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Category: Just for Writers

Making barcodes

Posted in Just for Writers, and Publishing

Image of a barcode
For more information: http://www.mobiliodevelopment.com/ean-13-global-trade-standard/#gref

What are barcodes and how are they used?

All manufacturers and merchants assign tracking numbers to their products. The generic term for this is SKU (Stock Keeping Unit). Each firm has its own SKU codes and conventions, private to the firm or perhaps shared among a few partners. For the book trade, the ISBN is their SKU and, unlike almost every other industry, that SKU is used throughout the trade, from the manufacture of the physical edition all the way through to the retailers.

The ISBN is a set of numbers that uniquely identify an individual book product (title, format, size, edition, etc.). The old ISBN was 10 digits long, but that was replaced by a 13-digit standard in 2007. Technically, the 10-digit version is called “ISBN” and the 13-digit version is called “EAN”, but colloquially they're both referred to as “ISBN”. The name for the new standard is “EAN-13”.

Barcodes are for machines to read, using scanners. They were introduced in the 1970s and are now ubiquitous. When you look at the bars, each cluster of lines (bars) above a number represents that digit to a scanner, The contrast and exact widths matter.

Different international standards for different uses have different barcode layouts. (Look at your groceries or other purchases for examples.) In the book trade, only the layout for EAN-13 is relevant.

The big cluster on the left is for the SKU (the ISBN, for the EAN-13 standard), and the small cluster on the right is for PRICE, mostly. The value “90000” for the price means “no price”, that is, the retailer's own system will be used to lookup the price when the barcode is scanned in at the register. This allows a retailer to set whatever price they want, sometimes by slapping their own barcode sticker over the book's barcode, or sometimes by just reading the price printed elsewhere on the cover, or a discount applied to it. Most indies use “90000” as the price, for the convenience of the retailers.

Every human-readable bit of text in a barcode is just for humans — the scanners pay no attention to those letters/numbers.

How do you get a barcode?

Many companies want to sell you a barcode, and some try to get as much as $25 for the service. Don't fall for this, as an indie author — it is never necessary to pay for a barcode.

To begin with, both Amazon KDP and Ingram will supply a barcode for your book for free. When you use their templates to design your cover, you will see a space marked out for the barcode, and you can shift that to wherever you want it to appear (along the bottom of the back cover).

But what if you want to print your book via some other POD supplier, or do a short-run print locally? You will need to give them a barcode to use. There is nothing proprietary about the barcode that Amazon or Ingram have added to the back of your book, but just copying that won't deliver a very clean image. Instead, you want to use a fresh image generated by a barcode service, and there are many free ones out there.

I use a UK company for this: https://www.free-barcode-generator.net/ean-13/.

Image of a barcodeOne of the things I like about it is that they look up my ISBN and accurately decompose it (I have a range of 1000).

I also like that the height and layout is identical to that used by Amazon. The only thing Amazon does differently is to add the text “ISBN 9781629620633” above the left block, and we can do that, too, if we want to. Remember, that's only for humans to read, not machines.

I can output the barcode into any number of formats and give it to any other printer to use, or stick it on the back of my cover image myself.

There's no reason to ever buy these from someone else, not for our simple needs.

 

Integrating technical systems

Posted in Just for Writers, and Marketing

Image of puzzle piecesLast year I spent many months upping my game with regard to building technical engines around marketing. I tackled a lot of new tools and systems, but I ran out of steam before I got to Facebook Ads, the most complex system of them all, and one that's critical to international and target marketing.

Well, I'm paying for it now. I got revved up, re-listened to my Mark Dawson “Ads for Authors” course for Facebook (highly recommended) and started putting mailing list (subscriber) ads together.

I have a new series coming out circa year-end and a German translation in the works, and I've been unserious about my mailing list (200 people), so I'm way overdue for winding this all up again and getting back on the newsletter horse.

I'm not going to complain about the general complexity of the Facebook ads system (and it's equally impressive power as a platform for ad management). No, today I'm going to rant about the integration of technical systems that's required to actually make all of this happen.

Last year, before I wound down, I made some tool choices which I didn't put into use, but I did the research well and now I'm, as it were, unwrapping the packages and digging into them. I feel fortunate, a year later, that I'm still happy with my choices.

But look at what it takes to run a simple mailing list ad for Facebook, from the perspective of all the pieces required, esp. if you're as obsessive as I am about tracking as much data as possible.

Tracking your book sales

Posted in Business, and Just for Writers

An image of chartsOne frequent question from new independent writers is “What tool can I use to track my book sales?” They're looking for the right tool to fetch and consolidate all of their sales data.

In genealogical circles, a similar question is “Who can tell me about my family's ancestry?” and it's the subject of an amusing and sardonic tall tale that tells of the search for the file that contains all the answers.

The same answer applies to both: “Sorry, buddy, you gotta do all that work yourself. Nobody's already done it for you.”

If you're only distributed by one retailer, like Amazon, or you're using one of the current tools that make a serious effort to capture some (but not all) of your unit sales — and that satisfies you — then this is not the article for you. I won't be critiquing the currently available tools because none of them can provide a single platform for tracking ALL your sales in ALL your channels, nor provide you with all the information you want to track, if you can.

You're going to have to build that yourself.

Let's start by exploring what, in an ideal universe, you would want to track about your book sales over time, and why.

Goals

The devil's in the details…

Sales by month (units and $)

Surely it's not too great a burden to go to each of your channels just after the end of the month to get your basic numbers. For me, that's

  • Direct: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Smashwords
  • Distributors: (Kobo, Smashwords), PublishDrive, StreetLib, IngramSpark, and AuthorsRepublic (audio).

But that doesn't really tell you much except what to expect on a royalty statement when you get paid. Nor does it account for other kinds of sales, such as direct sales at a book fair, books sold on consignment in local stores, or your ecommerce sales. So that's incomplete.

And it also doesn't provide the information you need to draw trend and analysis data, unless you keep such details as Title, Format, Price, Language, etc.

For marketing and promotional purposes, you also want to see the details of “which retailer” for the distributors, as well as the country.

Financial Systems

Then there's the question about what level of detail should get into your actual accounting system, vs tracking and analysis. After all, when royalties arrive, you have to record them somewhere. Your accounting system is where you track money, but it's not a good place for all the non-financial detail. It cares about monthly sales by royalty payer, not the details about individual channels.

You need two levels of information:

  • Simple per-royalty-payer financial information and physical inventory tracking (those book boxes in your garage)
  • Highly detailed sales information at the deepest level available from your channels and distributors

Fortune cookie

Posted in A Writer's Desk, Just for Writers, and Marketing

Image of a fortune cookie I'm currently knee-deep in improving my complete mailing list and newsletter setup so that I can start to launch improved marketing via Facebook ads. This requires all sorts of retooling for digital stationary, branding, automation, landing pages, onboarding… the whole megillah). Lots of learning curves and emails-to-customer-support to clear up the messy details.

The result will be better newsletters for everyone, significant incentives and offers for signing up, and hopefully a larger group of more engaged readers. If you're already a subscriber (one of my select few) I'll be telling you separately in more detail. (Once I figure out how to, using all-new tools…)

In the midst of all this productive diligence, just the sort of message that every writer of fantasy likes to receive was sent my way via dinner tonight:

“A way out of financial uncertainty is discovered as if by magic!”

It's not magic — it's bloody hard work!

When preachy messages overwhelm story and characters

Posted in Irritated Reviews, and Just for Writers

Image of movie poster for HostilesI recently saw the movie “Hostiles” (distributed widely 2018), and found in it a perfect example of how message fiction can completely kill a story. So, naturally, I had to write one of my Irritated Reviews™ to get the consequent rant out of my brain.

The premise is straightforward. It is 1892, and a cavalry captain in New Mexico is commanded, under Presidential order, to escort a long-captured Cheyenne war chief (who is dying of cancer) and his family to his old territory in Montana to die. The captain will then retire. The full synopsis is here.

Let me get a few unimportant things out of the way. The acting is quite good (to the limits of the script material) and the cinematography and costuming are well done. There — that's about it for the praise.

There are a handful of own-goals, pointless errors that could trivially have been avoided.

  • When a man defends his cabin from a raiding party of Indians, he leaves the shelter of its walls to stand out front pointlessly and be shot. (Because otherwise his wife and children who are watching from a short distance instead of running away won't get to see him die, for the benefit of the audience.)
  • When attacking Indians burn a cabin poorly defended by a family, they have no interest in raiding it for goods or burning any other buildings.
  • When coming across the horses of their dead enemies, this small group of riders has no interest in taking them along as spares to join their other pack horses, despite no shortage of water or fodder.
  • In one soulful moment, we see a white character playing a primitive musical instrument, clearly meant to be of local relevance. It is, in fact, a kalimba, an African instrument that few Americans knew existed before the 1960s, and certainly nothing to do with the local indigenes.
  • When constructing a cairn (!) for one of the dead Cheyenne, the characters find suitable rocks in the grass of one of those endless meadows that hasn't seen a surface stone since the glaciers last paid a visit.

These are the sorts of things that throw you out of any story, whether in a book or a movie, and make you question your confidence in the storyteller.

But no matter…  I wouldn't bother writing about the movie for things this small. No, this movie had much bigger problems.

You see, this movie had a message. And it was going to make sure that we heard that message, loud and clear.

The great Amazon reviews drought

Posted in Just for Writers, and Readers

Image of 5 product ratingsIt has seemed to me lately that I'm getting far fewer reviews on Amazon than I used to, considering the number of units I sell. The thought has been nagging at me for some time, and I'm not alone — others seem to be observing the same thing and speculating about causes.

So — you know me. Time to actually crunch a few numbers and try to see if it's true and, if so, why I think it might be happening.

I started running Amazon AMS ads about 15 months ago, and my units sold have shot up gratifyingly. But not my reviews. My ratings are stable and the reviews I get are much the same as they've always been, but there are just fewer of them than I would expect.

First steps — collect the data

I've been meaning to copy my reviews off the retailer sites, especially Amazon, lest they vanish in one of the periodic Amazon purges. So far I've been lucky and haven't lost any, but that can change. It's useful to have them available, not just for ratings on the retail sites, but also as sources of blurb and other publicity text from real readers.

I checked my retailers and confirmed that, yep, I have almost no reviews except on Amazon, and almost all of those on Amazon USA, of course. That made it easy.

I set up a spreadsheet like the one I use for tracking unit sales to track reviews: month/year, source, rating, product, retailer, headline, review text, etc. Then it was off to the races with pivot tables.

Do I have enough data?

I don't make any big push for reviews, just a modest suggestion in the backmatter of the books. I don't have a ton of reviews, but they do keep coming in (slowly), so I'm going to assume there are enough for some valid conclusions. In any case, I don't have any special marketing that might confuse results.

Next — connect the review data to the units sold data

I put a worksheet up with one pivot table for the reviews-by-month, and another with the units-sold-by-month. Then I ran out the data for a comparison from the date my first book came out, in October, 2012.

A model to compare data

The question I wanted to answer was:

Has the percentage of reviews per units sold been declining lately?

Plotters vs Pantsers

Posted in Just for Writers, and Plot

As always, I find it useful to write a post to clarify my own thinking — this time, about the creative process of writing a work of fiction.

Cartoon of outliningI'm 60% of the way through my current work-in-progress (Fragments of Lightning), and I was just rearranging my hints for the remainder of the book, since my subconscious last night was busy working overtime changing my conclusions about what was important about the events in the second half.

I was so delighted with the results that I wanted to take time out to write this post about how I understand the differences between the processes of outlining a book in some detail in order to write it (“plotters”) and not doing so, flying by the seat of your pants (“pantsers”). Your understanding may be different.

This is my 10th novel, so I'm beginning to get some insight into my own psychology and the creative process. That insight has changed over time, naturally. I spent a reasonable amount of my career writing software, which has to be planned from start to finish, and building companies, which requires understanding how systems are put together, so unsurprisingly I started as a plotter and outlined my first book in some detail. Even then, however, I was flexible about how the plot developed, and things I had outlined had a way of… shifting.

For books 2 and 3, the planned outlines got discarded or altered beyond recognition earlier and earlier in the process, until I was barely using an outline at all for book 4. By the time I started my 2nd series, I was a confirmed pantser. Not only did I not know when I started how the book would end, I didn't know how the series would end, even though it had a compelling quest running through the entire thing which would have to be solved in the end (over 4 books).

One thing about writing into the dark (pantsing) — you learn not to be frightened by uncertainty.

Different structural goals

Plotters are focused on control and a desired ending. There may be a structure that is appropriate for the genre (Happily Ever After (HEA) endings for Romance, as an example, or some of the conventions of Thrillers and Mysteries). There may be a need to keep the number of new characters under control in a long-running series. There may be particular goals for certain books in a series, to help keep the series from strangling on dead ends, or a need for a particular ending to entice the reader to the next book in a series. The author may have a theme he's developed that he wants to be illuminated by the choices his characters make.

The plot is a means of getting to the desired end.

Pantsers are focused on highlights, typically emotional ones. They have characters in an initial situation, and there are things they want to happen to those characters (“he's going to meet someone and fall in love”, “her best friend will betray her”, “he'll be left for dead on the battlefield”), but there may or may not be a particular ending in view at the start. In genres like ScienceFiction, the highlights might even be worldbuilding, rather than emotional — demonstrating the ramifications of an exotic setting, for example.

The plot is a means of holding the highlights together in a satisfying way.