Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Four Different Ways to Rate a Book

On the social networking site authonomy, I noticed something fast. Authors (including me) seldom know what's going to sell. The ratings for my books on that site were inversely proportional to the real sales. Nonetheless, over the course of your career as a writer, you can use feedback to adapt.

The 5 star method Amazon and Goodreads uses doesn't mean much to an author either. It doesn't tell us what we need to change to make a better product. Of course, the review contents can be helpful, but only if the criticism is specific and the audience wasn't misidentified. Indeed, what the current review system tells me most is, "Did I hit my audience with the pitch and categories?" Someone once mis-tagged one of my books BDSM, and those people are quick to complain when you don't show them what they're expecting! The same is true of any genre. A book I sent to a romance blog earned a D rating, but she admitted she couldn't put it down. When I moved the book to action + high-tech, it hit the top 40.

However, steering your writing career on this alone is like picking a church by the length of its name. Here are some other unusual metrics that tell me things.

1) How much does it sell in the first day of the giveaway? The second day, if you're in the top ten in your category, people will "me too". The first day tells you your curb appeal, or hit ratio: gawkers to buyers, the thing that will sell the most of your book. As a rule of thumb, the number of free copies (on a Monday for my genres) correlates to how many copies a book will sell in the first year, unless it hits one of the top hundred lists. My goal is to tweak the pitch (or even cover) until the sales exceed 600 and I hit the free top ten in my category before 5:00 pm. Otherwise, the book will never pay for itself.

2) How many people who read this book rate it? I'm not talking the professional reviewers (1 percent of those contacted) or Amazon giveaways (those people are like one-night stands who never call), I mean actual sales. My favorite book I wrote gets about one review for every 14 purchases. I won't list which of my books I pulled these stats from, but the review rate (in my opinion) tells you the true number of stars--how does it spur people to respond and share with others.
5 stars = 1 out of every 13
4 stars = 1 out of every 50
3 stars = 1 out of ever 200
Notice the linear pattern? Now, I want to say something important. There is nothing wrong with a professionally-polished three star book. With the proper marketing, it can feed you nicely, but it's cotton candy, not "To Kill a Mockingbird."

3) How many people buy the sequel? Because, abashedly, the only way I know of as a mid-level writer to make a living writing is with the series effect. In my genres, a series will sell 10 to 14 times more than a standalone. Plan accordingly. The quality of the experience with book one will correlate to how many people buy the next. Your mileage may vary.
5 stars = almost 100 percent comeback, and they read your other books too!
4 stars = 70 percent comeback.
3 stars = 25 percent comeback.
It doesn't matter much if number three in the series is a filet if number one is and overcooked hamburger.

4) Returned books tell you something when there's no free giveaway that month--probably how good your hook is or how well you represented the true story in your pitch. If you have more than one return a month for a title, look for something in the first three chapters that gave someone the excuse to say no.

Sunday, April 7, 2013


When someone writes a book, a good one goes through a lot of revisions. Every time there's a major change, or I hand a draft to an editor, I bump the version number. This helps with merging later, and theoretically, if something leaks it to the web, I know who did it. I don't mistrust anyone I work with, but Stephanie Meyer had this problem with a planned Twilight book from Edward's POV. The thing people wonder is--how can there be twenty versions of a story? One word--rewrites. I'm not OCD or ADHD. This normal for a writer. Let's count, shall we?

RAW: The first draft captures the note, the tuning fork tone I hear in my head. This version is about running, getting the arc of the story out as fast and accurately as I can. I've had instructors in short story that told me to throw everything out after this draft and recreate from scratch. I don't buy that unless the original is really short and bad. More often, it's just a gem than needs to be polished and shaped.

FIRST READ: Since I only write about a single spaced page an hour, a chapter could take two days.
The next day, I comb through the first half of the chapter for embarrassing, obvious mistakes as I recapture the sound of the note in my head. Sometimes, something that SOUNDED good coming out will be an OMG, I'm glad nobody else saw that. This is okay--the first pass is about raw emotion and drive, not perfection. Repeated phrases, missing vital descriptions, lame names, and most brain-fart grammar gets caught here.

AFTERTHOUGHTS: As my subconscious chews on something, more details arise. For example, the types of crops growing in an area, the weapons and training of an assassin, the affect of empathic abilities on a person's relationships, etc. As I think of these, anything significant gets written at the end of the file, after the ###. Often, when I have fast action later, I want to walk the reader through the area once in slow motion so they know what everything is. That means a discussion about quantum locking, the dangers of wand over-reliance, etc. When I have enough major points saved up, usually on a Monday morning or a particularly long after-midnight note session, I back insert.

RETRACKING: I continue like this until either a) family interrupts the flow for several days or b) I hit a snarl where something doesn't feel right anymore. Then I reread from the beginning of this act/section, up to 100 pages, and fix small things while I search for the problem. This is realigning to the story arc/character baseline. It's like a plumb line held up to a wall. Most often, the fix involves throwing out the last half a chapter. While I'm here, I smooth out any bumps caused by afterthoughts. I always renumber and save both versions here.

COMPLETION: When I finish the complete book, I walk through the entire story, knowing what happened. Does it flow well? Sometimes I rearrange or split chapters. Whole scenes get clipped here. Then I reread for grammar/spelling/line-edits.

WIFE: I hand this version off to my wife and get her opinion. The count is usually at v6 by the time she's done.

CONTENT/DEVELOPMENT EDITOR: the person who looks at big-picture items gives me their opinion, and I adjust. v7

LINE EDITOR: Katy makes her first pass to fix details like spelling, grammar, formatting, and technical gaffs. She's very fast and invaluable, but I have to schedule her three months in advance. I do this first because, otherwise, the beta folks waste time finding grammar mistakes. v8

PITCH HONING/MAPS/SAMPLES: When I write the pitch for the story in preparation for the cover art, luring beta readers, and the snippets I would post on web sites, I sometimes tighten and polish subsections. Sometimes the cover design or a thorough map might require a tweak in the text. Instead of calling it the capital city of Intaglios, I now say "Fireton". The title is the most common change this late in the game, as it can make or break sales. v9

BETA-READERS: I don't like to release a book before five sets of eyes have seen it. That means at least two people who like this genre need to read the work, preferably four. This can take up to two months, depending on schedules of the volunteers. I bump the revision number after every set of comments. v10-13

WAITING: While I'm waiting for the others to respond, after a month on another project, I'll go back with a fresher set of eyes and adjust. Often, a scene that I loved when I wrote the book, even one that drove the whole project, gets cut here because it slows down the pace. By now, I'm holding the whole book in my head and think about it as I'm drifting off at night. I'll send out emails asking which variation people prefer. My editor and my wife want to use a tranq gun. v14

FINAL LINE EDIT: Katy makes another cleanup pass to fix problems I introduced while fixing other problems. I usually copyright this version. v15

E-PUBLISH: During the Amazon verification process, I often find small problems or adjust front matter/table of contents. v16

PAPERBACK: While formatting the paperback, I often find more quirks: unwanted spaces, indents, missing chapter numbers. v17

GIVEAWAY: The eve of the giveaway or release party, someone inevitably points out something to me. You used the N word here, the newspaper name is wrong, England uses pounds not euros. v18

SEQUEL: Before I write a sequel to a story, I reread (taking notes) to keep all the original in my head. I always find a few mistakes. I'm careful not to revise history, but I've been known to drop an excess adjective or adverb to give myself wiggle room. v19

ONE-YEAR ANNIVERSARY: After the story has been out for a year, I almost always reread. I have enough distance now to judge better, and I've learned a lot more about writing. It's a matter of pride. I usually cut 1000 words and fix three mistakes. v20

There you go, twenty versions, perfectly normal, nothing to see here. Move along.