Self-publishing makes you smile – proof!

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Apologies for the radio silence: it has been a mad fortnight.  Entirely my own fault, as I work alone and am in charge of my own diary, but everything except the absolute essentials of work and survival shopping/cooking have been on hold – apart, that is, from attendance at the London Book Fair.  For the first time ever.  And as an award shortlistee (is that a word? perhaps nominee is better)!

Of course I had heard of the LBF (as I thought it was trendy to call it, until I heard the old pros talking simply of “London”) but had never really felt entitled to attend before.  And to be honest, much of the show – fascinating though it is to wander around – is intended for publishers and booksellers and agents, looking to schmooze each other and make deals.  If you were an author looking for an agent or a publisher, it would be a handy place to do some research; you can see at a glance which “lists” would welcome your work, and with the lure of a (vastly overpriced, as always at these events) coffee and pastry you might even be able to set up a meeting or two.  I simply enjoyed seeing all the stalls and fantasising about being “author of the day” at an LBF of the future…

But back to the award.  As regular readers will know, I was – amazingly and thrillingly – chosen as one of eight shortlisted entrants for the inaugural Selfies Award, created to recognise writing and publishing professionalism in the self-published world.  I am told that more than fifty entries were received, so getting down to the final eight – and as a part-time author – pleased me enormously.  We were an entirely female shortlist, and it was a delight to meet the other seven authors on the day.  We were all a bit giddy by 4.30pm when we were shepherded onto the low stage of the little theatre set up in the “Writer’s Block” area of the fair, and we each had to announce our name and our book title.  I didn’t win but was consoled by the fact that both the winner (Jane Davis, with her book “Smash all the Windows”) and the runner-up (Jane Steen, with her book “Lady Helena Investigates”) were just the loveliest women.  I entirely forgot to take any photos myself but I hope that the award sponsors IngramSpark (through whom I publish the Sam books) won’t mind me borrowing this one from their Twitter feed:

Award

That’s the overall winner Jane Davis being announced and the runner-up Jane Steen on the right, with the biggest smile in the universe!  (You’ll also spot the purple book cover of “Faith, Hope and Trickery” on the banner behind us – so many people complimented me on that cover.)  Look how happy we all are – that’s self-publishing for you!

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Boxing clever

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As many of you will know, the “indie” (independent) publishing world is very co-operative, very inclusive and very helpful.  I belong to a marvellous organisation called ALLi (sounds like “ally” and it’s the Alliance of Independent Authors) and their members’ forum on Facebook is the place to go with all manner of writerly and self-publisher-ly queries.  The joy is being able to follow in successful footsteps of those who have gone before, and it is in that spirit that I have created my first box set of Sam books.

Before you get too excited, I should clarify that it is an e-box set of e-books – nothing physical here.  The idea is that readers of series really like series, and box sets appeal to them.  If you set the price right it can represent a saving on buying individual titles – and readers do love a bargain.  And if your series is longer than the box set, you are encouraging people to persevere further into the series.

As for how much work is involved, it’s not too onerous.  Obviously you have to create a single file out of the separate book files – for me, this was a fairly simple cut and paste exercise, with a bit of jigging to create one glossary out of two.  You then have to put an overall title at the beginning; in my case, I went for the rather predictable “The Sam Plank Mysteries Box Set One: Books 1-3”, with the three separate titles listed below.  (I said “Box Set One” in case I decide to do another one with later titles.)  And then I put bookmarks and hyperlinks into this title so that people can jump straight to the book they want – although I imagine that most people will read straight through, and the Kindle keeps your place.

Then there’s the cover.  I did contact my cover designer to ask about cost but decided that I could do something myself that is just good enough.  After all, the individual covers are eye-catching and beautiful, so I simply created a single image out of the three covers.  I have no talent at all for design, so I went to the ALLi forum and put up two different options for the cover – and people very kindly suggested various improvements (including having the faces looking at each other instead of turned away, although I do worry that the yellow fellow is now staring rather too appreciatively at the red girl).  And here it is:

Box set large 2

With combined interior file ready and cover assembled, all I had to do was upload them to KDP – and decide on the price.  The total price of buying the first three Sam books in Kindle version is £9.97 so I priced the box set at £5.99 – in effect, people get the third book free.  I uploaded it yesterday, and so far I have sold one.  As ever, I’ll keep you posted.

Life-sized Sam

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Did I tell you that I have managed to secure a book-signing at my local branch of WH Smith?  (For overseas readers, it’s a major high street newsagent, stationer and bookseller.)  I spotted a call to arms from WH Smith, encouraging authors to arrange signings, and leapt in with both feet.  For those of you in the east of England, I’ll be sitting in splendour at the Cambridge city centre branch on Saturday 6 April 2019, from 11 am (I am reliably informed by the store manager than no-one buys books before that hour on a Saturday.)

And to advertise my presence, I wondered what to do.  I’m hoping that the shop will put a poster in the window, and head office has promised to put my signing on their Events blog.  But how to draw people’s eyes to little old me, in amongst the arrays of magazines and stationery and birthday cards?  And then it came to me: I need Sam!  And here he is:

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This is a pull-up banner of the sort used at conferences and similar events.  I ordered it online for the princely sum of about £30, having downloaded a template (which gave the size and some sample text boxes) and then spending an hour designing it.  I’m sure I have made a dozen design faux pas, but it’s clear, eye-catching and readable, which is all I wanted.  I’ll need to sell a few books to cover the cost but I figure I can use it at other events – or just set it up in the corner of the lounge for company.

(And I’ve made progress on another one of my writerly dreams: I’m assembling an e-book box set of the first three Sam books.  More on that later…)

Keep buggering on

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I’m a big fan of Winston Churchill – one of life’s great over-achievers (soldier, journalist, politician and artist) – and in particular his repeated exhortations to just stick at it, variously “Never, never, never give up”, “If you’re going through hell, just keep going” and, of course, “Keep buggering on”.  I too am one of life’s plodders: I’m not given to flights of fancy or flashes of brilliance but I am a great sticker-at things – including the marketing of self-published books.

I try – some weeks more successfully than others – to do at least one marketing activity per week.  I keep a list of ideas and suggestions in a little notebook and when I have time I try to cross off, or make a little advance on, one of them.  They vary in size and complexity – from “contact events person at local Waterstones” to “get to grips with how Amazon ads work” (there’s a project…) – and, as with pretty much all marketing initiatives, it’s all but impossible to know which will bear fruit and why.

On my list at the moment are these:

  • Once the IngramSpark versions of my books are finalised [nearly there – paper proof copies are on order] update all the ISBNs on Amazon and elsewhere
  • Wait several weeks – it seems to take about six – for the IngramSpark catalogue to update in the Gardners system so that bookshops can order the books, and then think of ways to get them to do that…
  • Contact events person at local Waterstones – no point doing this until they can order the books (see above)
  • Consider running a BookBub promotion – general consensus in the indie writing community is that this is a good idea but hard work as you need to jump through dozens of hoops before BookBub will take you on
  • Consider releasing a “box set” of the first three Sam titles in Kindle format – this has been recommended by a writer friend
  • Get to grips with how Amazon ads work

Today I have asked for a quotation from my cover designer to create the new image I would need for Amazon for a box set.  And now I am going to read some of the thousands of blog posts out there which discuss Amazon ads and the black magic that seems to underpin them…  It’s not glamorous and it’s not much fun, but then neither was being sent to Bangalore with the Fourth Queen’s Own Hussars in 1896 – if Winston can keep buggering on, so can I.

Sam’s on the shortlist!

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What a day!  I have received notification that “Faith, Hope and Trickery” has been shortlisted for the inaugural Selfies Award, which I entered back in December.  It’s one of eight books in the running and the winner will be announced at the London Book Fair on 12 March 2019.  I had already booked my ticket for that day, as I’ve never been to the LBF before (I want to walk around with “Author” on my ID badge), and I wanted to support the Selfies even if I was not personally involved.  But now I will be – great excitement!

Today’s press release  from the awards organiser – BookBrunch – is most flattering.  It says that we shortlist nominees were selected from “exceptional works of self-published fiction” and “can confidently stand against the very best fiction being published in the UK today”.

Looking at the shortlist, we’re all women.  Two books are pure crime and two are historical (mine included).  Bizarrely, one is about money laundering and one is about cycling (written by a woman who lives in Cambridge) – and neither of those is mine!  That prize ceremony is going to be an interesting gathering…

I have a dream

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At the weekend, for reasons too complicated to explain, I spent a couple of hours thinking about my dreams – not the sort where your teeth are falling out while you’re being chased by your O-level maths teacher for your overdue homework, but the sort where you imagine and plan for the future (as in “hopes and dreams”).  The brief was to dream big – to write down anything, regardless of likelihood or practicality.  Of course several of my dreams related to the Sam books and I thought I would share those with you:

  • To publish two more Sam Plank books, taking the series to seven
  • To hear one of the Sam books read aloud on Radio 4 as their “Book of the Week”
  • To win “The Selfies” in April 2019
  • To see “Fatal Forgery” on sale in Tesco and Waitrose [one for the numbers, the other for the snobbery…]
  • To open a national newspaper and see one of the Sam books unexpectedly and favourably reviewed
  • To have the Sam series recommended by Mariella Frostrup
  • To see the Sam series turned into a Sunday evening costume drama on the BBC, with Claudie Blakley playing Martha – Sam is still to be cast.

Here’s Claudie in “Lark Rise to Candleford” – and maybe moody Brendan Coyle would work as Sam…

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What surprised me when I went back over my Sam dreams was that none of them mentions money.  Sure, winning an award or getting a review heard/read by thousands would increase sales, but what seems to matter to me is a wide readership rather than earning a fortune.  I do appreciate that I am in the lucky position of having a day job quite apart from my Sam writing, which means that I do not have to rely – thank goodness! – on Sam income, but still, it’s shown me that I am motivated by getting people to read Sam rather than by getting them to buy books.  I’ve blogged before about my unhappy experience with libraries and the PLR system, but despite this I would be just as happy to see more people borrowing the Sam books as I would to see sales increasing.  (I just love checking our local library catalogue and seeing all the Sam books out on loan.)  So that’s the dreaming done – now on with the reality of writing.

Be careful what you wish for

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Last autumn CreateSpace – which I had been using for my print-on-demand paperbacks for nearly a decade – was bought out by the Amazon behemoth and absorbed into its KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) offering.  Monopoly concerns aside, I was delighted for two reasons.  Firstly, KDP customer service offers a call-back service to anywhere in the world (CreateSpace would call only US numbers, so I never spoke to them).  And secondly, whereas CreateSpace POD paperbacks were printed in South Carolina and it took ages and cost a fortune to have them delivered to the UK, KDP POD paperbacks are printed in (it turns out) Poland, which is much closer and therefore quicker and cheaper for delivery.  With a spring in my step and a song on my lips, I placed an order for twenty copies of “Fatal Forgery” with KDP on 29 October 2018.  And then it all went wrong…

  • 29 October 2018: Order placed for twenty copies
  • 12 November 2018: Order arrives – and eleven out of the twenty copies are trimmed far too meanly, with the title disappearing off the edge of the cover.  Using the fab new call-back facility, I explain the problem to a nice person at KDP and they tell me to return the faulty eleven copies for a refund and then place another order – which I do.
  • 18 November 2018: The replacement eleven copies arrive – with exactly the same poor printing.  I speak to another nice person at KDP and explain the problem, and they say that the matter will be escalated to a manager.  After about a fortnight – with several chasing calls and emails in the middle – the manager finally confirms that the eleven replacement copies I received were the same ones I had returned…  Apparently the stock system was delighted to find just the right number of copies on their return shelves to fulfil a new order.
  • 16 December 2018: The manager places a new order for eleven copies, and says that I can keep the eleven dodgy ones (otherwise, if I return them – well, you can guess).
  • 24 December 2018: Four replacement copies arrive.  I chase the remaining seven copies and am told that the manager ordered only four and not the agreed eleven – this nice person at KDP orders another seven.
  • 9 January 2019: The seven copies arrive – with two of them packed so badly in the box that their covers have bent and they are not suitable for sale.  I speak to another nice KDP person – they are all charming and seem genuinely saddened by the poor service I have received – and they order two replacement replacement copies.
  • 18 January 2019: The two replacement replacement copies arrive.

Et voilà – it’s as simple as that!  A mere 80 days after placing my order for twenty copies, I have them.  Didn’t someone manage to get all the way around the world in that time?  I begin to dream longingly of South Carolina….

Shades of Forgery

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Matters are moving forward at a sedate pace in my quest to use IngramSpark as well as KDP for my print-on-demand paperbacks.  The cover of “Fatal Forgery” has been suitably tweaked to accommodate the slimmer spine of the IS edition (because IS uses thinner paper stock and over nearly 300 pages – 150 thicknesses of paper – it makes a difference), and I have today received my proof copy from IS and am happy with it.

I am now working out my next steps, which will involve (scarily) un-publishing my current KDP paperback and then republishing it with the new ISBN that I bought for the IS edition – all paperbacks of the same title, regardless of who actually prints them, must have the same ISBN.  This would be simply an administrative thing – unpublish then upload the files again – except that I am not sure what will happen to all the lovely reviews on Amazon that are associated with the current KDP paperback.  I certainly don’t want to lose them, so I’m investigating if/how I can get the reviews carried over to the “new” paperback.  It may be simple (if the reviews are associated with the title) or it may be awkward/impossible (if they’re associated with the ISBN).  Who knew that writing the darn book was by far the easiest part of the process?

On a related subject, it has been very interesting to compare the look of “Fatal Forgery” as produced by the different printing presses:

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On the left is the original version, printed by CreateSpace in (I think) South Carolina.  In the middle is the version that I now get from KDP (who took over CreateSpace, and moved the printing for UK authors to Wroclaw in Poland).  And on the right is the IngramSpark version, printed in (I think) Milton Keynes.  They all use the same cover file from the point of view of colour – it’s only the trim dimensions and spine width (and spine print size) that are different.  And yet, how different they look!  The cover designer said this about the trio: “The one on the right appears to be slightly closer to how it was intended than any other.  Somewhere between the one on the left and the one on the right (but closer to the right) would be as intended by me.  The one in the middle is much too bright.”  Thankfully very few buyers will see the difference as they won’t have all three versions, but I thought you might find it interesting – and it certainly shows that being too precious about precise shades of colour when designing a cover might not be worth the fuss!

Download data

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Well, the numbers are in.  As explained in my last post (I can never write that phrase without thinking of a lone bugler on a parade ground) I ran a Kindle giveaway for “Fatal Forgery” for four days, from Thursday 3 to Sunday 6 January.  (When you choose the days for a giveaway on Amazon you can choose whole days only, which run on Pacific Standard Time and are therefore currently eight hours behind me in the UK, but it’s all done and dusted by now.)  I did my best to promote the giveaway by posting on this blog, putting daily notifications on Twitter and Facebook (including, on the latter, public posts) and mentioning it in all emails to friends and on Goodreads.  Thank you to all of you who shared, linked and otherwise promoted on my behalf – you did sterling work.

Over the four days “Fatal Forgery” was downloaded 572 times.  As perhaps expected, the rate fell off over the four days: 257 on Thursday, 186 on Friday, 67 on Saturday and 62 on Sunday.  At some point on Thursday/Friday the book made it into the Top 100 Free Kindle Books on Amazon, hitting the dizzy heights of number 96 in the ranking before dropping off again – it was a short but glorious reign.

As for who was downloading, of course I don’t know individual details but the KDP dashboard allows me to see which Amazon site was used for each of the 572 downloads:

pie chart

(That’s 281 in the UK, 218 in the US, 52 in Germany, 12 in Canada, 5 in Australia, 2 in France and one each in India and the Netherlands.)

Of course that’s the Amazon sites that were used and not necessarily where the people actually are, but it’s the best we can do.  The biggest surprise for me is the German showing, so if you’re a German reader of this blog and you promoted the download to all of your friends, thank you!

The next phase of this experiment – and it’s a rather imprecise one – is to try and monitor whether these downloads turn into reviews and/or purchases of the other books in the series, which was the marketing point of the exercise.  I’ll keep you posted.

Free Forgery!

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I am starting the new year by breaking one of the cardinal rules of marketing (or indeed any sort of experimentation): I am changing several elements at once.  You know from my previous post about my intention to be printed-on-demand by both KDP and Ingram Spark.  That project is currently in abeyance while I figure out what to do about the cover concerns – whether to add more pages to my IS version, or pay to have the cover rejigged, or get the cover files from the designer and rejig them myself, or [current favourite] ignore it all and eat Jaffa Cakes.

I am also exploring the murky world of Amazon advertising, which is generating headaches of previously unimagined kinds.  Whole books (literally) have been written about how to work the system, and although I have narrowed it down to a few principles, I am still uncertain.  I thought I would take the plunge over the festive break – but when it came to it I couldn’t even find the right part of the Amazon empire to log into to start my life as an advertiser!  I have put out a call for help to my self-publishing community, and when someone figures it out, I’ll have another go.

But in the meantime I am trying a third tack: going narrow.  Yep, that’s what they call it when you limit the sales of your e-books to Amazon only.  In the past I have gone wide by creating all possible e-versions of my books for distribution via iBooks, Kobo and Smashwords (which distributes e-books to all sorts of places like Barnes & Noble and Scribd).  This takes time, and the rewards are slim to the point of emaciation: perhaps a dozen copies have sold across all those alternative channels.  If, however, you throw in your e-lot with Amazon only, you can enrol in their “KDP Select” programme, and this brings with it a raft of possibilities, as explained on their website: “If you make your eBook exclusive to the Kindle Store, which is a requirement during your book’s enrolment in KDP Select, the book will also be included in Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library. You can earn a share of the KDP Select Global Fund based on how many pages KU or KOLL customers read of your book.  Enrolling in KDP Select also grants you access to a new set of promotional tools.  You can schedule a Kindle Countdown Deal (limited time promotional discounting for your book) for books available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk or a Free Book Promotion (readers worldwide can get your book free for a limited time).”

Like most people I am chary of monopolies and don’t really like the idea of Amazon controlling e-books in this way.  But – with my handful of sales each month – I am not really the author to take a stand on this issue and thereby make Amazon think again.  That’s for the Rowlings and Pattersons of this world.  And so I have taken the plunge: I have de-listed my Plank e-books from all other channels and made them exclusive to Amazon.  I have enrolled them all in KDP Select – which you renew every 90 days, so I can track it and see how it goes.

And – rather daringly – I have decided to try that promotion malarkey and offer the “Fatal Forgery” e-book free for a few days.  Yes: free, gratis and for nothing.  I am hoping that it will prove to be the gateway drug to the Sam series, hooking people in and leading to actual sales of the other books.  I have done all I can to promote the giveaway via my Facebook and Twitter presences but please, if you can, pass on the link to your friends and family – the giveaway has started today and will run until the end of Sunday 6 January 2019.  To download your free “Fatal Forgery” e-book from Amazon, here’s the link (which should take you to the correct page of your local Amazon site).