Changing covers

As a self-published author I really enjoy choosing the covers for my books, but have learned that it’s not just about finding a pretty picture. The cover image is very important for marketing purposes, so it can be worth employing a professional designer rather than relying on stock photos. “Don’t judge a book by its cover” may be good advice in theory but, in practice, our first impressions about both objects and people are usually based on their appearance. A split-second glance at the cover often determines whether or not a potential reader will look inside.

What makes a good cover for a novel? Ideally the image, in combination with the title, will “capture the essence of the book” so as to appeal to its target audience – a tall order. Experts advise that the image should be relevant to the genre, but distinctive enough to stand out from other titles in the field. It should convey something about the story in a way that excites readers’ curiosity. The design is best kept fairly simple, with a single focal point to draw the eye, and needs to look good in thumbnail view. Personally I think the colour scheme is also very important.

A highly skilled artist may be able to ignore these rules, and create a cover image which looks so stunning that it attracts potential readers even if it bears no obvious relation to what the book is about.

Revamping a book’s cover from time to time can stimulate sales by attracting a fresh group of readers, and I recently changed the image for my novel You Yet Shall Die. The original version showed a photo of the North Kent marshes, where much of the story is set. I really liked the appearance of that one, but it gave little indication of the genre or content. The new version, featuring an old-fashioned dressing table strewn with books, is more relevant to the plot and more likely to appeal to the mature women who are the main target audience – hopefully without putting off all the men, considering that several of my male friends have enjoyed it.

Original cover on the left, new one on the right.

You Yet Shall Die is a gentle mystery novel set in Kent and Sussex. Who is the woman who claims to be Dr Harper’s “love child”? What was the true cause of his wife’s early death? As Hilda Harper researches her parents’ early lives in postwar Oxford and Swinging London’s nightclub scene, she discovers some shocking secrets but also finds new hope for her own future. You Yet Shall Die is available in paperback or ebook format from Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk and other Amazon marketplaces.

Older books: renounce or revive?

Today I donated the last box of my book Focus on Healing to the church fair. It was published just before print-on-demand paperbacks and ebooks became widespread, and although it was well received by readers, more copies were printed than were sold. I didn’t want to be like the author I once heard about whose garage was full of his own books when he died, and whose heirs gave the books away at his funeral.

Just as new cars start losing value as soon as they are sold, books on medical and healthcare topics start going out of date as soon as they are published. The content of Focus on Healing is still valid, and the ebook version is still available, but there is new information that could be added if I wrote a second edition. I’m not intending to do that, because I no longer work in the healthcare field.

Novels do not go out of date in the same way, although most sales usually occur in the first few months after publication. My own latest You Yet Shall Die is certainly selling better than my earlier ones, the Dr Peabody series which provide a somewhat cynical picture of medical practice in the 1980s, and the Three Novellas which are mystery/romances set between England and New Zealand. Some readers dislike older novels simply because their content seems out of fashion, or because they convey racist or sexist views, intolerance of minority groups, or other attitudes that would be indefensible today. Other readers accept these things as representative of the time the novels were written, and find that the historical aspect adds to the interest of the story.

A few older books become classics. Most of them fade into obscurity unless, rather sadly I think, they only become popular after being mentioned in the author’s obituary.

For details on the books mentioned here, please visit my Amazon author page.

A giveaway backfires

I recently gifted a print copy of my novel Fatal Feverfew to the winner of my latest Goodreads Giveaway. Soon afterwards she posted a rating on the website, giving it 1 star and commenting “the writing was dull, the plot was poorly written, and the characters were extremely unlikeable and boring. I really struggled to finish this book.”

In my younger days I would have been depressed for weeks after reading a review like that. Now I am more philosophical, reminding myself that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. All the previous novels that I put through the giveaway programme received 4 or 5 star ratings, and I can’t believe this latest one is so much worse than the rest. I do wonder whether someone who has to “struggle to finish a book” would do better to abandon it and move on to something they enjoy reading – this is my own policy now, and I don’t write a review unless I can say something positive.

So, my latest giveaway has backfired as a marketing method – or has it? A day or two after that damning review was published, a little peak in sales of both Fatal Feverfew and some of my other books showed up online. Maybe this proves the truth of the saying that there’s no such thing as bad publicity.

Here are some suggestions about how to cope with bad reviews.

Reflections on self-publishing from Margaret River

I spent last weekend in Margaret River, a small town south of Perth in Western Australia, at an informal reunion meeting for doctors from Oxford UK who now live in the Antipodes. Besides visiting some local vineyards, beaches, and limestone caves, most of us gave short talks to the group. Mine was on a non-medical topic – a basic overview of self-publishing. The content was not specific to doctors, but relevant to aspiring “indie authors” from any profession, so I’ll summarise it here.

First a brief personal background. Back in the 80s and 90s it was easy enough to find a traditional publisher for books about my medical specialty. I wrote or edited eight titles for academic publishers in the UK, and was sometimes even invited to produce new ones. It therefore came as a humiliating shock when my first novel was met with a series of rejection letters – some polite and encouraging but others not. After a particularly painful rebuff I gave up for many years. Then, when the self-publishing movement came on stream, I retrieved my faded typewritten manuscripts from the boxes where they had languished for so long and started revising them, as well as writing new ones. I have now become an indie author with eight titles to date, published as print-on-demand (POD) versions with Amazon CreateSpace, and as e-books on Smashwords and Amazon Kindle.

While so-called “vanity publishing” used to be expensive and stigmatized, now in the digital age self-publishing has become acceptable and affordable. So much so that everyone seems to be doing it – thousands of new books are self-published every day. A few, most famously Fifty Shades of Grey, are highly successful but most sell only a few copies. Those who embark on indie authorship in the hope of financial profit are therefore likely to be disappointed but there are many other rewards, as well as some potential pitfalls.

Besides writing the best possible content, indie authors have to deal with all the other aspects of the publishing process, although rather than do everything yourself you can employ some of the many freelance experts who can be found online. Editing and copy-editing are essential and I would strongly recommend that besides carefully checking the text yourself you ask several other people, whether professionals or honest friends, to point out the typos and mistakes in continuity that are almost always present. Formatting the text properly requires some technical expertise, and while some self-publishing platforms will accept whatever is submitted to them, others have strict formatting requirements. Uploading the completed text from a PC or Mac to your chosen online platform(s) is usually easy to do.

The following points are relevant for marketing purposes. Cover design is important because a split-second glance at the thumbnail image is often the basis on which potential readers will decide whether or not to “look inside” the book. Writing an enticing blurb, and choosing the most suitable categories and key words, will also help to attract readers. As regards pricing, the option of offering your e-books free of charge is undoubtedly the best way to obtain plenty of downloads but, unless your motive is to inform and uplift your readers rather than make a profit, giving away any more than a 20% sample would seem to devalue all the work which goes into their creation.

Self-publishing has both pros and cons when contrasted with the traditional route. Indie authors are assured of publication and have the freedom to control most aspects of the process. They have the flexibility to write books of almost any length, in any category or cross-genre. Publication can be complete in a few days or even a few hours. POD books and e-books need never go out of print or be remaindered. But the process is perhaps too easy, and the downside is that lack of independent quality control has led to a glut of mediocre books, meaning that many of the good ones are overlooked, and downgrading the status of indie authorship.

Many indie authors would say that having to handle their own marketing is the hardest and least enjoyable part of their work. They prefer to spend their time and energy on actual writing; feel diffident about promoting themselves; and be unsure how to go about it. But it has to be done and there are numerous methods available, for example:

Family and friends: tell your personal contacts about your book, and invite them to pass the information to their own circles. Some will be supportive, but others will not be interested to read it, or may not like it if they do.

Email signature: add a link to the book’s website to your personal email signature.

Social media: such as Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin.

Newsletter: hosted by a service such as Mailchimp.

Blog: the content does not have to relate directly to the book – someone who recently read my blog about cats emailed to tell me that she went on to buy a few of my medical titles.

Reviews: send free copies to selected book bloggers and media, but be aware they are overwhelmed with requests and may not respond.

Author pages: set up a profile on Amazon and other platforms.

Printed fliers or bookmarks: to give away at events, or through local libraries or cafes.

Presentations to groups

Online forums: discussion groups, such as those on Linkedin, relating to writing and/or to the subject-matter of your book.

Paid adverts and publicity campaigns: though expensive, these are not always effective.

Luck undoubtedly plays a part in determining which of the books in this supersaturated market will succeed in terms of sales. But even if you do not sell many copies it is satisfying to have your finished product “out there” and to have learned some new skills along the way.

This was quite a long post, but has only provided a highly condensed overview of the self-publishing process. More detail of my own take on how to enjoy being an indie author can be found in my short e-book Wellbeing for Writers.

Cover W4W

“Letting go of the outcome” for writers

My earlier books were published in the traditional way. My own role was limited to writing the text and checking the proofs. I knew nothing about marketing, and was content to wait for the royalty cheques to arrive once or twice a year. Those early books sold well anyway, because they had a ready-made market in medical circles.

How different things are today, when the ease of independent publishing has resulted in a vast number of new books. Even traditional publishing firms now expect authors to promote their own work. While some books still achieve high sales, the majority sell only a few copies. Self-published writers are bombarded with advice on marketing and many spend huge time and effort, and sometimes a great deal of money, practising the recommended strategies with only modest success. They often become frustrated; feeling uncomfortable with the concept of self-promotion, resenting the time and energy spent on marketing instead of actual writing, unable to resist obsessionally checking their sales figures online.

Maybe it would be better to follow the advice of the spiritual gurus and self-help experts who teach about the Law of Attraction. These principles, of course, apply in all aspects of life besides writing. In summary: Do what you love, focus on what you want rather than what you don’t want, visualise the desired results, and cultivate the positive emotions you would feel if they had already materialised. Take practical steps when required, but don’t struggle to achieve your goals. If you intuitively feel you are on the right path don’t be diverted by outside criticism, by your need for approval, or by your hope of financial reward. Instead of trying to control the exact nature and timing of the outcome by conscious effort, do your own part as best you can, and then hand the process over to the wisdom of the unseen forces which you may choose to call Spirit, the Universe, Fate, or God.

These powers work in mysterious ways. Many times in my own life, I have found that the result of actions I have taken is different from what I had expected or hoped for – and even if disappointing in the short term, it has often turned out for the best later on. Having the publishing contract for Persons not Diseases fall through at the last minute was the temporary setback which gave me the stimulus to explore the new world of  indie publishing. Conversely, sometimes the desired outcome does materialise but in unexpected ways. Last week I sold several books not as a result of deliberate marketing, but through chatting to some people at a party, and through writing a blog post about cats.

As regards timing, we may want and expect quick results, but with modern publishing technology – ebooks, and print on demand paperbacks – books can easily be updated and need never go out of print. Some of those which did not do well after their first release will go on to become late bloomers. But even those which never sell many copies will have been worthwhile if their authors benefited from the process of writing them, and just a few people benefited from reading them. After all, with rare exceptions, authors never hear from the readers whose lives have been touched by their books.

Trust in the Law of Attraction needs to be balanced with practical action. I have recently set up a Mailchimp newsletter which will come out just two or three times a year with details of any new books I have written, or any special offers. If you would like to sign up to receive it, please click on the link http://eepurl.com/325yj or paste it into your browser.

 

My experience with a Goodreads Giveaway

I’ve just completed my first ‘Goodreads Giveaway’. My experience may be of interest to new indie authors who are looking for ways of marketing their books.

Goodreads.com is an Amazon-related site for both readers and writers. Giveaways, which are only for printed books and not for ebooks, work like a lottery. The author undertakes to send out a certain number of copies, interested readers apply to receive one, and the winners are selected by Goodreads. It is up to the author to choose how many copies to offer, how long to run the promotion, and which countries of the world to include.

I did a week-long promotion, offering five copies of my novella Carmen’s Roses to readers in the US or UK. I was pleased to find that about 500 people entered the draw, and about 250 added my book to their ‘want to read’ shelf. My book is a print on demand title, published through CreateSpace. I sent out the books to the winners as ‘gifts’ from the Amazon website, because this was a faster and cheaper option than having them shipped to my home in New Zealand and then shipping them back to America. One of the winners has already posted a 5-star review, and seven paid copies of the book were ordered during the promotion period – hopefully there are more reviews and sales to come.

This venture has not made any financial profit so far, and I have realised in retrospect that I would probably have got just as many entries if I had offered just one copy instead of five. However, although I tend to be phobic about marketing, I found it quite interesting and enjoyable. It has provided some free advertising and, because I am able to view the profiles of the people who requested my book, given me access to demographic information which may be useful for targeting any future marketing campaigns.

I know that other authors have reported different outcomes from their free promotions – some much better than mine and others much worse. My own results have confirmed what is probably obvious, that the easiest way to reach a large readership is to offer free books, but that free promotions do not necessarily lead on to more paid sales. This is also what I have found when running free promotions of ebooks on Smashwords and on Amazon kdp. Although for reasons discussed in a previous post I am still reluctant to make all my work free, I have just started another Goodreads Giveaway of my novella, which is set in New Zealand, for local readers. This will obviously attract less interest, because New Zealand has only a small population and Goodreads is not so well known here, so anyone who enters should have a high chance of winning! For details, click here.

Choosing the title for a book

A good title is perhaps even more important than a good cover image for marketing purposes.

For my own books, I usually write a first draft of the text before giving serious attention to the title. I make a list of possibilities, look them up on Google to see whether they have been used before or contain any unsuitable double entendres, and may ask some friends for their opinions before reaching a final decision.

Here are some questions to consider when choosing a title.

Is it relevant? There is something to be said for factual titles which clearly indicate what the book is about: Murder on the Orient Express, Seven Years in Tibet or A Street Cat Named Bob are good examples because they sound interesting as well as being informative. More subtle and abstract titles sometimes work extremely well: Gone with the Wind, Heart of Darkness, Catch-22, A Clockwork Orange. But a book with a title which has little relation to its content may escape the notice of potential readers; and even those who have read and enjoyed it may have forgotten its name by the time they want to find it again.

Is it easy to remember and locate? Long titles, and those containing words which are difficult to spell, can be difficult to discover online or to reproduce accurately, so are best avoided. Short snappy titles, including single-word ones, which easily ‘trip off the tongue’ are more memorable and can be very effective.

Is it eye-catching and distinctive? Years ago I picked up a book called Excuse me, your life is waiting because the combination of its quirky title and garish cover made me curious to see just how ghastly the content would be. In fact I really liked this book, which introduced me to the Abraham-Hicks teachings on the Law of Attraction. A title which is different, even slightly outrageous, will stand out from the rest.

Is it intelligent? In this category I would include titles such as Enigma and The Path to Rome, which have both literal and metaphorical meanings. But not all writers can hope to find such clever titles, and not all readers will understand their ambiguity.

Has it been used already? There is no copyright on titles, so it is not unusual to find several different books with the same name. Personally I always prefer to choose something original, which is why the novella I am currently writing will not be called Bomber’s Moon.

A subtitle, used mainly for non-fiction, provides further scope for summarising the content of a book, distinguishing it from others with the same main title, and increasing its visibility to search engines.

Judging a book by its cover

Although it may be true that ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover’, it is often just a split-second glance at the cover image which decides a potential reader whether or not to look inside.

A good cover is one that immediately attracts attention of an appropriate kind. ‘A picture tells a thousand words’ but these may be different words for different people. This is illustrated by the so-called ‘Gestalt’ images which can be seen in two ways: a face or a vase, a young woman or an old witch. Elsewhere I’ve described a bad experience when I showed a picture of a trapeze artist during one of my talks; this was intended to represent courage and joy, but one member of the audience thought it was a woman hanging herself.

Does your chosen cover image accord with the content of the book, and convey the corresponding mood of adventure, mystery, romance or relaxation? Colours are important, and all colours have psychological qualities, which can be modified by the shades and combinations chosen. Red, orange and yellow are usually stimulating; green, pinks and blue are calming; violet and indigo are spiritual. Cultural background affects the interpretation, for example in my own European tradition the colour of mourning is black, but in various other parts of the world it is white, purple, yellow, blue or grey. 

The lettering on the book cover needs to be reasonably large and clear, otherwise the title and the name of the author will not be legible from the thumbnail image often used on computer screens.

The cover image for the ebook version of my recent book Persons not diseases on Smashwords was designed with professional help. I was pleased with it, but when it came to self-publishing the same book in paperback on Amazon CreateSpace – the first time I had used this system – uploading the existing image was beyond my limited computing skills, so I opted for making a brand new one with the easy-to-use templates provided. The two covers are completely different – personally I like them both, but would be interested in readers’ comments about which they prefer. You can view the Smashwords one here and the Amazon one here.

Why many writers don’t like marketing

Like most authors I know, I feel more comfortable with writing books than promoting them. But I realise that publishing a book, and then making little effort to market it, is a bit like giving birth to a baby and then failing to look after it properly. To continue this analogy, just as pregnant mothers need good nutrition to help protect their children’s future health, experts recommend that authors need to start marketing their books several months before publication.

Marketing is essential to make your own book stand out from all the many other competing titles, especially if it is self-published. So why do so many of us find the process daunting, or have negative perceptions towards it?  I think there are three main reasons:

1. You regard your work on the book as complete. After putting so much time and effort into writing and publishing it, you are (hopefully) proud of the finished result, but also perhaps feel rather tired of the whole thing. You would like to start on the next book, or to do something completely different from writing, rather than  focus on marketing. But in this situation it is not enough to visualise high sales and then ‘let go of the outcome’; you need to take practical action to get your book noticed and reviewed.

2, You feel diffident about putting your book forward. You may fear being rejected, criticised or ignored. If you were brought up to be modest about your achievements, you may feel there is something ‘not quite nice’ about marketing, that it smacks too much of self-promotion. It may help to think about the process as being about your book rather than about you as a person, and to remember that no readers will be able to enjoy or benefit from your writing unless they know of its existence.

3. You do not know how to do it. Many writers do not have a business background or any training in sales and marketing techniques. But there is a huge amount of free guidance online, as well as a variety of paid courses. These suggest many different methods of marketing, to suit different personalities. Some writers enjoy giving public talks or taking copies along to bookshops and meetings, whereas others would rather develop their websites and blogs or take advantage of easy-to-use platforms such as an Amazon author page – you can see mine here. There are professional agencies which will mount a campaign on your behalf, but my own single experience with this method proved an expensive failure, and so for my latest book Persons not Diseases I am tackling the marketing myself.

Free e-books?

I’ve now self-published four ebooks on Smashwords. I decided to make one of them, which is a short guide to Bach flower remedies, free of charge and not surprisingly this has ‘sold’ far more copies than any of the other three which cost just $2.99 USD each.

Now that there is so much free material available on-line it is understandable that many people are reluctant to pay for ebooks. Would you be well advised to make yours free? There are various pros and cons.

Free ebooks could be a good idea for some writers, for example those who simply want as many readers as possible and do not care about making money. Or, if you wrote your book with the aim of helping others in need or mainly for the interest of your family and friends, you may feel it would be inappropriate to accept payment for it. Even if you are more commercially inclined, you may consider giving away one of your ebooks as a ‘loss leader’ in the hope of getting your name more widely known and encouraging sales of your other work.

On the other hand there are several reasons for charging. As one of the many part-time writers whose main income comes from other sources I don’t need or expect to make any significant profit from my books, but I do feel it is reasonable to want some financial return for all the work which goes into them, and to cover expenses. Although self-publishing is much cheaper than it used to be there are costs involved for formatting, editing, cover design and marketing, whether you employ expert help for these aspects or acquire the skills and equipment to manage them yourself. Then there are the ‘opportunity costs’ incurred by spending time on writing rather than paid work. It seems bizarre that when I was in clinical practice I could earn more from a one-hour consultation with a client than from a book which took literally thousands of hours to write.

While there are many excellent free ebooks available, the quality of others is very poor. Some writers, perhaps without realising it, feel that if they are not going to charge for their book it is alright to take a casual approach towards content, grammar, spelling and layout, instead of aiming to make it ‘the best it can be’.  I believe that if the self-publishing of ebooks is to be valued as a respectable undertaking with high professional standards, new writers should usually put a price on their work.

Lastly, ‘people value what they pay for’. Many free ebooks get downloaded, but I wonder how often they are actually read.