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Web presence 101.7 – Goodreads

Goodreads is an online reading community that’s grown rapidly in the past couple of years, easily outstripping LibraryThing and other rivals. You can use it to help manage your book collection, post reviews and ratings, and join in online bookclubs. And if you’re a writer, once you have a book out (whether self-published or through a conventional publishing house), you can upgrade your account to “Goodreads Author”, which makes it easier to find out what your readers think of your book!

As I don’t get a lot of time for reading these days, I don’t have much experience of the reading side of Goodreads. I’ve added a selection of books from my shelves, though it’s by no means comprehensive, and I use it to maintain my to-read list. If you do want to add books to Goodreads and have a smartphone, they do a great app that includes a barcode scanner—it only works with fairly recent books that have the long ISBN numbers, but it speeds up the process considerably.

Once you have an author account, you’ll get a dashboard that gives you easy access to all your books as well as a bunch of widgets to use on your website plus other promotional tools.

Reader reviews

I’ve written elsewhere about why I read reviews, but whether or not you choose to read them I think Goodreads deserves a special caveat: do not trust the numbers! Because it’s a large busy site, they cache a lot of the statistics (total numbers of reviews and ratings, average ratings, etc) and you will soon discover that these numbers differ on different parts of your dashboard. At the time of writing, my dashboard says I have 77 text reviews but I can find only 75. Sometimes this is because people write comments in the ‘review’ field before they’ve finished and rated a book, and Goodreads doesn’t filter these out. And if a reader changes their mind about a rating, both values may be listed for a day or two. For the sake of your sanity, take the figures as a rough guide only!

Also, as with all reviews, don’t let the lower ratings get you down. You can’t please all the people even some of the time, and I’m sure you know of plenty of well-written and/or popular books that you didn’t enjoy, so cut your readers some slack. And sometimes those 1-star ratings are from people who haven’t even read your book—they may for example be attempting to “train” the suggestion algorithm by downgrading books that don’t look interesting. No fun for you, but luckily these people are in a minority.

Widgets

Goodreads have created a range of buttons and widgets that you can incorporate into your own website, such as the “Read reviews on Goodreads” button that I use in my little promo box in the margin of my blog. I advise caution when it comes to the interactive widgets, however; Goodreads is down quite often, which means your widget will be empty or even slightly broken-looking whenever that happens.

Other promotional tools

If you have physical copies of your book, you can arrange a giveaway before it comes out or up to six months after publication. In my case my publisher did it for me, in the US at least, and nearly 900 people signed up! Of course a great many of these unlisted my book when they didn’t win, but around a third still have it listed as to-read, so it’s definitely an effective promotional tool. Note that you can’t give away ebooks; I don’t know if this is to prevent the system being swamped with self-published titles (since most self-pubs are ebook only), or whether the abundance of free ebooks means they aren’t seen as a valued promo, but either way you’re limited to print copies and the expense of postage that entails.

Free tools include a Facebook fan page app and the ability to set up a Q&A group, but I’ve never managed to get the former to work and I have yet to try the latter. I guess I’m worried that, being a debut author, no-one would turn up, and it would just be me and the tumbleweed!

If you’re self-published you might also want to consider advertising your book, but I know nothing about this side of Goodreads.

 

In summary, Goodreads is a great site to connect with readers—just don’t let yourself get obsessed with the numbers!

Other articles in this series:

  1. Claim your name
  2. Your website
  3. Blogging
  4. Introduction to social media
  5. Twitter
  6. Facebook
  7. Goodreads
  8. Pinterest
  9. Google alerts

21st Century Pulp

There’s a lot of debate about ebooks pricing and the future of publishing at the moment. At one extreme you have Big Publishers charging hardback prices for new ebooks; at the other, self-publishers setting prices as low as 99 cents for a full novel. The latter might seem great for readers, and a really successful ebook at this price point can earn more for the writer than a typical debut advance – but as both Amanda Hocking and John Locke have shown, the key to self-publishing success is having a whole bunch more books that fans can buy once they decide they like the first one. Typically, these big hitters of the self-publishing world have not sold one book to a million readers – they have sold around 10 books to 100,000 readers. OK, so that’s still around ten times as many readers as a debut novelist might reach, but let’s back up to the other half of the equation. They sold their readers ten different books – which means they had to write ten books. Not one, or even a trilogy. Ten. At a bare minimum that’s half a million words.

Cover of "The Black Mask" magazine (1929)
Cover of "The Black Mask" magazine (1929)

It was whilst considering this point that it struck me that today’s self-publishers are not unlike the pulp writers of the 30s and 40s. For a very modest payment (royalties on a 99 cent Kindle book are 35 cents a copy) they are churning out popular entertainment which is distributed in the cheapest, most disposable form available. Back then it was cheap-as-it-comes woodpulp paper (hence the “pulp” moniker); now, it’s electronic files that you do not even “own”. Pulps were popular in a time of economic depression; ebooks “need” to be inexpensive right now because of the cost investment of the hardware required to read them (and the aforementioned lack of real ownership).

Of course the existence of the pulp market didn’t prevent the production of more expensive editions, but it did ensure that reading material was available to everyone at a price point they could afford. There will always be people who prefer the premium edition – indeed Apple have staked their entire business on such a model, and won. So I don’t think cheap ebooks will bring down the publishing industry, any more than the pulps did. But commercial publishers will have to adapt to keep up – and so will writers.

Book Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I was very excited when I saw this book was coming out: I love alternate history, Venice is one of my favourite cities (the book I’m working on is set there in large part), and it sounded like an interesting twist on the hoary old vampires-vs-werewolves trope. In all these respects I was not disappointed. Unfortunately it was not all moonlight and roses – but more about that later.

The Fallen Blade tells the story of Tycho, a young man of about seventeen who finds himself in early fifteenth-century Venice with no memory of his past and, worse still, strange inhuman abilities he does not understand. Even his name is given to him by the Venetians who find him, based on the first, garbled words he speaks.

As mentioned above this is an alternate history Venice, where Marco Polo returned from China to seize power and end the old republic, replacing it with a hereditary dukedom. Now his great grandson, Marco IV, sits on the throne of Serenissima, but the young duke is apparently mad, and his mother and uncle vie for power behind the throne. Chief amongst their retainers is Atilo the Moor, aging head of the Assassini, who sees in Tycho the ultimate assassin and his future heir.

Tycho is not so pliable, however, and resists his masters at every turn. When he comes up against a krieghund, one of the Holy Roman Emperor’s werewolves, he discovers there is a secret magical war going on behind the mundane politicking…

There’s a lot to enjoy about this book. The world-building is fresh and intriguing, hinting at a broad canvas that will be pursued in subsequent books. Grimwood’s Renaissance Venice is suitably filthy, smelly and brutal, appropriately enough since what we mostly see is its seamy underbelly. But there were aspects of the writing that, for me at least, were less successful.

Firstly, I found the prose hard to follow in places. Grimwood is a little too fond of sentence fragments and odd punctuation, and the point of view lurches between omniscient and close third person in a way that reminded me of nothing so much as shaky handheld camerawork, the focus always seeming to shift away from a character or the action of a scene at a crucial moment. Add this to the large number of characters and plot threads being thrown at the reader in the opening chapters, and it makes for a disorienting kaleidoscope of imagery. The storytelling does eventually settle down to a clearer rhythm and builds to a set-piece action climax – only to be spoilt by a deus ex machina resolution to Tycho’s seemingly impossible mission.

Far more off-putting, however, was the constant catalogue of violence against the female characters in this novel. For a good two-thirds of the book, scarcely a chapter (and there are a lot of them) goes by without a young woman being abused, violated or, in the worst cases, horribly murdered. Admittedly few characters in this book escape violence and abuse, least of all pretty-boy Tycho, who spends so much of the book naked that one is frequently shocked to discover he is clothed in a given chapter. A certain amount of violence is expected in a book like this, but it is the unremitting, brutal and often sexual cruelty towards the girls that leaves this female reader with an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

Now, one could say this is a historically accurate portrayal of a highly misogynistic culture, but surely it is the prerogative of the artist to pick and choose his subjects and arrange them according to the effect he wishes to produce? In this case, the effect was that I only continued reading the book in order to be able to give a fair and balanced review.

Overall, I feel disinclined to recommend this book, or to read the sequel. A pity, as Tycho is an intriguing character and I would like to know more about the Fallen. Not enough, however, to wade further through the fetid canals of Grimwood’s Venice.

iPad 2: in lust all over again

I’m a bit late with my blog post today, as I was hoping to have some news of my own to announce. So, you’ll have to make do with some from Steve Jobs instead.

Today Apple announced the iPad 2: thinner, lighter and faster than the original model, it begins shipping later this month. Now, obviously I don’t need a new iPad – I only got mine in autumn last year, after I grew disillusioned with the limitations* of the Sony eReader – but boy am I tempted. Apart from the general improvements, it will have a hardware rotation lock, just as the original iPad did until the software was changed to make it a mute button. This is a change I protested about, so it’s good to hear that Apple listened to its customers.

When the iPad first came out I was unconvinced. I liked my eInk reader and didn’t see the need for an oversized iPod Touch. As with the iPhone, it wasn’t until some killer apps came along that I changed my mind and bought one. I now use it extensively, for reading ebooks and manuscripts, checking email and Twitter, making notes and mindmaps and book outlines. I even use it for my day-job, at least on business trips, because of its lightness and superior battery life.

I still prefer my MacBook Air for work that needs substantial amounts of typing or a more sophisticated piece of software such as Scrivener, but the iPad serves me well for lighter tasks. And I’m not alone. I saw someone mention earlier this week that the iPad is now the tool of choice in the publishing industry, presumably for reading manuscripts and staying in touch on the move. No more worrying about WiFi hotspots; these babies can be bought with 3G, and ten quid a month buys you enough O2 bandwidth to pick up emails, etc, on those odd days when you’re away from a WiFi network.

The other thing I love about the iPad is the iBook app. It’s much slicker than its Kindle equivalent, which I only installed because a couple of books I wanted were only available in that format. It’s much faster than an eInk reader; I can skim through pages much faster, almost as fast as with a paper book. I can buy books within the app or import ePubs obtained elsewhere, whether bought from a website or made myself by exporting one of my own manuscripts from Scrivener. And unlike a paper book, I don’t need a bookmark, a reading light, or a magnifier.

This latter is a huge boon to those of us whose eyesight is not what it used to be. In fact I reckon it’s not the younger generation who are going to be flocking to ebooks, but the older one. The price of paper being what it is these days, the type size in mass market paperbacks seems to be getting smaller and smaller, to the point where I have to check inside a book before I decide to buy it. I put a copy of George R R Martin’s A Clash of Swords back on the shelf in Waterstones a few months ago, simply because I couldn’t read the text comfortably, even in a well-lit shop. Once readers discover the sheer convenience of being able to resize text at will and adjust the light level with equal ease, I hope they will realise that ebooks provide a superior reading experience, at least for novels, and are worth paying a sensible price for. Not hardback prices; those are ridiculously over-inflated. But certainly around the price of a paperback seems to me to be entirely realistic.

Now, if only HM Government would see sense and exempt ebooks from VAT…

 

* Like, what’s the point in having built-in PDF annotation if you then forget to put a hyphen on the software keyboard? WTF, Sony??

The truth about electronic production

I hear a lot of whingeing online from publishers about how ebooks cost as much to produce as print books, because of all the different formats required by e-distributors, and therefore they are priced as high as the paper equivalent. All I can say is, they’re not trying hard enough.

Twelve years ago I started a new job with a big international publisher of science journals. Their Cambridge office was responsible for around 16 or 17 titles, each published monthly as a print journal, with the articles then being converted from QuarkXPress into PDF and SGML (the forerunner and parent of XML) for posting on their various websites.

When I started, it was taking 2-3 months for this conversion process to be completed – an eternity in internet time, even back in 1998. Part of this was because the SGML files were being checked by eye, a tedious and time-consuming task. Problem was, no-one knew any better, because that’s how print proofs have been checked for the last half a millennium.
Being an inherently lazy person, I soon decided this was a stupid waste of my time. I therefore taught myself Perl, a programming language that excels in text manipulation, and wrote some scripts that would catch the most common errors – and fix them – automatically. As a result of this and other improvements to the workflow (like creating a scheduling database with auto-calculation of dates), our turnaround time was cut from 2-3 months to 2-3 weeks.

Although I no longer work in publishing, I strongly suspect that part of the ebook problem is that there aren’t enough people with the requisite skills for streamlining electronic production. Ebook production is still at the one-page-at-a-time level of Gutenberg’s original press. What the publishing industry needs is the electronic equivalent of an offset printing press, capable of reliably converting the printers’ files into various ebook formats at the press of a button.

Anyone want to hire me…?

5 Cool New Features in Scrivener 2.0

I’ve been using Scrivener for my writing since 2007, and found it immensely useful. The ability to organise your work exactly the way you want it, then output it as a single manuscript in whatever format an editor prefers, is probably the most powerful feature.

Version 2.0 (now out for Mac) adds a whole slew of new features, but I want to focus on the ones that jumped out at me as a long-time user.

1. Export to ePub

This is the one that made me go “Wow!”. I wanted to take a copy of my manuscript away on a trip, and I wanted to only have to take my iPad with me. The obvious thing was to convert the book into ePub, which I knew I could do in Calibre (the library software I use for my ebook reader), but first I had to get the documents out of Scrivener. To my delight, not only were there options for outputting directly in ePub format, but I could add a cover image with a few clicks. About quarter of an hour later (most of which was spent knocking together a cover!), I had the book on my iBooks shelf, looking almost as professional as the real thing.

This feature will be an absolute boon to anyone planning on releasing their own ebooks – or just try it for the fun of seeing what your finished novel might look like! Caveat: you will probably want to play with the settings a bit, in order to get the right output. On my first attempt I had no chapter titles, which is fine if you’re going for the Terry Pratchett look, but not if you’re trying to produce a conventionally structured novel.

2. Coloured flags on keywords

This is one feature I really missed when I moved from Super Notecard to Scrivener – the ability to add multiple coloured flags to index cards for a quick overview of the story. Yes, there were always keywords, but I’m a very visual person and seldom use the Outliner view in Scrivener, so I found little use for keywords in the 1.x version. Now, however, each keyword is associated with a coloured swatch, which can optionally be displayed as a flag down the right-hand side of each index card.

I found this feature invaluable the other day, when I had to go through my outline assessing which scenes would need changing to meet my prospective publisher’s suggestions, how much needed changing, and what aspect of the story. Once all the keywords had been added, I was able to scan the Collection (see Cool Feature #4) of all documents and see that I only needed to work on half of them, and most of those only lightly.

Here you see the results. Note that I reduced the size of the cards to get a whole bunch on screen at once (and obscure the text, since there are spoilers!) whilst still being able to show the coloured flags:

3. Freeform Corkboard Order

I confess I haven’t played with this yet, as I’ve only been using 2.0 for a few days, but it looks awesome. I’ve always found it frustrating that the index cards fill the screen in a continuous grid, so being able to have uneven length rows will make my chapter planning so much easier in future!

4. Collections

One thing I like to be able to do is see all my index cards on the corkboard at once, even after I’ve separated them into chapter folders. Collections allow me to do that – perhaps not as slickly as the “Flatten Hierarchy” function in SuperNotecard, but good enough for most purposes. Just select all the cards and add them to a new Collection, and there you go!

And of course Collections are essential for…

5. Sync with Index Card for iPad

I left this one until last because it’s really only useful to iPad owners – but boy, is it useful! Index Card is a nifty little app inspired by Scrivener, which gives you a corkboard with index cards that can be moved around, just like in Scrivener. Best of all, you can use Dropbox to transfer the titles and synopses of your cards between the two programs – perfect for outlining on the move! Watch the tutorial

A Game of Ebooks

Over the last few days I’ve been sorting out my writing den and shaking my head over the number of books and the inadequacy of my shelves to contain them all. Thus when it came to ordering a novel that I wanted to read – Gail Z Martin’s “The Summoner” – I decided to save space with an ebook. Should be easy enough, I thought…

OK, so finding an ebook edition of “The Summoner” was easy enough, but of course it’s always hard to buy just one book. I found myself looking at the very tempting package of George R R Martin’s “A Game of Thrones” and “A Clash of Kings” for the same price as one volume. How could I resist? I’ve been meaning to read “A Song of Ice and Fire” for years, mainly because it’s a modern classic of epic fantasy, so of course I clicked on the link.
That what when I hit the big problem. On mobipocket.com, GRRM’s books are not available outside the US. WTF??? I tried a couple of other vendors of the mobipocket format (the only DRM compatible with my iRex iLiad) and no joy there either. Eventually I found a single-volume edition of “A Game of Thrones” at Diesel eBooks, along with “The Summoner”, and was able to make my purchase. Yay!

As this recent blog post shows, Amazon seems to be trying to kill the mobipocket format in order to drive traffic to its Kindle-specific titles. This is just one practical reason why DRM is evil. It’s bad enough that hardware changes such as VCR->DVD have forced film-lovers to re-buy titles; now software changes are doing the same, with zero justification except to make money for online retail behemoths like Amazon. Once again they have given me a reason to continue boycotting their company.

Come the glorious day when I am published, I for one will be very careful about what digital rights I sign away…