One huge advantage of epublishing

Two days ago I released my sci-fi story The Information Monster as a Kindle ebook and wrote about it in this post. I was very happy with the cover, created by myself and my regular cover designer Alex Nereuta, but then I decided to run an Amazon ad campaign for the first time and noticed that the cool font we chose didn’t show up at all when reduced to a thumbnail. Not only that, but the “monster” made of stars also disappeared at a smaller scale. The upshot was that I was asking Amazon visitors to basically click on a black rectangle! I’m guessing that rule 101 of ebook marketing is that you should actually be able to see the cover, so changing it was an easy decision to make.

Although the original would have made a lovely print cover, Alex and I are very happy with the new one and it certainly a) stands out more, and b) is creepier. What do you think?

The Information Monster cover V5 smaller

So here’s the beauty of epublishing: if this was a traditionally published print book and I needed to change the cover, I’d be screwed. With Amazon, all it took was a couple of hours and the new version was proudly online.

Oh, and before I forget, please leave a rating and/or review on Amazon if you read The Information Monster. Stars for stars!

A sci-fi fantasy smorgasbord

Last weekend’s New York Times Sunday Book Review features sci-fi and fantasy new releases reviewed by Charles Yu. He seems to have spotted an overarching theme:

“So much of this work feels as if it is post-something, pervaded by a sense of living and writing in an era that comes after, of fiction being produced by novelists who can’t help feeling that it’s getting late or, in some cases, that it’s too late.”

Several of these titles sound very interesting and it’s a pleasure to read insightful reviews that are not overly critical even when you get the sense that the reviewer didn’t particularly enjoy the book. Have you read any of these books? Let me know in the comments below!

Fraudulent five-star fakes finally forestalled!

I’m sure those aren’t the only F-words that pop into the minds of honest authors and publishers when they read about their less scrupulous competitors’ mendacious review-buying activities. Now Amazon is taking fake reviewers to court in the US. I’m no legal scholar, but I bet that not only is review-buying cheating, it’s also criminal fraud. Personally, I’d rather a fan illegally download my book than have another author boost their Amazon rating by purchasing fake reviews.

Here’s what real reviews look like, in this screenshot from Silent Symmetry’s page:

Symmetry reviews

Clearly this wasn’t the right book for the 1-star reviewer, and that’s the way it should be for any work, whether lowbrow or highbrow. But I’m proud to have taken the True Review Pledge and encourage other authors to do so.

Amazon isn’t altruistically taking a legal stand on behalf of honest authors, the company also has to protect its brand, and fake reviews make it harder for book lovers to judge before they buy, therefore tarnishing the trust they have in the platform.

Fiction authors lie for a living. But they don’t have to cheat.

BookTubers… nope, they aren’t literary potatoes!

I listen to several podcasts when I’m not writing, such as Reply All, Mystery Show, Planet Money, and the gold standard of smart, entertaining North American spoken journalism, This American Life. But a couple of months ago I also discovered Rocking Self-Publishing, a highly listenable and professional podcast produced and hosted out of Prague by an Englishman named Simon Whistler. In every episode of RSP Simon shares snippets of info on the indie publishing world, followed by an in-depth interview with an industry player, usually a successful author.

One such author, P.T. Hylton, has had success finding an audience through BookTube, and you can listen to his RSP interview by clicking on the image here:

Interview with PT Hylton on RSP


Not a website in itself, BookTube is simply a community of people who talk about books on their YouTube channels. Typically a BookTuber will be a young person who speaks on camera about the books they’ve recently read and their TBR (To Be Read) pile. They skew towards Young Adult books, often receive ARCs (Advance Review Copies) from major publishers, and rarely seem to talk about independently published books.

I discovered book review channels on YouTube earlier this year and even requested reviews (to no avail, although one BookTuber sent me a rate card of how much she charges per mention, tweet, review, etc.). Needless to say, charging for reviews is a poor business practice, because it means that viewers can’t trust the opinions being expressed by the reviewer-for-hire. Talking peppily about newly released books in front of a bedroom bookshelf must seem like a wonderful way to make a few extra bucks for a young person, but any BookTuber worth his or her salt should take the long view and build an audience through genuine reviews, then monetize the channel in whatever way they can, such as advertising.

I’m sure that the vast majority of BookTubers started out simply because they love to talk about books, so it would be a shame if a minority of profiteers spoil the fun for everyone else by diminishing their trustworthiness as a source of honest, independent reviews. It would also be a shame if the indie publishing community is unable to access this new and potentially powerful route to discoverability, the main obstacle to competing on a level playing field with traditionally published books.

PT Hylton ultimately decided to start his own YouTube channel and he does a great job of chatting about his own work and books in general. Maybe that’s another way to go. I’ll start taking guitar lessons!



Readers are strange

I mean that in a good way. Although some of them may be strange in the sense that they dip fish fingers in custard or like to wear a fez and a bow tie, the vast majority of readers live relatively normal lives. What makes them strange to an author like me is how they behave when it comes to reading.

A recent study quoted here in The Telegraph shows that even the most downloaded ebooks of last year were not necessarily ever finished by readers:

The Goldfinch, by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Donna Tartt, was completed by just 44 per cent of readers who downloaded it, according to bookseller Kobo.

While Twelve Years a Slave, by Solomon Northup, became the ninth most downloaded book of the year thanks to the film of the same name, it was finished by 28 per cent of those who started it. Indeed, the top ten bestsellers of 2014, according to Kobo, did not overlap with the top ten most-completed books.

It's a great book, but will she get to the end?

A great book being read.

What’s an author supposed to do? Readers are everything and yet it’s so hard to, a) reach them, and b) know what they’re likely to think about your book.

Goodreads is a great site for finding readers, but it can be a very tough crowd. Someone in India who just indicated that they’re reading Silent Symmetry, the first novel in my Embodied trilogy, has given Orwell’s 1984 only a 3-star rating! There’s always going to be a range of responses from literally the 1-star “I didn’t get this book at all” to the 5-star “This is the best book I’ve read all year” and yet when you go on Goodreads and see what people are saying about the books they’ve read, it becomes clear that – you guessed it – readers are strange.

For example, a reader can clearly like a book yet only give it 3 out of 5 stars. Others can write a critical review yet still give it 4 stars. And even more bizarrely, some will write a review saying they didn’t really enjoy a whole bunch of things in the book, then round it off by saying that they can’t wait for the sequel!

The only possible explanation I can come up with for this phenomenon is that momentum is key. Once a reader has started a series of books, they’re likely to plow on until the end, even if they’re dissatisfied with what they’re reading. On the other hand, this explanation is belied by the study quoted above!

Interestingly, for a writer of sci-fi fantasy like me, the article notes:

…little-known romances, crime novels and fantasy proved to be the page-turners, with more than six in every ten being finished. Michael Tamblyn, president and chief content officer of Kobo, said: “A book’s position on the bestseller list may indicate it’s bought, but that isn’t the same as it being read or finished. People may wait days, months, or even until the following year to finish certain titles. And many exercise that inalienable reader’s right to set down a book if it doesn’t hold their interest.”

So readers remain a mystery. And yet they are the reason I do what I do. There’s probably a book in there somewhere…

Photo credit: BrittneyBush / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND


Pubslush’s suggestions for seeking reviews

One of the keys to getting your book noticed (hopefully in a good way!) is reviews from independent readers. Publishing crowdfunding site Pubslush has put together this short, yet informative list of what indie authors need to do to get those reviews rolling in.

A big, stripy giveaway.

A big, stripy giveaway.

Seeking out reviews can be very, very time-consuming for a busy writer, with a very low success rate, so every bit of advice helps. One extra tip I received last week from my publicist was to include a note in each of the 25 signed copies of Silent Symmetry I’ll be giving away in my Goodreads giveaway contest, asking each reader to (pretty please) write a review on Goodreads and Amazon. Every little bit helps, and each one of those Goodreads members has a whole bunch of friends who will see their review.

If you’re an author who’s had success requesting reviews, please share any other tips you have.

Also, try saying this post’s title five times quickly and let me know if you did it!

The Guardian begins serious coverage of self-published authors

On Thursday, Britain’s Guardian newspaper began a series on self published authors with this article on Polly Courtney. In her interview she describes the negative experience she had when her third book (following two self-published novels) was marketed by HarperCollins in the UK:

Polly Courtney

Polly Courtney. Photograph: Hanna Palmer.

When I signed with HarperCollins, I thought “Great! This is the golden ticket I’ve been waiting for!” I thought it would be a great collaboration between me and the publisher, given my success self-publishing my first two novels. The reality was a big disappointment. The publisher seemed intent on pushing my books into pre-existing moulds (“misery lit”, “chick lit”) that didn’t reflect
the contents.

“Brand Polly Courtney” was increasingly muddled, leading to confusion for readers. It turned out that my editor hadn’t actually read my first two books. There was no marketing budget, which meant that it was up to me to promote each book. This wasn’t a problem per se, but my job was made hard by the frivolous book covers and titles assigned to them. I actually felt ashamed of the product. Now I’m back to self-publishing, I’ve regained control.

20 FERAL YOUTH Front cover Amazon

The Guardian appears to be making a genuine effort to provide its readers with coverage of self-published books such as Polly’s novel Feral Youth, which will be released next week. I’ve already touched on the issue of gatekeepers and quality control mechanisms in the traditional publishing industry as well as the ones that are springing up for self-published authors, such as the Awesome Indies website, independent reviewers, and the True Review Pledge. But one of the principal gatekeepers that has always existed in the world of traditional publishing is professional reviewing of new books in newspapers and magazines.

Reviews that appear in quality newspapers like The Guardian are trusted by the readership and have a huge influence on consumer behaviour. Many self-published authors are not writing with any expectation of profit, but for those that do, influencing consumers is the way to bridge the gap between amateur and professional status.

I’m already a professional writer (copywriting, book sales and translation work account for 100% of my income) so that gap doesn’t exist in quite the same way for me as it does for other self-published authors. But whether professional or not, pretty much every author, myself included, would like their work to be read by as many people as possible. Mind you, “read” isn’t necessarily a synonym for “consumed”. I’ve managed to give away over 5,500 copies of the Silent Symmetry ebook, and presumably the vast majority of those copies will be read at some point in the near future. Some will also be shared with family members and maybe some even pirated, which leads to even more readers but no actual consumption in a financial sense. For me, as an unknown author, this is all part of a professional long-term marketing plan. But it if that plan doesn’t ultimately translate into income through sales, it has failed.

So what makes people lay down their hard-earned pounds, dollars and yen (yes, Silent Symmetry has readers in Japan!) and buy a book? Trust. That’s why The Guardian’s series is an enormous step in the right direction for self-publishing. Of course, any single book may turn out to be rubbish, whether traditionally or self-published, but at least positive coverage for the indies in the mainstream media increases the overall credibility factor for self-publishing, and may encourage more readers to consume books that authors such as Polly Courtney have laboured so diligently to write and market.

On another note, if any self-published authors out there have the slightest idea why the Silent Symmetry ebook was downloaded over 2,500 times last week in the US but only 9 times in Canada and 58 in the UK, I’d love to hear their theories! Since Facebook,  Twitter and blogs are essentially international, I can’t for the life of me figure out why these figures are so disproportionately skewed in favour of the US. More copies were downloaded in India than in Canada where I live and wrote the book! As Jerry Seinfeld used to say, “What’s up with that?”

“Liking” that means really liking, not just Liking

Silent Symmetry received a very short, but positive review today.

The reviewer wrote that she (I think it’s a she) likes “getting free books to see how I like the author.” At first I glossed over this, but then realized that she had managed to succinctly encapsulate the entire raison d’etre behind running free Kindle promotions like mine for Silent Symmetry that ends today.  It’s to give readers an opportunity to get to know you as a writer, as simple as that. If you’re an unknown author, then by definition they don’t know you. And the reality is that people buy a novel because of the author’s name as much as because of the story or the reviews. (I, for example, am still waiting with baited breath for Cervantes to come out with a new book because I thoroughly enjoyed his last one. Come on, Miguel, get a move on…)


Cervantes was, quite literally, an egghead.

Actually (thinking aloud here, as per my typical blogging methodology), it’s not so much the author’s name, but what that name represents that matters. Maybe an author makes a reader laugh out loud, or feel warm and fuzzy, or excited, or sexy, but whatever that feeling is, it’s exactly what a reader hopes will be repeated with the author’s next book. And THAT is what my new reviewer was talking about. If she likes the feeling, she’ll come back for more.

Maybe I should get a T-shirt made with a big Facebook Like logo on it…

The True Review Pledge

In my early twenties I took a pledge to eat chocolate every day. I’m not kidding, and I’m not even sure exactly why I did it. But I couldn’t keep it up and that failure still haunts me to this day. On the bright side, I don’t weight 300 lbs.

I’m not big on pledges (a statement belied by three divorces, which goes to show that you should never believe a writer of fiction) but today I took another one.


My chocolate pledge was a house of cards… of chocolate.

I came across the True Review Pledge site and was immediately convinced that it was a good thing. I’m new to the whole review thing, having only just begun to receive some for Silent Symmetry.  But apparently there are a lot of fake reviews floating around on Amazon and elsewhere. This article in the New York Times outlines the scope of a problem that affects not only book retailers but other industries that rely on reviews, such as hotels, restaurants and tech products.

To help combat this scourge the folks at the True Review Pledge have created a site where authors can take a pledge to keep reviews of their work honest. Here’s how the pledge is explained on their site:

It is a great time to be a writer – and a reader. The last couple of years has seen a surge of new titles hit the market, especially in digital format.

What many readers (and some authors) do not know is there has also been a scourge afflicting the publishing industry in the form of fake reviews. Some of these have been purchased by authors or representatives in order to boost sales; others are negative ones posted by authors or their fans to decrease sales of their competitors.

Unfortunately, it is often difficult to prove which reviews are fake and which ones are the result of genuine enthusiasm or critique.

We want to help combat this problem and also help restore reader confidence in the publishing industry. One way to do this is to have authors, publishers, and readers pledge that they will not participate in these unethical practices.

I signed up immediately. I’m proud that my reviews have come from strangers. The alternative is like cheating on an exam. Or on your chocolate pledge, which may be even worse.

(You can see the pledge badge near the bottom of the column on the right.)

Photo credit: Aka / / CC BY-SA

A review to view!

Just a short post to announce that Silent Symmetry has its first review on Amazon. A guy (who I don’t know) called Paul gave it five stars today. Don’t worry, I won’t be posting every time I get a review, but this one is worth mentioning. Here’s what Paul had to say:

I know it’s a bad idea to take reviews to heart. But I’ve taken this one to heart.