About jandunlap

"Archangels Book I: Heaven's Gate" is Jan's new Christian suspense novel that melds cutting-edge science with faith. She is also the author of "Saved by Gracie," her best-selling humorous spiritual memoir and the Birder Murder Mystery series that follows the adventures of ace birder/high school counselor Bob White, who has a bad habit of finding bodies when he birds. When she's not playing with fictional devices, Jan is a birdwatcher, a featured speaker, and the proud mother of five children. She welcomes visitors at jandunlap.com.

How to survive the book review blues

roses I have a love-hate relationship with book reviews.

Every time I get a good review, I’m happy. When I get a stellar review, I’m ecstatic. I feel like I’ve done what I hoped to do: I’ve connected with a reader and given them a journey they wouldn’t have experienced otherwise. When dog-lovers tell me they laughed, cried, and were inspired by my memoir Saved by Gracie: How a rough-and-tumble rescue dog dragged me back to health, happiness, and God, I feel blessed that my story reached and touched them. When reviewers rave that my supernatural thriller Heaven’s Gate: Archangels Book I made them want to stand up and cheer, I get goosebumps of joy.

All those multi-starred reviews on my books’ pages at amazon.com, Goodreads, or barnesandnoble.com reassure me that the hours I pour into my writing are worth it: my books entertain, educate, and illuminate, and, gosh darn, people like them.

wilted-roseAnd then there is the flip side of my love-hate relationship with book reviews.

When I get a review that says “this book wasn’t what I thought it would be about, so I stopped reading it after the first two chapters,” and therefore receives the lowest rating possible, I want to bang my head against a wall. “Then why did you bother to post a review?” I want to ask the disappointed reader, and then explain that because she mistook the book for something it wasn’t, my overall rating has plummeted, which will dissuade some readers from even reading the synopsis, let alone buying and reading the whole book.

I’ve also seen reviews that rate books poorly because the author’s basic premise contradicts what a particular reader-reviewer believes. Again, those low ratings may prevent the book from reaching the hands of readers who would appreciate and greatly benefit from it; because many people (and I’m one of them!) choose books based on others’ reviews, authors are at the mercy of those published reviews, even when they make no sense at all, or are based on the personal bias of the reviewer.

So what’s an author to do about that oh-so-necessary-but-can-be-disastrous need for reviews?

My answer can be summed up in one word: relax.

Then remind yourself of these three things:

  1. You wrote a book! So many people say they want to write a book, but you actually did it! AND it got published. Congratulations! Celebrate your accomplishment!
  2. You can’t please all the people all the time, and that’s especially true of readers. Some people just won’t ‘get’ it; others won’t like your writing style or your treatment of plot or subject. Some readers might be experiencing difficult life situations while they were reading your book and some of that negativity gets transferred to their reviewing. Bottom line: reviews are subjective, even when they intend to be objective.
  3. Your words will reach at least some of the people who need to read them, and they will bless you for it, whether or not you ever know it.

What do you do when you get the review blues?

You can only eat so much eggplant.

eggplantI’ve rediscovered the joy of vegetable gardening, thanks to our move to a warmer clime that allows for gardening year-round. As a result, I’ve acquired some hands-on experience with how my garden grows…or not. And, being the reflective person I am, I can’t help but apply those lessons to not only life in general, but also to life as a writer. So whether or not you’re a dig-in-the-dirt kind of person, I hope you’ll find some gems in the guidelines I’m culling from my veggies.

  1. Sow liberally and see what comes up. For my first crop of lettuce, I ignored the seed packet instructions and laid seeds thickly the whole length of the row. I wanted to be sure something came up, and my confidence didn’t match the packet’s. The result: I had all the lettuce I could eat, and then some. The next time I sowed lettuce, I followed the instructions and spaced fewer seeds farther apart. The result: nothing came up and my work was a wasted effort.

Writing take-away: when you’re new at writing, try it all. See what develops for you. It’s better to produce more than you can use than have no success at all.

  1. Thin the rows to get better results. When I noticed that the new plants were crowding each other, I pulled out the smaller ones to let the bigger ones get the full advantage of soil, sun, and water. I got healthier plants that produced more and for longer periods of time.

Writing take-away: Capitalize on what’s working for you. If your fiction isn’t doing well, focus on the self-help material that’s popular with your audience and helping your platform grow. Put your energy where you’re seeing the strongest results.

  1. Some seeds just won’t sprout. Get over it. Plant something else. For some reason, I couldn’t get snow peas to grow despite two tries. Instead of letting the soil lay unused, I planted beets, which turned into a bumper crop, forcing me to try lots of new great recipes using beets.

Writing take-away: If you just can’t find an audience for something you’ve written, it’s time to try a different approach, treatment, or subject. The new material you produce might prove an easy winner.

  1. You can only eat so much eggplant. I didn’t think I could get tired of eggplant parmesan and mixed veggie grills, but after this summer and fall, I know there really is a limit to how much eggplant I can eat. Next year, I will plant only one plant, or make a habit of giving excess produce to my neighbors much earlier in the season.

Writing take-away: You can get tired of writing in the same genre. When you just can’t face writing another devotional, or romance, or even a blog post about writing, take a break. Write something else. Binge on reading books. Watch all the movies you missed in the last year. Then a day will come that you really want to write in your genre again. You’ll feel fresh and your writing will benefit.

By the way, if anyone wants eggplant, let me know…

Kick-start your career with anthologies

Smiling Group of ProfessionalsIf you’re new to the authoring game, here’s a way to find more readers who might be interested in your work: contribute to an anthology.

While it may not produce any income for you, the non-financial rewards are well worth your involvement. Consider the following reasons to contribute an essay, short story, or excerpt the next time you have the opportunity to participate in a project that uses the work of multiple authors:

  1. Your work load is significantly less demanding. It’s (generally) a lot easier to produce a short piece when someone else gives you the parameters for writing than when you have to do all the creative work of coming up with an idea and choosing the treatment or genre, let alone actually write the piece.
  2. You control your time commitment. Minimally, you write a piece to submit and you’re done. You don’t have to do the editing or manage the publication process, hound the other contributors to get their pieces done, or design and implement the marketing plan. If you want to help with marketing, you can decide how much of your time you want to offer; it’s not your baby alone as when you’re the sole author.
  3. Your work will be exposed to new readers when fans of the other contributors read your piece. One of the smartest things I did as a fledgling author of a cozy mystery series was to contribute a short story to a mystery anthology edited by a friend of mine. It immediately granted me access to new readers in my target audience, and thanks to my friend’s reputation, it also gave me credentials as a good writer. Either of those results alone would have been worth my contribution; combined, they were a win-win proposition that gave me a big boost as a new author.
  4. Chances are good that the other authors will be doing some marketing of their own for the anthology, which means you get more publicity than you alone could produce. Again, it’s more exposure for you in readers’ circles beyond your own fans.
  5. You have an excellent opportunity to network with other authors when your work appears with theirs in the anthology. At the launch party for my friend’s anthology, I met more than a dozen authors working in my genre in my metro area. Many of them were local icons. A few of them were nationally known authors. Some were newcomers, like me. It was a genuine pleasure to meet them all and hear their stories of career development or marketing snafus. I was honored and humbled to be included in their ranks, and that experience reminded me that as a newbie, I had much to learn and a long way to go in my own writing journey. Moral support like that is essential for a new author, and the opportunity to learn from those who are also on the road is priceless.

Have you considered contributing to an anthology?

How I boosted my book to 30x more people

ebookI finally bit the bullet. I boosted a post on Facebook.

For years, I’ve seen that annoying little message you get on your author page about paying to boost your posts. Because I’m cheap (and still suspicious of social media’s REAL intent, i.e. who needs to know what I buy, who I connect with, and what I like? Creepy…), I refused to give it a try. If my books can’t make it on their own merits, so be it – I’ll be content with small audiences, extremely limited financial reward, and the personal gratification that I haven’t caved to crass commercialism.

And then last month after I started getting consistent raves about my new thriller “Heaven’s Gate,” I thought, “What the heck. It’s only $20.”

Actually, it ended up being $60, since I decided if I was going to experiment, I wanted to see what a week of boosted posts could do rather than one day, which is what $20 will buy. Knowing that most buyers need to be exposed to a product seven times before they buy (do you know the Rule of Seven?), I figured one day of boosting was throwing away cash, but seven days might just convert into some sales. I can now tell you, without reservation, that $60 worth of boosting on Facebook can go a long way in giving your book exposure and building your audience, and now I can’t wait to give my other books the same treatment.

Here are the numbers from my week-long experiment:

  1. Organic reach peaked at 305 on Day 7, while paid reach was 9045. That’s 30x more people reached than my normal posting! Not only that, but thanks to my OCD tendencies, I checked one last time on Day 10 (remember I only paid for 7 days of boosting) and was happy to see a new total of 9432. The post was still being shared after my paid boosting! Score!
  2. I monitored my book’s print and ebook rankings on my amazon Author Central page (you do have one of these, right?) for the boosting’s duration. By Day 6, my ebook ranking had reached 924 in the Paranormal category after starting on Day 1 at 3366; the biggest jump was from Day 1 to Day 2, which tells me that first burst of posting made an impact that powered the rest of the week. Recalling the Rule of Seven and the impact of repeated impressions, though, I looked again on Day 18, only to find my ebook ranking better than ever at 831!
  3. As for print, my book moved from its initial 76,331 ranking to 8535 on Day 5. Clearly, somebody was paying attention.

Even knowing that rankings are a superficial measure (rankings don’t equal sale units), I decided that post boosting may not be such a bad idea for marketing after all. While the actual sales numbers are still in question, I know for a fact that more people have seen my book’s cover thanks to post boosting than would have otherwise. And that’s one step closer to buying my book.

Have you tried Facebook post boosting? What was your experience?

And the Tweet goes on…

Red HotA few months ago, I enthused in this space about a book I’d read at my agent’s suggestion. Now I’m going to give you a follow-up, because reading Red Hot Internet Publicity has truly changed my marketing game; unlike a lot of books that sound great and helpful while I’m reading them, RHIP is proving itself to be one of those books that truly make a difference in my career. In other words, its tips WORK and you can actually DO them.

(Or am I the only person on earth who finds it difficult to implement ‘great ideas’ that use apps I can’t understand, or require more financial investment when my writing income is already in the red, or simply involve too many steps to even remember?)

This is what I’ve accomplished since my post “Learning New Marketing Tricks” appeared here two months ago: I’ve more than doubled my Twitter followers from 217 to 500+ by discovering new audiences on this one social network, and my exposure (impressions) has increased tenfold!

twitter-bird-light-bgs.pngThe route I’ve taken involves the RHIP suggestion to engage in group chats, which has introduced me to new contacts with similar interests. Even just a few Tweets back and forth produce new followers, and sometimes that generates ideas for writing posts on other networks. Perhaps even more significant is my new habit of scrolling every day through the topics that are currently trending on Twitter. I find a few to which I can contribute original Tweets, and then comment on others in that stream. Again, it only takes a few minutes, but it always generates new followers.

Finally, I’m insistent on using hashtags with every Tweet I make, and the more hashtags, the more likely it is that I’ll reach into new markets. Before I started focusing on Twitter, my tweeting impact was dismal – maybe making only a couple hundred impressions (read that as ‘your name showing up in the Twitter universe’) a week. These days, I’m getting a thousand impressions a day – that’s a lot of times my name is showing up in the Twitter stream, and that connects me to large groups of people I might otherwise not have encountered. Some of those people have now subscribed to my newsletter and bought my books; by following them back, I’ve found more threads of conversation and topics in which I can engage. Throughout it all, I constantly remind myself of my brand – of my unique voice – and make sure my Tweets reflect that. So far, I’m delighted with the results.

Hourglass --- Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

Hourglass — Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

So delighted, in fact, that I’m thinking I should double my time on Twitter…from 30 minutes a day to 60 minutes.

That’s right – 30 minutes a day have yielded me a breakthrough in exposure, and since getting my name and brand ‘out there’ is so important for making sales, those 30 minutes pack more of a marketing wallop than any other 30-minute marketing I can do.

Isn’t it great when something you try really works?

Don’t ride . . . DRIVE the train!

trainAbout fifteen years ago, while taking a graduate course in Spirituality and Leadership, I had a professor who presented me with one of the most motivational sayings I’ve ever encountered: “Don’t just ride the train, be the engineer!”

Okay, maybe not the most theological statement I heard in the course of my graduate program, but it lit up my brain in ways I’d rarely experienced since finishing my undergrad degree decades earlier. Knowing myself to be an introvert and nonconfrontational, I’d always preferred to have someone else take the lead in projects at work; the only role in which I felt confident enough to be in charge was as a mother to my children. (Looking back, I can only say that ignorance was truly bliss, but that’s another post or two or a thousand.)

But the moment my professor uttered that directive, I had an epiphany that any writing career I wanted to pursue was going to demand that I drive the train, and not just ride along on whatever might come my way. As a result, I began to view writing as a vehicle I would steer, and, when necessary, refuel with energy and hard work. I also accepted that no one else cared as much as I did whether that train finally arrived; not even the support of spouse, family and friends (as important as that is!) would bring that train into the station if I didn’t commit myself to being the engineer.

I share this story with you because every writer needs to know that writing requires you to make that train your own: if you want to be successfully published, you have to learn the business, and these days, that means EVERY aspect of the business: writing craft, understanding your audience, marketing, platform building, travel requirements, publishing trends. Gone are the days when your publisher says, “Thanks for writing this swell book. We’ll take it from here.” Even your agent – if you’re fortunate enough to land an agent – can’t hold your hand through every stage of book development, because she or he is swamped just trying to navigate a path to publishers through all the layers of the industry – layers which can shoot down a book proposal for reasons of marketing or audience or numbers of your social followers, which may have nothing to do with the actual value of the book you’re creating.

You have to take ownership of your career. You have to drive the train to where you want it to go.

And that may be the biggest plus of being the engineer – you can CHOOSE where you want your career to go. It will take hard work and learning from the experience itself, but if you find you’re being called to write romance instead of devotionals, or humor instead of profiles, or politics instead of fiction, you can steer that train of your writing career onto different tracks, and see where it takes you. Maybe it will only be a short detour and you’ll end up at your original destination. That’s great! Then again, it may be a whole new journey on the writing rails.

Are you ready to drive the train?

How to make your readers SUPERfans!

supermanWhen you have a book published – be it in print or ebook – you want to get as much publicity as possible to sell copies, right?

Right!

Do your fans know this?

Well, yes, I think they do.

You THINK they do?

Here’s my suggestion: tell them you need their help to generate that publicity. You need their word-of-mouth to help your book get launched amidst the thousands of books that are available.

You need to give them the 3 Rs of superfans: Read, Review, and maybe most importantly, Rave!

With the launch of my newest suspense novel, Heaven’s Gate, I put together a launch team of thirty readers who agreed to read and post a review on amazon.com and whatever other social networks they had, along with any word-of-mouth recommendations they might be able to give. Like many writers, I’m not especially fond of online marketing because it takes a lot of my time, but the fact is, writers in the 21st century need to cultivate their presence on it. (I, personally, have had varying success with different networks, but I continue to learn and work at it because I’ve seen its value at different times. Let’s face it, if there’s a gathering of readers anywhere – even online – don’t you think an author would be remiss to ignore it?) What I’ve discovered since my book debuted last month, however, has added another piece to my formula of reading and reviewing: you need readers to RAVE about a book to influence others to buy.

So far, maybe this seems evident to you, but this next comment might catch your attention: I learned that you need to tell your readers what to write. I don’t mean give them a script – you  want their honest reaction. But what you need to do is empower your readers to write raving reviews, which result from two things: an awesome reading experience (which you have crafted with your book!) and a vocabulary that will reinforce what you want them to say.

Simply suggest key words you’d like your reviewers to use.

At first, I felt odd suggesting words to my readers to use in constructing their reviews. Then I realized that key words are…well…key. Keys, actually, to triggering the all-important call-to-action that every author needs to make to potential readers: You Need To Buy This Book Now. And guess what? Your reviewers are often very grateful to have your suggestions, because they want to write a strong review for you, but are often lacking in promotional experience and don’t know how to best help you with their review. I asked my reviewers to use the words suspense, supernatural, Archangels series, faith and science, String theory, fast ride, and thriller. They did, and as a result, the reviews for Heaven’s Gate present a consistent rave of being a book you can’t put down, which has cued new readers to order the book.ebook

Remember, your fans want you to succeed. Making it easier for them to help you is the least you can do!