How Not to Write a Book Description

Book descriptions are important, whether short ones in ad copy, or long ones on product pages. They need to hook the reader quickly, or they’ll just move on. Let’s start with a test. Which of the following is the best choice to start a book description?

  1. The new book from the Goldfish Today bestselling author of Koi Polloi.
  2. With nearly seventy-four 6-star reviews on GreatReads …
  3. “The best paranormal cooking book I’ve read this week.” — Ima Foodcritic
  4. Buy this book or I will slay you and all of your kin.

The first two come across as bragging. That will repulse some readers (including me). The third is citing a positive review of the book, but how does the reader know it’s legitimate? Or relevant? The fourth is a joke, but it probably would cause a reader to read more of the description. Here’s the bottom line: A book description should first and foremost describe the book. If it starts with anything else, then it is failing its purpose and probably hurting sales.

Am I an expert at writing book descriptions? No. I just rewrote the description of my first book and have no idea if it’s really an improvement.

Writing book descriptions is something that every writer struggles with and frets about. There are endless people offering advice or even offering to write them for you. And endless philosophies on how best to write them. There is no one right answer.

You didn’t ask, but here is my advice:

  • Describe what the book is about without spoiling the plot.
  • Keep it simple. No excessively-long sentences or obscure words.
  • Keep it friendly. Address the reader if that seems appropriate.
  • Use humor only if it’s appropriate.
  • Provide useful information, such as if the book is on Kindle Unlimited.
  • If you must brag or cite reviews, do it at the very end.

And there you have it. Now buy my books or I will slay you and all of your kin. 🙂

Is Traditional Publishing Dying?

Please excuse the clickbait title, but this is a serious issue. Entire industries have been created, transformed, or destroyed by changes in technology. Media companies in particular have been severely affected as physical forms of media give way to digital forms. Resistance to change is natural, but ultimately counter-productive. It is the companies that adapt and evolve that will continue to prosper.

“Traditional book publishers refuse to acknowledge that they no longer control what people read.”

This statement paraphrases one that I heard during an indie author podcast, and it rings true. We are no longer limited to books produced by traditional publishers. Or to what a bookstore or library decides is worth stocking. Bestseller lists have become all but meaningless. Most book shopping is now online, and digital books have become dominant.

In the past, self-publishing a book was both difficult and expensive. Few people attempted it, and most ended up with cartons full of unsold books. Now, self-publishing is both simple and inexpensive. It’s so easy that many people can do it with little or no outside assistance. These days, anyone can publish nearly anything. Indie authors now churn out huge numbers of new books each year—far more than are produced by traditional publishers.

I know what you’re thinking. Most of what indie authors produce is badly-written crap. I agree. But some of it is of excellent quality. Furthermore, traditionals aren’t immune to this problem. They continue to sign authors whose books go nowhere. Established authors often produce lousy books, especially if they are being pressured by their publisher to meet deadlines. As further evidence, consider that even today 70% of physical books end up being trashed—remaindered, in bookstore parlance. From what I can tell, publishers are no better at identifying talent today than they were in the past. The smart ones, in fact, now look for successful indie authors to sign.

The truth is that many of the services that publishers offer authors are now readily available for purchase. You can hire someone to proofread or to edit. You can find artists that specialize in book covers. You can find people to do marketing and promotion. It’s obviously not as good as getting an advance for writing a book and then having other people deal with all those things, but it’s also not exactly easy to find a publisher willing to sign you. Or who won’t abandon you if your first book bombs.

Another sign of impending doom are the insane ebook prices that many traditional publishers set. These prices are frequently higher than the paper version. It’s an attempt to prop up their dying print business, and a very foolish one. What they are actually doing is helping the indie authors. Someone upset with the ebook price of the latest Dan Brown thriller may simply start looking for authors who write similar books. And in all likelihood they will find at least one indie author whose books are sufficiently interesting, as well as being much less expensive.

As a final proof, I offer another statistic: Roughly 80% of the authors who have risen to prominence in the last five years have been indie authors. In other words, indie authors are taking over the market. Readers are finding far more indie works they like than traditionally-published ones.

A deal with a traditional publisher remains the ultimate goal for many authors, and there is nothing wrong with that. There will always be some traditional publishers, as well as other options such as crowd-funded publishing. And new forms will likely emerge. It’s a new publishing world now, and an exciting one.

The 2017 Tennessee Writing Workshop

I would like to share a few of my thoughts on the 2017 Tennessee Writing Workshop. It was held on July 22, 2017 in Franklin, TN (just south of Nashville). This was my first time attending something like this. The event featured a number of established authors sharing their wisdom. Also present were a number of publishing agents, eager to hear pitches from aspiring authors and give advice.

First, let me compliment the people who planned and ran the event. From what I could tell, everything went very smoothly. People were always on hand to answer questions or provide guidance. The only complaints I heard involved the scheduling. Some people found themselves with two simultaneous sessions that they really wanted to attend, but parallel sessions are the norm. There was also grumbling about having to skip out of sessions for pitches or critiques, but I’m not sure if there’s a way around that particular problem.

Being older and semi-retired, I was worried that the workshop might be filled with younger people that I didn’t fit in with. In fact, there were people ranging from teenage to older than myself. And age really didn’t matter. The important thing is that we were all writers seeking to improve our craft.

I did end up standing out to some extent because of my complete lack of interest in traditional publishing. Most people were there at least partly so that they could pitch their work to agents. I definitely admire and respect those seeking recognition by a publisher, but it’s just not for me. One of the sessions I attended included an excellent discussion of the pros and cons of traditional vs. self-publishing.

One thing that I was really looking forward to was a critique of my own work. C.J. Redwine, an established author of science fiction and fantasy, reviewed the first ten pages of my soon-to-be-published book, The Witch’s City. During our ten minute discussion, she was both complimentary and critical, just as I had hoped. The good news is that she very much liked my opening scene and writing style. I am already at work addressing the issues that she pointed out.

The sessions I attended were all interesting, and they have certainly given me a great deal to think about. I don’t necessarily agree with all of the advice that was given, but that’s fine. There is no one correct way to write as far as style.

Will I attend the 2018 version of this event? Almost certainly. But if the sessions are largely the same, I may simply participate as a volunteer. Either way I will be able to engage with other writers, and that is what counts.

To KU, or not to KU. That is the question.

“KU” is short for Kindle Unlimited. It is a monthly subscription service that Amazon offers for ebooks. For a flat fee, the subscriber has access to a huge number of Kindle ebooks in a variety of genres with no limits on how many can be read per month. But not all Kindle ebooks are included in KU, and there are strict requirements. KU has both advantages and disadvantages, particularly for indie authors like myself.

Requirements: To be available in KU, an ebook must be enrolled in KDP Select, which makes it exclusive to Amazon. It can’t be offered on another retailer site or even on the author’s own website. The enrollment period is 90 days and auto-renews by default. The book price must be in the range of $2.99 to $9.99 (U.S.).

Features: In addition to royalties from ebook sales, royalties are also paid to the author based on the number of pages read by KU subscribers. (From what I can tell, a “page” is about 200 words.) During each enrollment period, a book can be offered as a countdown deal or made free for up to five days.

My first book, Audrey of Farmerton, has been enrolled in KDP Select for nearly a year now, and the sequel, The Witch’s City, will be enrolled as well for at least the first 90 days. In my experience, countdown deals are utterly worthless. Making the book free, however, can be an effective way to get it into the hands of more potential readers, especially if you make an effort to advertise it. You won’t earn any royalties that way, but a successful free book promotion can result in increased sales and KU reads afterward. In fact, I’m seeing that right now from my last promotion.

Only recently have I realized that I make more money if someone reads my book through KU than if they purchase the ebook! The reason for this is that my book is an actual fantasy novel, not a novella or just a section of a longer work.

So how does one decide? As with many things, there is no one right answer. Some people claim that your book has to be widely available and that KU is unnecessary. But there are authors solely on Amazon who are making a nice living off of KU. My advice would be to experiment and see what works best for you. Happy writing.

Quantity vs. Quality

Is it better to produce a large number of mediocre books or a small number of well-written ones? The answer, surprisingly, depends primarily on the author’s goal. If the goal is money, then quantity is the way to go. Book series can entice people to continue to purchase an author’s works. It also helps to write in multiple genres and to target underserved genres. If, on the other hand, the goal is to be considered a great author, it’s probably better to prioritize quality and hope you get recognized.

One thing that had puzzled me was how some indie authors are able to be so prolific. I recently heard one brag that he had written an entire trilogy in twelve weeks. Was he lying? No, but he was being somewhat deceptive. It’s common practice for some authors to write a normal length book and then break it into several parts. They are either published simultaneously or in rapid succession, and each is touted as a separate book. The first “book” is generally either free or 99 cents, while the others are priced higher. This is a clever technique to generate more revenue. It also helps to explain the insane number of self-published books. The only real downside is the necessity of creating more covers.

After realizing this, I wondered if I should do something similar. I could pull Audrey of Farmerton, break it into three chunks, commission more covers, and then proudly publish it as a trilogy. And just like that, I’ve written three books instead of one! And I’ve nearly got three more done! Hurray! Before long I’ll be able to produce a single poorly-written “book” in less than a month!

Joking aside, I am not going to go down the quantity path. My goal isn’t to become rich off of writing. I want my books to be the best I can make them, and I want them to actually be books. That means a low production rate, but I’m fine with that.

Five Star Blog Post!

On sites that sell books (and other things), reviews are usually accompanied by a star rating, typically ranging from one (worst) to five (best). But if you start looking at the distribution of star ratings, it often looks odd. This, I think, is what led Netflix to announce that they are abandoning star ratings for simpler “thumbs up” or “thumbs down” feedback.

Star ratings tend to cluster at the two extremes for a variety of reasons. Some books are polarizing, resulting in readers who either love it or hate it. Reviews are more likely to be written by people with strong opinions that they want to share. The end result is an odd distribution of ratings, typically with relatively few lower than four stars. If you think about it, this makes sense. People rarely buy books blindly. They may be buying because they are already familiar with (and like) the author. Or it may have been recommended by a trusted friend. Or perhaps they read an excerpt first before committing to the purchase. In any event, most books are purchased with the expectation that the reader will enjoy them.

In an ideal world, the ratings would be objective and the reviews fair. Only great works of literature would receive five star ratings. In reality, star ratings represent people’s opinions and biases. Five stars means they really liked it, and probably not that it’s one of the best books ever written. One star might indicate a badly-written book, or it might simply indicate that the reader didn’t like the style of writing or hated the ending. Or maybe they’re just a troll. 🙂

Amazon’s Braindead Review Policy

In October of 2016, Amazon reacted to accusations of posting biased reviews by making a significant change to their review policy. The goal was to eliminate reviews that were incentivized in some manner, particularly those provided in exchange for receiving a free or discounted item. And this included book reviews. The way that Amazon implemented this change was to summarily remove any review that contained a disclaimer indicating possible bias, and then to ban the reviewer. If this approach seems reasonable to you, then think again. Allow me to illustrate that the new policy not only doesn’t work, but has actually made things worse.

Consider two buyers—Alpha and Beta. Both receive a free item (which might simply be an ebook) in exchange for agreeing to post a review. Note that they have not promised to write a favorable review. Alpha is honest, and includes a disclaimer with the posted review. Beta simply posts a review without revealing the possible bias. In the past, Amazon would have left both reviews up. Now, they key on disclaimers, so Alpha’s review would be removed, while Beta’s less honest review remains. In other words, Amazon’s reviews are now, on average, less trustworthy, because dishonesty is rewarded while honesty results in punishment. The incentivized reviews are still there, but they are now impossible to recognize.

I ended up being caught out by this. I had just self-published my first book and had asked friends and family to post reviews. Because I am an honest person, I suggested that they might include a disclaimer that they knew the author. The ones that did had their reviews summarily deleted by Amazon.

So learn from my mistake. Tell your reviewers to be dishonest, because that allows Amazon to feel better about itself. 🙂

How important is a book’s title?

The topic of this post is something that concerned me as I began to write my first novel. “Audrey of Farmerton” doesn’t exactly sound exciting, or make it clear that it’s a fantasy. (Adding a series title, “Book One of Andoran’s Realm” in this case, does help some in my opinion.) I tried to think of a better title, but failed miserably. People I asked about it kept telling me they liked the title. Eventually, I just gave up and went with it. After all, the main character is named Audrey, and she’s from a small village called Farmerton, so the title is, at least, not misleading. The second book will be called “The Witch’s City”, and that sounds more like a fantasy novel.

(“Farmerton” turned out to be fairly unique despite its obvious origin of “Farmer Town”. The only real place by that name that I could find is in Scotland. Unique is, of course, good when it comes to people searching for a book by its title.)

Some people are adamant that a book’s title be clear as to the subject matter. For example, Murder on the Orient Express makes it clear that it’s a murder mystery set on a train. But many fiction titles aren’t so clear. I doubt that when Moby Dick was published, if any of its initial readers knew what is was about. Rebecca is a classic work of literature, but the title doesn’t really tell you anything. And, despite the title, To Kill a Mockingbird is not a guide to how to hunt mockingbirds.

The point I am trying to make is that the title doesn’t always have to be transparent. On the other hand, given the shear number of books now being self-published, it can certainly be argued that the title should be informative, because prospective readers may not even take the time to do more than read the title and glance at the cover (which may only be a small thumbnail image). This is especially important for beginning authors as they struggle to get noticed and build a following.

This is a Bestselling Post!

In this exciting post, I will argue why I think the term “bestseller” no longer has any meaning.

Long ago, in a much simpler publishing world, describing a book as a bestseller actually meant something. Specifically, it implied that the book had been listed as one of the  top-selling books by a respected publication, such as The New York Times. The ranking was typically based on sales for a one-week period, and there were only a small number of very broad categories, e.g. “fiction”. These books were often featured prominently in bookstores. Actually, they still might be, but who goes to a bookstore these days?

Now consider the following: An author writes a novel and self-publishes it as an ebook on Amazon (or some other similar site). The author runs a promotion in which the book is free for a few days, and they advertise the living hell out of it. Lots and lots of people “buy” the book, and for a brief period it ranks in the top ten of its incredibly narrow and highly-specific category, for example “coming of age, zombie techno-westerns”. (Okay, I just made that up.) From then on, the author proudly brags to anyone that will listen that their novel is a bestseller, and even adds that claim to the cover. Woohoo!

I wish that the previous paragraph was fiction, but sadly it’s not. There are an incredible number of people that no one has ever heard of now claiming to be “bestselling authors”. They’re everywhere. There are even businesses that guarantee to make your book a bestseller, and measure their success as described above. It’s actually rather sad if you think about it. It would be far better to write a book that actually sells well based on its merits.

In conclusion, the term “bestseller” has now been abused to the point that it’s practically meaningless.

Stay tuned for a future post in which I explain why an award your book received from a six-month old website run by your cousin out of his parents’ basement should not be plastered all over the cover and included in the blurb. 🙂

The Editing Never Stops

I am currently making another pass through my book, Audrey of Farmerton, preparatory to offering a paperback version. Despite the best efforts of both myself and my beta readers, I am still finding typos and minor mistakes. It appears that no amount of copyediting will ever find all of the mistakes. The good news is that when I am done, I can update the ebook version, and the new version will be automatically pushed out. You can’t do that with printed books.

It is my contention that there simply aren’t that many decent editors left out there. These days, even books by popular authors are published with obvious typos and grammar errors. Last year, I read a science fiction novel that had won major awards despite having significant plot holes and the author not really understanding how to use commas. The editor was either incompetent, or was too rushed to do a good job.

The advent of easy self-publishing is probably to blame for the current situation. The publishing industry in general has dealt poorly with  emerging technologies. That has led to cutbacks, including editorial staff. And when cutting staff, it is invariably the most experienced (and best paid) people that are let go.

What makes a good editor? They obviously need to have a good knowledge of the English language (or whatever language they are editing). This includes both spelling and grammar. But they also need to understand composition. They need to be able to judge if sentences are properly grouped into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, and scenes into chapters. They also need to understand what they are reading, otherwise they will be unable to spot larger issues such as plotting and pacing. To be perfectly honest, a good editor first needs to be a good writer. But a good writer isn’t likely to be interested in editing the works of someone else unless they’re a close friend or relative. A good writer would rather be writing.

I can’t offer any magical solution. For now, I’ll just rely on my own editing skills, resigned to the fact that the things I write will never be perfect.