Hola amigos, I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, so I’m going to do so right now, even though I have nothing much to say. To make it more interesting, I’m going to post in the style of the “Bullpen Bulletins” pages from early 80’s Marvel Comics, which I read assiduously right up until I got my learner’s permit.
ITEM! – The work on the second draft of Laughingstock has finally gathered a head of steam. I’ve collated and rewritten some of the chapters that will remain intact, which are of the comedian-protagonists early days of standup whilst in high school. I’m now on to material that will have to be heavily rewritten or composed for the first time. I’ve been doing a lot of research on how TV series are made for the second act of the novel.
ITEM! – I’m seriously considering reworking the cover of Fester to make it more marketable. Ken Huey’s original cover was fabulous, and he provided exactly what I asked for. However, at that point, I really didn’t know what I should be asking for. After a multi-pronged battle with Amazon’s advertising department over whether the cover image is “violent,” I finally gave up on advertising. Since then, I’ve decided to experiment to see if a different cover will make it easier to sell and keep those creeps from Amazon Ads off my back.
ITEM! – One of the reasons for this move towards a new cover was the fact that last month, I received a royalty payment from Amazon of one U.S. penny ($0.01). Of course, this is terribly embarrassing to admit, but since I figure that just about the same number of people read this blog as buy my books, I’m not in any danger om embarrassing myself in front of anyone who doesn’t already know how embarrassing I already am. Or something.
ITEM! – NaNoWriMo starts next month, and I couldn’t be more confused as to what I am going to do with it. A while back, I thought I could try the full 50,000 words in a month challenge. I had a decent outline for a sequel to Fester,and I thought I could use that as a springboard for the 1,667 words a day that would be needed to get the Full Meal Deal for the event. That is not going to happen, at least this year. I intend to plow on with Laughingstock, and perhaps try to write or edit 1,000 words a day for the month of November.
As for the full NaNoWriMo challenge – well, maybe next year.
Before I get on to the main whinging, some good news: I finally finished the first draft of a new novel, tentatively titled Laughingstock. I started writing it in February 2020 (before Covid – remember that?) I’m pretty happy with what I got out of the “shitty first draft,” primarily since I pantsed the whole thing. With some sage advice, I managed to put together a pretty decent ending, which can sometimes be a challenge. As part of my pantsing strategy, I typically drive all of the characters to some oddball locale and see what they do. It worked (kinda) for Fester, and seemed to work pretty well for this story, too.
Now I just have to convert the SFD into a decent manuscript. The problem is that with pantsing, the first draft pretty much amounts to a super-detailed outline. There are major timeline issues and new characters that emerged during the latter part of the SFD that will need to be addressed. So for the second draft, I will essentially re-write the whole MS, occasionally adding pithy sentences or paragraphs from the SFD.
Book Advertising for Dummies Named Crawford
Now on to my main grouse-fest: advertising woes. At the beginning of the year, I decided I really wanted to go all-in on advertising for Fester. I had dabbled with Amazon Advertising in the past, and it seemed like the most likely way to get the book into readers’ hands. To that end, I coughed up big bucks for an “advertising for authors” course by a bloke named Mark Dawson.
Dawson is a successful author, with 20 titles published and sales of more than 2 million. In the course of his career, he figured out the best way to navigate the arcane system of self-service advertising on such platforms such as Amazon Ads and Facebook. I’d tried to work with these platforms before, and had limited success. They are very complicated and confusing.
So I ponied up the money and began diligently working through the modules. The course is very well-constructed, and Dawson continually updates the material, so it is always current with the vagaries of the advertising platforms. The lessons are clear and well-explained, and there are a lot of supplemental materials like checklists and cheat sheets. It’s really quite impressive. (Between his books, the courses and his podcasts, I have to wonder when Mr. Dawson finds time to sleep.) The course is solid.
The problem is, it didn’t work – at least not for Fester.
The main issue is that the course works best for authors who write book series and in very well-defined genres with avid readerships, e.g. romance or thriller. I am 0 for 2 in that regard. (To be fair, Dawson is upfront about these limitations.)
First, Fester doesn’t really fit into a neat genre: is it dark humor? Mystery? Paranormal? Young adult? Detective? Suspense? It really has elements of all of these, so it’s not easy to slot into a single genre, which makes identifying a cohesive target market exceedingly difficult.
Also, I can’t really produce a series in the normal sense of the term. I write really slowly (remember: over two years for the SFD of Laughingstock). Granted, there was a prequel to Fester of sorts in Powwows, and I have notes for a sequel but that doesn’t really qualify it as a series, per se.
The Cover of Doom
Then there was the cover. I had all manner of problems with the cover. This is not the fault of the artist; he gave me exactly what I asked for, and made it look awesome. The problem was that I had no idea what I really needed as a cover to help potential readers understand the myriad goofy aspects of the story.
Also, Amazon Advertising had issues with the book cover (see below), which they said was too violent. I’ve been over this in a previous post, so I won’t flog that horse but so much longer. One of the issues may have been that the people who review ads for conformance to advertising standards are in India, so there may have been a cultural issue at play. They may also have interpreted the shadows around the cops and the guy on the ground as pools of blood – although it sure doesn’t look that way to me. After repeated attempts to get someone at Amazon Ads to explain to me exactly what part of the cover constituted “excessive violence or gore, including, characters that have open wounds, are in the act of being attacked with weapons, dismemberment, [or] depictions of cadavers,” I got no response. After five attempts and no clarification, I decided to quit while I was behind and pulled the ads.
At that point, I had spent over $200 on advertising and sold exactly one (1) book. I probably would have been better off just using that money to buy copies of my own book and boosting the sales rank, which may have boosted other sales, via Amazon’s voodooesque algorithms.
All in all, it was an expensive lesson learned. I’ve got enough faith in Dawson’s system to give it a try with Jackrabbit– but not until I’ve retooled the cover. I guess the takeaway is Let the Buyer Beware. There are a lot of scams out there that prey on self-published authors. Mark Dawson’s course is definitely not one of these, but do your homework and make sure the system is right for what you write.
Okay, gang, time for my favorite type of post: whining about book promotion and marketing. (Actually, I’d prefer to be fat and happy and selling a lot of books. It might be a while before I achieve that, so . . .)
As a goal for the new year (I don’t make resolutions), I decided that I was going to kick out the jams on book promotion and really try to do something about Fester‘s lackluster sales. There are different paths to different marketing goals, but as I was interested in boosting sales, it seemed like focusing on Amazon ads would be the best bet. After all, people on Amazon are almost certainly looking to buy something right then and there. For other platforms, such as Facebook, advertising would be more useful to increase brand awareness (whatever that is).
To get a better handle on Amazon’s complex advertising platform, I bought a couple of books and a spendy online course that offered to provide easy-to-follow steps to get a handle on this complicated process. I did my homework, came up with a very basic advertising plan, and eagerly navigated the Amazon ads console to set up four new ads, each of which had slightly different settings. The idea was to gather data to help determine how to better refine my advertising strategy.
The first three ads launched without a problem. However, for the fourth, I got an email from Amazon advertising saying that my ad had been rejected because the ad contained “excessive violence or gore.”
This was patently ridiculous. The ad – which was just the book cover – contained no such violence or gore. (You can see the book cover below.) I checked Amazon’s Creative Acceptance Policies, which admittedly I hadn’t bothered reading before, as the cover seemed pretty anodyne.
I checked the policies about what constitutes “excessive violence or gore.” According to their policies this includes but is not limited to (italics mine):
Brutality, graphic depictions of blood, open or sutured wounds, scenes of torture, dismemberments, or mutilations of bodies (including cadavers).
Overt references to or images implying or depicting rape and sexual molestation.
Clearly, this didn’t apply to the cover of Fester, so I filed an appeal. When the rejection was reviewed, it was upheld. The reviewer said: “When we reviewed the ad, we determined that the ad (Campaign Name: Fester – SP – Manual Category – Down) contained violent content. To ensure a good customer experience, we don’t allow ads containing images of human or animal abuse, mistreatment, or distress.”
I was genuinely nonplussed. The first perplexing thing was that the reason cited for the rejection of the appeal had nothing to do with the “excessive violence or gore.” I re-read the Creative Acceptance Policies, and notices the includes but is not limited to phrase. These are utter weasel words, which you’d think I’d be in favor of, given the name of this publishing company. Weasel words they may have been, but they were certainly not sweet. Basically, Amazon seemed to be saying that they could make the rules up as they went along.
This notion was reinforced when I considered that I had run ads for the same book five times previously (the three new ones plus two experimental ads from last year). All of these were accepted. Amazon was more than glad to take my money to advertise something from which they take a cut. Clearly, the “policies” were not being applied consistently. I figured that the first rejection was an overeager newbie, or an Amazon employee having a bad day. The judgment for the appeal seemed more like summary punishment for having dared question the mighty Bezos Machine.
After some back-and-forth on a FB group, I decided to go ahead and appeal the appeal. I was hesitant, as it seemed risky. I had three other ads running, and I didn’t want them to get yanked. If I kept fussing, I might get the book cover – and myself – on a permanent shitlist. After all, the nail that sticks up gets pounded down.
I also figured that the odds were in my favor: I was batting .833, with five out of six ads being accepted. If I just started over with new ads, I could probably just let them slip by whatever inconsistent scrutiny Amazon might apply.
I eventually decided to appeal the appeal and try to make an argument to Amazon. It seemed like the right thing to do; I will almost certainly be punished for it. If I lose the appeal appeal, I’ll probably just have to get a new book cover. Can’t really afford that right now, as I spent all my money on the fuckin’ advertising course.
At the end of the day, Amazon is the eight-zillion pound gorilla for the indie publishing community. Without Amazon, one’s sales channel options are significantly narrowed. So I will, if necessary, bend the knee to Bezos’ Bozos and offer my heartfelt contrition.