Review: Tow-Truck Pluck

Tow-Truck Pluck, by Annie Schmidt

Genre: Children’s

Rating: 5-stars

I don’t normally leave reviews on kids’ books, but I really, really like this one. We received it as a gift a few years ago when my daughter was little, and she loved it. I just read through it with my son, and he loved it, too!

It’s the story of a boy with a tow-truck who goes around solving people’s problems (and sometimes getting into some of his own!). There are many sections to the story, each a few pages long, sometimes with some cliffhangers that’ll have your kids begging for “just one more section!”

There’s a great mix of characters that Pluck interacts with, from Dolly the pigeon, to the Stampers, Zaza the cockroach to the Tootenlisp (a magical sort of shell). It’s great fun, and I look forward to reading it with my kids again and again!

Review: Monsters, by Steve Turnbull

Monsters, by Steve Turnbull
Genre: Near-Future Urban Fantasy
Rating: 4 stars

This is one of the longest books I’ve read in a while, and although it has a hefty word count, it never felt long. There were a lot of characters, but not so many that I couldn’t keep track of them. The pacing is excellent, with each character getting a short scene before moving on to the next. 

The evolution of the main character, Chloe Dark, was interesting to see unfold. Her motivations were clear and realistic, given the fantastic situation she found herself plunged into. 

It’s only too easy to see the world falling into this dark future, if the human race experienced a fracturing where some people mutated into “freaks.” 

The only part I had trouble with – and I understand the motivation – is that the ending was weak, leaving a lot of questions unanswered, and leaving it feeling like there definitely needs to be more. But it wasn’t as bad as when authors just end a book with no sense of climax, assuming you’ll continue reading. Usually with a first book in series, I prefer a clean ending, but in this case I enjoyed the first book enough that I’ll be looking for the sequel anyway. 

Amazon Ads

With three novels out, and the next one getting closer, I figured it was time to start advertising the fact that these books exist.

I’ve heard good things about Amazon Ads, so figured I’d start there. How it works is, you determine how much you’re willing to spend per day, and how many days. You select a “bid” for your ad to show up. If your ad shows up on a page with lower priced ads, you don’t necessarily pay the full bid price. If someone clicks your ad, you pay.

Attempt #1

Not knowing anything about advertising, I went with a $5 daily limit, and a bid price of 15 cents. Amazon recommended 13 cents, so I figured I’d try slightly higher.

Over the next few days the ad made “200 impressions” – not entirely sure how it’s measured if someone looked at the ad. Maybe they just stopped scrolling on the page while my ad was visible. Who knows? Anyway, I received 1 click, and paid 6 cents.

Attempt #2

I added a couple words to the ad: Action & Adventure! The ads are limited for number of characters, so I wanted to draw attention to the theme of the book straight away. I kept the same daily limit of $5, but upped the bid to 20 cents to see if it made a difference in how often it would be seen.

I was surprised that the ad only had 145 impressions, but realized it might have been because fewer people were shopping the week after all the Black Friday/Cyber Monday deals. Also, no clicks meant I didn’t spend any money on it, so no harm done.

Attempt #3

I tried something completely different this time. I dropped the brief blurb and put in star rankings along with snippets of reviews left on Amazon. I did a combination of 5- and 4-star ratings, since A Noble’s Quest is rated 4 stars. Didn’t want to overdo it with all 5-star reviews.

Unfortunately, the ad was refused! Since the snippets I used were fragments (again, not a lot of space) they didn’t like that.

Attempt #4

Christmas is coming soon, so I thought I’d go for that angle. I’ve had some success at conventions selling to people who have a family member who enjoys fantasy, so why not point out there’s a new series out there? I also liked the “Christmas is coming!” line, because it calls back to Game of Thrones’ “Winter is coming.” I upped the bid again to 25 cents, hoping that might get more impressions.

Advertising success was found and there was much rejoicing! I got a click, and that person not only bought A Noble’s Quest, but hunted down the rest of the trilogy to get all three books in paperback! Best 15 cents I ever spent in my life!

Attempt #5

I took one more swing at the Christmas angle, hoping for some last minute shoppers. I increased the bid to 30 cents, and it didn’t change much.

There were 195 impressions, and 2 clicks that cost 15 cents total, with no sales. But that’s okay. With the outstanding month I’ve had, it’s all good!

Conclusion

There are services out there that cost a lot of money for questionable returns. From Book Bub, which costs hundreds of dollars, to less expensive mailing list builders that hemorrhage people over time. I tried a mailing list builder for $40+ early this year, and although I jumped from 152 subscribers to 563, that number has dropped to less than 472 now. I also don’t see an increase in sales above what I used to get when I announce new releases through the mailing list. The only thing it seems to help with is when I have free promotions, so I won’t be doing mailing list builders anymore. If people are actually interested in me as an author, they can hunt down my mailing list on this website.

Amazon’s system of paying per click seems pretty amazing in comparison. With four clicks over four ad campaigns, I sold three books. I don’t expect to continue seeing those sorts of rates, but even if I get a lot of clicks with no sales for a while, those three sales have made it worthwhile for a long, long time.

I’m going to try increasing my daily limit, since I’ve never gotten anywhere close to $5/day, and see if that increases the number of impressions, which have remained fairly stable over time, even with the increase in bidding price.

If you’re struggling with being seen, and bring in enough for a coffee or two per month like I was, I suggest trying Amazon Ads. It’s low risk, and if you get some bites, it pays for itself very quickly. Keep in mind, this was for my paperback books, which give a slightly higher return. Not sure I would try this with e-books, since A Noble’s Quest is priced fairly low, and I’m not ready to do sales of the full Empire’s Foundation trilogy, since it’s a bargain at under $10 for all three books in one e-book, and I don’t have anything else for people to bounce to after that. Maybe once I have a second series out, I could see myself promoting the omnibus version, but for now I’ll continue advertising book 1.

Review: As You Wish

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride, by Cary Elwes

Genre: Non-fiction

Rating: 5 stars

Cary is immediately disarming with his charm and humbleness. The entire story of how he was headhunted for the part of Westley, right to the end and describing his love of his fans, was amazing. There are snippets from the other people involved in the film, too. It all came together to make a highly enjoyable read, and I can’t recommend it enough for fans of The Princess Bride.

The only thing I found curiously lacking was much on his time with Robin. I’d heard before (and in this book) how Cary had been smitten with Robin from the start, but if you’re hoping for juicy details, you won’t find them here. Too much the gentleman to kiss and tell. (Although the section on the most perfect kiss was pretty great!)

There were parts of the book that had me laughing out loud, and I really need to watch the film again, knowing so many tantalizing details about it to keep an eye out for.

Have fun storming the castle reading the book!

Review: The Roundabout

The Roundabout, by Andy Goldman

Genre: Science fantasy

Rating: 5-stars

The last book in The Only City Left trilogy is out, and I snatched up a digital copy straight away! I’ve been following this series since it started, and couldn’t wait to dig in.

Allin, Tyena, and Tumble are back to try to save the Earth from the epic cliffhanger of the second book. With a fleet of warships in orbit, they have been given a week to turn in fugitives who have been hiding on Earth.

The Only City Left started out with just Allin’s point of view (POV), and The Fifth House added Tyena’s. This final installment adds Tumble. You might think three 1st person POV’s sounds like a lot, but each chapter clearly labelled whose head you were in, so there was no confusion. I was glad to see events through Tumble’s eyes, and I think knowing what all three of them were up to was good, since leaving out any one of them would have left a gaping hole in the reader’s understanding of events.

The pacing was excellent, as usual, with tons of action and intrigue. Nearly every scene ended with a cliffhanger, and I couldn’t wait to pick up my ereader for the ride to and from work to see what happened next. Usually I’ll alternate between reading and playing games on my phone, but ever since I started reading this one, it was all reading, all the time.

The only problem I had was that it was a long time since I read the first two books, so although I clearly remembered the main characters and major events, there were side characters I had no memory of. Even by the end of the book, I couldn’t place where they’d joined the story, and I think this will be a series that I’ll re-read. That’s rare for me, as I’m not a fast reader, but these books are worth it.

Goldman is definitely on my “must buy” list after finishing this series. I hope he comes back to these characters at some point!

If you’re looking for a new, complete series to read, I highly recommend this one.

Review: All These Shiny Worlds

All These Shiny Worlds anthology, edited by Jefferson Smith

Genre: Sci-fi and Fantasy

Rating: 4-stars

Anthologies are tricky to rate, because there are good stories and there are not so good stories.

This anthology proclaims to include the best of the best indie authors… first the authors have to survive the 40 minute Immerse or Die challenge, then they have to do well on a full read through, then authors are asked if they would like to submit a short story to the anthology, then the stories are judged by a panel of three judges. Also, authors who get invited are given the chance to invite one other author. The anthology is free, with the idea that after showcasing their work in the anthology, readers will find new readers to follow. I really like that, and overall this anthology was quite good. That said, I didn’t like every single story, and I had low hopes after reading the first one…

1 First Man in the World – 2 stars – People who like traditional sci-fi might enjoy this, but for me it lacked any sense of humanity or struggle. Just a vague how-to terraform a planet. Not my cup of tea.

2 Three Demon Gambit – 4 stars – I enjoyed the twists and turns in this story, even though I didn’t like the protagonist, a student in a school of magic. Dealing with demons and rival students was interesting.

3 Rolling the Bones – 4 stars – disturbing use of necromancy, found it difficult to parse the characters at first, but once I figured out the king and wizard were two different people, it flowed well and I enjoyed following the protagonist through his difficult choices surrounding the morality of using necromancy to preserve the peace.

4 All the Way – 4 stars – A future where dying people can upload themselves to robots and work in space. Quite a human story, however, and I felt quite bad for the robot’s ex-wife.

5 Scales Fall – 4 stars – I’m not even sure if I fully understood this story, with how it jumped around in time, but I enjoyed it a lot. It all felt so familiar, possibly because I read a lot of ancient Egyptian stuff as a kid.

6 The Ant Tower – 5 stars – Here was a story I didn’t want to end. The shifting in time with each scene took some getting used to, but the story was excellent. By far my favorite up to this point. With plenty of twists and turns, this trek through the desert didn’t end the way I thought it would. I want to read more from this author.

7 Heft – 3 stars – I found this spy story with a twist rough at first, and I’m not sure I fully got the ending. I think I did, but the uncertainty left me feeling unsure how to rate this one. I was left with the feeling that there was something clever that happened, but it wasn’t explained enough for me to understand in its entirety. Maybe if I read it a second time, but it wasn’t a story I enjoyed enough to do that with. The philosophy behind it was some next-level stuff that isn’t too hard to imagine actually happening, though.

8 The First Acolyte of the Upshan Berental – 5 stars – A story of being true to yourself, even in the face of disapproving authority. I enjoyed the theme, and also want to see all the worlds.

9 Bronwen’s Dowry – 5 stars – This story of a poor shearer and his wife going to a gathering of pipers was genuinely moving. I loved this one.

10 The Spider and the Darkness – 5 stars – This fantasy tale involving an abused girl seeking to escape her lot in life was fantastic.

11 The Dowager’s Largesse – 5 stars – I already bought the next story in this series because I loved it so much. Who doesn’t love the sound of a cursed bounty hunter with a belligerent llama companion?

12 Theriac – 4 stars – A woman who sees demons (maybe? The way others brush off her concerns makes me wonder…) is confronted with the not so difficult decision of what to do about some half-demon children. As written, it’s 3 stars, except that it had me thinking about it afterwards, wondering what the truth of the matter is, so it got an extra star.

13 The Red Flame of Death – 3 stars – This story about a holy man hunting a demon was okay. The pacing and writing were fine, but in the end I didn’t really care how it ended, because the characters were flat.

14 The Blue Breeze – 4 stars – While certainly the most imaginative of the bunch, creating a rich and dangerous world, the elements of the plot felt quite familiar. A forbidden love story, mingled with the thought, “There’s always a bigger fish.”

15 The Rakam – no rating – First person present tense? Ugh. I have other things I want to read, and after struggling through the first paragraph I said, “Forget it.” I won’t count this one toward the average rating, because I couldn’t give it a fair chance.

Review: Black Market

Black Market, by Alexis Blakely

Genre: Urban Fantasy

Rating: 4 stars

This is one of those stories you can just sit back and enjoy… let it wash over you. The pacing is quick, the read easy, with just a few missing/added words sprinkled throughout but no major errors jumping out of the page.

Alex finds herself in a mess again, investigating the murders of old men… but nothing is as it seems. There weren’t a lot of twists and turns that I didn’t see coming, but the story was still entertaining. Teaming up with Chase, her best friend and thief, they need to call in some favours to try to figure out what’s going on. Be prepared to hear how a witch and a mage are different, repeatedly. And I don’t mean that you’ll learn a new facet of how they’re different, I mean you’ll hear how witches are slow and mages are fast several times throughout the course of the story, just in case you forgot.

I enjoyed the three sets of “villains” in the story. And I mean that I really hated one group, and the other two were sort of popcorn villains, so big and bad that they’re almost funny.

The end of the story was really worth reading the whole book for. Some mind-bending stuff goes on, and it’s satisfying. I will likely pick up the third book in the series.

 

There’s an announcement coming later this month, but I’m changing gears with the blog. It’ll be mostly reviews from here on out. If you would like me to review your book, please don’t send it to me. Just let me know about it and I’ll check it out. If it looks like something I’d be interested in (action, adventure, intrigue, fast paced, non-erotic/romance) then I’ll probably pick it up and give it a whirl. I don’t rate books that I can’t finish, because I don’t think it’s fair to judge a book I didn’t get through. If your book hasn’t seen an editor, odds are I won’t read it.

Slowly getting back up to speed

Well, things are starting to settle down now. After the great Expo (see previous post), meeting a local group of writers, and applying for an independent artist grant, I feel like I’ve got almost everything out of the way to start making headway on A Queen’s Edict. Don’t get me wrong, I wrote some this month. Just not as much as I’m used to, when I’m writing at full speed.

There are still a couple things I need to do… I have a talk I’m giving to my daughter’s class coming up soon, which should be loads of fun! Apparently my daughter told her teacher that I write books, and so she approached me at “meet the teacher” night and asked if I’d talk to her class. Pretty exciting! Also, I need to get my books in the Saskatoon public library, and MacNally books. Finally, ACX is misbehaving and not letting me check my audiobook production of A Noble’s Quest, so I have no idea how that’s going.

But once those final pieces fall into place, I should be able to finish this first draft. It’s taken me so long to write, with the long break this summer for the move, that I think I should be able to go through it straight away because most of the book will be fresh to my eyes.

Finally, friends in Guelph have launched their first Kickstarter under the name “Broken Things” and it’s doing really well! The game, Builders!, is a deck builder where the idea is to hire workers to construct skyscrapers while also sabotaging your opponents. It’s loads of fun, and even though my wife never plays those sorts of games, she tried it one night and loved it. It’s great fun for everyone, and if you’re into games at all, you owe it to yourself to check this one out!

Saskatchewan Entertainment Expo

This weekend I went to Saskatchewan Entertainment Expo, and that means I get to do my first Good, Bad, and Ugly report for a convention outside of Ontario! Let the games begin!

The Good

The Prairieland Park is a great venue, with a ton of space. This expo was the largest I’ve ever attended as a vendor, by far. I know Kitchener Comic Con says it gets around 9000 people, but there’s just no way those numbers can be accurate. SEE says it pulls in 12000, and it was ridiculously busy. But I think that’s the difference between selling armbands to everyone who comes in (SEE) and counting people who enter the doors of a free event (KCC). I figure KCC has to be counting people more than once, if they leave and come back later, because the foot traffic isn’t even close to the same.

I contacted SEE really late, since we just moved to Saskatoon, and I only found out about the expo recently. All the Artist Alley tables were sold out, but they fit me in to an economy vendor stall, which was much roomier than I’m used to. I need to be careful not to get too used to that sort of luxury!

Photo Credit: Jefferson Smith

Fortunately, Jefferson Smith lives in Saskatoon and generously offered to split the table with me. If you haven’t done conventions before, it’s infinitely better to have someone to share a table with. Companionship helps keep your energy levels up, not to mention you can take breaks and still have someone watching the table for you.

I met a couple local writers on the first day who invited me to their writing events. I’m not 100% sure they’re a good fit for me, one being a “writing prompt” sort of group to help with inspiration and combat writer’s block – neither are things I have problems with – and the other sounding sort of ill-defined, but they want to put together an anthology. Even so, it’s always nice to network with other writers, because writing tends to be a lone wolf sort of activity, and it’s nice to share experiences with others.

In terms of sales, I did quite well. Two people bought the full trilogy, and I sold another half dozen copies of A Noble’s Quest. That more than covered the table costs, which was great! Also, some people requested that I put the books in a local book store because they didn’t have the money to buy them at SEE, so I’ll be looking into that soon. As an unknown author in the area with no fan base, I was really pleased with those numbers. Not only that, but I had several people say they will definitely get the books on Amazon as well. Now, I don’t like to count my sales before they come, but I have a really good feeling about some of those people. The community here is exceptionally supportive of their local artists!

Overall, a fantastic convention. Large, well organized, with a good-sized list of current and past celebrities. It was wonderful. Best convention I’ve ever attended! (Although meeting Ed Greenwood at SkyCon will always stand out as a career highlight for me, and will be tough to beat!)

The Bad

Jefferson had to miss the first day entirely due to illness. That really sucks! He had quite a lot of success on the second day when he was there, and I felt he would have done great with the first day, too.

This next point is super minor, and not a knock against the convention at all… but one bad thing about being in the vendor area is that I was beside a WALL of Funkp Pop figures. It’s amazing how many people turned down our alley and simply didn’t see anything else, as their eyes were immediately grabbed by the sheer enormity of hundreds of Pops. How can a little author hope to compete with the power of pre-existing fandom collectibles? Next year I’ll get in on SEE earlier, so I can hang out in Artist Alley, where I hope my work will shine a bit more.

The Ugly

I felt so bad for the guy across from me. I mean, he had a great convention and sold a ton of comic books. He said it was the most he’d ever sold there. But he had two shelving racks that weren’t super stable looking, with REALLY expensive comics on it. One was $975. Thousands of dollars worth of comics fell to the floor, and that big one cracked. Likely cut the value in half. So painful.

The Vendors

I didn’t actually get to do much networking with vendors at this one. I talked with a couple of the people nearby, but didn’t get out of my area much at all.

Jefferson Smith shared the table with me, and has some interesting sounding fantasy books of his own! Fairly different from my stuff, by the sounds of it, but our writing processes are somewhat similar, and I bet they’re good reads. I read one of his short stories a while back, and it was highly entertaining!

Mike’s Comics (Warning: Link is to Facebook page. If you value your privacy, might have to skip this one.) was across from me, and he’s a really nice guy with a massive comic book collection. He had two booths absolutely packed with boxes of comics!

CmdStore had all the Funko Pops and way, WAY more. My son had to get a Pokemon ball from them, and had a really hard time not getting a Funko Pop. As soon as he saw them, he said he wanted to buy one, and he had to be reminded that there was an entire convention worth of stuff to look at, so he shouldn’t just get the first thing he laid eyes on.

 

Review: The Road

The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Genre: Post-apocalyptic
Rating: 4-stars
My aunt sent me a copy of The Road, by Cormac McCarthy, and I finally got around to cracking it open a couple weeks ago.
It… took me a bit to get into. I didn’t like the extremely slow start. The way he chose to write the dialogue isn’t to my taste. And everything was so bleak… something I’m not really in the mood for often anymore, given the current state of the world.
Yet I found myself getting drawn into the story of the man and his son. I found myself caring about these nameless characters, and wishing they could find SOME bright hope in a dying, scorched world.
And I cried at the end of it.
I think the father-child bond was what did it for me. I kept trying to imagine myself in such a dire situation, watching my own children slowly wasting away, and it hit me right in the amygdala. It’s a parent’s worst fear.
And I loved how gentle he was with his son, even as he taught him hard truths of the world, or his son figured them out for himself. He took ownership when things went wrong, and realized that when his son did something incorrect, it was his own fault for not double checking things, or teaching his son how to do it properly.
If you can get used to the style of the writing, the book will grab you and not let go until the very end. If you’re a dad who loves your child(ren) fiercely, this won’t be an easy book to read, but there are some great lessons in the darkness.