Thursday, February 26, 2015

Herne the Hunter 3 - The Black Widow - by John McLaglen

The Black Widow
Herne the Hunter 3
by John McLaglen
Corgi 1977

Jed Herne is a gunslinger riding the vengeance trail avenging the gang rape that left his wife and neighbor dead.  Accompanying him is Becky, the fifteen year old daughter of his dead neighbor.  This installment has him stalking the last two perpetrators - two rich, spoiled, psychotic twins.  One's gay and the other is a heroin addict, and both have a creepy Oedipal vibe with their overprotective mother.

Added to the mix is Whitey Coburn, Herne's albino, gunslinging friend who's been hired to bring Herne in.  This one is a titch milder than most of the Piccadilly Cowboys I've read, and Herne is a lot less amoral than most of these heroes.  Some decent action, a little sleaze with our villains, and of course lengthy descriptions of bullet trajectories.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Kill List by Chet Cunningham

Kill List
by Chet Cunningham
2013 Wolfpack Publishing

The Specialists are an ill-defined paramilitary team that fights terrorism and stuff.  They start with a by-the-books assault on Somalian pirates.  Literally - swim to boat, blow up boat, swim away.  Walk to building, blow up building, walk away.  We're not starting off well.

An Arab-American with a bachelor's in physics joins Al-Qaeda.  There, his expertise is used to come up with a weapon of mass destruction.  After massive amounts of research, he stumbles upon the notion of a "dirty bomb".  After more research on the World Wide Web, he finds out about this obscure substance called plutonium.  Because getting a degree in physics didn't require watching Back to the Future.

The terrorists steal some spent fuel rods in France, and our heroes drive around looking at trucks and trains for a zillion pages.  Almost every lead is given to them by a homeless folk that speak perfect English and have photographic memories for which directions trucks go.

Almost no action, mostly coordinating with local police, getting through customs, and finding a place to eat.  Cunningham did a lot of homework on customs and shipping practices, which would have nicely filled out a more exciting novel.  The villains are better fleshed out than the heroes, but they also spend 90% of their time going through customs and figuring out lunch.

Some weird and outdated language.  There is talk of the terror attack on "nine eleven", there is "a black" on the team, and the HQ is outfitted with World Wide Web.  I wasn't a huge fan of Cunningham's "Penetrator" installments, but they were at least competently put together.

Tons of spelling errors, all typos that end up as different words so spell check misses them.  Horrible cover ("They want to kill millions.  They must die!")  Horrible copy ("What would any English speaking country do to prevent a dirty bomb from wiping out a city? There's best to kill every S.O.B. who's involved in that terrorist scheme, that's what. And sometimes a small elite force is better than an Army!")  Definitely worth half the royalties for that level of professionalism.

There is no kill list.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Adventures in Self Publishing - Marketing

It's easy to get carried away with marketing your self published book, and there are plenty of folk waiting to take your money.  From buying twitter followers to buying reviews to paying "street teams" - with the possible exception of Bookbub (which won't accept you), I haven't heard any good things about any of it.  Luckily, there are plenty of free alternatives.

I'll do the conclusion first in case you want to skip this section - the best way to sell more books is to write more books.  Not only are there more books to sell, readers are more likely to buy books from someone with a larger catalog.  So focus on writing more, not marketing more.  If your first book doesn't sell, write another one, don't sink money into trying to buy Facebook likes.

Let me get some stuff out of the way.  You can hustle around to get interviewed by bloggers or for podcasts, or even a local morning news show.  I've heard that writing traditional press releases has had some benefit - you'll get clueless editors looking to fill human interest space and think "Local author self-publishes Amazon Top 10 Bestseller" actually means something.  All that's fine, but it requires interacting with human beings, something a lot of writers, including myself, have no interest in.

There are also blog hops, blog tours, release parties, and other things that I can't figure out what they are, but they also require basic human interaction, so I'm out.

All the stats I've seen say that the way readers find new authors is by browsing Amazon or word of mouth.  For the Amazon browsers, you'll need a good cover, a good product description, and at least have the sample portion of the actual text be in good shape.  Then job done.

Word of mouth involves actual people talking to each other, either in real life or through social media.  You can't flat out create it, and it's questionable how much you can influence it.  But for a beginning author, it doesn't hurt to at least get your product out there in the internet ether one way or another.

First, some generic best practices.  Stuff with pictures sells more than text only.  Have a link in the top third of the message, and for heaven's sake, have a link period.  I'm flummoxed to see a post on Facebook or elsewhere that reads: "I just finished my book, it is the most awesome book ever, please buy it," and there is maybe a picture of the cover, and no link.  I've actually wanted to buy the book, or at least look at the Amazon page, and so I open up my browser on my phone, only I forgot how the author's name is spelled, so I go back to Facebook, then re-open a browser, and by then I've been distracted by something shiny and can't be bothered anymore.

I'd recommend against using URL shorteners.  Facebook and Twitter already shorten URLs, some work computers will filter it out, and I myself won't click on a link if I don't know where it goes.

Some authors think it's crass to self promote and want to keep it to a minimum, and that's fine, but make it easy for your readers to at least find where to buy your stuff.  I'll pick on someone again: Don Pendleton.  This is a perfectly fine author website, with a biography, bibliography, etc.  This is particularly useful here, as Don Pendleton is a house name as well as an actual person, and it can be difficult to sort through the hundreds of books he didn't write.

What this website does not have are links to buy anything.  Now, it might not be the intention of the site to push product, but it stands to reason if someone is interested in the books of Don Pendleton, they are interesting in reading said books, and are going to likely need to buy them. Doesn't mean there needs to be a zillion pop-up ads, or even a separate "Store" page, but just some hyperlinks to Amazon or wherever would help without being too intrusive.

There are three broad categories a marketing approach can take.  All have their place, and you can carry out all three at once (though you may need multiple social media accounts).  These three modes I'm calling: Announce, Interact, Spam.

Announce: With this mode, you only post when there is something new.  A new title, a new cover, a sale, something like that.  Forget about establishing brand awareness and audience engagement bladdy blah - just bug people when there's something to tell them.  This works well in conjunction with...

Interact: Have genuine interactions with other other human beings in the realm of publishing.  This could be having clever or insightful things to say on twitter, having discussions in Facebook groups or message boards, things like that.  In doing this, do no (or next to no) promotion at all, aside from maybe a link to your blog or author page in the signature.  The idea here is that people will be interested in you, and therefore might later be interested in your work.  But, this won't work if you're also flinging...

Spam: Now, technically it's not spam if it's in the appropriate place, and there are places for it, mainly specific Facebook groups and Twitter.  This is just flat out posting: "Buy my book", over and over again.  There is a right way of doing this that doesn't turn people off.

We'll go over some of the specific social media platforms, but always keep in mind that at this level, you'll maybe get at most an extra buy or two after hours of spamming.  Do it if you like doing it, but you'll be better served by spending that time working on your next book.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Escape of the Living Dead by John Russo

Escape of the Living Dead
by John Russo
Kensington, 2013

I've seen this referred to as the novelization of the 2006 comic.  It isn't.  I think this is a long unpublished third installment to Night and Return of the Living of the Living Dead, partly updated to 2013ish.  It's set 16 years after the original outbreak (or an original outbreak - the book isn't explicitly a sequel) so I'm guessing it was originally set circa 1985, but Russo puts more effort into updating this one than some of the other that he's recently reissued.

A scientist bit during the original outbreak manages to survive and gives birth to a couple of vampire girls.  They use hired thugs to kidnap victims to experiment on, and when the police close in on them, a truckload of zombies (he uses the Z word) escapes.

I enjoy Russo's rambling plotlines, but other readers may be less charitable.  The hero of our story gets written out early, major characters get killed off page, but if you think of it as more of a Slacker or Twenty Bucks with zombies, it goes better.

Some criminals save a Catholic school, and some Aryan Brotherhood hoodlums hole up in a bar.  It's decidedly small scale, and it implies that in the Russo-verse, Night of the Living Dead was a localized outbreak quickly contained.

It's packaged with the superior Midnight and way too expensive as of this writing.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Scorpion by Michael Linaker

by Michael Linaker
New English Library 1980

Scorpions are mutated by runoff from a nuclear plant.  A news reporter and local doctor investigate strange deaths by venom, until the scorpions, some of unusual size, attack in mass.

This is one of the most over the top "when animals attack" books I've read.  Most of the carnage doesn't even come from the scorpions, but from secondary panic.  A bit dog goes mad and attacks.  Cars pile up during an evacuation.  And in the highlight, a score of housewives in a grocery store pile through a plate glass window, only to have the top half come down and shear off body parts.

It could have standed to have a bit more plot - there's a thread about a psychotic security guard that was interesting until he got killed off - and the ending was a bit rushed, but this perfectly executes what it set out to do.

Linaker penned a number of Piccadilly Westerns, which I'll definitely be reading, and a ton of Men's Adventure.  It appears he only wrote three horror novels, which is a shame, but they're all collected under the misleading title The Neil Hunter Horror Omnibus, which is why I almost missed it.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Adventures in Self Publishing - KDP Select

OK, last topic on Amazon for now, then it's on to marketing.

Authors have the option to go exclusive with Amazon and join KDP select.  The benefits include:

  • Being included in the Kindle Unlimited Program and Kindle Owner's Lending Library.
  • Being able to set your books for free for five days every 90 or making your book a Kindle Countdown Deal for five days every 90.
Drawbacks include:

  • Being included in the Kindle Unlimited Program and Kindle Owner's Lending Library.
  • Not being able to sell at any other retailer.
I don't really get the Kindle Countdown deals, as you can lower your price any time you want.  You have a slight advantage in that you can stay at 70% royalty below $2.99, and you get a little ticking clock thing.  Some folks have reported this being a good marketing tool.

The free days are useful, but not amazing, especially considering you can set your books to free elsewhere without any problems.  If you have a second book in a series coming out, you can set the first one to free for a couple days to bring in new readers.  We'll talk a little bit later about marketing your free days.

I've heard talk that being in KDP Select gets you "promoted" more by Amazon, meaning KDP Select titles show up more often in "You might also like" results and elsewhere, but I've also heard that they used to do that but don't anymore.  When KDP Select started, people would say that their Amazon sales went up after they joined, but I haven't heard talk like that in some time.  Now, the major difference is Kindle Unlimited, which is either a plus or minus, depending on how high you can get away with selling your books.

Kindle Unlimited is like Scribd or Oyster, except suckier.  Subscribers pay $10 a month and can read as many KDP Select books they want, out of 700,000 titles.  On the author side, Amazon has a fund of about $2 million that they equally spread out every month for every borrowed title that has been at least 10% finished.  You don't know what your per-borrow payment is until the 15th of the following month.  It's been hovering around $1.40 a borrow.

To add insult to injury, you'll get emails saying "Due to the popularity of the Kindle Unlimited program, we're adding $50 zillion to this month's fund".  You won't see a dime of that.  Those are bonuses to the top 100 sellers in various markets.  You won't be one of them.

I can't see any medium-or-above level publishing house putting their books in KDP Select.  $1.40 is way too low, even for a moderate level indie author, and most businesses aren't going to throw in with a scheme that has no guarantees of per-unit price.

I can't see Amazon sustaining Kindle Unlimited for very long.  It's pretty expensive for an all-you-can-eat crappy indie buying plan.  I get one free borrow a month through Kindle Prime, and I struggle to find titles I want to read.  I can only see two potential markets for KU. 1) Readers who read at least 4 indie books a month and 2) Readers of erotica.  And 1 is probably also 2.  It's also too easy a system to game, which is probably why they keep their fund the same level.

So is KU worth it?  It is if $1.40 a read is a good thing.  So it would be great for me, if I could even get borrows.  Sad face.

I've seen moderate level indie authors complain that KU is lowering their sales, and it might be.  Some complain that it's devaluing the worth of books in general, but I'd say the market does that.  An example: One commenter spoke of reviews that say something like "Not worth buying, wait for a free day or get it through KU" as an example of KU devaluing books.  I'll be less charitable and say the reviewer was saying the book wasn't very good.

KU authors are a bit like the day laborers at Home Depot, in that they may siphon off some of the readership from slightly more expensive, slightly better written indie books.  But then again, there are like 50,000 free books in Amazon, and if a reader wants to stay cheap, they'll never have to spend a dime.

On one end, you have actual, real authors, selling for $7-$10 and not touching KU with a ten foot pole.  Then you have losers that have problems even giving books away, like me.  Then there are the folks in the middle, that can sell for more than $1.40, but might be hurt by readers willing to go a little down in quality to save a little money.  That's the market.

If you don't want to stay in KU, you can opt out of KDP Select after 90 days.  Make sure to check the box in your KDP Bookshelf to not auto-renew.  I've seen a lot of hyperbole about how KU is the end of publishing, but I can't see it continuing as anything but a smut buffet.  Folks that are too cheap to buy a $4.99 ebook by their favorite author aren't going to shell out $120 a year to settle for worse.

So, is KU right for you?  Try it out.  Then don't renew and try selling at Barnes & Noble and iTunes.  If you do better in KU than not, jump back in.  The only thing to keep in mind is that if you unpublish from B&N or wherever, then resubmit your book, you lose things like sales rank and reviews.  Otherwise it's easy, especially compared to getting out of a book contract in the real publishing world.

You can mix and match as well, putting some titles in and some out.  Authors will find that some titles do better at iTunes for some reason, some at Amazon, some have more borrows, some have more sales.  It can be pretty unpredictable.

An exception to some of the above is short stories.  You actually get more from a borrow than a buy if the title is $0.99, and KU seems a good deal for both writers and readers of short fiction.  

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Endworld 01 - Fox Run

Fox Run
by David Robbins
Endworld 01
Leisure Books 1986

Post apocalyptic survivors venture out of their compound for the first time in a hundred years.  Eventually.  A lot of planning, a little killing mutated wildlife, and a lot of talking.  Just before our heroes are about to leave, the compound is raided by Trolls, who end up being the offspring of a home for the mentally retarded.

The Trolls capture some women and vaguely menace them with rape.  There are pages upon pages of:

"What are you going to do with me?"
"You'll find out.  You'll have to do...dishes!"
"Oh no!"
"And other things that a woman does, like...laundry!"
"And the other thing a woman is good for is -"

Etcetera.  I thought Robbins was just being way too coy, but then he had the captured women be tested to see if they were strong enough to withstand the horrible things the Trolls had in having them compete in track and field events.  So maybe no implied sexual slavery and I just have a dirty mind.

The whole thing was pretty light hearted and non-political for the genre.  Aside from blaming the collapse of civilization on premarital sex, no liberal blaming or even mention of Communism.  The action was way too brief, with "blink and you'll miss it" action scenes.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Adventures in Self-Publishing - Amazon KDP Tips

Some random Amazon tips:

Open an Author Central account at, using the same account as KDP.  There are options to upload a picture, videos, link up your twitter account, put up a bio, etc.  If you don't want to do all those things you don't have to, but you do want to do this: Go to "Books" and click on "Add More Books", then add your books.  You can use as many pen names as you want and they'll be organized by a dropdown in the menu. UPDATE: Author Central (though not KDP Select) tops out at 3 pen names, but you can open a second Author Central account, even using the same email address.  Contact support if you need more than 3 pen names n Author Central.

You want to do this so if someone says, "I liked this book, I want to buy another book by the same author", they can click on your name in a product page and it will show all of your titles, leaving out the noise of similarly named authors.  I'm going to pick on somebody here: John Russo, though it's probably the fault of his publishers.

If you search for John Russo, a lot of stuff comes up, some of it not by the coauthor of Night of the Living Dead.  If I click on his name, depending on which title I started with, I go to one of at least three Author Central accounts for him.  Most of his books aren't attached to any accounts.  There is no single place that lists all of his books and just his books.

It takes like a minute to open a basic Author Central account and organize your books.  Do it.

Another tip with Author Central is that if you update your product description here instead of the KDP submission page it updates in less than an hour rather than a day or more.  Keep in mind that if you later use the KDP page to resubmit something (to change the cover, for instance), it will prefill the description box with the last one you used at KDP, not the most current one from Author Central.

You can also use Author Central to add "From the author" and reviews to your product description.  Don't look at the Sales Info.  That stuff is just to fluff or demolish your ego.  If you want to keep stats, look at actual sales from your KDP dashboard, not your rank.  I don't care how many authors sell better or worse than me, I just want to know how many I'm selling.

To illustrate how meaningless this stuff is, let's look at one of the greatest books ever written: Victim City Stories Issue 1.  According to my Author Central stats, it hovers around the 10,000 spot in the overall bestseller list, out of 1.4 million books.  It's well within the top 1% of all books ever written, sitting alongside the Bible and William Shakespeare.  It's made $3.  Even if the free issues were actual sales, I'd still make more money working a couple hours at McDonalds a day.

You may decide to temporarily lower the price of a book below $2.99, forcing you to pick the 35% royalty option.  If you bring the price back up, remember to change it back to 70%.

Don't, don't, don't have more than one Amazon account for things like affiliates, Author Central, and KDP.  If you have a second Amazon account as a customer, don't try to be sneaky and use your affiliate links  - it won't work.  If you have more than one KDP account, you will get banned.  Amazon has excellent support for multiple pen names, so you don't really need more than one account.

If you want to have your book set at permafree, here's the method that worked for me (thanks to Nathalie Ayni):
  • You can't be in KDP select for this method, as you will need to set your books at free at Kobo, iTunes, and Barnes & Noble
  • From the KDP website, go to "Contact Us", click "Pricing & Royalties", then click "Other".  DON'T click "Price Matching"
  • Say something like "My book, Bred by the Billionaire Werewolf Biker [Amazon link] is available for free at other retailers.  I would like to have it available for free here at Amazon", then provide links to your book at the other websites.
  • KDP has two canned responses.  One is "We could, but we're not going to", which is what people get if you ask under "Price Matching".  The other is "OK, go confirm it".  The responses are word-for-word the same for various people, so there must be a semi-automated system.  For whatever reason, if you make the request under "Other", it gets to people that actually do it.
  • If it doesn't work, wait a week or so and try again.  It might just depend on the person you get
  • Note that the old price will still show up on your KDP dashboard, and it may or may not be free for other Amazon territories.
There are other methods, but they never worked for me.  This worked in under 12 hours.

Kindle returns: Customers can "return" a Kindle book within 7 days.  This causes some consternation to some folks, as maybe the customer is being cheap and getting their money back, or they download it just long enough to strip the DRM and pirate it, but I wouldn't get too worked up.   I'm a lot more charitable.  Since the introduction of Kindle Unlimited, you see the word "FREE" a whole lot.  Combine this with Amazon's hair-trigger "one click" system, the fact that things like reward points and some gift cards can't be used on Kindle books, their awful mobile app, and folks with big thumbs - I can see someone either accidentally ordering a book, or ordering a book that charged real money when they thought it wouldn't.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

Adventures in Self Publishing - KDP metadata

When a customer does a search in Amazon, the order in which things are returned are based on their popularity and their relevance to the search terms.  You can't directly control your popularity, but you can put enough metadata into Amazon's system so that customers can find you.  If a customer searches for "cozy mystery divorced detective with a limp profiles serial killers at beachside resorts during holidays leaked nude Metallica", and your book fits the bill, you want to let the search engine find you.

There are people that get paid a lot to know more about this than me, but here's what I know.  The searches look for things in the following fields: author, title, subtitle, description, categories, keywords.  It weighs relevance with the popularity and rating of the title.  Amazon keeps it very secret what importance each of these have or what the exact formulas are.

From the KDP submission screen, you get two categories, which you pick from a drill down, and seven keywords, which are freeform.  Keywords can also be categories, kinda.  From a combination of these, your book can be placed in browseable/rankable categories.  These categories are outlined here:

Note that the browseable/rankable categories differ from the categories in the KDP screen.  You could put your title under "Mysteries>Cozy" in KDP and pick a keyword "island" and you will show up in the category "Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Settings/Islands".  Some on the link above don't actually exist when browsing in Amazon - I couldn't find Erotica>Horror, but that may be an exception.

These are different from what comes up in an actual search.  At the bottom of a title's product details, there is the Amazon Best Seller Rank.  Your title seems to be shown to rank in two categories, regardless of the number of categories your book is in.  You don't get to pick which two categories are shown, but I'm assuming the title will still show up when browsing by category even if they aren't on your product page.

I don't have numbers, but I'm guessing most customers look for books through the search field at the top of every page.  To browse by category, one would have to click on the left sidebar through a bunch of confusing screens to get to a particular subgenre.  One can also click on the link within a particular book's product page for the bestseller's list.  Any of these options are cumbersome, and I have trouble getting to a bestseller list when I'm trying.  Most folks will just search.

So let's use the best selling book that I will admit to writing - Victim City Stories Issue 1.  As of this writing, it's number 11 in Mystery, Thriller, Suspense>Crime Fiction>Vigilante Justice>Free.  Out of a field of 12.  Hooray for me.

If one looks at the bestsellers in that category from the bestsellers screen, under the free Top 100 for Vigilante Justice, it appears on the first page at number 11.  If you browse by the category Vigilante Justice and sort by price low to high (so free are first) it shows up way lower, on page 10 of the results.  If you just do a search in the Kindle Store for "Vigilante Justice" and sort low to high, I'm on page 2.  If you then click the sidebar for the category Vigilante Justice, I'm the fifth item on the first page.  So if you're looking for free Vigilante Justice ebooks, mine will rank very differently depending on how you look, even with the same price point, popularity, rank, and keywords.

Your rank will influence where you are in search results, but you can also use it to advertise, though once you're in KDP, you realize how worthless these bragging rights really are.  I've had a Top Ten Amazon Bestseller than has made me less than $3.

Additionally, use your keywords to further narrow down what your sub-genre is, even if they're not in official categories.  Doing a search for Masked Hero in the Kindle Store, Victim City Stories is the 3rd return, and the first that's not a comic.  I've beat out Batman novelizations, Zorro, everybody.  Hooray for me.  If everybody wanted "Masked Hero" books, I'd be the first they'd see.  If I just used the category Thriller or Mystery, you'd die of old age before you came across this title.

It's the difference between being a small fish in a big pond, or a big fish in a small pond.  It hasn't worked as well for me, but other indie writers have found they do better the more niche a genre they write in - though here we're talking about how niche a genre you classify yourself in keywords.  I haven't found a ton of tips on metadata online except to be honest and be narrow.  Also, if you pick a narrow category, the title will show up in the parent categories.  So Mystery>Cozy will also include Mystery.

Be wary of anyone offering paid advice for metadata - it looks shady as hell.  It probably works, but shady.  James Patterson seems to be a big name.  Let's look him up in Amazon, and sort by publication date so we can find the latest book he put his name on.  Note that after you sort through all the preorders, Patterson himself is only like every fifth item.  Some of the noise here is books about him, or a book by Bob Patterson and James Nobody, but a lot of these are books that literally have "James Patterson" as a keyword.  This is cheap, dishonest, against KDP policy, and probably works.  Don't do it.  If James Patterson gives you a review that says "This book is as good as the books that I, James Patterson, write", you can put that in your review section.