Authors: Dealing with the Downs

Adversity Pic

Sales inherently fluctuate. Even if over time sales grow, there will still be some day-to-day fluctuations. There are also seasonal effects – i.e. any given type of book tends to sell better during some months than others. The economy is a factor, too.

As long as there are some sale every week, there will be some periods where sales are slow and some periods where sales are better. There will be both.

When sales are peaking, you’re thinking, “Now that’s more like it.” But they often don’t stay that way. Even if there is long-term growth, there will be a few periods where sales decline. You can count on it.

When sales are in a valley, you’re thinking, “What happened to kill the sales?” Remember, there will be valleys even when nothing has changed. Don’t panic. Exercise patience. Sales may pick up in a few days. If it’s the end of the month, maybe sales will rebound next month. Some months are also better than others. A downturn in sales for a few days doesn’t necessarily mean that sales have stopped dead.

If sales decline and you also notice something else, like a bad review, your first thought is that the review killed your sales. But it could just be coincidence. Many times, a review doesn’t have the effect that we might predict. Be patient. Sales might just rebound in a few days.

Unfortunately, sometimes sales do decline. Sometimes, a book sells frequently for a short period after its release, and then sales decline. Sometimes, reviews do influence sales. Sometimes, there are external factors that we’re not even aware of – like a change in Customer Also Bought associations and other marketing recommendations online. (Sometimes, though, external factors boost sales, like a recommendation posted somewhere online that you weren’t even aware of; and more often than not, Customer Also Bought lists provide a sudden boost.)

But if you panic that sales are dying every time your sales go through a valley, you’re likely to be causing yourself a great deal of unnecessary anxiety. It can take a couple of weeks or more to properly project sales trends.

Similarly, don’t let each review – good or bad – determine your happiness. Try not to let other people govern your emotions. Hopefully, many of the reviews will be good. See if any critical reviews have merit that can help, then try your best to forget them.

Focus on your next book and on marketing. These activities will keep you busy. And these are the best things you can do to improve sales.

When you’re going through the downs, the worst thing you can do is react emotionally in public and ruin your image as an author – that can have a much worse effect than anything you had been worrying about. Avoid posting complaints: You don’t want customers or reviewers to see them and view this as unprofessional, and you don’t really want to bring others down by spreading negativity.

Sure, you want to receive comfort and support. Try to find private (i.e. not your blog or social media) ways to seek this, or strive to find positive ways to reach out. For example, ask for advice in a tactful way that focuses on encouraging suggestions instead of ranting about the issue. If you need to write a rant to help get it out of your system, keep it private (just as you would if writing in a diary).

Remember that all authors experience the ups and downs of sales and reviews (except for the rare author who has the ability to ignore these things).

Enjoy the ups, and ride out the downs. Keep writing and marketing, and these activities may help make the overall trend grow in the long run.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Just a Moment

It’s only one moment. What can it matter?

  • All too often, it’s long enough to disrupt the perfect opportunity for a first kiss.
  • In a race, it can make the difference between a gold medal and last place.
  • It’s just enough time to lose that great idea.
  • One moment can determine whether the game-tying shot lands in the basket just in the nick of time or too late.
  • “Excuse me. Can you please spare a moment,” is long enough for an unexpected sales pitch to cost you a good deal of cash.
  • You might wait for it all of your life, while you pass millions of others by.
  • For light, it may make a difference of a million miles.
  • When you’re bored out of your mind, it becomes incredibly long.
  • But when you’re having the time of your life, it’s gone before you know it.
  • That’s all it takes to lose your temper.
  • On the way to the emergency room, it can make the difference between life and death.
  • In an apocalyptic novel, it will save the entire planet and all of civilization.
  • A moment could be that critical stage between too soon and too late.
  • It’s short enough to forget, yet long enough to savor.

A moment. So short. Yet sometimes so long.

Some of those moments are the most precious of our lives.

The Power of an Inch

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What could you do with one inch?

  • Live another forty years because the bullet just missed your heart.
  • Turn a very long foul ball into a homerun.
  • Squeeze into an old pair of jeans.
  • Score a hole-in-one instead of lipping out.
  • Get your tongue to touch your nose.
  • Make the difference between a tennis ace and a double fault.
  • Scratch an itch on your back that’s just beyond reach.
  • Be just tall enough to block the basketball so it doesn’t fall in for a three-pointer.
  • Store terabytes of information by manipulating trillions of electrons.
  • End the inning with a strikeout instead of giving up a bases-loaded walk.
  • Deliver the mail and shut the gate just before a dog snaps its jaws around your ankle.
  • Edge out a competing horse in a photo finish.
  • Go on the roller coaster with the big kids, instead of crying and watching from the outside.
  • Have your golf ball stay in bounds instead of needing to walk back to the teebox.
  • Entice someone to ask for a whole mile.

An inch. So tiny. Yet sometimes so big.

You can’t walk a mile without first walking an inch.

What to Do When Sales S-T-I-N-K

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There are tens of millions of books to choose from. Only the top couple hundred thousand are selling once or more per day on average.

Sometimes, an author pours much time, effort, and passion into a book, but the sales don’t come. It happens. Too often.

Faced with this situation, the author has three options:

  1. Give up. (Wrong answer.)
  2. Try again. (Last resort.)
  3. Change it. (Pick me.)

There have been books that didn’t sell when they were released, but began selling after making some changes. So there is still hope! 🙂

After putting months into a book and possibly already investing some money only to see the book flop when it finally comes out, it’s important not to sink too much more time and money into the same venture: What if it flops again?

Consider changes that have the potential to make a high impact without too much additional time or expense.

What you should consider changing depends on why the book isn’t selling. If you can obtain honest feedback from your target audience, that may help to point you in the right direction.

Give your book a chance first. You can’t expect it to be a hot seller on Day 1. If a few weeks go by and sales are dismal, that’s different than just having a couple of sales during Week 1.

But if you’re not already marketing actively, it’s never too early to start that. (In the future, pre-marketing would be wise.)

If your book isn’t getting noticed:

  • Maybe the cover isn’t grabbing attention. Try a different design. You don’t want to invest a lot of money in the cover of a book that has already flopped once. But you can find some inexpensive options and you can also try changing it yourself. Ask for suggestions, search for stock photos, and browse covers to see what tends to grab your attention.
  • Are the keywords large and easy to read? Does the font seem to fit the content and create a little interest, without being difficult to read? Is the main image very large, and does it stand out well? Research common cover mistakes and ensure that your cover has avoided these.
  • Maybe the title doesn’t create interest. This is easy to change for Kindle eBooks, but requires disabling sales channels and republishing as a new title for print books because the ISBN is linked to the title. Sometimes, a different title and subtitle attract attention better. Ask for feedback on your title and subtitle.
  • The best thing you can do to get your book noticed is learn how to market effectively. Research marketing strategies and try them out. With tens of millions of books to choose from, it takes effective marketing to help customers learn about your book. If you’re already trying to market your book, try some different marketing tactics. Some strategies don’t work for some books and authors. If it’s not working, try something new. Ask for suggestions. But if the packaging or content have serious issues, you need to make some other change in addition to marketing.
  • Try a marketing promotion. For example, you can make your book free for a day if your book is in KDP Select; but just making it free won’t have much effect unless you also promote the freebie (e.g. maybe you can find some blogs relevant to your genre that sometimes announce freebies). Instead of making your book free, you could temporarily reduce the price; but again, that won’t help your book get noticed unless you also promote the sale. If you have traffic from your target audience at a blog, website, or social media, a contest might get some attention. But for a book that has already flopped, I wouldn’t do a promotion without also changing the packaging (see below).

If your book is getting noticed, but isn’t selling, it could be a problem with the packaging – i.e. a target audience mismatch. If the book is attracting the wrong audience, nobody will be buying:

  • A common problem is a cover that attracts the attention of the wrong audience. For example, if the book is science fiction but the cover doesn’t have any imagery to suggest this, whatever audience is attracted to the cover’s images probably won’t be looking for science fiction. It can be more subtle: If the cover looks like a hot and steamy romance, and the book is romance, but isn’t hot and steamy, that’s also a packaging problem. Browse top-selling books in your specific genre that are similar to yours to see what attracts the interest of your target audience. Ask for feedback. Try to find more suitable stock images. Reconsider your color scheme and its relation to your subject and genre. Consider investing a little money for a more effective cover.
  • Change the blurb. If you’re not happy with sales, change the blurb. Change it again and again. Try several times. Solicit feedback. Study other blurbs, especially of successful books from small-time authors and publishers. Remember, your blurb isn’t a summary and shouldn’t give the story away (then buyers feel it isn’t necessary to read it). The blurb’s main function is to attract the interest of the target audience. Arouse their curiosity so that they have to look inside. When sales pick up, that’s when you stop messing with your blurb.
  • Does your title send a unified message along with your cover? For example, if the title sounds like a mystery, but the cover looks like action, this may create buyer confusion. Packaging works best when the title and cover send the same, clear message about which genre the book is and briefly what to expect. Solicit feedback, and ask specifically about this issue.
  • Buyers see several covers in search results. Your book has just a few seconds to attract the interest of buyers in your target audience. A common problem is that the author is partial to an image on the cover because the author knows it relates to the story, but the shopper doesn’t know this. So if there is some image that really doesn’t belong on the cover – i.e. it’s not clear in three seconds that this image fits the genre and subject – then it may be hurting sales. Look, if sales stink now, it can’t hurt to try a different image, right?
  • Don’t underestimate the importance of browse categories. You want your book to be listed in highly relevant categories and nothing else. Find similar books that are selling well to see which categories they are listed in. Change your categories if needed. If Amazon has added extra categories to your book that aren’t a good fit, contact AuthorCentral and ask politely if they could please be removed, explaining that you feel they might create buyer confusion. This happens: A buyer clicks on a book hoping to read a romance, but sees both romance and action in the categories. “That’s not what I was expecting,” says the buyer as she walks away. If sales are slow, something isn’t working, so it doesn’t hurt to make a change and try it out for a few weeks.
  • You might as well explore a different set of keywords while you’re making other changes.

Sometimes, your cover and title grab attention, and your cover, title, and blurb are attracting the right audience, but the book still isn’t selling:

  • Give your Look Inside a close inspection. Does your book have a slow start? Do the opening paragraphs closely correspond with the genre? Are there spelling or grammatical mistakes? Are there formatting issues? Is there so much front matter that it takes a long time to reach the action (if so, try moving some of it to back matter)? Try to find what might be deterring sales from readers who check out the Look Inside. Better yet, strive to polish the Look Inside and revise it so that it attracts interest. Maybe revise the opening chapter so that it grabs interest and is a close match for the genre. Consider adding a few professional touches, like professional looking design marks (check out the Look Insides of several traditionally published books). Solicit feedback on your Look Inside, especially from your target audience.
  • Reconsider the price. Check out the prices of similar books that are selling well. At least, you could test out a new price for a few weeks and see how that goes. If you drop your price, advertise this on your blog, through social media, etc.; the sale may help to create interest. Price is usually not the main factor, unless the book is very short or way overpriced. Many authors change nothing but the price with no improvement. Save dropping the price (except for a temporary sale) for last. I would try everything else first before lowering the price (unless you are way overpriced, like a $9.99 nontechnical Kindle book). If your price is already low, consider raising the price (it might seem counterintuitive, but many people believe that you get what you pay for, and there are stories of authors who have raised their prices from 99 cents to $3.99 and actually started selling more books). Remember, it’s not just the number of sales that matters, but also the royalty. If you drop the price, you can actually sell more books but earn less money. At 99 cents, you have to sell 6 times as many books just to draw the same royalty as a $2.99 list price at KDP (since the royalty rate changes from 35% to 70%, if eligible – and the fees at 70% won’t be much if it qualifies for 99 cents).

Reviews could be a factor. But reviews often don’t have the effect that authors expect:

  • If you have no reviews, or if you have a small number of reviews that includes a bad review, your book might benefit from more reviews. But it might not. Keep in mind that nothing is better than the natural assortment of reviews left voluntarily by actual customers. It takes more sales to generate such reviews, which means effective marketing. You can hope to solicit reviews from advance review copies – free books given upfront to potential reviewers with no strings attached, where it’s clear that any review (good, bad, or ugly) is welcomed (don’t violate the customer review guidelines). A review from a blogger in your genre may be helpful (even if the review isn’t posted on Amazon). Sometimes, time and patience draw a few reviews that make a difference. Other times, you happen to get a couple of rave reviews, and sales don’t pick up at all. It happens.
  • If you have a small number of reviews, and they’re all good, buyers may be suspicious. If you just have good reviews, you have something to be happy about (that’s a problem many authors would love to have); focus on that. Keep marketing, and more sales will eventually draw more reviews. Hopefully, the new reviews will be good, too – because no author likes to receive bad reviews. Even if you don’t have any bad reviews (which would be sweet), once you have enough reviews, there will finally be a healthy assortment of opinions which helps to provide balance.
  • Does any criticism in any of the reviews have merit? For example, a review might complain of a storyline issue, or describe spelling and grammatical mistakes. If so, it might be worth reworking part of the story or finding an affordable editor. You can’t implement every suggestion made by every reviewer; you have to decide what has merit and what’s reasonable to change. Sometimes a critical review helps the author improve the book.
  • Commenting on reviews carries a huge risk. Especially, if you make the mistake of reacting emotionally or making more than one comment. Once you make a comment, the reviewer can simply ask you a question, which draws you into a conversation. Then suddenly there are several comments. If the reviewer becomes upset, the reviewer can get friends and family to leave reviews and make comments. Only the author’s image is at stake – not the reviewer’s image. Strive to look like a professional author; don’t ruin your author image over a review. If you get a review with wrongful criticism that kills sales, don’t do anything for a few days (this gives you time to calm down and think, and to see if sales are, in fact, slowing – if sales keep up, the best thing is to just leave it alone; reviews often have less effect than we expect). If sales died and you feel that there is nothing to lose, if you feel that a tactful comment might have an impact, if there are no sales, you might feel that trying this is better than nothing – but it must be tactful and you need to let go after that (don’t add more comments later). If the comment has no effect on sales and the reviewer doesn’t respond to the comment, go ahead and delete your comment; but if your is not the only comment on the review, don’t delete it – otherwise, there will be a note saying that the comment was deleted by the author (which means poster, as in author of the post, although shoppers may not interpret it this way). Most authors would advise you not to comment; and most others would say that you must be tactful and stop after the first. Besides, most shoppers will read the review, but not check out the comment. The better thing to do is marketing, trying to improve sales through marketing and promotions, try changing the packaging or content, and hoping that after weeks and months, some new reviews will help offset any bad reviews.

When I first published my conceptual chemistry book, sales really took off in the UK – better than in the US. This was really exciting, until I received my first review. It was a bad one. Often, a bad review has little effect; and sometimes a bad review actually improves sales. But when the only review is one or two stars, many customers won’t even look at the book. And when the review is really short and just vaguely states that there are many typos which could easily confuse the reader, it creates a lot of doubt in buyer’s minds. It sounds like the book is plagued with problems. And the review didn’t clarify whether the problems were typos, differences between American and English notation or vocabulary, mistakes in the content, issues with the equations formatting improperly in the Kindle edition, or what. So, of course, most buyers assume the worst. Sales had been frequent prior to this review, and then sales stopped dead. I’ve had other bad reviews, and most of those have actually improved sales. But this one was a doozy. Fortunately, I had several other books that were selling well (one benefit of publishing multiple books), and this book continued to sell in the US (fortunately, the UK review didn’t carry over into the US). Let me clarify that I have two different chemistry books with similar titles; the one with the blue cover is the far better book, and that’s the one I’m referring to here.

This review cut deep. I had already had about 20 versions of the completed file from plenty of editing. It’s not like the book hadn’t gone through many rounds of editing. I was shocked that anyone could think it was plagued with problems. I’ve read many technical works that are, in fact, loaded with mistakes. I also had a reputation for content knowledge and much teaching experience. And I wasn’t quite sure what the reviewer was complaining about, since the review was quite vague.

So here is my experience with such an issue:

  • I debated with myself over this for some time, then decided to try a single tactful comment. After all, sales were suddenly nonexistent. There was still some risk, however, because I had other books and a reputation to uphold. The reviewer didn’t respond (it would have been nice to receive a little clarification – but reviews are primarily there to benefit shoppers, not authors), so I removed my comment. Hindsight shows that this option wasn’t worth exploring in this case.
  • I re-read my book a few times. I did find a handful of silly mistakes in Chapter 2, and a couple of other issues. So I fixed those. Then I had an issue with the equations; I knew that they formatted better on a few electronic devices than others. So I retyped every equation and formatted it as text with subscripts and superscripts, in color, so that there wouldn’t be any problems with the Kindle formatting of equations. This took a great deal of time (every compound mentioned anywhere in the book was written with equation formatting, like H2O), but now I knew the equations would all format nicely. I checked them repeatedly for possible mistakes. (Wish I had thought of this the first time, but I was focused on the paperback first.)
  • I revised the book, calling it a new edition in the copyright page, corrected the mistakes and some other minor issues, and reformatted the equations for the Kindle edition. I revised the blurb to mention that it had been updated and when (since the review is dated, this allows for logical deduction; and I didn’t want to call attention to past problems in the US). This led to a trickle of sales in the UK and a slight improvement in the US.
  • I visited AuthorCentral and reformatted the blurb to include bullets and boldface. This had a small effect, too.
  • Then I added a line near the top of the blurb describing my qualifications. That was the magic answer. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? (Well, I often put any relevant expertise into the blurb, but not often near the top.) Who had more credibility? An author with a degree in the subject or a reviewer who didn’t specify any credentials? Some UK buyers took a chance once I thought of doing this; the US sales improved, too. Eventually, with the sales, a couple of good reviews came, too. The main thing that worked in my case was revamping the blurb and exercising patience (it took weeks before the rebound came).

If things are really bad, you might need a fresh start. You could unpublish and republish later (wait at least 30 days). If you do this, you have to make some dramatic changes (otherwise, you shouldn’t expect any improvement the second time). Keep in mind that I’ve never unpublished and republished a book myself, so I don’t have direct experience with this. But I have seen others do this:

  • Note that your book may remain on AuthorCentral even if you unpublish. If it’s available in print, the reasoning is that some customers may have used copies to sell. So you probably can’t have a print book removed from your AuthorCentral profile. If your book is only available in eBook format, you could ask if this is possible, pointing out that nobody will have a used copy to sell.
  • When you republish, it’s possible for your old reviews to get reattached to the republished book. If this happens to the eBook, contact KDP and explain that you’ve unpublished, revamped the book (explain how), and politely request a fresh start. Keep in mind that the original reviewers may leave new reviews on the new book if they discover it.
  • You can try a new title, cover, and blurb. But if you had any buyers the first time, they might be frustrated to buy what they believe to be a different book that turns out to be the same book again (but if sales had been slow, it’s probably worth the risk and there weren’t too many buyers in the first place). You can also try changing the content, getting the book edited or formatted, and improving the Look Inside.

On the other hand, if sales are good to begin with, don’t fix what isn’t broken. Maybe you are wondering if sales could be great instead of good. But what if you change something and sales go south? It’s not easy to recover when sales slip. So if you’re content with sales, I recommend not changing anything now. If sales slip in the future, consider making your changes then. (Also, if sales are good to begin with, any drastic changes – like a new cover – might fool a previous customer into buying the same book again, which may frustrate the buyer.)

Finally, not every book idea has an audience, and occasionally there may be an audience, but it’s really hard to get the book to that audience. Repackaging and marketing can’t help every book. Some books have ideas that just don’t interest readers. Other books are so highly specialized and only interest a very narrow audience (many specialized books have a significant audience; I’m talking about an extreme case here). Once you have given it your best shot, if sales still don’t come, all you can do is start over. If that’s the case, next time do some research prior to writing your book. Try to find similar books to see if a possible demand exists for your book idea.

Remember, all books that had good intentions surely go to Book Heaven. 🙂

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers (Volume 2, now out, includes several marketing, pre-marketing, and packaging suggestions)

Amazon Customer Book Reviews: Author Controversies

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Most authors are customers, too.

As customers, we want to see actual reviews written by actual customers, find a variety of balanced opinions, and be able to trust Amazon’s customer review system.

As authors, we see the benefits of having more customer reviews. Of course, we always cross our fingers that the reviews will be positive. However, we realize that we can’t please everybody, and we know that what’s good for the customer is good for authors and publishers, too.

If the reviews aren’t balanced or if customers aren’t able to trust the review system, then the system isn’t benefiting anyone – customers, authors, publishers, or Amazon.

Authors write many book reviews. That’s because authors are readers, too, and nobody understands how important reviews are more than authors.

So it’s important for authors to understand what is or isn’t allowed, and why.

Violations can lead to deleted reviews, loss of review privileges, account suspensions, books being unpublished, etc.

(1) Review Swapping: Jack reviews Jill’s book and Jill reviews Jack’s book.

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t spell it out by saying, “Review swapping is not allowed.”

But it can be deduced from the guidelines (see References 1-3) as follows:

  • You’re not allowed to offer compensation for writing a review. If Jack offers to write a review of Jill’s book in exchange for a review of Jack’s book, then Jack is offering Jill compensation. This is a clear violation of the guidelines.

Amazon may catch it (perhaps through cross-referencing). If not, customers who observe it may report it to Amazon. There are stories of authors who have lost reviews and privileges.

What’s wrong with this? Doesn’t the I’ll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-my-back idea seem unscrupulous? How would this look to a customer who noticed what was going on? It doesn’t matter that the reviews could, in principle, be written objectively. The problem is that the review is written with compensation in mind, which provides an incentive for writing an unbiased review. It’s the incentive that matters, not the intent (incentive is also much more clear).

It is possible for a review swap to come about in other ways. For example, Jack might review Jill’s book. Jill checks out Jack’s profile and discovers that Jack is an author. Jill reads Jack’s book and reviews it. They didn’t agree to scratch each other’s backs. But how would Amazon know the difference? It still looks like a review swap.

If another author reviews your book, you might feel like reciprocating. But then it will look like a review swap. Instead, pay it forward: That is, read a book by someone you don’t know, and review that book.

Of course, it’s possible for two authors to review each other’s books and not even know it, especially if they don’t use their real names on their review profiles. The chances of this happening accidentally, however, are very slim. It still looks like a review swap to Amazon.

There is yet another way for a review swap to come about. Jack is an author who knows Jill. Jack asks Jill to read and review his book. Jill does. Months later, Jill has written a book. Naturally, Jill wants Jack to return the favor. Doesn’t this still look like a review swap?

(2) Advance Review Copies: Dave gives out free copies of his book, hoping to receive some reviews.

This may be legitimate. This is the one exception to compensating reviewers: Authors or publishers may give one free copy of the book to each potential reviewer. Publishers often have mailing lists for advance review copies. Goodreads has a giveaway program to help authors distribute advance review copies for print books.

However, there are restrictions:

  • You must make it clear that you welcome all feedback – positive or negative. For example, you’re not allowed to give a free book in exchange just for a good review.
  • You can only offer one free book. You can’t offer products, discounts, entries into a contest, bonus material, etc. as an incentive for writing the review.
  • You can’t tell the reviewer what to write, tell the reviewer to write a review if the feedback is positive but just email you any negative comments instead, etc.
  • The book must be given free up front; it can’t be contingent upon writing the review.

Giving out advance review copies encourages more reviews. More customer reviews is good for everyone, but only if they are unbiased.

Note that such reviews won’t show as Amazon Verified Purchases. (There is a possible exception. For example, if your book is free through KDP Select and the reviewer downloads your book when it’s free, and the reviewer checks the box to mark it as an Amazon Verified Purchase.)

(3) The Friend and Family Plan: Jane asks her many family members and friends to review her book.

If all authors did this, most of the reviews would be biased. Amazon can’t say that it’s only allowed if the reviews are unbiased: How can Amazon tell, in general? They can’t.

So instead, Amazon has guidelines for what is or isn’t allowed:

  • Definitely, anyone who shares a household with the author isn’t allowed to review the book.
  • Close friends aren’t allowed to review the book. (What makes friends ‘close’? Good question.) This surely includes close family members who don’t live with the author, too.
  • Anyone who has a financial interest in the book isn’t allowed to review it: spouse, children, publisher, editor, cover designer, etc. (Even if the cover designer doesn’t receive a percentage of royalties, the success of the book may help the cover designer through referrals.)
  • Obviously, the author isn’t allowed to review the author’s own book.
  • You’re not allowed to post reviews on behalf of others. For example, if you sell a book to someone in person who has no internet access, if they ask you to review the book on their behalf, you’re not allowed to do it.

Amazon blocks and deletes reviews that are suspected of being on the friend and family plan. They may have a program that checks for common addresses, IP addresses, etc.

In addition to Amazon, there are external parties checking reviews. For example, there are people publishing research who are examining the writing style of multiple reviewers to see if they may have been written by the same person, scrutinizing books with many reviews but only a few sales, etc. There are published cases of review abuse that have been discovered and exposed.

(4) Dogs Eating Dogs: Bob slams the competition by giving them negative reviews.

Authors are not allowed to review similar titles. This very clear from the guideline that says you can’t review a book if you have a financial interest in it. So if Bob gives Eric a bad review and that bad review might improve the sales of Bob’s book, that review is in violation of Amazon’s policies. You’re not allowed to slam the competition.

Aside from being unscrupulous, it’s just plain foolish to slam the competition. Most books are more complementary than competitive. Customers usually buy multiple books that are similar (if not all at once, then spread over time). It’s usually not Book A or Book B; it’s often both. So if you do something to cause similar books’ sales to decline, it might hurt your own book’s sales through Customers Also Bought and other marketing associations.

You’re also not allowed to give positive reviews of similar titles, since a good review of a similar book might improve the sales of your book through Customers Also Bought lists.

(5) Paid Reviews: Cindy pays Jeff to write a review of her book.

This clearly violates the rule about receiving compensation, with one exception.

Editorial reviews, such as Kirkus reviews, may be paid for. These appear as editorial reviews, however, and not as customer reviews. There is a separate section for editorial reviews, and they can be added through AuthorCentral. Editorial reviews don’t necessarily need to be written by editors and experts in the field, as explained in Note 4 of Reference 3.

Note: All of the names used to illustrate examples (Jack, Jill, Dave, etc.) are all fictitious. These names do not refer to actual people. If there happen to be authors with those names who have done the things described (or have been accused by others of doing so or who may have done related or similar things), it is purely coincidental.


1. Kindle Direct Publishing Newsletter, May 2013, Volume 26, Featured Resource, “Q & A on Amazon’s Customer Review Policies.”

2. Customer Reviews Submission Guidelines.

3. Customer Reviews Guidelines Frequently Asked Questions from Authors

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

Publishing Puts Prices in a Peculiar Perspective

You just published you first book. You’ve sold a few copies. You earn a royalty of $3 per sale.

Now you’re celebrating by shopping for a new toaster. The one you like costs $18.

But you don’t see an $18 price tag. No. You’re thinking: “I’d have to sell 6 books to pay for that toaster.”

So you get out your cell phone, go online, and check your royalty report. You’ve only sold 3 books all day. Wow. At this rate, it will take two whole days of sales to pay for that toaster.

Next you’re in the mood for a cup of coffee. You head over to the coffee shop. It costs $3 for the coffee you want.

They make the cup of coffee in a few seconds. What does it have? Beans, water, sugar, caffeine? You slaved over a book for months, and much more work and time getting it published. Yet one book equates to one cup of coffee. That hardly seems fair!

When you get home, you see that you just sold 5 books. You’re so excited! With the 3 you’d already sold, that covers the toaster and the coffee, with a little change to spare.

That’s when you discover the flat tire. The nail went through the side, so it has to be replaced. How much will that cost? 40 books. There goes a week’s worth of sales.

Fortunately, sales pick up. You sell a few hundred books that month.

Then your washing machine goes out. It costs 20 books just to get a repairman down to your house, then another 80 books to get it fixed.

Your wife wants a new necklace. Rack up another 150 books.

Car payment: 125 books per month.

Mortgage: 700 books per month.

Take the family out to dinner: 20 books. Another 4 books just for the tip! And 2 more books for tax!

So you dig 26 books out of your trunk and bring them to the waitress. Call it even? What if I sign them?

— Chris McMullen

Research: The Author’s Success Tool

Authors can improve their books’ chances of success significantly by doing some research.

This research can take a variety of forms:

(1) Before writing the book, browse through search results to see what similar books are already on the market.

  • Are any of these books selling well? If not, this book may have very limited potential.
  • Is the market already saturated? If there are numerous books in the genre, yet several are selling well (especially, if this includes indie authors), then there may be room for one more. A category that has wide appeal can have numerous books and still not be saturated. But if there is a topic where there are many books, but there is little demand, that is a saturated market.
  • Can you compete with these other books? Are all of the top sellers from big-name authors and publishers? There may already be small-time success among similar titles to give you a little confidence.
  • What are the top-selling books doing right? There is an established audience for these books. Study these books to see what tends to attract this audience.
  • What are the ‘rules’ of the genre? For example, is it necessary for romance novels to have a happy ending, or what kinds of character flaws can the protagonist get away with? In order to have wide appeal, it’s important to understand the interests of the audience.
  • Is there a well-defined browse category for the type of book you’re writing? If there isn’t a category for the book, it will make it very challenging for shoppers to find it.
  • For fiction, study the kinds of plots and characterization that are successful in your genre. Those authors obviously did something right to attract readers.
  • For nonfiction, study the depth and range of the content and the way that the material is presented in successful books in this subject. If you can improve over what’s already been done, this may attract readers.
  • Learn what types of writing may attract readers, like showing more and telling less. Can you see yourself writing with an appealing style?

(2) All authors should do some research while they write:

  • Even fiction requires research. For example, if you’re writing a battle scene, research the weaponry to see what is or isn’t feasible; you can even find suggestions for effective ways to describe a battle scene. In fantasy, although you may defy the laws of physics to some extent, you still need to be consistent, so you must devise a viable set of rules; research can help with this.
  • Research names of characters. See what names are already in use, what meanings a given name may suggest to readers, etc.
  • Check your own storyline and characterization for continuity and possible contradictions. Your readers are likely to notice such issues.
  • Ensure that you’re using the right word, spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. In this digital age, it’s easy to find an explanation of when to use ‘effect’ or ‘affect,’ including examples of each, or whether the ? or ” should come first. Take a moment to check this. Or, if you’re writing is on fire and you just can’t stop, at least make a small note. For example, you might write <right word?> or <punctuation> in the middle of the paragraph to remind you to check on this later. Then you can search for <’s when it’s time to edit.

(3) Before you make your packaging, research the covers, blurbs, and Look Insides of top-selling books similar to yours.

  • What kinds of covers are readers accustomed to seeing in this genre? These are the types of covers that are attracting this audience. If the cover attracts the wrong audience, nobody will buy the book.
  • Look for important differences in cover design between similar sub-genres. For example, how do contemporary romances, historical romances, teen romances, erotica, etc. look different?
  • What color schemes are successful in this genre? Colors often have specific meanings. For example, a deep blue may be used with financial books to represent trust, while red is popular in romance because it suggests passion.
  • How long are the blurbs? How do the blurbs of top sellers signify the genre and arouse the reader’s curiosity? How much of the story do they give away? Studying effective blurbs can help you improve your own blurb writing.
  • Traditionally published books usually have very professional Look Insides. They often include a few professional touches such as design marks, their copyright pages are very detailed, and they generally are quite appealing to look at structurally. Study these models and learn from them. Also study how the pages are numbered (which have Arabic and Roman numerals?), page headers (e.g. title on the odd pages and chapter names on even pages), how the front matter is organized, chapter breaks (do they include space at the top of the first page?), header styles, etc.

(4) Research can also help when you seek professional help:

  • If you’re looking for a cover designer, visit their websites, check their portfolios, see what other books they’ve designed covers for, see how many of those books are similar to yours, see if the styles or features of the other covers appeal to you and fit with your vision, find those books and see if they list the cover designer on the copyright page. How are the other books that the designer made covers for selling? If those sales ranks are poor, maybe the cover won’t have as much an impact as you’re hoping. Find books with covers you like and see if their cover designers are affordable.
  • Research stock images if you’re designing your own cover. There is so much material out there, try not to settle for an image that isn’t quite right; your potential readers will notice this.
  • If you’re looking for an editor, find books they’ve edited (and verify this) and check if they meet your satisfaction (and try to get a second opinion if this isn’t easy for you to judge). Try to exchange a few written emails and find other samples of the editor’s writing (a blog, for example).

(5) Research can also come in handy when it’s time to make publishing decisions.

  • If you’re looking for a publisher, research the candidates. Check out their webpages, then check out their books – especially, books from an author who has a status similar to yours (i.e. new small-time author, indie author who has already published a few times, etc.). Compare royalties, any services that they provide (which you can verify), etc. The same research can help whether you’re self-publishing or seeking a traditional publisher or agent.
  • When self-publishing, research the browse categories and keywords. Type keywords into Amazon and check the search results. As you start typing, you will see popular keywords show up. You want keywords that are highly relevant for your book, which are reasonably popular, and where your book has the potential to become visible in the search results – all three are very important. Look for top-selling titles similar to yours in the search results to see which keywords they are visible under. When you click on those titles, you can also see which categories they are listed in.

(6) Of course, if you want to become effective with marketing, you must research this, too.

  • The first step is to research the many different things you can do to market your book. There are numerous possibilities. What you hope to learn is what is most likely to be effective for your specific book to reach its specific target audience.
  • You also want to research your target audience. The more you can learn about the kinds of readers for whom your book is a good fit, the easier it will be for you to gear your marketing toward them. Your blog, fan page, and email allow you to interact with readers directly, but beware they probably didn’t show up hoping to be part of a survey; you have to be tactful and indirect and keep such endeavors rare and unobtrusive. You might be able to find information about some audiences by searching online, or discussing this with your colleagues.
  • As you try different things, analyze your sales reports to see if you can find any correlations between improved sales and new marketing techniques that you’re trying out. It definitely benefits you to discover what does or doesn’t seem to be effective.
  • Find top-selling authors – especially, if have recently begun with a status similar to yours – and explore their blogs, social media, etc. to see if you can learn any of the secrets to their success. And have the sense to only try out ideas that seem scrupulous. 🙂

Note that sales rank can vary over time. A book might have a sales rank of 200,000 today because it just sold a copy, whereas it might usually be ranked in the millions. So monitoring rank over the course of a week can be helpful. Also, a book may have been a top seller a couple of years ago, but might be in the millions now. Check the publication date, too.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers


Which Fonts Can You Use?

Font Pic

When you purchase a new computer and install Microsoft Word, most (if not all) of the preinstalled fonts may be used to publish a book in print. This extends to many symbols and icons that you can find in preinstalled fonts such as Webdings and Wingdings.

You don’t have to guess, though. There is a simple way to tell.

If you download free fonts or even purchase fonts, you may or may not be able to use them for commercial purposes (e.g. publishing a book).

Two issues include:

  • Can the font be embedded in a PDF file? You need to be able to embed the font in the PDF in order for the printer (e.g. CreateSpace) to be able to print the font.
  • Does the license agreement permit commercial use?

Let’s first address whether or not the font can be embedded in a PDF.

Obviously, you need a PDF converter that can embed fonts in the PDF file when the Word document is converted to PDF. That’s a separate issue, and there are many free PDF converters available, such as DoPDF. Note that it’s better to print to PDF than to use the Save As option in Word if you have images (otherwise, the resolution may be diminished).

Even if you have a PDF converter with the option to embed fonts, you still might not be able to embed the font in the file.

How can you tell?

Find the font file. In Windows, most of the fonts are by default stored in a Fonts folder in the Control Panel. Click the start button, then Control Panel, then search for the Fonts folder. Open this folder. If the font file isn’t there (it may have been placed somewhere else when it was installed), if you know the name of the font, try searching for it on your computer.

Once you find the font file, right-click the font file. Then click Properties and Details. See what it says under Embeddability:

  • Editable. This allows the font to be embedded in such a way that the user can edit the content afterward.
  • Installable. This allows the font to be embedded in such a way that the user can permanently install the fonts.
  • Print and preview. This allows the font to be embedded, but only if the user is not permitted to edit the content.
  • No embedding permissions. This prevents the font from being embedded. These are personal use fonts that will function on your computer, but not when the file is converted to PDF.

The main point here is this:

The fonts can be embedded in the PDF and the printer (e.g. CreateSpace) will be able to print the PDF unless the Embeddability is set to “No embedding permissions.”

Note that Word can embed TrueType fonts (.ttf), but not OpenType fonts (.otf). You can view .otf fonts in Word, but not embed them by clicking Save As. You need to use a non-Word PDF converter in order to embed .otf fonts. Adobe fonts are .otf. (If you want to get technical, you can subdivide OpenType fonts into various types and complicate matters.) You can check the font extension by right-clicking on the font file.

When fonts are not properly embedded, a program may attempt to substitute another font with similar typeface. If this is successful, this may cause just a minor change in appearance in the final result. However, if the substitution is poor or unsuccessful, it can result in major problems.

Checking the Embeddability option only tells you from a practical perspective whether or not the font can be embedded.

You must still check on the licensing.

  • If the font is only licensed for personal use, you’re not permitted to use it to publish a book that will be for sale.
  • If the font permits commercial use, you may use it to publish a book. However, you must read the license agreement carefully, as it may have restrictions.
  • Some fonts require payment or a donation in order to use them for commercial purposes.
  • Some paid fonts do not permit commercial use. Paying money for the font does not guarantee that it can be used commercially.
  • Sometimes, you must contact the font owner, make a formal request to use the font, answer questions about your intended use, and also pay a fee in order to use the font for commercial purposes.
  • Some fonts simply do not permit commercial use at all.

Note that I’m not an attorney. I’m not providing legal advice. If you would like legal advice, you should consult an attorney. You should also read your license agreements carefully.

When commercial use is permitted, the font license will make this clear. This statement is often easy to find when commercial use is permitted, as it’s a nice selling feature. When commercial use is prohibited, sometimes such notice is not easy to find.

If the Embeddability option is set to “No embedding permissions,” the font designer is preventing you from using the font commercially.

However, if Embeddability is allowed by the file, the commercial use of the font may still be prohibited by the font license. Just checking Embeddability doesn’t guarantee that commercial use is allowed.

As stated in the beginning, when you purchase a new computer and install Microsoft Word, most (if not all) of the preinstalled fonts may be used to publish a book in print. You can read more about Microsoft typography here:

Some icons and symbols that appear in symbolic fonts or extended symbols (i.e. you find them by clicking Insert > Symbol) are in the public domain. Research a specific symbol to learn whether or not it is in the public domain.

Note that if you’re using a font to create a logo, there may be additional restrictions (e.g. you may not be allowed to sell the logo using the fonts). Also, some fonts may restrict you from altering them.

At CreateSpace, you can always make a test file in Word. It can be your actual book, or if you haven’t started yet, type some text with fonts (you will need to reach 24 pages and satisfy the minimum publishing criteria to do this test). Convert the Word document to PDF. Upload the file (you can also make a free test book and delete it from your dashboard later, without ever approving the book). If the fonts aren’t embedded and you need to embed them, CreateSpace will let you know this during file review. (It could be the problem is that you didn’t select the option to embed the font when you printed the Word file to PDF, so you also have to understand your PDF converter.)

Fortunately, there are very, very many free fonts out there that allow for commercial use where the fonts will embed without problem. If you look for “commercial use allowed” before downloading fonts, that should help minimize possible problems. (Unfortunately, there is also an occasional commercial use font where the font doesn’t embed, even though the terms of use said that commercial use was okay.)

Fonts are important. Most importantly, the font should be a good fit for the content, be easy to read, and not seem boring.

Fonts are also important for cover design. Here, the font should create interest, fit the content, and still be easy to read.

When designing a cover, it’s possible to draw shapes to make letters (you can make your own custom cover font this way). You need to have some artistic skills and a good idea of font use in cover design to pull this off. Probably, you would only do this for a couple of key words in the title in very large letters.

One potential problem is the temptation to use a really cool-looking font that’s not easy to read, doesn’t fit the content, or doesn’t match the color scheme of the cover. It’s easy to go overboard.

However, if you want to design your own font to use in the interior of the book so that when you type the letter, that image comes up, that’s much more involved.

Note that publishing an e-book is different. In this case, it is generally desirable to use a default font like Times New Roman and allow the user the option to select the font on the e-reader.

Chris McMullen, Author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers

  • Volume 1 on formatting and publishing
  • Volume 2 on marketability and marketing

the Value of Art

This includes literature as a subset of art. The article makes a great point about the value of art (including literature) in relation to mental labor and mental pleasure.

Patricia Beykrat - the Roving Aesthete

“The value andrank of every art is in proportion to the mental labor employed in it, or the mental pleasure produced by it” declared the very erudite 18th century portraitist Sir Joshua Reynolds with respect to the particular branch of painting learned by the students who formed his then auditory, nevertheless managing to encompass the whole spectrum of activities men generally practice in their attempt at self-expression, writing included.

Still, what amount of truth conveys the affirmation?

A great deal.

In literature as in sculpture or cinematography the only channel through which people receive the intended message is intellectual and therefore all works conceived to deliver certain ideas, share certain moods, illustrate particular visions et cetera must first engage the mind to eventually arouse the senses. An alternative has yet to be devised. Because, indubitably, no artistic feeling can emerge from outside the brain.

Vivid colors may excite our…

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Branding Sounds for Authors

Branding Sounds Pic

Authors primarily strive to brand an image (front cover, author photo, or logo) and a few words (short title, author name, or strapline).

It’s important to realize that sounds can be branded, too.

When you say the words “ee eye ee eye oh” aloud, does the song “Old McDonald Had a Farm” come to mind?

If you say “fee fie foe fum,” chances are that you will think of the story “Jack and the Beanstalk.”

The greeting “na-nu na-nu” was very well branded in the sitcom, Mork & Mindy, featuring Robin Williams as an alien.

You may recognize “nyuk nyuk nyuk” from Curly of The Three Stooges.

Those are some sounds from the content. But there are other ways to brand sounds besides coming up with a unique sound that gains wide appeal.

Another way to brand a sound is with a slogan, strapline, title, or subtitle that has a catchy jingle to it.

The books in the Pinkalicious series all end with –icious.

C I N: “Lynn, Lynn, the city of sin. You never come out the way you went in.” is a book with a title that features a catchy jingle.

A widely popular book title that rhymes is The Cat in the Hat.

Especially, with children, the word’s might just be silly, but fun to say, as in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.

Consider the possibility of branding sounds through your characters or in your titles, for example. When branding sounds in the title, you must also consider the target audience; childish noises, for example, probably work better in titles for children’s books than serious adult books.

Chris McMullen, self-published author of A Detailed Guide to Self-Publishing with Amazon and Other Online Booksellers