Why I Work on My Own Website

Web Designer: I’ll create a knockout site for your books for only $50,000.

Me: Will it sell $50,000 worth of books?

Web Designer: Probably not.

Me: Then what good is it?

Web Designer: It will get me more work from the people who see it.

Me: Where does that leave me?

Web Designer: Where you are now with a website that looks like the inside of the kitchen junk drawer.

I run that conversation through my head every time I redesign my website and realize that redesigning it didn’t do any good. In fact, I run a similar conversation through my head any time somebody proposes a great marketing deal for authors: basically, I ask, will this promotion, ad, or publicity package sell more books than it costs me?

If not, then I’m going to be running at a loss in a way that I can’t, as the old joke goes, make up on volume.

The home page of my website has a dark picture of a forbidding forest. Seriously, that tells you more about me than thousands of words. Also, it weeds out the kind of people who are scared of walking into such a forest. If they are, they won’t like my books.

Will it sell any books? Probably not. Writing gurus say every writer needs a website, preferably one they can charge $50,000 to design. So what’s it for? Presence. However, you’ll see just how much presence you’re getting by noting that the average length of your site’s visits is less than a second. Wow: bots and speed readers.

And yet, magazine and book publishers won’t look at you unless you have a website that they probably won’t look at. They just need to see that you have it.

Bookselling is really quite humorous if you last long enough to see how it works.


New website (yeah, I know, I said I was through with them)

My first websites were with Homestead. I especially liked their editor which gave me pinpoint control of everything on the page. At one point, when money was tight, I canceled all that. More recently, my website was hosted by GoDaddy. Not bad, though the editor wasn’t as cool as Homestead’s. Like my old Homestead site, the GoDaddy site had a featured domain name and some add on stuff that raised the price over time until, as I mentioned in this blog before, it just got too danged expensive.

Then, too, changes at Amazon impacted our book sales in a negative way while I was paying $100000000 for cancer radiation treatments and having no luck whatsoever getting another novel up and running. So, goodbye to GoDaddy.

Okay, the novel Fate’s Arrows is finally in the editing/formatting stages and I think it’s going to be okay. So, hello to Homestead again, this time without a unique domain name and a cheaper package. I’m still working on getting bugs, typos, and other glitches out of the site. If you any problems with it, let me know.

Will the site sell books? Maybe a few. Readers seem to expect authors to have websites even though most of an authors’ books aren’t usually sold off the site. Heck, maybe it’s a vanity thing. We’ll see how it goes.



I spend more time tinkering with stuff than writing stuff

Some time ago, I read a post in the late Pat Conroy’s blog in which he thanked his publicity team from his publisher. No wonder he sells so many copies. His team was bigger than my neighborhood.

Most of us don’t have a publicity team, so we try to do it ourselves. Frankly, we like to think that our strong points as authors are the books we produce. Our weak points are creating ads, blog posts, and scintillating website copy. But we try.

I just finished reading an author’s book that came out several years ago from a sizeable publisher. When I checked her website, I was surprised to see that it had been more or less dormant for three years. Maybe she can afford to let it go until her next book comes out. But most of us can’t. So, if we have blogs, we try to post often. If we have websites, we keep tinkering with them in hopes that visitors will be lured back with fresh stuff to read.

Sometimes we have real news. I recently announced the new hardcover editions of Conjure Woman’s Cat, Eulalie and Washerwoman, Lena, and a collection of short stories called Widely Scattered Ghosts.

A few days ago, AudioFile Magazine posted a favorable review of the Audiobook edition of Lena.  Sometimes we have to rely on back-up materials, in my case, I often post pictures of the Florida Panhandle where my books are set and recently posted an opinion about the bankruptcy of white supremacy. Frankly, once we were out of the Jim Crow era, I didn’t expect to see it again.

Lately, tinkering hasn’t been enough. Book sales have been down for a while for many self-published and small-press authors. I’m glad it’s not just me, but knowing that doesn’t tell me what to do to fix it.  Some changes have hurt us. One is the fact that Amazon has changed its giveaways so that they work less well for small-press and self-published authors. GoodReads giveaways used to be free; now they cost over $100. Sure, both sites need to make money for what they offer, but they are doing so at small-press authors’ expense. That means, I can no longer afford to run giveaways on either site, and that’s a great loss of exposure.

Fewer people seem to be posting reviews of small-press authors’ books these days. Needless to say, this looks bad when prospective readers come to a book’s listing page on Amazon and see almost no reader comments. On the plus side, people are leaving more reviews on Audible than before, and that helps generate interest in our audiobook editions.

Some authors ask for reviews on their blogs, websites, Facebook, and Twitter. I don’t like doing that. For one thing, it seems amateurish. Well-known authors certainly don’t try to shame readers into posting reviews on GoodReads, Amazon, and Barnes & Noble. Frankly, I don’t think readers should feel an obligation to post a reader review. While I wish they would, I don’t fault them for not doing it.

In the last year or so, many book newsletters that promote books on sale have been charging more, expecting a larger number of Amazon reviews, and–in spite of that–have brought lower sales. I won’t say this sales method has dried up, but it seems that way. Yet, telling readers I can’t get into newsletters because they aren’t reviewing my books seems wrong.

I do fault many media sites who talk about the best books of the year, post lists of upcoming books to consider, and in late summer start creating their top books of the year lists. Most, if not all of them, ignore small-press books. So what you have is the best books from publishers like HarperCollins, Penguin, and Hachette. Most publishers and their books are off the radar. These lists offer a lot of exposure throughout the year, though I have to say, they are promoting books that don’t need any help. Those books that could benefit the most from, say, a list of the best beach reads or best books of the year (so far), aren’t even considered.

To some extent, I think many small-press and self-published authors are in a hurry: the books are printed as soon as they’re finished and edited. Instead, they should have advance copies ready for review sites that expect to see prospective books four months prior to publication. Mainstream sites require this. Then, the hardbacks need to be issued first–which is standard–followed by Kindle editions and then many months later by paperbacks. Why? Because this is the way big publishers work and when we don’t do things this way, we lose exposure and look like also-rans.

What this all means for small-press and self-published writers is finding ways to cut back. Cutting back, of course, reduces their books’ exposure. One of the first things to go will probably be the website. If it costs more than an author makes from royalties in a year, it’s not pulling its weight. And of course, none of us wants to run in the red. In other cases, small publishers may close their doors because the time and expense of reading, editing, formatting, and publishing new titles are no longer viable. I think this is a sad thing for many reasons, among them, being allowing the conglomerates to publish/control the books we read rather than having a strong grassroots competition from indies of all kinds.

I read a larger number of books every year, most from BIG PUBLISHERS. Why? Those are the books I hear about and those are the books with a lot of Amazon and GoodReads reviews. Perhaps most of you find your books the same way. What I hope, though, is that when readers find a small-press or self-published book they like, they will tell their friends about it, mention on Facebook that they enjoyed it, say something in their blogs about it, and consider posting a review on Amazon, GoodReads, and Barnes & Noble. This support helps authors stay in business and write more books that will also catch your attention. And, it keeps the conglomerate publishers from controlling everything we read!

As those old two guys on the old Bartles & Jaymes TV wine cooler commercials used to say, “thank you for your support.”









Is the blog on your website empty or out of date?

If the answer is “yes,” then why is “blog” a menu selection? I see out of date blogs a lot on writers’ sites, social service organization sites, and environmental group sites every week. Sure, they’re a lot of work even if they’re only updated once a month. Perhaps they were started when writers were less famous and had more time or when volunteer groups happened to have somebody on hand to write a blog who has since left the organization.

When I visit a social service or environmental group and see that the latest post is two or three years old, my first thought is, “Have you people done nothing since that post worth talking about?”

I realize that social service and environmental groups have to be more careful than other bloggers because they don’t have to luxury of posting rants or even reasonable debates because such things are construed as the voice of the organization rather than how the blogger happened to be feeling one day. So, most likely, blog posts have to be approved by upper management–or by the publicity department–and that can be time-consuming. However, I think an out-of-date blog creates about as much damage as any inadvertent post that headquarters may not like.

Much better to remove the “blog” menu selection than to leave it there and have people think you’re lazy and/or have nothing to say.

Writers get busy, especially those who are on the faculty of a college, on the board of one or more writers’ groups, or are charged with organizing writing workshops and conventions. The amusing thing is, many writers proclaim on their web sites that they write daily. That said, how long could it possibly take to add a hundred words to a blog? When a writer’s blog is empty, I feel cheated, especially if they haven’t come out with a new book in a while or been interviewed in a writer’s magazine. “What are you thinking about these days?” I want to ask. An out of date blog makes me think the answer to that question is “nothing.”

It may seem like a little thing, but that empty or abandoned blog on the writer’s or organization’s website is causing a lot more damage than most people realize.




Indie Authors – The Publicity Dilemma

“Most books, both traditionally published and self-published, don’t sell well.” – Mark Coker, Smashwords founder

Free Kindle Book
Free Kindle Book

Self-publishing has made the world of books more democratic. Authors who never could find an agent or a publisher’s editor to give their books a chance in the traditional publishing world can now publish and distribute their books through such platforms as Smashwords, Kindle, and CreateSpace.

But then what?

While self-published and small press authors are no longer the black sheep who couldn’t get published by a “real publisher,” book marketing for indie authors partly includes re-training the reading public and partly creating a platform that makes the books worth the time and cost to the reader.

Retraining the Public

Free Kindle Book
Free Kindle Book

When I talk to friends who are not authors, they tell me that 99.99% of the books they buy are traditionally published books from widely known publishers and authors that they heard about from friends, feature stories in newspapers and online publications, and from reviews by professional reviewers. While, book bloggers, social media, and reader reviews are making a dent in reader reliance on old-style marketing techniques, people tend to buy and read what they’ve always bought and read unless we show them something better.

I’m a writer and not a marketing expert, so I’m not going to try and compete with advice you can get from books like the two free Kindle books by Smashwords founder Mark Coker. (If you don’t own a Kindle, download the free “Kindle for PC” application from Amazon and read the books on your computer screen.) Otherwise, here are a few thoughts:

  • Yes, we need to show friends and other prospective readers samples of our work so they’ll see that it’s good. But we also need to talk about other self-published and small press books to let people know there’s a lot of stuff to read out there that’s not coming from giant, traditional publishers. Talk about the authors you’ve discovered in the genres you know your friends like.
  • Yes, we need to converse with other people in “real life” and in the social media, but unless (or until) you’re a celebrity, most people other than your closest friends don’t care what you’re having for dinner tonight or how many times a day your cat threw up a hairball. We need to be accessible while maintaining the ability to morph our off-line and online presence into that of a professional writer.

Platform and Presentation

Naturally, we need to begin with the best book we can write and design. While a small press will usually provide professional editing, formatting and cover design, you will either have to learn how to do such things or pay somebody else to do them if you self-publish.

claytonpublishSince the book will be competing with professionally edited and designed books, asking your kids to create the cover artwork with crayons or your spouse to look through the manuscript for typos isn’t going to cut it. Part of your investment in your book may well include hiring a professional cover designer and editor or finding some very talented beginners or students who will provide great work at a lower cost. Maybe you can barter with other professionals: you write their news releases and they copy edit your books.

There’s a learning curve with professional-level self-publishing. I’m wary of many of the online services that offer help. Perhaps  I’m cynical and think that after I pay $500 for somebody to arrange a blogging tour, will I break even when/if the book starts to sell. Novelist Melinda Clayton has done some of our self-publishing homework for us in her recently published Self-publishing Made Simple: A How-to Guide for the Non-tech-savvy Among Us. Here are a few more thoughts:

  • Developing an online persona in blogs, social media sites, and our own websites can easily trap us into an overall approach that appears to be ALL ABOUT ME. While we’re writing the book, we’re focused on the story and how can best tell it. Sure, some people are curious about such things. But, too much of that, and their eyes glaze over.
  • Yes, an author’s fame helps sell books. Some people will buy everything their favorite author writes as long as it’s good. Prospective new readers will, however, read the reviews, the interviews and the feature stories about an author’s new book. When presented with thousands of prospective books a month, most of us are more likely to reject a book than to try it out. Why? We don’t have time to study each book in depth, so we weed them out quickly. . .wrong price, wrong genre, uninteresting story, unattractive cover. In short, there’s nothing in it for us. Take your best shot fast with something interesting that stops that rejection train.
  • This leads to the true focus of our pitch. It’s not ALL ABOUT ME, it’s ALL ABOUT YOU. We need to show prospective readers the book’s features and benefits. Show them in everything you say and do, including the book’s online description and back-cover copy, what’s in it for them.
  • Avoid blog interviews that rely on generic questions unless there’s a wide variety of them and you get to choose which ones to answer. More often than not, generic questions such as When did you first know you wanted to be a writer and Are you a plotter or a pantser make you sound like an amateur. Plus, they focus on you, your issues, and your writer’s journey rather than what’s in the book for the reader to enjoy.
  • Readers were attracted to Rowling's books before they were attracted to her story about writing them. he story in your novel comes before the story of your life.
    Readers were attracted to Rowling’s books before they were attracted to her story about writing them. The story in your novel comes before the story of your life.

    Sorry about this, but saying you’re a work-at-home mom, an avid reader, or a dad who makes up bedtime stories for his kids isn’t going to sell your book. First, there’s nothing unique about any of that. Those are not the prerequisites for becoming a writer no matter how important they are in your own life. Second, focusing on your personal life is still ALL ABOUT ME. Focus on hobbies, avocations, and career information that not only shows the reader you’re deeply involved and knowledgeable about the people, places and themes in your books, but that you share a common ground.

  • Success Breeds Interest. That’s a long-time proverb from management and supervision courses. I think it’s true of writers and how they relate to the public. Even if we’re not selling loads of books, being negative online about one’s lot in life doesn’t make us very attractive. Obviously, lack-of-success probably breeds apathy. So, a positive approach is the basis of a successful platform. Many writers disagree with me, but I think it’s bad form to ask for reviews and for readers to tell their friends about your book. That sounds like lack of success to me for, if people like your book, they’ll spread the word without being asked. If you’re having trouble with your publisher, your editor, your cover designer, with Amazon, or with anyone else, save comments about that to writers’ forums and private messages. There’s a double standard here, I know: if J.K. Rowling sues somebody, it’s news–if indie writers complain, it’s unattractive and unsuccessful sour grapes. Don’t bash your publisher online.
  • You are not a charity case even if you’re broke. When I worked with nonprofit organizations, a lot of executive directors thought that if they simply announced an event, the public would show up in record numbers. Why? Because the charity or museum is a good cause. Well, there are hundreds of good causes out there, so using that as one’s rationale isn’t going to draw people to weekend events. Nonprofits have to sell the event. What wonders will the public experience by attending it? What’s in it for them? We show our lack of professionalism and continue the ALL ABOUT ME mindset if we present ourselves as people who need to be rescued rather than professional writers to be read if we focus our efforts on asking people to help us succeed. This kind of sentimentalism isn’t going to sell books. Count on it. If you say you’re broke, it suggests that you’re not any good.

If you’re a writer, best of luck finding the combination of publicity techniques and approaches that work for you. If you’re a reader, remember that those of us who focus on storytelling don’t always know how to tell you about our stories.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of magical realism novels, including “Lena.”

Why I review the books I review

Truth be told, if my name were James Patterson and/or if I worked for the New York Times, a fair number of readers might be waiting to see what I (or my newspaper) had to say about “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” or “Frankenstein: Lost Souls.”

But I’m not and I don’t.

I’ll probably read “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest” because I enjoyed the late Stieg Larsson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” I probably won’t review it, though, because by the time I get around to reading it adding one more review to a slough of them on Amazon or GoodReads just isn’t going to matter.

More importantly, though, is the fact that Stieg Larsson’s books don’t need any help, nor do they need any cautionary words or warnings. But small-press and self-published authors do need publicity, so I’m going to focus on novels from those sources when I find books I like.

I have no delusions of grandeur about this. My review isn’t going to catapult an unknown author onto the New York Times bestseller list. The book world runs on publicity. The trouble is, those who don’t need it keep getting more of it. Those who do need it get very little of it because they’re not already famous.

This is one of those paradoxes that drives authors nuts. “Why,” they ask, “is there a million dollar marketing budget for a book that’s going to become a bestseller with no marketing at all?” And, “Why are a hundred reviewers lining up to review the last James Patterson book when, really, everything that could be said about it has already been said?”

Mob instinct, I would say.

I would much rather offer my humble opinion about a book you might not hear about at all unless you chance upon my blog review or my GoodReads review. Perhaps you will find a title you like and you’ll buy a copy. After you read it, you might tell your friends about it.

The authors of the books I review may have worked for a year or two writing their books. In some cases, they struggled with their manuscripts off and on for decades. I think they deserve a chance to be read. That’s why I review them.