Sunday, 31 August 2014

Amazon Reviews: Is Four Stars the New Five Stars?

My apologies to those logging on expecting a post on Amazon’s pricing and royalty structure for Kindle Direct Publishing; that will have to wait. And it’s my blog. So there.

Reviews are necessary for giving an unbiased critique of your book, to help inform readers what they might find inside and its quality. They’re a necessary filtering system, pushing well-received books up rankings and exposing them to more customers and forcing less well-received books down the rankings.

Every restaurant owner knows that for every one person that points out the fly in their salad or the suspect smudge on their cutlery, there are nine that don’t. It’s the same with the converse of this, in regards to compliments for the chef: one gives a cheesy grin and says their soufflĂ© was tiptop, nine think about it, twiddling their thumbs as the waiter collects the plate. This is true for book reviews, too, though for about every 100 reads a book receives a review. They’re hard to come by. Especially five-star reviews.

Now, Amazon is full of five-star reviews, praising almost every book. Amazon, if they can provide substantial evidence to prove that the author knows the reviewer, will delete the review; but many slip the net. If I had a pound for every book I’d seen with a decent number of five-star reviews that was terrible when I looked inside, I wouldn’t be writing this now; I’d be holidaying in Barbados, thinking how wonderful it would be to go home to my luxury condo. Ok, maybe not that many, but you get the picture.

When I published my book The Goldfish and the Earthquake, I decided I wouldn’t be coercing my friends and family into writing rave reviews for my book. I told them about my book, of course, and some of my work colleagues will be writing reviews—at least I hope, they’re proving to be slow readers.

Thanks to my obsessive Twitter use and my amazing followers, reviews are coming in. And I, as naive as the day is long, expected these acquaintances to write rave reviews: “Best read ever!”; “Makes Chaucer seem like a dime-store hood”; “Where has this author been all my life?” But it hasn’t happened that way. Surely our conversation about the subtleties of preparing mac and cheese swayed them into giving my book five stars? No.

Is this a necessarily bad thing? I don’t think so. I have four four-star reviews at the time of writing and one three-star review. (I’ll get to the latter in good time.) When I finished my book, had read it for the first time, in my head I gave it four stars. It starts slowly, much quicker than the first draft did, but still, it doesn’t set off at hundred miles an hour. But it gets good, and there are some points of drama and humour in the beginning to get the reader over the hump. After the slow-ish beginning, it sets off like a rocket, and keeps the reader guessing, all along to the “exciting and surprising conclusion”. The reviews are well written, and, per the title, are warts-and-all. Here’s one:

My book isn’t the next big thing. It’s an exciting and dramatic read about a teenager's search for happiness after the death of his mother, and about friendship, especially when compared to the relationships you have to form, in this instance, George’s with his narcissistic, sociopathic younger half-brother. It is a four-star book. And, hopefully when people read its reviews, they will see that I haven’t coerced anyone into writing glowing reviews, and they will be well informed before purchasing it.

People aren’t stupid. I wasn’t stupid enough - even before I’d thought long and hard about Amazon’s review system - to buy a disposable razorblade sharpener, despite or, most probably, because of its rave reviews.

I’m not saying don’t try and go out there and get five-star reviews. They’re great. I’m sure at some point someone will read my book and give it five stars. Just go out there and get them organically. Prospective readers are looking for fakes.

Just for giggles, here’s the three-star review. I was quite friendly with this person on Twitter before she wrote it, and was diplomatic when critiquing some writing she’d sent me. Three-stars isn’t that bad, right? People have thousands upon thousands of books from which to choose, so aren’t inclined to dedicate three or four hours to a so-so book. Add this to its size on the screen compared to the others and my fledgling book ranking, which plummeted because of it, and I have a near-on disaster - but only until I receive more reviews. Anyway, I thanked her for it. Here it is.

I know, ouch! I said it was going to be warts-and-all. To be fair to her, she did encourage people to “find out for themselves” about my woolly characters and over-subtle style. That’s okay; I enjoy irony.

When you publish your next book or your first, think twice about putting someone up to writing an exaggerated review when you know deep down that it isn't what you say it is. You’ll only make people sceptical, or you could dupe someone into buying your book, only for them to find out that your book isn't the literary genius a review had told them it was and find yourself on the end of a scathing one-star review.

You book probably isn't as good as you think it is. (Bear in mind the readership for this blog is fledgling indie authors.) But it’s probably a fun read with a few flaws, which is an achievement. Your reviews should reflect this.

I’ll leave you with this partial review:

Thanks for reading. As always, leave comments below. And if you like, check out my book, and write a review … but only if you want to. However many stars you want to give it is fine.

 The Goldfish and the Earthquake is available now on Kindle at Amazon:

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Book Covers – DIY and Advice

We shouldn't do it, but we all do. Books are judged by their covers.

Imagine you’re walking through a book store. You go to the section dedicated your favourite genre. You’ll probably end up picking up a book by an author with whom you’re familiar, or the next in a nail-biting series. Because you’re a creature of habit. Especially when it comes to books. But imagine you didn’t see a book by an author with whom you’re familiar, and the nail-biting series you’ve been reading came to a predictable but heartwarming end. Necessity has forced you to break your habitual-buying pattern. So you scan your eyes across the shelves. You’re doing this quickly, probably while you think about what you’re going to cook for the evening meal, what’s on at the movies, or whether or not the supermarket on the way home stocks those stand-and-stack taco shells that somewhat save your ornate dining table on Mexican night from your eight-year-old. You scan, taking in colours, text, pictures, and various uses of Photoshop filters. You’re judging books by their covers.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably an aspiring indie-author, unknown, or, God forbid, “undiscovered”. The first battle you have is trying to convince someone to pick up your book, or click on it from a long list on an Amazon search. You’ve written a great blurb, the first sentence of your first chapter grabs your reader by their short and curlies, but in order to showcase these to a potential reader, you have to get them to pick yours out of a list of many books.

The term book cover is misleading term. It makes it sound like all it’s doing is stopping the rain from smudging the text. Think of a book cover as a marketing image. It’s hopefully brightest light among a whole room of lights, all competing for the same wandering, habitual moth. You want yours to burn the brightest. You want that moth to bounce off your bulb, hopefully many times.

Does this mean throwing money at it? Not necessarily. But it helps, especially if you’re not technically minded. But neither was I.

Here’s how I did mine:

I looked at others in the genre: My novel is a coming-of-age psychological drama titled The Goldfish and the Earthquake. Some book covers try to tell a story, others can be ambiguous, but you need to think about the genre in which you’re publishing. Take a look at successful books in your genre (100+ reviews on Amazon is usually a good indicator). Look at their layout, where the title is, author name, etc. Look at the colour usage. Think about why it would entice a reader to look at the blurb or to download a sample.
Coming-of-age psychological thriller is a niche genre. There weren’t many to look at. But it’s a drama, at heart. And I wanted to play on the ambiguity of the title, draw people in that way (only time will tell if I’m to be successful), so I went for the minimalist approach, used by many purporting their genre fiction as literary.

Come up with a central image: do a search on Amazon for eBooks and look at the size of the thumbnail displayed for each book. Book covers need to be simple. Effective ones use a central image with the name of the author and title as a header or footer respectively, or vice versa. Think about a central image that will represent your story well, will tell the reader straightaway what they might find inside. Writing an erotic vampire story? Have a close-up of an attractive lady’s prosthetic fang with blood dripping from it. Writing a financial-collapse thriller? Have a picture of the New York Stock Exchange, flames licking at it. Mine, by the way, is a goldfish swimming in a swimming pool, which I decided was an intriguing image.

Get a good photograph and/or use instructional videos on YouTube: get a good photograph and fifty percent of your work is done. All you’ll need is photo-editing software such as Photoshop or for free you can download Gimp. (I’ll post the link at the bottom of the blog.) Gimp and Photoshop are both scary to the layman. Click on any tab at the top of the screen and you’ll get a long list of what sound like words in Klingon. Whatever you want to do with Gimp or Photoshop, use YouTube instructional videos. I didn’t have a picture of a goldfish swimming in a swimming pool, and I thought it would be pretty hard to find one or take one myself. So I needed to know how to create a water effect in Gimp – which I could easily overlay a royalty-free image of a goldfish over the top of it. There are many videos for this purpose. Think about you want to do, whether it be create a simple effect on a photograph or have blood dripping down a fang, and YouTube it.

Use a specific font, not just the ones that come with your operating system: many fonts can be downloaded for free. (Again, I’ll post links at the bottom). There’s a plethora of texts to choose from, most of them, it has to be said, isn’t what you’re looking for, but there are some gems, you just need to know which ones are suitable. Go back and look at the fonts used in books of the same genre. Some may blend in as part of the whole theme of the book cover, others may jar; you want yours to do the former. You want the font to give some indicator of what genre the book is in, as well. I came across a great blog on this that I’ll post a link to at the bottom. But whichever one you use, make sure it’s big. You want that text readable on that thumbnail on that long list. For your author name, you want to use the same font for each book. You’re creating a brand, and when you make your next cover, you want previous readers to know that the M J Ducksworth that’s written at the bottom of this new book cover is the same M J Ducksworth that wrote that other lovely book they've read. You are a brand now.

Tweak stuff in Gimp or Photoshop to make sure you’re happy: when you’ve got it ninety-percent there, tweak filters in Gimp or Photoshop, play around with various fonts, look to put certain effects on your image that will enhance the theme – again, YouTube is your friend.

To summarise: my first book cover took me hours. And it was awful. My sister described it as looking like a children’s book cover. Which is a massive insult to all children’s books. Here it is:

But I got better. I watched videos, I played around with the software, and I feel quite confident that my result is a good one. It looks smart and professional, and it suits the ambiguity of the title, I feel.

Of course, you can forget everything you’ve read and have a professional design your cover. You could spend hundreds of dollars, get a great cover, only to find out your book is a flop. Or your book could be wildly successful. You could become the next John Locke. The chances of the latter happening are slim, but you can become a moderately successful semi-professional indie-author with a good DIY cover. That is realistic.

I started the blog with a clichĂ© - kind of, though I used the antithesis of it – so I’ll end with one: if I can do it, so can you (design the cover, that is, the jury’s still out on the success of my book).

The Goldfish and the Earthquake is available now on Kindle at Amazon:


Next post will be on submitting to Kindle Direct Publishing and other platforms.

As always, thanks for reading. If you have any helpful tips or you just want to tell me I'm rubbish, leave a comment below.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Formatting - ‘Many of These eBooks are not Formatted Properly’

Welcome to Publishing the Goldfish, a title so vague this blog could be about anything. But it’s not.
This is my journey from publishing obscurity to, well, hopefully making enough money so that I can call myself a writer to my friends and family without feeling like a phony.

I spent fourteen months writing my second novel, The Goldfish and the Earthquake ­­­- which should go some way to explaining the blog’s title … doesn't actually, never mind. It’s based on a short story I wrote of the same name, the only story my close-to-the-knuckle dad didn't accidentally criticise with faint praise. Inspiring stuff, I know, but it motivated me – you’d understand if you’d met my dad. I sat down when most are in bed, wrote a first draft over three months, let it stew while I wrote another novel, then started the laborious task of editing, and reediting, ad infinitum. I finally, this summer, finished my novel, polished it up to a high-mirror sheen. Deleted adverbs. Cut huge chunks of fat off. Read every sentence like it were the instructions for one of Jigsaw’s torture devices.

I always knew I would self-publish it. Like many would-be writers, I’m naive and ambitious. I think I have important stories to tell people. Literature that entertains. But another side of me is pragmatic, a little voice inside me that tells me I’m not good enough, that if I send this novel to multiple literary agents and publishers, they’ll just confirm my worst fears: that it’s no good and, worse, that I can’t even write one decent sentence, let alone a string of 80,000 or so that make up an entertaining story with interesting characters and socially important themes. So self-publishing it is for me. Besides, getting recognition from some editor or literary agent has never been my goal. My goal has always involved you, the person reading this now. There’s no need to write more: you’re clever.

So, finished novel. How the hell do I make this into an eBook? Google was used extensively, bringing up software that could just, at the click of fingers, magically turn my manuscript into a professional-looking eBook. Sounds too good to be true, doesn't it? It is. There is a multitude of eBook-conversion freeware, all of it useless. I put my manuscript through a few of these and came out with a document that had no indents, no spaces between paragraphs, just a block of text that looked about as inviting as reading material as the list of ingredients on the side of industrial-strength glue.

My next attempt was using a blog that offered instructions on the whole process, using two free-to-download eBook programs: Sigil and Calibre. I spent hours on this, came out with an eBook that was ninety percent there. It looked great in comparison to the conversion softwares’ results. I nearly, very nearly, just accepted the result, knowing it wasn't perfect. The problem I had with it was that the first sentence of each paragraph after a scene break or at the start of a chapter was indented, which isn't the industry standard. Here's what I mean:

     Industry standard:


     Result using blog:

I know, you think I’m being pedantic, but hear me out. I’ve come across eBooks with formatting issues such as the one above while reading samples on Amazon, and haven’t bought them. I was distracted away from the content, thinking about what other corners may have been cut. Ultimately, and here’s the big part, distracted from getting sucked into the story.

Formatting errors look untidy and, if we’re to be considered writers by anyone else apart from our doting mothers and enthusiastic friends, these are issues that will act as a barrier to that. Ever seen a painting displayed in an art gallery that’s presented in a tatty frame, noticeable gaps at corner joins? Ever seen a car displayed in a showroom that has yesterday’s seagull target practice displayed on the bonnet? You read every sentence of your novel like a crazed prison inmate deciphering a code in one of the library’s books that would hopefully lead to his breaking out, so why would you not bring that level of professionalism to how your book is formatted? You wouldn’t, right?

So here’s the solution, and, before I tell you, I just want to write that I’m not affiliated with this author – I don’t even follow her on Twitter: Self Publishing in Ebook and Print: A practical guide for the technically challenged by Patsy Trench, which is available from Amazon.

This is a nuts-and-bolts guide to formatting your eBook – and there’s even a print guide – and you’ll only need word. You read right. It’s funny, informative and, here’s the reason I like it, easy to follow. (You’d understand fully if you’d ever spoken to me on a Monday morning). And the result is great: no formatting issues of which to speak. How do you like that, dad? This looks like it’s been produced by a writer, a real one.

For those of you are content with ninety percent, here’s the instructional blog:

This is no way a dig at Cameron: the fact that he published this free of charge to help self-publishers is a great thing – he even offers a fix for the formatting issue on which I focussed, though I couldn’t get it to work (as couldn’t some of the people who had replied on the message board).

Chance of success in self-publishing – in fact, publishing in general – is very slim. Maximise your chances at success by formatting your eBook properly. And remember, no one likes bird poo.

Thanks for reading. The next blog post will be about cover design - DIY and otherwise.

The Goldfish and the Earthquake is available now on Kindle at Amazon: