This blog is devoted to remembrances and essays on general topics, including literature and writing. It has evolved over time, and some older posts on this site might reflect a different perspective and purpose.

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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Selling Your Book Is Like Fishing

            The publication of my second mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, has set me, once again, to thinking about the business of bookselling. I think I learned some things from the publication of the first book, The McHenry Inheritance; now let’s see if that turns out to be the case.
            One analogy that occurred to me in the first turn was that selling books is a lot like fishing, a simile that rings particularly true for the self-published author. With due respect to my readers, especially those who paid for the book, I’d like to pursue the comparison a bit farther.
            To begin with, one has to think of Amazon, the undisputed big boy in the self-publishing world, as a large, nutrient-rich lake teeming with readers, who are symbolized by fish. You know the fish are out there, and in enormous numbers, but for the most part you can’t see them, and figuring out where they are and what they’re biting on, i.e. buying, is an immense challenge.

Into the Boat and Onto the Water

            An author who puts a book up on Amazon is rather like an angler who takes a boat out on the lake, drops anchor and casts his bait into the lake. Assuming the book is good (in other words, that the bait isn’t rancid), the author can fish from one side of the boat, sit tight, and sooner or later catch a fish or two. But the reality is that nearly every other fish in the lake won’t even see the bait.
            In point of fact, not even every fish within catchable distance of the boat is going to see that bait. If the area fishable from the boat can be described as a circle surrounding the vessel, the author with one book is like an angler fishing with one rod and one hook from one side of the boat. That angler is putting the bait in front of only a quarter of the fish within shouting distance, at best.
            Furthermore, even if the bait is perfectly good, it might not be what the fish are in the mood for that day. You could be fishing with a plump, savory salmon egg, but if the fish are in the mood for cheese that day, they will swim right past your egg without so much as a second thought.

Two Rods and Two Hooks

            As a fisherman, I like to say that when you’re catching fish, you know you’re doing something right, but when you’re not catching fish, you often have no idea what the problem is. You could be using the wrong bait or the wrong technique, in which case the failure is on you. But it could also be that the fish ate their fill earlier in the day and simply aren’t interested, or that they have temporarily left the area you’re fishing, or that the weather is temporarily affecting the food supply and the environment. You just don’t know.
            Now let’s say our author/angler puts a second book up on Amazon. That changes the equation. Instead of fishing off one side of the boat, our intrepid angler now has a rod off two sides and is covering twice as much area and, theoretically, reaching twice as many fish with the bait. Also, each rod now has two hooks on it — one for each book. The fish can choose between cheese and salmon egg, and that increases the author’s chances. You have to figure you’ll do better overall.
            Those were the lines along which I was thinking when I put the second book up at the end of April. Next week I’ll discuss the early results.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Fishing Memory: Alderson Lake

            This summer, as a sidelight to the Quill Gordon mystery series, I’ll be writing occasional blogs about memorable days of fishing. It’s a good way of getting those memories on the record and keeping myself in the right mood for writing the next book in the series.
            To begin, I’ll recall a day from the first year I took up fly fishing, 1982. That was also the year Linda and I bought a used 1977 VW camper and took one of our longest driving trips ever. Leaving Santa Cruz in late July, we drove north to Seattle, spent a few days with my sister there, then headed north to Canada through British Columbia to Jasper and Banff National Parks.
            From there, we went south, spending a few days at Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada and Glacier National Park in Montana before finally coming home. Total elapsed time: a little over three weeks. It’s hard now to imagine that we could ever get away for so long.

Right Equipment, No Clue

            That June I had bought an Orvis fly rod (my first of three), and it could be argued that a sales person with any ethics shouldn’t have sold it to such a greenhorn. Before the big trip, I’d taken the rod out on a couple of weekend trips where I hadn’t caught a thing. Much as I’d like to blame it on the fish or the weather, the fact was that I had no idea what I was doing.
            I fished at Banff and Jasper with similar results and by the time we got to Waterton was a bit down on my new hobby. Looking around for a day hike to take, we found on the map a trail leading from Waterton to Alderson Lake, about six and a half miles away. On a day with no rain in the forecast, we started out, with me carrying my fly rod by hand; waders and a box of flies were in my backpack.
            It was a stunningly beautiful hike, steep with switchbacks, through alpine terrain with breathtaking views. It took us about three hours to get to the lake, and we arrived a bit after 11 a.m. It was sunny, with passing clouds; the air was achingly clear, and the lake, more like a large, glacier-carved pond, had fish in it that were sporadically feeding on the surface.

Trout for Dinner

            The lake had a rocky bottom, but I was able to wade out waist-deep and cast a dry fly (an Adams or Humpy) over deeper water. The fish were cruising the lake and I and I caught three when they came near me — two cutthroats and a brook trout, 13, 11 and 10 inches long. It was legal to keep a few then, and it was before I converted to catch-and-release fishing, so we took them back to camp for dinner.
            In the three or four hours we were at the lake only a few other people came by, and they didn’t stay long. We pretty much had the place to ourselves. At some point we had a picnic lunch of sandwiches we had brought, and I had to take breaks from fishing on a regular basis because the lake was so cold it was numbing my feet, even through the boots and waders.
            Alderson Lake and the hike to it were so splendid, it would have been a special day if I hadn’t caught any fish. But because it was my first decent result with a fly rod, the day was even more special. You could say that was when I got hooked.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Good Training for Self-Publishing

            Back in the day, when I was editing a daily newspaper, I didn’t have a secretary. The company I worked for wasn’t terribly keen on spending money for anything, so they decided the general manager and I could do without. If I needed to photocopy a document, I had to walk out of my office in the newsroom, walk across the building to the Classified Advertising department, and make the copy myself.
            That was because the only photocopying machine in the building was in Classified. Also, I had to put my name down on a sheet of paper with a clipboard that sat atop the copier and record, with tally marks, how many copies I had made.
            As I said, the company didn’t like to spend money on anything. And don’t even ask what was involved in getting a replacement typewriter ribbon in the days before we switched over to computers. You don’t want to know.

If You Want It Done, Do It Yourself

            Spending 15-30 minutes a day doing my own photocopying was probably not the best use of my time, but I’d never known a different way of doing things, so I didn’t notice all that much. When I left the paper and went out on my own as a freelance consultant, I had to do everything myself as well.: Go to the post office every day to get the mail, go to Staples to get office supplies, write the checks to pay the bills, lick the envelopes and put the stamps on.
            In any given eight-hour day now, I figure an hour to an hour and a half of it is going to toward doing those kinds of things. When you’re self-employed, it comes with the territory.
            Much as I’d like to say that this sort of self-reliance builds character, I have my doubts. But there is one good thing that has come of it. It definitely has prepared me for my venture into self-publishing. The authors who have big contracts with the publishing houses can let those institutions take care of a lot of detail work while the author gets going on the next blockbuster. The self-publishing author doesn’t even begin the next book until all the detail work is done on the current one.

Having a Lot of Contacts Helps

            Two weeks ago my second mystery novel, Wash Her Guilt Away, went up on Amazon. For months beforehand, I was immersed in not only making the final revisions to the book, but also in working out all the details leading up to publication.
            I had to decide what the cover would look like and who should do it; I had to write a script for a video trailer and get someone to film and edit it; I had to get an author’s photo ready; I had to rework the website for my books; and, because I don’t have a publisher with in-house editors, I had to hire someone to give my book the final once-over before I thrust it upon an unsuspecting public.
            Owing to my years at the newspaper and doing PR work in the community, I at least have the advantage of knowing who’s good at doing those sorts of things, so I’ve been pleased with the results. And even working with people I know and trust, there’s a lot I have to do. I don’t know how someone less connected would go about it, but at least I can be grateful for all those years of working without a secretary. If I’d had one then, I’d be lost without one now.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

At Least Somebody's Paying Attention

When I published my first Quill Gordon mystery, The McHenry Inheritance, on Amazon a bit less than two years ago, it went out there on its own. It was the first book by an unknown author, so there was no other book in the series, no reviews, and no recommendations from other writers. The first few thousand people who bought it, and who didn’t know me, were taking a leap of faith.
            The second novel in the series, Wash Her Guilt Away, went up on Amazon last week, and it had some things going for it that the first one didn’t. The first book has already established whatever level of credibility I might have with readers and provided a small base audience for the second one. For example, one reader, who found and read the first book months after it was published, snapped up the second one within 15 minutes of when I posted a link on Facebook, and “liked” it as well.
            But perhaps the best thing going for Wash Her Guilt Away now is the reviews that the first book now has under its belt on Kindle.

The Crowd Paints a Picture

            In past blog posts, I’ve expressed some skepticism about online reviews, and I still believe they have to be read intelligently. A scathing Yelp review of a restaurant, for example, might owe something to the fact that the review’s author was dumped by his girlfriend after dinner there. And of course there are people out there who will do bogus reviews for a fee
            Assuming the reviews are legit, though, once there are enough of them, the crowd has painted a picture that a discerning viewer can interpret. In the case of a book by a hitherto unknown author, I’d put the base number of credible reviews at ten. Contrary to what some people might think, it’s next to impossible to get ten friends to review your book. In fact, it’s hard to get that many even to buy it and read it.
            So hitting a double-digit number of reviews is an indicator that some strangers out there are buying the book; that it was good enough that they read it all the way through; and that they had enough of a feeling about it to put up a public response. Even if the response isn’t entirely positive, those are good things.

Going by the Numbers

            There are 16 reviews of The McHenry Inheritance as of this writing. The average review was 4.1 out of 5 stars, and nobody gave it less than three. If it’s somebody else’s book and I’m the buyer, going by those numbers, I’d be willing to risk $2.99 on a something that sounds good from the dust-jacket blurb.
            Plus those reviews can be used for promotional purposes. The second book has a page of review excerpts (honest, I might add) for the first book on Kindle. Now  the ordinary reader doesn’t know Mountain Mom, Bob from Salt Lake City, or the other four reviewers I quoted. On the other hand, the average reader doesn’t know anything about the book reviewers for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Indianapolis Star or the Orlando Sentinel, whose comments are liberally quoted in the books you see at the book stores.
            More important than who, exactly, is doing the commenting is, as I said earlier, that the book is being read and the comments are there. And if people say the characters are likable, the plot and atmosphere well done, then that’s another bit of reassurance to the customer swiping $2.99 on the credit card. If not, wait for a free-promotion day.