Kobo — A Truly International Indie Publishing Platform

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

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

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

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

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

How Kobo is Structured

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

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

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

Publishing on Kobo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kobo Promotions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kobo Resources

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

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

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

So, how is Garry Rodgers Doing on Kobo?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kobo is a Truly International Indie-Publishing Platform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Inspiring Quotes From Inspiring Crime Thriller Writers

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

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

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

——

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listen to the sound the words make. ~Unknown

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have something you want to say. ~Ian Rankin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

——

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

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

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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.

——

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.

8+

Reader Friday: Best and Worst Advice

What’s the worst writing/publishing advice anyone ever gave you?  Best?

The worst advice I got was from an early critique group leader, when I was writing my first attempt at a novel, who said, “Don’t let anything bad happen to Sarah.” Happy people in happy land, anyone?

Best advice? “Do what you’re good at. Do what you love. Hire out the rest.”

8+

Top Ten Tips for Amazon eBook Publishing Success

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #1 — Understand the Amazon System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #2 — Work With Amazon’s Algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #3 — Optimize your Metadata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip # 4 — Categories and Keywords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #5 — Proper Pricing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip # 6 — Exclusive or Wide

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

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

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

Tip #7 — eBook Layouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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

Tip #8 — Use Amazon Resources

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

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

Amazon Website KDP JumpStart

Amazon Website KDP Terms Conditions

Amazon Website KDP University

Amazon Success Toolkit — The Book Designer with Tracy Atkins

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

Amazon Decoded — David Gaughran

Tip #9 — Prime the Amazon System

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

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

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

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

Tip #10 — Real Examples of Amazon eBook Publishing Success

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15+

Reader Friday: Name an Activity You’ve Never Tried

What’s one activity you’ve always wanted to try but haven’t?

This activity might include writing in a different genre, bungee jumping, paragliding, skydiving, public speaking, writing from a new perspective, or scaling the side of a mountain.

What prevented you from doing this activity?

Age should never be a deterrent, but let’s face it, older bones may be more brittle, eyesight may not be as sharp . . . blah, blah, blah. You know the drill.

With that in mind, if you were twenty years younger, would you try this activity? What is it about this activity that appeals to you?

4+

How To Speak Cop — Version 1.0

As a retired police officer and now starving artist writer, I pay attention to others who write true crime and crime fiction. I read (actually skim) more for craft than story because I’m still very much in the learning curve when it comes to writing. Like the investigation business, I think a writer never stops discovering new techniques and benefiting from mistakes. A regular flaw I see in reading some crime publications—the writer just doesn’t know how to speak cop.

Every vocation has its lingo. In my shadow life, I’m a ticket-holding marine captain. An old boat skipper. I know Sécurité, Pan-Pan, and Mayday-Mayday-Mayday. They’re common emergency calls in the airplane world, as well. Industries like film production have their unique terms like Rigger, Gaffer, and Abby Singer Shot. And the sex trade has… well…

I think that in writing convincing crime stories, whether true or false, it’s critical to get the cop-speak right—specific to the specific location (as variances exist). Part is not being scared to use to F-word because all cops and crooks swear. The trick is using it sparingly and not mimicking a realistic alcohol-fueled-end-of-the-night party at a truck loggers convention. Trust me. I’ve been to one.

Setting profanity aside, there are day-to-day conventions in police terminology. Some writers get it right. Some don’t. The difference is in research, connections, understanding locality, and personal experience. Here are the basics in how to speak cop. Version 1.0.

Radio Procedure – The Ten Code

I’ve never heard of an English-speaking police department that doesn’t use some sort of ten code on the radio. Some officers are so indoctrinated that they write tens in their reports. The reason for a ten code radio procedure is brevity. It’s not for secrecy. That’s a whole different matter with encrypted devices and mission-specific codes. Here are the most common ten codes that seem to be universal.

*Note – 10-Codes greatly vary between jurisdictions. These are the most common ones*

10-1 — Unable to copy

10-4 — Copy, Yes, Affirmative, Acknowledged

10-6 — Busy, Occupied, Tied-up

10-7 — Stopped, At scene, Out of vehicle

10-8 — Back in service, Available for calls

10-9 — Repeat, Say again, I didn’t understand

10-10 — Negative, No, It’s BS

10-12 — Stand by, Stop transmitting

10-19 — Return to, Go back

10-20 — Location

10-21 — Call by phone

10-22 — Disregard, Fuhgetaboutit

10-23 — Arrived at Scene

10-27 — Driver license info requested

10-28 — Vehicle plate info requested

10-29 — Check person/vehicle/article for wanted

10-33 — Emergency! Officer Down! Officer in Peril!

10-60 — Bathroom Break

10-61 — Coffee break

10-62 — Meal break

10-67 — Unauthorized listener present

10-68 — Returning to office (RTO)

10-69 — Breathalyzer operator required

10-100 — I have no f’n idea what you’re talking about

The Phonetic Alphabet

I see this screwed-up so often. Some attempts are quite creative. Amusing, if not hilarious. “Bob” for B is real common. So is “Dog” for D. But, I’ve heard “Banana” and “Dillybar”, and I’ve heard “Limmo” for L, “Monica” for M, and more “Nancy” than I can count. Then there’s “Sylvester-as-in-Stallone”, “Tattoo”, and “Ugly”. Here are the right phonetic alphabet radio calls (worldwide):

Note: Phonetic alphabet pronunciations vary in regions. These are the universal ones that international transportation uses.

A — Alpha

B — Bravo

C — Charlie

D — Delta

E — Echo

F — Fox or Foxtrot

G — Golf

H — Hotel

I — India

J — Juliet

K — Kilo

L — Lima

M — Mike

N — November (not Nancy)

O — Oscar (not October)

P — Papa (not Penny or Pork Chop)

Q — Quebec

R — Romeo

S — Sierra

T — Tango

U — Uniform

V — Victor

W — Whisky

X — X-ray

Y — Yankee

Z — Zulu

The Rank System

There are two main ranking systems in the western police world. One is the constabulary like used in British Commonwealth countries. The other is military which is common in U.S. jurisdictions. Both are top-down rankings where they start with an omniscient power that oversees minions. Here are typical organizational charts for the two structures.

Constabulary Commissioned Officers

Commissioner

Deputy and Assistant Commissioners

Superintendents

Inspectors

Constabulary Non-Commission Officers

Staff Sergeants

Sergeants

Corporals

Constables

Military-Style Police Officers

Chiefs

Deputy Chiefs

Colonels

Majors

Captains

Lieutenants

Sheriffs

Military-Style Police Rank & File

Sergeant

Detective Sergeant

Detective

Deputy

Officer

General Cop Speak

I see a lot of crime books where the protagonist is a high ranking police officer like a DCI (Detective Chief Inspector) or a Precinct Captain. These sound good and powerful, but the reality in police investigations is the grunts do most of the work. Detectives, Beat-Officers, and Constables go out there and arrest suspects, interrogate them, and then get their butt roasted in court.

Commissioners are politicians and serve at the pleasure of their master. Superintendents, Sheriffs, and Inspectors are budget-driven paper-pushers. Most Staff Sergeants and Captains spend more time on HR matters than criminal overseeing. It’s the Lieutenants, Sergeants, and Corporals that supervise the police workhorses—the deputies, constables, and officers.

I could go on about cop-speak like surveillance terms. “R-Bender”. “Stale Green”. “Crowing”. “Taking Heat”. Or, administrative stuff that takes up most of the time. “Per-Form”. “C-264B”. And, “Leave Pass”.

Cop Speak Resource

I’m steering you to B. Adam Richardson. Adam is a still-serving detective with a Southern California Police Department. Adam can’t reveal his true name or actual location because of security reasons, but Adam runs two Facebook sites dedicated to helping crime writers get it right. Here’s the link to Writers Detective and his FB rules:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/WRITERSDETECTIVE/

“There has been some discussion in this group about what the rules are. Since my day job is all about enforcing rules, I wanted to let this group grow on its own and develop its own feel without me having to create rules.

I have seen other groups that are nothing more than mean/cynical replies to honest questions and spammy book promos. I hate those.

For the most part, I have been quite happy that this has grown into a very supportive group. I want our atmosphere of support and the celebrating of writing milestones to continue.

Although I am the one that started this group, I don’t own this group. You do. The intended purpose of this group is for writers like you to find the law enforcement related answers you’re looking for. I try my best to keep up with the Q&A, but I can’t answer every question. The beauty of this group is leveraging the collective experience and/or research of the membership. So, allow me to clear something up:

Anyone can post a question or an answer in this group.

We have a wealth of collective knowledge and experience in here. I know our members include a former CSI tech, a criminal defense attorney, a former MP, a former Coroner, and a ton of crime-fiction writers with solid research into serial killers, forensic science, and criminal psychology. That’s just the members I know about and that doesn’t even include the cops in the group. You do not need to be a cop to answer questions in here.

Yes, the quality of the answers will vary. I want to recognize that everyone offering an answer is doing so to help a fellow writer and spark discussion.

Many have come to this group seeking answers from a cop’s perspective and we’ll continue to offer that. I fully admit that answers coming from a cop’s perspective aren’t always right either. (Just ask a defense attorney.)

Often, the reality of how things play out on the street is very different from how textbooks and courtroom testimony portray things. We (the cops in this group) do try our best to give you the truth of what we’ve seen and experienced. I just ask that you recognize that our answers may differ from what research into a subject indicates. Research, textbooks, and courtroom testimony often paint things in black and white, while reality is a blur of varying shades of gray. Recognizing these differences are key to identifying and capturing realism for your own stories.

Sure, there may be answers posted that are solely based upon what someone saw in an episode of Miami Vice or CSI…but I’d prefer to not censor answers, especially when the poster’s intention was to be helpful. It is up to you to figure out what is relevant, factual, and useful for your own writing projects.

I propose we start using our Like buttons to act like a Reddit/Quora style “up-vote” on best answers to a particular question.

There may be some debate over answers, but that is to be expected. We can all learn from civil discussions about the issues at hand. These debates happen in criminal justice all the time; it’s the very basis of our judicial process.   ~ Adam”

Adam R. also has a FB site at Writers Detective Bureau. Check out this link:

https://www.facebook.com/writersdetective/

So, that’s it for How To Speak Cop — Version 1.0. Anyone interested in a more detailed post… Version 2.0 ?

— — —

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective with a second career as a forensic coroner. Now, Garry has re-invented himself as a writer with a based-on-true-crime series on cases he was involved in. Check out Garry Rodgers on his Amazon Author Page, Twitter, Facebook, and his website at DyingWords.

Garry’s newest book in the true crime series, On The Floor, will be out in mid-August 2020.

15+

How To Get Away With Murder

Murder. It’s forever been the stuff of books, movies, poems and plays. Everyone from Shakespeare to Agatha Christie told foul-play murder stories. That’s because, for gruesome reasons, murder cases fascinate people.

I think murder is the great taboo. It’s also the great fear of most people except, maybe, for public speaking. Jerry Seinfeld quipped, “At a funeral, the majority of people would rather be in the casket than giving the eulogy.”

Yes, murder is the ultimate crime. In mystery books and Netflix shows, murder cases are solved and neatly wrapped up in the end. This leaves the reader or audience with the satisfaction of knowing who done it and probably why.

That’s not always the truth in real life. Many murders go unsolved for a long time. Some go cold and are never resolved. Statistics vary according to region, but probably a quarter of murders never get cleared.

Thankfully, most murders are easy to solve. They’re “smoking guns” where the killer and victim knew each other, the killer left a plethora of evidence at the scene or took it with him, witnesses saw the murder take place, or the bad guy confessed to the crime. That’s really all there is to getting caught for committing a murder.

So, why do roughly twenty-five percent of people get away with murder? It’s because they don’t make one of these four fatal mistakes. Let’s look at each in detail and how you can get away with murder.

Leaving Evidence at the Scene

Did you ever hear of Locard’s Exchange Principle? It’s Murder Investigation 101. Dr. Edmond Locard was a pioneer in forensic science. Dr. Locard held that at every crime scene the bad guy would leave evidence behind that would connect them to the offense. Locard summed it up this way:

“Wherever he steps, whatever he touches, whatever he leaves, even unconsciously, will serve as a silent witness against him. Not only his fingerprints or his footprints, but his hair, the fibers from his clothes, the glass he breaks, the tool mark he leaves, the paint he scratches, the blood or semen he deposits or collects. All of these, and more, bear mute witness against him. This is evidence that does not forget. It is not confused by the excitement of the moment. It is not absent because human witnesses are. It is factual evidence. Physical evidence cannot be wrong, it cannot perjure itself, it cannot be wholly absent. Only human failure to find it, study and understand it, can diminish its value.”

Dr. Locard was absolutely right—most of the time. That quote was from the early 1900s. It was long before the sophistication of DNA profiling and amplifying light to find invisible fingerprints. Today, trace evidence shows up at the micro level, and there’re ingenious inventions used to find it. But… not always.

I’m familiar with a high-profile and unsolved murder case from 2008 where two killers enticed a female realtor to a house and savagely stabbed her to death. It’s a long story. A complicated story. And, so far, they’ve got away with the murder.

The victim was totally innocent. She was set-up as a sacrifice to protect someone else who was a police informant. The police know full well who the killers are—a Mexican man and woman from the Sinaloa drug cartel—but they’ve never been charged. It’s because they left no evidence of their identity at the scene. They’ve also never broken the other three murderer-catching rules.

There’s more to scene evidence than DNA and fingerprints. There are dozens of evidentiary possibilities including hairs, fibers, footwear impressions, chemical signatures, organic compounds, match heads, cigarette butts, expended shell casings, spit chewing gum, a bloody glove or a wallet with the killer’s ID in it. (Yes, that happened.)

Removing Evidence from the Scene

The flip side of Locard’s Exchange Principle is the perpetrator removing evidence from the scene that ties them back to it. This can be just as fatal to the get-away-with-it plan as left-behind evidence. And, it happens all the time.

Going back to the unsolved realtor murder, there’s no doubt the killers left with the victim’s blood on their hands, feet and clothing. This innocent lady was repeatedly shived. The coroner report states her cause of death was exsanguination which is the medical term for bleeding out.

For sure, her killers had blood on them. But, they made a clean escape and would have disposed of their blood-stained clothes. That goes for the knife, as well. Further, the killers did not rob the victim. They didn’t steal her purse, her identification, her bank cards or even the keys to her new BMW parked outside.

The killers also didn’t exchange digital evidence to be traced. They used a disposable or “burner” phone to contact the victim to set up the house showing. It was only activated under a fake name for this one purpose and was never used again. The phone likely went the same place as the bloody clothes and knife.

Being Seen by Witnesses

I once heard a judge say, “There’s nothing more unreliable than an eyewitness.” I’d say that judge was right, at least for human eyewitnesses.

Today’s technology makes it hard not to be seen entering or exiting a murder scene. There’s video surveillance galore. Pretty much everywhere you go in an urban setting, electronic eyes are on you. You’re on CCTV at the gas station, the supermarket, the bank, in libraries, government buildings, transit buses, subways and on the plane.

In bygone lore, the killer often wore a disguise. That might have fooled human surveillance, but it’s hard to trick cameras that record evidence like get-away vehicles with readable plates. It’s also hard to disguise a disguise that can be enlarged on film to reveal uniquely identifiable minute characteristics.

Back to the unsolved realtor slaying again. The killers were seen by two independent witnesses when they met their victim in the driveway outside the show home. One witness gave the police a detailed description of the female suspect and worked with an artist to develop a sketch. It’s an eerie likeness to the Mexican woman who is a prime person-of-interest along with her brother—a high-ranking member of the El Chapo organization.

Unfortunately, there’s just not enough evidence to charge the Mexicans. They left no identifiable trace evidence behind at the crime scene. Whatever evidence they might have taken from the scene hasn’t been found. There was no video captured and the eye-witnesses can’t be one hundred percent positive of visual identity.

There’s also the fourth missing piece to the puzzle.

Confessing to the Murder

Murderers are often convicted because they confessed to the crime. Sometimes, they confess to the police during a structured interrogation. Sometimes, they confess to a police undercover operator or paid agent during a sting operation. Sometimes, their loose lips sink their ship by telling an acquaintance about doing the murder. And sometimes, they’re caught bragging about the murder on electronic surveillance like in a wiretap or through a planted audio listening device—a bug.

Police also arrest and convict murderers after an accomplice turns on them and decides to cooperate with the investigation in exchange for a lesser sentence. Then, there are the revenge situations. The murderer has confessed to an intimate partner who they thought they could trust and couldn’t.

That has yet to happen in the unsolved female realtor murder. There is no doubt—no doubt—that a group of people know what happened in her murder. It’s known, with probable certainty, who the Mexican pair are. It’s also known, with probable certainty, who the real police informant was and who conspired to protect them by offering the innocent victim as a sacrificial slaughter to appease the Sinaloa cartel’s “No-Rat” policy.

This murder case can be solved once someone in the group decides to reveal evidence implicating the killers. That likely won’t be anything in the Locard arena or in the eye-witness region. It’ll be an exposed confession that will solve this case.

Someone will eventually talk. The current problem is that everyone in the conspiracy circle is connected by being blood relatives, being a member of the Hispanic community and being involved in organized crime. Their motive to talk is far outweighed by their motive to stay silent.

Takeaway for The Kill Zone Gang

If you’re a mystery/thriller/crime writer, always consider these four crime detection principles when working your plot. No matter how simple or complex your plot may be, the solution will come down to one or more of these points. If it doesn’t, then your antagonist is going to get away with murder.

———

Garry Rodgers is a retired homicide detective and forensic coroner, now an investigative crime writer and successful indie author. Garry also hosts a popular blog at his website DyingWords.net and is a regular contributor to the HuffPost.

Garry Rodgers lives on Vancouver Island in British Columbia at Canada’s west coast. He’s a certified 60-Tonne Marine Captain and spends a lot of time around the saltwater. Follow Garry on Facebook, Twitter and BookBub. He has stuff on Amazon, Kobo and Nook, too.

 

13+

The Pandemic Invades Fiction – Is it a Game Changer?

Jordan Dane
@JordanDane

The longer I am cooped up behind my four walls, the more my mind wanders on how every day life will be changed by a life threatening virulent pathogen. When I thought the lock down would be for a month, I imagined it to be a vacation or an indulgence. But now that I see the virus invading all aspects of our lives – now and in the future – Covid19 will have an impact that we are only beginning to grasp. Similar to how 9/11 changed our sense of security in the world, how we traveled and how we fear “the other,” we will be defining this experience in new ways that will affect our writing too.

Writers at fanfiction.net are adapting very quickly to story lines that involve current events. They take their favorite TV shows or classic literature and add a COVID angle. Below are some spins I thought would give you an idea what I am writing about – my take.

1.) Imagine romance during the time of a pandemic. How would people “meet”? How would they practice social distancing & not jeopardize the important people in their lives? Is there an APP for that? Would they revive AVATARS to experience the physical aspects of a relationship from a safe distance? Let your imagination run wild. Stories could be romantic comedies or deadly angsty serious.

Picture a modernized version of ROMEO & JULIET where one family has antibodies but the other is pure blood and want to remain that way. Put two young lovers at the apex of a pandemic where governments must decide which family or race should be allowed to survive. A sick romance with a Hunger Games twist?

TAMING OF THE SHREW adaptation where genetics brings two unlikely & resentful lovers together for the sake of the human race’s survival.

2.) DOCTOR DOLITTLE UNDER QUARANTINE – A children’s book where the doctor only has animals to talk to.

3.) STEPHEN KING’S ‘IT’ ADAPTATION IN THE HORROR GENRE – where an isolated anti-hero has a lifelong neuroses about hygiene and disease and crosses the path of a vindictive serial-carrier (aka Pennywise, the clown). A series by the name of KILLING TIME.

4.) LES MISERABLES in a SciFi futuristic genre – Imagine a post-pandemic world where the politics of our time creates a rift between the classes. Rebellion born from pandemic and isolation.

5.) MAGAZINE SERIAL – For writers looking for a writer’s outlet. New York Magazine is looking for fresh takes on pandemic stories. Add the right amount of cynicism and angst with a vivid imagination, and you might sell your pitch.

What would happen if you wrote a series from the perspective of THE VIRUS? Think FANTASTIC VOYAGE (the movie) meets THE HOST (Author Stephenie Meyer-YA), a pathogen could be a sentient being (either from another planet or an awakened yet ancient species living deep in the rain forest until it’s disturbed). The only way they can survive is to inhabit a host and they live their lives by adapting to the human body and “living vicariously” through a larger host. 

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Have you been thinking of writing a story influenced by Covid19 or a pandemic? Tell us about it.

2.) How would you reinvent a classic literature or more modern bestseller to inject it with a deadly virus? Get creative.

PANDEMIC PASTTIMES:
If you’re going stir crazy during the Covid19 pandemic, Audible is generously offering FREE READS at this LINK. I love audio books and listen to them most nights. I can’t wait to dive into these Audible gems. The star series of the lot is Harry Potter by J. K. Rowland but there are books for young readers as well as literary classics for all ages.

5+

Tips on Writing a Domestic Thriller

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

image purchased for use by Jordan Dane

Domestic/psychological thrillers have found greater traction since Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL & THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN by Paula Hawkins. James Scott Bell’s YOUR SON IS ALIVE is a great example of a domestic thriller. Laura Benedict’s upcoming book THE STRANGER INSIDE is a novel I can’t wait to read. I’ve pre-ordered it and you can too. Release is coming Feb 5, 2019.

These books remind us that readers are drawn to “reading what they know” but with a twist. The domestic thriller brings terror into the home/life of an average family or allows readers to see what might be held secret behind a family’s locked doors.

This seems like the ultimate terror, to set a story inside anyone’s house, but it can keep your writing sharp and focused on tough subject matter. Maybe your story will hit too close to home, making it a challenge to write.

Keys Factors for Writing Domestic/Psychological Thrillers

1.) Set your domestic thriller in familiar settings. Give the reader comfort until they realize your novel doesn’t take place in Mayberry. Set your story in a small town, on a commuter train, in a home with a family who could live next door to you, or create a situation that seems harmless at first until it escalates into a terrifying tale. Much like Stephen King is partial to turning everyday objects into nightmares–I’ll never use a turkey carving knife again–it’s important to think through an effective setting that lulls the reader into a false sense of security until you pull the rug out.

2.) Make your story hinge on familiar subjects. I’ve suggested a few below, but I’m sure you could come up with more that could be turned on its ear with escalating tension. Use your own personal experiences to discover what might touch your readers.

  • A marriage that doesn’t need much to send it over a cliff
  • Sibling rivalry
  • Neighbors from Satan
  • A clandestine love affair
  • School rivalry/Helicopter moms competing against each other
  • Parenting – Lots of possibilities
  • Family relationships
  • Boyfriends/Girlfriends/Jealousy

3.) Now ask yourself the critical question of “what if…” What are the worst plot twists that could happen in the world you’ve created? Think WAY out of the box. Use a dartboard to add some unpredictability to your brainstorming.

4.) Make your character(s) real. Imagine people you have known, but elevate them into a major player’s role in your story. It helps to start with the familiar to make it real, but then your character would take on his/her own journey. Remember, your characters need to be real and not supersized into movie star status. Take “every man or every woman” and force them to step into an horrendous plot. Make your starring character(s) believable.

5.) Give your characters flaws that could prove to be fatal. It’s a balancing act to pick vulnerability that doesn’t make them appear too weak. Give them insecurities they can overcome in a believable way, without making them whiners. Force them to face their insecurities. Are they capable of overcoming their worst fears? Give them a chance to do it. Will they? Dig deep with a journey for your character to survive through your plot. They must struggle to gain ground or appear that they never will. Nothing trite will work here. It must seem insurmountable. I found a great resource for character flaws – 123 Ideas for Character Flaws

6.) Unreliable narrators are gold in this genre. What if your main character doesn’t know what going on? Use it. Are they so paranoid that their very nature can’t be trusted? Great plot twists can abound with the use of unreliable narrators or unreliable secondary characters. Once the readers starts to question what’s going on, you have them hooked deeper.

7.) Bend those plot twists. In order to play with the minds of your characters, you must get into their heads and mangle their reality. It’s not easy to write and set up a major plot twist, so plan ahead and let your imagination soar. Sometimes you will know the plot twist that will come at the end – the big finale twist. Other times you can filter unexpected plot twists through the novel at key intervals to escalate the stakes & create key turning points that take the plot in different directions.

8.) Don’t be afraid to SCARE your readers. Make their skin crawl with the anticipation of something bad about to happen. Titillate them with the build up and add twists to keep the tension going. What would scare you? Picture times you might have told ghost stories around a campfire and what made you jump. That adrenaline rush is what you want to give your readers. I often like to walk the edge of the horror genre, but these days, books are written with multiple genres to tell a good story. Don’t be afraid to add elements of horror or mystery to your suspense thriller.

FOR DISCUSSION:

1.) Share your current writing projects & genre. What has got you excited in 2019?

2.) Have you read a good domestic thriller lately? Please share the novel and the author.

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