What's in an Ending? Plenty.

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What's in an Ending? Plenty.

As you all know, I recently published my first novel, The Two Gates. It’s a speculative fiction story about John F. Kennedy’s assassination and the Vietnam War — sort of a mash-up of Steven King’s 11/22/63 and David Halberstam’s The Best and the Brightest. The story interweaves fact and fiction together is an interesting way; reviews have generally been good for a first book, and I’m pretty satisfied thus far.

My novel’s ending, however, has definitely created a strong opinion among my readers. The ending — without spoiling it for anyone who wants to read it — isn’t tied up in a perfect package, and asks the reader’s imagination to fill in a bunch of questions. It’s the exact opposite of the first ending I had in my initial draft, which provided a neat package for every character and answered every question anyone might have. In the end, it was just too neat. I wanted something messier, less conclusive.

Readers are definitely divided, however. Some didn’t say much about it, and others liked it. But more than a few said — and I quote — “I hated your ending.” At first I took that as a criticism, but then I realized that this is not necessarily a bad reaction. Did they hate it because they were left wanting more? That’s a positive. Or did they hate it because the felt empty and unsatisfied at the end? That’s less positive. Or did they simply feel like I didn’t do the main character — who they had come to care about — justice? That’s kind of a wash. At least they cared about the main character!

But the good news is they had a strong FEELING about the ending. And as a writer, that’s a great thing. So I’ll take that over readers closing the book in the end and saying “meh”.

No writer wants their readers to ever say “meh.”

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Self-publishing is NOT like the "Field of Dreams"

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Self-publishing is NOT like the "Field of Dreams"

My alt-history novel The Two Gates has been for sale on Amazon for about 10 days now. After a very modest launch, I decided to announce it on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter about a week ago. Like most first-time authors you expect that once your brilliant work is out in the world people will just gobble it up, and you'll find yourself swimming in orders. After all, you've worked for a year (or more) on it and it's your baby; how could everyone else not find it as irresistible as you do?

The reality is that self-publishing is not like the "Field of Dreams": just because you publish it doesn't mean they'll come. Over the past week, as an example, I've sold about 30 copies (ebook and print) of my novel. I'm assuming that most of those were purchased by people I know, but I can't be sure. I've gotten three reviews on Amazon, two from my Advanced Readers and one from someone (anonymous) who bought the book. They were all 5-star and provided good comments.

Now, I'm not sure whether 30 books in a week for a first-time author is good or not; extrapolated out on a straight-line basis that would be 1,500 books in a year. That's about what it would take to get my hard costs covered and barely break even. Now, such a straight-line projection doesn't account for the holiday buying season or any promotions I might do, so that's a pretty conservative number. But even if it's 2,000 books in the next 12 months, one thing is for sure: Daniel Silva has nothing to worry about.

A few weeks ago I had lunch with my friend Eliot Peper. Eliot started out as a self-published author and now has a 3-book deal with Amazon's traditional publishing house. Two things he said stuck with me:

  • First, you have to have multiple titles to generate momentum as a self-published author; only with a catalogue will you start to generate enough readers to make marketing and promotion work. People will be attracted to one of your books and then want to read the others. This was underscored by prolific author Hugh Howey, who has a great blog on writing that I encourage you to read. Hugh writes:
Promotion is a waste of time until you have enough material out there for each one to feed on the other. It’s not like those books are going away or growing stale. Wait until you have five or six novels published before you start to spread the word. Pour every spare minute and every ounce of energy into the writing while you can.

My friend Eliot vowed that he was going to write 10 books in 10 years and then see where he was at. This is the type of plan you need to have as a self-published author.

  • Second, until you have that back-catalogue, marketing is likely not going to be very effective. Eliot's own career was buttressed by a week of frenetic activity on Reddit where his book Cumulus went viral. Suddenly people were talking about it and he was selling hundreds and hundreds of books. He also received dozens or in-bound queries from literary agents wanting to sign him. This is not something he planned or could have orchestrated. It just happened.

All of which is to say, this is a marathon and not a sprint. You should write because you love it and because you feel you have something to say. Write continuously and put out the best product you can. Self-published books should be indistinguishable from those published by Random House or Penguin or any other publisher. With time and production, the odds are good that eventually you will hit a stride that will start to pay off both psychically and monetarily.

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Navigating the Amazon: Getting your book up for sale.

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Navigating the Amazon: Getting your book up for sale.

My advance copies are now in the hands of my readers and I'm patiently awaiting feedback on my novel. I've selected a mix of folks to read it -- some friends, some acquaintances and others who I know less well. I'm actually hoping for honest feedback and reviews that are real -- meaning not all "5 stars" on Amazon. Lots of great authors have mixed reviews; you can't please everyone!

So, over the past week I've been navigating Kindle Direct Publishing to get my novel up on Amazon. This is a lot more complicated than I thought it would be! In fact, the learning curve on this part is as steep as the writing and editing was.

Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is the publishing arm of Amazon that manages the book listings and facilitates the e-book publishing process. If all you are doing is a Kindle version, this is the only place you need to go. But if you want a paperback version as well (as I did) then you need to utilize Createspace, a business that Amazon bought but hasn't fully integrated into KDP. So you have to upload and proof your book in two different places. Once you've determined that your physical book meets your specifications, you approve it and it gets sent over to KDP for sale on Amazon.

As you can imagine, this is a bit confusing. When you first start out, you will publish two separate books (your Kindle version on KDP and your physical book on CS) and they will initially appear as two separate listings on Amazon. Within 72 hours Amazon promises to merge the listings together, so that when you click on your book you will have the Kindle and physical purchase options together.

The most important piece of this process is choosing your book's categories and keywords on Amazon. This was quite a process for me, because my novel falls into multiple genres and isn't as simple as categorizing a cookbook or a self-help book. Here again, KDP makes the process probably more complex than it should be. When you go to publish your book you have a choice of some very high-level categories -- fiction or non-fiction, etc. that you can drill down into. But the drilling is pretty limited, and you have only a fraction of the category choices you have when searching Amazon for books. I ended up settling on the high-level categories of Fiction/War and Fiction/Alternative History. Keep in mind that Amazon uses these high-level categories to initially channel your book to the right area of the "bookstore" but will further refine it as the process your book. In the end I ended up with these categories:

 

Since I'm just starting out, these seem fine to me. The good news is that you can adjust your categories whenever you want, and if you email KDP they will help you find a better category if you are unhappy with your current selections. Note: if you change your categories at KDP you will also have to as Createspace to do the same! It's double the trouble and is less than ideal, but right now that's the way this process works.

Ok, so now that the categories have been determined, the next critical step is selecting the keywords. This is like choosing terms for Amazon's search engine. The idea is not to duplicate words in the title or the description. So I chose things like "JFK assassination books", "military history", "Vietnam war books", etc. The idea is to mimic what people actually search for on Amazon. Hopefully these terms will work. And if not, they can easily be changed at anytime.

So, that's pretty much it to get your book up and live for the world to buy! The Two Gates is up and available here.

Next up: Book pricing and getting people to actually buy it! Easier said than done!

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My novel arrived in the mail Today. Now what?

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My novel arrived in the mail Today. Now what?

Today the postman brought me ten proof copies of my forthcoming book, The Two Gates, courtesy of Createspace.

My first thought was: Did I really write this?

It looks amazing. It feels amazing. It has heft. It's polished to a shine and looks, well, like a real book! Like something I would buy at bookstore! I'm incredibly excited!

So now I have a box of books on my kitchen table. What now?

Here's where your advance readers come in. They are people who you've enlisted to read your book in exchange for an honest review on Amazon and Goodreads.

I've selected about 20 people to be my advanced readers. These are people I think will actually read the book and leave a review. Meaning, they are avid readers or like the genre I've written in. Some of my advance readers requested digital files to read on their Kindle or iPad, and others wanted the hard copy book. Give your readers the book in the format they prefer! Reading a book and leaving a review is a commitment, and people are busy.You should expect that half of the people you ask will never follow through with a review, despite their best intentions.

And most of all, don't take it personally!

Your advance readers have a specific job, and that's to read and review your book by the launch date. The goal is to launch the book with as many reviews as possible. Typically, you will do a soft-launch on Amazon where the book is up for sale, and reviews can be left prior to you telling the world about it. This gives you time to build up some momentum with (hopefully) some positive buzz, and the first people who go to your Amazon page to find the book will see 8-10 reviews up.

Try to pick advance readers who like to read and like to talk to others about what they've read -- so if you can find people on Goodreads or other book sites that's a plus. Look for people who are active on social media and who can push out your book to the world. Every bit helps!

I've given my advance readers roughly two weeks to read the book and leave reviews. Hopefully I'll get a good response.

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Choosing your cover.

I just finished picking the cover for my debut novel, The Two Gates. It's due to launch on Amazon in mid September. After several years of writing, research and editing, I entered the book cover process thinking that it should be relatively easy to find a kick-ass cover. 

I have three goals for the cover:

  • I want it to be visually appealing, knowing that in this day and age, appearance is critical in getting people to click on it.

  • I want it to tell enough of the story to get my target audience -- historical/military/presidential fiction readers -- interested.

  • I want it to entice as many "other readers" as possible to learn more about the novel.

Those are probably pretty consistent with most indie authors goals for their cover design. So how hard could it be?

Pretty hard, actually!

I employed a shop called The Frontispiece to do the design for me. Kevin Kane and Emma Hall were fantastic and came up with all sorts of good ideas and angles for the visual presentation. They truly digested the book and gave me some great options. 

The problem wasn't them. It was me.

It's difficult as the author to synthesize what you want out of a cover because you are so close to the story; no cover can do your plot justice.

In my case, the plot of my novel has many sub-plots and storylines. While the novel hinges on a single event -- the non-assassination of JFK -- that's really only the beginning. And while it is about JFK, the main character is a fictional Army officer. It blends real history with fantasy, and so it's not easy to create a cover that reflects all of that.

I drove Kevin crazy with iterations of the designs that he came up with. Here's the one I finally settled on:

cover.jpg

As a historical fiction novel about a very famous president, my choices for art were severely limited by copyright restrictions. While there are a number of images of JFK in the public domain, I wanted something more artistic. I actually came up with idea of using the Kennedy Half Dollar profile, and Kevin was able to turn it into something truly unique!

I chose this cover for a number of reasons:

  • It's pretty recognizable as being about Kennedy in a way that doesn't scream "history book".
  • It clearly references war -- which is the backdrop of the story.
  • It clearly references Southeast Asia -- which is the setting for much of the action.

It leaves out a ton of the "what the book is about" but that's ok if the imagery is compelling enough for people to read the blurb. 

Has this accomplished that? I won't know until it launches.

What do you think?

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Just Write it.

I've always written a lot. For a long time I wrote a very active political blog. I gave that up when I realized I was starting to repeat myself. I've written a lot for work through the years, and have a few published credits to my name. 

But that was small stuff compared to writing an honest-to-goodness book. You know, something that has real chapters and actually has to tell a story. For a long time I dabbled -- in fact, I wrote the first 80 pages of what would become The Two Gates more than 10 years ago. But then I got bored and dropped it. I've written various chapters of other stories as well, only to let them languish for years. 

I was starting to think that I just wasn't a finisher.

Then I saw my good friend Eliot Peper. Eliot is now a full-fledged author of five novels (and counting!) and recently released a short story called True Blue. Eliot has worked as a VC, tech advisor and entrepreneur. But he really wanted to be a writer. So you know what he did?

He started writing!

Eliot convinced me to just write. To finish The Two Gates irregardless of whether anyone reads it. Just write it.

And so I did. And I'm going to keep at it. Nothing happens if you don't just write.

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