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.

The Witch’s City is now available for preorder! Woohoo!

Yes, that’s right. The Witch’s City, the second book of the non-best-selling, non-award-winning, fantasy series Andoran’s Realm, by the non-famous author M. Gregg Roe, is now available for preorder on Amazon in ebook form. It will be published to no real acclaim on August 12, 2017. I should add that the first book of the series, Audrey of Farmerton, has not been optioned by Netflix, HBO, a major film studio, or a television network, no matter what you may have heard.

But seriously, The Witch’s City continues the adventures of Audrey, Saxloc, and many others both in the Witch’s City and at other locations within Andoran’s Realm. Will Audrey and Saxloc ever resolve their romantic issues? Will Gabriel continue to flee at the mere mention of romance? Will Almera ever stop meddling in her son’s life? Why is Siljan such a lousy poet? The answers to some of these questions might be in the book. Or not. Oh, and I think there’s some stuff about witches too.

Be one of the select few to preorder this non-groundbreaking work! Hurry, before Amazon runs out of bits or something.

My thoughts on Inkshares

Beginning authors have to decide how they want to publish their works. The options range from self-publishing all the way up to trying to attract the interest of a major publisher. In between are crowdfunding possibilities, including a site called Inkshares. I was initially excited after I discovered Inkshares. At one time, I planned to publish my first book that way, but ultimately decided against it for a variety of reasons.

First, some background information. People join Inkshares as either readers, authors, or both. Authors post drafts of their books, usually including background information and excerpts from the actual text. The initial goal is to attract followers. At some point the author might launch a preorder campaign for their book, which has a fixed time period such as 90 days. If they get sufficient preorders before the end of the campaign, then their book will be published in both electronic and physical form. At present, 250 orders is the minimum, the so-called Quill level. A book that reaches 750 preorders receives full publication, including editorial and other assistance. It is this level, obviously, that everyone hopes to reach, but the majority end up settling for Quill.

This all sounded reasonable to me at first, but I soon began to see issues. There are talented writers trying to publish through Inkshares, but they are in the minority. Many of the posted drafts are of poor quality, not even close to being ready for publication. Ideally, none of these would ever be published, but that isn’t how it works. Anyone with a significant social media following can hit the Quill level with little effort. Another issue is preorder swapping amongst authors, which completely defeats the purpose of the site. (To be fair, Inkshares has tried to put an end to this practice.) The end result is the publication of many poor quality books by Inkshares, because at the Quill level there is no editorial oversight. This, to me, is a real problem. It sullies Inkshares’ reputation, and, by extension, all of the books that it publishes.

I have had other issues with Inkshares involving changes made without warning or consultation of their users. Shortly after I joined, they made it much more difficult for authors to connect with readers. A year later, they still haven’t addressed this huge problem. Inkshares used to offer credits for recommendations, but abruptly pulled them due to abuse. Despite assurances that the credits would be restored, they are still absent. Most recently, they retroactively removed the option to sell signed copies of books, leaving authors in an embarrassing situation of having sold something they can no longer deliver. Another issue is the incredibly long publication time. You would think a Quill-level book would be published within at most a month or two, but it usually takes over a year.

One simple step that Inkshares could undertake to address their problems would be to implement a simple vetting process before a book can be put up for preorder. This would really be about reviewing basic grammar, not the overall plot or writing style. That alone would greatly improve the average quality of their published books by weeding out those whose writing abilities are nowhere near good enough to be publishing.

Despite all the negatives, I think that Inkshares is a reasonable choice for some authors, and I encourage people to check out the site for themselves.

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.

My thoughts on Grammarly

For those who don’t want to read a long review, here’s the brief summary: The free version of Grammarly is a useful utility for writers, but only if they already have a good knowledge of English grammar.

Grammarly is an English language grammar checker. It is available as a browser extension, an MS Word add-on, or as a standalone application. It is seemingly free but promptly starts urging you to upgrade to the premium (subscription) version. They offer a 7-day money-back guarantee on subscriptions, but I found so many people complaining about it not being honored (and poor customer service in general) that I opted to only test the free version.

I installed the macOS version. To test it, I employed the text from my 160,000+ word first novel. I pasted each scene individually into Grammarly, and it then proceeded to analyze the text and flag issues. The issues are divided into critical and advanced categories, with the advanced requiring the premium version. Critical issues are flagged to the right of the line of text where they were found. There are options to accept (and apply) the recommended change, to view more information, or to simply ignore it. An example issue is to flag “afterwards” and suggest a change to “afterward”.

So how did Grammarly do? It did an excellent job of spotting repeated words and mistakes such as writing “though” when you meant “through”. These kinds of errors are the ones that our brains often skip right over without us even noticing. It also did a good job of recognizing when commas were either omitted or unnecessary. Unfortunately, that’s pretty much the complete list of things Grammarly does well.

Grammarly will often recommend changing a verb from singular to plural or vice versa. It is occasionally correct, but often wrong. It will also make suggestions when it thinks you have typed the wrong word by mistake, but most of these are wildly wrong. For example, it repeatedly suggested replacing “robe” with “role”. This is the kind of mistake no human proofreader would ever make.

I also experienced problems employing the Grammarly application. Sometimes when I pasted in new text it would fail to scan it, forcing me to start a new document. Sometimes the scan would get stuck and never complete. To me, this feels more like beta software than a finished application.

Would the premium version of Grammarly have performed better on the so-called critical issues? I have no idea, but I rather doubt it. Automated checking of English grammar is incredibly difficult. In my opinion, it’s going to take a large company employing advanced AI to really crack the problem.

I did look for other reviews of Grammarly and found them mixed. Disturbingly, many of the positive ones end with buy links for Grammarly, suggesting that they may be biased or even paid for. The best reviews were those that looked at several different grammar-checkers and compared their performance to a human’s.

In summary, the free version of Grammarly can be a useful aid for finding some types of simple grammar issues. It caught typos that have been in my book for ages without anyone noticing. On the other hand, blindly following its suggestions would have wrecked my book, filling it with bizarre and ungrammatical sentences. So don’t even think of using Grammarly unless you already have a good knowledge of proper English grammar.

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. 🙂

And never start a sentence with a conjunction!

A good friend of mine was actually taught in school that a sentence should never begin with a conjunction. In other words, a sentence shouldn’t be started with “And”, “Or”, “But”, etc. And she’s not the only one. Many people have been taught this, even though it is complete nonsense. Even today, you will find idiots on the internet claiming that this is the proper way.

The reality is that the use of conjunctions to begin a sentence has been part of the English language for centuries. In general, about ten percent of sentences start that way. Never starting with a conjunction can also lead to confusing run-on sentences that may annoy or confuse readers. Sometimes it’s simply better to break a compound sentence into two separate ones, even if the second one starts with a conjunction.

So do begin sentences with conjunctions when there is a need, but not all the time.

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.