Coloring Books – My Experiences

crayons - artistIn 2015, I hopped on the coloring book bandwagon.

It was a logical match for my skills, since I’m — first and foremost — an artist and illustrator. I can draw my own coloring pages. (In fact, I do. They’re what I doodle as I’m unwinding with the latest episodes of my favorite TV shows.)

How I Started

First, I took two courses.

One had some good information, but most of it was so preposterous… well, to this day, I’m not sure if the instructor deliberately recommended bad (and convoluted) graphics techniques so he’d have less competition in the field. It wasn’t a very good course, but it helped me realize that I could do this. So, I don’t regret taking it.

The other course I took was Coloring Book Profits, originally by Alessandro Zamboni, and then — due to vicious (and very public) pettiness by a competing instructor — Bill Platt got involved, so Alessandro wasn’t the steady target of unfair criticism, legal threats, and other childishness.

If coloring books intrigue you, I recommend Alessandro’s & Bill’s course. It’s brief, but it provides the basics you’d need to get involved in this field. (You may need more or less info, depending on your art/graphics background. You’ll find plenty of free, more specific instruction at YouTube.)

What I Did

Over the next few months, I focused on coloring books, almost to the exclusion of all other projects. I knew I had the skills; I needed to see if coloring books held my interest and were profitable.

Since then, I’ve produced over 50 coloring books under three pen names.

Pen name 1 was a name I’ve been using online since 1995, and it’s an “oldie but goodie” in the mixed media arts community. More than half of my coloring books are written in that name. They provide the vast majority of my coloring book income.

Pen name 2 was a throwaway name, testing some techniques based on advice in the first coloring book course I took.  I published several books following that instructor’s general advice. Only one of those books has done well. The others sell one or two copies per month.

Pen name 3 was created for a sub-niche outside the general coloring book category. I’ve produced just a few books in that sub-niche.

Note:  If you haven’t read my articles about pen names, do. I use pen names to protect my privacy and my family’s.

In some coloring book forums, self-appointed “experts” insist that everyone should publish using their real names. They talk in lofty terms about being “authentic” and “not hiding behind a pen name.”

I don’t know if they’re naive, inexperienced, or deliberately misleading people.

Never publish under your real name. Not if you can avoid it. (Also, while you might think it’s cute to put your child or grandchild’s photo on your book cover… don’t do that, either.)

My Results

So far, my top three coloring books earn a comfortable three figures each, per month. Some months are better than others, but the income is fairly reliable.

Nevertheless, with over 50 coloring books selling at Amazon, I average $20 per month in royalties, per book title.

Books under pen name 1 — over 40 books — are varied. Most appeal to two different, specific coloring book sub-niches. Royalties average $20 per book, per month.

Books under pen name 2 — about 10 books — appeal to one narrowly targeted audience. It’s very different from those under pen name 1. Royalties average $20 per book, per month.

Books under pen name 3 — four books — are in a quirky self-help niche. They’re not bought as “coloring books,” per se. Each book sells equally well… and royalties average $20 per book, per month.

I have no idea if that $20/book figure is something cosmic or what. As far as I’m concerned, it’s very, very weird. I’ve never seen a pattern like this in any other book category.

But, since I’d draw these designs anyway, that reliable income is pretty good.

Note: The coloring book trend won’t last forever. Whether the field reaches a saturation point or enthusiasm wanes, I’m not convinced my current coloring book income will continue, indefinitely.

For now, it’s pretty good.

And, before leaping into the coloring book field, carefully consider these other points:

  1. I didn’t see much per-book income until I’d published more than 10 coloring books. I saw a second income leap at about 30 coloring books.
  2. My best-selling books are unique. Most of them are entirely hand-drawn by me, with pen & paper, and tweaked in Photoshop or Illustrator (or both) to improve the final illustrations.  (I have 20+ years experience with Adobe software. I will not claim “anyone can do this.” Not the kinds of books I create, anyway.)
  3. My worst-selling books are based on graphics you can find, create, or buy online… the kinds of coloring books recommended in the first course I took. (I’m talking about public domain images, purchased graphics that aren’t significantly altered before use, and software that turns out ho-hum illustrations.)

Your results may differ. However, I’m not sure I can recommend this field to anyone completely new to art or illustration.

On the flip side, keep in mind that — so far — I’ve done almost no marketing at all. No ads. Just a couple of blog mentions via Fiverr. That’s it. Everything else has been word-of-mouth.

Tools and Tricks

I draw my original illustrations on the same paper I use in my printer. Generally, that’s the huge package of HP Everyday Copy & Print paper sold at Target. (There, it’s about $7 – $8 for a 500-sheet package.)

Most of the time, I use LePen drawing pens. My usual pen size is 0.8, but I’ve worked with 0.3 and 0.5. (That link takes you to Amazon, so you can see the pen I use. However, it’s smarter to buy those pens in bulk if you can afford it, or shop at Jo-Ann Fabric, if one is nearby.)

I also work with a Pigma pen, size Graphic 1.

My earliest books were created with a Zig Writer pen (double-tipped); the ink doesn’t last as long as I’d like, but it offers a nice, fine line as well as a broader one. I think I buy those at Michaels Arts & Crafts shops.

(All of my pens come from Amazon, Jo-Ann, or Michaels.)

The Process

I create templates — basic design ideas, sizes, and shapes — with the thick Zig Writer pen. Usually, I place one of my templates on a clipboard, underneath the plain sheet of paper I’ll draw on.

My main template is a rectangle in the size of the finished coloring page. That allows for a one-inch margin at the center of the book, and about a 3/4″ margin on the other three sides.

My second favorite template divides a similar rectangle into “slices of the pie.” I put a dot in the center of the rectangle, and draw lines out from it — in an asterisk-type (or star) shape — to the edges of the rectangle. That template is for symmetrical designs.

After I’ve drawn 5 – 10 coloring pages, usually with my LePen pen, I scan them with my DoxieGo scanner. It saves me so much time (compared with scanning with my all-in-one printer/scanner), I’d have to say it’s the #1 reason I can turn out so many quality coloring books, quickly.

Looking back, if I had to choose between buying software to produce coloring books, and my DoxieGo scanner, I’d make the scanner the top priority.  No contest.

I’ve also used that scanner to scan thousands of family photos and papers, while sitting in front of the TV.  It’s really easy to use, and — for me — it’s peace of mind knowing that, if anything happened to the original photos and papers, it wouldn’t be such a tragedy. Everything is backed up on my hard drive and in the cloud, as well.

I create mandalas with Kaleidoscope Kreator, but you can find similar software — with fewer options — online. (Search for “free mandala software.” You’d find things like ColorMandala.com and MyOats.com.)

However, I’m not convinced the mandala market will remain strong in coloring books. In fact, some Christian audiences specifically avoid mandalas, and that may be a sub-niche to consider.

I fine-tune my drawings and designs in Photoshop. Sometimes, I use Illustrator for vector work, and I’ve also used Vector Magic.

Lately, I’ve used the latest version (free) of Irfanview to tweak my line drawings, per the instructions at this article about enlarging images. (I tried the other software recommended in that article. Not impressed.) For me, Irfanview’s results have been superior to Vector Magic, at least for line drawings.

Steps to Publishing

I always publish my books with images on just one side of the page. I publish via CreateSpace.com. I’ve been publishing with them since around 2009 and strongly recommend them to all indie authors and publishers.

I don’t buy ISBNs. I use the free ones offered by CreateSpace; then, my books can sell to schools and public libraries.

I create the final version of my coloring pages in Photoshop and save them as PDFs. Others like to create their pages in Word, OpenOffice, or LibreOffice, and save them as PDFs.

Then, I assemble them with Adobe Acrobat Pro. (You can find free tools to do the same things, and you can compile your book in something like OpenOffice, etc., as a single, multi-page PDF.)

Most of my books have 35 to 50 individual coloring pages.

Initially, I created my books in both right-handed and left-handed versions. (Add one single-sided blank page near the front of the book. That shifts all the following pages to the left side.)

At first, the left-handed versions sold well, even better than the right-handed ones, but that interest fell off dramatically after about three months.

Now, I rarely bother with left-hand editions.

I do include a few sample pages (from my other coloring books) at the back of most books. I can’t claim it’s led to lots of extra book sales, but I think it has helped a little.

And, I’ve tested hand-colored cover illustrations and digitally-colored cover illustrations. It’s a little early to be sure, but — to my surprise — I haven’t seen a major leap in sales among my coloring books with the hand-colored covers.

Regarding pricing: I test my prices over several months. I also keep checking Amazon to see if they’re discounting my book prices.

Once I settle on a good price, I may revise my book cover with a printed price on the back. That increases the likelihood of a brick-and-mortar store stocking my books.

Other Sales Options

I never publish my coloring books in Kindle. Though (as of this writing) some people are doing well with that approach, I firmly believe it’s against Amazon’s policies to do so. I think Amazon will (eventually) shut down everyone offering coloring books via KDP.

I don’t sell through Etsy or my own website, either, but that’s because I like everything as hands-off (passive) as possible. I know that some people are selling lots of coloring books and coloring pages at Etsy, and they say they’re doing well.

My Future Coloring Book Projects

Yes, I’m about to start marketing my coloring books via Facebook ads. That may change my coloring book income significantly.

But, as I said earlier, I think coloring books are a fad that will wane over the next few years. So, I’m looking at longer-lasting writing and publishing projects, for more reliable, long-term income.

Also, I’ve tried to create content that’s almost identical to my three, top-selling coloring books. So far, the clones haven’t achieved anything close to the income of the original three.

(For example, I tried five different variations — each a different book — duplicating different aspects of one of my best-sellers. So far, only one of those clones has done well… but the income from it is only about 25% of the book it mimics. So, I’m baffled and can’t say what makes one coloring book sell better than another.)

For me, coloring books are fun. They’re based on doodles and designs I’d draw, anyway.

However, if I look at the big picture and the $20/book per month (average) income… I wouldn’t continue to create coloring books if they were anything except fun.

If you enjoy drawing or digitally creating designs, you may want to test-drive this niche. You might stumble onto a coloring book concept that does really, really well.

Or, if you’re like me, you might think of this as a really cool way to share art you’d create anyway… and earn some income from it at the same time.

Novellas and Short Reads – Putting the Pieces Together

Recently, I posted a rave review for David Lee Martin’s “… Self-Publishing Trenches” reports. As of Monday, 25 April 2016, that’s no longer available, but for those who did buy it, here’s what I’m doing with his information.

This is important: You don’t need to buy anything else, to make good use of David’s advice. I’m simply telling you the array of ingredients I’m mixing in my writing, in case you already have any of these, or want to add them. They are not necessary.

puzzle pieces
photo courtesy Martin Boose and freeimages.com

First of all, I’m taking David’s advice seriously. He’s not the first person to recommend this kind of approach to publishing, but the way he put his information together… that impressed me. And, he included insights I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

As I said in my review, I’m choosing sub-genres based on Chris Fox’s advice in Write to Market. I’m also consulting the newest advice offered by K-Lytics’ reports.

I have “second opinions” from Neil Bakewell’s videos in the Modelizer course he put together with Ryan Leonard. (I’m pretty sure that’s no longer available, but it may return.)

I’m fairly certain Neil and David draw from some of the same resources, as a lot of their advice — but not all of it — is very similar.

I’ve added suggestions presented by Geoff Shaw (known for his “Kindling” training) in his Udemy course, https://www.udemy.com/how-to-succeed-with-kindle-short-reads/ (Look for coupons for discounted Udemy courses. At the time I wrote this article, you can use GOODRITER30 to get 30% off most Udemy courses.)

If plotting isn’t your strong suit, but you’re good at taking a story idea and seeing how it could have been written differently, I also recommend Geoff Shaw’s Reverse Engineer Riveting Fiction course.

And, while you’re there, be sure to get Geoff’s free Udemy course, Helping Writers to Write and Keep Writing.

If you struggle with plotting, and — despite Geoff’s great insights — you couldn’t turn Cinderella into anything like Ever After, even if your life depended on it, you may need other plotting tools. (Worst case, you can purchase pre-written plots or hire a freelancer to craft them for you.)

Or, you might be able to start with prompts at sites like Seventh Sanctum (click on “Generator” at the top of the page), Chaotic Shiny (scroll down the left column), and Plot Generator.

I also like RPG guides. You know, the ones with lots of plot options and you roll the dice to select one. I get mine from Drive-Thru RPG.

If you have plot ideas, but can’t seem to turn them into anything, I like Lynn Johnston‘s advice and courses (the most basic is From Idea to Premise), and her series course comes with some pretty great templates to get you through your book. (The videos for that course…? Take them slowly. They might make your brain explode.)

Or, if you have a bunch of great plans for a story, but have no idea how to put them together, I highly recommend Dan Wells’ class in story structure. (You can watch all of the videos, right here at my website, free.)

Why should you write a series? Well, in addition to what David suggests in his report, take a look at Genre Hobo’s 1/1/5 advice; that may be where many writers learned the basics of what works.

And, if you’re writing books as a career — not simply publishing to get yourself out of the cubicle job, or for other financial reasons — I strongly recommend getting Holly Lisle‘s How to Write A Series course… which, as I’m writing this, doesn’t seem to be available. (However, I suggest writing at least three books before committing to writing series for a living. So, you probably don’t need Holly’s info immediately.)

As I said at the beginning, David’s information is pretty much everything you need.

Also, from free resources, online, to books you can find in the “how to write stories and books” section of your public library, you don’t need to spend a cent if you need more insights about writing and publishing.

However, for those who wonder what I’m doing… well, now you know.

Story Grid: Review

Moving ahead with David Lee Martin’s brilliant “… Self-Publishing Trenches” advice, I’m ready to take another look at fiction archetypes & tropes.

If I’m going to follow David’s advice to the letter, I need to understand exactly what readers expect in my sub-genre.

The Story Grid, by CoyneThis wasn’t on David’s list of recommended reading, but — last night — I skimmed “The Story Grid” by Shawn Coyne. (Don’t even THINK about buying it in Kindle… this is a massive book you’ll need to read in print.)

While this book seems more geared to screenplays and literary fiction, I’m gleaning enough oh-my-goodness insights (for genre fiction) that it was well worth reading… and the fairly high price tag.

(Authors, if your public library has a copy, get it. Now.)

This huge book includes a lot of tropes you won’t find at TVTropes.org... and some of them are kind of important. (See http://www.storygrid.com/genres-have-conventions-and-obligatory-scenes/ for the tip of the iceberg, and a good preview of the book.)

But… that said, this IS a textbook. The writing style is good, but the information he’s throwing at you, in almost every sentence…? Kind of overwhelming.

So, I can’t recommend this book to new writers. (However, if you’ve written at least five works of fiction, I think it’s a worthwhile — and perhaps essential — read.)

Geeky writers — those of us who print out everything useful we find online, and highlight it — will love this book.

Authors with several books in print, but ho-hum sales or reviews, should probably read this. I promise, you’re likely to find at least one “ah-HA!” moment in The Story Grid.

Everyone else may use it for a doorstop, and wish they hadn’t spent the money.

I’m glad I bought it. It’s definitely helping me understand a second level of plotting that I didn’t really get.

If your fiction has been lacking something, but you’re not sure what, take a look at The Story Grid.

Here are the links: Amazon.comAmazon.co.uk

A Solid, Basic Business Model

David Lee Martin - Lessons from the TrenchesIn the past, I’ve recommended David Lee Martin’s Scrivener course. It’s the one that finally helped, when I felt overwhelmed by Scrivener’s dizzying bells & whistles.

I’ve been using Scrivener ever since, and it was a game changer for me.

Now, David has done it again. He’s simplified the confusing maze of being a successful indie author. This time, it’s his honest and insightful report, Lessons from the Self-Publishing Trenches. It will not be available after 24 Apr 2016.

(Note: That’s not an affiliate link. I earn nothing for recommending this product. The only affiliate links I use, ever, are Amazon Affiliate links.)

Two things you need to know: First, this is a business model for a successful indie publishing business, and the focus is on fiction.

It’s not a guide to writing books. In fact, David hires ghostwriters to produce his fiction. Then he edits, rewrites, and improves the ghostwriters’ work, so it meets his quality standards.

So, his advice will work for people (like me) who write their own books, as well as those who prefer to use ghostwriters.

Also, the reason I can write such a full review is because David sent me a review copy of the main product — and the (very optional) resource report — before they were available to customers. That had no bearing on my review.

(Really, if you knew how many review copies I look at and say, “No, I can’t recommend this,” it might surprise you. I feel no obligation to say nice things about reports and courses given to me. My writing time is valuable, so I only tell you when I think a product is worthwhile.)

Now, to the review…

In this report, David has put together one of the most basic, honest, and complete business models I’ve seen, if you’re planning to be an indie author.

  • He talks about everything from selecting a genre (or sub-genre), to advertising your books.
  • He includes screenshots to support everything he says, making this process (and the reasons for it) crystal clear.
  • He explains what’s worked for him, and what hasn’t, to take him from $0 to over $60,000 in book income, in less than a year.
  • His plan will work today. It will work next year. It will probably work in five years, with minor tweaks. In other words: these aren’t sleazy “loophole” techniques or trends that come & go. It’s a sensible, reliable plan.

This report is 118 pages, so it’s not “lite.” (I’ve already printed and highlighted the first 46 pages, because he’s reminding me of things I’m not doing… but should.)

However, it’s not formulaic, either.

Here’s an example: David presents a good, general approach to selecting a fiction sub-genre where you can succeed. It’s all you really need to know.

By contrast, many publishing-related reports suggest a specific formula.

Some say you should look for Amazon categories where the Top 100 books have consistently great rankings at Amazon. For example, the first couple of books are ranked around #10,000, and the 100th best-selling book in that category is no worse than #80,000 or so. That’s a category where — with a good book — you can compete. And, if you break into the Top 100, you’re likely to sell at least 3 copies/day. (At $2 profit/book, that’s $60/month, not including “pages read” income from KU.)

Others say you should look for categories with indie books in most of the top five spots (of the Top 100 in that category), and at least one or two books that have been in print for more than three to six months. That shows the ability for indies to break into the category, and stay well-ranked.

But then, those same people (studying the top five) say that book sales should drop dramatically by the 50th best-selling book in that category, or at least the 100th. They recommend a ranking (for the 100th book) of at least #500,000 or an even worse rank; that shows you can write almost anything, and still get your book into the Top 100. (Of course, ask yourself: would you be happy with a book in the Top 100 that sells only one or two copies per month…?)

David doesn’t go into that kind of detail. He keeps this simpler, lighter, and easier for you to follow.

And, you know what…? I’ve tried both of the above “formulas” for selecting a good sub-genre, and I can’t say that one performs vastly better than the other. I can argue in favor of either approach, and I’m not convinced you have to be that finicky.

In other words, David’s approach is all you really need.

If you want more details about anything he describes, he lists good resources throughout his report. Some are better than others, and — to be honest — I think you can glean plenty from freebies like Joanna Penn’s interviews.

But, for a deeper understanding of genre selection, I agree with David’s top two resource recommendations.

And, if you can afford it, go directly to K-Lytics. (Tip: If you buy one of their single-genre reports as a special offer — such as their romance genre report — you’ll then get a free basic, monthly membership. Just search at Google for K-Lytics “special offers” and you may see other useful reports. Or, spend a little more to get their latest reports in any main genre, and you’ll still receive the basic free membership.)

UPDATE 19 Apr 16: I’ve bought (and read) Write to Market by Chris Fox. It’s one of the resources David recommended. It includes another genre-selection formula — sort of — but it’s less structured and more intuitive than what I’ve seen in the past. I’m going to give it a try.

However, I don’t want you to think David’s report is all about genre selection.

Sure, that’s an important step, but I used it as an example of what David covers.

In fact, genre selection is explained (nicely, with screenshots) in just five of the 118 pages in this report. He even includes a sample email to use, to get your book into one of Amazon’s “hidden” categories… the sub-sub-sub categories you can’t sign up for when you publish your book.

He also explains the best ways to succeed with book titles, book covers (I picked up a great tip that had never crossed my mind), book descriptions, Facebook ads, other ads, mailing lists, writing a book series (and the best times to publish them), pre-orders (he spotted an issue that’s confused many authors), and a lot more.

I could go on & on about this report. It really is a breath of fresh air. And, David is one of the few publishing reports like this, with so much integrity, I have no hesitation recommending everything he does.

The report is $17, and I recommend it if you’re struggling to succeed with your fiction, and if you’ve been buying courses that were confusing, or otherwise let you down.

Yes, you may have seen some of David’s advice in other reports and courses.

The reason you’ll want to see it (maybe again) in David’s report is: Now you’ll know whether or not it actually works.

In fact, David’s information is a good way to get away from “shiny object syndrome.”  To succeed: do what he says, and nothing more (or less).

Here’s the link: Lessons from the Self-Publishing Trenches.

P.S. If you can add the (optional) resource report — with some unique and really useful tools — that’s another $39. I recommend it. However, his main report covers everything you really need to make his plan work.

ARCs, ‘Reviews-for-Free-Books’ Sites, and How to Find Them

girl reading an ARC
photo courtesy ryan day and freeimages.com

Would you like to offer ARCs (Advance Reader Copies, or Advance Review Copies) to people who will post honest book reviews at Amazon and other booksellers’ sites?

In this article, I’ll share my insights and top resources.

However, I apologize in advance. I’m writing this article, stream-of-consciousness style, because I’m radically revising my priorities and schedule… but I want you to have this information, quickly.  So, I may ramble and this may include typos.

Let’s start with Amazon itself.

Contact people who review at Amazon

Sure, everyone talks about searching Amazon for reviewers (in your category) who have contact info on their profiles.

The standard advice is to limit your search to reviewers ranked in the top 1000 (or so) reviewers, and send them a form letter offering a free digital copy of your book in return for an honest review.

As an Amazon reviewer often ranked closed to #1,000 at Amazon, I can tell you what happens:

  • I receive cookie-cutter form letters — usually with at least one typo — offering me a free book in return for an honest review.
  • In most cases, that author read just one of my reviews, and hasn’t a clue what the real scope of my interests is. (They also hint — heavily — that they’d like a five-star review or none at all. Clearly, they haven’t noticed that I usually post four-star reviews, unless a book or product is exceptionally good.)
  • And, in most cases, I delete that email. I accept less than 1% of the requests I receive.

Flip side of that coin: in a book marketing webinar I attended this week, Bryan Cohen suggested that, even with a well-written letter to prospective reviewers at Amazon, authors should expect about a 10% response. (If you want three reviews, send out 30 requests.)

So, the “contact Amazon reviewers” practice can work, but be sure you’re contacting the best possible reviewers for your books, and your emails are personal and compelling.

Alternate ways to find reviewers, at Amazon and elsewhere

Authors can use online resources — not at Amazon — to get books into the hands of Amazon reviewers.

A few people have been selling expensive reports that describe this tactic. Please don’t waste your money. You can find this information online, free.

The basic concept is:

  1. You give people free copies of your books.
  2. They talk about your book at their (popular) websites.
  3. Or they write a review (usually at Amazon.com).
  4. Or both.

A good review at a website (blog) can be even more useful than an Amazon review.

Why give books to bloggers?

If a review website (blog) is especially popular, you can quote it in an “editorial reviews” blurb on your book sales page.

Here are some guidelines Amazon provides at Author Central, as of April 2016:

  • Reviews should consist of transcribed text from reputable sources. The name of the source should be credited after the quotation. For example, “A fantastic read.” –The New York Times
  • Quotes from outside reviews should follow “fair use” copyright guidelines and be limited to 1-2 sentences.
  • We recommend you limit your Reviews to 3000 characters. Customers may miss out critical information if your reviews are too long.

With permission from the reviewer, you can also use an excerpt of the review on your book cover.

This can be especially convincing as “social proof,” particularly if your printed books are sold through brick-and-mortar bookstores, or if you sell your books from a table or book in a store, at a conference, or even at a flea market.

Even if just to get more buzz, I think it’s a good idea to offer review copies to book bloggers, as well as authors in your field who’ll provide useful (but honest) cover blurbs.

Why give books for Amazon (etc.) book reviews?

Traditional publishers still send out free review copies, expecting reviews at Amazon (etc.), but they know how to do this.

Many indies have made career-damaging mistakes trying to achieve the same goal.

The problem: If you rush things, those great, honest reviews could backfire, badly. Amazon shoppers are becoming wary of reviews that could be shills.

For a glaring example of this in a non-book category, see http://www.amazon.com/BRI-Nutrition-5-HTP-Relaxation-Increases/dp/B00X89O5B0/

That product description has many spelling and punctuation errors, plus a nightmarish level of keyword stuffing.

(“Keyword stuffing” is finding any excuse to add myriad words & phrases that people might search for, at Amazon, hoping to land that product or book in the search results.)

Most reviews for that product are five-stars, from a time between late July and early September, and include a line about receiving a discounted or free product in exchange for the review.

Everything on that sales page looks so shady, I’d never buy the product.

My advice for beginners…? If you’re going to offer review copies to your fans, or through a service, keep the numbers low and try to space them over more than a few weeks. (It’s ideal to see them peppered throughout a larger collection of non-ARC reviews.)

Do I need to say this? Only honest, unpaid Amazon reviews

Read and closely watch Amazon’s Terms of Service, to understand the differences between a “paid review” and the very normal publishing tactic of sending out review copies (also called “ARCs“).

In 2015, Amazon brought a halt to any kind of payment (for reviews) when they said, “We don’t allow anyone to write customer reviews as a form of promotion and if we find evidence that a customer was paid for a review, we’ll remove it.” [Emphasis added.]

In addition, I’ve seen a few authors recommend “giveaways.” In those, the reviewer not only receives a free copy of the book, he or she is also entered in a drawing for a prize, if the person posts an honest review at Amazon.

The prizes may be cash, a Kindle reader, or something else of value.

I may be too cautious, but as I understand Amazon’s rules, offering anything of value — even an entry in a contest — is considered a “paid” review.

So, I wouldn’t do that.

Follow traditional models

Instead, follow the practice widely used by traditional publishers: Send out free, review copies to selected, eager readers — on a precise schedule — as well as to publications like your local newspaper, topic-related magazines (e.g., Romantic Times), and so on.

When you send review copies to magazines, particularly print magazines, it’s smart to send them all at once, as early as possible. Due to editorial & printing schedules, those reviews may appear over a period of months… but there’s nothing wrong with them all showing up at the same time. These kinds of reviews are considered “social proof.”

Where to start

As an indie author, you have several choices:

  • Build a “street team” to review your books, sometimes by giving each person a free copy of your latest book, even before it’s available to the public.
  • Find will-blog-for-books bloggers, on your own. (You can search at Google for them, post at forums they frequent, etc.)
  • Use a paid service to offer your books to their professional bloggers/reviewers. (The reviewers aren’t paid. They simple receive a free book with a request for an honest review.)

The best choice is to get your own readers to be part of your “street team” or “advanced readers team.”

You’ll give them free books to your fans while asking them for an honest review. (Your phrasing must be clear: The book is free. You’re not giving them the book with an expectation of a favorable review.)

However, if you don’t have a mailing list yet, or you’re uneasy asking your readers for reviews, you can find reviewers at free and commercial websites.

But first, that Amazon-ish warning, in more detail

In addition to avoiding anything that looks like payment for a review, remain current about the phrasing your readers (of free books) should use in their reviews. And then, be sure your reviewers know the exact phrases they must include.

Here’s one author’s experience from March 2014: http://fabulosityreads.blogspot.com/2014/03/amazons-new-book-review-policy.html but, just to make things confusing, here’s someone else’s post on this same topic (in March 2014), also quoting Amazon: http://digiscrapping.net/blog/amazon-did-not-change-their-policy-on-arc-book-reviews/

Not sure what’s okay and what could put your indie publishing business at risk? Call or email Amazon’s support team. Really. They’re very nice people and their information will be better and more current than anything I can tell you.

And — as always — check others’ reviews and insights about any service that charges a fee. I haven’t personally used any paid services to get reviews — aside from hiring a few bloggers (not Amazon reviewers) at Fiverr.

Tip: If you’re hiring a book blogger at Fiverr, be sure to tell them not to review your book at Amazon. Some of them — meaning well — add a “bonus” review at Amazon.

I always say, “Please do not review this book at Amazon, only at your blog.”

Professional resources for reviews

Interested in professionally-managed review resources?

Here are a few — info & distribution sites — to get you started: BookLook BloggersNetGalley  Both of those seem to be widely recommended.

I have less information about Online Book Club, which doesn’t look as polished. (If you’ve used them, successfully, be sure to let me know.)

This next site seems informal, but fairly straightforward about what they offer: https://www.thekindlebookreview.net/book-reviews/

Here’s a list — written for people who want ARCs — that includes traditional publishers as well as resources used by indies: http://smallreview.blogspot.com/2012/01/how-to-get-arcs-step-by-step-guide.html

Want to know what traditional publishers look for, when accepting people to their “street teams”? See this article: https://www.nosegraze.com/how-to-receive-physical-arcs-info-good-practices/

In addition, you can search for sites that offer a variety of free & discounted products (not just books), in exchange for honest Amazon reviews. Here’s one list: http://vonbeau.com/offer/get-free-and-discounted-products-to-review-on-amazon.htm (Verify each site’s practices and reputation, carefully, before participating.)

A few people have asked me about getting reviews through Amazon Vine. It isn’t quite as accessible for indies on a limited budget. Here’s one summary: http://www.anamardoll.com/2011/03/arcs-for-free-amazon-vine-and-vine.html

For more lists and information like this, use any search engine and start with sites that explain how to receive ARCs (as a reviewer). Generally, those articles list the largest numbers of resources.

Then, see what indies say — at their own sites and in forums — about those resources. And, of course, be sure those posts are current.

For Wildly Successful Marketing: Evoke Emotions

buy nowRecently, I’ve attended several webinars about book marketing. Most of them were snooze-worthy, repeating things I’d heard before.

I’m not always sure where this kind of information originates, but when I do know, I tell you about it.

Meanwhile, by the time it’s diluted four or five times — in the Internet Marketing version of “post office” — it’s lost a lot of its impact… as well as some key points for success.

For those with deep pockets, I know that Nick Stephenson’s book marketing training is superb.

Much of what I hear & see, online, is a watered-down version of what he recommends. And, sadly, those watered-down versions often omit key points Nick (and no one else) shared, but authors really need to know.

Don’t despair. If your favorite price tag says “free” on it, you’re in luck. Nick also provides free training, Your First 10k Readers. (I’ve raved about it, before, and still do.)

Follow his advice before investing in any “budget priced” book marketing courses. Nick’s course may be all you need to catapult your book sales into a far higher range.

One topic repeated in several webinars is the use of emotions — words and images — in book marketing.

Here are some of my notes.

Use power words in book descriptions, landing pages, etc.

For the best words to use, I’ve heard phrases like “emotionally charged” and “semantically charged” words.

The latter phrase tends to show up most often in NLP discussions. Here’s one: http://www.nlpisfun.com/2012/09/nlp-semantically-charged-words.html 

  • If you’re an absolute geek, you may appreciate details of the McKenna & Sharma study, but it’s not for most people. And it’s not about marketing, per se. http://file.scirp.org/pdf/PSYCH20120700004_72377156.pdf )
  • Also, this isn’t the same thing as “selling the feeling.” From my viewpoint, that’s a very different kind of marketing, better suited to selling cars and other high-ticket items.

Indie authors may glean useful tips from articles like How to Evoke Emotions in Your Landing Pages (from Hubspot), and the original words list they mention, List of Feeling Words.

Using the latter list, plus a handy thesaurus (like Thesaurus.com), can bring extra impact to your book sales.

My thoughts…? If emotionally charged words are good enough for Jamie Oliver’s marketing, they’re good enough for me.

Make your book descriptions richer with words that match the tone of your book… amplified, slightly.

However, a too-gushy sales page will send readers running in the other direction.

My simplest advice: Add two or three obviously powerful words in your first sentence (or in the first 20-or-so words, if you’re not writing lengthy sentences). But that’s a generalization; your results may vary.

If you’re still blinking and wondering just how to use words like those — when, where, and how many — I recommend Bill Platt’s Hypnotic Book Descriptions.

In that report (selling for around $21, at the time I wrote this), Bill goes into excruciating detail about what works and why.

Much of his 51-page report is loaded (maybe overloaded) with the kinds of stories and phrases to use in your book descriptions, sales letters, and emails to readers.

And, he includes a 33-page bonus of already researched and categorized word lists related to specific emotions you might want to generate in your potential book buyer. For me, that was a real time-saver.

The main report…? I’m condensing his important points — and his (very useful) book description templates — to about two pages, to keep as a reference in my marketing notebook.

However, that’s my reaction. I’ve been involved in marketing since forever, so a lot of what Bill said wasn’t news for me. I just needed his report’s nudge to get me to use what I know. That nudge was worth the money.

At the moment, adding emotionally charged words to your marketing seems to be a very hot topic. The free resources I’ve linked to should get you started.

If you need more insights, Bill’s information is very good.

Other than that…? So far, after watching far too many book marketing webinars, I can’t recommend anything new in the $17 – $297 price range. (And, to me, it looks like a lot of people who used to sell $37 reports and courses have marked them — and new, similar training products — up to $197 and higher, without adding more value.)

Best freebies I’ve found, recently: Nick’s “First 10k Readers” training, and the articles at Dave Chesson’s Kindlepreneur site.

And now, I’m getting back to my books.

If you’ve found some good marketing freebies, or have insights about emotionally charged words, I hope you’ll share them in comments, below.

Books, Titles, and Changes

How to Write Fast Books
Click the cover to buy at Amazon.com

A month after moving to our new home, I’m still unpacking boxes and reorganizing closets & cabinets. So, I’ve barely updated this website.

However, a few people (okay, more than a few) noticed the new title & cover on my “how to write viral nonfiction” book. They want to know if it’s a new version.

It’s not. It’s the same book.

I’m testing a new title (thanks to advice from Nick Stephenson, of “Your First 10,000 Readers” fame) and a new cover (designed by vikncharlie at Fiverr.com), to see if that will spark more interest.

The following is my article explaining what worked, what didn’t, and why, thanks to a brilliant suggestion by my friend, Angie W.

This book developed from my article series about writing what I’d called “flash in the pan” books. These books are researched and written in a flash, and focus on a popular topic, usually something appearing in news headlines.

Generally, those books sell well — with little or no marketing — for two or three months, earning me a comfortable four figures, per book. Since I write them in under two weeks, my immediate income can work out to $50 to $100 per hour spent on the book.

Some of those books abruptly stop selling. (If I make “only” $50/hour for the fascinating time I spend on them, it’s okay with me.)

Others, like one I wrote in early 2013, keeps selling at a steady pace… but not even close to its initial popularity (when the topic was in world headlines).

In the past six months, that one book has earned me $209.58 in royalties, just from U.S. and U.K. sales via Amazon.

That’s pretty good for a book I haven’t touched in over three years.

(A few of my other “fast books” continue to sell in a slightly lower range. It’s purely passive income, and stacks nicely.)

Anyway… responding to my site visitors’ requests, I wrote a book (in under 10 days, so people could see what one looks like) explaining how to research and write those kinds of books. I left nothing out.

Write Successful Flash in the Pan BooksIt first appeared as “Write Successful Flash in the Pan Books in 10 Days or Less.” It sold okay… but not great. The “flash in the pan” phrase didn’t make sense to people.

(That’s the original book cover, on the left. I liked it a lot, but I was more interested in sharing my “secret” methods with others.)

So, I went back to the drawing board.

I changed the title, calling my books “viral nonfiction,” and gave the book a new cover. This conveyed the idea, better.

Write Successful Viral Nonfiction BooksAfter that, the book sold well for a long time.

Then, sales tapered off. I hadn’t done any real marketing for the book, and others — writing books on similar concepts, and marketing them in a big way — left me in the dust.

Still… it’s a good book. The information in it can help bright, aspiring writers who enjoy research and need (or at least want) a chance to earn more book royalties, quickly.

Viral Nonfiction - disastrous coverSo, I tried another cover. That’s it, at the left. It closely mimicked a successful, competing book… but not so much to be confused with it.

The new cover was a disaster. Sales came to an abrupt halt. I quickly pulled the plug on the new design.

I went back to the previous cover, and sales resumed, but I felt that the book could do better.

Of course, almost every book will have a gradual sales decline. I was ready to accept that, if I had to. But first, I wanted to do some sleuthing.

I asked a few brutally honest friends about the book. All of them loved what was inside, but feedback about the cover I’d designed myself — and particularly my font choice — suggested that it looked “dated.”

Ouch.

Then, when I started taking a course taught by Nick Stephenson, I saw that my book title wasn’t exactly keyword-friendly. (Understatement.) People search for “write fast books,” not “write viral nonfiction books.”

After fine-tuning the title (using free Amazon keyword sites like Scientific Seller), I paid vikncharlie (at Fiverr.com) to design a new cover.

So, that’s what’s changed. Currently, sales are still in a low range — one or two copies sold, per day — but that’s far better than the previous month (when I still used the old cover).

If you already own this book, the information hasn’t changed. Only the cover and title have.

Story Grid Plotting

Here’s a meme I want to share with you, today.  (I’m not usually a meme person, but I make exceptions when their messages are inspiring.)

Martha Graham quotation about creative expression.In a recent article, I talked about “good enough” fiction and the next level of writing resources.

For me, this particular journey started when I watched Geoff Shaw’s Udemy course about reverse engineering riveting stories. (I raised an eyebrow at the ease of his system… until I tried it. Wow. In a future article, I’ll explain in more detail.)

After seeing the difference between “good enough” fiction templates and truly powerful story beats, I went looking for more insights.

I found them in a series of videos at Shawn Coyne’s StoryGrid.com.

To make it easy for you to see why his information is important — but probably best for experienced writers — I’ve posted them, below. (You can also view them sequentially at his Story Grid Mini-Course page. There, he also shares transcripts, if you’d rather savor the written word.)

Also, if you’re looking for Shawn’s worksheets, click here for his resources page.

I’m still kind of overwhelmed by these concepts, and I have ordered his book. (His bookstore/website has it in ebook format for the lowest price.)

Careers, Learning Curves, and “Good Enough”

Edison on successIn the past few weeks — when I haven’t been moving to a new home and moving all of my websites to new hosting — I’ve been aggressively studying fiction writing, especially plotting.

I tend to write conflict- or plot-driven stories, rather than character-driven stories. So, polishing my plotting skills seems a good place to start.

But, two things surprised me in my recent studies.

The Clone This Course

One was a course that seemed like pure gold. (No, it’s not actually called “Clone This.”)

In fact, I’ve recommended it, and still do for beginning writers and early intermediates. Nevertheless, going through it a second time, a couple of things made me pause.

First, the instructor reminded students that he was teaching us to write books with a shelf life. They’ll achieve popularity and then see a gradual decay in sales.

So, to maintain income, he recommended writing a steady stream of books, as often as once a month or even more.

For new writers, turning out good books at that pace can be daunting.

Don’t let that deter you. In fact, it’s a good way to learn to write… as long as you publish under a pen name you can walk away from, if you later realize those books weren’t so great, after all.

Keep writing, and keep it as simple as you can.

Just keep writing.

The second issue from that course was the plot template he provided.

For many genres, it’s a good (maybe great), solid template.

For others, it would kill your book within the first chapter, unless you’re a skilled writer who can create conflict and suspense from the first line. (And if you are that kind of writer, I’m not sure why you’d be taking that course. Not unless you wanted to turn out some quick, by-the-numbers fiction.)

So, familiarity with the sub-genre you’re writing in (something the course advocates) is essential. And, in a later article, I’ll talk about creating your own templates.

The Jump-Start Your Plot Course

The other surprise was reviewing a course I recommend for brainstorming plot ideas. It’s still an excellent course, but — since taking it — I found at least one more in-depth (and free) resource that may have inspired some of her recommendations.

The problem is, the free (and more detailed) resource could be daunting for anyone not already familiar with plotting, story beats, and so on.

So, the simpler courses are the place to start, if you’re new to fiction, or maybe even an intermediate writer.

My Advice

Many inexpensive courses and reports are excellent for beginners. They give you a starting point that is likely (but not guaranteed) to help you write a story, novella, or novel that can succeed… at least in the short term.

That writing experience will help you progress along the learning curve so you’re ready for more technical resources.

In addition, if you’re not writing as a career, and you’re only in this for the income, courses like these can be “good enough” information to produce “good enough” books.

So, as I share more advanced resources and insights in upcoming articles, keep this in mind: Sometimes, an entry-level course may be exactly what you need, even if it’s not the ultimate resource or even the best. Think of it as an apprenticeship, when by-the-numbers is the best starting point.

Whether you move forward from those courses depends on:

  • Your growing confidence as a writer
  • Your long-term goals, and…
  • Whether “good enough is good enough.”

In the near future, I’ll talk about resources that can turn your casual writing efforts into a successful career. They’re just not for the faint of heart, or for aspiring authors already overwhelmed by the challenges of writing fiction. And, I wanted to be sure you know that before you leap on what I’ll recommend.

Small Changes, Bigger Profits

First of all: In the next few days (today, Friday, or Monday), I’ll move this website to new hosting. While the site is in-transit, if you visit eibhlin.com/writing, you’ll see a blank page or error message… and the next day, it will be back.

Next, here’s something I posted at G+ (in Ryan Leonard’s “Kindle Publishing Re-Imagined” community) that may be helpful:

upward trending graphIt’s stat day for me. I check my numbers every Thursday, based on the previous (Thurs > Wed) week.

That means I can sit down and analyze the numbers on Friday, see what I’d changed and what may still need some tweaks, and plan my upcoming week. (It’s probably a hyper-organized Virgo thing.)

So, that’s what I’ll do tomorrow morning: Analyze my numbers, in depth.

But, one thing leaps off my income graphs today: A very nice surge in my KDP sales.  In fact, my KDP sales income increased 50%.

Sure, my numbers always increase slightly in the second week of most months.

Here’s why: People pay their rents on the first of the month, and tighten their belts a little during the week (or so) that follows. So, my per-title sales often slump, slightly.

And then, the next week (second week of the month)… people go back to buying books.

This week’s surge in KDP numbers was far more than the usual uptick.Since we were moving — something that’s taken up much of my past two or three weeks — I didn’t complete new books, or change book covers or descriptions.

And since I’m not doing any real marketing until I’m deeper into Nick Stephenson’s course, I can’t say anything changed in my marketing; there was none.

I did change two (and a half) things, on about half of my books in KDP:

1) I adjusted my prices so they’re at — or more in line with — the prices recommended by the beta KDP Pricing Support software. (That’s on the pricing page for your book, at your KDP dashboard.)

For me, that usually means increasing my prices. I often start with a low price (and an eye-catching cover) that’s almost irresistible, to get some buzz going.

2) I went through my keywords and removed any words that were already in the title of the book. Then, I reached a little further into names of related sub-genres and themes, and added those words.

When in doubt, go through your reviews — and reviews of competing books — and look for words that stand out.

3) The half-change was to restore every book I’d retired when it came out as part of a box set. And, I increased the related boxed set price so it matched (or was close to) the price recommended by KDP Pricing Support.

(Until then, I’d figured the individual books weren’t really selling any more, so I took them out of circulation. And, it appears that bargain-pricing my boxed sets wasn’t a red-hot idea.)

I’m not sure if that helps anyone… but there it is. I may find additional reasons for my KDP sales surge, when I analyze the numbers more closely. However, I’m about 99% sure those two-and-a-half changes are what led to this week’s 50% increase in KDP income.

–illustration courtesy of Krzysztof Baranski at freeimages.com