Saturday, 27 January 2018

Mission impossible: getting book reviews

Image result for book review

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. 

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Dystopia ain't dead (though it might not be a fad)

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While trying to place my dystopian novel, Wild Children, I was told that dystopia, as a genre, is dead - that people are tired of apocalyptic scenarios and endless rehashings of The Hunger Games - that I had better chuck the whole thing away and start something else altogether. I didn't listen.

First off, I don't believe that there is such a thing as a "dead" genre. Genres rise and fall in popularity, but a well-written work always has a chance to resonate with readers. Just about the worst choice an author can make is write to a fad - if you're particularly good at churning out material super fast, and self-publish, you might be able to surf some of the after-waves of the latest bestseller, but frankly, I believe you will serve yourself a whole lot better in the long run by just writing what you love and what you are good at.

If you are trying to crack the traditional publishing game, writing to a fad is utterly useless, because by the time you figure out what trad pub wants, it will have moved on to the next thing. And sometimes The Gatekeepers get arrogantly confused between "this doesn't sell" and "we don't want it to sell". For instance, lit agents claim that the high horse right now is non-European, non-traditional fantasy, and the classic medieval tropes don't sell, while in fact, there are some very successful indies writing in the classic medieval fantasy genre. The truth is that lit agents and publishers want to be seen as the torchbearers and shapers of literary tastes who had given the public something new and original - namely, grimdark and non-European fantasy - and thus the classic genre no longer has a place on the shelves of physical bookstores.

As for dystopia in particular, I believe it will always have an appeal to readers, because this whole genre comes down to a question humankind will never be indifferent to: what is the worst thing that could possibly happen, and how would we cope with it? Dystopia is like dragging those monsters from under the bed and pointing at them with a flashlight. It allows us to process our hidden fears, and those will never go away.

Right now I'm working on two dystopian projects - the soon-to-be finalized sequels to Wild Children, The Hourglass and Freeborn, and a new novel, about which I will refrain from telling too much right now. I'll just mention that it's more hardcore sci-fi and set in Antarctica. I believe that there is a readership for these books, and will continue to write what grabs me and doesn't let go, without considering fashion.