Saturday, February 28, 2015

One of these things is not like the others

This post is for all my sisters and brothers who self-publish and get "customer reviews" and receive some quizzical reviews that make them scratch their heads.

First, I am not complaining or whining.  Really. I have had some scathing reviews that should have sent me to bed in a dark room.  I picked myself up and kept going.   I've had reader reviews that said my writing was disjointed, confusing, too long, too short, too sexual, too boring, jumped around, couldn't be followed, had pages missing,  punctuated by an imbecile, punctuated by less than an imbecile, had a horrible ending, etc.  I've had readers say they wanted to throw the book across the room.  Did throw the book across the room. Wanted to throw the book at me. I've had many readers say in their review that they gave fewer stars because the book should have been longer.  The book in question was 720 pages.

The reviewing system at Amazon is like the wild, wild west: thrilling, rough, scary and seductive.

In the screenshot below, a frustrated customer who didn't get her book and couldn't get satisfaction, put her complaint where she thought it would do the most good.  If I had her e-mail, I would gladly send her a book.  BTW, Amazon is always diligent about customer satisfaction and I'm certain they will make this right.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Newborn whippoorwills were calling from the hills.

Ever since Amazon recorded my novel, Three Daughters (btw, on sale all of Feb for $1.99) for Audiobook and MP3 I've had it in my head to record all my stuff and put it up on the Audible site.  In my manic "discovery" stage I'm certain that I can
            make acceptable podcasts
            including book serials
            blog post entries
            talk incessantly and begin a whole new creative life
            make money and please the world with my great ideas

The cursing angels of good ideas and delusional ideas are to blame.
The good angel said, " I have seen everything that is done under the sun, and behold, all is vanity and a striving after wind."
The other angel said, "F**k, yes.  Jump right in and do it. Who cares if it's amateurish.  Life is antic.  They keep saying crazy Kanye is a genius.  Maybe you are, too.  Besides, talking is easier than writing.

Guess who Audible belongs to?  It belongs to my celebrity crush, Jeff Bezos, who made Amazon.  The gang at Audible or ACX which is what they call the production entity, is super friendly and the staff there urges you to phone them anytime and ask anything.  You get the idea that the audio engineers are sitting around in Timberland boots and jeans and taking a spin on their Segways every few minutes to let off steam.  When a business is too welcoming, you get suspicious. I'm pulled along BECAUSE they are encouraging diy.  Most time you are urged not to do things yourself but to call a professional.

ACX does something else that's dangerous.  They especially ENCOURAGE authors to do the recording of their own work.  They say, "Nobody knows your work better than you."  That's not necessarily true.  Some of my readers have better insight into my writing and explain the books to me. Some readers say, "This book went on and on.  It put me to sleep."  One reader was so comatose she called me Consumer Star Beer. Or maybe it was AutoFill.

My first thought about recording was:  "Uh. No."  My voice is kind of childish and uneven. According to Dr. Weil, I don't know how to breathe. (He says breathing correctly is the most important health practice.) But then: VANITY.  And because: GRAMMY FOR THE SPOKEN WORD.  If there is an opportunity to do something that might (will) come out poorly and needs (demands) some innate technical know-how, prior training and SHOULD NOT (but will) be cobbled together - I'm in.

ACX knows authors are crazy and delusional so they suggest that we send a five- minute demo for their critique to see if we are capable of making the team or should hire one of their voiceover pros.

I borrowed my son in law's digital recorder.  He showed me the on/off buttons, the replay button, the volume wheel, the usb port.  I ignored the gazillion other buttons and started up.  What else could it take? Right?

For reasons unknown - really, I don't know where this idea came from - I put a Ralph Lauren king-sized pillow on either side of the recorder for acoustical excellence.  I brought up my Kindle Single, "Thinner Thighs In Thirty Years" on the Kindle screen and began to read the first scene.  This work was meant to be delivered as a one-woman show and it was produced (strange things happen to me) by a company in Sanibel, Florida at the Periwinkle Playhouse.

Each of the fifteen or so short scenes begins with a snippet of a poignant vintage song. Yes, I sang the snippet before beginning the reading. Remember, I had been encouraged by ACX to be my own narrator.  Scene one was framed with this lyric:  "If I had to choose just one day to last my whole life through.  It would surely be that Sunday, the day that I met you."

This song is a Nat King Cole classic, That Sunday, That Summer, that also contains this lyric. "Newborn whippoorwills were calling from the hills. Summer was a-coming in but fast."  What the heck is a newborn whippoorwill?  It is a baby bird named onomatopoetically for its song.  This was the lead-in song I had chosen for a comedic monologue about divorce and new beginnings. I read the rest of the scene (about five minutes) and sent it off to ACX for appraisal.

A month later I received this response:

"I have reviewed your recently submitted sample and have a few notes.  First, I have to say, your performance was great! Very warm and friendly." At the end there was a smiley face. (WAIT! WHAT?)

There was more stuff in the e-mail about the noise floor and the QC check and mastering but he finished with:  "Again, you have done a great read." Even a person who is adept at lying to herself found this hard to accept.  How could my squeaky, sloppy speaking voice do a "great read"? The other thing he said that I paid attention to was: "your noise floor is quite low." Ralph Lauren's pillows absorbed all the noise.  Yay, I was a natural, no?  So there you have it.   I will get up early one day soon, read through all of the tech stuff, learn to edit out mistakes on a free program called Audacity.  Learn Audacity. Learn to master.  Learn to encode.  I will do all of this after the eternal snow and ice melt and the dog days of winter evaporate. 

Friday, February 13, 2015

Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, Amazon walks into mine.

I've been on one of the most interesting journeys in my publishing career. Many readers of this blog are in the self-publishing business and they might find the details interesting.

First a recap of my self-publishing history.  In 2009, I could not have given you a clear definition of the word "digital."  I probably still can't.  The idea of Lazarus-raising my trad published, out of print books from their dusty graves on my bookshelf and bringing them back to life was not incubating in my brain.  After twenty years as an author, the writing spirit had been leached out of me by the crushing reality of traditional publishing.

Enter Jeff Bezos, the patron saint of writers. Mr. Bezos had set up something called KDP, Kindle Direct Publishing and he was saying to writers.  "Hey, stop crying. I have this nice big space.  Come over and bring your novel or memoir or how-to or short story or cookbook or diary. I won't send you a rejection letter. You can publish your books on KDP for free. Nada, nil, zero. I'll give you good shelf space visible to the millions of eyeballs I command.  You can use my space as long as you want.  Out of print?  Not on my watch.  I'll let you decide the book's cover design. I'll let you decide how much to charge. I'll let you keep most of the money.  If you regret the ending you wrote for that urban romance, I'll let you write a different one, slap it into your book and re-publish.   AND all of this can be done in less than an hour.   WAIT!  WHAT???

One day, some of us (my friend, Sandra Scoppettone and my e-friend, Ruth Harris, are examples), washed our faces, put on our big girl shoes and began an astonishing new chapter in our publishing lives. Jeff Bezos gave us bizzarro publishing, the complete opposite of the punishing paradigm practiced by the big six. The old pubs took the novel you had worked on for two years, waited another year to publish it and then pretended they'd never heard of it. Writers were too dumbstruck to understand and too grateful to complain and too downtrodden to even examine.  Prozac was our friend.  Pubs didn't do this on purpose because that would have taken work and planning and I swear to you, they did not know how to do work or plan.  They knew how to sit at their massive desks (piled with un-read and/or rejected manuscripts) in their high floor offices and they definitely knew how to go to lunch at the Four Seasons or Michaels.  One of the anomalies of the otherwise dismal experience of being trad pubbed was the expensive one-time lunch (the last time you would see your editor.)  Here are some of the celebs I saw or met while at my one-time (per book) lunches.  Lillian Hellman (short and stout); Dwight Gooden (modest); David Letterman (boyish).   

Fast forward to Saint Bezos.  In addition to his global e-store Mr. Bezos gifted us with more astonishing perks, we could sell our e-books 24/7 (yes, while we slept).  Let me repeat that because it bears repeating.  We sold our e-books 24/7. We knew within minutes when we had made a sale BECAUSE we had a real time tabulation of our sales and could check the tabulation page 24/7. If we chose, we could put our books in an off-price sale for a few days or even make them free.  It was all under our control.  The KDP community shared ideas and experiences.  We learned what marketing  ploys worked best.  We read each other's books and put up reviews.

The early glory days of self-publishing have undergone changes.  Other sites besides Amazon have opened.  There's a place called Smashwords that acts as a distributor and broadcasts your titles to other retailers.  In recent years retail sites have made it possible to upload manuscripts on their sites using the Amazon model. 

The big trad publishers after getting off their high horses and realizing they didn't have the e-rights to all those books they neglected and then dumped into remainder bins, finally woke up to what was going on and became upset.  They did not like the renegade quality of what was going on.  There was no role for them.  There were no gatekeepers to keep out the riff raff.  They tightened the contracts, clumsily joined the revolution and even tried to sweet talk naive authors into letting them publish their e-books.  Most writers were savvy enough to do it themselves. 

So let's be realistic. Is there a lot of poorly written junk on KDP?  It depends on your taste.  There seems to be an audience for everything.  There have been dozens of breakout star authors who have made hundreds of thousands of dollars with their self-published books after years of rejection from the trad pubs.  Some of them sign with traditional publishers after initial success but the contracts are more in their favor.

In the early years, you could sell a boatload of e-books by reducing the price to 99 cents.  What you lost in revenue you made up in volume.  There was also a maneuver that gamed the ranking system by making a book available for free and then reaping algorithm induced visibility sales when the book went back to regular price.  Those maneuvers are not as reliable as they once were.  The most reliable marketing device is probably a lot of good reviews from readers.  In recent years, e-mail off-price advertisers like BookBub have had remarkable success selling books.  If they take your book (they have an editorial review process), you are likely to sell hundreds of books within a two or three day period and the glow remains for a few days after.  I used BookBub regularly and that is how my book Daughters received a slew of good reviews and caught the attention of Amazon Publishers.

A few years ago, Jeff Bezos (Amazon) decided to use his own great publishing platform and get into the book publishing business.  Amazon became a PUBLISHER.  They were not like the old publishers.  They knew how to work.  They knew how to market.  They knew how to steer their millions of eyeballs to the books they published. 

Last spring, Amazon approached me and they asked to buy one of my books.  They had NOTICED it because of all the great reviews.  WAIT. WHAT?   There are over a million books in the Kindle Store. Of all the gin joints, in all the towns, in all the world, Amazon walks into mine. No, wait that's from Casablanca.  Of the million plus books in all of the Kindle Store, in all the world, Amazon has noticed mine?  

I knew Amazon was not my father's publishing house.  This was a genius marketing/service juggernaut that knew the emotional make up of the population and how to work it.  Even so, I hesitated.  Two people in my life said to me:  put down the telephone, go to your computer, open the Amazon e-mail and say "yes."

We are still in the honeymoon stage (publication was in late November) but I have not been disappointed.  In another post I will detail the Amazon publishing journey and all of the eye-opening differences from my previous trad pubbed experience.

Three Daughters, by the way, is #46 today in the Kindle 100 bestsellers.  It is also an Amazon special deal on sale for $1.99 (that's for 720 pages!)