Experience with Kindle Scout (an Independent Publishing Perspective)

The above chart shows the final results of my 30-day campaign at Kindle Scout.  My novel was the first in my historical mystery series: Portia of the Pacific Mysteries.  It is called Chinawoman’s Chance.  As a publisher, I was using this campaign as a way to promote my novel to new readers of my work.  The experience was less than beneficial, from this publisher’s perspective.

First of all, the editors at Amazon told me they would publish my Thank You Message that I wanted to include in the mailing that goes out to all those readers who nominated my book (Amazon never tells you the exact numbers of these people–which should be a warning to self-published or independent publishers).  I was including in my message a link to my publisher’s website where I would be collecting the email address of these folks, who were kind enough to nominate me, but who did not receive a free copy of my eBook because Amazon chose not to publish it.  If they joined my mailing list they would, indeed, receive a free copy when I self-published the book following the campaign.  Lo and behold, these nominating readers never received the thank you mailing that Amazon told me they would include!  Therefore, from my perspective, all of the promotional money I spent to get these excellent numbers in my campaign was totally wasted.  Of course, Amazon is able to collect all these emails for their purposes, but this publisher has nothing to show from it, and it was my intellectual property that Amazon used.

Not that I didn’t learn from the experience. I did.  I received some average critical comments from the editors, as I was one of the “hallowed short-listed finalists.”  They had, you see, guaranteed that authors who were short-listed would receive “free critiques,” so I suppose they felt obligated.  The email comments they sent me demonstrated that Amazon editors do not do what they promise, and they have no real understanding of the genre categories of the novels listed on their own eBook distribution website (store).

Here are their exact comments:

Dear James,

Thank you for submitting Chinawoman’s Chance to Kindle Scout. Unfortunately, we have decided to pass on publishing, but we wanted to share with you some feedback on the book. We hope you find it useful and encouraging!

General comments:

We’re very impressed by the depth of the historical backstory, but in the first half of the book you too often and too lengthily interrupt the main murder-mystery plot with historical asides, and this makes the book sometimes read more like a nonfiction biography than a plot-driven murder-mystery. The main plot does begin to feel fully immersive until chapter 5, but we think readers will enjoy the first half of the book better if it likewise focuses more on the murders and investigation. We also feel that the narrative prose tends to reveal necessary important plot and character details too belatedly, and that the dialogue is over-loaded with background narrative details, which often makes the characters’ speech sound forced and expositional. We recommend that you put the manuscript through another round of developmental editing, focusing on making sure that at least 80% of the content in each chapter relates directly to the murder-mystery – which is what readers of this genre are mostly interested in. We provide more specific observations and recommendations below.

Developmental feedback:

  • Particularly in the beginning of the book, the reader is expected to divine vital story details by reading between the lines rather than having them stated them directly, and we found this disorienting rather than compelling. Here are a few representative examples:

  • It’s not at all clear in the prologue that Andrew Kwong owns a newspaper or that George works for the newspaper. You hint at these facts, and eventually the reader reads enough hints to make pretty accurate guesses, but I can think of no reason why it wouldn’t be better to simply tell the reader when Andrew is introduced that he owns a newspaper and that George works for him, for example. It’s also not clear enough how the mayor’s background as a newspaper publisher factors into his pressuring the Kwongs to not publish the news story about the murder, and yet George seems to go out of his way to shoehorn this fact into his explanation to Clara.
  • The reader doesn’t have enough context to understand this sentence in the prologue: “Clara knew this information agreed with what Isaiah Lees had told them at the Italian restaurant.”
  • You do a great job of developing the chaotic and colorful San Francisco setting, especially the way you interweave the complex social and civil rights developments and organizations. However, you introduce “holy roller ‘Kid’ Cook” to the story at about the same time as you explain the Vigilante Committee, which strongly implies that Cook is a leader of the Vigilante Committee. As such, it was jarring to me when it clarified later on that Cook is a cop, so I recommend clarifying Cook’s profession when he’s first mentioned.
  • I misunderstood what “tongs” were for longer than was ideal – I inferred that they were specific people rather than organizations. This may well be my own fault, but I think it would be better to tell the reader what tongs are more immediately and directly.
  • We found the prologue very hard to follow and we had the sense that the chapter may have appeared later in the story (sometime after chapter 4 when the Italian restaurant is mentioned again) but was later moved to the beginning and wasn’t edited to account for having been moved. Ideally, we think the novel should open with chapter 1, which would start the book with a great first line, as well as start the story with its inciting event.
  • The narrative relies too much on “telling” and not enough on “showing.” For example, the most exciting scene in the beginning of the book is when Clara is kidnapped and brought before the Chinese business leaders, but this scene feels more like an abstract summary than a gripping action scene because there’s no dialogue and the narrative is more focused on expositing Clara’s personal history than it is on describing the action in progress. Another example: the narrator summarizes Lees’s planning for questioning the suspects in the case, but this would be a lot more compelling if you had Lees meet with his subordinates and explained his plan to them through dialogue.
  • It’s not believable that Clara would be so cavalier about what she believes is the strong likelihood of her being raped by her kidnappers, simply because she has a “keen legal mind” and uses effective modern birth control. Perhaps you are trying to achieve a kind of Sherlock Holmesian mental detachment in the way you’re portraying Clara here, but this was not executed effectively, in our opinion.
  • The dialogue sounds unnatural when the characters explain things to each other that they already know, such as when Dutch gives Lees a history lesson on the Exclusion Act and explains who Cook and Connolly are: all of which the reader knows that Lees already knows. Granted, the reader probably doesn’t know these facts, but it’s primarily the narrator’s job – not the characters’ job – to explain things like these so that the characters’ dialogue can sound believably organic. Therefore, we recommend taking another pass through the manuscript specifically with the objective of moving most of the expository historical background content out of the dialogue and into the narrative prose.
  • Cameron’s general description of pimps seems out of place in his description of Mary McCarthy’s lifestyle. If Cameron’s point is that witnesses would have noticed if Mary had a pimp because pimps are so easy to notice, then he should phrase the observation that way.
  • The transitions between the main plot and the historical background content sometimes feel forced or random. For example, the transition from Clara’s meeting with the leaders of the Six Companies in chapter 2 into the background about how and when Clara learned the law feels disjointed because the reader doesn’t require more background information about Clara’s legal experience at that moment. Providing occasional interesting plot-irrelevant details do help to lend a novel a sense of depth, but you are devoting too much word count to such details, and it has the effect of reducing the main plot’s sense of importance. Regarding the background historical details, I recommend following the old writing advice of “kill your darlings” so that the reader’s attention is never drawn away from the main murder-mystery plot for more than a paragraph at a time, and not more than once every thousand words or so.
  • End of comments from Amazon Press editor(s).

    The greatest objection I had to these comments was the fact that they obviously didn’t read the complete novel.  It’s strange because my complete mystery is only a little over 50K words, as I always write mysteries of shorter length, and I publish them that way because my readers like to read the work in one sitting.  All of these Amazon Press editorial comments take place in the first two chapters.

    Also, they seem to have no understanding of readers who enjoy historical fiction, even mysteries.  These fiction readers of history expect the author to do careful research about the people and times of the novel, and they will call you on any inaccuracies they find, which they have done in the past in my other novels.  The editors at Amazon, however, seem to relegate that research into the “distracting, non-fiction biography department.”  Anything that didn’t show them “action and mystery plot” was not fit to be included.  If I had done that, believe me, my historical fiction readers would have complained!  The reason they select historical fiction, in the first place, is because they want to learn more about the people and times in which the mystery is set.

    Thus, I am, obviously, not deleting my work that took many hours to research just because an editor who has not read the entire novel can go on about “killing your darlings.”  Including the realities of racism, female harassment, and political corruption were part of those times and cannot be deleted.  Also, the “suggestion” that the title Chinawoman’s Chance is racist, was not in keeping with 1884 San Francisco.  Being called a “chinawoman” was the least of the problems of Asian women living in Chinatown.  The Chinese, in point of fact, were seen as sub-human, and the United States Government’s “Chinese Exclusion Act” of 1882 was the most racist legislation (other than slavery) to be allowed as official policy in the history of our country.  These were some of the “darlings” I cover so painstakingly in my book so that my readers can know what kind of political realities women and minorities had to endure.  Taking them out would mean gutting the entire purpose for writing my mystery in the first place.

    I learned a lot from this experience, but I can’t recommend it if you are publisher.  Perhaps self-published authors might get something out of the experience, but if you can’t know who nominated you, and you can’t write to your genre’s very specific audience, then how much will you need to compromise in order to get your small $1,500 advance (which must be paid back before you can even begin to collect your 50% royalties).

    I give my virtually published authors complete remuneration for their hard work.  I am not their publisher (in the sense that Amazon is).  I am their fellow author, eBook consultant, and international distributor.  There are big differences, and until Amazon understands this, I suppose they will keep trying to put the financial burden on the authors who join these scouting expeditions.  Sadly, from a publisher’s perspective, I give Amazon a grade of “C-.”

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