IngramSpark Authors Take Note

This morning, I received an email notification from IngramSpark on their new policies going into effect in April. 

THIS IS IMPORTANT for anyone who is currently published or is planning to publish through IngramSpark. See the full text of the notice below:

INGRAM SPARK SERVICE ALERT

IngramSpark is taking a necessary stand to uphold the integrity of and reduce bias against independently published works. To align with our industry’s needs for content integrity, we will actively remove print content from our catalog that does harm to buyers and affects the reputations of our publishers and retail and library partners.
As of April 27, 2020, the below criteria describes the types of content that may not be accepted going forward:

  1. Summaries, workbooks, abbreviations, insights, or similar type content without permission from the original author.
  2. Books containing blank pages exceeding ten percent, notepads, scratchpads, journals, or similar type content.
  3. Books or content that mirror/mimic popular titles, including without limiting, similar covers, cover design, title, author names, or similar type content.
  4. Books that are misleading or likely to cause confusion by the buyer, including without limiting, inaccurate descriptions and cover art.
  5. Books listed at prices not reflective of the book’s market value.
  6. Books scanned from original versions where all or parts contain illegible content to the detriment of the buyer.
  7. Books created using artificial intelligence or automated processes.

We reserve the right to remove content that fits the above criteria without prior notice to the publisher. Any fees paid on behalf of publishers for titles removed due to the above criteria will not be refunded. This change of service is effective April 27, 2020 and is reflected in our IngramSpark User Guide V4.

You can find more information about what kinds of titles will be under review here.

We are committed to supporting authors and publishers for the quality content they’ve produced and continuing to provide our retail and library partners with high quality, trusted catalog feeds.

The bolded, highlighted item #3 is of potential concern here. I understand the spirit of what IngramSpark is intending, and I applaud their efforts to curb intellectual property theft in a proactive way. I know there is a lot of copycatting going on in the world of fiction, especially in certain genres, so this measure is very much a good thing. 

The problem I see is that we have no way of knowing how far these measures will be taken. Many books out there have the same or similar title but are completely different books on the inside, sometimes in completely different genres. Will they be affected? Genre categories have unspoken rules for cover design. Fonts tend to “trend”, as do certain elements, styles, and designs. How close is too close for comfort? And you know how they say there’s no such thing as an original story, only original retellings? How will that affect books with similar themes and plots? 

Also, the affected books will be removed without prior notice to the author/publisher. Again, a good measure in terms of efficiency, but sucks for authors whose books just disappear from circulation one day when they didn’t do anything wrong. 

The bottom line is, when April 27th rolls around, keep an eye on your books and if you can’t find one where it should be, reach out to IngramSpark immediately for a resolution. 

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For The DIY Author: Where to score freebies and deals

It’s been a while since I’ve done an author tip of any kind, so I figured it was time. This is for all my die hard DIYers who love to explore and who know well enough to know that making things costs money, but it doesn’t always have to cost a fortune. 

If you’ve spent any time at all on my website, you’re already familiar with all the tools and resources on my Resources page. These will be in addition to that. I’m not including them on the page because they work a little differently than the others. There are freebies, yes, but not always the ones you’re looking for, necessarily. There are deals, true, but you have to be vigilant to snag them before they are sold out or the time to claim runs out.

The list below is for resources you get by signing up for their newsletters. I know what you’re thinking, but trust me, there are times when giving someone your email address is a really, really good thing. If you’re paranoid about getting hacked, I suggest creating a separate email account just for these subscriptions. Just don’t forget to check it on a regular basis so you don’t miss out. 😉 

There are two components to this website: FontBundles and DesignBundles. As their names suggest, FontBundles offers fonts. DesignBundles offers design elements that can be used with PhotoShop and other image manipulation programs. Sometimes, the deals include things like backgrounds or images that don’t need special software at all. 

Both of these parts work on the same concept. You sign up for the newsletter (you only need to sign up for one) and they send you weekly emails with freebies that you can download at no cost then and there. On top of that, they have periodic deals on bundles, which pack a number of fonts or elements together at a much lower cost than you’d get if you bought them individually. And every once in a while, they have $1 events, where a selection of fonts/designs only cost $1 each. All of these deals have an expiration date. If you miss it, they’re gone and you have to pay full price again. 

But the best part is, everything on these two websites comes with a commercial license, so you’re free to use it on anything you want without worrying about licensing. If you’ve ever looked for any kind of stock online, you know full well how important that is. 🙂 You’re welcome.

Think of Envato Market as a catch-all for anything and everything you could possibly need. Fonts, icons, logos, graphics, videos, audio, even website templates and elements. It is huge. Every time you think you’ve explored it all, you find something new. 

Much like FontBundles, when you sign up for the EnvatoMarket newsletter, you get monthly freebies in your inbox. It’s usually one thing from each category: A font, an audio track, a graphic, a website template, etc. They last a month, during which time you can download these things at no cost, with the proper licensing included. Once the month is up, the deals are replaced by something else. 

If you want to explore the website beyond what’s free, please do. Their price range from very affordable to somewhat pricey. You’ll see an immense variety of products available. Some may not be of the same high quality as you would find on specialty websites like iStockPhoto, or DepositPhotos, but you might get lucky and find exactly what you’re looking for. I did, more than a few times.  

Creative Market is similar to Envato Market. Same concept, too. You sign up for their newsletter and they send you periodic emails with freebies. The website is well worth exploring, especially for fonts. I consider fonts the trickiest of all graphic elements to get right. By now, everyone knows (or should know) that you can’t just take an image from Google results and plop it onto your website or cover design. That’s how you get sued for copyright infringement. But fonts are gray area. Too many websites out there list hundreds of thousands of fonts “for free,” and I love those websites. But when it comes to my own designs, I’ve learned it’s safer to go the paid route. 

The great thing about this resource, which isn’t necessarily true for FontBundles, for example, is that when you download a freebie from them, it’s saved in your account and you can re-download at a future date. So, if you’re like me and download things on impulse on your way to work and then forget about it, you can go back into your account and it’ll tell you exactly what you downloaded when.

Bonus: This site includes things that can be used by the average Joe who’s never heard of the Adobe Suite. Like PowerPoint presentation templates. 🙂  

I’ve talked about AppSumo before, but it’s worth mentioning again. This resource stands in a league of its own. What they offer is subscription discounts. And I mean deep discounts that come with some awesome perks. For example, a basic level subscription to the social media management tool eClincher will cost you $59/month. I managed to snag a deal from AppSumo that cost me a one-time payment of $49 for lifetime membership. 

My favorite of their deals is for DepositPhotos, 100 photos for $49, which comes out to $0.49 per image at the highest possible resolution (which is like 4k now). And unlike the subscription deals you get on the DepositPhoto website, these credits never expire. If you do any graphics work at all, if you need images for your website, or your book covers, or any promotional graphics, this deal is worth your weight in gold. It comes around maybe once or twice a year, and sells out fast, so if you see it in your inbox, grab it. 

A word of caution on this resource: It is very tempting to buy amazing-looking deals you might not necessarily need. Always do your homework and consider your own workflow to see if you can actually utilize that thing you’re tempted to buy. When it comes to stock resources, all deals are not made equal. I can vouch for DepositPhotos because it’s my go-to site and I know they have stuff I can use. Something else might not be as helpful. Always check out the site first, search the things you usually use. if you find good stuff, go forth. If you don’t see enough things you’d want to download, save your money and wait for something else. 

I’ve been making my own graphics, covers, websites, and promotional things for long enough to appreciate a good deal when I see it. I’ve spent money I didn’t need to, missed out on deals by a matter of minutes, tried and tested different ways of doing things, and I’m still learning. What worked for me years ago doesn’t cut it anymore. I’ve evolved. I’ve outgrown the old and moved on to the new.

You may be just starting out, or you may have been at this for years and already know some or all of these tools. Wherever you happen to be on your writing/designing journey, I hope these resources make your job at least a little easier.

If you found this post helpful and want to show your appreciation, you can buy one or two of my books for yourself, or as a gift for someone else. 🙂 Check them out here. Thanks in advance for your support!

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Amazon’s New Rating System and What it Means for You

This is something I’ve only recently become aware of and, naturally, I noticed the problems first. Here’s my breakdown on what’s going on:

Amazon, apparently activated a new feature where users can leave a rating without a review. Meaning, you can have a book with 37 ratings but only 33 reviews, like my Wolfen:


On the surface of it, it seems like a good thing. A lot of people are shy about leaving a review, but don’t mind leaving a star rating. Plus, Barnes & Noble has been doing it for years and years so it seems like this is just Amazon catching up their review game.

But, of course, this being Amazon, it’s not quite that simple.

Amazon doesn’t show you the extra ratings like Barnes & Noble does. There is no way to see who left them (even if they were anonymous) or what they were, so the only way you have of knowing you got an extra rating is by looking at the percentage breakdown and, as I have recently discovered, those ain’t exactly what you’d call “good math”…

Here’s what happened…

While scrolling through my books on Amazon, I noticed my novella duo, The Beast Series only had a 2.7 star rating. :O Now, vanity aside, I knew for a fact that wasn’t the case because my reviews there hadn’t changed in months, and the last time I’d checked, I only had one 1-star review. The math didn’t add up so I clicked it to see what was going on, and I saw this:

5 ratings, 52% of which were 1 star, according to the breakdown. To say this was upsetting is an understatement, so I scrolled down to check on the reviews and saw this:

I know that’s a lot of tiny text to read, so let me break it down for you, with actual math. The book had 5 ratings and 5 corresponding reviews, so right off the bat I knew there weren’t any “extra” ratings screwing with the stats. What I saw was what I was supposed to get:.

  • Three (3) 5-star ratings, which accounted for 60% (not the 24% shown in the breakdown)
  • One (1) 4-star review, accounting for 20% (again, not the 24% shown)
  • And one (1) 1-star review, accounting for another 20% (definitely not the 52% shown in the breakdown)

The average rating, therefore, should have been 4.0 / 5, which is quite different from the 2.7 rating Amazon was showing on their storefront.

Now, math may not be my strong suit but I can still count to 5, and there is no way that a company as huge as Amazon could have goofed on the math, so the only other explanation is that this was done on purpose.

But why?

As someone commented on that Facebook post of mine, apparently, this is Amazon’s way of combating the growing problem of authors buying floods of 5-star reviews to game Amazon’s algorithms and improve their visibility/sales. Amazon decided to face this issue head on by devaluing 5-star ratings and increasing the value placed on low star ratings in some twisted attempt to level the playing field, I guess… (insert a cartoon WTAF?! face here)

And you might say to yourself, “Oh, okay, well we know the star ratings have been getting abused by unscrupulous authors. At least Amazon is doing something about it.”

Nope. Nope. Hell to the no.

What Amazon actually did was render their own rating/review system obsolete and turned it into false advertising (if not outright fraud) with two easy steps.

  • You can’t trust the reviews because you can no longer tell whether they’re genuine and organic, or just something the author paid for
  • You can’t trust the average star rating, because it’s not what it actually says
  • You can’t trust the number of ratings/reviews because there may or may not be hidden ones that Amazon won’t show you–and that means you can’t even verify what they are.

In short, YOU CAN’T TRUST AMAZON.

But it gets worse…

For one thing, the ratings and reviews don’t show in your Author Central account, either, to verify from that end. You have to go by what’s displayed on the main storefront. So many ways to rig the game when no one can see you doing it…

For another, Amazon shoppers don’t know this. No one looking for a good book to read is going to whip out a calculator and double check the math on the star ratings. They’ll take what’s there at face value. How many people do you think will click on a book with a 2.7 star rating when there are literally millions of books with 4-5 star ratings? Do you think that might hurt an author’s sales?

But still…

You might say to yourself this is a necessary move. You have to fight fire with fire.

No. It’s one thing for a player within the system to game the system to their advantage. It’s another for the entire system to be changed to everyone’s disadvantage. This punishes authors who never had anything to do with fake reviews. Authors who worked hard to get a handful of ratings and reviews, who can’t afford to advertise on the platform and rely on those reviews and star ratings as a promotional tool.

I sincerely hope that this is still in beta testing and Amazon will eventually fine tune the rating-only system so they are seen and verifiable. At the same time, I don’t really think they will. And I have little faith they have any interest whatsoever to maintain a fair rating/review system.

Update on The Beast Series

As of my typing this paragraph, I received a new 5-star review and my average star rating for this title has, indeed changed. But the math is still wrong (should be 4.167, or 4.2, properly rounded up):

Just something to keep in mind going forward. I will be keeping an eye on this, and you should, too, whether you already have books published on Amazon or you’re still in the planning/prep stage.

One way to combat this:

If you use your ratings/reviews to promote your book, use individual reviews rather than the average rating. Keep choice reviews on your blog/website. Have a page dedicated to each book and show off your best reviews, and don’t forget to include links to all stores where readers can buy them, not just Amazon. Remember, your website is the only place where you control the content and how it’s presented.

If you have a note in your books asking readers to leave a review, or if you regularly ask your readers to review, give them multiple options (i.e., Barnes & Noble, Goodreads, etc.) because those places count, too. You can also ask for testimonials on your website and use those to promote your book (this is something I just thought of now and will look into implementing on my own website).

Good luck, and…

May the odds be ever in your favor…

Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games)

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Smashwords Industry Predictions for 2020

Mark Coker has published his annual report of predictions for the book industry in his blog post: 2020 Publishing Predictions: House of Indie on Fire. This is one of the articles I go out of my way to look up every single year so I’ll know what I’m getting into.

This year, I won’t lie, the outlook appears pretty bleak. It’s no secret that Mr. Coker isn’t a fan of Amazon’s business practices, so you’ll see a lot of that in the post, but he makes good, solid points on everything he shares. Maybe with a bit too much drama, but still…

Here are the facts:

When you entrust the bulk of your publication to a single entity, that entity owns you.

When you allow another entity to set the price for your product, that entity owns your income.

When you have to pay an entity that offers free distribution to make your product visible, it’s no longer free distribution.

But here is another fact:

None of this was forced on Indies. Indies chose it on their own, over and over again. It was a choice that might have provided a slight edge early on, but has now become a shackle. And, for many, the cost of removing it is too great.

My thoughts on the whole thing:

You can’t control the breadth and depth of a global, digital industry that’s open to everyone and has very few rules of proper conduct. You might as well try to drain the ocean with a tea cup.

What you can control is yourself. Your actions. Your books. Your publishing strategy. What you can do is fight like hell to keep that control from being taken away from you. Because isn’t that control the reason you chose to self-publish in the first place?

I became an Indie author because I wanted to present my books to the world my way. That hasn’t, and will never change. So my personal focus for 2020 will be on what I do and how I do it. Because, at the end of the day, I’m an author, and my books are all that matter.

Sometimes you just have to get back to the basics, ya know? 🙂

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If You Can See This, Let Me Know

This is as much an announcement as it is a test of all associated services. I have outgrown my website so I upgraded. I went from a free WordPress.com website/blog to a WordPress.org website self-hosted on Siteground. Click around and check out the difference. The biggest one is the glaring absence of ads. Those used to drive me mad. It’s actually why I decided to make the switch in the first place.

But let me start from the beginning…

WHY DID I LEAVE WORDPRESS.COM?

Don’t get me wrong, I love WordPress, which is why I am still using their services, just in a different capacity. They have beautiful themes, they’re pretty easy to work with, and they’re structured so you don’t have to worry about what something will look like on a different-sized screen. Those are all great things.

The biggest con for me was that they started to get greedy. When I first set up my websites on WordPress.com, they displayed an ad at the bottom of each blog post, and that was it. It was a reasonable amount of ads, and my static pages remained clean, so I was content. But recently, those ads have spread to every page, post, and widget area in multiples. There are drop-downs in a top banner and pop-ups at the bottom of the page, and no amount of custom CSS cheating will hide them. The only solution is to pay for a monthly subscription plan to remove them and gain a tiny bit more CSS customization.

I should say this is not meant to deter you from using WordPress.com. It’s still 100% worth it if you only have one website to worry about. Unfortunately for me, I have several websites hosted with them and the total cost for monthly plans for all of them came out to more than self-hosting (which is usually the more expensive option). So, even though I cringed, I decided it would ultimately be for the best if I made the switch.

I’m a grown up webmaster now. Got access to codes I should never be allowed to mess with.

WHY DID I CHOOSE SITEGROUND?

I did look into several options, including Bluehost, which is the one WordPress recommends. I decided to go with Siteground for two reasons:

  1. It came recommended by a friend who has experience with them. Not only do I trust his opinion, but now I have someone whose brains I can pick if I run into issues with any of my websites.
  2. They offer a reasonably priced plan for people with more than one website. The plan I chose allows me to create unlimited websites, as long as they fit within my storage limit. For me, that shouldn’t be a problem. Better, since I’m not limited to how many sites I can create, it gives me room to grow.

HOW DO I LIKE IT SO FAR?

Well, it’s only been a couple of days. I took advantage of their free website transfer services to transfer my main author website. There were a couple of hiccups along that path, mostly my fault because I didn’t know what I was doing. That one is still in the works, because reasons.

For this website, I went the solo route. I did the transfer, and the install, and the configuration. Because I used a different theme, I had to redo a lot of stuff, but it only took me a few hours to get it up and running and I am very happy with the final result.

Likes:

  • No ads
  • Full control over layout and appearance
  • Hundreds of plugins (if I ever need them)

Dislikes:

You can’t live preview the themes. That frustrates me so much you have no idea. In WordPress.com, when you’re picking a theme, you can click on the preview and it will take you to a fully functional website so you can see how the layout works. In WordPress.org, that’s not the case. When you click to preview the theme, it takes you to a bare bones blog page that shows you text layouts, but that’s it. It won’t even show you a fully functional front page, and that’s the most important part!

This is why I haven’t finished my author website yet. The theme I have now doesn’t work the same here as it did on WordPress.com. I’ll have to find a new one and do a total makeover again, which is going to be a pain in the ass, but also probably a good thing. My plan is to knock out the small, easy sites and then I’ll be able to focus on that monster.

WANNA HELP ME BETA TEST?

I could really use some help on one part of this whole thing. See, when you move your website, you have to install a Jetpack plugin to transfer your subscribers and activate the follow via email feature. I did that, and I’m hoping my subscribers are reading this in their inboxes right now.

If you’re one of them and you see this, please leave me a quick Hello in the comments to let me know it’s working. That’s all. I just need to know if the subscriptions carried over. And if the discussion functions work! LOL

Thanks in advance. 🙂

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How to Self-Publish and Not Go Broke

One of the core principles of communication they taught in my college business classes was: If you present a problem without offering a solution, you’re just whining. I started this blog with the intention of helping new and aspiring writers navigate the world of (self-)publishing, and that is still its primary focus, despite the occasional rant and whine.

With my last post, I presented a problem: Self-publishing costs time and money.

With this one, I would like to present a few workarounds and practical solutions that basically boil down to: It doesn’t mean you have to go broke to do it.

Be forewarned, this will be a very long post that essentially summarizes a large portion of this entire website, but I wouldn’t post it if I didn’t think it was important.

So let’s take it from the top.


The Process of Self-Publishing in 12 (Not So) Easy Steps


  1. Write a book
  2. Get it edited
  3. Copyright it
  4. Write your blurb and tag line
  5. Choose your distribution strategy and timeline
  6. Create your distribution accounts
  7. Format your book
  8. Cover your book
  9. Set your price
  10. Upload the files
  11. Click Publish
  12. Promote like the entire future of your writing career depends on it.

This list will be the basis for what’s about to follow. You’ll notice not all of the items on that list have a monetary cost attached to them. But I did say “time and money,” didn’t I? 🙂 That’s because your time is money. Free time isn’t really free. It’s time you could spend with your loved ones, or chilling out by yourself. Every hour you put into being a writer is work. Even if you don’t want to call it that. It’s work you expect to get paid for in the future through royalties, so it’s a cost that is meant to be recouped.

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A Hard Stance and a Line in the Sand: Editing

As a member of a couple of groups for authors and writers, I see things like this pop up all the time:

  • Does anyone know of a good app for editing?
  • Do I need to use an editor for my book?
  • How much does an editor cost?

Please kindly note that one of these questions is not like the other. I will answer them in order, and you will notice I am very much taking a hard stance on this. There are a lot of things you can DIY when it comes to writing and publishing. Editing is not one of them. This is the line in the sand that separates professional writers from hobbyists who just want to see their name on a book no matter what.

Editing Apps

I will temper this by saying up front that there are legitimate reasons for using an automated app to check your work. I hear good things about Grammarly. Haven’t used it myself, but it’s supposedly pretty good at finding grammatical and spelling errors. As a tool to help you hone your craft, it’s handy. But it has shortcomings that make it unreliable for any level of professional, multi-layered feedback. You should never rely on an app for final edits.

Working With an Editor

Let me be very clear on this one point. When it comes to getting your book ready for publishing, NO APP IN THE WORLD CAN DO WHAT A PROFESSIONAL HUMAN EDITOR CAN DO. No, you cannot rely on an app to polish your work into shape for publishing. There is so much more to editing than just grammar and spelling. An app will never be able to tell you if your characters are flat, if you have a plot hole in chapter seven, if you suddenly switched your character’s name from Adam to Alex halfway through, or changed the spelling from Erik to Eric within the same chapter. An app will not be able to gauge the tone of your book, or track the pacing, or any of the million little things that go into making a book the best book it can be.

When it comes to publishing your work, YOU NEED TO WORK WITH A PROFESSIONAL EDITOR.

Period.

Hard stop.

This is the absolute bare minimum you need to do before you put your book out there. It’s not just a matter of good business practice, but also respect for your readers’ time and money. They are investing both in the faith that you have provided them with a professionally put-together book. That’s what they’re paying for. If you can’t provide that, you should not be publishing.

Read that again:

If you can’t provide a professionally put-together book, you should not be publishing.

Period.

Hard stop.

Editing Costs

The follow-up I always get to this is, “But not everyone can afford an editor…” and I’m going to put a stop to this right here and now. I–do–not–care. Your readers do not care. It’s not my, or their job to commiserate with you on any financial hardships you might have. They’re paying for your book, not your sob story. A proper book is what you owe them.

If you are traditionally published, your publishing house is already taking care of this, so this entire blog post does not apply to you. But all you self-published authors out there, listen up.

  • You are your own boss.
  • You are a business owner.
  • You set your own timelines.

No one is holding a torch to your feet to publish a book before it’s ready. You’re calling the shots, so any decisions you make to cut corners and skimp on necessities are ultimately your fault. Readers will notice. They will blame you, and rightly so. You cheated them and deserve to be called out for it.

But I have no money for an editor!

Then you need to hold off on publishing until you have saved up for one.

There aren’t a lot of up-front costs for publishing a book. This is most definitely one of them. And there is no excuse in the world that would ever justify not paying it–it all comes down to ego and selfishness. By not having your book properly edited, you’re telling your readers, “Fuck you, I don’t care. I just want your money.”

Editing does not have to be expensive.

There are plenty of affordable options. Many editors will even do a sample edit on your book first to see if you’re a good match. Most will charge a per-word fee (something like $0.005/word would be standard for a professional, so a 100k book would come out to about $500). Some might be willing to barter their services in exchange for something else (like cover design, or swag design, something they can use in return). If all else fails, ask your friends and family to help you cover the cost. There’s always GoFundMe–as long as you’re reasonable in your request and don’t take advantage of people’s charity, of course.

The point is, you have options. Use them.

End rant.

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Read More, Read BETTER

This is going to be part author tip, part lecture (not the boring, preachy kind, I hope) and part recommendation list. It will likely be on the long side, but bear with me, there is a point to it, I promise.

THE LECTURE

We’ve all heard the saying that in order to be a great writer, you have to be an avid reader. Want to improve your writing? Read more.

That saying in and of itself is an example of the problem with the saying. Yes, if you want to be a great writer, you definitely need to read a lot. But there is nuance to that, which you kind of have to intuit. The act of reading in and of itself isn’t enough. The trick is in how you read.

You’ve heard about active listening, right? It’s the concept of listening to understand, not to form a response. See, when you listen with the intent of forming a response, you’re not really listening to what someone is telling you. You have an agenda and you automatically fit what is being said into what you want to hear so you can respond. By doing that, you miss the message. Active listening means paying attention to what is being said and how it’s being said. You then repeat it back to the speaker to confirm that you understood what they’re trying to say, and only then do you respond.

The same applies to reading. In order to hone your own writing style, you need to practice active reading (and I totally made that term up, but it’s the most fitting term for what I mean). You need to not just read the book, but also absorb the technical details about it. Analyze the voice, appreciate the diction, trace the story arc, dig deep into the characters’ psyche. Think about why the author wrote what they did, how it fits into the overall whole of the book.

It’s a lot less fun than reading for pleasure, I’ll tell you that. And it will absolutely ruin you as a reader because, once you see behind the curtain, you won’t be able to close it back again. You will start to critique every new book you read, even the ones you absolutely love. That’s the sacrifice you make to become a good writer. Because you need to be able to identify things you like and dislike in the books you read in order to be able to identify them in the books you write.

THE AUTHOR TIP

That concludes the lecture part of this post. Now on to the tip and reading list.

I propose that every author brings something unique to their books. Sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on it, but when you see it, you recognize that, “Yep, that’s definitely a John Smith book.” That’s what you want to find–in other people’s books, as well as in yourself as an author. What makes them special? What is your own something special?

A while back, I put together a list of books I thought every writer should read, for various reasons. I want to share that here with you now. If you’ve already read these books, try reading them again, while keeping these notes in mind. You might notice some things you missed before.

RECOMMENDATIONS FOR VOICE AND STYLE

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged that Ms. Austen had an earworm of a writing style. I’m not even kidding. Why do you think it’s been emulated so much? Read one of her books and then try to write one chapter in that same style. You’ll be surprised how easy it is to do, and how hard it is to stop.

When I got this assignment in high school, I ended up writing a 40-page novella, rather than just a chapter, and it’s influenced my writing ever since. Austen’s writing style is so sophisticated and lyrical, but not pretentious at all. It flows through your mind and makes you feel like you’re wearing a period costume and reclining on a drawing room settee. It’s beautiful. Plain and simple.

The Dust Lands Series by Moira Young

In contrast to that, I present to you the Dust Lands series by Moira Young. Compared to Austen, the voice of this series feels like a train wreck in the beginning but, like Austen, it gets under your skin. The style of this series is very deliberate. It speaks to the theme of the books, and is basically written as if someone from that book was telling you the story. It shoves you face first into this dystopian world and at first you hate it, then you want more, then you can’t get back out.


The voice and style of your book is extremely important–it sets the stage and paints the world you’re describing. But it doesn’t have to be grammatically flawless and poetic to make an impact. Sometimes, going against the grain is the best thing you can do.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ATMOSPHERICS

The Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This book changed the way I thought about books, and it required a brilliant English teacher to point it out to me, because I would have missed it otherwise. That’s how brilliant this actually is–you don’t realize the brilliance of it because you’re so engrossed in the scene you’re not thinking about the writing anymore.

Conrad is very good at telling the story from a specific character’s perspective. You see, hear, and feel what the character feels. That means, when he’s eavesdropping on someone’s conversation and those people move away, their dialogue fades out and you strain to try to hear more. You catch pieces here and there, holding your breath so you don’t get noticed. You’re no longer reading the book, you’re inside the story.

Dreaming of You by Lisa Kleypas

I’m including this book because it’s one of my all time favorites. There are plenty of things I love about it, but one of them is the way Ms. Kleypas describes her settings. Like Conrad, she puts you into the scene. When Sara is chasing off Derek’s attackers, you can feel the cold damp of the London night. When she’s hiding with Derek behind the curtain of the music room, you feel the heady heat of the scene, and your heart beats faster hoping no one pulls that curtain back.

When it comes to historical settings, authors sometimes have the tendency to go overboard with description in the interest of historical accuracy. Not so with Kleypas. She focuses on the story itself and the setting, while accurate (as far as I know), is only a part of it.


The beauty of descriptives is that they don’t have to drone on. In fact, their impact is far greater when they’re succinct and to the point. Both of these books are an excellent example of this.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT

Great Expectations by Charles Dickens

Dickens needs no introduction. If you haven’t read any of his books yet, I highly recommend that you do. This was the first book I’ve read by him, and I loved it from the very beginning. The story follows a young boy called Pip as his life takes several unexpected twists and turns and what I loved about it is the unvarnished way in which it is related.

Pip isn’t perfect. He is a young child when all this begins and, as such, you get to see him grow up, make mistakes, form attachments and prejudices, etc. At times, I wanted to slap him. At others, I felt horrible for what he was being put through. By the end, though he was still a very young man, he’s already lived a life fuller than most people will ever have. His flaws are what make Pip such an amazing character. Because perfection is boring. As readers, what we relate to are a character’s flaws and shortcomings. What we want is to see them triumph despite them.

By the way, Pip isn’t the only character in this story written in such a brilliant fashion. The entire cast of characters is presented in a way that will leave a lasting impression on the reader, which is a rare thing in literature.

The Rule of Four by Dustin Thomason and Ian Caldwell 

These two gentlemen wrote a book that became wholly and unfairly overshadowed by the phenomenon of The DaVinci Code. It’s called The Rule of Four and I recommend it here for one reason: the main character. Not the narrator, mind you, but the main character driving the plot. Similar to The Heart of Darkness, this story is told by an outside observer (and, really, it overlaps my recommendation category to Atmospherics as well because of it). You follow along from an intellectual distance, so you never get the full feel of the tension, frustration, and passion of this quest, you just get to bear witness to it. It’s that distance which makes this book so brilliant. Because you feel the narrator’s dismissal and simultaneous intrigue. You want to know more but are denied almost to the very end.

This book is not an action-packed adventure, but when the action does happen, it grips you unexpectedly hard because of it and you realize how attached you’ve grown to this one character. And therein lies its brilliance: You care almost despite yourself, and for reasons that seem so flimsy on the surface, but run as deep as if it was your actual best friend in that scene.


In any given book, it’s either the characters who drive the plot, or the plot that changes the characters. You can choose one, or the other, or sometimes both, but whichever it is, it’s not the action that makes readers connect with and relate to the characters, it’s the emotional context. Subtlety is the name of the game. At least it is in my own writing.


RECOMMENDATIONS FOR PLOT AND DIALOGUE

The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas

Have you read this one? Whether you say yes or no, you probably already know the story from somewhere. That’s how amazing it is. This book is not only well-written, it tells a story that sticks with you forever. It’s just so… big. It takes you to lots of different places, introduces lots of different characters, all of whom are in some way connected, but at the same time, it all centers around one man and his life. Edmond Dantes becomes the fulcrum on which all those lives turn. And they don’t even know it…

Seriously, if you haven’t read it yet, do. Take notes on how to tell a brilliant tale of love, pain, anguish, and revenge. Admire the genius of what Edmond has achieved and how. The behind-the-scenes machinations, the benevolence of his favor and the malice of his wrath. Absolutely nothing this man does is ever without an underlying reason. Whether it’s taking out a loan, or casually mentioning a medicinal tonic that can just as easily become a deadly poison.

This is a really long book, but it reads so quickly you don’t notice the page count. That’s brilliant story telling right there.

Dark Desires After Dusk by Kresley Cole

If you ask me who my favorite author is, right now, and for the last few years, it’s been Kresley Cole. She is a paranormal romance author and her books have never ever disappointed me. She has a singular gift for sarcasm and wit, and she brings that into her dialogue. A lot of times, writers adopt a very formal style with their dialogue which can come across stiff and unnatural. Ms. Cole writes the way people actually talk. And that can be a huge deal for a story, especially one set in present day(ish). You can see their conversations happening in real life, which makes the characters extremely relatable. Not only that, they’re also hilarious.

Dark Desires After Dusk might be my favorite of this entire series and it’s because of the hero, Cadeon Woede and his shameless sense of humor. This book is definitely worth reading, even if maybe you’re not really into paranormal romance. Just pay attention to the dialogue. I promise, you’ll appreciate the hell out of it. 😉 [just a bit of demon humor there]


I lumped the plot and dialogue in the same category because a great first chapter will hook a reader, but these two are what will keep them reading. If you don’t have your story plotted out properly, you will lose your readers in a heartbeat. They will spot plot holes from a mile away, and they may not be very forgiving. And dialogue is often times the hardest thing to get right. It requires a keen ear and a gift for listening. You need to be able to emulate natural speech from all walks of life in your chosen time period, but still make it relatable for readers in the here and now. But if you can do that, you’re halfway there. 


NOTICE ANYTHING WEIRD?

So now you’ve read the whole list. Notice anything special about it? Every single category has one classic and one contemporary title. There is a reason for that. The classics are, of course, classic for a reason, but if you’ve ever actually read them, you’ll know that not all of them are all that well-written or enjoyable (coughFrankensteincough). I think it’s because the stories and the message they convey transcend time, but the books themselves do not. Not everything written 100+ years ago will appeal to modern audiences. We can appreciate them in the context of their own time period, but sometimes they become more of an intellectual exercise, rather than something to savor for its own sake.

There are scores of modern books that are well worth reading and learning from, both for their ability to connect with their own audience, and for their unique, timeless qualities. Will these modern books be taught in schools a hundred years from now? I have no idea. But, as a writer, I can say I’ve developed a deep appreciation for them and what they’ve done for my own writing.

That’s all I have for you today. 🙂 Until next time!

GOT A LIST OF YOUR OWN? SHARE IN THE COMMENTS!

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Lessons From A Book Signing

So, you may not know this, but I actually write books. 😉 I know, shocking… I’ve been a writer for a long time, published for the last 9 years, but this year marks the first time I have ever stepped out into the world of author events as an attending author. I just came back from my very first group signing in Indianapolis, IN, and wanted to share with you how it went and some lessons I learned from the experience.

The nerve wracking “before”

It all began two weeks ago when I got a notification on my phone that a major runway at my take-off airport was closing down for repairs. The airline told me there would be significant delays and/or cancellations and advised me to fly a day earlier or later if my plans were flexible. The story was picked up by the local news which reported on Monday that there had been “dozens” of cancellations already that day.

Cue bone-deep panic. My plans were not at all flexible. There was only one direct flight out per day, and I couldn’t get the extra day off work, or the extra night at the hotel. If my flight got cancelled, I’d be screwed. Hell, if my luggage got lost, I’d be screwed, since I was bringing all my books for the signing with me. I spent a week stressing over it so much that by Thursday (the day before I was scheduled to fly) I existed in a state of constant anxiety over it. I checked and re-check everything. I packed as many books as I could fit into my carry-on, just in case my luggage got lost. I set multiple alarms and scheduled my ride to the airport so I’d get there super early.

Then I got the official seating chart for the event and discovered that I would be sitting with my back to the main entrance, and I didn’t have a two-sided banner. This might have been a small issue for some, but it was a big deal to me, so I ended up ordering a rush printed second banner at a local printer so I could double up and be visible from both sides.

Happily, my flight was on time, and the only hiccup I had was that I’d left my lip balm at home. I arrived in Indianapolis a half-hour early, with all my luggage accounted for, and checked in at the hotel. Did not sleep a wink that night, but I was on-site, so all was good.

Also happily, it turned out I misread the seating chart and was actually facing the entrance. But I still used both banners, just because I could. I regret nothing, except that I could have gotten that second banner much cheaper if I had bought it along with my first, rather than doing it last minute. But that’s done now. Moving on!

The Setup 

I will say the wait was the absolute worst. I made it a point to wake up early and have a huge breakfast because I knew I would not be leaving my table once I got there. Our set up time started at 9am and the doors officially opened at noon and closed at 5pm.

I had my table layout all planned out, but ended up changing it because of some silly technical difficulties. The plastic stands I got for my bookmarks were too unstable, so I nixed them and just laid out the bookmarks flat. My business cards are unique in that they are half matte and half raised gloss finish. Turns out, that gloss tends to stick to itself so my stack of business cards became a solid, inseparable brick. I had to separate them by hand and lay them out in a long row so they could be grabbed easily.

A last-minute addition to my table was a tablet that played my book trailer videos on loop (or so I thought). I checked it throughout the event to see if it was working, and laughed because each time I checked I caught it at a specific moment in the video. Yeah, turned out that was because for some crazy reason, the loop function got stuck on only the last 40 seconds of the 7.5 minute video.

Also on my table was a stack of two-sided book lists with all the covers on one side and an actual list on the other. The list included all my titles and ISBNs for all the formats they’re available in, as well as genres and tropes for each series. I handed these out to everyone who had me sign something for them, if they didn’t grab one on their own.

Lastly, I had a clipboard with a newsletter sign up sheet. I offered a free audiobook to everyone who signed up for my newsletter at the event. I ended up with 27 sign ups, which I think was a little over 10% capture rate. Not bad!

The Event

I was super nervous, but I took it as a learning experience so, no matter what happened (or didn’t happen) I was going to be happy with the outcome, learn from it, and move on to the next.

If I remember correctly, there were about 250 attendees and 70 or so authors at the event. I shared the table with another author who, it turns out, was also a book signing virgin like me! We had a fairly steady stream of people come by. Many had seating charts, tote bags, and other things for us to sign, so we weren’t just sitting there twiddling our thumbs. I had 7 people pre-order books from me and all except one of them came to pick them up. Aside from that, I had a few people buy books on the spot (I forget how many, it’s becoming one big blur) and one of them was the author at the next table over who couldn’t resist picking up a copy of Wolfen. I think that might have been my favorite moment of the whole day.

On the whole, I did not sell out. But I definitely made an impression and I left the event with only half of what I’d brought in, and it would have been much less, if I hadn’t made a couple of mistakes.

Speaking of…

Lessons Learned

If you don’t plan on selling it or giving it out, don’t drag it along. 

I had brought a full set of my paperbacks as a display piece. They were an unnecessary weight I could have spared myself. My half table was such a small space I could only stand them up with their spines showing, which was useless. Besides, I already had all the book covers on my book lists.

If you bring it, sell it or give it out.

Very early on, I had someone stop by asking about a series of books I didn’t have in stock. Except I did, because I’d brought a backup copy for all my early pre-orders in case my luggage got lost. I totally forgot about it in the moment and let the reader walk away. I am still kicking myself for that. I ended up hauling that extra set back home.

Plan your inventory prudently.

One piece of advice I heard was to wait for pre-orders to come in and then double what those are as your inventory. That’s tough when you have a long backlist and not a lot of table space. Or when you get no pre-orders at all. Another piece of advice I heard was to bring 8-10 copies of each book. That seemed like a bit much to me. Some people say shorter novellas sell better, others that readers prefer full-length books. Several said to bring more of book 1 in the series.

What I can tell you is that when I put out a last minute notice about extra sets of a series of novellas, I got as many pre-orders in that one day as I got the previous 2 months. No idea why. But since the lost sale at the event was for this series, I think I should have stocked those. I sold 3 copies of book 1 of a series, and only 1 of book 2, so the part about bringing more copies of the first book actually checks out. As for novellas vs. full length book, I brought 4 copies of my longest book (almost 600 pages) and 3 of them sold at the event when no one had pre-ordered it. The companion novella that went with it only sold 1 copy. The 3 series starters were also full-length novels, but most of the pre-orders were for novellas, so the length of the book didn’t appear to make much of a difference.

Check your setup.

The damn trailer video is still pissing me off two days later. I spent 3 weeks working on it and was so excited to have something unique to draw attention to my station, and then I went and got it stuck on a tiny fraction which made it a moot point. I had 2 hours prior to the start of the event in which I had nothing to do. I could have taken 15 minutes to watch it loop and make sure it was working correctly.

Go big or don’t bother.

I still think the book trailers were a good idea. But the problem (besides the loop glitch) was that the tablet screen was too small to make an impression. I was thinking, if I do it again, I should bring my laptop and have it playing on that. The 14″ screen should show much better. But it does mean more weight to carry to and from the event. And if it gets damaged or stolen, I might cry.

Bring an assistant.

Luckily, I had one. My dad was a last minute addition to my plans, partly because he was so excited for my first ever author signing, and partly because he’d done something similar to this himself and knew I would need help. He wasn’t wrong. Even with only half a table, I still had a lot of stuff to carry, set out, and break down again. Having him with me meant I could bring my books along, rather than ship them ahead and pay a storage fee to the hotel. He gave me feedback on how everything looked, what I was missing, what I should be doing and wasn’t. Also, having a friendly face next to me helped relieve at least a little anxiety.

Be ready for various payment methods.

Most of the purchases I processed were with a credit card, and all of those were chip cards. Which makes me glad I ordered a chip reader in addition to my swipey credit card reader before the event. I don’t even know if the new chip cards have a magnetic strip anymore. But the reader I got worked brilliantly, and it made each transaction a breeze. I also had a supply of small bills for cash purchases. I didn’t need as much as I had, but I was glad to have it, just in case.

Beta test pricing.

Okay, so this wasn’t so much a mistake as it was a trial run which didn’t pan out as I’d hoped. I had really cool stainless steel dog tags made for these signings. They are book-specific, with a neat design, and a bit of heft to them. I’d done them before as giveaways and they were such a big hit I thought I would sell them this time around. Turned out, I set the price much too high. I only sold one. But I will say that one was very determined to buy. Had cash ready and waited for me to finish talking with someone else so she could get it.

The other thing I was hoping to sell were foldable tote bags. In retrospect, those would have worked much better as giveaways, and I did give one to everyone who bought anything from me, but I could have just handed them out at random. I brought way too many of them back home.

Extrovert like you’re being paid to do it.

I will admit this is not my strong suit. I’m not used to being the one to initiate conversation, and you kind of have to when you’re at an event like this. Since I have no basis for comparison, I can’t say I screwed up, but I definitely could have done better to engage the people who browsed by my table. I just don’t know yet how to strike the proper balance between making conversation and making a sales pitch.

It’s not a profit center, it’s a marketing event.

The most helpful thing my assistant (or, as I like to call him, Dad) said to me is that it’s not so important how many books you sell, but how many people leave your table knowing your name. If you’re doing an event like this, especially one you have to travel to, you can pretty much count on taking a financial hit. No matter how thrifty you are with your travel and setup, it’s still a big cost just to attend. Odds are, you will not sell out. Hell, odds are, you will not sell much at all. Go into it with that assumption and then ask yourself, “What should my main goal be?”

The main goal is to get your name out there. So, more than huge stacks of books, you need things people will want to take. Things that will remind them of you and your books. Things they won’t just throw away the moment they leave. If you’re handing out printed things like bookmarks or business cards, don’t cheap out. Make them count. Make them so beautiful and unique people will want to take them. Definitely have a printed book list. Mine were a big hit and the readers who took them were really appreciative and impressed.

And don’t forget newsletter sign ups! Offer an incentive like a free ebook or audiobook, and get those email addresses. That’s your golden ticket right there.

Give yourself time to throttle down.

This also wasn’t a mistake on my part but more of an “it is what it is” sort of deal. I had originally planned to fly back home the day after the event in the late afternoon. I’d planned for this by adding a late check-out to my hotel reservation. Unfortunately, my flight was cancelled and rescheduled for 6am that morning instead. I had no other choice but to take it, so I rushed through packing everything right after the event and going to bed early so I could wake up at 3am and go to the airport heading home. I was already exhausted from stressing over the event and the lack of sleep and crazy travel times didn’t help matters. I crashed hard when I got home and was still tired the next day at work. Next time, I think I’ll stay a bit longer, maybe take in the sights while I’m there, so it’s not such a big shock to my system.

What’s Next

My second book signing will be the Sweet as a Peach event in Cumming, GA on October 5, which is less than 3 weeks from now! If you’re in the area, come by and say hello, you can check for yourself what my setup looks like and whether I’ve improved on the last time. 😉 Also, if you are coming and planning to buy books from me… you know what I’m gonna say, right?…. Please use this handy dandy pre-order form to reserve your copy by September 17. I will not be stocking all of my backlist and the books I will have in stock will be limited quantities.

Hope to see ya there!

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How to Record an Author Reading

In the interest of constantly exploring new avenues of “getting out there”, I have ventured into the realm of two things with which I have very little experience: audio recording/editing and book reading (as in, out loud). There are potentially significant benefits to this endeavor:

  1. It exposes my books to a new audience in a new way
  2. It helps me hone my audio editing skills
  3. It forces me to confront my own speaking voice and all that I hate about it
  4. It provides practical training for a day when I might choose to do this live

It’s also surprisingly easy to do with the help of modern technology and costs nothing, except my time and effort. So, since I have now recorded my own voice a couple of times already and plan on doing it some more, I thought it was time to share my how-to with fellow writers who might find it useful.


DisclaimerThis method is reserved strictly for casual recording. Any professional-level work (like narrating your own audiobook) involves a much more sophisticated studio setup to meet distribution requirements.


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