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Nick and Sophie’s playlist

Nick and Sophie’s playlist

First In: Nick and Sophie's playlist
First In: Nick and Sophie’s playlist

While I write in silence, when I drive, I listen to music. This is part of the playlist that inspired parts of First In and the relationship between Nick and Sophie.


KDSpy Vs Publisher Rocket: Which is right for you?

KDSpy Vs Publisher Rocket: Which is right for you?

KDSpy vs Publisher Rocket

My dad was a spy. Not kidding. Not the James Bond kind of spy who everyone knew was a spy. No, when I was growing up, he said he was an “entrepreneur.” I didn’t learn the truth until he was literally on his deathbed that what he was doing was flying to far-away countries to do things that, if I ever said I was going to do, he’d have locked me in my room for! 

Anyway, the spying gene I inherited from my dad runs deep and so does my entrepreneurial nature. So when I started writing books and learned that I could spy on other authors to see how well their titles were performing… I ponied up my pennies and bought the tool that was available at the time: KDSpy (formerly called Kindle Spy).

I’ve been using KDSpy for about four years. But last year a friend put me on to a new spy tool for authors called Publisher Rocket (formerly KDP Rocket) and I was hooked. It does a lot of the same things KDSpy does but the two are different enough to make having both worthwhile. Kind of like having a Dad-spy and a Mom-spy working for you!

What do they spy on?

Basically, they both troll Amazon author’s keywords, categories, niches, titles, book descriptions and sales volumes.  It’s great intel (that’s spy talk for information!) if your publishing goal is to sell as many books as possible, That’s not every writer’s goal, but for those of us who at least want to make back the money we spend producing our books, these tools are really handy when it comes to helping with discoverability.

How do they compare?

Caveat: I have a sister and a brother. I won the sibling lottery with both of them. They’re quite different humans but both bring me joy so I could never, and would never, be able to say, “if you had to pick one to be your friend, I’d recommend you choose Derek,” or “I think you’d be better off with Kim in your friend corner.” All that to say, I’m not going to say one of these programs is better than the other, but I will point out how they differ so you can choose the one that serves you best. Unless you’re like me and decide they’d both be good tools to have!

Ease of use

KDSpy is a browser extension that takes you to Amazon where it will help you research bestseller rankings in all Kindle categories. It’s a one-click info dump. Easy-peasy once you’re on the book or author page you’re interested in finding out about. 

Publisher Rocket is a piece of software you download. You have to open the software and then you input specific keywords that it will use to gather intel about the books that match that keyword search. It’s a handsome software. Nice interface and graphics so if looks matter to you you’ll love Publisher Rocket… but like so many things that are pretty, it is a bit more work.

What it searches

KDSpy allows you to gather country-specific data from Amazon stores in the USA (, UK, Canada, Germany, Australia, Italy, Spain, France and India. If your reading market is outside of the USA, this would be important.

Publisher Rocket only gathers data from, i.e. US sales.

Tracking sales over time

KDSpy has a feature that lets you track sales data for 30 days. It’s a neat feature to watch how well a book launch does, for instance, if you’re following an author and want to know if their launch strategies translate into sales or not.

Publisher Rocket doesn’t have a data tracking function.

Keyword suggestions

KDSpy has this red light, orange light, green light system to help you see which keywords have the most and least competition. If you’re going to be running ads, this is valuable information since keyword ad prices are based on the popularity of the keywords.

Publisher Rocket has a more robust keyword search function and allows you to download lists of keywords easily. It also gives you data about the popularity of keywords, but using percentages (basically) rather than traffic lights. 


KDSpy says it’s $97 for a lifetime membership with free updates, which they do regularly. But every time I’ve referred an author friend to the site, I’ve noticed they have a half-price deal. So really, I think it’s always $47. Just this week they introduced a free 7-day trial period. And they have a 60-day money-back guarantee.

Publisher Rocket is $97 for a lifetime membership with free updates, which they’ve done twice since I bought the software a year ago. Now, their website is saying that they’ll be moving to a monthly subscription model soon, so… would that be more or less appealing to you? They have a 30-day money-back guarantee.

What else?

See why it would be impossible for me to pick to a favorite spy child? One of the nice things that Dave Chesson does—he’s the guy who created Publisher Rocket—is that he offers some great educational content on his website in the form of both blog posts and a free 5-day course.

Book Description Generator— If you’ve ever uploaded a book description to Amazon you’ll know the pain of trying to format that copy. It’s a three-finger whiskey kind of job. Dave Chesson’s Book Description Generator turns that task into a single cup of tea task. You upload your book description to his site, make it pretty, then generate the code you need to add to your Amazon book page. It’s magical.

Choosing Kindle Keywords—Again, if you’ve uploaded a book to Amazon and lived to tell the tale, you’ll know that you’re given space to add 7 Kindle keywords but that each field allows you to use up to 50 characters. What’s a strategic author to do? Use all 50 characters and fill each field with long phrases or not? Dave shares tips to help you choose the best keywords for your book, tells you how to fill in those 50-character keyword fields, and points out mistakes you might have made to work against your keyword strategy.

 5-day free Amazon ads course—Funny thing about this course is that it doesn’t actually have a catchy name. But it does use the right keywords to tell us what it’s about! Get it by email. Totally free. And Dave “Mr. Kindlepreneur” Chesson will not overload you with email after you’re done, like some marketers do. 

The Ultimate Kindle Book Promotion Tool—This is from Wesley Atkins, the guy who dreamt up and created KDSpy. It’s a killer of a time-saver if you’re promoting your book on discount. You just find your book on Amazon and put the link into his form. It pulls data about your book directly from Amazon. Then you add your bio and book description, choose your promo dates, select ‘Free, ‘$0.99,’ or ‘permafree’  then send him $47 and his bots will distribute that info to 32 book promotion sites for you. Boom! Done! No need to spend your day finding reputable book promotion sites or filling in all. the. forms. I’ve used it once and my KU reads more than paid for the price of the tool. 


There you have it! My effort to turn you into a spy since a) it’s super fun to check out how other authors are doing b) it’s smart to be a strategic author and these tools make that easier and c) being a spy is something you can really only talk about with other spies… I need more spy friends. 


Poop on you and your 2-star review!

Poop on you and your 2-star review!

So, I’ve been a professional writer for almost thirty years and over these decades I’ve had my goodly share of hard-to-hear comments and reviews about the words I’ve written.

Handing copy over to a client comes with a special kind of feeling since, if I didn’t give them what they expected — which, it turns out, can be quite different from what they thought they wanted —either I don’t get paid or I have to decide whether to ask for more money or swallow the revision time without being paid. Yuck.  Fortunately, that doesn’t happen often, but I still submit words knowing it might.

So, having written thousands of pages of articles and stories and content for hundreds of projects, I expected that when my first work of creative writing (words written in my unique Donna-Voice) was done and ready to share that I’d feel the same way as I do when I hand words to a client.

Oh, poor naïve, first-time author child, how wrong you were!

Writing and sharing work-words from my head was about as different from sharing novel-words from my heart as Buddha is to a whirling Dervish. I have a calm resolve handing in client work, but hitting ‘Send’ even to my most trusted writer-reader friends with my novel made me feel so nauseous I had to take a Gravol.

Am I unique? You know, for most of my life I’ve wanted to be, but as I age, it turns out that I’m grateful to learn that I am not. I. Am. Normal. My experience is the norm.

When you share your story, whether it’s still a work-in-progress or has been uploaded for the world to read, odds are high that someone will give you feedback that makes you feel “meh.” Or worse. A review that makes you want to pull your book from the shelf, stuff it deep under your bed and bury it under clothes that you’re keeping since … you will be that size again one day.

Now, there are lots of commonly-shared tips for handling critical book reviews:

1) Don’t respond to the reviewer. Ever.

2) Know that having a few 1 and 2 star reviews is actually good for your book since it shows that the reviews are real, and not all written by your friends and family.

3) Celebrate that you’ve got strangers buying or downloading your book.

4) Develop some perspective, because although 3 stars may feel like a bad review it typically means that the reader thought the book was “good.” It’s a pass.

Uh-huh. Opening the bubbly over those 1-, 2- and 3-star reviews. Not.

What I’ve never seen is how to actually deal with the feelings you’ll have when you read a review that tears at your guts.

Here’s one practical and fun way I dealt with bad reviews of Mother Teresa’s Advice for Jilted Lovers, which were mostly on Goodreads though there are a few on Amazon, too.

You can read my book’s Goodreads reviews here — you have to scroll to find the critical ones. And just the critical Amazon reviews here.

Why am I pointing you to my bad reviews? Because reading other author’s 1-star and 2-star reviews is exactly how I helped myself get over myself when I got those lousy low stars.

I went over to Amazon and looked up one of my favourite authors, AJ Jacobs. I love his gonzo journalism style and have read all but his latest book. Sure, there are some pages that I’m not as engaged with as maybe I’d like to be, but I am his target reader so reading reviews from people who don’t love his books was a good salve and reminder that not everyone will adore our stories or the way we tell them.

And that’s okay, because we aren’t writing for those silly people who accidentally pick up our books. We’re writing for the readers who love the kind of book we’ve written.

Whether you’ve published or not, here’s a fun way to build your writer’s confidence.

Go to and find a book that you absolutely loved and read the critical reviews.

Here’s an easy way to get right to them, using one of AJ Jacobs’ New York Times bestselling books as an example (you can click the pictures and follow along on Amazon):

How to find bad reviews on Amazon

If you’d prefer to see all of the critical reviews your favourite book has received, all together, then click the blue copy showing the number of reviews beside the stars. You’ll be taken to a page that offers you that glorious choice. Like this one:

Why and how to find bad reviews of your favourite books

After you’ve done this, send me a reply and let me know what book/author you checked out. Share your favourite bad review and tell me in a few words why you disagree with the reviewer. Or, if you don’t disagree with the actual review, why you think the star rating is too critical.

Here’s to perspective!

Over to you! 

If you’ve got a strategy for dealing with critical reviews, I’d love to know. Share it with me (authordonnabarker at gmail dot com) and I’ll feature you and your book(s) in the blog at The Creative Academy.

You never know who might read your bad review, then check out the positive reviews and decide that your book is exactly what they want to read right now!

Contests: Why Bother?

Contests: Why Bother?

Reprinted with permission from WordWorks Magazine, Winter 2018

by me, Donna Barker

Because there just wasn’t enough space under my bed for any more manuscripts, I was determined to have my dark humour, paranormal, social commentary, women’s fiction, murder mystery become a novel — agented and traditionally published.

And so, after paying for a professional development edit and following all of the very good advice I received, I started the joyful task of querying agents. I was buoyed by the immediate, positive responses I received: several requests for partial and full manuscripts. I was less floaty when agent-after-agent — 55 in total — passed. Many wrote back with comments that all sounded pretty similar,

“You have an engaging voice as a writer and the characters and story are interesting, but I can’t think of a single publisher who would publish … whatever this genre is that you’ve written.”

Blub, blub, blub. Discouraged, and with my confidence swimming with the fishes at the bottom of Howe Sound, I tossed out the Irish sweater my grandma knit me when I was 17 to make room under my bed for one. more. manuscript.

Almost a year after receiving that last agent’s, “thanks, but no thanks,” I was tagged in a tweet, “Congratulations to @donnabarker, winner of the Chatelaine award for best Mystery/Suspense.”

Huh? I didn’t even remember having entered a contest. But I had, 15 months earlier.

Looking at all of the other category winners, I realized that my entry was in the minority, being only a manuscript — that most of the other award-winners were real books being read by real-life readers. This gave me the boost of confidence that I needed to say, “to heck with being an agented author with all their silly rules about needing to write in one clear genre,” and to self-publish Mother Teresa’s Advice for Jilted Lovers.

While my contest win gave me what I needed to make the leap from aspiring to published author, I realize that many authors have different “Why bother?” reasons for entering writer’s contests. So, I asked a few for their thoughts.

Why bother? BC Authors share their thoughts on contests

Lawrence Verigen, multi-award-winning author of the Dark Seed Trilogy says he has “no doubt that writing contests are of great benefit to authors and their creations…

“Being a finalist and winner of an award gives you third-party, respected recognition for your work. That means someone out there thinks your book is better than the other books entered. The intent is for readers to have extra confidence that your book will be time well-spent and enjoyed, which adds up to more exposure and sales.”

Kath Curran, author of Before It Was Easy, and a Finalist for the Whistler Independent Book Awards, believes that, “To be successful, a new book by an unknown author needs two things: writing that is good enough to charm or at least engage its readers, and a bit more good luck than bad.

“By putting our name and our work in front of many individuals at once, whether we win or not, a writing contest amplifies our book’s chances of finding its audience. Yes, even if we win the contest, the odds of success remain small. But they are bigger than before, and it is by such active measures that we incrementally build our own luck.”

That’s the same reason why Mary Ann Clarke Scott, author of the self-published, Having It All, romantic women’s fiction series, enters contests. And wins!

“In an overcrowded marketplace, exposure for your work and your brand is more important than ever, for all writers, but especially for self-published writers. You have to try everything available to you within your means, contests included.”

Caitlin Hicks, whose first book, A Theory of Expanded Love, has won more contest awards than I’ve had lovers, says, “I’m hoping the success of Theory will make my next book more attractive to agents and put me in a better bargaining position to land a larger publisher for my second book. Being an author… it’s all about hope and desire, isn’t it?”

Luck + Hope + Research = Recognition + Exposure. Maybe.

There’s no doubt that winning the right contests can help you achieve all of the benefits that motivate the award-winners above (or their publishers) to pay the entry fees. Of course, there are no guarantees that you’ll be a finalist or win every, or even any of the contests you enter, but there are a few things you can do to improve your odds, aside from submitting the best book possible.

Some contests lean toward more literary works while others award genre-writing. Know where your book fits and submit accordingly.

Some treat self-published books as equals to traditionally published, while others don’t. Don’t waste your money with the misbelief that you’ll be the author to buck that trend.

Some contests are judged blind with the author unknown to the judges, while others allow the judges to know who wrote the books. Does this impact who walks away with an award? Sometimes it’s easy to figure out by looking at a few years’ history of wins. Luck can be biased.

Good advice, read between the lines

Lawrence Verigen: “As long as you think your writing, editing, interior layout and cover are worthy of an award, you should put in the effort to enter as many categories as you can find that your book(s) fit with.”

(Take away: Submit your best possible work! Contests are not a place to send an unedited, poorly formatted manuscript. Details matter.)


Caitlin Hicks: “Kirkus Reviews (technically, not a contest, but absolutely a competition) is expensive but essential. Foreward Reviews Indies Book Of the Year Awards and iBooks Best New Fiction are also important contests. High profile contests like these help libraries and bookstores make the decision to acquire your book.”

(Take away: Do your research about who uses the contest results to make buying decisions. If your big goal is to get your book into Chapters, know which contests Chapters buyers’ respect.)


Mary Ann Clarke Scott: “Contests are a dime a dozen and not all of them are worth your time and money. Make sure the contest organization is ethical, professional and has the clout you need. In the end contest wins are just a stepping stone as you attempt to lift your head above the crowd. Ultimately it’s readers who will determine your success.”

(Take away: Have a plan to use your contest to help you reach your next goal. Which begs the question that you know what your next goal is! Otherwise your winning status will be virtually invisible to the broad reading community mere seconds after the congratulations Tweet’s been posted.)


Kath Curran: “Everything about writing is a kind of contest. You train, you practice, your work is never ‘finished.’ And then there’s a contest. With a deadline. The work is ready after all. Whether or not you win a prize, you are a winner now—you have a completed draft … and you’ve taken part in a community that supports other writers like yourself.”

(Take away: Being a writer is a solitary act. Becoming a successful author is so much easier with a community. Build relationships your co-contest winners to cross-promote or support other’s goals in other ways. (I met Caitlin, Kath, and Lawrence due to our shared contest wins.))

How to answer your own, “Why bother?”

So, “why bother” entering book contests? I think the real questions to ask yourself before you pay your money to take your chances, are,

  • What do you hope to gain from a contest win? and
  • How will you leverage a win if you do walk away with a prize?

Answer those questions, take the advice of your award-winning peers, and then hope that your luck is more good than bad on the day you’re assigned your judges.

I pitched my memoir as a romance novel. Bad idea!

I pitched my memoir as a romance novel. Bad idea!

In retrospect, encouraging my husband to have an affair — while he was in Europe on a three-week business trip — was not the best idea to bring passion back into our colourless, but loving, marriage.

In retrospect, dating compulsively — just three weeks after my husband left me for the Turkish Delight he met on that business trip — was probably not the best way to work through the pain of having been dumped, at 39, for a 24-year-old.

In retrospect, writing a memoir of my year of dating dangerously — but pretending it was a romance novel — was the worst of three very bad ideas.

At least I didn’t make a fourth mistake and self-publish that work of creative non-fiction. At least…yet.

The timeline went like this:

  • In 2005 my husband of 15 years had an affair.
  • In 2006, I dated. Compulsively. Outrageously. Even dangerously.
  • In 2007, I wrote a memoir which I called, “My Lava Life: A Year of Drinking Scotch with Strangers.”
  • In 2008, I submitted 50 pages of my manuscript to a highly competitive writing program, hoping it was good enough that I’d be invited to pay $2,000 for a published author to mentor me through writing my second draft.

The incentive: Many writers who ‘graduate’ from the mentorship program achieve success, finding agents and publishers.

The catch: the program was, at the time, for fiction writers. My memoir, although at times creative, was pure non-fiction. So, I lied on the application. Where it asked for genre, I wrote ‘Romance’.

Truth is, I’d never even read a romance novel. But, in my technical writer’s mind, my story had lovers and sex, ergo, it could be a romance novel.

Great news! My first fifty pages — written in first person but with the “main character’s” name changed to Tara — passed the “she can write good enough” test. I was in. I started picturing my book on the Heather’s Picks table at Chapters.

Yeah, right! What follows is a just a tiny taste of the feedback my Published Author Mentor (I’ll call her PAM) gave me on my “romance novel.”

I wrote that my husband’s affair was a result of my suggesting that he have one, since my libido had obviously been fused to (and was expelled from my body with) the placenta of our only child — now nine years old.

PAM: No sane woman who still loved her husband would make such a suggestion. She’d find out why her sex drive was so low and deal with it.

My reaction: Of course, I couldn’t tell PAM that my main character was perfectly sane, thank you very much. And only in part because I didn’t want to admit the autobiographical nature of the story. It was because, by then, I had started to believe that I was, in fact, insane, since the marriage counsellor my husband and I saw after the affair, said the exact same thing.

I included the letter that I wrote to my husband’s new lover — all six pages of it — in which I explain why I suggested that my soul-mate have an affair, and why she should never trust him, since he broke the first rule of our agreement.

PAM: This letter is 100% unbelievable. The emotions are all wrong. It’s too controlled. Do some primary research; talk to a woman who’s been cheated on.

My reaction: Seriously, PAM, stereotype much? We lovers scorned aren’t all National Enquirer story fodder.

The profiles I wrote for online dating sites were in the story, verbatim.

PAM: Donna, sign-up for a couple of online dating sites to see how dating profiles are written. These don’t make sense. Men would never reply.

My reaction: You are so wrong, PAM. I had hundreds of replies. Granted, 98% of them were whack jobs, but, I got men’s attention!

I wrote about my reticence shaving my pubic hair at the request of a man I dated for a few months. I wondered what the attraction was of making my sex organs look prepubescent. And about the process of using a razor, the resulting razor burn, and the unbearable itching as the hair grew back.

PAM: Your character sounds puritanical and stupid. What 40-year-old has never shaved her pubes? 15-year-olds know more than this character.

My reaction: Okay, maybe I’m an idiot. But I knew I wasn’t puritanical and took comfort knowing that by chapter six, PAM would learn that, too.

I wrote about the night a date smashed my face into a table at a bar, knocking out my front tooth after I slapped him for making a sexual comment about my friend’s four-year-old daughter.

PAM: First, this kind of violence has no place in a romance. The reader won’t like it. And second, your character isn’t likeable enough for the reader to even care.

My reaction: It’s true. I’m an unlovable loser.

I included a dozen blog posts, exactly as I had posted them 12 to 18 months earlier, of stories about some of my dates. I included many of the comments left by readers. Even those from my mother.

PAM: I like this character less and less. Put her in counselling, get her out of the dating scene.

My reaction: Nobody will ever love me again.

And on and on. My memoir — like my marriage and my year of dating — was an unmitigated failure.


But, my Published Author Mentor also gave me positive and supportive feedback about my writing style, my voice, my pacing. She told me that the story needed a better narrative arc — that the adventures of a 40-year-old woman’s dating should start and end with the man she eventually falls in love with, otherwise the main character would be seen as a slut — even if she only went to bed with a couple of them. She said that it’s okay for men to play the field, but society doesn’t look kindly on a woman who does.

So, what did I do? Obviously, I made yet another bad decision, because, between 2005 and 2008, that’s what I did.

I rewrote my story as actual fiction, taking most of PAM’s comments to heart, including that it should be written in the third-person.

I hated the result. All 80,000 words of it. PAM and I went our separate ways, her work being done — at least, her hours having been used up.

But I wanted a story I could walk into Chapters and see on the shelves, so, I wrote the story a third time. I went back to first-person, reduced the number of dates from twenty-four to a manageable three men — and one woman! And what had started as a memoir was now a series of scenes, loosely based on my sexual fantasies, not my own “character” arc as I dated to learn that men could not fill the hole I was experiencing in my self.

But, I still hadn’t read a single romance title.

I did, however, join a romance writer’s group to see if they could help me turn my manuscript into something publishable. What I learned from this kind group of women is that my story, now called Drinking Scotch with Strangers, might best serve me if it was placed in a box, under my bed, where cringe-worthy, first novel, works-in-progress go to die. I didn’t disagree and that’s where it still lives today.

And what about the memoir version? The true story of the year I really did lose my mind and work through the grief of losing the man I loved to another woman by dating 24 men in twelve months.

It’s now been twelve years since the affair. My ex-husband married the woman he left me for and they have a two children. I’ve never met either his wife or his sons, but I’m happy for him. Truly I am.

In fact, I forgave him for falling in love with ‘her’ before my friends could and even held a marriage dissolution ceremony with many of the same people who were witnesses at my wedding. That second service (which my ex-husband declined participating in — I did invite him) was recorded and shared as a radio documentary on CBC Tapestry. You can listen here.

The process of having written my memoir forced me to be self-reflective; it was cathartic; and ultimately, healing. I, too, met someone and remarried. We’re very happy. (And so is my libido. Thank goodness.)

Do I need to revisit my memoir manuscript now to try to make it publishable? Well, no. I don’t need to, but part of me still wants to.

On the other hand, I wonder if PAM’s reaction is indicative of how the majority of readers would react knowing I slept with a man in drag just to see what it would be like; that, to avoid being rude, I ignored my gut and went into the home of a man recently released from prison for assault; that I accepted a marriage proposal from a man who was obviously a compulsive liar? (Not the man I ultimately did marry. Again — thank goodness!)

I can live with one reader telling me that my main character is a naive idiot who’s hard to like. Do I want to risk being personally labelled that way in book reviews?

Do I want my now adult son to know about how I spent my nights during the weeks he was with his dad?
Well, no, of course not.

So why am I even considering pulling my memoir out from under the bed and placing it, naked on the sheets, for all to see?

It makes me wonder,

Why would anyone want to expose themselves to the potential humiliation of sharing their personal lives in a public forum?

What’s there to gain from writing a memoir?

Why are memoirs the fastest growing genre in publishing right now?

Those are some of the questions I’d love to explore by talking to people who’ve had “write my memoir” on their bucket list for years; authors who’ve published their memoirs; and the poor souls who are written about in memoirs.

And, at the end of all the research, which could take years, maybe then I’ll have the confidence to tackle this story again, because there’s obviously something in it that needs to be shared, otherwise, it would be with the half-dozen other, partially-completed manuscripts that I never think about anymore.

It’s About a Difference (film 1988)

It’s About a Difference (film 1988)

Pips Tartar is not your average individual – she talks to fruits. A humourous and provocative journey into the mind of a most colourful character.

In 1988, having pink hair was highly uncommon and my 22-year old film partner and I (who was also 22) used it as an analogy for intolerance against gender, sexuality, race, economic situation and so on.

And yes, 30 years later this film does feel a little ham-fisted! But it was a fun, second year, Communication Studies project that required us to work without sync-sound equipment. Crazy to think there was a time when sound wasn’t automagically attached to the image!

Written and directed by Donna Barker and singer/songwriter Suzanne Nuttall.

Starring Pips Tartar as “A Difference”
Main Voice: Alexandra Robertson
Newscaster: Suzanne Nuttall
Other Voices: Mathieu Holland, Donna Barker

This 16mm film was produced with support from the Communications Studies Department at Concordia University, under the supervision of teacher/filmmaker Rick Hancox.