Sunday, March 30, 2008

Book Company Surging toward Monopoly?

I had a great time at the Virginia Festival of the book in Charlottesville hanging with old pals like Libby Hellmann and Andy Straka both of whom have great new books out, BTW. But then I got home this morning to be greeted by an inbox full of distressing e-mails about a Booksurge/ conspiracy.

A recent article in Publisher’s Weekly says that Print on Demand publishers are crying foul. BookSurge has apparently told many of them that unless their titles are printed by BookSurge, the buy buttons on Amazon for their titles will be disabled. This news was first reported by co-owner Angela Hoy. She gives a detailed explanation of how the new program was explained to her on her blog.

This is indeed a dire report for many of us. Print on Demand is a printing option used by a number of small but legitimate publishers. I have one book placed with a small press, but my others are all published through our own company using Lightning Source as the supplier. Lightning Source is the leader in demand-driven book manufacturing, and because they are owned by the biggest book distributor, Ingram, any bookstore in the country can order from them. That matters because having my book on is important, but not as important as having them in Borders. More than 4300 small publishers get their books from Lighting Source. That’s a lot of people who, based on this account, will no longer be able to sell books through Amazon.

It sounds scary, but I'm at least 3 stops short of panicking. First, the source of all this info, even the Publisher's Weekly article, seems to be the owner of Booklocker. I haven't seen anything directly from Amazon or BookSurge.

Second, I'd really like to see something from Lighting Source on this issue. If they feel threatened they would surely fire a return volley, eh? Not to mention Author House, Infinity, IUniverse, XLibris and every other POD Publisher.

Third, this move wouldn't make good business sense. Amazon is the master of the long tail - small sales on lots of titles. They must realize the hit they would take, in the wallet AND in the reputation, if thousands of books suddenly disappeared from their site - and why would authors and publishers leave them there if they won't sell them? We'd all just start pushing the link instead. If you're with Lightning Source you're with Ingram, which means you're on (and and by default. I think very few of us would make the change from LS ($38 setup) to Booksurge ($1,000 setup) while there are other attractive options.

Besides, according to the report nothing will change if you’re in the Amazon Advantage program. We are, and other small- and self-published authors probably should be too because it gives you the power to make changes on your book’s page, add reviews, blog, etc.

So until I hear more I'm monitoring the situation but I'm not freaking about this yet. Right now, it's still kind of a healthy rumor. But let’s be aware and be ready to defend ourselves.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Be A Team Player – Volunteer!

You don’t have to be a writer to volunteer within a writing organization or at a writer’s conference. Some of the conferences we attend are run primarily by people who just love being around writers. Malice Domestic is an entirely fan-driven conference that is attended by some of the biggest names in the mystery genre.

In addition, some of the best contacts I have made for my author were due to my being a volunteer at one event or another. I am currently on the Board of the Maryland Writers’ Association as the Conference Coordinator which puts me in a place to talk to editors, agents and publishers, in addition to some great local authors.

It’s all about contacts and schmoozing. And don’t let anyone tell you differently. In this business it is entirely about who you know.

If you want to help your author you should be volunteering for local conferences. Put your name in the hat to help out with local associations. They are always looking for help and it doesn’t take much of your time to help out at a conference or within an association. I wouldn’t suggest taking on the conference coordinator’s position unless you’ve had some experience doing it, but volunteer to help in some way to get yourself involved.

I will tell you one story that I am particularly fond of. I sat in a booth at Book Expo America one year at the beginning of Austin’s writing career. He was doing a signing at the booth and I realized that people were just walking by without stopping. Obviously unacceptable to me. So I decided to wrangle them in and proceeded to stand out in front of the booth doing just that. Anyone who knows me will tell you that I can be very convincing. It did not take me long to get a line of people waiting to get my writer’s autograph.

If you’ve never been to the Expo you should go sometime, it is an amazing experience and you never know who you might meet. It just so happened that Warren Murphy (one of the greatest authors of our day, who wrote the Destroyer series and is a two-time Edgar winner) was wandering by and perhaps because of the hubbub I was causing (at least that’s how I like to tell the story) decided to stop at our booth for his signed copy. Austin, being one of his biggest fans, instantly recognized him and asked if he could get his picture taken with him. And that my friends began a collaboration that I am hoping will soon be on the screen for all to see. And of course I will take all of the credit, as a good writer’s spouse should.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Numbers Obsession

I know authors who wake up every morning and check their ranking on I’ve always thought that was kind of silly. For one thing, I sell a lot more books in bookstores and very few through Amazon. Consider, #1 is their best selling book and mine are generally ranked below the 2,000,000 mark. However, those numbers have no real-world meaning to me. I know that Amazon uses some arcane system to recompute your book’s position every hour, and that the number indicates your ranking compared to every other book on their web site, but I have no clue how that works. If I sell 100 copies in an hour, then none for the next 3 hours, do have the same ranking as the guy who sold 25 books four hours in a row? And is there a way to translate that ranking into a number of books?

Well, I got a taste of it all this week. Echelon Press, which publishes my novel Blood and Bone, started a contest on Wednesday, March 12th, with a prize for the author who sold the most books on before the end of the month. I have no idea how to make people order through Amazon, so I gave it little thought. But the next morning I had an inspiration.

I send out an e-mail joke page every morning to an ever growing list of friends and coworkers. Some people I haven’t seen or heard from in years are still on that distribution list. So I sent a note to that list, explaining the contest and simply saying that “...if you're the holdout who hasn't ordered their copy of Blood and Bone yet, now's the time.” Of course, I had no way to know if my e-mail would sell any books.

Or did I? At noon it occurred to me that the ranking could be an immediate indicator of sales activity. Blood and Bone’s rank number was 1,281,974. Suddenly I wished I had checked the number before I sent the e-mail, so I’d have something to compare to. Oh, well.

At 5 pm curiosity prompted me to look again. The new ranking was 120,231! Whoa? Did that literally mean that my sales ranking had jumped over a million other books? What had happened in those 5 hours?

After dinner, at 8 pm, I looked again. Now I was ranked 64,251. That did it. The Amazon ranking was my new crack. At 9 and again at 10 the number stayed stable at 72,922.

Friday morning at 6 am (yes, I know) it was back down to 64,715. What caused that little drop? 8 am: 71,803. 9 am: 74,350. 10 am: 77,964. 2 pm (I had a meeting in between) 104,432. Each time I felt a little surge of adrenalin. Each time I tried to imagine what had caused the change. Then by 4 pm it was up to 130,458 and I figured everyone who was going to order had done so.

I won’t embarrass myself further, except to say that as of this writing - Sunday, 10:15 am, Blood and Bone is up to 278,977. Now I wonder how many sale-free hours have to pass to get it back up (or down) to the two million mark. And now I have to wait until April 1st to find out how many actual book sales were required to raise my ranking to that 64,251 high point.


The next Hannibal Jones novel COULD be called “Capital Losses” or “Unacceptable Losses,” or even "Grave Losses." In the last 2 weeks I added 3,514 words, bringing me to a grand total of 39,401. Ahh, progress.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

I Just Can't Keep My Mouth Shut! by Denise Camacho

If I spoke up everytime I felt there was an injustice in the publishing world I would talk in my sleep even more than I already do. And I'm sure Austin would end up bruised a bit as well.

Let me first just say that if you have not checked out Writer Beware yet...don't wait, do it NOW!

They have tips to help you filter out the unreputable agents, editors and publishers.

And be sure to also check out Preditors and Editors at

Ok, so another author I know came to me with a book that they had just had published by a company that I won't name because I have not yet verified all of my facts. She was so excited to have her book published and wanted me to make sure I had it available for the Maryland Writers' Conference that I'm chairing in May.

She gave me the cut sheet stating all of the information about the new book and as I read down the page I nearly choked! I could not believe what I was reading and had to reread it several times just to be sure.

How on earth does this charlatan company get away with charging $35 for a non-fiction book that is softcover and only 122 pages? Who the hell would buy such a book? Is it made of gold? I can't for the life of me understand it. And I just couldn't say anything to the author, it would break her heart and as heartless as I've been known to be at times, even this is beyond me.

So here is a warning to all you authors out there that are so desperate to see your book in print that you don't read the "fine print". Make sure you have done your research first. Find out about the company that wants to put your words in print. You can't tell if a company is reputable just by looking at their website. Anyone can do a spiffy website that attracts desperate and gullible people. Don't be fooled by fluff!

If they say they can deliver the world back away slowly and then run for the hills. No publishing company can deliver the world, but most of them aren't out to cut their own throats. How is this company thinking they are going to make anything off of this 122 page softcover at a $35 price. Don't they understand someone has to want it bad enough to pay that much for it?

I didn't have the heart to ask the author if she had paid anything to have the book published, it just would have been too much and I'm sure I would have broke down into tears in front of her.

Heaven save us from publishers, agents and editors that are ripping off innocent wordsmiths and thank you to Writer Beware for their diligent and watchful presence.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Do Blog Tours Pay Off? Guest blogger Cheryl Kaye Tardif

I was recently asked my opinion on a company offering to send authors on a virtual book tour via postings on various blogs and web sites. For a few hundred dollars you could appear all over the internet. My response was that this plan just didn’t pass my "evidence-based marketing" test. I thought it was great for more and spreading your name, and I do guest blogs for that reason. But for me to pay someone a three-figure fee I have to have some expectation of seeing a tangible return.

But then I got a note from a fellow mystery author that changed my view. Cheryl Kaye Tardif, author of three bestselling novels (Whale Song, The River and Divine Intervention) responded to my comment that I hadn’t met a single fiction writer who told me that a "blog tour" had any impact on their sales. She said:

Well, Austin, you didn't speak to me. lol

I organized my own virtual book tour (VBT), aka virtual author tour, blog tour, guest blogging etc. I contacted blog owners, after pre-qualifying them, set up the dates and for the month of August 2007, I was hosted by about 35 blogs and sites, including internet radio. It was a lot of work, but was so worthwhile. And I would do it again.

Does a blog tour gain you sales? YES, if done properly. Unfortunately, most authors don't know what to look for when pre-qualifying site and blog hosts, and they forget to ask for orders. I would, however, do a 2- week tour over a 1-month one. A 1-month VBT will take about 5-6 weeks in advance to properly organize. A 2-week tour will take about 3-4 weeks to organize. The key to holding a successful and profitable VBT is knowing what content will sell your book, without seeming like a sales pitch.

Can you really get more sales? I did. In fact, all three of my novels made Amazon's bestsellers lists during my 1-month VBT. And that means SALES!

I have written an article on VBT's which has now appeared on some leading book marketing experts' sites. People who are following my advice are seeing results.

Would I pay hundreds of dollars for a service? No. I am a hands-on type of gal. I like to do things myself, learn from them. Don't get me wrong, I am a very busy person--I write and promote my books full time--12-16 hours a day on average. But I honestly don't think that a service would have gotten me better publicity. And that's because no matter what anyone else does for me--publisher, editors, publicists--I market my books 200% more.

For some authors, paying a service might work best. But for authors who are bold and confident, I say organize a VBT yourself first. Just do it right.

I knew how to find the right blogs by learning about Google Page Rank, by reading books on promotion like Plug Your Book by Steve Weber (I highly recommend this!!) and by looking for blogs that met my criteria.

Criteria to look for when searching for a blog tour host:

  • High traffic sites (some will tell you their monthly traffic if you ask)
  • Google Page Rank of 3 or more (4+ preferably)
  • Visitors that post comments
  • Blogs on themes found in the book
  • Blogs that have been around for 1 year +
  • Multi-author blogs or blogs that usually host tours
  • Blogs that show up high on a Google search of common keywords used to find/describe your book
  • Internet radio shows with good traffic and lots of past guests
  • Hosts who have multiple blogs and offer to post on all are also great

The best thing about organizing your own virtual book tour is that you are in complete control. The advantage is that you can vary your posts more. I researched my hosts sites and found ways to take their themes and adapt them to the book I was promoting--Whale Song. I learned a lot from doing this, and I am looking forward to doing another VBT. I believe the next one I do will be even better! :)


I can’ t argue with success, friends, but I will just add that I think it's outrageous what some book promotion sites charge, with no regard for whether or not the blogs they book you on are duplicates, or whether or not they get any traffic. If you want to tour, follow Cheryl’s example and do it yourself.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

What’s Your Process? Guest blogger Mohamed Mughal

I’ve invited other authors to share their experiences with us, and the first to respond was Mohamed Mughal. Mohamed’s first book, Resolution 786: A Novel in Three Acts Telling Cuneiform Tales of Love and War and God and Lust and Loss is a timely and intellectually provocative work about God, love, and war. Born in Africa and raised in America, Mohamed’s prior publications include articles on chemical warfare and biological terrorism. The book seems to combine his background – BS in chemical engineering, MS in engineering management, PhD in public policy, and time as a US Army officer. But what he wanted to share was an interview experience. Take it away, Mohamed:

Pat Patten of the University of Baltimore interviewed me recently. The interview was part of her TV program, “Ideas in Writing.” As you might expect, many of the questions dealt with approaches to writing. One of my favorite approaches is literary cubism.

Now, as a chemical engineer, I’m not sure whether I adhere to the strict definitional form of Gertrude Stein’s literary cubism, but I gave it a whirl in “Resolution 786.” I told that novel’s tale through an amalgam of traditional narrative, poems, letters, e-mail messages and news stories, with this multiplicity of literary media focused on three integrated streams of storyline: my central character’s childhood, his present day experiences in the Iraq War and his role as chief prosecutor in the Lord’s trial for crimes against humanity. Did I succeed in telling a coherent, entertaining story? We’ll see.

I remember reading an article on writing a few years ago, an article written by Vonnegut. The “Master” (yes, that’s what I call him) cautioned against trying to be a literary Picasso. Caution to the wind, it seems that that’s just what I’ve tried with my debut novel.

I must admit, I don’t have nearly as interesting a story to tell when asked about my process, but if I want to shine in interviews, maybe I should think it through more.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

I Forgot the Progress Report

And thank you for noticing.

It’s been 3 weeks since I posted a blog. In that time I spoke at the Bay to Ocean writers conference, performed four manuscript critiques there and had one book signing at a Waldenbooks.

AND I added 5,517 words to my still-unnamed Hannibal Jones mystery, bringing us to a grand total of 35, 887. I’m happy with that.

Now scroll down and read the rest of today's post.

What a Writer Should Read

I've heard that when a fiction writer is creating he should not read anyone else’s fiction because it may color his own work. Since I’m always writing I don’t necessarily take that advice but even if I did, I would never completely stop reading. There is a real world we writers live in, and every author should be aware of it.

I belong to a lot of support organizations, but I’m not much on attending meetings. However, the newsletters these groups publish help me keep track of what’s happening in the writing community. Local news comes through the newsletters of the Virginia Writer’s Club (The Virginia Writer), Maryland Writers Association (Pen in Hand) and Washington Independent Writers. Those last 2 are kind enough to send electronic copies.

I also joined genre-based groups, as you should. Larger groups like the Mystery Writers of America and Sisters in Crime offer national newsletters (The 3rd Degree and In SinC respectively) plus the ones the local chapter puts out (for Mystery Writers that would be Capitol Crimes.) International Thriller Writers Incorporated does it all electronically too in The Big Thrill.

If you self publish you should join the Small Publishers Association of North America (SPAN) and the Publishers Marketing Association (PMA) and read their marketing-oriented newsletters, Connection and Independent respectively.

And then there are the publications that can help us improve our craft. Writer’s Digest is probably best known, but I get more out of The Writer, although I’ll admit that is very subjective.

We should also keep an eye on the magazines the fans are reading, and that’s genre-based too. For me those would include Pages, Crimespree, Mystery Scene and the tightly-focused Black Issues Book Review.

Are Publishers Weekly and Editor & Publisher conspicuous by their absence? They are the absolute sources for news on the industry, book publishing and book selling, and they’re probably the first two pubs others would mention, but to be honestly I have never learned anything of value from either one. I certainly expect my agent and my publisher to read them, but they don’t help me write or market any better. Still, check them out and decide for yourself.

And that last bit of advice applies to everything else I said. You owe it to yourself to check out these publications for knowledge, awareness and inspiration.