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GoodReads Begins Charging for Giveaways
Hardbound Rip-Offs
Caution: X-Ray in Use
Keeping the Tax Collectors Happy
There Are No Answers--Only Questions


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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

GoodReads Begins Charging for Giveaways

In Chapter 12 of The Second Mouse Goes Digital, we discussed various promotional schemes offered by Amazon and others. I did not include Goodreads' Giveaways because I had never used them.  It now appears, however, that the Goodreads promotion is falling under the spell of Amazon's marketing schemes to the detriment of authors. Jill Swenson, president of the Swenson Book Development Company, explains why Giveaways are now a bad deal for independent authors.

On January 9, 2018, the social media site for readers, GoodReads.com, changed its policy regarding Giveaways. What used to be an inexpensive and clever marketing tool for books is now a new revenue stream for GoodReads, which is owned by Amazon. GoodReads, established in 2007, had more than 65 million members registered in 2017. Until Amazon purchased GoodReads in 2013, it was a rival to Amazon itself as the place for discovering books. Based on friends sharing their reviews and recommendations, the social media network was once considered a reliable independent source of book news and publishers shared their list of titles as a way to promote new releases with readers.

Things have changed. Amazon consolidated its power to determine which authors get exposure for their work. Amazon is monetizing the value of their platform for authors and publishers. Much like Facebook would like you to pay to promote your status updates on your Author Page, GoodReads intends to profit from authors.

In the past, GoodReads hosted contests for readers to sign-up to win a free copy of a new book in exchange for an early review. The publisher would list a title and GoodReads would promote the giveaway, help drive entries to interested readers, and randomly select winners. The publisher would be responsible for mailing print books to winners.

After Amazon purchased GoodReads the doors swung open to authors listing their books for Giveaways. Self-published or “indie” authors flooded the Giveaways. And instead of new releases, the Giveaways could be a title with any date. Going to the Giveaways page to look for free books was like digging through a bargain bin.

Sometimes the contest winners did post their honest reviews. Other times, these free books appeared for sale as new or gently used on Amazon. Despite their ability to discern which winners turned around to sell a book they obtained free from a GoodReads Giveaway, Amazon does not prohibit such sales.

The original intent of a Giveaway was to generate early reviews and help build book buzz to increase book sales. In recent years, the number of Giveaways from self-published authors has grown exponentially and the effectiveness of a Giveaway has diminished considerably.

The expense of books plus shipping and handling were not insignificant to authors and publishers for this marketing tool, but now GoodReads offers two packages. Their new standard package is priced at $119 per giveaway. Everyone who enters your giveaway automatically adds the book to their Want-to-read list and eight weeks after your giveaway ends, the winners receive an email from GoodReads reminding them to rate and review your book.

The premium package includes all the benefits of the standard package plus a premium placement on the Giveaway page for $599 per giveaway. With tens of millions of visitors each month, the premium package is intended to increase your title’s visibility. With hundreds of thousands of self-published titles flooding the site, it isn’t clear how many eyeballs your book cover will reach.

The packages rolled out January 9 and GoodReads offered introductory prices through January 31 of $59 for the standard package and $299 for the premium giveaway. The new pricing structure will mean far fewer giveaways for readers and close the door to this marketing tool for most authors and publishers. The return on your investment in this kind of advertising is negative.

The new rules for giveaways indicate up to 100 copies of print books can be listed for authors who are U.S. residents. In the past, most giveaways were for 5 or 10 copies. Today, if you go to the GoodReads Giveaway page you will discover thousands of contests listing 100 copies of Kindle versions of books no one has ever heard of and mostly self-published. Almost no traditional publishers have listed Giveaways since the change in policy was announced.

This leaves the GoodReads Giveaway program weakened by offering free books no one is interested in buying. The program now targets those authors who think the only way they can get readers to select their book is to give it away free.

Authors have limited budgets for advertising and marketing their books. GoodReads grossly overestimated the value of its Giveaway and we’ll likely see this program disappear in the coming year. Readers who get a free book under the new program will discover it is worth exactly what they paid for it: nothing.

The best advertising for a book comes from word-of-mouth recommendations and not from social media or reviews posted online. Write a book that satisfies readers and work with your publisher and publicist to effectively promote it. Don’t pay GoodReads to give it away free.

Hardbound Rip-Offs

Here’s this week’s update to The Second Mouse Goes Digital. In Chapter 9, “Choosing the Right Production Company,” I discussed the two most widely-used and trusted print-on-demand companies, Create Space and Lightning Source. I also announced the recent appearance of two additional resources:
“Two additional printing options have become available in the past year, and they may be viable alternatives. Both strike me as being hybrids—a crossover of the vast divide between print and electronic books. The new plans may indeed set the next standard for independent publications. They certainly fit into the pattern of consolidation that is happening in other industries. I can’t say a whole lot about these options because I’ve not tried either one, but I can tell you what the pundits are reporting and what the new companies say they offer.

“The first to break into the market was Ingram Spark. In case you’ve forgotten, Ingram is the largest book distributor in the country and the parent company of Lightning Source. Ingram Spark is the company’s solution to complaints that Lightning Source is too expensive and too complicated. It promises a cleaner, simpler interface, allowing authors to submit files similar to those Lightning Source accepts for digital editions. Since I’ve not tried this program, I can’t evaluate that promise.

“They do, however, offer certain advantages. The Spark plan will produce either paperback or hardbound copies, and there’s little difference in the costs between binding styles. That will be important to any author who hopes to place books in schools and libraries, which will usually purchase only hardbound books.”
Since my book came out, I have discovered that there are actually several new hybrid publishers who offer the same service—hard-cover format at prices that independent writers can afford. The question, of course is whether they can deliver on their promises.   
Recently, I had occasion to evaluate one of these new hardbound volumes from an unidentified publishing company and found it lacking in many respects. A hard-cover volume from a traditional publisher will have a stiff casing covered in cloth, with an additional cloth strip covering the spine and an inch or so of both the front and back covers. The title of the book is stamped onto the spine, often in metallic lettering or other forms of embossing. Then a paper book jacket protects the book. The front cover of the jacket will contain a well-thought-out cover design, with additional material on the back cover. The ample jacket flaps will provide a short synopsis, or perhaps a biographical sketch of the author.  Many variations exist, but all give an impression of high quality.

The hybrid book I examined was lacking in every respect. From the first touch, I realized that this “hardbound cover” had been done on a budget. It was paper, not cloth, and it reminded me of the kind of cheap textbooks I used in grade school. The colors were garish and inappropriate for the subject matter. The book’s black spine did not align with the printed illustration, so that there was a crooked line of color running down one edge of the spine. The corners of the paper cover were not glued completely over the cardboard backing, so that they soon worked loose, leaving sharp little folds that caught on my sleeve as I held the book. The binding itself was so tight that I had to fight to keep the book open, and the binding had failed to catch the first several pages. They threatened to fall out eventually.

The Second Mouse now encourages anyone considering using one of these hybrid presses to provide hardbound copies to proceed with caution. I would ask to see samples of their work before making a commitment. As in most other cases, you get only what you pay for.


Caution: X-Ray in Use

Amazon has recently begun promoting a way to enhance the reading experience on Kindle books. X-Ray is a reference tool that can be used on Kindle Touch and later models, Kindle Fire tablets, Kindle apps for mobile platforms like your iPad or iPhone, certain Android devices, Fire Phones, and Fire TVs. X-Ray has been available since 2011, but its usefulness is limited in several ways. It is an English-only platform, and it only works if the author or publisher takes the time to implement the tools.
I did not know about X-Ray until after I published “The Second Mouse Goes Digital,” and I have yet to see it work. I am currently learning about the process by adding X-Ray’s capabilities to my recent novel, “Henrietta’s Journal: A Life of Compromise.” So far, I have discovered that the process takes a great deal of time because you must apply it to each of your books separately
Basically, here’s how it works:
1. You start by adding X-Ray from the list of KINDLE EBOOK ACTIONS on your KDP Bookshelf (under the three dots). The tool then flashes through your book’s manuscript and produces a list of characters, places, and events that might need further explanations.  When I did this for “Henrietta,” it identified 237 different items to be described or identified.
2. You go through the list one-by-one and decide whether you want to keep the term on the list. If you don’t want to save the item, you can simply delete it. If you do keep it, you can show alternate spellings like ‘shopping center” (USA) or “shopping centre” (UK). I made another important decision at this point. Because this book is a novel, with only a few main characters, the same character names popped up frequently (Henrietta, 92 times; Julien, 291 times). To avoid the repetitions, I excluded all of my characters’ names, leaving in only the names of historical figures who played a part in the wider story.
3. Next you must decide whether you want to use the canned definition the program gives you, look up a better explanation on Wikipedia, or write your own definition. And here’s where it gets tricky. One frequently appearing term on my list is “St. Philip’s Church.” The X-Ray tool gave me nothing. When I looked up the term on Wikipedia, I found a long list of churches by that name from all over the world, but none of them were the church in Charleston to which i was referring. That meant I had to take the time to look up identifying material, such as dates of construction, the architects, the reason for its prominent and problematic location in the middle of the street, and its social importance. Only when I was satisfied with my own description (limited to 1200 characters counting spaces) could I mark that one term as reviewed and move on to the next.
Fortunately, you can do a few of these at a time, but you need to finish the whole list before you publish the definitions. When you are certain that you are finished, you click a button that reads “Review and publish X-Ray.” Only then will your definitions and explanations become visible to the reader. Is it worth it? That remains to be seen. I’ll provide an update after I’ve finished converting “Henrietta.” But don’t hold your breath!


Keeping the Tax Collectors Happy

One of my first recommendations to any new or aspiring self-publisher is that they treat their writing like a business. I insist that they establish at least a sole proprietorship and create a home office dedicated to the writing, publishing, and marketing of their books. Why? Well, for one thing, having your own business allows you to take valuable business-related deductions on your income tax. So it will surprise no one to find a whole chapter early in “The Second Mouse Goes Digital,” devoted to keeping records and explaining the deductions an author may claim. 

It was also not much of a surprise when shortly after I published my book, the internet broke out in a rash of rumors about what the new tax bill was going to do to destroy the livelihood of independent authors. The worst of these predictions was that authors would no longer be able to claim deductions for their home offices.

Were the rumors true? No, of course not. At most, the new law simply strengthened the rules already in place and promised to enforce them strictly. And what were the rules? Despite the governmental double-talk, there are only two rules to follow.First, a home office must be used regularly and exclusively for business purposes. The office does not need to be a lockable separate room; you can use a closet, a part of a room separated in some way from the rest of the room, or any identifiable space. But you can’t get away with slapping a laptop on the end of the dining room table once in a while and pushing it out of the way when it’s time to eat. Nor can you call it an office if you only use it once in a while when you are bored. 

Exclusivity is an important part of that definition. If you use the desktop computer to pay bills as well as to write the great American novel, it’s not a home office. You can’t let your teenager write her term paper or play games on your computer when you are not using it. Apparently the cat can walk across your keyboard, leaving gibberish behind, but for other family members, the rule is definitely “Paws Off!”

The second rule is that your home office must be the only fixed location of your business.  You can’t claim to have a home office because you hate the drive to your employer’s office building. This is the part of the law that upset several academics. If you have an office provided by your company, you are expected to use it. If you are writing a scholarly monograph as part of your effort to gain tenure, you may work on it wherever you choose, including the local Starbuck’s. However you cannot claim to have a home office just because you have set up a comfortable place to write that monograph on weekends or late at night. That kind of writing  is a part of your employment, and you have a fixed location for that employment there on campus. If, of course, instead of writing scholarly monographs, you spend your free weekends and evenings drawing manga comics, then create your own company and draw away. Just be sure to keep your regular job and your creative fantasies on separate computers.

So there it is. I still advise every self-publishing author to set up a company, create a home office, use whatever it takes—up to but perhaps not including razor wire—to keep the rest of the family away from your creative space, and then start keeping your records. Identify every purchase that goes exclusively to your use in your office, file folders holding receipts for postage, your other business expenses (the editor, the cover creator, the layout specialist), and the cost of the books you purchase for resale. Then you can deduct away!

There Are No Answers--Only Questions

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a blog post that was (or should have been) called “Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.” I had just been informed by the president of our homeowners’ association that with a hard freeze warning in store for that night, i needed to leave the faucets in my master bath running to prevent a pipe in the outer wall from freezing and bursting.  I did so, only to discover that the trap under the sink leaked. So I called a plumber, who said, “We’re booked solid with frozen pipes. Just don’t use that drain until the cold weather is over.” Thus the dilemma: do I let the water run and spend the night mopping up with towels and a bucket? Or do I turn the water off and risk a gusher of water coming through the wall from a broken pipe?  

Sometimes you can’t win for losing. OK, I accept that. But I didn’t expect the same rule to apply to publishing. Several years ago, I wrote a book on how to self-publish your novel. It was a topic that was very much in the news among writers in 2012, and “The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese” was well-received and sold hundreds of copies. However, our world of technology moves at an ever-increasing speed, and books about technology have a short shelf-life. By last year, the “Second Mouse” was getting some pointed criticism among its Amazon reviewers as readers complained that the information was outdated or that I had failed to include current problems. 

The solution, I thought, would be simple. It was time for an update—a second edition. I quickly went to work on “The Second Mouse Goes Digital,” making every effort to touch on the very latest innovations and solutions to current problems. I even went so far as to experiment with an online formatting program that I used to format the page layouts of the new book. And then, at the last possible moment, I went back and added a paragraph to describe my findings. The book’s publication came at the end of November, 2017.

But “Damned if you do . . . .” 

Almost immediately, major publishers and software companies leaped in to announce major updates and new solutions.  Even the federal government got involved. Today, January 24, 2018, several of the chapters in my shiny new book are outdated. Obviously I can’t write faster than software designers can think. My solution—for the moment—is to use this blog to make additions and corrections to the new book as they occur. We’ll start this week with the questions about home offices that arose with the new changes to tax laws.