Saturday, July 28, 2012

Judging A Book By Its Cover

You shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, or so they say. But in fact most people do, and I’m convinced the fact that I go to a lot of trouble choosing designs for my covers was one of the reasons I sold more than half a million eBooks last year.

The simple fact is that most readers are influenced by the cover of a book, and with an eBook the choice of cover is doubly important.

In a book shop a potential buyer can hold the book and flick through the pages. With an eBook all a buyer gets to see is a thumbnail picture.  And if that picture looks amateurish or unappealing then the potential buyer will move on to the next book.

I’ve never done my own covers – I just don’t have the talent or the skills.  But I see lots of self-
published writers who mistakenly think that playing around with Photoshop is all that’s necessary to produce a cover that sells.  I always use a designer – and it’s paid off.  My bestselling eBook The Basement alone sold more than 150,000 copies in 2010.

Recently I decided to write a series of erotic short stories that I plan to sell through Kindle and Smashwords and wanted to try a new designer.  But through an accident of fate I ended up dealing with two designers – which gave me the chance to compare styles and prices.

My first port of call was a designer called Carl Graves.  Carl has done lots of covers for eBook guru and self-publishing phenomenon Joe Konrath.

Carl had a sale a few months ago and I snapped up one of his ready-made covers for just $150 and used it for my erotic short story Banging Bill’s Wife.  It was the perfect cover for that story and so when I wanted covers for three more erotic stories I sent him an email asking if he’d be interested. The stories – which at that point I hadn’t actually written – were THE ALPHABET GAME, THE PREGNANT WIFE and THE THREESOME.

I sent Carl a rough treatment of each story and waited to hear back from him. After a couple of weeks I emailed Carl again but when I still didn’t get a reply I started looking for another designer.  That’s not as easy as it sounds – I Googled and Googled but didn’t find many decent designers. Most appeared to be offering the same old designs done from the same templates, and I got the impression that a lot of the sites were simply middlemen and not actual designers. 

I tried one designer who had done two covers for a self-published writer friend of mine but he turned me down – I later discovered he is a committed Christian so I guess the subject matter was a problem for him!

Eventually I stumbled across Dafeenah Jameel at Indie Designz and sent her the treatments.  She offered to do three covers for a total of $175 (£110), which I reckoned was an absolute bargain.
But within hours of agreeing Dafeenah’s price, I got an email from Carl - he’d been having internet problems which is why I hadn’t heard back from him. Carl had already started work on the covers and was quoting me a price of $900 (£570) in total.  He usually charges $400 a cover but was giving me a discount.

Because both designers had already started work I thought it wouldn’t be fair to cancel either of them. And besides I realised it would give me a chance to compare their work – and prices.
Both came through with initial designs within a few days, and both were very open to suggestions.  Both had final designs finished within a week and to be honest I was well pleased with all of them.

It was interesting to see their different approaches. Carl does a lot of thrillers and horror books and has more of an “in your face” style.  Dafeenah has a softer approach with more of a “Mills and Boon” feel.
I think that’s best shown with the covers they did for THE ALPHABET GAME. Carl has a girl with a scorpion tattoo sitting astride a guy, and below them a Thai house on stilts.  (The house was one of the themes I specifically asked for).

Daffenah’s was much more romantic, with the couple sharing a kiss.

I put both covers up on my Facebook page and asked my fans for their views – and they were unanimous that Carl’s was the one they liked for an erotic story.  I agreed and that’s the one I’m using, but I really liked the cover that Dafeenah did so I asked her to put a different title on it. I’m planning a story called THE COUNTRY GIRL and I think her cover will be perfect for that.

For my story THE PREGNANT WIFE, I prefer Dafeenah’s cover, mainly because the female figure is so much more erotic.   But Carl’s cover does capture the theme of the book, about a guy who becomes besotted with a pregnant girl.

For THE THREESOME I prefer Carl’s cover, and I like the way he has the title in triplicate.  But I wouldn’t have a problem with using Dafeenah’s.

Dafeenah's version - 

Carl's version -

So who will I use in future?  Actually, I’m going to be using both. They were both very professional and they’re both very talented.

I think Carl is probably the better call for thrillers, and for novels that I know will generate a lot of sales.  He isn’t cheap so if a book is only selling a few dozen copies a month it will take a long time to earn enough to pay for one of his covers. And he's pretty slow at replying to emails, I guess because he is so busy.

Dafeenah’s covers seem more romantic and I’ll definitely use her for any more erotic stories that I write.  But her low prices mean that she’s a great bet for those books and stories that I give away for free.  I have already asked her to design a cover for an eBook of short stories that I’m planning called SHORT FUSES.  Because I’ll be giving the eBook away price is an important consideration and Dafeenah charged me less than £40. I would definitely recommend her for any self-published authors who are on a tight budget!

I’ll be putting the stories on Kindle and Smashwords over the next few weeks. I’m not sure how well they’ll sell but I am sure of one thing – they’ll be selling better than if I’d done the covers myself.

  Dafeenah’s website is at

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Appearing At Harrogate - The Plot Thickens

I’m just back from the Harrogate  Crime Writing Festival – three days of talks and events involving some of the country’s top crime-writing talent.  Why was I there?  Truth be told, I’m writing a short story called Inspector Zhang Goes To Harrogate where my Singaporean detective solves a locked room mystery in the Old Swan Hotel where the festival is based.

While I was there I appeared on a panel called 'Wanted for Murder: the e-book', where a group of us discussed ePublishing, a subject I do know a fair bit about.

It turned out to be quite a surreal experience.  Fun, but surreal.  Running the festival this year was Mark “Scaredy Cat” Billingham, one of the best writers in the business as well as a top stand-up comic.  Mark came over to me in the green room before the panel and had a quiet word with me. Basically there is a danger of the panels turning into a luvvie love-fest and he wanted me to take a view and be a tad confrontational if at all possible. He wanted the panel to be the talking point of the festival.  I’m never one to duck a good argument so I said I’d go for it.

In the chair was Channel 4 presenter Mark Lawson, and on the panel with me were a publisher, another writer who hasn’t sold many eBooks, an agent and a bookseller.  It was pretty much going to be four against one from the start.

                                                         Me and writer Matt Hilton at the festival

What surprised me was how the audience seemed so set against cheap eBooks.  Rather than taking my view that books are best sold at a price that readers find attractive, the general feeling of the audience seemed to be that books were already – as one man said – ‘cheap as chips’ while Norwegians had to pay £40 for one of Jo Nesbo’s books. When I explained that I had sold half a million eBooks last year, most of them for less than a quid, I was surprised to hear a few boos and hisses rather than the applause that I had expected.

The most surreal moment for me came when the President of the Publisher’s Association, Ursula Mackenzie, was trying to defend their policy of maintaining eBooks at a high price.  Basically she was saying that books needed to maintain their value and that 20p and free eBooks needed to be stamped on.

I understand her view, but I’m a big fan of selling eBooks at lower prices providing you can get high volumes of sales. And I’m happy enough to give books away if it helps to bring in new readers.

So I explain to Ursula – and the audience – that I can write a short story in five days and am happy to sell that at the Amazon minimum of 72p which generates me an income of 25p.


At this point in my blog I mentioned a comment that I remembered had come from Ursula about earning 5p a book.  Having heard the recording of the panel I realise that I had misremembered this and the comment was made by Mark Lawson. I owe Ursula an unreserved and total apology for this and I will be writing to her personally to apologise. Truly my memory let me down and I am so so sorry. I can only think that the stress of the panel caused caused my memory to play tricks on me.

The point I wanted to make - which applies to Mark's comment and not to anything that Ursula said - was that of course I don’t work for 5p a day.  My Inspector Zhang stories sell about five or six hundred copies a month. Each. So one story sells 6,000 copies a year. So over the next ten years it could sell 60,000 copies which means I’d get £15,000, which is £3,000 a day.

Mark turned to the conversation around to the cost of books and how much went to the publisher, and asked Ursula to justify why the publisher’s took the lion’s share.  She put forward the old arguments about editing and marketing and I tried to explain that with eBooks, an author with a large fan base can use fans to edit and proof-read.  Everyone seemed to think that meant I thought writers could do away with editors, and of course that’s not the case. But not every writer needs a hard edit, some writers need little more than proof-reading and fact-checking and that can be done through fans. And my Jack Nightingale series is edited by a full-time editor on my agent's staff so those books need very little editing by my publisher. Yes, I know that some authors need a lot of editing. But I don't.  

The audience were quite strange when I talked about piracy, and I thought I was about to be lynched when I said that I regarded pirates as helping to market my books.  Someone shouted ‘Tosser!’ which was a bit harsh. What was a bit surprising was that it seemed to come from Mark Billingham’s direction.

I didn’t really get a chance to explain what I meant, which was a pity. Of course mass piracy would destroy publishing and destroy my income. But controlled piracy, where pirated books represent a small fraction of the total books available, can be a help to get a writer better known.  My opinion is that readers who buy pirated copies wouldn’t buy the real book anyway. But once they have become a fan, they might. The reader who starts off buying a pirated copy of one of my books might move on to buying hardbacks. It happens.

But I didn’t get the chance to say that. I did meet a lot of self-published writers at the festival – writers like Kerry Wilkinson, Allan Guthrie, Mark Edwards and Louise Voss.  All have stormed up the Kindle charts selling low-priced books.  I’m not going to put words into anyone’s mouth but I can tell you that most of the self-published writers I know have no fear of piracy and most embrace it.  Publishers don’t get it.  They don’t get the whole DRM thing either, where eBooks are ‘protected’ except of course they’re not.  Ursula, representing the publishers, was vehement that DRM was a good thing. Even traditionally-published author Steve Mosby tried to explain that DRM doesn’t work and isn’t fair in that it stops a reader transferring a book that he has already bought between different devices.  But Ursula wouldn’t have it.  I should say at this point that I was talking to one of the really big names at the festival and he has a Kindle and he has a neat little program that removes the DRM protection. I would love to tell you who it is but my lips are sealed!

Ursula was easy to argue with, as was the token agent, Philip Patterson. He was a lovely guy and I do feel guilty about blind-siding him with the question that most writers have – what exactly does an agent do to earn his 15 per cent when a writer sells most of his books through Amazon with whom there is almost no room for negotiation.  He didn’t come up with an answer and I did apologise to him afterwards.  The simple fact is that if a writer is self-publishing eBooks then he doesn’t need an agent.  Of course if that self-published author is then approached by a publishing house, that’s when you do need an agent in your corner.

What was strange is how a couple of agents started tweeting quite nastily about me.  One wondered how I would sell my foreign rights without an agent.  That’s a good question. I’d sell them myself, it’s not difficult. And in my experience, foreign rights barely cover the 15 per cent of the main UK deal.

Frankly I think publishers and agents are going to have a difficult few years as the whole eBook business works itself out.  And so are the book sellers. But of all the people on the panel, other than myself of course, I thought that the token bookseller was the guy who was most ready to take advantage of it. He was Patrick Neale of JaffĂ© and Neale Bookshop in Chipping Norton.  He’s a very smart guy who really understands his trade.  I think that the large book chains, the ones that are left, are going to be in big trouble soon but guys like Patrick can survive and prosper.  He’s seen a boom in hardback sales, but is also selling coffee in his shop and looking to profit from eBook sales. It was clear from listening to him that he is adapting his business to take advantage of the way books are changing, as opposed to the publishers who are fighting to maintain the status quo.

I guess the reason the audience were so unsympathetic to my views on piracy and low prices is because they weren't my core readership. I guess the big question is how my views would be received by a younger audience.  Hopefully they wouldn’t shout ‘tosser!’

Anyway, Mark Billingham came up to me afterwards, shook my hand and agreed that we’d achieved our objective – the tweets were already flying around the world and the festival was buzzing. Oh, and I pretty much finished Inspector Zhang Goes To Harrogate.  Much as I’d like the victim to be an overweight agent with badly-dyed hair, it’s an author who meets an untimely end.  And yes, I’ll be selling it at 72p.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Thoughts On ePublishing

I did an interview a while back for someone - can't for the life of me remember who it was for but here it is anyway!

  You seem to have landed the title 'self-publishing pioneer', do you like the tag or does it feel like a distraction from your previous publishing successes? I think it’s a fair tag considering that I’ve been the most successful self-publisher in the UK. No one has sold more self-published eBooks than me in the UK. And Lee Child is the only British author who sold more eBooks than me on Kindle worldwide last year and 1) he doesn’t self-publish and 2) most of his sales were in the US. I don’t think it distracts from my mainstream success at all – it’s just that I have found an alternative way of reaching readers.

  For those coming to your work for the first time, give us a quick bio ... Former journalist turned writer with more than thirty novels under his belt. Check out my website, I have written 25 novels which are published by Hodder and Stoughton. Of those 14 are stand alone thrillers, eight are in my Spider Shepherd undercover cop series, and three are in my Jack Nightingale supernatural detective series. I have also self-published two novels in Thailand (as paperbacks and eBooks) and a further four books solely as eBooks. I have also published eight short stories as eBooks. My self-published eBooks are Once Bitten (a vampire novel), The Basement (a serial killer novella), Dreamer’s Cat (a science fiction murder mystery) and The Bestseller (a crime novella set in the world of ePublishing).

  There are a few brand-name authors (Jackie Collins springs to mind) who are now looking at self-publishing but what prompted you to take this route long before the others? I saw it coming and not many writers did. I knew that the number of e-readers in the United Kingdom would double on Christmas Day 2010. One in twelve adults in Britain would be receiving an e-reader as a Christmas present and I realised that they would be looking for cheap eBooks to buy. What I did was to put three of my unpublished books – The Basement, Once Bitten and Dreamer’s Cat - on Kindle in late October. I spent November and December marketing the books so that on Christmas Day I had all three in the Top 5 of the Kindle Bestseller list. Come Christmas morning some three million people got a Kindle as their Christmas present – and that’s why I sold 7,000 copies on Christmas Day, another 5,000 on Boxing Day, and 44,000 in December as a whole. It was a total one-off and will almost certainly never be repeated. It happened because back then there were very few writers self-publishing. Plus I was selling them at the lowest price that Amazon would allow. Plus I was able to produce a professional product - well written, well-edited and with well-designed covers.

  You've enjoyed remarkable success with your eBooks - tell us a little about that. I’ve sold more than half a million eBooks, but that is split between my self-published eBooks and the eBooks that my publisher Hodder and Stoughton have been selling. In 2011 I sold more than 150,000 copies of The Basement through the UK Kindle store, more than 80,000 copies of Once Bitten and almost 20,000 copies of Dreamer’s Cat. Hodder have sold more than 120,000 copies of the eBook of Hard Landing, the first in the Spider Shepherd series, plus another 40,000 or so of my backlist. Amazon then took over The Basement and Once Bitten and published them through their Amazon Encore imprint. Early this year The Basement topped the US and UK Kindle charts.

  It's safe to say the old stigma attached to self-publishing seems irrelevant now but did it concern you at the outset? Never. I’ve always been a big fan of self-publishing. I really hate the way so many of today’s self-published writers call themselves “Indies” , as if they were ashamed of calling themselves “self-published”. I try not to use the term “Indie”. There’s nothing wrong with describing a book as “self-published”. Books that were self-published include Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of things Past, James Joyce’s Ulysses, Beatrix Potter’s The Adventures of Peter Rabbit, by Beatrix Potter and John Grisham’s A Time to Kill. I’m a writer and my mission in life is to write – and sell – as many books as I can. I really don’t care how those books are sold. I don’t know anyone who has as many legs to their publishing career as me. I self publish paperbacks in Asia, printing books and delivering them to retailers. I have a traditional publishing deal with Hodder and Stoughton. I self-publish eBooks through Amazon and Smashwords, and Amazon publish five of my books. That was quite deliberate – it’s a bit like going to the roulette table and betting on zero, double zero, black and red. Whatever happens, I’m going to win. It works for me because I have a backlist of thirty novels and am capable of producing three or more novels a year. It wouldn’t work for everyone. In a way the timing was perfect for me – I’m old enough to have a long backlist but young enough to be able to produce a lot more books. A young writer starting out doesn’t have a backlist, and a writer at the end of their career doesn’t have the energy to do what is necessary to succeed in the new world of ePublishing.

  How did your traditional publishers take to your ePublishing ventures? I was lucky in that Hodder and Stoughton have been very supportive from the start and they were quick to realise that success in the eBook market would spill over to increased sales of my Hodder books. That is exactly what has happened – selling cheap (but good) eBooks has brought in thousands of new readers who have gone on to my the rest of my books. In effect my low-priced eBooks have been a marketing tool, though it’s fair to say that they have also turned into a decent revenue stream, too. The self-published books of mine that did really well – selling 350,000 eBooks in total – were The Basement, Once Bitten and Dreamer’s Cat. But Hodder and Stoughton did just as well with my first Spider Shepherd book, Hard Landing, selling around 150,000 copies of the eBook.

  Some of your successes were with books that had been rejected traditional presses: do you see that as a failing on their part? Not really. The three books – Once Bitten, The Basement and Dreamer’s Cat – were really novellas and therefore unlikely to be published traditionally. Even if Hodder had published them I doubt that they would have sold many.

  How do you think the traditional publishing world is coping with the shift towards eBooks? Not well, so far. I don’t think they understand pricing for example. They don’t get that readers are not happy about paying more for an eBook than a paperback. And they don’t understand the importance of marketing. They think that the key to success is still an article in The Guardian’s book pages and it’s not. Those days are gone. The readers have moved to the internet and if the publishing companies don’t follow they will lose them.

  Is publishing in a healthy state? They’re still making money. People are still buying books. Whether that continues to be the case remains to be seen. For sure the publishers that don’t adapt will go to the wall, there’s no question of that. Ditto bookstores. And that’s especially true for agents. The ones that don’t adapt will die. Writers are the ones most likely to benefit from ePublishing because for the first time they can pretty much deal direct with readers. To be honest it’s not ePublishing that I fear it’s the fact that a growing percentage of our country don’t – or can’t - read books. That’s the real threat that writers face.