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A quick blog on how I think of my covers and my product descriptions. Hopefully this might change the way you view yours, and help you sell more books. If not, you’re entitled to a full refund for my advice.

Let’s start with covers.

A cover is a visual identification of your product’s genre, and should be both as eye catching as possible, as well as consistent with other bestsellers in your space. It also needs to be professional. Gone are the days where you could screw around with photoshop and hope for a win. That’s so 2012. Don’t kid yourself – the market has never been more competitive, and if you hamstring your product with an amateurish or clunky cover, you’re going to suck exhaust.

The cover is also extremely important in your ads, as in Amazon ads it’s basically got to sell the reader sufficiently so they’ll click on the ad to see the product page. The worse the cover, the fewer conversions from impressions to clicks. That simple.

Which segues to blurbs.

Your product description ain’t what you think it is. It’s not a synopsis of the story, or a way to introduce characters or story arcs.

So what is it?

It’s ad copy, plain and simple. Words that will convince the reader that they need to buy the book. The fewer words used to achieve that, the better the copy.

Ads can get the reader to your product page, but the blurb intrigues them enough to where they need to buy the book in order to satisfy their curiosity. The purpose of the blurb is to sell the book. Nothing else.

An awesome blurb will sell more books, and can be measured in ad effectiveness, specifically in cost per click related to conversion into a sale. The better the blurb, the more clicks will convert into a purchase. The worse the blurb, the less they will convert.

I use Bestsellerblurb.com for the first books in my series, and have them working on the later books. The results have been stellar so far – marginal ad campaigns have turned strongly positive after changing the blurb, so this isn’t theory.

That’s all I have time for today. Hope it helps.

If not, I recommend tequila.

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As most know by now, I invested in the company that’s been dealing with my Amazon ads for the last 9 months. Obviously, I’m pretty happy with how they’ve done, as I don’t invest willy nilly. But they needed the capital to grow, and I had a few shekels to throw at the problem, so a marriage made in heaven.

As I did my due diligence on their model, I learned more than I ever cared to about the current state of the Amazon ad world, and came away somewhat surprised.

First off, I believe that over the next year or two, it’s going to get harder and harder to get organic visibility of any sort from Zon. Why? Because they have people lined up around the block to pay for the vis. So why give away what you can sell? That would be dumb.

Where that leaves most authors is a rock and a hard place. The indie business is now becoming very much like if you started a soda company. You’d have to pay to get your soda into the stores, and pay more for an end cap or a prominent area. That’s classic retail. Just the way it works. It’s lucrative for the store owner, but sucks for the vendors, especially if they don’t have really deep pockets and sufficient margin to take the hit.

What I’ve discovered isn’t that surprising. First, Zon appears to favor series that have good read and sell through. That makes sense – why would they push a series where people only read the first book or two, and then quit? So writing quality and story wind up being a determinant in that area, but not the sole one. Depth of the series is another – Zon wants to maximize their earnings off an impression and a click, and the best way to do that is to favor series where there are a bunch of books to read, not a few.

The next thing I learned is that covers really, really matter. Why? Because you can have your ad shown to a million people (impressions), but the quality of the cover will factor into how many decide to click on the ad to go to the product page. Crappier the cover, lower the click through. Very simple. So that one you’re in love with your niece designed, or that you spent hours tinkering with on photoshop, ain’t gonna cut it up against a current, hot, professionally executed cover. This ain’t 2012, and homemade or five years out of step with the genre will cost you huge on click through rates – and Zon will stop showing the ads pretty quick if they have low click through, because they want the high click through to increase the likelihood of a sale.

In that way, their interests are aligned with yours. In most other ways, not so much. They are in the profit business, and they’ve figured out getting vendors to pay for vis on their virtual shelves beats the hell out of just about all other possible businesses.

The next thing the data showed me was that blurb quality is a huge factor in sell through. What do I mean? The ad can get the reader to your product page. That’s its sole function. But once there, the quality of the blurb will determine how likely they are to click buy. Blurb, reviews, and Look Inside determine how well you’ll sell. The ad can’t sell your book. It can only get the reader to the product page. The rest is up to the blurb and the sample chapter and the reviews (if you have a bunch of “this crap sucks ass” testimonials, you’re probably not going to sell regardless of how good your blurb is).

The combination of cover quality and blurb quality determines how profitable it will be to advertise. Pretty straightforward. That, and the depth of your series. More books equals more revenue downstream on the “long tail.” Less equals less, both for you, and for Amazon, so not only are you likely going to be unable to compete on bids for clicks, but Zon will likely favor someone with a longer series with higher conversion-to-sales if readers decide not to buy once they get to your page, or if you simply don’t have enough books to justify showing your ad. So if you have fewer books you can’t compete as well on price per click, and Zon is going to favor someone who converts better or generates more revenue given the sheer volume of product. They might still sell you space, but you’ll be on page two or three of the carousel, which is dead money.

In truth, the most surprising thing I learned is there is no secret sauce. There’s no extra special clandestine stealth strategy. There’s A/B testing, there’s staying current on the virtually weekly changes Zon makes to the platform, there’s evaluating your clicks and sales numbers, there’s bidding decisions, and that’s about it. If your time is worth more than Adwerks charges and you don’t want to dick with ads, the agency is a winner, provided your product fits the criteria Zon uses to favor as described above. If not, you’re better off doing them yourself, although the chances of getting them to scale to more than lunch money is pretty slim for the reasons I just mentioned.

So that’s the first part of my evolving knowledge of the ad side of things. As most know, I only started focusing on advertising last July. Since then, my sales have tripled. There’s only one possible reason: I wasn’t being seen, and you can’t buy my crap if you don’t know it exists.

For the record, AMSAdwerks is the name of the agency, and while their client list is confidential, I can say that they rep some of the top 50 authors on Amazon, so they have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t. You can reach them at [email protected] if you want more info. They typically won’t take you on if they don’t think they can help, and have a waiting list for slots, so they’re not pushing snake oil just to make a buck. Some they’ve taken on can’t be helped due to the above Zon algo gods deciding their series is too short or doesn’t convert adequately, and if that becomes apparent after a couple of months, they’ll level with you. Also, some genres are crazy expensive, and you can expect to bleed money competing with Nora Roberts for clicks. Just market forces at play.

The biggest surprise for me aside from no secret sauce is the amount of time it takes to stay current on what works and what doesn’t, and how many authors Zon ads simply won’t work for beyond a $10 or $20 a day spend. While you’d think they’d gladly take as much of your dough as they can, that isn’t how it works, and one of the biggest frustrations is how difficult it is to scale campaigns and retain anything resembling reasonable ROI.

I expect the market to get far tougher over the next twelve months. I also expect keeping current on what’s working to become far more time consuming. Being lazy and uninterested in the minutiae of ads vs. writing and drinking tequila, outsourcing the whole mess was the obvious call for me. Glad I did.

Full disclosure, I invested in Adwerks so they can scale, and I obviously am impressed, but as with most things, YMMV, so it may or may not be something that can work for you.

I’ll publish part two of my commentary in the next week or two.

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If I’ve seemed quiet, it’s because I’ve been involved in a few other projects.

First, I’m delighted to announce that I’m now a minority investor in AMSAdwerks, which is the agency that’s been handling my AMS advertising since July. They needed cash to scale the business, and I was able to convince them to take some of mine so they can add personnel and streamline their systems. I’m excited, because I believe that the market is only going to get more competitive as we move forward, and thus the demand for a group that has years of historical understanding and an area of specialty that’s growing will continue to be strong.

AMSAdwerks usually has a waiting list that spans months, so perhaps this will enable them to cut that down to something more reasonable. We’ll see. I’m not going to be active in the company, but more in a chairman of the board role offering counsel on big picture strategy and expansion guidance.

One of the frustrations looking at their biz is how capricious AMS ads can seem, with Zon changing things up seemingly monthly, and what worked yesterday failing spectacularly tomorrow. But I do believe there will be a requirement for a reasonably priced agency that can handle everything so authors can do what they do best – write – and not break the bank. My rankings are nothing to complain about, so I’m a believer, even if the road’s anything but consistently smooth. As with all things, YMMV, but I wouldn’t be getting involved if I wasn’t sure there was something there. You want to touch base with them, email [email protected] and tell Michael that Russell sent you.

In other news, I’m getting ready to start The Day After Never #9, so won’t be around much between that and a couple weeks in Italy and Spain in May.

Nothing else of note to report other than I’m richer, thinner, and younger than ever. And if you believe that, I’ve got a very nice bridge available at a giveaway price, only slightly used, finest kind…

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I’m delighted to announce that the fifteenth novel in the JET series (OK, 17th if you count the two prequels), JET – Sahara, is now live on Amazon and available for your consideration.

In this volume, Jet proves that no good deed goes unpunished when she agrees to a final mission into one of the most dangerous, war-torn regions on the planet in order to facilitate an extraction.

It’s filled with the usual roller coaster ride of action, intrigue, treachery, betrayal, and twists, and fans of the series won’t be disappointed.

So if you’re looking for something to read while shoveling snow or basking on faraway beaches or however you’re spending your time, you could do worse than picking up JET – Sahara and giving it a gander.

Which is my more refined attempt at saying, “buy my crap.”

Hopefully it works. Gotta pay the bar tab.

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Branding.

We hear a ton about it. That we need to do it. That our brand is our most important asset. That our branding differentiates us from other authors and offers the reader a clear, instantaneous value statement about what they’re getting when they pick up one of our books.

So what is it? Our cover’s look and feel? Our approach to prose? Our characters and stories? The totality of the reader experience?

The answer is yes. All of that, and more. It is the snapshot that comes to the reader’s mind when they see or hear our name, or the title of one of our books. As an example, James Bond is an incredible brand that instantly conjures up visions of sophisticated super spies, non-stop action, over-the-top plot twists, and malevolent, evil villains. It’s an instant association. That’s the value of the brand – how it immediately informs the consumer of an identifiable cluster of deliverables they can expect.

Once clear on what a brand is, we would do best to examine large corporations that have successfully created and maintained their brands, and how they go about protecting them.

Coca Cola and Pepsi are two classics. Both with eerily similar commodity products, and both mega-corps that have earned billions from their syrupy soft drinks.

They spend many millions each year to keep their logos and names in the public eye. They do this as an expense that must be borne by sales – it’s a necessary part of doing business. Even after a century, they still invest a portion of their revenue into branding, because there are always new customers to be swayed, and people have short memories and a lot of choices.

I got a tremendous amount of response to my last blog about advertising and the shifting sands of the Amazon landscape, which got me thinking about the value of branding. In most industries, you have to pay to brand. It’s that simple. Branding is a sunk cost, a part of the expenses that are required to remain in business. There’s no direct link between the money spent and a rise in sales, nor is there an expectation of one in anything resembling the short term.

But books are different. Or at least, advertising on Zon is different. Here, authors look at ROI on their ads, which is fine (I do). But that misses the big picture. Ads serve two purposes: to drive incremental sales, and to build a brand. The first is where we can measure ROI (return on investment) and tell whether our ads are “working,” but what about the second? Isn’t it curious that we expect that our brand building should post a return when in every other industry it’s a cost, not a revenue source?

My hunch is that our attitude has developed because of two things. First, few authors have real experience operating a business that’s in retail and has any scale. So they have no real context with which to view branding as an ongoing, necessary effort that spans years, and which costs money rather than instantly makes it. Second, they’ve been conditioned to think short term, as in how much did I make this month, rather than looking at the business as a year-over-year marathon where it’s not only about sales, but also defining and strengthening a brand, which will translate into sales and loyalty in the longer term…but not instantaneously.

I suppose my perspective is different, having in a past life worked for a Fortune 500 in marketing.

Don’t get me wrong. I love the fact that I can get a positive ROI on my ad campaigns, because it makes it palatable to spend money on what is necessary to build my brand. But I also recognize how lucky I am to do so, because 99% of all companies don’t expect to see any ROI.

Because of our little niche industry, we’re able to actually turn brand building into a profit center, which is unheard of in most segments. That rocks.

I’ve spent seven and a half years building the Russell Blake brand, and continue to invest in doing so. My goal is to establish it as a quality purveyor of differentiated content, that regardless of the genre, sets a high bar for prose, story, pacing, editing, and look and feel. I think I’ve done that with my readership, but the goal is to now expand my reach – the vast majority of readers have never heard of Russell Blake, so the challenge is to get visibility with that vast audience and slowly but surely get them interested in sampling my wares.

In time, the hope is that I provide an experience they can’t get elsewhere, which translates into brand loyalty, and which they trust will meet their expectations regardless of what genre I’m writing in. Advertising helps with that effort, because I’m now seeing new readers trying my books – readers who otherwise wouldn’t have known I existed. The hope is that by increasing my ad spend over time, even if it eventually becomes a break-even exercise, I will collect a larger and larger audience that will go on to read my backlist after finishing whatever book I snagged them with, which will in turn translate into long term success that builds on itself.

So far, so good.

If I have any words of advice for my fellow authors, it would be to read a marketing textbook and pay particular attention to the chapters on brand building, because if you’re to have a career that lasts longer than a toddler’s temper tantrum, without a brand that readers trust you’ll be interchangeable with a thousand others. If you can make money from your brand building effort, super, but even if you have to pay some to do so, you’re only doing what the most successful companies in the world already know they have to do every day…so don’t whine, and bear in mind that any revenue you see from doing it is icing.

In summary, measuring advertising dollar ROI is important when evaluating whether a campaign is generating directly attributable sales, but misses the point on brand building, where it’s also delivering value that isn’t immediately evident or measurable but should have an accretive impact over the longer term.

My grandmother used to say that quality is remembered long after price is forgotten. A relevant pseudo-corollary is that branding is remembered long after the sale is forgotten. So there’s a short term objective, and a longer range goal that’s more important to a lengthy career than how your last month did. As retail marketers/publishers we have to be sensitive to both, and grin and bear it when we’re not hitting lofty ROI goals but we’ve increased our reach.

Those are my thoughts, such as they are. Everyone have a happy holiday, and if you missed my blog on advertising and my recent revelations as I navigate the Amazon ad waters, refer to my blog from a few weeks back for more info.

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Eggnog, sleigh bells, hobos with cheeks glowing from holiday cheer, Santas on every street corner (often one and the same). That must mean it’s time for another installment in the bestselling The Day After Never series, this one titled, Legion.

What can I say about this one? It picks up where book 7 left off, and plunges Lucas into even more harrowing circumstances as enemies surface at every turn. Nothing and nowhere is safe, and he must battle adversity on every page if he and his crew are to survive.

Fans of the series are sure to be delighted by this one, as it has battles galore, serpentine twists, reversals, new and old characters intertwining, and a breakneck pace that races to its explosive conclusion.

If you haven’t tried The Day After Never series, you’d be well advised to. If you have, you’ll have a very merry Xmas with The Day After Never – Legion in your stocking!

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Time for my year end wrap up, which will consist of two posts – the first, by popular demand, which will cover my take on the state of the market, and the second, on the importance of brand building in this new and harsher environment.

2018 ushered in a time when visibility we used to take for granted on Amazon basically disappeared. The long tail on new releases has been compressed to only weeks, and with the elimination of free books from the also boughts and from the search functions, it’s almost impossible to get any free visibility now on the largest seller of books in the world.

So what’s left?

Paying to play, also known as advertising. The rest of this blog will be devoted to my experience with Zon advertising, and the conclusions I’ve drawn after reluctantly beginning a concentrated effort about mid-year.

Bluntly, Amazon has taken real estate on their product pages and turned it into revenue streams, which is smart. And once they had that revenue generation engine, it would have been dumb for them to offer visibility that doesn’t involved publishers and authors paying Zon for the privilege. Which is what they’ve done.

We are now in a world where advertising isn’t optional – it’s necessary if you’re going to make a living as an author, unless you’re so atypical it’s astonishing, in which case, congrats, but you’re the exception, so enjoy it while it lasts.

What this means is that authors who have been making decent livings over the last five years are going to find their earnings shrinking substantially unless they pony up cash to buy placement, exactly as retailers have required vendors to do for longer than any of us have been alive. You want the visibility of the end cap? Pay up. You want in-store displays? Pay. You want favorable placement? Pay. Be seen in a magazine or newspaper? Pay. Very simple. For years that wasn’t the case with Amazon. Now it is.

The net is that our margins will shrink as we have to devote a portion of our dwindling income to advertising. That’s reality. But they will shrink far faster and further if we don’t, as my experience over the last year or two has taught me. That’s the new market. It is what it is.

I should stress that I hate having to dick with advertising. It’s not my forte. I don’t have 10-20 hours a week to devote to managing campaigns, changing key words, evaluating copy and click rates, monitoring ad results, submitting them and dealing with arbitrary rejection, deciphering the opaque results of the world’s worst reporting, and on and on and on. And I certainly don’t have even more time to devote to keeping up on what’s working and what isn’t as Zon changes their algos seemingly weekly.

I write novels. I’m not a copywriter or an advertising specialist. I hired a group that is, and am thrilled with the results – they advertise only my backlist, and they’ve managed to increase sales of that relatively dead money by a massive amount; so much so that I have been seeing a pretty steady 100-130% monthly ROI after paying the ads and their fee. Others have seen results all over the map, usually due to the depth of their series, whether they’re in KU or not (KU eliminates any buying hesitation once they’ve clicked on the ad to your product page because it’s free to read the book, vs. requiring a buying decision), genre, and a host of other factors, but there’s no question that the right kind of efforts for the right sort of catalog can be a game changer.

I liken doing my own advertising to cleaning toilets. I hate doing it, and if I can hire someone for $20 an hour to scrub when I earn many multiples of that, I’m an idiot if I don’t leverage that for a successful arbitrage, and do what pays me far more with my time while leaving the toilet to the other person. If I spend one of my $100 or $200 or $400 hours doing something that can be outsourced for $20, I’m a fool for failing to grasp the math. Again, simple.

I realize not everyone, or even most, can afford to hire someone competent to run their campaigns, which leaves authors in a bleak position of having to split their time between writing, and becoming ad and copy-writing specialists. That means that if they have little time to write, they will now have even less, because they have to spend the lion’s share of their time being online ad specialists and staying current with all the trends. It’s not ideal, obviously, but it’s reality, and my sense is it’s going to get worse, not better, at least on Amazon.

My frustration with Zon advertising is that it’s very difficult to scale the spend up without killing ROI. I can easily spend $10 a day and poach a few lucky cheap clicks, but that’s not going to make any real money, and if you want to invest more than chicken feed, it’s almost impossible to spend serious amounts without tunneling ROI to where it gets closer to break-even than significant % upside. Fortunately my folks have figured out some tricks to achieve this, but that doesn’t really help the average author, who’s locked into an ugly spiral: either receive no visibility to speak of (so no sales), or spend money to buy vis, but be unable to do so to buy enough to really matter.

The current ad environment is geared towards the big spenders, who can dominate the pages with tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars per month, and who probably are fine seeing 10% or 20% monthly ROI, or less. The problem is that’s whose bids you’re competing with when you run your ads, and I guarantee that if you don’t have a deep series in KU, you’re unlikely to be able to make any money throwing large amounts at buying expensive placements – placements that likely will cost much more than you’ll earn on the first, or even first, second, and third books in your series.

So what is there to do?

I wish I knew. I also don’t know what to do if you write stand-alone novels, or only have a few books in a series, other than recommend you write like mad and build significant enough depth to prosper in this brave new world of a mature marketplace where the owner of the store wants to maximize its profits. There’s no point railing against it, anymore than there’s a point to railing against the fact that the grocery store won’t carry your delicious home baked cookies you’re trying to turn into a business – that’s just the way it is, and they’re not going to displace a vendor who spends a fortune with them to feature your offering. In that instance, you simply don’t have a viable business, and would be better served either trying to find alternative outlets, or shelving your dreams of a cookie empire, because you don’t have the juice to make it happen. Sorry.

I resisted advertising for years. Fortunately, I dove in this year, and have seen my sales more than double on my backlist, as well as seen about a 1200% annual return on investment on the money I’ve invested in adverts. There’s no place I can see 1200% return in any market, or even 120%, so I consider it a cost of doing business now in the new marketplace, with a nice sweetener for my trouble – spend $10K on ads a month, see $24K in gross sales, minus the ad spend of $10K, minus the group’s fee, which leaves me with $12K and change for my trouble that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen (above my usual monthly baseline run-rate sales).

That’s not as fun as free money sponsored by Amazon’s free vis like in the good old days, but it’ll have to do. It will never be 2012 or 13 again, no matter how much we wish it were.

As to those who want to or are forced by circumstance to handle their advertising themselves, you have my sympathy. I didn’t sign up to become an author in order to try to become an online advertising specialist or a copywriter, and it should be obvious that I’d rather do pretty much anything else besides spend half my week on that aspect of the job. Then again, I also don’t design my own covers, or try to self edit, or proof my own work, because I follow the same simple philosophy I outlined before: if I can pay an expert far less than I earn per hour to do it, I’m ahead of the game and shouldn’t even think about wasting my valuable time on what I can outsource.

If anyone wants my group’s contact info, feel free to email me at [email protected] and I’ll share it. They’ve become friends of mine, and I recommend them highly, but they’re typically swamped so I’m not going to post their info online lest they drop me for being an asshat.

So that’s my rather bleak assessment of the marketplace on Amazon. As to B&N and Apple and Kobo, they’ve had years to give Zon a real run for their money, and failed, so while I’m philosophically opposed to putting my eggs in one basket, I’m also opposed to investing in failure, which is how it seemed when I had most of my titles wide instead of in KU and watched my sales lag month after month no matter what I did. I still have some of my books wide – the Drake Ramsey’s series, the Assassin series, and so on, but my big money makers are in KU, with an advertising approach that’s turned them from meh money back into woohoo income.

I’m sure there are plenty who’ve had different experiences, and I’m not saying that folks can’t earn a living without advertising or slaving away at it themselves. If they can, hats off to them. I just know myself well enough to know that doing something I hate kills the joy in the entire business for me, which is why I avoided it so long.

And for those who are going to chime in and ask about newsletter swaps, and email blasts, and launch parties, and that sort of thing, sure, by all means do them and give it the college try. But frankly there’s not a lot that can replace a reader seeing your cover on the first page of a book they’re interested in for awakening buying interest, and this comes from a guy with a mailing list over 30K deep. Rather than fight the new environment, I’d suggest you come to grips with it and do whatever you can to thrive in it, because the alternative isn’t good, and as I said before, I believe it’s going to get a lot tougher as the big spenders dominate the pages with ever increasing budgets.

My next blog will be about brand building and the silver lining of ads on Amazon, which in a nutshell will state that it’s possible to generate a positive ROI while investing in brand building, which is a multi-year, ongoing effort (that normally is an expense companies invest 5-15% of sales into with no hope of seeing a return), not a revenue source, so silver linings, if somewhat tarnished ones.

Until then, have a great holiday, and I hope you sell a million – I need more rich friends, and my bar tab doesn’t pay itself.

 

 

 

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The 14th installment in the JET saga – JET – Dark Web – is now live on Amazon, and I think fans of the series will be delighted with it.

I plan one more around Xmas, and then she’ll go back on hiatus until mid-year, 2019.

This episode has everything readers expect from the series, with a few surprises thrown in for good measure.

Here’s the cover for JET – Dark Web. If you’re looking for a good read, look no further.

 

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What’s that old expression – better late than never?

That aptly describes the wait many eager readers have endured for the 14th installment (16th if you count the two prequels) in the bestselling JET series.

It is with great pleasure that I can announce JET – Dark Web, is now up for pre-order, and will launch the end of the month.

I’m delighted with the book. Some of the chase scenes are right up there with the original, and I had almost forgotten how fun it is to put poor Jet into constant hot water. Fortunately, I rediscovered the joy of doing so, and we have JET – Dark Web to show for it.

So if you’re a fan of the series, make this an auto buy. You can pre-order it here.

 

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Just a quick note to announce that my first in the Leah Mason series, A Girl Apart, is now live on all platforms, its exclusive run with Amazon having run its course. I appreciate the patience of those who have waited for its release on non-Zon platforms. Simply go to your favorite ebook purveyor and tap in the title, and enjoy what many of called one of my best books in years.

 

Old asphalt road on the background of Dramatic sunset

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