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Author: Iola

I provide professional freelance manuscript assessment, copyediting and proofreading services for writers of Christian fiction and non-fiction books, stories and articles. I also review Christian novels at www.christianreads.blogspot.com.

Understanding Amazon Community Guidelines

Reviewing 101: Understanding Amazon Community Guidelines

There is a lot of confusion regarding what is permitted in terms of online reviewing. This isn’t helped by the fact that each site has their own rules, and some enforce them more than others. Today I’m going to take you through the Amazon Community Guidelines, which cover writing reviews. I’ve chosen Amazon because for several reasons:

  • Amazon is the biggest online retail site.
  • Amazon is the site authors most want (and need reviews on).
  • Amazon has the most reviewers (over 20 million).
  • Amazon has the most product reviews.
  • It’s also the site I know best.

Amazon has clear reviewing guidelines and will take action to remove reviews that contravene the guidelines. Amazon gets a lot of attention regarding “fake” reviews (which exist in greater numbers than most people realise) and “bully” reviewers (who are far less common than the media implies).

Amazon’s focus used to be on what was not allowed, including:

  • Objectionable material
  • Inappropriate content
  • Off-topic information
  • Promotional material.

Amazon have now rephrased their rules to focus on the positive. The Amazon Community Guidelines say:

Eligibility

Only customers can review. An Amazon.com customer is (currently) defined as someone who has spent $50 on Amazon.com in the last year. Other Amazon sites have similar spending requirements. This isn’t to deter honest reviewers, but to make it harder for fake reviewers to set up multiple reviewing accounts.

Be Helpful and Relevant

That should be obvious! It means reviewers should focus their reviews on the product. Information on price, packaging, shipping or the seller aren’t considered relevant to customer reviews, as Amazon has other forums for offering feedback on sellers or packaging.

Amazon Community Guidelines don’t permit links to external websites (including your own). Amazon won’t delete a review with external links, but it will delete the link and replace it with […].

Respect Others

Amazon do not permit swearing, calling people names, using inappropriate language (like calling someone an idiot or a nazi), or promotion of illegal conduct.

Customers are also not permitted to post from multiple accounts, or to coordinate with others. This means sellers (including authors) can’t ask their fans to upvote or downvote specific reviews, or report them for abuse in an effort to get the review deleted.

Customers can disagree with others as long as it’s done respectfully, without name-calling, without attacking the other person, and without posting content that invades someone’s privacy.

Promotional and Commercial Solicitations

Customer reviews are meant to be just that: customer reviews. They are not meant to be a way for sellers (including authors) to promote their products. Amazon will therefore delete reviews they consider promotional.

This specifically includes posting content (i.e. reviewing) your own products (books), or those of a close family member, friend, or business associate. There is ongoing debate as to how Amazon decides a reviewer is “close” to a seller, but here are my views:

  • Reviewer and author use the same IP address.
  • Author has gifted the book to the reviewer via Amazon.
  • Author quotes the reviewer in Editorial Reviews.
  • Author thanks the reviewer in the Acknowledgements to their book.
  • Author identifies the reviewer as their editor, cover designer, or other business associate.

Amazon say they do not track users social media connections (e.g. Facebook friends), but Amazon owns Goodreads which does allow linking to your Facebook account.

Amazon also does not allow:

  • Reviews of competitor’s books (although “competitor is not defined. Does this mean authors can’t review? We’ll discuss that in a future post).
  • Reviews in exchange for compensation of any kind (i.e. paid reviews).

Authors may provide reviewers with a free copy of the book (paperback or ebook), but the book must be freely given without any expectation of a review. This isn’t actually a bad thing: if you offer a reviewer a book and they don’t review it, it’s probably because they either haven’t read it or didn’t like it.

If you find reviews which include inappropriate information (e.g. saying the book is too expensive, or saying it arrived damaged), you can Report Abuse.

What is Report Abuse?

If you look at the bottom of any Amazon review (except one you’ve written), you will see three options: Helpful, Comment, and Report Abuse. If you believe a review contravenes the Amazon Community Guidelines in some way, click Report Abuse. You used to be able to give a reason, but Amazon now currently doesn’t give this option.

If you are given the option to say why the review is inappropriate. It’s best if you mention a specific reason that is against the guidelines (e.g. the review is self-promotion, the review is written by the author/editor, the review is about price or delivery and not about the product, the review includes spiteful remarks about the author).

This feature can be used by anyone, author or reader. If, as an author, you believe the review is against the Amazon Community Guidelines or Conditions of Use (often referred to as the Terms of Service, or TOS), this is the responsible and ethical way to report it, rather than leaving a comment on the review. Note that Amazon do not remove reviews simply because they are critical—they must contravene Community Guidelines.

It usually takes several reports from different people before a review is removed (although I don’t know exactly how many). However, sometimes the response is extremely fast: I once reported a review for soliciting helpful votes (which is against the guidelines), and the review had been edited by Amazon within half an hour to remove the promotional content.

Of course, the big question is: What is promotional content?

We will look at that in more detail next week.

Meanwhile, are you aware of the Amazon Community Guidelines? What do you consider promotional content?

Book Reviewing 101 | How to Ask Bloggers for Book Reviews

Book Reviewing 101 | How to Ask Bloggers for Book Reviews

My previous post discussed how to get honest book reviews (answer: Ask). This week I’m looking at some of the finer points of how to approach potential book reviewers, especially bloggers.

First, and most important …

Don’t ask them to review something completely inappropriate

Please don’t waste the reviewer’s time by asking them to review something completely inappropriate.

If their Amazon profile says they don’t accept book review requests, don’t ask. If their blog page says no vanity publishers and your publisher is Tate or WestBow Press, don’t ask.

And only pitch your book to a reviewer who reviews in the same genre: as a reviewer of Christian fiction, I’m definitely not interested in your polytheistic inspirational, or your raunchy erotica (yes, I’ve been offered both). I’m not interested in your non-fiction, and probably not interested in your picture book.

Follow their review policy

As a general guide, it’s best to send a query first and follow that up with the ebook if the reviewer agrees to review your title. Don’t just send your book and then complain the reviewer never reviewed it. An unsolicited book is like the flyers in your letterbox from the supermarket you never visit: it gets deleted, unread.

I’ve come across authors who say it’s too much trouble to read every book blogger’s review policy and follow it. They’re too busy, and it’s much easier to send a template email. That’s their right. But I’m also busy, and it’s much easier to say no to those requests than to follow up with a request for the information they’d have sent if they’d done a little research.

And on a related note …

Follow the law

Don’t add the blogger to an email list without their consent.

Really.

Don’t.

If you’re stupid enough to do that (or stupid enough to hire a PR company that does), please don’t add to the stupid by having an “unsubscribe” option that requires the blogger to add five different personal details in order to unsubscribe from a mailing list they (I) never signed up for in the first place.

(Yes, I had this happen last week. Twice. It won’t happen again, because I blocked the email address and reported it as spam. No, I didn’t unsubscribe. I’m not giving them unnecessary personal details.)

Offer a free copy of the book

… and state whether your version is mobi (for Kindle), epub (for Kobo, Nook, Sony etc), or pdf (which can be read on any device, although Kindle users are advised to email the file to their Kindle with “convert” in the subject line, to get a readable mobi file).

Ask for an honest review

Remember you are asking for an honest book review, not a positive review (and certainly not a five-star review). And don’t require a review “in exchange” for the free book—all those things are against Amazon’s reviewing guidelines (which I’ll discuss in a later post).

Email the book

Don’t gift your book via Amazon in order to get the Amazon Verified Purchase tag—Amazon may see the gift as financial compensation, and may delete the review (because the reviewer can decline the gift and spend the money on something else). Yes, an Amazon rep might have told you it’s okay to gift a review copy. But ask another rep, and you’ll get a different answer. Don’t risk it.

You can gift copies via retailers like Smashwords (if your book is available there) or use services like BookFunnel, which allows the reviewer to download in their choice of formats. Or just email the mobi or pdf file. Trustworthy bloggers won’t pirate your book (and you’re checking out the bloggers to avoid the dodgy ones, aren’t you?)

What if no one agrees to review my book?

If you find you’re asking a lot of bloggers for reviews but no one is interested, here are a few things to check:

  • Are you targeting the right reviewers? Have they reviewed books like yours before?
  • Do you have a great cover? Does it look professional?
  • Is your book description gripping?
  • Do your opening pages have a compelling hook?
  • Has your book been professionally edited?
  • Is there something about your presentation which is driving potential reviewers away?

These are the main issues that lead to me turning down review requests. Most often, the opening pages of the novel simply don’t grip me. They might be all telling, not showing. They might use too many creative dialogue tags. They might be writing in omniscient point of view and headhopping. These issues show me the book needs more work, and will mean I choose not to review it. Other reviewers will have their own criteria.

If you can’t convince reviewers to read your book, you’re going to have trouble convincing paying customers.

I sent my book, but it hasn’t been reviewed yet.

Some book reviewers agree to review your book, while others only promise to look at it. If they decide not to review it, don’t push. The chances are they didn’t like the book.

If a reviewer agreed to review your book within a specific timeframe and doesn’t, it could be because they’ve forgotten (so one gentle reminder may well be appropriate). However, it could be they didn’t like it. Some reviewers prefer to only review books they like, so don’t push the issue if they don’t review it.

It’s a lot of work!

Yes, which is why it is important to keep track of everything:

  • The reviewers you found who accept review requests (whether you contacted them or not).
  • The reviewers you contacted who didn’t respond to your email.
  • The reviewers you contacted who responded but declined.
  • The reviewers you contacted who said no, but to keep them informed of future books.
  • The reviewers who agreed to review your books and didn’t.
  • The reviewers who agreed to review your books and did.

When a review you’ve requested appears on a blog, it’s polite to visit the blog, thank the reviewer, and respond to any comments. However, I don’t recommend responding to book reviews (positive or negative) on retail sites (e.g. Amazon) or reader communities (e.g. Goodreads), as it can come across as needy and stalkerish.

However, you can like book reviews on BookBub—it’s a newer site which is actively trying to encourage readers to review (to take over from Amazon, perhaps?). Bookbub email authors to tell them when a reviewer has recommended their book, which means you don’t have to stalk the site.

(Authors should be writing their next book, not stalking social media to search for reviews).

Finally, keep special note of those reviewers who enjoyed your book: these are the people you will contact again when your next book releases, which will make this process much easier.

Do you have any reviewing questions I haven’t answered?

How to Get Book Reviews

How to Get (Honest) Book Reviews (An #AuthorToolBoxBlogHop Post)

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

How to Get Honest Book Reviews

I often see authors online asking either how to get more book reviews, or how many book reviews can they expect.

My (unstatistical) research suggest authors can expect around one review for every 1,000 copies sold. That’s just 0.1%. Even a bestseller might not do much better: John Green has reportedly sold nine million copies of The Fault in Our Stars and has almost 30,000 reviews on Amazon—a review rate of less than 0.4%.

Yet some authors seem to have dozens, even hundreds, of reviews, out of all proportion to sales. Is there some secret?

How do these authors manage to get so many reviews?

It’s easy enough to get dishonest reviews. We all know them: buying reviews, reviewing your own books, asking family members to give your book a five-star review, swapping reviews with other authors, offering reviewers a gift or an entry into a prize draw.

But these reviews are all against Amazon’s reviewing guidelines. These reviews are why Amazon keep updating their reviewing guidelines, as I discussed in A (Not So) Short History of Fake Reviews on Amazon.

So How do you Get Honest Reviews?

Ask.

Yes, ask for reviews. Many readers don’t realise the importance authors place on reviews. Positive reviews provide social proof for potential customers, they influence Amazon’s book popularity ratings, and a certain number of reviews are required in order for authors to advertise on sites like Bookbub. Yet most readers don’t know or understand how useful reviews are, to authors and other readers.

Amazon now restricts reviews to customers i.e. people who have spent $50 in the last year. The spending requirement is per site, so someone who has spent the equivalent of $50 in a foreign store (say, India) can’t then review on the US site.

So if you’re looking for reviews on Amazon.com, you need to find reviewers who shop at Amazon.com.

Who do I Ask?

Ask your readers

Marketing advisors such as David Gaughran advise authors to ask for reviews at the back of the book, and that’s something David does himself: “Word-of-mouth is cruicial for any author to succeed. If you enjoyed the book, please consider leaving a review at Amazon.”

When I first researched this topic in 2014, asking for reviews was a tactic only indie authors used. Now I often see review requests in the back of books from mainstream publishers.

Does this work? In July 2014, Tim Grahl shared on his blog that he had just sold the 10,000th copy of his book, Your First 1000 Copies (including one copy to me). Those 10,000 sales have netted him over 180 reviews—a 1.8% review rate, which is still low, but is almost twenty times more reviews than my unstatistical ‘normal’.

The other thing to do at the end of your book is ask readers to sign up for your email list, so you can let them know when your next book is due to be published (and perhaps even offer your email subscribers a discount, or ask if anyone would like a free review copy …).

Ask Amazon reviewers

While many Amazon reviewers are simply providing random reviews on books or products they’ve used and liked (or not), a growing number are reviewing books or products they’ve been provided with in exchange for a review. Note that reviewers are required to disclose they have received a free copy of the book for review (as per Federal Trade Commission regulations). Not all do, but they are supposed to.

How do you find Amazon reviewers?

It’s time-consuming, but worthwhile. Some people recommend starting with the Amazon Top 10,000 Reviewers list, as these are the most prolific and helpful reviewers and are therefore most likely to accept review requests.

However, I believe this is a waste of time for most authors, and especially for authors writing in a niche genre like Christian fiction. Why? Because many of those reviewers either don’t review books, or don’t read Christian fiction. (The easiest way to become a Top 10,000 Reviewer is to review the Free App of the Day, as it’s guaranteed to get you a lot of votes, and votes are more important than total number of reviews in improving reviewer ranking.)

Rather than focusing on Top Reviewers, focus on people who have reviewed books similar to yours, especially if they have also reviewed self-published books. Click on the reviewer name, and see if they have a website address or email address on their profile. If they have an email address, it’s safe to assume they are open to receiving requests via email. If they only have a website address, check that out to see if they are open to review requests.

Many Amazon reviewers also have book blogs, which is even better: the more sites a review is posted on, the better for your book. To find out if an Amazon reviewer will accept requests for reviews, simply click on their name, which will bring up their personal profile. If you find an Amazon reviewer who agrees to review your book, you’ve got a 50% or better chance of getting a review (personally, I review over 95% of the titles I accept for review, but I know some bloggers review as few as 30%. However, they make it clear that sending them a book doesn’t guarantee a review).

However, many Amazon reviewers already have all the books they can read through sources such as NetGalley or publisher blogging programmes.

You can use a similar technique to find Goodreads reviewers.

What about paid services?

There are paid tools which can do this job for you. I tried one as a free trial, using a book I’d reviewed as the test book. The list didn’t return me as a potential reviewer, which I found odd. I also receive a lot of template requests that I suspect have come from a service such as this. Fewer than 10% are actually requests to review Christian fiction—which is all I review on my blog. As such, I suggest anyone considering a paid tool do their research. There is no point in paying for a tool that doesn’t deliver actionable results.

Ask Bloggers

There are a number of blog tour companies out there, and many specialise by genre (e.g. romance or Christian fiction).

Visit the tour company’s website, find some books similar to yours, see which reviewers have reviewed them positively, visit those reviewer websites, check out their reviewing guidelines, and contact those who are open to unsolicited requests.

The advantage of using bloggers from these networks is that you already know they are open to reading and reviewing books in your genre. If they have a review policy or similar on their blog, you will know they are open to receiving review requests, so go ahead! As with Amazon reviewers, if you find a blogger who will read your book, you have an excellent chance of getting a review.

Ask in a Reader Community

Sites such as Facebook and Goodreads have groups for people seeking reviews. However, some of these offer unethical review swaps. Check out any potential reviewers before sending your book off to them, to ensure they are the right reviewer for your book. You can also check out sites like Story Cartel, which offers your book free to readers who promise to review.

Ask Social Media Followers

Rayne Hall recommends asking social media followers for reviews in her book, Twitter for Writers, by tweeting that your book is available for review. She asks every eight weeks, with a post like this:
“Would anyone like one of my ebooks for free for posting a review at Amazon?”

Hall likes these reviews, as she finds they are honest reviews from people who are interested in her and her books, and she reports that most people who request a review copy via Twitter do follow up with a review. Note that she is staunchly against automated DM tweets, such as those some people use for new followers: “Thanks for following! Please download a free review copy of my book here: xxx.com”.

I’d add one proviso: don’t ask for reviews on your regular Facebook page, as your objective is obtaining reviews from people you don’t know in real life, not an Amazon page full of “friends and family” reviews.

So that’s who to ask for reviews. I’ll be back next week with some tips on how to ask for a review.

Meanwhile, what questions do you have about book reviews?

Seven Works Creators Can't Copyright—And Why Not

Copyright for Writers | Seven Works Creators Can’t Copyright

Over the last four weeks, I’ve covered various aspects of copyright and copyright law:

This week I’m discussing seven works creators can’t copyright—and why not.

Note: I’m not a lawyer and this is not legal advice. You get legal advice by consulting a lawyer qualified in the specific legal area, and licensed to practice in your location. There are common principles in international copyright law, but the application of those principles does vary by jurisdiction.

Copyright law is a branch of intellectual property (IP) law, which applies internationally. The World Intellectual Property Organisation (part of the United Nations) defines intellectual property as “creations of the mind”, and divides IP into five types:

  • Copyright
  • Patents
  • Trademarks
  • Industrial designs
  • Geographic indicators

Copyright is covered internationally under the 1886 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, while patents, trademarks, and industrial designs are covered under the 1883 Paris Convention for the Protection of Intellectual Property.

These four types of works are protected under other forms of intellectual property law, and therefore can’t be copyrighted:

Patents

Patents protect inventions and machines, from the invention of the light bulb (one of Thomas  Edison’s many patents) to nanotechnology. A patent is a generally a new way of doing something, or a new technical solution to a problem. Patent applications are dealt with by specialist patent attorneys.

Patents must offer workable solutions. The idea of a perpetual motion machine has been around for centuries, but no one has yet invented and patented such a machine. Equally, the warp drive or faster-than-light engine is a staple of science fiction, but has yet to be invented.

Trademarks

Trademarks inform consumers the product or service comes from a particular company. For example, Nike manufactures footwear and clothing with the “swoosh” design. Coca-Cola manufactures drinks with the “dynamic ribbon device”.

Trademark law also includes service marks, which identifies and protects the provider of a service.

Industrial Designs

Industrial designs can also be protected by intellectual property law, including shape, colour, patterns, lines, features, or the ornamental or aesthetic aspect. Note that not all designs are protected. Many fashion designs are not protected, as they are not deemed sufficiently original. (This explains how chain stores can get away with selling cheap mass-produced copies of designer clothes).

Geographic Indicators

Geographic indicators inform consumers the product comes from a particular place, and the “qualities, characteristics or reputation of the product should be essentially due to the place of origin“. For example, champagne must come from the Champagne region of France. Otherwise it’s sparkling wine.

What Else Can’t be Copyrighted?

Section 102 of the U.S. Copyright Act states:

Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression … In no case does copyright protection for an original work of authorship extend to any idea, procedure, process, system, method of operation, concept, principle, or discovery.

To be able to be protected by copyright, something must be:

  • Original
  • Tangible (i.e. written or recorded in a form that can be copied)

Copyright is therefore limited to the tangible expression of original works. This excludes ideas, titles and names, and recipes (among other things).

Ideas

Ideas can’t be copyrighted because they are not tangible. And they may not be original—how can we know if they are not written down?

As the US Copyright Office says:

You may express your ideas in writing or drawings and claim copyright in your description, but be aware that copyright will not protect the idea itself as revealed in your written or artistic work.

Titles and Names

Titles and names (e.g. character names or pen names) aren’t subject to copyright. They are considered too short to be original.

However, you may be able to trademark a series title or a character name if you can show an original and unique use. For example, you might be able to trademark a unique word or phrase in a custom font, but you can’t trademark a word in common usage in your genre and expect to be able to enforce it.

Recipes

Have you ever visited Pinterest looking for a recipe? You find what looks like a good recipe and click through to the website, where you have to wade through what seems like the blogger’s entire life story before you get to the good stuff: the list of ingredients and the instructions.

Bloggers do this because the list of ingredients isn’t subject to copyright. Even the instructions are only subject to copyright if there is something creative about them (e.g. saying “cream the butter and the sugar” isn’t deemed creative, but posting a photograph or a video of creaming the butter and the sugar is).

What is subject to copyright is the blogger’s life story, and the accompanying photographs, which is why a Pinterest recipe is so much more than a recipe.

Conclusion

Copyright protects the author’s expression, but not the underlying facts, ideas, or theories, no matter now novel those may be … what counts is not quality or novelty but only that the work be original.
(Chicago Manual of Style, 17th edition, 4.5)

These aren’t the only seven works creators can’t copyright, but I think they are the most common. If you want to find out more, then click here to read Works Not Covered by Copyright from the US Copyright Office.

Copyright for Writers: Using Images in Blog Posts (Legally)

Copyright for Writers: Using Images in Blog Posts

Images in blog posts can be a great way to break up the text and make the reading experience more user friendly. But we can’t just use any images in blog posts.

(Note: This is not legal advice. I’m not a lawyer. I’ve never played one on TV. This is my interpretation of the doctrine of fair use, based on my reading of the Chicago Manual of Style, and blog posts written by lawyers. Caveat Emptor.)

Using Images Online

Many people will tell you that you can copy and use any image you find online. Others will tell you certain images or photographs are copyright-free.

They are wrong, as some bloggers have discovered at great cost.

All images on the internet are copyright.

Even photographs of old paintings. The paintings themselves are no longer under copyright, but the photographs are. Using these images without permission is a breach of copyright, in the same way as pirating a book or a movie is a breach of copyright.

Copyright is a form of intellectual property. It means the creator of a piece of content owns that content (apart from exceptions like a work for hire arrangement, which means your employer probably owns the copyright to any content you produce as a part of your normal employee duties).

As a blogger and writer, you want people to respect your copyright rights. You don’t want to find someone has pirated your ebook, plagiarised your paperback, or copied your blog post verbatim.

So it’s only fair that you need to respect the copyright rights of other creators—writers, illustrators, photographers, anyone who creates copyrighted material and shares it online or in real life.

This means you need to make sure you have the right to use any and all images.

Images You Can Use on Blog Posts

Your Own Photographs

If you took the photograph, you own the copyright, and you’re usually safe to use the picture. The exception might be if you’re using a picture of a famous building—some buildings are trademarked and can’t be reproduced commercially (e.g. on a book cover) without permission.

For example, the London Eye can be included as part of a skyline shot, but can’t be the main focus pf the photo. Nor can you use photographs taken from inside the Eye without permission. And while photographs of the Eiffel Tower in daytime are permissible, photographs of the nightly illuminations are not—they are copyrighted.

Note that you have to take the photo yourself in order to own the copyright and the right to use the picture. If a monkey takes a photo on your camera, the monkey may own the copyright on the image (Seriously. The court case is ongoing).

Photos You Own

You can use photos taken by someone else, but for which you have purchased the rights. If you plan to use the image commercially (e.g. on a book cover), make sure your contract includes commercial rights (and check the number of copies, and whether it includes Print on Demand). If the photo includes a model, make sure the photographer has the correct model release form.

Rights to photographs taken by someone else may be exclusive—or not. An exclusive right means the photographer can’t sell that image to anyone else. Non-exclusive rights may mean “your” cover image shows up on other books.

Free Photos from Stock Sites

You can find free photos at sites like Canva, MorgueBay, Pixabay and Unsplash. These sites use a Creative Commons 0 (zero) licence, which means:

you can copy, modify, distribute and use the photos for free, including commercial purposes, without asking permission from or providing attribution to the photographer

Other sites might require you to ask permission and/or provide attribution to the photographer and/or site. Check what acknowledgement is required the first time you use a new site, and get it right.

Canva has a list of 73 sites offering free photos. As an added bonus, they’ve ranked the sites in terms of the size of the gallery, searchability, and whether attribution is required.

Photos from Paid Stock Sites

There are many stock photography sites offering a range of images, at a range of prices. Most stock sites will allow you to download a watermarked version of the image for free, but you shouldn’t use this version for your blog post. When it comes to blog posts, you need to ensure you get the official version, the one with no watermarks.

Charges for photos vary by site, and depend on the size of the photo, and the intended use. A book cover needs a high-resolution photo, and needs a commercial licence that covers all formats of the book, and a large number of copies. A blog post only needs a low-resolution photo (which is quicker to load).

Most paid stock sites charge per download, and some charge more for better-quality photos. Some sites offer credits or bundles, with the unit cost decreasing the more you buy. Some sites operate on a subscription model.

StoryBlocks.com

I use StoryBlocks.com, which costs USD 99 for an unlimited annual subscription (there is also a USD 49 subscription which allows you to download five images a month). Their selection isn’t as big as some of the more expensive sites, and they don’t have many images that would be suitable for book covers. But it’s a great resource for images for blog posts or memes.

StoryBlocks offer a 100% royalty free worldwide licence in perpetuity, and $20,000 in indemnification coverage. Click here to view their full licence agreement.

Lightstock

I also use Lightstock—it’s great for cheese-free Christian images. It is a paid site, but you can sign up to their email newsletter and they’ll send you a link to their free download of the week. This is a cost-effective way of building up a library of photos suitable for Bible memes or photos to accompany devotional posts. The only catch is we all get the same free photo each week—there is no choice. But it’s free (unless you want to pay as you go or subscribe), and the images are beautiful.

The Fair Use Exception to Copyright Law

The doctrine of fair use is entrenched in copyright law, and does allow copyrighted content to be used under certain conditions. For example, it’s acceptable to quote from another author’s work or reproduce small amounts of graphic or pictorial material for the purposes of review or criticism.

The same fair use exceptions apply for images as they do for written content. But the application is a little different. I can’t copy someone else’s book cover. But I might be able to purchase the same photo from a stock photo site, which will mean our covers have a similar look. Yes, this is why big publishers spend big bucks on customised photo shoots for book covers.

Quote from The Space Between Words

I can (and do) use thumbnail images book covers in memes. I consider this fair use, as I’m promoting their book. If an author or publisher didn’t want me to promote their books, I would stop. (But that would be short-sighted: user-generated content is considered a sign of social proof, and many major brands actively solicit and promote user-generated content).

Do you use images on your blog posts? Where do you obtain your images?

Understanding Fair Use and Fair Dealing

Copyright for Writers: Understanding Fair Use and Fair Dealing

My previous two posts looked at Understanding Copyright and How and When Can I Use Copyrighted Material? As I mentioned, creators (including authors and bloggers) can use copyright material without permission when it falls under the doctrine of fair use or fair dealing. That’s what we’re discussing today.

As you read this, please note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. There is a lot of great information about copyright on the internet, but none of it is legal advice. To get legal advice, you pay a lawyer licensed to practice in your state or country.

What is the Doctrine of Fair Use or Fair Dealing?

The doctrine of Fair Use (US) or Fair Dealing (UK and New Zealand) permits limited use of copyrighted material without permission. The key word here is ‘limited’. You can’t copy everything.

But there are no clear guidelines as to how much you can copy.

When Does the Doctrine of Fair Use Apply?

The United Kingdom has three uses of copyright information that provides a defence for fair dealing:

  • For the purposes of research or private study.
  • To allow for criticism or review.
  • For the purpose of reporting current events (excluding photographs).

These are pretty straightforward yes/no questions for those who are using copyrighted content. However, the use also needs to be ‘fair’, which isn’t so easy to define. ‘Fair’ can include consideration whether the use of the work affects the market of the original work, whether the amount used is reasonable and appropriate, and whether the original creator receives sufficient acknowledgement.

US law considers four factors in a Fair Use defence:

In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include:

  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

Fair Use and Fair Dealing

Overall, while the UK and the US use different language, the intent is the same: to prevent the inappropriate unauthorised use of copyrighted material.

But what does this mean for authors and bloggers? How can we tell if our use is fair? In my non-expert opinion, there are four main questions we must ask ourselves before copying information to use in a blog post or include in a book:

  • Is the original work covered by copyright?
  • Is my proposed use commercial?
  • Is my proposed use transformative?
  • How much will I use?

Is the original work covered by copyright?

This will depend on:

  • The date the work was first published.
  • Where the work was first published.

As a general guide, anything first published before 1923 is likely to be in the public domain.

Steve Laube has blog post with some handy information on how to find if a work is covered by copyright:

Note that these are US resources. These sources may not give correct information if the work in question was first published outside the US.

Is my proposed use commercial?

Copying or reproducing copyrighted material is more likely to fall under fair use if there is no commercial benefit to the user. This means churches can quote a verse of the week in a church bulletin, but can’t reproduce and sell the Book of Acts. A quote in a free blog post is more likely to be considered fair use than the same quote in a paid book or training course.

Is my proposed use transformative?

Transformative uses add something new to the original work, and this is more likely to be considered fair use. Common examples of transformative use include commentary and criticism, and parody:

Commentary and Criticism

The principle of fair use allows authors to quote from the original work for the purpose of commentary or criticism. This could include:

  • writing an article or blog post
  • writing a book review
  • writing a news report

The underlying rationale of this rule is that the public reaps benefits from your review or blog post or news report, and that benefit is enhanced by including some of the copyrighted material.

Of course, the original author may reap some benefit as well, especially if it’s a glowing five-star review.

Transformative use implies that there is more original work than quoted work. Quoting a hundred words from another author and adding a sentence of your own is less likely to be considered transformative than quoting a sentence from another author and adding a hundred words of your own (I may be wrong. But I don’t want to be the test case. Do you?).

Parody

Parody imitates a well-known work in a comedic way (think Weird Al Yankovic or The Key of Awesome).

Parody permits extensive use of the original. Print examples include Where the Wild Mums Are and Where the Wild Dads Are.

The day Mum didn’t get dressed and went on strike, Dad called her ‘a Wild Thing’ and Mum said ‘Cook your own dinner’ and stomped off upstairs to have a bath . . .

I couldn’t possibly relate.

How much will I use?

The larger the proportion of the total work quoted, the less likely it is to be considered fair use.

This includes the quantity and the quality of the work. If you only quote one line, but that line is key, it’s less likely to be considered fair use:

Even a smaller percentage of the work can be an infringement if it constitutes the heart of the work being quoted. 

Source: Chicago Manual of Style, 16th Edition, 4.79

This question of proportion is relevant with song lyrics. A book meme (i.e. non-commercial use) quoting ten words from an 80,000-word novel is likely to be considered fair use. A novel (i.e. commercial use) quoting ten words from a 200-word song is less likely to be considered fair use. A novel quoting an entire poem is not fair use.

Unfortunately, there are only guidelines. There are no clear rules:

Courts evaluate fair use claims on a case-by-case basis … there is no formula to ensure that a predetermined percentage or amount of a work—or specific number of words, lines, pages, copies—may be used without permission.

If in doubt, leave it out.

Do you have any questions or advice on copyright or fair use/fair dealing?

How and When Can I Use Copyrighted Materials?

Copyright for Writers: How and When Can I Use Copyrighted Material?

Last week, my post introduced the concept of copyright and how it applies to authors. The most common question in the comments was about legally using copyrighted material in our own work. Today I’m discussing when and how authors, bloggers, and other creators can use copyrighted material. 
As you read this, please note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. There is a lot of great information about copyright, but none of it is legal advice. To get legal advice, you pay a lawyer licensed to practice in your state or country.

When Can I Use Copyrighted Material?

In my research, I’ve found three instances where authors and bloggers can use material created by others:

  1. When the material is not under copyright
  2. When the copyright holder gives permission
  3. When the use falls under the doctrine of Fair Use (also known as fair dealing)

When the Material is Not Under Copyright

Public Domain

Not everything is covered by copyright. Works which are not under copyright are considered to be in the public domain. This includes works published in the US before 1 January 1923, or works by authors who died more than seventy years ago (although this “life plus seventy” rule is lower in some countries).

Facts and Ideas

Facts and ideas are not covered by copyright, but the original expression of those facts and ideas is. However, it’s still a good idea to disclose the source of your facts (especially in the modern era of fake news).

When the Copyright Holder Gives Permission

Creative Commons

Some work on the internet is covered by a Creative Commons licence—the best example is WIkipedia. This means people can copy without permission, although they should still give the correct attribution. Copying without attribution is plagiarism. There are several types of Creative Commons licence, and you can find out more at CreativeCommons.org/.

Crown (or Government) Copyright

Many government publications can be reproduced without permission in many circumstances. US government publications are public domain in the US, but copyright outside the US. Many Commonwealth countries use Crown copyright, although the specific regulations in each country are different.

In Australia, the Crown holds copyright to anything first published under direction or control of the government. Legislation and other “prescribed works” may be copied and sold, as long as the sale price doesn’t exceed the price of copying.

In New Zealand, all work produced by government departments and MPs as part of their work is copyright to the Crown. Legislation and certain other documents do not carry any copyright. Logos, emblems, or trademarks can’t be reproduced without permission, probably because that could lead to “passing off” (e.g. the scam emails with official logos claiming you owe money to a power company you don’t use).

Material covered by Crown copyright can be reproduced free of charge without permission, as long as it meets these three criteria:

  • Reproduces the material accurately.
  • Doesn’t use the material in a derogatory manner or a misleading context.
  • Acknowledges the source and copyright status of the material.

These make good guidelines for sharing any material produced by someone else, whether under copyright or in the public domain.

Creative Commons and Crown copyright are effectively forms of the copyright holder giving blanket permission for creators to use their material, as long as creators abide by specific rules. Bible translations are subject to similar terms, as I mentioned last week.

For everything else, creators need written permission from the copyright holder … unless their copying falls under what the US government refers to as “fair use” and the UK and New Zealand governments refer to as “fair dealing”. It’s too much to cover in one blog post, so I’ll cover fair use in my next post.

Meanwhile, let’s look at one more important question: how can we use copyright material?

How Can I Use Copyright Material?

Get Permission

If you want to use copyright material for commercial purposes (i.e. in a book you plan to sell for money), seek written permission from the copyright holder in advance, or ensure your use is covered by fair use/fair dealing (which we’ll discuss in my next post).

Identify Your Quotes

Make it obvious what is a direct quote by:

  • Including the quote in quotation marks.
  • Changing the look of the quote by using a different font, a different font colour, or a different font style (e.g. bold or italics).
  • Separating the quote from the main text by indenting it or placing it in a box.

Not identifying quotes is plagiarism—passing off someone else’s work as your own.

Identify Your Source

This is easy on the internet—you just need to add a hyperlink to the relevant article or blog post. It’s a little harder in a paper document, but that’s why Word includes a References section, so you can easily add captions, citations, footnotes, and endnotes.

Provide attribution to your sources even if they are out of copyright—passing someone else’s work off as your own is plagiarism. It might not be illegal in your jurisdiction (although it is in the US), but it is unethical.

Quote Accurately

Ensure your quotations are accurate—don’t change the meaning.

Keep Quotes Short

Keep your quote as short as you can while still making your point. The longer your quote, the less likely it is to be considered fair use or fair dealing. Note that there is no official formula (e.g. using less than 10%).

Additional Information

For more information on copyright and fair use in your jurisdiction, ask your favourite internet search engine. No, you can’t trust everything you read on the internet, but here are some of the trustworthy source I found:

Government Sites

Copyright New Zealand
Australian Copyright Council
Copyright law in the USA
UK Copyright Service
New Zealand Intellectual Property Office

University Sites

Harvard University
Stanford University

Not-for-profit Sites

Creative Commons
Plagiarism.org

Individual blogs and posts from lawyers or publishing professionals

The Passive Voice Blog
Susan Spann
Kristine Kathryn Rusch

If you’re still not sure whether you can copy something … don’t.

Copyright for Writers—Understanding Copyright

#AuthorToolBoxBlogHop | Copyright for Writers—Understanding Copyright

This post is part of the monthly Author ToolBox Blog Hop, organised by Raimey Gallant. We now have over 40 blogs participating. To find more Blog Hop posts:

What is Copyright?

All writers need to understand the basics of copyright for two reasons:

      • So they know their rights in regard to the work they write and publish
      • So they do not infringe the rights of other creatives

So what is copyright?

In essence, copyright is the right to copy. (Sounds obvious, right?)

Copyright includes the right to reproduce, distribute, and display copyrighted works. It is a form of intellectual property, an asset that has monetary value. Copyright law is designed to protect the rights of those who create content.

What Does Copyright Cover?

Copyright covers original works, whether words, sounds, or images, and whether published or unpublished. This includes:

      • Books
      • Blog posts
      • Music
      • Lyrics
      • Movies
      • TV shows
      • Scripts
      • Plays
      • Speeches
      • Poems

Yes, copyright broad. Basically, copyright covers the creation of any original work, in any form.

There are a few things copyright doesn’t cover, such as:

      • Ideas
      • Book titles
      • Words

I’ll deal with these in a later post.

Who Owns the Copyright to a Published Book?

The author (well, they should). The author signs a contract with a publisher which licences specific rights. This licence gives the publisher the temporary right to reproduce, distribute, and display copyrighted works (i.e. to print and sell the book).

A good contract will specify what rights are included, e.g. the format of the book, the language, and the countries the book can be sold. It will also include how the author can get those rights back (e.g. so the author can self-publish the work). Never sign a contract that’s for life of copyright. That basically means the publisher owns the book, not you.

If you want to know more about the ins and outs of publishing contracts, I recommend Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blog.

Copyright is Automatic

Copyright is automatic for work first published after 1 March 1989. Works do not have to have a © symbol or notice of copyright to be covered. The law is more complex for earlier work, so it’s best to assume a work is covered by copyright unless you have evidence to the contrary.

Copyright is International

All countries have laws relating to copyright. While there are minor differences (e.g. the length of copyright, whether you need to register copyright), the principles are the same, thanks to the Berne Convention.

There is a legal concept known as the long arm of the law. I thought this a cliché used in Western movies, but it apparently is a real thing. Author and lawyer Courtney Milan says:

you can be prosecuted by a state so long as you have “minimum contacts” with that state.

Milan was talking about online giveaways, not copyright law, but my unlegal interpretation* of long-arm jurisdiction is that anything you publish needs to abide by:

      • The copyright laws where you live.
      • The copyright laws where you publish.
      • The copyright laws where your readers live.

So a blog post (like this one) that attracts readers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, the UK, and the US needs to comply with US copyright law. And Australian copyright law. And Canadian copyright law. And New Zealand copyright law. And … you get the picture.

Copyright is Universal

Fortunately, most of the principles are universal, thanks to the Berne Convention. Where things differ by country, my suggestion is to abide by the most conservative. So if a work under copyright in country A but not in country B, I suggest you treat the work as if it was still under copyright.

Here are two well-known examples:

      • The King James Bible
      • Peter Pan

The King James Bible

Most American Christians will tell you the King James Bible is out of copyright. However, it is still under copyright in the United Kingdom—copyright is held by the Crown i.e. HM Queen Elizabeth II. King James Bibles are published in the UK by the Crown’s patentee, Cambridge University Press.

So if it’s reasonable to assume your book might be purchased in the UK, it would be appropriate to include the appropriate copyright statement. (Not that I’ve ever heard of the Queen suing anyone for copyright infringement over the King James Bible. But it could happen.)

Note that it’s not the original text of the Bible which is subject to copyright, but the translation.

So all more modern versions of the Bible, including the New King James Version, are under copyright, because they are translations. Most modern translations allow authors to quote up to a specific number of verses without written permission as long as the follow specific guidelines. You can find up-to-date copyright and permission information by clicking on the relevant version at Bible Gateway.

Peter Pan

JM Barrie gifted the copyright to Peter Pan (the play and the later novelisation) to Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children in 1929. That copyright originally expired in 1987, but the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 includes a clause that specifically states GOSH has a right to royalty in perpetuity in the UK for stage productions, broadcasting, or publication.

But that doesn’t apply internationally. The novel is considered to be in the public domain in most countries, although the play version is still in copyright in the US until 2023 (so if Hollywood wish to produce a Peter Pan movie, the producers must licence the rights from GOSH).

Copyright Infringement

Copyright infringement is a big deal. It’s against the law in the same way as stealing is against the law.

Plagiarism is quoting other people’s work without appropriate attribution.

Author Rachel Ann Nunes found her Christian romantic suspense novel, A Bid for Love, had been plagiarised by “Sam Taylor Mullens”. Mullens was later discovered to be Tiffanie Rushton, a teacher from Utah. She also indulged in identity theft, using the real names of her third-grade students to create fake accounts to review her own books. Yes, a real sweetie.

Rushton changed the point of view in A Big for Love from third person to first person, and added some sex scenes. Nunes started a GoFundMe page to fund her legal defence. It’s taken four years, but she’s finally been awarded the maximum statutory penalty, $150,000 (which doesn’t sound nearly enough for a case that’s taken four years).

Does This Mean I Can’t Use Copyrighted Material?

You can still use copyrighted material if you have written permission from the copyright holder (note that this may not be the original creator—Paul McCartney doesn’t own the rights to most of the 250+ songs he created with John Lennon).

You can also use copyrighted material without permission in certain specific circumstances, as outlined in the US doctrine of Fair Use.

I’ll be back next week to discuss Fair Use, and give some tips for using copyrighted material without getting into trouble.

Please note that I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. There is a lot of great information about copyright on the internet, but none of it is legal advice. To get legal advice, you pay a lawyer licensed to practice in your state or country. 

What questions do you have about copyright?

 

#WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice: Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story

#WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice? Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story

Keep Backstory to the Back of the Story

#WriteTip or #BadWritingAdvice?

There are many “rules” to writing good fiction. One of them is to keep backstory to the back of the story—specifically, don’t use any backstory in the first fifty pages.

Is this a good writing tip, or more bad writing advice? Don’t we need to introduce our characters to the reader at the beginning of the story? Don’t we need to give enough of their personal character history to enable the reader to understand what’s going on?

As with many pieces of writing advice, the answer is yes. And no. Or no, and yes, depending on which way you prefer to look at the issue.

What is Backstory?

Backstory is anything that happens before our story begins. The reader doesn’t need to know the character’s entire life history … although the author does. Yes, the reader needs to know some of the character’s personal history. The trick with writing great fiction is understanding what the reader needs to know, and when.

One of the first writing craft books I read was How Not to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman and Howard Mittlemark. One of the quotes I copied was this:

Know what the chase is, and cut to it. Do not write hundreds of pages explaining… why the characters are living the way they are when the story begins, or what past events made the characters into people who would have that story.

I thought this was ridiculous. Surely no author would be so … so … stupid? So naive?

But by some strange quirk of fate, the very next novel I read had exactly this problem. I’m not going to embarrass the author by naming them, or telling you the title, or even the genre. I don’t remember much about the story. What I do remember is that whenever a new character was introduced, the author took the opportunity to share that character’s life story.

And the story of how their parents met and married.

And sometimes even the story of how their grandparents met and married, and how many children they had, and when, and where, and why, and …

And none of this information had any relevance to the story at hand. It was well written. It was interesting. But it was irrelevant to the present story (which is probably why I’ve forgotten the basics of the actual story).

Yes, some authors have a problem with backstory.

That’s not to say you can’t use backstory at the beginning of a novel. You can introduce some backstory. In fact, you have to use introduce some backstory to give the reader an understanding of your main character’s goals and motivations, which influence their central internal and external conflicts. You may need to use backstory to give your reader a reason to care about your character.

But flip-flopping between the past and the present at the beginning of the story can leave you with a novel that confuses readers. Instead, ensure your opening clarifies:

  • Who is the main character?
  • What does the main character want?
  • Why does s/he want that?
  • When is this story set?
  • Where is this story set?

And answer these questions in the present timeline of the story.

Lay out actions in sequential order. Don’t jump backward or forward in the story. If you do, you’ll interrupt the flow of time and disconcert your reader .
– Janalyn Voigt, via WordServeWaterCooler.com

In Media Res

The use of backstory often relates to a common writing issue: new writers often start their story in the wrong place. Novels should start in media res—in the middle of the thing.

Your novel itself begins “in the middle of the thing”—the “thing” being the story. What starts on page one is the second half of the story, where the plot kicks in.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 2

But characters don’t emerge fully formed on the page. They have personal histories, just like real people. They have likes and dislikes, just like real people. Some of that is directly relevant to the novel’s plot, and some is not. But without the backstory, there is no present story.

Your protagonist doesn’t start from “neutral”. He starts from a very particular place, with very particular, deeply held beliefs that your novel is going to force him to call into question.
– Lisa Cron, Story Genius, Chapter 3

Your character has a backstory.

In fact, all your characters have their own backstory, and that backstory is what influences their lives in the present (or in whatever “present” your novel is set, whether that’s the past, the present, or the future).

As a writer, you need to know this backstory. You need to know what has formed your protagonist and antagonist into the characters you are writing. In Story Genius, Lisa Cron recommends you do write three story-specific backstory scenes. But these aren’t included in the final manuscript. The information in the scenes might be, but the scenes themselves are not.

Margie Lawson uses the illustration of a pane of glass. Imagine writing all your backstory on a large pane of glass, them dropping the glass so it smashes into slivers. Then pick up those slivers, one at a time, and insert them into your story.

A sliver at a time. Not the entire window. At the time when it best serves the story to reveal that information.

An Example of Good Backstory

I’ve recently read A Dangerous Legacy by Elizabeth Camden. Much of the first chapter is backstory, but it’s written well and integrated into the present scene (well, the novel’s present. It’s historical fiction). Here’s an example:

They lived on the fourth floor of a brownstone walk-up that had once been a prestigious building, but had fallen on hard times in recent decades. Much like her own family.

Just two sentences, but a lot of backstory. What do we learn?

  • The setting—where the point of view character lives (a brownstone walk-up in Greenwich Village, New York).
  • A brief description that hints rather than tells—once prestigious hints the building is in a state of disrepair without telling us about the peeling paint or the chipped bricks.
  • A sliver of backstory—her own family has fallen on hard times.
  • A hint at timing—the problem goes back decades.

Clever. Very clever.

It’s also shown in the voice of the character, not the voice of the author.

This paragraph illustrates that we can—and even should—use backstory in the beginning of the story. But we need to sliver it in, not dump it. The author could then have gone on to describe exactly how the family fell on hard times—and she does. But not here, because it’s not relevant to the story at this point.

So here are four tips for writing backstory:

  • Know the backstory of your main characters.
  • Know how their backstory contributes to the present story.
  • Include only what is relevant to the story.
  • Include backstory as slivers.

What tips or questions do you have about backstory?

Dear Editor: Should I Publish With a Small Press?

Dear Editor | Should I Publish with a Small Press?

This post was prompted by a question from an unpublished author who follows me on social media and subscribes to my newsletter. She participated in a Twitter pitch session, and an editor from a small press expressed an interest in her manuscript.

The author had two main questions:

  1. Did I know anything about the small press?
  2. Would publishing with a small press hinder her chances of winning a publishing contract from a bigger press in the future?

This author shows good judgement: she using her contacts to determine whether this is a good opportunity for her to pursue before going further.

This means she isn’t going to end up like another author I saw, celebrating the fact she’d just signed a contract with Westbow Press, who advertise themselves as an imprint of Thomas Nelson … and hide the fact they are a pay-to-publish press with all services provided by the notorious Author Solutions.

Do You Have An Agent?

My first question to this pre-published author was to ask if she has an agent. She didn’t, which is what I expected. After all, this is the kind of conversation I’d expect an author would have with their agent.

[Click here to read my post on how to find a Christian literary agent.]

An agent would be the best person to talk to regarding whether publishing with this small press would help or hurt your chances of getting picked up by a larger press in future. In this case, the small press’s author list shows several authors who have been published by larger publishers, but I think most of them have gone from the big publisher to the small publisher, not the other way around.

As a guide, large publishers don’t take direct submissions from authors, but prefer to work with recognised literary agents.

On the other hand, most small presses do accept submissions directly from authors. Some prefer to work directly with authors, while others will also accept submissions from agents. Some small presses only accept submissions from agents. Others prefer authors who have previously been published with one of the major CBA publishers.

If you don’t have an agent, then it might be easier to get one with a publishing contract in hand. If so, find an agent who believes you have a shot at some of the bigger publishers.

Before publishing with a small press, you do have to look at the quality of books they produce. There are good small presses, and bad small presses. Publishing with a bad small press might make it harder to find an agent, and harder to publish with a bigger publisher than it would

How do you tell a good small press from a less-good small press?

Editing

What is the standard of writing and editing? Have any of their books finalled or won any of the major industry awards? In Christian fiction, this means the Christy Award and the Carol Award, not Readers Favourite or any “award” that has as many entrants as winners.

And is the standard of writing and editing consistent across different authors? Some small press authors use freelance editors before submitting their work, which suggests the author is using the publisher for their distribution and marketing capability rather than their editing capability.

Distribution

I’m not in the US so don’t visit US bookstores. My understanding is that most small presses focus on Kindle and online sales. They are you’re unlikely to see their titles in a store (having said that, a local store may well stock small press books by local authors, if there is an interest in that). If your dream is to see your books on the shelf at Barnes & Noble or Walmart, then publishing with a small press isn’t likely to make that happen.

Marketing

All authors have to do a lot of their own marketing. Authors have to create and maintain an author platform, and communicate with their fans through their website, social media, and newsletters.

Debut authors from traditional presses can expect help with marketing:

  • Submitting their books to relevant high profile print reviewers.
  • Advertisements in the catalogues which are sent to libraries and bookstores.
  • In-store promotion.
  • NetGalley listings to help them get those all-important consumer reviews.

But small press authors can’t expect anywhere near that level of support, which leaves them starting from almost nothing.

[If you need to get started with your author platform, click here to check out my Kick-Start Your Author Platform Marketing Challenge.]

Sales

Most small presses are cagey about the sales and earnings information they release. You can get a rough idea of sales by checking Amazon sales rankings—the lower the number, the better.

A publisher with books in the Top 100 of the relevant category or in the top 10,000 of the whole Kindle store is better than a publisher with titles languishing in the millions (or, worse, with no sales ranking, because that means the title hasn’t sold a single copy on Amazon).

But what about the alternative?

What about self-publishing?

What is the small press offering that an author couldn’t do by themselves if they chose to self-publish?

Authors can hire editors and cover designers and formatters. Authors can make books available for sale through Amazon and other online outlets (in ebook and paperback format). Authors can market their own books.

Signing with a small press means giving up control of your manuscript. You wont’ get to choose your editor or your cover designer. You might not even like your cover. Someone else will decide what stores your book is available in, at what price, and in what formats. Someone else will decide what categories your book is listed on at Amazon and other online stores. And you won’t have access to your sales data. You’ll get a royalty statement every month or (more likely) every six months.

That limits your ability to market your book.

Without real-time access to sales information, you have no idea whether your promotion efforts are working. Even monthly information isn’t good enough. You need to be able to see how an advertisement at site X impacts your sales vs. an advertisement at site Y. A self-published author has that information, so can make those decisions.

Conclusion

Big publisher, small press, or self-publishing? All are viable options, with advantages and disadvantages. But you are the only person who can decide on the right decision for you and your book.

What advice would you give to someone considering publishing with a small press?