JOANNA ELM, Author, Journalist, Attorney

February 17, 2018
by joanna

Indie Authors, Book Covers — And A Hollywood Drowning Mystery

Scott Eyman is a former book and art critic for the Palm Beach Post, and the author of 15 books. These include three written about, and with, Hollywood icon, Robert  (R.J.) Wagner, husband of the late Natalie Wood whose drowning death 37 years ago is under new investigation as of last week.  So of course when Eyman was scheduled as a speaker for the Palm Beach Writers Group this week, I signed up.

His speech to the group was aimed at the self-published/indie authors in the group for whom he had a wealth of good advice as detailed below. I, however, grabbed him before lunch to ask how on earth his good friend R.J. was dealing with last week’s news of the re-opened investigation into the drowning death of wife actress Natalie Wood.

It’s been 37 years since 43-year old Wood (Rebel Without A Cause, West Side Story) drowned off the shores of Catalina Island in California. And still, according to Eyman the gorgeous actress’s drowning death rears its head “every few years like a JFK conspiracy theory.”

New Investigation

Robert Wagner with Natalie Wood

I had good reason to zero in on the re-opened investigation. In November 1981, when Natalie Wood’s body was discovered floating near the yacht’s dinghy off Catalina Island I was an editor on the news desk of the tabloid Star magazine. Natalie Wood’s drowning death was big news.  We sent an ace reporter from New York to the West Coast to find Dennis Davern the captain of the Splendour, the yacht on which Wood had been drinking and partying with husband, R.J. Wagner, and Christopher Walken, her then co-star, just hours before she was found in the water.

I don’t remember now what the Star headline on that interview was, or what Davern told the Star, but whatever it was his story did not change for years or decades after that night. Thomas Noguchi, the Los Angeles coroner at the time ruled the death an “accident.” The L.A. Sheriff’s department re-opened the case in 2011 after Davern said that Wagner and Wood had been arguing on the yacht. Two years later the L.A. coroner amended the death certificate to “drowning and other undetermined factors.”

Last week, detectives reclassified Wood’s drowning as a “suspicious death” and say 88-year old Wagner is a “person of interest” in the case. But the evidence collected so far hasn’t reached the threshold for a murder investigation and there are no immediate plans to file criminal charges, detectives said. “This is a suspicious death investigation. This is not a murder investigation,”said Lt. John Corina of the L.A. Sheriff’s department. “We’re reaching out one more time to see if people will come forward with information.”

Ongoing Nightmare

Wagner with wife, Jill St. John

That night of drinking and partying , of course, is a nightmare that hangs over actor Wagner’s head, but it is ludicrous to imagine that the cops will unearth anything new after all this time. There were just four people on the yacht at the time of the accident. Natalie drowned, and the other three have given their accounts to the cops already.

Eyman who has become good friends with Wagner and his wife Jill St. John said: “This pops up every couple of years because the cops want to look as if they’re doing something. There’s nothing R.J. can do.  He gathers the girls round him (Natasha, Natalie’s daughter by second husband, Richard Gregson and the couple’s daughter Courtney) and they process it, but there’s nothing more he can add. He answered all the questions back then. Memory doesn’t get better with age.”

Tell A Book By Its Cover

Eyman who appeared at last year’s Palm Beach Book festival with Robert Wagner to talk about their book, I Loved Her In The Movies, told the Palm Beach Writers Group that he has learned that you really can tell a book by its cover. “The core problem with self-published authors,” he said ” is that no-one knows who you are. A book cover is less important if you’re Lee Child or John Grisham, but for an indie author, a cover is most important.”

Eyman suggests hiring an artist, whatever the cost. “So many self-published books look like the covers were produced by a 10th grader in photoshop. If you’ve spent years writing a book, why wouldn’t you spend $750 for an artist who will produce a professional cover? Your book is like a job interview. You’re trying to get a reader to hire you. So, first impressions count.”

First Drafts

Eyman whose latest book is Hank &Jim (about the fifty year friendship between Hollywood legends, Henry Fonda and Jimmy Stewart) had a final piece of advice for authors/writers: “Don’t try to create and analyze at the same time,” he said. “I write a complete draft without wondering if anything is working. After you’ve put it together, then you can ask the hard questions like: Will anyone who isn’t a relative care about what I’ve written?”

“My first reader is my wife and she loves everything I write. Then comes my editor. He’s not going to say, you’ve spent four years writing this book and you produced ‘merde.’ You have to be your own roughest critic.”










February 10, 2018
by joanna

What He Did Wrong; What He Did Right : How A.J. Finn Wrote A #1 Bestseller

You would think that A.J. Finn would know all the rules of writing genre fiction especially psychological thrillers. Just before his first novel hit the #1 slot on the New York Times bestseller list four weeks ago, he was an executive editor at William Morrow publishing company working on the novels of authors like Karin Slaughter and Val McDermid. Yet, in The Woman In the Window ( Rear Window, the movie, meets The Girl On The Train) Finn breaks a lot of big rules.

What He Did Wrong

Of course, rules exist to be broken –but not usually by first time authors who, as unknowns, must query agents and pitch editors at publishing houses. Finn didn’t have to do that. As an editor in the publishing industry, he has friends who are agents, and/or knows agents whom he could approach without sending a query letter. I wrote about his good fortune in that area in my blog last week.

So, it may be that given his standing in the publishing industry, he felt he had a little more leeway in ignoring the advice which agents, writing workshops, and how-to craft books try to instill in first-time authors: For example, the first ten pages sell the book; something has to happen in the first ten pages;  info dumping should not slow the action, most genre fiction should stay within an 80,000 – 90,000 words; protagonists should not awake from a dream in the first chapter; (okay, okay, if you’re a struggling author/writer you know the rest.)

Long & Slow?

The Woman In The Window, a story about a hard-drinking, pill-popping recluse who believes she has witnessed a violent crime in the house across the street, runs to 440 pages. This is approximately 30, 000 more words than is usually tolerated in this genre. More significantly, in this thriller nothing thrilling happens for 32 chapters. If you’ve read the book, you might disagree and say: But the book starts with Anna spying, and focusing her powerful Nikon camera, on the people in the house across the street, watching the wife about to seduce another man in a guest bedroom while her husband is walking up the street to their front door.

Sure, it’s exciting stuff. But not really. The chapter is pure misdirection disguised as action. The couple in this vignette never appear in the novel again, and their actions are neither material nor relevant to the main plot or even any secondary plot.


The novel then progresses into the second chapter where Anna talks to her husband and young daughter, apparently on the phone. The reader understands that Anna’s physical separation from her husband and child has something to do with her agoraphobia which she has suffered for ten months  Oh, in case you are not inclined to google that disorder and don’t know the meaning of the word, A.J. Finn then treats the reader to some serious info dumping on the disorder, even citing to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. In the beginning chapters he also describes in detail, floor-by-floor the five-story Harlem townhouse (with roof garden) around which she rattles alone and drunk, and offers a short treatise on Hitchcock noir classics which she watches round the clock and from which one-liners interweave very cleverly (“seamlessly” in  Stephen King’s view) with Anna’s muddled thinking.

What He Did Right

So, what’s going on here? Where’s the thrill part of the thriller? Of course, it needs to be stated quite clearly that, as slow as the beginning was, I, like thousands of other readers, did not put this thriller aside. It took more than 10 pages to hook me, but I gave it time. Why? Because Finn, whose real name is Dan Mallory, knows what he’s doing.

He has (seriously) studied the craft of writing fiction and psychological suspense.  He told the Houston Chronicle that he grew up reading  P.D. James, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle and Josephine Tey and Ruth Rendell.  He views Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw as the original psychological thriller. He studied Patricia Highsmith and her brand of psychological suspense in a graduate program at Oxford University. He spent years working on books by J.K. Rowling, Patricia Cornwell, Val McDermid, Karin Slaughter and Sarah Paretsky. And, when he reads for pleasure, he acknowledged: “I always make time for Gillian Flynn and Kate Atkinson.”

Borrowing From The Best

He also knows enough to borrow from the biggest bestselling author of all time. He told the New York Times, that he credits James Patterson as a helpful influence, particularly when it comes to short chapters.” He has also said that “as an editor and reader, I do know that big blocks of text and long chapters can be daunting.” WITW has 100 chapters (one is just four paragraphs) and an epilogue.

He told National Public Radio (NPR) “When Gillian Flynn published Gone Girl, I thought Aha, this is the sort of book I’ve loved and could possibly try to write. The trouble was I didn’t have a story.” So, how did he find one? Hitchcock’s movie Rear Window was obviously an inspiration.

Write What You Know

He also adhered to a rule that has been drilled into many first-time writers over decades: Write What You Know.  He has mentioned his own experience with depression and agoraphobia in most of his interviews. He told NPR, “During 15 years when  I struggled with misdiagnosed bipolar disorder, there were times I couldn’t prise myself from bed, let alone leave the house.” And, in an interview with the British newspaper, The Guardian, he said: “Thinking of Highsmith, and sociopathy and my own depression… all of these things coincided, and this character Anna just sort of strode into my brain lugging her story behind her.”

No doubt about it, the description of Anna’s daily life is so detailed and compelling, it draws the reader right in.  If you’ve never rattled around a five-story townhouse too afraid to set foot outside your front door, you will know exactly what that feels like after reading WITW. Finn told the Houston Chronicle that the focus on Anna’s daily life in the first third of the book is deliberate: “I tried to spend time acclimating the reader to her daily routine… I take some time adjusting the reader to what a day as an agoraphobic person might be like.”

So Anna watches DVDs of her favorite noir movies, spends time at her computer, engages in chat with other agoraphobics online, takes online French lessons, plays online chess, spies on her neighbors with a very powerful camera , and searches for information about them on the Internet. Necessities of life come to her: her physical and mental therapists make house calls; her prescriptions and wine are delivered to the door, her handyman tenant in the basement takes her trash to the curb, and the new neighbors, a wife and mother named Jane Russell, and her teenaged son Ethan visit her. Oh, and Anna drinks a humongous amount of merlot with which she washes down a humongous amount of prescription drugs.

Must Have Plot

Of course, there is a reason for her agoraphobia  and self-medication and that reason is slowly revealed over the first half of the book. While Anna is separated from her husband and child, in their chats, they appear to have a friendly relationship. So, there is a mystery about this: what happened between Anna and her husband? Why are they separated?

My main preoccupation at first was the actual whereabouts of Anna’s husband and daughter. I surmised that they surely could not be living in an equally salubrious dwelling in Manhattan; so where are they living, I wondered? Why has this huge townhouse not become the residence of the parent who appears to have sole custody? Okay, he’s an architect, but she’s no longer making any money as a child psychologist so what kind of hovel are husband and daughter living in? That maybe distracted me more than it should  have done, but was also the reason I guessed the truth of the situation long before it was revealed by Finn.

Heart Of The Story

Finn takes his time revealing how and why the separation occurred, and why Anna is so traumatized by it that she cannot leave her house.

He told NPR, “I consider it the heart of the story. It’s not about surprise. It’s about how such an event would impact someone, how they would cope with it, and how they would struggle to move past it.” Finn further explained for readers of Lindasbookbag blog:  “It aims to be a suspenseful thriller that doubles as an examination of “grief, guilt and redemption.”

This may be why the pacing and plotting which readers associate with most of today’s psychological/domestic noir thrillers seems, to me, a little off in WITW.  It is almost as if Finn created a great character and story, and then, as an afterthought, shoehorned them into a much tighter woman- in- jeopardy/domestic noir sub-genre.


Anna’s suspicion that someone is invading her space, creeping around the townhouse while she is in a drunken stupor comes late in the book, and when the reader learns the antagonist’s reason for doing so, it feels contrived, added almost as an afterthought because it has nothing much to do with the reason for the violent crime that Anna believes was committed in the house across the street.

Ultimately, I never felt that Anna was in real jeopardy other than falling on her face from being drunk and over-medicated — which major shortcoming also works to limit her involvement in solving the mystery. In the end, she has to learn everything from the antagonist. As Herb Scribner writes in “Those answers are delivered in such an obvious and simple way that it doesn’t pack much heat or thrill. Rather they are delivered in a cliche villain-speaks-to-the-hero style — similar to many endings in Hitchcock films.”

Action Scenes

Be that as it may, A.J. Finn knows how to write a really great action scene — perhaps from studying the great noir classics in his adolescence after his family moved to a home that was down the block from an arthouse movie theater. There are several scenes in the book which I can already imagine in the soon-to-be-made movie. Two of my favorites occur towards the end. The first has all the main characters including the cops gathered at Anna’s townhouse, and one by one they tear apart her story so that by the end of the scene she is in that “all-is-lost” situation where a protagonist is at his/her lowest point.

The second scene is the final confrontation where Anna faces her antagonist on the roof garden of her town house. Finn’s graphic narrative allows the reader to visualize every terrifying detail, making that scene alone worth the price of admission.



February 3, 2018
by joanna

How A.J. Finn Landed At #1 On The New York Times Bestseller List

You may not be instantly familiar with the name A.J. Finn. But I bet you’ve heard of his book,The Woman In The Window ? Yep, that’s the one that catapulted straight to #1 on the New York Times bestseller list the week it was published.  Okay, now you know the one I’m talking about, right?  The NYT one-liner description of this psychological thriller is: “A recluse who drinks heavily and takes prescription drugs may have witnessed a crime across from her Harlem townhouse.”

It’s the first debut novel in 12 years to make it straight to #1 on the NYT bestseller list in its first week of publication.  That is simultaneously great news (for authors who want to believe that magic still happens), and totally out of left field (not even Gone Girl did that!)

Really This Good?

Of course, as an author, I am always pathologically curious about a phenomenon like this. I wonder if any book can be this good?  In at #1 in its first week of publication? Can the hype possibly be true? Can this really, truly be “the most anticipated thriller of 2018” — even though on publication day we were only two days into the New Year. What was so special about it? And, like maybe hundreds of “lesser” authors, both indie and traditionally published, I wondered : Was it really the story? The writing? Or does the credit belong mostly to the publishers’ marketing and promotions departments?

In the New York Times, veteran book reviewer Janet Maslin likened it to Rear Window, a Hitchcock movie classic which starred Jimmy Stewart,  “with a dose of The Girl On The Train.” Then, I read all the glowing reviews in the mainstream press, and on, on, on Goodreads, and on a whole slew of book blogs.

OK, I’ll Buy

I downloaded it to my Kindle. I started reading. With a jaundiced eye. This thriller better live up to expectations, I thought. I finished it in two days. I liked it well enough, but I didn’t love it. Not in the way every single reviewer had loved it.

I turned to the 1 and 2-star reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. I agreed with some of the criticisms: the pacing isn’t the greatest, nothing really happens for 32 chapters; it’s “waaaaaayyyyy tttooooo llllooonnnggg” for genre fiction; the female protagonist is a drunk, addict, and a freak  — and yet it shot to the #1 slot on the NYT bestseller list on publication day.

How come?

I googled. I read all the articles I could find about the book and the author. The author totally endeared himself to me in this snippet in a NYT article about the writing of the book:  “plotting came to him in an easy burst, the writing proved more of a challenge. ‘Getting a character from a sofa to a window is surprisingly difficult,’ he said.” (Don’t I know that feeling!)

I read most of the interviews with A.J. Finn, a first-time author who hit the jackpot with a seven-figure advance in a bidding war which was won in the William Morrow, the publisher where it turns out A.J. worked as an executive editor under his real name, Dan Mallory.

Whoa! Hold on! Back It Up There!

Q: He works at Wm. Morrow? The same guys who bought his first book?

A: Yes, but the publisher didn’t know who he was. He used a pen name in selling the book.

Q: Okay. Did he get an agent the same way? I mean, using a pen name no-one ever heard of?

A: No. He didn’t. He went to a friend who is an agent.

Q: Nothing wrong with that. I did that,too. My first agent was a good friend of my husband’s. My husband introduced us. By the way, who is A.J. Finn’s agent friend?

Big Agent, Big Agency

As it happens, A.J. Finn’s agent friend is Jennifer Joel, a very powerful agent at  ICM, a very powerful agency. In one of the interviews, A.J told how he approached her with his idea; and then produced a 7,500-word outline. Joel encouraged him to write the book. It took a year with Finn writing on evenings and weekends. Then, Joel suggested edits and revisions before the manuscript was ready to be shopped to publishers.

Let it be acknowledged, knowing a literary agent is an advantage. It means a writer can skip the dreaded task of writing query after query in what is only the first tiniest step in finding a publisher.  Knowing a powerful agent (Joel represents, among others, Shonda Rhimes, creator of the TV show, Scandal) in a reputable agency is even better though it doesn’t always necessarily mean there’ll be a frenetic bidding war for your thriller.

Here, however, the book’s description included the magic words, “psychological thriller” — a hot, hot genre (and, I hope it stays that way) since Gone Girl’s stratospheric sales. It also had a surefire premise that could be pitched in just one sentence as Rear Window meets The Girl On The Train.

Seven Figure Deal

By mid -2016, Finn had sold The Woman In The Window to Wm. Morrow in the U.S. and Harper Collins in the U.K. for a rumored seven figures in an eight-house auction. By the time of that year’s Frankfurt Book Fair, the biggest, most important book fair for international deals, the film rights had also been sold to Fox 2000.  Subsequently, foreign rights were sold in 38 countries.

It was time for the publishers to start building buzz.  Recouping a seven figure investment requires more marketing and promotion than just buying a few Facebook ads or offering Goodreads giveaways. The book’s publishers sought endorsements from superstar authors, and received praise for the book from, among others, Gillian Flynn, Stephen King, Ruth Ware, Louise Penny, Tess Gerritsen and Val McDermid.

Big Buzz

Next? Reviews. It’s as true today — with hundreds of thousands of indie authors self-publishing their work — as it was before self-publishing took off that word of mouth sells books. And, one surefire way to build buzz is by getting reviews. It worked for bestselling author J.D. Barker (The Fourth Monkey) who explained on this website how he, as an indie author, got dozens of reviews by querying book bloggers, and paying for 1000 Advanced Review Copies (ARCs) to send out to reviewers.

In the case of The Woman In The Window, publishers Wm. Morrow and Harper Collins apparently sent ARCs to virtually every mainstream newspaper and magazine, and almost every book blogger in the U.S. and U.K. — even, it would appear, to bloggers not specifically interested in the thriller genre like Undoubtedly, the accompanying publicity material included the exciting information about the film rights, foreign rights and the endorsements of superstar authors.

Love Those Unreliable Narrators

Reviews started appearing in major newspapers like the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, USA Today, and in the dailies of many other major cities; also in digital and print magazines like Entertainment Weekly, and Vox. In NYT Books, Janet Maslin appeared amazed. She wrote: “Dear other books with unreliable narrators: This one will see you and raise you.”

“The buzz was building for some time,” said Andrew Lownie, a top UK literary agent. “There was a lot of pre-publication publicity including proof copies being sent out to opinion formers (influencers) for pre-review last year. The timing was good. The vogue for psychological thrillers continues.”

Next Week :

Before there was buzz for The Woman in the Window, A.J. Finn had to write the book. As a first-time author, he followed some rules, but he also broke some rules. Part Two, next week looks at how A.J. Finn wrote a thriller that became a NYT #1 Bestseller.

By subscribing to this blog, you will receive next week’s post by email as soon as it is published.



January 27, 2018
by joanna

8 Great Thriller Plot Twists — Why 4 Of Them Are Perfect

They’re called plot twists. You’ll recognize them almost immediately because one minute you’re reading, happily turning the pages faster and faster, and then suddenly, wham! You have to read the sentence again. You re-read the paragraph. You go back a couple of pages, and you think to yourself: WTF? What just happened?

4 Perfect Plot Twists

When it’s done really well, it sends chills up your spine, and lifts your reading experience into a whole different universe. It’s happened to me with Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, J.D. Barker’s The Fourth Monkey, Karin Slaughter’s Pretty Girls, and most recently with a domestic noir thriller titled The Wife Between Us by Greer Hendricks and Sarah Pekkanen.

I first heard about The Wife Between Us on Goodreads when Eldon Farrell, an indie author (Descent series), and one of my GR friends sent out a status update of the book. “Let me pick my jaw up off the floor, after that twist,” he wrote, having read 42%  of the novel. Other Goodreads friends who were reading ARCs expressed similar sentiments. I quickly put it on my to-read list and pre-ordered a copy for delivery on its publication date.

Most Anticipated Thriller

The Wife Between Us, touted as one of the most anticipated thrillers of 2018 starts with Vanessa, the ex-wife of Richard, a wealthy successful investment broker ostensibly stalking her younger replacement, Nellie, a schoolteacher. As the book opens, Nellie is happily preparing for her upcoming nuptials to Richard even as she is being drawn into his evil sociopathic world.  For those who have read the book, you’ll know what I’m talking about (for those who haven’t, I think my  reference is sufficiently obscure) when I say that the plot twist occurs almost half-way through the novel when we find out that Nellie, in fact, is not Vanessa’s replacement.

Ingenious Literary Device

Who she is, and why her story occupies the first part of the book interwoven with vengeful Vanessa’s tale becomes clear around this half-way point. What also becomes clear, maybe more to writers than readers, is that this is as much an ingenious literary device (eliminating the need for too much of that no-no, the flashback) as it is a plot twist. This latter sentence, I believe, will be lost on anyone who has not read the book, and does not, anyway, even hint at the fabulous final revelation which I thought was just the perfect end-twist for this book.

What Is A Plot Twist?

Which brings me neatly to my idea of a perfect plot twist is. It is not a tying up of all the loose ends into a big surprise reveal at the end by the protagonist/master sleuth as are many of the best Agatha Christie novels. Nor is it a big, super-duper, shock eye-opener at almost the very end of a novel that turns the whole story on its head. If that were the case, then my favorites of all time would have to include Dennis Lehane’s Shutter Island, Lionel Shriver’s We Need To Talk About Kevin, William Landay’s Defending Jacob, as well as, most recently, Alafair Burke’s The Wife.

Rollercoaster Ride

Rather, for me the perfect plot twist has to occur somewhere near the middle of the book. British thriller author Sophie Hannah does not agree with me on where it has to occur. She includes end-twists in her top ten twist list, but says this about plot twists wherever they occur:  “So many people think a brilliant resolution is the same thing as a twist. It isn’t […] Part of what makes the brilliant ones so attractive in fiction is that feeling of having everything you thought you knew reversed, inverted or demolished; the fictional equivalent of being on a rollercoaster that suddenly turns upside down leaving everything looking and feeling very different for the rest of the ride.”

Perfect Plot Twists

Which is why the following are at the top of my list of thrillers with perfect plot twists:

Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn): Because you think that something dire has befallen the female protagonist Amy, and you suspect, like the cops who are zeroing in on him, that her husband is responsible for whatever awful end has befallen her. But, then you find out what really happened to Amy.

The Fourth Monkey (J.D.Barker): Because you think this is a story of a race against time, where the cops must find the last victim of a serial killer who has perished after he stepped in front of a city bus, apparently deliberately. But, then you find out that the serial killer’s work is far from done.

Pretty Girls (Karin Slaughter): Because you think this is a story about a young widow who discovers that her husband was leading a secret life involving what appear to be snuff movies after he is knifed to death in a random act of violence in an alley. But, then you find out what really happened in the alley.

So, Why Only Three Stars?

As ingenious and perfect as the plot twist in The Wife Between Us was, I nevertheless rated the novel as a three-star read — which prompted an instant “can’t believe it” from my friend, Eldon. Unfortunately, while the plot twist was ingenious, stories about abusive, sociopathic husbands are not my cup of tea. It’s just too difficult for me to believe that abusive, totally one-dimensional sociopaths can somehow manage to ensnare bright, smart, professional women, and literally overnight move them into dream homes (prisons) far away from friends, work and any vestiges of their old lives.

Have You Got A Favorite Plot Twist?

I’d love to hear which novel includes your favorite plot twist ?  Please click here to let me know


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January 20, 2018
by joanna

The Good & Bad News About E-Books: An Indie Author’s Tips For Success

If you’re a reader nothing beats the ease of downloading a book to your Kindle. No matter that you prefer to hold the real thing in your hot little hands. When you hear about a brand new thriller, and you just have to have it right now, right this minute, then you can. A couple of clicks, and an 80,000 word novel is delivered wirelessly to you in less than a minute.

If you’re an author and you want your novel to be available on Kindle, it works the same way — but in reverse. You write and format your manuscript, and a couple of clicks later, you’re uploading it to Amazon where it’s then available to millions of readers.

OK, it’s not exactly that simple, but hundreds of thousands of authors have done it. So let’s not get into the mechanics of producing an e-book (there’s plenty of other websites that tell you how) — because that’s only just the start. You then need to get readers to buy your e-book.

Tips For Indie Success

D.S. Kane is the author of a series of espionage/techno-thrillers. He has self-published eight of them since 2014. His latest title is MindField in the Amazon bestselling Spies Lie series.  In a good year, he sells approximately 25,000 copies of his books (that includes free downloads although he says freebies are losing their allure and a 99c price point is now the new “free.”) Otherwise, his books sell at $2.99 each.

The Good News…

At a standing-room only lunch for the Palm Beach Writers’ Group, Kane produced facts and figures on indie publishing from sources including They show the following annual earnings for authors who debuted in the last three years:

  • While 1,800 indie authors made $10,000 a year only  500 traditionally published authors earned a similar amount.
  • Approximately 1,000 indie authors vs. a little more than 200 traditional authors made $25,000.
  • About 800 indie authors vs. fewer than 200 traditional authors made $50,000.
  • And a very impressive 300 indie authors compared to just 75 traditional authors made $100,000.
  • Indie authors accounted for 35-40% of total author revenues


And The Bad

That looks like really good news for indie authors — except that, as a number of publishing sources will tell you, the number of self-published books in the U.S. rose from around 80,000 in 2006 to a staggering 800,000 in 2016.

That means, if you’re an indie author who is not making at least $10,000 a year, then you and your book are in that group that produced the other 750,000 self-published books.

So, it’s not enough to just upload your novel to Amazon. Before readers can buy your book, they need to know it’s there. In other words, you need to be discovered. And Kane who is a former covert operative, and later taught at NYU’s Stern Graduate School of Business, knows exactly what to do to stand out from the crowd.  He shared his secrets with the Writers’ Group this week.

Like Ludlum


Kane offered a couple of rules to which he adheres in his marketing efforts. First, the Rule of Near Substitutes:  “When readers go shopping for our books,” Kane explained, “they’ll often either choose a brand they like, or a low-price substitute, where “brand” is either an author or a genre.”

So, Kane suggests, find successful authors who write in the same genre AND “make sure this similarity is in your marketing lead.”

Hence, Kane’s advertising reads: “If you like thrillers written by Robert Ludlum, Barry Eisler, Brad Thor, James Rollins and Daniel Silva, you will enjoy D.S. Kane’s Spies Lie series.”

 You Gotta Write More Than One

Kane’s second rule is the Rule of Sets : “Readers will buy from a set with which they’re familiar. So writing a series rather than “standalones” means readers will have a better idea of what they’re buying. “Once a reader has bought one of your books, they will be more likely to buy your next book if you’re writing a series” because they’re familiar with the characters, settings and themes.

Kane also referenced a “two-thirds rule” which he has found among series authors whereby about 65% of readers of the first book in a series will also go on to read a second book. “So, with a series, if you promote one book, the ad for that book will “bleed” over into the sales of all books in the series.”

Research & Reviews

According to Kane, research is the most important non-writing activity which an author can undertake.  By that he doesn’t mean ‘content’ research, he means research into the business of indie publishing and marketing in order to help him gauge how the market for his books is changing; whether the same marketing tactics will produce satisfactory results, and how to differentiate himself ever-so slightly from similar authors.

Kane relies on three main research sources:; Alex Newton’s K-Lytics Reports, and Mark Coker’s Book Industry Predictions Report.

As for reviews, he relies on a newsletter mailing list of about 3,000 subscribers who all get a free copy of each book. He says about 7 per cent of those will write a review.

 Then Hire Experts

Kane readily admits to plowing his profits back into advertising, and into the costs of producing his thrillers.  He acknowledges that a cover is one of the most important features in attracting readers. Hence, he has his covers professionally designed at $1,000 per cover.

His other costs are as follows: Copy-editing = $1,000 per book; Formatting = $650 ; Createspace and Kdp fees = $200. A marketing expert costs $300 per month, and his advertising budget runs to $400 per month.

His total costs come to $2,850 per book plus $8,400 per year for marketing & advertising.

As D.S. Kane acknowledges, “the average writer earns less than one dollar per hour,” But, as he sees it: “Writers write because it’s an addiction, not a profession.”