Saturday, 17 February 2018

What Makes Readers Quit A Book

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Every author who isn't backed either by Big Pub or by a huge following knows how difficult it is to stand out. Getting your book noticed is like trying to get a gasp of oxygen in a very tight crowd, and authors may resort to elbowing, using six-feet crutches, or wearing glittery clown costumes in order to grab a reader's attention for five milliseconds.

Isn't it discouraging, then, to think that the majority of people who start on your book won't even finish it? It's a sobering thought, but that's what happens according to this post by Creativity Hacker. I can't vouch for the exact numbers, but I do know that many readers who crack a book open don't get to its end. This happens increasingly often in a world where attention spans are short and the selection of new books virtually limitless.

So what can we do, as authors, to maximize reader engagement and optimize our chances of them getting through the book - and, hopefully, liking it and recommending it to others? We have all learned the big things. We know we need a strong plot, engaging characters, consistent and appropriate pacing, and some sort of hook in the very beginning. We do our best, writing and rewriting and sending the manuscript out to beta readers.

But what about the small stuff? You know what I mean - punctuation, grammar, spelling, little inconsistencies. Not long ago, I have reviewed a number of books for indie authors. Here's the approximate feedback I sent to more than one of them:

"Dear author, I loved the premise of your book. The plot and characters were well executed. I'm sorry to say, however, that all through the book I noticed missing commas (along the pattern of 'Let's go George', instead of 'Let's go, George', missing brackets, inconsistent capitals ('Stock Corporation', 'Stock corporation' and 'stock Corporation' all used at random). Plus, a minor character suddenly changed her name from Wendy to Mandy about halfway through the book. All of this hurts the eye and is extremely off-putting. I offer this feedback in good friendship and wish you every success, because I think you are really talented and deserve to be noticed. It's a pity to have a good book fail because of little things that can be easily corrected." 

I am glad to say most authors write back and thank me, then go on to polish and update the book file. Some have engaged me as a proofreader. Others, however, either don't respond or get defensive, saying things like "you can never catch every error" and "most readers aren't that picky." Well, I can tell you I am that picky. If those hadn't been books I have committed to review, I would have quit.

It's true that the perfect is the enemy of the good, and you can't and shouldn't spend your nights tossing from side to side, wondering if maybe a single comma in your manuscript had been missed. I have noticed inconsistencies and mistakes in many popular and well-known books. In my copy of Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Voldemort is referred to as "Slytherin's last remaining ancestor", when it should obviously be not ancestor, but descendant. In Far From the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, the age gap between Gabriel and Bathsheba is stated to be six years at one point, and eight years in another. I've checked and double checked, and the error really exists - and Thomas Hardy's books are classics that have been printed and reprinted for many years, so the edition I have surely isn't the first!

If readers have forgiven J.K. Rowling and Thomas Hardy, they will forgive you a single slip or a few missing brackets. But a discerning reader won't gloss over consistent and unabated sloppiness in the text. Don't lose a reader to lack of a thorough proofread - you have poured time, sweat and blood into your book, and you deserve the best chance you can get. Pay attention to the little things, because they do matter.

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Is it more profitable to write in a series?


Check out this great post by Joanna Penn on how writing book series can be more profitable and easier to market. 

"It's also easier to market a series of books, because you can use the first book in the series, for example, as a permanently free or doing free promotions on that first one, over time. You can then get people into the series and then, hopefully, they will carry on."

I've been implementing some of these tactics for a long time now. With my fantasy trilogy, Quest of the Messenger, I focus on running promos and free days for the first book, Paths of the Shadow, in order to funnel readers into subsequent books. My publisher and I are planning to do something similar once the sequels to Wild Children come out. It definitely has its advantages.

Another option is to write not series, but standalones that all play along the same lines, like many authors of crime fiction/thrillers do. You say, "Dan Brown", "Harlan Coben", "Stephen King", you know pretty much what you are going to get. 

Having said that, if I had to brand-name myself, it would probably be something like "the eclectic author who likes to travel over different places and times in her books". Apart from high fantasy, I write sci-fi and historical fiction in settings as diverse as the Viking era, Regency era England, and medieval Ethiopia. I need this variety like oxygen, otherwise I would probably wilt and die as an author, but it comes with a price - often, the readership for one book will hardly overlap with the readership for another. What's good for creativity is not necessarily so great for marketing.

By the way, several of my stand-alone novels can potentially turn into a series, but it would still be series in very different genres. 

The best series, in my opinion, have an arc - that is, the author plans not just the next book, but the whole series globally, from start to finish, like J.K. Rowling did with Harry Potter. Even before she began writing the first book, she knew there would be seven books, and knew more or less how they would be outlined. There are few things more pitiful than a good trilogy that slowly sputters out as a series of ten books, because the author is afraid to abandon this sure source of income and to move on to uncharted waters. Don't do that; don't write another book in the same world just because you are expected to. Don't be afraid to try your hand at something new. 

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

How to Be Your Own Editor

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I know some authors who are lucky enough to be able to complete their first draft in a stroke of inspiration, and flick it over to a skilled editor who will take care of any plot inconsistencies, style issues, punctuation and grammar. This is terrific for authors with some budget who are focused on producing a high volume in a short time, but most of us are not so lucky, and will revise our own manuscripts multiple times (likely until we are sick of them).

Don't be in a hurry to feel yourself at a disadvantage, though.

Reading through, improving, and correcting your own work will get you in touch with it in ways that no editor can. Creative ideas that spring into your head upon re-reading and re-writing are something nobody but you can have.

Plus, many authors just don't have the budget to pay for a deep structural edit. Editing is one of the most expensive parts of producing a book, and for good reason, when you consider how many work hours go into an average-length novel. For some of us, the expense will be a lot more reasonable if we can polish our manuscript to a state when it needs nothing more than a thorough proofread.

For years, I have scoffed at the whole process of editing, and looked at that first unpolished draft as the only bit of "real creativity" in writing. However, I have wizened up since, and realized that nobody will beat my manuscripts into decent shape for me, and that if I only write first drafts, I will never end up with a publishable book.

For a long time now, I have been editing both my work and other people's work, and I do believe that if two people, with the same level of writing skills and grammar, set out to edit each other's work, they will both likely end up with a stronger manuscript. That is because having a thoroughly critical pair of eyes - eyes that dig deeper than just a critique partner or beta reader - may alert you to different perspectives, aspects and snags you might never notice yourself. However, even if you are lucky enough to have such a partner for your editing, or plenty of dedicated beta readers, you will still need to do a whole lot of self-editing. Here are some tips for doing it right:

1. Step away. This is absolutely essential, but also very, very hard to do when you have a book you are excited about, and long to get out into the world. Some time of cooling down, however, is a must for you to look at your work with a balanced eye. Ideally, it should be long enough for you to distance yourself from your book until you can almost feel someone else had written it.

2. Be merciless. Or, as a popular saying goes, kill your darlings. Don't let an elephant stay in a china shop just because you really, really like elephants. This is a lot easier to do after a period of cooling down when you are not so emotionally attached to every aspect of your book.

3. Brush up on grammar. This belongs more to the final polishing stage of the manuscript, but is a must. Misplaced or missing commas, capitals where they don't belong, short/long dashes at random, etc, are all issues that need to be addressed, otherwise the reader is left with an impression of sloppy, unprofessional work. For me, personally, it is incredibly off-putting. So don't gloss over the nitty-gritty, saying "my work is so great, no one will care."

Caveat: there are some wonderful authors out there with learning disabilities. It is entirely possible to have a great story to tell, but not be able to get to grips with punctuation and spelling. In that case, you absolutely must get a proofreader/line editor, either through paying or through swapping services. I am able to take on a couple of manuscripts a month, though lately I have had to turn down some work due to lack of time - you can contact me for more details. Look around and try to get recommendations - there are plenty of capable people out there who will be glad to help you out with your manuscript for a reasonable fee.

Friday, 2 February 2018

New sci-fi release - The Last Outpost

The Last Outpost by [Ross, Hannah]
The Last Outpost, my first new release in 2018, is now up and available in print and on Kindle - also free on Kindle Unlimited. It is a fast-paced science fiction novel set in the pristine wilderness of Antarctica, featuring a mysterious indigenous tribe, an outrageous government conspiracy, and ancient monsters sleeping under the ice, From the blurb:

"Scott "Buck" Buckley, an environmental scientist, accepts the position of general overseer at the McMurdo Antarctic research station. After signing a secrecy declaration, Scott becomes privy to the existence of Geyser Valley, an area with a unique warm microclimate, which is home to the mysterious indigenous Anai people. In an outrageous conspiracy, the world governments are keeping the existence of these people a secret, to avoid limitations on the division of land for natural resources.

Scott is fascinated by the unique culture of the Anai, visiting them and learning from them as much as he can. In the meantime, the world becomes more and more unstable as global war is about to break out. Just before darkness sets over Antarctica, warfare tears the world apart, and the research station finds itself completely isolated for the long and sunless winter.

In the loneliness of the winter, Scott remains facing difficult questions all alone: who are the Anai, and how did they come to Antarctica? How much truth is there in their legends about giant ancient reptiles frozen in ice, waiting to come back to life? How is McMurdo going to hold on until the communications and supply lines are restored? And where are the limits one is not allowed to cross, not even in the name of survival?"

***

I hope this novel finds its way to the hearts of those who love dystopia and environmental science fiction.

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Mission impossible: getting book reviews

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For me, as for many indie authors, getting book reviews is like pulling teeth. It's a tough hurdle, but a necessary one, as reviews add a massive bonus of credibility. I can attest that I, as a reader, will be hard pressed to give a chance to a book without reviews (even if it's a little unfair to the author). And I can also tell you that I pay more attention to genuine, unsophisticated feedback that looks as if it was written by average people, rather than professional glowing reviews.

So where do we begin mining for this precious elusive gold? This question is vital to me right now, as I'm preparing to release my new sci-fi novel, The Last Outpost. Here are a few sources to try:

1. Book bloggers - if you've ever queried literary agents, you'll experience a sense of deja vu when you visit book review blogs: "please don't be offended, we receive ten thousand requests a week, and have a waiting list of about two years"; "we are closed to unsolicited submissions"; "please read our submission guidelines carefully". Sounds familiar?

Many bloggers won't review indie books at all. Visit IndieView and compile a list of bloggers who might be interested in your genre. Query them all methodically, and don't raise your expectations too high. Sometimes you will get the pleasant surprise of a positive answer six months after your book release.

2. Social media contacts - you might have five thousand friends on your author Facebook account, but as far as Amazon is concerned, they are all equal to your mom or your best friend from middle school, and reviews by them will be annihilated (sometimes with penalties). I've had perfectly legit, unsolicited reviews deleted by Amazon because, after buying and reviewing my book, the buyers sent me a friend request and I complied. I have since put my friend list on private so that Amazon can't poke around, but I still won't ask my Facebook friends to review on Amazon because I don't know if their list is private. Having said that, your Facebook friends can still review on their private blogs, social media, and Goodreads.

3. Goodreads - there are some wonderfully helpful Goodreads groups like Making Connections, and others, that create a link between authors looking for reviews and people looking for a free read. I got some great reviews that way and, as the group name implies, made connections, but bear in mind that many of these people will only review on Goodreads, not Amazon.

4. Publications - you can try contacting publications, both print and online, of the genre you're writing in. When I published Land of the Lost Tribe, I got in touch with Historical Novel Society, as well as magazines specializing in Jewish fiction. The competition is high, there's no guarantee, and some publications only accept print review copies, but I still think it's worth a try.

5. Paid reviews - I don't want to judge anyone, but I don't see how this can possibly be considered ethical/fair/objective. When some websites charge hundreds of dollars for a review (like Kirkus), isn't it pretty obvious there's a conflict of interest? After all, if they don't consistently give their customers good reviews, they will go out of business. So I might try to set aside a promotion budget, but I will never pay for reviews (though I might beg, send chocolates, and dance with pom-poms). Also beware of "review swaps" with fellow authors, where you are browbeaten to give someone no less than four stars because they gave you five, cringing in shame all the while because you know perfectly well you wouldn't recommend that book to anyone in good conscience.

6. A call to action - there is one author friend who claims she never bothers with seeking reviews from bloggers, review groups, etc, nor does she hand out ARCs. Her initial sales push, she says, is strong enough to allow her to wait for the organic reviews from that first batch of copies she sells. She's surely an outlier, and I can't help but feel envious every time I pitch another blogger. What she does do, however, is put a call to action at the end of the book, which is basically a short message saying how important reviews are to her, and asking any reader who likes her book well enough to leave a review. I definitely plan to do this with my next release.

Speaking of, if you've recently read an indie book you loved, please take the time to leave a review. It doesn't have to be very long or elaborate. Reviews are the lifeline of indie authors; we don't have fancy awards or big publishers behind us. The only thing we have is the affirmation of our readers. So please be generous and support the authors whose work you enjoy by a rating and a few words.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Tough decisions: indie publishing, KDP Select and more

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During the past week, as I've wrapped up the first draft of my new sci-fi novel, some decisions have begun to take form, and they weren't always easy to make.

First decision: this is going to be an indie title to begin with. I will not even bother pitching to agents. Why?

1. I'm still researching agents and publishers and querying for my MG fantasy novel, and it is a priority that takes quite a bit of time and effort. Indie publishing adult sci-fi is a totally viable option. MG is a lot tougher to get out to the market on your own.

2. A cursory survey (which, I admit, might be inaccurate) did not yield any agents about whom I might have gone, "Aha! This would be the perfect fit for this book!". Sadly, the publishing industry seems to be obsessed with "strong female characters", "diversity" and "ownvoices", with a great and increasing interest in characters and authors that are walking social agendas, rather than focusing on what the reader ultimately wants: a darn good story. My female characters are no shrinking violets, but they aren't kick-ass military heroines either. Neither do I focus on "sci-fi romance", which is something some agents seem to be looking for.

Second decision: this book is going to be enrolled in KDP Select.

Now this was something I really had to grit my teeth to come to terms with. I love the idea of wide distribution. I find Smashwords extremely convenient and author-friendly. I really enjoyed going wide with my two previous novels, with the spirit of, "aha, take this, Amazon! I'm helping to ease your monopoly on the book market!"

This personal satisfaction, however, and the trickle of royalties I received from other sales channels, do not cancel out the fact that my KU royalties from my KDP Select books are far, far more significant than whatever I'm getting from those other channels.

Despite Amazon cutbacks on the KDP Select fund, KU remains a very nice boost for authors, and a way for readers to try my books out risk-free. It contributes to my Amazon rank and, overall, its allure is too strong to resist. I've posted on Facebook about going back and forth on this, and a fellow author commented, KU is what enables me to be a full-time writer. 

Ultimately, my goal is financial independence for myself and my family, not a market shift, however I would welcome it if it happens. So KDP Select it is, at least for this book.

Stay tuned: sci-fi novel set in Antarctica coming soon. Features government conspiracies, ancient monsters frozen and waiting to come back to life, and a setting of pristine icy wilderness.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

How to Get An Affordable Book Cover

"Don't judge a book by its cover" may be a common saying, but nothing could be farther from the truth in the book world of today, when millions of books are vying for split seconds of a reader's attention. Your readers do, and will continue, to judge your books by their covers - and, furthermore, they are justified in doing so, because a sloppily made cover doesn't speak much for a writer-entrepreneur's commitment and professionalism.

Quite simply, your book cover is your #1 marketing tool, and serious indies will be heard saying over and over again that it's worthwhile to pick a good, no, the best designer you can afford, and invest hundreds to thousands of dollars in a cover. I can't dispute that, but... what if you don't have the money? Not as in, "it's a book cover or my daily latte", but as in, "it's a book cover or winter coats for my kids". What do you do? You can't invest money you simply don't have.

Some will say, Wait until you do have the money. Get an extra job. Never compromise. It sounds good, but it may mean that talented writers are stuck in the drawer for a long time, believing they simply can't afford to publish until they have thousands of dollars to spare.

Luckily, there ARE ways to obtain an affordable, decent book cover without breaking the bank. Here are a few:

1. Canva.com is an option, especially for nonfiction. It has many clean, simple, free designs, which are way better than the Amazon or CreateSpace templates, but you will need to provide your own image. Free images can be found on Pixabay, or you may purchase a cheap stock image, but the risk, of course, is that someone else has already used the same image for their book cover.

2. Barter or negotiate: there are many talented young designers just starting out there. You can find them by hanging out on forums and social media. Many will be ready to do very decent-quality, inexpensive work while they are making a name for themselves, especially if you promise to do all you can to give them credit and exposure. Others may be willing to barter with you for other services, for example editing, proofreading or website building for a book cover.

3. Premades: Searching for a premade cover that is just right for your book may be hard work, but it can definitely save you a lot of money. I went through hundreds of covers, literally, while preparing to publish Land of the Lost Tribe. It wasn't easy; I needed a historical fiction cover done in an African theme, and there just weren't very many of those around. The most sensible option, paying for a custom cover by a good designer, was out of my budget. Eventually I found one I fell in love with, for well under a 100$, and snatched it on the spot:

Land of the Lost Tribe by [Ross, Hannah]
I hope, eventually, to have a more substantial budget for my book covers, but even while you are struggling with finances, your book covers needn't make you blush.