Science fiction, self-publishing, AmazonCrossing and more. Interview on Origin podcast

A few weeks ago I was interviewed by Bryan Aiello on his podcast called “Origin: Stories on Creativity and now it is available for you to listen to it.
We had a very nice chat that lasted almost an hour and during which I had the chance to talk about many topics related to my books and my activity as an author.

I must say that it is a rare case of an interview done without any special preparation on my side. I didn’t know what Bryan was going to ask me so it was completely spontaneous and I think this made the interview more interesting. Well, except the times I asked him to repeat because I hadn’t understood. My listening skills in an audio-only conversation in English aren’t so good, because I rarely have the chance to practice, but in the end, it wasn’t such an issue during this interview, which I enjoyed very much.

As I said, the main topic of the interview was related to my books, especially the RedDesert series (notice that there are some minor spoilers), and my approach at writing them, but then we ended up talking about a lot more than this, including my thriller “The Mentor” and my experience (both the good and the bad part of it) with AmazonCrossing, which published this book in English in 2015 (I got my rights back at the end of 2017 and the book will be republished soon). Of course, we also talked about self-publishing, but also about science fiction and the book I’m currently writing. I even mentioned another Italian science fiction author who is quite popular in my country and whose books I really like, even if they have nothing to do with the kind of science fiction I write.

You’ll also notice that I laugh a lot!
Actually I really had fun doing this and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it as well.

You can listen to the podcast on its website or right here from YouTube.

Once more, thanks to Bryan Aiello for having me on his podcast!

Jar City - Arnaldur Indriðason

***** A wet, dirty, bad Iceland

Officer Erlendur from the police in Reykjavík is investigating the murder of a lorry driver. It seems a trivial case of robbery attempt gone badly, but the investigations take him farther, in the past of the victim.
The image that the author gives of Iceland is disturbing and gloomy. In a dark and rainy autumn, Erlendur and his colleagues gather evidence, interrogate and dig, sometimes literally, until a story of rapes, suicides and deadly diseases emerges.
The same gloom is also present in the subplot involving Erlendur’s daughter, Eva Lind, and a girl who inexplicably disappears immediately after her wedding. Here we are dealing with drugs and abuse.
Immersed in this setting, which is anything but happy, the reader is captured by the story and tries to follow the reasoning of the protagonist in getting away with an extremely intricate case, one of those that in reality, if they were ever resolved, would take months if not years of investigation. Here the author is good at giving information in small pieces and, when the reader believes they have understood something, he distracts them with a twist. And, despite the great amount of details and the many names not easy to remember, you can still easily follow the story until its conclusion.
Here, if I have to find something negative in this book this is the ending, both the one of the case and the brief epilogue. The former is perhaps a bit too dramatic (I don’t explain why to avoid spoilers). The latter, in the way it is shown, is a little too hasty. It seems almost to read the sentences written at the end of a film telling what happened next to the characters, followed by the classic short scene after the credits.

A note: despite being defined a thriller on the cover, this book is actually a mystery.

Jar City on Amazon.

“Strangers to Superfans” by David Gaughran (or the evolution of self-publishing in the English-speaking market)

***** The reader’s journey

Having had the opportunity to read an ARC of this new marketing book for independent authors by David Gaughran, I thought to write a review that is a little different from the usual, which, in addition to talking about the book, could include some of my thoughts on how self-publishing has evolved in the English-speaking market and how such evolution, by its very nature, cannot currently affect smaller markets like the Italian one, for which I primarily write.

First of all, this book also confirms what I think of the author. Unlike others who publish books on self-publishing, Gaughran minimises the self-referential aspects, also bringing concrete examples of other authors and trying to take into consideration the problems of any author. Of course, this book is based on his experience, but not just as a self-publisher. In fact, later in the book we discover that he works as a consultant for another independent author (with completely different characteristics from his, like writing science fiction and publishing exclusively on Amazon), moreover he is constantly interested in receiving feedback from others, because always having new interesting content to be proposed in his newsletter is part of his strategy.

Another characteristic of his is that his books are not a schematic list of more or less known facts interspersed with attempts to motivate the other authors, in which lists, schemes, and figures that increase their length, and repetitions both in the same book that in other similar ones abound. His books are just text and are written in a discursive prose that makes them really “compelling”, without giving the impression that you are somehow fooled. He manages to develop the topics in a way that does not seem schematic at all (but of course there is a very precise outlining behind them), as if he is improvising He is concise, goes straight to the point and clearly says how things are (even when it comes to unpleasant things). For this reason his books are short, but certainly not because there is little information.

Because of this peculiarity in writing, perhaps the best way to make use of this book is take note of interesting passages while reading or perhaps put a bookmark on your Kindle and then come back later. Thus, the reader creates their personal scheme, which lists only those aspects that are useful to them, instead of having to adapt to the scheme and bulleted lists of others.

But let’s get to the content.
First of all, the title of the book: Strangers to Superfans. The book talks about this: how a stranger arrives at a book, decides to buy it, reads it (until the end, which is anything but obvious) and perhaps buys another one and/or decides to subscribe to a mailing list and/or talk to others about the book, i.e. becomes a superfan. The core of the book is not to explain how to make this happen, but to explain exactly how it happens, that is to say what the reader’s journey is and in which part of our potential readers’ journey there is a problem that can stop it.
The problem, according to Gaughran, is not discoverability, since anyone can “buy traffic” (direct advertising) to the product page of a book (he focuses mainly on Amazon), but send there the right traffic, namely to choose the right target, let them find the right welcome, the right book they want not only to buy, but also to start reading, finish reading (40% of readers abandons a book they’re reading) and induce them to do things after reading.
In fact, if we think about it, he says a whole series of things that we already know, but he does so in a way that makes us look at them from a new perspective and give all these a logical sense.

After describing the reader’s journey, he makes an analysis of the symptoms that allow us authors to understand in which phases of this journey we are mistaken.
Are we choosing a wrong advertising target? Are there any problems in the description, on the cover, in the price? Is there any problem inside the book? Or in the front or end matter?
Finally, he tries to explain us how to fix these problems. This of course is the shortest part, because he is forced to speak in general and, instead, each book is a case in itself, but still he manages to provide useful advice.
The most important one is to move backwards when fixing the problems that may block the reader’s journey: that is, starting from improving the book, then moving to the product page and finally arranging the advertisements we use to send potential readers to the book.

The basic question is that he takes for granted that we are able and willing to continually spend substantial sums in advertising, because otherwise we will never get to anything.
This is also the sad truth of the current situation. We can forget the striking cases like John Locke (do you remember him?) or more recently
Andy Weir (who is now published by a major publisher), who managed to sell so much only by writing so many books priced 99 cents (Locke) or exploiting the contacts created on his blog (Weir). These two, and others similar, have achieved success immediately, because they were among the first to do something that no one had ever done before. They were pioneers in a new market and they were thus able to make the most, almost entirely randomly, of the opportunities offered by the Amazon algorithm, which suggests new books to be bought to its customers.
Now to get high in the charts you have to spend a lot and keep doing it. If you do it wrong, you work at a loss. If you stop, sales collapse.

I fully realise that Gaughran is right, but also that this in most of our cases (mine and of most other authors I know) is not a viable route (because for example here in Italy as private individuals we cannot deduct those expenses nor can we think of founding a publishing company only for our books, because the costs would be too high, so even if we optimise the advertising it is already a utopia to avoid to work at a loss, not to mention the fact that maybe we cannot afford these costs at all) or simply there are no means to follow it (in the Italian market the only useful advertising tool is Facebook, which however is too general and not very efficient in profiling readers).
So what is reported in the book is useful almost exclusively for the English-speaking markets.

Specifically, Gaughran relies heavily on the use of Bookbub Ads (not to be confused with featured deals), which give much better results than Facebook ads and Amazon ads.
The latter are available only on the US market (of course only on Amazon), and are also the poorest in terms of results. And in fact he barely mentions them.
Those on Facebook are the only applicable to any market, including the Italian one, and it is a pity that they aren’t further explored in this book. But the point is that the author doesn’t do that precisely because he considers them to be not very effective.
Bookbub Ads instead can be used to reach any readers in USA, UK, Canada, Australia and even in India. In addition you can manually create links to any retailers or sites in general, choosing the combination country-link you prefer.

About the suggestions he gives, there are two aspects that I found interesting.
The first concerns books not unrolled in Kindle Unlimited (KU). According to Gaughran, the authors of these books don’t have to settle with Amazon, since they have no chance to climb the charts there. What matters is that at the end, adding all the sources of income, they reach an interesting total figure. For this purpose they can use Bookbub Ads directing them to smaller markets, in which there is less competition and above all there are few discounted offers (unlike what happens on Amazon), as, for example, Kobo or Apple in Australia.
The second concerns Amazon and books in KU (I remind you that to be part of it the e-book must be published exclusively on Amazon), which in fact earn good not directly through advertising, but through the wave of pages read that appear after about one week. In practice, according to him, those who are on KU must be very aggressive with advertising (spend even more money), but do it for only five days and then reap the rewards for the rest of the month. Then start again the following month, without ever stopping.

In this regard there is a half contradiction when he says that this system can be applied in part also with books not on KU, because they will earn so much more from Amazon anyway. Only that the latter don’t have the pages read, so there is the strong risk of a financial loss.
In fact, the topic is not deepened and for the non-KU only remains: the advice to make advertising on other stores and that to use the mailing list, by sending useful or interesting content to subscribers. This is what he does, but it becomes a bit difficult if you publish fiction. What should I write to readers? When should I find the time to do it? But, above all, are we sure that they care?
Moreover, if a reader is already in your mailing list, it means that he/she has completed his/her journey, so in reality this advice is not a solution to the initial problem.

In short, here is the idea I got about the whole topic.
If you have books on KU, spend a lot on advertising and use his suggestions to improve the reader’s journey.
If you don’t have books on KU, it’s a mess, unless you write non-fiction to an audience of readers looking for information, as Gaughran does.
Actually, he is also the author of several fiction books, but the fact that, like many other authors, he also publishes non-fiction and now he is even a consultant for another author highlights how difficult it is to have sufficient results exclusively with fiction, unless you offer a certain type of product (a series in certain genres, for instance) and your books are on KU (at least until you get a huge number of subscribers in your mailing list).

In any case my opinion on this book is very positive (hence the five stars), because Gaughran is honest, he doesn’t promise magic formulas and clearly says that there is so much work to do and that it isn’t at all so easy to do it. Moreover, the book actually talks about what is promised in the title, neither more nor less. And finally it’s well done, from every point of view, and very well written.
Its usefulness to improve the sales of a book is limited to the author who publishes in the English-speaking market (and preferably exclusively on Amazon), but it is certainly a very interesting tool to understand how an unknown reader becomes a fan and identify the weaknesses in your editorial products that put their journey at risk, even if you publish in a different market.
Unfortunately discoverability remains for us Italians (and authors in non-English markets) still the biggest problem, since buying traffic is not so simple, but we have the advantage that the digital publishing market in our country is still small enough to allow us to use alternative ways to let our books being discovered. It is easier to get out of the invisibility. A small market, however, also means that the return in income tends to be equally limited.
At the same time it must be considered that the phenomenon of KU also in Italy has completely cannibalised the charts and algorithms of Amazon, excluding therefore the titles that aren’t sold exclusively on this store. These have almost no chance of reaching the top of the popularity charts (which are more important than those of the bestsellers) of the most popular and crowded genres, or of benefiting, if not for very short periods, from the algorithm that suggests books to readers and that, in the past years, led to numerous sensational cases of success of which the authors themselves weren’t able to identify the causes.

New requirement for Customer Review eligibility on Amazon

As you may have noticed, I love writing reviews of all (or almost all) books I read. The book reviews published on this blog are also submitted on Goodreads, Anobii (another social network for readers) and several Amazon stores, namely the US, UK, CA, AU, NL and of course IT stores.

At the end of the past week I published my review of “Stardance” by Spider & Jeanne Robinson on this blog and on my Italian blog (an Italian version of it). Then, as usual, I started submitting the same reviews on my Amazon account on the above-mentioned stores. Everything went well on Amazon IT, where I do most of my purchases (being Italian), and on Amazon US, where my Kindle e-readers are registered, but when I tried to submit the same review on Amazon UK, I received this notice:

Sorry, we’ve experienced a problem. Please submit your review again

Puzzled, I tried again, but I got the same message. So I tried to submit my review on the DE store, and again the same notice. At this point I tried to review a verified purchase (sometimes I purchase items on Amazon UK and DE), but I got this error again.

I was worried there was something wrong with my account, though I started to suppose that the problem (which wasn’t there on 4 April, the date of my last review on the UK store) was related to the age of my purchases.
I turned to the customer support and my supposition revealed to be right.

This is what I got as reply.

We had changes to our purchase requirement recently. To write a Customer Review, you must have used your account to make at least £40 in purchases on in the past 12 months. Once your order has dispatched, you’ll be able to write your first customer review (Promotional discounts don’t count toward the £40 minimum).

You can read the new eligibility requirement here.

Since I’m unable to submit a review on the other stores, I supposed that the requirements have changed (almost) everywhere only with a different amount and again I was right. It’s $50 on the US store (see here) and €50 on the DE and IT store.

What are your thoughts?

I think that forcing customers to spend £40 (or €/$50) every single year in order to be eligible to write a review, even on old verified purchases, is just a cheap and useless attempt from Amazon to avoid seriously addressing the issue of fake and paid reviews.

You know, I’m an Amazon customer since 1998 (20 years!), I spent so much money on four different stores (US, DE, UK and IT), I wrote hundreds of legitimate reviews, and now I have to pay a kind of “annual fee”, on each store (that’s the worst part!), to be allowed to submit more reviews.
I really have no more words to describe this. It’s just crazy.

Stardance - Spider & Jeanne Robinson

**** Dancing in the vacuum

The plot of this book certainly doesn’t lack originality, as it attempts to narrate dance, which is already difficult, but above all to do it in a science fiction context. The novel tells the story of Shara, a talented dancer who will never become famous because of her physical peculiarities (she doesn’t have a minute body) and who then invents a new type of dance in zero gravity: a star dance.
And in some ways the attempt is also quite good. In the scenes in which the narrator, the cameraman (and ex-dancer) Charlie, describes the choreography of Shara, for example, one almost has the impression of seeing her dance through the filming. The prose of the author (or rather, of the authors, because Robinson’s wife is also listed as author) is evocative and engaging here. The very fact of picking up a science fiction book and finding yourself reading about dance is strange, but in a good way. As long as the science fiction aspect remains in the background, actually, reading is pleasant and you are curious to find out what happens next.
Problems arise when science fiction comes up and shatters all the poetry.
Unfortunately, the novel suffers from being written over forty years ago. It isn’t just a problem of technological anachronisms, which as always are inevitable in books that try to imagine the future. In fact, there are numerous scientific inaccuracies. Some are probably due to the fact that at that time there was little knowledge on the effects on the human body of exposure to microgravity for long periods, but for others one cannot appeal to such an excuse, because they are relatively simple concepts of physics. I don’t know if these last mistakes are due to artistic licences by the authors or if they are the result of poor research. The problem is that some essential turning points of the plot are based on some of these inaccuracies and consequently the plot itself ends up losing credibility.
However, this is a pleasant reading that I decided to judge positively precisely because of its originality.

Stardance of Amazon.

The Missing - Caroline Eriksson

**** Abuse and madness

“The Missing” wants to be a genre novel, specifically a psychological thriller, but at the same time addresses the issue of abuse on women, which would put it in the so-called literary fiction. The result of this union is not entirely successful. The reader doesn’t exactly know what to expect and in some ways they see their expectations disappointed, but in others they are pleasantly surprised. The risk, however, is to lose them well before the end of the book.
I admit that at the beginning of this book I was reading very fast. This happens when I find the story slow and I want to get rid of it as soon as possible. For about half of the pages, nothing happens. The protagonist dumps her delirium on the reader, in present tense and first person. Given the context (two people have disappeared), her behaviour does not make the slightest sense. Every attempt to suspend my disbelief is put to the test, page after page.
Now, in a literary fiction book, it can happen that nothing happens, even in the whole book, but not in a thriller. Hence my disorientation.
The fact that the description on the back cover (in the Italian edition that I read) anticipates the first faint twist, which occurs at about a third of the book, certainly does not help.
When finally, in the second part, things start to move, the reading becomes more interesting and some unexpected ideas and changes of direction come up. Thanks to these I decided to give it four stars. However, a series of problems remain.
Besides the slow and improbable beginning, I found unbearable (as well as sloppy) the use of the point of view in first person for three different characters. It creates unnecessary confusion. And then there is the ending part that, instead of reaching the story’s climax, at a certain point collapses. Not even the last element that should act as a definitive coup de théâtre is able to save it, since it is a decision by one of the characters that is hardly feasible.
In short, “The Missing” has the merit of telling a story potentially able to amaze and engage from the emotional point of view, but does not quite manage to do so because of the very slow pace and unlikelihood that characterise most of the events narrated.

The Missing on Amazon.

Where the Shadows Lie - Michael Ridpath

***** Even in Iceland people kill

Halfway between crime thriller and mystery, this novel by Michael Ridpath is the first of his series set in Iceland and starring Detective Magnus Jonson (or rather, Ragnarsson).
Threatened by the boss of a gang against which he must testify, Magnus, a homicide detective from Boston, is sent to Iceland, which he is originally from, to collaborate for a short time with the local police and at the same time stay safe until the trial. He is thus involved in investigating the murder of a university professor who seems to have made an important discovery about a lost Icelandic saga that would have inspired Tolkien while writing “The Lord of the Rings”.
In an Iceland in which legend and reality, well evoked by the splendid prose of the author, are confused, we are told a story of investigations, interrogations and deductions, which occupy a large part of the book, making it mostly a mystery. To this the personal story of Magnus is added, which however remains quite marginal.
I must say that identifying the killer was not too difficult. As usual in these books, the more interest is focused on a character, the clearer it becomes that this is not the killer, so by process of elimination you get to the solution before the protagonist.
To tell the truth as I read this book little did I care to find out who had killed the professor. I was too involved on admiring Iceland, evoked by the author, among volcanoes, waterfalls, lakes and farms, and in appreciating his ability to credibly insert “The Lord of the Rings” in those contexts. I believe that the idea of imagining a link between this famous book and a lost saga is brilliant and is worth reading the novel.
I really appreciated the research work of the author. The very fact that he is not Icelandic (he is British) has pushed him to clarify many small aspects that a local author would have taken for granted and this has made the book even more interesting for people like me who are intrigued by the so-called land of fire and ice.
Overall I found this novel an engaging and informative reading, one of those that, besides entertaining you, teach you something.

False Flag - Jay Tinsiano

**** Complex and enjoyable story with a slightly slow start

This novella is the first book in a series of thrillers whose main character is Frank Bowen. Although it is a short text that is often offered for free to encourage the reading of the following one, it is completely self-conclusive and works well as a single book. Furthermore, the text is very good. I haven’t noticed typos or other errors (if there are any, they must be just a few).
The story takes place in the 90s in the period before the return of Hong Kong to China, while media attention is focused on the war in Iraq. The quite varied and well-described international environment and the details of the intrigues and procedures involving the various intelligence agencies are a sign of a considerable research effort that almost amazed me, since it is such a short text.
The plot is not overly original and there are some fairly predictable aspects, including the ending, but it has some unexpected twists, which keep the interest alive, and well-described action scenes.
Some parts are perhaps a bit slow. The beginning in particular isn’t exactly compelling and doesn’t make you want to go on in the story. If it hadn’t been such a short book, I would have probably abandoned it immediately. But I’m glad I didn’t do it.
Finally, I admit I had some difficulty in remembering the various characters, perhaps because they are many and are showed quite quickly. In my opinion, in this book there was material to write something much longer, which would allow the secondary characters to develop better, making them more interesting and memorable. This would have improved the whole story.
However, it was a good read that I can recommend.

False Flag on Amazon.

The Outward Urge - John Wyndham

***** An interesting alternative present and future

In 1959, when this book was published for the first time, we had yet to go to the Moon (it would happen ten years later, a few months after the author’s death) and the conquest of space was seen as a normal extension of the so-called Cold War. This far from optimistic scenario is the background to the story of a family of astronauts unravelling for two hundred years.
Wyndham’s pessimism, which I had already seen in his post-apocalyptic novel “The Day of the Triffids”, contrasts with the optimism of many other authors of the now-defined classical science fiction who imagined human beings travelling in space a few decades later; if they were still alive, they would be disappointed to learn that we are still struggling to go to Mars.
On the contrary, in “The Outward Urge” the conquest of space proceeds slowly, much more than in reality, and is closely linked to events of a warlike nature. With leaps of fifty years, the author tells us about four space adventures (a fifth was added in the second edition) of men belonging to the Troon family (English, as the author), plus the one of an aviator during the WWII, who was the grandfather of the first of these astronauts. Through their stories we are shown a grey future that for us is, fortunately, an alternative one, in which astronautics is the tool of a destructive war that leads to upsetting the political balance of our planet. Every story brings with it a gloomy atmosphere and is resolved in a depressing ending, except for the last one, about Venus (the Asteroids story wasn’t included in the edition I read), which ends with a positive note.
The speculative exercise of Wyndham seems almost a warning to the men of his time. It is as if the author had sublimated his worst fears within this novel in an attempt to find, at the end of the tunnel, a light of hope. To be able to appreciate it today, especially in the light of current scientific knowledge that highlights the ingenuity of the science narrated in this novel, we must try to put ourselves in the shoes of the author, who a little more than a decade after the beginning of the Cold War fears for the future of the world and try to imagine what would happen if its worst fears became true.
Reading this novel in a sense made me feel good, because the assumptions on which it is based no longer exist and its dramatic development nowadays seems absurd, but at the same time it has led me to reflect on how the perception of the world and the future can change dramatically over the decades.

The Outward Urge on Amazon.

Artemis - Andy Weir

**** Very well structured and enjoyable, but not extraordinary

“Artemis” is a techno-thriller with a well-developed scientific component, as I expected from Weir. If I wanted to make a comparison with the books of other authors, the first name that comes to mind is Crichton (sorry, Master!), for the fact that the whole story is enslaved to the intention to talk to the reader about science. However, any resemblances end here.
Crichton’s books, in fact, tended to revolve around a great scientific theme, often with moral implications, without necessarily bothering to use real or plausible technologies (it was enough that they seemed so), but above all they had a dramatic tone. Weir’s books, on the other hand, make people laugh. Its protagonists don’t take themselves too seriously and are always kidding, sometimes with the reader, even in life-threatening situations. It is clear that the author likes to get them into trouble and then find a nerd way to get them out. By combining these two aspects, we are dealing with new MacGyvers who use their knowledge and the few resources available to them to solve desperate situations. In this sense, “Artemis” looks a lot like “The Martian”.
There are, however, big differences. “Artemis” is somehow better written, in the sense that it has a structure that is better studied and characterised by a well-timed narration. Everything works perfectly. “The Martian”, instead, coming from episodes published on the author’s blog, presents the effects of an undisciplined seriality that sometimes bewilders the reader. But it is precisely its not being structured in the “right” way that makes it unpredictable and therefore more enjoyable.
In “Artemis”, on the contrary, even when we are faced with unpredictable twists, these are only so in substance (i.e. we don’t know what will happen), but not in timing, because they are so well inserted in the right point of the story that somehow we see them coming (that is, we know that something is going to happen).
In addition to this are a few clichés and an anti-heroine that eventually turns into a heroine, overwhelming the reader with a predictable wave of goodness, the consequence of which is a certain amount of disappointment.
Beyond all this what makes “Artemis” substantially weaker than “The Martian” is the significance of the plot. In the comparison between the story of a young criminal who ends up threatened by other criminals (who are much worse than her) in the first city on the Moon and that of an astronaut left by mistake on Mars (a desert and lethal planet), the first comes out with broken bones.
Despite this, “Artemis” is a pleasant and enjoyable reading, with a funny protagonist and with many stimulating scientific topics. It is made in such a way as to please as many people as possible, but as a result it cannot be completely loved.

Artemis on Amazon.