Testing Amazon’s Giveaway Program

Like other writers, I’m always trying new ways to build an audience. I’ve run several giveaways on Goodreads (in fact, I have two running right now, Return to Kaitlin and The Money Tree ).

Recently, Amazon started to run a similar program, open to anyone in the US. They take care of the shipping for you, and I decided to give it a whirl for RTK, so offered two copies, setting the odds at 1:300.

The strangest aspect of this little program was the silence, which was thunderous. On Goodreads you can at least track how many people have signed up to win a copy. On Amazon, not a peep. I thought no one had even seen the offer, much less signed up for it. Once I’d set up the giveaway I heard not a word: no cheery, encouraging message; no summary of daily progress; nothing. In fact, when I forgot the start and end dates on the damn thing I had the devil’s own time finding out any details. It was then that I discovered I’d omitted any description or book blurb at all.Facebook Ad, Return to Kaitlin

Slightly panicked, I decided to run a little Facebook campaign for the five days remaining. I’d been wanting to test the image at the right with the target group Grumpy Old Men. In the event, it pulled less than 1% interest. I choose to believe that’s because grumpy old guys don’t read, but maybe it’s just not a compelling ad.

Whatever the case, I had by this time become convinced that the entire thing was a bust, and was waiting for Amazon to confirm this. Imagine my surprise, then, when they told me 343 people had signed up, and that Courtenay C. was the lucky winner. Romance writers, of course, will have a different experience, probably finding 5,000 interested readers panting for the winner to be revealed. But I was moderately pleased with this result. The idea is to get one’s name out there, so in a modest way, this filled the bill.

In addition, it’s remarkably trouble-free in that Amazon does everything for you. I may give it another whirl some time. And if I do, I’ll add a sentence or two of sales blurb.

Image Quality in Print

I’ve produced five books as a self-published author. It was natural for me to do my own layouts since I used to work in publishing and I’m familiar with the conventions used in formatting books.

I’d like to say I use one of the high-end programs—InDesign or Quark—but I don’t. Like a lot of writers, I allocate the lion’s share of my budget to editing and cover design, so book formatting gets done low budget: by me, using Word.

For my earlier books, I learned how to get the best out of Word—how to overcome its production deficiencies and make it lay out text in a way that isn’t visually unpleasing. Tepid praise, I know, but Word can’t provide the options found in dedicated production software like InDesign. However, it has the settings to do an adequate job.

For my fifth book, however, I ran into a brick wall. Because this one, unlike the 3-littleEpreceding four, contains images (it’s a book for children). Here’s one of them.

Looks fine, doesn’t it? That’s because you’re viewing it in a browser, where image resolution is much lower than it is in print production. I had no idea of these distinctions until recently. I’ve worked extensively with images for the web, both photos and line art, but in my print projects, professional designers always took care of the graphic element. It struck me that there may be others out there with the same blind spot, so in this article, I’m going to lay out the steps to ensure that your images conform to the much-higher specification for printing.

Checking the Resolution

First things first. When I uploaded my original pdf to CreateSpace, their report said “some of the images” (in fact, all of them, as it turned out) were of lower resolution, but that I could still go ahead and print. So I ordered a draft copy and took a look. The drawings were indeed tolerable, but didn’t evoke much satisfaction. I wanted a crisper, sharper look.

It turned out that my images were only 120 dpi. For good-quality print production, you really want a resolution of 300 dots per inch. So before you knock yourself out trying to make Word behave in a civilized manner, make sure your images are of sufficient quality to begin with.

There’s a simple way to check this. Right-click any image and select Open with Paint. Under Image in the Paint toolbar, select Attributes and you’ll see the resolution expressed as dots per inch. If it’s less than 300 dpi you could rescan the image, find a higher quality copy, or choose to live with it. Regardless of what you decide, knowing your resolution to begin with (as I should have but didn’t) will tell you part of the reason why your pictures aren’t coming out as crisp in print as they are online or in your e-book.

(Preparing e-books with illustrations holds a different set of headaches. You’ll find a comprehensive guide to e-book production here.)

The “Save As” Feature

Word allows you to save a file in almost any format. For example, I save my book as an .odt file for e-book formatting. This is the Open Office extension, which produces a cleaner file for e-book production.

To avoid crushing your images, you want to use the .doc format. This has been supplanted by the default .docx extension in all versions of Word since 2007 or earlier, but for book formatting purposes and particularly if your book contains images, .doc still works best, because it allows you to turn off compression. Here’s how.

Hit File/Save As, and select the .doc extension from the dropdown list. Next, click on the Tools button at the bottom of the menu page, beside the Save button.

  • Select Compress Pictures.
  • Uncheck the box that says Apply Compression Settings Now.
  • Click on Options
  • Uncheck the top box, Automatically Perform Basic Compression on Save.
  • Hit Okay, Okay again, and Save.

Just for purposes of comparison, you might want to make a note of your file size, or work with a separate copy of your manuscript so that you can compare the file size before and after you complete the steps below. If you’ve been successful, you’ll have a larger file because of your soon-to-be-uncompressed pictures.

Insert Images

When you add an image, make sure to import it using the Insert/Picture option (rather than copying and pasting). Resize and format as necessary. When you’ve finished adding images and your pages are laid out to your satisfaction, you’re ready for the next step.

I’ve tried this step when I begin importing pictures and when I’ve finished. It seems to “take” better when I do it last. So: when your pictures are in place in your manuscript, select any one of them. Right-click, select Format and then click on the Compress button or tab.

  • Under Apply To, select All Pictures
  • Under Change Resolution, select No Change
  • Under Options, uncheck Compress Picture

When you save out of this step, you may well almost feel the file expand, and when you save the document you should find it is significantly larger than before. You can compare it with the earlier saved version, to see if this is so. Incidentally, if you repeat the above procedure with any of your pictures, the settings won’t seem to have been saved. But they were.

(If you’re publishing a book through CreateSpace, take advantage of their forums. They cover all aspects of book production and marketing and I found them really helpful when I was trying to figure out what I was doing wrong.)

Create a PDF

Your last step in preparing for publishing is to create a pdf. If you have Acrobat you’ll be fine. If you don’t, I recommend the free program doPDF. It will allow you to specify a 300 dpi image resolution and you can also embed your document’s fonts, an essential part of the process. I’ve submitted doPDF output to both CreateSpace and LightningSource. I believe IngramSpark still expects the pdf/x-1a format, which requires Acrobat.

These steps should result in a good-quality print output. I’d be interested to hear your own experience.



A modern Christmas story–free of charge

Owen's DayIn view of the time of year, I’d like to give a shout-out to my first novel, Owen’s Day. It’s the story of a man who gives too much, a rather reclusive man, and the family and city who come to know him after he does a very brave thing.

I recall having a terrible time defining Owen, while I was writing this novel. I had set out to write a story about the anti-Scrooge, about someone who gives and gives and gives. I was trying to figure out why he does that and for a long time I was in the same position as one of his friends: “I know people who throw money and gifts around to compensate for being obnoxious, but Owen isn’t like that and I don’t know why he does it.” Like her, I just wanted to throw something at him. But the effort was ultimately quite rewarding because he’s a good guy, just a misguided one.

Owen’s Day is set in the period from late-November through to Christmas, so this is the right time of year for it. And here’s the best part: you can read it for nothing on your e-reader and if you decide you’d like to give it as a stocking-stuffer, you can buy the paperback.

You have a couple of options to get the e-book. You can click on the orange-green button on the right and join my New Releases group. Or, if you don’t want to join a group, the link above will take you to the book page with a list of all retail outlets carrying it.


Goodreads Giveaway for “Knock”

A Knock at the Door
Today is the first day of a blitz Goodreads Giveaway for A Knock at the Door. While giveaways usually last a month, to give the offer time to percolate throughout the Goodreads system and the author’s audience, this one ends on December 20. If you’d like a free copy of the paperback itself, by all means head on over to the Goodreads site (you’ll find the signup link on my home page, too) and put your name down.

Publication day: A Knock at the Door

balloons244Here at last! A Knock at the Door is now up and running and available for purchase on Amazon. Other retailers will, I hope, follow within a couple of weeks. Right now, I’m just trying to get the little book moved out of the “facts of life” category (don’t ask; I have no idea) and into—oh, I don’t know, bedtime stories or humor or chapter books. But regardless, you can find the paperback here and the e-book here . All you need.

Want more details? You’ll find plenty on the Amazon books pages or you can stay on this site and move a few pages over.


Cover Sketch for A Knock at the Door

knock-cover2Here’s a sketch by artist Ivan Zanchetta of the front cover for my collection of stories from the world of letters. To see a larger version, just click on the image.

A Knock at the Door will be out in paperback and e-book in November 2015. Ivan provided the cover for Return to Kaitlin, earlier this year. I love his work.

Included in this volume:

  • The Story of NIGHT
  • The HALF-Trained L
  • The QUIET Strangers
  • PIGEON Panic
  • The Beginning of BOUGH

Any thoughts on this cover? I’d appreciate your feedback! It might help in finalizing the cover design.

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November 4: read an excerpt here.


Book Promotion: An investment that goes on and on . . .

One thing I’ve learned during the past few months of setting up and promoting my site: it’s a black hole for time. I subscribed to Nick Stephenson’s course, Your First 10,000 Readers. Nick’s a stand up guy, in my opinion, with valuable ideas on promotion and an ethical mindset. But he uses videos for everything. They take hours to listen to and hours to implement. If you’re interested, here’s his Facebook page.a million ways to spend

Promotional spending can also be a black hole. Sensible people create a budget, but I never have time for stuff like that.

However, I like to look out for freebies, like the Author Marketing Club’s free submission program to free sites (what’s not to like!). This is for Kindle ebooks only. You can also get a paid ad in their daily newsletter. This I’m not so crazy about because the AMC logo is all you can see above the fold in your inbox. You have to scroll down to find the listed books. In my view, Jim Kukral (another stand up guy) would do better to reduce the logo size so that at least half of any featured book can be seen at once.

With the volume of new books being publishing annually (I’ve heard the number 30,000 being thrown around), promotion is a growth industry. New sites offering free or paid advertising crop up all the time. I tried the automatic submission program at Book Marketing Tools, which submits to about 30 sites in roughly half an hour. This worked moderately well for me (I promoted my novel Owen’s Day, which is currently free in e-book). However, the tool costs $14.95 for one submission and while it certainly saves time, I’m not sure the results warrant the new price. But I have to pay with the feeble and sickly Canadian dollar, which translates to more than $20. This may affect my thinking.

A number of promotional sites become available once you’ve gathered a certain number of reviews: The Fussy Librarian, themidlist.com (which has got so grand you can’t find the book submission page any longer), and the big guy, Book Bub.

To my way of thinking, (and I’m still trying different sites and programs), one of the best deals around is the BKnights promo vehicle on fiverr.com. If you’re not already a member of fiverr, you might want to join. You can buy everything under the sun for $5 on this site. Bknights is fast, offers several different options and, for me at least, worked well. It’s best for free e-books rather than paid.

All very interesting, and more sites crop up from word of mouth all the time. For the writer trying to build a name or brand, it’s best to build a little bit of promotional activity into your daily schedule, and be judicious about your spending. This is an investment for the long haul. 🙂




Are Fossil Fuels Passe?

My new novel, Return to Kaitlin, is set in the oil patch. Yet the G7 has just announced the end of the century as the deadline for getting out of fossil fuels. So oil’s passe, isn’t it?

I wonder. We need energy, lots of it. We need it in the developed world and even more in emerging nations. The public has no taste for nuclear power, and limited tolerance for hydro, the only other high-volume, cheap fuel sources we know of.

As part of my research for Return to Kaitlin, I read Alex Epstein’s The Moral Case for Fossil Fuels. For me, it was a reminder of how far we’ve come in my lifetime at giving everyone on the planet a shot at a decent life. I’m talking about things like food and medicine and education and hope for the future–things that, when I was a kid, were almost entirely absent in China, Korea, India and most of Africa.

Here’s something to consider, the next time oil and gas hits the headlines. The staggering progress we’ve made globally in the past fifty years has arisen partly because of open markets but also because of cheap energy. We have cleaner water and air, more food for a growing global population, less malnutrition and starvation, and fewer climate-related deaths. The next time we feel inclined to protest a pipeline, we should weigh these benefits along with the risks.

If we’re going to lessen or replace our use of fossil fuels, our current alternatives simply won’t cut it. They’re too scarce, inefficient and expensive. Instead, we’ll have to rely on something as abundant as the air we breathe: human ingenuity. And for the time being, we need oil and gas to fuel that ingenuity, to help us find the technologies that will protect and preserve our world.

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Guest Post

I’m busy with promotional matters and systems these days, while the next story percolates, waiting to come out. To that end, Chris Graham was kind enough to offer me a spot on his blog, The Story Reading Ape. Here’s my guest post, all about me and my books.


Finding the Right Book Cover

I’m an ignoramus when it comes to art. I can’t even claim to know what I like: sometimes I do and sometimes I don’t.

Today I like Mona

Today I like Mona

This was a problem when it came to my latest book, Return to Kaitlin. I had no idea, none at all, what the cover should look like.

I’ve been fortunate in the past, having had my first two books designed by a colleague, Felix Ferreiro, with whom I’ve worked on nonfiction projects for years. I supplied the words, he supplied the graphics. But Felix wasn’t available for this book, and so I set out to find a new graphic artist.

LinkedIn was a good starting point: I’m a member of several writing groups there, and found names of two or three artists in a discussion on covers. Searching the internet for “book covers” produced some names, certainly, but most looked to be far too expensive for my means. At the other end of the scale, I tried a designer on fiverr, a marketplace that offers just about anything you might want for five dollars.

I also found a really useful resource compiled by BookBuzz, a directory of book cover designers. Several designers looked very good to me, and their prices turned out to be competitive. I nearly took the plunge and went with one of them, then panicked and got cold feet: what if he didn’t come up with anything I liked?

A friend had mentioned 99designs and crowdspring, both of which offer a range of prices. I checked them out and liked the concept: you submit a brief, which is presented on a member bulletin board where everyone and his dog can submit designs. That way, you get lots of choices. But will they be good choices? And will they provide the finished art to your specifications?

I decided to stop messing about and take the plunge, and because I’d been hit by the devalued Canadian dollar when it came time to pay my US editor, I went with 99design.ca, which took the worry out of that particular aspect by quoting in Canadian dollars. I chose their low-end package, $299. I posted my brief, consisting of a description of the book and a blurb (the cover copy). I added a full synopsis, which many of the designers dumped onto the back cover, slightly startling since I had intended it for reference only.

Anyway, the trickle began and within three days had become a flood. These contests are time-sensitive: designers have only four days (as I recall) to submit a design, and it’s my job to winnow out the ones I definitely don’t like. I found this incredibly hard to do. In the first place, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings. In the second, these clever artists from all over the world were submitting art for my book. I wanted to kiss them. Most of them, anyway. A couple of offerings were quite easy to reject. But the entries ultimately totaled 94, and I had to resort to polls, and to buttonholing friends and forcing them to make a choice and tell me why, before I could reach a decision.

I wish I could display the shortlisted entries. They were all good, all quite different. But two seemed especially striking from the start. They had similar colors, but the first had a silhouette of a roughneck (which seemed appropriate: my novel was titled The Roughneck until very recently) and the second, an image of a young man. And because Return to Kaitlin is about a young man, that’s the cover I ultimately chose (you can see it on the book page, here). It was not the popular choice: the roughneck entry had by far the most five-star awards in the polls. But it was the most appropriate choice and I think it will linger in the mind.

The designer, Ivan Zanchetta, is my new best friend. 😉 He read between the lines of my brief and found the central character’s vulnerability. And he provided final art for both LightningSource and CreateSpace, at no additional charge.

As for 99design, I can recommend them without reservation. Their customer service is always there and always helpful, and they run their contests with both sense and efficiency.

Mailing rates: Update

I wrote last December about the cost of mailing my not-very-big paperback novel, The Money Tree, to Canadian destinations: $11.50. I also mentioned I’d be exploring USPO options and last week I did just that, taking ten books across the border to check out US rates. The books were going to individual winners of a Goodreads contest.

What a pleasant surprise! The cost of mailing the same book within the US was $2.79. Furthermore, there was no fussy deployment of measuring tapes that has become the practice at Canada Post. The USPO guy just dropped the book in its envelope on the scale and gave me the price.


I felt as though I’d been transported back in time twenty years, gazing at him with (sorry to say) my mouth slightly open until he asked finally, with a touch of impatience, if it was okay.

Pulled myself together. Very okay, I assured him.

Add a dollar per book for the “truck fee” (don’t you love free trade?) charged by Homeland Security and you’re still only looking at $3.79. Add the conversion rate and my book cost roughly CN$4.17. Still less than forty percent of the Canadian rate.

Moreover, this was first-class, meaning the books get there within a week or two.

I’m of the same mind as before. I realize Canada has a smaller population and therefore fewer economies of scale, but I’m still certain we could get lower rates with freer markets, if Canada Post were stripped of its monopoly.