Amazon’s Amazing and Scary Algorithm

This is a cautionary tale for indie-authors.

Up until around June 23rd, Amazon used to auto-suggest Apocalypse Revolution to readers. For instance, when looking at a product page for a similar horror novel, readers would see this header below the cover page and description  “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” After that comes the row of about one hundred clickable thumb-nails of novels usually in the same genre. When checking out other horror/scfi adventure novels, I often found that Apocalypse Revolution was auto-suggested.

But it all changed in the third week of June. Now I can only find one novel that auto-suggests AR: The Dragon and the Unicorn, and AR is about the 90th suggestion.

So what happened? Obviously this was not a human decision, except that a bunch of variables were programmed into the auto-suggest algorithm and my novel tripped one of them. Here are my theories:

1) Low downloads on a free day. This is my bad. I waited months for the new cover and then ran three free days close together. That’s a killer for downloads because the hard core readers who are looking for deals will have already downloaded your novel the day or week before and don’t need it. On the last free promotional day I ran there were only forty or so downloads, actually there were more in the UK, only the internet knows why. Here’s my other bad: I didn’t promote the free days at all. I was conducting an experiment to see which cover moved better, but of course I couldn’t run a proper control, so it was a pretty useless experiment.

Maybe the algorithm has a bit of code that says, ‘if free downloads are less than fifty in a day, stop auto-suggesting this novel.’ I’m paraphrasing of course.

2) The six month theory. The third week of June was six months since I published AR. Now I admit I haven’t done a whole lot to promote the novel, and Amazon helps those who help themselves. I’ve been cramming through book two, anxious to get it to market, anxious to get to book three and fill in the gap that takes us to Vampire Road, which is book four. So I wonder if I trip some piece of code that says, ‘if sales aren’t x by six months’ reduce auto-suggest function by an order of magnitude.’ In other words: dump it.

Whatever the cause, the results are startling. AR went from selling one or two copies a day to nada, okay, almost nada, since Amazon turned off the promotional tap.

I’m not too worried. Book Two of the 1000 Souls is the best I’ve ever written, and I think its sales will put me back into Amazon’s favored novel status. But I have learned my lesson. Amazon promotes those who promote themselves. Don’t leave it to luck, because Amazon’s Amazing and Scary Algorithm will cut you off and leave your novel to languish into obscurity. Fair enough. Why should Amazon have to do all the work?

So I’m thinking about book trailers, Shelfari, Good Reads and more. I’ll keep you posted. Any suggestions, send them my way. I’m not a natural promoter, but I’ll learn.

The Undead Blog

Abandon hope all ye who enter here.

Blogging requires commitment, and all the experts warn me that abandoning a blog for a month or more is the kiss of death. Stupid experts. Okay, maybe they’re right, but last month I had to decide how long I was going to make my fans wait for book two of the 1000 Souls series. I was overdue, buried with work, and the kids were getting out of school for the summer.

So I decided to stop blogging until the novel was finished. It was ‘finished’ on July 4th, but I’ve been in editing and re-writes since. Now it’s so finished that it’s off to the editor and out of my hands until he’s done. Alas, my editor just gave his publisher two weeks notice and (being the conscientious guy that he is) he’s busy wrapping up his day job until July 27th. The good news is that means he can edit like crazy the next week, no day job in the way.

But that means that I must again push the publication date, this time to mid-August, a month and a half late. The good news is the cover artist is just about ready, and the cover looks great.

The other good news is that I’ll have lots of time to blog, and I’ve lots to tell you about, actually warn you about, regarding one too many free days and Amazon’s promotional algorithm.

Good thing I’ve got another novel coming out.

Finished

I could have written this post a week ago, but summer got in the way. I’ve finished book two of The 1000 Souls. Yes, I’m being cagey about the title until I have it published, but my fans already know.

Revisions are going well, and I hope to be able to turn it over to the editor in just a few days. He’s fast, so if all goes well we’re looking at a launch date of July 20th, 2012. Thanks to all those who have e-mailed asking when book two is coming out, and thanks for your patience. I know I’m three weeks late, but I think you’ll be happy with the results. I’m pumped.

As for summer? Kids out of school. Warm weekend in Muskoka at a friend’s cottage with many other kids. Swimming, water fights, capture the flag and even tubing. Scraped knees, racoons, a deer leaping through the forest, and a blown radiator less than seven kilometers from our second destination. Tow Truck. Car in shop. Swimming at a beach on a river. Running around with the cousins.

All in all, pretty damn exciting. I think the kids are having fun too.

Boom and Bust Free Day

At Number 6 for SF Adventure last week. I like that.

I promised when I started this blog that I would share raw numbers whether they were good or bad. So today I have to share the results of yesterday’s free day experiment.

I didn't stay up till 3:00 am to see where it got to on the 1300 download day, but here's where it was when I crashed at 11:00pm

A marketing expert I know constantly says, “Test and measure. Test and measure.” Unfortunately, in the amazing universe of the internet there are way too many variables for a proper quantitative experiment. The first free day I ran for Apocalypse Revolution, back in mid-February, a respectable 550 downloads flew out the door in a day. When I ran a second free day two weeks later I didn’t expect much, and for most of the day the were only about 30 downloads. Then something very strange happened somewhere in cyberland, and in the next four hours over 1300 copies flew out the door. What weird corner of the internet picked me up that day I simply don’t know, but I sure wish I did. That put me in the top 500 on the Kindle free bestseller list, at least it was at 485 when I went to bed with California still to finish downloading.

Apocalypse Revolution up there with the big names in Science Fiction

But for the most part, unless you really spread them out and promote the heck out of them, free days have diminishing returns. Perhaps its because the dedicated SF readers have already snapped up my novel, or perhaps it’s something to do with how Amazon promotes them, but the numbers usually go down the more free days you offer. That means the paid afterglow that usually comes with the free days also goes down.

The Old Cover Shoot'em Up

Last week I decided to run a free day for the old cover of Apocalypse Revolution, just a little something to say that I gave the $400 I spent on that cover a fair chance. As I mentioned in my last blog, I was never thrilled with it. I didn’t expect too many downloads, but a respectable 347 downloaded throughout the 24 hours. Enough that I ended up 713 on the Kindle free bestseller list. That also put the novel at #6 for Science Fiction Adventure and #19 for horror. Not earth shattering, I know, but I enjoyed the ride. I especially liked the moment when Apocalypse Revolution was beside Wool. That’s fun exposure.

The New Cover. They're clearly trouble.

So yesterday I ran a free day with my spiffy new cover. I thought it would blow the doors off the free day. In the UK it did well relative to last week. But on this side of the pond (which oddly, includes Australia) only 72 people downloaded the novel. I guess I’d saturated the market. I refuse to believe the old cover worked better than the new cover and I point to the UK numbers as proof. Last week only nine downloads, this week 28. Or maybe they just like the new cover better in the UK.

Now I did zero promotion for both these free days, not a single tweet. I have one free day left before my KDP Select runs out, and I’m debating whether to run it. However book two of the 1000 Souls is nearly complete, and I’m still trying to build a following for the whole series.

I still love free days though because I want people to read my writing, people who have as much fun in my world as I do. I know only a fraction of the free downloaders are actually reading the novel, but hey, a fraction is more than zero. It’s a start.

Finally, A Cover I Love!

Final Cover for Apocalypse Revolution

I’ve heard many traditionally published authors complain that the downside of having a contract with one of the big six publishers is that you have very little say in the cover art. I do sympathize, but in the indie world we have the opposite problem. We have all control of the cover art.

This may sound like heaven to some, but I haven’t much of an eye for graphic design and worse, I really don’t know much about covers in general. When I purchased a book last year, I never thought about what drew me to it if I didn’t already know the author. I rarely looked at a cover or thought about why I liked it or even if I liked it.

I’ve had to climb a steep learning curve since, and this is where an agent or a publisher could have helped (assuming they were good at their jobs.)

A great cover that didn't reflect the content

So Apocalypse Revolution went through three covers in the last six months. The first was a very biblical number that was totally my idea. The graphic artist did a great job bringing it to life, but it hardly sold at all. It occurred to me that people might think this was some nut-bar religious conspiracy piece, or worse, some dull treatise about an undiscovered book of the bible.

A cover that gives a sense of action but has stock photo written all over it

So I went to the pro, the same one that Joe Konrath uses, but unfortunately he was swamped. I’d have to wait weeks. I changed the title to emphasize the action and the genre, and I slapped together a quickie cover myself with the new title. I had my graphic artist fix my amateur rough draft. That cover actually worked better and sold better, so I felt it was worth the two week wait for the next cover, the one that would be stunning.

A good cover but I couldn't figure out how it would fit with the series

But two weeks turned into a month, and two months and nearly three. The problem with a good cover artist in this new e-book world is that they’re busy–very busy. When I finally did get the promised cover, I understood how traditionally published authors must feel. I didn’t particularly like the cover, and yet I felt I had to go with it because this cover artist had a proven track record. His covers sold books. He knew the business and had been deeply immersed in it for years.

Sales did pick up, but I haven’t been able to shake the fact that I don’t particularly like the cover. Is that supposed to be Vlad or some generic ripper? But the real challenge of the rippers is they look just like anyone else. They’re scary because of their choices and their actions, not their appearance. To me, this said nothing about the content of the novel. I think as a publisher you don’t want to surprise people. You don’t want them to get half-way through before they realize that it’s not the novel they believed they were buying when they looked at the cover.

The other big problem is that with a series of five novels, the covers should carry a theme. A reader should know it’s from the 1000 Souls series simply by looking at the cover.

So I went back to my first graphic artist and we sat down for lunch at a restaurant on St. Clair with a patio in the back. We spent a sunny hour talking covers, themes and my novel. He set me to work. He wanted outlines of all five novels. He wanted descriptions of the characters, symbols and settings. It was pages of work over two days, and I highly recommend it for anyone writing a series. Know where you’re going and why.

So cover number four is now up on Amazon, and sales jumped already. I’m going to run a free day this Thursday and compare it to the free day I ran last Thursday to see if there’s a difference. I’ll keep you posted.

Now I love looking at the cover of Apocalypse Revolution, and the cover of book two is coming soon. And we’ll being doing a new cover for Vampire Road (book four) to fit it into the theme. I can hardly wait.

Oh, and if the old gun target cover is still displaying on the right of this blog, don’t worry. It just takes a little while for the new cover to chug through the system.

Bloody Words Handy Links

My Bloody Words Bony Pete Award from 2006

This is for the all the great people who attended our ‘Making e-Book’ panel at Bloody Words. Near the end of the panel I promised to post some handy links for those wishing to e-pub their novels. So here we go.

For the cover: I don’t vouch for any of these websites or own stock in them, but I’ve heard good things. First, those that provide royalty free photos that are good for cover art:

Morguefile, Stock xchange, Dreamstime, and Stocked Photos.

For paid photos there is also iStock Photo, which has images from $12 to $25 that are great for covers. For much higher end images you can try Getty Images. This is much more expensive, but they have some great artwork.

With an image and Photoshop or Powerpoint you can create your own cover, but it’s worth every penny to hire a professional cover artist unless you’re graphically talented. I didn’t fail grade nine art, but the teacher used to shake his head and not speak when he looked at my art, and it wasn’t because he was awed by my genius. For my short stories I did my own covers. For my ebooks I hired a different graphic artist for each of the novels. Now that 1000 Souls is a series of five, I’ve commissioned a talented artist to work up a theme that will carry through all five covers. So Apocalypse Revolution will soon have a new cover, and I’m glad because the vampire-target cover just never really worked for me. Live and learn.

Now that you’ve got the cover, you need to get your meticulously proof-read and edited manuscript ready for publication. Here’s the link for the Smashwords Style Guide, which you should use to massage your MS Word document into shape and cut all extraneous code. Do this first whether you’re publishing on Kindle or Smashwords.

You can load up your cleaned and pressed MS Word Document, but I used Mobi Creator first for my Kindle version, a free software that puts the MS Word into a Kindle friendly .prc file. Sorry Mac users, it’s PC only. I had to partition my hard drive and run Windows XP on one side.

This turned out to be handy for Calibre, a free software (yes, PC only) that makes ePub format files. You really only need an ePub format if you want to load it up on any non-Kindle e-reader. This is a handy way to give beta copies to critics and friends to read before you publish. When you do publish, Smashwords takes your clean MS Word doc and converts it to ePub and every other e-reading version you can think of, so you don’t need Calibre at that stage unless you want to sell your novel from your website with no third party involved. I don’t recommend this unless your famous.

Don’t be intimidated by all this. If you can read instructions and aren’t afraid to make mistakes you can e-publish. Remember that everything can be fixed because it’s not brain surgery.

For those of you who are more advanced, you’ll want to go with Kindle Gen. Amazon is promising forward compatibility if you use it for your eBook.

So there you have it. One week of evenings and a very little bit of study and you can publish your eBook. Just remember what all three panelists said: make sure someone other than your mother has read it first, and listen to your editors.

Happy publishing. Send questions. The adventure is just beginning.

 

Hero in My Own Mind

At 40 kilometers - 2 to go

Infection was not a predicted side effect. I knew that by running two marathons in less than one month I was asking for trouble, but I didn’t expect a brush with flesh eating disease.

Okay, so far it looks like I don’t have flesh eating disease, but I saw the look of worry on my doctor’s face the day after the marathon when he discovered that the leg pain I developed during the marathon wasn’t a muscular injury but a bacterial infection. Nutty.

How did this happen? I do remember banging my shin once in early May when I was prepping for the Toronto Marathon, and apparently the cut or abrasion doesn’t have to be visible in order to allow the little critters a path into one’s flesh.

All I know was that training runs between the two marathons had to be curtailed because of a pain on the front right side of my right leg–something I self-diagnosed as chronic anterior compartment syndrome. Isn’t the internet a wonderful and dangerous place when it comes to medical information? I should have checked with my doctor because I could have saved myself a lot of pain.

It started at 6 kilometers, that ache in my leg. By 10 k I knew I was in trouble, and by 22 k I had serious doubts about whether I’d even finish the marathon. That’s when I became the hero in my own mind, the lead character in one of my novels, suffering through adversity until the end of the story. I know, stupid. I should have stopped at a medical tent and asked for a ride back to the start. My brother-in-law had given me instructions for a couple of short cuts that would allow me to bail from the course and head straight back to his place, but in the haze of pain I couldn’t remember.  So I battled on.

But while my characters were great inspiration, I began thinking of real people who struggled on through great pain. My wife had three children the natural way, and I watched her fight through labor bravely each time. I once joked with her that running a marathon is the closest a man can come to the endurance test that labor is for women, but she reminded me that there is one big difference: a man can stop running. We can just give up on a marathon. My wife is a hero.

I also thought of my dad who, desperately ill with cancer, would refuse morphine when I was coming to visit so that he could be alert when we chatted, even though it meant great discomfort for him. My dad was a hero.

So how could I not finish the marathon in spite of the pain? It was just pain and I could push through it. I was lucky, because the body can fail no matter how positive the runner.

During the marathon I may have been a hero in my own mind, the protagonist of one of my novels, the star of my own film, but the people who truly got me through that race were the real heroes in my life.

 

Committed, or Should I Be Committed?

I'm the guy kneeling on the left

The second craziest thing I’ve done in my life is to sign up for the Ottawa Marathon, which will be my second marathon race in less than a month. But when I get an idea in my head, it’s like a worm that burrows deep into my brain, chewing up all common sense along the way.

Like when it comes to writing. I got in on the early days of the film industry in Toronto, working my way from office production assistant to unionized camera assistant in less than six months. The smart thing to do would have been to upgrade asap to focus puller, camera operator or director of photography. I know that because I have friends who went that route.

But I had it in my head that I wanted to be a writer. So I shunned opportunities to upgrade and took B-Camera on shows like Due South so that I would only have to work two or three days per week. I spent the other days researching, writing and editing. Most of my friends in film think I should be committed to an insane asylum, and certainly they’re right in that my bank account would be much fatter if I’d gone full throttle in film the way I do for writing.

But that little worm ate away all common sense when it comes to my career, and so here I am, still writing and now publishing. Today I met with a new cover artist, and I’m charged about a concept that can carry across all five books in the 1000 Souls series. The artist is one talented guy and I can’t wait to see what he produces. I’m still excited about my writing, and I can’t wait for my fans to read the next installment because I’ve had so much fun writing it.

So my car may be old, my house only partially renovated, and I don’t have all the latest toys, but I still love writing. When I have doubts about my career choices, I remind myself that most people don’t enjoy their work.

Oh, as for the craziest thing I’ve ever done. I was writing a novel about Afghanistan (before 9/11 changed everything), and I got it into my head that it would be easier if I visited the country to get a feel for it. It was like a worm that got into my head and ate out all common sense.

That’s me kneeling on the left of the photo. Shameless bragging? You bet. How many people can say they traveled with the mujahideen? That’s just crazy.

 

Totally Off Topic

I just about died yesterday in the Toronto Marathon. At least that’s what one medical study suggests was happening to my heart during the marathon when I went into meltdown mode at 35 kilometers (22 miles).

Up until 30 kilometers, I thought I had a chance of running the marathon in less than three hours. This is one of those weird holy grails for marathon runners, a boundary that seems impenetrable, and yet we all know that people do it, not just the pros, but regular people like us. I know two men who’ve nearly made it on multiple occasions. I was only one minute shy in 2010.

So at the beginning of the marathon we all lined up at the front and started sizing one another up. Who should be there and who shouldn’t? What I like about the Toronto Marathon is that it’s pretty easy going, and the organizers trust runners to line up at the start according to their skill with no qualifying races for proof. For the most part people are good, although usually one or two runners join us three hour guys even though they have no hope of running the race that fast.

But we’re not checking out other runners because we want to be marathon police.  We’re looking for potential pace partners–people you can run beside because they’re going for a three hour marathon too and have a real shot at getting it. I listen to the banter to find that person who says something like, “This time I’ll make it.”

The horn sounded before I could identify my pacer, so I had to run for a few kilometers to see who dropped away early. It’s usually the really young men, the 20-25 crowd, who misjudge just how much training you need to run a marathon. This excludes the pros of course. They know. So do we old guys–anyone over thirty. We all know that our bodies need training and that they will fail us if we aren’t careful.

But searching for a running partner was my undoing in this race. My first 2k I ran way too fast because I wasn’t in with the right people. One marathon expert says that for every minute too fast in your first 5k, you’ll lose two minutes in your last 5k.

By 5k we’d all settled down, and I’d picked out two men and one woman that I felt might go the distance in less than three hours. I even asked one of the guys, and he stated he was shooting for under three hours, but his tone warned me to be wary. It was arrogant. It said, “I’ll see you after you get to the finish line.”

Marathons are one of the most humbling experiences I’ve ever had, and I think that’s why I run them. I like the challenge, and when I fail to run the race I want, I just want to try it again as soon as my body is able.

Yesterday I tucked in with these three runners and went for it. I would crack that three hour nut! But at about 15 k a trickle of sweat ran down my neck, and I knew I was in trouble. The sun was over the trees. I don’t run well in sun. I’ve been lucky so far because a lot of my marathons have been cloud covered, and it makes a hell of a difference. During my first marathon the sun peaked out, and it was as if someone had dropped a wool blanket over my head. Fortunately the clouds came back that time.

This time it was a beautiful blue sky for the whole race, and I cursed that yellow orb. In the Rosedale Valley I lost my second running partner. The woman had already fallen behind, but this would later prove to be temporary. The arrogant man, the one who was sure he would beat me to the finish, suddenly announced that he had a stitch.

“Don’t panic,” I said. “I know it’s hard, but take deep breaths and hold them. Breath slower. It’s just because we’ve been running down hill and you’ve been breathing too fast, essentially hyperventilating. Just slow down your breathing. You’re getting too much air.”

He had the grace to reply, “Good luck. I’ll see you at the finish.” He dropped away and I never saw him again. He had been humbled.

But I was next. The other guy I was running with had been only 30 seconds shy of cracking that 3 hour nut last year in another race, and he said we should stick together, should push each other. But by now we were really feeling the heat. Oh, it was only 16 degrees C (61F) but with the sun it was intense. Runners began throwing water over their heads after a few sips. I saw one guy even do it with Gatorade. I think his brains were already fried.

For a short while downtown saved us. Tall buildings with long shadows provided shade, and my pace picked up. We turned south for the lake and the water front was cool, but the sun was merciless. At 30 k I had to confess to my running partner that I was done in.

“No stay,” he said, and he sounded panicked. It was more like like a guy in a horror movie saying, “Don’t leave me to face this ugly monster alone!”

“Sorry, dude.” I didn’t stop running, but I dropped back at the next water table, taking my time with my pace and my Gatorade. I did my best to keep him in sight, but by 35 k I knew it was hopeless. I wasn’t going to come in under three hours. It just wasn’t in the cards today.

So I had a crazy idea. Why not walk occasionally? I’ve NEVER stopped to walk in a marathon before, and this is my sixth. But today I decided to do something radical because I was at the end of it, and a plan had started forming in the back of my skull. What if I treated this as a training run? What if I got through this and tried again soon, taking a chance on finding a cloudy marathon. You think strange things when you’re at the end.

So I walked occasionally. I ignored the people passing me at speed. The woman I’d counted as one of my running buddies earlier now surged ahead, and I had to just watch her go. I was done.

But I was happy. The last three kilometers were the most fun I’ve ever had in a marathon. The crowd was cheering, and I was alone, other runners way ahead and others way behind. I joked with the crowd, asking questions like, “How long is this race anyway?” My smile proved that I knew the answer, and people would laugh and hoot while others hollered, “Almost there! Almost there!” and, “Go! Go! Go!”

For ten minutes I knew what it was like to be a celebrity. I loved it. And then I came around the corner and there was the clock. I would finish at 3 hours 13 minutes and 56 seconds. Not too shabby. Certainly not my personal best, which is 3:01, but totally respectable.

I didn’t see my wife in kids in the confusion of that last moment, but they saw me, and later they told me I’ve never looked so good at the end of a marathon, so happy. I have to agree. Slowing down worked for me.

But since I didn’t die of a heart attack, I’m thinking about that little voice in my head that said, “Make this a training run.” Now I look at the calender and I see that the Ottawa Marathon is on May 27th. Is this crazy? Have I lost my mind?

Maybe. But if I’m lucky and it’s cloudy…

 

Where Have I Been?

Corporate year end. Income Taxes. Training for Toronto Marathon (in four days, bib number 49) Hockey with kids.

Enough said 🙂 Will blog again.