Friday, October 7, 2011

"Typos Have Been Found in Your Book" - Questions About Kindle Quality Control

Anyone who reads many Kindle books has had the experience of getting a book with multiple typos, unintended line breaks, and formatting errors. That's annoying. Many customers are calling for quality control. And apparently Amazon has responded. But in a rather strange way.

Along with many Amazon KDP authors and publishers, I have recently received a couple of "Dear Publisher" emails from Amazon KDP. Here's one:

"During a quality assurance review of your title, we have found the following issue(s):

Typos have been found in your book. Examples:
*loc; 578; "I wouldn’t you to bust a blood vessel" should be "I wouldn’t want you to bust a blood vessel".

Please look for the same kind of errors throughout and make the necessary corrections to the title before republishing it."

KDP was correct about the missing word. But another proofreading of the book did not uncover any other missing words. We did find the word "willing" spelled with three "l's" and a couple of places where periods were outside quotation marks. We didn't find any formatting errors or unwanted line breaks. In fact, our book wasn't perfect, but it was pretty clean. Not surprising as the book had been carefully proofread before its original publication.

So I began to wonder about this "quality assurance review" of our title. How did Amazon happen to find this minor error that we had somehow missed. Have they hired an army of skilled proofreaders to go through all the Kindle books? I decided to do a little internet research.

Here's what I found. According to a post on reddit, some Amazon customers have discovered that if they complain about typos in a book, Amazon will refund their money and in some cases give them an extra $5.00 credit. Amazon makes it easy for the complainers by offering a feedback box at the bottom of every book page, where customers can click to report "poor quality or formatting in this book."

I know Amazon is proud of its customer-focused culture. But crowdsourcing as a way of identifying errors in books only works if the crowd members know what is an error and what isn't. And some Kindle readers don't know the grammar and punctuation rules in the major style guides. Unfortunately, Amazon is now sending out quality-control emails identifying "errors" that are actually correct useage.  

Author Robert Bidinotto reported on Kindle Boards that Amazon wanted him to remove "unnecessary commas," which turned out to be commas following the next-to-last item in a series. Bidinotto, a professional editor, replied that this usage of commas is consistent with the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines. Amazon backed off.

Author D.D. Scott received an email telling him his book contained "hyphens, underscores or other unreadable characters." When he pointed out to KDP that his "unreadable characters" were his use of the "en dash," which is grammatically correct, they responded that a reader had complained of finding his book difficult to read because of too many hyphenations and punctuation errors.

So far, Amazon has not pulled many books from sale because of customer complaints, and they have been responsive to authors/publishers who point out the reasons for the useage that has been flagged.

But this crowdsourcing system of proofreading is scary. It's hard to know what readers will mistakenly identify as errors. And it's unlikely that Amazon staff have the time to do detailed follow-up on customer complaints. This raises issues such as:
  • What if an uneducated character in a novel speaks with poor grammar, or writes notes that are misspelled?
  • What about dialects and slang?
  • What about foreign words or words the author makes up?
  • What if the book is a novel, written as a series of emails (as is our book referenced above)? Writers of email often ignore spelling and grammar rules. If in the interest of authenticity, the author puts spelling and grammar errors in the emails, will Amazon ask to have them corrected? 

Don't get me wrong. I love being able to publish ebooks through Amazon KDP. And I'm happy that they care about quality. And I appreciate being notified of errors in my books. In both cases, we corrected those errors and republished.

But I'm a little nervous about where this will go. Amazon may believe that the customer is always right, but I don't necessarily agree.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

High-Priced Book Reviews: Can You Buy Status?

A new, very expensive, fee-based book-review service proclaims itself "the best, if not the only solution the problem of vetting self-published titles." How credible is her claim? The writer, Patti Thorn, was the books editor of the now defunct Rocky Mountain News, where part of her job was to reject all self-published authors who requested reviews. But now that she's started her own online book-review service, BlueInk Review, self-published authors are her bread and butter.

Just as an aside, it's interesting to note that reviewers of self-published books are quick to jump all over typos like Thorn's omission of the word "to"--as in "solution to the problem"--in the above sentence. In fact a recent BlueInk review lamented the "numerous grammatical and typographical errors" in the book. And the author of that book paid $395 for that review--or $495 if he wanted it done in 4-5 weeks rather than 7-9 weeks.

Thorn would see this as an indication of the quality of BlueInk's reviews. And maybe it is. Except I never see that sort of criticism in reviews of traditionally-published books, even though I often see typos in those books as well.

Thorn says her reviewers are "highly credible reviewers--critics who have had their work published in high profile publications." She pays them well and instructs them to write honest reviews, noting both the book's positives and negatives.

Thorn's ultimate goal is for BlueInk to become a filter for self-published titles, such that readers encountering a new self-published book will ask "Did BlueInk like it?" or "What did BlueInk say?"

But her potential customers are self-published authors, who she says face the problem of convincing readers that their book is worth reading. Authors who want their books reviewed must pay the $395 or $495 in advance. If the author doesn't like the review, she can choose not to have it posted on BlueInk's website, but it still may appear in industry publications like Ingram iPage and will not be removed under any circumstances.

In my opinion, Patti Thorn represents the old guard. She wants to be a gate-keeper who tells readers what is worth reading. She says her goal is to vet self-published titles. She denigrates other systems of discovering good books. Customer reviews? Untrustworthy opinions. Ebooks that are bestsellers? Mass opinion does not equal quality. Websites that offer free book reviews? Resulting reviews are often sophomoric. Book bloggers? Too overwhelmed to accept self-published titles.

Kirkus Indie (formerly Kirkus Discoveries) offers a similar high-priced review service (standard review $425; express review $575), as does Foreward Clarion ($335). These two have been around for a while, but as far as I can see, they don't post their reviews on Amazon. Probably because Amazon Guidelines prohibit reviews done for any compensation other than a free copy of the book.

Why would a self-published author pay hundreds of dollars for a book review that won't be posted on Amazon, that will be recognized as a paid review by publishing insiders, and that is from a source most readers have never heard of? I figure authors who buy these reviews are still hoping to make it in the traditional publishing world.

I have no problem with review sites charging authors a nominal fee to cover costs, but these fees seem exorbitant. These review sites are attempting to sell status. Do authors need that in this new age of publishing? Many readers--especially readers of ebooks--trust customer reviews more than professional ones. It's the modern-day equivalent of a friend passing on a favorite book.

I'd like to see sales figures from books that used these review services vs. those that didn't. If the reviews don't translate into sales, they're not worth the price. In today's publishing world, most authors have to promote their own books. Those who write books that appeal to a segment of readers, and who promote their books in a way that reaches their target audience, sell lots of books. That's all the status they need.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

How Did John Locke Sell All Those Kindle eBooks?

Finally! A research-based approach to marketing ebook fiction. Exactly what I've been looking for. I LOVE John Locke's How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!

I've been a social science researcher for more than 30 years. In my day job--the one where I actually make money--I am a program evaluator. I work with managers of social programs to develop and implement outcome measures that give them information about how well their programs are doing what they were set up to do.

So in 2006, when I published my first novel, Too Near the Edge, I planned to keep careful track of the results of my marketing efforts. I knew what the outcome measure of success was. How many books am I selling? Answer: not many. Ditto for my daughter Laurel's first novel, Following My Toes, which my business PMI Books published.

Like Locke, we initially did all the stuff the experts say we should do -- signings, press releases, reviews, awards, blogs, website, social networking, etc. etc. The problem was we never sold enough books to validate any of our marketing efforts. Lots of input, not much income.

I searched for more expert advice. But the problem with most of what I found was lack of supporting data to help me sort out what had worked for other authors. And the advice that did have supporting data was virtually all for nonfiction, which is much easier to sell. Now and then I'd read a self-published fiction writer success story, but usually with no clear breakdown of which marketing efforts paid off and which didn't.

Of course back then we were selling print books only, with all the costs of printing, shipping, bookstore returns etc. When ebooks came along, I hoped for more. In 2008, I put both novels up on Kindle. Unfortunately, sales still did not take off.

In February 2011 I published Laurel's second novel, Starring in the Movie of My Life, and in March, my second novel, Too Far Under. Both came out in paperback and on Kindle and I also got all our books up on Smashwords and in their premium catalog. We got good reviews, but still sales were slow.

Then the Amanda Hocking phenomena hit. We could see the impact of pricing. We started experimenting with free and $.99 books. We got some results. So far in June & July, we've sold 1800+ copies of our two $.99 titles. Far more than we usually sell in a year! And approximately 72,000 copies of our 2 free titles have been downloaded.

The numbers are exciting. But seeing this happen made us believe we could do even better. So, how to do it? Beyond the price reductions, we saw no clear path until I saw mention of John Locke's new book where he tells how he did it.

Bingo! Downloaded that book onto my Kindle and read it in one afternoon. Best $4.99 I've spent in a long time. Why? Because he carefully dissects what worked for him and what didn't, and then he tests the successful system on a new harder-to-sell book series to see if it worked there. It did.

Will Locke's system work for me? Maybe, maybe not. But it charts a clear specific path to follow, and this path is one that at least worked for someone. So I'm going to give it a try. And I'm going to keep track of what I do and what results I see. I'll let you know how it turns out.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Should We Trust Customer Book Reviews?

Amazon customer reviewers are "at times ingenious, assiduous, and highly motivated, more often banal, obtuse, and blankly opinionated," says Morris Dickstein, distinguished professor of English and theater at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Dickstein's comment was part of a recent conversation among professional book critics on the future of book reviews, reported on in last week's Daily Beast by Jane Ciabattari, vice president and former president of the National Book Critics Circle.

Several participants raised concerns about the trend of customer reviews replacing reviews by professional reviewers who have literary qualifications. In particular they deplored the way opinion replaces analysis in customer reviews. In Dickstein's words, "Raw opinion, no matter how deeply felt, is no substitute for argument and evidence."

We agree. We find ourselves bewildered by some customer comments.

An example. My daughter Laurel's Kindle novella, Looking for Ward, is a short tale of love and loyalty written mostly in the form of emails back and forth among the characters. Last week, Amazon made Looking for Ward free to match promotions we were doing on other sites. Over 20,000 readers have downloaded the book and a few have commented. Most comments are positive like this one:
"This novella drew me right in from page one....I liked this book and would recommend it as a fun read."

But Looking for Ward also got this comment:
"This format is my absolute most unfavorite in the entire universe. So much so that it annoys the bleep out of me. Honestly, leave the email messages and memo formats at the office. To me, it's just too annoying a format and distracting."

Okay. You don't have to like the format. But the product description for Looking for Ward says, "The story is told through a series of e-mails," and explains that Laurel originally sent it in email installments to fans of her chic lit novel, Following My Toes. Even if you didn't see that information and downloaded the book by mistake, it's a free ebook. So why complain rather than just deleting it?

Even worse are customer comments that make you wonder if they are talking about a different book.

Most of the customer reviews of my  mystery novel, Too Near the Edge, say things like this:
"With an unusual and quirky cast of characters, this book kept me up reading all night long. I definitely enjoyed the myriad of twists and turns, as well as the author's writing style. Overall, this was a home run!"

But last week a customer wrote:
"The first issue is that it begins really slowly, for the first few pages it drags in building up the plot. The author made the rough choice of writing in the present tense, which is never the best option unless the author is a master. It's just very limiting."

I could simply tell myself that every customer is entitled to his/her own opinion--which I truly believe. But I did not make the "rough choice" of writing in the present tense. Too Near the Edge is written entirely in the past tense. And, as for beginning slowly, a character falls to his death from the rim of the Grand Canyon in the first paragraph. Maybe this customer was having a bad day and needed to vent somewhere, which can happen with a professional reviewer as well, but at least a professional reviewer would get the facts right.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Are Paid Book Reviews Credible?

What if you could get 50 people to post positive reviews of your book on Amazon? For a reasonable fee?

I know the importance of having reviews of my books on Amazon. A mix of professional reviews and customer reviews is ideal. But for indie publishers and self-published authors, reviews--especially professional reviews--can be hard to get. Many professional reviewers still refuse to review books not published by mainstream publishers.

Sites that will review our books are increasingly charging a fee for what they term an expedited review or for posting the review they write on sites like Amazon and B&N. While most of these book review sites continue to offer free reviews, they warn that due to increasing numbers of submissions, a book submitted for a free review may take months to get reviewed or might not get reviewed at all.

So should you pay for a review?

Purists on author discussion groups and blogs continue to insist loudly that paying for a review with anything other than a free copy of the book, it is wrong. They say these reviews have little to no credibility and will ruin your reputation.

When I researched and wrote about this issue three years ago, I concluded that paid reviews could be honest and meaningful and were a reasonable option for indie publishers and self-published authors. The debate, however, continues to rage. Irene Watson's editorial in this week's Reader Views Newsletter offers an interesting discussion of the issue of paid reviews of a variety of products as well as books. Sadly, her research found that many opportunities exist for reviewers to be paid for reviewing products (including books) they have never seen or used.

I did some research of my own and found a site,, that for $999 will pitch your book to reviewers until they get 50 reviewers to post reviews on and B& That's about $20/review, which is a low price as these things go. And apparently the author doesn't have to supply books or pay postage to mail books to reviewers. Once you have purchased your book review package, only asks you to complete a questionnaire and email them a pdf or Word doc of the book. They even say, "Pre-final edit versions are acceptable as we are focused on content."

While I'm not such a purist that I will take a stand against paying for an expedited review from an established review site, strikes me as a whole different animal. It's run by Todd Rutherford out of Tulsa, OK. He writes a blog called publishingguru, where his about page says he has "been involved with every aspect of writing, publishing, and marketing books for nearly 30 years." He currently lists himself as a writing, publishing and book marketing coach. I looked at Todd Rutherford's 261 reviews on Amazon and found that they are all 5-star reviews.

Further research led me to a recent post at WritersWeekly, written by Angela Hoy, co-owner of Her extensive exploration of discovered that Rutherford advertises online for freelance writers to write reviews, for which they will be paid $10/review as long as the reviews are 5-star. The book author gets to approve or suggest changes to the review before it is posted to Amazon and B&N.

As Kindle owners, my husband and I buy virtually all our books from Amazon. We also buy lots of other stuff online.  And whether I'm looking for a book, a toaster, a zhu-zhu pet for my grandson, or a hotel to stay in on vacation, I pay attention to the reviews I find on product pages. But now I'll look at these reviews a little more skeptically. How can I tell which customer reviews are for real?

This situation with reviews is certainly unfortunate for indie publishers and self-published authors. Reviews are our best marketing tool. How can we preserve their credibility?

Friday, April 8, 2011

Jump on the Roller Coaster of Publishing Changes

The e-book revolution is taking off! And that is nothing but good news for indie publishers and self-published authors.

Back in 2008, I wrote on this blog:
The history of mankind is rife with examples of ideas, inventions and social policies that were originally considered foolhardy but are now mainstream....I predict that trajectory for publishing. Soon digital printing, e-books and publishing formats we haven't heard of yet will be the order of the day. It's a long uphill road, but a lot has happened in the last few years and movement is accelerating.

For example, back in 2003 The Rocky Mountain Writer, the newsletter of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers reported on a roundtable discussion where local editors and agents commented on publishing trends. They asked the panelists, "Is there a future for e-publishing and/or POD?" The unanimous answer was an emphatic No! In fact, one panelist suggested that, if an author’s contract with a publisher mentions POD, “run like your hair’s on fire!”

Fast forward to January 2008...more than three-quarters of the approximately 200,000 books published in this country each year are self-published or published by a small press. And eBooks are taking off. Amazon already has over 99,000 books available for sale to readers who use their Kindle, which only came out in December.

Wow! Let's fast forward again to 2011. Amazon now has nearly a million books available for the Kindle, and reports that last summer it sold 180 Kindle books for every 100 hardcover books. Barnes&Noble has more than two million titles for the Nook. Then there's the Sony Reader, Apple iPad, and more. Digital books are definitely taking off.

The digital edition of Steig Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo has sold a million copies, according to yesterday's New York Times -- a first for an e-book. The combined digital sales for all three books in Larsson's popular trilogy is now more than three million.

I have a Kindle and I love it, but what I love more about digital publishing is the way it levels the playing field. Any author or publisher can create and sell a Kindle version of their books through Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing and/or release other e-book versions through Smashwords. You don't even need an ISBN number, except for distribution to Apple.

I'm not saying it's easy. The formatting of your manuscript for digital release takes some work. But Smashwords has a free style guide you can download in pdf. And April Hamilton offers a free pdf IndieAuthor Guide for publishing with Amazon Kindle. I carefully followed the instructions in both of these guides and got six PMI Books titles up for Amazon's Kindle and in the Smashwords Premium Catalog (for distribution to B&N Nook, Sony Reader, Apple iPad and more).

It takes some time and patience to do the formatting, but that's really nothing compared to the time and patience it takes to repeatedly query agents and publishers in an attempt to get your book out through traditional publishers.

How things have changed! Thanks to digital printing and e-books, today's writers—unlike those in past generations—all have the opportunity to have their work published, read, and listed for sale on online bookstores right along with traditionally published books. Jump on the roller coaster. You won't be sorry!

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Buying Book Blurbs? Is That Ethical?

A remarkable debut novel that kept me up all night turning pages. I found this book so engrossing, compelling, and entertaining that I plan to immediately recommend it to all my friends." --- Famous Author of Bestselling Book

Blurbs. You’ve gotta have them on your book cover. At least that’s been the conventional wisdom. So how do you get blurbs? You—or your publisher—send your manuscript to other writers, who you hope will read it and write a great comment that you can put on your book cover.If you’re with a major publisher, your editor or agent will very likely be able to get blurbs for your book from other authors they represent. It’s an insiders’ quid-pro-quo thing.

But what if you’re a new and/or relatively unknown writer whose book is published by a small indie publisher or self-published? Can you send off your manuscript to authors you admire and get blurbs from them?

Not likely. Other authors are busy writing and promoting their own books. And before blurbing a book the author (hopefully) has to read it. Then they have to write the blurb. If they're not doing it as a favor to their publisher or agent or to help a friend or former student, what do they get out of it? Getting their name on your book cover won’t be much incentive given that you’re an unknown author.

Could you maybe offer to pay them for their trouble? Uh-oh! Remember how people feel about paying for reviews? This is probably even worse. Or maybe you could save potential blurbers some time by giving them a summary of your book and some suggestions of what might make a good blurb? An even more ethically-challenged solution (but one that some authors actually use).

Last summer a couple of enterprising young writers decided to throw a new service into the blurbing stew, with a website, that gives authors a different way to get blurbs.Here’s how it works. You—the blurb-seeker—put a digital copy of your manuscript on their site and purchase a seeker package for $20 to $30 depending on how many blurbs you want. Blurbers—other authors or experts in the area you’ve written about—download the a link to your book file, after which they have 20 days to read your book and another five days to write their blurb. Once approves the blurb, it is posted to your book’s profile page and you can use it on your book cover, website, and other publicity materials.

But wait. Isn’t this buying blurbs? If you use this service aren’t you paying people to praise your book? Not exactly. It turns out that the blurbers are other authors like you. In fact you can be one. But you won’t get paid. In fact the site seems to vary between “letting” you write blurbs for nothing or charging you 99 cents for each blurb you write. Why will blurbers work for nothing or even pay for the privilege? Publicity. You get your name, and the title of your book, on the cover of someone else’s book and in their promotional materials.

Ever since a New York Times article last August brought to the attention of the public, the site has been discussed and discounted in blogs and discussion groups as a scam operation where authors pay other authors to go into raptures over their books. The clear message is that ethical authors will turn up their noses and stay far away from such an unethical system.

To me this criticism looks like one more putdown of an innovative approach designed to help authors whose books are self-published or published by small indie publishers promote their books. I haven’t used the site, but after reading all their material, I can’t see anything nasty or unethical about it. If you sign up, all you are paying for is a match-up service. Like any matchmaking service, the service gets all the money from the participants’ fees. But the participants have an opportunity to get what they are seeking—and many of them probably are satisfied with what they get.

It’s not clear whether blurbs from people no one has heard of will help promote your book, but as the site’s founders point out, readers pay attention to customer reviews on Amazon written by unknown readers.In any case, the $19.95 seeker package that covers ten blurbs seems like a small investment to try out this service. I guess I can’t see the harm in trying it. Am I missing something here?