Thursday, 31 May 2012

Shell-shocked by Ishiguro's subtlety

Review of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (contains spoilers)

My wife's reading group chose this book but didn't like it. Then they had a film evening, watched the screen version and didn't like that either. Being the Contrary Mary that I am, when I saw a bargain copy of Never let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro in my local bookstore I had to grab it and read from cover to cover, trying to understand how and why it could have been Booker prize short listed. The answer is simple - it's a masterpiece of subtlety (still don't understand why the reading group didn't like it). I do realise I'm the last person on the planet to discover this book.

Ishiguro's world only differs to reality in one respect; the ethics of cloning and transplants. This novel is all about the coming of age of three key individuals for whom that difference is material. Their innocence and fatalism had a devastating effect on me. Bred and nurtured for a purpose, these young people move towards their end and 'complete' without coercion.

Religion has no part in this tale and the time period through which events travel is contemporary. That shook me even more with music, cars and cassette tapes giving time-stamps that moved the start of this alternative reality back to post WWII. If we had emerged from that era with a different ethos, if certain attitudes to genetics and superior / inferior race had prevailed, then who knows?

I have to confess I did itch to know the nitty gritty details of being a donor, the fourth donation and completion, but this novel is all the more powerful for avoiding the specifics. Ishiguro does get painfully close to explaining when Tommy and Kathy meet Miss Emily and Madame in their search for deferral, but he recovers the enigmatic delivery style in good time.

An analogous interpretation of Never Let Me Go's fatalistic overall theme is not to be recommended unless you're in the company of great friends and good wine, and can face the possibility of life's futility.

Not a feel good book, but nevertheless a wondrous read.

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Thursday, 24 May 2012

One thousand self-publishers share their thoughts

In February 2012 I came to hear (via The Vandal - Derek Haines) of a self-publisher survey being carried out by Taleist, an interesting writers' resource website. As one of the 1,007 respondents I was fortunate to recently receive a complimentary copy of Not a Gold Rush, the report from the Taleist Self-Publishing Survey.

What would you like to know about the report? Well, if you want to read it then you'll have to buy it, but the title story of Not a Gold Rush is about the 2011 earnings of the respondents. Their average earnings for the year was just over US$10,000. So, where's your 10k? Where's mine, for that matter. I shifted a lot of books but many were free copies of Peril with Amazon's price comparison (Peril reached #12 free on kindle in November 2011 in the days before KDP Select). Well, the earnings are distorted by a minority of 10% who earned buckets of money. The median (middle) income was $500. So if you earned less than that then you're in the company of half of the self-published author community (assuming the 1,007 respondent sample was representative of all of us).

The report is entertainingly written and well-balanced, clearly pointing out assumptions and sample limitations whenever any conclusions are drawn. There are one or two lighter moments, such as one bright spark of a correspondent who claimed to have published 16,000 books in 2011, probably meaning that they sold / shipped 16,000. That figure would have greatly distorted the average number of books published but the report authors took care to discount any such outlying data. What kind of twit would have made such a mistake in the survey? (I can say with some certainty that it must have been me!)

There are some indications and suggestions in the report regarding the effectiveness of different marketing methods but there's just no magic recipe to the marketing. I was gratified to find email considered as the least effective marketing tool, as I'm particularly bad at building a mail list myself.

All self-published authors are looking for the Holy Grail of epublishing success. This report doesn't reveal the location of the Grail. It does reinforce some things that we share in common knowledge - a correlation between high quality product + writing output volume and sales revenue. Financially successful authors are, in the main, writing more, publishing more and have been doing it longer than lower earners. So, back to work!

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Sunday, 13 May 2012

From vanity to pride

This post first appeared on the Have Your Say section of (a great site for competitions and writing resources).

George Orwell said All writers are vain, selfish and lazy. The ebook revolution panders to these vices. Anyone can call themselves an author, throw a bit of a story together as an ebook and plaster their name, title and homemade cover across the internet within a day or two.

Want your pulp fiction made available in the old fashioned way? Run that manuscript through one of the many print-on-demand (POD) platforms and your paperback will be sitting on Amazonian virtual shelves before you can properly pronounce the name of a Welsh 19th century publicity stunt (Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch).

It's the ebook revolution, haven't you heard? Blog posts have swarmed globally about the predicted demise of traditional publishing due to the epublishing revolution but spare a moment to pity some poor souls who are really down in the dumps; vanity publishers. They who used to graciously take a few thousand quid from the hands of frustrated writers (vain, selfish and lazy Orwellians) who couldn't get past mainstream publishing's gatekeepers. Said unfortunate writers then carting piles of books around in the boot of an Austin Maxi and foisting those dubious creations upon members of the over-eighties walking club and other captive audiences at a tenner a throw. That time has gone. POD and ebook digital technologies now satisfy the vain, selfish and lazy without filling their dining room with fifty cardboard boxes of vanity. RIP vanity publishers. And good for the environment.

Just a minute. Are you an independent author and proud of it? If so, your hackles are probably raised by now. Independent authors are vanity fodder? No, these sweeping accusations of poorly presented, terribly titled and hopelessly unedited work don't apply to you. That's because you have a cover designed to rival the top 100 ebooks on the 'Zon. It shouts out to browsing readers and visually summarises the premise of your novel. Your product description blurb is the ultimate précis, memorable and relevant to its genre, converting passersby into readers. As for the manuscript itself, there's hardly a hint of word echo, your narrative voice is clear, dialogue resonates through the air and the whole thing is wrapped up in a well-paced plot so tight that, were it an arse, you would just have to smack it. Your digital manuscript appears on all reading devices exactly how you intended. You know that because you've checked (and avoided words like the famous Welsh train station). Grammar and spelling are impeccable. You're just one of several people that have proofread the thing before moving your fastidious document control to final. This novel of yours is as good as it can get. Or is it?

Did you put on the blinkers when some of your peers groaned as they trudged through your porridge of a blurb? Were you able to extract genuine opinion from test readers about your cover or did you take their damning faint praise as something more? Have you dressed your pride and joy in beige? Has your editing discipline been the best or have you really settled for good enough and can't face reading the thing through again for the umpteenth time?

According to the marketing crowd an independent author should be self-assured and assertive, fearless even. A kind of literary warrior. Before you climb up on your war horse to engage with the market, let your natural humility have rein for a few moments and consider this; your independent novel might not be as shiny as it could. Cover, blurb, content. Best efforts, please. You've invested a chunk of your life in writing this thing and you owe it to yourself not to eat the cow and choke on the tail. Stand above the noise of opportunistic amateurs and turn vanity into pride.

The New Author is a non-fiction self help guide for writers, social media marketers and self-publishers. Available in paperback and various ebook formats through a wide range of internet stores including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords et al (see Ruby's Shop for full details).

If you've enjoyed reading Ruby's blog then please sign up to Ruby's News for freebies, advance review copies of upcoming novels and occasional updates. Thanks!

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Park that pachyderm! Elephants, writers, readers and SEO

An extract from The New Author

At time of writing my blog page views have just passed 23,000. There was a time when I thought nobody was ever going to read my blog. Then I wrote a post about Compulsive Communication Syndrome (which isn’t a clinical condition, I made it up). The number of views on my blog increased dramatically. However, after a few weeks of feeling like I had actually written something that people from around the world were interested in, it came to light that 75% of my visitors were looking for pictures of elephants. Their average stay was just over 2 seconds. I had used a picture of elephants and an elephant joke in my post. Therein lies a lesson – a lot of people like elephants. If you can leverage your blog content to match topic popularity with the top interests of your potential readers then the traffic volume becomes much more meaningful. Therein lies a second lesson - I should write a novel with elephants (although they do tend to trample the keyboard).
The next breakthrough was when I took a family holiday and had to survive without internet for a week. I had started using a twitter tool called Hootsuite (more on that later) and what I did was to pre-schedule tweets during that week, pointing to blog posts that I had written in the previous months. The result was more than one hundred hits per day, every day, but half of them were still short-stay elephant hunters.

I was enjoying the blog traffic (a pointless obsession with numbers) but really wanted to up the quantity of hits from genuinely interested readers and writers. So I started to research SEO on the internet, made some changes, ran my pages through an SEO analyzer and tuned things up a bit. I managed to get a mention on the Smashwords blog and more traffic came to my blog from there.

The result is that my blog traffic is now predominantly viewing my posts rather than searching for elephant pictures. Visitors stay minutes rather than seconds and sometimes for more than an hour, moving from post to post and page to page. I get a feeling for whether folks are looking at my shop, either of my two book pages, my New Author post, the shop or the main blog page. 

The reason I shared this little insight of blog statistics is analytics are important. There are basic analytics built into most blog platforms that tell you the total number of views per post and page, the traffic sources (including referring URLs, referring sites and search keywords) and the geographical audience. You can set up your blog for deeper information through tools such as Google Analytics to gain a more in-depth understanding. Know your audience.

Search Engine Optimisation SEO for your blog / website

You’ve decided on your blog style, layout and content. Now you need to make sure that you’re getting found on Google, Bing, Yahoo and other search engines. SEO is the method of making your web presence easily found through giving it a high profile in search engines. Try typing Peril by Ruby Barnes into a search engine and scroll through the results. All the ebook marketplaces feature strongly in those results as they are designed in a way that promotes their products through SEO. I’m a self-confessed non-expert in SEO but there are some basic things you can do to optimise your search results. If you already know about SEO, html and meta tags then look away now! What follows is for beginners, which is the place I started from.

Your blog has a number of key places where search engines will index it against keywords. Some people may dispute this, but I know it’s correct because I’ve tested it with improbable search words.


Your actual on-page blog title is the main key to visibility. Include your brand and what you do e.g. Ruby Barnes - author. The blog will automatically embed your actual page title in the html code of your page and, within a few days, it will be found by search engine spider bots and indexed so that you come up in searches. If you’re determined to label your blog page with something other than your brand then the branded URL will still come up in search but not as the first line.


The automatic placement of your blog title in the html code can be further exploited. Go to the design page of your blog and click on edit html. After the code <head> you will see your blog title e.g. <title>Ruby Barnes - author, book reviewer, blogger</title>. Note that this contains the words book reviewer, blogger which don’t appear in my on-page title, but they do appear in the search engine result for my blog. This shows that you can have terms appear in the search engine that don’t have to appear on the blog page.

I also have the words Ruby Barnes writes thrillers, reviews books, sells ebooks and advises on novel writing, social media and ebook publication bounded by the code <meta content= and  name='description'/>. Those words appear on the third line of the search engine result although they don’t appear on my blog page.

So the search engine result looks like this:

Ruby Barnes - author, book reviewer, blogger
14 Jan 2012 – Ruby Barnes writes thrillers, reviews books, sells ebooks and advises on novel writing, social media and ebook publication.

The only words that are on the page are Ruby Barnes – author. The rest are meta tags embedded in the html code. 

Those are just the baby steps but it’s that easy. Except maybe you’ve chosen wording that no one is searching for. That’s another matter. One way SEO companies provide value is in their knowledge of which search terms will get results and whereabouts on your platform you should place those terms. There are seemingly limitless resources on the web for SEO. Type SEO Analyzer (yes, US spelling for a change) into Google and you will find various free tools that will analyse your web page from a search engine perspective. There are also lots of free SEO guides available on the web that will take you deeper into the art if you really want to go there.

Tags on your blog posts

When you’ve created a piece of content for your blog, don’t forget to add some suitable tags to it. Choose words that you would enter into a search engine if you wanted to find a post like the one you have written.

Text content of your blog posts

Search engines will also pick up words and phrases from your blog posts. Bear that in mind when blogging. Don’t miss a chance to mention your book or other authors. Try and use memorable hooks for your blog titles and closing sentences. For example, try typing tired old limes stand the test of time into Google. It’s the title of a post I wrote reviewing The Green Mile by Stephen King. You’ll see that the results are my blog and the next are places where my blog is syndicated to.

The above post is an extract from The New Author, a non-fiction self help guide for writers, social media marketers and self-publishers. Available in paperback and various ebook formats through a wide range of internet stores including Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords et al (see Ruby's Shop for full details).

If you've enjoyed reading Ruby's blog then please sign up to Ruby's News for freebies, advance review copies of upcoming novels and occasional updates. Thanks!