Friday, June 20, 2014

Amazon - The Good And The Bad

Amazon revolutionised the publishing world with its KDP Kindle-publishing program, which allows pretty much anyone to publish pretty much anything.

It's transformed the way I work and made me one of the top UK eBook authors. Generally KDP is fast and efficient and works without a hitch.

Amazon is able to boost sales in a way that the regular publishers can't, in particular with its Kindle Daily Deal promotion, where they reduce the price of an eBook and promote it like crazy.  It's an awesome marketing tool, and it can take a book from nowhere to the top of the bestselling charts. Yesterday Amazon did just that with my book Once Bitten, which they now publish through their Thomas and Mercer imprint.

It usually sells for £3.49 and languishes down in the 5,000 level of the bestseller charts, selling just a few copies a day.

Yesterday Amazon cut the price to 99p and promoted it, and within hours it was at Number 11. That means it sold at least 1,000 copies, which is great going.

The sales boost of the Kindle Daily Deal program runs for more than the one day the price is reduced because it raises the profile of the book.  Amazon have done this several times with another of my books they publish through Thomas and Mercer, The Basement.

When Amazon does something well, it does it really well. I can't think of a better way of promoting a book than the Kindle Daily Deal.

But when Amazon does something less than well, it can be really, really annoying.  I've had an ongoing problem with releasing free books on the Kindle, and the problem is getting worse over the years.

When I first started self-publishing on Amazon, I realised that giving away books and short stories for free was a great way of raising my profile.

Amazon generally has a minimum price of 99 cents and won't allow you to automatically list a book for free. But they do carry out what they call price-matching, where if the book is available anywhere at a lower price than it is listed on Amazon they will reduce the price accordingly.  When I first started self-publishing I was able to email contacts at Amazon's head office in Seattle, tell them I was making a book free on Smashwords and they would pretty much immediately make it free on the Kindle. It was a great system and I put up several books for free. It paid off, brought in new readers, and lifted sales of all my books.

As the months have passed, Amazon has become much less approachable, and these days writers have to wait much longer for price-matching to occur. And email requests to speed up the process are usually met with a standard response, along the lines that it is up to readers to point out a cheaper price and that if enough do so, price-matching might take place.  I have to say I find that very frustrating. If Amazon was serious about price-matching, and offering its customers the best deal, then surely it should enough that the author tells them about the lower price?  But no, it's not enough. Even when I have sent them the link to the free book elsewhere they have still refused to immediately price-match.

I'm having that problem now with a compendium of short stories I have just published - More Short Fuses.  It follows on from a similar book I published last year, Short Fuses, which is already free on Kindle.  I know that more than a dozen readers have already pointed out to Amazon that More Short Fuses is already free on Smashwords, but they have yet to price match. I've emailed Amazon but that hasn't got me anywhere. Like I said, I don't know why they make it so difficult, but from my experience complaining won't get me anywhere.

Anyway, you can see More Short Fuses for the Kindle  HERE

But if it's not free, please don't buy it!  Just report it as cheaper elsewhere and get it free from Smashwords  HERE

Sunday, May 25, 2014

How A Cover Revamp Can Boost Sales

A month I ago I decided to revamp the cover of my book of free short stories - SHORT FUSES.  There wasn't much wrong with the first version, I just felt it could do with freshening up.

The old version is on the left, the newer version, by designer DEREK MURPHY, is on the right.

The revamped cover had an immediate effect on downloads (I can't really call them sales as Short Fuses is free) as you can see from the following chart.

It looks to me that in March I was averaging between 60 and 70 downloads a day. In April that had fallen to about 50 a day.  But following the cover revamp on April 24, downloads rose quickly, to a peak of 112, and overall seems to be averaging about 90.  That seems to me to be pretty conclusive - revamping a cover can boost your downloads. I guess the big question is does it work as well with paid-for titles. We shall see!

You can download Short Fuses for FREE by clicking HERE

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Dealing With Trolls

Every self-published writer sooner or later has to deal with trolls. That's just the way the world is these days, unfortunately.  Part of being a self-published writer in the brave new world of ePublishing means going out and marketing books, which means drawing attention to your self. The downside is that sometimes that attention can be negative rather than positive.

Every writer gets bad reviews at some point, and while I've always said that I can learn more from a bad review than a good review, it's also true that some reviews are just plain malicious.  Writers can also get trolled on their blog, on social media, and on forums.

So what should you do when confronted by a troll, someone who wants to give you grief in public?

The best thing to do, by far, is ignore them. If you do, eventually they will realise that they are not provoking a reaction and move on to someone else. There is almost nothing to be gained by interacting with them. The same goes for reviews. If you get a bad review then read it carefully to see if there is anything helpful in it, but if it seems to me malicious, don't rise to the bait and reply.

Some of the best advice on dealing with trolls comes from self-publishing guru Joe Konrath. His mantra is - ignore them. –  ALWAYS GREAT ADVICE FROM JOE KONRATH

Prior to the ePublishing revolution, marketing was something that the publisher did on behalf of the writer. Publishers would arrange book tours, set up interviews with newspapers, magazines and radio stations, and arrange tours of bookshops. These days most self-published writers have to do their own marketing, and that means blogging or using social media. And the sad fact is, the more you use social media, the more likely you are to be trolled.

I’ve never really seen the point of Twitter. Most of the time it seems to be a lot of people shouting and no one listening. My first twitter account - @stephenleather – was opened by a fan a few years ago who said that he thought it would be an important marketing tool. He sent me the log-in details and gave the account to me.

While I do use it – and another account @firstparagraph – I have to say that I’m not a big fan and don’t use it much. I prefer to keep in touch with readers through my Facebook page or email.  But I do check in every day or so because some readers like to use Twitter to tell me their thoughts or ask about my work. The problem with Twitter is that it can be quite a cruel place at times. There is a lot of bullying and sheer stupidity on Twitter that in my humble opinion is a waste of time and best avoided. I have had my fair share of insults thrown at me on Twitter and I have learned from experience that they are best ignored. It’s a bit like having someone shout abuse at you in the street –there is almost certainly an element of mental instability involved and nothing good ever comes from confronting the abuser. Walking away is always the best thing to do!

What came as something of a surprise to me was the type of person who trolls on Twitter. You would think that the average troll would be young, ill-educated, possibly unemployed and with too much time on their hands. In fact in my experience it's very much the opposite - when I am trolled it tends to be by middle-class, middle-aged professionals with a university education.

Recently when I was on seeing if there were questions from fans, I noticed that someone I had never heard of had mentioned me. It was a chap called Howard Jones, and he posted a very strange Tweet. Someone had posted about a character called Mo Ansar being evasive  and Howard Jones then Tweeted ‘Makes Stephen Leather look easy to pin down.’

I had never heard of Howard Jones but according to his Twitter profile he is a barrister, politician, historian and cricket lover.

Now I was worried, because when a barrister says that you are hard to pin down, it suggests that he has met you and gathered that impression from something you had done. And I was very sure that I had never met Howard Jones, in his professional capacity or indeed in any capacity.

To be honest, I did worry that people might think that he had questioned me in court!

He obviously wasn’t an anonymous troll, he’s clearly a real person, and an educated one at that.  It could of course have been a case of mistaken identity, so I decided to make contact with Howard Jones just to check what on earth was going on.

I Googled him and the only ‘HOWARD JONES, BARRISTER’ appeared to be at the Carmelite Chambers in London, a venerable and much-respected firm. – CARMELITE CHAMBERS

This actually worried me even more – it wasn’t a random stranger casting aspersions on my character but a barrister from a leading City firm.

I sent an email to the firm asking if Mr Jones would please contact me but they didn’t reply, so I picked up the phone and called them. It seems that he doesn’t work there any longer and the charming lady on reception said she didn’t know where he worked now.

According to Google,  Howards Jones’ last case through Carmelite appears to be back in September 2010 – there is a newspaper article about it here -

I wasn’t sure what to do as I didn’t want to send him a public Tweet but then I noticed that he was following my @firstparagraph account.  I was following him and he was following me, and when two people follow each other they can send each other a direct message, a Tweet that only they can see. A private Tweet. So I sent Howard Jones a private Tweet, just for his eyes, saying that I wanted to get in touch with him.

Unfortunately, instead of getting in touch as I’d asked, he then fired off four public tweets, for everyone to read.

In the public Tweets he said that I had been putting some time and research into trying to get in touch with him. That’s a bit of an exaggeration as I spent just one minute on Google and one minute on the phone. Ten seconds to send him a private Tweet.

And he made it seem as if I had been doing something wrong in following him –  completely ignoring the fact that he was following me.  If he hadn’t been following me, I wouldn’t have been able to send him a Direct Message.

But what really worried me was his public comment – “Should I expect grief or do you have to be a fellow writer to get grief?’

I was stunned that a barrister would think it appropriate to ask such a leading question in public.  It’s on a par with the legendary ‘how long have you been beating your wife’ question. I doubt any judge would allow such a question in court and I don’t understand why he felt it necessary to say that in public. All I wanted to do was to talk to him, to ask him why he felt that I was hard to pin down when he had never even spoken to me. Why would I want to cause him grief?  It looks like I’ll never know because I certainly don’t want to start a conversation with him in public and he’s clearly not interested in talking to me man-to-man.

As I said, I’m not sure where Howard Jones works now. His last chambers said they didn’t know where he had gone. I did notice that not long after he sent the Tweets, he changed his profile to say that he was a non-practising barrister.

Howard Jones is now determined to follow a career in politics. Hopefully he'll feel able to talk directly to voters and won't insist on communicating through Twitter.

So why did a middle-aged, middle-class, university-educated professional seek me out to cast aspersions on my character in a public forum? But refuse to interact with me as in individual?  I'll probably never know. But Howard Jones isn't alone.

Not long afterwards, another middle-aged, middle-class, university-educated professional took to Twitter to have a go at me.

I have to say that it's a very middle-class way of attacking me, and I guess that most of my readers won't even know who Johann Hari and Mo Ansar are.  But trust me, when Mobeena Khan sent that Tweet she wasn't trying to do me any favours!

Now, I didn't know Mobeena Khan, I've never met her, never spoken to her or about her, and until she sent that Tweet I had no idea who she was.

It turns out that Mobeena Khan is the editor of the journal of the Public and Mobile Libraries Group for Hertfordshire Libraries and has a BA and an MA in Literature, so she is clearly well-educated. I am a huge fan of libraries. I spent much of my youth in the local library and these days I do whatever I can to support the library system. I'm also very proud of the fact that I am one of the most borrowed authors in UK libraries. So why would a librarian decide I'm fair game for abuse?  I have no doubt that if I met her at a dinner party or in a bar I'd find her articulate, pleasant and polite.  So why would a middle-aged, middle-class professional decide that it is acceptable to cast aspersions on the character of someone they have never met, in public? The same goes for Howard Jones. I have no doubt at all that neither Howard Jones nor Mobeena Khan would behave like that if they actually met me.  But there is something about social media that encourages people like Howard Jones and Mobeena Khan to behave badly.

So, going back to the question of dealing with trolls. Ignoring them is the only way of dealing with it. Read Joe Konrath's advice and follow it. Oh, and if you can develop a thick skin, that will help!

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Blood Bath - Almost 10,000 Copies Downloaded Already

Blood Bath - a collection of seven Jack Nightingale short stories - has just entered the UK Kindle Top 30, which is pretty good going as it was only published a couple of weeks ago.  In fact today it is at number 26, it's highest ranking so far. Around the world it has been downloaded almost 10,000 times and is still going strong.

What makes Blood Bath different from most books is that I bought the cover - and the title - long before I wrote the story.  I saw the cover on the website of Brandi Doane McCann who has done several covers for me, including the US editions of Lastnight and Nightshade and several of the Spider Shepherd short stories. She's a cracking designer and her covers are very reasonably priced.

You can see more of Brandi's work by clicking HERE

I thought the cover was so brilliant that I bought it without even having an idea for a plot!

I finally got around to writing a short story to go with the title and cover earlier this year, but I thought it might be a good idea to see what other writers would do with it.

I asked if anyone else wanted to have a go and to my delight six other writers came forward with stories, including bestselling thriller writer Matt Hilton, author of the Joe Hunter series. He joined writers Alex Shaw, Conrad Jones and Andrew Peters, and Nightingale fans Robert Waterman and Lynnette Waterman.  All put their own spin on the character, and it was fascinating to see how different writers built such different stories based on a cover and a title.

Blood Bath is free - you can get it at Smashwords for all eReaders or for the Kindle by clicking HERE

The book is still being downloaded almost 600 times a day. A lot of those will be Jack Nightingale fans, but I hope I will also be attracting new readers, readers who will hopefully go on to become fans.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Judging A Book By Its Cover

Back in June 2012, I self-published a collection of free short stories - Short Fuses. Since then it has been downloaded more than 50,000 times, which is a success in any terms. The book is a marketing tool - along with the four free short stories I have included opening chapters of half a dozen of my bestsellers, which I hope will bring in new readers.

Recently I decided to refresh the cover, and went to Derek Murphy at creativeINDIE for advice. Derek is an expert at revamping tired covers - you can see his website HERE

I told Derek I'd like something similar, but more modern, cleaner, and with more impact.

He came back with three suggestions.

I liked all three suggestions, but after I had received feedback from my Facebook friends, I settled on the one on the right, with a slight tweak. I thought that having my name on one line would look better.

Derek figured that having FOUR EXCITING SHORT STORIES above the title would have more impact, and I agreed.

So, we agreed on the cover on the left, and I posted it on Amazon and Smashwords on April 25. I think it definitely looks cleaner and more modern, the question is will changing a cover alone increase sales?

Over the first three weeks of April, I averaged 55 downloads a day.

A week after putting up the new cover, I was averaging 64 downloads a day. Yesterday almost 80 copies were downloaded.

Part of that increase might have been because I Tweeted about the change, but there's no doubt sales are higher. I'll watch it over the next few weeks and see if that surge in sales continues.

You can download Short Fuses for free at 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

My Writing Life

There was a time, not so long ago, when I lived in Duke Street, opposite the Duke pub in the centre of Dublin. Outside my window every summer evening the Dublin Literary Pub Crawl would start its journey around the city’s pubs. The Irish literary greats – Joyce, Beckett, Wilde – were discussed with vigour and humour by two actors, and the pub crawl is a must-do for tourists. But in all the time that lived in the city (almost twenty years), never once did a tour guide pointed up at my flat and say – ‘and this is where thriller writer Stephen Leather is working on his latest bestseller.’ But during my first twenty years as a full time writer, that’s how I worked. I delivered a book at the end of June and every May, like an elephant returning to die, I would go back to my one-bedroom flat to finish whatever book I was working on.

I would unlock the front door and make my way up the stairs, laden with bags of microwaveable food from the Marks and Spencer food hall in Grafton Street. I would open my laptop and start to write. And that’s all I would do for the next three or four weeks, rushing to meet my deadline.

I always liken writing a book to riding a rollercoaster. Back then a book took me a year, pretty much, from start to finish. I would spend the first three months dithering about whether or not to get on the rollercoaster. I would meet contacts, I read, I trawled the internet. I would go drinking with cops, spies and villains, looking for characters and plots to use in the book. That’s what most writers call research but in my case it’s just me postponing the moment when I start to write.
I tend not to make notes while I’m researching, maybe just the odd scribble on a Post-It note. I do rip cuttings from newspapers and magazines, and use a highlighter on passages in books that interest me. When I do write I tend to give each character an index card and make notes about their characteristics. That way when I write a scene with several characters interacting, I have the cards next to me so that I can easily recall hair colour, favourite drink, jewellery, type of watch, all the niggling details that are so easy to forget.
Before I became a full-time fiction writer, I was journalist. I wrote my first book –Pay Off – while I was working for the Daily Mirror newspaper in London, and I wrote my second and third – The Fireman and Hungry Ghost – during a three-year stint in Hong Kong as Business Editor of the South China Morning Post. But it was only after I wrote The Chinaman while working for The Times in London that I started writing full-time. And for the first twenty years of my writing career I had only the one deadline – to deliver a book by the end of June.
Journalists are famous for always meeting deadlines at the last minute, and I’m no exception. Even when I finally did open my laptop computer and start to write, I would only do four or five hundred words a day, equivalent to just over a page. I didn’t write every day, and it wouldn’t be unusual for a week or two to go by without me opening the laptop. This period of writing is the rollercoaster equivalent of the long haul to the top. I would laying down the plot, defining the characters, setting the scene. It was actually hard work and not much fun.  In May each year, as my deadline loomed, I would lock myself away in my flat in Dublin. While I was writing, I wouldn’t answer the phone or the doorbell. My friends knew that there was no point in trying to contact me in May or June. It’s the rollercoaster equivalent of hurtling down the ride and once I reached that point there was no stopping me.  It’s the part of writing that every writer loves, the point where you’re so involved in the story that it becomes real, where the characters take on a life of their own and where all the writer is doing is describing what’s happening. It’s the point where my characters start speaking with their own voices and they surprise me and make me laugh at the things they say. I love it. It’s what I live for.
But that was when, back in what some writers think of as the golden age of publishing. Writers were expected to deliver a book once a year. If you offered a second, generally it would be refused with a smile, or the suggestion that you publish it under another name. There was a rhythm to publishing. You wrote a book and it would be published almost a year later as a hardback, at which time you would be delivering the new book. The new book would then be published the following year as a hardback, and the old book would be reissued as a paperback. That’s how almost all writers worked.
So what changed? Publishing did. In fact it didn’t just change – it was revolutionized. By the arrival of eBooks, and in particular by Amazon and their Kindle eReader.
Now printers, distribution networks, warehouses and shops are no longer necessary to sell books. Readers can download books straight to their eReaders, and now that shelf space is no longer an issue, writers are no longer tied to one book a year. In fact in the bold new world of ePublishing, writers are encouraged to be as productive as possible.
In my case, I write two books a year for my publisher, Hodder and Stoughton, then I write at least one more novel which I self-publish, plus as many as half a dozen short stories. Whereas I used to write about 120,000 words a year, now my output is closer to 350,000. Yes, I now write three times as many words a year as I used to. That’s one heck of a jump in productivity. And I don’t live in Dublin any more. The credit crunch put paid to that, I’m afraid.
I’ve always written with the television on, typing on my laptop which I put on the coffee table while I sit on the sofa. I’ve always worked with the television on. I was brought up in a house with four younger siblings so silence is an anathema to me. My working life as a journalist was spent in busy newsrooms and now the only time I need silence is when I sleep. The rest of the time I have the television on constantly.
Apart from the background noise, television is actually a big help creatively. Say I need a type of car for a character to drive. There’s bound to be a car on TV that I can use. Say I need the name for a new character. I wait until credits start to roll on a TV show and I get dozens of possible names. If I have to describe what a character is wearing, a few minutes watching a film or a soap opera will give me lots of possibilities.
The downside of working on the coffee table is that it plays havoc with my spine. In 2007 I started to get pains in my arms and it got worse in 2008. My GP prescribed anti-inflammatories and for a while they worked, but the pains kept coming back, coupled with frequent pins and needles in my hands. Eventually I went to a physiotherapist – a great guy who used to work on the New Zealand test cricket team. He reckoned that my working position was causing the pain, and that bending over the keyboard for twenty-odd years was finally taking its toll. That and the fact that I tend to sleep on my front with my head to the side. Anyway, he encouraged me to raise the keyboard and to keep my back straight as I type and it seems to have done the trick.

Do I miss the golden age of publishing? The days when I was expected to produce one book a year? Not really.  I enjoy stretching myself creatively, and I welcome the opportunity to tell more stories.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Self-publishing or Traditional Publishing - you choose!

There's been a lot of noise being generated on the internet about the merits of self-publishing over the last few days, so I thought I should throw in my two pennies worth (or two cents worth for my American friends).

It was started by a blog posting from self-publishing sensation Hugh Howey (The Wool series) who analysed a mountain of raw data from Amazon which seemed to prove that authors will always make more money by self-publishing.      YOU CAN SEE HUGH'S REPORT HERE

Self-publishing guru Joe Konrath spread the word on his blog - SEE IT HERE - and said it backed up what he has been saying for years, that self-publishing is the only sensible choice for an author.

Then battle commenced, and it actually got quite nasty.

I always find it strange how much vitriol Joe gets from traditionally-published authors. The reaction of British crime writer Mark Billingham is typical. This is how Mark Billingham talked about Joe Konrath on Twitter some time ago.

I don't see that there's any need for name-calling. Everyone is entitled to their opinion.  Joe thinks that self-publishing is the best deal for any author.  Other writers - such as Mark Billingham and Stuart Neville (WHO PUTS A GREAT CASE FOR TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING HERE) - prefer to be with a publisher.  It's horses for courses.

So what is my two-pennies worth?

It doesn't matter. Seriously. As Stuart Neville says on his blog, it's just noise. Discussing the pros and cons of self-publishing is a waste of time. Period.

Personally, I am following the hybrid route. I sell a lot of books through Hodder and Stoughton, a terrific traditional publisher.  I sell a lot of books through KDP and Smashwords, books that I have published myself.  And I sell a fair number of books through Amazon imprints Amazon Encore and 47 North.

In terms of earnings, I get the most cash from Hodder and Stoughton. Hodder and Stoughton get my books into the all-important supermarkets and the surviving book chains and get me into various Amazon promotions that aren't available to self-published writers.  There would be no advantage in my becoming a totally self-published author.  Yes I would get a higher royalty rate by self-publishing - Amazon give you 70 per cent on eBooks priced over $2.99.  But then I would lose the paperback sales, and that's worth a lot to me. And my books wouldn't be in public libraries. I take great pride in the fact that I am one of the most borrowed writers in the UK library system and I wouldn't want my novels not to be available to library users.

But that's just me. I don't have a view on what anyone else should do.  Joe Konrath made more than a million bucks last year selling eBooks (Disclaimer - I am a huge fan of his writing).  Writers like Lee Child make even more money being published traditionally. Hybrids like me get the best of both worlds. But which route you choose doesn't matter. At the end of the day it's your writing that matters, the system you use to deliver that writing to your readers isn't important. Energy spent on arguing with other writers about which is best is a total waste of valuable time, time that would be better spent writing. So that's my two pennies worth - now I'm going back to working on my new book.  Which will be  published this summer by Hodder and Stoughton.