Monday, 14 January 2019

The art of appropriate ending

I’m a bit late to the party, but I watched La La Land (2016) the other day for the first time. Lovely movie, though I wasn’t quite as taken with it as I expected to be based on the praise the movie got when it was in cinemas. Perhaps it’s one of those films that should be viewed on a big screen to get the full scope of the colours and scenery. If you haven’t seen the film, major spoilers coming up, so be warned.

La La Land is marketed as a romantic movie, and that’s what it very much is. It’s a love-story between two characters and a love-story with Hollywood. A poor jazz pianist meets a poor cafĂ© worker. Both have dreams. They fall in love and try to support one another to reach those dreams. At the end of the movie, both have what they wanted: he owns a jazz club; she’s a famous movie star. A happily ever after, the trade mark of a romance. But here’s the twist: they don’t achieve their dreams together. Love doesn’t conquer all in the end.

Genre fiction is often scorned for its formulaic nature. A book that follows pre-set rules cannot possibly be good. And, obviously, that can be true too, but not necessarily because of the formula, but because of the poor execution of it. There’s a lot of room for good storytelling even within a formula; it’s up to the author to make the most of it.

But there is one part in genre fiction that doesn’t offer much room for soloing: the ending. When we pick up a certain type of book, or set out to watch a genre movie, we expect the ending to be according to the formula. In crime fiction, the crime is solved in the end. In romantic fiction, the couple gets each other and lives happily ever after. When the ending doesn’t follow the silent agreement, the work belongs to a different category. For example, books labelled as ‘women’s fiction’ often have a romance at their core that then doesn’t end with happily ever after. And the readers know this, too, and expect the outcome.

For readers/viewers to appreciate the known ending, the road there shouldn’t be easy. In crime fiction, there are all sorts of false leads and criminals cleverer than the detective, forcing the latter to truly work for the desired ending. In romantic fiction, the circumstances often oppose the couple. Shady or tragic past that makes love difficult for one or both parties, or one or both parties of the romance have goals in life that they consider more important than love. During the course of the book they then realise these goals aren’t as important as their life together. It’s the author’s job to make the transition seem believable. Modern readers are especially concerned that it isn’t the woman who always gives up her dreams for love and marriage. (If you read old Mills&Boon/Harlequin romances, the handling is quite different in them.)

La La Land breaks this silent agreement of a pre-set ending. Mia and Sebastian make a lovely couple, they have achievable dreams, and they should be able to have it all, love and their dreams. The viewer absolutely wants them to have everything. But just as things begin to align their way, they break up. The next time we meet them, five years later, they have what they have dreamed of: Sebastian his successful jazz club, Mia her careerand a husband, who isn’t Sebastian, and a child. So, no happily ever after for them?

The disappointment I felt for the ending would suggest that the movie failed in its pact with the viewer: a romantic movie ends with happily ever after. But there are two romances in the movie. The other is the love-story with Hollywood, and its promise of and lure with success. Both Sebastian and Mia have entered this love story separately, and though their lives briefly meet, the original love is stronger. And it’s this love story that ends happily: through difficulties they both find the fulfilment they were looking for. They wish they could’ve done it together, but in the end it wasn’t possible, and they seem happy with the way things turned out. As a viewer, I might have hoped they would’ve had happy ending in both love stories; as a writer I try my best to make it possible for my characters. But I don’t feel cheated. The ending was as it should be.

“Here’s to fools who dream.”

Wednesday, 9 January 2019

My experience with Amazon adverts, so far

I began to advertise my books on Amazon in October 2017, and after fifteen months, it’s time to take a look at how that’s fared. There were two kinds of advertising options available when I began, sponsored products and product display ads. I have tried both.

I don’t have a large advertising budget—I don’t have any budget for itso I began small. Only one sponsored products ad, with a two dollar daily budget and the smallest possible per click cost that was suggested by a blog post that I read in preparation, 15 cents (though it suggested a much higher budget). Theres a tight word limit for the ads, and it took some tweaking to get the ad approved; for example, em-dashes and other special characters cause the advert to be rejected. The ad didn’t bankrupt me, mainly because people weren’t clicking it, so I tried another ad, and another. Within a month, I was advertising most of my books, the assumption being that more visibility brought more sales.

The results were mixed. I gained more visibility, and people began to click my ads, but there was barely any follow-through, especially with the ads for later books in a series. Only one ad performed well, that for The Wolf’s Call, the first book in my Two-Natured London series, but since the book is free, I was basically paying for the readers to download it.

I tried product display ads too, but those didn’t perform at all. I had read that it could take a month for those to go through the process and start showing on readers’ devices, but even though I let them be active for months, they didn’t start showing at all. The only exception was the ad for Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I., which had 3,500 impressions during a six month run. In comparison, the sponsored product ad for the same book has had 58,000 impressions during the same time. It got only 16 clicks, and ended up costing me three dollars of the two hundred I had reserved for it. Perhaps I should have set a much larger budget, and then terminated the ad when it went over what I was willing to pay for it, but I didn’t have the courage to try. I have given up on product display ads, and so has Amazon, because from February, they will be switched to lockscreen ads—whatever that means. I’ll maybe try one of those when the time comes.

An old product display ad of Tracy Hayes, Apprentice P.I.

During the fifteen months that I’ve been advertising, the ads have become more expensive and less visible due to heavy competition. The 15 cents per click that I started with have changed to 60 cents per click, and that’s being frugal. With my 2-3 dollar daily budgets, I get 3-5 clicks a day where I got 13-20 before. But since I only get 70 cents per book for Apprentice P.I., which doesn’t sell enough to cover the daily costs, and nothing for The Wolf’s Call, I’m not willing to go higher than that, or amp my budget. I have tried running simultaneous ads for the same book with different taglines, but the results werent promising, so Ive given that up for now.

Instead, I culled the number of ads I was running to only three, The Wolf’s Call and Apprentice P.I., both because they are the first books in the series, and The Assassin, because that’s the only ad that has actually performed well, bringing me money instead of costing it. The Wolf’s Call is still my best performing ad, and it’s constantly out of its daily two dollar budget. I believe I could raise the budged quite a lot, and it would still all be used, but I don’t find that a sensible course of action for a free book. It would be a different matter entirely, if the book generated sales for the other books in the series, but that hasn’t happened so far—at least not in numbers that would compensate the cost of the ad. I’m fairly sure people who download free books on Amazon don’t really read them, but thanks to the downloads, my book hasn’t disappeared into obscurity on Amazon ranks, and occasionally performs very well. The same is true with the other books: the ads keep them visible, and thats a good enough reason to keep them going.

As I prepared to write this post, Amazon helpfully unveiled a new feature on the ads page, a graph that allows me to see with one look how my ads have performed since the beginning. According to it, I’ve spent $1,175 in fifteen months, which has gained me 2,347,413 impressions, and $394 in sales, which doesn’t seem very cost effective. If I was relying only on Amazon sales, I would soon be bankrupted, but luckily those numbers aren’t the whole truth, even if I ended up in red last year. I have tried other advertising too, with Facebook proving time and again to be a waste of money, and BookBub being not as good as I’d hoped, though I’m going to give it another try. And this year I’ll concentrate on those three books alone, with a couple of exceptions when I advertise a new release. That should cut my costs and bring at least the same results, if not better. I’ll let you know what happens.

Graph of how much I've spent on my ads and how much I've made.

Have you tried Amazon ads? What’s your experience been? Should I spend more to make more, or is prudence wise? Let me know.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

What I read last year

The year 2018 was a fairly good reading year for me, quality-wiseat least the books I finished. Quantity-wise, it could’ve been better, even though I reached my Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of fifty-five books. What slowed me down was that I seemed to pick more than usual number of books that I couldn’t finish for one reason or another. They were mainly books that I picked for free and then found boring. When there are social media and streaming network services that the books have to compete with, a book has to be above ordinary to hold my interest. I started a number of romantic books, for example, where after the first four or five chapters I was heartily bored with the couple for whose happily ever after I was supposed to root. That’s something I need to learn from for my own romantic books.

The reading list that I’d composed in the beginning of the year had fifty-six books, of which I managed to read twenty-one. That means more than half of the books I read came from outside the list, including the books that I couldn’t finish. Most of my reading was urban fantasy, with twenty-three books, and two of the three young adult books could be listed under urban fantasy too. Fantasy was a good second, with eleven books, then sci-fi with seven, historical romance with six, and contemporary romance with four. I only read one mystery last year, but some of the urban fantasies I read, especially Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books, are mysteries too.

I tried to write a review of every book I read on Goodreads, however short. I gave seven books full five stars. Most books I gave four or three stars, but none less than that, likely because I didn’t finish reading the books that would’ve deserved a poor rating.

The best book I read last year was White Rabbit, Red Wolf by Tom Pollock. It’s a young adult book about Peter, a highly intelligent boy with sever anxiety and other issues that are described and handled wonderfully. His mother is kidnapped which leads to events that force him to question his entire life. It’s a mystery that lives up to its slogan, and its US title, ‘this story is a lie’. It kept me guessing to the end, and I’m still not sure readers were given the truth in the end. I highly recommend it to everyone, not just people who generally read YA books. Read my review here.

Two books by Holly Black, The Darkest Part of the Forest and The Cruel Prince both got five stars from me too. They are very similar stories of human teenagers interacting with the fae, so much so, that the first book reads like a rehearsal version of the latter. The first is set in the ‘real’ world and features siblings of a very dysfunctional family that live in a town with connection to the fae. It would’ve been an excellent YA story even without the fantasy element, with the way the protagonist is forced to take stock of her childhood that she’s mostly supressed. Read my review here. The Cruel Prince is set in fairyland, and the protagonist, Jude, is a human with a fae father, who’s kidnapped to the fairyland with her siblings and is forced to cope among the cruel fae. She is highly ambitious, and she doesn’t let anything come to her way, which makes her slightly unlikeable character that you end up rooting for despite. Read my review here. The next book in the series, The Wicked King, comes out this month, and I’ll be definitely reading it.

The Archived and The Unbound by Victoria Schwab are other examples of excellent young adult urban fantasy that I read the past year. Mac is a teenager whose job it is to fetch the ghosts of the dead that have somehow managed to escape the library they’re kept in. In her ‘real’ life, she has to cope with a death of a sibling that has pretty much destroyed her family. The strength of the two books lies in Mac’s growth story, as she comes to terms with her loss. Read my reviews here and here.

La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman returns the readers to the world of His Dark Materials series, and does it wonderfully. I had my doubts that a book without Lyra could be interesting, but I was wrong. Malcom was a wonderful protagonist, and the story held my interest from the beginning to the end. I’d link to my review, but it’s very short and repeats pretty much what I said here.

The last five star book on my reading list is Planetfall by Emma Newman. It too featured a protagonist with a broken mind, and the gradual revelation of the depth of her illness was brilliantly done. The setting, a remote planet with its firstpresumablyhuman colony was interesting, but in the end the story was more about Renata. The ending wasn’t really to my liking, but the book was so good, I could overlook it. Read my review here.

There were a couple of new acquaintances on my reading list. Kate Locke with her Immortal Empire steampunk trilogy was a great find. I read a few Tessa Dare’s historical romances, which were a hit and miss with me, and I didn’t finish all the books that I started. Samantha Shannon’s The Bone Season was a good book, but I couldn’t get behind the second book in the Bone Season series, and so didn’t continue with it. The Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho was a delightful first book in a series, a mix between Georgette Heyer’s Regency romance style and fantasy. The second book in the series comes out this year, and I’ll definitely read it.

The rest of my list pretty much comprised of my favourite authors and the latest instalments of their series, none of which disappointed. They’ll remain my stables this year too. The new list has sixty-six books, and I hope to read most of them this year. I’ll let you know how that goes. Stay tuned.