Guest Post: Humorist Iain Pattison explains why he’s adopted a quirky approach to attracting new readers on Amazon
Iain is a UK-based author, competition judge, creative writing tutor and script doctor. His short stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and literary publications, including Woman, Woman’s Own, Take A Break, Chat, Woman’s Weekly, My Weekly, Writers Forum, Acclaim Magazine, and The New Writer. They’ve also been broadcast on BBC Radio 4 and featured in numerous North American short story and flash fiction anthologies.
In his entertaining article below, Iain spills the beans on how he adopted a more entrepreneurial approach when his original short story anthology, Is That a Pun in Your Pocket, stopped selling. There are useful lessons all authors can learn from this, non-fiction as well as fiction.
Over to Iain, then…
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It’s a story that’s as old as time itself – or at least, as old as the digital age. You’ve got an eBook that’s doing well, attracting glowing reviews, and enjoying steady sales. Then, without any warning or apparent reason, it starts to falter. Sales dip, reviews dry up and no one mentions it any more on social media.
This is what happened to me recently, when sales of my comedy short story collection Is That A Pun In Your Pocket?: 21 Short Stories to Tickle Your Fancy began to slide. From being a book that created a buzz, garnered loads of five and four star reviews and saw sales rocket so much that other authors were asking me to share the secret of my success, I suddenly found that I had a parrot that, if not deceased, was pining for the fjords too damn much for my liking.
I was surprised and rather perplexed. I’d have understood it if “Pun” hadn’t done well at the start, had been tied into some topical date or event, or it or I had been the subject of some nationwide scandal. But none of these were true. (I certainly hadn’t been controversial in the Nationwide, although I couldn’t necessarily vouch for my behaviour in other building societies.)
So what to do? Belonging to the noble order of quitters, whose sacred motto is: “If first you don’t succeed, immediately give up and have a pint”, my initial reaction was to mutter darkly and forget the whole business. Let the parrot die.
I’d seen too many authors panic into dramatically dropping the price, doubling the decibels and frequency of their “BUY MY BOOK”!!!” tweets and Facebook posts, while messing about with cosmetic Frankenstein revamps to their creations. I wasn’t going down that road, thank you very much. I still had a little pride.
But no matter how much I tried to put it all behind me I couldn’t ignore that niggling, itching, troubling voice in my head. What God of publishing had I offended? Where had it gone wrong?
Donning my metaphorical deerstalker I set off to investigate. I quizzed lots of people, sought opinions, had many “It’s okay – give it to me straight” conversations, accepted advice, criticisms and sympathetic cups of tea.
And rapidly a clear answer emerged from all the probing and pleading. Is That A Pun In Your Pocket? had been a hit with those who knew my work – but it had failed to attract the attention of the wider reading public. Yes, I’d enjoy a mini sales surge every time I was interviewed on a writing website or did a guest blog, but the reality was that I was selling in a bubble and had exhausted my available audience. (You can experience the same effect if you sit through one of my after dinner speeches!)
I just wasn’t attracting new readers. The world was taking one look at my wonderful, satirical, deeply insightful and whimsical book and saying: “It’s good, but it’s not quite Carling.” And those I asked weren’t shy at letting me know why.
It didn’t matter how entertaining or clever my stories were, I’d got the three key selling points of any eBook badly wrong.
Casual browsers and impulse buyers were being turned off by:
- the price
- the book title
- and the cover
So just about everything important!
To examine each of my crimes in turn: I’d suggested to the publisher that the collection should be priced at £2.99. It had seemed a reasonable amount at the time. After all, the book was packed with competition winning stories, tales that had appeared in anthologies on both sides of the Atlantic and been broadcast on Radio 4. What I hadn’t realised was that other short story collections on Amazon were priced around £1.99, and with eBooks an extra £1 makes a huge amount of difference to allure and saleability.
Then there was the title. I’d assumed that a generic, tongue-in-cheek label would convey that this was a fun book, something guaranteed to raise a smile – an easy read that didn’t take itself too seriously. What I hadn’t realised was that most book buyers browsing on Amazon prefer a “does what it says on the tin” title. As with jokes, you can be too clever or oblique. Yes, the second part – “21 Short Stories to Tickle Your Fancy” – hinted at the tone and subject matter but many browsers weren’t reading past the opening words “Is That A Pun In your Pocket?” Even those potential buyers who did, seemed confused – and I was asked on more than one occasion if this was a book of jokes and riddles or radio scripts.
As for the negative reaction to the word “pun” – who’d have guessed it? Well, I should have. For me it seemed an easy way to summarise the deft wordplay and satirical semantic flourishes that I like to include in my multi-layered comedy. Unfortunately, for others it suggested the childish, groan-inducing headlines you see in newspapers around Easter promising Eggs-tra Special Fun. Everyone fixated on the poor three letter word – to the exclusion of anything else. Even those kind souls who left five-star reviews all worked in a mention. My fault – not theirs.
All that was bad enough, but arguably it was the cover that was causing me the most problems. How do you illustrate “Is That A Pun In Your Pocket?” without devising something visually baffling or guaranteed to be so rude it would make even Frankie Boyle blush. So I’d plumped for a text-only cover, and in so doing ensured that the book appeared drab and uninspiring next to all the colourful, dynamic, loud and eye-popping artwork and photo-montages of the opposition. Yes, it had a jaunty typeface but it came across a bit like a wallflower maiden aunt at a swingers’ fancy dress ball.
And one of the harshest pieces of feedback to swallow was that it looked so sedate that some wrongly assumed that it was a non-fiction book. So a wallflower maiden aunt librarian with horn-rim specs at a swingers’ fancy dress ball. No wonder it didn’t score!
Having digested these bitter revelations, I came to a conclusion. I wasn’t heading for despair but back to the drawing board. I was going to have another bash.
As I mulled over how to revive the parrot, two chance conversations changed my whole way of looking at the task.
Firstly, my wife Liz (immensely wise in everything except choosing me as a husband) remarked that if she was categorising my stories she’d say they were “quirky” – in fact, most of my output, even the fairly straight tales, were “quintessentially quirky.”
Then a writer friend asked me why I was so surprised that ‘Pun In Your Pocket’ had stumbled and fallen. Didn’t I know that stand-alone eBooks were notoriously difficult to sell? “If you want to make any money, you need to be producing a series of linked books,” he said. “If readers like one, they’ll immediately want more of the same and buy several others in the series.”
Eureka!!!! Cue cartoon light bulb flashing on above my head. And Quintessentially Quirky Tales was born.
I’d bring out a series of light-hearted eBooks all under the same marketing banner, all priced at £1.99. There would be 15 stories to a volume – mostly humour. And each would have an easy to understand and categorise title such as Fiddle of the Sphinx and other Quintessentially Quirky Tales. In addition, each volume would feature a striking cartoon cover designed by the same brilliant artist – each image different but the overall typography and layout clearly conforming to a recognisable QQ brand.
There would be at least two volumes launches a year. In between, I’d periodically offer a discount promotion through Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program on one of the existing series – just to keep interest bubbling over.
Luckily – and crucially -when I explained my vision to the publisher of Is That A Pun In Your Pocket? he loved the idea and generously offered to kill the original book so I wouldn’t be competing against myself.
So that’s what happened and, after a hectic few weeks of editing, formatting and cover design, the first two QQ volumes have just gone live on Amazon. I’m thrilled with Fiddle of the Sphinx and other Quintessentially Quirky Tales and its sister title An Ugly Way to Go and other Quintessentially Quirky Stories and hope the reading public will be as well.
There’s one additional feature to my original vision – each QQ volume contains a guest story from an author whose work I love and whom I think my readers will love too. In volume one it’s Glynis Scrivens and in volume two it’s Chloe Banks. Both have contributed entertainingly quirky yarns. I believe that cross promotion and author co-operation is the way of the future so I’m excited to see how this pans out for us.
Well, the adventure is off and running. If you fancy checking out Fiddle of the Sphinx, and reading the first story for free, please click here.
And for An Ugly Way to Go, this is the link you want.
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I do very much agree with Iain that for e-book writing especially nowadays, writing a series is the way to go, and this applies just as much to non-fiction writers as fiction.The advantages in terms of cross-promotion and building your personal brand are too great to ignore.
And if you enjoy reading quirky, well-written short stories with a clever twist at the end, I highly recommend giving Iain’s books a try. They are perfect for reading on your Kindle on the beach or by the pool this summer. In addition, as Iain is regularly asked to judge short story writing competitions, you may pick up some useful lessons about his tastes and preferences by reading his own stories!
For the convenience of my non-UK readers (though they will work for UK readers as well) here are universal links to Fiddle of the Sphinx and An Ugly Way to Go. These should take you to the relevant pages of your own national Amazon store, wherever in the world you are based.
If you have any comments or questions for Iain (or for me), as always please do post them below.