Monthly Archives: September 2012

How Many Amazon Reviewers of J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy Have Even Read It?

There’s been plenty of press and comments on social networks about reviews on Amazon. Some writers have complained that some reviewers have been mean and vindictive, while a handful of top selling indie published authors have been exposed for buying fake reviews.

Given the complaints laid against the general standard of reviewing on Amazon I thought I would take a look at how soon after publication that the most anticipated novel of the year, J.K. Rowling’s book, The Casual Vacancy would be garnering reviews. I checked both Amazon.com and Amazon.uk in this most unscientific of surveys, and was stunned to see that two days after the book’s official release there were already 86 reviews on the UK site and 122 on the US.

I don’t doubt that there are speed readers out there who will happily devour a 500 page novel in two days, and if you added those together with the handful of official press reviewers permitted to read the embargoed novel before publication under strict conditions, then maybe, just maybe the reviews of those who had read the entire book would number around 50 (and I’m being generous here). But have 208 people really devoured the book and then written a review of it in the space of two days?

So I thought I would sample a few of those reviews and bring them to your attention. Given the hype over J.K Rowling’s first adult novel and her phenomenal success as a writer, you might expect that there would be one or two reviews that might be rather unfair. On Amazon.com there are 40 one star reviews for The Casual Vacancy. Personally, if a book is going to be bad enough to garner one star I would not bother to review it because I know that my chances of finishing it would be slim. And in the case of the one star reviews on Amazon.com, I would say that 50% of the reviewers hadn’t read any more than the “Look Inside” section before condemning the book to a one star. Instead of reviews I counted 21 examples of price bashing, where commentators were unhappy with the price of the e-book and as a protest, and gave the book a one star review. How unfair is that? The author has no control over the price and all this does is skew the reviews unfairly. Why didn’t the complainants, if they felt so strongly, write an email instead J.K. Rowling’s publisher, Little Brown?

One reason not to read this book might be that you don’t agree with the politics. It’s not as though the politics are a secret but five reviewers just chose instead to focus on just that and condemn Rowling’s books for daring to be a financially successful writer with left-wing views and punish her by giving her a one star review. Again, this does seem rather unfair. There are a number of other highly successful business people with socialist politics out there but they don’t seem to be subjected to the same accusations of champagne socialism.

One reviewer was at least honest and admitted that she hadn’t had time to read the book as she had only just purchased it. That still didn’t stop her from giving the book one star. Another reviewer disliked the book but when I checked her profile the three other reviews she had published and liked were all for books in a completely different genre. So perhaps this reviewer was just a disappointed Harry Potter fan.

There was a similarly depressing repetition of the arguments for giving The Casual Vacancy a one star review on Amazon.uk, but what I find gratifying, and which has partially restored my faith in Amazon, is that the negative reviews receive comments, asking the reviewer to justify their review or even calling for, in some cases, Amazon to take the ‘non reviews’ down completely.

I was keen to find out how many Harry Potter fans gave Rowling’s first book for adults a five star review, and what they wrote made interesting reading.  In the main they expressed considered, thoughtful opinions, and I shall be making my purchasing decision based on these four and five star reviewers, as well as from Amazon Verified Purchasers, many of who have reviewed a number of other books.

The best advice for anyone on the receiving end of a number of one star reviews for reasons other than for the standard of the writing, editing, characterisation or plot is to question the agenda that the reviewer might have. Check out the reviewer’s profile, as this can be telling. If the commentator has only ever reviewed products, and is not even a frequent reader, then you can bet other readers will be similarly unimpressed. The one thing that I have noticed about Amazon is that many readers do vote down the whining complainants and will rate a comment as unhelpful or challenge the writer as to why they wrote the review in the first place.

With the weight of expectation on her shoulders, J.K. Rowling’s first book after the Harry Potter series was always going to attract controversy. The book has polarised opinion as readers either seem to loathe or love it and reviews are either one to two stars or four to five stars with very few in between. But if you, like Rowling have written a book that divides readers, take heart. Surely, a controversial book is far more likely to attract attention in the long run as readers are often keen to make up their own minds. If it was me I’d rather have written something like that than a competently written but dull, also-ran. Wouldn’t you?

Advertisements

Pitching Your Story

On Saturday I, and 350 fellow authors were given the opportunity to pitch our stories to a team of literary agents from Curtis Brown UK. We each had seven minutes in a one-to-one session to convince our agent that our stories might be worth reading. One of those minutes was taken up by the agent reading the first page of our book to see if they liked the writing style, but for the rest of that time we had not just to sell our stories but to persuade our agent that only we could write that particular book.

I don’t know if there has been any research done on it yet but I suspect that seven minutes is a lot longer than some readers will spend browsing on Amazon when deciding whether or not to buy your book.  A pitch is a pitch – whether to an agent or to someone who just loves to read.  So use every opportunity you have to fine tune your written pitch on the Amazon product details.

Sell, don’t tell
A pitch is a sales pitch and you have to sell, not tell your story. Pitching is a method used to drum up interest from producers when selling film and television scripts and this was the first time I’d heard of it being used in the book industry. But then I figured that if we are selling or trying to entice readers to vote for our book on a writing website like Authonomy, what we are doing is pitching.

My first experience at pitching when at film school was such a disaster that I remember that I lost the agent’s interest in about the first 30 seconds. I had mistakenly mixed up a pitch with a monologue describing the plot and to make it worse I was performing in front of my peers. Luckily for me, I had a much better written pitch and the script was selected and I got to see my graduation film produced. I valiantly hoped that this particular agent would have a poor memory should I ever be in the position to pitch to him again.

Ten years later at a film festival in LA I got the chance to pitch a feature film project to a number of different film industry professionals. I recalled my previous experience and was determined to do better. This time we were pitching one-to-one and I pitched the story in total eight times. By the fourth time I was getting the hang of it. The pitch by then was much more of a Q & A – the executives were asking questions and I was answering them and it felt far more natural.

By the time it came to the end of the last pitch I didn’t want to stop. The particular executive advised me that it would be a hard sell to convince a Hollywood producer to set a film in exotic locations like New Zealand, Australia and Antarctica. Instead, he suggested, why not write it as a novel first? This turned out to be the best piece of advice I could have received so from now on, instead of fearing pitches I rather look forward to them.

That’s not to say that six years on from that amazing experience in LA that I am getting any better at pitching, but this time round I’d worked out that just as important as selling the story was finding the spark that provokes a question. If nothing came of the pitch I would be able to take another look at my Amazon ‘Product Description’ to see if I could perhaps inject something fresh into it to entice new readers.

In the first 30 seconds of my pitch, when I was busy describing the genre of the book – that it was a thriller with environmental themes and was the first of a trilogy the agent stopped me mid flow. In the UK, unlike LA, where they might think you are an idiot but are too polite to tell you, people will tell you straight, whether something is working or not. In my enthusiasm I was running before I could walk. Everything that I thought I knew about selling books turned out to be wrong. I needed to emphasise that the book was a thriller and fulfilled all the important aspects of a thriller – pace, excitement, action and so on. The theme was secondary. Secondly, as far as the agent was concerned, why was I talking about a second book when I hadn’t properly ‘sold’ him the first?

Then I threw in a bit about it “being a thriller set on four continents – including Antarctica.” And from the positive reaction I received from this I then knew that this was the bit that interested him, that even though there were 350 other pitches to hear that day, the chances were that Antarctica might not feature in too many of them.

I had one final hurdle to overcome which was to sell what the book was really about; which was not the theme (too general) and not the plot, (too specific). I chose to describe it as a story of a young, naïve woman, full of bravado and superficially self-assured, who at the start of the book thinks she knows it all. By the end she realises that she knows nothing at all and that the target she thought she was going for had simply moved.

In the last remaining minute we had left the agent had to read the first page (and I took a gamble on this and directed him to the first chapter rather than the prologue). And then in the space of 30 seconds he had to make a decision whether or not to invite me to submit the manuscript, which he graciously did.

Now I know we don’t get a chance to pitch to a literary agent every day of the week – and this was underscored by the sheer number of people at this event, one of whom had travelled from Texas and another from Cyprus. Those of us selling our work on Amazon or trying to compete for a place in the top five on the writers critique site Authonomy, for the chance to have our work read by a publisher, are competing with not merely hundreds but potentially hundreds of thousands of other books out there.

So from now on, I am going to canvass feedback from as many potential readers as I can, where they think there might be room for improvement in the pitch.  You can soon tell if you’ve engaged someone or not, just by their body language.  Don’t bore them but be as enthusiastic as you can without going over the top.  As someone remarked recently, we can get so caught up in our writing that it’s very hard to step back and look at something from the point of view of someone who knows nothing about our work or our book. And it is perhaps those readers who we need to reach out to the most.

In Praise of the Plotting – The Girl Who Played with Fire

The Girl Who Played With Fire, part two of the Millennium trilogy has, in common with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, a bewildering array of secondary characters.  In my review of that book I praised the strength of the characterisation of Lisbeth Salander.  But by the end of book two, the once vulnerable (and compelling) Salander has turned into a creature resembling a cyborg – with superhuman strengths and an IQ capable of solving Fermat’s Last Theorem.  As one commentator puts it on www.stieglarsson.com, “Larsson could have unwittingly done (Salander) a disservice by making her almost invincible, which makes readers unable to relate to her in the end.”

Stieg Larsson was a flawed genius.  Sometimes he goes off on a tangent and perhaps the biggest tangent of all in this book is Lisbeth’s idea of light reading – the invented non-fiction book, Dimensions in Mathematics.  Larsson got away with it as this is the middle book of the series and if, like me, all you want to find out about is what happens to Salander, you can easily skip it.  I can just imagine what would have happened to this manuscript if the maths bit had been  in the first book; ending up in the agent’s slush pile faster than you could say, “next.” But I admire Larsson for including it – the only way you learn as a novelist (or in any other profession for matter) is to try out what works and what doesn’t and it would be a dull old world if we played it safe all the time.

Instead of restricting the points of view to just Salander and Blomkvist, as he does in the first, Larsson can’t resist getting into the minds of a number of the villains – although in one particular case, it’s a waste of time as there doesn’t seem to be much going on in the head of one of them who comes across more like a cartoon villain than a real person.

The strength of the second book was the tight plotting and the way that everything planted at the beginning paid off in the end.  That is, no doubt to Larsson’s journalistic training and is a good lesson for anyone in the process of writing a book series.  He wrote a detailed synopsis of all of these books before he began to write so would have worked out what happened when and in which book, in the same way that a complicated plot of a TV series is storylined.

Despite the flaws, it was the twists and turns that had me sucked in and I read the last 200 pages almost in one sitting.  Yet again, Larsson delivers.

Is the KDP Select Free Promo Still Worth the Effort?

KDP Select Free Promo – August/September 2012

KDP Select, launched in December 2011, sold itself on the premise that if authors made their ebooks available for free for a limited time, this would lead to an increase in sales. In return, authors had to sign up to distribute their ebooks exclusively on Amazon.
For a number of authors the free downloads have resulted in a big bump in sales – although the anecdotal evidence is that month on month, those free promotions are yielding far fewer downloads than they once did. But Amazon has been working hard behind the scenes to keep its authors happy and in August this year the company announced not only the launch of Kindle in India but that India was going to be the latest territory to be included in the Select program. The ability to sell our books to one of the world’s largest English speaking countries is an opportunity not to be missed. At the same time as India came on board, Amazon launched its latest Kindle ereaders, one of which, the Kindle Paperwhite will be on many a Christmas wish list.

I had enrolled in Select in June 2012 and had sold a modest number of copies of Revolution Earth. By August sales began to slow down and by the middle of the month I decided I needed to kick start the marketing process. It was time to think seriously about using up some of those free promo days in Select.

Never before had I given away my writing for free, and to me, it seemed risky: I still had to overcome my reservations about giving away a book that took six years to write and which had cost £500 to produce. And if there was one thing I was fairly confident about, it was that I’d got the costing right at $3.15/£1.99. But then it hit me that it doesn’t matter how well a book is priced, no-one can buy it if they don’t know it’s there in the first place. And so, I figured, that the benefits of the free download did in fact outweigh the risks and went ahead.

I felt more confident after reading thriller author, David McGowan’s blog post on Goodreads about the promotional sites where you can advertise your freebie. I picked a date at the end of August and gave myself ten days to let everyone know. Many of the bigger sites recommend you give them four weeks notice in advance of your promo and I soon realised that I might have left it a bit late.

I chose to make use of just three free days, rather than the full five you are allocated and I ran the promo over a weekend, starting at midnight on Friday 31st August. Midnight PST (Pacific Standard Time) is 8.00am BST (British Summer Time) and as I now live in the UK the timing was ideal. Amazon do warn you that the promo may not start exactly on time, so be careful about scheduling any automatic tweets too early. I had to reschedule a few of those as it was 9.15am by the time the promo finally kicked in.
And here is what happened:

In total there were 3197 downloads – the majority of which came from the US but with a small but significant number from Amazon in Germany. I had an inkling that a book with an environmental theme might appeal to this market, thanks to the feedback from a German/Kiwi on Authonomy. And I knew that New Zealand is a country that attracts travellers and settlers from Germany and The Netherlands.

So how has the freebie impacted on sales? Since the promo there have been 32 purchases and 4 borrows so far. This might not sound like much and I could, no doubt have received more if I had pitched the book as a mainstream thriller – but I didn’t want reviewers coming back to me later on complaining that they thought they were getting a Lee Child action thriller when the book has a non-linear structure in the first few chapters, (ereaders seem to suit a more straightforward narrative), it’s set in New Zealand and Australia and one of the main characters is a chippy young woman with a social conscience.

I asked for feedback from fellow indie writers on Authonomy on how their free promotion went and thriller writer, Terry, who was kind enough to share his stats received double the number of downloads that I did – at 7,500. He had 5000 in the US and 2500 in the UK although only 9 in Germany. Since the promotion, he too has had a spike in sales with 50 in the US and 70 in the UK – as well as 5 borrows.

Terry ran his promotion for only two days and if I was doing this again I would keep it to two days. The first day of my three day promotion I received around a quarter of all the downloads; it went very quiet on the Saturday but on the final day we both found that things began to go crazy – particularly in the US as the deadline approached.

I am pleased with my modest results. I now have 25 pages on Amazon.com and 20 pages on Amazon.co.uk of – ‘people who bought this also bought this’ – which is very useful to me to find out what other books in my genre have been purchased and what the best price point is ($3.15 and under). I haven’t regretted the promo at all – I’ve learned more about book marketing in the past three months as an indie than I ever did having a publisher that marketed my book for the first six months and then sold the business to another publisher who did no marketing whatsoever…..

I received a number of re-tweets and mentions in some of the smaller sites. I didn’t get picked up by Pixel of Ink, which, if you are lucky enough to get promoted by them, can have a major impact on the number of downloads you receive. Another Authonomy colleague received 11,000 downloads from both the US and UK after their support and this bumped her sales from a handful to around 30. I did get featured and re-tweeted by the friendly folk at: Free e Books Daily, Book Your Next Read, Squid Inc,The Digital Ink Spot and Free Book Dude.

One thing I would say is that how many downloads and sales you will get does depend on what sort of genre you write in and not everyone agrees that giving away free books is a good thing. If I was doing this again I would start at least three weeks in advance of the promo and definitely give Pixel of Ink another shot. But whether you choose to go down the Kindle Select path or not – good luck to you all!

Nobody can hear you scream out on Pine Gallows Road

Interview with Bryan Gilmer former investigative reporter turned crime fiction author.

“Pine Gallows Road is a lonely place – one man driving out there amidst the “big old tobacco fields, nobody in the sagging farmhouses anymore, no other traffic. No one to see or hear… ”  

There’s a brooding menace to that opening description from former investigative reporter Bryan Gilmer in his thriller, Record of Wrongs, the follow up to his Kindle best-selling novel, Felonious Jazz.  What impressed me about the opening is the economic use of language, description and characterisation.  You make writing look easy. 

What a compliment; thank you. I wish I could say that I typed the scene onto the screen exactly as you see it in the finished book. The truth is, I edited that scene more than 300 times, so it didn’t come very easily for me!

Tell us a little about how you came to write Record of Wrongs?

I did an investigative reporting project for The St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times where I discovered that two women had persuaded a reputable funeral home to conduct a funeral with an empty casket for a man who never existed. There were a priest, a gaggle of mourners, and an obituary in the newspaper. One of the two women believed she had married that man over the telephone, and the other was scamming her. I won’t say too much about how those real events inspired the plot of Record of Wrongs, but there is an empty grave on the cover. I’ve also long thought how undetectable revenge would be if you just waited a long time before exacting it. But who could really stay angry that long, I wondered? When I answered that question, I had my villain Jamey Epps.

You will have seen the very worst of mankind in your former day job.

I don’t know. I found criminals to be stupid, short-sighted, consumed with passion, or entirely irrational far more often than I found them to be evil. You could almost always suss out their flawed internal logic, which I often found unsettling. So I try to write crime fiction that reflects the real crime I discovered as a reporter. Crimes are not coldly random and between strangers. Crimes are personal, passionate, and intimate, and often happen when people allow their animal natures to override their human reason. Each of us has a lot more in common with real criminals than with the exotic serial killers you see in many crime stories, which is terrifying.

How difficult was it for you to go from reporting the facts to becoming a storyteller? What is it about being a journalist that has helped or got in the way of your fiction writing career? 

It feels pretty similar to me, but maybe that’s just because I approach writing novels as a journalist. As a novelist and as a reporter, you’re intently observing the world around you for what’s interesting or important. But as a novelist, you have freedom to explore those ideas further. And you get to invent connective tissue and frame things the way you want. You’re looking to get at truth in both types of writing, and you’re also showing society to itself in a sceptical way in both cases. When I wrote my first novel, Kill the Story, I was amazed how much harder it is to tell a book-length story, even when you can make stuff up.

As a former investigative journalist on a Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, you and your colleagues reported on and helped shut down dangerous care homes, and in the 2000 presidential election, your team told the world that uncounted overseas ballots would scupper Al Gore’s chances of defeating George W. Bush.  How did this experience help (or hinder) marketing your work to agents and publishers?

It probably got me read at a couple places where I would otherwise have been rejected without consideration.

The New American South, as you term it, is as much a character in your thrillers as your main character, J Davis Swaine.  Would you like to comment about that?

I’m tired of all these hillbilly, “yes ma’am,” backward portrayals of the South that New York publishers and Hollywood are so in love with. That’s an incomplete picture of the real South I know, which can be as corporate and blandly suburban as anyplace in the U.S. What’s fascinating about the real New South is where that backward history, tradition, and nativism crash into Research Triangle Park, 10 miles from my house here in North Carolina, where a biotech company is growing genetically engineered lungs in pigs for transplant into human beings. I wanted to write the complex South I experience.

This will be the second outing for J Davis Swaine.  What makes him so compelling for you as a writer?

Jeff’s a professional investigator, but on the staff of a law firm that handles civil cases. When he works on crime cases, as he has in each of his two books, he’s outside his expertise. It can be fun to read heroes who never flinch or hesitate, but that’s not Jeff. Jeff is shocked by the things he finds. It’s difficult for him to shoot someone or to see a dead body. But he pushes himself to do it, and then wrestles with the aftermath. This, too, was how I knew real police investigators to be through several years of covering them.

Felonious Jazz was about a failed session musician, obsessed about being noticed, who decides that he’ll ‘put down a throbbing beat of crime and destruction.’  Why is music important in your work?

I chose a washed-up musician as the villain because I see how many people identify with their art (I’ll bet you know a great guitarist or talented painter who sells insurance) yet are unable to make it their vocation. The book is mainly my indictment of suburban sprawl, from the point of view of a warped but artistic musician’s mind. I also wanted to see if I could convey music with prose.

When can we expect the next Bryan Gilmer thriller and briefly what it is about.

I’m writing what agents refer to as a “bigger book,” a thriller with more global sweep and much higher (geopolitical) stakes, not a Jeff book. I’m shooting for next spring.

 

Felonious Jazz and Record of Wrongs  is available through:

FJ Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00295R17Y/

FJ paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Felonious-Jazz-novel-Bryan-Gilmer/dp/1442173084/

ROW paperback: http://www.amazon.com/Record-Wrongs-Bryan-Gilmer/dp/0983424829/

ROW Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Record-Wrongs-Swaine-thrillers-ebook/dp/B008BSBDTA/

*http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/