All you need to format your ebook

 Six books and three programmes

If you want to format your own file as an eBook, you need just four books. You also need three pieces of software.

Those are the two main ways of formatting an eBook.

You can format the file yourself as an Epub or Mobi file – the two most common Ebook formats – and upload the file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords. That gives you control of the formatting and, most importantly, of the appearance of your book.

Alternatively, you can clean up your Word manuscript – or your Libre Office file, or whatever wordprocessing software you use – and let Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords and let them convert the file to an eBook.

This saves time and effort. You don’t have to learn new software. And it doesn’t cost anything extra.

If you want to use this method, and upload your wordprocessing file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords, relax. Each company makes a manual available.

This isn’t really the place for a thorough discussion of the respective merits of the different approaches. What it is important to realise is that people tend to be partisan. You rarely find a fair account of both alternatives in the same book or post.

People who advocate formatting the file yourself are very deprecatory about uploading the wordprocessing file. They say the publishers often make a horrible mess. They tend not to give examples.

People who recommend uploading to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords don’t usually mention the possibility of doing it yourself. It’s as if the other way doesn’t exist.

The best-sellers sometimes dismiss the writers who format their own books as hobbyists. I think they are artisans. It’s a question of personality.

I would not recommend online conversion services. You don’t know what software they are using and you don’t know what the results are like.

Some word processing packages enable you to output an Epub or Mobi file. Don’t. Guido Henkel is emphatic on this point: ‘…word processors‌—‌ and that includes “Scrivener”‌—‌are not very good at what eBooks do, and are therefore the wrong tools for the job when the time comes to create an eBook from your finished manuscript.’

Scrivener is designed for drafting long documents. I don’t think it’s even very good at word processing. I certainly wouldn’t use it to output an Epub or a Mobi file.

I would not recommend paying anyone else to turn your word-processing your file into an eBook for you. Even if you are very rich and very busy, I suggest that you find out what would be involved in the other methods first.

The books

  1. EBOOKS 101: A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO E-BOOK FORMATTING, Teo Kos, 2015

This books is exactly what it says. It takes you through the rather limited amount of HTML and CSS you need to format an eBook and shows you how to do it. You can use EBOOKS 901 as an introduction, but it is designed as a manual. I have it open when I do more formatting, and I toggle back and forth.

Ana Jevtic Kos, Teo’s wife, is an artist and designer. Together they run First Ink Studios, an eBook design and formatting service. Teo Kos is also a writer. He knows the business from both sides.

Mr Kos writes science fiction as Viktor Kowalski. Apparently this means ‘John Smith’ in Polish.

If you can explain to me why a respectable Croatian professional calls himself ‘John Smith’ in Polish when he writes science fiction, I will award a small prize. A copy of my first novel as an eBook, perhaps?

It’s £1.99 on Kindle. You can go directly to the product page on Amazon by clicking here.

2. ZEN OF EBOOK FORMATTINGGuido Henkel, 2015

Mr Henkel is vastly experienced. He formats his own books and has vast hordes of customers for his fomatting service. His great strength as an author is that he doesn’t just know eBooks and the web. He also knows print.

Mr Henkel makes the differences between print and eBooks very clear. He is also very good at explaining why we format eBooks the way we do. He explains concepts like reflowable in simple terms.

I would recommend this very highly as an introduction. Mr Henkel does not write solely for beginners and his advice is sometimes quite sophisticated. It was from Mr Henkel’s book for example that I learned how to insert a clickable link. I love inserting clickable links.

Mr Kos’s book and Mr Henkel’s complement each other very well.

ZEN OF EBOOK FORMATTING costs £3.77 on Kindle. The direct link to the Amazon product page is here.

Mr Henkel’s email, which I am sure he will not mind me publishing for the millions, is ghenkel@guidohenkel.com. To visit his website, click here.

3. HOW TO MAKE AN E-BOOK COVER for non-designers, Kate Harper, 2012

The manuals of self-publishing, the how to books and the guides all agree on one thing: you can’t design and create the covers for your own eBook.

Oh yes, you can. And Ms Harper is going to explain how.

If you’re doing down-market genre fiction and selling large quantities, a professionally designed cover will make a measurable difference. If you haven’t yet got any money coming in from sales, you need to look a cheaper options.

Creating your own cover can be one of those options. And it’s fun.

Ms Harper covers finding and editing images, as well as laying out type, colour, integrating the different elements, formatting and uploading.

My only disagreement is over software. Ms Harper recommends either Word, which is limited, or Adobe Photoshop, which is expensive.

She suggests using a free thirty-day download of Photoshop, or accessing it in a public library. My hair curls.

I recommend Gimp. See below.

HOW TO MAKE AN EBOOK COVER is £2.10 on Kindle. The Amazon product page is here.

4. HOW TO GIMP: The Gnu Image Manipulation Program for Complete Beginners, Katherine Landreth, 2013

Kat Landreth’s HOW TO GIMP is the essential complement to Kate Harper’s book. HOW TO GIMP is a compehensive, step by step guide to Gimp, the powerful software package of choice if you want to create covers.

You can use Gimp (more details below, under software) to create cover images for print layout programmes like Scribus. You can also use it to create eBook covers for upload to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords.

You can contact Ms Landreth via the publishers, Three Dots Press, who are at 3126 Cary Street, Richmond, VA 23221.

£7.78 on Amazon here.

Software

All the software I am recommending here is open source. It has been developed collectively, and it is free.

A. SIGIL

Sigil is a text editor like Notepad. It is designed specifically for eBooks. It allows you to toggle from a ‘code view’ to a ‘book view’, which is very useful. It will generate an automatic table of contents. It won’t let you save your work unless it is a well-formed HTML file. It’s very much the software of choice.

B. CALIBRE 64 BIT

Calibre can be used to organise a library of eBooks, and as a reader. Its main use in self-publishing is to convert a file from one format to another.

The industry standard for eBooks was originally a protocol called Epub. Some people still need files in this format, and this is what Sigil outputs.

Kindle uses a protocol called Mobi. Amazon can’t use the industry standard.

Calibre converts your Sigil file from Epub to Mobi while you wait.  Use the Save to Disc command to save the converted file in a folder.

The conversion is easy. Mobi is in fact based on Epub. One wonders why Amazon…. No. We know why Amazon.

You will see separate icons for each format. You can then upload the Mobi file to Kindle.

If you think the name Mobi is weird, it is. Amazon bought the software from a French firm called Mobipocket, who sold – guess what? – pocket mobile phones.

C. GIMP

Make your images, including cover images, and create eBook covers. Gimp is the open source equivalent of Photoshop.

It has powerful resources, most of which you probably won’t need. It can do pretty much everything you want.

NB: I have seen very positive remarks on line from people who make their own covers using a design programme called Canva. I haven’t used it myself.

The Manuals

If you upload your wordprocessing file to Kindle Direct Publishing or Smashwords you will need to clean it up or it won’t format properly.

You have to strip out the page numbers and the running heads, and any tabs or carriage returns you have used to create paragraph and page breaks, and extra spaces at the end of paragraphs. Use the formatting commands on the menu bar.

By the time you have written your first novel you will probably be able to find your way around your wordprocessing package fairly easily. If you can’t, consider asking a fourteen-year-old nephew. Fourteen-year-old nephews understand about these things.

Both Kindle Direct Publishing and Smashwords have thoughtfully provided manuals. You only need one.

5. BUILDING YOUR BOOK FOR KINDLE, Kindle Direct Publishing

It’s free and it’s here.

6. THE SMASHWORDS STYLE GUIDEMark Coker, 2012.

Smashwords now convert to a range of formats. They prefer you to upload  a properly prepared wordprocessing file, rather than an Epub.

Mr Coker’s author page on Smashwords is here. His Facebook URL is this.

You can of course get the STYLE GUIDE from Smashwords. For completeness – since I have given the Amazon product page link for every other book in this post – you can also get it here.

Example

You can see details of the latest book I did with this software and using these books here. It’s not bad.

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Man Booker Short List and Popular Books

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The novels on the 2016 Man Booker short list don’t have many reviews on Amazon.co.uk. They are not really popular books.

I realised this while I was doing something completely different. I was trawling through Amazon.co.uk. I was looking for email addresses of reviewers. It’s about time I tried to get some reviews.

I am an independent writer. I have two novels and a novella up on line, each in three editions. And I haven’t done a thing about marketing and publicity.

My novels are certainly not popular books. I don’t yet have a single review on Amazon.co.uk.

I came across A Brief History of Seven Killings, the 2015 winner. I downloaded the free sample of  A Brief History of Seven Killings to my Kindle app some time ago. I didn’t finish it. For my taste there was too much research and not enough imagination.

Marlon James has attracted 372 reviews. That’s more than many of the household names in British literary fiction tend to get. It’s well up in the lower reaches of the mass market.

James is doing quite well. Yet A Brief History of Seven Killings isn’t a truly popular book. Truly popular books attract a lot more reviews than that.

Truly Popular Books

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The examples I am going to give are completely random. They are books I happened to stumble across while I was looking for email addresses. All the figures I give are for February 25, 2017.

The Martian by Andy Weir, what you might call a ‘last contact’ story about an abandoned astronaut, has 4,662 reviews on Amazon.co.uk. That’s popular. Remember these are just the readers who took the trouble to review.

Ready Player One, a ‘gamerpunk’ young adult novel, is also popular. It has 1,180 reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk.

Station Eleven is a post-apocalyptic story about the importance of theatre and music to civilisation which sounds quite sophisticated. It won amongst other prizes the Arthur C Clarke award. It is by Emily St John Mandel, who denies it is science fiction. Ms Mandel has attracted 783 reviews.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, is about a group of young men, one of whom has a history of childhood abuse. That’s a story which would be too difficult for a lot readers. Nevertheless Ms Yanagihara has attracted 613 reviews.

These are popular books. They are not trivial books. Anyone who tried to dismiss them by using, for instance, some binary notion of a distinction between culture and entertainment, would be doing something silly.

Three of the four books are in one way or another speculative fiction. That is probably why Ms Mandel can win the Arthur C Clarke award, but not even be shortlisted for the Booker.

Reviews, sales and interest

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Reviews are not the same as sales. I don’t really know how reviews convert into sales. What online reader reviews indicate is interest. A popular book attracts reviews.

We have to be careful about interpreting community reviews on sites like Amazon. Sub-genres like syberpunk have fans. Writers have follows. That distorts the figures.

Using reviews as a measure of interest is rough and ready. The very great merit of interest as a category is that it enables us to bridge the apparent gap between a notion of academic quality, seen as elitist, and a commercialism that is seen as crude.

Mr James’ 372 reviews, despite the distinction of A Brief History of Seven Killings and Mr James’ eminence as a Man Booker winner, has 8% of the reviews of Mr Weir. And Ms Yanagahira, despite not being a household name in the UK, has 165% of the reviews of Mr James.

This does not suggest that the book that won the Man Booker in 2016 is a book that interests the reading public very much. And I think it is possible that the readers who post reviews on line are the committed readers. Their view counts.

A Brief History of Seven Killings is a popular book in a way. It just isn’t as popular as some other books.

Not a very interesting list

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The writers on the 2016 Man Booker short list are, in descending order of the number of reviews they have received on Amazon.co.uk, Graeme Macrae Barnet, David Beatty, Ottessa Moshfegh, Deborah Levy, David Szalay and Madeleine Thien.

Don’t know these names? Neither do I. They haven’t written a lot of very popular books.

The books have received an average of 119 reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk. That isn’t bad. But, for what are supposed to be the best six books of the year, it isn’t very good.

Beatty and Moshfegh are American. Thien is Canadian. Levy is a prolific British author of whom I have never heard.

The first surprise – although it probably shouldn’t be – is that it is not the winner that attracted the most reviews.

David Beatty

The winner was David Beatty’s The Sellout, billed as a satire about race. It has 189 reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk.

It is in the same league as Genesis, by Karen Slaughter, with 193 raeder reviews, or Good Me, Bad Me by Ali Land with 196 reviews on Amazon.co.uk.

Genesis is a medico-legal thriller, a rather specialised sub-genre. It is number three in the Will Trent series. Writers of genre are advised to write series. It is said to be good for sales.

Good Me, Bad Me is about a woman in a protection programme whose mother is a serial killer. I say no more.

These are books that are bumping around the bottom of the mass market. This is the company that The Sellout is keeping. They are not very popular books.

Graeme Macrae Barnet

Graeme Macrae Barnet’s His Bloody Project, by contrast, has 288 votes. It is as if Barnet won the Nova, and Beatty won the Hugo.

His Bloody Project is probably a bit rough and tough for nice people who run the Man Booker. It is about whether the murderer is mad.

His Bloody Project sounds like what is sometimes known as a contemporary novel, rather than literary fiction. Contemporary fiction is often driven by an idea, rather than character. Contemporary novels tend to be more popular books than literary fiction.

Barnet has 6% of the reviews of Andy Weir, and 24% of those of Ernest Cline, the authors of really popular books.. He has however 152% of the votes of David Beatty, the winner.

Barnet is garnering the same order of reviews as Keith Stuart’s A Boy Made of Blocks or Elena Ferrante’s Those Who Love and Those who Stay. 

A Boy Made of Blocks is apparently a best seller. Best sellers are of course about rank order, not quantity. I do not wish to mention the subject of A Boy Made of Blocks. I would get a reputation for hardness and cynicism, which would to some extent be justified.

Elena Ferranta has written other popular books about the same characters. There has been quite a lot of publicity. And the publishers always put pictures of pretty girls on the cover.

Mr Barnet is in commercially very respectable company.

Otessa Moshfegh

The next shortlisted book in the rank order is Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh. It is a thriller.

Ms Moshfegh has garnered 123 reader reviews on Amazon.co.uk, 43% of the number that Barnet managed. It is a bit of a drop-off. Eileen is not obviously unpopular. It’s just not a very popular book.

Julian Barnes’ The Noise of Time, for comparison, has 120 reviews and Ian McEwan’s Nutshell has 111. Ms Moshfegh is keeping company with the worthy and the dull.

The Edge of the Cliff

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The big drop-off comes half-way through the list. There is a long tail. Half the books on the short list have less than fifty reviews. It’s quite striking.

Fifty reviews isn’t bad. There are independent authors who would feel they were on the point of breaking through if they had fifty reviews.

These aren’t independent authors. They are authors who have been shortlisted for the premier international prize in their genre.

No-one, apart from the judges, appears to be very interested in them. These really are not popular books.

Deborah Levy

Hot Milk, by Deborah Levy, has 47 reader reviews. That is 16.3% of the number of reviews that Barnet has. Hot Milk is apparently a family saga.

Hot Milk sounds very healthy. Who, after all, would want to buy and read a family saga called Strong Coffee?

For comparison Homegoing, by Yaa Gyaasi, got 48 votes and Lies: The Gripping Psychological Thriller that will Take Your Breath Away, by T M Logan, has 52.

Homegoing is apparently also a bestseller. Homegoing is also a family saga. It stretches over two continents and three generations. You get a lot more family and a lot more saga for your £8.99. Having read the very long subtitle, I do not feel I require any more information about Mr Logan’s book.

I think that these writers would like to have popular books on the market. I don’t really think that they’ve managed it.

David Szalay

David Szalay’s All That Man is has 39 reviews, 14% of those that Barnet got. All That Man is consists of nine unrelated stories about men.

This sounds self-consciously literary. It is probably meant for professors. iterary fiction, by contrast, is a genre among others. It is meant for the carriage trade.

I wondered if Mr Szalay had an MFA and went on line to check. I found no evidence either way. But he did go to Oxford.

Mr Szalay. I also learned, has been the recipient of both the Betty Trask Award and the Geoffrey Faber Memorial Prize. I do not have the faintest idea of what either of these distinguished awards are, and I have no real desire to find out.

Mr Szalay, I rather suspect, would rather be admired than write a popular book.

Mr Szalay, commercially, is not in very distinguished company. In Farleigh Field: A Novel of World War II by Rhys Bowen has 40 reviews. A Gentleman in Moscow, by Amor Towles, has 41. I do not want to know what A Gentleman in Moscow is about.

Madeleine Thien

Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We have Nothing is about a Chinese refugee who tells the story of the Cultural Revolution to her hosts in Canada. It has 30 reviews, 10% of those gained by Barnet.

It is difficult for Mainland Chinese writers, as they are known, to tackle the Cultural Revolution. Since the partial reforms under Deng Xiaoping they have been able to write about such matters as the ‘sent-down youth’. They are not allowed deal with the violence. If they try their books are banned.

The Cultural Revolution is even more difficult for writers in the Chinese diaspora. They are not close to their own history. They are no closer, really, than the white folk are.

Ms Thien is in the same league with The Lost Daughter of India, by Sharon Maas with 27 votes and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time with 33.

The Daughter of India has a dreadful cover. Ms Smith has perhaps been oversold as well as overvalued. She has written more popular books before.

The Man Booker Prize

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The Booker Prize attracts massive publicity. The contestants appear on the evening news looking awkward in black tie and cocktail frocks. They have slots for a week on BBC Radio 4’s flagship Today programme. They read extracts from their books in quiet, meaningful voices and answer bland questions from John Humphries.

This is quite leaving out the leaks, the quarrels and the scandals. There is also money involved. The industry loves it.

The practical consequences are not that obvious. Hilary Mantel’s publisher got excited when she won. He thought it would attract more sales. To underline his point he said he was going to order another thousand copies.

Another thousand copies? For the winner of the premier international literary prize? That’s ridiculous.

The administrators spend more time explaining the rules than what the prize is supposed to be about. It has been going for so long that the public – or at least that relatively small section of  who are interested in such things – have their own ideas about what the Man Booker Prize is about.

The public think the prize is about literary fiction. The public also think that the Booker Prize is about finding the best book published in the country in that year, and now of course in the world.

The novels shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2016 were not all, or even mainly, literary fiction. One novel, His Dark Materials, is contemporary. Eileen is a thriller and Hot Milk, as a family saga, is a subtype of romance. All that Man is is literary, but not literary fiction. It smells of the library. Only two novels, Beatty’s and Thien’s, were recognisably literary fiction in the ordinary sense. So that’s not true.

The public, I think, assumes that books are on the shortlist because they have a chance of winning. That is what we reasonably think the fuss is all about. That’s not true either.

Four of the novels on the Man Booker short list in 2016 were not contenders. They were not going to win. Why in that case were they on the short list? Was it a consolation prize? Or were they just makeweights?

With the greatest possible respect to Mr Beatty and Mr Barnet, while their books have readers and admirers it is very hard to think they were the best books in the world that year. There is no reason to assume that 2016 was a particularly bad year.

There are some organisational problems. Publishers are allowed to nominate directly and the jury, which is not always obviously well qualified, change every year. A ballot, and revolving three-year terms, might make a lot of difference.

While I write this right-thinking aesthetes everywhere are in despair. La La Land is about to sweep the Oscars.

OK, I admit it. The Man Booker is merely silly, and pretentious. The Oscars are are truly awful.

The difference is that film criticism is robust, aimed at cinema-goers and done by qualified people. We know that Moonlight is a better movie.

Literary journalism in this country is in decline, even in terms of column centimetres. It’s not even really about books or for readers. It’s about literary London, for literary London and by literary London.

Readers don’t pay any attention to literary journalism. The people they trust are the community reviewers on Goodreads and Amazon.

If the Booker Prize wanted to renew itself, it would have to involve committed readers. The problem is not the reading public.

It would also be a good idea if it stopped excluding speculative fiction. Those are some of the best books.

 

To read Andrew Ravensdale’s earlier post Literary fiction, cult and popularity click here

For more details of Andrew Ravensdale’s novel In the Night the Men Come please click this one

For the official website of the Man Booker prize please click here

 

Science fiction club

The science fiction club meets in the Artillery Arms in Bunhill Row. Bunhill Row is in Islington, on the edge of the City and Hoxton. The Artillery Arms is across the road from Bunhill Fields, the old Dissenter burying ground.

In the sixteenth century the London Trained Bands used to practice their archery here after Church on Sunday. Hence artillery.

The science fiction club is more properly the monthly meeting of the British Science Fiction Association. BSFA have been holding the meetings for a while.

You don’t have to be a member of BSFA to go to the science fiction club. You do have to know that the meetings are advertised on the BSFA website.

I had to change at King’s Cross in the peak evening travel period. I didn’t like the crowds.

There has been a pub on the site since the eighteenth century. I would hesitate to date the current building. Downstairs it has exposed wood and bare brick. Upstairs the function room, where we met, is pleasant.

With latecomers, there were about thirty members of the science fiction club that evening. Most were over forty. There was a young couple in the corner near me who looked about thirty-nine.

The largest sub-group were my generation. They were in their sixties. The fans are getting old. Dying out, perhaps?

A lot of people knew each other. They were on first name terms. They had presumably met at other meetings and conventions. The science fiction club is very clubbable.

There were a lot of writers and editors. The members of the science fiction club have a lot invested.

The star turn was Adrian Tchaikovsky. Tchaikovsky is best known for a ten novel fantasy series. He has also done stand alone science fiction.

He was being interviewed by Ian Whates, who is a writer, a publisher and an officer of BFSA. Whates and Tchaikovsky have clearly known each other for some time.

The interview is a format that the science fiction club likes. Interviews appear in their magazines. There are books of criticism that feature mainly interviews.

The meeting was well run. It started on time. There were fifty minutes of questions from Whates, and ten minutes for the floor.

The questions, I have to say, were bland. This was publicity for Tchaikovsky. Nothing more. I found it rather dull.

The science fiction club were well-disciplined. They clapped and cheered at all the right places.

At the end Tchaikovsky signed books. I fled.

This fits with an impression I have that in the science fiction club, once they are established, writers are extravagantly praised for very little. It’s unfortunate.

There are science fiction writers who deserve recognition outside the club, in the mainstream. This isn’t the way they are going to get it.

Meagre harvest

I have harvested just under sixty email addresses of reviewers from Amazon and just over fifty web addresses of book blogs. I am really surprised. I thought I would be able to get about three times that and I thought I would get them quite easily. I am also surprised – although perhaps I shouldn’t be – at the amount of trash there is on Amazon.

I should say straight away that part of the difficulty is the restrictions I am imposing. If I’m looking for reviewers and bloggers who might like my books I have to limit my search to books I think I might like. That eliminates an awful lot of respectable writers.

I reaped the harvest manually. It wasn’t as difficult as being out in the fields in August with a scythe. But it was quite difficult.

I selected categories to search. That was the only way to narrow down the field. The best results – even though I’m not a science fiction fan or a science fiction writer – were from dystopian and cyberpunk. Literary fiction was a surprisingly infertile field.

I started on the left of the Amazon page. I scrolled through the icons the way I might scan down a menu in a restaurant.

I started by looking at titles. That’s what I normally do. The title is what will normally make me decide to click on a thumbnail and look at the description.

Sometimes I looked at covers. The cover will very often put me off. I don’t like drippy covers and I don’t like crude ones. Covers never make me buy. From which you can probably tell that I am not a genre fiction fan.

Then I looked at the right of the menu.

When was it published? If a book has been published much before 2015, the reviews are not going to be recent and the addresses may not be up to date.

How many stars has it got? If a reviewer has been positive about another book, there’s some chance they will be positive about mine. I found I really wanted a minimum of four stars. I preferred four and a half.

And finally, how many people had reviewed it? I found that to make it worth my while – to help with the harvest – I need a minimum of a hundred. That eliminated an awful lot of interesting-looking books.

This is perhaps the time to point out that I have three books on Amazon, and none of them have any reviews at all. That is why I am undertaking this exercise.

When I clicked on a book I went to ‘See all customer reviews’ and then ‘See all positive reviews’. I scrolled though until I found the longer reviews; the ones that filled my laptop screen. I also looked for reviewers in the Top 500 or Top 1000 rankings, and reviewers who were on the Vine Voice programme. I still don’t know what that is.

I don’t write many reviews and I don’t write long ones. My reviewer ranking on Amazon is about 12,000,000. I don’t think long reviews by a popular reviewer are necessarily better. What I did find quite quickly is that popular reviewers who write long reviews were more likely to publish their email address or the web address of their blog on their website. And that’s what I needed.

I found that I got a lot of my results from a few very popular books, like The Martian or Ready Player One. If they weren’t science fiction they were often books like The Mandibles or The Bone Clocks with an element of that. I write speculative fiction, so that’s not surprising.

What I was not prepared for, although perhaps I should have been, was the vast amounts of trash that there are on Amazon, and the contrast between a few very popular books and a mass of pretty much neglected ones.

I scrolled through many pages, if not most, without clicking on a single icon. Very often if I clicked on an icon I hit the back arrow straight away. Sometimes, for example it’s only obvious from the description that a book is being marketed to ‘young adults’. We used to call them children, back in the day. And sometimes it’s only obvious from the description that a book is a drippy romance.

I was aware of series. I have heard for example that writing series is one way that commercial writers improve sales. I wasn’t prepared for how many series there were in sub-genres like dystopian and post-apocalyptic. The interesting, current, stand alone books would turn up in the first few pages. The other pages might have a paperback re-release of a classic of the genre from time to time – everything else seemed to be series.

Literary fiction if anything was worse. I know literary fiction is bad. I know about pretentious. I was not prepared for quite how much rubbish there was.

Some of it was quite clearly an error, almost certainly by Amazon staff. Or maybe they were joking? I can accept that The Interpretation of Dreams and Investment in Shares for Dummies are fictional. I would however query their literary properties.

What I was most surprised by, I suppose, was the sheer unpopularity of most of the stuff on the site. Now I am not talking de haut en bas. Even if I do know what the French means. I have sold eight units of three books in ten months. I did meet someone the other night who said he would probably read one of my books. But he didn’t say he would buy it.

Most books had less than twenty reviews. Many had less than ten. A lot had none. They weren’t all new releases.

Some of the books with less than twenty reviews had been shortlisted for the Booker. There were a couple of Booker winners. They both had less than fifty.

Now I know this is impressionistic. Hard sales figures might give a different picture. But we all know how hard it is to get a publisher’s contract. We know about the intrusive editing and the constant re-writing. We know how hard the sales and marketing people push for the top slots.

Can it really be the case that most of the stuff that publishers are pumping out just doesn’t sell?

I honestly think it can.

I didn’t learn much about independent authors. It’s quite clear that reviewers get free books from publishers. Some of them talk openly about Netgalley, for instance. They also talk about requests for review. One or two were quite snotty, but only one or two.

It wasn’t clear how many of the requests or the freebies were from independent authors. That interests me.

Perhaps that is something I shall find out more about in the next stage?

Photo credit: russelldavies via Visualhunt.com / CC BY-NC

Angry in Clapham

Last night I went to the writing group in Battersea for the second time. I won’t go again. I left angry.

I was late. There was a bottleneck at Kew Bridge. There often is a bottleneck at Kew Bridge.

By the time I got there they had started. The organiser had already left. The co-organiser was charing. He was one of the people I thought I would eventually have trouble with. There was clearly some kind of rivalry.

I found a seat. Only three people had put their names down on the meet.up page. There were ten people there. Some of them were new. Some of the regulars just hadn’t been at the last meeting.

We read round the room. I couldn’t concentrate. I have that problem before. It does not mean that I think what I am listening to is bad. it means I am bored. I think it is dull.

One young woman who had been before and read something before but who wasn’t there last time read from what appeared to be the draft of a young adult coming of age novel set in Algeria. The chapter was about young girls getting involved in a divination ritual. The young woman was quite competent.

The others were either incompetent or silly. A couple of them were writing personal stuff. That’s more difficult to do than people think.

The comments would have made sense if what was being commented on had any value. It didn’t. The comments represented an extraordinary over-valuation of some pretty trivial stuff.

A couple of people who couldn’t write tried to tell the competent young woman that her vocabulary was too elaborate. They seemed to be saying ‘Write like me.’

The chair left me till last. It was deliberate. He didn’t make eye contact. I thought it was what some people call ‘passive aggression’.

Before I read the chair had a go at me. What did I want from the group?

We had had that conversation before. I ended up being more openly aggressive. I said I wasn’t interested in feedback, critiques or workshopping.

I wanted to read. I wanted to read a whole chapter. I wanted to read without getting stressed. I more or less managed it.

The man who had made intelligent comments last time said it reminded him of Eisenstein. The competent young woman said it reminded her of a Portuguese novelist. Other than that I might as well have been reading into a vacuum.

One man said he didn’t want to read it. I told him the story of how I came to write the novel: the story about the young woman who was raped in prison.

That was a very aggressive thing to do.

I was angry. It’s an angry book. I wrote it out of anger. I was angry with the group. I was angry with what was going on in the room.

It’s not about amateurishness. It’s about seriousness. I will defend my book against all comers. I believe in it passionately.

I have nothing in common with those people. I need to find readers and make contact with other writers. I won’t do it there.

I went back to Clapham Junction. I heard saxophones. I thought the music was coming from the windows of an upper storey. When I crossed the road and looked back I saw a band on the corner.

I went back. I took a photograph. I didn’t put money in the instrument case.

They were performing in public. I was on the street with a camera. i didn’t have to pay.

I was under no more obligation to them than to the members of the writing group.

Power publishing

Westminster is the power borough. I don’t like it. That was where the group was meeting.

The visits to Westminster that I remember usually involved a demonstration. Once it turned into a riot. I was in a crowd that was charged by the mounted police. It was ugly. Four of us had to link arms to avoid getting dragged under the horses’ hooves.

There are other icons of power that I have seen in Westminster that are perhaps not so frightening. They can be ugly. On one occasion I walked round a corner and almost walked straight into a policeman in motorcycle leathers with a .38 strapped to his thigh. I am of a generation that is still shocked when we see policemen in this country openly carrying arms. And the leather gear was weird.

We were due to meet in the cafeteria of the Methodist Central Hall, which I wasn’t too keen about. I don’t like groups that ‘squat’. I would rather put a couple of quid into a whip to pay for a room.

I also wasn’t too keen on the size of the group. On the website it looked as if twenty-four people had RSVP’ed yes. One or two had dropped out, but it still felt unmanageably large.

As it turned out it all worked quite well. The cafeteria of the Methodist Central Hall was large, and on a Saturday it wasn’t too busy. The self-publishers had pulled two tables together in a corner, and were partially screened by a pillar. And there were only eleven of us.

On-line a minority of self-publishers are militant evangelists with all the social and personal finesse of the Donald Trump campaign team. The way the evangelists, all the other self-publishers are failures, losers and dopes.

Face to face, if the little group I met are representative, self-publishers are not like that at all. They are grown up. One woman was definitely under forty. One guy was on the cusp. The rest of us were greying, balding and wrinkled.

About four of the group had already published. Only one had a history of sales. A couple of people were struggling to find the right way, and a couple of others didn’t know what to do. One man hadn’t finished his book. He needs to start thinking about the market, so it was probably a good place for him to come.

The focus – and this won’t surprise anybody who knows anything about self-publishing – was very much on marketing. Nobody had got very far.

The organiser, Philip, is putting in a lot of energy and probably keeping it happening. He is a good chair. We went round and talked about where we are. People spoke well and had interesting projects. Philip is a good chair. He is good at summing up each contribution as it ends.

People had interesting backgrounds and had done different things. They had different skills. There were two musicians in the room and one dancer. Some people were very concerned about getting paid for what they do. One lady, sadly, had fairly obviously been scammed. Not badly, but she still hadn’t noticed.

Philip is keen on setting up some kind of cooperative. The idea seems to be that if there was one person who was good at sales it might be catching.

I don’t think I will be ‘hard core’ for that kind of project. I want to meet some other non-commercial and hopefully non-realistic novelists. It would be good to co-operate in some ways. I don’t see a way of making joint marketing work at this stage. I think it’s for the future.

About half of us went to the pub. I gave a couple of people my card. It was worth it. I will go again. I don’t think it’s the kind of group that I’m going to learn anything practical from. But I liked the people.

Marketing surprise

I have finally decided to do some marketing. You are surprised? How do you think I feel?

I have redone the copy on the first two pages of my website. The first page is now about independence. The second is about vulnerability- childhood abuse and mental illness.

I have done a slogan – a sort of mission statement in four crisp adjectives. Oral, universal, episodic and non-linear. I have changed the email signature to include a version of the slogan. I have been paying attention, as you can see, to what the email says about the ‘message’.

And I have been on Amazon collecting the names and email addresses of reviewers. That’s the big thing.

I don’t like social media and I’m not good at it. I don’t want to rely on social media as the main way of selling books. I wanted something more direct. I remembered something about offering free copies to popular reviewers. I couldn’t remember how to do it.

I went on Google. I found not one answer but two, and I found them straight away.

I rejected them both. There was a clear and practical piece on Joanna Penn’s blog by a guest author about finding the most popular reviewers. That is obviously what you need to do if you want bestsellers, and probably what you need if your book is quite general. Mine are specialist. That isn’t going to work.

I was quite excited by a site called Jungle search. It’s a way of doing advanced searches on Amazon. Then I realised it was set up for Amazon.com and there was no way I could change it to Amazon.co.uk. what I want right now are English readers. World domination can wait awhile.

Jungle search however gave me the key idea. I could search by genre and sub-genre. I could find broadly compatible books.

I went on Amazon.co.uk. I clicked on Books. I clicked on Science Fiction and Fantasy. I chose Science Fiction. And then I clicked on Dystopia.

I looked for books that interested me. I looked on the right of the page for books with five stars. I looked for books with over a hundred reviews.

When I found a book that met my criteria and opened it up. I scrolled down. I clicked on See all customer reviews. I clicked on See all positive reviews. Then I scrolled down until I found a long review. I didn’t bother reading it. Length was evidence of literacy.

I clicked on the reviewer’s name, and brought up their profile page. Some listed emails. I noted the email, the name and the book they had been reviewing on an Excel spreadsheet I happened to have handy. I need the title of the book will enable me to personalise the email.

By the time I started going obsessive-compulsive I had thirty emails. I reckon I need a hundred for a useable test. That’ s going to take another few hours. Then there’s the business of sending them out.

I’ve already got the copy. I think I’ve got two sentences to get their attention, and another two to persuade them.

I’m going to offer a free copy of the eBook edition of In the Night the Men Come, the first novel. You can’t gift books on Amazon.co.uk. You can on Amazon.com. What I will have to do is download the the HTML file from Kindle Direct Publishing, as if I was going to make corrections. Then I can send them that.

I think the ratio of emails to reviews is going to be about twenty-five to one. I have no idea what the ratio of reviews to sales is going to be.

If I get two to five reviews it will make sense to repeat the exercise with The City that Walked Away. I will need to trawl Amazon again for fresh emails. If I get one or none I don’t know what will make sense. I do know I’m not a quitter.

I can do something similar, only this time collecting web addresses. I can visit the sites, and check out the book bloggers. That should enable me to do something more focused and selective. Whether the results will be any better I don’t know.

I am a bit worried about what happens next. I will be publishing Flame Deluge, which is about Walter M. Miller’s A Canticle for Leibowitz, in a few months. The promotion for that will be very targeted.

All this feels like heavy lifting. I can do it once. I don’t feel I can keep doing it, and the next novel is probably three to four years off.

In one of the How To books I remember reading a comment about self-publishing being like publishing straight to the back list. That makes sense. But how do I keep sales going, year on year.

The only thing I can think of is word of mouth. So the question becomes, how do I get some word of mouth going?

Photo via Visual hunt

The ineffable tedium of amateur writing

I was wary of Novel London when I first came across it. Safeena Chaudry, the organiser, promotes the – what? group? business? project? I don’t know what to call it – on meetup.com. A lot of meetup.com groups are too middle class – variations on drinks and dinner and ‘meeting new people’ – and others are too weird. Tibetan nose flute for happiness and inner harmony. That sort of thing.

I didn’t follow up on Novel London right away.  I remember that I thought it was ‘too poncey’. I don’t remember why. Perhaps because they meet in Waterstones? Waterstones is pretty poncey.

Finally I accepted that I need to meet other writers and I looked at writing groups on meetup.com again. Novel London looked like a writers group. They meet every couple of weeks and three novelists read the first chapter of their books. It sounded like possibly a good way of achieving what I wanted.

I joined the group and signed up for the next evening. It was in Waterstones in Covent Garden. That sounded really poncey.  I noticed there was a ‘Call for Submissions’. That sounded a bit poncey too. A bit too much like wanted to be a publisher. But I was curious. So I clicked.

There were a couple of conditions. You have to have finished a novel. Your first chapter has to be ‘dramatic’ enough to hold the attention of a rabble of other writers. (I think that’s the right collective noun.) You had to be ‘blogging’ and ‘tweeting’ about your novel. I’m not sure what makes it Novel London’s business that you are blogging and tweeting,  but that’s what they say.

You had to send the first chapter as a word or pdf file, and Chaudry wanted a potted biography and a synopsis. The usual stuff. Nothing surprising there.

The first surprise came when Chaudry acknowledged the material. There was a fee. The fee was apparently for the recordings. I had seen something about recording in the publicity material but it hadn’t seemed important.

I was startled. It is a very basic principle of business ethics – and by extension of consumer protection – that all fees and charges are stated up front. It should have been stated clearly on the same page as the call for submissions.

For reasons of personal and employment history I challenge this sort of thing. It is almost a reflex. I emailed again. How much? I wanted to know.

£150. What? A quick calculation on the on-board calculator on my dumbphone revealed I would have to sell eighty-eight eBooks to get that back. It may well represent the real cost of recording. It wasn’t an expenditure that I could justify commercially.

There is a lot of pressure on self-published writers to spend money upfront on marketing, particularly on covers and editing. There isn’t much in the way of sound financial advice. No-one, for example, is telling self-published authors to identify their overheads and make a budget. And no-one, except Mark Coker of Smashwords, is telling people not to spend money on promotion until you’ve got money coming in. I think Safeena Chaudry’s recording scheme falls foul of Mark Coker’s rule.

I went anyway. The West End at 6.00 p.m. on Friday was horribly crowded. I had to queue to get out of the tube. It’s years since I’ve enjoyed being in the West End. Waterstones in Garrick Street was like a church. Hushed, empty, and full of significant icons.

Novel London was in the basement. There were folding chairs and red and white wine poured out ready in glasses. There were a couple of fairly expensive-looking cameras on tripods.

There were perhaps twenty people. A large minority of the twenty were novelists and spouses. Despite my extreme introversion I was comfortable. It wasn’t a threatening crowd.

The event started more on less on time. The compere announced that the point of Novel London was to give writers a video that would be on Youtube for ever. That was the first time I had clearly understood what the point of Novel London is. Safeena talked a lot about crowd funding. The business, if that’s what it is, clearly isn’t viable right now.

The writers read I couldn’t concentrate. At first I thought it was because the lady who was first up had a quite voice and an inexpressive manner. I turned up my hearing aids. It didn’t help. I would hear one word, a phrase; then I drifted off again.

The male novelist who read next had a stronger voice and read with more emphasis, but it was no better.  I couldn’t make myself focus.

I was really surprised. That’s not how I react to bad writing. I react to bad writing with intense irritation. This wasn’t bad. It was just unbearably dull. There was nothing to hold my attention.

At that point I stopped worrying. I didn’t care any more about the costs of recording or the consumer protection issues.

I was surprised by that too. I hadn’t realised that dullness, for me, is an over-riding moral category. I have learned something new.

After two chapters Safeena called a break and the compere asked – with some embarrassment – for contributions. I got my coat. I was conscious that I was being rude to the third writer. I think that participating in writers’ activities in London involves cultivating the capacity to be rude.

I didn’t meet anybody’s eye. I left.

Outside the young people were still arriving in Covent Garden for their evening out. I went home.