State of Writing

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Had a great weekend at the first ever Chapelcon in Albert Lea. It was a smallish comic convention that really shot high. they learned a few things (organizer said so himself at the end) and will hopefully come back bigger and better next year.

I got one chapter edited in TKR3, and sold a number of copies of the series at the con, plus networked with a bunch of other writers and affiliated nerds. I also got a back issue of superman I’ve been looking to purchase for 25 years (I feel so old being able to write that sentence).

I’m in a crazy hectic week for youth work and fundraising, so setting a low bar, but I still want to edit a new chapter. I’ve also been working on a top secret nonfiction project and hope to have that done in the near future.

Setting the Price of Your Book

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This is a pretty tricky thing—it’s much more difficult than you might think and it’s, quite honestly, something I’ve always struggled with. Many smaller presses have what feels like outrageously inflated prices… sometimes that’s true, but sometimes that my own background context wreaking havoc with my economic sense. I grew up as a reader from a young age and often bought books at library sales, used book bins, and mass market copies off a shelf at the local drug store; if I was about anything close to $20 it had to be a hardcover novel that just released. In the back of my mind I’m still thinking that all paperbacks ought to be $5.99, just like my dad thinks a soda ought to cost a nickel and we should crack open a fire hydrant if we want to cool down in the summer heat.

Of course, it’s ridiculous to live in the past and to base your books’ prices on that… even if you print copies of your book in bulk to resell, you’re going to have paid around $5.99 (give or take a dollar) apiece just to have it printed and shipped to you. I’m constantly tweaking my prices and looking at the issue and realizing that many readers nowadays are used to paying $12-15 for a new book. Their metric is different; $12.99 is the new $5.99… people interested in my books at signings seldom balk at an approx $15 price tag given the size and weight of the book they are looking at.

But that’s not to say that you should price all your books at $15. You’ve got to decide a few things with your pricing: 1. What is your goal/purpose in writing, 2. Are you communicating true value with your book, and 3. Is your price market feasible.

  1. Are you in this to make some money or are you willing to make less money so that more people will be able to buy your book based on a low price? Many writers (myself included) are more interested in having readers and building a solid base and fandom than they are with making money. This may change at some point, but at least for now I am just trying to break even with my book sales. If you are trying to price your book so cheap that people can’t hardly refuse to buy it (trust me—they still will) then you might be limiting your books potential market feasibility.
  2. If you set your book price too low, you do risk communicating that your writing has low value/worth… sometimes low cost things are “cheap” and oftentimes free things aren’t worth the $0.00 price tag. If you want people to buy in and take you seriously as a writer do two things: make sure that it is indeed good (honest reviews from beta readers, your book was edited well, it’s not a rip-off of some other story) and don’t give away something that has real value/cost (unless it’s a specific promo tactic).
  3. You need to make sure that your book can enter mainstream distribution and is feasible. Regardless of whether or not you would give away your book, resellers/bookstores do not feel the same way. If your book costs $5 to manufacture and you want to sell it for $7.50, it will not be available on Amazon and bookstores won’t sell it because there is no margin for them to mark it up and sell it. You could buy copies and store them and then enter them into distribution, but for a bookstore to carry it, they demand certain wholesale prices (they will sell the book at $7.50, but will only pay $3.37 per copy which you will have about $7 invested into at the end of the day after production and 2-way shipping costs… plus another dollar or so that it will cost you if the book is returned to clear space for new books—that $7.50 book costs you about $8 at the end of the day—it’s just not feasible to lose $5 on every book that you “sell” (wholesale cost versus your actual cost). You’ve got to take that into consideration when looking at the costs. Thankfully, there are some handy built-in guides within Createspace and IngramSpark that will help you, and some general recommendations at the bottom of this article.

I sell my books at a discount at conventions for a slightly reduced price…I sell my $16.95 book for $15 for a nice and simple round number. I plan on changing that in the future, unless a buyer signs up for my newsletter, tweets a pic of meeting me, or buys multiple books. At the end of the day, even if I discount my book to $15, I still have to pay sales tax on that. If I am invested into the book for $6 and take $15, my profit isn’t $9. Sales tax is about $1.50, making my profit $7.50, and another $0.50 for a credit card fee at 3% (all these figures are rounded and approximate) but you can see how nickels and dimes hemorrhage out of the sale. You’re only taking home $7 off of that $17 book, and you still have to pay for a booth/table fee as is common to most conventions… and this is at the self-published rate. This same book gets way worse if you’re published through a small press and your author discount is something like 20-40% off rather than the actual production cost. (by the above metric, before I pay for my booth fees I’ve lost about $2 for every book sold if I bought it from my traditional publisher at a 20% discount. Bleeding. Money.)

The solution is to be smart and not flush your wallet down the toilet. If I sell my 350 page  fantasy novel that costs me about $5 shipped for $16.99 and then add tax (Square does this nicely for you in their app) then the consumer pays their tax and you pay about .50 in banking fees, netting you about 11.50 (more, actually, but you need to keep that portion set aside to pay taxes at the end of the year).

I know… this seems like math overload and you just want to write stories, right? Here is some good info on how to set a price point which I’ve gleaned from the internet (after arriving at similar numbers from my own experience over the years.) There is as much danger in setting a price too low as there is in setting it too high… although, setting it too low has a built in lowest-price threshold since it can’t go into distribution if it’s too low.

Most average sized (300-400 page) trade paperbacks fall into the 13.95-17.95 price range. Of course, you should still visit a few bookstores for books similar to genre before landing on a reasonable price. Don’t fall prey to the thought that someone will buy your YA dystopia instead of the newest Maze Runner because its $2 cheaper. Readers buy consumable content—you have to have a good story and convince them of it. Plus, they are probably going to buy both rather than picking a title (and then you’ve just lost money you shouldn’t have and undersold/devalued yourself). Avid readers are more both/and than they are either/or.

The best place to find your low-price threshold will be the most expensive distributor you will use. I am an advocate of using both Createspace and Ingramspark for a variety of reasons written about elsewhere. The latter is slightly more expensive to both print and distribute, but it helps you determine what your lowest price will be after allowing for all costs, fees, and wholesaler discounts.

Thinking about it in these terms is cold and calculating, I know, but it’s a must to establish pricing boundaries. However, don’t think about it only in these terms. Think about it also from the value readers get and the investment of your time. But hold your horses… you can’t sell it for $100, either. You have to find a balance, like all things in life, and then feel free to find the best path that works for you.

As far as ebook pricing goes, all the same ideas still apply, but the costs are different and more relative to bandwidth and electronic gobbledygook that few understand or care about (it’s less real to us on this side of the internet.) Luckily there is a general consensus and rough guide for pricing based on word length:
$0.99 Flash Short-stories: Under 3K
$1.99 Short-stories: 3-7K
$2.99 Novellette Stories: 7-15K
$3.99 Novella Short-stories: 15-35K
$4.99 Short Novels: 35-50K
$5.99 Mid-sized Novels 50-70K
$6.99 Large Novels: 70-140K

Of course, all of these are just suggested guidelines. If you’re either famous or unknown these rules go straight out the window with great frequency. Besides, I’m just a guy with a blog who has learned a few things via the school of hardknocks—what do I know, anyway? Find what works for you—and if something isn’t clicking, change it!

Review: Visions of a Dream

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I have always had a fickle interest in Alexander the Great. My problem is that while he is such an incredibly interesting figure I’ve been so disappointed with how he has been portrayed through Hollywood and other media. I won’t go into it in great detail, but I’ve always found modern portrayal either lacking in substance or too fixated on one feature or another that I lost all interest. That said, I found Justine Hemmestad’s Alexander to be very interesting as the man struggles with philosophy and deity (which is a very Greek thing to do!) but while still remaining the beloved conquering hero. Spiritual themes intersperse the narrative in an interesting way as the intrigue of his court unfolds and he conquers the known world—but yearns to conquer another: the one inside him.

Hemmestad has obviously done her homework and more than Alexander comes to life in the story which includes many of the key players from his era as he wars across Persia, Egypt, the far east, and more. Her Alexander feels both historically accurate, and like a real man—a difficult balance to achieve—and it flows well. If you enjoy Greek history with a kind of Stephen Lawhead flair, this book may be a worthy read.

Pick up a copy of it here.

State of Writing

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I didn’t do much writing or editing last week. I got a chapter and the prologue edited for TKR3, but that’s about it. hoping to do 2 or 3 chapters this week plus have a great turnout at a comicon I’ll be at. Still editing… and will be for weeks to come.

On a sidenote, still looking forward to John in the John’s September release. I’ve got plenty of material for a followup book… now to get some more submissions to it as the series will eventually morph into a kind of devo-anthology with me editing and contributing rather than writing the whole book outright.

Books-A-Million Hates Indie Authors

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Books-A-Million hates Indie authors. There. I said it. After jumping through hoops with their extremely reluctant to talk corporate guys via email I’ve been told that there is no wiggle room. It doesn’t matter that I have a following in an area near a store I wanted to do a signing at, not does it matter that the manager was excited and wanted me to come. Under no circumstances will they carry a book that was printed at a POD press. If it hasn’t sat on a shelf in a warehouse somewhere, they refuse to let it in a store. Of course, they still want you sell it through their online portal where they can enjoy the convenience of making profit without the overhead of storage (the main point of POD) which is just hypocrisy.

Their iron-clad principle is a huge slap in the face of indie writers across the board. It shows their unwavering allegiance to the giant book machine that churns out only mass-produced rewrites of the last “big thing” that corporate suits decided was good literature and guards against any new voices in the industry. It stifles the creative ones and force-feeds readers the same old stuff. Not that all of it is bad (I enjoy Crichton and King, but wouldn’t have read some great stories had I not also read Indie books).  Really, there is much truth in Pierre Tristam’s column when he responded to a New York Times Article about bookstores, BAM in particular. (see https://flaglerlive.com/65608/end-of-bookstores-pt)

Tristam predicts that they will eventually go out of business because of their self-serving interests. “They’re to literature what Steak and Shake is to good food. They have merchandise, but they have no soul… When’s the last time our Books-A-Million hosted a writer’s reading, an interesting lecture, a book party of any sort? The company is too interested in pushing marketing gimmicks to care much about books and writers.”

I anticipate the rise of Indie bookstores—places that care about you and what you are reading, and even have recommendations. I go into chain stores and love the smell, but I’m increasingly discouraged by employees who clearly haven’t read a book since grade school. (“How do you even work here?” “I know how to brew espresso; I don’t need to know how to read.”) I’m envisioning a place like the record store in John Cusack’s High Fidelity…and I’ve been in stores just like that. Hopefully they can figure out how to work with Indie authors and not see them as a revenue source to be exploited (see other article’s I’ve written). That will mean not screwing over writers with terrible consignment terms and demands for wholesale pricing terms lower than market norms… it will also mean Indie retailers ought to find a familiarity with a work they agree to carry and not pretend to be a mini-me version of the soulless bookstore giants in an effort to make a couple bucks.

If larger stores (and smaller ones too) don’t figure out how to connect with real people again they fall the way Family Christian Stores and Borders have done. We can cry about the decline of brick and mortar or stores can try and retain their relevance. Tristam doesn’t even think that Amazon killed the retail giants—rather, they shot themselves in the foot. The internet does a much better job at being a nameless, faceless conglomerate that has everything in stock at any given time—and that’s where Books A Million will fail: they can’t stay afloat if they try to compete while limiting their stock, remaining as the fifty shades of beige that is their consumer appeal, and poking Indies in the eye at the same time.

Maybe BAM doesn’t hate indie authors—but they certainly don’t like us very much.

Review: Shadows of the Dark Crystal

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So I just finished Shadows of the Dark Crystal by J.M. Lee which I kind of picked up on a whim. As an author who found immense inspiration as a child seeing this film, I’m always drawn to anything about it (or anything from the 80s involving MotU, Thundercats, etc.) I was in a Twin Cities bookstore with my daughter (an aspiring teen author) and was telling her about the movie, which she hadn’t seen yet when another customer told me that Lee was also from MN and how he’d won a writing contest sponsored by Henson’s estate which eventually turned into a book deal… it turned out that was the author’s mother. I couldn’t very well not buy the book after that. (also, my daughter watched the movie the next day.) Perhaps my favorite part of the book is actually the dedication page—as a father whose tried to influence his kids with some of my favorite films and stories, I connected with that right out of the gate.

On to the story.

The first two chapters felt confusing because of the total immersiveness into the gelfling culture. I didn’t find the glossary until I’d completed the book (I found the second glossary when I looked the first time but didn’t see the terminology page.) By the time the third chapter came round I’d learned most of the common terms by context and so it came easier. The story was wonderful and very much in line with the film.

This book is #1 in a series and there promises to be more. From what I gather, Lee’s story may have some kind of connection and relevance to the new Netflix show coming in 2018 (maybe the only thing that could, in my mind, be a greater original series than Daredevil or Stranger Things.) The expansive nature and the worldbuilding Lee has accomplished certainly leave room for lots of story and exploration in the new show—and that’s even if the world feels small (perhaps my only complaint—though, the map and appendices in the book don’t necessarily limit the world of Thra. (I especially loved the expansion on the gelfling clans, their differences, and the race’s hero legend of Jarra-Jen).

I assume that Lee has been active in online Dark Crystal communities and read the other source material (perhaps even some of Henson’s notes not readily available to the community at large) in order to achieve the mythopoeic level he’s achieved. But what amazes me is how he did it in this format: the book’s flow, language, and characters are so easily accessible that this is a book with an upper-middle-grade audience. That takes both skill and savvy editing. I will definitely pick up the next, and perhaps some of the other books and explore the rest of the larger mythos (Legends of the Dark Crystal and Henson’s Creation Myths,) before Netflix really expands the story in the original medium.

Pick up this book. While you’re at it, go ahead and pre-order book #2, Song of the Dark Crystal which releases in exactly one week. Follow my blog for more reviews and info!

State of Writing

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I had a great book signing in the Mankato Mall’s B&N… almost sold out of books there (despite it seeming slow. I asked the manager for the best sales hours and so we did an event in the evening. Always default to local expertise.) Those people who were in the store were serious shoppers. One lady bought a copy of all my titles they carried, another was looking for bookclub ideas, and another awesome family of readers and fellow nerds had an armload of books and I got to help their teenage son get a couple of mine and then shop for other stories in the SF/F section with him to guide him towards some stuff I thought he might like. That’s a total win. (also a newspaper interview and stuff.)

I really did not do much on my writing besides some blogging (I try to keep at least a month’s worth of articles scheduled in advance.) My art team has pulled together some good stuff. Final pages of the WotT comic are still coming in and I had a deviantart user complete a repaint of my cover for TKR1 so that it matches the second book (more of a fantasy oil-painting) so that the motif stays consistent.

An email went out to my mailing list about beta readers for WotT2 (contact me if you want to read it and provide feedback—be forewarned, it’s bigger, badder, and darker…about 400 pages.) I will begin edits on TKR3 this week! As soon As that’s done I can start sketching out The Hidden Rings of Myrddin the Cambion.

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cover comparison

State of Writing

I usually write these updates on Mondays but I was recovering from my job and doing some family vacation stuff… I did want to get t it. I’m just late. My biggest report is that I completed the second draft of WotT2 on the 4th of July! I also did some prep and promo work for upcoming book signings, etc. I’m about to take a needed break to brainstorm and outline some upcoming projects and begin the final draft for TKR3 (while doing a cover art revision for TKR1 and finish producing the WotT comic).

Be a Rockstar at Book Signings

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I recently did a signing at a major chain bookstore. Great. Kudos for me; I’ve done them before. It’s no big deal if you work it properly and do the right due diligence beforehand. Something didn’t quite set with me right, though, and as I got everything together I realized what it was: this store treated authors like music venues treated musicians. You might be thinking “I’d love to be a rockstar!” That’s not what I mean. Most modern venues typically abuse artists and seek to steal their platforms, or at the very least, profit greatly on it. It’s often called Pay to Play by bands not working the national scene and I’ll explain how it’s bad for authors and bad for music artists

For most venues since the rise of social media, the thought has gone like this:
1. Artist has friends/followers. 2. Require overtly or implicitly that their friends must show up. 3. Capitalize on the built in fan-base. 4. Require all promotion, advertising, etc. be done by artist; the venue might hang a flyer. 5. Collect money from fan-base for purchases (and possibly even require bands to pay in order to perform, some are overt, others as hidden fees for “equip/stage rental” sound-guy fee, etc.
It actually reminds me of a Spongebob Squarepants flashback episode where Spongebob gets the frycook job and negotiates an initial salary of paying Mr. Krabs $100 an hour.

Many bookstores have figured out that this model, while generating less sales, requires zero investment and no work on the part of the staff (and usually the person booking an author event is the same person who would have to do this extra legwork). This has always typically been the norm in smaller, Indie stores; it seems like relations managers at bigger chains have keyed in on this.

Here’s the story in a nutshell. The store was eager to discuss a signing and it’s in a medium-sized town about two hours from my home. The large store I was at continually asked me how much I was planning to spend on adverts and how many of my local friends I could expect to come and buy books in the store along with whatever other shopping they might do, (just like paying a cover charge and then buying drinks at the venue). After explaining how well I’d done in a sister store, I told them how many books I’d expect to sell (15-20) in my time there with a similar setup and gave them estimates on how many books they should buy. I got there and they didn’t have me setup anywhere visible to the customers as they entered, in fact, I was barely able to see or talk to a customer until after the shoppers had already checked out and headed back for the exit. (I should’ve probably asked to be moved—I did arrive early, so that’s on me, but I had assumed they would want to put me in the best place for success. That just wasn’t so, so I’m now explicit on what I’d like my setup to look like). They also ordered more than twice what I’d recommended they buy. I really tried to sell ten books—but didn’t quite make it. The store sent all the books back the next day, even though some of my contacts did go to the store mid-week looking for them (because they’d ordered so many I had to pay return shipping to the printer who destroyed the overstock and I actually lost money for every book they carried because of the slim profit margin on larger books+return shipping costs.) Was a pretty bad weekend if I was only going to make money (add in costs of travel, food, etc.)

Once the event wrapped up, I had the distinctly dirty feeling that I got whenever my band had a poorly attended concert because the venue had done nothing but hamper our cause with bad practices. I should probably note that managers aren’t necessarily intending to trip you up—they just want to do less work or perhaps don’t realize that they are turning a potentially successful event into a difficult one. Education and clear communication helps fix that.

There has to be a happy medium where stores partner with readers. Sometimes fans will come in to see an author (I usually generate a handful, but they usually have my books already) but an author is really there to help the store make more sales and connect with readers. Of those customers I did talk with, I sold more books by other people than my own via recommendations or helping direct shoppers to other parts of the store. If a store is relying only on your efforts to sell books to your existing fan-base and stick you in a broom-closet for the signing they shouldn’t be surprised when it goes poorly. To ensure better success, have a specific checklist of requests for them and be upfront that you are there to help them sell books, but will be most successful if they:

-Put you where you can make eye contact with people entering the store
-Make announcements every 30-60 minutes via intercom
-Take out a social media ad and/or tag local readers they know who might enjoy your book based on genre
-Have the signing area prepped and ready prior to my arrival (and perhaps set a copy of the books at the register with a sign stating the signing/autograph details and times—if they could do this a few days in advance that’s a bonus! You can even leave a note that you’re willing to sign books if they purchase the book prior to the event and leave them with the manager to be picked up later)
-Use wisdom and have reasonable expectations for book sales

Here’s the moral of the story: don’t do book signings to make money. In fact, be happy if you break even. Find the most economic ways to get to the signing, keep your costs down, and go with the attitude that you are there to meet, greet, and network in order to build up future success (I flew to Printer’s Row with free airline miles and split booth costs with other authors so that I pretty much broke even—do what you have to so you get out there; sacrifice, but within reason). Understand that the stores don’t really care that much about you—they are in the business of selling books. Help them do that, but also help them understand that you can’t help them if they don’t set you up to succeed. Be smart, and happy selling.

Get Your Rear in Gear (back-cover matter that matters)

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I’ve written previously about how a book’s cover must be good. It’s got to engage and set a hook. Essentially, the cover has to make them want to pick the book up; the back cover matter has to keep it in their hand. It’s really a one-two punch that makes them want to buy your book. It’s their first peek at what you have and it’s your responsibility as an author to keep them there.

Think of your book like a house. If the outside is a dump, they won’t want to look inside—that’s the cover. A blurb is their peek through the door or window; if there’s a dead hooker lying on the floor, they probably don’t want to go in—the same goes for if it looks trashed and sloppy. Buying the book is the reader’s agreement to come inside and live in this house for a while. Nobody wants to stay in a meth-house with dead prostitutes, no matter how cheap that AirBnB might be… not again.

A lot of Indie writers make the mistake of flying by the seat of their pants on the back cover (myself included). It’s easy to look at it flippantly and think dang, I just wrote 100,000 +/- words… another 200 is a cakewalk. It is not. These might be the most difficult to write well and might be your most important. You have one short page worth of text to convince someone to take this book home—it’s got to be the best page. If you’re like most Indie writers, this will probably also be the text you have at the top of your book description on Amazon, Goodreads, B&N, Smashwords, etc. It is going to be your primary ad copy so do it right.

While I write both nonfiction and fiction, I’m concentrating on fiction here on cover content advice.

What should be on my back cover?
Space is limited, so remember that this is expensive real estate and everything has to work perfectly. What goes on your back cover may be as important as what you are sure to leave off!  If you have an endorsement, it had better be a good one—someone recognized as a bona fide expert or name in the genre… anything less can become a waste of space. Make sure your short bio is written tightly and include a photo, but make it a quality headshot that is cropped neatly. A shortlist of things on your rear would include 1. Blurb/text 2. Small photo 3. Short Bio 4. One-line Hook (sometimes called a logline), single-sentence elevator pitch, or gripping headline 5. Optional endorsement.

 

Back cover elements of the primary text:
The above elements are a pretty good rule of thumb—but how do you write the actual text? Your content should be similar to the story overview pieces you might have included in a query letter to prospective literary agents or publishers. A good formula for this is to 1. introduce your characters (and any brief elements that are necessary to the environment—don’t build a world here or focus on the setting, but if it’s in the 1800’s or an alien planet, you might mention it). 2. Describe the central conflict they face and 3. highlight the stakes. Ask the question what will happen if your protagonists fail.

There are many approaches to take and many writers swear by certain elements/formulas. Here are a few elements you may want to be sure to highlight.
-keep the book “at a glance friendly.” If it looks overwhelming to a casual reader, they probably won’t wade into the text with much sincerity.
-try to provoke emotions or entice readers with questions or promises
-use a rhythm and voice that sets a tone. Think of the book as a movie and the back cover like a movie trailer—you have just a few short sentences to suck them in. Build a cadence and hook them.
-probably the most important is to focus on what your book is about, not what happens in its pages. You aren’t summarizing the plot, you are crafting a hook to the story at large

One formula you might try is proposed by author and editor Victoria Mixon (victoriamixon.com) and goes like this:
When [identity] [protagonist name] [does something], [something happens]. Now, with [time limit/restrictions], [protagonist] must [do something brave] to [accomplish great achievement]/ or [sacrifice high stakes].
Here’s what my book, Wolf of the Tesseract, looks like with this formula:

While investigating a series of strange murders in her neighborhood, college student Claire Jones is kidnapped by a handsome werewolf who claims he’s rescuing her from the clutches of an evil sorcerer. But she can’t run forever and if Claire and her companion can’t reclaim an arcane artifact to end the warlock’s reign of terror, he will unleash the dark god Sh’logath’s cataclysmic power upon the universe, shattering dimensional barriers, and devouring all reality.

Other things to keep in mind:
–The font should be readable and sized appropriately. Pick a color that stands out and is easy to read. I’ve erred here before and quickly made corrections. Sometimes it doesn’t look as nice on paper as it does on a screen; always purchase a galley copy to double check how it looks in print if you are self-publishing.
–Keep the blurb on the shorter side—it should be succinct. Think about the success of Twitter: the shorter something is, the more likely it is to be read.
–Typos, and grammar or style errors are a sure giveaway to a reader that the book was pushed out too early. I’ve found some in my own books and always go back and fix them ASAP… sometimes things get missed by editors, but it creates a huge obstacle to selling people your book. Thanks to POD, you can fix most of these as they arise, but it’s a better plan to avoid them in the first place.
–Pick a consistent voice for your text and think about your audience before you put pen to paper. If the writing comes off as pretentious or juvenile you will probably alienate readers (even if you are targeting pretentious or juvenile readers.) Some voices work, some don’t. Give it thought before you read so you can color it appropriately.

One of the better articles I’ve read about this from fellow bloggers can be read here:
https://www.thebookdesigner.com/2013/05/casey-demchak-back-cover-copy/