Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer. I have a long-standing interest in copyright, and I’ve read a lot of opinions from lawyers on the subject. But I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice.
The real answer to the question asked in the title of this article is, “It depends.” If the song lyrics are covered by copyright, then no, you can’t use them unless you get permission.
You could ask for permission, of course. You may have to pay a fee, and if the copyright holder is a large corporation, the cost may be prohibitive. On the other hand, if the song is by an independent artist, their price might be more affordable.
What about fair use?
It’s a common claim on the internet that small parts of copyrighted works can be used freely, under the auspices of “fair use”. This is partially true, but it’s more complex than such a simple statement suggests.
For one thing, many legal jurisdictions have no concept of fair use. Some, such as the UK, Canada, and Australia, have the concept of fair dealing rather than fair use. Fair dealing is less flexible and more restrictive than fair use, and in some jurisdictions it is limited to non-commercial uses.
But even in the United States, where the doctrine of fair use is well established, it probably won’t help you. Fair use applies if the copyrighted work is being quoted for a limited use, such as commentary, criticism, education, or parody.
Quoting a song lyric for any of those purposes might qualify as fair use. Having your character sing lines from their favourite song, or using it to set a particular tone, almost certainly isn’t fair use.
If you decide that your usage is fair use, it’s important to note that it does not mean that you have nothing to fear. It simply gives you an argument that you can use in your defence if you get sued. Even a successful defence could be expensive.
What to do instead
One option is to rewrite the relevant section so that it does not need song lyrics, possibly referencing the song without actually quoting it. But if you really want lyrics, there are ways to do so legally and ethically.
You could make up your own lyrics. This has the advantage that they can say exactly what you need to serve your story. There’s no need to write an entire song, unless you need the whole thing.
Or, you could look for songs that have been released under a Creative Commons licence. In this case, the owner retains their copyright, but allows reuse under certain terms. If you’re using Creative Commons licenced material, make sure you read the licence and understand what is required. There are several different licences, all with different requirements.
Finally, if the song lyrics are not covered by copyright, you can use them however you wish. This mostly applies to songs old enough that the copyright term has expired, but occasionally copyright owners will choose to relinquish their rights. This is rare, but it does happen — Tom Lehrer being a notable example.
If you came to this article hoping to find out how to use a specific song’s lyrics in your book, you may be disappointed. But there are legal ways to use song lyrics in your book. Hopefully one of the methods outlined above will work for you.
After Elon Musk took over Twitter in 2022, there was a great deal of disruption, and some people started looking for alternatives. One alternative that got a lot of press was Mastodon. This article will explain how authors can set up a Mastodon account, and get the most out of it.
What is Mastodon?
In some ways, Mastodon is similar to Twitter. It’s a micro-blogging social media site, which allows users to post short messages known as toots. Mastodon has equivalents to Twitter’s retweet and like functions, known as boost and favourite on Mastodon. There are differences, of course. The one that seems to cause the most confusion is that there isn’t a single place to sign up. Anyone can set up a Mastodon instance (also known as a server), which means that there are lots to choose from, and this can confuse people, but it’s not as complex as it might sound.
It’s probably easiest to think of Mastodon as being similar to email in many ways. Just as your email address is made up of your local name followed by your server (eg Robin@AuthorHelp.uk), a Mastodon handle is similar (eg @RPBook). But whatever email service you use, you can send emails to other services, and people on other services can email you. In the same way, Robin (on historians.social), Jen (on toot.lgbt) and the Author Help account (on opalstack.social) can all follow and interact with each other.
Register an account
Although it’s not essential, there are advantages to joining an instance that is focused on books and/or authors. Mastodon has a local feed which shows posts from people on the same instance, as well as a federated feed, which shows posts from people all over Mastodon. So the local feed on a book-focused instance will be more interesting and useful. Here are some servers that fit those criteria:
Every instance admin can set their own rules, so make sure you check the rules before joining. Once you’ve found one that is a good fit, click the “Create account” button. Once you’ve accepted the instance’s rules, you’ll be presented with a form asking for your display name, user name, email address, and password.
Set up your profile
Once you have an account, it’s a good idea to add at least a bio and a photo to your profile. This will make it more likely that people will follow you when they come across you. You can also add a header image, and a link to your website in the “Profile metadata” section. If you’re migrating from Twitter, you can use the same profile image and photo as you used there.
When editing your profile, there is a section labelled “Verification”. This has a short piece of HTML code that you can add to your website to verify that your account belongs to the owner of the website. Adding that code to your author website will allow people to verify that the account belongs to you.
It’s also a good idea to write an introduction post. Add a #introduction hashtag, and use hashtags for anything that people are likely to search for, such as #author and the genre that you write in. There’s no full-text search on Mastodon, but it is possible to search for hashtags, so they’re very important. If a hashtag has multiple words, be sure to capitalise the first letter of each word to make it easier to read, especially for screen readers (eg #MilitaryHistory instead of #militaryhistory). After posting, pin the introduction post. To do this on the web interface, click the three dots at the bottom right of the post, and select “Pin on profile”.
In general use, there are a lot of similarities between Mastodon and Twitter. You can post toots, which can be up to 500 characters long, and can include images or polls. For longer messages, you can reply to your own toot to create a thread. You can favourite, boost, and reply to other people’s toots.
Many authors that use Twitter say that the best part of it is the conversations that they have, and this is also true of Mastodon. Remember, it’s social media, and people are there to be sociable. It’s important to be part of the conversation — reply to and boost other people’s posts. Your own posts should be more than simply links to buy your books. There’s no need to discuss private things, you can talk about your research, how the writing is going, what you’ve been reading, etc.
Privacy and content warnings
The privacy level for each toot can be individually set. The default is Public, which means anyone can see it. Unlisted means that anyone can see it, but it won’t appear in searches, timelines, etc. This is useful when writing a thread — the initial post can be set to Public, with the rest of the thread set to unlisted. Anyone that clicks on the first post will see the rest, but the replies won’t clog your followers’ timelines.
The other options are Followers only, which means that only your followers will see it, and Mentioned people only, which is analogous to a direct message. Note, though, that direct messages aren’t completely private — the instance admin will be able to see them.
Mastodon also allows a content warning to be applied to a toot. When you set a content warning, you add a message which is all that is visible by default — users have to click to open the full message. This is useful when posting things that some may find difficult, and some servers may require self-promotion messages to be behind a content warning.
Hashtags and groups
As mentioned earlier, there is no full-text search at Mastodon, but hashtags are searchable, which makes them very important. There are also groups, which boost any posts that they are tagged in.
This is a short list of useful hashtags for authors:
Be sure to include any that are relevant when posting. Hashtags can be followed in the same way as accounts, so it’s worth following some to find interesting conversations to join or people to follow.
The following accounts are groups. If you mention them in a post, they will boost your post, so that it is sent to their followers. Again, it is a good idea to follow at least some of them so that you can get involved in the conversations:
The culture at Mastodon emphasises inclusivity and accessibility. Using camel case (capitalising the first word of each word) in hashtags is an example of this.
Another important part is in the use of images. If you add an image to a toot, add a text description or caption. This is important for anyone using a screen reader, as this is what the screen reader will read to tell the user what the image is. We recommend following the Alt Text Reminder bot, which will send a reminder if you forget to add alt text to an image.
There are several ways to find people on Mastodon. Searching appropriate hashtags is a good start, and once you find someone interesting, it’s worth looking through their follows and followers lists.
There are also directories of accounts that post about specific topics. They each have a different approach, so you may find different people on each:
Mastodon is probably different to other social media that you’ve used, but that means that you can treat it as a fresh start. Remember that social media should be enjoyable. Don’t get hung up on things like follower numbers, but rather concentrate on finding people that you enjoy talking to and taking part in interesting conversations. There are no guarantees that you will sell books, but if you enjoy your time there, then that will matter less.
One of the questions we ask our authors is whether they want their ebook to be exclusive to Amazon, or available at multiple retailers (commonly known as “going wide”). We will discuss the benefits and disadvantages of both approaches in this article, so that you can make an informed decision about what to do with your own book.
Being exclusive to Amazon means having a single place to track sales, make changes, etc. For some people, that alone is enough to make exclusivity worthwhile. But Amazon does reward exclusive authors with some benefits.
Being exclusive is the only way for an indie book to be included in Kindle Unlimited (often abbreviated to KU), Amazon’s ebook subscription service. Readers pay a fixed monthly fee, and in return, they can read as many KU books as they wish. For people that read a lot, this can be a very good deal. Authors are paid according to how many pages of their books were read. The amount paid per page is tiny, but some authors report that most of their earnings are from Kindle Unlimited page reads.
Kindle Unlimited isn’t the only benefit to bring exclusive. For five days in every ninety, your book can be free, or you can run a countdown deal. Why give your book away for free? Chances are, many more people will download it while it is free. Some of them will review it, and those reviews may help persuade people to buy it once the price goes back up. If they like your writing, they might buy your other books — this is particularly relevant if it’s the first in a series.
When running a countdown deal, the potential buyer sees the normal price as well as the discount price. There is also a countdown clock, to give a sense of urgency and encourage purchase. If your book gets the 70% royalty rate at its usual price, sales during the countdown deal will earn 70%.
Finally, Kindle books sold in Brazil, Japan, Mexico, and India only get the 70% royalty rate if they are exclusive. For most people, these markets represent a very small proportion of sales, so it makes little difference.
In the US and UK, Amazon is the market leader in ebook sales. Nobody knows exactly how much market share they have, but it’s generally acknowledged that they are the largest ebook vendor in these countries.
But they are far less dominant in the rest of the world. So being Amazon-exclusive limits your ability to sell elsewhere. Some of these are large markets, and books in English will sell even in countries where it is not the first language. While Amazon has sites in twenty countries, Kobo has over forty and Apple has fifty-one.
Kindle Unlimited subscribers can read the book for free, but they have to pay for a subscription. On the other hand, if your book is in a library, people can read the book for free without a monthly subscription. When you opt to go wide, we set up your ebook on Draft2Digital. They distribute to six library services, making your book available to libraries world-wide. In 2021, libraries in the Philippines unexpectedly bought copies of Jen’s children’s book. Those sales were only possible because the book wasn’t exclusive to Amazon.
Ironically, another benefit is that the only way to have a book permanently free (known as a “permafree”) on Amazon is to have that book on sale at other vendors. With books in a series, setting the first one free can be a powerful marketing tactic. The free one hooks readers, who then go on to buy and read the rest of the series. Amazon won’t allow an ebook price to be set to free, but other stores will. Making the same ebook free elsewhere, then asking Amazon to match the free price, is the only way to get them to make an ebook permanently free.
Mistakes to avoid
An ebook needs to be enrolled in KDP Select to access the benefits of exclusivity. Enrolment automatically renews and is for ninety days at a time, but the renewal can be cancelled.
A common mistake is to try and get the best of both worlds by switching between exclusive and wide every few months. We strongly advise against this, because you’re more likely to get the worst of both worlds. A reader on Kobo, for instance, will be unhappy if they buy one of your books, then find they can’t buy the next one because you’ve switched to being Amazon exclusive.
Some authors will complain that they never get sales on the wide vendors, but do nothing to get those sales. Whenever you link to your book, use your Books2Read universal link. That will allow readers to buy from their preferred store. As a bonus, it will direct them to their local store. British readers will go to the UK store and see prices in pounds. Canadians will go to the Canada store and see prices in Canadian dollars, and so on.
Ultimately, being wide is a mindset. If you only think about getting sales on Amazon, there’s little point being elsewhere. But if you think in terms of sales everywhere, then being wide may well suit you and your book.
If you want to sell books, you need to market them. But that doesn’t just mean advertising. As an author, you are a creative person, so why not use that creativity in your marketing? Below are some creative marketing ideas to serve as inspiration.
April Fools’ Day
Robin once created a joke book. It was announced on the first of April, clearly marked as a joke.
The book was available as a short PDF, which included links to some of their other books and a sign-up link to their mailing list. It got more comments than their normal releases, all of which seemed to appreciate the joke. It even got a five-star review on Goodreads.
Trick or Treat
For Halloween, why not set up a “trick or treat” themed promotion. Set up promotional links on your website. Set up most of them so that they go to a page with a treat. This could be a discount code for one of your books, a short story, or an exclusive preview of an upcoming release.
The remaining links go to a page with a trick. This doesn’t need to be anything more than an image indicating that they’re out of luck this time.
Running a competition can be a useful marketing boost. Robin’s most recent competition was titled “Reconnaissance Mission” because that fit their genre (military history). Five pages on their website had a vehicle silhouette. Clicking on it opened a preview of an upcoming article, and earned the user one entry into a prize draw.
The competition entry form had a checkbox that people could tick to join Robin’s mailing list, and they gained new subscribers that way. The structure of the competition encouraged people to spend time on the website, to earn more prize draw entries. Hopefully, some of those people became regular visitors.
Obviously, you’ll probably need to use a different title. You could just call it a treasure hunt, but a title that fits the genre is a nice touch.
This will require some coding or a WordPress plugin. The idea is simple. Set up the calendar to offer something different on each day of December up to the 24th.
Some days could have discount codes for books, others could have interesting facts, short stories, previews, etc. Having a different offer each day will encourage people to return to the site. As well as the sales, this could lead to mailing list subscribers and regular visitors to your website.
Our authors’ books are available as ebooks, and as paperbacks using print on demand technology. Both technologies mean the books will never go out of print, unless the author specifically wants them to.
With print on demand, books are printed and bound as they are needed. There is no need for a large up-front investment to pay for a print run, and no need to store hundreds of books. But there is a less obvious advantage which I’d like to discuss here.
When a book is always available, it can benefit from unexpected interest in a way that isn’t possible otherwise. If something creates interest in your book, anyone that wants a copy will be able to buy it if it’s available as an ebook or print on demand.
Where demand comes from
You might be able to drive interest yourself. In an episode of the AskALLi podcast, Orna Ross talked about promoting one of her older books to coincide with the centenary of an event in the book. This is likely to be a potential marketing hook for historical fiction and non-fiction authors, but there are possibilities for other authors too.
Perhaps someone else will cause a flurry of interest. It’s well known in publishing circles that a celebrity endorsement of a book can drive book sales. The Oprah Effect, named after Oprah Winfrey because her book club always generated a lot of interest and sales. Other celebrities also have book clubs. Reese Witherspoon has one with the stated goal of elevating female voices. The Richard and Judy book club is big in the UK, and Emma Watson has a feminist book club.
Book clubs aren’t the only things that can cause sudden interest in a book. In 2020, a podcast released audio readings of a book titled The Cauldron, written under the pseudonym Zeno. It had been published in 1966 and was out of print. Demand from podcast listeners pushed the price of second-hand copies up from a few pounds to over £100. Had the book been available as an ebook or print on demand, the listeners would have been able to buy copies at a sensible price. The publisher and author would have received their usual share of the sale, too. Second-hand sales at hugely inflated prices benefit the seller, but no-one else.
Sometimes it won’t be obvious what caused the interest. In 2021, libraries in the Philippines suddenly bought lots of ebook copies of Jen’s children’s book. We couldn’t find out what had caused this burst of sales. But it was available via the libraries’ supplier, so Jen was able to benefit, even without knowing where the interest came from.
This is the less obvious, and rarely discussed, advantage of print on demand and ebooks. If something provokes interest in your book, or with non-fiction, your book’s subject, readers can find and buy your book immediately, and at a sensible price. You get your standard royalty from those sales. Everybody wins.
“Metadata” is a term that sounds technical, which may be why it confuses a lot of authors. Back in 2020, Jane Friedman asked her Twitter followers, “When people talk about “metadata” in book publishing, do you know what they’re referring to?“. Half of the respondents definitely knew, or were reasonably sure that they knew. Half of them did not know what the word meant.
You may have heard the definition that metadata is information about data, which is still too technical to be useful. So here is a simpler definition, focused on books: the metadata of a book is everything about the book that is not the content of the book itself.
The following are examples of a book’s metadata:
Number in series
Note that the book’s content is not in the list. Some items (genre and description, for instance) give some indication of the content, but the content itself is not metadata.
Metadata describes your book. It is the information a potential reader needs in order to decide whether to buy the book. If you want to sell books, it’s very important. The good news is, it’s not a complex topic, and if you have published a book, you’ve dealt with metadata, even if you didn’t realise it.
When you are uploading a new book, or updating an existing one, there will be fields for the items listed above, and more. Make sure that you fill in as much information as possible, and do so accurately.
Why metadata matters
When a user searches Amazon for “Romance books”, Amazon’s search algorithm uses the metadata of all the books in its database to work out which ones are romance books, and should therefore be shown in the search results. The title or subtitle may include words that indicate the book is a romance. Or there may be words and phrases like “happy ever after” in the keyword fields.
Accurate metadata is important, because the user searching for “Romance books” doesn’t want a book that isn’t a romance. If a military history book has a title, subtitle, and keywords that suggest it’s a romance book, it will show up in that user’s search. But the user will either ignore it, or buy it and leave a scathing review. Worse still, readers that would enjoy the book will never find it because it won’t show up in their searches.
It’s not only important for computer algorithms. If your book is stocked by a library or book shop, they’ll use the metadata to decide which shelf to put it on. You don’t want your contemporary romance book on the thriller shelf, because the romance readers won’t look there, and so they won’t find it. Any thriller readers that find it and read it will be disappointed. They might tell their friends that it’s rubbish, or leave a bad review on Goodreads.
Put simply, good metadata gets your book in front of people that will enjoy it. Bad metadata gets your book in front of people that will hate it.
It’s the International Day Of Disabled Persons, so here’s a short list of easy ways to make your web pages and social media posts more accessible.
When writing hashtags, use BumpyCase (also known as CamelCase). It’s better for screen readers and is less ambiguous (note the difference between #CarEbook and #CareBook)
On web pages, use headings to communicate the organisation of the page, not to make the text bigger. If you want bigger text, just adjust the font size. Again, this helps screen readers and accessibility tools. It also helps with SEO.
Use clear link text on web pages. The text in the link should describe what it links to, even if read out of context. Avoid link text like “click here”, that doesn’t indicate what is being linked to.
Always set alt text (“alternative text”) for images. In the alt text field, describe the image as well as you can. If you’re not sure what would be useful, remember that any alt text is better than nothing. On Mastodon, follow the Alt Text Reminder bot to get reminders if you forget to add alt text. On Twitter, the Alt Or Not browser extension can help.
Use a website theme that has good contrast between text and background. Light grey text on a white background is much more difficult to read than black text on a white background.
One of the questions we ask our authors is whether or not they want to enable DRM for their ebooks. Our recommendation is always not to enable it, but as with everything else, it’s the author’s book and so the final decision is theirs. This article explains what DRM is, why you might want it, and why we always recommend against using it.
What is DRM?
DRM stands for Digital Rights Management, which is technology that tries to prevent unauthorised copying of electronic files. There are DRM technologies available for various types of electronic files, but this article is only concerned with ebooks.
In theory, an ebook with DRM can only be viewed on an authorised device. In other words, if you buy a Kindle ebook from Amazon, you can read that ebook on any Kindle app or device that is registered to your Amazon account. If you buy an ebook from Kobo, you can read it on any Kobo app or device registered to your Kobo account. There’s no point uploading your file to a piracy site, since no-one else will be able to read it.
Does it stop piracy?
If it worked as intended, DRM would stop piracy. In practice, for anyone who knows how, removing DRM from ebooks is quick and easy. Most readers don’t know how, of course, but anyone wanting to pirate ebooks can find it out from a quick internet search.
This means that pirates know how to get around the restrictions. Thus, the pirates aren’t affected, and piracy isn’t prevented.
What does it mean for readers?
Most of the time, nothing. But if a reader has been reading books on one platform and decides to move to another, they won’t be able to take any DRM’d books to their new ereader. While it’s possible to strip the DRM to do this, the average user is unlikely to know how.
A while ago, a friend was thinking about buying an ereader for her husband, who reads a lot of PDFs. She thought it would be great for him to be able to read them on an eink device. She asked for advice, and this post is based on what I told her.
There are many articles online claiming that Kindles and other ereaders support PDF, or how easy it is to convert PDF to your ereader’s preferred format. They’re right, but with some significant caveats. Reading a PDF on an ereader is a far cry from reading an ePub or mobi format ebook on the same device. The PDF won’t resize and reflow to work nicely on the screen. This leads to a lot of zooming and scrolling. I found it such an unpleasant experience that I bought a 10″ tablet to read PDFs on. I still prefer my Kindle and my Kobo for reading ebooks, but won’t use them for PDFs.
So, why not convert the PDF to ePub or mobi, and read that on the ereader? Converting PDFs is simple enough using Calibre, but the results are very uncertain. The Calibre manual states that “PDF documents are one of the worst formats to convert from.” If it’s a single-column PDF it might work reasonably well. It won’t be as pretty as the original, paragraph breaks might be in odd places, etc. If the PDF has headers and footers, they will be included in the converted file as if they were a standard part of the text, which can be jarring.
Two-column PDFs won’t convert well at all. The converter doesn’t recognise the columns, and so you get the first line of the first column, then the first line of the second column, second line of the first column, second line of the second column, etc. The result is unreadable. Text boxes and the like can also really mess with it.
If you’re going to read a lot of PDFs, I would strongly recommend something with a 10″ or larger screen. 10″ tablets are common and some are reasonably inexpensive, but many people don’t like reading on a back-lit screen, hence the popularity of eink devices for reading ebooks. Kobo recently announced the Kobo Elipsa, which has a 10.3″ eink screen. This should be excellent for reading PDFs and ebooks, but it’s significantly more expensive than either a standard ereader with a 6″ screen or a 10″ tablet.
This is a guest post written by Henry Hyde, who designs many of our clients’ covers.
Why use a professional cover designer – it’s expensive, right?
It’s an investment that can make the difference between the book you worked so hard to write either being a best-seller, or sinking without a trace.
Just go take a look at a popular online bookshop which is where, let’s face it, the vast majority of both physical books and ebooks are sold nowadays.
Search for something in any major category. Romance novels, perhaps, or fantasy, or self-help, or cookery, or… You get the idea.
You’ll learn a couple of things from this exercise.
Firstly, that your book jacket needs to grab the viewer’s attention when it’s the size of a postage stamp. Intricate, fiddly designs with hard-to-read titles and subtitles just don’t work.
Secondly, how long did it take you to either click on one of those little covers to find out more, or decide that none of them took your fancy? Ten seconds? Five? One? Less than that?
Actually, the answer is likely to be around 0.5 to 2 seconds. Book jacket design is a brutal business, and if the potential reader doesn’t like the cover in the first instant they see it, it doesn’t matter if you’re the greatest literary genius on the planet, your book will never get a second chance.
Thirdly, did you notice something about all those best-sellers that came up on the first couple of pages of results?
That’s right: they all looked somehow familiar, in fact similar in style to one another. That is not a mistake – it’s deliberate. People choose books that they think will be similar to the ones they have already read and liked and the front cover design is the biggest clue they’ll get to reassure them that they will like this book because it resembles that book by their favourite author.
Most new authors are convinced that their cover design needs to be utterly unique.
It needs to look like the best-sellers in their category. Not an outright, copyright-infringing facsimile, of course, but close enough in style to resonate with the viewer.
And finally, when you look at all those book jackets on Amazon, say, it’s easy to tell which ones are professionally designed, as opposed to having been put together by an amateur. The quality of the overall image or illustration, and particularly the choice and placement of typefaces (unless deliberate irony is intended, which can easily backfire) are tell-tale signs. For example, you may have a few dozen or, let’s be generous, a couple of hundred fonts on your PC.
I have more than 100,000, collected over 30 years of designing, and I have accounts with font foundries to access even more if I need them. In fact, understanding the subtleties of typography, and the meanings that different fonts convey to the viewer’s subconscious, is a major skill that every pro designer calls upon on a daily basis.
Now, a real-life example of an idea that a client sent to me, and the cover they actually ended up with following consultation with me.
Which of these do you think will stand a chance on Amazon?
The idea supplied by the client was all about him – it even featured his own hands and the corporate colour of the company he worked for. Sure, he and a tiny number of his colleagues might have understood the visual pun – but his potential audience in the wider world? I think not! What I was able to create for him was a striking cover that sits well in the self-help genre and that instantly conveys the type of content the reader should expect, dealing with the complexity of the human mind.
Fortunately, the client readily agreed!
To sum up, your cover designer is your friend and ally, helping your book to stand a chance of getting noticed amongst a blizzard of competing books. They use their professional experience to make you look like a professional too. Ego should play no part in creating an effective cover design: it’s all about what’s best for the book, and giving it the best possible chance as it begins its journey from your hands out into the wider world.
Henry Hyde has been a professional graphic designer since 1991. He specialises in book and magazine design, corporate identity and branding. He also has a keen interest in typography and photography. Having self-published his own books for more than a decade, he is able to offer sound advice on self-publishing and online marketing.