Jackson Speed and the cover illustrator

I’m not yet going to post the “reveal,” but I am going to say I CAN NOT WAIT for you to see the cover illustration for the next Jackson Speed novel.

It is glorious.

When my youngest son saw the first draft of the cover, he said, “You’re going to have to write a better book to go with that cover.”

He wasn’t kidding. It really is that good.

Several weeks ago I was trying to decide what to do about the cover for the next Speed book, and I decided to try something different from the previous covers. So I started searching the internet on a number of different freelance artist sites looking for someone who I thought would be able to create a cover for me.

I spent a few days searching various sites and looking at different artists’ work when I finally ran across some pieces by Alex McArdell. I spent a couple of days looking at some of his work. Then I came back the next day and looked at his stuff again. I waffled back and forth about whether or not I even wanted to do this.

dumbledore and the inferi

Dumbledore and the Inferi by Alex McArdell

One of his pieces in particular convinced me Alex was the right guy. He did an illustration of a scene from one of the Harry Potter books – Dumbledore and the Inferi – and being familiar with the scene (I’ve read the Harry Potter books to each of my sons), I was very impressed with it.

So after looking at Dumbledore and the Inferi a couple more times, I sent an email to Alex to see what would happen.

Alex responds to emails very quickly.

That afternoon we sent a couple of emails back and forth and by the next day I think we were both pretty comfortable that we wanted to go forward.

I told Alex everything I thought I knew I wanted for the cover illustration. Alex told me all of that was a bad idea, and then I told Alex to do what he thought was best.

Telling Alex to do what he thought best was a really, really good idea on my part.

Alex took the cover design more seriously than I did with any of the previous Jackson Speed books.

After just a few emails back and forth, him asking thoughtful questions about the book and about the characters, Alex came up with some ideas that impressed me.

I explained to him that Speed was a true rascal, a coward who looks to save his own skin however he can. I also told him that in the fourth book, Speed “fights” for both the North and the South.

I wasn’t sure how he was going to accomplish it, but Alex suggested putting Jenny Rakestraw (who makes a return appearance in the fourth book) behind Speed, pulling at his Federal coat to reveal he’s wearing a Confederate uniform beneath it.

I loved the idea!

He also thought it would go along with the ironic humor of the stories to put Speed in a heroic pose – the cowardly, traitorous Jackson Speed looking all brave and daring.

Spectacular!

I told Alex I liked his ideas and to run with them, and then I waited.

Honestly, I expected to wait several weeks. I’m still months away from being ready to publish the book, and I told Alex not to be in any hurry on my account. But it was only three or four days later when Alex sent me the first draft.

I was blown away. I showed it to my wife and kids. My youngest son, Robert, said I would have to write a better book to go with the cover. Jean and I were both as impressed as we could be with what he’d done with Speed and Jenny, but we weren’t particularly thrilled with the background.

I threw out some suggestions for the background. I sent Alex some historical photos I thought might help. A day or two later – almost no time at all – Alex sent what was basically the finished piece. He still needed to do some sizing, but the image was nearly perfect.

It’s no secret that the fourth book takes place during the Battle of Gettysburg. One of the most recognizable features of that battlefield – at least from the first day – is the cupola of the Seminary building up on Seminary Ridge. When I saw how Alex managed to incorporate the Seminary and its cupola into the background, it was a wonderful surprise to me.

You’ll probably never have the opportunity to look at a high resolution copy of the illustration in Photoshop the way I did, but trust me when I say that every tiny detail in the background is there. You’ll never see the light coming from the windows of the Seminary, but having zoomed in and looked at it in almost microscopic detail, I’m just astounded at what Alex did.

For Jackson Speed fans, the good news is that having such a great cover is pushing me to write more frequently, so there’s a decent chance I’ll have the book finished sooner because of it.

If you’re an indie author looking for a cover illustration, I would urge you to consider getting in touch with Alex. I think you’ll find he offers reasonable prices, and based on my experience with him, I am certain you’ll be thrilled with the final product.

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Help a writer out, review books you enjoy at Amazon

Which of these books are you going to read? The one on the left with zero recommendations or the one on the right that nine out of 10 people rated at 4 or 5 stars?

Which of these books are you going to read? The one on the left with zero recommendations or the one on the right that nine out of 10 people rated at 4 or 5 stars?

I try to check daily, sometimes hourly, to see if anyone has reviewed one of my books at Amazon.com. But obviously I am not checking with enough frequency. For eight days I’ve had a 4-star review posted at the Amazon.co.uk site and I didn’t even know it!

In fairness, Jean and I were out of town last week for a couple of days celebrating how happy she’s been these last 19 years being married to me. Then we were gone to a soccer tournament all weekend. We came home and – surprise! – we actually had to work at our paying jobs. Then yesterday I was gone all afternoon visiting my friend Howard Sills.

It’s been a busy week, so if I was slow to check reader reviews I might be forgiven. The review was left on El Teneria.

It’s a 4-star review and the reviewer says he finished El Teneria and bought the follow-up novel, Blood Tubs, and I’m grateful whenever anyone enjoys one of my books enough to buy the next one. In fact, that’s as good a review as I could possibly ask for.

The review is titled “Flashmanesque” and the reviewer states that El Teneria is “very much a take on GM Fraser’s Flashman novels. It is not as good as they are.”

This is true. I’ve written here before that I hate the thought of Flashman fans reading Jackson Speed novels and comparing the two. Jackson Speed is not Harry Flashman and I’m certainly not George MacDonald Fraser.

I do think the Speed books are entertaining, and the history is solid. I’ve heard from a couple of Flashman fans who have really enjoyed the Jackson Speed Memoirs, and I’ll be honest, if a Flashman fan says that Jackson Speed comes in second to Flashman, I’m not disappointed by that. Even I say that Speed comes in second to Flashman!

I’ve only had one person tell me that he thought the Jackson Speed Memoirs are better than Flashman, and I’m very dubious that he says this out of a sense of loyalty to our longstanding and close personal friendship.

This sort of leads me into another something I have been trying to write on my blog but wasn’t sure the right way to say it without appearing self-serving.

I spend a lot of time reading blogs from other indie writers. Some of them are legitimately out there trying to make a living on their books, or supplement their living with their book sales.

I’m just screwing around, enjoying myself and having fun writing stories that entertain me. I love it when my stories entertain others, and I love it when readers leave a comment on my blog or send me an email or post a reader review (particularly a positive one, though I have this odd masochistic side that feels validated whenever I get a poor review).

But on behalf of those writers out there who are seriously trying to make a buck, if you find a book you really enjoy, please give a thought to leaving a 4- or 5-star reader review at Amazon. It doesn’t have to read like an English Lit grad student’s thesis paper, nor does it have to be particularly long or detailed.

You can offer potential readers who are looking through reader reviews a summation of the plot. You can briefly mention some things you liked about the novel or the author’s writing style. You can just simply say that you enjoyed the book. Just write whatever feels appropriate to you.

My favorite thing to see in a reader review is when a reader says they will read the sequels – if it’s a series – or other books by the author. That’s gold for an indie writer, because it tells people who are considering whether or not to buy a book that the book was good enough to get a reader to come back for more.

You see, the conventional wisdom that I read over and over from writers who offer marketing tips is that the thing that helps drive book sales is more reader reviews. The more reader reviews they have (especially positive reviews), the more likely other people will be willing to give an unknown writer a chance.

Personally, I think there are other things readers could do that would better help indie writers. If you’ve read a book by a writer and you’ve enjoyed the book, tell people. Post it on Facebook or tweet it on Twitter or tell people face-to-face that you enjoyed a book. How do you think Fifty Shades of Gray did so well? I haven’t read it, but I’m pretty sure it had nothing to do with the writing. Instead, it had to do with women telling other women, “I just read this book and you should read it, too.”

I actually heard someone make a recommendation to a couple of other women about Fifty Shades of Gray.

I can tweet links to my books thousands of times, but none of those tweets will have the same impact as someone who has read my books saying to someone else, “You know, these books aren’t half bad.”

As far as negative reviews go, I’ll say this: Obviously if you read a book and you don’t like it for one reason or another, you certainly can leave a negative review.

But I would ask that you don’t leave a 1-star review if you bought a Kindle book and something corrupted the download and you didn’t get the book. That’s a problem to take up with Amazon customer service (and they will get you the book) and not something over which the author has any control. A 1-star review for a failed download punishes the author unnecessarily.

I realize that for people who are writing books – especially the people who are depending on their income from books to pay bills – we eat, breathe and sleep this stuff. Reader reviews or sharing a book you’ve enjoyed on social media, these are things that we are desperate for and think about all the time.

But for the average reader, who doesn’t give any thought to the challenges in trying to market a book and only wants to know when the next one in the series will be released, these aren’t necessarily things that you’re thinking about.

So, if you find a writer you enjoy and you want to encourage them and help them, I would ask that you give some thought to promoting their work. It doesn’t have to be a lot. A two or three sentence review, a post or two on social media, maybe a word to a friend – and then you can feel really good about yourself, because you’ve probably just really helped an indie writer and maybe turned some folks on to a great new book.

Celebrating little successes

If you’re a self-published novelist or published through a small press, there’s a pretty good likelihood you’ve wallowed in a fair amount of self-doubt and self-pity.

If you see fireworks this week, almost surely they are being set off in celebration of my best sales month last month.

If you see fireworks this week, almost surely they are being set off in celebration of my best sales month last month.

I think most indie authors discover that finding and connecting with potential readers is a more challenging task than writing the book.

I didn’t know what to expect in terms of “success” when I first published Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria. I mean, obviously I wanted to sell a million copies and be on the NYT bestseller list for years. But I suspected that wouldn’t happen.

Now, after two years and four published books, I’ve learned that you have to find success where you can. Maybe you even have to redefine what success means. Otherwise, it’s easy to get terribly dispirited.

In June I had a pretty good run of “little successes.”

Toward the end of May I realized I was coming up on a milestone – 1,000 books distributed through Amazon. Around the first of June I achieved that milestone when I distributed my one-thousandth book. That’s not 1,000 sales, and that’s not all the books I’ve sold or given away, but it’s 1,000 books through Amazon (paperbacks and Kindle ebooks) both paid and free. The majority were free, but that’s okay.

Then over the course of the rest of the month, as I periodically checked my sales reports, I realized that I was having a good month. Again, this is scaled because we’re talking about a good month for me, not for Stephen King. But I was consistently selling books through the month of June and – by far – had my best sales month ever.

My month of little successes kicked off at the end of May when I received an email from a reader who contacted me through this blog. He’d read all three of the Jackson Speed novels and was complimentary. He favorably compared them to George MacDonald Fraser’s Harry Flashman books (which is high praise in my mind, because Fraser is among my favorites).

Fraser died in 2008, and for his fans it was devastating to know there would be no more Flashman books.

As I’ve noted before, I patterned the character of Jackson Speed after Flashman – a coward and a womanizer. As I’ve written the novels, I’ve felt that Speed has developed more into his own self, but the comparison to Flashman is obvious and will always be there.

Anyway, the email closed with: “Thanks for filling the void, but making it your own.”

That’s enormous praise. I can’t ask for anything more than that. If a Flashman fan thinks I’ve filled the void left by Fraser’s death, that’s as much as I can hope to do.

Still, it scares me to think that fans of the Flashman novels would read a Jackson Speed novel, because truthfully they must be disappointed. I’m not half the writer that George MacDonald Fraser was.

When compared to a lot of other indie authors, I know my sales seem pretty weak and my little successes insignificant (especially after two years of this), but I’m still feeling pretty good about the way June went.

So, I’m filing this under advice for indie authors: Don’t get bogged down in the disappointments. Whether you set small goals (1,000 books distributed) or just celebrate unexpected victories (a reader who enjoyed your book reaching out to let you know), I’m convinced that the people who achieve success as indie writers (or, really, anything) are the ones who persevere through the tough days so that they can enjoy the good days.

Celebrating last place

Recently, on a whim, I decided to offer two of my books for free to Kindle users through Amazon.com.

If you publish through Kindle Direct Publishing you can enroll in KDPSelect, and one of the benefits of that program is that every 90 days you can offer your book to download for free for up to five days. The idea is that you can use these free days to build a following and if people got your book for free and they enjoyed it, maybe they’ll feel obliged to leave a review of your book on Amazon.com or tell their friends about your book. Most readers, I suspect, don’t realize how important reviews and word-of-mouth recommendations are to authors in their effort to find new readers. The idea of the free days is that you generate future sales.

When it comes to marketing my books, I’m still in the “write more books” phase. I am slowly putting together a future marketing plan, but based on what I’ve read from seriously successful indie authors, I continue to believe the most important factor for selling books is that I need to have books (emphasis on plural) for sale. I feel like I’ll get more serious about marketing when I’ve got five or six books available.

So I’m writing more Jackson Speed novels and not really focusing on book sales or marketing yet.

Up to now, my marketing has mostly consisted of the “Field of Dreams” marketing plan: If you write it they will read.

To indie authors who are highly focused on sales, I encourage you to find a better marketing strategy than the “Field of Dreams” marking plan because it does not work. You can’t just hit the “publish” button and start getting sales.

Occasionally I do some haphazard stuff – like scheduling free downloads – and sometimes I do some purposeful stuff to get an idea of what works and what doesn’t work.

My recent free downloads fell into the category of haphazard. I scheduled the free days “just cause.” Just cause I could. Just cause I felt like it. Just cause I didn’t have anything else to do at that particular moment.

If you own a Kindle or a similar device, you’ve probably scrolled through the free books to see if you could find anything that might interest you. The hope for an author like me is that by offering the books for free we may stand a better chance of getting noticed by people who are interested in books in our genre who otherwise would never know that we (or more importantly our books) even exist.

And the fun thing about free days – even though not a penny comes my way from them – is to watch during the day as the downloads move from a couple to a couple dozen to (sometimes) a couple hundred. Meanwhile, if you look at your book’s Amazon page, you also get to see your book shooting to the top of your genre in the free downloads section.

So last week I had two different books in the top 20 free downloads of two different genres.

The first Jackson Speed book, “El Teneria,” was ranked Number 13 in the war genre. And when I first logged onto Amazon the morning the free downloads started, my book of humor columns, “Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings” was ranked at Number 2 in the genre Family and Parenting Humor.

Number 2! You can’t beat that unless you’re Number 1!

When I clicked over to look at my competition, I was a little dismayed to learn that at the time there were only two books available for free downloads in the Family and Parenting Humor genre.

I re-corked the champagne bottles when I realized that my book was ranked Number 2 out of 2. It’s like coming in second in a race and celebrating your success and then finding out that the only people racing were you and the guy who beat you: It just doesn’t feel as good to celebrate last place.

During the course of the day, though, the number of downloads continued to increase and my book shot to the Number 1 position in its genre. I had a Number 1 bestseller (minus the sales)! Even better, four other books popped up for free in my genre, so I wasn’t just winning a race of two, but I was Number 1 out of six.

Regardless of whether I am running in last place or 13th place or first place, the good part of that race was that a fair number of people have been exposed to my books who knew nothing about them prior to this weekend.

Books usually fall to tastes, and I realize that not everyone who downloads a Jackson Speed book is going to become a fan. My hope is that for every dozen or so books that were downloaded I can pick up a couple of loyal future readers. And if I’m lucky, those future readers will leave a review at Amazon.com. And if I’m really, super lucky, those future readers will encourage their friends to read “El Teneria” or “Four Things” at a time when I’m not doing free days and I’ll get real, actual sales that involve the transfer of money.

Indie authors should give it their Best

I suspect that there is a sense out there among many people that if a book is written by an indie author then it probably means the book wasn’t good enough to get published by a legitimate, traditional publishing house.

Well, let me tell you about James D. Best’s “The Shopkeeper.”

Author James Best

Author James Best

A few months ago I decided to purposely try to find some indie authors to read. I feel compelled to support fellow indie authors because we share a struggle.

After searching around a bit, I landed on the Steve Dancy novels by James Best. I clicked on the “Look Inside” button and after perusing the first couple of pages of the first book in the series, I bought all three of the Steve Dancy novels. I couldn’t wait to get into the first book in the series when “the box with the smile on it” showed up at the door.

Seriously, “The Shopkeeper” is what every indie author should hope to be writing. It’s compelling fiction. It’s well written. Nothing about the book suggests that Best is an indie author. Best (who I’ll soon be interviewing for a post on the blog) has published the Steve Dancy series through Wheatmark.

I’ve only seen the print books and not the ebooks, but Best’s print books are professional in design and layout. There are not weird formatting problems that leave the impression the author has never seen the way a book is laid out before.

Also, the books are well edited, avoiding another complaint readers often have of the self-published and indie authors: There aren’t a lot of typos or mistakes that will hang up a reader.

But more important than the layout and design of a book is the content. If it’s a good story, I can get past a widow here or an orphan there.

“The Shopkeeper” is great on content. Best’s characters are well-developed, his plot is unique and engaging. At no time reading his book did it cross my mind that I was reading a book by an indie author. I found myself caught up in the story to the point that when I got to the last few chapters I abandoned all other plans for the day and just read until I finished the novel.

Best’s “The Shopkeeper” is the quality we should all be aspiring to. It’s a good story and it’s well told, and it will disabuse readers of the notion that indie authors aren’t good enough to be published by traditional publishing houses.

Let’s face it, publishing, like any other business, is driven by trends that produce dollars, and not all books – no matter how good they might be – are going to hit the bestseller lists. Publishers aren’t looking for a good book as much as they are looking for a book that will sell.

If you don’t believe me, then explain how it is that the pop star Ke$ha has a book published by Simon & Schuster’s Touchstone imprint. Is this quality literature or is it something that offers Simon & Shuster guaranteed dollars because Ke$ha brings a fan base?

So, as an indie author, I love it that there are books out there like James D. Best’s “The Shopkeeper” that dispel the notion that indie fiction can’t be good fiction.

If you enjoy a good Western, do yourself a favor and order “The Shopkeeper.”

First three in the Steve Dancy series. Read these.

First three in the Steve Dancy series. Read these.

New indie-authors shouldn’t obsess about marketing

Five months after self-publishing my first book, I’m learning what hundreds of self-published authors before me already know: Writing the book was the easy part.

One of the several reasons I chose to self-publish was that I really didn’t have any interest in sending out hundreds of query letters to publishers and agents and getting back dozens of rejection letters and hundreds of nothing. I didn’t want to go through the effort of trying to market my book to publishers. I just wanted to write.

Honestly, I don’t know if my book is good enough to find its way to the bookshelves of Barnes & Noble through a traditional publisher. I know I wrote a book that I would enjoy reading, and I think it’s pretty good.

So to claim that I “chose to self-publish” might be a bit misleading – the choice was never to publish the traditional route or self-publish; the choice was always to self-publish or put my novel in a desk drawer and forget about it.

As I said, writing the book was the easy part. Selling the book is the hard part. Maybe I didn’t want to have to try to market my book to agents or publishers, but as a self-published author I find I have to try to market my book to readers.

As most or maybe all self-published authors will tell you, very quickly you exhaust the sales you’ll get from your friends on Facebook and Twitter. If you offer your book for free as a Kindle download, you’ll have the joy of watching your book climb steadily among the rankings on Amazon.com, but at that point whatever lingering sales you might have had among your friends are gone.

With tens of thousands of self-published books coming out all the time, trying to find readers and attract those readers is worse than a fulltime job. Literally, for many self-published authors, I suspect it becomes an obsession.

You spend all your time reading blogs. You do internet search after internet search after internet search for “book marketing” or “self-published author marketing” or “how to market a book” or some other such thing.

You visit a thousand websites that claim they will connect authors to readers. You sign up for everything free that they offer and wonder if anyone will ever find your book posted at shvoong.com.

The blogs tell you that you must have reviews on Amazon.com. So you post it on Facebook and Twitter: “If you’ve read my book, please take a second to post a review at amazon.” For each twenty times you post this, one friend writes a review. Even friends who sent you messages and said they liked the book don’t post a review.

So you search for “book review” websites and each time you click a link to one you pray that it’s not “paid book reviews.” And often as not when you find some that claim to be free, you submit your book and wait two months and then get an email that says all their reviewers are backlogged. But don’t be discouraged! For $150 you can try their express two-week service and get a guaranteed book review.

The websites will nickel and dime you to death!

You can buy an ad for your book here for $10, or here for $25, or here for $75. You can be on this website’s front page for a month, or this one’s side rail for two weeks. Some of them are so awful looking that you’re certain the website was designed by a 3-year-old with a Crayon, but you dutifully cough up your $15 and wonder if the ad will produce enough sales to cover the price of the ad.

I’ll give you a hint: It won’t.

And you’re pretty sure, too, that the only traffic coming to any of these websites is other self-published authors just like you who have a book they want to sell, and they’re not looking to buy a book any more than you are. And you’re right.

And finally, you reach a point where you’re ready to scrap your book and figure out how to write YA fiction or something about vampires or (gasp!) erotica, because that stuff seems to be selling like crazy. I’m Rob Peecher, and my erotic novel “Whipped: Jackson Speed and his Slaves” is due out later this year.

Hmmm … actually, that doesn’t sound so bad. I’ll note that in my little black book of book ideas.

Here are the things that I think you’ve got to do (and nearly every self-published author has already done them because these are the first steps we all seem to find as we start with our searches):

  1. Start a blog to write about book stuff. Review other books. Invite other authors to guest blog. Host stops on a blog tour. Write about writing. Write about selling books. Whatever – you need a blog so that readers can find you. And fill your blog with links to your book on Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
  2. Do the Amazon.com author page.
  3. Have a Facebook account that you use to promote your books, along with a fan page. I’m not sold that Twitter or Pinterest are necessary, but if you’ve got the time to devote to that much social networking, then have at it.
  4. Do the whole Goodreads.com thing – author page, author Q&A, giveaways. Of all the websites I’ve tried out, Goodreads.com does seem to actually, in some cases, connect readers to writers.
  5. Book a blog tour, preferably using blogs specific to your genre. If you’ve written Historical Fiction, don’t do a YA or paranormal blog tour.
  6. Find anything free you can do: Author interviews and free book listings. Maximize the opportunities that someone might accidentally find your book, but don’t expect any of this to catapult you to the NY Times bestseller list.

If you’re self publishing, I think these six steps are the bare minimum that you absolutely must be willing to do. However, Numbers 5 and 6 I would do only up to the point that it is not overly burdensome. Judging from what other self-published authors have written and my own experiences, I suspect that your book sales will continue to be disappointing even after you’ve done these things. I would strongly recommend that you do not invest too much time and energy into these things.

I have not paid for any book reviews, so I cannot comment on the value of paying for reviews. It seems seedy to me, and my understanding is that Amazon.com only allows paid book reviews to be posted on its site from Kirkus Indie and Foreword Clarion. Those reviews are expensive, and I can’t afford to put that much money into a hobby. I also understand that Amazon periodically purges other, cheaper paid reviews, so whatever you paid for that review it is now all but worthless.

It seems to me that a lot of the self-published authors are probably people who really love their project and are emotionally invested in it. I can understand how they might easily be lured into advertising on various websites or spending money for reviews. I honestly cannot imagine that this money is well spent.

After months of obsessing and searching the internet for the magic bullet that will help me boost sales of my book, I’ve pretty much decided to give up trying to market my book, at least for a while.

I will continue to do those things among the six “bare minimums,” but I do not think these are things that will skyrocket my book sales. When I have the chance, I’ll do author talks and book signings. But for the present I think my time and money are better spent just simply writing books.

The really successful indie-authors have at least one thing in common: They have written a lot of books. Often, these are authors who have written several books over the years and finally get that one hit. At that point, too, they usually find sales of their earlier books increasing.

“Jackson Speed: The Hero of El Teneria” seems awfully lonely out there by itself, just hanging out at Amazon.com as the only book by Robert Peecher.

In the coming weeks I hope to have the second Jackson Speed novel available. “Jackson Speed and the Blood Tubs” – a novel about Speed’s involvement with Allan Pinkerton in foiling the Baltimore plot to kill Abraham Lincoln prior to his inauguration.

And after that, I plan to publish a collection of my newspaper humor columns “Four Things My Wife Hates About Mornings.”

I am convinced that indie-authors who self-publish through Createspace and have no connections in the publishing industry are probably deluding themselves if they’ve published one book and hope to see it sitting among the bestsellers.

So my advice to the newly self-published and indie authors (with five months of experience to back it up, don’t ye know) would be to not obsess over sales or marketing. Spend your time writing books. Do the basics, those things that must be done, but don’t waste your time and money pursuing readers who are probably not perusing shvoong.com looking for their next book to read.