My top tips to be a rubbish blogger

A member of my writing critique group asked recently whether it was useful for an aspirational novelist to have a blog. Having been blogging for about seven years, I think I’m qualified to say something about this.

Now, I could give you a tutorial on how to be a great blogger, but I won’t because

(a) I haven’t been very successful, and

(b) there are hundreds of ‘experts’ out there who will give (or sell) you wonderful advice.

So let me tell you what I’ve been writing, and what people liked. I’ll finish with my tips for being a rubbish blogger.

What did I write, and what did people like? 

These are my top posts between 2014 and 2019:

Shoes under a bridge Kreuzburg: This was a little travel piece about an art installation in Berlin. Most of the hits were from Europe, and it was obvious that tourists had walked under the bridge, wondered about the coloured shoes, and hit their phones to find out what was going on. They got me! Did it sell any novels? No! You can tell this from what the visitors clicked on. It wasn’t the links to my novels.

Being British in Australia: No laughing matter: I wrote this satirical piece as a comment on my biculturalism, and for the chance to repeat my favourite joke about Poms in Australia. Most hits were from the UK, and they didn’t buy my books.

A boyhood memory shattered at Navarone Bay: When I visited my mate Paul at his house in Navarone Bay in Rhodes, I was shattered to learn that the movie The Guns of Navarone was fictional. I saw it when I was about fourteen and I have always believed it was true. My visitors were mainly from the UK and Greece. Do I have to repeat that they didn’t buy my books?

arab music

Andalus Arabic Choir – Sydney’s best-kept music secret?: I was bowled over by this performance at the Sydney Opera House, and I wrote a review that was picked up by visitors from Australia and Lebanon. No book sales.

Australia and the plight of the Armenians: This was my review of Viveck Babkenian’s fascinating book. Being married into an Armenian family, I had a personal stake in this. A lot of Australian visitors (who I suspect were of Armenian heritage) shared my fascination. Don’t ask about book sales!

How about the numbers?

  • My big years were 2016-2017 when I was posting almost weekly.
  • The more I posted, the more visitors and views I got.
  • In my peak year I had 2500 visitors.
  • Once I had a head of steam, visitors keep coming to read my old stuff.

Top tip #1 – Be realistic about selling books via a blog

In 2016 I posted weekly promotional articles in the three months before the publication of Cairo Mon Amour, my first Pierre Farag novel. It didn’t sell books. My guess is that it takes 1000 clicks to sell an e-book, which means that my entire blogging effort might have sold five books! In fact, I only sell books when I pay for advertising – just like selling bananas, cars, or any other commodity.

Top tip #2 Use your blog to improve your writing

Use your blog to improve your writing skills. A year before I started writing Cairo Mon Amour, I wrote twelve posts about my time in Cairo during the 1973 war. It revived a lot of memories and helped shape the book. As a bonus, I bundled up the essays into a free e-book called Cairo Rations! (which turned out to be a completely hopeless promotional tool).

Top tip #3 Write weird stuff and have fun!

Write about whatever takes your fancy. You’ll be amazed at what weird stuff people like!

Experimenting with Bookbub ads

Bookbub statistics

I’ve been experimenting with Bookbub ads over the last few weeks, basically gambling small sums to advertise my novels on this huge email-based book marketing platform.

Like many online ad platforms, Bookbub is based on an auction system: Bookbub puts your ad in front of eyeballs, you make a bid for the owners of the eyeballs to click on your ad, and you hope that the clicks turn into purchases.

BookBub ad creative

Your success depends on a lot of variables interacting to hook the right readers. For example, you can target readers who like particular authors, who live in different countries, and buy from different vendors (e.g. Apple, Amazon, Kobo). You can vary your price-per-click bid rate, and the price of your book. You can advertise on different days of the week, and you can choose to release to spend your money quickly or slowly. And of course, you have to design an ad that will seduce those eyeballs. The ad on the left has been one of my most successful.

There are lots of whizz-bang guides on how to get the most out of online ads (even entire courses!), but the take-away message is that you must test multiple versions of ads to find the optimum combination of variables.

As a former academic who has crunched a lot of slippery data (my field is linguistics), this kind of testing looks very complicated; there are so many variables. It is made more difficult for a small player like me investing an average $10 a test because the scale of results is too small to be statistically reliable. For example, why was the clickthrough rate for Apple and Kobo higher this Friday than Thursday, but lower for Amazon? (See the graph at the top of this post.) If I invested $10,000 rather than $10, I’d be much more confident in the results.

So where to? Short of running hundreds of small A/B tests or performing a factor analysis on a $10,000 test, I’m falling back on the approach I used as a linguistics academic when I operated in the grey zone between qualitative and quantitative data: (a) Start with a rough working hypothesis (b) gradually modify the hypothesis as new data comes in, (c) test the modified hypothesis. In practice this has entailed about ten tests so far.

And what have I Iearned? Well, here are some trends, but bear in mind that context is everything: I’m a ‘mature’ male Australian hybrid author writing quirky espionage fiction, and psychological and satirical thrillers, not a young female American author of time travel shape-shifter romance.

AD DESIGN: A quote from a review works better than a summary of the plot.

REGION: Australia (and to an extent Canada) are less competitive than the US and UK.

VENDOR: Apple and Kobo sell as well as Amazon in Australia.

WEEKDAY: Weekend ads may do less well than weekday ads.

AUTHOR: Readers of Daniel Silva like my books.

Remember these are trends based on small stats, not firm conclusions.

The outlook? I’m getting close to a return on my investment on my ads. I’m planning to run my best ad with a bigger investment, but to test some variations with a simultaneous low-cost ad.

I’d be fascinated to hear from other authors who are treading the same path.

Tense day working on my latest novel (weak joke alert)

Hard at work today revising my dystopian novel Patria Nullius. It’s a book within a book: The outside shell is in past tense and the kernel is in present tense. Yesterday I made the big decision to rewrite the kernel in past tense.

I’ve got Ladytron on the cans to help me along, so it’s all good so far.

Meanwhile, I’m grinding through the task of promoting my new book Bury me in Valletta. I’m given away some botched copies of the paperback (my botch-up, now fixed), and I’ve had great feedback. The ebook is discounted to 99c on Amazon and $1.99 on Apple. Do yourself a favour and download a copy. Even better, post a review if you like it!

The vendor links are here.

Thanks,

Stu

Featured

Why I write fiction

Why would I, as an ex-academic, spend the last eight years writing novels that just a few thousand people have read?

I certainly don’t write fiction for money. My tax return shows that I pretty well break even each year when I deduct expenses from royalties. If I factored in the lost opportunity cost of the hours I spend writing … well, let’s not think too hard about that.

You see, I belong to a subgroup of humanity who simply can’t not write. Every Tuesday I spend three hours with my critique group at the NSW Writers Centre in Rozelle, Sydney. The core of the group – four or five of us – are addicted to writing fiction. We just have to do it, just as some people have to sing, play tennis, or drive fast cars.

Perhaps I inherited this compulsion. My father wrote constantly – photo essays for Hertfordshire Countryside, articles on fingerprint techniques for The Police Review, textbooks on fraud investigation and police corruption. I suspect there were a few half-written novels among the typewriter tapping I remember from my childhood.

But it’s more than just raw compulsion. There are other motive forces behind my need to write. One is my fascination with the power of fiction, and the desire to master that power. George Orwell was the first novelist who showed me the force of fiction; his books shaped who I am today, and they shape how I write now. Through the years, others sculpted my intellect and sensibilities – Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen, Anthony Powell, Patrick White, Margaret Drabble … and on goes the parade of geniuses who have wielded the power of stories over me.

But I’m not a best seller – just a mere prawn in the curry of life (that’s a line I’m going to put into the mouth of one of my characters soon); my power to influence is tiny. But (and I know this might sound pathetic), I am almost moved to tears when even one person says, “I loved your book”, or “it was absolutely compelling”.

Here’s an example of job satisfaction: I gave an advance review copy of my latest novel to a friend. I forgot all about it until I got an email from him saying, “Oh no, Ralph died!” with a sad-face emoji. So what did I make of this? (a) He was reading the book – a triumph in itself because it’s harder than you might think to motivate people to read fiction, and (b) he was so affected by Ralph’s sudden death that he instantly emailed me. I walked around with a silly grin for the rest of the day. 

There are different kinds of power: Writing fiction gives me the power to entertain, amuse, sadden, satisfy. But let’s get back to the power to shape ideas and beliefs. Despite their tortuous plots, all my novels have what I think of as a moral core: In one, I explore the precariousness of middle-class morality; another has the plight of the Armenians as a backdrop; and they all contain a strand dealing with the way men negotiate partnerships with strong women.

Moral cores aside, writing fiction is, for me, a fascinating intellectual process. I’ll spare you the fine details, but suffice to say that juggling plot, setting, characters, and style is an intoxicating blend of creativity and technique. As an academic linguist, I hesitate to drift into metaphysics, but there are writing days when I enter what I call a ‘state of grace’ with the sentences flowing without obstacle. There are other days when it’s like shoving a barrow of shit uphill. 

Let me finish with what might be the most important reason I write. The four novels and one novella I’ve written so far are best described as being on the more intellectual end of popular fiction. If you were to ask who I see as models, I might suggest people like Lucie Whitehouse and Philip Kerr. My books entertain, amuse, sadden, and satisfy. But for the last three years, I’ve been grappling with a dystopian novel called Patria Nullius that deals with a climate apocalypse. I started the novel because I felt so helpless for the future of my grandchildren. It has been a pig of a book to structure. I’ve chopped and chipped at it, turned it on its head, but I’ve vowed to get it finished in 2020. I’m writing it because it will give me the power to influence in an existentially crucial way – even to a tiny extent.

You see, I can’t not write this book.

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You can learn more about my books here.

Five ways to create a femme fatale in your novel

noir, romance book, femme fatale, cairoThe Pierre Farag Espionage Thriller series is now a trilogy. Book 1 Ash on the Tongue is free to download here. Book 2 Cairo Mon Amour is published here, and Book 3 Bury me in Valletta will be published in early 2020.

If I were name my favourite character in the trilogy, the prize would go to  femme fatale Zouzou Paris. Here’s how to create your own Zouzou:

Give her a mysterious name

Just as Mata Hari’s real name was Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod, Zouzou didn’t start life as Zouzou. Her real name was Aziza FarisZouzou is an affectionate form of Aziza. It only needed a slight adjustment for Faris to become Paris* when she became a film star and decided to give herself some French mystique.

Give her a tragic past

Zouzou’s parents died in a car crash when she was eighteen. A friend of her father took her under his wing. “A peculiar variety of friend,” she said darkly, describing how the man had helped her into the film industry, where she became a plaything of his business friends. “It was sordid and exciting at the same time. The attention of rich men made me the envy of my fans. But while they envied me, they hated me too. It is the fate of women like me.”

Give her an ambiguous morality

Although she was known in Egypt as ‘the national bitch’, Zouzou’s lascivious reputation concealed a different morality. She remained a virgin until she was thirty-three. “A man may gorge on mango when all he has been given is boiled carrot,” she says, explaining how she tricked the old men.

Give her a quirky view of the world

Zouzou has spent her life negotiating deception and lies. “My whole life was a bargain.” Her instinct is to protect herself through obfuscation: “Why tell the truth when an untruth will suffice?” she often says.

Give her a distinctive speech style

Zouzou’s first language is Arabic, although we learn that she also speaks French and Turkish and probably other languages. When she speaks English, I give her a stilted and slightly florid style, e.g. “I had to go to many parties on yachts in Beirut … So many actresses, so many men with creeping hands. You see, sister, I cannot think of a yacht without remembering the caresses of those old fellows.”

Happy writing!   Stuart

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*For Arabic speakers: Yes, yes, I l know this is cheating and that the vowels in Faaris and Baariis are different!  Let’s keep it bayni wa baynkum!