Paid Book Reviews – Dream Job or Frustrating Time Sink?

I mean seriously, can there be anything better than having someone pay you to read books? For those of us who love reading, that’s a dream job, and they’re scarce as chicken teeth, so if you get an opportunity to get paid to read, you grab it.

A gift horse | © Unknown

But… here’s the thing: I don’t get to choose the books that I read. Sure, I pick a book from the available list in the genre that I prefer, but other than that, I have no say over which books I spend my evenings with. And this is … problematic.

The books that I have to read and review are all written by indie authors, such as myself, and since I’m also independently published I don’t want to flack others who choose to follow the same route. However, by and large I am increasingly disappointed in the quality of these books. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but I am trained to read critically (I have a Bachelor’s degree in Publishing and a postgraduate degree in English Studies) and many of these books read like first drafts, something the author slapped together, decided was brilliant as is and then let loose upon the world with nary so much as a spellcheck or a decent critique from anyone other than their mother. This tends to make me grumpy and overly critical.

The last thing I want to do in my precious free time is read a book that’s not ready to be read yet, no matter how much potential it may have. In the time I spent getting frustrated by a badly-written book I could have been reading an awesome book instead or, even better, writing and improving my own.

So here’s my dilemma – should I give up the dream job?

While I have discovered a few really amazing books and their talented authors this way, in general, the books I’ve had to review have been a chore to read. Sure, getting paid a few dollars for reading is nice, but is it really worth the time, effort and aggravation? What do you think?

What would you do? Would you grin and bear it and learn from it, or do you also think that time could be spent better? Do you think I’m being overly critical and should stop looking a gift horse in the mouth?

What Are Your Thoughts on Audiobooks?

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m late coming to the bandwagon where audiobooks are concerned, but it seems to be a very popular, growing format these days. And it seems like everyone who is anyone is involved in podcasting in some form or another.

I’ve only recently started listening to podcasts, for years having preferred to consume information via my eyes rather than my ears. However, I’m slowly starting to realise the benefits of audio products. For one thing, it enables you to multitask, turning otherwise dull and mundane tasks into informative and entertaining sessions where your hands are routinely busy, but (gasp!) your brain is stimulated too. I’m fortunate to have very good eyesight, but I would imagine for someone with failing visual capability, audio entertainment is heaven-sent.

Entertainment on the go | © Philips Communications

In fact, the only downside to audiobooks I can think of is that, if I’m not careful, my mind starts to wander (either because an interesting idea was sparked or because I’m busy trying to write a complex piece of code at work) and I find myself ten minutes later without any idea of where I am in the narrative or how I got there. I suppose concentrated listening is a skill that needs to be learned.

In either case, I’ve lately played with the idea of converting some of my stories into audiobooks. My husband is wonderfully well-spoken (with a sexy Welsh accent to boot!) and would make the perfect narrator. I can only imagine hearing my stories in this medium would be incredibly satisfying for me personally, and would also allow a larger audience to get to know my work.

So, I have a few questions for you, consumers of audiobooks:

  1. Do you prefer a straightforward reading of a text, or do you like the narrator to give different voices and accents to individual characters?
  2. What are your thoughts on ambient sounds, such as birds tweeting or background music?
  3. Would it be disconcerting if the viewpoint character is female, but the narrator is male?
  4. Is there anything specific that puts you off an audiobook immediately that we should avoid at all costs?

I would really appreciate your thoughts and advice. I’m actually quite excited about the idea and would love to try it out, while at the same time making the product as professional and listener-friendly as possible.

Which format do you prefer – books or audio? Why? Do you have any examples of great audiobooks that we can use as reference?

A Warning Ignored

© Unknown

Jenna opened her eyes and coughed, spluttering as she inhaled some of the water threatening to drown her. She was lying on her side in the wet sand, white foam from the gentle breakers lapping against her face. Grimacing, she spat the salty water out and rolled over onto her back. A palm tree swayed in the breeze as she stared at the azure sky above. It took her a moment to remember what had happened.

Mutiny.

She picked herself up from the sand, wincing as she climbed to her feet. The sea must have been rough last night. It felt like she’d been pummelled nearly to death, although she remembered nothing after diving from the plank. Her boots were gone, of course, and so was her hat, but her thick knee-length coat still clung to her wet body. Her breeches and white cotton shirt were caked with sand and scratched unpleasantly against her skin as she stumbled towards the shade of the tree.

She smiled when she saw a coconut lying on the ground, and flinched as her bottom lip split. Water, she needed water fast. She smashed the coconut husk open with a large rock, cracked the outer shell and gulped the warm liquid down, rivulets of juice running down the sides of her mouth and making her hands sticky. The fruit’s flesh was bland, but it patched the hole in her rumbling belly.

With her immediate needs satiated, she suddenly remembered why she no longer had a crew.

She stood up and looked about. She knew this beach. She followed the curve of the sand until her eyes could just make out the town walls in the distance, squinting against the morning sun’s glare. She’d have to hurry if she hoped to warn them in time.

***

Jenna hesitated just outside the town gate. Stepping foot inside these walls could spell disaster for her. She glanced towards the ocean, shimmering in the late afternoon glow. Time was limited. She needed to act now.

The guards at the gate stopped her immediately.

“You have some nerve,” the first man said as he blocked her way with his musket.

“I need to speak to the Governor. Immediately,” Jenna demanded.

“Oh, you’ll speak to him, alright,” the second guard sneered as he clapped a pair of manacles around her wrists.

Leaving their post unattended, they hauled her off towards the town square, where a large white mansion sat looking out over the bay. Jenna kept her gaze towards the ground, but she heard people whispering her name as the guards bundled her through the large oak doors and up the grand staircase.

A frown creased the Governor’s face as he looked up from a stack of papers at the interruption. Recognition turned the frown into a scowl.

“I warned you never to come back here.”

Jenna wrenched her arms free of her captors’ grips and squared her shoulders as she looked into the Governor’s eyes. “They’re coming.”

The man’s face paled visibly and he pressed his lips into a thin line. “And we’ll be ready for them. But you brought this upon yourself.” He nodded curtly at the guards. The men grabbed her arms again and dragged her from the Governor’s office.

A crowd was already gathered in the square, where the gallows waited for her. Jenna lifted her head as the hangman placed the noose around her neck. The sky glowed orange, the sun hanging low over the seemingly blood-red waters of the turbulent ocean waves. In the distance, she could see a black-sailed ship approaching.

She turned towards the Governor, her gaze pleading. “Brother,” her lips formed the word, but no sound escaped them.

The Governor averted his gaze and lifted his hand.

500 Subscribers!

At the start of this year I wrote down a list of writerly resolutions and one of them was to grow my mailing list to 500 subscribers. This happened much sooner than expected and I can now announce with great fanfare and much excitement that my subscriber list has already grown to over 500 readers!

This is mostly due to the awesomeness that is Instafreebie, and although writer friends have warned me that readers gained from this site could be a little fickle, so far they have been amazingly supportive, helping me reach an Amazon Best Seller’s list with one of my stories and even mailing me to tell me more about their lives or to ask for writing advice.

Being able to correspond with readers who enjoy my stories and to connect with them on a more personal level has been surprisingly rewarding. It’s incredible to see how many people, from all across the world, and from widely varying situations, love to read and have a shared appreciation for the types of stories that I write.

I think this is a facet of writing that traditionally published authors, who don’t necessarily bother with mailing lists, really miss out on. Even someone as introverted as I am can find the joy in connecting with others with similar interests.

If you’re not part of my subscriber’s list yet, please consider signing up. I don’t spam my subscribers with a flood of mails about “news” that no-one is really interested in, and you’ll be the first to know about new releases and specials. Also, you get a free story thrown in for good measure! And if push comes to show, you can always unsubscribe. Why not give it a shot?

Next target: 1000 subscribers!

I’d love to get connected and hear your thoughts. What do you like about being subscribed to mailing lists? What do you hate?

Ambrose’s London

I’ve mentioned before that one of my great loves in life is to travel and see the world. Since I’m currently limited to local travel only (until the little one is old enough to endure a 12-hour flight!), I wanted a way to revisit all my favourite places, and so the MYTHICAL MENAGERIE series was born. Each installment is set in a different city around Europe, so if you love to travel or like to indulge in armchair expeditions, then you’d probably enjoy these urban fantasy tales.

The stories follow the adventures of Ambrose Davids, a twenty-something down on his luck and struggling to make ends meet in London. BEGINNER’S LUCK, the first novelette in the series, plays off in the UK’s capital and I had so much fun running around London after Ambrose as he tries to get back on his feet and make sense of the unexpected world he suddenly finds himself a part of.

Here are a few of my favourite images from across the web showing scenes from Ambrose’s London to whet your appetite. Enjoy!

© Unknown
© Unknown
© Unknown
© Unknown
© Pierre Engelbrecht
© Unknown

(PS: These images are plucked from Pinterest, so I don’t know who the original copyright belongs to. If you do, please contact me and I’ll gladly credit the correct source.)

Are you inspired by travel destinations? Do you like to read stories that are set in places where you’ve been or where you’d like to go? Have you ever been to London?

 

Precious

© Unknown

Keisha scanned the horizon. Nothing but sand and relentless sun as far as the eye could see. Heat waves rolled across the dunes, leaving shimmering trails of cooler air in their wake. A warm gust blew tendrils of black hair across her face and Keisha wiped the strands irritably from her bronze skin. She idly drew a finger across her chapped bottom lip. Perhaps they could spare a swallow of water before the diviner arrived.

Turning her back to the dunes, she stepped from the rocky outcropping on which she had stood watch and walked the few short strides towards the little pond she had liberated a week ago.

She unhooked the empty flask hanging from the sash tied around her waist and unscrewed the lid. Bending down on one knee, she leaned and scooped water into the little vessel, careful not to spill any drops onto the desert sand. The water was lukewarm, sun-baked, but it tasted like heaven as the liquid slid down her throat. She licked the last droplets from the lid before replacing it. No point in wasting something so precious.

Keisha resumed her post on the rock. Squinting into the sun, she noticed black dots circling in the sky not too far away. Vultures. They must have found the body. Good.

Her eyes were drawn to a trail of dust muddling the blue expanse in the distance. Finally.

They were moving her way rapidly, much faster than she expected and much faster than a camel was capable of. As the figures drew closer, Keisha loosened the scimitar in the scabbard hanging from her hip. There were too many men in this caravan. She had expected two, at most. She counted five. And they were on horseback.

Steel rasped as Keisha pulled the scimitar loose.

Dust enveloped her as the horses closed in, their riders halting them in a crescent moon around her. Keisha held her breath until the dirt had settled down again. The horses smelled of sweat and fear, the men upon them stank of violence and greed.

“Move aside, woman,” one of the men commanded. His voice was harsh and guttural, like the blade of a knife scraping on a whetstone.

“No,” Keisha said.

“Move aside or we will ride you down,” the man warned. His tone brooked no further argument.

Keisha squared her shoulders and lifted the scimitar threateningly. “If you want it, come and claim it.”

She clenched the fist of her free hand. The ground started shaking, sending tremors through the sand. The riders’ horses bucked, their eyes rolling wildly, foam flecking their upturned lips. The ground rumbled and a crack in the dry earth erupted under the horses’ hooves.

One of the riders, struggling to control his mount, turned towards Keisha, his eyes as large as the full moon. “Demon!” he screamed, pointing at her. He kicked his horse in its side and the animal sped off, away from Keisha. Horses rearing, his companions turned tail and raced after him.

All but the leader fled. In the confusion, the man’s horse had thrown him off. He picked himself up, his face a mask of rage. Shouting a wordless battle cry, the brute flung himself at Keisha.

She ducked, rolling to the ground and was back on her feet just in time to parry a swipe from his curved sword. Sparks flew as their weapons met. His sheer strength pushed her to one knee. The man loomed in, his face close enough that she could smell his rancid breath.

“The water is mine, witch,” he growled.

Without warning, Keisha pulled back, falling to the ground. The man lost his balance and tumbled after her. She rolled aside just in time, pulling a knife from her boot. The metallic tang of blood filled the air as red liquid squirted from the slit in the thug’s throat.

Keisha climbed to her feet and prodded the dying man with her foot. He lay slumped, unmoving. As his eyes glazed over, she turned her back on him and walked towards the pond, wiping her grime-covered knife on her sand-encrusted pants.

She dropped to her knees in front of the water, taking a deep breath. Her hands were shaking.

“You are safe, my friend,” she whispered.

The water rippled in the still air. “Thank you,” it murmured in response.

Hard Work, Perseverance and Luck

A few weeks ago I wrote about my quest to learn as much as possible about marketing for indie authors. Well, I’m happy to announce that a combination of hard work, perseverance and some good old-fashioned luck, has resulted in something awesome.

BEGINNER’S LUCK, the first instalment of my MYTHICAL MENAGERIE series has reached the Top 3 best seller’s list in its category on Amazon!

I can now call myself a bestselling author, LOL

It’s an amazing feeling seeing your book on a list like that, no matter how obscure or underrated. I might not be shipping as many copies as someone playing the big leagues, but it provides a sense of achievement and validation that makes all the effort worthwhile.

I’m riding the euphoria train right now, I can tell you.

“But your book is free and you’re not making any money from it”, I hear you say. Well, that’s fine. The book is currently on a week-long promotion in celebration of the upcoming release of the second installment. I’m hoping that in this way, I’ll be grabbing the attention of lots of readers who will, potentially, love the story so much that they’d be willing to buy BANSHEE’S WAIL, which continues Ambrose’s adventures, in Paris this time. With some luck, a free promotion will pay for itself in the long run.

It does seem like marketing is a long-term game. I’ve been working very hard behind the scenes lately, mainly focussing on extending my readership base and getting my stories in front of as many people as possible. They might not be buying right now, but if I can get them to read something so long, and hopefully enjoy it enough to be interested in more (and stay subscribed to my mailing list), then my job is done.

In the past few weeks, I’ve grown my mailing list from a measly 15-odd family members and friends to almost 250 readers, some of whom have been excited enough to join my street team to help me spread the word. Not much, but to me, it’s HUGE.

It makes my heart beat in overdrive. To anyone who has been following along and supporting me on this roller coaster journey of discovery – thank you! I’ve had the most fun learning and experimenting, and seeing it all pay off is reward in itself.

Do you have any tips for anyone starting out on their indie publishing and marketing journey that you’d like to share with the rest of us? Let us know in the comments below!

Book Covers and Genre Expectations

My writing group touched upon the interesting topic of book covers and genre expectations this week. The general consensus was that fiction readers are pre-programmed to expect certain elements of design based on the genre of the book.

Imagine yourself in the bookstore. You immediately know what shelf contains romance because of all the half-naked men on the covers. You know which books are thrillers, which are sci-fi and which are literary, purely based on a glance at the cover. Even in an online bookstore, where your search is by keywords and you can’t really make a mistake and accidentally buy erotica when you were looking for detective mystery, readers are confronted with these clichéd images, all in the name of expectation.

So woe betide any author who dares to deviate from the norm.

I write urban fantasy. Here are the first book covers of the four most popular series in the genre (according to Goodreads):

You see the similarity?

I decided to go a different way when I designed the covers for my MYTHICAL MENAGERIE series. I don’t have either a kick-ass female or a brooding male on mine, but rather a true scene from the book that hints at something extraordinary happening in an ordinary place. In these stories, the locations are important, so the cover for the first book in the series, BEGINNER’S LUCK, shows a rainbow over London’s iconic Big Ben.

I’ve been told this is an awesome cover, but because it doesn’t conform to genre expectations, readers of urban fantasy just aren’t drawn to it. In fact, someone told me because it features a historical landmark so prominently, it looks more like it could be historical drama.

Oh dear.

We all judge a book by its cover, even though we’ve been told not to. I will freely admit that I’m a cover snob – I won’t even give a book with a bad cover a second glance, much less read the blurb or try out a sample.

So covers matter. They matter a lot. They are the first chance an author gets to draw a potential reader’s interest. The question is, though, should we stick to genre expectations or are we allowed to mix things up a bit? I don’t know for certain, but sales sure would seem to indicate that the tried and tested way is true…

What are your thoughts and expectations surrounding book covers? Do you prefer to stick to the norm? Do you think I should change my covers to conform to my genre’s expectations?

Discovering Instafreebie

I am totally in love with Instafreebie right now!

For those of you who don’t know, Instafreebie is a site where authors make free copies of their books (preview chapters, novellas, short stories, entire novels) available to readers. Did you hear that? Free copies! Okay, so for readers who live in countries with access to Kindle Unlimited, this isn’t a big deal, but for the rest of us – huge!

Book love | © Kate Ter Haar / Flickr

You don’t have to register with the site, but you obviously have to give them your email address so that they can mail you a copy of your chosen book in whichever format you prefer. Most authors require you to sign-up to their mailing list before they give you their book for free, which is fair enough. You can always unsubscribe if you find out that a specific author’s writing is not for you.

So the beauty of Instafreebie to me is two-fold:

  1. I’m getting loads of new books to read and discovering the work of some really awesome indie writers, all while seeing what’s being written in my genre and being entertained by it – for free!
  2. I’ve placed my prequel novelette, KEEPER OF EXOTIC ANIMALS, up on the site as part of various giveaways and it’s provided me with some exposure and quite a few new people have signed up to my mailing list.

The downside of the site is that some of the books up for grabs are not necessarily of the best quality (IMHO), so you do need to wade through some dross to get to the gold. But so far, it’s been totally worth it for me.

If you’re an indie author just starting out, like me, then I’d definitely recommend giving Instafreebie (affiliate link) a go if you’re trying to get your name out there and trying to build a mailing list from scratch. And as a reader, who’d say no to great indie books for free? Who knows, you might discover your next author obsession here. You can thank me later.

Do you use Instafreebie to either discover new authors or to promote your books? What do you think of the site and the books / authors you’ve discovered there?

Two Worlds

© Unknown

Bethany knuckled the small of her back, dropping the mop into the pail of murky water. She wiped her brow with the corner of her rough homespun tunic, frowning at the stretch of corridor that still lay ahead of her.

“Every day,” she mumbled as her calloused hand wrapped around the handle of the mop again. With a yelp she tossed it aside, capsizing the bucket and spilling water all across the stone floor. She sucked at the splinter embedded in her palm, glaring at the rivulets running away from her. Her eyes widened. The princess stood at the end of the hallway, holding her pale silk skirts up out of harm’s way.

Heat infused Bethany’s cheeks and she lowered her gaze as the princess tiptoed past her. She glimpsed soaked silken slippers as the scent of lavender wafted by.

Bethany clutched at her skirts. It was suddenly all she could do not to kick the upturned bucket across the corridor. The woman smelled like lavender! And here she was, up to her arms in muck and sweat and tears, and that woman’s slippers had water stains on them. They were probably ruined now! She was going to tiptoe in her ruined slippers right into the arms of a prince who would sweep her off her feet and give her a hundred pairs of new silken slippers, adorned with gold and jewels and heaven knows what else princesses wear on their feet. She would spend her days lounging on a divan, sewing and gossiping and keeping her pretty little hands soft and fit for nothing but playing the harp. Oh, how Bethany envied the princess her life of comfort!

She sighed wistfully. Then, ignoring the pain shooting down her aching back, she retrieved the mop and the now-empty bucket. Muttering about the injustice of it all, Bethany trudged down to the courtyard to refill her pail at the well.

***

Elinoire examined the portrait of her betrothed, a small frown creasing her forehead. He was so… old. Thirty years old, to be precise, twice a lifetime to her. And he was king of Trotus. A fine match, her mother insisted. But it meant she had to leave her country, her home, for a cold, rainy, miserable little island up north. To marry a man she had never met.

She placed the sketch on the seat next to her and pulled her knees up to her chest, heedless of the wrinkles pressing into her silken gown, wiggling her toes in her damp slippers. Her gaze wandered out the window. It was a lovely day outside and the sun shone brightly in the bustling courtyard below. Elinoire’s lips twitched into a smile as she watched two women laughing raucously. One spilled her pail of water and the other dropped her handkerchief down the well. They laughed so hard Elinoire saw tears rolling down their cheeks.

A deep sadness threatened to overwhelm Elinoire as she watched the women’s antics from her perch high above them. What she wouldn’t give for such a carefree afternoon, for a good friend to laugh and cry with, for the weight of her future to be lifted from her shoulders, if only for a little while. Oh, how she envied them their freedom!

She sighed wistfully. Then, she turned her gaze from the window and back towards the portrait. She would do her duty. She would marry this man and secure an ally for her kingdom. She would keep her people safe.

Resolved, Elinoire marched out of her room in search of her mother, her chin held high, leaving a trail of wet footprints behind her.