Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Harry Potter Entertains and Teaches

I walked into the Chatham Public Library a few days ago and was thrilled to see not only a display of the Harry Potter books, CDs, and movies, but also a terrific set of banners about the books. It was part of the library's many programs to encourage children to
read. School had just let out for the summer, so there were kids everywhere.

Seeing the continuing enthusiasm reminded me of how much I learned from reading J.K. Rowling's masterpieces. Probably the best insight was seeing how she planted characters and pieces of information in early books and groomed them to be important in future books. I can't say succeeding, because that implies the next one.

In book one (Sorcerer's Stone), Hagrid delivered newly orphaned Harry to Dumbledore by riding a motorbike he got from young Sirius Black. Sirius is not mentioned again until book three (Prisoner of Azkaban), and he then becomes one of the series' most important (adult) characters. And that motorbike? It helped save Harry's life in book seven (Deathly Hallows).

As Harry, Ron, and Hermione aged, so did the intricacy of the books' plots, vocabulary, and depth of evil. There was the predominant battle of good and evil -- Harry versus Lord Voldemort. I found the most malevolent character to be fifth-year Dark Arts teacher Delores Umbridge. Petite, kitten-loving Delores was sadism personified, disguised in a bow and cardigan. A reminder that evil takes many forms.

And there are the names of people and places. Mort means death in French, perfect for Voldemort. When Umbridge wanted a group of students to oversee others, with ill intent in mind, what better term than the Inquisitorial Squad? And where was Dubledore's nemesis imprisoned? Nuremgard. There are fun names, too. Ron's brother marries  Fleur Delacour, Flower of the Heart. And some names just make you laugh -- Dedalus Diggle, Filius Flitwick.

A recent article said that Rowling later wished she had paired Hermione with Harry, rather than with Ron. There was such wonderful teenage angst (and typical hormones) as the Ron and Hermione relationship grew. Harry and Hermione were both so focused -- Harry on saving the magical world and Hermione on her studies. They would have made (to me) a boring pair. I'm glad Rowling wrote as she did.

I read each book twice, and listened to them as I regularly drove the thousand miles from Iowa to Maryland. If I can't fall asleep, I pop in a CD. Each exposure is like taking a writing class. An enjoyable class, one that reminds a writer that masters still live.

Friday, April 24, 2015

Telling Readers about Your Older Books

As with many things in an electronic world, readers tend to notice newer items--whether in digital, paper, or audio formats. This is clear from search engines. I typed in the words "new boo." Yes, that's boo, I didn't even have to finish the word books.

Here are the popular search choices:
New books
New books for 2015
New books out this month
New books released
New books by James Patterson
New books to read
New books released today
New books by Nicholas Sparks
New books out this week
New books released in 2015

So James Patterson and Nicholas Sparks, how about sharing the wealth--or at least in search results?

Here's the rub. Readers buy the books of these two authors, so the search engines assume you are looking for them. The attention is well deserved--great books. People in my mother-in-law's assisted living residence share Patterson books, and at the used book store in my Iowa town, the owner wants "any Nicholas Sparks books you want to trade."

Search for old books and the most frequent references are to the Old Testament, followed by the value of old books. My personal favorite was 'old laws still on the books.'

Authors tend to regard their books as something between a major accomplishment and a precocious (or is it recalcitrant?) child. Having created them, we want them read,
not relegated to the bottom shelf. We want readers to find the older ones as well as the newer ones.

I've developed some ideas for publicizing older books, and will update this post with additional ones as I hear from blog readers. Several ideas may make more sense for a series, and some pertain more to self-published authors.

1) In the back of every book, mention older ones. With ebooks you can have links, but I also have a note that encourages readers to let local librarians and bookstores know they liked a book and that it is available in multiple formats.

2) Self-published authors can easily add links to new books in their older books. If you work with a publisher, ask if they would be willing to add links in newer books to previously published books. If they do reprints of your paper copies, most do this automatically, but don't hesitate to ask.

3) My blog has a link entitled (imagine this) Links to All My Books. I used to list the web addresses, but am switching to just putting the site name with the appropriate hyperlink. I tweet the link to this page periodically, and put it on the back of bookmarks or other swag for in-person events.

4) Play with prices. I have eight books and a prequel in the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series, and have begun an approximately eighteen-week process of dropping them (one at a time) to 99 cents. This gives the chance to do a blitz of bargain tweets, Facebook posts, and inexpensive online ads. The book will be new to nearly everyone who sees these promotions.

5) Ask for more reviews. This can be in the back of every ebook, with gentle phrasing such as, "If you enjoyed this book, please let other readers know by writing a review on the web site from which you purchased it. Thank you!"
     Books two and three of my series have relatively few reviews compared to the others. I published the first three within a few months (having worked on them for a long time), and didn't put the effort into seeking reviews for books two and three. Fewer reviews lead to fewer sales. The 99 cent price point will bring in a few reviews. It's never too late to get more. The first book (Appraisal for Murder) was stalled at 25 for quite a while. It's up to 39 now, simply by putting the request in the back and doing a bit more free advertising. Many people get hundreds of reviews in the first six months. I don't, but the numbers will keep growing if I keep working.

6) Promote every site that sells your books. I love Amazon. Its business model changed my life. However, their promotion methods change, and you don't want your sales to rely solely on Amazons algorithms.
     There are fewer books for sale on many other sites, so yours stand out. My older books sell more (proportionately) on non-Amazon sites. You can create pages on your blog or web page for each book, or you can use Kindle Boards to have a page per book. Why Kindle Boards? Because in one place a reader can see links to all Amazon sites (U.S. and international) and three other sites of your choosing.

7) Put your books in more formats. Suddenly an older book is new again. It takes a lot of effort to put out an audiobook, but it can be done at no cost to the author, through ACX (an Amazon company). I also have almost all my books in large print now. Some people say they don't want to take the time because there might be relatively few sales per year. So what? Do the large print formatting while you watch TV (and then proof). As a largely self-published author, I do this at will. A publishing contract may give a publisher all rights for a period of years, or could be just for some formats. Check. Do it yourself if you can.

8) This one is heresy. After thirty years of nonfiction research/report writing work, those skills are pretty well honed. However, since 2010, I've improved some technical aspects of my fiction writing. I am going through early books in the Jolie Gentil series and a couple of stand-alones and taking out extra "I said" and "she said" phrases and doing a few other minor things. I doubt anyone who read a book earlier would even notice, but it makes for a smoother read, which can lead a reader to another book. No, I don't add a new ISBN number.

9) Read, read, read books on book promotion. There are countless more ways to promote via social media than there were when your earlier books were published, and ebooks on marketing are inexpensive or sometimes free. In the physical world, recommendations for media packets have evolved to less is more. Get current with Jeffrey Marks' Intent to Sell: Marketing the Genre Novel for a resource that deals with all forms of publicity

10) Pretend social media does not exist and promote without turning on your computer. What?! Some of us don't put much time into putting our faces (and copies of our paperbacks) in front of local media or the kinds of organizations that are mentioned in our books. My Jolie series features a real estate appraiser, and she now runs a food pantry, as a volunteer. My real estate agent in Indiana loved my books. Have I visited real estate and offices in my new town of Springfield, Illinois? Nope. I only made the rounds of some local media outlets and libraries. So, I bought a bunch of "Mystery Peeps," which are marshmallow candies of unknown flavor. I will drop these, plus one of my mysteries and some bookmarks, at some local businesses and media outlets.

11) Help others. Every time you give books to a charity auction or do a session at a library, you get new fans. Auction baskets are a really good place for those extra older books.

12) Cross promote with your blog. See what I did here? I have links to some of my books and other blog posts. On the blog, I have an index of posts. Each item can lead a reader somewhere else. If I do a blog post on planting false clues, there will be a link to one of my books as an example. If your social media presence is all "buy my book," you will be boring and few people will act on your pleas.

Things I'm thinking of doing
1. Sending a letter, to librarians and bookstores within fifty miles, highlighting nearly all of my books. In the past, I've publicized primarily new releases. I'll send a few bookmarks and information on how to buy the books on Overdrive. If your ebooks are not there, many librarians cannot purchase them.
2) At the back of ebooks, adding information about how to order paperbacks, including large print, and audiobooks.

Things Other Authors Are Doing
Send your ideas to me via comment here or email to I'll mention your tip in this post and credit you with the idea.

"Telling Readers about Your Older Books," Copyright 2015 by Elaine L. Orr

Monday, April 6, 2015

How Broad a Readership Do You Want?

Generally, authors want their books in front of anyone in the appropriate age group. Even so, most of us make conscious choices about our reading audience. We do that in the content itself, and who we populate the book with.

I write murder mysteries for adults, geared to readers who do not want to read about body parts that did not remain with the newly departed's torso. These are typically called traditional mysteries (think Agatha Christie, M.C. Beaton, Raymond Chandler, many books by Robert Parker) or more recently, cozy mysteries (Louise Penny, Parnell Hall, Dorothy Sayers, Donald Bain as Jessica Fletcher, often Mary Higgins Clark).

Many traditional mystery writers strike a middle ground for gore level. A key difference between the traditional and cozy categories is where the murder takes place—usually off screen, so to speak, in a cozy. Cozies often have an amateur sleuth, generally a woman.

You can debate categories. I put M.C. Beaton in the traditional category because her sleuths are (more or less in the case of Agatha Raisin) detecting professionals. Others say she writes cozies because they are set in quaint villages with quirky characters. I have seen Sue Grafton's novels listed as cozy mysteries, but Private Investigator Kinsey Milhone deals with more varied levels of violence than most cozy mysteries.

Cozy books frequently align with a hobby or non-law enforcement profession, and you won't find a car mechanic among them. There are a lot of bookstore, yarn shop, or coffee cafĂ© owners. Why? These authors have defined the bulk of their audience as women, and these are professions  with  more women than men. The pastel-colored covers with genteel furnishings (and cats) also cater to women. Some say cozies focus too much on the hobby/profession (how many kinds of coffee does a reader want to know about?), but for many readers, that's part of their reading enjoyment.

Not all amateur sleuths are in fields that hold more interest for women. Nancy Lynn Jarvis' Regan McHenry is a real estate agent, and my Jolie Gentil is a real estate appraiser. Some sleuths are college professors or people retired from varied professions. I picked the appraiser position for Jolie because it gave her time to get into trouble and she would be involved in a fairly broad cross-section of the town, including its business community.

Before a blog reader comments that my thoughts are sexist, take a pragmatic look at who buys books. Women read more in general, and read more fiction than men. Sadly, readership levels (as measured by the National Endowment for the Arts) are dropping. In a given year, barely half of U.S. adults read a book not required for work or school. Most authors don't write simply to sell books, and book quality can't be measured solely by sales. Still, if you're going to all the trouble to put a book out there…

Authors can't simply decide which readers to appeal to, they have to reach out to them. A traditional publisher helps do that (a lot) simply with a book's designation or the books they promote together. What author wouldn't want their book in the same publisher's newsletter as a new James Patterson, Robert Galbraith, or Janet Evanovich mystery? (None of which are cozies, and some have placed body parts in varied locations.)

As a self-published author, I reach readers through many publicity avenues. Most are through social media, but I also use traditional ways—library talks, book signings, letters to bookstores/libraries. The best (unpaid) publicists are the friends and readers on my monthly newsletter list. Personal relationships are as important in bookselling as life.

Some readers (mostly women) write reviews, and I truly value them. Occasionally I learn something about a character from a reviewer. I may see a person as quiet, readers may see them as aloof and uncaring. Do I want to maintain a character as perceived, or have them exhibit their quietness differently in a succeeding book? You can do that in a mystery series. The bottom line is that reviewer comments influence who else reads a book.

Iowa State Fair flowers
I'm continuing the Jolie Gentil series and starting a new one, the River's Edge series, set in a town on the Des Moines River in Iowa. The new protagonist is a female, but as a landscaper, she is more physically fit and does things that not every woman does. She can drive a tractor and get down and dirty in soil. Her brother taught his wife to rope a cow. Maybe Mel, the landscaper, can learn, too.

In choosing to make another protagonist a woman, I'm probably skewing readership to my own sex. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld says. However, I've given her a more gender-neutral profession, and she drinks beer and roots for the Iowa Hawkeyes. My kind of woman.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Does Technology Make Mysteries Harder to Write?

I recently did a story for an upcoming Speed City Sisters in Crime Anthology (Decades of Dirt: Murder Mystery and Mayhem from the Crossroads of Crime). Set in the 1830s, my piece entailed a fair bit of research about life in Indiana at that time.

My frame of reference was ancestors who operated a grain mill in Indiana, but they could only serve as a starting point for a mystery. When I delved more, I found that the kind of mill they operated would have been very different from those even thirty years later—a period I was more familiar with. Thus, if I wanted to sabotage the family mill, I had to put the right kind of cog in the wheel, so to speak.

When I shared the story with my critique group, someone asked if I was sure frying pans existed in the 1830s. My assumption was correct, but it reinforced the need to be thorough.

While murder weapons or getaway vehicles were very different in the 1830s, the advanced technologies of the twenty-first century create their own problems in crafting mysteries. Thanks to smart phones and security cameras, it's hard for a perpetrator to vanish. On the other hand, there are more ways to kill people, too. I love poisons that are hard to isolate in the blood.

So, what's an author to do to thwart technology? I've had protagonists realize that the purse with a cell phone was in the next room when the villain attacks. No way to call for help. Then there's the isolated beach with no signal. Even that's getting hard, since so many phones now rely on satellite technology. Those suckers never sleep.

I write cozy mysteries, so the sleuth doesn't have to know a lot about law enforcement techniques or equipment. She or he does have to be smart enough to solve a murder, but not so smart that she does it quickly. However, something has to give the sleuth an advantage.

I like visual examples, so think about the movie The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones. There's a long scene in which Ford's character (Richard Kimble) eludes the marshals in and around a Chicago detention center. Kimble eventually vanishes in a St. Patrick's Day parade. The U.S. Marshals used radios to stay in constant touch—some on the roof, some in a stairwell, and many other places. It sounds simple, but those radios were an important factor in staying even with the desperate Dr. Kindle.

The movie came out in 1993. Twenty-two years later, those radios sound almost quaint. In all the NCIS shows, the teams constantly get photos from security and traffic cameras, sometimes in real time. (It's fiction, remember?) Snap a photo of a murder victim, send it to the office computer geeks and, voila, there's an ID. Another device lets investigators put a fingerprint on a gadget about the size of a smart phone. In almost no time, the print identifies a culprit. My low-tech sleuths use the computer to check old newspaper articles, and occasionally get access to security tapes. Still, those tools are relatively recent.

M.C. Beaton's Hamish Macbeth is in remote Scotland. He still does most of his sleuthing through tried and true personal contact. Sue Grafton keeps the Kinsey Milhone series in the 1980s. I understand she chose to do this so Kinsey didn't have to age beyond her mid-thirties. It also limits Kinsey's technology tools. Her smarts are what count.

It's difficult (for most of us) to predict how technological advantages will make it harder for the bad guys to thwart investigators twenty years from now. In a few years, we'll think immediate access to fingerprint data is old-fashioned. I'm waiting for something like the Star Trek Hollow Deck so we can reenact a crime at the drop of a hat. However, that could put a lot of sleuths—amateur or professional—out of business.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Interact with Readers and Sell Books

Though it may seem surprising, the Kindle Boards offer you a way to interact with readers and publicize your books across multiple markets. Regardless of whether you use the boards for this purpose, it's worth getting familiar with them. 

When you go to the registration page (link below), you'll see a few paragraphs on treating other people respectfully. These appear before you enter identifying information because provocative comments (in the sense of flaming) and insults are not welcome or allowed. If you're insulted by not being able to be insulting toward others, the following sums up the Kindle Boards' perspective.

-  If the...guidelines irk you, and you're ready to get on your soapbox about free speech on the web... this is probably not the place for you.
-  If, on the other hand, you enjoy respectful and engaging dialogue and have a sense of courtesy to others... welcome! Enjoy! 

Assuming you follow the concept in the second bullet, here's the registration page.

After the usual steps and responding to the typical verification email, you're ready to go. 

The home page looks plain compared to the blinking buttons and dancing icons on some pages, but you can get right down to business. A menu at the top guides to you topics of interest to readers, authors, and more. 

A few inches below are headings for:
Amazon Devices
Authors' Boards
Content (as in the books themselves)
Reviews (geared to Kindle readers, but there is an 'other' category)
KB Boards Forum Central
KB Boards Info Center (lots of posts from authors about formatting, marketing, more)

Spend an hour or so figuring how you want to fit in. Find a forum you like and interact with readers and other authors.

If you're an author, you can create a topic for each book in the Book Bazaar (in the Content area)--but that's the only place you can do so. The single topic entry per book is firm. You can update it (to publicize a sale), but if you do a separate post about the same book, the moderators will merge it with the original page. Make sure you bookmark your topic so you can get to it easily.

Using the Book Profile Pages

This is how you reach readers beyond Amazon.

Use the address below, and put in the Amazon ASIN after the equal sign. Because you have not created a book profile page, you will get an option to do so. The link page noted here is to one of my books, which already has a profile page. Take out my ASIN and put in yours.

At the top of the finished profile page are flags that correspond to all of the Amazon sale sites. You can add three more purchase options, so you'll see BN, Google Play, and Smashwords on my book's profile page. Imagine that -- one place to send readers to buy your books! Put in a link to your web page, too.

There is also a spot at the top for you to write a note. Sometimes I quote a review, sometimes a thought about the book that is not in the description. You only have a few hundred characters (not words), so keep it short.

There is a place to link to the book's topic in the Kboards Book Bazaar. That's important. You publicize bargain or free days there, and may choose to add links to all sites that sell the book, not just three sites.

When you're done, save the profile page.

What's the best part about all of this? It's all free. When I created a Book Bazaar topic (different from the profile) for Ground to a Halt, 1,300 people viewed it before it went on sale. 

Get busy, and good luck!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Where Do You Get Your Ideas?

Every writer has been asked how they develop book ideas. Some can discuss a detailed research process and methodical search for the precise subject for a new book. Me? Not so much.

I have gotten some from newspaper clippings, others seem to have just popped into my head. These had to be rooted somewhere. Whatever the source, I have to push to move a passing idea to the reality of a book.

For example, in Ground to a Halt, I wanted 'something bad' to happen to the owner of the coffee shop (Joe) where Jolie and friends hang out – Java Jolt. I wrote two beginnings to the book. One had Jolie and friends sitting in the coffee shop trying to figure out who had harmed him, the other had Jolie seeing Joe soon after he was shot. The second idea won.
However, an idea from the losing option became an important part of the book.

The beginning and end of the mystery tend to flow freely. What I think of as the muddled middle is harder. With the first few books I wrote (not part of the Jolie Gentil cozy mystery series) I tended to leave the characters in transit (literally) and then got back to them later. Once they were left on a subway car, another time on a bus. It took awhile to see the pattern.

When I'm stalled, my technique is to write something I think is exciting or mysterious, and then figure the answer. I can do this with the series because the characters have histories. I can anticipate how they will act. Thus, the idea can germinate for a couple of days within the context of characters I know well.

In Ground to a Halt, I wanted the Java Jolt owner to be concerned about someone, but he couldn't make it too easy for Jolie to figure out who was in danger. Thus, when Joe is first injured, he tells Jolie "not to let them hurt him." Then he passes out, and he can't be reached at the hospital immediately. (There, you know he isn't killed early. Or is Joe killed at all?)

The initial phrase was "don't let them hurt her." After a day, the perfect 'him' came to me, complete with the circumstances of the danger. I don't advocate this method of advancing a plot when you're stuck, but it can work.
Rekindling Motives (second in the Jolie Gentil series) proceeded very differently. I find Prohibition fascinating, and wanted to feature it in a book. I read a lot about Prohibition in New Jersey, and then was able to work it into a long-ago murder and one in current time. This probably would not have worked as the first book in the series, as I didn't know the characters as well.

At the moment, I'm developing alternate ideas for a new series. A mid-Atlantic beach was the setting for the Jolie series because I like to be near the ocean. I also like to garden, paint walls, and travel. If I'm going to work with characters for a long time, they have to live in a place I like or do something I want to know more about. It should be an interesting selection process.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

The Making of a Mystery Writer

P.D. James once told the Paris Review, "I had an interest in death from an early age. It fascinated me. When I heard, Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, I thought, "Did he fall, or was he pushed?"

The death of this superb British crime writer (on November 27, 2014) can't be called a shock--she was ninety four.  It can be termed a loss for anyone who wonders not just who killed a character, but why.  Her Adam Dalgliesh was possibly the most cerebral of all investigators.  It would take time to learn the who in one of her books, but when you finished reading there was no doubt as to the why.

Children of Men, not a detective story, was my favorite book. The human race is about to end because no children have been born for decades. A reader might see a book blurb about that and expect a medical thriller in which a scientist close to discovering a cure has to dodge the charlatans who sell fertility amulets. What they would get is a thoughtful look at what drives desperate people and how they treat one another in difficult times. And P.D. James' version of a dramatic chase scene at the end. (Don't bother with the movie. I didn't recognize her book in it.)

To P.D. James, cheers for those early macabre thoughts, and thanks for sharing them with us through your books.

To aspiring mystery writers, study those nursery rhymes.