Monday, April 11

Writing Analysis: Who Do You Write Like?


Last December,  I was invited to submit my collection of short stories to ScoreIt!, an algorithm that compares stylistic distinctions to a library of books by other authors. The purpose of doing so might not be what you think. 

I wasn't interested in the analysis simply as a means of comparison because reviewers had already compared 50 States to various authors. Two of my favorites were provided by the IndieReader and OnlineBookClub. 

"Written in sparse, understated prose reminiscent of Elizabeth Strout’s ‘Olive Kitteridge,' Becker’s tightly focused stories pack a punch."— IndieReader 

"The author's storytelling bore a resemblance to the style of the acclaimed Russian short storyteller Anton Chekhov in brevity and addressing salient issues of human existence." — OnlineBookClub

You can't get much better than that. So why try ScoreIt! by Inkubate?

The premise behind ScoreIt! was to develop a comparative algorithm similar to those used by Apple, Spotify, and Pandora for musicians and songs, and apply it to authors and books. So, in theory, readers who like the style of one author will likely enjoy closely matched authors. 

For the author, it means ScoreIt! provides promotional connections and keyword insights that are almost impossible to imagine without. This was true for me. The algorithm cited two authors (usually, it cites three) that I would have never considered being similar (even after taking an online class by one of them).

According to ScoreIt!, the writing style in 50 States has characteristics most similar to David Baldacci (thrillers) and Heather Graham (romance) across vocabulary, expressive complexity, grammar, and tonal quality. This might seem like an odd combination for anyone familiar with both authors (or the genres), but not to me. Although broadly defined as literary fiction, about half of the stories in 50 States are thrillers, and several have romantic undertones (even if they aren't explicitly romance stories).

How to apply the ScoreIt! analysis. 

In speaking with Don Seitz, CEO of Inkubate, the best practice for debut authors is to review how similar authors market their books in terms of keywords, adjectives, and descriptors. By doing so, it is more likely those types of readers will discover your book and, more importantly, appreciate your writing style once they do. This will eventually lead to better reviews by people predisposed to like the work. 

One of my takeaways from the analysis was to mention more short thrillers from the book in its store description. The original description called out three of the 50 stories, only one of which was a thriller. The revision called out four stories, with two being thrillers (and one being a favorite of a Kirkus reviewer). Along with this change, it made sense to punch up the suspense and unpredictability of the work.

These changes eventually helped attract more attention to the book and contributed to 50 States breaking into the top 100 literary fiction short story bestsellers on Amazon in January — a milestone repeated in February and March — just before it received a first-place award for short stories from The BookFest.

Signing up For ScoreIt! by Inkubate. 

Look, I'm not certain all of my new readers are also Baldacci readers, but I did notice more readers who enjoy thrillers are picking up the anthology. In turn, they provide insight into better marketing based on the words they chose to describe the book: gripping, suspenseful, impactful, and poignant. 

I was originally introduced to ScoreIt! by Barnes & Noble Press but had also seen the service promoted by Bowker Identifier Services (ISBN brokers). Running the analysis on your work is an investment of about $100 (and there are multiple plans that cost more). The cursory plan includes a comparison between the book submitted and three bestsellers (usually by three different authors), search term suggestions, and an optional consultation with Don Seitz, CEO of Inkubate (for a limited time). You can sign up here

While I already understood the value of the findings, I did speak with Don to clarify a few points. Most importantly, I wanted to know if the algorithm considered the entire work or simply the sample provided. Don assured me that the whole book was considered in the analysis. 

We also spent considerable time discussing trends in publishing, how important it is for debut authors to find the right readers (as opposed to any readers), and how to better pinpoint what readers use as search terms when looking for their next read — topics that many debut authors never consider until well after writing their novels. I'm a bit different in having worked in marketing and communication for decades.

Overall, ScoreIt! is worth it for authors looking to fine tune their marketing efforts, especially on storefronts like Amazon. It's especially useful for improving the description, adding more keywords, and building some Amazon ads. It's not as useful, in my opinion, to use it for bragging rights. I enjoy Baldacci as an author, but prefer to think of my style and stories as my own. 

Of course, if someone who grabs a copy of 50 States is a Baldacci or Graham fan, I would be very interested in finding out what they think. Writing is, after all, a relationship between authors and readers. Good night and good luck.

Friday, February 11

Telling Stories: Voice Actor Brian Callanan


There’s a June event in West Seattle where hundreds of kids and parents turn out to run a 5k race and obstacle course — climbing over walls and crawling through mud. Think of it as a community-minded version of Tough Mudder or the Spartan Race that doubles as a fundraiser for Our Lady of Guadalupe. 

The event is called Loop the ‘Lupe because participants run a 1k course with seven obstacles — everything from spider webs to a squirt gun alley — five times. There is plenty of post-run entertainment too, live music and a beer garden, organized in part by the efforts of someone who has always seen success as a marathon. 

“After taking post-graduate courses at San Francisco State University, I couldn’t wait to jump into the world of television broadcast news in 1995,” explains Brian Callanan, event organizer. “I worked my way up from smaller markets like Roseburg, Oregon before breaking into a bigger market like Seattle and eventually joining The Seattle Channel in 2011. I’m glad I made that decision. I’ve been able to report on a variety of important local issues and connect with the area’s top political decision makers.”

His work has also garnered five Emmys in television broadcasting, a distinction Brian is quick to share with anyone and everyone who is part of the teams that made it happen. Listening to Brian talk about how he broke into broadcasting becomes a familiar story, too, even when he isn’t talking about TV journalism. All of his accomplishments started small. 

“I always wanted to get involved in voice acting, and I finally connected with my friend David H. Lawrence XVII,” says Brian. “He and Dan O’Day helped me learn how to record myself for audiobook work, but also how to edit my work and promote it.” 

So what started as a side hustle quickly turned into something bigger. Within the last seven years, Brian has narrated close to 80 books across all genres — from adventure and science fiction to nonfiction and romance. Generally, he takes on one title a month, which he says is a manageable pace. 

“My career took off when I narrated a noir thriller called ‘The Last Watchman Still Rides,’” says Brian. “It required a first-person, tough-guy narrator that a lot of authors need in a narrator. It works because while I’m a big fan of all kinds of books and don’t want to be typecast, noir thrillers are some of my favorites.”

On the tech side, Brian says he records and edits using the Studio One platform, with iZotope software for audio mastering, on an ASUS solid-state-drive laptop. The laptop has been a stalwart performer, especially because it runs without fans that could disrupt his performance. He also uses an AT2020+ microphone and highly recommends the course he took to break into the business, the ACX Masterclass. 

“Early on, I had one author who kept adding chapters to his book while I was in the process of narrating it. Those kinds of situations can get a bit tense,” said Brian. “But I’ve been fortunate to work with authors and rights holders who are very understanding. Mostly, I tend to avoid books that call for lightning-fast deadlines and narrators with foreign accents.” 

That might surprise some listeners given that his latest project, 50 States (my book), is a collection of short stories that called for hundreds of characters and scores of accents from all over the world. And, since the stories are not confined to a single genre, Brian had to approach each one with a fresh perspective.

“The main challenge of 50 States was simply re-setting and re-studying the needs of each story as I paused between them,” said Brian. “I had to take some longer breaks than usual just to get into a different mode of thinking about them.”

The challenge was worth his initial attraction to the project. The result is a collection of stories that have an outstanding serial quality to them.

“I liked the nod to the collective trauma we’ve been going through with ‘A Hole in the Wall,’ the sweetness of ‘Forget Me Nots,’ and the grittiness of stories like ‘The Best Life’ and ‘The Siren’s Call,” he said. “There’s a ton of good action in this book, along with some great moments to ponder. I’m excited to see what listeners think of it!”

Fortunately, this was one time Brian didn’t have to wait long. It only took a few days before Victor Dima, publisher of The Audiobook Blog, called out Brian’s performance as “absolutely incredible how many different characters he can bring to life and make them feel unique.” Dima gave the book a perfect 5 stars for the stories and narration.

In some ways, Dima’s review feels like a fitting finish line for the project Brian tackled one story at a time like every marathon he’s ever run. It doesn’t even matter how you want to use the metaphor. Brian is a broadcaster, emcee, auctioneer, community supporter, volunteer, family man, triathlete, and member of a rock band called The Superchargers. 

“I’m training for a half-marathon in March that one of my daughters dared me into,” says Brian. “We’ll see how it goes!”

I’m sure it will be a success. And, if nothing else, the perfect warmup for Loop the ‘Lupe in June. Good luck!


Saturday, January 22

Breaking 100: 50 States As A Bestseller

When I set my book sale schedule weeks ago, I knew mid-January 2022 would be special for 50 States. What I didn't realize was that the Kindle edition was going break the Top 100 Literary Short Stories

A few days after just bouncing around below the watermark — #189, #105, #168, #406 — 50 States suddenly came in a few places behind Stephen King, right next to Thomas Wolf and Ray Bradbury, and a couple of spots ahead of James Joyce. It was ranked #82 (subsequently ranked up and down between #89 and #64 at the time of this writing). It was a pretty amazing moment, with my wife excitedly telling me to grab a scene shot — as if seeing it listed there was a digital mirage or practical joke. Oh, I did. Several. 

It caught me by surprise, a very pleasant one. There were still a few things I expected to have in place. One of them was to sort out the various editions. So, I thought I might do this today for anyone curious. 

50 States - Print Editions 

First Edition / Gray Book (ISBN: 978-1006811159) - I affectionately call the first edition the gray book because, unlike newer editions, the back cover and spine are gray. Some standout elements are the gloss cover, graphic chapter dividers, and original book blurb. The book originally retailed for $16.99, but publishing costs forced me to raise the price to $18.99. Since the price is printed on the back cover, I decided to sunset this edition. There are still some copies out there and I have a few dozen on hand. Blurb is often listed as the publisher, but not on the book. The page count is 358. $16.99/$18.99 depending.

Spark Edition / Hardcover (ISBN: 9798985381122) - After a quality press check with a different printer, I turned to Ingram like many authors. This edition is a classic cloth hardcover with a dust jacket. The back cover features five of its early reviews on the cover and the revised book blurb on the flap. It's a very well-done book that looks sharp with a black back cover and spine. There are no graphic chapter dividers, but the paper is thicker and the font slightly larger. The page count is 378. This is the edition you'll find anywhere books are sold. Retail $34.99

Spark Edition / Trade Paperback (ISBN: 97989853811390) - With the grey book being sunset, it made sense to produce a new paperback edition with Ingram. The inside mirrors what you'll find in the hardcover edition, except with slightly thinner paper. Despite being 20 more pages than the grey book, its spine profile is thinner (but the paper is still strong). It also includes some early reviews on the back, along with a truncated book blurb and two-line bio. It's very well done, as good as any book on the market. This is the new edition you'll start seeing in bookstores. Retail $18.99

Amazon Edition / Trade Paperback (ISBN: 979-8774412730) - For those who don't know, Amazon assists authors and small publishers with its own press. There are some advantages to taking advantage of it. The quality is just as good as Ingram with slightly thicker paper. Other than its heft, there was less room to include information on the back cover (only three reviews as opposed to the five on Ingram) but adding an author photo was easy. It's a great-looking book with a much stronger spine. The title really pops. Another advantage. I haven't heard of a price increase yet. Retail $16.99

Amazon Edition / Laminate Hardcover (ISBN: 979-8985381115) - Amason's hardcover offering is a laminate hardcover (like textbooks, except matt) and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it looks and feels. It also left less room for information on the back cover and could possibly benefit from wider margins around the book blurbs and reviews, but the size, feel, and quality more than makeup for it. With a bold graphic title on the spine, this is the novelty edition that found a home on my downstairs bookshelves. I don't expect as many to be printed, making it even cooler. Retail $28.99

Everything else out there is digital, with the Kindle edition turning out to be the strongest driver. If you are one of the people who helped get it there, I cannot thank you enough. I'm grateful and hope you enjoy it. And for anyone interesting in signed copies, please consider purchasing them from bookstores that stocked them early. Their support really means so much to me.

Please stay tuned. This book's story is far from finished. The audiobook narrated by 5-time Emmy winner Brian Callanan is right around the corner. A new Kindle exclusive companion piece (about 100 pages) is in the hands of my editors. I'm close to finishing a first draft short story for my newsletter, due out in March. And, more importantly, I'd be grateful if you told your friends and family that there is something surprising about 50 States. That will keep this book's story alive too. Good night and good luck.

Thursday, January 6

Publishing Books: How To Learn The Hard Way


When I was a teenager, I used to head out to Red Rock Canyon alone or with friends or with family and hike, climb, or explore this seemingly infinite slice of desert wilderness that frames a 13-mile scenic drive. (I still do.) But what used to make those early journeys so memorable is I always had a knack for choosing the most difficult routes to whatever destination we had in mind.

One time, my friends and I were out there climbing one of the various formations, and I spotted what seemed like the quickest route. It was a 100-foot rock wall with natural handholds carved into the sandstone, so I didn't think twice. I started climbing. It started raining. And because I was too far up to head back, I had no other option than to keep going — one of the most challenging, most frightening climbs of my life (no ropes).

It wouldn't be the first time. My education. My companies. My magazines. My blogs. My social networks. My classes. My partnerships. Most were done the hard way. No surprise. My first book would be too.

My publishing path. The hard way. 

My company, Copywrite, Ink., is no stranger to publishing. We launched three publications we owned (shuttered one, sold one, still own one) and helped other publishers launch their own. So there was never any question that my company would publish my first fiction title and, possibly, subsequent titles. 

This was especially true because I knew my first book would be a collection of short stories, and I had this idea to include a graphic chapter divider between chapters, playing to the voyeuristic feel of some stories. So it was a matter of which manufacturing platform I would use. 

I chose Blurb. I chose it because it seemed like the easiest path to put out a book: free ISBN, print and digital distribution, etc. What caught my interest was Bookwright, which is a native app for Blurb, and especially good for books with graphics, illustrations, etc. If I were producing an illustrated children's book, I would consider them again. For 50 States, however, I'm already doing it differently. 

Lessons learned, and still climbing. 

1. If you have a publishing imprint, pass on the free ISBN. What authors or new indie publishers need to know before taking a free ISBN is that the printer or publishing partner (e.g., Blurb, Publishdrive, etc.) will list its own name as the publisher when the book is distributed. Amazon is a bit different. It will list it as independently published.

Purchase your ISBNs instead. They are not that expensive. You can purchase them in bulk, which is ideal because you'll need a new one for each format. Several companies can do it, but I'm using Bowker going forward. It is one of the best known and is very easy to use.

This will also negate a few other inconveniences with Blurb. Specifically, you cannot include an ISBN inside a Blurb-produced book because they are autogenerated during the process. And, if you do want to make a correction later, any modification will generate an entirely new ISBN, which is less than ideal. 

2. Always file for copyright before publication. Ingram Spark, Amazon, Blurb, etc. have made publishing so easy that you can publish before you file for a copyright. However, there may be instances later down the line when a copyright is required. Since it could take weeks or months before it is cleared (unless you pay a hefty expedite fee), you don't want to start the process when you need it. 

This did happen to me. My audiobook production was held up for a few weeks because the platform required copyright paperwork as evidence of rights. I was fortunate that I could demonstrate that I own the rights to my work before the copyright claim cleared, but trust me when I say having one sooner would have been a lot easier.

Likewise, make sure to submit your book to the Library of Congress ahead of time if it's eligible. (Note: digital exclusive books do not qualify for PCNs.) You can work to get a book cataloged after the fact, but it's much easier to use the pre-pub application system.  

3. Not all print and digital combinations are equal. I didn't know Blurb's digital editions are fixed format. A fixed format digital book makes a lot of sense for illustrated children's books. It's not ideal for a short story collection or novel, which works better with an auto-flow format. 

Almost immediately after publishing, I had to convert 50 States to an autoflow format fit for Kindle and then something that would work for Nook, Apple, Kobo, etc. There was no benefit in having Blurb distribute the book digitally, although I have left a fixed format edition on its site.

4. Kindle Unilimted is a Kindle Select exclusive. Allowing Blurb to release a digital version of 50 States negated my ability to take Kindle Select promotional opportunities for a test drive, including Kindle Unlimited. It would have been nice to reach that audience with the debut.

No worries. I'll have time to work it out. My next collection — a shorter 10-story collection that continues and intersects with some of the stories inside 50 States — will be released as a Kindle-only exclusive. I'm expecting to release it soon, shortly after or in conjunction with the audiobook edition of 50 States.

5. There are better cover options available elsewhere. The trade paperback published with the help of Blurb is a quality product. However, there were some limitations. The most obvious was the lack of a matte trade paperback. Again, a gloss cover is ideal for children's books, but I prefer matte for literature.

Since the release of my book, I've slowly shifted to asking online purchasers to order the Amazon print editions of 50 States — a trade paperback and laminate hardcover — or the newly released hardcover with dust jacket cover and trade paperback available elsewhere through Ingram Spark. For anyone ordering from me direct, I'm still selling a few dozen copies from the orginal run (as are a few bookstores). 

Incidentally, I did order a hardcover with a dust jacket copy from Blurb too. I have the only one that will ever be produced. There was no imprint on the spine and some pages were loose, which is why I turned to Ingram Spark for off-Amazon publishing. The new book looks great. 

Lessons learned, and enjoying the experience. 

I've been very fortunate that my book has been and continues to be well-received despite skipping a pre-publishing review period and amassing preorders. (I'll address those and other lessons another time.)

As for publishing, while there are other options, I'm leaning toward Amazon as a primary partner and Ingram Spark as a partner for all print outside of Amazon. Digital can be managed effortlessly with Apple, Nook, and Kobo direct. And then there are other vehicles like PublishDrive if you are interested in targeting libraries or other independent digital bookstores.

The most important thing is seeing steady book sales and satisfied readers at the end of the day. Everything else is just an experience, good or bad, to look back on and smile.

It isn't any different than climbing that rock wall when I was a kid. My friends might have found a different route during my struggle and beat me to the top, but it didn't detract from my, albeit foolhardy, accomplishment. It was an experience that taught me a lot more than reaching a destination. 

 

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