books, graphic novels, and educational textbooks.

Typically, you’d format a standard eBook for:

  • Publications with mostly continuous text
  • Works with small images embedded between paragraphs
  • Ensuring maximum usability on smaller devices like smartphones

Non-typically, you’d format a fixed-layout eBook for:

  • Preserving text over images
  • Wrapping text around images
  • Setting background colors
  • Using multi-columns or horizontal orientation

Tip #2 — Know the eBook File Types

There are over twenty eBook file types. By file type, I mean the software they’re written in. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to eBook formatting. However, as far as I know, you can convert a Microsoft Word document into any file type.

It’s important to know why there are so many eBook file types. It’s called technical evolution and business strategies. Some might call it money.

The eBook concept has been around a long time. Back in the 1930s, a guy by the name of Bob Brown got the idea of a “readie” after watching a “movie”. As Bob put it, “A simple machine which I can carry or move around, attach to any old electric light bulb, and read hundred-thousand word novels in ten minutes if I want to, and I want to.”

Bob was a little ahead of his time, but Michael S. Hart wasn’t. Hart is credited with inventing the first true eBook file type in 1971 when he worked as an engineer for Xerox in Illinois. He demonstrated his patent by typing the US Declaration of Independence into a digital file so it flashed up on a TV screen.

Sony upended Hart in 1990 with its Data Discman eBook player. So did Steven King. In 2000, King released the first true indie eBook with Riding The Bullet that was exclusive to online readers. It was downloaded 500,000 times in 48 hours.

And, along came Amazon. The ’Zon bought Mobipocket in 2005 and turned that eBook file technology into proprietary software exclusive to their Kindle eReader. I’m sure they intended to corner as much of the market as they could by allowing Amazon-published eBook files to be read only on Amazon-sold devices. Seems to me they did a good job of it.

That brings me to the three most popular eBook file types today—although there are over twenty in existence. All three file types have their own formatting quirks and quarks which a conversion software like Calibre looks after for you. All three files nicely work with a Word.doc… providing your format the Word.doc properly in the first place. The three main eBook file types are:

Amazon Mobi — This file is exclusive to Amazon and is also known as MobiAZW or .azw. Mobi files only read on an Amazon device like a Kindle or Kindle Fire. You can’t load a Mobi file on a regular reader like a Kobo or Nook, nor on an Apple product or in Google play. Don’t worry about how a Mobi file works. All you need to know is it’s picky about how you prepare a Word.doc for it.

EPub — This acronym stands for electronic publication, and it was uniformly endorsed by an outfit called the International Digital Publishing Forum in 2007 to replace the older Open eBook file system. EPub is used exclusive of Amazon, and you can’t load an EPub file on a Kindle. Apparently, an Amazon black hole will open up and swallow you if you try. So, if you plan on “going wide” and publish on non-Amazon forums like Kobo, Nook, Apple, and Google, you’ll have to format your Word.doc as an EPub file.

Adobe PDF — Here we have the difficult child in the eBook file family. A Portable Document File is technically an electronic book, but some electronic publishers make it sit in the corner. PDF’s are great as technical eBooks that you can share online or use as an email list magnet, but they aren’t compatible files for commercial eBook sites. And, whatever you do, do not try to upload a PDF to a retailer in place of a properly-formatted Mobi or EPub file. It will turn into a mess.

Tip #3 — Appreciate How a Microsoft Word Document Works

Let me say that I’m not an expert on MS Word. Not by any means. I’ve written millions of words in this software program, but there’s a lot I don’t know about it. However, I know enough about Word to get it to do pretty much what I need it to, and I’m comfortable with that.

Microsoft Word is a word processing program. It’s the gold standard when it comes to managing text documents, and it’s used professionally and recreationally by over a billion people. No word processing tool even comes close to Word for popularity.

In 1981, Microsoft bought an existing processing program called Bravo. They had a top engineering team re-invent Bravo which they released as the Multi-Tool Word for Xenix Systems. It was meant to compete with WordPerfect which was the leader at that time, and its name was soon shortened to Word.

Word has been renovated many times over the past four decades. I use Word 2010 because I’m a Luddite and too cheap to upgrade to the new Word 2019. For eBook writing and formatting, my Word version works fine and I’m sticking with it on Windows 8.

Word wasn’t very popular at first. It was clunky and troublesome with a big learning curve. That changed as Word became more WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) and allowed users to customize their documents and view on-screen what the end product would look like.

My Word 2010 has eight tabs on the upper toolbar. I use five of them daily—file, home, insert, page layout, and review. The other three—references, mailings, and view—are there if needed.

MS Word has some marvelous shortcuts. They are real time-savers and can resuscitate an accidentally-erased page part or an entire document at the press of two keys. Here are the shortcuts I regularly use:

  • Control + A highlights the entire document
  • Control + C copies the highlighted portion
  • Control + F opens a search bar
  • Control + K opens a hyperlink window
  • Control + V pastes a copied piece of text
  • Control + X cuts a highlighted portion
  • Control + Z restores a delete

The Control + Z feature has gotten me out of more writing, editing, and formatting pickles than I can remember. Thank God the MS engineers built this into their Word software. It also transports with a Word.doc when you transfer it into an eBook formatting tool like Calibre.

Tip #4 — Become Very Familiar with Your MS Word Home Tab

Your home tab is the main tool belt for Word. Most features that you need to write an eBook are right there at your fingertips. Let’s go through the main tools and discuss what works best for drafting a Word document that easily formats or converts into a Mobi and EPub file

Font Face — Depending on the Word version you’re working in, you’ll have dozens and dozens of font styles to choose from. There are hundreds more available to download from the net. That’s all fine and well to get fancy on your Word doc, but that’s not okay when you go to format your eBook. No matter what font face you pick, Amazon’s Mobi proprietary software is going to output your font in a fixed serif style so you might as well use Times New Roman right off the bat. EPub platforms are a bit more font-friendly so you can use a serif style like Adobe Garamond or a sans serif typeface like Ariel.

Font Size — The nature of eBook operation is that the reader can modify their on-screen font size to suit their pleasure. However, keep your Word doc as clean and uniform as you can. I recommend that titles go in 24 point, introductions in 16 point, chapter headings in 14 point, and all text in 12 point. Do not use a font size larger or smaller than 12 for your main text body or you’ll regret it.

Bold, Italics & Underline — Both Mobi and EPub files will import hidden html code from Word that specializes your font accents like bold, italics, and underlines. They’ll convert from Word to an eBook file without having to identify strange-looking html symbols like <b>, </b>, <i>, </i>, <u>, </u>, etc.

Font Color — There’s no problem using a colored font in Word and having it formatted on either main eBook file. I’d strongly suggest keeping your font in standard black which should be your default font color. Deep reds or blues are nice to make a point but don’t even think about using any color except white for your background shading. It will not convert.

Bullets and Numbering — Also, there’s no problem getting automatic list numbering and billeting to convert from Word to an eBook file. It’s not like WordPress which has a hissy-fit if you try to import something creative.

Align Text — You should use align left for the vast majority of your document text. If you need to make a point with a scene break or something requiring a center text, that will show up fine on an eReader, too. Avoid using align right because it reads really weird on an eScreen.

Justify — Word lets you set your text with evenly aligned or justified left and right margins. That causes your words to stagger in spacing which looks crisp and clean on a Word screen. However, when you format a justified document into an eBook file it can look messy on an eReader. Do yourself a favor and don’t format your Word document with a Control + J justification. When a reader enlarges the font on their device, there will be ugly gaps in the word spacing.

Line and Paragraph Spacing — Use 1.15. That’s it. 1.15 only.

Style Boxes — Use the Normal setting for all text and Heading 1 for anything you want to appear in your table of contents (TOC). Set your style default to the font face, size, and color you want and leave it there. It’ll save a lot of formatting time. Ignore the No Spacing, Heading 2, Title, and Subtitle style boxes.

Find & Replace — This feature is irrelevant to formatting, but it sure makes your writing and editing life easier.

Tip #5 — Be Careful with Indents and Paragraphs

If there’s one area that could get you into a maximum-security eBook formatting prison, it’s screwing up indent and paragraph formatting on your Word document. I can’t stress this enough!!!

Most writers probably use the enter and tab keys for paragraph spacing and indenting the first line. This looks good on a Word doc and a PDF, but it’ll be a pile of doggy-doo when you see it on a Mobi or EPub file.

I do eBook formatting for friends, and I see this error repeatedly. To fix it, the Word doc has to be exorcised of this formatting demon. This is a big job if you try to fix this manually. The trick is to highlight the entire document and use the Find/Replace feature. You enter  ^t  in the Find field, put nothing in the Replace field, and click Replace All. It will reset your Word doc to a neutral format so you can properly rework it as Mobi and EPub compatible.

What you have to do (if you want industry-standard eBook formatting for paragraph indents and spacing) is to use the tiny little “paragraph” feature on the bottom center of the Word toolbar. Click on the enlarge icon which, at my age, you need glasses to see.

The paragraph window opens and offers you options for indents and spacing as well as line and page breaks. Do this:

  • Alignment — set on “left”
  • Indentation — set left and right at “0” (zero)
  • Special — set as “first line” (this is probably the most important eBook formatting tip)
  • Spacing — set before and after at “0” (zero)
  • Line Spacing — set at “single” (your main toolbar setting at 1.15 will override)
  • Line and Page Breaks – leave at the Word default setting (more on this coming up)

Terry Odell did a great piece on yesterday’s Kill Zone titled Ins and Outs of Indie Publishing: Going Wide. Terry nailed it with this advice on formatting, “Some basics are formatting in TNR, 12 point font, 1 inch margins all around, and use a paragraph style for indenting, NOT TABS. EVER.”

Tip #6 — Use Show and Hide

This MS Word feature is an absolute godsend to eBook formatters. It’s truly lifesaving. This is the show and hide symbol: ¶ It’s right up there at the center of your Word toolbar to the left of the style boxes. At least it’s there on Word 2010. I’m not sure about other versions, but I’m sure it’s not discontinued.

Show and Hide (¶) lets you view your Word doc behind the scenes. It allows you to check spacing, indents, font size, and little things like hidden bold, italics, and underline specialties that lie between lines and paragraphs. ¶ lets you adjust your entire document for uniformity. There will be non-conforming information in your document that you can’t see on a Word screen but will confuse the eBook conversion/formatting and it can become real dog-vom when it shows up as a Kindle, Kobo, Nook, Apple, or Google eFile.

Tip #7 — Be Careful With Page Breaks but Promote Page Layout

By design, eBooks are fluid and non-editable. Although there’s no way for an outside party to enable editing on a published eBook, the reader has total control over using their eReader in a personal manner. They can adjust all sorts of reading conditions from size to lighting, but they can’t modify the content.

That includes page breaks. You, as the writer in Word and the formatting in EPub or Mobi have total control on how you want to interrupt your reader’s flow. Be aware that they might not like pre-assigned page breaks. However, they’ll hate an eBook that isn’t properly formatted for page layout.

There are two schools of thought about placing page breaks into a Word doc destined for an eBook file. One is to leave page breaks out altogether and let the eFile software run the show. The other is to strategically place page breaks where they work to help the eFile, not hinder it.

The page break feature on Word is in the Page Layout tab at the top left third space, and it’s called “Breaks”. If you click on it, you’ll see a lot of options to stay away from. If you must use a page break, just put your cursor on the next paragraph indent and click “page”. You’ll see a line that interrupts your Word text and starts a new page. It does the same on an eFile.

Use page breaks sparingly. The beauty in an eReader is experiencing a continuous flow and a page break can take the reader right out of the book. I don’t place page breaks between chapters. The only place I put a page break is when I add a graphic like an inserted picture. The page break ensures the insert will show up as a whole on a screen and not be cut off.

There are two more highly-important features in Page Layout and you need to set them like this:

  • Indent Left: 0 cm
  • Indent Right: 0 cm
  • Spacing Before: 0 pt
  • Spacing After: 0 pt

Your left and right margins are likely set by default at 1 inch or 2.54 cm. If they are, leave them there. If not, make them your standard Word doc default setting. The reason you put paragraph spacing at 0 pt before and after is so you can manually set them with your spacer or enter bar when you review your document with the ¶ feature. If you have a mixture of automatic spacing and manual, your eFile format will be messed up.

Tip #8 — Insert Images that Don’t Get Messed Up

To eBook file credit, they’re image friendly. To their discredit, they’re quite picky about formatting from a Word document. With eBook formatting from MS Word, you can’t eat your cake and still have it too.

Like another activity, size matters in eBook formatting. Here’s the #1 rule when formatting images in a Word doc. Don’t do it.

Instead, prepare your images in another software form and save it as a jpg or png file. Once you have it eBook compatible, then use the Word Insert tab to paste the image where you want it in the Word doc. Mini-tip: Insert the image using the center align feature on the toolbar – not the justify one.

I use good old Paint to format an image headed for an eBook. I take a screenshot or download an internet-based jpeg or png and upload it to Paint. Then, I crop the image and size it to 500 pixels wide by whatever height works. I “save as” and then insert it into the Word doc. It then stays stable as an eBook image at a manageable 500 pixel-wide size despite what an end-user might do with setting changes on their reading device.

If you try to size images within Word, they’ll do what they want as an eFile and the professionalism of your formatting will be compromised. Remember the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). There’s no need to complicate eBook image formatting as long as you import a pre-formatted image into Word before converting to an eFile like Mobi or EPub.

Tip #9 — Use Calibre for Formatting Word to Mobi or EPub

Like Word, I don’t profess to be a Calibre guru. In fact, the more I use Calibre as an eBook formatting/conversion tool, the more I KISS. Calibre can have a big learning curve if you want to know the geek stuff.

I don’t. I only want to write an eBook in Word, format/convert it into a Mobi or Epub file, and put the product up for sale on a retail platform. I don’t care about how the things work. You can download free software for Calibre here.

Don’t be intimidated by Calibre. It’s an eBook conversion software system designed like a pipeline. Schematically, here’s how it works:

  • Step 1 — Input Word doc format
  • Step 2 — Input Calibre Plugin (Mobi or EPub template)
  • Step 3 — Transform
  • Step 4 — Output Plugin (Mobi or EPub finished file)
  • Step 5 — Save eFile to your hard drive and/or flash drive
  • Step 6 — Upload your eFile to your eBook retailer’s dashboard

Functionally, here are the simple steps to convert a Word document into an eFile on Calibre:

  • Step 1 — Open Calibre
  • Step 2 — Click Add Books
  • Step 3 — Upload your Word.docx
  • Step 4 — Click Enter Metadata (you can leave this blank and move on)
  • Step 5 — Click OK
  • Step 6 — Verify Input Format is DOCX and set Output Format (you have a choice that includes EPUB and MOBI. AZW3 is also there, but just use MOBI for Amazon)
  • Step 7 — Click OK (the JOBS icon circles in the lower right. When it stops, you’re done)
  • Step 8 — Slick SAVE TO DISC and select the folder on your computer.

It’s now saved as formatted eFile that’s ready to put up for sale on a retail eBook site. There are a lot more things you can try on Calibre but if you KISS, that’s all you have to do. Note: You have to repeat the process for each eFile conversion.

That’s it. Formatting a Word document to an eBook is this straightforward. The trick is making sure your Word doc is eBook friendly. I can’t emphasize this enough!!!  Oh, BTW, save your Word document as a Word.docx. It’s the most recent form and it’s compressed with less chance of being digitally compromised.

Side Note: Amazon now allows you to directly upload a Word.docx to KDP, and their system will automatically convert it to a Mobi/AZW file. I’ve tried it and it wasn’t pretty. However, I’ve uploaded a Word.docx to Kobo and it came out great. You can also use an eBook aggregator like Draft2Digital or Smashwords to format your Word document, but they’ll take a 10% cut for their service. Again — the real trick is to make sure your Word.docx is properly set up before converting it to an eFile.

Tip #10 — Have Fun & Make Money

I have no ethical problem about making money from turning Word docs into eBooks. However, actually making money this way is an art on its own and when I find the secret I’ll gladly share it. For now, though, I’m having fun doing this.

How about you Kill Zoners? What’s your experience with MS Word and formatting eBooks? Please share what you know or ask what you don’t know.

——

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner. Now, he’s a struggling indie publisher who writes crime stories on Word, formats them on Calibre, and flogs them on Amazon, Kobo, and Nook.

Garry lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s west coast. When not writing, Garry Rodgers spends his time putting around the saltwater and hiding from the taxman.

+9

Top Ten Tips for Amazon eBook Publishing Success

It doesn’t matter if you’re traditional or indie published—if you want to make money in the eBook business you’ll have to deal with Amazon. Amazon is the biggest eBook distributor out there—the top dog, by far. So, if you want to run with the big dog, you’ll have to learn how to pee in the tall grass.

I think most Kill Zone followers are writers. Many KZrs might already enjoy great publishing success with whatever book type they write or publishing platform they use. However, Amazon dominates book distribution and sales. To compete in the book field’s tall grass, you must be comfortable with publishing on Amazon. These ten tips will help.

To start—I’m no Amazon publishing or marketing expert. Many resource folks and guides are out there that teach Amazonese, and I’ll provide links to the ones I find credible. What I’m doing in this post is offering what’s worked for me in my journey paddling up the Amazon eBook river.

I self-published my first eBook in 2012. It took me a year to research, write, and produce a 115K word crime novel which did pretty well on the Amazon charts. Eight years later, I have twenty publications up on Amazon that includes true crime, crime fiction, historical non-fiction, craft guides, and self-help eBooks. I didn’t publish anything for two of those years while I wrote web content for my daughter’s agency. This year, however, I’ve indie-published five eBooks with the plans for two more in a series before 2020 is done.

Enough about me. You want to know what’s in this for you, and I’m happy to share my experience by giving you ten tips for Amazon eBook publishing success. I’m also going to give you some meaningful stats about what’s producing a positive return on eBook publishing investment.

Tip #1 — Understand the Amazon System

This might sound basic and it is. To use Amazon successfully (success, by definition, is different things to different people), you need to understand that Amazon is a unique distribution system that produces most of its orders online through impersonal ’bots. There are humans employed somewhere in the Amazon jungle, I’m told, but they’re rarely seen. More to come later about contacting a live elf…

There’s an excellent Amazon course put on by Tracy Atkins and delivered as the Amazon Success Tool Kit through Joel Friedlander at The Book Designer. Here’s a page from their playbook.

There are four key concepts you must understand to successfully use Amazon as an online bookseller. They include:

Concept One: Amazon is first and foremost a search engine, and you must make your book an easy-to-find product. You need to think about Amazon as a search engine instead of a retail store. Amazon is more like Google than Walmart. When you look for a book on Amazon, you’re accessing a huge database that finds the most relevant matches based on the metadata provided for the product. (More about what “metadata” really means coming up.)

Concept Two: Amazon is a data gathering and filtering tool. It employs a sophisticated and intelligent software system that stores a large product catalog as well as masses of information on sales history and buyer preferences. Amazon uses this information to build customer profiles and make the most relevant product recommendations. When you use Amazon, it’s always taking notes and trying to figure you out in a logical way.

Concept Three: Amazon is highly visual and so are people when they shop so make your cover count. This thing about people judging books by their covers is 100% right when it comes to online book buying and selling. The brains at Amazon know this and give preference to visually enticing covers that work to draw customer attention at the thumbnail size. A great cover is paramount to success on Amazon.

Concept Four: Amazon is big and highly connected. You can use its integrated ecosystem to build your brand and sell more books if you thoroughly understand how Amazon works as an online business model. There are many components in the Amazon composition that range from eBook production to support sections like Author Central, Popularity and BestSeller lists, as well as Goodreads, Kindle Unlimited, Kindle Owners Lending Library, Audible, and even good ole paperbacks shipped through print on demand.

Tip #2 — Work With Amazon’s Algorithms

“What, really, is an algorithm?” you might ask. Good question, because having a basic grip on what Amazon’s algorithm(s) is/are puts you into a headspace where the whole eBook publishing platform kind of makes sense. They’re nothing to be afraid of because Amazon does all the algorythiming for you.

Amazon currently (2020) uses a software system called the A9 Algorithm. How it works at the molecular level is a closely-guarded system. If they tell you, they gotta kill you. But, Amazon freely encourages you as a publisher, to make full use of their billion-dollar A9 Algorithm system.

Algorithms are computerized, step-by-step instructions or formulas for solving problems or completing tasks. The A9 version takes customer interests and matches them relevantly to what you have for sale. I’m told the name algorithm comes from a Persian mathematician named Al Ghorwarizimi, not from a dance move choreographed by an ex-Vice President of the United States.

Google is one giant algorithm as well. Google searches query inputs and matches them to relevant information or metadata that display in relevant order on SERPS (Search Engine Response Pages). There’s a key difference in how Google and Amazon algorithms respond to user requests, though.

Google likes to direct information for free. The A9 at Amazon is a business tool that puts strong emphasis on sales conversions. Amazon has a vested financial interest in using your inputted metadata to promote product listings that will likely result in sales. Amazon moves listings to the top of their equivalent SERPs based on recent strong sales history and high conversion rates.

It’s your job to provide Amazon with the best information or metadata you can. What you put into Amazon’s algorithm system is what you get out. It’s called optimizing metadata, and this is where a lot of publishers fail when they post products (eBooks) on the ’Zon.

Tip #3 — Optimize your Metadata

Don’t let this phrase intimidate you. If you’ve studied how the internet works or how you can best sell eBooks online, you’ll see “optimize” and “metadata” popping up everywhere. It’s as common as SEO (Search Engine Optimization).

“Optimize” means making the most of. “Metadata” is geek-speak for information, but it’s not just hidden html code, stuffed long and short tail keywords, or fold placement of ledes. Optimizing your metadata on Amazon starts with your dashboard and pretty much ends there. It’s a matter of entering relevant information (metadata) and making sure that all the boxes are filled in (maximized).

This sounds like a commonsense thing, and it is. But, you’d be surprised how so many publishers don’t know what to put into Amazon and how to trigger the A9 algorithm to hear “pick me!” That goes for the Big-5 publishers who promote Big-Names **ahem – King, Patterson, Rowling, Steele, and Cornwell**. Some of the prominent paper-pushers eat dust left by metadata-optimizing indies. **ahem – Howie, Green, Croft, Hawking, and Andre**.

Here are the main metadata spots to optimize on your Amazon dashboard:

Title — This sounds like a no-brainer, a done-deal, but the title has to be relative to the book’s content, genre, or product placement. That goes for the sub-title as well.

Series — Without a doubt, the best way to make money with Amazon eBooks is to write in a series and profit by read-through. Make sure the series number is part of the metadata.

Description — This might be the second most important chunk of metadata to optimize. Your product description or blurb (jacket copy) is what a prospective buyer first sees after clicking on your cover image. Whole books are out there on optimizing product descriptions or sales copy and I won’t get further into it here. But… make your lede (hook) counts in the first few lines which is all a clicker first sees and triggers them to Look Inside and hit the Buy Now button.

Keywords and Categories — These are the third and fourth most important metadata pieces to optimize. In fact, they’re so important that I’ve included categories and keyword optimizing as a tip of their own.

Manuscript — Yes, your manuscript is metadata. It’s also your product’s core and it has to be professional. You do need an editor regardless of your budget. Your opening has to be strong as it’s the hook that gets the Buy Now pressure once your metadata has done its job to get the Amazon customer to Look Inside.

Cover — This is the number one metadata set-piece to get right. It’s not just for getting a click into reading your optimized metadata. Your cover haunts or halos your product all the way through the promotion cycle. Did you know your cover image is the only thing Amazon Marketing Services allows when you pay-to-play their system? Same thing with pay-to-play email list sites like Booksy, ENT, Robin, and Librarian. The only cover ad-slack you get is from BookBub, but they also want your cover to be a big part of the image (or creative, as they call it).

ISBN (International Book Standards Number) — You don’t need an ISBN to publish your eBook on Amazon. However, they do add to the professionalism offered by the product, and you’ll need one if you want your book to show up in libraries.

KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) Select Enrollment – (Exclusive or Wide) — Big decision here. Do you want to stay exclusively published on Amazon and enjoy their perks? Or do you want to widely publish on other eBook platforms like Kobo, Nook, Apple, and Google? This is such an important deal that I’ve done a separate tip on Exclusive vs Wide.

Royalty and Pricing — Again, this is so important for eBook publishing success on Amazon that it gets its own tip.

Tip # 4 — Categories and Keywords

Although Amazon is an online, algorithmic-driven supermart for books, it’s laid out similar to a bricks & mortar bookstore. Categories are the departments where your eBook sits and Keywords are the metadata directions showing a shopper how to find your book in the massive Amazon store. It’s really not that difficult to optimize your keyword and category metadata even though the eBook gurus tend to make a big deal about it.

The trick to optimizing Amazon eBook metadata is to make sure you use as much space as allowed with RELEVANT information. Having said that, your book description doesn’t have to be as long as allowed (4,000 characters), because few people will ever read that much in a blurb. But, keywords and categories are the place to be a pig at the smorgasbord.

You’re allowed two primary categories when you first publish your eBook on Amazon. That’s pretty tight when you consider that Amazon has hundreds of primary and sub-categories on everything from Alchemy to Zen. You need to pick the best two, get the product activated, and then email Amazon from your dashboard to boost that up to ten categories.

They’ll do it. There are humanoid bottic-elves behind that dashboard, and I’ve communicated with them. You just have to provide the category paths and they’ll set you up with five times the exposure you’re initially offered.

Keywords are another metadata area where people pull their hair out and cut their arms trying for perfection. Tip? Don’t spend hours working the search bar or spending megadollars on keyword optimizing tools because the truth is… keywords don’t really matter unless you’ve already triggered the A9 algorithm to know you’re there. That’s from priming the pump through pay-to-play promotions. More on this in another Tip.

But, you do need keywords and you’re best to stuff them into keyphrases where the string of words gives you far more exposure than a single word can carry. Here’s an example of keyphrases from one of my based-on-true-crime series:

True Crime Homicide Investigation, Detective Police Procedural Procedure, Psychological Crime Thriller, Robbery and Murder, Suspense Murder Mystery, Stolen Guns Gun Store Robbery Murder, Canadian North American Crime Fiction

Amazon only allows you 50 characters per keyphrase so make the most of them. Above all, make them relevant to your book and something that a prospective reader would realistically search for. Oh, make absolutely sure that you don’t violate Amazon’s terms and conditions by entering misleading promotional stuff in your keywords like “bestseller”, “book of the year”, or ‘Better than Stephen King”. You might get your account terminated.

Tip #5 — Proper Pricing

Amazon lets you price your eBook anywhere above 0.99 cents. That has some qualifiers. Between 0.99 and $2.98 you’ll get 35% royalty. Between $2.99 and $9.99 you get 70% which is a pretty sweet deal. Anywhere above ten bucks gets you 35 on the dollar.

Amazon doesn’t want you pricing too low or too high. After all, they’re in this to make money and I don’t hold that against them. This is all about a balance of pricing right for the best return and all kinds of authors have all kinds of ideas on price points. Here’s what’s working for me… at least right now.

I’m producing a series based on true crime stories that I was involved in. Investigating them, that is. Not committing them. I’m up to number five in a planned twelve-book run and I’m starting to hit the “tipping point” where read-through is returning a positive return on investment.

I have book one listed as perma-free on Amazon. You can’t do this yourself except for the five free days per ninety-day cycle they allow you on exclusive KDP Select. Instead, I “went wide” with the series and published on Kobo and Nook. These guys (Kobo and Nook) let you do pretty much anything you want with price structure, so I set the series-one book at free on Amazon’s competitors.

Then, I emailed the bottish-elves from the dashboard and asked them to price match. They did, and now I have the first book as perma-free to offer as a loss-leader on the pay-to-play promo sites. I have a break down on promos in an upcoming tip.

The other big pricing point is making sure your Amazon dashboard is synced to international pricing. For me, $2.99 is the sweet spot for my eBooks and I set the US price at Amazon.com to $2.99. Behind the scenes, the price elf automatically sets the international prices on Amazon.ca, Amazon.uk, Amazon.au, etc according to the current exchange rate so you’ll see weird numbers like $3.34, £4.21, €4.04, or figures like that.

There’s something in marketing magic about the .99 price. Once you set your Amazon.com price to $2.99, take the few minutes to go into the international sites on your dashboard on the royalty and pricing section and manually change the Amazon suggested conversions to a smooth-reading .99 version. Trust me. It’s optimizing metadata like this that works the Amazon big picture.

Tip # 6 — Exclusive or Wide

This is the big debate, especially in the indie community. I was exclusive on Amazon for a long time before a few of my much more successful indie friends said, “Garry. WTF are you doing staying exclusive in KDPS? You’re leaving a lot of money on the table by not going wide.”

So, I bit the bullet this April and published my new series on Nook and Kobo. I haven’t left Amazon by any stretch, and I still make the most money there. It’s just that Amazon no longer lets me play in KU (Kindle Unlimited), KOLL (Kindle Owner Lenders Library), Kindle Countdown, and the Kindle Freebie 5-Day promos. Well, that’s the price you have to pay to go wide.

However, my sales on Kobo and Nook have far exceeded the pittance I made on KU and KOLL. By far. I only have my series books wide so far and I’ll move my backlist over some day. I also plan to publish on Apple and Google, but there’s only so much time in a day when I’m trying to crank out a new book in a two-month sequence as well as writing Kill Zone and DyingWords blogs.

Tip #7 — eBook Layouts

I do my own eBook formatting. I write on a PC Word.doc and then convert the file on Calibre to a Kindle/Mobi file. Yes, I know the MAC people love Vellum for file conversion, but I’m comfortable with my Windows 8. I can take a Word.docx and run it through Calibre (free download) in two minutes and it comes out clean. Then, I upload the Mobi metadata file to the Amazon dashboard and Bob’s your uncle.

Amazon allows you to directly upload a Word.doc and their system is supposed to convert it to Mobi. My experience is a direct Word upload to Amazon comes out like Uncle Bob’s breakfast and if you knew my Uncle Bob you wouldn’t like it. Do it right and your metadata eBook file will read like a professional submission.

Front matter and back matter are two hot topics. I’m a firm believer in minimizing your front matter and maximizing your backside. There are good reasons for this.

Nobody cares if you dedicate your book to Uncle Bob who, in my case, died of cirrhosis of the liver because of what he had for breakfast every day. Nobody cares about your poetic quote and nobody cares about your copyright and nobody cares about your table of contents. Get all this crap out of the front and out of sight of the potential reader who clicks Look Inside and wants to get right to your hook. That causes a Buy Now With One Click and that sells books.

Back matter is REALLY important for book sales, though—especially in a series. This is where you create read-through. It takes a bit of tedious work, but if you carefully link the other books in your series with one-click buy buttons to your Amazon and other eBook retail sites, it’ll pay back big time.

It also works to link your newest release at the opening of the front matter right after the title and before the story starts. This one little move has given me amazing results in compounded sales through that tempting click-bait. Do it. Do it. Do it.

*  *  *

Screenshot of what an Amazon browser first sees when they Look Inside or buy Beside The Road which is book 4 in my Based-On-True-Crime Series. It immediately links the viewer to my latest release, On The Floor, and has an amazing conversion factor.

Tip #8 — Use Amazon Resources

From reading the boards and the blogs, I get the impression that some authors seriously mistrust Amazon as a bookseller. They suggest Amazon is out to game or cheat the little guy and eventually plan to take over the world. That’s not my experience.

It’s quite the opposite. From what I’ve seen, Amazon has a massive amount of information on its site to help publishers and other product promoters. Same with many internet sites. If you’re serious about making eBook publishing on Amazon a success, it’s necessary to read the instructions. Here are links to the best Amazon publishing resources:

Amazon Website KDP JumpStart

Amazon Website KDP Terms Conditions

Amazon Website KDP University

Amazon Success Toolkit — The Book Designer with Tracy Atkins

How To Sell Books by Truckload on Amazon 2020 Edition — Penny Sanserveri

Amazon Decoded — David Gaughran

Tip #9 — Prime the Amazon System

Publishing one eBook on Amazon won’t cut it. Not if you want to be a commercial success, that is. You have to have a catalog of new releases and a solid backlist. This gives what’s called “churn” in ‘Zonspeak. Amazon will churn (sell) your books as long as you have saleable products on your catalog that are metadata optimized. There’s a caveat, though. You have to prime Amazon’s system.

What do I mean by priming the system? That’s my own analogy. What it means is you have to do something to make Amazon responsive to your eBook (yes, a product) and make it worth Amazon’s while to elevate it through their algorithms and show it to prospective readers (paying customers).

Right now, in the Amazon sphere, that comes from paying-to-play. You have to spend money to make money and you have two main options. One is advertising your product(s) on big discount email sites like Booksy, EReader News Today (ENT), Fussy Librarian, and Robin Reads, as well as smaller sites like Book Gorilla, Rune, and Many Books. Your other option is the paid click sites like BookBub, Facebook, and Amazon’s own Marketing Services (AMS).

This is where the series perma-free and read-through strategy shines. What works to sell eBooks on Amazon is to advertise your perma-free on paid sites like Booksy and ENT. You’ll get hundreds or thousands of downloads (ie – new readers) who will read-through to buy the rest of your series. What also works (although I’m just starting to experiment) is to run paid ads on the click-sites.

Tip #10 — Real Examples of Amazon eBook Publishing Success

I primed the Amazon system on a recent book launch with a stacked promotion. “Stacked” means I did a strategic series of sequential paid ads to promote my newest book in my based-on-true-crime series. I did this by pushing my Book One perma-free on the paid discount sites with Book Five highlighted and linked in the front matter like you saw in the previous screenshot. Here are the download stats:

Day 1 Promotion: EReader News Today — 2,794 free / 228 sales

Day 2 Promotion: Free Booksy — 1,578 free / 123 sales

Day 3 Promotion: Fussy Librarian — 1,402 free / 312 sales

Day 4 Promotion: Robin Reads — 1,034 free / 103 sales

Day 5 Promotion: Many Books — 162 free / 50 sales

Day 6 Promotion: Book Gorilla — 51 free / 64 sales

Day 7 Promotion: Book Runes — 296 free / 41 sales

My pay-to-play promotions on the discount email list sites cost $565. Gross revenue on paid sales (based on a $2.00 royalty) was $1,842. So, deducting the ad costs, the net was $1,277. That’s an excellent seven-day return on investment by anyone’s standards. It also led to a big organic sale increase as people in post-promotion bought read-throughs.

“Wait! Garry — You gave away 7,317 free eBooks on Amazon? Like… WTF were you thinking?”

No, I just gained 7,317 new potential readers by paying to advertise a perma-free and let the read-through, paid-sale, miracle materialize. My organic purchases significantly increased since I primed the Amazon pump. So did my email list. The traffic also pushed my perma-free to the #1 Bestseller spot in the Crime Thriller (Free) category. Now, I’m experimenting with a BookBub Ad promotion before trying FB and AZ clicks. Wish me luck.

Kill Zoners — What’s your experience with Amazon eBook publishing? Any tips for us?

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner. Now, Garry has reinvented himself as a somewhat successful self publisher who’s trying to figure out what works to sell books.

Besides crime writing, Garry Rodgers spends time putting around the saltwater near his home on Vancouver Island in British Columbia on Canada’s west coast.

+15