Ben Juggles Swords


Get SWORDS Tonight.

Read and Review Tomorrow.

Tell me what you think.

. . .



“Good marketing makes the company look smart. Great marketing makes the customer feel smart.”
—Joe Chernov

IMG_6760 (2)

I woke up to my predicament, palms sweating,  at 9:30am when the customers and crafting ladies started rolling in. My book table was half-buried in the forest of more conventional booths: crocheted “Minion” hats,  fleece blankets with tied fringes, hand-carved wooden crosses, and an assortment of other craft fair products. The vendor to my right was selling custom herbal tea blends and the vendor to my left, homemade jewelry.  I could almost hear someone humming, “One of these things is not like the other…”

That’s what I get for having bright ideas.

The itch started a few weeks ago. I must have been looking for a break from the daily slog of work, parenting, and grinding out edits on Plague Runners , because I actually read the craft fair email advertisement before deleting it:  “JSC Annual Holiday Bazaar,”  it said.

Hmm… I’m not really the crafty sort. Delete.

Sometime in the next 24 hours, the itch got worse. I like to write, but I like to meet and talk to people as well, and cloistering myself to get another writing project done was killing me. So what if the only escape nearby was a certified craft fair? I could go as a vendor. Surely there would be some poor fellow there looking for an oasis of fantasy in that ocean of knick-knacks and Scentsy candles?

So I did the essential research:

Buy-In Cost: $55
Estimated potential customers: 200-300
Demographic: Middle-age craft fair enthusiasts, family members, and assorted NASA employees
Competing Products: ~70 booths, only two selling books, none selling fantasy / sword-and-sorcery
Reference Case:  If you ask nicely. . .
Likelihood of Breaking Even: ???

I contacted the reference case to get  perspective on whether or not the buy-in price made sense for the type of sales I could expect. The reference case vendor was very encouraging once he heard about my books. “You should give this venue a shot.” (I didn’t realize at the time that he was a fantasy enthusiast as well, and would end up buying both my books. . .)

I mulled it over.  It would be a low risk opportunity to get real-time sales experience. Even better, the mix of vendors didn’t threaten to crowd out an up-and-coming fantasy/sci-fi author. And, sheesh, if I couldn’t sell a few books to whichever coworkers happened to wander past, then I’d never amount to anything, anyways.

I bought in, excited at the prospect of sharing DARTS and RINGS with potential new fans and publicizing the upcoming release of SWORDS.

Still, I’m not a fan of cold calls. I dislike being approached by salespeople, and consequently feel very self-conscious about doing the same. And what if my work friends thought my book was silly? What if nobody showed up? What if the people who came to the craft fair actually did only want to buy crafts?

I’d be out $55 and a fair bit of self-respect, that’s what. The thought didn’t thrill me. Why was I going to a craft fair?  What else could I do to help cover the costs of the table, some diversification more relevant to a NASA holiday craft fair?

Multicolored Snowflake Collage (Compressed)

Well?  I like making snowflakes. And I’m pretty good at it, too. Eight-points. Six-points. Spider-web. Eagle Feather.  Something for everyone.  So I made a few at home. My wife suggested that they were elegant, but looked a bit plain for the likes of a craft fair, so I took a few out back and spray-painted them. Then I made a more snowflakes from the black butcher paper used to catch paint. (The “shadow-flake” has overlapping patterns of paint and darkness, and is quite striking.) Even if I didn’t sell any books, I ‘d be able to sell enough of these beauties to offset the cost of the booth.

Wrong again. Sitting at my booth, it quickly obvious that most people don’t consider snowflakes a worthy investment. But I watched their hungry eyes and slowing steps of the ladies as they passed, trying to puzzle out how these beautiful snowflakes came into existence without incurring this particular booth’s sales job.

Ahh.  So crafting people aren’t so different than me? Who wants to be sold to? So I pivoted.

Me: “Would you like to know how to do it?” [With no hint of ulterior motive.]
Craft Lady: “Actually, yes.”

I spent the  whole day helping people make their own. I’d planned to do a mini-course (mostly for friends, family, and enthusiasts), but everyone else seemed interested in the hands-on too.

Pretty soon I had a swarm of people around my booth, including the other vendors. Lucky thing I brought an extra pair of scissors and some paper. We laughed and joked. They smiled and expressed their own creativity, and occasionally appreciated mine. More people came to see what the commotion was about and started making snowflakes of their own. And once my new friends finished making snowflakes, many of them friends wanted signed books. Others offered one-dollar tips for the holiday craft lesson and promised to look my books up once they got home.

It was fun. It broke the ice. I provided people with an opportunity to express themselves  creatively.  I didn’t have to awkwardly pressure anyone into buying a book they didn’t want. They could see the books on the table and ask questions in their own time-frame. The hardest part of the whole day was making sure I gave each person in the crowd proper attention.

I didn’t go out thinking about how I was going to stop traffic at my booth, teach a new skill, engage the creative brain, and then sell books.  I started with the question of how I could cover the cost of the booth if my books didn’t sell. That idea morphed through the day into something that made the venue more enjoyable for others and made the sales experience more enjoyable. What’s more, selling books and meeting new fans put fire back into my cloister efforts, and I’ve been twice as productive over the last two weeks.

What’s my main point here?  Be flexible. Pivot. Run with that crazy idea for a bit. It may be the first step in an even better idea.




Merchandise (including an accurate book count)
Cashbox (with change, and a starting till count)
Patch Kit (Scissors, Tape, Pens and Pencils)
Mailing List Sign-Up
Back-Order Sheet
Business Cards or Book Marks
Candy Bowl
iPhone Credit Card reader (if you’re that kind of person…)
An event-appropriate talent/activity to share with potential customers



  • Identify Need: Change of scenery. Inventory collecting dust.
  • Identify Solution: Holiday Craft Fair
  • Calculate Benefits: New Fans, Change of Scenery, Professional Contacts, Potential Profit
  • Postulate Risks: I might look silly selling books at a craft fair, waste my writing time, and not cover costs.
  • Identify Mitigations: Take a secondary product such as snowflakes.
  • Flex and Pivot: Use the snowflakes as a conversation starter and bonus for book purchases.

Snowflakes and Signatures

Book Signing 2.0

Snowflake Banner

For all of you who missed my inaugural book signing at Murder by Chocolate, I am doing a second at the NASA Holiday Bazaar. Here’s the scoop:

I’ll be signing books and selling homemade atomic snowflakes (see image) at the NASA Gilruth Center from 9:30 am to 3:30 pm on Saturday November 21st. If you can make it, I’d love to see you!

Also, I apologize for running out of copies of RINGS at my last signing. I have more inventory for this event, but if I run out before you arrive, I’ll take your name, order you a copy, and give you a “disappointment” discount. (You tell me how disappointed you are, and I will tell you how much that level of disappointment earns you in price reductions on the desired book. If you’re still disappointed, you can choose a 1$ snowflake from my ATOMIC SNOWFLAKE book for free.)

If you already have a copy of DARTS or RINGS and would like them signed, bring them by on November 21st. Or just come to heckle me. If book sales are slow, I’ll be teaching a mini-course on the finer art of making six-pointed snowflakes. These look particularly good in dark holiday windows, on Christmas trees, and taped to kids’ foreheads.



Sample Reviews

Down to Brass Tacks. What does an awesome review look like? I’ve been grateful for every review that I received on DARTS and RINGS. Each review helped me see my work from a different angle and improve my approach to SWORDS. Here are a few (of the many) reviews that hit on key points:

Star Rating: Four Stars of Five
Tagline: Hero and protagonist not always the same person
Date: October 23, 2015
Amazon Verified Purchase
Review Text: DARTS is a solid introduction and does a good job of building the world and establishing the characters for future installments. The main character Teacup is enjoyable as an atypical protagonist who does a few dastardly things during the course of the narrative, yet still manages to retain our sympathies with his basic decency and familial responsibilities. He is not actually the hero of the story, though, and is an observer of the plot rather than its driving factor. In the future I look forward to seeing him become more entwined in the various intrigues that surround him.

While generally a low-key and character focused work framed around a game of darts in a fantasy tavern, the narrative occasionally touches on larger issues and features some interesting and unexpected twists. The writing is clear and efficient.

The review above is packed with information about the story. The tagline highlights for shoppers that the protagonist (Teacup) isn’t the hero, and drives this home with words like “dastardly” and “atypical.” It describes several strengths of DARTS—“clear and efficient” writing, sympathetic characters—and expresses a clear interest in reading further (referral).

I particularly like the words “low-key and character-focused.” The reviewer states that he’d like to see the protagonist “become more entwined in the various intrigues. .  .” It’s a gentle nudge for the author to pay special attention to improving the action in future installments, and giving Teacup a more direct role. The review uses keywords for the genre (fantasy, tavern). This helps elevate DARTS ever so slightly among the millions of other self-published fantasy works available on Amazon.

Does this book suck?

Last week I posted about the underground market for fake-reviews (link) and the types of problems they might create for authors and readers. This week I’m interested in why real reviews are important, what makes a good review, and key elements for writing one quickly.

If this isn’t your cup of tea, check out now and come back next week for anecdotes and other fun. . .


Why review at all?
I don’t often write product reviews. Seems like a waste of time, given that most products on Amazon already have a few clever comments stacked in the margin by the time I find them. Nor do I aspire to being the next big Amazon Vine or Goodreads Guru. But occasionally I stumble across (1) something so awesome that I want to tell everybody about it anyways [Leviathan, audio] and improve its credibility in the market. Or I get (2) so many questions about a particular work (The Martian, cough, cough) that it’s easier to articulate my thoughts once and hand out a link to anyone who asks. Or I’ll write a review because (3) I think I have a unique perspective. There are other reasons, but these are mine.

What makes a good review?
By “good” reviews, I mean helpful reviews. A review that demonstrates knowledge of the product, hits the highs and lows, and reads like it was written by a normal person goes a long way for helping me get comfortable with bringing a new product home. For writers, this type of review also provides valuable market information for developing future content. An author can improve future work based on what customers have said, providing a broader ample base for market research.

What are the core components of a useful review?
Useful reviews are usually pretty easy to spot (or write) with the previous thoughts in mind. My favorites include:

  • An original tagline
  • A synopsis or demonstrated understanding of product
  • specific likes and/or dislikes
  • keywords
  • referrals and warnings

Combined with last week’s “Bot-Review” tips, these items can go a long way towards promoting worthwhile fiction, improving your favorite indie authors, and defeating the robot army. For specific real and fake review examples, check out the Sample Reviews post. I’ll update this occasionally after reading a particularly helpful review.

In the end. . .
Most writers don’t really want to read a bad review, just like no mother wants to be told her baby is ugly. But when a reviewer, editor, or critic provides actionable data, it’s much easier to swallow the bitter pill and get down to brass tacks. In addition, when you review a favorite author’s work online, you heighten their internet presence and make that work more discoverable. It’s a small thing, but that adds up big. Last week during a free promotional, DARTS held the top spot in two of its categories for several days straight. Thanks to all who have provided feedback to my writing now or in years past. It really makes a difference.


Bad Robot Reviews

It isn’t manly, but I had a good giggle last week when I stumbled across an unused line from an early draft of my 1-STAR REVIEW: ACCEPTANCE SPEECH:

STRUGGLING CRITIC: “Hard for Me to Classify…Sorry!“
BKHEWETT: “No apology necessary.  Amazon pre-classifies its inventory, so you really shouldn’t strain yourself.”

When I first wrote this, I worried my gut response was too harsh and softened things up a bit before posting. No need to be too harsh, I thought. Plenty of things to mock here without getting personal.

Turns out, I needn’t have worried.

Apparently, there is an entire ecosystem centering on fake reviews: companies that pay for them, companies (or individuals) that write them, and companies  that hunt down those fake-reviews and discredit them. This isn’t unique to Amazon. Yelp and Walmart are two other entities that cope with this problem daily. (I won’t go into the boring details, but PBS and Time will.)

In addition to the human-driven fake-reviews, sometimes entities create software programs to do this dirty work for them, scanning Amazon’s free content and making poorly written comments on select items in order to build internet presence.

But aside from being irritating and setting a bad example for our impressionable youth, bot-reviews (and other fake reviews) are a problem. Consumers use reviews to make purchasing decisions, and fake reviews lead to misinformed decision-making. In addition, retailers (and authors) generate new products based on feedback from reviews. Fraudulent feedback can lead companies (and authors) to invest resources unwisely in developing products that consumers don’t really want.

For fun and profit, here are some things to consider before using a review to make a purchasing decision or to develop content:

  • In Amazon, does the review have a “verified purchase” tag? If it doesn’t, it might mean that the reviewer wasn’t signed into when they wrote it, but the absence of this tag could also indicate duplicity. For fun, do an Amazon store search for “Uranium Ore” and scan through some of the reviews.  There’s a short one about four turtles and a rat that I found particularly interesting.
  • Does the review sound human? Are the fancy words used correctly? If not, there’s a good chance it was written by a bot. (Illegal drug use only accounts for a small percentage of poorly written reviews.)
  • Are grammar and punctuation standards used to an acceptable level? I generally accept fourth-grade as the standard of excellence for reviews, and all of my fourth graders (2004-2006) could punctuate better than my one-star reviewer. If it doesn’t meet that standard, it might be a bot.
  • Is the review really short, or really vague? Both brevity and ambiguity are a bot’s best camouflage, given the previous indicators. A bot-review will often use language that might apply to any number of books, or products. « I’m so glad I got this. »
  • Did your mom write it? If so, trust it. (Unless it exhibits previously-mentioned characteristics. . .)

So that laughably poor one-star review probably wasn’t legit, and I went through all that trouble to tease it. . . . On a lighter note, my 1-star (and 2-star) reviews are down 100% for RINGS, probably because I never offered it for free. I guess bots can’t afford the pricier fantasy and science-fiction titles.

But that brings me to my next point: What makes a good review?

To be continued. . .


Bad Robot Reviews4