The Last Israelis -

Archive for September, 2012

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September 30, 2012

Marketing is a Huge Challenge For Self-Published Novelists

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Promoting a self-published novel (whether e-book or paperback) is a grueling, 24-7 grind. There’s pitching to book editors of major newspapers, authoring relevant articles (like this one that I published on Iranian nukes), creating a Facebook page for the book and regularly posting on it, tweeting, creating a website like this one and blogging on it, seeking out and participating in author interviews, convincing book bloggers and top Amazon reviewers to review your novel, and on and on and on.

Unless you’re so passionate about your novel that you’re prepared to spend all of your available time trying to convince others to read it, you may quickly lose ground to the relentless threat of obscurity in a sea of other undiscovered books. Even if you drop everything (as I did) for the sake of your novel and therefore have no other income-producing activity, it’s still a discouragingly endless, uphill battle to get your book noticed (unless of course you’re already a famous personality).

A 24-7 effort is obviously unsustainable and, as I approached the burnout phase, I had to lower the intensity of my own efforts, only to discover how soon book sales drop in response to diminished marketing sweat. The idea that a novel by an unknown author will sell itself after a certain point is true only for a very lucky few titles that – for some fickle reason or another – catch on in the marketplace and snowball. For every “50 Shades of Grey” that rose to the top and stayed there (despite plenty of critics who panned the book), there are millions of novels that will simply languish in obscurity because the author, at some point, “ran out of gas” on the promotion front.

In my own case, I think I would have burned out a long time ago if my book weren’t so closely tied to a major foreign policy issue about which I’m so concerned. The bottom line: don’t self-publish your e-book novel unless you are truly passionate about it. If profit is your ultimate motivation, there are far faster and easier ways to make money. However, if you have a message to share with the world, e-book publishing has democratized the printing press by eliminating the traditional gatekeepers (agents and publishers) and allowing anyone to contribute to the marketplace of ideas.

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Novels with Publicity or Controversy Often Get Bad Reviews

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The more attention and/or sales a novel generates, the more likely it is to get bad reviews driven by political zealotry, personal envy/malice, and/or sheer stupidity (among other possible causes that may have nothing to do with the merits of the book). In the case of my novel, there have been at least two reviews that faulted my story for its grim ending on the ground that such an outcome contradicts Biblical prophecy, even though I obviously wrote the novel not as an accurate divination but rather as a cautionary tale. The fictional (rather than predictive) account was clearly intended to jolt world leaders out of their muddled and divided impotence and into a more effective policy on Iranian nukes precisely in order to avoid the scenario my novel describes. Yet some readers apparently thought that I was claiming to prophesy the future. Another “reviewer” (who showed no sign of ever having purchased or read “The Last Israelis”) simplistically concluded that my novel is a “pro-war” book — despite the strong anti-war voices and themes within the novel — and decided to sabotage it with a one-star review as part of his pacifist campaign (a political agenda that is abundantly evident from his Amazon review history praising all things related to Cuba and anti-war movements). Had my novel been about Iranian cooking rather than Iranian nukes, he would have probably been too indifferent about the topic to bother posting a review of the book. Bottom line: the Internet is a very big place, and when you put your novel out there, you’ll inevitably run into all types of people and motivations.

A novel also risks incurring bad reviews for the cardinal sin of genre-busting. Fiction readers tend to like certain types of genres and often grow impatient with substantial diversions from the conventions that define those genres. If you’re writing a light comedy that suddenly waxes deeply philosophical for too many pages, those who bought your book for an amusing escape (rather than profound ruminations) may get annoyed by the contemplative digression. In the case of my novel, I wrote an action thriller with elements of character study and intellectual debate. Those who purchased the book expecting Tom Clancy-style action and suspense on every single page were probably disappointed to discover that the first third of the book explored some of the key characters, their inter-personal relationships, and other topics/issues that weren’t directly related to submarine warfare. They were probably also disappointed by some of the philosophical discussions interspersed throughout the novel.

Thus, to the extent that you can adhere to the conventions of a single genre, you will have an easier time marketing your book to and – more importantly – pleasing fans of that genre. Genre-busting fiction may be more original, variegated, and interesting (particularly for readers seeking a fresh approach or voice) but it carries a certain risk of disappointing those readers who buy your book with a very specific set of expectations regarding how it will be written.

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September 29, 2012

E-Book Publishing Has Glitches and No Promotional Options

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E-book publishing is still in its infancy, and I learned the fun way that there may be technical glitches along the way. My rude introduction to this reality occurred on July 2, when – after months of continuous research and writing – I was finally ready to upload a finished manuscript in e-book format with a professionally produced book cover only to discover that the Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) website wasn’t working. No matter how many times I tried filling out the online form and clicking “save and continue,” the KDP site simply failed to save any of my information, making it impossible to upload my novel to KDP – a problem reported by many other frustrated authors on this thread. Shockingly enough, one of the posters in the discussion claimed that the problem has plagued KDP since 2008.

Sacrificing sleep and social obligations for months in a row just so that I could get the novel out that much faster made this technical roadblock all the more absurd and frustrating. And of course, there was no one to talk to about the problem. As hard as it is to write a novel in ten weeks, it’s even harder to get Amazon to fix its bugs. My friends and first readers all knew that I wanted to publish my novel ASAP in order to galvanize public opinion against the Iranian nuclear threat, so when they asked me why I still hadn’t released the finished novel, I told them about the Amazon glitch and jokingly added: “Who knew that this would be the reason Iran goes nuclear before I can publish a novel on the topic?”

Of course, the technical issues are ultimately a problem of scale: there just aren’t enough Amazon KDP employees who can personally handle the potential number of problems reported by all of the authors using the system. As a point of comparison, imagine trying to get a personalized customer service response from Facebook, which has well over 100,000 users per employee.

Another unexpected limitation: e-book publishing still isn’t set up for promotions or bulk purchasing. Part of my marketing strategy has been to explore potential partnerships with non-profits that share my concern about the perils of a nuclear Iran. I would discover, however, that after the painstaking challenge involved in identifying, contacting, and persuading the non-profit in question to partner with me, the logistics of the actual partnership were needlessly complicated by the limited e-book purchasing options available. For example, if an organization wants to promote a book in exchange for some kind of revenue share, there is currently no way for the author to track (with a unique code or URL) how many sales were generated thanks to the organization’s promotional efforts. None of the major e-book distributors offers such a tracking feature.

Another approach is to explore a bulk purchase by the organization in exchange for a donation by the author and/or a volume discount but even that is a hassle-ridden project. I was able to convince one non-profit to purchase 500 copies of my novel but this turned out to be a logistical nightmare because no e-book distributor is currently set up to handle such a volume sale. Moreover, no e-book distributor allows an author to lower the price of an e-book for a bulk sale without simultaneously lowering the price available to the public (at least until the volume sale is consummated). This pricing issue can be further complicated by the fact that most e-book distributors contractually require authors to give them most favorable pricing and allow the distributor to make automatic downward price adjustments if a lower price for the e-book is found elsewhere.

The non-profit that I partnered with tried to purchase the 500 copies on Amazon but told me that Amazon’s system forced them to purchase each copy in a separate transaction, so that they would effectively have to ask some poor intern to sit in front of the computer and manually make 500 purchases of the same e-book. To compound the headache, the nonprofit was unable to purchase more than 25 copies of my e-book per Amazon account because Amazon (understandably) assumes an instance of fraud when more than 25 copies of the same book are purchased by the same account. So the nonprofit was forced to keep opening new Amazon accounts after each purchase of 25 books – a workaround that only aggravated the overall hassle factor. Again, this is a problem of scale and the difficulty of anticipating every possible use case: undoubtedly, some computer coder either forgot to address this bulk purchase scenario or concluded that it would happen too infrequently to justify the additional coding work needed to address it.

Hoping to make life easier on the nonprofit, which had already manually purchased 135 copies on Amazon, I explored whether Barnes & Noble would make it any easier for the remaining 365 copies to be purchased in bulk. Their royalty isn’t as good but at least it’s possible to get a human being on the phone who could maybe generate a workaround to the rather low-tech solution of an intern repeating the same online purchasing steps 365 more times. As luck would have it, the humans at Barnes & Noble were able to offer a solution that the rigidly coded Amazon site couldn’t: a single transaction for all 365 copies.

Unfortunately, however, the human-enabled solution also suffered from human error. Three weeks after the nonprofit had paid Barnes & Noble for 365 copies of my e-book, the nonprofit received only 212 of the 365 codes with no explanation as to how to redeem those codes (making it impossible for the nonprofit to fulfill its promotion involving an e-book giveaway to its members). I would end up spending many hours calling the store that processed the nonprofit’s order, chasing down the various employees involved, and sending many emails to those individuals and to the support emails of Barnes & Noble and their Nook division.

As the problem dragged on for weeks without resolution, the fact that there were humans I could call became a rather illusory comfort because they still failed to solve the problem even as they reassured me by phone and email that things would get fixed. In the end, after far too much time and hassle, Barnes & Noble did finally resolve the issue and delivered the remaining codes and related instructions on how to redeem them.

Two last warnings about bulk sales through partnerships with organizations who buy an e-book in large quantities: 1) none of the copies sold in bulk will be reflected in the author’s sales report until the end-user actually downloads the e-book that the buyer purchased in bulk. Such a payment policy is great for the distributor’s cash flow but unfairly deprives authors of their revenue share for a potentially extended period. 2) Volume sales are typically ignored in the sales ranking calculation (mostly to prevent authors from buying up their own books to improve their sales rankings), so sales rankings may unfairly understate the true popularity of an e-book that was legitimately purchased in bulk by someone other than its author.