Classifying crime fiction

The crime fiction genre is a broad field which includes multiple sub-genres: old-style country house murder mysteries, police procedurals, courtroom dramas,  psychological thrillers, location-based books such as Scandinavian or Scottish noir, and more. The emphasis nowadays is often on character and psychology rather than solving “whodunnit” puzzles, and there is an increasing overlap with general or literary fiction.

The classification of such books on Amazon is a great deal more complicated than the above descriptions might suggest. Many of the self-published authors I know are uncomfortable with internet marketing, or would rather spend their time on actual writing than on studying this aspect. But unless they know how to select categories and keywords wisely, their books will have little chance of being discovered by new readers. Having found it a challenge to use the system myself, I am writing this post to summarise my understanding of how it works. The following information will be too basic for experienced writers but may be useful for beginners. My examples relate to crime fiction but similar principles apply for any other genre. Plenty of more detailed advice can be found online.

Authors setting up their book descriptions on kdp (Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing) will be asked to select up to seven keywords. These can be either single terms or short phrases, and should be as specific to the content of the book as possible. There are certain rules regarding the choice of keywords, as explained below. Then they are presented with a list of categories corresponding to the BISAC (Book Industry Standards and Communications) system. They can select two categories from this list, and except for books that clearly belong to a specific sub-genre it is advisable to choose two different ones. For crime fiction, at least one of these would probably be “Crime” “Mystery and Detective” or “Thrillers”. Some books could also be put into other categories, for example “Family Life”. Again, is advisable to be as specific as possible by using the smaller subcategories as well as the main ones.

The chosen combination of keywords and BISAC categories will be used by Amazon to decide where to place the book in their system of “browse categories”, which number several thousand. A selection of these will be shown to potential readers who are searching the website for books of interest to them. For example, when I look on my computer for my favourite genre of “domestic noir”, a list of 20 other categories – 10 for books and 10 for Kindle – comes up on the left side of the screen.

Some categories have keyword requirements, for example a book will not be assigned to “Mystery, Thriller & Suspense/Mystery/Cozy/Culinary” unless one of the terms “food” “cook” or “bake” is included as a keyword. See this link for a full list of these regulations. Authors can email Amazon staff through Author Central to ask for their books to be placed in certain categories. There are minor variations between Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and revisions are continually being made.  

I also publish my ebooks on Smashwords.com which uses a simpler system. The categories “Mystery & Detective” and “Thriller & Suspense” each have five subdivisions. “Crime” can be found as a subcategory under “Themes and Motifs”.

The good news for self-published authors who find this topic daunting is that they can change their categories and keywords as often as they wish. It is therefore possible to experiment with what combinations are most successful, as measured by Amazon sales rankings – shown on Author Central pages, or at the bottom of the product description for each book – or better still by actual sales. But the field is so competitive that few unknown authors will achieve much success through optimal categorisation alone, and will need to use additional methods of marketing.

 

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

Wellbeing for Writers

I’m pleased to announce that my little ebook Wellbeing for Writers is now available from Amazon Kindle, Smashwords and other online sites.

Born out of my long experience as a part-time author alongside former careers in psychological medicine, life coaching and Bach flower therapy, this is a guide about how to maximise the satisfactions and minimise the frustrations which often arise while writing, publishing and marketing a book. Topics include structuring the process, finding inspiration, maintaining physical and mental health, coping with criticism, aligning personal values with writing, and more.

While mainly focused on the psychology of authorship, it also includes plenty of tips about the basic practicalities.

Most of the content is available for free on this blog … but for a nominal cost you can read it combined in one volume, rearranged in a logical order, and revised and updated throughout.

Please have a look on Amazon or Smashwords, and forward this to any of the aspiring authors among your circle of contacts.

cover-w4w

 

Turning a blog into a book

Having covered quite a wide selection of topics on this blog, I decided to combine some of the posts into a short ebook.

Turning a blog into a book would be quite an easy project for a writer who had started off with that aim in mind, and planned out the topics of the posts in advance. A non-fiction example is the cookery blog which formed the basis of the book Julie and Julia, and of the film with the same name. The method can also be used for fiction, as the modern equivalent of the Victorian fashion of serialising the chapters of a novel in a magazine before publishing it as a whole. It gives the writer the option of making changes to the book as it develops, in response to comments from readers.

The contents of this blog were not planned out in advance, and if I had used one of the paid services which can handle the technical aspects of “booking a blog”, the result would have been a hopeless muddle. My posts were written in random order rather than in any logical sequence, and there was some overlap of content between them. Adapting them into a book involved a great deal more editing than I expected. But I have finished it now and I hope the resulting ebook, called Wellbeing for Writers, will be published this week.

Quality vs Quantity

Indie authors are often advised to “keep adding new content” by publishing three or four new titles per year, as well as writing frequent posts on their blogs and social networking sites among other marketing activities. There may be a commercial justification for this – “the more books you have published, the more you are likely to sell” – but is it in the best interests of the profession in the long term?

Few writers can really have enough talent, or time, to generate such a large output without compromising the standard of their work. The market is already flooded with self-published books, many of which are poorly written and edited and contain recycled material. As a result some of the more excellent and original ones, which deserve to be widely read and have the potential to become classics, are easily overlooked.

It’s wonderful to see so many opportunities for today’s indie authors to get their work “out there”, but the process is so easy and affordable that it is tempting to use it too casually. “Keep on writing” is certainly sound advice for those wanting to develop their skills, but “keep on publishing” may not be.

Having said all this, I admit that I published three books of my own in 2014 and have another coming out soon. However, they had been many years in gestation, and I won’t be continuing with this rate of production.

Reviving forgotten manuscripts

Although the market continues to be flooded with self-published books, I understand that the torrent is slowing down. Maybe this is because, having realised that indie authorship does not provide an easy path to best-seller status, many less committed writers are giving up. Another reason could be that the backlog of old manuscripts, which had been rejected for traditional publication but can now be published by authors themselves, is starting to clear. Having taught myself the basic ropes by self-publishing Persons not Diseases and my trilogy of Three Novellas I am now looking at reviving my own backlog.

The first adult novel I ever wrote is over thirty years old. I recently rescued its faded typescript from the drawer where it has been languishing all this time, and have been converting it to electronic format. It is a gently satirical mystery / romance set in an English mental asylum in the 1980s, and in many ways it describes a forgotten world, for so many aspects of life have changed. Today’s readers may find it hard to believe that, for example, staff used to smoke and drink on duty, did not have computers or mobile phones, or that orders from male doctors were so readily obeyed by nurses and patients alike. Parts of the text seem quite embarrassing or outrageous to my more sedate older self – should I defer to political correctness and tone them down? Should I publish the book at all?

Even after all these years it is difficult for me to look objectively at this first novel, remembering so clearly as I do the passionate enthusiasm with which I wrote it and my bitter disappointment when a series of rejection letters arrived in the post. I am hoping that a few trusted people will agree to read it and give me some kind but honest feedback.

Discounts and giveaways?

I have mixed feelings about self-published books being given away free of charge. This practice seems to devalue all the hard work of their authors, and can perpetuate the belief that they are inferior to books from traditional publishers. Although a free ebook will usually get far more downloads than one which carries a price tag, many of these will be from undiscerning readers who are not really interested in the content and may never even look at it at all. But in some circumstances, offering free books is worthwhile.

Some of the authors who write about self-help, educational or spiritual topics have altruistic motives, and would rather reach the widest possible audience than make any money. My little Bach flower book, which has always been free, continues to get thousands of downloads per year.

Turning to the profit motive, free books can be a “loss leader” to promote sales of other titles. This easy-to-use method of marketing is particularly recommended in the case of a series; readers who download the first one for free, and enjoy it, may go on to purchase the later ones too. For the reasons given above I am reluctant to use this strategy, though I may change my mind one day. But when sales of my own fiction books were flagging after Christmas, I decided to experiment with reducing their prices: currently the three novellas are just 0.99 USD each, and the box set is 2.99 USD. Details can be found on my Smashwords and Amazon author pages.

A variant of free promotion which I do like using is the Goodreads Giveaway programme, in which the print version of my Three Novellas will be included until 11th March. ( Click here to enter the draw for a free copy.) Winners in this programme are encouraged to post reviews on the Goodreads site, and they often do – hopefully these will be positive reviews, though even negative ones are better for publicity purposes than none at all.

Lastly, there is the option of sending free copies to journals and book blogs for review. One of the things I miss from my traditional publishing days is having this done for me, and I have only just started to explore it in my indie publishing career. I know that many professional reviewers are overwhelmed with submissions and cannot deal with them all, so I prefer to approach those who will accept ebooks. Sending out print copies without any promise of a response can prove a costly and futile exercise.