Your Reading Habits

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I was an early adopter of the Kindle. Like everyone else, I was amazed that I could have, say, the complete works of Charles Dickens—for 99¢ yet!—sitting inside this little device. And I could keep adding books to it, many of which came via deals in the Amazon store. Why else would I have downloaded Cybill Shepherd’s autobiography if it hadn’t been free?

The Kindle was my constant companion when I traveled by plane. In those early years it was a great conversation starter. People in adjoining seats would say things like, “Is that one of them Kandles?” I would happily expound on the volume and cost of my electronic library.

The Kindle has evolved, of course, and now comes in several styles and sizes, including a tablet. The coolest, and therefore most expensive, model is the Oasis. I’ve been toying with buying this for over a year…but then noticed something. I’ve been spending more and more of my reading time with the following:

1. The Kindle app on my phone. I rarely use my old Kindle now because the phone is always with me and I can easily access my library that way. The downside is I’m not reading e-ink, and therefore can’t read in sunlight. But I don’t do that much reading outside anyway. When I read on my phone I make sure I have my blue-light filter on and the screen a bit dimmer than normal, so my peepers don’t get overtaxed.

2. Audio books. Great for the treadmill or a long drive. The way I get most of these titles is via the Libby app on my phone.

3. Actual, honest-to-goodness physical books, with paper pages and everything! This has been the most surprising development for me. When I first got the Kindle I thought that’s how I—and everybody else—would be reading books from now on. But I’ve rediscovered the pleasure of holding a physical book in a comfortable chair. And so have younger readers. Millennials, for example, overwhelmingly prefer print books, and make healthy use of the local library. Imagine that.

So…how do you do most of your reading on these days? Do you use a dedicated e-reader (e.g., Kindle, Nook, Kobo)? A reading app on your phone? Or do you still like to crack open a physical book?

How much of your reading time is with audio books?

Are you mostly a book buyer or book borrower?

I am going to be on the road—literally, driving a car on a long strip of asphalt—most of the day. So please, talk amongst yourselves! I will try to check in later.

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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.

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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.

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Ins and Outs of Indie Publishing: Going Wide

Going Wide–or Don’t Put All Your Eggs In One Basket.
Terry Odell

Garry had an excellent post going into great depth for using Amazon to self publish, tips that are useful for anyone putting their own books out there. I use Amazon, and it makes up a strong percentage of my writing income, but I’m a strong proponent of going wide. For me, it’s about people, and not everyone shops Amazon, especially internationally. I’ve reached readers in countries I’ve never heard of via Kobo’s platform. (Not that geography was ever my strong suit.)

publishing wide

My 2020 Kobo sales by country

Another perk of going wide is being able to set your book’s price to free at any time. I’ve found offering first in series free for several of my series is an excellent way to attract readers and drive them to the rest of the books. Amazon will price match–maybe, but it often takes some effort. Plus, as I understand it, the KDP Select TOS say you can’t distribute enrolled ebooks for free, so giving them away via services like BookFunnel, etc., as reader magnets or rewards is off the table. Many readers who subscribe to Kindle Unlimited are the sort who want lots of books at little or no cost, and I prefer to attract readers who are willing to pay for books, not wait for free days. However, going wide opens the door for other subscription services such as Scribd or Kobo Plus.

First, my personal history. When I started writing, which wasn’t all that long ago, I was with digital publishers. There was no Amazon, so each publisher had its own website with its own store. Digital publishing got its push with Ellora’s Cave, because they published erotica (which they called “romantica”). Privacy was a huge selling point. Readers could buy books on line and read them on their PDAs. (Yes, it was that long ago.)

Then, Amazon came into the mix, and digital publishing took off. For all practical purposes, they were now the “only” game in town, and when my traditional publisher remaindered my first book, it seemed reasonable to give Amazon a try. I wasn’t a huge name, so sales weren’t great, but it was a new way to reach readers with ebooks, since the publisher printed only in hard cover and targeted libraries, not bookstores. There was no monetary investment, so I had nothing to lose.

As I recall, Smashwords appeared shortly thereafter, and Barnes & Noble was next on the digital scene. I added them to my distribution channels. Amazon had just started its “Select” program requiring 90-day exclusivity, and I didn’t want to play that game. (Note: I still don’t.) When Nook came out with its now defunct “Nook First” program, I was in the right place with a new release, and gave them 30-day exclusivity. In return, my book appeared on their home page for a week, and emails promoting my book were sent to anyone who owned a Nook or had bought any of my books. I recall the Hubster saying, “Hey, Barnes & Noble just told me to buy your book,” and my daughter-in-law saying someone at work came up to her and asked if she was related to the author. I made $20,000 that month from Nook sales (and had to give back most of my Social Security and hire a tax guy).

As more channels opened, I added all my titles to each. So, that’s my publishing history. Back then, the technical aspects of getting books formatted was more challenging, but I figured it out, and if I can do it, anyone should be able to, especially now. Some basics are formatting in TNR, 12 point font, 1 inch margins all around and use a paragraph style for indenting, NOT TABS. EVER.

(Note: as more and more e-readers have come out, the end-user has control over things like fonts, etc., so there’s no need to get fancy with formatting. Stick to the recommendations.)

Now, it’s SO much easier. If you’re not comfortable with formatting, Draft2Digital will take your word doc and format it for you. All you really need to start is the doc file (they take docx, rtf, and epub as well). In their words, “If Word can read it, we can, too.” They also give you a choice of “decorations” for chapter headings and scene breaks, as well as drop caps if you want them, or other ‘start of chapter/scene’ options. (But not if you give them an epub.)

publishing wide(Another note: I don’t justify my digital files because when you up the font, as many readers do, you get huge ugly gaps of white space. Kindle automatically justifies the file. I do justify my print format.)

D2D will also create front and back matter, including an “also by the author” page that sends people to Books2Read, a link to a choice of bookstores for the reader. I first used D2D when they were new and the only way to get to Apple without a Mac, but they also distribute to places like Hoopla, Scribd, Tolino, 24 Symbols, and Bibliotheca and OverDrive for libraries.

As digital has grown, so has conversion software, because the better the book looks, and the easier it is to use the channel’s site, the more money you both will make. However, the former author relations guy at Kobo said D2D had the best conversion software out there, and he used them to make his epubs to put up at Kobo.

I go direct to Nook, Kobo, and Kindle and Smashwords because there are some perks available, such as promotion opportunities, discount coupon offers to readers, but D2D will distribute to those channels if you want. I use the epub file that D2D provides (no charge—you can download their epub and mobi formats and don’t even have to publish your book with them.) I’ve used them to create reader magnets for giveaways. I can use that file at Kobo, Nook, Kindle, and Smashwords. Again, the easier the interface is to use, the more likely authors will publish, so following directions at each of the channels is all you need to do. They’re all (of course) slightly different, but if I can figure out where to put the information, anyone should be able to.

publishing wide

Image by Terri Cnudde from Pixabay

It took me longer to establish a readership at the other channels, but now that I have it, I don’t want to lose them. They’re the frosting on my royalty cake. Plus, if Amazon sales sag, the other channels help make up for it.

For the record, I’m a Nook book-buyer, so if a book is exclusive to Amazon, it’s not likely I’ll buy it. Yes, I have the Kindle app, but  I prefer the user interface on my Nook. About the only Kindle books I “buy” are the Prime freebies each month, and many months, not even those. Yes, as an author, I make more money selling at Amazon, but exclusivity rubs me the wrong way. My take: The more power we give Amazon, the more they can change the rules to suit their game. This means that if they decide to end Kindle Unlimited, which they could, you’ll have to start from scratch building a wide readership. Putting all my eggs in one basket doesn’t work for me.

You do what works for you, and since I’m retired and don’t need to put food on the table with my book earnings, I prefer to reach more people who will buy my books, not make the most money possible. I write because I can’t imagine not writing.

Questions? Experiences to share? The floor is open.


Heather's ChaseMy new Mystery Romance, Heather’s Chase, is now available at most e-book channels. and in print from Amazon.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.” Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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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.

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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.

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On Producing My Own Audiobook

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

We all know audiobooks are booming. As reported by Forbes:

The publishing industry’s 2018 year-end results are here, and audiobooks did astoundingly well. According to the Association of American Publishers, which collects and reports on data shared by many publishers across the country, estimated publisher revenue for downloaded audio increased 28.7% over 2017. Downloaded audio was worth an estimate of 13.7% of publishers’ online sales.

Downloaded audio has long seen increases of this magnitude; the 2018 report reiterates this, estimating that publisher’s revenues in the category grew 181.8% from 2014 to 2018.

This growth, too, is continuing into 2019, which has already seen massive increases: in the first three months of this year, downloaded audio revenues increased 35.3% over the same period last year.

While the industry as a whole is seeing much more modest increases (or, in some categories, small decreases), audiobooks have a ways to grow, providing publishers with an exciting market for many months to come.

And an exciting extra income stream for authors. As many of you know, Amazon offers indie authors an audio platform called ACX. It’s like Kindle Direct Publishing for spoken-word books. ACX was developed by Audible, which was purchased by Amazon in 2008.

Thus: audiobooks created on ACX are sold on Amazon.com, Audible.com, and iTunes (which will soon undergo a transition).

ACX is extremely easy to navigate. For the overwhelming majority of indie authors it is a way to hook up with voice talent for audiobook narration. Here’s an overview of the process. There are two types of deals you can make with the narrator/producer: 1) royalty sharing; 2) cost per-finished-hour.

With the former, you share the royalty with the narrator. ACX pays out a 40% royalty (of the retail price), which you then split with the narrator. [NOTE: This 40% is if you are exclusive with ACX and not distributing elsewhere; if you go non-exclusive, the royalty drops to 25%]. You audition narrators via the ACX dashboard and there’s plenty of talent out there. Like a fellow by the name of Basil Sands who drops by TKZ on occasion.

With option #2, you pay the narrator/producer per finished hour (PFH) for their time and effort. In return, you keep all the royalties. This of course involves a hefty up-front cost. Let’s say you have a 10 hour book and the narrator charges $400 PFH. That’s four grand out of your pocket before you start selling. Just remember to think in terms of sales over years, not just months. You can certainly find excellent voice talent out there. One way to do this is to listen to audio samples on Amazon or Audible of books in your genre. When you find a voice you like go to the narrator’s website and make contact.

I opted for a third way—producing and narrating my own books. Why? Because I’m cheap. Also because I spent a good part of my early years developing my voice for stage and television commercials. Why let the pipes that once proclaimed, “What from the cape can you discern at sea?” in an Off-Broadway production of Othello go to waste?

My big hangup was the technical aspect. I didn’t have a recording studio or sound equipment. I could rent a studio and engineer, but once again…cheap!

So I did some research and found I could put together a workable mini-studio right on my desk. The two main pieces of equipment I needed were a good microphone and sound panels—that soft, foamy material that usually covers entire walls. I found a small, adjustable “sound shield” for under a hundred bucks and got a Blue Snowball microphone and a foam mic cover to go with it.

Next I needed recording software. I’m a Mac guy and thus already have GarageBand. But how to set it up with the right parameters for ACX was going to be a challenge. I was not at all sure I understood what the heck that entailed.

Fortunately, a gentleman named Rob Dircks has generously made available, for free download, his pre-set GarageBand settings for an ACX book. Thanks, Rob!

Finally, I started narrating Write Your Novel From the Middle and uploading the finished chapters to ACX. I created a cover image (the parameters are square, like a CD cover), and filled out all the metadata. When I was all done I hit publish and waited two weeks for the quality review. Frankly, I didn’t know what to expect. Maybe some technical issue I wasn’t aware of would require a re-work of the whole thing. Ack!

But I passed the inspection. And now Write Your Novel From the Middle is an honest-to-goodness audiobook.

As I mentioned earlier, I am exclusive with ACX because it hits the largest slice of the audio distribution pie and pays a generous royalty. I know there are indies who have gone “wide” via other companies, but that is beyond the scope of my current experience. (Anyone who has info along these lines, please feel free to share it in the comments.)

Is narrating your own books an option for you? Many “experts” warn that authors who are not voice trained shouldn’t make the attempt. I say, “Bosh.” (I don’t say “bosh” often, but when I do, I mean it.) ACX has a helpful video and other info for authors as narrators. It does get easier after you’ve done it once. I’m now prepping How to Write Dazzling Dialogue and it’s like an assembly line of audio chapters. I plan to press on and produce all my books in audio.

In traditional publishing contracts, the audio rights are always defaulted to the publisher, with a clause like: Publisher, at its sole discretion, shall have the right to publish a recorded audio version of the Work, for which the author receives 10-15% of net. I’m no math whiz, but 40% of retail sounds a tad more favorable. If you are going to sign with a publisher, you ought to try to reserve the audio rights and create the audiobook yourself. Especially since hard copies (CDs) of audio are rapidly becoming obsolete. In other words, you don’t need Barnes & Noble shelf space to get the most out of your audio rights.

Of course, retaining these rights is going to be tougher going forward because all publishers know audio is the growth area. Discuss this with your agent. Go for the rights; in the alternative, negotiate a higher royalty.

Just don’t put your head in the sand, because audio is a major part of the future.

So what’s been your experience with audio versions of your books? Have you ever thought about doing it yourself? Have you ever said “Bosh” in mixed company?

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Surveillance by Keystrokes – Giving Permission to Snoop

By now, we’re all pretty used to doing a Google or Amazon search, then having ads pop up about the item you searched for.

Take that a step further: Have you walked into a business but didn’t buy anything? Then next time you check Facebook, an ad for that business appears on your feed?

Happened to me for the first time about a year ago. I went into an independent bookstore in Whitefish, Montana to make sure they still had copies of my book in stock. I left without purchasing anything.

When I got home, I happened to check Facebook. An ad popped up for that same bookstore. How did FB know I’d been there? I hadn’t Googled it. No credit card transaction had been processed to connect me to that store.

However, the smartphone in my pocket knew I’d been there.

The amount of data recorded by that device creeps me out…especially when I didn’t knowingly put the information into it.

Recently I made airline reservations on my laptop. When I opened the calendar on my smartphone to enter the flight times and numbers, they were already there. What the…? I purposely haven’t synced the laptop and smartphone to talk to each other.

Yes, it was convenient but it bothered me. What uncomfortable magic suddenly connected the two devices? It hadn’t occurred several months earlier when I last bought tickets from Delta, nor with American Airlines where I’d booked flights a week before. What had changed?

Somewhere hidden in terms and conditions, apparently a new provision allowed access to my phone. By whom? Google? Delta? The phone manufacturer?

If anyone more techie than I am (which means 99% of the population) can explain this, I’m all ears.

Stealth “permissions” sneak past us whenever we check that box: “I agree to the terms and conditions.” When you download a game, an app, or make a purchase, do you read all 47 pages of underlying legalese? Probably not. Additionally, since terms are often subject to unilateral change by the company without notice, what good does it do to read them?

We have traded privacy for convenience, one app at a time.

Smart devices invade our homes. Alexa eavesdrops 24/7 on conversations. In some instances, she has been known to broadcast private conversations to third parties, as happened to this Portland, OR family who learned their discussion about hardwood flooring had been shared with a person on their contact list.

https://www.kiro7.com/news/local/woman-says-her-amazon-device-recorded-private-conversation-sent-it-out-to-random-contact/755507974

Nicolaes Maes

So…in the privacy of your bedroom, what if you complain to your spouse about your rotten boss? Suppose the oh-so-helpful Alexa sees fit to send that conversation to that boss because s/he happens to be on your contact list. Ouch.

Never mind what else Alexa might overhear in your bedroom!

Lately my husband and I have been listening to a Michigan attorney named Steve Lehto on You Tube. He delivers short, entertaining podcasts about legal issues, specializing in vehicle warranties and lemon laws. Sometimes he goes off on an unrelated topic that catches his interest. This video addresses stealth permissions on smartphone apps.

Steve reveals that when you buy or lease an Android smartphone, it comes preloaded with certain apps including one that keeps track of keystrokes on the phone’s keyboard. Sounds innocuous, right?

Until you realize every text message, every bank PIN, and every credit card number you type is recorded. A record of those keystrokes may be available to whoever pays for that information.

Steve didn’t mention iPhones but it’s not a great leap to imagine they share similar apps.

Older devices like Blackberries have mechanical keyboards rather than electronic. You tap a key and a contact switch causes the letter to appear on the screen.

But smartphone keyboards are different. They record keystrokes electronically (known as “keylogging”) with no mechanical switch. Somewhere in cyberspace, someone is keeping track and storing every keystroke.

I don’t bank or pay bills online because hackers gallop miles ahead of safeguards. Security patches close the breach only after the horse is long gone out the barn door.

http://Embed from Getty Images

However, I do text. And that’s how the keystroke app slapped me in the face.

Last summer, an old friend visited us in Montana and left behind his small, well-worn Bible. A few weeks ago, he died in San Diego. At the time of his death we were away from our Montana home, on vacation in Florida, meaning we had to fly from Tampa to San Diego for the funeral.

We wanted to take his Bible to the memorial so I texted our neighbor in Montana and asked him to look for it among the books stacked on our coffee table. I described it as a small, turquoise Bible. The neighbor found it and mailed it to us. All good.

Shortly afterward, an ad popped up on my Facebook feed…

Amazon ad on my Facebook feed

…for a pocket Bible in turquoise.

Hmmm.

That unusual combination of keywords could only have come from the text I typed on my smartphone. Android recorded my private text message and passed it on to Facebook who passed it on to Amazon. Now I’m angry.

If you’re arrested on suspicion of a crime, the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution requires law enforcement to obtain a search warrant to dump the contents of your phone. The same rules obviously don’t apply to Facebook, Android, Apple, Google, Amazon, etc. because we give up those rights simply by using these convenient devices.

Keylogging apps are sold for legitimate purposes, like checking your minor children’s exploration of internet sites, or to see if they’re texting pals to sneak off to a forbidden kegger.

However, such apps are a hacker’s dream because passwords, bank PINs, credit card numbers, and other sensitive private information can become available to cybercriminals.

It’s like installing a deadbolt on your door then handing out keys to random people on the street.

Crime writers can imagine endless plots arising out of technology scenarios.

My thriller, Instrument of the Devil, was set in 2011 as smartphones first exploded in popularity. In the story, a terrorist hacks into the protagonist’s smartphone. He employs what was then secret technology to eavesdrop on her every word and track her physical location while he sets her up to take the fall for his crime—a cyberattack on the electric grid.

In 2019, those formerly covert apps are widely in use by anyone. They are everyday tools that allow tech giants to mine ever more intimate information about us.

As an author, I’m normally delighted when someone reads what I’ve written. However, as a human being, I resent this invasion into my personal communications.

A wise lawyer once told me, “Don’t put in writing anything you wouldn’t want to be read in open court.” I remember his advice now when I text because…

…Someone is always watching and listening.

 

Your turn, TKZers. Have you experienced creep-out moments due to technology? What nefarious plots can you imagine where smart devices play a role?

 

Instrument of the Devil is on sale for only 99 cents during January.

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Cracking The Big Mystery
Behind The Bestseller Lists

 

The bestseller list is the tip of the iceberg. — Michael Korda

By PJ Parrish

William Peter Blatty was hot off the blockbuster success of his book The Exorcist when he met the devil he couldn’t defeat — the New York Times best seller list.

Angered that his novel Legion, the sequel to The Exorcist, didn’t make the list, he sued the Times for $6 million, claiming the Times ignored actual sales figures from his publisher and that Legion was kept off the list because of “either negligence or intentional falsehood.”

It gets better. Or worse, depending on your point of view.

The Times, which had always claimed that the list was compiled from computer sales,  countered in court that its list “was not mathematically objective but was editorial content and thus protected under the Constitution as free speech.”  Blatty appealed to the Supreme Court, which declined to hear the case. Thus the ruling stood that the New York Times bestseller list was “editorial content, not objective factual content” and that they had the right to exclude whatever book they wanted.

And that, crime dogs, is pretty much where we still stand today.  How any book cracks the New York Times bestseller list remains, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous quote about Russia, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery wrapped in an enigma wrapped in fish wrap.”

I used to dream about being a bestseller.  Because this is what happens: Your publisher takes you to dinner at Le Bernardin. You get a new seven-figure contract with cover approval and world tour. Spielberg buys the rights. Your agent starts to return your calls. And you make so much dough your long-lost brother from Bullhead hits you up for a car loan.

Like I said…it’s just dream. We actually did make the Times list, with our third book Paint It Black. It was only what they call the “extended list” which means we didn’t crack the top 15 but hey, we hung on our toenails for a while.  We made the extended list two other times but have not repeated the feat recently. But that’s okay, because it’s sort of like making Eagle Scout. Once you get your badge, no one can take it away and you can wear that badge until your teeth fall out.

So I am not here to tell you that making a bestseller list is a fool’s goal. It doesn’t open doors so much as widen the crack, and it gives you credibility with readers, booksellers, critics and such. But I am here today to ask you not to think about it much. Because the bestseller list game is sort of rigged.

This is not news to many of you. But whenever I am asked about this subject by readers or some newbie writers, I am always shocked at their naïveté. What, you’re telling me it’s not based on real book sales? they gasp.

I don’t think much about bestseller lists anymore. I don’t even look at them when I read my New York Times book review section. But yesterday I did stop and read the paper’s “Inside the Times” article.  It was titled “We Don’t Have to Like ‘Best Sellers’.”  In it, once again, the Times felt compelled to explain to the world how it compiles its lists.

This controversy is not new. A book industry report in the 1940s found that best-seller lists were a poor indicator of sales, since they were based on “misleading data.” Fast-forward to a 2004 report that quoted a senior book marketing executive who said the rankings were “smoke and mirrors,” and a report in Book History found that many professionals in the book industry “scoffed at the notion that the lists are accurate.”

And writers have been trying to game the Times system since before the quill pen.  Jacquelyn Susann and Wayne Dwyer, among others, bulk-bought their own books to get on the list. And until recently, you could hire a company called ResultSource that would contract with you to manipulate lists through “bestseller campaigns.” (I tried to find their website but apparently ResultSource has since gone dark).

Last summer, an unknown book by an unknown author from an unknown publisher rocketed its way to first place on the Times’s young adult hardcover best-seller list. But the YA Twitter community discovered it wasn’t because a lot of people were reading Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem. The author and her publisher bought the book’s way onto the list by strategically ordering large numbers of the book from stores that report their sales to the New York Times. The Times quickly removed the book from its list.

So it’s no surprise the Times is still playing defense. Here’s a sample from their Q&A yesterday:

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists.

Translation: The Times has a network of “reporting stores” which include selected independent bookstores and some but not all big-store outlets. The last figure I found was 4,000 stores and “undisclosed wholesalers.” The exact methodology is considered a trade secret. I have been told by store owners that the reporting figures are not even based on actual sales to customers but on the number of books ordered to stock.

How do authors get on The New York Times best-seller lists? Do their books have to be sold at certain stores?

The New York Times best-seller lists are very competitive, which is what gives them the cachet they have within the book industry and with the public. Our lists reflect the reporting from our confidential panel of tens of thousands of retailers. We do not reveal those sources, in order to circumvent potential pressure on the booksellers and to prevent people from trying to game their way onto the lists. A number of variables go into whether a book will rank on a given week. Weeks where there are blockbuster debuts in multiple categories will be different from quieter weeks. Rankings reflect unit sales reported on a confidential basis by vendors offering.

Do the books have to have been reviewed in The New York Times?

Books that get ranked may or may not get reviewed by the Book Review and vice versa. Our best-seller lists and the editorial decisions of The Times’s book editors and critics are entirely independent. This means our lists are not a judgment of literary merit made by the editors of the best-seller lists, who remain impartial to the results. These are best-seller lists, not best-reviewed lists.

Translation: But if you happen to work at the Times, some critics have charged, your book will not only get reviewed but it has a pretty good chance of being “considered” by the panel of folks who watch over the list. Which leads us to…

How do The Times’s ranking methods ensure objectivity?

The best-sellers desk is staffed by three full-time editors who work independently from our news, opinion and culture desks; from the Book Review and the books desk; and from our advertising department. Our nonfiction lists feature books from authors across ideological and political spectrums. In the last year, politicians and commentators who identify as conservative have performed as well as, if not better than, liberal ones on our lists. Trends depend on publishing schedules and what is happening in the cultural zeitgeist.

One question they don’t address, but one I am asked often is: How many books does it take to crack a list?  It depends…

On who else you’re competing against that week. On what time of year it is. On whether someone has a similar book already out there. And on what list you’re aiming for. The general figure these days (way down from the olden days when I started out) is you need to sell at least 5,000 in one week.  But that means from Monday to Sunday if you want to be a Publishers Weekly best-seller, and from Sunday to Saturday if you want to be a New York Times best-seller.

It’s a jungle out there, Martha. Even if you want to aim a little lower, say for USAToday, The Wall Street Journal, a regional list like the Chicago Tribune or maybe Indiebound, you have a whole different set of hoops to jump through for each. Every bestseller list out there is compiled differently. Here’s a breakdown I found at Vox.com:

Publishers Weekly: Compiles data from the Nielsen service BookScan, which is what most publishers use to track their competitors’ sales. BookScan claims it tracks 80-85  percent of the sales of printed books in the U.S. (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, and Walmart, as well as a number of independent bookstores.) But it does not track books sold at independent bookstores that use older systems incompatible with BookScan’s tracking, or books sold outside of the general bookstore ecosystem, ie, at conferences or gift shops or toy stores, or even sales to libraries. It also doesn’t track the sales of e-books.

USA Today: Gets its data from both a handful of independent bookstores and many of the usual-suspect big sellers: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Target, etc. It doesn’t make any claims about what share of books sales it tracks, so it’s a broad sampling of books sold every week from different types of stores. Again, like BookScan, it does not track books being sold outside the bookstore ecosystem.  It doesn’t divide its list into any specific categories, but instead reports the top 150 titles sold across all genres and in all formats except for audio. So your crime novel will compete against Michelle Obama’s Becoming. I know, I know…insane.

Indiebound: This is compiled by the American Booksellers Association. The ABA uses sales data drawn from about 550 independent bookstores to create its list, but it doesn’t rank titles by overall sales volume. Instead, it weights the books on its list according to the sales rank each one reaches at each individual store. I don’t understand that either but there it is…

Amazon: It has two different best-seller lists: Amazon Charts and Amazon Best Sellers. Charts comes out once a week, tracking the books that have sold the most copies in any format (on Amazon, and in its Kindle store, Audible store, and brick-and-mortar storefronts), and the most read or listened-to books on Kindle and Audible. It’s not broken down by category or format, and it only reflects what’s happening on Amazon and its subsidiaries. (Since Amazon has a 65 percent market share, that’s actually a pretty decent sampling.) Amazon Best Sellers, in contrast, is updated once an hour, and it is broken down by categories. This latter one is what we crime dogs fixate on.

Okay, you’re saying, what about us self-published guys? Do we have a chance at getting on any kind of list? Yes, you can crack the Amazon list.  We got to no. 1 briefly in the thriller category when we self-published our back-list title Dead of Winter. And it used to be alot easier before Amazon started messing with their algorhithms. There was a story every week about some self-pubbed phenom. But for reason behind my ken, that has tapered off. (Maybe some of you can explain in comment?) I did see a figure this week that was astonding — that you need to sell between 3,500 to 5,000 copies in a 24-hour period to hit no. 1 on Amazon. But then I also read recently that Lee Child sells a book every eight seconds…

By the way…those three books at the top of this blog today? You might recognize them. You might not know that they were all self-published before they were massive bestsellers.

But what about the Gray Lady? Well, according to their Q&A yesterday, here are the books they don’t track:  “perennial sellers, shopping guides, comics, reference and test preparation guides, required classroom reading, textbooks, journals, workbooks, calorie counters, puzzle books and self-published books.” If if makes you feel any better, this means the Bible doesn’t qualify. Neither does The New York Times Monday Through Friday Crossword Book, even though it is currently #3 on Amazon’s bestseller list.

So, does this matter? Is this something you should you worry about this?

Well, it’s a gold star on your homework, but it isn’t a true gauge of success. And here’s something weird I found:  Hitting the Times list works better for unknown  authors than the Lee Childs of the world.

According to an economics professor Alan Sorensen, who has studied the effect of bestseller lists on sales of hardcover fiction, relatively unknown writers get the biggest benefit, as much as a 57% increase in sales. But for perennial best-selling authors such as John Grisham, being on the list makes virtually no difference in sales. Most sales occur soon after a book hits the shelves and gradually peter out. “If anything, what appearing on the [bestseller] list does is not so much cause your sales to increase from one week to the next, but rather to decrease at a slower rate,” Sorensen said.

Why can’t the bestseller system be fixed?

With the sophistication of software now, you’d think there would be a better way to keep track of real book sales. The model, some say, is the music industry, with its bestseller list in Billboard. The magazine tracks every single album sold at every single music store in the United States. SoundScan, the company that began tracking CD and tape sales with a bar code system, was the force behind the creation of Bookscan.  But BookScan is too expensive for many bookstore owners.

And here’s the bigger rub: The publishing industry really doesn’t want a single list of what’s really selling. They want lots of different lists that they can manipulate to benefit their own bailiwicks.

So…write your book and kept your heads down, crime dogs. The rest will come.

Which brings us back to William Blatty.  Despite great reviews, The Exorcist laid such a giant sales egg at first that Harper and Row reported getting returns by “the carload.” But then sales took off and the book made the New York Times bestseller list for 57 straight weeks and at the No 1 spot for 17 of them.

And years later, not long after Blatty filed his lawsuit against the New York Times, Legion made it all the way to no. 15 the Times list for one week.

 

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Book Expo America 2018

MONTANA AUTHOR TAKES A SMALL BITE OUT OF THE BIG APPLE

The population of my Montana home town is around 25,000—about the same number of people I encountered during six days at Book Expo America (BEA) and BookCon in New York City.

BEA is the biggest annual convention of book publishers, booksellers, distributors, librarians, and authors in North America. With 840,000 square feet of exhibit space at the Javits Center and nearly 500 exhibitors, the show is so big that Publishers Weekly covers it with daily tabloid reports of 70-100 pages each.

The event is open to industry professionals, not the public. I was fortunate to be invited to check out the inner workings of the business. What a learning experience it was!

Big names draw big crowds. Celebrities launching new books stayed busy autographing advance reading copies (ARCs). Some wait lines rivaled Splash Mountain at Disney World. This year’s stars included a couple of guys named Patterson and Clinton who co-wrote a thriller, along with Nicholas Sparks, Sally Field, Barbara Kingsolver, Trevor Noah, and more.

Debbie Burke and Hank Phillippi Ryan

 

I was delighted to meet the charming Hank Phillippi Ryan at the signing of her new book Trust Me. A few weeks before, I’d watched Hank teach a great online class sponsored by International Thriller Writers (TKZ’s own James Scott Bell also taught a segment of the webinar).

One Librarian’s Bounty

 

 

Librarians from all over the country flock to BEA to pick up bagfuls of free ARCs to help them decide what to order for the coming year. Their biggest expense must be the charge for overweight checked baggage!

Important lesson to authors: librarians are your best friends. If librarians get behind your book, their efficient network can put millions of eyes on your work. See, not all librarians are there to ruin your mood! I guess we all had that one librarian who thought they owned the place, but thinking about it now, knowing that they have way more to do than just sitting behind a desk, maybe it’s time to cut them some slack. You may want to do some research into schools like USC Marshall to get a better understanding of what the essential roles are these days of a librarian.

 

 

Not surprisingly, Amazon isn’t exactly the most popular kid on the BEA playground. The headline of one daily report read: “Amazon’s Actions Remain a Problem,” a quote by the CEO of the American Booksellers Association. The article talked about the impact of “lost jobs, stores, and uncollected taxes” due to the online giant.

The Big Five (Hachette, HarperCollins, Macmillan, Penguin Random House, Simon & Schuster) had large showy booths on main aisles. In contrast, Amazon’s booth was in a distant corner, far from the entrance.

Since Amazon’s Kindle Press had published my thriller Instrument of the Devil, I trekked all the way to the rear of the exhibit hall to visit them. But when I got there…..

Black curtains surrounded all four sides of the booth. Through the gauzy fabric, I could see people moving inside. But there was no entrance.

Hmmm.

Upon further investigation, I was told Amazon specifically requests a private booth for book publicists to meet with major media to pitch upcoming titles.

Oh.

In addition to the Big Five, scores of indie publishers had booths, representing niche markets for religious, ethnic, political and social issues, health and fitness, food and cooking, short fiction collections. No matter what off-the-wall subject you imagine, chances are someone has published a book about it that shows up at BEA.

Children’s and YA book publishers were out in force, introducing thousands of new products: print books, graphic novels, puzzles, interactive 3D devices, plus tie-in merchandising like costumes, cuddly stuffed characters, sports equipment, etc. There were even quaint retro items like pens and stationary. Could writing actual letters be making a comeback?

Waiting for autographs from their favorite authors

 

BEA runs from Wednesday through Friday for industry pros. BookCon follows on the weekend and is open to the public. Thousands of readers crowded the Javits Center on Saturday and Sunday. They pored over new releases, waited in line for autographs from favorite authors…

BookCon 2018

 

…and posed for photos dressed up as popular book characters.

Older folks (like myself) often complain about young people zombie-walking through life with bent necks, mesmerized by their smartphones. Yet at BookCon, I didn’t notice a single example of that disconnection. Kids engaged with each other and were excited about new adventures in reading. Witnessing that gave me hope.

 

 

Audio book sales continue to grow by double digits, 30+% increase in the last year alone.

A major BEA sponsor for 2018 was Blackstone Publishing. In 1987, the family-owned independent audio publisher started producing cassettes in a garage in Ashland, Oregon. They tapped into the town’s renowned Shakespeare Festival for narrating talent.

Three decades later, Blackstone has expanded into a full-service publisher of print and e-books in addition to audio, employing more than 200 people. Still headquartered in Ashland, they’ve increased their presence in NYC with acquisitions editors, audio narrators, and a sound studio that’s second to none.

Blackstone also showed me firsthand what a debut author’s dream launch should look like.

Excited debut author Susan Purvis with the banner of her new book

Last April, I wrote about cadaver dogs and mentioned Susan Purvis’s upcoming memoir, Go Find, which Blackstone is publishing. At BEA, they rolled out the red carpet for Susan, including a 10-foot-tall banner at the entrance of the Javits Center.

At their booth, lighted signs showcased new releases. Book covers were displayed on video screens. During signings, representatives guided people through the waiting line, graciously giving out swag including postcards, book bags, and ARCs.

This contrasted sharply with some author signings sponsored by bigger houses where I wondered if cattle prods might be in use!

 

Blackstone’s good treatment of authors has resulted in them picking up bestsellers like Orson Scott Card, cozy queen M.C. Beaton, and mother-daughter fantasy writers P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast.

Despite BEA’s gargantuan scope, it offered opportunities to make personal contacts.

A couple of hours into the first morning, I sank down at a vacant table, already exhausted, eyes glazing over. A woman with a similar dazed expression sat across from me and we commiserated about feeling overwhelmed. Her name was Bee Kapitan, a designer from Vancouver. She had just received an Independent Publisher Award for her interactive e-book How To Say Cheese. I showed her the proposed cover for my new book, Stalking Midas, and she graciously made suggestions. She introduced me to the burgeoning world of interactive book design. We’ll be keeping in touch.

I’m learning from Umair Kazi (l) and Francesco Grisanzio (r)

Another valuable connection occurred with the Authors Guild. I knew of their excellent advocacy for writers but hadn’t gotten around to joining. At their booth, I talked with staff attorney Umair Kazi and digital services coordinator Francesco Grisanzio about rights reversion. Their guidance helped me make a career decision I’d been putting off. Needless to say, after their assistance, I signed up to become a member.

Another service they offer to authors is contract review. Before you sign a publishing contract, AG attorneys will review it and clarify the Byzantine maze of legalese. That alone is worth the $125 annual dues.

Authors Guild has also forged a communication channel into Amazon to register author complaints. Hopefully AG’s advocacy will temper Amazon’s review policies that, to authors, often appear capricious and arbitrary.

BEA gave me amazing insight into the publishing business. If I included all the adventures and interesting people I met in the Big Apple, this post would run into next week!

I’ll stop now and turn it over to TKZers for questions and comments.

A final post script: on the trip home I was privileged to meet a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor. That story is too long to add here but it can be found on my blog.

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Forgotten. But Not Gone.

I’m traveling today through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey…wait a minute. Let me begin again. I kind of feel the way that I did the first time I walked into a Rocket Fizz store a couple of years ago and saw all sorts of different brands of candy that I hadn’t seen the 1960s.  I’m not talking about candy, however. I’m talking about books. To be more precise, I’m talking about buying books through the mail, long before something called “Amazon” became a business.

This feeling occurred while I was trying to decide what to write about for my blog post this morning. That would be the one you are reading right now. I had four — yes, four — different topics going but they all each and all kind of meandered into nowhere. I got on a tangent involving how the science fiction genre has changed and got nostalgic for The Science Fiction Book Club (SFBC). Those of you of a certain age will remember book clubs. There was Book of the Month Club, SFBC, and the Mystery Guild (MG). There might have been a club for romance books as well. I belonged to the SFBC for almost fifteen years, from the mid-1960s to the early 1980s. It was easy to join. You perused an ad insert— usually in a science-fiction magazine — tore it out, filled out a membership card, selected a certain number of books for a few dollars plus postage, and mailed it and  your check to the club. You agreed to buy two or four books at the regular price sometime over the following two years. Every three weeks or so you were sent (there was no email in those days, no Amazon, no internet, no cable television) a catalog offering two feature offerings, a backlist, and a few exclusive three-in-one volumes or some such thing. If you wanted the two feature books, they made it soooooooo easy! You didn’t have to do anything!  You just waited and the SFBC would send you the books. If you didn’t want one or both of them, however, the cat was on your back to send a pre-printed card back by a certain date, affirmatively stating that you didn’t want the books. The card also gave you the opportunity to order other books if you wished. It was kind of an honor system. It was cool, but it was also a bit of a pain to send the cards in on time. If you didn’t do so for a couple of months your front porch soon resembled that of Mickey Mouse’s in “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice,” except with books instead of brooms. I kind of lost interest in the whole concept when the science fiction genre began to change and while the idea of The Mystery Guild was intriguing I was kind of sour on the whole mail order thing. I could pretty much get whatever I wanted from bookstores. I quit hearing about book clubs and the like in the 1990s and assumed they had gone the way of the phone booth.

And I was wrong!

I discovered not one-half hour ago that the SFBC and MG have bravely and mightily soldiered on, in updated fashion. They both have changed a bit. No more catalogs, and no more honor system (you submit your credit card information when you join). They do have a couple of enticements to get you to join and to remain a member, and, most importantly, to continue buying books. I have to give them credit for staying with the mail order game for books. I mean, after all, that they had a hand in creating the concept of books and with The Book of the Month Club more or less ruled the territory, until ol’ Chrome Dome from Seattle,, genius that he is, kind of moved in and took over the sandbox. Both clubs continue to stake out their genre niche, however. You can access the Mystery Guild website here and the Science Fiction Book Club website here.

I’m kind of wondering…why don’t more readers talk about this? Why don’t I see more of a MG presence at reader/author conventions like Bouchercon and Thrillerfest? Or are they there and hide when they see me coming? Is the fact that these businesses have continued to operate well known to everyone but me, kind of like the Channel Zero anthology on the SyFy Channel?  And…if you don’t feel like answering those questions…tell me if you would one or more things that you loved as a child (or teenager) that you thought was gone forever, but have discovered is still around. Please. And thank you.

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Writers Need to be Amphibious

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

So here we are at the end of another Kill Zone year. (We’ll be taking our traditional two-week break starting tomorrow.) It’s been an amazing run for this blog, which began way back in August of 2008. I’m in awe of my colleagues, both present and emeriti, for the depth of their wisdom and generosity of spirit toward the writing community.

Emeriti, by the way, is the Latin plural of emeritus.

Aren’t you glad you stopped by?

Reminds me of my favorite Latin joke. Or I should say, only Latin joke.

Julius Caesar walks into a bar and orders a martinus.

The bartender says, “You mean a martini?”

And Caesar says, “If I wanted a double I would have asked for it!”

Speaking of which, 2017 was a year a lot of people ordered doubles. I seriously think we need to take a collective breath and, for a couple of weeks at least, imbibe the true spirit of this season: family, friends, generosity and gratitude.

And just plain old relaxation! So kick back and watch a couple holiday movies (Miracle on 34th Street and the 1951 Christmas Carol are always at the top of my list, though I would remind everyone that Die Hard and Lethal Weapon are Christmas movies, too!)

Don’t stress about things you can’t control (this is the wisdom of the Stoics, and what says holiday fun more than the Stoics?) As Epictetus (b. 50, d. 135) so succinctly put it, “There is only one way to happiness, and that is to cease worrying about things which are beyond the power of our will.”

Changes in technology, Amazon algorithms, the size of advances … these are beyond the power of our will. Ditto the shrinking of slots in traditional publishing catalogues, the number of bookstores that are still open, and bestseller lists (unless, of course, one takes the nefarious road of buying one’s way onto the NYT list, in which case the power of will has been corrupted by the siren song of list-lust. Don’t go there).

Nor can we stuff a stopper in the flood of system gamers, sock puppets, nasty reviewers, and inveterate haters—except to the extent that we adamantly refuse to become one of them.

What is within our power?

Our writing, of course. Our dedication to it. Our determination. Our discipline.

The page we’re working on.

The goals we set and the plans we make.

Concentrate on those things. Chill about the rest.

This is still the greatest time on earth to be a writer. Remember, just ten short years ago there was only one way to get published and into bookstores. The walls of the Forbidden City were formidable indeed.

Then came the Kindle, just in time for Christmas 2007, and suddenly there was another way to get published and into the largest bookstore in the world (with your cover facing out, no less!)

During those heady first years of digital disruption, a few pioneering scribes jumped in and showed massive ebook sales at the 99¢ price point. This got the attention of writers inside (and formerly inside) the Forbidden City, and ushered in a “gold-rush” phase when good and productive writers began to make really serious money going directly to Amazon.

At the same time, traditional publishing began to stagger around like a boxer who gets clocked just before the bell rings to end the round. Many predicted that by 2013 or ’14, the whole traditional industry would be kissing canvas.

Instead, we have entered a new equilibrium where the wild highs in the indie world are leveling off, and the disruptive lows in the traditional world are bottoming out (as one trad insider put it to me, “Flat is the new up.”)

But change, albeit more slowly, continues. Thus, what both of these worlds demand are a new set of business practices. I’ve tried to provide these for the indie writer. I’m not sure who the Bigs are listening to, but I suspect they need more Sun Tzu than Peter Drucker these days.

However, here is one bottom-line truth that applies across the board and will always be apt: What wins out in the end, and perhaps the only thing that does, is quality plus time, which I define as steady fiction production providing a swath of readers with satisfying emotional experiences. This holds true for any genre. You can figure out and strive to do the things that create reader satisfaction.

And what are those things? They are matters of craft. The more you are conversant with the tools and techniques of fiction, the better your quality control. It’s like that inspirational quote from a college basketball player some years ago. During an interview he said, “I can go to my left or to my right. I’m completely amphibious.”

Writer, you have to be amphibious to make it in the swirling ocean and on the rocky shores of the book world today. So my end-of-the-year suggestion is this: Invest in your writing self. Spend a certain amount of money on writing-related improvement, like books and workshops. Go to a good conference and network with other writers. If you’re starting to realize a little income from your writing, set aside a portion of it for this type of ongoing investment.

And do take advantage of one of the best free writing resources around—Kill Zone! Traipse through our library and archives. Subscribe to our feed so you don’t miss a day. Leave comments! We love the writing conversation.

We’re on this journey together, so keep in mind something the great Stoic philosopher Yogi Berra once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”

Let’s take it in 2018!

Blessings on you this holiday season, from all of us at TKZ to all of you.

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