The one where I have a very long rant about Amazon spoiling my Christmas

analytics-3268935_640Something really scary happened to me on Monday 14th December. At 5.19pm, completely out of the blue, I received this email from Amazon:

Hello,

We are reaching out to you because we detected purchases or borrows of your book(s) originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. As a result, the sales rank on the following book(s) will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.

http://www.amazon.com/dp/B01N4AO78S 

Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring the strategies you have used to promote your book(s) comply with our Terms and Conditions. We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services you have employed for promotional purposes.

Please be aware, any additional activity attempting to manipulate the Kindle services may result in account level action.

If you have any questions, please email us at kdp-sales-rank@amazon.com.

Best regards,

Amazon KDP

 

Certain key phrases leapt to me from the screen:

attempting to manipulate sales rank

sales rank will not be visible

may result in account level action

Searching for Steven NEW COVERWhat???!!!! What the heck did any of that mean?

I clicked onto the link they’d provided and it took me to my debut novel, Searching for Steven, on Amazon.com. Yes, that’s right, on Amazon.com rather than my home market of Amazon.co.uk. Weird. And even more weird is that:

  1. I had only sold ONE eBook in the USA in the past 90 days and that was nearly 2 months previously in late October. I repeat ONE copy. In 90 days
  2. I had a little over 1000 pages read in the USA in the same period. That’s the equivalent of 3 people reading the book in its entirety

There had to be a mistake, right? So I emailed the address given and nicely asked them to explain what this meant. They replied that same day with this:

 

Hello,

We do not sponsor or endorse any 3rd party marketing services. You’re welcome to promote your book through third-party websites and other services, but we encourage you to monitor the tactics they use to promote your books.  You are responsible for ensuring that no tactics used to promote your book manipulate the Kindle publishing service and/or Kindle programs. 

We advise against using any sites that “guarantee” a return on your investment. We support our authors’ efforts to promote their books worldwide, but at the same time, we work to prevent any manipulation of the Kindle publishing service.

If you have any questions, please email us at kdp-sales-rank@amazon.com. 

Best regards,

Amazon KDP

Amazon.com

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Did I have questions? Oh yes. I still had all the questions I’d asked in my first email that hadn’t been answered:

  • What are you talking about?
  • Have you seen my sales figures?
  • Surely if I was manipulating sales or pages read, there’d actually be some sales or pages read?

I begged them – literally begged – to explain what was going on in words that actually made sense.

So they replied in the early hours of Tuesday and, is it just me, or does this pretty much say exactly the same thing as the others i.e. nothing that makes a shred of sense? Computer-generated jargon that has ignored all of my questions:

Hello,

We detected that purchases or borrows of your book(s) are originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank. As a result, your sales rank will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.

While we fully support the efforts of our publishers to promote their books, we take activities that jeopardize the experience of our readers and other authors seriously. Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your books comply with our Terms and Conditions.  We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services employed for promotional purposes.

You may email us at kdp-sales-rank@amazon.com  with any questions.

Best regards,

Amazon KDP

Amazon.com

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So I wrote to them yet again – with questions – and they responded that evening with this even more aggressive email which basically told me I was STILL engaging in manipulative strategies but they refused to give me any information about this. There was no offer to get in touch with further questions. Case closed. Verdict: guilty…

Hello,

As we previously stated, we still detect reading or borrow activity for your books originating from accounts attempting to manipulate Kindle services. You are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your books comply with our Terms and Conditions. We cannot offer advice on marketing services or details of our investigations.

Please be aware we will not be providing additional details.

Regards,

Amazon.com

 

Cue another email from me begging them for some help and I received no response.

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This is what rank-stripping looks like. There’s no information below the average customer reviews

After the first email, Searching for Steven was immediately rank-stripped across all the markets in which Amazon operates, all of which offer my eBooks. What does this mean? This means all visibility of my book was lost because I was no longer featured in any Amazon charts. It didn’t mean that Searching for Steven couldn’t be found; it just meant that someone would need to specifically search for the book by title/author as it wouldn’t come up in any other sort of search. And yes, the irony of the book title and this situation is not lost on me!

So where did this leave me? Nowhere really. Amazon had made a massive administrative mistake based on some faulty algorithm yet their aggressive, threatening emails were all computer-generated and the system was clearly set up to spit out 4 barely-different emails then shut down any correspondence after the final version.

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This is the same book without the rank-stripping. As you can see, there’s information below the star ratings showing where the book is in the overall and individual charts

I turned to the closed Facebook page of the Romantic Novelists’ Association hoping that there’d been some sort of technical glitch and loads of members were in the same boat as me but it appeared I’d been singled out for Amazon’s super special Christmas gift. I am very grateful to one member, though, for pointing me to a blog run by a writer called David Gaughran who champions and supports writers and investigated several cases well over a year ago where this has happened to other writers. The emails were exactly the same but the scenarios different. In those cases, they were all participating in promotions – absolutely legitimate ones – and the spike in sales on the back of that seems to have been what generated the scary email. Not in my case. I hadn’t promoted Searching for Steven since I participated in a blog tour to celebrate his 3-year-book birthday in June last year and, as already stated, sales were pretty much non-existent. You can read his blog post here.

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David responded to a comment I posted on his blog, asking for more information, and immediately contacted Amazon on my behalf using different email addresses that should help escalate the situation. All we can do was wait. And wait. And wait.

Back in December, how had this sorry tale affected me? It was pretty horrific. On the Monday night, after the first email, I couldn’t sleep. Would you be able to if you’d been accused of a crime that you didn’t commit and the punishment was already dished out (the rank-stripping) before you had a chance to plead your case? On the Tuesday night after the final ‘we’re not giving you any info so get lost’ email, I didn’t sleep either. Or on Wednesday night. By the Thursday, completely exhausted, I couldn’t stop crying all day and I only managed to get a bit of sleep that night thanks to David stepping in and a belief that something might happen after I’d had no joy.

You might think it’s not something to cry over but, believe me, it is:

  1. I was losing sales and pages read. Granted, not many because (a) it was Christmas and I had 4 x Christmas books out there which were the main sellers at that time and (b) I had barely any sales of that book anyway, particularly in the USA, although I did have a trickle of them in the UK and a steady 500 average pages a day read in the UK. These sales were likely to  disappear, though
  2. Sadly, I do not sell many eBooks or have that many pages read so I cannot afford to lose this visibility
  3. I secured an audio deal for Searching for Steven and the Thursday of my horrible week was the release day. It should have been a happy day yet I didn’t see the point in doing any promotion of a title that could be removed at any moment and felt far too emotional to ‘celebrate’
  4. I felt like I’d been found guilty and locked up but nobody would tell me what my crime was or allow me to defend myself despite being completely innocent. I mean, let’s face it, if I was going to do something to manipulate sales, you’d think I’d actually trigger some sales. Going from zero to zero isn’t exactly yelling criminal mastermind, is it?
  5. The threat of having my books removed (this is what “account-level action” means) hung over me. Amazon have the power to do this whenever they want
  6. The emails take the ‘guilty until proven innocent’ approach with a bit of ‘and by the way, we don’t care if you’re innocent because our algorithms tell us you’re up to mischief so you’re black-listed for life and there will be consequences’ thrown in for good measure. I’m back in the playground at school being bullied again. Or work. Take your pick as bullies lurk everywhere
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With all this hanging over me, I couldn’t concentrate on work

This all came at the end of a dire year for me writing-wise. Sales had started to look up in late 2017/early 2018 after I released Christmas at Carly’s Cupcakes and Charlee and the Chocolate Shop. From selling hardly any eBooks and having very few pages read, the Christmas books got immediate attention and, whilst sales were still very low, they were steady. Hurrah! And this had a knock-on effect on the non-Christmas books suggesting readers had enjoyed my Christmas offerings and were seeking out other titles.

Then something happened in the spring of 2018. Sales dropped through the floor and so did pages read. My income from writing – which was never particularly good anyway – plummeted and, despite bringing out 2 x Christmas books in the November, this made little impact in November although December did see some recovery (not a patch on last year, though).

I write under a pen-name and the “real” me has a Kindle. I would regularly receive emails from Amazon promoting Jessica’s books but, cninciding with this plummet in sales, these seemed to stop. I have since had one for my novella, Raving About Rhys, but none with any my Christmas books on. Something strange is happening.

Alongside the plummeting sales and lack of promo was review-gate; the much-publicised situation where Amazon went through their system over a few months and removed all of the reviews that certain readers/reviewers has placed, accusing them of creating false reviews. Some noticed, complained and had reviews reinstated. Some probably haven’t noticed. Some will have spotted it and not have the energy to fight it. I lost up to 20 reviews during that time. As a struggling indie writer, this is a massive blow, especially when they were predominantly hard-earned 5-star reviews. I completely get that there are “rogue” practices out there and there are authors who pay for reviews. It’s right for these people to be stopped … but not to the detriment of those whose reviews are honest and genuine.

Then in early October, I think it was, a very successful author threatened me with legal action. All I’ll say about the situation is that it was very upsetting, especially as I was completely innocent again. Thankfully it went away, but it left scars.

And, on top of that, I had several rejections from publishers. They’re what we call ‘positive rejections’ i.e. they love my writing, my world, my voice but the story is not for them. I got a stack of rejections when I sent Searching for Steven out into the world and none of them hurt. These ones floored me.

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It was so frustrating being told I could contact them … and getting no response

I think you can probably see why Amazon’s accusations and subsequent sanctions tipped me over the edge. As Christmas approached, I felt mentally and emotionally drained. I had never felt so low and started questioning whether any of it was worth it. As an indie writer who still works full time because the writing income is so low I can’t afford not to, I struggle to make an impact on the charts but my love for writing and the amazing reviews I get have kept me going … until last year. For a few weeks there, publishing and me are not friends. I was hoping could find my optimism over the Christmas break and rise above all the crap that 2018 presented me. Something you love doing shouldn’t be so traumatic, should it? Sadly, that didn’t work and, if I’m honest, the Earth’s Most Customer-Centric Company ruined my Christmas. I smiled, I laughed and I pretended everything was okay but it really wasn’t. They’d broken me.

The New Year arrived and clearly they weren’t going to respond to David’s chase email so I emailed ‘Jeff’; a general Amazon email address. I was thrilled when Jeff responded the day after (4th January 2019):

Hello Jessica, 

I sincerely apologize for the inconvenience caused.

I understand you have a question about Sales rank manipulation issue.

This issue requires input from another team. I’ve forwarded your email to them and someone will reply within 2 business days. 

Thanks for using Amazon KDP !!!

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Yes! At last! A human was going to deal with it. There was hope. So I waited two business days. I waited three. I waited several more. On 10th January, I chased Jeff again. And on 23rd. And on 30th. Jeff had obviously decided to blank me too.

So, on 4thFebruary, I emailed the 2 x addresses that David had used and tried a different tack; not forwarding the history on email in case fwd emails were getting kicked out the system.

On 7th February, they finally responded with this email:

 

Hello, 

We’ve restored the sales rank of your book and it will become available within the next 24 hours. 

Please review your account or any promotional services that you may have paid. You’re responsible for ensuring that no tactics used to promote your book(s) manipulate the Kindle publishing service and/or Kindle programs. 

 

No apology. No explanation. No offer of compensation for the inconvenience and stress. Just a factual statement and another telling off. Seriously. And by compensation, I don’t mean money but it would have been nice for them to do some promotion for me or even offer me a Prime deal.

I should have felt relieved but I was actually really angry that day because this is not how businesses should be run yet it happens all the time. I get that I am insignificant to Amazon. My limited sales make little financial impact on my life so they’re certainly not going to make an impact on Amazon’s billions but imagine if thousands of ‘little people’ are being treated in this way, with automated threats and no explanation. How many people are feeling low and have nowhere to turn?

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I was very grumpy that day. And if I was a cat, this is how I’d have looked!

The ranks have remained in the week that has followed and I’ve had no more threatening emails but I know it could happen again any time and that’s very scary. If anyone else is in this situation, please leave a comment. If you’re struggling, I’ll give you the email addresses I finally got a reply from. If you found a better way of resolving this, please let me know in case it happens again.

That’s the end of my story. It’s not a happy ever after. It’s not happy at all but it is an end … for now.

As an independent author, I am eternally grateful that Amazon exists. It has meant I can get my books out there without a publishing deal but a company that is so enormous that it has to operate on algorithms and automated responses scares me. There surely needs to be a ‘human’ way to have contact and get mistakes rectified without putting someone through what I’ve been through.

Jessica xx

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The one where I reflect on my lovely trip to London

I’ve been on a little road-trip (or train-trip to be precise) this weekend, down to London. As Joey from Friends would say: London baby!

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IMG_5952Sporting my brand new hair colour – time to go a bit lighter again in an effort to reduce the impact of that pesky white badger streak that insists on appearing after a few weeks – I caught the train down on Friday morning and returned on Sunday afternoon, feeling somewhat shattered, having had a very busy and very lovely weekend.

The purpose of the trip was to attend an RNA (Romantic Novelists’ Association) meeting on Saturday afternoon. I don’t normally go to the London-based events because it’s so expensive to get down to London from oop north, even when booked well in advance, but I had an added incentive this time. Sara-Jade Virtue, Special Sales Director and Brand Director at Simon & Schuster was the guest speaker and I was really keen to meet her.

IMG_5954You see, each year, on 15th July, S&S run an un-agented submissions day: #OneDay. Last year, I decided to submit but, because the MS had to be finished, I couldn’t submit my work-in-progress, Wish I Could Tell You Goodbye. They were happy to accept previously-released works providing the author owned the rights, so I submitted the first chapter and synopsis of Bear With Me. I was thrilled, two weeks later, to be asked to submit the full MS. Woohoo! Bear With Me ended up being a pass but I had some amazing feedback about my writing and was encouraged to submit any other manuscripts outside of #OneDay so I submitted Wish… in December with fingers crossed and a little prayer.

I knew that the trip would be expensive, particularly when adding in hotel costs and meals, but I decided to go to the meeting to hear what Sara-Jade had to say and hopefully speak with her in person. I figured that, whilst meeting someone in person isn’t going to make them like my manuscript any more, it’s always great to have that personal contact. Even if Wish… is also a pass, I’d have more of a relationship than I would via email only.

dragon-253539_640The thing is, I’m not very good at networking. And by not very good, I mean terrible. I don’t have a problem talking to strangers. In my day job in HR, I’m a recruiter and trainer so I’m used to engaging strangers in conversation all the time but the big difference is that I’m the one they’re there to see so they need to talk back to me! When I’m not the “person in charge”, I have a huge problem in being the one to approach a stranger to to start a conversation. All sorts of worries and doubts fill me: Why would they even want to speak to me? What if I start talking and they walk off? What if they start yawning or looking at their watch? What if I turn into a jibbering mess, especially when I want to impress them? What if they turn into a dragon and start breathing fire on me? Okay, that last one might have been an exaggeration but the others are very real. Lots of people I know are terrified of public speaking and that’s how I feel about networking. Scary stuff. Even though I’d made the journey, I had a feeling I’d bottle it.

fear-2019930_640Sara-Jade gave us a fascinating insight into the world of publishing. I had no idea how many people and how many steps there in the process from reading a manuscript to getting (and keeping) a book out there. I was hanging on every single word and also to her responses to the many questions the group asked. I was quite proud of myself because I asked a question and got a detailed answer so, if I did bottle introducing myself, at least I’d drawn myself to Sara-Jade’s attention in some small way.

The good news is that I was brave and introduced myself afterwards. She didn’t ignore me, walk off or yawn and I didn’t make a mess of it. She was absolutely lovely, knew who I was, and said she’d be in touch in a few weeks’ time. She even followed this up with an email afterwards which absolutely made my day. A moment’s courage and all that …

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Before the meeting, I had a chance to meet two of my Write Romantic writing friends, Jo Bartlett and Jackie Ladbury. We met at Victoria and had the most amazing lunch in the Market Hall there. It’s like a food hall but with independent stalls rather than chain ones (or at least, if they were chains, I certainly wasn’t familiar with them) and it had a really relaxed atmosphere.

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Jo was unable to join us for the RNA meeting so Jackie and I caught the tube back to Tower Hill for the RNA meeting and met another Write Romantic, Helen Rolfe, for a drink first. The three of us then went out for a meal and drinks afterwards. We went to All Bar One and had the most amazing sharing platter and nachos although we were all starving and dived in so I didn’t get a picture of those!

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I have to say that it was a wonderful day from start to finish. One of the most valuable things I can ever do as a writer is to meet with other writers and talk about all things writing. It’s motivating, inspiring and incredibly helpful.

I’d decided to stay over on the Friday as well, giving me a chance to catch up with a university friend who lives in London so I had a chance to reminisce about our uni days and catch up on the latest news with him too. And I got to have a brief explore around a part of London I’ve never visited. I now want to visit The Tower of London for a proper explore and I’d like to walk across Tower Bridge too.

Wishing you a great week

Jessica xx

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The one where I come down with a nasty condition called itsapileofpapitis

Earlier this week, my wonderful writing friend and fellow Yorkshire Rose Writer, Sharon Booth, wrote a blog post about a serious condition from which she suffers, I suffer, and many other writers also suffer: comparisonitis. It’s the feeling of inadequacy brought on by constantly comparing ourselves to other writers. You can read her honest and entertaining post here.

But this got me thinking about the other ailment from which I’m suffering really badly at the moment: itsapileofpapitis. A bit like comparisonitis, it’s a really nasty bug that can creep up on you and floor you completely. Man flu? It’s got nothing on this little beast.

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It can overcome a writer at any point but here are the three main parts of the writing process where a writer is likely to be struck down with it.

  1. The very start
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Time to bang your head against a wall!

You have this idea. This great idea. It might have come to you in the shower, in the middle of the night, when you heard an item on the news, listened to the lyrics of a song, or overheard a snippet of conversation. Ooh, exciting! The creative juices start flowing. This could be it. This could have mileage. This could be a bestseller.

And then itsapileofpapitis strikes. Out of nowhere, it punches you square on the jaw and shouts: Are you mad? That’s the most stupid idea I’ve ever heard! It’s flawed. There’s not a full story in that. Go on, write it, I dare you to waste your time…

And that’s it. The doubts have set in. You convince yourself it was a rubbish idea and either abandon it or bravely attempt to write it, but it’s like wading through treacle because those nagging doubts are there and you can’t stop listening to them.

 

  1. Somewhere mid-flow

It’s going well. You’ve got a plot, you’ve got some characters, the dialogue is flowing, the
setting is coming alive when … oh my goodness … it hits you. A hideous dose of itsapileofpapitis. You look at what you’ve written, hold your head in your hands and sigh loudly. And that little voice starts again: What a pile of pap! It’s all over the shop. Full of plot holes.Your 5-year old/the dog/next door’s guinea pig could have written something better than that. You might as well give up. Stop writing right now. Seriously, stop.

And that’s it. But this time you’re stuck. You have already invested time, effort and perhaps a few tears in creating half/a third/quarter of a book. You believed in it enough to have got this far. But do you have the courage to go further? Will you be able to work through itsapileofpapitis and come out the other side? Or will your work languish on your computer, unloved; just a series of words that nobody will ever read?

 

  1. At the very end

This is perhaps the most dangerous form of this condition and it’s the one that takes the most out of us. You’ve typed ‘The End’. You smile, you sit back in your chair, and you silently congratulate yourself. You did it! You wrote your 1st, 8th, 97thbook. Wow! That’s some achievement. You know the hard work starts now because you’re about to embark on some major proofreading and editing but, for now, relax and enjoy this moment because you have finished writing a book. Amazing.

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Is this what those voices of doubt look like?

Then the edits start and … argh! Itsapileofpapitis takes its hold with the tightest of grips and that voice of doubt pierces your very soul: You’re kidding me, right? That’s your book? That’s what you’ve spent the last 6 months/year/10 years writing? Oh. My. God! Don’t give up the day job. It’s the biggest dollop of pap I have ever read. In fact, I didn’t even make it to the end before Zzzzzz. You’re never going to publish that/try to get it published are you? Ha ha ha. That’s hilarious. Get ready for rejection / one-star reviews. You’re finished as a writer. So much for improving with age and experience.

And that’s it. Those doubts, those worries, those fears smother you and you have to ask yourself some serious questions:

Is this genuinely a dollop of pap that should never see the light of day?

Is it actually boring?

Are there seriously lots of plot holes?

Is there really no character arc?

Have I honestly created one-dimensional stereotypical characters?

OR … and this is very likely the case … am I just tired/too close to it/having an understandable and quite human meltdown?

 

So what do you do when you’re still struck down with itsapileofpapitis?

I don’t think there’s anything you can really do except keep believing in yourself. If you put your heart and soul into this and can say it really is the best you can do, then I’d say it’s just the condition getting you down and you should do your best to quieten those doubts.

lock-44463_640I never used to suffer from itsapileofpapitis. I was really proud of my first book but I think that was me being a bit naïve about what lay ahead. At that point, the fact that I’d finished writing a whole book was pretty astonishing and I was very happy with what I’d done. And it was really well received. It received great feedback on the RNA’s New Writers’ Scheme, got two publishing deals and started to gather lots of four and five star reviews on Amazon. But that in itself opened up my susceptibility to itsapileofpapitis because, with each subsequent book, doubts started to creep in: Was it as good as Searching for Steven?

What becomes really weird the more books you release is that you want readers to say of your newest one: It’s amazing, my new favourite! Yet this then brings in the doubts again. Does that mean they didn’t really like the previous one and they were just being nice? Ha ha ha. Can’t win, eh?

 

So why am I bringing this up today?

Because I’ve come down with a bad case of itsapileofpapitis. I finished my tenth book, Wish I Could Tell You Goodbye, in September. At the RNA’s Conference, I received positive comments from four publishers but I decided not to submit it to one of them and it didn’t lead to anything with the others. So the doubts started which is ridiculous because I had something like 35 rejections before Searching for Stevengot two publishing deals. I have only actually had three rejections for Wish…so far but it’s still been enough to floor me with itsapileofpapitis.

I knew that I wanted to give Wish… one last read-through before indie publishing it in spring (assuming it hadn’t found a publisher home by then). On hearing that a new publisher would be looking for submissions from today, I decided to do that this week and, oh my goodness, I had three doses of itsapileofpapitis in the space of a few days:

Doubting the premise as soon as I started reading it

Doubting it was a gripping tale somewhere in the middle

Doubting it would do anywhere near as well as the others near the end

paper-3111146_640Then I read the last chapter and, even though I’ve read it so many times before, it made me smile, it made me cry, and it made me sigh in that way I sigh when I’ve reached the end of a really enjoyable book and feel satisfied with the ending. The story made me feel things.

And I reminded myself that the feedback I’d had from publishers was that it was a great story, great characters, great setting and that I could write … it just wasn’t for them.

And I reminded myself that my beta readers have unanimously said it’s the best thing I’ve ever written and they loved it (whilst trying not to question what’s wrong with my other books!)

So itsapileofpapitis can do one. I refuse to let it bring me down and I refuse to listen to it … although if I do start getting one-star reviews for it, maybe I’ll change my mind!

 

Have you ever suffered from this? I’d love to hear from you, particularly if you have ways of getting round it.

Have an amazing week. My plan is to return to a WIP I’ve been dithering with for the past few months because … you’ve guessed it … I’ve been hit with a serious case of itsapileofpapitis about it!

Jessica xx