Darcie Chan and Me
Every wannabe writer knows the inspiring story of Darcie Chan, the woman who pulled the manuscript of her book “The Mill City Recluse” out of the desk drawer where she had chucked it ten years before when she couldn’t find a publisher, and put it on Amazon Kindle as an ebook where it quickly became a roaring 99-cent-a-pop success. All she had to do was get it uploaded, purchase a favorable review from Kirkus , buy a few hundred bucks worth of adverts and she was on her way to superstardom. I tried to do the same a year or so after she did but the results so far have been…well, let us say, underwhelming. I had no great trouble getting my masterpiece “Mixed Foursome: The Zach Roper Mysteries” about a golf-loving detective and his oversexed sidekick and lover the Thai Princess on Amazon in March 2012. It is even easier to do it now than it was then. That part is amazing. Never has it been simpler or cheaper to break into print. I was now so confident that I gave myself a pen name, M. H. Burton, as I anticipated such fame and fortune that I would need to guard my privacy carefully. I needn’t have bothered.
Now it was on to Step 2 of the Chan Formula, I sent my .pdf file and 400 bucks off to Kirkus Reviews with fingers crossed. I had done some research and found whole chat rooms full of disgruntled authors who were convinced that Kirkus had unfairly trashed their life’s work while dunning them for the privilege of being dumped on. I was more sanguine than they, “Mixed Foursome” was definitely not my life’s work and I wasn’t under the illusion that it was the next “Anna Karenina”, still I was worried, no author likes to see his stuff dismissed as crap even if he doesn’t think it’s up to the level of treasure. Kirkus promised a review within 5 to 7 weeks and when one didn’t come I expected the worst. I tried to email them and got a canned response that kept saying that I would get my review in 5 to 7 weeks even though by now 15 weeks had passed. I was no longer concerned about the review, I just wanted my 400 bucks back! After trying several email addresses I finally found one that had a living breathing person on the other end of it. This warm body informed me that my review had already been sent out in July, it was now October. I begged to differ and he said he would check it out, which he did, concluding that either his people had screwed up or my computer had rejected it as spam. I began to think that my anti-spam system had read it first and decided that it was so bad I wouldn’t want to see it, mercifully that was not the case. When I finally got a copy of it I found that it was positive overall. The reviewer had clearly read my book and enjoyed it. I even agreed with the things he criticized and vowed to change them in future works. The reviewer had talent, he packed a lot into his 2000 word review and there wasn’t an ounce of ‘fat’ or irrelevance, as a budding writer I could appreciate that. He summed up with “A solidly entertaining, mildly raunchy quartet of golfing capers.”, which is just what I was hoping “Mixed Foursome” would be.
Now I had my good review and Kirkus had set its wheels in motion to do whatever it did with its good reviews. The next Darcie Chan step was advertising, but she didn’t say much about how or where she had advertised so I decided to do more research. What I found was mind-boggling and contradictory. There were dozens of outfits promising instant success and hundreds of authors who moaned that those same outfits had screwed them. Many even contended that advertising was useless. I held back. Maybe one of the many “How I made a million on Kindle” books on Amazon would tell me the key thing I needed to know. No harm in trying, and it was cheaper than any of the advertising plans I had mulled over. I won’t tell you the actual name of the first self-help manual I ordered. I’ll call it “The Golden Book of Publishing Platitudes” (TGBPP). It had such helpful hints as “Have a Marketing Plan” and “Identify your Target Audience” and “Write the Best Book You Possibly Can”. Stuff I’m sure no wannabe best-selling author would ever have thought of on his own. Is any author going to write the worst book he possibly can unless he’s trying to win the Bulwer Lytton Award? My intelligence was so thoroughly insulted by page 23 that I tossed it in the trash. I would have kept it but it was too flimsy to prop the window of my lake cabin open in the summer.
I wanted something more specific and I got it in the next helpful tome, which I am going to call “The Nerd’s Guide to Amazon” (NGA). It was all about ‘gaming the system’ mainly by various strategies that the author assured me would waft potential readers by the boatload directly to my book bypassing the millions of other books on Amazon. For a month I beavered away installing his techno-gems in the text, description, search words and subtitle of my novel. Then I sat back to admire my handiwork and await the promised results. I’m still waiting. Now it was time to get down and dirty and my next paperback self-helper was more than ready to assist me in the blacker arts of self-publishing. I’ll call his book “How I Scammed Amazon” (HISA) and he is a best-selling author though he has been unmasked as one of several large-scale self-promoters. The main thing his book convinced me of was that its author was a jerk. I tried a few of his nefarious schemes like trying to review my own books, just to see if they would work. They didn’t. One thing you’ll find about Amazon is that whatever policies they have are subject to change without notice and that they have many policies they never tell you about at all. When I first put “Mixed Foursome” out I bought a copy of it because nobody else had. Several weeks later Amazon prompted me to review my own book, so I did, though I thought that was pretty strange. Two months later I published another book, bought a copy, and was once again prompted to review it, so I did. This time my review appeared and then disappeared a few days later. So much for insider info on how to beat the Amazon system from nerds and scammers, the ‘system’ is a moving target and you can be sure that by the time you have their book of hot dope in your hot little hands their ‘secrets’ will no longer be viable, if they ever were in the first place.
So now I am back to square one. I’m going straight now, no more trying to beat the system, it probably wouldn’t work anyway. I have a book called “Tales of Ramasun” about my own days as a spook and spy during the Vietnam War which has gotten some genuinely positive user reviews and is still stoutly resisting best-seller-dom. I’ll gladly leave ‘gaming the system’ to the nerds even though it had a certain allure for me as a retired software developer. I may pop for a pricey advert campaign, I haven’t decided yet...or…how about this? I write an article about how I didn’t make a million on Amazon that mentions some of my books, it goes viral and bingo! Best sellers galore! I haven’t given up yet.
Jim Stanton aka M.H.Burton is a hopeful, though as yet obscure, writer who splits his years between his lake cabin in Minnesota and his Thai wife’s farm in Northeast Thailand. He is the author of 5 self-published books on Amazon and is thankful for their excellent services despite the quirks of their system. He will not mention all the titles of his books as he is now a reformed shameless self-promoter.
Welcome, Jim Stanton. That was very funny and your books sounds good to me. Your experience with making a success out of Amazon publication is fairly common. Many of us came at it too late by months or years. Things changed at Amazon as the numbers of self-publishers sky-rocheted. When people started using dirty tricks to self-promote, Amazon stopped them. All of this illustrates that a few people made big money for a short time, and then things began to change. Even Joe Konrath, who is the guru of self-publishing, has become very quiet. His most recent advice has been "keep writing." For a very good reason: if you don't have a new book out every few months, people won't know you exist.
So, meanwhile: Very good luck with your projects and keep publishing and writing!
Ironically the only things I have found that worked at all were some tactics I made up on my own. When I put out "Tales of Ramasun", a memoir of my experiences at the US spy base of Ramasun Station in Thailand during the Vietnam War I just searched the net for vets websites, especially anything to do with Ramasun or the Vietnam War or military intelligence. I found quite a few of them and posted messages on them if they would let me. Most didn't mind that I was trying to flog my book. Some even featured it and published excerpts from it. It wasn't enough to make it a great seller, but at least I got the word out and even made contact with three old buddies who I had been searching for for years. They even found their way past my pen name, but then we all were spooks and spies so we should have been good at that. I plan to keep writing regardless, it's a lot more fun than book promoting and, like you say, if you can reach some sort of 'critical mass' of books out there they may feed off each other.
Focused advertising! Excellent.
Hey, Jim. Excellent piece. Very entertaining. I can't believe I'm replying to your post without plugging my books, but your virtue must be catching. I've been trying to figure out the system, too (gee, I guess I'm one of several million by now), and I agree that whatever advantage early adopters had in the self-published system has gone away. Perhaps a year ago, when free books were still a novelty, I put up a little self-help book on KDP Select, Amazon's promotion platform, and gave away 8,000 books in two days. After that, sales picked up for a while and I wound up selling about 500 books. Since then, giveaways have done very little for me. However, I continue to publish--just put out a biography of a mystery writer--and I'm finding some success doing what you are doing: seeking out blogs and people that have a specific interest in a particular book. Okay, I can only go so long without mentioning at least one book. The bio is Gunshots in Another Room:The Forgotten Life of Dan J. Marlowe. Marlowe was an amnesiac hardboiled writer, and I've been approaching operators of hardboiled/noir sites with good results. It's a long, hard slog, but I'm very grateful for the opportunity to get my books to readers directly, and to do marketing on the Internet. Thanks again for a fun read.
This all sounds very familiar, though thankfully, not from personal experience. I've avoided Amazon because of their exclusivity clauses. Smashwords are far more supportive. What I'm hoping is to build a strong following through word of mouth and genuine reader reviews. The downside to that is that I have to put up with the one-star reviews of people who complained that my violent, double-figure body-count Pulp homage was too bloody. Aside from that, my following should be big enough to guarantee a living wage by the time my grandkids (yet to be born!) have retired.
Best of luck
The youngest of my grandkids just graduated from high school so there's no hope for me in that regard. I should have started writing at 20 instead of 60. If I had started in 1965 I would have been ready to pounce when the first wave of ebooks hit the beach. Luckily I now can afford to be a starving artist. Keep at it.
Thanks for sharing your experience, Jim. Entertaining and educational.