December 11, 2017

Ultimate Gift Guide

I’ve been wracking my brain all day about what the heck I’m going to get my loved ones this Christmas. Generally, I hate gift guides. Women’s magazines always have spreads on what to get your fashionable lady friends, beauty gurus recommend the trendiest makeup items, techies find gadgets every programmer would love, and book lovers recommend books.

I mean, feel free to give books as gifts.

But I happen to know that there is no such thing as ‘one gift fits all.’ Grandma probably won’t want that foldable keyboard, and your brother may not appreciate a posh eyeshadow pallet. So, here are some cool things I’ve discovered whilst online shopping, and maybe you’ll find something for every hard-to-buy-for person on your list.

Reusable Notebook

I first learned about this when my cousin posed a question on Facebook: how can he continue writing without filling his house with notebooks? Before I could post a snide remark recommending a computer, someone suggested a reusable notebook.

Although I initially thought it was a silly idea, it has really grown on me. The notebook comes with an app for scanning and storing the pages using your smartphone. Then once you’ve written on all the pages, pop it in the microwave, and voilĂ ! An empty notebook.

Man Soap

I really enjoy Royalty Soaps’ YouTube channel. I have no desire to make my own soap, but there is something oddly satisfying about watching someone else do it. After binge watching soap-making videos with the kids, I finally decided to purchase some of her soap.

OMG. It’s amazing. The bars are all natural, no sulfates, preservatives, and whatever else people complain doesn’t belong in soap. The fragrances are strong and the bars lather into tons of bubbles. You really can’t lose with scents like “Dragon Fire & Brimstone” and “Tea with Tolstoy.” Unfortunately, this store is totally sold out of everything, but it’s an idea for the next time you need a gift.

Bur Grinder

There are a lot of coffee lovers, so why not help your biggest coffee-loving friend up their coffee game. Freshly ground beans make better coffee. No more storing coffee grounds in the freezer! Also, I think it looks quite nice on the kitchen counter. Go ahead and throw in a bag of coffee beans. I’m particularly fond of Dunkin Donuts Original.

Metro Umbrella

There’s something appealing about any train/subway/light-rail map. When I visited NYC, instead of getting one of those I♥NY shirts as a souvenir, I found a tee-shirt with the subway map printed on it.

Now that I live close(ish) to Washington DC, the metro is where it’s at. Since it’s hard to guess which size someone wears, why not get them this stylish umbrella? Actually, check out the entire store. They have a backpack that looks like a train and maps emblazoned on jewelry, apparel, mugs, lamps, and more.

Noisy Toy

If you have any little nieces/nephews, get them a fun, interactive toy that sings and lights up. This ball is great because when your baby stops playing with it, it keeps singing to try to get their attention!

In all seriousness, as a parent of little ones, these toys are terrible. They’re over stimulating and annoying as hell when they play the same song NINE MILLION TIMES. They claim to be educational, but I’ve found that kids don’t learn anything from this type of toy. At best, it will momentarily grab the child’s attention, and you’ll get a smile and ‘thank you’ when junior opens it.

However, if you also like the parents of the child you’re shopping for, get something from Green Toys. They’re well made, eco-friendly, and fun. Also, where else can you find a pink dump truck?

Fluffy Blanket

For the person who is always cold, get them the fluffiest, cuddliest, bestest blanket ever. Seriously, these things are awesome. I own an embarrassingly large number of them. This one is also machine washable, which is not true of all microplush blankets.

Signed Book

I couldn’t make this list without adding a book. I offer signed copies of my novels here, so if you know anyone who enjoys science fiction novels, give them something a little extra special.

December 4, 2017

Book Covers: Stock Beware Revisited

I’ve posted before about using stock photos for book covers, which you can find here. In that post, the photo in question lends itself well to steamy romance, so there was no chance it would ever end up on one of my novels.

Conventional wisdom is that indie authors ABSOLUTELY SHOULD NOT MAKE THEIR OWN COVERS. I tend to gravitate to simple covers and have the photoshop skills to at least put together an image and some text. Instead of trying to create original images, I rely on stock photography.

Not only did I win NaNoWriMo this year, I also finished the first draft of my manuscript, The Other Humans1. The cyborg-looking thing I used for the cover at the beginning of the month just isn’t a good fit for where the story ended up. I decided to tinker with some other images to see if I could come up with a cover I liked better.

One of the things I tried was this:

There is an assassin-style character in the story who wears all black, and the background hints at destruction typical of the dystopian genre. It’s not perfect. The colors should be more orange and teal, which are classic sci-fi colors, instead of this salmon/indigo combo. Adjusting colors isn't too difficult, so in theory, I could use this photo to represent my novel pretty well. But given that the source photo is pretty perfect as-is for a thriller cover, I figured it would end up on a lot of books.

While browsing forums early today, I came across a conversation where an author was asking for feedback on a book cover. She felt the original might be hurting sales and presented an image of a woman wearing all black and holding a gun as an alternative cover image. It was exactly the same stock photo I had tinkered with the day before.

I figured that two authors selecting the same image on the same day was way too much of a coincidence, so I did some internet sleuthing. In no particular order, this is what I found:

This woman really gets around!

The part that I find most alarming, at least from what I could dig up from copyright pages, is that four of these covers were professionally designed. They certainly all look nice, but the last thing I want when potential readers see my novels is for them to think they’ve already read it because the cover is too similar to another book.

Please, do your due diligence when deciding on a book cover. Whether you’re like me and take the gamble on making something yourself, or you’ve decided to trust someone who creates covers for a living, make sure you aren’t using a tired or over-exposed image. There’s a simple way to check if a stock photo or image has already been used for other media. Go to, click the little camera icon in the search bar, and either upload the image or type in the image url.

You could also change a stock image you plan to use for your cover in a significant way. I did this for the cover of Quality DNA. The model is one photo, and I added an overlay using a second photo of lights and raindrops.

I’m still trying to put together a cool cover for my NaNoWriMo novel. This one may just test the limits of my photoshop skills. Or maybe this will be the novel that finally breaks my resolve and forces me to hire an actual cover designer. But I’ll cross that bridge when I get to it. First, I’ve got to edit the thing.

1 This is the working title. I’ll announce an official title as soon as it’s beautifully edited and ready to publish.

November 27, 2017

Book Review: Help My Facebook Ads Suck by Michael Cooper

Recently, my ‘did not finish’ pile of books has grown quite a bit. Whenever I don’t finish a novel, I won’t write up a review, partially because I don’t have the full story (pun— har har) and partially because I don’t like leaving low-star reviews. This is also why I haven’t been posting many book reviews recently.

I actually don’t read many nonfiction books. Most of my reading is for entertainment, and when I want to learn something new, I’ll do research on the internet. There are a lot of nonfiction books from the library that I’ve picked up, but information changes quickly. There’s not much that’s still relevant about selling ebooks in a book published ten years ago.

It’s important that I get serious about advertising if I want my self-publishing career to succeed. At this point, I’m not willing to give any money to Amazon and their advertising platform, so I decided to focus my efforts on Facebook advertising

I’ve had a hard time finding a lot of information on making successful Facebook ads, and an even harder time on how to tailor them to selling ebooks. The ads that I have tried to run don’t get a ton of impressions and end up with prohibitively high costs. So when I came across a forum where authors were talking about Michael Cooper’s Help! My Facebook Ads Suck, I was ready to give it a shot.

Now, I haven’t had a chance to apply everything I’ve learned yet, but I still wanted to share a bit about this book.

Help! My Facebook Ads Suck by Michael Cooper
My rating: ★★★★★

This book is tailored for self-published fiction authors who want to advertise their novels on Facebook. It assumes some familiarity with Facebook’s ad management website. Basically, it felt like it was written specifically for me.

Michael goes into the details of which sales numbers authors should track and how to calculate them, along with some of the advertising lingo that may be unfamiliar to writers. He also focuses on what an ad contains and what good copy looks like. I really appreciated that he also talked about the image that goes with your advertisement and what it should (and shouldn’t) be.

One thing that totally mystified me was the back end of how Facebook decides which ads to display. I never realized how detrimental adding lots of text to my ad images was to the number of impressions the ad gets and the cost per click, but it does make my glorious flops make a lot more sense.

Although the book is rather short, I feel well equipped now to start advertising my novels using Facebook. And hopefully this time, I’ll actually sell more than I spend on ads.

November 13, 2017

The Gorilla

Where does an 800lb gorilla sit?
Wherever the fuck he wants.

I try to be pretty upbeat in these posts, but I just can’t do it today. I’ve read quite a few articles recently (one, two, three, and four) about Amazon stripping page reads or royalties or flat out terminating accounts from authors who’ve had a spike in sales. The idea is that the author has hired some sort of click farm service to read through their books and inflate their overall book rank. Obviously, this is bad. 

I knew most of this when I first launched The End of Refuge. When I did a summer sale and corresponding promotion for the novel, I saw my pages read jump drastically from basically nothing to over 20,000 pages/day. My first reaction was to flip out. Obviously, bots had gotten hold of my book and were generating all of the page flips. I emailed my promotion manager, and I also emailed Amazon.

At that point, I had already heard a few authors’ stories of having their accounts terminated when click farms targeted their book. I got a call from an Amazon rep saying that they had looked into my page reads, and they were all legitimate. I breathed a sigh of relief when my promotion concluded as a general success.

It only made sense for my next big promotion to coincide with the release of Quality DNA. I had put a lot of work into the launch of The End of Refuge but had invested serious blood, sweat, and tears into my second novel, so I really wanted it to do well. I did a 99¢ sale on both of my books for the launch. This time I didn’t get a sudden jump to 20,000 page reads/day, but sales were good, and it was certainly a nice start for my second novel and overall a success. All said and done, I had a total of just over 200,000 page reads for October.

Then, on November 9th, I got this gem in my inbox:

We are reaching out to you because we detected reading or borrow activity for your books originating from illegitimate accounts attempting to manipulate the Kindle programs. These accounts might be related to a third-party marketing service. You will receive royalties associated with legitimate or paid sales; however, we will not pay for reading activity related to illegitimate accounts.

I just…

My page reads for the month of October are now around 12,000. 

Basically, my sales have been scaled back to where they had been on months when I hadn’t done any promotion at all. It’s like I’ve released my new novel and didn’t tell anybody about it—but I did tell people about. I shouted on all my social media about my great new book and scheduled promotions which shared my launch news all over the internet and to their newsletter subscribers. I didn’t pay bots to read my book. By the end of the promotion, it brought in 40% more in expected royalties than my previous one. That seems completely reasonable; the first promotion was when I had one published book, the second I had two. And Amazon had even checked into that first promotion to verify those page reads were from legitimate accounts.

I’m a math person, so I’ll do the math. The page reads I lost out on are equivalent to about 500 people reading through an entire book. Those 500 people paid $5,000 for their Kindle Unlimited subscriptions for October. So what happens to that money?

Amazon pockets it.

See, if there was a mistake where 500 people had gotten a free copy of my book, I’d be okay with that. But that’s not the case. 500 readers paid for their subscription. Amazon got their money, so the authors are the ones who take a loss.

Obviously, I’m reeling and perhaps a touch emotional. It feels like that 800-pound gorilla just shat in my face. It’s taking all my willpower not to pull both of my novels off Amazon right now. There’s really not much recourse for recovering the withheld royalties. If I go to battle against the 800-pound gorilla, I’m going to lose.

The worst part of this is that’s it’s really shaken my confidence as a writer. If the largest book-selling platform can (and did) pull away the majority of my sales, there’s little chance of me being able to make a career as an author. My (expensive) hobby may always be just that: a hobby.

Not wanting to leave this on a sour note, I’m doing a giveaway. Sorry—giveaway has ended. From today until Thanksgiving (in the US) I’ll be giving away free ebook copies of Quality DNA to every person who subscribes to my newsletter. If you’re already subscribed, shoot me an email at to claim yours. While the novel is still enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited program, I am able to provide free copies via email for reviews, so these are ‘review copies.’ It’s completely up to you if you want to leave a review or not.

I’ll also randomly select two subscribers to win an autographed paperback of Quality DNA. No purchase necessary, open worldwide, all you need to do is subscribe. I’ll notify winners on December 1, 2017, via email and ask for a shipping address then. 

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