Friday, November 15, 2013

Ten Tips to Getting Me to Read Your Self-Published Novel

I actually buy and read more self-published books than I do traditional ones. There are several atypical reasons to this—I am more interested in authors than I am characters, I don’t feel bad about being uncommitted, I enjoy overtly bad writing, I accidentally find more of them, I am more likely to impulse buy an ebook (but I don’t like ebooks when paper ones are available), and I like supporting people. So that being said, my motives for purchasing a book or not are always universal, but here’s the truth:

1) Make it easy.

The thing about buying an unknown book from an unknown author with a huge spectrum of possible quality is that it’s often now or never. If I pass, even if I decide I do want it later, I’m going to have a hard time finding it again. And because I come across them in bulk on writer’s forums and Facebook, I’m going to take one look at it and then move on to the next.

If someone advertises their story and I find it, the best thing to do is to give me a link directly to the purchasing page. While I am usually more interested in the author’s website than I am the actual work, if I have to go browsing through it to find the book in question, I’m more likely to lose interest.

I am also more likely to buy if it’s on Amazon than if it’s on any other website. The reason is simple: I don’t want to put my credit card into some unknown place. Also, I don’t like putting my credit card in at all. Getting up and fetching the bitch is just problematic enough that I will blow off a sale of even something I really want. Made for people like me, Amazon has a “One-Click” option which involves nothing more than a confirm. I will then have the book immediately before I get bored and move onto something else. That instantaneous retrieval is more likely to actually get me to read the damn thing too; by the time I've completed the billing process, you've already lost me.

I never look at self-published books with the plan to buy. It is very much an impulse thing, and like most impulse purchases, any obstacle will dissuade me.

2) Be clear about what it is.

The most annoying thing to me about self-published works are the weird lengths. You get some story that is 30,000 words long, and it’s too big for a quick read and too short for a full investment.

I hate buying books then finding out they’re short stories or just really short novellas. While my first recommendation is write something closer to “industry standard” size (under 20,000 or over 70,000 words.)

It is flexible, and professional, traditional novellas are commonly printed from 50,000 to 70,000 words. But I don’t buy those either.

But, really, the size isn’t much of a make or break deal as long as I know about it first. I prefer short stories around 5,000 words, and really want books around 90,000, but these preferences are not primary motivators for me. I’m using buying it because I like the author. Or, sometimes, hate the author.

Amazon.com has an approximate page number before you buy, but often times I can’t find how big the book actually is. It’s less of a problem to me that it’s 30,000 words and more of a problem that I didn’t know that. If I bought your book because I’m actually interested in reading it, and I find out it was really short, or worse, a part of a story with no ending, I’m really angry. I expected a satisfying read, and now I’m disappointed. If you admit this is a just a part, then I might say, "You know what? I’ll buy the first, and if I like it, I’ll by the second." Weird lengths are undesirable, but they won’t stop me. Having a proper amount and a full story gives me just a tiny extra push, but it's not necessary. What is important, however, is to not make me feel ripped off.

Or even when it is a short story and the author didn’t make that clear in the beginning. When I thought I was getting a novel, I can be pretty annoyed.

And I might add, while knowing that something is only a short story or novella-poser might dissuade me from getting it, I have been burned enough to never buy something that doesn’t explicitly state what it is. And when I have felt tricked, that’s when I’m inclined to leave a one-star review.

Let the reader know how long it is and if it’s complete. If it’s being published as a serial and has a huge hook, waiting to explain things in the next story, tell us. If it’s a secondary book in a series, say it in big letters. The reader should know exactly what it is he’s getting. It may not matter if your book is fantastic and exactly my thing, but if I find it on the edge of great and okay, (there is no “just good” in my mind) it will make or break it.

3) Let me see a sample.

I will not buy books that I can’t look inside at first. Funnily enough, the sample rarely changes my decision if I’m going to get it or not, but when I can’t look at all, I just move on.

Amazon does a good job of this, but many other self-publishing websites don’t. Especially if your book is not a dollar and/or is paper printed, I need to have an idea of what it looks like before I get it.

If your website doesn’t have that option, then include an obvious link where I can get the first chapter, probably in the summary box. For readers like me, it’s fairly necessary.

To be honest, I’m not necessarily looking for well-made books in these samples. I am looking for what I should expect; typo-ridden crap or  beautiful indie stories, or something in between. I’ll buy books because they look really bad, really good, or just on the edge of good with just a little bit missing. So, to me, what the sample is doesn’t actually matter. It’s just a little security blanket, letting me know what I’m in for.

4) Be clear what it’s about.

This is the same advice for any query letter. A lot of time when authors first summarize their work, they focus more on having a hook and being mysterious then actually letting us know what we’ll be reading.

If I’m not buying the book because I know it is God-awful (which I do do), then I actually do care about the reading experience and whether or not I will be interested in it. If I don’t have a pretty good understanding of what the reading experience is likely to be like, I’m inclined to think it will be bad, as most random books are.

Now, in traditional publishing, the publisher knows this. They recognize the benefits of being not predictable while seeing the negatives of being unpredictable. Because they have to sort through thousands of horrible queries every day, they are aware of what needs to be in a summary. A first time publisher often does not.

Things that I need to know to see if I’m interested:

The setting—This one is especially important to me. I have very specific tastes about what I do and don’t like, and the majority of them fall into setting. I don’t like contemporary places, I hate police and military matters (that aren’t at least a hundred years ago), and I want supernatural elements. Now, this isn’t universal by any means, and my point is not to write about these topics, but to let the reader know what topics the world will supply. A good portion of readers are interested in setting, so if they’re not clear about the where, and the uniqueness of the where, they aren’t going to risk it.

The tone—My biggest issue is, being that I read supernatural stories, when I’m not sure if the author intended scary, campy, or didn’t care what came out. It is important to me what the author was going for. If I pick up a book that seems silly, and it’s clear the author didn’t want that, then I don’t trust him with my emotions. If the author doesn’t care how I feel, I still don’t trust him. And I will never invest my emotions in a story I don’t trust, for obvious reasons. Again, I just want to have a little understanding on what the reading experience will be like. I can do creepy, I can do funny, I can even fluctuate between extremes, but I don’t want to do some watered-down mixture. Let the reader know exactly the atmosphere you’re going for so they feel safer in your hands.

The conflict—Letting us in on the conflict lets the reader know what she might want to happen, and therefore, why she might care. If it’s about “Susie is a vampire, but she wants to be human again,” then I know I should want Susie to be human again. If I don't like vampires, or don’t likes stories about "supernatural people wanting to be normal," I won’t waste my time. If it’s about “Jimmy wants to get his sister back from an evil overlord,” then I should want Jimmy to get his sister. Just by that information I can start to decide if I actually do care or not—Which is the very reason people leave it out. How can I really know how invested I am in Susie’s humanity until I’ve actually met Susie? Authors think it’s best to reveal it through their hard spun words, and it’s true that it’s easier to make people invested by showing instead of just explaining. But that only works if I’ve already picked it up. Again, if I don’t know whether or not I’m going to care about the conflict, I’m going to assume I don’t.

5) Let me know it exists.

When I go to writer’s blogs and forums, I’m actually looking for this kind of crap. I want blogs and self-published works, and I go to one every time I see a link for it.

Now, I realize I am not the norm, and that many people who go to these places are looking to promote, not support. It can be very frustrating to see competition posting and not see results. Which, you won’t. I sometimes make an effort to comment and let people know I’m reading them, but it is only done out of common courtesy. Even if I love a blog or story, I’m not likely to go about reviewing or commenting on it. So, because support is done from the shadows, it feels like everyone is being narcissistic, and, considering how hard it is to self-promote anyway, authors tend to say, “I don’t want to be that guy.”

Honorable, but if I don’t know the book exists, I can’t buy it.

Sure there are times to promote and times to not, and it can be hard to tell the difference. I struggle to find new writer’s blogs to read and new books to look at because self-advertising is so hard. But the reality is that while no one likes to be spammed, most people who will respond negatively are those who wanted to do the same thing. Everyone else is happy about it or ignores it.

I’m not saying to go to every blog and writer’s forum and post your book there; know the location. If it says don’t do that, don’t do that. If a lot of other people are, then no one cares, go for it. Worst that happens, you’ll be ignored.

Feel free to splatter across your Facebook. Go make interesting, conversational comments on forums and blogs before including a link. Most websites have a place just for that. It won’t guarantee a lot of traffic, but you’ll get people like me who just go through the comment sections to find new websites and works.

You know what’s a great place to post? My Twitter page. I can guarantee at least one hit.

6) Focus on describing what happens over quality.

This is actually a very specific comment. I don’t see this a lot, but I do see it enough.

The author uses a lot of adjectives like “amazing,” and “acclaimed,” and not a lot like, “frightening,” or “comedic.”

Okay, yes. I will agree that subconsciously this may lure in more people. But for me, I'm outright critical.

The summary should tell me what my experience will be like atmospherically and specifically, not that I will like it. Knowing and understanding my reactions takes a lot of skill and experience that I am unlikely to think the author has, especially a self-published one. Being able to predict reader’s reactions is a useful and important talent that writers take years to develop.

While, yes, descriptive adjectives like “humorous” or “romantic” do imply I will find it humorous or romantic, they give me a good impression of the specific the author was going for, specifying how I will enjoy it and not just that I will. I don’t need to know he was going for “good,” I figured that.

7) Tell me about yourself.

Again, the primary reason why I read self-published books is because I like writers, and I feel more connected with the self-published and their plight than I do with those big, lofty authors. This means that the more I know about you, the more likely I am to buy.

People hate talking about themselves. It is so common to be accused of lying or being “modest” or being narcissistic, we don’t want to tell others how we see ourselves. So, many people don’t.

Here’s what happens: I find a self-published work and I go to the purchase page. I think, “Eh,” and move on. But wait! There is an author’s website, which I was more interested in anyway. I go to it and read their biography. Then they have a blog. I read that too. Then, after spending a good amount of time with them, I feel more inclined to purchase their book. And even if I don’t at that juncture, if the website has promises of consistently new information, I’m likely to come back. And I'm more likely to be able to find their website or Facebook page that I've liked than their book I glossed over. Once I read a woman’s blog for two months before suddenly deciding to purchase her book.

Some people don’t give two licks about who wrote the story. But they are also unaffected by how long a biography is on the website or how many blogs she has. There are a good portion of people, like me, who are interested, and just by having material available will utilize it. The more I know about an author the more I connect to her, and the more I connect to her, the more likely I am to buy.

Have a website, have a bio, talk about yourself. Get a blog. Post a lot.

8) Format the inside well.

I can tolerate typos—sometimes I like them. They confirm my expectations without actual thought—but poor formatting drives me nuts.

I need page numbers. Traditional ebooks will have them naturally underneath, but many of the self-published works don’t. On my Kindle App on my computer, they’ll tell me, “Location: 68 out of a billion.” Next page? “102 out of billion.”

Very useful. I love not knowing how long this book is, especially when it could be any wazoo size in the first place.

Books need page numbers, even ebooks. If I lose my place without bookmarking it, I have an impossible time finding my way back. If I want to see how far I have to go, it becomes an ordeal.

Large font sizes are obnoxious. I’ve had some books that had three sentences per page. This really disturbs the reading process. Many ebook readers have the ability to change the size of the font, but not all do. And sometimes, I just can’t figure it out. (I have about four different places where I read ebooks, none of which I spend a lot of time understanding. My fault, but sometimes it's an issue of formatting.)

There are no spaces in between paragraphs. Especially if it’s indented as well. Here, in this blog, you’ll notice, I do have spaces instead of indentation. I do this because it’s online and HTML can’t screw it up as much as it wants to, so it’s easier not to have indentation.

While I am not one to advocate “doing things how they’re done,” formatting paragraphs the way that traditional books do will make the read far less unusual and flow better. When I read stories with spaces in between paragraphs, I subconsciously put a longer space in between them. No matter the story, it has always ruined my reading experience. And, if the author is attempting to hide the fact that it is self-published, nontraditional paragraphs, weird fonts, and stupid formats are the first way to botch it.

9) It’s a dollar.

This, unfortunately, is a deal breaker for me. I will buy it if it’s a dollar or less. I will not spend any more money on it.

I have, as of yet, to buy an ebook for $2.99. It’s not impossible, and maybe, if I’m really excited, I will. Up to now, however, I haven’t bothered.

From my experience, reading through samples, temporarily free editions, previous works by the authors, and stealing from my friends, the $2.99 books are often worse than the dollar ones.

Keep in mind it’s a correlation, not a causality thing. Also a generalization thing. But here’s my logic:

Most self-published works can be bought for 99 cents. Tripling that amount implies an ignorance of the field or a high level of egotism. Now, I am the first to argue writers need to be paid more for their work than just a dollar, but it is a supply and demand issue. There is a low demand for self-published books and a ridiculously high supply. Added with the limited quality control, there is nothing to say that the book is worth the extra two dollars.

At best, the author’s a genius and he recognizes it. The book is fantastic and he wants to be taken seriously. He chose to get self-published, and we’ll say it’s because he rightly knew that maintaining his vision was the only way to keep its integrity, and he could not do that with other people trying to make it “sellable.” In this hypothetical, this isn’t in his head, it’s just true.

I, the reader, don’t know any of this.

Why didn’t he make it the cost of a normally published book? Self-doubt? That doesn’t inspire me to have confidence in him either. (Not that I would ever spend ten dollars on a self-published ebook. Not that I would spend ten dollars on any ebook.)

If the author lowers his costs, he lowers the audience’s expectations. A dollar says, “Take a chance on me.” Ten dollars says, “I’m worth it.” Three dollars says, “I’m not Prada and I’m not Kmart. I’m a pricier knock off.”

Now, I wouldn’t be surprised if a three dollar book was good. I’m not saying it immediately devalues itself. I’m just saying that I’m taking the same amount of risk for more money from someone who might just possibly think he’s worth more for the same amount of work. Considering how many people throw up an ebook with the expectation that destiny will make them viral, readers are constantly on the lookout for that behavior.

But I’m not the rule. While the price is a firm line for me, it might not be for others. So, if you can get the money, go for it. I'm just saying, if you're looking for readers, price is a big factor.

10.) The cover.

I hate to put this on here because it’s obvious. That being said, I’m more likely to buy a book with a crappy cover than a good one—just not for good reasons.

If a cover has the tell-signs of a self-published book (singular default fonts, solid pictures without layering or fading, and no artistic risks), I’m likely to buy it for the “tearing it apart” pleasure. If a cover looks beautiful, it doesn’t stand out to me any more than “regular” books. I'm less likely to buy it, but if I do, it's for actual reading pleasure. If I think that it might be self-published, I will dig through it more to figure it out. That might just buy some time for me to actually consider the content.

I’m not advocating a crappy cover. I’m saying the opposite. A beautiful cover will lead me to taking the book seriously. A crappy book will make me doubt the author’s every action. I admit to buying more of the horrible covers, but that’s with the intention of never finishing them, having something to rant about, or just supporting the “poor struggling indie.” When I do come across a gorgeous cover, it becomes about the actual story, and I’m more likely to trust the risky choices inside.

And then I don’t care as much.

It may be confusing as to what I am suggesting here. My point is, people judge a book by its cover, and the content inside will be affected. I have to admit to buying poorly crafted work in the name of honesty, but the book would have to be far better for me to give it faith. I do buy “pretty” books, and I give them far more credit, which means that any risks will be construed as artistic experimentation rather than “trying too hard.” I buy more books with crappy covers, and judge it so harshly that its rare anyone will have a chance. I buy a lot of books with beautiful covers with the actual intention to read it as a story, and am more committed in the beginning. I ignore mediocre ones completely.