Tuesday, August 20, 2019

The Witches Of BookBoggin

It's been a while since I wrote any short fiction, save for the new episode for my Spike Bike collection that I published last spring. Back in the days of Usenet, I wrote a lot of it, more than I can remember, much of it now gone to the Great Bit Bucket In The Sky. One thing I do remember well, however, was that even in those early days of what is now the Internet, there were trolls. I knew even then that the best way to deal with them was to ignore them, but once in a while, my temper would get the better of me, and I'd blunder into a hot mess that at the end of the day wouldn't matter to anyone.

My favorite tactic for dealing with the trolls that I did not or could not avoid was to write caricatures of them into my stories. Being able to laugh at them, and myself, always proved to be a tonic for any residual resentment I might have felt–particularly if I could get a chuckle out of my readers.

It is in such a spirit that I have written The Witches Of BookBoggin. Since it's in the tl/dr category for a blog entry, you can read the story on Medium. Should you find yourself paywalled, use the contact form to your right, and I'll send you a link.

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Reviews And The Tyranny Of Averages

I've recently encountered a couple of articles from bloggers decrying the damage 1-star reviews can inflict on a struggling author. You can find one of them here and another here.

Both bloggers find fault with the reviewers themselves, a point of view I can mostly agree with. Many are just trolls, Others are trying to stand out as contrarians, while all they are actually doing is making themselves look petty and mean. Both bloggers also mention that their opinions of 1-star reviewers stir up quite a bit of controversy on social media. Evidently, some folks think that these people should be able to speak their minds no matter the consequences, even if they are petty and mean.

When a book has hundreds or thousands of reviews, as best-sellers do, a smattering of one- or two-star reviews is to be expected, but they're not going to have much of an effect on sales. But when a book has very few reviews, a serious and widespread problem for unknown, self-published authors like yours truly, even a single bad review can have serious consequences. This is not, however, because of the review itself, but because of the effect it has on the author's average star rating. This is the first thing you see when you land on the product page for the book on Amazon or Goodreads.

Let's say a book has a total of five reviews that break down like this:

  1. Five stars - 1
  2. Four stars - 3
  3. One star - 1
OK, that's four good ratings and one zinger. No problem? Not quite. The total number of stars for this book is 5+4+4+4+1=18. This makes the average star rating for the book 3.6, which Amazon will round down to 3.5. That looks like this:

Three and a half stars. If you are a reader browsing titles to buy, are you going to look any further than this? Probably not, when there are so many other titles with better ratings to choose from. This will lead to fewer sales of the book, which means fewer reviews, and the thing becomes a death spiral. Thus the solitary 1-star review this book received proves to be its undoing.

Now, our inquisitive book-shopper will also see that the title has a total of five reviews, but there's no help here: "Oh, it's a three and a half star book only five people have bothered to review? I'll pass."

I call this the tyranny of averages. It's a cruel fact of life that mostly affects struggling authors, but even best-sellers by well-known authors are somewhat affected by it. For a case study, I chose Isaac Asimov's The Gods Themselves. Asimov was one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, known for some of the most enduring works in all of science fiction. Although The Gods Themselves is somewhat lesser known than Asimov's classics like I, Robot, it won both the Hugo and Nebula awards for best novel in the year following its publication. In the sci-fi world, these are the equivalent of the Oscars and Golden Globes for movies.

I reasoned that such a title would have close to a five-star average, but when I headed over to Goodreads to check, I discovered that the Good Doctor's masterpiece is barely in four-star territory, with an average rating of 4.09 stars across over 48,000 ratings. What gives? To find out, we have to dig into the details, something few people will do when they're just browsing titles looking for something to read.

As a lifelong Asimov fan, it's astonishing to me that over 2,000 people rated this book negatively. It's even more astonishing that over 9,000 people rated it as just OK. An overwhelming majority of readers gave it 4 and 5 star ratings, so does it seem to you that this is really a 4.09-star read? Let's see what we can find over on Amazon:

Only 4.2 stars? Not much better, but at least Amazon doesn't make you dig for the histogram. Here, we can see that the skew is a little more favorable, but the all-important average is still dragged down by the 1, 2, and 3 star reviews. 

If an award-winning, best-selling book by an iconic author can be hurt by a relative few bad reviews, what's a struggling indie author to do?

Cross-posted to Medium

Friday, July 5, 2019

Announcement for prospective reviewers

I was surprised the other day by a message in my inbox from someone who had used the contact form you see to your right to tell me they'd like to review my books. I wanted to be flattered, but when I took a look at their website, I observed that they are willing to review books for those who are willing to pay them $99.

Amazon expressly prohibits paid reviews, a good policy that protects authors and readers alike. Nobody likes to be scammed. When I launched my authoring career, I expected come-ons like this, so I didn't get upset about it. I'm just serving notice here that I was not born yesterday.

Thursday, June 27, 2019

Mobi Dick

So I have been trying to drum up some more reviews for Joshua, and following the advice I found here, I looked up a few book bloggers who might want to read my novel and, I hope, go on Amazon and Goodreads to tell people it doesn't suck.

It turns out there are a few bookworms out there who do indeed take a chance on self-published authors, although it seems like a lot of them do it just to make money. However they do it, though, a lot of them prefer to get manuscripts in mobi format so they can be easily read with a Kindle.

Mobi? I have to confess I never heard of it before I started my quest for reviews. I've heard of lots of file formats, but this one is unique to Kindle users. But no biggie, many have told me; all I need to do is go to my book details on my KDP page and download my manuscript in mobi form. There. Done! So I go there, and I get:

WTF?! did they lose my manuscript or something? No. The problem is that I uploaded my manuscript as a .kpf file, something spat out by Amazon's Kindle Creator app when you feed it your manuscript. In order to download your book in mobi format you have to have uploaded it in mobi format.

Anybody see the disconnect here? What kind of idiot would clobber their original mobi file, thus making this expedition necessary? Don't answer that.

Joshua began life as a couple of short stories about a boy who gets into all kinds of humorous predicaments. I wrote them in HTML. After I wrote a few more of them, I started to get more serious about the project so I abandoned the HTML and converted the text to a Google Doc. There are a number of advantages to working this way as you are developing your manuscript. Everything you write is saved in real time to your Google drive, which you can access from anywhere, on any device that supports it. When you're away from your PC and you have an idea for your story, you can just whip out your phone, open up the Google Docs app, and start writing. I wrote a significant portion of my manuscript for Joshua in this way.

Once I was done with it, however, I needed to format it for print, paying attention to paper size, margins, and text placement in order to conform to Amazon's standards. I could not do this in Google Docs and I didn't want to do it in my severely outdated copy of Word. What I really did not want to do was pay for Office 365, the latest bloated atrocity of an office suite from Microsoft. I did, however, have a copy of Apache Open Office that was up to the task. Sort of.

I tried exporting my manuscript in Open Office's preferred format, .odt, with some funky results. Things I had formatted within Google Docs went all wonky when I opened them in Open Office. Trying to fix them all piecemeal proved to be too much of a challenge. I finally went back to Docs and stripped the manuscript of all formatting, re-exported it to .odt, and painstakingly reformatted everything from the chapter headings to the italics. After several days' hard labor, I had a manuscript that was fit to publish as a paperback that met Amazon's standards. It was extremely quirky, however. It was very easy to mess up my page numbers. I had to input my TOC manually. When I finally had it ready to publish, I exported it as a PDF, and hooray, nothing got trashed in the process.

But it turns out that .odt is not an acceptable format for Kindle Creator. I went back to Open Office to export it as a .doc, and it trashed my page numbers again. This wasn't really a problem, however, since Kindle Creator strips out the page numbers anyway. So I imported it to Kindle Creator, went through it page by page to fix up things that didn't import in a way I liked, and finally, I had both a print-ready and Kindle-ready manuscript to upload to KDP. A couple of days later, both were live on Amazon. Yay.

But troubles still lurked unseen, surfacing when I tried to make a mobi. There is a very good, free, open source tool known as Calibre that will convert manuscripts into both mobi and epub formats. Although it has a few quirks, it's pretty slick. You import your manuscript, turn the crank, and out comes your mobi. Well, it isn't that simple, but you get the idea.

But Calibre doesn't accept .doc files for conversion, and Open Office doesn't produce .docx files (no idea why). Calibre does purportedly convert .odt files, but it would rather have a .docx. I thought this might be my problem, so I got another free tool, LibreOffice, that can export a manuscript as .docx. Problem solved? I wish. Calibre converted my manuscript to a mobi, but it did not produce a table of contents from the chapter headings like it was supposed to. It also made a goof with the picture of Robert Fishell I use in my About the Author page at the end of my book. No matter, I just got rid of it rather than try to debug it. That still left me with a TOC problem.

I started plowing through the documentation for Calibre and discovered that it works its magic by converting whatever you give it to an intermediate form in XHTML that you can edit, if you understand enough about XHTML to know what you are doing. I do (although I'm pretty rusty), so I was able to generate a TOC manually. This left me with a question of why Calibre didn't just pick up my chapter headings to begin with.

I reported this as a bug to the developers, who promptly told me I needed to use heading styles in my manuscript, marked my bug report as a non-issue (as in RTFM, dummy), and went away. Leaving me with no idea why I couldn't get a TOC from the chapter headings which were quite clearly formatted using heading styles. I figured the problem was that converting the manuscript so many times had somehow corrupted it, but I didn't know how to fix that without stripping it down to plain text and starting over.

I respectfully asked them to look at the document again, or at least read what I told them in the first place, and what do you know – I had discovered a bug after all. Evidently the problem was that I numbered my chapters. Lots of, if not most, book authors do that. But it turns out that Calibre sees those numbers and thinks you made a list, and thus tags them with <li> rather than <h1>. If you don't know anything about HTML, I won't go into that, but the upshot was that the developer I was working with figured out the problem and fixed it for the next biweekly rollout. So you can thank me for my persistence in pursuing this issue if you're using Calibre and need a TOC for your numbered chapters.

And I can now give the thousands of reviewers who are champing at the bit to read Joshua a fully functional mobi, or even an ePub if they want it that way. I even figured out how to put Robert Fishell's mug back into the About the Author section. Go me.

Joshua will go live on BooksGoSocial in July. Watch this space.

Monday, May 27, 2019

So What Do You Do When You're Not Writing?

When I was setting up my author's page on Amazon, their bot asked me how I deal with writer's block. My answer was that I go and find something to fix. The problem then becomes fixer's block. I have often boasted, unseriously, that I can fix anything. More seriously, I can fix almost anything.

I'm particularly good at fixing bicycles. I need to be, since I own four of them, my wife has three, and my kid has one that she never rides. All of our bikes are pretty well maintained at the moment, but I discovered there is something of a market for people who know how to fix bicycles around here. So far, I've had a couple of them in. I figured $25/hr. was a reasonable rate for an old retired guy who works out of his garage, and so far, I've made $125 this year. That's a lot more than I've made on my books.

The point to fixing bikes, however, is not to make money, but to ride them. I am having a pretty good year so far. I've got around 400 miles in – much less than I'd have at this point in my glory days, but better than I've had than any other year since my spine surgery.

If I haven't been writing as much lately, that's why.

Friday, April 19, 2019

You Can Judge A Book By Its Cover?

I just updated the covers for both of my titles on Amazon, in the hopes of drumming up a few sales. According to some credible advice I was recently given, people can and do judge books by their covers, at least when they're browsing for them. So here they are:

They do look a lot better than the ones I originally published. I used my own artwork on both, but I originally used Amazon's Cover Creator tool to generate the text portions. This time around, I used Snappa for the text overlays, which gave me far more control over the appearance of the final product.

Only time will tell if it makes any difference. I needed to fix a few little typos in Joshua, things like using hyphens where I wanted en dashes, but in rereading the book, I re-concluded that my writing does not suck. All I need are some readers.

Friday, April 12, 2019


Memories. We make them all the time, even when we are not aware of them. In every waking moment, and even in dreams, our senses provide us with information. We take in so much that we can't store it all, but it remains a mystery why some things are discarded and others are saved. Most fascinating, however, are the memories we don't realize we have. When we rediscover them, it's almost as if the experience is new. It's one of the things I enjoy about life, especially now when there are fewer and fewer truly new experiences to be had.

All it takes to jar loose some of these memories is a stimulus of some kind. That can be anything, like hearing an oldie on the radio, or even some random object, but nothing is more compelling than a photograph. For some time now, I've been meaning to digitize a collection of old 35mm slides my father took between 1950 and 1978, the bulk of which were taken before 1962: my childhood. As I went through them, I found a lot of images that pulled out long-lost memories of my youth, of my long-dead parents and grandparents, of beloved pets, of things I did and places I went. Some made me smile, some made me sad.  Of all of them, none were more evocative than this one:

The dopey-looking kid with the Dumbo ears, the red underwear, and a clothespin holding up his pants, is me, somewhere between the ages of 7 and 8. The absolutely adorable little girl in the foreground is Barbara. Her family owned a tidy lakefront cabin nextdoor to the little house trailer my family used as a summer place. Here is another one of us taken a few minutes earlier or later:

I look a little less dopey here, and Barbara looks no less adorable, but it's important that she and I were the only kids in the pictures. We were something to one another. I was much too dopey to realize it at the time, but the power of the feelings that washed over me when I saw these made me realize that I loved her.

My daughter came into my office while I was scanning these. I asked her if she recognized anyone, and she picked me out immediately. She asked about the girl, and I told her, "That's Barbara. She was my first girlfriend."

When she asked how old I was here, I said I was 7 or 8. I don't remember the year, and until I saw the photographs, I didn't remember the occurrence. There's a plastic tablecloth on the picnic table in front of our trailer, so there must have been something important going on. It might have been my birthday, or hers, or my sister's, or something else entirely. Whatever it was, it was a time that Barbara and I were together, and that made it special no matter what day it was. Even if I didn't understand it.

My daughter asked me how I could have a girlfriend at that age. I told her that even when you're a child, you can have attractions, you can have feelings for someone – even if you're too dopey to get it. I was a little surprised I had to explain that to her, as girls are more mature than boys at that age. Did Barbara have feelings for me? She at least liked me enough to be hanging out there at the picnic table with me, whatever the occasion was. She's standing close enough to me that maybe, just maybe, she felt something for me, too.

In my novel Joshua, my young protagonist develops feelings for a pretty little girl in his 3rd grade class, but in Joshua's mind, it's an unrequited attraction that has nowhere to go. I was far ahead of him here. I think that if I hadn't been so dopey, or if I could somehow return to my childhood to set some things right, I would ask Barbara to sit out on the dock with me after dark to look at the stars. What a memory that could have been.