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9.12.2012

How Amazon Helps You Discover Books

There are three ways in which Amazon supports book discovery: customer reviews, the "like" button similar to the Facebook one and the "tags". Customer reviews have been recently bashed in the blogosphere with several bloggers coming up with evidence of unethical behavior from authors and in some cases a flood of favorable reviews that clearly come from friends or have been paid for. It seems that best-selling author John Locke has admitted to buying 300 reviews...

I won't pronounce myself on all this except to say that we authors really appreciate when a reader leaves a review - it's nice to know there's somebody out there who likes your work enough to make the effort of putting pen on paper! And if there's no time to write a review, hopefully the reader would go back to the book's site on Amazon and click the "like" button!
Available on Amazon at a special launch
price for a limited period for
 friends, blog readers and
Twitter followers !

But as I recently uploaded two books on Amazon (see cover above and in right margin the Amazon "buy" icons: A HOOK IN THE SKY, a BB novel and TWISTED, Four Tales of Love and Hate - yeah! Victory cry!! They're out!!!), I became almost painfully aware of the third important Amazon tool for book discovery: the tags.

Let me explain. I say "painfully" because tags are words most used in searching for books and they are meant to describe your book's contents and that's no easy or obvious task. For example, A Hook in the Sky, is a love story, but it's much, much more! It's about aging and trying to start a second life after retirement, it's about contemporary art and the place of Art in our lives, it's about a marriage falling apart, it's about a young woman in love with a much older man! Same with Twisted, these are very contemporary, psychological, suspenseful short stories.

Amazon allows you to indicate up to 7 tags when you upload your book to KDP, their publishing platform. But it doesn't stop there. Once your book is up, you can add tags again after the description section, i.e. the 7 tags you've used before when uploading plus others at will. So, in practice, you can have about a dozen of words to describe your book.

This is very useful, since a 68,000 words-plus book (like my Hook) easily needs a dozen words to describe it! But let's consider how the tag system works. Because once you the author have put up the tags you want, others (the readers) are free to add tags of their own and click the ones they think best fit your book (not necessarily all of them, some tags get clicked more than others). So over time, the tags associated with your book evolve, the longer your book is up there on Amazon, the more meaningful the tags become. And since they're the result of contributions from readers and turn up automatically in Amazon's computers, presumably tags can't be gamed.

Some authors try to get their friends to click on tags in the (probably mistaken) idea that this can change something and kick your book up in the classification...But what classification? This has nothing to do with ranking; it's meant as a book discovery searching system to try and help readers zero in on desired content (there's a box to search products by tags). It's difficult to see how it can be gamed and I sincerely hope it's not! If you know of any instances where the tags have been somehow subverted, please tell us in the comments!

Amazon also helps you when you tag by showing you a cloud of tags, with the most popular ones in bold letters and bigger than the others. Currently the most popular tags on Amazon suggest that the following types of books are most sought after:
  1. highest ranking (more recently used): adventure, comedy, fantasy fiction, Kindle freebie, paranormal romance, romance, science fiction, suspense, thriller
  2. second highest : action, children's books, christianity, historical fiction, history, horror, humor, mystery, erotic romance, erotica (here's the 50 Shades effect!), romantic suspense, vampire, inspirational
  3. third highest (and less recently used): Christian fiction, family, love, magic, contemporary romance, historical romance, vampire romance, romantic suspense, young adult
Much further down you get things like contemporary fiction, post-apocalyptic, urban fantasy or World War II.

Obviously such a cloud is subject to daily change and fluctuations, but the very tags chosen by people in their searches are interesting and suggest that changes are afoot in readers' preferences. For example, it is surprising how Young Adult and vampire romance have lost ground or how  erotic romance and erotica are not quite as high as you might expect given the incredible success of 50 Shades of Grey with over 12,000 customer reviews and over 2,000 likes!

Overall, the impression is that people who read fiction are looking to be entertained above all else. I can't blame them, that's my case too! Fiction is for fun - it can make you cry or laugh but it should never be boring! Certainly when I write that's what I strive for. And whenever I find that my first draft bores me, it goes in the trash can and I write something else!
What do you look for in a book?

PS. Here are some pictures of my HOOK IN THE SKY setting that you might enjoy (this is the Umbria where my protagonist, Robert runs to everytime things go wrong for him (which is quite often...):
 
A HOOK IN THE SKY Robert's Umbria
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9.05.2012

Book Cover Survey Results: The Way Forward!

Book covers are the doors to your books, all writers know that and worry about them. The rules for good book cover design are quite simple:
(1) reflect the genre or mood of the book, and for digital books especially,
(2) no clutter
(3) big, legible fonts that can be read even when the cover is the size of a postage stamp on your Kindle.

That's all.

Simple? No, I got myself into quite a funk trying to figure out which cover would be better for my next novel A HOOK IN THE SKY: a hook (in the sky of course) or a female nude (my aged protag's young lover)?

Readers of my blog know I ran a poll last week. My Twitter followers also know that a friend who runs the immensely useful site listing every day "The Best Free Kindle Books"  (the "list that Amazon does not give to the Book Lover") also set up a poll presenting both my covers, plus a useful answer I had forgotten to include in my own poll: "neither" giving you the chance to answer in case you didn't like either covers. Let me take the opportunity here to warmly thank everyone who voted, that was a big help!

Results of the polls? Very interesting! On my blog, 58% of voters went for the nude - but the sample is very small, just 31 votes, so not very reliable. On The Best Free Kindle Books site, the poll was far more consistent: 122 votes, divided like this (on 4 September, when the poll was taken down after 2 days):
  The Hook:  50.9%
  The Nude:  23,2%
  Neither:      25,9%

A quarter of the voters liked neither! Indeed, the nude (that had done so well on my blog) was losing out! Hey, nobody likes naked women? Just kidding!

Clearly, I needed to think up a new cover and I had to take all this into account. I turned to the comments and while I'm not going to go through all of them here - but I do want to thank all of you for making comments, it was truly most helpful! - I'd like to zero in on a particular one that seemed to reflect many others. Author Joseph Badal, whose judgment I respect, told me he liked neither cover but he said: "I liked what you wrote about Robert and the ladders. That's what I would put on the cover."

Robert (that's my protag, a cosmopolitan Frenchman who retires from the UN) certainly has a thing about ladders. Indeed, "A Hook in the Sky" is the name he gave to his art installation, a jumble of ladders reaching up to a hook. He came up with that wild idea in the hope of winning back his wife, a chic Manhattan socialite who runs a successful contemporary art gallery in Chelsea. Because, until the moment he dreamt up his Hook installation, the marriage was on the verge of collapse. It seemed that all he did with his wife was fight over art - when in fact they were fighting over their relationship. His wife loves the idea, she sees it as a symbol of the human search for something higher in life, something you reach for and can never quite grab (the hook is too far above the topmost ladder)...Will this be enough to save their marriage?

Ok, a jumble of ladders and a hook. Here's what I came up with:


Now of course, the title fonts need to be added, A HOOK IN THE SKY in the upper part, my name at the bottom. But do you like the illustration? I'd love to know what you think! Here's a quick poll to give your opinion:


How does the ladders and hook illustration strike you as a book cover?
 
 
 
 
 
  
pollcode.com free polls 

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8.27.2012

Book Cover Blues: Which is Best?

I posted about book covers last week and how to ensure your book cover is a winning one, bringing you lots and lots of sales....At the end of the post, I uploaded a cover done by a talented designer ABSV, on the basis of one of my paintings. It's a great cover but somehow doesn't fit the book's genre or content. Looks too erotic, steamy and sexy. Here it is for those of you who haven't seen it:


Some people said my name tag was too small, that the type of letters suggested a mystery thriller while the illustration, rather artsy, was still too erotic for what is basically a contemporary novel about Robert, a Baby Boomer and an attractive Frenchman who faces a collapsing marriage when he retires from a successful career in the United Nations. He tries to build a second life as an artist but his conventional paintings irritate his much younger American wife, a wealthy New York socialite who runs a chic contemporary art gallery in Chelsea.They fight over art but what is at stake is their relationship. They separate, he moves to Italy, has a show in Paris and soon sexual adventures complicate his life. Can their marriage survive?

Now, I've mulled over the question, going through dreadful pains and self-questioning, and finally come up with a new cover (still based on one of my own sketches - done for the purpose). Here it is:



The landscape is a simplified rendering of  Umbria, the lake of Trasimeno and the house where the protagonist retreats while his marriage collapses. The hook? Read the book! ...when it comes out next week (will let you know, promise). But I'll give you a hint: the title is the one Robert uses for a weird contemporary art installation he's dreamt up to try and win back his wife. It's a pile of aluminum ladders reaching up to a hook set high above so that it cannot be grabbed even if you stand on top of the tallest ladder, a fitting symbol of the human condition and our desire for transcendance!

Which one do you like best? Here's a poll - please vote and let me know which I should use! Please keep in mind the genre of the book when you assess the covers and do make comments, everyone's opinion is most welcome and most useful!

Which cover do you like best
  
pollcode.com free polls 

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8.22.2012

Three Tips to Ensure a Winning Book Cover

Book cover design by George Salter
Book cover design by George Salter (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)
Independent authors are often accused of unprofessional book covers...As an indie, how can you make sure your book covers look professional? That's important because the cover is a first, fast visual signal to your readers that you have produced a high quality book. 

A good cover says "trust me, this is a good read!"

Indies do not have the advantage of published authors. That's one of the strong points for going traditional and getting your book published by one of the Big Six - though many trad-pubbed authors complain that they are presented with book covers that "suck" and that there's nothing they can do to change them...

What are the options? Get a good designer to do your cover of course. If in addition to being a writer you're also a visual artist (like me, I'm a painter too), the temptation is strong to do your own cover. Until you get really good with photo shop and fonts, resist it! Typography is a world unto its own and you can't learn it overnight. Consider the simple act of positioning titles on the cover: it's an art and that means you can't learn it overnight either.

Book cover designed by Cliff Roberts
Book cover designed by Cliff Roberts (Photo credit: Crossett Library Bennington College)
But don't despair! It's possible to develop some criteria to decide whether a book cover is good or not. After all, the designer you paid for may have produced a rotten cover and you need to be able to see that and fire him!

There are several points to keep in mind, considering though that, bottom line, it's inevitably a matter of personal taste. On my Pinterest site, I've collected a number of book covers that I happen to think are very successful but maybe you won't (as I said, tastes vary, de gustibus non disputandum...). You'll see, there are classics and also new titles from major authors coming out this fall -  all traditionally published. Take a look, here's the link, and come back, I'm waiting for you with my tips for a winning book cover.

TIP # 1: Don't clutter it! It has to be visually "easy to read", both the book title and your author name.

This is especially important in our digital age: Amazon (and other e-platforms) present book covers in stamp size, so the design has to shine through even in a minute size and in black and white (a lot of people are still reading on old-fashioned electronic ink e-readers like the Kindle - yes, it's become old fashioned!)

TIP #2: Pick a striking image related to what your book is about. This is by far the trickest part, and much depends on (1) your own taste, and (2) the book's genre. Steamy sex will be fine with suggestive parts of entwined naked bodies, chick lit or MG won't. Make sure your cover is in line with the market for your book, you don't want to disappoint your readers, much less mislead them! In short, the cover has to be in line with both the tone and content of your book.

If you can, go for the symbolic. That seems to be very much in fashion these days, go take another look at my Pinterest site: see how geometric and simple lines and primary colors (a lot of red, a lot of yellow) are used to great effect? Yet, they are not random lines or colors chosen because they're striking (though they are that to be sure).The point is they all contribute to build up a message which hints at what's coming in the book.

TIP #3: Make sure your image is unexpected and engages the reader. Obviously it has to be appealing, attractive. This is by far the hardest to come up with. However I must insist on the term "unexpected". That's crucial. A title may evoke an obvious symbolic image, but better stay away from the obvious. Try and think of something that is closely related but not so obvious. That will attract attention (the obvious is blah...)

Yes, I know, easier said than done!

I certainly found myself struggling to come up with good covers. For my FEAR OF THE PAST, I thought a lion head would be a nice symbol of the book's content: after all it's a family saga set in Sicily - the collapse of a once powerful family. Lions, as everyone knows, are the Kings of the Jungle. Plus I picked a Sicilian lion head, nicely hieratic the way they used to do them in Sicilian coat-of-arms and palaces. Yes, but...the trouble is, that's not really the main point of the book at all! It's all about how the last descendant, a brilliant American video game engineer, manages to revive the family fortunes. It's a story of collapse and revival - nothing to do with a lion! So that's a cover that would need redoing, no question about it and I'm working on it. Actually the whole book really needs a new title as well and I'm working on that too! And once the title is changed, the whole book needs to be revised - am working on that as well, wow! I will keep you posted as soon as I've solved my problems on this one!

Then, for the cover of my forthcoming novel A HOOK IN THE SKY, I ran into the difficulty of picking an image for the book cover that was both unexpected and engaging. The expected would be to put a big hook in a blue sky among white clouds. Something like this (ok, this is not blue but romantic seppia):


Easy and nicely symbolic but blah...Since the protagonist (who's a retiree), in his attempts to build a second life for himself, has a few memorable sexual adventures, I thought that a naked woman would be a good idea for the cover and that I could use one of my own paintings. Here it is:


I asked a friend who happens to be a hugely talented designer to come up with a cover (the name of her firm: ASBV). First she cropped the image and took away the dripping red line. Then she picked highly visual block lettering and put the red color back in. This is the result:



How do you like it? Please tell me what you think. I believe it's a very effective cover but is it too steamy? Please note the book is NOT erotica, it's contemporary fiction focused one how one Baby Boomer, upon retiring, tries to juggle his new life as his 20-year marriage collapses and (of course) he has some sexual adventures, including one very sexy young girl...

Now you may well ask, where's the hook in all this? She's a hooker? Yes, in a way, she is. She also happens to be crouching, her body's in the shape of a hook. Is that enough to entice readers or will it mislead them?

Please let me know what you think! I value your opinions...

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