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.

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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.”

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Top Ten Tips for Amazon eBook Publishing Success

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #1 — Understand the Amazon System

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #2 — Work With Amazon’s Algorithms

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #3 — Optimize your Metadata

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip # 4 — Categories and Keywords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip #5 — Proper Pricing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tip # 6 — Exclusive or Wide

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

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

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

Tip #7 — eBook Layouts

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

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

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

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

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

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

*  *  *

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.

 

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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.

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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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