Romance author offers both “clean” AND “spicy” versions

Sandra Hutchison interviews indie author MM Jaye

MM JayeMaria, you’ve recently tried something that I tried and failed with back in 2013 – publishing a new book that has both a “spicy” (NC17) and “clean” version. I had done that with fanfiction in the past, and I thought it would be nice to offer two different versions since THE AWFUL MESS has some progressive Christian themes, but the two explicit sex scenes might be too much for some religious readers. Your book doesn’t appear to have any Christian appeal per se, though. What prompted you to try offering both a spicy and clean version?

I’ve seen a number of Facebook and Goodreads groups that feature “clean” books only, and since my stories are a lot more than just the physical attraction between the protagonists, I thought I’d offer a version of the story minus the sex scenes to appeal to those readers as well. Later on, I discovered that there are also a lot of bloggers who are willing to host only PG-13 books and covers on their blog, and in author exchange posts, having a “milder” version proved useful.

How did you actually go about it?

It was fairly easy. I wrote the spicy version, then went back and deleted the sex scenes and some heavy foreplay and also toned down the language in certain parts. (I decided against including “f” bombs in the clean version just to be on the safe side.) The only challenge was rounding up the parts where I deleted a scene, so that the story flow was seamless.

At this point, I’d like to note that I feel there’s a difference between “sweet” and “clean” stories. “Sweet” romances have a more wholesome feel with an inspirational theme, whereas “clean” can be sassier reads (in my clean version, the protagonists have pre-marital sex), just without the “which part goes where” bits. I don’t think I could turn the spicy version in a “sweet” read, bearing the above distinction in mind, simply because I’d have to write a different story.

I notice you use the same title, but different subtitles, and beautiful covers that are related but noticeably different. What was your thinking there? Did it cost twice as much or did you get a break on the pricing?

Thank you for the positive vote on my covers. Luckily, my cover designer didn’t charge more for the “clean” cover. I bought all images myself, used the same background for both versions, so it was just a matter of placing two different images on the same background. Same fonts. No extra charge.

Fate Captured spicy (small)Fate Captured Clean (small)As for the concept behind the covers, since this is a series, I chose a stunning backdrop with a predominant color (green for FATE CAPTURED, orange for FATE AWAKENED, the upcoming Book Two in the Greek Tycoons series) and then chose a portrait image of a girl that bears resemblance to my heroine for the “clean” cover and an image of an intimate couple for the “spicy.” The tricky part was finding a girl in the couples’ image that looked like the girl that would go on the “clean” cover, but browsing those stock photo sites is fun.

When I tried doing this with my debut novel back in 2013, I slapped a “PG-13” burst on the cleaned-up version and added that as a subtitle, but despite the separate ISBNs, Amazon ultimately decided to list both editions together on their site. I felt that led to some confusion for readers. Have you managed to avoid that so far? Would it bother you if it happened? Did you have any discussions with Amazon or other authors as you undertook this dual publication?

I had no problems with Amazon. The covers are different, and I made sure the titles (not subtitles) were different as well. FATE CAPTURED (CLEAN ROMANCE) and FATE CAPTURED (SPICY ROMANCE). I guess since the covers and titles were different, Amazon saw them as two separate books. I also used different keywords. Naughty, naughty words for the spicy version, milder and more generic (no bad boy alpha male) in the clean one.

With my book I discovered that very few people seemed interested in the clean version vs. the more adult one. I think in its first month the difference in sales literally ran 25 to 1. Have you noticed a difference in sales between the two editions?

I have had the exact same experience. Just a trickle of sales for the clean version. But, to be honest, I don’t promote it as much as I do the spicy one. It helped me a lot when author friends wanted to review my book and didn’t feel comfortable with explicit sex scenes, so I had something to offer to them, and I also offer the clean version to blogs that host only PG-13 books. So I feel that the clean book helps more with marketing and connecting with other authors rather than with bringing income. Oh, and, of course, I have something to show to relatives. Let’s not forget that!

Which sells better, clean or spicy? Two indie authors' experiences. Click To Tweet

Your price point on all your books right now seems quite a bargain at 99 cents. Do you have any thoughts about pricing and promotions based on your experience so far?

Well, both FATE CAPTURED and my Gothic mystery romance, HOUSE AT THE EDGE, are under 50K words. They’re borderline novellas. That’s why I priced them at 99 cents. FATE AWAKENED, which stands at 80K words, will get a $2.99 price tag. But the group of authors in the World of Gothic series (atmospheric mystery romances in exotic locations around the world) I’m a member of are currently discussing raising the price of all novellas to $2.99 as it better reflects the quality of the work involved in releasing the titles, and I agree. FATE CAPTURED will remain at 99 cents as I want it to be an attractive lead-in for my contemporary romance series.

Do you feel that indie publishing is getting easier, or harder?

I’m a new author. I feel it’s getting easier for me to write stories because gradually I’m getting faster (and hopefully better), and there are a number of nifty tools available out there to either help your writing (Scrivener, Grammarly), or to boost awareness of your work (from bloggers willing to host new authors and Facebook groups to Thunderclap and Headtalker campaigns which help spread the word). However, the competition is getting tougher and although the availability of tools is great, reaching a larger audience is becoming more difficult. I have friends who have earned serious money from writing romance, using Facebook ads as their main advertising tool, who told me recently that Facebook ads seem not to work anymore because of the staggering number of marketers using them. So, to sum up, it’s easier to get things done but harder to make money from indie publishing.

In addition, I’d love to share a great free tool for creating beautiful landing pages for your books. I’ve noticed that adding the URL I get from this app to my Twitter posts (instead of my book’s Amazon page) sales have increased. It’s a free app for an iOS device (Adobe Spark for iPhone or iPad) but it’s also available online: https://spark.adobe.com/. It’s basically drag-and-drop easy. Here’s the landing page I created for my Gothic romance: HOUSE AT THE EDGE.

Comment on this post and you could be the lucky winner of your choice of the clean or spicy ebook FATE AWAKENED. (Please check back by next Saturday to see if you’ve won, unless one of us already knows your email address.)

More about MM Jaye and FATE AWAKENED

Fate Captured spicy (small)In FATE AWAKENED, a meddling thriller writer ruins the career of a Greek shipping heir then tarnishes his family’s name and faces his inevitable wrath—because to fix him, she needs to break him first.

MM Jaye’s mother claims that she spoke her first word at the age of six. Months. As a kid she would record fairy tales in her own voice, play them back, and then re-record, adjusting the pitch and tempo. Later, she used her voice to inspire young adults and teach them the art of translation. But there came a time when life took a turn for the worse, and her voice temporarily died out. That’s when she turned to writing. FATE CAPTURED is the first book in her Greek Tycoons series, set on the Greek island where her husband proposed. MM Jaye lives in Athens, Greece, with her husband, daughter and Kindle.

Learn more at:

Amazon Author Page: http://www.amazon.com/MM-Jaye/e/B00OX44NSO
Blog: http://mmjayewrites.com
Facebook: https://www.fb.com/MMJayeauthor
Twitter: https://twitter.com/MMJaye
Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/mmjaye1/
Google+: https://plus.google.com/+MMJayeauthor

 

Updates, Kobo deal, Goodreads giveaway

Bardwell’s Folly

BardwellsFollylibreblur200x309“Bardwell’s Folly” has been read by five beta readers now, and thanks to that feedback I’m making some good revisions.  I’m hopeful this version will be done by the end of the week. Then it goes to my fussiest beta readers in the hope they will throw in some proofreading, too. Then it’s into Kindle Scout, unless I chicken out and just put it up for pre-order. I did stick a toe in the water with regular querying (if a tweet and one query count), but my heart just wasn’t in it.

The Awful Mess

This week I finalized a new (or, actually, old, re-imagined) cover for the ebook edition of “The Awful Mess” because Amazon won’t allow me to advertise with a nude-ish person on the cover. (They also refuse anything with blood, I’m told by author Julie Frayn.) Now I just have to upload the new cover and update, like, everything. (Actually, the paperback will retain its lovely and striking and not exactly prurient Damonza.com cover — and I did lean heavily for inspiration on an option he’d given me back in the day, when I’d asked for something with those rocks as well as an original option.)

Evolution of a coverOf course, having made that decision, I finally got an offer to do something interesting  just because it’s a SELF-e Select title, so I might hold off on trying it in Kindle Select until after then. I’m still going to change the cover, though. For all I know, that’s why BookBub keeps turning it down lately.

Speaking of Self-e, why Amazon considers a program that gives curated indie ebooks to libraries free as infringing on Kindle Select is beyond me. If I were them, I’d be happy to see my indie authors building a library readership, especially since SELF-e books now include buy links.

SPECIAL DEAL FOR KOBO READERS: Use code 50Jun through June 27 (midnight EST — that’s coming up fast, of course) to save half off “The Awful Mess” and many other indie titles.

And next up?

For the next book I keep stalling out on my original plan. I’m thinking of returning to Lawson, New Hampshire instead. They do say series are the way to go. I’ve had a story in mind that would offer interesting challenges to Winslow and Mary, one related to issues that sometimes arise over immigration in small town New England. And Annie Soper deserves a love story. But I’m just beginning to flesh those ideas out.

A Goodreads giveaway of “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire”

While you wait for a new book, you or your reading friends might want to sign up to enter the Goodreads giveaway of an autographed paperback of “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.”

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire by Sandra Hutchison

The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire

by Sandra Hutchison

Giveaway ends July 09, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

Awesome Indies founder Tahlia Newland on challenges and opportunities for indie authors

Tahlia Newland

Author Tahlia Newland

I first met Tahlia Newland months after I had submitted my first novel to Awesome Indies. This organization seeks to curate the best indie works — not just for quality of writing, but for editing and production values, too. I remember that when I first stumbled across it, I was impressed that it evaluated submissions based on a book I think is terrific — Renni Browne and Dave King’s SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS. It also demanded literary qualifications from reviewers. Perhaps best of all, it offered ways to submit that didn’t require payment — so it clearly wasn’t just another sketchy prize mill. Eventually, I became a volunteer myself. But I never really asked Tahlia how Awesome Indies got its start. So…

Tahlia, what prompted you to begin Awesome Indies?

ai_square-300x300When I first got an e-reader back in 2009 or so, I discovered cheap books and read them voraciously. They were all self-published, of course, and I soon discovered that even books with high star ratings on review sites like Amazon and Goodreads could be really badly written, even some that were selling thousands of copies.

Though I picked up many terrible books, I also discovered some real gems, and I really wanted to tell the world about these great books where self-publishing authors had beaten the odds and produced something excellent. I began writing reviews so I could tell readers which self-published books were well enough done that readers could be sure they were getting a good product.

Next I came up with the idea of listing them all on one website so interested readers could have a one-stop quality shop for indie books. I created that first Awesome Indies site on a WordPress.com free blog, and it grew from there. At the point I decided I needed to create a submission system and get some helpers, I made the decision that if a group of people were to set themselves up as determiners of quality, then they had better be people with the kind of qualifications that no one could argue with, so it had to be people with formal qualifications in writing, English literature, or editing.

What would you say are the greatest challenges and opportunities facing
Awesome Indies? What would your dream be?

The biggest challenges are getting the website’s existence and value widely known, finding sufficient assessors and volunteers to keep it running smoothly, and dealing with author egos, in particular those who refuse to accept our assessors’ opinions as valid and like to spread their opinions on the matter.

My dream for the Awesome Indies is that it becomes the first place readers go to find indie books, that in people’s minds Awesome Indies Approval equals the kudos of getting a mainstream deal, that it changes the perception of the world as regards to the quality of indie books (as least as far as books listed on the site goes), and that it becomes really popular with the kind of people who usually would only read mainstream books.

 How can readers and writers who value quality indie work support Awesome Indies?

By submitting their book with an administration fee, or by volunteering to help. We have a very good admin team at the moment, but I am always short of qualified assessors and people willing to help spread the word about our existence. What we need more than anything is people who can write blog posts about the Awesome Indies and get them published on influential blogs and newspapers. (I should note that I am a volunteer for Awesome Indies myself — primarily by writing occasional web copy and notification emails to authors.)

As an indie author yourself, what are some of the greatest challenges and opportunities you see facing such authors today?

The biggest challenge is selling your book. A good book does not equal a best-selling book (and vice versa), and great authors are often not natural salespeople. The very nature of indie books is that many of them are so not mainstream that they only have a small niche market — at least at present. Finding the readers for unusual books is not easy, and selling few books can be soul-destroying for authors of truly great works with enormous literary merit. But so long as a book has some kind of independent professional assessment like Awesome Indies Approval, then the author can at least know that the problem is not with the book. Without that, the indie author can never be sure.

The biggest challenge is selling your book - Tahlia Newland. #amwriting #indie Click To Tweet

The greatest opportunity indie authors have is that we can publish what we want, when and how we want. There is nothing to stop our creativity going in whatever direction we want it to — so long as we aren’t concerned about making a living. But with that freedom comes a great responsibility: to do it in a professional way. If the majority of us can do that, then eventually the stigma attached to indie publishing will fade.

Tell us about your new release, THE LOCKSMITH’S SECRET, including what inspired it.

THE LOCKSMITH’S SECRET is a multi-narrative-strand novel about a woman who finds that her boyfriend is not who she thought he was, and she finds herself having to choose between him and her beloved property in the Australian rain forest — a situation that challenges her ability to live up to her Buddhist ideals. The story looks at sexual abuse, women’s rights, and the various aspects of a person that make up their sense of self, including dreams, memories, past lives, creative expression and metaphysical experiences. The themes are explored from these different angles, one of which is a steampunk murder mystery that the protagonist Ella, an author, is writing.

What inspired it? My stories just appear vividly in my mind, playing out like movies. I can’t pinpoint any particular inspiration, though the image of a locksmith creating keys for inter-dimensional doors in an otherwise deserted ethereal city of transparent buildings floating in space was the image that drove me to fill in the story around it.

01The_Locksmiths_SecretwebAbout THE LOCKSMITH’S SECRET

Ella’s locksmith boyfriend Jamie seems to be her perfect match, at least until a death in the family calls him back to England. While he’s gone, Ella discovers he’s hiding something so astounding that it completely changes her perception of him and his place in her world.

While Jamie struggles with family responsibilities, Ella’s steampunk murder mystery develops a life of its own, raising disturbing memories of her time as a striptease artist and a past life as a sexually abused Italian nun. She also dreams of an ephemeral city, where she seeks to unravel the locksmith’s secret and find the key that opens a door to other realities.

All these, together with a lost brother, a desperate mother, a demanding cat, and a struggle to live up to Buddhist ideals, weave together in a rich tapestry that creates an extraordinary work of magical realism.

Intrigued? Learn more about THE LOCKSMITH’S SECRET at:

kindle store    smashwords     kobo     barnes & noble     apple

When you probably shouldn’t self-publish (and when it might be best)

When is self-publishing going to be more trouble than it’s worth, or downright counter-productive? Here’s when:

#1 You just want a single book to share with friends and family

Everyone tells me I should write a bookLet’s say you’ve written a memoir about your long and interesting life, and you want to be able to share it with people you love. Everyone tells you that you’ve really had a fascinating life, and you really have. But you don’t plan to make a career out of writing, and you don’t want to make a career out of publishing, either.

Unless someone who does have some knowledge of publishing (traditional or self) gets excited about your book and wants to get it out there, you’re going to be better served just getting some books printed up and understanding that this is really vanity publishing. Which is okay. That’s exactly what it exists for.

Yes, you can do vanity publishing cheaply through self-publishing outfits like Createspace or BookBaby, and you may want to take advantage of some of the extra services they offer to help you create a nice book. But since this isn’t going to be your career, it doesn’t have to be perfect. You don’t need to research the market. You don’t need to study up on everything, or buy your own ISBN at $125 a pop. You just need a physical book friends and family can read.

For many people in this situation it might make more sense to use a local vanity press. In my area, the folks at Troy Bookmakers know what they are doing and can guide you towards a nice paper book. You’ll pay more than you will going to a big online firm, but you’ll get more personal help along the way. They’ll stock it in the two related independent bookstores, and you can have a signing in one of them. A lot of local bookstores are developing this kind of service.

Unlike some other operations — Author House, iUniverse, etc. — they won’t try to sell you over-priced or fraudulent services or suggest that you could experience great publishing success. (Tip: Any time you’re asked to put significant money into a publishing undertaking, check Preditors and Editors to see if there are complaints about that company or individual, and evaluate other books that entity has published.)

And although most presses and publishing services will make it an option, maybe you shouldn’t create an eBook. Think about it: If you’re someone who doesn’t have any social media marketing savvy and has never even read an eBook yourself, trying to sell one is going to require a tremendous learning curve. Is that something you want to undertake for one book?

#2 Your fantasies include book tours, bookstore signings, or seeing your book on the shelf.

That isn’t going to happen with 99.9% of self-published books, except perhaps in your local bookstore with a kind and supportive bookseller. It doesn’t always happen even with traditionally published books.

So if this is what you really want, your best bet is to slog through the traditional publishing process. Revise and polish that novel (or novels, if required), build your platform, network in your genre, get an agent, get a contract, and work like a demon to promote the book so that you can continue writing and publishing that way.

And no, as Jane Friedman has explained quite well, self-publishing is not a shortcut to traditional publishing. Not an easy one, anyway.

#3 Literary status matters to you.

Untitled design-1Maybe you’re secretly competing with that guy in your writing group who got a three-book deal, or maybe you need publications in order to get that teaching job you want, or maybe you just really, really want some official affirmation of your talent. Self-publishing will not serve your purpose. The stigma associated with self-publishing is not as bad it once was, but it’s still there.

If this matters to you, but you’ve had no luck getting published mainstream after a heroic effort, you might find your goals can be met by a university press or well-regarded regional or small press. You won’t always need an agent to sell to them, either. (Some previous literary publications may be required.) Just be careful out there.

#4 You don’t want to give your precious creation to “those blood-sucking Big Five publishers and agents.”

This is where we find people pointing out that self-publishing pays a higher royalty rate than traditional publishers pay, or asking why they should give an agent 15% of their writing income, or bringing up bad contract clauses.

And some of the people saying these things are published midlist authors and they may have some legitimate complaints, but what you need to remember is that if they were at any time midlist authors they were by definition already doing better than the vast majority of self-published authors will ever do.

Both agents and traditional publishers bring substantial expertise to the publication process. They will usually help you publish a better book than you can publish on your own. An agent will also usually get you better placement and a better advance than you would have gotten on your own.

Second, earning 70% on an eBook is no substitute for a good advance, especially since most self-published eBooks sell fewer than 200 copies. Even with a bad advance, your publisher is better positioned to sell your debut novel successfully than you are. (Remember, advances don’t have to be paid back.)

Publishers make money by putting out a bunch of new books each season, a few of which do very well and keep the lights on, a few more of which do well enough to keep that writer publishing, and a good many of which fail. They try to pick the best bets. It’s a tricky business, with low margins, and the pressure to meet corporate and individual goals doesn’t exactly foster risk-taking. But it’s not, in fact, a conspiracy to defraud authors of all the fruit of their labor (not that this means authors should be willing to put up with some of the more egregious contract terms). Most people go into publishing because they love books.

And only traditional publishers can easily distribute to bookstores, which still drive a lot of the book business. (Bookstores also exist because people love books.)

It’s a no-lose situation, because having a traditionally published book or two to your credit is an advantage if you eventually choose to self-publish. Those traditional titles are a badge that says “This author doesn’t suck.” (Just make sure your contracts don’t bar you from going indie in the future.)

But yes, there are still some GOOD reasons to try self-publishing

Just understand the #1 requirement for all of them:

You are comfortable either doing or supervising every step of the publishing process, from writing to editing, cover design, interior design, proofreading, distribution, sales, promotion, and finance. You have reasonably good knowledge of the genre you are publishing and how readers find and purchase those books online.

Furthermore, if your goal includes making money from it, you must be willing to keep doing it on a steady basis until you have published enough books in the same genre to reach a critical mass and begin to gain some traction in the market place. (This actually applies to traditional publishing, too.)

Beyond that, maybe you fall into these groups:

  • You already have a base of readers who appreciate your work as a consultant or speaker or blogger, and your book will complement that area of expertise and sell alongside it. Ideally, you also already have a nice long list of email subscribers. Furthermore, you couldn’t find a good traditional publisher for this book even with that excellent author platform.
  • You’re passionately writing types of books that traditional publishers have no interest in because the market is too small, or they think it’s too small, but you are certain it could find an audience online. (Think Amish science fiction.)
  • You write for a voracious niche of the eBook market. Furthermore, you write and publish good books fast. Ideally, you write highly addictive series.
  • You have a whole stable of out-of-print traditionally published books you’ve regained control of, and you want to give them a second life as eBooks.
  • You’ve had one or two failed books in traditional publishing and nobody will talk to you anymore, so this is your only option unless you change your name, and you don’t want to change your name.
  • You want to take your time building an audience instead of feeling under pressure to succeed with that first book or two, because you know that if they fail you’re probably done. (Of course, if all your eBooks fail, that won’t help.)
  • You enjoy publishing in itself (I thought this was me, but I no longer fantasize about publishing other people’s work. This is mostly because I’ve discovered I hate accounting. I already put it off until tax time for my own books. That won’t fly if I’m publishing other people.)
  • You don’t have the years that it may take to find an agent, get a sale, and wait for publication. Maybe you’re ninety, or you have a degenerative illness, or your book is extremely topical and truly won’t interest people a year from now. All good reasons to just get it done.
  • You’re more interested in gaining readers than literary status or income, and you won’t fret about your sales rank or compare yourself to other authors. You’re willing to give books away to gain more readers, and even after a bad review or two, you consider it all great fun. (This is what I try for on a daily basis, though I won’t claim to have reached quite this level of Zen contentment yet.)

Your thoughts?

Adventures in Amazon keyword padding

by Sandra Hutchison

Note: The specific keyword examples mentioned in this post are out of date now, because Amazon has changed the way keywords are input (possibly to cope with just this kind of issue). However, you might find it amusing anyway — and I suspect I could have gotten into just the same trouble using the current form. (This is also a reminder, fellow Kindle authors, to check your backlist titles to see what’s going on with the keywords.)

Authors sometimes work very hard to get keywords into their product descriptions on Amazon, but there’s actually a better way to come up in Amazon searches. It’s a technique called keyword padding that I first learned about in this helpful post by David Penny.

But you’d better be careful how you do it. I learned this the hard way.

TheAwfulMess 396 x 612 pixelsMy first novel, “The Awful Mess,” was on sale for a time in August, with a BookBub promo in the UK, Canada, and India and some other support for US and international sales as well. When I found out about keyword padding I thought, “Hey, great! Maybe I can leverage my current rank to capture a few more readers!”

A more cautious soul might suggest that I should enjoy a strong rank for a while without fiddling around.

“The Awful Mess” is in two main fiction categories: contemporary women, and literary. My seven keywords at the time of the promotion were romance, American, general humor, dating and relationships, love story, suspense, divorce.

Divorce isn’t really a strong theme in the novel (unless you count the increasingly  problematic ex-husband), so I replaced that one with a padded keyword:

“progressive Christian novel about an Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town in New England during the time when openly gay Bishop Robinson was being elected.”

You can have up to 400 characters. What you can’t have is a comma. I could just list terms one after the other, but I’m a writer and English teacher and that felt like cheating, so I wrote it up as a (ridiculously long) keyword phrase instead.

I wanted to get “The Scarlet Letter” in without having to add it to my product description, where it would probably scare away everyone who remembered hating that book in high school. (Although a reviewer or two has noticed and mentioned the correction, that never makes it show up in Amazon searches on “The Scarlet Letter.”) EDIT: Turns out adding another title to your keyword is a violation of KDP policy. I’m not sure why this made it through. It may be because nobody would attach their book to “The Scarlet Letter” and expect to generate significant sales because of it. It’s not like putting in “Harry Potter.”

I wanted “Episcopal or Anglican” because the terms vary in the rest of the world, and the book should interest some folks who like to read fiction about Episcopal/Anglican priests (if they can stand the sex and irreverence — I’m no Jan Karon).

When I first published this book I actually used “Episcopal” as a keyword, but that’s a tiny, tiny market and thus not worth spending a whole keyword on — but here it’s just one of a whole bunch of little niches I can mention. Note also that although I have always had the words “Episcopal priest” in my product description, the book usually would not come up in searches on Amazon for that.

“Bishop Robinson” in that padded keyword phrase is a reference to the heated debate that was going on at the time and place this novel is set. Gene Robinson was the first openly-gay Episcopal priest elected a bishop in the United States — in New Hampshire. Gay rights are a sub-theme of the novel (the hero’s sister is a lesbian in a committed relationship, though her father the Evangelical doesn’t know it … yet).

And the result of this change? About 24 hours later in the UK my novel was immediately ranking in the top 100 for Christian women’s fiction and Gay & Lesbian fiction.

#9 in Christian in the UK

Unfortunately, this book is not what readers would expect in either category. AND these two markets are pretty much mutually exclusive.

In theory, this gave me added visibility. But it didn’t strike me as worth confusing and quite possibly offending my readers. My companions in the Christian women’s fiction category were largely Evangelical, and their readers might have little sympathy for my characters — sinners that they are — or, worse, the suggestion of liberal theology. Not to mention, my main character is an agnostic for 99.9 percent of the book and it’s debatable what exactly she is for the other 0.1 percent.

Meanwhile, someone looking for gay and lesbian fiction to likely to be pretty unexcited by what is predominantly (and pretty clearly described as) a heterosexual love story, though presumably the inclusive theology wouldn’t offend this audience.

Anyway, though it may be coincidental with a natural slide a month after my price promotion, sales that had been percolating along in the UK immediately slid a bit. But on the plus side, my book DID come up when I did a search on “The Scarlet Letter” and on “Episcopal priest fiction.”

I wanted to keep those, so I ran and changed my padded keyword again. I took out “progressive Christian” and “openly gay” and used something like this instead:

Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary take on “The Scarlet Letter” set in small town New Hampshire in New England at time of election of Gene Robinson.

I decided to stick New Hampshire in there, too, since New England was working, and I used “Gene Robinson” because a search on that at Amazon had turned up a bunch of books that targeted Episcopalians … so why not? Of course, if I had thought the least bit carefully, I might have predicted that this change would result (about twenty-four hours later) in this:

geneticengineeringwtf

Yes, I was now writing science fiction about genetic engineering, thanks to Bishop “Gene” Robinson. And while Bishop Robinson may indeed have caused a revolution, it was not in human genetics.

Oops. Let’s try that again. Today, my seventh keyword reads:

“Episcopal or Anglican priest committing adultery in contemporary version of “The Scarlet Letter” set in a small town New Hampshire or small town New England at time of Bishop Robinson”

That could still use work (it’s clear I was in a bit of a panic when I wrote it). However, the categories are back to what they should be, and the book now come up in searches for “The Scarlet Letter” and “contemporary version of the Scarlet Letter.” It also comes up in searches for “Episcopal priest” and “Anglican priest.” (Faster if you add “adultery.”) It comes up in searches for “small town New England.” (Both novels do, actually.)

So, dear colleagues, I invite you to go for it. But please… be careful out there!

Update October 12: My sales at Amazon slid so abruptly after this post that I became paranoid they didn’t like me writing about keyword stuffing. But it’s probably just coincidental with me pulling back from some day-to-day marketing. So this technique is not a huge instant boon for sales, clearly, but it can help readers who are searching for something very specific find you. I would also think that if you write nonfiction, it might be absolutely invaluable.

Scurrying back into the warm(er) embrace of Kindle Select

That’s what I’m now doing with the second novel. At least for a while, even though my inclination is against exclusivity. What changed my mind about it, at least for this book, was a recent 99-cent promotion of the earlier novel “The Awful Mess” to all the retailers. Along the way I discovered some things that surprised me.

Which retailers give you a better “sales tail”?

For the Canadian market, Kobo supported by BookBub proved a touch stronger than Amazon — but Amazon appeared to reward a strong performance better. I sold 77 copies of “Mess” at Amazon Canada during its recent 99-cent promotion (supported by BookBub to Canada). This landed me — very temporarily, of course — at #1 in literary fiction.

ingoodcompanyincanadaFor days after the promotion, I was still floating near the top. Almost a month later, it has sunk to #28,000 and my discoverability there has pretty much evaporated. But I’m still selling the occasional copy.

On Kobo during that same promotion, I sold a little more — 80+ copies in Canada. But while those sales were being racked up, my sales rank just kept worsening. Since then I’ve sold more — yes, there’s been a bit of a tail, probably from also-bought appearances. I have gotten a couple more ratings to add to what had been the solitary review there. But to this day, my sales rank has only worsened.

It’s as if sales simply don’t matter to Kobo, or maybe sales outside the U.S. don’t matter (one single sale, about a month ago, did suddenly halve my sales rank). I’ve noticed this for months now. And although I did have some promotional support across retailers for a U.S. sale (just not from BookBub), not a single copy sold in the U.S.

The truth is that without actually putting in my name or a title, I can’t browse to my book in the Kobo store no matter how hard I try — during the promotion, after the promotion, privately in the Canadian store, or here in the US store. Furthermore, browsing women’s fiction means plowing through endless public domain versions of the same Jane Austen novels. Who’s going to bother? (This is on my PC. I suppose it may be completely different on a mobile device.)

It didn’t used to be that way. There was a time when selling a few books on Kobo could push me into the Top 100 at least temporarily. People would see the book. It’s almost as if Kobo has redesigned their algorithms to punish promotions, or redesigned their store front to discourage browsing for anything but top titles.

I asked them via Twitter about this. No response. I tried to ask them on my dashboard, even though the character limit there makes it difficult. Also no response. No doubt I could try sending an email, but … meh. Maybe they’ll read this and explain what is going on.

With BookBub support I also sold more than 200 copies in the Amazon UK store, more than double my Canadian sales, although my rank didn’t get quite as impressive. (I sold four copies in the UK via Kobo.) And there have been some continuing sales, as well as a couple of reviews.

003Back home in the U.S. at Amazon.com, where I had some promotional support from eReader News Today, Fussy Librarian and Read Cheaply, I sold just over 160 units during the promotion. Not too exciting at a 35% royalty. However, today, three weeks later, I can do a search for humorous literary women’s fiction with four stars or more (granted, this is fairly specific), and “The Awful Mess” shows up on page two. I’ve also sold copies of my second novel there in the days since, presumably to people who wanted to move on, though it’s impossible to know for sure.

Now, none of this changes my mind about where “The Awful Mess” is — widely available. That’s backlist for me, now, and it does sell here and there without much work on my part.

But that second novel, “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” has sold exactly one copy at Kobo since I made it available there, despite at least one (non-BookBub) multi-retailer promotion. Last time I tried to follow my link to Ribs at “Nook” it wasn’t even available, for reasons I don’t know (my price promotion at Nook with BookBub didn’t take because they didn’t change the price fast enough.) No doubt it’s possible I screwed something up. But that’s another reason it can be preferable to keep things simple.

At iTunes (via Smashwords, since I don’t own an Apple computer), I saw some nice sales of  “The Awful Mess” during my promotion — over 80 copies sold.  Before the price promotion, I was actually seeing some fairly steady downloads of my free single on iTunes, and usually a few of the people who downloaded the freebie would move on to buying one of the novels. But since the price promotion? Crickets.

I’m probably promoting the freebie less, but clearly there’s no tail from the sales I earned. I don’t shop on iTunes myself, so I don’t know how discoverability works there. From where I sit, though, I’ve not only got none, I’m actually doing worse than I did before the promotion.

And then there’s Google Play. I sold 11 copies during the promotion. Not a single one since. Only one or two before the promotion. (Ever.) However, I spent hours trying to get my price discounted properly for the promotion, and more hours trying to get it back to where it needed to be to prevent price-matching from Kindle.

Which brings me back to Kindle, with its simple and responsive author interface. Sales since the promotion have been fairly steady, if not exciting. I feel I’ve been rewarded for the promotion and ongoing sales with decent discoverability (of course, I also recently discovered I’d left my royalty at 35% by accident, so I suppose they might have been more excited about promoting it because of that.). I feel the kerfuffle over Google Play’s discounting was handled in a friendly manner once I got past the vaguely threatening first warning email.

Unexpected pleasure in Kindle Unlimited

The other thing that attracts me to Kindle Select right now, though, is exactly what drove a lot of folks out of it recently: the joy I’ve taken in watching the occasional Kindle Unlimited reader finally taking on my second novel “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire” from back when it was available that way.

I love watching that blue line. I especially enjoy watching people read the book in two or three days. I  don’t know how that translates into money, but at this point in my career, money is secondary to simply knowing that I’m being read — and, usually, being read all the way through. (As I’ve noted before, I take evil pleasure in holding readers hostage.)

Harnessing the power of free

And, finally, I’ve come to the inescapable conclusion that not offering “Ribs” free while I could reduced its sales potential. Going free is still the best promotional tool for an unknown indie author short of a U.S. BookBub price promotion, which I haven’t been able to get.

Granted, my review average is undoubtedly higher now than it will be after going free (you get a few nasty folks who don’t bother to read descriptions during free days, perhaps because they enjoy being outraged). But that’s just the price I’ll have to pay. This title hasn’t had a chance to really catch on the way it might if thousands and thousands of people download it and at least a chunk of those people actually read it.

That’s assuming I can make that happen. I still don’t expect it to do as well as the first book did. It’s gotten a lot tougher out there, by all accounts. This book is less of a crowd pleaser, though some readers think it’s better (I include myself in that). But I’ll never really know until I give it a try. So,although I’m still a bit wary, I’ll be setting up a free promotion eventually, and the only easy way to set that up is through Kindle Select.

In the meantime, going to Kindle Select also lessens my product management duties and simplifies my marketing.

Now, ALL of this promotional effort is still a bit premature in the sense that I only have two novels and the third isn’t ready for pre-order yet. If you really want your promotions to work for you, you need a stable full of books that can sell along with whatever you’re promoting. But letting the few you have put out sink into oblivion doesn’t make it any easier to resuscitate them when the time comes.

So I’ll work with what I have. And at this point, Kindle Select simply looks like the best deal for a title that hasn’t found its legs yet. What do you think? Does your own recent experience match this, or vary from it?

Trying an international book promotion across multiple retailers

Cover for The Awful Mess: A Love StoryDo you sell books across the world? I did sell a book this week in Finland (through Kobo). But that’s far from common for me (Finland OR Kobo). Of, course I’d like to change that. That’s why “The Awful Mess” is going to be on sale across the globe August 22-24.

BookBub turned it down the last time I tried, but accepted it not long after when I tried again for a promotion just to the UK, Canada, and India. I do have some other advertising support set up in the US — eReader News Today, The Fussy Librarian, and Read Cheaply — but that’s probably not enough to make things go crazy hot here on an older title. But is it possible a good sale in other parts of the world will also boost US sales? It should be interesting to find out. I could have set up a whole lot more in the way of promotion, of course, but I’m honestly just more focused on writing right now. None of this promotion will matter a whole lot until I get a critical mass of books published.

cover for book The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire by Sandra HutchisonThis will, however, be my first promotional support for Google Play sales, and I’m very interested to see if it makes any difference. (So far I’ve sold a grand total of ONE book there.) And will any of this bump up sales of my more recent novel “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire”?

It would be nice for something to work. I’ve been wondering why my Kindle sales came to a dead stop Matildachicklitfinallast week, and I think I finally figured it out. My perma-free romantic comedy “The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda Walter” got put back at 99 cents at some point (without any notification to me). I could look at this as a favor, really, since I’d just as soon not have a free option distracting folks when I am offering a great price on another book, but I have to wonder how many Kindle readers  I’ve misled and possibly annoyed in the days it took me to notice this.  Lesson: Keep tabs on your perma-free status.

Anyway, here’s the pssst just for you part: It can take a week for price changes to filter through to India’s FlipKart, so “The Awful Mess” is already 99 cents at Smashwords and some of the services it feeds into, like iTunes. So you could go grab it at a good price right now!

By the way, if anyone is willing to help me get the word out on the 22nd, 23rd, or 24th, I’d be grateful. I will be happy to share detailed results with those of you who do. Just contact me offline or comment on what you’d be willing to do in terms of retweeting or FB posting or sharing or whatever and I’ll try to make it super easy for you to do.

Enjoy what’s left of the summer! I’m prepping my courses and have managed to turn the corner into the last major act of “Bardwell’s Folly.” I don’t expect to make much further headway with it while teaching four comp courses, but you never know. It’s been my observation over many years now that ridiculously busy people often actually accomplish a whole lot more than those of us with less pressing schedules.

 

 

 

Is it the cover? A PickFu polling case study

by Sandra Hutchison

It became clear during my recent Kindle Countdown Deal that my second novel was not catching on as well as my first. Intellectually, I had expected this. It has a literary title, it doesn’t cross over into romance, and I never offered it free.

Emotionally, however, I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d crippled it in some way. Was the problem possibly just the cover?

One of the things I’ve noticed over time is that my “also boughts” on the first book all have a certain look that my books don’t have. (They are also all indie titles, which is an indicator that when you’re an indie most of your sales come during promotions to the same lists of willing indie readers.)

Alsoboughts

My covers are a little edgier, which may be appropriate, or may just be scaring people off.

Sandrasbooks

It’s also true that guys are often scared off by books with females on the cover. This may not be terribly relevant since most book buyers are women, but some of my most satisfied reviewers have been men, so I hate to cut off that potential audience if I don’t have to.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I love my covers. I think Damonza.com has done a great job, hitting a nice compromise between literary and women’s fiction. (They didn’t design the last two shorter, lower-cost titles, since I did them myself, but as you can see I have tried to maintain some branding.)

Something else had happened recently, though. I’d been playing with cover concepts for my third novel and asking for feedback on my Facebook profile. Two of the thumbnails had women on them. The third had an “oilified” plantation house. And most people, including loyal readers, had come down in favor of the house instead of the women.

That got me wondering if I’d gone the wrong way with the first two covers. SHOULD they look more like those books on my “Also boughts”?

That’s when I remembered getting a code for some free PickFu polling from a Tim Grahl post.

PickFu is an internet polling service. It’s incredibly easy to use and very reasonably priced. How well it lines up with my target audience is another question. But I decided it was worth trying out the service to see about two other possibilities for covers for “The Ribs and Thigh Bones of Desire.”

One was my best shot at a thumbnail using an “oilified” generic street scene that matches the neighborhood in the book, similar to the plantation house cover that my readers had liked for Bardwell’s Folly. So after narrowing in on that with my Facebook friends, I tested it versus the current cover on PickFu. (This would normally cost $20, but I had credits.)

thewinner

The results? The current published cover won handily. But when I dug down into the demographics, my target readers of women who are little older and perhaps a little more educated seemed to prefer the street scene.

demographicsThe comments were also fascinating. One thing became clear: My current cover is considered bleak. The title also puts off and confuses some people, suggesting to them that it’s either about eating disorders, a “trashy romance,” or erotica, none of which is true.

I knew I didn’t have time enough or money enough to act on the title (new titles require new isbns), but I’m definitely storing this away for the next time I’m trying to decide on a title.

Now, I’ve actually dealt with horrifically expensive, possibly flawed market research in my past life in publishing, so I knew (as PickFu will readily point out) that this poll of fifty people was not a scientifically valid sample size. I also had no idea how self-selected the audience might be. Given all that uncertainty, the time and money it would take to create a new cover based on this less than resounding finding seemed unwarranted.

That’s when I wondered how much damonza.com might charge me if I tested one of the original cover design options I had turned down (not without some trepidation). To my delight, they said they would provide it at no cost. And so I ran another test of that versus the neighborhood cover I was considering instead.

This time the results were clearer. You can see the whole case study here: a second A/B test at PickFu.

cutoffsversusoilified
So I switched my cover.

And nothing much happened. At that point, Amazon was still giving the book some play, but I saw maybe one day’s uptick in the trends, which could have been completely random.

So I’m back to the original cover now, because it’s a lot of work to go through everything I’ve done so far and switch the art out, and if it’s not going to make a significant difference  I’d just as soon put that effort towards my next books, “Missionary Dating and Other Stories,” which is available for pre-order now, and “Bardwell’s Folly,” which is still months out.

That’s not to say that someday I might not decide to put in the effort to switch over, because I do truly like the other cover. It’s definitely less bleak. But I’m still wondering if some women’s fiction-y neighborhood cover might not do better with my target audience than either of them.

So you’d better believe I’ll be testing different approaches with “Bardwell’s Folly” before I publish. Depending on how that goes, I might then work backwards on the other covers.

What do you want to know about your books before you publish?

If you’d like to give PickFu a spin, the folks there were kind enough to offer a discount for the first 50 readers here — just use the coupon code HUTCHISON and you’ll get 20% off your first poll. (I get no affiliate income from this. At least, I don’t think I do.)

If you find it useful, let me know! I know that back in the days when I was a marketing manager and an acquisitions editor, I would have really loved having access to a fast and easy tool like this.

Now if PickFu could just find a way to poll avid readers of our genre, we indie authors would truly be in data heaven…

 

Having trouble getting images to show in a revised Kindle book?

The only reason this is here — midweek, off the regular schedule — is so I can find it again someday. But who knows, maybe you’ll have the same problem I did. I’m quoting these instructions from “John_Ha” at an Open Office forum because it literally took me hours to figure out why the revised Word file I was uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing wouldn’t show the images once it was converted. He finally gave me the answer.

When you’re updating an existing file that has images, you have to organize the upload zip file a certain way. I’m sure this will be mere common sense to people with an intuitive understanding of html. I am not one of those people. So I needed this:

Books with images:
Creating a zipped file of your book contents

If your book includes images, you’ll need to create a compressed file of your book for it to work on Kindle. To do that, follow these steps:

1. Go to the folder where you saved your book (by default, Word will save your files in ‘Documents’ so if you aren’t sure where it is, this is a good place to look).

2. You’ll find two files with the name you used: a folder containing your images and an HTML file containing your book.

Right click on the HTML file, scroll over “Send to” and on the menu that appears, click ‘Compressed (zipped) folder’

4. A new folder with the same name will appear with a zipper on it.

5. Drag the folder with your images in it onto the new zipped folder.

This zipped folder will be necessary when it comes time to upload your book to KDP.

Cover of The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda WalterBless you, Jon (or John) Ha. I didn’t want to have to pay for formatting, since I hope this updated version of The Short, Spectacular Indie-Publishing Career of Matilda Walter will soon be perma-free once again. (It already is free at Smashwords.) It has a new chick lit cover (mine, but done with a lot more care than the first cover) and updated back matter.

It also has an intelligent Table of Contents … or it will after I fix the one on Amazon. Smashwords is already fixed, since they wouldn’t take it the wrong way. (Doing a proper linked table of contents is another how-to, but you can find that one pretty easily by googling for it. If you’re anything like me with technical instructions, I recommend going for a YouTube version.)

 

 

 

The five stages of grief of being rejected by BookBub

1877 etching of Andromache grieving for Hector

“Grief of Andromache for Hector” from The Peep-Show: Amusement and Instruction for the Young, circa 1877. This and the background art below courtesy of reusableart.com.

  1. DENIAL. This stage can’t last long. The email is right there and pretty easy to read. Writers generally have good reading comprehension skills. You can spend some time scanning it for clues, but if you’ve gotten this email more than once you know it’s boilerplate language. You may wonder why it got sent to you on a Saturday morning. You try to imagine who’s making these decisions, and how late they are working, especially since they apparently mulled it for three days. Was it like that time you sat in the jury box all day during jury selection before getting kicked out in favor of someone who hadn’t seen her brother hit a motorcyclist? Or did it just take three days because they are inundated?
  2. ANGER. Oh, writers are surely used to this. It’s why a lot of us self-publish. Back when I was still trying to find an agent or publisher, I would get some lovely and encouraging rejections. A persistent, resilient, emotionally healthy writer probably would react to these by thinking, “Oh, X likes my writing, so I should try with another book!”
    Then there’s me. I usually think something like “If you don’t like this, you’re not going to like the next one. A writer’s style is her style and her subjects are her subjects. So let’s not waste any more of each other’s time.”
    I teach literature as well as writing it, and the one thing my students and I always notice after a while is that the most acclaimed writers are almost always driven by something a bit dark. Of course, I refuse to believe this about myself (see “denial”), but if I were not driven by some unmet need of some kind, wouldn’t I be out spending my time actually being in relationships instead of sitting in a room writing novels about them? So, I must rationally conclude that I am probably about as prickly and neurotic as the next writer.
    It’s tempting to react with anger to BookBub, too, especially since their short, 30-day submission window means giving up many other promotional opportunities with longer windows in an attempt to nail theirs down, especially while trying to triangulate with Kindle Select and past promotions.
    If I hadn’t already had success with BookBub on the first novel, I might well decide to forget even trying in the future. Which would be stupid. Not all books are going to appeal as well as others. Ideally I’ll translate any anger into determination to “show them” (“them” being every person or entity who has ever not been immediately bowled over by my genius — sadly, there are legions of these people).
    3. BARGAINING. This is when you might be tempted to send an email back asking what it would take, or perhaps expressing some of that anger or desperation you feel, as if you could elicit some pity or even shame someone into doing what you want. DON’T DO IT. Speaking as a former acquisitions editor, the least pleasant part of the job was dealing with writers who wouldn’t take no for an answer. There is absolutely no way to do this and sound like a person anyone would ever want to work with in the future. You’ll be remembered, all right, and not in a good way.
    4. DEPRESSION. As an indie author rejected by BookBub, I have suffered the loss of some future income and reviews. The trajectory I had hoped for (and that I had the pleasure of experiencing before) is just not going to happen. Whereas last year I turned a small profit on this enterprise, this year I can now forecast that I won’t. Even though the writing income was never going to be enough to change my life significantly anyway, this requires some grieving. I just found this out, so the publisher in me is still grieving, because she would really prefer to be able to strut around a bit. The writer in me is, thankfully, already focused on the next two books. But she’s still a bit bummed, too. Writing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. Publishing inevitably courts grief as well as joy. You must decide for yourself whether the joy outweighs the grief.
    5. ACCEPTANCE. There was an interesting post by RJ Crayton on Indies Unlimited this week about people getting fed up with the hard work and poor returns of writing and/or indie publishing and quitting (aptly titled “Self Publishing Shouldn’t Be Miserable“). If you’re writing because you think it will make you rich, or give you status, you’re going to hit this point a lot sooner than someone who’s writing because she has something she really wants to say. Unless you’re very lucky or unusually brilliant, or perhaps awesome at marketing, there’s a long, long road to success as an author. Many never get there. For some, getting there is sadly temporary. Those of us who are older understand that we might well die before we reach the magical golden land of steady book sales to hungry readers.
    But I’m okay with that. This is a road that has its own rewards.
    The Only Way To Get There