Keys to Making People Excited About Your Book

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People ask me all the time, “Which book that you wrote is your favorite?” That’s difficult to answer, but honestly, it’s typically whichever book I’m currently working on. The correct answer isn’t the title of one of your books, it’s enthusiasm. You need to be excited about your stories. If you are not, no one else will be either.

  1. You’ve got to be excited about your book—not just the fact that you wrote it, but it has got to genuinely be a book you would buy. To test this, you’ve got to let it simmer… once your final draft is done, let it sit a few months in a drawer or on a hard drive… go do something else, start a new book, even… then come back and read it with fresh eyes. If it doesn’t excite you, then it’s time to reevaluate the book (even a final draft isn’t necessarily a final draft).
  2. Great Cover Copy. Your blurb/elevator pitch has to be on point. I write about this elsewhere with sample formulas. Aside from your opening page, this is your opportunity to set a killer hook. An amazing tagline is also great tool (a one sentence summary).
  3. Amazing First Page. What comes up when you click Amazon’s Look Inside feature—or what does a reader do when you put a book in his or her hand (besides read the cover copy)? People default to the first page. Give them some irresistible bait. Don’t be hokey, cheesy, or overly gimmicky. Be good. Incidentally, this is also a critically important piece for literary agents who are deluged with read requests every day.
  4. Superb Cover Art. Maybe this should’ve been higher on the list since it’s practically sequential, but the cover is the very first thing a reader sees. If it reeks of sub-par quality or feels amateurish the reader isn’t likely to be receptive to your enthusiasm and might not even bother reading the cover copy.
  5. Know Your Reader. People are meant to be in community, so find out where your reader are and what they like—engage them on familiar ground. I write mostly SF/F and there is little surprise that I do well at comic conventions. If you write something similar to Chicken Soup For the Soul, a scrapbooking or quilting club is a great place to talk about your book and engage readers. I would terribly at a historical society meeting, but a nonfiction author who writes on regional interests could do well. Identify your target audience; go to your target audience.

As much as I wish there was a magic bullet to make your book irresistible to consumers, there is not. No special formulas or methods, just pure, unadulterated hard work, enthusiasm, ability to sell, and drive to keep promoting your book. When your energy runs low, take a break. If it doesn’t come back, fake it. Push through until something breaks—if your book is good and if you’re present with your prime target audience, persistence will always rule over resistance.

Be tenacious. Be excited. You’ve got this.

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Where to get Art for your DIY Cover

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For many DIY authors who have either a familiarity with software and aspects of design, access to great templates for covers, or just want to try their own hand making covers, knowing where to get license free artwork is a boon.

One quick caveat on cover art, many people have made many, many really bad book covers. Good enough to satisfy doesn’t cut it. This is one more area where the failure of indies (or their apathy towards the subject) has made the term “self-published” synonymous with “crap.” Please don’t take a dump on the pile and add to it. If you are committed to releasing a DIY cover into the wild, please make sure that it doesn’t reflect poorly upon indies as a whole. There are many services who will gladly contract with you to design the cover you have in mind (but check their portfolio, first, to make sure he or she isn’t some fly-by night with a demo copy of Photoshop striking out with no more skill than you.) If you see multiple images that you’d love merged into your ideal graphic but don’t have the skill to seamlessly integrate them, please don’t go alone.

There are many places to acquire stock images for use in your covers.  http://www.istockphoto.com and http://www.shutterstock.com are both highly recommended. I have memberships at both and use Shutterstock often. I have also been a member of http://www.deviantart.com for many years. Its forum has been a mostly fruitful place for me to hire professional illustrators for a variety of writing-related commissions.

For the ultimate in DIY on the cheap you can search for free images at sources that aggregate CC0 license stock images. Please use these places and not Google Image Search. A Google search will show copyrighted images and you can quickly find yourself in legal trouble for infringement—and an author who willfully infringes on the copyright of someone else (pretty close to plagiarism) will find little support from the community at large. CC0 stands for Creative Commons Zero. Under the terms of the license, all images may be used, displayed, or modified freely for personal or commercial use. The only stipulation is that identifiable faces should not be used in potentially offensive ways (like erotica book covers). No attribution is needed. (More here: https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/)

My favorite site tops this list, others follow.

  1. https://pixabay.com
  2. https://www.pexels.com/
  3. http://unsplash.com/
  4. http://www.publicdomainpictures.net/
  5. http://publicdomainarchive.com/
  6. http://littlevisuals.co/
  7. http://pickupimage.com/
  8. http://www.pdpics.com/
  9. https://stocksnap.io/
  10. http://skitterphoto.com/

Picking your cover art and design motifs are one thing, but remember the practical things, too. Your spine’s thickness will depend upon exactly how many pages are in your book, and whether your pages are white or crème (they have different thicknesses that add up.) Rather than do all of the math, I’d recommend searching online for a “book cover calculator” that will adjust your spine width for you and give you a template to design over with proper bleed and trim edges. Both Createspace and Ingramspark have these features built into their creation wizards and allow users to upload their own files for quality proofing by their own experts (mostly Skynet computers who gained sentience.)

Because of the large file sizes and opportunities to constantly tweak, change, or mess up, I recommend saving often, and save in multiple formats. I always save any final WIP that I intend to upload as a Photoshop PDF with all layers merged together and at 300DPI (always work in 300DPI—you can always lose quality, but never gain it). Some publishers have maximum file sizes to keep their servers from imploding; merging the layers helps bring that size down.

When all is said and done and you are done tweaking and adjusting your graphics, make sure to get a physical proof ordered by your printer. Oftentimes colors will represent as darker or lighter when ink hits the paper. I try to intentionally upgrade the vibrancy of my covers so that they pop more. Printed covers tend to either look darker or more faded out than they do on the screen.

Happy designing, and don’t feel bad if you get unhappy results. I’ve scrapped many pieces that I didn’t love… and my biggest regrets come from using artwork that wasn’t quite ready for the world to see. Don’t publish unfinished art or unedited stories. The world won’t thank you for not doing that… but it will ridicule you if you do.

How to Line up Author Events at B&N/Chain Bookstores

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Luckily for authors who want to get in on chain store signings, Barnes and Nobles released an article specifically listing the ways that authors can secure spots for signings and events at their store locations.
http://www.barnesandnobleinc.com/publishers-authors/how-to-be-considered-for-an-author-event/
While their website mentions that they often host people with a small following, that is not always the case. The above, official website basically says “just call your local store.”

There are a few things to make sure you’ve done before you make contact.

  1. Get independent feedback on your book and make sure it feels professional (content is appealing, internal and external elements meet professional standards.)
  2. Make sure that your book is returnable and has at least a 55% wholesale discount. (Indies can set this up with your Ingramspark account for your book—chains do not, as a general rule, work with Createspace. Avoid talking about Createspace since it is their main competitor. Because of this, most of my titles aren’t even available on the expanded distribution channels within the Createspace author tools. As far as bookstores are concerned, I hate Amazon.)
  3. Rehearse or roleplay speaking with a manager if you are nervous. Remember that writing is a form of communication; you want to represent yourself well as a professional communicator.
  4. Know your ISBN.
  5. If you have specific and relevant good reviews, use them.
  6. Have a press kit prepared so that you can send it at the drop of the hat.
  7. Do your homework. Know where you are calling and who to talk to.

When I started securing signings, I called a random B&N and asked to speak to the CRM about a signing. The location was a store that I used to spend a lot of time in, but because of its location and area decline they rarely held author events there any longer. He did refer me to the largest store in his area and gave me its CRM’s name. Tip: always ask for more information than you think you might need. The next store was able to set up a future event (partly because I name-dropped the first CRM, and partly because they immediately looked up my book on Amazon to check my reviews.) In order to have the best sales possible (which is in the store’s best interest—it’s not considered greedy to make this happen,) I asked two things: 1) what do you normally do/expect with authors and 2) what times/days seem to generate the best results for sales and/or foot traffic. Eagerness to help the store succeed is the right kind of enthusiasm to demonstrate.

The CRM might say yes, they might not. This is the right person to talk to. He or she has the power to book whichever authors they want at a local level provided the wholesale discount and returnability are set properly. While some chains do not accept POD or independent books (Books-a-Million) Barnes and Nobles’ CRMs are not tied to any rule against them. Past bad experiences, however, with unprepared writers or poorly produced books can make them reluctant. Sell yourself and ask how you can overcome any potential objections—some CRMs who might be opposed to an indie author signing might be less resistant to using you at a larger “local authors” event or a “new authors” day if they have that sort of multi-author event which are typically no more than once per year, but draw larger crowds.

The trick to securing a book signing is to pick up a phone and call. That’s easily the biggest part. Fear and lethargy often win the day and many authors simply talk themselves out of the ask. Fear can be very real: learn to fake it if you have to, but you’ve got to make the call (pump some Eye of the Tiger beforehand if you need to, but pick up the phone.) Maybe you’ve been rejected before—so call the next store. If it happens a few times, feel free to ask the event manager for feedback and even permission to call back in the future. Use smaller rejections to prepare for greater future success. Everything can be a learning experience.

A couple things to remember about setting up signings at chain bookstores:

  1. Approach book stores several months in advance of your targeted date.
  2. Be prepared to “pitch” an event manager or coordinator.
  3. Help spread the word through all media outlets (free and paid) available to you.
  4. Double check everything (if it’s an indie store, make sure they have books for your signing!)
  5. Travel with a toolkit that includes pens, promo materials, etc. Mine includes pushpins, rubber bands, and duct tape—all of which have saved the day at different times.
  6. Pre-decide on any passages for readings.
  7. Be sure to send a thank-you and follow up with everyone involved.

These things often apply to smaller, independent stores as well.

How to Format Your Book’s Interior

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I have seen a large number of different format designs for pages. There is very little by way of right and wrong when it comes to font, letter size, margins, etc. It is not a one-size fits all motif. There are some industry standards, however, and some things that just make sense.

I write about size of books elsewhere, but book dimensions are a tricky thing. Many people prefer a 6×9 for all books—I hate 6×9 unless I’m reading nonfiction… then I think it’s the perfect size. I prefer a 5.5×8.5 in fact or even a 5×8. Font choice also ranges greatly but I recommend standard fonts like Times New Roman or Courier and an approximate size somewhere between 11 and 14, depending on the genre and audience. Line spacing is very important as well. Double spacing is much too large, 1.5 is better, and 1.15 is my preference (for fiction, anyway,) and 1.0 is much too crowded and strains the eyes.

Margins are very important. One inch is pretty common, but leaves more whitespace at the edges than many readers care for, unless the book is a 6×9. Half-inch is better for fiction if the trim size is less than 6×9. Gutter margins are another thing you will need to keep in mind.

What the heck are gutter margins you say? When your book is bound, the left hand side of the recto page (and right hand of the verso) needs extra space to account for the spine of the book and where the thick sheaf of paper is glued together at the binding. If you don’t create a gutter margin your text will run off into oblivion (especially if your margins are tight). It’s not nearly as difficult as it sounds. Simply put, a gutter margin is an additional amount of space your word processing software will add to the binding side to keep the margins correct. The size of your gutter margins depend upon the overall page count of your book. Createspace recommends the following gutter sizes:

24-50 pages        .375”
151-400 pages   .75”
400-600 pages   .875”
+600 pages         1.0”

Formatting might sound like a lot of headaches and monkeying around when you just want to write (and there are plenty of people who will do all your formatting for a fee,) but it really is critical to get this right. It’s important because there are industry standards, poor formatting hastens eye fatigue and makes readers quit, it helps salability, and it helps profitability.

At the end of the day, reducing whitespace (within reason) means fewer pages and that means extra money earned per book sold. If the layout looks bad with text too small, too large, too squished, or bad margins the interior looks unprofessional and thus unappealing and that turns people off from buying it. Those same things cause the eyes and minds of the people who do read it to get tired more quickly making them more likely to put the book down. A little time spent tweaking formats can have a broad impact down the road on the reader side.

The Independent Book Publishers Association lists a number of generally recognized industry standards on their website: http://www.ibpa-online.org/page/standardschecklist (you can check out their list of standards for covers as well). The standards include:

  1. Professional appearance
  2. Appropriate, easily readable font for body of text
  3. Consistent headers and footers
  4. Proper punctuation usage (em dash, hyphens, etc.)
  5. Appropriate margins
  6. Strategic trim size

The interior file should also include the following elements in addition to the text of the story:

  1. Half-Title page (has just the title of the book on the first page… this page is optional)
  2. Title Page to include title/subtitle of book, author(s)/editors, illustrators, publisher and location. The Title and Half-Title pages should always be on the right hand side (recto) pages
  3. Copyright page (should be on left-hand [verso] page following Title Page,) that includes copyright date and holder, copyright notice, edition information, Library of Congress info, publisher info, ISBN, title, author, design credits, waivers, and disclaimers
  4. Optional Dedication
  5. Optional Table of Contents
  6. Optional Acknowledgements page, including possible back matter for footnotes, endnotes, and formally credited citations
  7. About the Author (this may appear in front matter, back matter, or on the jacket/rear cover)

Ebook formatting is slightly different. When creating an ebook from a paperback (if you are using Createspace) you can automatically push the file from Createspace to Kindle/KDP and the conversion will take place automatically for you. This means that as long as you did it correctly for the paperback the ebook should be fine. Smashwords, however (which you should definitely use) has their own formatting procedures which are perhaps a little more difficult to nail down correctly (things like hyperlinks within the text and specific formatting methods for the Table of Contents, front matter, back matter, etc.) the end result is actually a more powerful book and one that is available on more platforms. While some people don’t bother with Smashwords because of the added difficulty and the fact that the sales via Smashwords pale in comparison to Amazon, it is worth it for a variety of other reasons. Smashwords pushes the book to Kobo, iBooks, B&N, and bunch of other places where users shop; the primary reason I like it, though, is the ease of setting up coupons to give discounts or free copies to people like reviewers, press, con attendees, etc. Smashwords and other specific ebook hosting/publishing outlets will have their own specific guidelines on how to format, prepare, and submit files.

How to Do a Good Book Cover

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Your book cover is your first impression—if you have any hope of selling the book to someone who doesn’t know you, it’s got to be a good one. People judge everything by appearance. They say to never judge a book by its cover (or anything else, for that matter,) but we do that all the time. You have one of two ways to respond: either change the way our culture things (which will take decades and a personal investment numbering in the billions of dollars) or you can play by the rules already set up by the internal psychology of consumers.

Let me just say a couple things about covers. Your cover is almost as important as what is inside the book—if you don’t have the talent to create an amazing cover, don’t fake it, skimp, or settle for something that doesn’t really pop. I waited almost 3 years to self-publish my nonfiction book because I wasn’t happy with any possible cover art pieces. Once I found what I’d always envisioned and made it happen that book became my bestseller. A cover is your first and foremost marketing tool, and most people do a crap job with it. I’m not mincing words here. Three quarters of all the Indie book submissions I receive for my review service have covers that are absolute garbage. (Just in case you want to ask about my qualifications on this matter, I’m loathe to admit that one of my early covers ended up on an award site for “bad covers.” I commissioned an artist to redo my cover with certain thematic elements and sales took off.)

You should know that there are some industry standards for covers that you ought to abide by. Most of these are touched on if you use the tools available in Createspace, but not all of them. For instance, Createspace and most other Indie presses will put a bar code on your cover graphic, but they will not automatically put the price next to that UPC code—some book buyers, services, and stores will not carry a book that does not have one (though many will) because it is considered an industry standard. Your cover artist will need to manually put that that onto your artwork if you want it included (just be warned that price changes won’t be reflected on your cover art and so you will need to keep your artwork current and change as necessary—which could incur charges depending on how you’ve set up your printing.

Below are the kinds of things on covers that make up absolute garbage (and have no visible appeal—or worse, make people want to avoid your book).

  • A tightly cropped image/extreme close-up meant to distract from the fact that an author couldn’t find/commission artwork that is relevant to a story… or an image resized with improper aspect ratio (making it squished)
    •Characters, faces, or CG images that look they come from a late 90s video game (or really anything meant for 3D but represented in 2D)
    •Bad fonts (I’m looking at you Papyrus)
    •No texture or depth to text overlays
    •Looks like it was assembled in MS Paint
    •Bad photo-manipulation
    •Unreadable and/or crowded text or improperly placed text
    •Bad image blending techniques (superimposed pieces look like a 1970s green screen, etc.)
    •Artwork that looks like it belongs on a refrigerator rather than a book cover (unless it’s a kids’ picture book)
    •Spelling errors
    •Design is either too simple or too complex (if a cover has just text on a blank background, or it suffers from too many inserted graphic elements or is too busy the book becomes unappealing—it’s the visual equivalent of a cover blurb that is either too long or too short)
    •Clashing art techniques (like a pencil drawing overlaid on a stock-image photo)
    •Rampant abuse of opacity/transparency overlays
    •…and my ultimate pet peeve that I see all the time: a stock scenery photo with text overlay (like seriously, this is about 40% of all the bad books that I see and accounts for most people who put zero effort into this critically important marketing tool.) The only real exceptions to this are poetry books and books about landscaping.

Some of the generally recognized industry standards that you should be aware of are
• Human readable BISAC code
• All text is easily readable at full size and as a thumbnail
• Spine includes author name, title, and publisher info
• Human readable ISBN on back cover
• Bar code on back cover with 13 digit ISBN

There are many services on the internet or individual freelancers willing to help with a book cover—but be sure to ask for examples of work before you commit money or enter into a contract for the work. There many other reputable services available online. For a DIY cover design, try to avoid the above list of bad cover elements if you are voyaging ahead with your copy of Photoshop or similar program. For a DIY designer, your biggest concern will be securing rights to quality artwork to merge into your greater cover design.

Indicators of Fake Writing Contests

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Social media is a powerful tool. It can be a boon to those with something to advertise, which can prove beneficial to savy Indies who use that route to market their books. It can also be a way for predators to hoodwink authors into really bad deals. While there are no end to the “classes,” “publishers,” and “author services” that will pop up in your feeds because of targeted marketing, you will also see a number of “writing contests” promising you the world as long as you submit right away (like, before you have time to research the contest and learn more.)

Many of the contests that I see listed as “sponsored posts” on Facebook (advertisements) are total shams. Take from me, a guy who’s been suckered by a couple of them when I went through a “let’s enter a bunch of contests” phase, a bunch of them have some pretty bad crap in the Terms of Service/small print. For example, one such contest reserved the electronic print rights of ALL submissions for YEARS. Before you enter any contest, make sure you look under the hood and do your due diligence on the program itself.

Here are some signs that the contest you are thinking about entering bears further investigation:

  1. Its name is very close to a more well-known contest
  2. You have to purchase additional author packages (or it is strongly suggested) for services of any kind or copies of your own work (like anthologies)
  3. Contest’s page is listed in Google as a possible scam, or has negative marks in Predators and Editors/Writer’s Beware (http://pred-ed.com/) or Winning Writers (https://winningwriters.com/the-best-free-literary-contests/contests-to-avoid)
  4. Low standards (everyone gets in) and/or the contest is popularity based (measured by the amount of clicks/traffic a story produces)
  5. Contest is free but writers must pay high prices to purchase personal copies
  6. Unusually high promised prize money
  7. Contest hosts are unusually slow to respond or don’t respond at all to questions
  8. It is hard to find info on past winners
  9. Contest judges have fishy or no qualifications
  10. Winners or “qualified entrants” are promised entry into a an anthology (and the word limit is very low)
  11. The “prize” is something that will actually cost money or is intangible (like agency representation from a company with no real credentials)
  12. Top prizes are only awarded if you pay to attend a conference or convention to receive it
  13. Published bio or extra info in an anthology alongside your work costs additional monies
  14. You feel a contest representative is trying to coerce you for any reason
  15. They try and sell you a “publishing package” or state that such a package is worth $XYZ in prize money
  16. You give up any kind rights for submitting (not necessarily for publishing, which is a later step)
  17. You have to subscribe to anything to enter/a subscription is included in the entry cost
  18. The contest is sponsored by a publisher that turns up scam warnings with a quick web search
  19. The publisher heaps unnecessary praise on your submission
  20. The contest was advertised in a venue unrelated to publishing (Facebook, newspaper, popup ad, etc.)

 

Don’t get scammed by companies like Reader’s Magnet

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As I’ve mentioned previously, everyone wants to rip you off as an author by taking advantage of your hopes and dreams. Scammers make me sick. I’ve had a few calls from them lately pretending to be huge media companies that offer promotion for authors. These scammers do their homework, and so I assume they work on commission. They reference your book by name and will give it praise when they call and might mention that it was found by a Literary Talent Scout (as if those exist—agents and publishers get so many queries every day that they don’t need to go looking for talent! Talent goes to them. It’s a system that has been long established.)

I listened to the first guy’s spiel so I was familiar with it; they wanted between hundreds and thousands of dollars to do worldwide promotion on a book of mine that was far from my best one (so zero quality control) and when pressed, the agent knew nothing about it. (It is fun to toy with these guys, “oh yeah? What did you like about my book specifically?”) Just like any scamming vanity press, these sorts of things are easy to spot, and with a phone component, poor English skills are often a giveaway (hence the “international interest” I suppose.)

Straight up scam. I told them to put me on their do not call list. I got called again today by a man from Reader’s Magnet. I know the drill and rattled off my request so that the caller could not get in a word edgewise—I want as little of my time wasted as possible. “I’m familiar with your company. I do not want to buy or sell anything through you and do not want your services; please put me on your do not call list. Thank you, goodbye.” I hung up with the guy trying to talk over me on the other end. He actually called me back and started yelling at me about being rude and unprofessional. I responded, “I am familiar with you. You guys are rip-off artists and a predatory company trying to sell me something I don’t want or need.” I shouted him down and when he said he’d put me on their DNC (while chastising me about being unprofessional—even though he interrupted me with an unsolicited phone call to my personal cell) I said “good” and hung up on him again. He was pushy and rude. I wouldn’t buy something that I wanted from someone like that. Don’t let a bully manipulate you into buying something… especially when that something is a giant, squishy turd.

Thanks to the internet we can check out companies like this one (you might be familiar with my report many months ago from the scamming email services that promised contact info for thousands of bookstores—the folks I tracked down as operating out of the back of a taco joint.) Reader’s Magnet has a good looking website and social media. They do their best to represent themselves as a legit company and seem to have followed the same online platform building guides that Indie authors do—I guess they know their audience/prey well enough to look the part.

I found a response to the company’s cold calling on Ripoffreport.
“Being a book author is no easy task and marketing your book once published, mostly self-published these days–is near impossible so these kinds of scammers prey on authors who usually have huge egos and desperately want their words read.”

Here’s a second statement, also from Ripoffreport
“urged me to pay the registration fee of $650 to get my book in their catalog.  He claimed 200,000 people would attend the Book Fair in Frankfort Germany in October.  Those attending include librarians, owners of bookstores, teachers, students, parents.  I was reluctant to pay such a steep fee, so he quickly re-calculated and said $550 would be acceptable.  He claimed this Book Fair is the biggest display of books in the world, with people coming from every nation on earth.  He estimated 200,000 would attend, and perhaps 1% of them would buy my book. That would be 2,000 books sold then and there.  However, he only asked me to send him one book, so whoever wants to buy my book would need to contract me and buy directly from. The more we talked, the more skeptical I became.  He spoke with an accent…”

People across Goodreads have gotten the same phone call. Apparently cold calling must be their primary MO. https://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/18715656-anyone-here-ever-contacted-by-readersmagnet

Really, the company uses temptation to try and part author’s with their hard earned cash, like this Reddit user noted.
“I looked them up while I was on the phone with them and a lot of people have listed them as a scam. I know no one is really interested in my books which is what tipped me off, but also was tempted to listen to more because hey, we all want to have our work read by people!”

Nobody is looking out for you except for you and those other Indies in your network who have become like your family. You certainly aren’t going to be cold-called by top-shelf talent recruiters as an unknown. You can even be a faith-based offer and believe that your book success is the high-and-perfect plan of God Almighty and a divine call on your life—still, this isn’t how God would operate. If you’re walking out the plan and following the steps properly the regular doors will open. Query an agent, don’t drop hundreds of dollars on a poorly executed scam.

#readersmagnetreview #readersmagnetscam #readersmagnet

What Do Those Stars Mean on Amazon?

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If you take anything away from my blogging about reviews, it should be to review books and leave them high marks. Granted, not every book is the best—and some truly deserve low reviews, but there’s a lot of room in between.

One of the primary problems with the Amazon 1-5 star rating/review system is that it’s highly subjective—but not just as a matter of opinions about writing and stories… but also about the review system itself. If you read a perfectly average book with no major problems, and you enjoyed the story line, but it’s not changing cracking your all-time top ten novel list, it should be a three star rating, right?

Wrong. It should be five stars.

People tend to set up their reviews based on a system of product comparison, but a 5 star review does not have to be the best book you ever read; neither does it have to be perfect (lots of books have the occasional error in the minutia). A 5-star book doesn’t even have to be better than the last book  you read. Three is not the middle, and in fact a three star review shows up as a “critical review” under the Amazon system… i.e. you thought the book was bad.

Here is what each of those star ratings mean:
5: you enjoyed this book in the way that it was meant (has the expected tropes, themes, etc.)
4: you generally liked the book but you have at least one major issue with the book and it detracted from your enjoyment (lots of repetition in the writing, a major plot hole, far too many typos, etc.)
3: a novel you neither liked nor disliked—you didn’t care if you finished it or not. You might read it if you were stuck on a desert island and this was all you had… then again, you might use it for TP instead.  Because some advertisers and listing services don’t allow 3-star books, consider leaving no review out of apathy and sympathy. This review hurts an author’s rating.
2: the novel is plagued by multiple, serious issues and you want to prevent others from suffering in an attempt to read this book. There are typos on practically each page (lack of editing,) serious inconsistencies, or a glaring lack of research. There was a plot, characters, and setting, but you didn’t really enjoy it.
1: a colossal failure. You hate this book so much that it keeps you up at night—there was no plot. Don’t leave a 1 star review unless you truly feel the author should never write again—this is not the appropriate review to leave if you bought a romance that you thought was a “Clean Christian romance” from the cover/title but it actually turned out to be an Amish bodice ripper.

Perhaps the best blog I’ve read on this topic (which I obviously borrowed some thoughts from) come from https://teylarachelbranton.com/reviews-what-those-stars-mean-to-authors/ (her list of Dos and Don’ts for reviewing is highly recommended).
Teyla Branton frames it in the context of a school report card: 5 stars is a B+ to A, 4 stars is a C+ to B, 3 stars is a C or C-, 2 stars is a D or D-, and 1 is an F.

On that report card theme, imagine you believe in a literal divine creation narrative from the Judeo Christian perspective (that God created the earth and everything on it in six days and that evolution doesn’t exist.) You’re also in high school and take a chapter test on Darwinian evolution. You can score 100% on the test despite having vastly different beliefs than those in a textbook. That’s kind of how this system is supposed to work: you can give 5 stars even if the book wasn’t your cup of tea. However, if the book was presented as a fantasy novel but turns out to be a literary novel about a man who thinks he is a wizard dealing with life in a mental institution, it would be a 4 star novel unless it clearly states it’s about a man with mental illness. “Does the book share the story it sets out to tell?”

Because Amazon runs with an average and because 3 star reviews actually translate as negative, this is how to interpret the 1-5 star rating system:
5 Stars: probably only has 1 review, otherwise excellent
4 1/2 Stars: excellent
4 Stars: okay
3 1/2 Stars: crap
3 Stars: crap
2 1/2 Stars: crap
2 Stars: crap
1 1/2 Stars: crap
1 Star: crap

Remember—this might be the most important thing for any given author! Handing out low reviews is perhaps the biggest kind of insult you can give any author. Remember that movie you saw in the theater—the one that you didn’t hate and kinda liked, but the details and plot were a little fuzzy in your memory by day two? It’s not much different than what Hollywood churns out on a daily basis to the tune of millions of dollars. Make an author feel like a million bucks today: leave a 5 star review… they probably deserve it more than you’ve ever even realized.

Getting and Using Author Central

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Amazon.com is big. Reeeeaallly big—and they account for more than 60% of all other sales combined, for most Indie authors. That said, they want you to succeed (albeit, just so they can make a profit off of you, but that’s how business works.) Amazon wants you to do well (so long as they get their cut—which is why they have virtually zero interest in making your Createspace store a convenient place to shop for customers who will simply order via the regular Amazon system instead, but more on that in a different article.) Amazon has equipped authors with this nifty little tool called Author Central. You can log in or sign up for it here: http://www.authorcentral.com/

If you’ve read my Indie Roadmap, you will see that the list has a special entry for getting into Author Central. You can use this in lieu of a personal website, but it should probably have the same kind of content if you have both.

Author Central allows you to connect with readers because this profile will be crossloaded into all of your books’ sales pages. It’s a good place to put a succinct, strong bio, some catchy images, and even video. Perhaps one good feature that is often overlooked is the Events option where you can list upcoming appearances such as conventions, fairs, festivals, and signings. Another feature, if you have a regular blog, is something called RSS feeds. I specifically chose hosting with WordPress because of the RSS feature. I’m no tech guru, and you may need to turn over a few more stones to properly utilize this option, but it takes the content from my blog and reposts it on my Author Central profile so that it is automatically mirrored with new content every time I post (several times per week)… I do this for my Goodreads account as well. You can also link your social media accounts to your Author Central so make sure to do that—it is always a good idea to be connected to your readers—moreso now than ever before readers want more than a good story: they want relationships with good storytellers!

According to Amazon, getting an account is this easy:

  1. https://authorcentral.amazon.com/ and click Join Now.
  2. Enter your e-mail address and password and click Sign in using our secure server.
    • If you have an Amazon.com account, sign in with the e-mail address and password you use on that account.
    • If you do not have an existing Amazon.com account, select No, I am a new customer. You will be prompted to enter the necessary information.
  3. Read the Author Central’s Terms and Conditions, and then click Agree to accept them.
  4. Enter the name your books are written under. A list of possible book matches appears.
  5. Select any one of your books. If your book is not in the list, you can search for it by title or ISBN. The book you select must be available for purchase on the Amazon.com website…
  6. When you receive the confirmation e-mail we send, confirm your e-mail address and identity.

That really is about the gist of it. It’s streamlined and easy to use, and is a convenient way to put your greater work in front of shoppers who might want to learn more about an author or check out his or her backlist.

Once you are able to fill out the biography (after step 6) you should remember a few things: write in the third person; use your writing style to show readers your personality; use the bio to establish your credibility; keep it clean, appealing, and readable—you only have a couple paragraphs to “sell yourself,” so be neither boring, nor too short. Also of note is that you can’t use any html or even bold or italic fonts in this bio—words only… but you’re a writer, right? So write.

Something I recently learned was that authors should be sure to sign up for Author Central accounts in both the US market and the UK market. They don’t necessarily mirror each other, but a little copy and pasting can fix that. You can find the UK version at https://authorcentral.amazon.co.uk

How To Start Writing

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A lady stood at my convention table and said, “I’ve always wanted to write a book. Let me ask you, how do you even start?”

I confess, I didn’t know how to answer her right away. I probably said something nice to encourage her, but likely bumbled my way through it. Once something comes naturally to you, you tend to forget all of the little steps that brought you there. Can you remember what it was like before you knew how to read, or ride a bicycle, or transfer public transportation lines? It can be intimidating and scary the first few times and then you forget what even that was like.

Busses scare me. I see little kids in the city hop from bus to bus. It takes me twenty minutes of reading brochures to hesitantly hop onto my connecting stop—not because I am unable, but because I have no idea what I’m doing. I grew up in the country where everyone had a car—public transit wasn’t even a thought for us. I didn’t know where to begin. Writing is like that for some people, and everyone’s process is somewhat different. Some people are meticulous outliners, some people use notecards (yes, like in high school), and some people are “pantsers” (people who sit and right by the “seat of their pants.”)

Since there is no hard and fast rule, what I can tell you is how I used to write and how I write now.

I used to be a pantser. As I got better at writing—and thus more meticulous in my editing, I became an outliner. It happened organically. My old process was that I would write my thoughts, collecting each general chapter’s worth of thoughts in a page(s) in a notebook: what the major events of the plot were and things that needed to happen and then I’d jot subplot info in the margins. After the story was complete I would actually go back and write an outline off of that—mainly for editing purpose as I would sometimes check for continuity errors or just need to know where to go in order to make a change. Now, that’s how I write. I do the same thing, only digitally instead of on paper. I also keep pages and pages of other thoughts, character notes, etc. I usually consult it several times per edit and high light things that I’ve missed or need to pay attention to during the next draft.

Because I start with an outline (that I update as I write) editing has become easier for me. But that still doesn’t say how I start. I just do.

When I look at my outline, I don’t see tiny parts, I see the story as a whole—it’s good to mentally revisit what you want to accomplish with the story regularly. Then I zero in on what I want to write today. I look at that part on my outline and then I sit down to write it (it helps to have a regular space, make sure your calendar isn’t crammed with other stuff, turn off social media, have something to drink nearby, and allow yourself to engage in the story. Once you are in the swing of things, you may find you want to use all your scraps of free time to write, like me. I hate to put things down once I’ve begun on them and I began saving things in the cloud so I could take a story with to work on it in the five or ten minutes before a meeting. Even if I only write two sentences, it’s progress. Just be sure to set aside some of that time to dedicate to writing.

It may come slow at first. It might read like trash—that’s okay. Just get it on paper. Sometimes you just need to start in order to prime the pump and get something more inspired to flow. I would also recommend that you set goals and find a way to make yourself accountable to them—the quantity of your writing will increase and you’ll be happier for it!

Ernest Hemingway said “Write drunk, edit sober.” I’m telling you to get hammered, but what he’s saying is that the first draft can be a mess. Everything works out in the editing… in fact, editing isn’t complete until it’s polished. Another piece of advice I’ve often heard said is to “write for you—edit for your reader.” Find what works for you—find your inspiration and method because at the end of the day, you are writing for you.