Stories as low-tech GPS


Between kind reviews given freely and lots of other favors, I’ve been the object of quite a bit of charity lately. My heroine Mary in The Awful Mess: A Love Story is not at all graceful at accepting help from others, but she’s gotten better at it by the end of the novel.

Which is good. Because we all need help sometimes.

I got some this week from Jenny Milchman, the talented and persistent author of the debut suspense novel Cover of Snow. She featured me in one of her “Made It Moment” blog posts this weekend (at Fellow indie author Lisa Arrington did this for me, too, earlier this month.

It’s been really nice hearing back from some other authors who also devote a portion of their book earnings to good causes. But I also believe that most people who read and write fiction find ways to help others, somehow … if only because reading fiction builds empathy for others (while also providing some of the health advantages of feeling part of a social group).

I was reading a book yesterday (okay, skimming it — it was overdue at the library!) called Wired for Story that uses pop neurology to review the rules of good fiction writing. And one of the rules was that a protagonist’s life has to get messed up — by the protagonist.  And then it needs to keep getting even more messed up before any resolution is reached. And that is indeed the basic plot of just about any good novel you pick up.

Audrey Hepburn, 'Perils of Pauline' - Imgur

Audrey Hepburn, ‘Perils of Pauline’ – Imgur

Don’t you wish you could just jump into the book and save your favorite characters? You want to shake them when they’re being stupid, tell them not to go through that door, beg them not to trust that shady character, suggest they finally bare their hearts instead of hiding their feelings … whatever it is that’s keeping them from happiness. You also want to reassure them when they’re at their lowest that it will all work out in the end.

Of course, in some books it doesn’t all work out in the end, and I find that those cautionary tales often stay with me the longest — House of Mirth kept me up for hours just brooding about how it had ended.1984 was another one. If I’m remembering correctly, Wired for Story said that’s part of why we humans share stories, too: we’re teaching each other how to avoid disaster … literally, we’re teaching each other how to survive.

In other words, literature is a kind of high-level mutual GPS that we developed centuries before we got any satellites into the atmosphere.

(Of course, sometimes even a high-tech GPS can lead you wrong. And I wouldn’t suggest you read Fifty Shades of Grey for relationship advice.)

Anyway, it’s all food for thought on a day when we’re coming to the end of Hunger Action Month. I have in no way made enough in royalties to reach my goal of $1,000 for Feeding America. (Talk about sheer hubris!) I haven’t even made enough to cover my advertising costs. However, the $100 I put in at the beginning will do for now, and I’ll keep adding 10% month by month (plus whatever I have to add in order to not be embarrassed). So one of these decades it will get there.

I think about this failure as I consider that I was included in a “Made It Moment” when I so obviously haven’t yet made it as an author. But that was Jenny helping me, as she has helped so many other authors, and as others have helped her. Sometimes we just need to accept that hand up, and then remember to pay it forward.

Safe travels!



Even an interim existence has its charms

My book’s in an odd, interim-feeling spot right now, and so am I.

Technically, I should be promoting the hell out of the book while it’s 99 cents and all profits are still going to Feeding America. However, because I had to postpone an advertising deal with a major advertiser until early next month, pushing it now might just annoy the people who would realize they could have gotten it free for my last two “free” days then. So … I’m not pushing much.

I might try some minor promotions once it’s back to a regular price. But really, my main focus right now has to be on preparing a paperback edition and getting the next book out.

Also, there’s work. And life. Which is also in an interim stage, since we’re planning a move.

I took some quality time out of grading and writing and decluttering this weekend to enjoy the fine fall weather. We live in a lovely part of the country — Rensselaer County, New York, between Albany and the Massachusetts border. After living in the crowded suburbs of New York City, life up here in our very pretty house surrounded by trees and hills still feels like some sort of vacation to me.

At least , it does when I’m not hauling gravel to shore up the driveway. Or trying to play lumberjack. Or checking for ticks.

Nice as our current home is, we’ve realized that a cozy, affordable little house simply makes more sense at this point in our lives. And I’ll admit to fantasizing about a smaller, sunnier, more level garden that no deer would ever think of browsing.

And that is more or less the plan for next year, actually, though I’ll be a little surprised if deer can really be excluded from wherever we land. For today, though, I was happy simply to appreciate the local neighborhood scenery.

Here, maybe you can enjoy some of it with me.

Crystal Lake 031 052 056 077 Happy Fall!

Lessons from a garage sale

Saturday my town held a town-wide garage sale. We participated, since we once again expect to put the house on the market this spring. (That’s a story for another time.)

Photo: Garage Sale Day

Saturday dawned damp and chilly and it occurred to me too late that we could have made a lot more money selling hot cocoa. We did manage to make almost a hundred bucks, though. More importantly, we cleared out a lot of stuff, including a weight bench and weights nobody wanted to have to drag back into the house.

Just before noon my next-door neighbor Chris brought her toddler granddaughter over to say hi and do a little shopping. After checking on our cats up in the house (always a high priority), Lily made it her mission to make sure the scant supply of toy cars and trucks on offer was successfully sold.

In fact, she didn’t want to leave until the very last one was gone. Every person who walked up our driveway she immediately accosted with, “Wouldn’t you like to buy a truck?”

Under that uniquely adorable sales pressure, quite a number of shoppers happily shelled out the required 25 cents, even those who really didn’t need a toy at all. Finally there was only one little truck left, and her grandmother and I agreed it would make an excellent present for her older brother. (Anything to help our ace sales girl and Nana get some lunch!)

Lily put me to shame. In fact, after I saw her in action, I realized I should have had my little postcards for my book out, ready to hand sell to anyone who looked interested in the books we were selling used.

So I went and got them and handed them to a couple of folks who were clearly readers. This may not have resulted in any sales, but the conversations were fun.

Now, I suspect that darling toddlers can get away with more salesmanship than middle-aged authors. Some of my friends are no doubt getting weary of my marketing at this point, though a few will even pitch in, bless them.

But there were other lessons, too. One is that when you really want to get rid of stuff, you price it lower or just give it away. A lot of our crap just disappeared from the end of the driveway in our free pile, even that rusty outdoor table and umbrella set.

Oddly enough, after I took down the “garage sale” sign and piled free stuff at the end of our (long) driveway and started putting other stuff away, we suddenly got more customers than before. And they were actually buying.

Maybe the weather had just improved, or maybe advertising isn’t as straightforward as you’d think. Did the pile suggest there was a lot more available down the driveway? Did it suggest the prices would be good? I don’t know. All I know is that it seemed to make a big difference.

A lot of successful self-published authors say the number one thing they had to do – other than writing good books and making sure they looked professional – was get to a critical mass of published titles. Once they achieved that, one title could sell the others. Sometimes putting one free for a while was the best way to goose sales for the others.

But a free solo title can’t sell anything unless it really goes viral, which clearly hasn’t happened to my book at this point. Otherwise, once it’s been given away, there’s nothing to sell. (I certainly could have tried harder to get a mailing list out of it, though — oh well.)

Giving my book away free earlier this month wasn’t a total bust. I netted seven lovely new Amazon reviews from strangers (okay, make that eight lovely ones and one moderately cranky one — and this figure may change regularly) — plus a tiny little burst of sales. I also had some fun conversations. Hopefully more reviews will come, and sales will be at least slightly better than they were before.

But I won’t be feeding as many Americans as I’d hoped. Unless something radical changes, Feeding America is going to have to make do with the $100 bucks I put in when I started this month’s campaign. Hopefully it will grow over time when I add their 10% each month. But I now doubt that will happen in any way that is the least bit impressive until I hit that critical mass of titles.

Then, with any luck, the books can sell each other. Because selling on Amazon when you’re nobody is sort of like having a garage sale at the end of a long, heavily-treed driveway. Sometimes you just have to put out that pile of free stuff to get some buyers to come down and check it out.

So I need more books up. Now if I can just figure out how to fit all this in with the four comp classes, a garden full of produce that needs preserving, and a house that needs to be readied for sale, I’ll be all set.

If you’re interested, here’s my September postcard (I’m mostly proud of finally figuring out what the heck QR codes are and how to use them!):

postcard330resfrontAnd the back (hurriedly revised after my free days appeared to be going kerplooey):


Learn from my newbie mistakes in self publishing

Or don’t. Sometimes you just have to make your own mistakes. But in case you might want to avoid a few…here are some of mine, transformed into words to the wise.

1. Don’t publish before you’ve established a platform.

I didn’t start blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, or Goodreading as an author until I published my book. While this is a fairly unforgivable lapse with a new traditionally-published book (which is likely to disappear along with your writing career if it doesn’t sell in its first season out), you’ll just have to play catch-up if you’ve published it yourself. Self-publishing is very forgiving of this particular newbie mistake. (Yay.)

I also didn’t start because I couldn’t imagine what the heck I would blog about before my book was published. Most novelists seem to end up blogging about writing or writers or books or their genre, or something that might conceivably be of interest to their future readers. It seemed to me there was a glut of that already available. So I waited until, well, I really had to do it.

Newbie mistake, but in my case I think it was fairly unavoidable unless I could come up with some niche I could become an expert in that was related to my fiction. And, frankly, I’m all over the place in my interests, and I’m still not really ready to be pinned down.

At least now my mistakes are providing plenty of material.

2. Don’t get demoralized by your rankings.

If you made the first newbie mistake, you’re likely to see your book rank somewhere in the tens of thousands in the first rush of family and friends (this is at Amazon – other retail sites may have smaller numbers to begin with). This first rush is never as big as you thought it would be based on what people told you to your face. (Shocking, I know!)

After that, you’ll be mired down in the hundred thousandths somewhere. And no one will ever see your book again unless you somehow point it out to them.  That’s just the deal.  Don’t brood about it. Start marketing, or focus on the next book — for which you will finally have a platform. Ideally, do both.

Pssst … need a pick-me-up even more than you need sales? One thing that makes me feel good, even though it’s utterly useless as a marketing tool, is having “Episcopal” as one of my precious seven keywords. This is a tiny category and that means it’s easy to float to the top of the first page with a search term like “Episcopal fiction” when I’m selling anything at all. It means I’m actually keeping company with favorite authors like Gail Godwin and Julia Spencer Fleming! It won’t do my sales a damned bit of good – might even hurt them, as opposed to a more popular keyword – but it has helped my morale immeasurably. In this gig, you take whatever little victories you can!

3. Don’t assume all your friends and family will rush to review it.

They just won’t, just as real readers generally only include a tiny percentage of reviewers. Most people are not comfortable reviewing, especially if they feel they can’t say anything negative at all because they know you. Some people are particularly uncomfortable about it specifically because they DO know you (you can help with both of these by assuring them that you really don’t mind a four-star review or a disclaimer about your relationship – assuming you really mean that, and won’t sulk about it – and be honest with yourself, or you’re not being fair to them).

The reviews you do get may not help in exactly the way you had envisioned. Get over it. Realize that you are blessed by ANY positive review. A lot of mine mention beach reading, which was great in June. Now it’s September. This just means I need to get more reviews.

4. Go out and beat the bushes for impartial reviews from thorough reviewers.

You’re self-published. This is your job. Traditional book reviewers are not going to waste their time on you unless you become a phenomenon, nor should they. Maybe your local paper will take on the local interest angle, but consider yourself lucky if that happens. Kirkus and PW and so forth will happily take your money, and maybe you’ll be one of the rare self-published souls to earn a starred review or some recognition. However, they often don’t star even my all-time favorite traditionally-published books, so I don’t like my chances.

That doesn’t mean you can’t get reviews. There are dozens of groups and web sites and blogs where you can request reviews on Facebook. I think it may be more effective, though, to trawl among the reviewers on Amazon and Goodreads, especially people who have written interesting, thorough reviews of books you love (or hate the same way they do). Not counting my friend Nandini, who compared my book to Charlotte Bronte’s (swoon!), the person who gave me my favorite review so far at Goodreads was someone I asked just because I so enjoyed her review of someone else’s book. (She compared my writing to Iris Murdoch’s, which is funny because I’ve picked up lots of Irish Murdoch novels over the years and always decided nah, not right now. Guess I’d better try again.)

By the way, avoid “trading” reviews. How can you be certain you’ll like the other author’s book? There’s a reason self-published “five-star” books are often regarded with suspicion, and it’s because of this organized review trading.

If you have the budget for it, use NetGalley to save yourself a lot of trouble. I’m definitely going that route next time. I didn’t this time around and I’ve done okay, but it was a hard slog. (Also, next time I expect my book to be a bit controversial, so I’m going to need a higher volume of reviews to make up for the people who hate it.)

Hopefully, Amazon will allow pre-ordering for indie publishers one of these days, since that makes all the difference as you gather pre-publication reviews. If they don’t by the time I publish another title, I may go with Smashwords first.

5. Don’t fail to read all the fine print. Then read it again and imagine the worst case scenario.

This applies in all your dealings with giant impersonal commercial entities that shall not be named. Don’t expect flexibility, kindness, humanity, or clear answers that don’t simply repeat the boilerplate language you already tried to parse the first time around and got wrong. Just know that even if there’s a possibility you made an honest mistake, there will probably be no mercy shown.

Try to get a clear answer before you do anything if only to document that you didn’t get a clear answer, not that it will matter. You could still get squashed by a giant foot at the worst possible time. If so, forgive yourself for getting it wrong, apologize to anyone who deserves an apology, and move on.

6. Keep track of every single marketing effort.

Did you submit your book to this web site or that Facebook page? When? Do you need to notify them because you changed a price or did something else that changed the deal? (Perhaps a giant foot suddenly came down and squashed you?) How do you contact them?

Put together a spreadsheet and take careful notes. You think you’ll remember, or you’ll find it in your sent mail, but you might not, especially when you’re in the panicked state of having-just-been-squashed-by-a-giant-foot.

7. Don’t freak out because you didn’t take advantage of some amazing strategy!

The internet and the bookstores are full of advice about all the various opportunities self-published authors are failing to take advantage of every day. Things you didn’t put in your book. Things you didn’t put on your web site.  Things you didn’t put on your cover, or stupidly DID put on your cover. Your purchase of this versus your purchase of that. Failure to network here or friend there. The keyword strategy that would have immediately shot you to the top of the bestseller’s list! The hot new SEO program that would have guaranteed you a thousand new sales in one week! Passive income that pours in without you lifting a finger!

Does something sound like it might be worth trying without requiring a big investment? Okay, so take a deep breath, think about it, maybe try it out. Just test it, if you can. One thing at a time. If you can figure out how, try doing an A/B split (test one version versus another). Try the winner with different slices of the audiences. When you find something that clearly works, roll it out, but keep testing. That is the simple secret of all direct marketing success in the real world. Traditional authors can do this with their own marketing efforts, but they don’t get to play with price or change covers or copy at will. Indie authors can do whatever they want, within reason. (Better keep good records, though, so you can figure out what it means when you’re done. And watch out for those giant feet!)

Is something ABSOLUTELY GUARANTEED TO WORK? That’s a huckster claim made by someone who understands effective (if not entirely legal) copywriting. Even if there might be a few kernels of truth being offered, never lay out good money for “guaranteed” riches and you will avoid a lot of pain in this world. On the other hand, sensible advertising for which you can see results may be necessary if you want your book to succeed. Start small and test to see if it works. Do the math and see if it really works in a sustainable way, unless you have money to burn.

I got to see first-hand in my first free promotion what a difference it made to do some modest advertising, because most of it didn’t kick in for awhile: it made a huge difference. Whether that will pay off in actual sales down the road is another question. I have already gained new reviews, so I consider that a win of some kind.

8. Don’t stop writing.

Actually, I’m making this mistake right now, but I knew that would happen when I signed up to teach four classes instead of two this semester. Sometimes financial reality trumps writing time. But a nice cold winter without any garden to care for and the usual reduction in courses that comes  with spring semester may mean more free time. I’ll catch up then by setting ambitious deadlines for myself. I have to, or I’ll pay a hefty price for this inactivity.

If you believe in your work, you have to find a way to keep doing it. That’s why you’re going through all this hassle in the first place, right? That’s the most basic rule of all. (Not that it’s anyone’s business but your own, really.)

9. Don’t make it ALL about your writing.

Those four classes I’m teaching also happen to be the balm of my existence right now. My friends have been so kind, but it’s actually when I’m teaching that I completely forget about any giant feet that might have recently come down to squash me. I get to just focus on my students as writers and forget about myself as one.

Find something that allows you to focus completely on someone other than yourself for at least some part of the day. It’s just good for you.

Do you have any advice to share from your own newbie mistakes?

An update on my three free days

Those of you who suffered with me as my original five planned days got whittled to three thanks to my very own awful mess with Amazon will be happy to hear things worked out fairly well, though I would definitely have preferred to have all five days. Amazon did spot me some extra hours, though I’m not sure if this was an oversight or a favor (!).

It was incredibly fun to watch those books fly off the virtual shelf. It was particularly fun for this old English major to pass Jane Eyre and then The Scarlet Letter in the top 100 free books in the literary fiction section.

HA HA HAWTHORNE!I also made it to #1 in top 100 free for women’s fiction, next to a book I’m including just for its wonderful cheesecake factor:

Great abs, dude!

Here’s the run down:

  • 6,537 copies were downloaded free
  • Actual sales have increased rather nicely since the free offer ended, though some are clearly accidental purchases (I’ve had a few returns)
  • There’s been a nice jump in people listing it as “to read” on Goodreads
  • I haven’t seen any new reviews yet, but I’m hopeful I’ll get some (nice ones, that is!)
  • I’m trying very hard not to watch the sales report obsessively anymore
  • Job #1 now is producing the paperback and getting the next book into shape (well, after doing my real job #1, which is teaching four comp classes)

I will do a little encore in October with my last two free days, if only to make amends with some local folks who got the wrong publicity, and to make use of some advertising I would otherwise lose. (Kindle Nation Daily and BookBub and E-Reader Cafe were all very sweet about my misadventures, though I notice BookBub has now changed its policies, probably to better cope with people like me.)

If you’re on my book updates or blog subscription lists, you’ll get that news via email. See the left column or down below left to sign up (it depends on what page you’re on when you read this). I’ll also let you know when the paperback has an official release date, or at least is on the way.

Thank you for all your support!

I particularly thank you if you helped spread the news, which I know many of you did. Feel free to keep passing along anything you consider not too obnoxiously spammy. Remember, all profits this month go to Feeding America, and the current 99-cent bargain price disappears at the end of September.

And, in case you didn’t already catch it on Facebook, here I was in a rather salmon-ish orange for Hunger Action Day September 5.

Hunger Action Day

FREE AT LAST Sept. 4-5-6!

For Sept. 4-5-6, at least, The Awful Mess: A Love Story is FREE at Amazon. I’ve managed to get back into the clear with them, knock wood.

After that it’s back to 99 cents for September and all earnings for the month to Feeding America.

My husband had the logical question this morning: “How does making it free raise any money for Feeding America?”

The answer: If it has enough downloads while it’s free, it will show up in searches and rankings afterwards, when people might be willing to pay for it.

So even if you don’t plan to read the Kindle version (or any version), you might want to download it and/or share the news. It’s all about visibility and then hoping enough people like it that it goes viral. That’s really the only way this game works for a debut novel when you’re indie.

So please, share the news if you’re at all comfortable doing that.

I’ll update you about how we did when the month is over. You can also keep track at my virtual campaign page for Feeding America.

September is Hunger Action Month!

And to help raise funds, I’ve reduced the price of the book to 99 cents, the lowest I can go for now. I’ve supported it with some advertising (at least some of which I was able to update to my new situation). Hopefully this will spark some sales this month, because I’ll be giving all my book profits for September to FEEDING AMERICA via this virtual campaign page:

I’ll also give 10% from then on. I’ll report on the results when I have them (I’ll have a sales report at the end of the month, with the actual payment two months beyond that.) You’re free to pitch in if you’d like, by the way. But what I’d love is for you to share news about the book and the campaign this month to anyone you think might be interested.

If B&N takes the PG-13 version of the book down before I get into further trouble with a certain online empire, I may try to throw in a few of the free days I’d planned. Unfortunately I can’t promise anything on that yet. (I’m sure learning from my stupid newbie mistakes, though. More about that next week.)

You don’t have to buy or read the book at all to help raise funds or awareness of food insecurity this month. You can simply visit Feeding America’s Facebook Hunger Action Month Facebook page here: Give them some likes, or share their news directly.

Personally, I’m more than provided for when it comes to food: Check out yesterday’s  harvest from my garden!


And thank you also for all your support in what has been a rather trying week!