books, marketing, podcast review, review, Uncategorized, writing

Book Marketing Podcast Review and Recommendation

As is usual for my blog (and, let’s face it, my personality), I’m jumping around from subject to subject – history, animals, TV, Amazon, woo hoo! This post is for the fiction writers among you, mainly self published but also traditionally published.

Story Grid Me, Baby

For a few years now I’ve been in a wonderful, amazing, transformative, insert-over-the-top-praise-here writer’s group whose goal is to look at our stories from a structural viewpoint using ex-New York editor of bestselling novels Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid principles. Coyne’s system is helpful when it comes to figuring out the major elements necessary in a story to make it “work.” And his ideas about genres’ obligatory scenes and conventions are just as revolutionary. While I think Coyne’s information is very helpful, it does go into too many details for me. When he says to list every story scene on a spreadsheet and graph it out my eyes glaze over. Gimme simple, please. I need simple. (Along those lines, a fellow writer turned me on to the 8 point story arc method, which I’ve been using with success.)

To learn more, you can buy Coyne’s book Story Grid or attend his pricey seminars, or you can read a bunch of articles on his site and listen to his podcasts and find out pretty much everything you need to know, though you will need to take said seminars if you want to become a certified editor yourself and work with clients.

No, Book Launch Me Instead!

The reason I bring Coyne up is that his marketer extraordinaire, Tim Grahl, interviewed him for a gazillion episodes of the Story Grid podcast while trying to finish his novel. Grahl, a marketer who has engineered bestselling book launches, also started a podcast called The Book Launch Show. Grahl pretty much does the same thing as Coyne did for the Story Grid podcast with the Book Launch Show: it teaches you what you need to know to launch your book successfully if you don’t want to buy his book Your First 1,000 Copies or pay for his pricey seminars in which you become a certified book launch coach.

So, that long-winded explanation aside, the Book Launch podcast provides much invaluable book marketing advice. I’ve been listening regularly since a writer named Valerie Francis (also a Story Grid Editor) came on the show to walk through her particular marketing challenges with Grahl as her mentor. That series begins on 11/20/2018 with Where do we start?  The whole series is very informative, but one episode in particular has really hit it out of the park as far as I’m concerned: episode 44, The Magic Number. In it, you’ll learn:

  • why selling 1,000 copies is an important milestone in your writing career
  • average sales figures for an independently published AND traditionally published book during its first year
  • an actual plan for assessing the success of your marketing endeavors
  • why publishing your books is a long term game, with specifics
  • why authors fail at this long term game
  • why blog articles that have titles like “119 Ideas for How to Promote Your Book!” are a bunch of crap.
  • how to evaluate your marketing progress in a low-stress, easy way

The entire series is highly recommended, but this particular episode provides information in a manner that makes sense, is totally doable, and does not involve losing your mind over marketing.

Give it a shot! And let me know what you think. This marketing thing is a multi-headed beast and most of us writers need all the help we can get.

Advertisements
online stores, review, shopping, Uncategorized

How to Triumph over Fake Product Reviews

Years ago, I got had.

I wanted an air mattress to give company a nice place to sleep, so I scrolled through Amazon and settled upon a queen sized mattress with fantastic reviews. Well, they weren’t all fantastic. A sizable percentage of these poor reviews complained about the mattress’s poor quality. Hmmm, thought I. It’s a risk. But the price … it was so good. Surely I wouldn’t be one of the buyers to get a lemon. Right?

Wrong.

The mattress lasted for one night. The second time I tried to use it holes opened and it deflated. After the return date had passed. Of course.

That event sticks in my mind. Yes, experience is a hard teacher. But also, I should have known better. I’m a student of human nature, and such studies tell me that people (and companies) will always do what benefits them and what they can get away with. An online shop’s ultimate goal is to sell you a products, so what is to stop them from “adjusting” bad reviews on their system? And what’s to stop sellers from engaging others to write great reviews for them, for cash? Other than vague warnings of legal repercussions, nothing, it seems.

Forbes, NBC News, The New York Times, and other sites, agree. You are right to be wary of product reviews – good and bad. Yet what is your choice if you wish to make use of the ease of online shopping?

I’ve come up with a system that does a good job of supplying me with quality products. It’s not a perfect system, but it’s a lot better than taking a blind chance. This applies to Amazon.com, but you can also use a modified system for whatever site you wish to use it on.

  1. I use the search bar to find the category of products I am interested in. Say, trail cameras. Or Vitamin C. Or dog food. Whatever.  I choose one product and copy the URL into a review verification site like Fakespot or ReviewMeta, both of which offer Chrome extensions. These sites employ specially designed algorithms that calculate the probability of false reviews. Fakespot provides a letter grade, while Review Meta gives pass, warn, or fail. I only keep products with a pass on Review Meta and A or B on Fakespot. It’s a good idea to use both because sometimes they do differ in their results.
  2. If the product passes step 1, I take a look at the review chart. Here are examples of good charts (accessed by scrolling down the product page):

Screenshot 2019-05-06 at 10.28.30 AM

Or

Screenshot 2019-05-06 at 10.31.53 AM

The idea is that there is a downward progression – the most reviews at 5 star and 4 star and the least at 2 and 1 stars. The “bad” reviews (2 star and 1 star) should be less than the 5, 4, and 3 review percentages.

I discard any products with graphs such as the below, where 1 star reviews are a higher percentage than 2 or 3 stars. The reason being that this discrepancy points to disappointed customers, and thus, fake reviews skewed toward 5 stars:

Screenshot 2019-05-06 at 10.38.32 AM

Screenshot 2019-05-06 at 10.36.52 AM

I also discard all products with such review curves from the same companies, the idea being that the company must have a policy of encouraging or allowing for dishonest reviews.

My final step is to look at the reviews themselves. What do the reviews tell me about the product’s pros and cons? I keep in mind that the most thorough reviews (which often include photos and videos) are probably from people who received the product free for their review. They didn’t have to shell their money out for it so may be more inclined to give the company a good review. You will find the best reviews – according to Amazon – under the “Top Reviews” heading just above the product’s first review:

Screenshot 2019-05-06 at 10.40.14 AM

These provide helpful information for the most part, but not necessarily perfect info. My final step, then, is to click on the down arrow next to “Top Reviews” and choose “Most Recent”:

Screenshot 2019-05-06 at 10.44.36 AM

Screenshot 2019-05-06 at 10.45.02 AM

For sketchy products you will often find reviews here that say: “How did this product get so many glowing reviews?” The recent reviews are most likely to provide you with the reactions of everyday buyers like you and I. If they are overwhelmingly filled with one or two stars then I reconsider my choice. All products have some low ratings but a large number of them in the most recent reviews points to a problem, possibly with a product’s reformulation or the use of new ingredients or suppliers.

With all this information in mind I compare prices and decide whether or not I want to purchase the item. If I don’t purchase it right away, I will save it under “Wishlist.” Occasionally the Amazon Android app will alert me when one of these items goes on sale, which can be a money-saver.

Like I said, it’s not a perfect system, but I find that it works well and has helped me to avoid any more air mattress fiascoes. Hopefully it will help you as well.

What about you? Do you use a different system? Let me know about it in the comments below.

books, literature, new release, review, Uncategorized

Historical Fantasy At Its Best

The Jinni's Last WishThe Jinni’s Last Wish by Zenobia Neil

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

From the first page, the novel weaves a spell of another world – a harem in the Ottoman Empire, filled with the scents of cinnamon and cloves, and heavy with desire. Young eunuch Olin fights his lust for the beauties around him while navigating the Byzantine politics that pit wives and mistresses against one another to win the favor of their opium-enthralled sultan. The atmosphere of luxury is enhanced by Neil’s talented descriptions and impeccable historical accuracy. The names of the harem women, such as Crimson Petal, Red Tulip, and Peach Blossom, serve to add to this atmosphere, and to the lyrical quality of the writing. Sex is currency here in the harem, and death, if one is not wary.

Olin is a well-rounded, sympathetic character who struggles with courage, duty, and honor. When the beautiful odalisque Dark Star offers him a magical pendant he unleashes the power of the jinni, one which will change his world forever.

If you like your historical fiction with a touch of magic you can’t do better than this addictive novel.

View all my reviews

books, review, Uncategorized

Book Review: Estrid by Johanne Hildebrandt

Another review originally posted on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

Estrid by Johanne Hildebrandt. AmazonCrossing, 2017. 524 pages. ISBN 9781503943575.

5146hrpr1xl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

The second book in the Valhalla Series (after The Unbroken Line of the Moon), Estrid follows Queen Sigrid of Svealand, her twin children Estrid and Olaf, and Sweyn Forkbeard, Sigrid’s long-ago lover and now the exiled king of Denmark. Sigrid, Estrid, and Olaf are not your everyday family in the neighborhood, though, as they play the power games of royalty—for indeed the Vikings portrayed in this title are bloodthirsty, foreign, and driven by strange passions.

The title character, Estrid, is flawed by mental instability and physical weakness and resigned to a brief life of duty. She has been pledged to the dark goddess Hel, to whom she is faithful—at first. Taking place at a time when Christianity was making inroads against native Scandinavian gods, the book effectively shows the Vikings’ pre-Christian culture, most jarringly when Christians are referred to as “evil cross-worshippers.”

Although it deals with Christianity, this is not a Christian book, and those readers that cannot separate their personal belief systems from the world portrayed here will likely be offended by its content. However, they will be missing out on a tale that winds around and about in fascinating, surprising, and touching ways. A solid, well-crafted read with an exciting balance of action, romance, and intrigue, it provides a fascinating look at Viking society and the daring characters who ruled it.

books, review, Uncategorized, US history

Book Review: Flight of the Hawk: The River

Another review originally posted on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

Flight of the Hawk: The River by W. Michael Gear. Five Star, 2018. 271 pages. ISBN 9781432840679.

51shycjqayl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

The fur trade in 1812 Missouri takes center stage in this tale about hardscrabble business, ruthless politics, and the untrammeled majesty of nature. Mysterious John Tylor signs aboard a trading expedition helmed by Manuel Lisa, a well-known figure of the era. Andrew Jackson, William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame, and John Jacob Astor are other important figures who make appearances as Tylor flees from his past to battle nature, a mentally unstable pursuer, and destiny itself.

From the first page, author Gear’s prose reflects confidence, skill, and solid research, making it easy to imagine and enjoy the difficult, desperate setting. The protagonist, Tylor, is revealed in dribs and drabs. A veritable baker’s dozen of other major characters—French, Spanish, Scottish, and Native American—are introduced in bewildering succession. Because many of these characters come with little background, readers without at least a passing knowledge of the time period may find themselves struggling to get their bearings. Once they settle into the story’s rhythm, though, they will enjoy a plot-centric, high-stakes tale that moves as quickly as the swift-rushing Missouri River.

books, literature, review, Uncategorized, US history, young adult

Book Review: Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman

Another review originally posted on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

Retribution Rails by Erin Bowman. HMH Books for Young Readers, 2017. Children/Young Adult, Western, 19th century. 384 pages. ISBN 9780544918887.

Teenager Reece Murphy is compelled to join a ruthless outlaw gang, the Rose Riders, during a robbery, when the outlaws discover a mysterious gold coin in his possession. Reece doesn’t know much about the man who gave him the coin, but the boss figures he does, and keeps a close eye on him. In the meantime, Reece is guilty by association and finds himself dubbed the Rose Kid due to the train robberies, murders, and general mayhem caused by the gang.

Spunky 15-year-old Charlotte Vaughn means to follow in the journalistic footsteps of her idol, Nellie Bly, and in doing so lands in the middle of a train robbery committed by the Rose Riders and starring Reece Murphy. This sets up the frequently changing fortunes of the two main characters, which continues until the end of the book with breathtaking regularity.

Written in crisp, vibrant prose, the short chapters and shifting points of view of Reece and Charlotte suck the reader into the dangerous world of Arizona Territory in 1887, and play up the desolate surroundings, scrubby inhabitants, and the ever-widening grasp of the railroad in an effective combination. High stakes put Charlotte and Reece at odds and then in reluctant cooperation as feelings blossom between them.

Don’t be surprised if you hear the far-off echo of train whistles and cowboys’ yee-haws in this fast-paced, emotionally satisfying read that hits all the right notes of a western adventure.

ancient history, books, cats, general wackiness, Hiccups in History, literature, nonfiction, research, review, Uncategorized, US history, writing

Cats in History

Hiccups in HistoryAlthough Reddit can be, in the immortal words of Obi Wan Kenobi “a wretched hive of scum and villainy,” it is also the source of historical amusement, if you are selective about the subreddits you follow. One of my favorite is Old News, which shares interesting old newspaper articles on various and sundry subjects. A couple cat-related ones I discovered lately earn the Hiccups in History designation.

Forgive the yellow highlights, which I can’t seem to get rid of. These items are from the California Digital Newspaper collection, which lists sources from 1846 to the present.

Capture

Since I have a currently untitled Icebound tale in the works that is set in 1910’s Alaska, this one caught my eye. I wonder about how H.J. Coleman’s cat scheme turned out. It is rather ingenious, though how in the world did warmth-loving cats fare in Alaska?

Capture2

And then there is this one, in which cats are meant to combat “great armies of gophers.” Did they put on armor and sally forth with tiny little swords, guns, and tanks? I’m reminded of this infamous gif:

giphy

Currently, I’m almost finished reading a wonderful nonfiction history of cats. I haven’t been able to find much in the way of real history about animals so I was thrilled to find Revered and Reviled: A Complete History of the Domestic Cat by L.A. Vocelle of http://www.thegreatcat.org. The book relies on artwork and literature primarily to fill in the historical gaps, primarily in the ancient time periods, and even through the Middle Ages. Artwork and literature are useful in that they demonstrate the presence of cats and how they were conceived of, at least by the social class that is depicted, and they are particularly pleasant to examine–not always the case with books, unfortunately!

51qw7rhi0xl

The author also makes use of some older histories of domestic animals published in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It’s always a bit perilous to write a complete history of anything because an author opens herself up to claims of “but you forgot this and that” which I suppose I am super sensitive to, but this book seems to carry it off with confidence.

It is written in engaging language and focuses on particularly interesting–and sometimes tragic–instances and individuals important to feline history. It proceeds chronologically and while it is well-written, it is also largely unbiased, another important feature of historical writing. Relevant photos and pictures are provided, a timeline, lists of tombs and cemeteries in Egypt to do with cats, and a voluminous references section. In short, this book is a giant YES and will be included in my future historical writings.

If you have any other references for me to check out please feel free to leave them in the comments.

 

books, literature, review, Uncategorized

Book Review: The Half-Drowned King

Here’s another of my Historical Novel Society reviews – this one all about the Vikings and drowning, which seems to be a thing in publishing lately, for some odd reason.

1halfdrownedkingcover

 

The Half-Drowned King by Linnea Hartsuyker. Harper Little Brown, 2017. ISBN 9780062563699; $27.99, Hardback.

It is 9th-century Norway, and the Vikings are sailing, raiding, battling, and attending the gathering of peoples known as the Thing. Ragnvald Eysteinsson, a young warrior, finds himself betrayed by the very men he fought alongside, and left to drown in the cold waves of the Viking seas. His sister, Svanhild, faces challenges of her own back home, where she must navigate the social waters of suitors. The mercurial Solvi juggles political alliances and personal attachments deftly, and the warrior Harald of Vestfold—King Harald—comes to claim the loyalty of Ragnvald in a move that will change the course of each character’s lives.

A first novel, this title is also the first book of a trilogy. The author can trace her own lineage back to King Harald and, inspired by this family history, she has studied Norse history and literature for many years. Her attention to detail is the most enjoyable aspect of this book, which does an excellent job of evoking a vibrant society from years past. The opening scene, which finds young Ragnvald dancing across the oars while his ship sails, is evocative, dreamlike, and overwritten. The rest of the book follows this pattern.

This is the kind of book to sink into and enjoy for its beauty and atmosphere, not the kind to read for thrilling adventures or a complicated plot. The characters spend a lot of time debating things in their heads, and this trait serves to slow the narrative. However, if you are patient and in the mood for a period piece that brings to life a bygone era, you may find this volume satisfying reading.

books, fantasy, new release, review, Uncategorized, young adult

The King’s Champion by Xina Marie Uhl is worthy of its cover.

Great review for my latest novel by SciFiMonkeys.com!

Young adult fantasy novel swords sorcery friendship love adventure magic fun

I love the cover of The King’s Champion by Xina Marie Uhl! Swords tend to be popular with fantasy novels, and with good reason. We immediately know that the book contains warriors, probably some epic fighting, possibly magic, and hopefully a great story. Thankfully the inside of this book lives up to its cover.

Source: The King’s Champion by Xina Marie Uhl is worthy of it’s cover.

books, literature, review, Uncategorized

Book Review: Good Water by John D. Nesbitt

Another review originally posted on the Historical Novel Society’s website.

51iz9ex8ynl

 

Good Water by John D. Nesbitt. Five Star, 2016. ISBN 9781432832759; $25.95; Hardback.

Tommy Reeves is a young ranch hand working his way across the West, accompanied by his friend Red Armstrong. When the two of them come across a settlement of Mexicans nearby, they can’t help be interested in the people there, especially the pretty young women. Despite the fact that their foreman orders them to stay away from the settlement, they return. Their defiance sets in motion a devastating chain of events that result in violence and murder.

The book proceeds at a slow, loping pace through most of the story events, relaying them in a restrained and understated manner. Characterization is satisfyingly complete, and the laconic style of dialogue is especially effective in portraying the Old West. The book really shines with its wonderful, authentic details, though. Most westerns don’t go into detail about how to skin an antelope or cook tortillas on an open griddle, but this book does, with fascinating realism. At its heart the story involves Tommy’s coming of age. His romance with a beautiful Mexican girl also illuminates Mexican culture and the challenges they faced due to their ethnicity.

Lots of the story’s pivotal action scenes take place offstage, so don’t expect a traditional shoot ‘em up tale of revenge and gunslingers. While the narrative does include range fires, bullet wounds, and other Western tropes, it suffers overall from a lack of drama. However, if you are looking for a story which evokes the spirit of the West, with its hardworking settlers, simple lifestyle and wide-open sky, you can’t go wrong with Good Water.