The Next Book Cometh as Dear Josephine Reaches the Final Stretch… Plus Some Talk about Publishing on Amazon

Dear Josephine is going into production after three manuscript editing cycles and one proofreader, and I’ve been slowly and thoroughly going through the manuscript one last time.

I wasn’t thrilled with the surprising numbers of typos or wrong words or those other proofreader-purposed corrections that were missed. I mean, we’re talking somewhere between a dozen or two dozen in an admittedly large manuscript that runs around 130,000 words. The proofreader was a professional hire getting the professional rate. The relatively weak results by the proofreader is a disappointment and an additional spur for me to be especially vigilant in my final pass through of the manuscript. Of course, typos are the sorts of things that keep some writers (you can’t see it, but I’ve just raised my hand) up at night. On the other hand (I guess the hand I didn’t raise the moment before), every writer and every editor and every publisher knows that some errors get through, and we take solace in the old saw about how Turkish rug weavers always left a mistake in their work so not to insult God’s true perfection.

Book production—design, layout, and cover work—is imminent for Dear Josephine, and then there’s pouring the body of the book and the cover into Kindle Direct Publishing and Ingram Sparks and Direct2Digital, so that the various ebook versions and their respective marketing channels are covered and the paperback (using Ingram as distributor) can get into bookstores, or at least one can hope. It turns out—spoiler alert!—that brick-and-mortar bookstores don’t want to order their books from Amazon.

This is a cover mockup for Dear Josephine, due out in Spring 2024.

I still have to figure out whether to have a pre-order stage for Dear Josephine. Everyone says so, and the purpose is to get pre-publication promotion and the always-referenced but elusive “buzz.” Certainly, things like early reviews and book blurbs are good additions to the Amazon book page description, but the practical lead time a book’s effective pre-order stage requires from the author (or, with trade publishers, the marketing department, at least theoretically) is about 6 months. I want Dear Josephine out this Spring, and this Spring is tripping merrily along all on its own without me, so I’ll likely rely on post-publication reviews. And, yes, post-publication reviews are a difficult challenge, too, in part because reviewers seem to like to read a book before others (except, I suppose, other such reviewers) and bookstores and online book marketing services alike focus much of their attention on “pre-release,” continuing the “Well, aren’t we special” mentality.

No bitterness here!

Actually, there are many reasons why publishing trade books today is challenging. By the way, in publishing, when “trade” is used, this means books you’d likely find in most bookstores, such as novels, non-fiction and memoirs, children’s books, biographies, cookbooks, graphic novels or manga, and a plethora of how-to books on any subject you can think of. One big challenge—and, I mean, huge—is that there are so many more trade books getting published each year. Trade publishers have held fairly steady in the 200,000-300,000 books-per-year range but estimates for self-published books and the closely related Indie Publisher or Hybrid Publisher books add up to a total of a million titles, give or take.

So, well, that’s a lot of titles.

Of course, we’re living in the digital age, right? One of the exciting characteristics of digital content is that it is so easy to find with the computer helping with the search. That’s the idea, but the execution of this is increasingly marked by search engines decreasing in efficacy, and if you’ve spent any time on Google—and who hasn’t—you’ve surely noticed that there are a lot of ads and other species of sponsored product that get in the way of your specific search. If you’ve searched for something on Amazon, this experience is even worse, the results of Amazon pushing their preferred products and those products for whom the manufacturer (or publisher) has paid to boost. I used to think the mediocre search results on Amazon were the result of Amazon’s laziness in their handling of metadata but the situation is intentional, with Amazon treating their product suppliers as the source for more money beyond the producer/retailer cut. Amazon has become a pay-to-play platform generally, and for publishers, specifically.

Did you know, for instance, that when one publishes a book through Amazon, the publisher (again, self-publisher or other similar variants) is given just seven keywords? For any title that isn’t hyper-genre, that’s a pittance. The Steep Climes Quartet is a “literary climate fiction thriller” and neither that genre nor sub-genre exists. I have lists of climate fiction titles that are presently over 200 titles, and hardly exhaustive, but not one of them gets a clear category and so are harder to find. As the publisher you must guess what a reader will type in when searching for a book like yours without the helpful qualifier of categories (i.e., genre). Here are my seven keyword guesses:

  1. climate change fiction books
  2. cli-fi thriller
  3. near future climate change thriller
  4. literary climate fiction thriller
  5. literary climate fiction thriller
  6. climate activism fiction
  7. literary climate change corporate greed

By the way, “keyword,” really means “keyword phrase,” in case you’re confused.

Remember, there are genre categories, just like you might find looking at different sections in a bookstore. An author or publisher is able to select up to three categories per title. But if your title doesn’t fit well in the top-level genres (e.g., “Mystery”), you have to cobble together categories and subcategories as best you can. Here’s my final selection for Kill Well:

  1. Books › Mystery, Thriller & Suspense › Thrillers & Suspense › Spies & Politics › Conspiracies
  2. Books › Literature & Fiction › Action & Adventure › Mystery, Thriller & Suspense › Thriller & Suspense
  3. Books › Literature & Fiction › Genre Fiction › Small Town & Rural

Believe me, I would have selected “climate fiction” if that had been a category or genre choice.

The meager seven keywords limit and thin choice of categories can be offset—surprise!—by giving Amazon more money. Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) is the way producers, including publishers, can add up to a thousand more keywords in the hope of getting their product in Amazon search results, and, one can hope, even get preferable placement. But these keywords are auctioned, where the amount of money you are willing to pay per keyword (the “bid”) has to be high enough to trigger placement of your book in the search results, either at the top of the search page in the form of sponsored product, or in the “readers also liked” carousel below or simply somewhat higher in the search results, where, for instance, your book that might otherwise show up on the seventh screen of search results “organically” might instead show up in the first or second page of search results if goosed through a winning bid. As I recall, there was once a payola scandal in radio, when DJs would be slipped some cash to spin a chosen record on air. Amazon’s tight control and limits on the publisher’s original keywords and the shallowness of category and genre options means most publishers need to pay more to Amazon in order to stand a better chance of being put in front of customers searching for a particular type of book.

Not having search supported by sufficient “free” keywords is only one of the challenges; another is sales numbers dictating what you see first in search results. This is a problem shared by the digital content platforms, where, in Spotify, for example, you are much more likely to see Taylor Swift in your search results because she ranks very high (the highest, maybe?) in streams, and these digital platforms’ algorithms follow the golden rule: the more gold a product generates the more the platform assumes others want to spend their own gold buying or streaming it. In the case of Amazon, best sellers show up higher on the search pages and that makes them more likely to sell because Amazon shoppers typically don’t have the time and patience to page through too many search results.

How many Amazon search pages do you normally page through? I don’t know the average for this, but I’d guess the average is one or two search pages. If my book shows up on search results page seven, I’m less likely to be seen and therefore less likely to be purchased. If I don’t make sales, I stay in the nether pages of search results, unless, of course, someone is searching for “Kill Well David Guenette.” Believe it or not, for the first few months after publication, even with a search for the exact title of “Kill Well,” the book was not likely to be at the top of the search results but may come after better selling titles that have the word “well” or “kill” in their titles or metadata. Titles that have better sales attract the algorithm’s attention, which tends to create a vicious cycle for new books that, of course, aren’t likely to have bigger sales because, well, they’re new to the market and lower down in search results.

The good news is that Kill Well has apparently sold enough to now come up first when the exact title is searched. Kill Well is now #855 in “Action & Adventure Literary Fiction” category, up from somewhere in the hundreds of thousands rank, so, Woo-Hoo.

This is where pre-sales come in. The reason why pre-sales (or pre-orders) is so important in the Amazon platform is that whatever pre-orders there are get counted on the day the book becomes available (i.e., published), and if you have, say, a hundred pre-orders, the algorithm sees that on publication day your book has a hundred sales, and that causes the algorithm to perk up its ears, so the book shows up in better placement (e.g., first page of search results) and that makes it more likely there will be more sales, and Bob’s your uncle.

I’ll have a short pre-order period and market the heck out of it, but mainly I’m taking a different tack, which is the long perspective, where sales come through book tours and ongoing book promotion. And because my books belong to a series, as the series adds books (four books in The Steep Climes Quartet), the other books in the series help gain better exposure to the new titles and for each other.

Well, that’s the theory.

Now back to getting Dear Josephine ready for publication.



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