Ditching the nudity, but not the sex

by Sandra Hutchison

I’ve been contemplating bringing THE AWFUL MESS: A LOVE STORY (2013) in from wide distribution to Kindle Select, where various promotional opportunities can give it a boost. But the cover was a problem. Because it had a naked lady on it, sort of.

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire -- showing a (dressed) teenage girl on a bed, looking rather pensive.

Still widely distributed, without any recent promotions, I get the occasional foreign sale through Kobo and almost nothing in domestic or foreign sales from any of the other retailers except Amazon. About one in five Kindle purchasers of THE RIBS AND THIGH BONES OF DESIRE (2014), which is in Kindle Select, also buy THE AWFUL MESS, which is nice, but will never get it ranking high on its own.

As indie authors with any experience know, if I go back into Kindle Select, even for a while, I can more easily try to goose those sales a bit. (This will indeed hurt my ranking at the other sites, but as noted above, I don’t have really have one.)

However, there was little point in going back into Kindle Select if I couldn’t at least promote it on Amazon from time to time. And so I had an exchange with Amazon about their AMS marketing standards and whether this cover would meet them. (Thankfully, they were willing to consider the question.)

No, I was eventually told, there could be no nudity. Not even tasteful, blurred nudity.

Evolution of a coverSo I tried going back to a more professional version of my first (homemade) cover. But sales fell during that test, so I returned to the naked lady.

Next, I tried drawing a blurry underwater bathing suit on that naked lady. That was pretty funny.

Then I decided to try to cover up her blurry naked behind with a nice blurb. 500x700theawfulmess_ebookyellowquoteWould that be okay, I asked Amazon? Nope, that was still no go. Even if we couldn’t see it, nudity was being suggested. (The helpful representative told me that standards have toughened a bit recently — even a male nipple disqualifies AMS marketing nowadays.)

I suppose this sensibility may also explain why I’ve had a harder time getting BookBub and other slots lately. Who knows why, though? My books are getting dated now, definitely backlist, so that’s a possibility. I won’t shut up about the current election, or race issues, or whatever, so maybe they think I’m too outspoken. Or maybe they blacklisted me for my post “The Five Stages of Grief of Being Rejected by BookBub,” even though it was free advertising.

Making your opinions public as an author or any small business person is always a risk. But so is publishing a book, right? I’d rather err on the side of telling the truth as I see it than tip-toeing around.

Of course, I’m not depending on my writing to pay the bills, so I get to make that choice from a position of privilege. Many others cannot.

Besides the really beautiful design by Damon Za, what I like about that semi-nude cover is that it signals the book might include some racy stuff. Which it does, in two short sex scenes. Some readers have an issue with that, which is understandable, although I could wish they would read the whole product description before they start reading.

Meanwhile, of course, other readers are disappointed when I don’t have any explicit sex, as I’ve noticed with my beta readers on BARDWELL’S FOLLY. It has some bedroom scenes between heroine and hero, just as RIBS does, but getting graphic about slot A and tab B in the two of them didn’t, to my mind, serve any non-prurient artistic purpose.

Occasionally I’ve thought of excising the explicit aspects from THE AWFUL MESS, too. But I feel those explicit scenes do add something to the characterization in that novel. And anyway, what’s done is done (except, cough, with covers and typos).

I do still, sometimes, toy with bringing back the clean PG-13 version, much as MM Jaye did with a recent romance, but since my clean version sold a total of two copies back in the day I doubt it would be worth the trouble.

tugboat-cover-for-the-awful-messIt’s not as if a novel addressing misogyny and gay rights is suddenly going to find great favor in Amazon’s Christian romance market. The only reason I still toy with the idea is that I’d just like to try marketing it as a progressive Christian novel. Many Evangelicals are more progressive or at least less prudish than you might expect, and there are plenty of Christian readers like me who are quite liberal.

Anyway, I just recently purchased from Tugboat Design a pre-designed cover of a fully dressed woman that I hope gives at least a suggestion of sex while also, perhaps, hinting at the theme. I really like it, even though I personally envision Mary having slightly darker brown hair and even though I’m still not entirely sure what is going on in this photo. (What do you think?)

As long as I was investing in real design work, I had Deborah at Tugboat clean up my design for BARDWELL’S FOLLY, and get the paperback cover done, an effort I was procrastinating figuring out for myself. Hopefully this means the ARC will be ready next week to start going out for review. (If you’re a blogger or reviewer, feel free to request one).

bardwells-folly-tugboat-designIf you’re a writer who includes bedroom scenes that are more or less explicit, how are you handling that issue in your cover design and marketing?

Or, if you’re a reader who has strong opinions one way or the other, I’d love to hear from you. Do you think explicit scenes usually add to your experience of a novel, or get in the way? And even if you don’t mind them yourself, does it keep you from recommending a book?

 

 

 

How author Florence Osmund “never lost money” on a promotion

Sandra Hutchison interviews indie author Florence Osmund.

Osmund Photo 250X250Florence, you mentioned in a recent helpful blog post for new novelists that you had “never lost money on a promotion.” My ears pricked up at that, since I’m sure I’ve had some losing promotions (or, at least, promotions without an immediate, verifiable profit). What do you think is the secret of your success there?

The way I look at it, there are six basic rules when it comes to launching a successful book promotion.

  1. Make sure you have a good product. An article that I wrote for The Book Designer last September talks about what book reviewers expect in a well-written book: professional editing; a beginning, middle, and ending that carry the story forward; a consistent POV; an engaging writing style; a good balance of action, dialogue, and description; an appealing plot; accuracy of stated facts; and a cover that grabs attention. These are all elements of a good product.
  2. I have found that readers look at the Amazon author page even when considering downloading a “freebie.” Get the most out of it by including testimonials and interesting facts about yourself. For your Amazon book pages, create descriptions that are intriguing and thought-provoking.
  3. Use book promotion websites that have been vetted and are relevant for your book. The shotgun approach seldom works.
  4. Go all the way. Whether you choose one big promoter such as BookBub.com or one or more less expensive ones, don’t rely on just them to get the word out. Post your promotion on every free site you can find. Here is a link from my website that lists sites that I’ve used in the past: http://florenceosmund.com/linkedwheretopromotefreeand.html. Promote it on social media as well. On Twitter, to reach as many relevant people as possible, I use these hashtags (no more than three in any one Tweet) when I promote a book: #amreading #amazonkindle #bookaddict #booklovers #bookworm #ebooks #eReaders #fiction #freebie #freebooks #freereads #kindlebargain #kindlebooks #kindledeals #novels #readers #readfree #whattoread and #weekendreader.
  5. Share, share, share. Once your free or discounted book has been posted on a promotion site, share it on your own social media pages. Ask your friends to share it on their pages. It’s all about exposure.
  6. Take advantage of your e-mail subscriber list. If you don’t have one, you may want to consider developing one. Announce the promotion to your subscribers and ask them to spread the word too. I have found that people who are fans of your books are happy to help promote them.

It doesn’t matter whether I pay $200+ for a BookBub promotion, $25 for an www.fkbt.com one, or anything in between, I have never lost money. And the more I pay for the promotion, the better the return on investment. The first time I ran a BookBub promotion and paid $220 for it, I feared that I wouldn’t even break even. But after I gave away 76,769 freebies and then sold (or readers borrowed through Kindle’s lending library) 4,648 copies during the thirty days following the promotion, my fears were quickly allayed. You have to spend money to make money.

You mention at your web site that you had a long career in business before taking up writing. How has that impacted your practices as an author? And what would you say was the single most useful aspect of your previous career when you came to writing?

In my previous career in administrative management, I constantly sought out challenges—ways to improve my skills, someone else’s skills, departmental performance, or my own job performance. Things haven’t changed much as an author—challenges still motivate me. The most useful aspect of my previous career is the importance of communicating the written word in the right manner to the right audience. As an author, you may have an interesting story to tell, but if you don’t communicate it well (that’s why we have editors) to the right people (your target audience), you will have missed opportunities.

I write women’s fiction and your lovely covers strike me as fitting that genre, although your subject matter doesn’t, exactly—at least two of your novels are focused on a man’s emotional journey rather than a woman’s.  How do you think about genre and your covers, and your work? Has there been any evolution in that?

I’ll get this out of the way first—the covers for my first two books were going to be renditions of my family home no matter what. I had just lost both parents, and I wanted to dedicate my first two books to them with their home on the covers. Not the best marketing decision, but something I had to do.

I find that genre descriptions are fairly subjective and somewhat overlapping. That being said, I strive to write literary fiction, which I define as having characters with depth and complexity and thought-provoking plots that challenge readers as to their own values and beliefs. But at times others have pegged my books as women’s fiction, contemporary fiction, historical fiction, and even cozy mysteries. My goal is to create covers that reflect the literary fiction genre while portraying the essence of the story and providing enough intrigue to cause the reader to turn the book over and read the back cover.

The conversation that led to this blog post was held in an Awesome Indies group. How much has networking through various writer’s groups impacted your career? Do you have advice for other writers in this regard? (I also notice that you don’t use your various seals of approval from these curated groups on your covers. Is there a reason for that?)

When I was new in the industry, I joined every social media writer’s group I could find, and while it was time-consuming keeping up on all of them, what I learned from my fellow authors was invaluable. Now I’ve narrowed the list down to a few where I believe I can contribute the most. The writer’s groups that have had (and still have) the most impact on my career are the closed social media groups where members share their experiences and knowledge with a known faction of authors, Awesome Indie Authors Facebook group being one of them. Members of closed groups tend to share details of their successes and failures more freely than in open groups, making each closed group a great learning venue.

With regard to using group seals of approval on my covers, I’m embarrassed to say that it never occurred to me. I typically note the award/honor in the book blurbs I post, and I have affixed physical stickers to paperbacks when they’re made available, but I could also incorporate them on the covers of the Kindle versions of my books. I’ll have to look into that.

I notice your web site includes some rather entertaining comments from agents who passed on your work before you self-published. Is it safe to say you’re completely satisfied with your life as an indie author-publisher? Would anything ever entice you to switch?

The only scenario that would entice me to switch from self-publishing to traditional publishing is if I could make more money and spend less time with promotion. I don’t see that happening any time soon.

Tell us something about you that might surprise an audience of readers and writers.

I am often asked how I conceived the story line ideas for my books. I knew that I wanted to write novels when I retired, so for years prior to that, I accumulated an assortment of ideas that I thought could be useful in my writing later on. Whenever I heard an interesting conversation that could potentially lead to a plot or sub-plot, or observed an incident that would make an effective scene, or saw a movie that inspired me in some way, I jotted down the thought on any scrap of paper that was handy. Then, when I was ready to start writing my first book, I emptied the large shoe box that contained these hundreds of scraps of paper, categorized them, and put them in separate piles. When I was finished, three distinct story lines had emerged that later culminated in four books.

'You have to spend money to make money.' Florence Osmund on indie book promotions. #interview Click To Tweet

Learn more about Florence Osmund, and how you could win a free e-book!

After a long career in the corporate world, Florence Osmund retired to write novels. “I strive to write literary fiction and endeavor to craft stories that challenge readers to survey their own beliefs and values,” Osmund states. Florence’s website offers substantial advice for new and aspiring writers, including how to begin the project, writing techniques, building an author platform, book promotion and more. Florence lives in the heart of Chicago on the shore of Lake Michigan, where she continues to write novels. You can learn more about her at her Facebook page, on Twitter, or at LinkedIn.

WIN a copy of RED CLOVER!

Florence Osmund will be giving away an e-book of RED CLOVER to someone who responds to this post (and she might just give away some of her other titles, too). If you’re having trouble finding the comments, make sure you’ve scanned down the page all the way, or click the little conversation bubble up next to the headline.

Red Clover cover Amazon 200 X 300He had felt like an outsider in his own family his entire life. Now twenty-six—confused and emotionally bankrupt after suffering a childhood fraught with criticism and isolation—Lee leaves his dysfunctional upper-class family to find his true self.

Determined to cultivate a meaningful life, Lee discovers a world poles apart from the one he had left behind and an assortment of unforgettable characters to go with it. But just when things start falling into place, he is made aware of an alarming family secret that causes him to question who he is and where he’s going.

What do you do when the people who had been entrusted with nurturing you during your formative years are the same ones responsible for turning your world upside down?

Remember: Leave a comment below and you might win a free copy!

Authors, bookstores, and “Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day”

TakeYourChildToABookstoreBannerSandra Hutchison interviews Jenny Milchman, award-winning author of three traditionally-published thrillers and the originator of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which falls on the first Saturday in December.

Jenny, how did this special day come about?

Author Jenny Milchman

Author Jenny Milchman

Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day began back in 2010 when I had two preschool-aged children I was taking to story hour at our local bookstore almost every week. I got both a latte and the chance to watch their faces as someone besides Mommy brought a story to life. What fun. In our increasingly frenetic and — ironically — disconnected world, I wondered: Did all children know the joy of time spent in a bookstore?

Inspired by days such as Take Your Daughter to Work, I floated the idea for a special holiday linking kids and bookstores. Bloggers and listserv members took to the web and, before I knew it, 80 bookstores were celebrating just two weeks later, on the first Saturday of December.

It coincides with holiday gift giving, encouraging booksellers to host story hours, author events, craft and cooking demonstrations, and even magic shows designed to give kids a special activity while their parents shop and browse. Local businesses gain increased support and families have a wonderful time.

bookstore with kidsThat first summer, my husband and I packed our kids into the car and drove cross country, visiting bookstores with Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day bookmarks and posters. We saw the United States one bookstore at a time. The trip offered us a window into different regions of this great land, while driving home the reality of how we are connected. Books connect us in a deeper way than texts or followers do. A smile is not the same as an emoticon, and the virtual world is not a replacement for the face-to-face. We met real friends, different from Facebook friends, in bookstores on the road.

By the following year, Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day had grown to nearly 300 bookstores. And today TYCBD is celebrated by over 800 bookstores, including one national chain, on five continents. The celebrations are more lavish than ever — as unique as each bookstore in which they are held. Open Book in Wadena, MN, for example, is inviting a story-loving Great Pyrenees in so that the children can read to her!

What can readers do to help get the word out?

Easy! [Cue infomercial host voice] Just read this simple bulleted list for ideas and possibilities:

  • Visit your local bookstore and ask if they’re celebrating Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day on December 5th
  • Tell friends and families about the Day and identify bookstores they can visit using our interactive map: http://www.takeyourchildtoabookstore.org/bookstores
  • On December 5th, take your own children, a child in your life, or even the child inside yourself to a bookstore. I promise you will find a gift that keeps on giving long after the last page is turned.
  • Visit our website for more ways to spread the word: http://www.takeyourchildtoabookstore.org/spreadtheword

You’ve been networking with bookstores since before you even had a signed contract. Would you say that helped you on your way to traditional publication?

Sadly, I don’t think bookstores have that power, at least not at this point — but let’s keep celebrating Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day! However, my love of bookstores certainly influenced my career once it was finally launched. In fact, during the thirteen years it took me to get published, the whole world changed, and self-publishing became a viable option. The reason I held out for the traditional path had a lot to do with how integral bookstores (and libraries) were to my dream of becoming an author.

But supporting bookstores is a smart thing to do for any writer. The bookstore you frequent may one day stock your books. You may meet an author who helps you on your way. Your local bookstore might host a writers group that offers you feedback, a book club that features your book, or an event to celebrate your launch. The list goes on and on.

You’ve been on “The World’s Longest Book Tour” for three successful novels now. What are your top tips for working effectively with local bookstores on author events?

Yay! Another bulleted list. OK, here goes:

  • Understand the economics. Unless you routinely hit the NYT bestseller list, your event is likely to cost the bookstore more than it brings in. But that doesn’t mean they won’t want to hold one — bookstores are all about supporting their community.
  • Offer to do a “value-add” event, one that will be more of a draw than a straight reading or signing. Hold a writers’ workshop for emerging authors; teach a class related to something in your book — anything from genealogy to a craft; serve drinks and treats to make it a party; pair with another author to bring in more of a crowd.
  • Events should be a reciprocal effort: invite your own friends and contacts, seek out local media coverage, hang posters around town.
  • Don’t blast social media — your Instagram buddies in Nebraska may not hop on a plane to reach your local bookstore in Tennessee. Instead, identify friends and followers who live near you and send personal messages or invitations.
  • Consider hiring an independent publicity firm. I worked with JKS Communications and they had me in front of crowds of 300 when I was a brand new author.

You’ve been remarkably open to working with indie (self-published) colleagues with your “Made It Moments” blog and author appearances. Bookstore folks aren’t always huge fans of the indie phenomenon, for understandable reasons. How do you handle that tension?

Well, see above — many of the strategies I listed will help make you appealing to a bookseller whether you’re a traditionally published or indie author. But I think the key is to understand the situation from both sides. I’ve heard many an indie author say, “I’m giving them [the bookseller] something to sell! Why aren’t they appreciative?” Or words to that effect. And the truth is that until or unless you’re a bestselling author, your book likely costs the bookstore more than it will make off of it. Stocking charges, ordering — a bookseller at Bookstore Santa Cruz in California told me it takes 1/3 of a full-time work week for her employee simply to cut checks for indie authors. With traditionally published authors, the bookseller builds one order for a few key accounts and calls it a day. When pairing with indie authors for events, I am aware of these realities on the bookseller’s part, and I try to work with the author to help balance them.

But the other thing is that I deeply respect the indie publishing movement. There are authors who might never have had their work read now walking this very tough road — pioneering it in many cases. Even if there is some inevitable tension, it’s worth it to get to be a part of these writers’ lives, and to try to blend the two different paths. At the end of the day, we all have a great deal in common. We want to share books that we love with others who might love them too.

Do you have any recommendations for indies in particular in their relationship with bookstores?

Lots — see above — but I can boil it down to one main thing: understand the realities, economic and otherwise, of the world you are trying to enter. (Sandra chimes in here to state the obvious: Buy some books there!)

How about for people who are still hoping for that traditional contract?

Hang in there. This road tends to take longer — sometimes much, much longer — but that disadvantage is offset by a relative ease of entry once you do break through. Collect reads of your work, educate yourself about the industry, make contacts through targeted writing conferences, follow authors, agents, and editors online, and know this one indisputable fact: The book is never as ready as we think it is, and it can always, always be made better.

Tell us about a special time you had in a bookstore as a child.

I remember finding “Kramer Vs. Kramer” in my local bookstore — one of four my hometown had at that time. (It now has two). I wanted to read that novel more than anything. My parents weren’t getting divorced — in fact, they’ve now been married 53 years — but this was the early 80’s, and many families were going through the social upheaval of women returning to the work force and demanding more marital balance. I really related to Daddy Kramer’s struggles, and how they impacted his son.

Anyway, we couldn’t afford new books for the most part when I was a child, so I trudged to that bookstore day after day, until I had finally gulped down the whole, satisfying story. The bookseller never chastised me for reading for free. On the final day, when I was just about to finish, one of my parents showed up. I can’t even remember whether it was my mom or my dad. Whoever it was bought the book, which I read about twenty times after that.


Jenny Milchman is a New York State suspense writer who lived for eleven months on the road with her family on what Shelf Awareness called “the world’s longest book tour.”
After a thirteen year journey/trek/slog toward publication, Jenny’s debut novel, “Cover of Snow,” was acquired by Random House. It won the Mary Higgins Clark award, was praised by the New York Times, and chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick. “Ruin Falls” was published the next year, and chosen as an Indie Next Pick and a Top Ten of 2014 by Suspense Magazine.

As Night Falls coverJenny’s third novel, “As Night Falls,” was published in June, 2015.

The most dangerous secret is the one you keep from yourself. When two escaped convicts show up at Sandy Tremont’s mountaintop home at the start of the season’s first snow storm, they unleash the most harrowing night of Sandy’s life—and a past she has kept from her family.

Learn more at jennymilchman.com.

How long can one page take to load?

Pretty long, apparently, especially while trying to draft and edit this post. For the last couple of weeks I’ve noticed a significant drop-off in traffic at my site, even during a promotion and a mailing to my audience, which is seems peculiar.

Have I suddenly become that much less interesting? Or is this a clue–?

Bluehostmisery11-12That’s an awful lot of downtime in a very short time.

Wrangling with Bluehost on Twitter resulted in an apparent fix — far fewer downtime reports, though still some — except that traffic hasn’t really recovered. Perhaps it is taking thirty seconds or more for my pages to load. Or it just fails completely, as it has done repeatedly tonight.

So, rather than posting something insightful here when I’m pretty much brain-fried (from running a promotion — “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” is free on Kindle through midnight tonight, Monday — AND grading research papers) I have a question for you:

Can you see this post at all? Because I can’t even get a site that tests page load time to load it.

Let me know, if you can. And in the meantime, I’ll be looking for a solution.

Adventures in Amazon keyword padding

by Sandra Hutchison

Note: The specific keyword examples mentioned in this post are out of date now, because Amazon has changed the way keywords are input (possibly to cope with just this kind of issue). However, you might find it amusing anyway — and I suspect I could have gotten into just the same trouble using the current form. (This is also a reminder, fellow Kindle authors, to check your backlist titles to see what’s going on with the keywords.)

Authors sometimes work very hard to get keywords into their product descriptions on Amazon, but there’s actually a better way to come up in Amazon searches. It’s a technique called keyword padding that I first learned about in this helpful post by David Penny.

But you’d better be careful how you do it. I learned this the hard way.

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixelsMy first novel, “The Awful Mess,” was on sale for a time in August, with a BookBub promo in the UK, Canada, and India and some other support for US and international sales as well. When I found out about keyword padding I thought, “Hey, great! Maybe I can leverage my current rank to capture a few more readers!”

A more cautious soul might suggest that I should enjoy a strong rank for a while without fiddling around.

“The Awful Mess” is in two main fiction categories: contemporary women, and literary. My seven keywords at the time of the promotion were romance, American, general humor, dating and relationships, love story, suspense, divorce.

Divorce isn’t really a strong theme in the novel (unless you count the increasingly  problematic ex-husband), so I replaced that one with a padded keyword:

“progressive Christian novel about an Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town in New England during the time when openly gay Bishop Robinson was being elected.”

You can have up to 400 characters. What you can’t have is a comma. I could just list terms one after the other, but I’m a writer and English teacher and that felt like cheating, so I wrote it up as a (ridiculously long) keyword phrase instead.

I wanted to get “The Scarlet Letter” in without having to add it to my product description, where it would probably scare away everyone who remembered hating that book in high school. (Although a reviewer or two has noticed and mentioned the correction, that never makes it show up in Amazon searches on “The Scarlet Letter.”) EDIT: Turns out adding another title to your keyword is a violation of KDP policy. I’m not sure why this made it through. It may be because nobody would attach their book to “The Scarlet Letter” and expect to generate significant sales because of it. It’s not like putting in “Harry Potter.”

I wanted “Episcopal or Anglican” because the terms vary in the rest of the world, and the book should interest some folks who like to read fiction about Episcopal/Anglican priests (if they can stand the sex and irreverence — I’m no Jan Karon).

When I first published this book I actually used “Episcopal” as a keyword, but that’s a tiny, tiny market and thus not worth spending a whole keyword on — but here it’s just one of a whole bunch of little niches I can mention. Note also that although I have always had the words “Episcopal priest” in my product description, the book usually would not come up in searches on Amazon for that.

“Bishop Robinson” in that padded keyword phrase is a reference to the heated debate that was going on at the time and place this novel is set. Gene Robinson was the first openly-gay Episcopal priest elected a bishop in the United States — in New Hampshire. Gay rights are a sub-theme of the novel (the hero’s sister is a lesbian in a committed relationship, though her father the Evangelical doesn’t know it … yet).

And the result of this change? About 24 hours later in the UK my novel was immediately ranking in the top 100 for Christian women’s fiction and Gay & Lesbian fiction.

#9 in Christian in the UK

Unfortunately, this book is not what readers would expect in either category. AND these two markets are pretty much mutually exclusive.

In theory, this gave me added visibility. But it didn’t strike me as worth confusing and quite possibly offending my readers. My companions in the Christian women’s fiction category were largely Evangelical, and their readers might have little sympathy for my characters — sinners that they are — or, worse, the suggestion of liberal theology. Not to mention, my main character is an agnostic for 99.9 percent of the book and it’s debatable what exactly she is for the other 0.1 percent.

Meanwhile, someone looking for gay and lesbian fiction to likely to be pretty unexcited by what is predominantly (and pretty clearly described as) a heterosexual love story, though presumably the inclusive theology wouldn’t offend this audience.

Anyway, though it may be coincidental with a natural slide a month after my price promotion, sales that had been percolating along in the UK immediately slid a bit. But on the plus side, my book DID come up when I did a search on “The Scarlet Letter” and on “Episcopal priest fiction.”

I wanted to keep those, so I ran and changed my padded keyword again. I took out “progressive Christian” and “openly gay” and used something like this instead:

Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in small town New Hampshire in New England at time of election of Gene Robinson.

I decided to stick New Hampshire in there, too, since New England was working, and I used “Gene Robinson” because a search on that at Amazon had turned up a bunch of books that targeted Episcopalians … so why not? Of course, if I had thought the least bit carefully, I might have predicted that this change would result (about twenty-four hours later) in this:

geneticengineeringwtf

Yes, I was now writing science fiction about genetic engineering, thanks to Bishop “Gene” Robinson. And while Bishop Robinson may indeed have caused a revolution, it was not in human genetics.

Oops. Let’s try that again. Today, my seventh keyword reads:

“Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary version of “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town New Hampshire or small town New England at time of Bishop Robinson”

That could still use work (it’s clear I was in a bit of a panic when I wrote it). However, the categories are back to what they should be, and the book now come up in searches for “The Scarlet Letter” and “contemporary version of the Scarlet Letter.” It also comes up in searches for “Episcopal priest” and “Anglican priest.” (Faster if you add “adultery.”) It comes up in searches for “small town New England.” (Both novels do, actually.)

So, dear colleagues, I invite you to go for it. But please… be careful out there!

Update October 12: My sales at Amazon slid so abruptly after this post that I became paranoid they didn’t like me writing about keyword stuffing. But it’s probably just coincidental with me pulling back from some day-to-day marketing. So this technique is not a huge instant boon for sales, clearly, but it can help readers who are searching for something very specific find you. I would also think that if you write nonfiction, it might be absolutely invaluable.

Scurrying back into the warm(er) embrace of Kindle Select

That’s what I’m now doing with the second novel. At least for a while, even though my inclination is against exclusivity. What changed my mind about it, at least for this book, was a recent 99-cent promotion of the earlier novel “The Awful Mess” to all the retailers. Along the way I discovered some things that surprised me.

Which retailers give you a better “sales tail”?

For the Canadian market, Kobo supported by BookBub proved a touch stronger than Amazon — but Amazon appeared to reward a strong performance better. I sold 77 copies of “Mess” at Amazon Canada during its recent 99-cent promotion (supported by BookBub to Canada). This landed me — very temporarily, of course — at #1 in literary fiction.

ingoodcompanyincanadaFor days after the promotion, I was still floating near the top. Almost a month later, it has sunk to #28,000 and my discoverability there has pretty much evaporated. But I’m still selling the occasional copy.

On Kobo during that same promotion, I sold a little more — 80+ copies in Canada. But while those sales were being racked up, my sales rank just kept worsening. Since then I’ve sold more — yes, there’s been a bit of a tail, probably from also-bought appearances. I have gotten a couple more ratings to add to what had been the solitary review there. But to this day, my sales rank has only worsened.

It’s as if sales simply don’t matter to Kobo, or maybe sales outside the U.S. don’t matter (one single sale, about a month ago, did suddenly halve my sales rank). I’ve noticed this for months now. And although I did have some promotional support across retailers for a U.S. sale (just not from BookBub), not a single copy sold in the U.S.

The truth is that without actually putting in my name or a title, I can’t browse to my book in the Kobo store no matter how hard I try — during the promotion, after the promotion, privately in the Canadian store, or here in the US store. Furthermore, browsing women’s fiction means plowing through endless public domain versions of the same Jane Austen novels. Who’s going to bother? (This is on my PC. I suppose it may be completely different on a mobile device.)

It didn’t used to be that way. There was a time when selling a few books on Kobo could push me into the Top 100 at least temporarily. People would see the book. It’s almost as if Kobo has redesigned their algorithms to punish promotions, or redesigned their store front to discourage browsing for anything but top titles.

I asked them via Twitter about this. No response. I tried to ask them on my dashboard, even though the character limit there makes it difficult. Also no response. No doubt I could try sending an email, but … meh. Maybe they’ll read this and explain what is going on.

With BookBub support I also sold more than 200 copies in the Amazon UK store, more than double my Canadian sales, although my rank didn’t get quite as impressive. (I sold four copies in the UK via Kobo.) And there have been some continuing sales, as well as a couple of reviews.

003Back home in the U.S. at Amazon.com, where I had some promotional support from eReader News Today, Fussy Librarian and Read Cheaply, I sold just over 160 units during the promotion. Not too exciting at a 35% royalty. However, today, three weeks later, I can do a search for humorous literary women’s fiction with four stars or more (granted, this is fairly specific), and “The Awful Mess” shows up on page two. I’ve also sold copies of my second novel there in the days since, presumably to people who wanted to move on, though it’s impossible to know for sure.

Now, none of this changes my mind about where “The Awful Mess” is — widely available. That’s backlist for me, now, and it does sell here and there without much work on my part.

But that second novel, “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” has sold exactly one copy at Kobo since I made it available there, despite at least one (non-BookBub) multi-retailer promotion. Last time I tried to follow my link to Ribs at “Nook” it wasn’t even available, for reasons I don’t know (my price promotion at Nook with BookBub didn’t take because they didn’t change the price fast enough.) No doubt it’s possible I screwed something up. But that’s another reason it can be preferable to keep things simple.

At iTunes (via Smashwords, since I don’t own an Apple computer), I saw some nice sales of  “The Awful Mess” during my promotion — over 80 copies sold.  Before the price promotion, I was actually seeing some fairly steady downloads of my free single on iTunes, and usually a few of the people who downloaded the freebie would move on to buying one of the novels. But since the price promotion? Crickets.

I’m probably promoting the freebie less, but clearly there’s no tail from the sales I earned. I don’t shop on iTunes myself, so I don’t know how discoverability works there. From where I sit, though, I’ve not only got none, I’m actually doing worse than I did before the promotion.

And then there’s Google Play. I sold 11 copies during the promotion. Not a single one since. Only one or two before the promotion. (Ever.) However, I spent hours trying to get my price discounted properly for the promotion, and more hours trying to get it back to where it needed to be to prevent price-matching from Kindle.

Which brings me back to Kindle, with its simple and responsive author interface. Sales since the promotion have been fairly steady, if not exciting. I feel I’ve been rewarded for the promotion and ongoing sales with decent discoverability (of course, I also recently discovered I’d left my royalty at 35% by accident, so I suppose they might have been more excited about promoting it because of that.). I feel the kerfuffle over Google Play’s discounting was handled in a friendly manner once I got past the vaguely threatening first warning email.

Unexpected pleasure in Kindle Unlimited

The other thing that attracts me to Kindle Select right now, though, is exactly what drove a lot of folks out of it recently: the joy I’ve taken in watching the occasional Kindle Unlimited reader finally taking on my second novel “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” from back when it was available that way.

I love watching that blue line. I especially enjoy watching people read the book in two or three days. I  don’t know how that translates into money, but at this point in my career, money is secondary to simply knowing that I’m being read — and, usually, being read all the way through. (As I’ve noted before, I take evil pleasure in holding readers hostage.)

Harnessing the power of free

And, finally, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that not offering “Ribs” free while I could reduced its sales potential. Going free is still the best promotional tool for an unknown indie author short of a U.S. BookBub price promotion, which I haven’t been able to get.

Granted, my review average is undoubtedly higher now than it will be after going free (you get a few nasty folks who don’t bother to read descriptions during free days, perhaps because they enjoy being outraged). But that’s just the price I’ll have to pay. This title hasn’t had a chance to really catch on the way it might if thousands and thousands of people download it and at least a chunk of those people actually read it.

That’s assuming I can make that happen. I still don’t expect it to do as well as the first book did. It’s gotten a lot tougher out there, by all accounts. This book is less of a crowd pleaser, though some readers think it’s better (I include myself in that). But I’ll never really know until I give it a try. So,although I’m still a bit wary, I’ll be setting up a free promotion eventually, and the only easy way to set that up is through Kindle Select.

In the meantime, going to Kindle Select also lessens my product management duties and simplifies my marketing.

Now, ALL of this promotional effort is still a bit premature in the sense that I only have two novels and the third isn’t ready for pre-order yet. If you really want your promotions to work for you, you need a stable full of books that can sell along with whatever you’re promoting. But letting the few you have put out sink into oblivion doesn’t make it any easier to resuscitate them when the time comes.

So I’ll work with what I have. And at this point, Kindle Select simply looks like the best deal for a title that hasn’t found its legs yet. What do you think? Does your own recent experience match this, or vary from it?

Trying an international book promotion across multiple retailers

Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love StoryDo you sell books across the world? I did sell a book this week in Finland (through Kobo). But that’s far from common for me (Finland OR Kobo). Of, course I’d like to change that. That’s why “The Awful Mess” is going to be on sale across the globe August 22-24.

BookBub turned it down the last time I tried, but accepted it not long after when I tried again for a promotion just to the UK, Canada, and India. I do have some other advertising support set up in the US — eReader News Today, The Fussy Librarian, and Read Cheaply — but that’s probably not enough to make things go crazy hot here on an older title. But is it possible a good sale in other parts of the world will also boost US sales? It should be interesting to find out. I could have set up a whole lot more in the way of promotion, of course, but I’m honestly just more focused on writing right now. None of this promotion will matter a whole lot until I get a critical mass of books published.

cover for book The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire by Sandra HutchisonThis will, however, be my first promotional support for Google Play sales, and I’m very interested to see if it makes any difference. (So far I’ve sold a grand total of ONE book there.) And will any of this bump up sales of my more recent novel “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire”?

It would be nice for something to work. I’ve been wondering why my Kindle sales came to a dead stop Matildachicklitfinallast week, and I think I finally figured it out. My perma-free romantic comedy “The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda Walter” got put back at 99 cents at some point (without any notification to me). I could look at this as a favor, really, since I’d just as soon not have a free option distracting folks when I am offering a great price on another book, but I have to wonder how many Kindle readers  I’ve misled and possibly annoyed in the days it took me to notice this.  Lesson: Keep tabs on your perma-free status.

Anyway, here’s the pssst just for you part: It can take a week for price changes to filter through to India’s FlipKart, so “The Awful Mess” is already 99 cents at Smashwords and some of the services it feeds into, like iTunes. So you could go grab it at a good price right now!

By the way, if anyone is willing to help me get the word out on the 22nd, 23rd, or 24th, I’d be grateful. I will be happy to share detailed results with those of you who do. Just contact me offline or comment on what you’d be willing to do in terms of retweeting or FB posting or sharing or whatever and I’ll try to make it super easy for you to do.

Enjoy what’s left of the summer! I’m prepping my courses and have managed to turn the corner into the last major act of “Bardwell’s Folly.” I don’t expect to make much further headway with it while teaching four comp courses, but you never know. It’s been my observation over many years now that ridiculously busy people often actually accomplish a whole lot more than those of us with less pressing schedules.

 

 

 

Another technique for finding new readers on Twitter

One of my more popular blog posts here is “The fine art of Twitter stalking,” which explains how you can use Twitter to essentially hand-sell to people who are following authors like you, and/or describing themselves as avid readers.

I’ve refined that a bit in the year and a half since that was posted, so I’m going to share what I do more often now. I should warn you that, just as before, it’s laborious, and it won’t work for long unless you have something like the free app Crowdfire (formerly JustUnfollow) in your toolbox.

Step 1. Make sure your front stoop looks nice and is ready for business

Make sure your Twitter profile is attractive and offers a call to action. It should…

  1. Explain who you are clearly and positively without getting obnoxious (in other words, don’t fill it up hard sells and hashtags)
  2. Have reasonably attractive graphics. This does not have to be anything crazy. Go to another wonderful free app at Canva.com and you can create something just the right size that looks pretty darn good. (Pro tip: The less design knowledge you have, the more you should rely on their attractive templates.)
  3. Include a link to your web site under your info (or use a link to your Amazon author page if you’re exclusive to Amazon in mostly one country — I’m not, so I don’t).
  4. Mileage varies a LOT on this one, but personally I try to make sure I haven’t been loading up my Twitter stream with promos. This is the number one reason I don’t belong to some otherwise appealing writer’s groups. Their authors may be doing much better than I am, though, so do whatever works for you.
  5. Here’s the selling part: Include a pinned post at the top that could at least potentially lead someone to do something you want. Include one call to action with a key link. If your own blog page doesn’t tend to convert people, or you don’t have one, use your Kindle author’s page, or product link, or whatever would work best where your readers live. (Obviously, you might want to play around with different options here.)  I probably have my best luck when my free little romantic comedy is pinned to the top, but I will vary it depending on the audience I’m going after.
    TIP: Canva is great for creating just the right size Twitter graphic, too, like this one. I’ll vary the actual buying link, but the others are right there in the graphic, so people who are intrigued can go look it up at their favorite retail site.

twitter promo exampleThere are surely ways to track this and and improve my performance. Finally figuring THAT out might be one of next year’s resolutions.

Step 2. See what other authors your readers are buying

As noted in the original twitter-stalking post, Amazon’s author pages make this easy. Just go to your author page and look at the links under “Customers Also Bought Items By.” You still have to use your judgment, and results will be skewed if you’ve recently been promoting (the authors promoting at the same time are the ones who will show up most) — but dig down and you’ll find authors who appeal to the same readers who should like your stuff. For indie authors, your best bet will almost always be other indie authors, because their readers already know that we don’t all have cooties.

detail from author's page screenshot

If your book has gotten a bit moribund, or you’ve already hit up everybody on your also-bought list, you can dig down even further and check out the also-boughts for those authors.

TheAwfulMess_3DAn example of using my judgment about also-bought authors: “The Awful Mess: A Love Story” crosses over into religion and spirituality, specifically, into progressive Christianity. Some of my also-boughts are Christian “sweet” romance authors. I have to be careful there, because the category “Christian fiction” runs conservative and some of those readers will be offended by the cover, let alone the content. Other authors in my also-boughts are mystery writers. Would their readers be interested in my women’s fiction? It’s probably worth trying.

Step 3. Search Twitter for “by [author name]

This gets you to tweets posted by people who have read and/or reviewed on Goodreads or their own blogs. (At least for now it does. All of this is subject to change. Amazon, for example, no longer gives people the option to tweet their purchases.)

Step 4. Follow people who appear to be genuine potential readers

Check out each potential reader to make sure he or she is:

  • A real human rather than a fake spam account
  • Still active on Twitter
  • A relatively kindred spirit

Bloggers probably expect most books to go to them free, so they are not your best prospect. However, you might want to think of them as a potential reviewer and take note accordingly — you might create a list of them, for example.

And just because their counts may suggest they never follow back doesn’t mean you shouldn’t follow people — remember, the goal is to entice people to check out your book, not to get them to follow you back. (Though that can be a nice bonus.)

Out of a dozen or two dozen people you follow, maybe one might be interested enough to actually purchase your book. You’ll have to decide for yourself if this labor-intensive approach is worth it. Note that it will also help you build your Twitter audience, however. And you might just find some good reading for yourself along the way.

Step 4. After a week or so, unfollow the people who’ve shown no interest

No, you’re not being a jerk. You don’t hang around outside of people’s doors when they don’t call you after a date, do you? And this wasn’t even a date.

Besides, Twitter won’t let you keep following new people if your ratio gets out of whack. And once you get past a few hundred people, you’re certainly not hurting for material to read in your Twitter stream. So unfollow people. Crowdfire makes this easy. (There is a daily limit if you’re doing it for free, but I almost never reach it.)

Personally, I usually follow everyone back who doesn’t appear to be a spammer, marketing something I have zero interest in, of dubious integrity, obnoxious, or impossible for me to translate enough to figure any of that out. This is a social medium. That means it should be a two-way street. So if you’re not following me back, you’d better be a celebrity or extremely informative about something valuable — and for that, to be perfectly honest, I can put you in a list instead of following you.

All of this could change at any moment, of course. There’s talk of Twitter going all Facebook on us. Which it has the right to do.

Want to add any tips of your own, or tell me where I’m going wrong? Please do!

The five stages of grief of being rejected by BookBub

1877 etching of Andromache grieving for Hector

“Grief of Andromache for Hector” from The Peep-Show: Amusement and Instruction for the Young, circa 1877. This and the background art below courtesy of reusableart.com.

  1. DENIAL. This stage can’t last long. The email is right there and pretty easy to read. Writers generally have good reading comprehension skills. You can spend some time scanning it for clues, but if you’ve gotten this email more than once you know it’s boilerplate language. You may wonder why it got sent to you on a Saturday morning. You try to imagine who’s making these decisions, and how late they are working, especially since they apparently mulled it for three days. Was it like that time you sat in the jury box all day during jury selection before getting kicked out in favor of someone who hadn’t seen her brother hit a motorcyclist? Or did it just take three days because they are inundated?
  2. ANGER. Oh, writers are surely used to this. It’s why a lot of us self-publish. Back when I was still trying to find an agent or publisher, I would get some lovely and encouraging rejections. A persistent, resilient, emotionally healthy writer probably would react to these by thinking, “Oh, X likes my writing, so I should try with another book!”
    Then there’s me. I usually think something like “If you don’t like this, you’re not going to like the next one. A writer’s style is her style and her subjects are her subjects. So let’s not waste any more of each other’s time.”
    I teach literature as well as writing it, and the one thing my students and I always notice after a while is that the most acclaimed writers are almost always driven by something a bit dark. Of course, I refuse to believe this about myself (see “denial”), but if I were not driven by some unmet need of some kind, wouldn’t I be out spending my time actually being in relationships instead of sitting in a room writing novels about them? So, I must rationally conclude that I am probably about as prickly and neurotic as the next writer.
    It’s tempting to react with anger to BookBub, too, especially since their short, 30-day submission window means giving up many other promotional opportunities with longer windows in an attempt to nail theirs down, especially while trying to triangulate with Kindle Select and past promotions.
    If I hadn’t already had success with BookBub on the first novel, I might well decide to forget even trying in the future. Which would be stupid. Not all books are going to appeal as well as others. Ideally I’ll translate any anger into determination to “show them” (“them” being every person or entity who has ever not been immediately bowled over by my genius — sadly, there are legions of these people).
    3. BARGAINING. This is when you might be tempted to send an email back asking what it would take, or perhaps expressing some of that anger or desperation you feel, as if you could elicit some pity or even shame someone into doing what you want. DON’T DO IT. Speaking as a former acquisitions editor, the least pleasant part of the job was dealing with writers who wouldn’t take no for an answer. There is absolutely no way to do this and sound like a person anyone would ever want to work with in the future. You’ll be remembered, all right, and not in a good way.
    4. DEPRESSION. As an indie author rejected by BookBub, I have suffered the loss of some future income and reviews. The trajectory I had hoped for (and that I had the pleasure of experiencing before) is just not going to happen. Whereas last year I turned a small profit on this enterprise, this year I can now forecast that I won’t. Even though the writing income was never going to be enough to change my life significantly anyway, this requires some grieving. I just found this out, so the publisher in me is still grieving, because she would really prefer to be able to strut around a bit. The writer in me is, thankfully, already focused on the next two books. But she’s still a bit bummed, too. Writing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. Publishing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. You must decide for yourself whether the joy outweighs the grief.
    5. ACCEPTANCE. There was an interesting post by RJ Crayton on Indies Unlimited this week about people getting fed up with the hard work and poor returns of writing and/or indie publishing and quitting (aptly titled “Self Publishing Shouldn’t Be Miserable“). If you’re writing because you think it will make you rich, or give you status, you’re going to hit this point a lot sooner than someone who’s writing because she has something she really wants to say. Unless you’re very lucky or unusually brilliant, or perhaps awesome at marketing, there’s a long, long road to success as an author. Many never get there. For some, getting there is sadly temporary. Those of us who are older understand that we might well die before we reach the magical golden land of steady book sales to hungry readers.
    But I’m okay with that. This is a road that has its own rewards.
    The Only Way To Get There

 

The writing life: Should we risk offending people, or not?

Last month, an article in the Romance Writers of America newsletter Romance Writers Report by Jennifer Fusco caused quite a bit of controversy by recommending that authors avoid controversy. It gave specific examples in telling authors what to avoid comment on: “…religion. Gay marriage. The ruling in Ferguson, Missouri. Politics.”

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

Screen cap from Sean Munger: https://seanmunger.files.wordpress.com/2015/03/rwr-advice.jpg

And thus, ironically, Fusco did exactly what she was advising authors not to do.

The response apparently began with Racheline Maltese, who writes LGBTQ romances and was understandably offended by the idea that she should shut up about a matter of basic civil rights.

Sean Munger took it a step further, noting that the kind of author who would avoid any comment on matters like this is just plain boring. I think it’s a brilliant analysis.

Then again, it’s convenient for me to think that, because I find I just can’t shut up about this stuff. I did try. One of the first things I did before starting out into social media was read M.J. Rose and Randy Susan Meyer’s What to Do Before Your Book Launch (which is quite useful, yet oddly costs at minimum $115 new at Amazon right now — and, I’m sorry, but it’s not THAT useful — the first link up above is the ebook for Nook at $5.99). It essentially offered the same advice, without the specifics to rile people up.

It was advice that resonated for me at that point, because at the time I had just taken my son’s computer for fixing to a local guy whose shop turned out to be full of rabidly anti-Obama stuff. While this was still arguably better than going to get some high school kid to work on it at the national chain where I’d bought the machine, I swore that I was never going back to that guy again. (Incidentally, his web site gave me no clue of what I was getting into.)

It’s not that I boycott businesses owned by Republicans — I have a number of Republican friends. I occasionally even vote Republican in local elections. But I felt practically assaulted by all the vitriol in his shop — and I couldn’t help but conclude that anyone THAT rudely in-my-face about his politics didn’t really deserve my business.

And in social media there’s often no mediating personal relationship. I may not know that you are at heart a kindly fellow who will go out of his way to help the poor at the local food pantry. I only know that you are spreading what I consider racist propaganda. CLICK! You’re unfollowed.

This works both ways, of course. I notice that if I get specifically down on, say, the GOP’s attitude towards what they call “entitlement” programs, I immediately lose some Twitter followers.

Of course, it doesn’t pay to be too fast in our judgments, especially in an age of irony. Is this guy joking or is he serious?

The thing is that while I do indeed try to employ what Mary Maddox describes as “a benign detachment that leaves room for readers to draw their own conclusions,” anyone who reads my books with a keen eye may notice a strong point of view about feeding the hungry and marriage equality (and other aspects of inclusiveness in the Episcopal Church) in The Awful Mess, and about women’s rights and justice issues surrounding rape in The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.

So if I’m going to anger people who disagree with me on those issues anyway, why should I hold back before they buy the book? Is it my job to try to fool people into thinking they’re going to read something else?

Of course, after teaching college English for some years, I have also noticed that people will read pretty much whatever they want to believe into any given book. Seriously. So … yeah, if I didn’t want to chase away any potential readers, I suppose I could keep my views hidden and they might never even notice that I disagree with them.

But I still can’t do it. These views matter, or I wouldn’t have written in the books in the first place! I didn’t write the books to be able to say, “Hey, look, I wrote some books! Aren’t they shiny?” I wrote them to say something. It’s all working towards the same end. It’s all living out loud.

So I’m just going to be as obnoxiously opinionated as I feel called to be by my concept of the truth. Yours may well vary from mine. We can still respect each other’s right to speak. You never know, the world might even benefit from our discussion.