Amazon’s KDP Select program, and its feature of enabling authors to make a book free for a few days, has treated me well. Since participating in it my sales have boomed and stayed high long after the giddy glow of free is over. So what could possibly be the negative?
Glad you asked. Otherwise there wouldn’t be much reason to write this blog, other than to tout my crap in unabashedly self-promotional fashion. Which I will do, early and often, but that’s besides the point.
As every one is by now aware, if you rank fairly high on your free days, you see a bump in sales for four or so days after, due to the Amazon algorithms treating free downloads the same as paid downloads for the purposes of things like the Movers and Shakers list, as well as “also bought” recommendations. That exposes your book to a whole new universe of potential readers, some of who will buy your book to give it a whirl. All good. Everybody wins. Or do they?
NEWS: New book review for King of Swords sequel, Revenge of the Assassin, by bestselling author Steven Konkoly.
MORE NEWS: Book review for pet biography An Angel With Fur from Pets Weekly.
One well documented downside to putting your book up for free for the majority of authors is the dreaded one star review – the drive-by slam that slags your work, often written as though the reviewer didn’t even bother reading it, by a reviewer who’s never reviewed anything else. My pet theory is that free exposes you to readers who would never buy your book and for whom it was never intended – they don’t like the genre, or they don’t like whatever the topic or underlying theme is, etc. But because it was free, they loaded up their kindle with whatever was hot on the lists, and then they started reading, and…blech. That book sucks.
Sometimes a book sucks. In fact, books often suck. Sucking isn’t unknown with indie books, where authors may have failed to get professional editing or proofing, and manuscripts can read more like incoherent first drafts than finished product. Typos, grammatical issues, continuity problems, echoes…and on and on.
But professionally executed books also get one star reviews, invariably after going free. Often, the review will say something like, “I don’t normally read erotica because of all the sex, but I thought I’d give Spank Happy Oiled Gladiators a try, and was reminded of why these books suck a bag of d#cks. I couldn’t finish it. Ugh.”
What we have here is a failure to communicate. (Note that I am not saying that low reviews are always, or even mostly, unwarranted. Everyone has different tastes, so one person reads Da Vinci Code and finds it gripping, and another finds it sub-custodial twaddle. That’s what makes a market. No, what I’m describing is well documented – the spate of one and two star reviews that invariably follow a free promotion, on a book that has universally gotten only positive reviews until then – where the consensus is that it’s a decent example of the breed)
The free reader who is leaving that one star slam wouldn’t have purchased the book, ever. It’s safe to say that reader wasn’t the audience it was written for. But free brought them to it, and now they feel they must share their dislike of it with the world. Hence the one star reviews after free. It’s just a theory, but my hunch is that if you are willing to pay $4 for the epic tale of greased up, corporal punishment-crazed warriors, you know what you’re buying, and thus are more accustomed to the norms in the genre, the content, etc.
It’s rare that I put a book free and don’t see the one star effect. Many authors dread it. I tend to be more philosophical. Free brings out all kinds, many of whom aren’t going to ever like anything you write, or in your chosen genre, because the filtering mechanism that is the reader laying down his/her money to read the work has been eliminated. Just as readers get everything from complete drivel to brilliant discoveries when they download a bunch of free books, authors get a mixed bag of readers from free – from “U ar a stoopid riter and ur buk suks!” to “Scintillating, salubrious sophistry structured with sartorial slyness.”
That’s just how it is. Welcome to the free book binge.
The other negative I’ve seen is that the fringe buyer for indie books, the reader at the margins who might have been willing to give a new author a test drive in exchange for a few bucks, now doesn’t. Instead, they download free books. Their kindles are clogged with books they will never have the time to read, but they can’t help themselves. It’s free, GD it! Getcher free stuff while you can! Obviously, poop and dirt are free, too, but most don’t load up and eat it just because there’s no cost. But the problem is that there is a glut of content that has taken those fringe readers out of the mix for indie authors, as they’re struggling to digest 1000 free books, and so aren’t buying anything right now. I believe that’s substantially contributed to the lower sales I’ve heard so much about over the last 30-60 days from many name indie authors. These aren’t folks struggling to sell a few dozen books. They are established authors with plenty of titles who are well regarded. And yet their sales are down, across the board, by at least 40-50%.
My pet theory is that this is the inevitable effect of free, and it will likely take the remainder of 2012 to rinse through the system.
What will stop the race to free for authors is the other negative nobody likes to discuss in polite company – namely, that the “bump in sales” effect free can create has gone from hundreds or thousands of sales, to only a few. The market has absorbed the promotional technique, and it’s no longer effective – just as other techniques worked until they didn’t – think .99 for an example.
In 2010, .99 was almost a guarantee of massive downloads. In 2011, not so much, and in 2012, it’s hit or mostly miss, at best. You still see some authors doing it, because they are reading “how to” books written in 2011 about what worked in 2010, but most quality authors don’t like the idea of making 1/6 the revenue at 35% commission on .99 as they would on 70% commission at $2.99. So it has lost effectiveness for two reasons – readers believe (often correctly) that .99 equates to barely readable dross, and authors believe that they are giving away their work at that price, undervaluing their product to no good purpose. Some still do it and are successful, so whatever, but most don’t anymore if they have any pricing power at all.
Free is great until it isn’t, and readers finally figure out that there’s a resource more precious than a few dollars: time. If they can pay $5 and be guaranteed of a read that gives them 10 hours of well-executed escape, that’s a better value than poring through dozens of marginal or worse books they got at no cost, only to delete them after the first twenty or thirty pages. Time is a commodity that doesn’t replenish, so in the end, I believe that most discerning readers will pay an equitable price for competent work. What that price winds up being is debatable. But it won’t be free, and likely won’t be .99, except as limited time promotions.
And now we come to the crassly commercial part of the blog. Check out the new cover below – I’m in the process of redoing the covers for Zero Sum, Fatal Exchange and Geronimo, and am almost done, so if that’s what you’ve been waiting for, get your credit card ready. That’s it for my blatant self-promotion for this episode. Now go buy something.
So there’s your installment of the view of the literary marketplace as seen through a tequila shot glass on the beach in Mexico. As with all things, your mileage may vary. In the end, the only things you can really control are the quality of the writing, the level of professionalism of your finished product, and the number of hours you invest in marketing. The rest is up to a finicky and randomly chaotic universe, so don’t quit your day job…
In my ongoing quest to improve my offerings, as I learn more about the business and develop a distinctive “look,” I’ve decided to revamp some of my covers with a new look that’s more consistent with my latest releases – The Voynich Cypher, and the Assassin series (Night of the Assassin, King of Swords and Revenge of the Assassin).
To that end, I have done a makeover on the Fatal Exchange cover, eschewing the busier cover that it went out with, and going for something more simple and to the point.
NEW BOOK REVIEW: Pets Weekly just reviewed my pet biography An Angel With Fur and it’s a good one.
The story is one, at its essence, of killers, and money.
So my cover designer and I came up with the not terribly breakthrough idea of blood on money. Fatal Exchange is also one of the grittier and more violent books, and the torture scenes are fairly graphic, and I wanted to convey that.
Blood money. Bloody money. Whatever. You get it. The result can be seen below.
The book’s sold well since release, now over 4000 copies paid, and tens of thousands of free downloads, and continues to sell well in fits and starts. The title will probably finish out this year having sold closer to 10K than 5K since it released. That’s about what the average mid-list offering from a Trad Pub house will sell, so I can’t complain. And I have the rights to it forever, so it will continue to sell until either nobody wants to read police procedurals/serial killer/conspiracy novels, or everyone gets tired of my voice. You have to love that.
Back to covers. Some might say why mess with a good thing? Why try to improve?
Simple. This is a business – self-publishing, not writing, which I do because I enjoy it. Businesses need to brand a look, and spend millions on redoing their packaging periodically. The cover I developed a year ago (almost) reflected my thinking at the time, but my newer books look different, and I don’t want readers to get confused.
I’ll be doing the same for Geronimo and Zero Sum, next. Then I will be able to sleep. Or not. The point is that you have to constantly be adjusting to improve the reader experience, and never grow complacent. Covers are an important part of that. I’ll also probably go back and do some rewrite on Night of the Assassin, and maybe Fatal and Geronimo, at some point, to flesh out some areas that I think I can improve upon. After I get done writing my seven to eight books this year. Groan. But I’m three down now, and will start a fourth in May, so am pulling on the oars as hard as I can.
Let me know what you think of the cover. If anyone wants info on my artist, e-mail me through the site and I’ll give you his e-mail. He’s good, fast and inexpensive.
I get a lot of e-mails from fellow indie authors, mostly cursing me or telling me I’m a dark stain on the profession, but some discussing trends in the business, such as it is.
While I try to avoid making predictions, primarily because I’m usually wrong (or the clowns use the information against me in their ongoing persecution), it’s hard to be in this business, if it can be called that, and not try to divine the future.
NEWS: I was listed as one of the top 50 indie authors by IndieReaders.com for March. I wonder if I get a ribbon or something?
UPDATE: A great new book review of The Voynich Cypher.
So here are a few random ramblings, in no particular order.
Free is the new .99 on Amazon. Last year, .99 was the attention-getting gimmick some author used to propel themselves to all-too-brief stardom. This year, if you want to get noticed, at least in the first 100 days of the year, you gotta go free. It’s a very odd formula, but one you either adapt to, or die.
The rub is that the giddy sales high from free days is getting weaker and weaker, and doesn’t last. Books that were in the top 40 following their free days are now right back where they were before the bump they experienced. So free can buy you fleeting increased sales and visibility, but it’s a false God. The downside for readers is now obvious to me – there is so much content out there I can download free it’s shameful, but at the same time, there isn’t enough time in the day to read even a third of what I’ve downloaded. I’m just now getting to things I got in DECEMBER. I suspect that 99% of all books downloaded for free go unread. Don’t quote me on that, but it’s my gut feeling, at least if I’m anyone to judge reading behavior by.
The market is getting more cluttered. Everyone, from third graders to octogenarians, are writing “books” and publishing them. That means there are now millions of books out there, with all the authors making noise to get noticed. Not surprisingly, few of them do. Why? Because your chances are better of being struck by lightning than of making a living as a writer. Really. But nobody wants to hear that. That’s a big party pooper, and doesn’t play into the whole “The Indie Road” mantra that seems more akin to a religion for some than a business decision.
The content glut doesn’t really bother me much, just as the millions of blogs out there don’t really impact my enjoyment of writing this one. I write it, whether hundreds of people read it a day, or just a couple. Just as I am writing my books, just as I was when I sold 30 in a month. Because, as I said in a blog long ago (maybe six months ago, maybe eight), I write first because of love of the craft and a compulsion to do so, as well as to tell stories, and yes, out of ego that gets stroked when I get a few miserable sentences right. But I don’t write to be a commercial success, because I have no idea what will be commercially successful. Nobody does. If they did, they’d be writing it, and we’d all be reading their books in awe and wonder, not going, “Why is this crap selling?” Likewise, if the trad pub apparatus did, companies wouldn’t do six figure deals for duds. Lots and lots of them. The truth is that even the pros have no idea what will sell, so the notion that they only sign “the best” books is flawed. Scott Nicholson, a great writer, says something to the effect that “if the 100 best books of all time hit NY today, only 10 would get signed, and the other 90 would get rejected, because the industry didn’t have a slot for them that day.”
Having said all this, I had an idea that seemed like a good one. Of course, I can’t do it, because I’m busy writing. But check out the concept. Are you ready? Sitting down?
Consumer Reports for Indie books, including the equivalent of a Good Housekeeping seal of approval.
Maybe you have to submit your work with the contact info for your editor, so it can be verified as having actually been edited, and the name of your cover artist, so it’s clear that a pro team was used. That doesn’t mean the book will be good, but it increases the chance that it will be decent, at least, as in relatively free of typos and incoherent gibbering.
Why would this be good? Because in spite of all the hyperbole, most authors don’t use pro editors, and most don’t use pro cover artists, so their offerings range from mediocre to beyond terrible. That turns readers off to entire price points for books – “Oh, not another $2.99 screed filled with lousy writing, grammar and typos.” How many times have you read authors saying, after getting a host of terrible reviews on the editing or formatting, “Now I’m sending it off to a real editor, and it will be fixed within X period of time!” Really? Given that it’s near impossible to succeed, you wanted to wait until your readers, few as they might be, confirmed that un-edited work is, er, lacking, to say the least? That’s your plan? Let the readers tell you it’s sh#t, and then fix it? “This tastes like dung.” “Thank you for your patronage, sir. We will now be closing the restaurant while we hire a real chef to fix our recipe, which largely consists of dung at the moment. Bud don’t worry, in the meantime, we will still be offering our dung sandwiches for sale through the front dining room – we have a lot of them left. Please come back soon.”
Is it just me, or is that nuts?
I pay an editor – a Brit, who is a talented writer himself. I also pay a copy editor once he’s done, and then a proofreader. I do this because if I am going to charge for my work, whether it is one person reading, or 10,000 a month, they deserve the best I can do. Not the best I can do with no investment. Not the best I can do without taking the steps that are necessary to create a quality product. The best I can do. My reasoning when I started publishing was simple – if I am to be taken seriously, I need to pay to create quality. I want to be taken seriously. So whether I ever recoup my investment, I have to bite the bullet and do what it takes.
The point is that it would be nice if well-edited, professional books had a seal of approval that recognized that they had been put through at least cursory quality control. I would gladly pay to receive that seal. I don’t know, maybe $20 per book. Whatever. If it makes it easier for the readers to decide to try my work, it’s worth it. Then, it’s up to the writing. You can put all the lipstick on a pig you want, but in the end, it’s still an oinker with ruby red smackers.
I have a friend who has put out a bunch of books in the last year. I tried to get through two of them, and just couldn’t. The editing was non-existent, and it was obvious that he hadn’t even gone back to do a second draft or polish – he is just spitting out words and then uploading them as books. His philosophy is that once he makes money selling the books, he will have adequate funds to have them edited, and presumably, more desire to polish his work. That’s sort of like a business plan that says you’ll start a taxi company, and then buy gas for the cabs once you’ve done your first 100 trips, because then you’ll have that money. It ignores that cabs without fuel don’t get paid. Seems obvious to me, but that’s what he’s doing, and so far, guess what? Almost no sales. It is mind-boggling that someone would waste their time in this way. His stance is, “Hey, look at X, his work sucks, and he’s experienced success, so my work can suck too, and I can be successful.” That’s quite a model.
So that’s my thinking at present, and my rant. The world of indie publishing is rapidly changing, in terms of what promotions work, what social media has an effect, what pricing is optimal, etc. What doesn’t change is that badly edited and produced books don’t get a second chance. If you’re an author, look at yourself hard in the mirror, and ask yourself whether you made the investment, or figured you were somehow different and didn’t have to. I’d say most fall into that category. Which is partially why the odds are so long of being successful. At least, that’s my hunch.
I just saw a book in the top 40 on Amazon that is #32, with The Voynich Cypher at #31, in Action/Adventure, and it says in green: “Available for pre-order, release date May 15.”
Now, are we living in some weird world where you can’t just get instant downloads of infinite copies effective, oh, I don’t know, about eight seconds after midnight on May 15?
NEW: Another glowing book review for The Voynich Cypher. Worth a gander.
In other words, what is the benefit, or even the concept, of pre-ordering an ebook?
Did I miss a memo here?
And how did it land at #32 of books SOLD ON AMAZON TODAY?
Does anyone view that as odd? Strange? Impossible, even? This is in the kindle ebook section, BTW. Not books. Kindle ebooks.
Now, maybe I’m just dim, or something really weird is going on. Like, as in, maybe the world isn’t fair, and maybe preferential placement is being granted to big publishing company titles that won’t be available for a month? Because otherwise, how does a book that you can’t actually buy yet, and for which no advantage to pre-ordering exists, land on that list of ebooks that actually sold? I could understand if it was advance orders for hard copy. But that’s not what the list purports to, well, list. I suppose it’s possible that the wires are crossed in the Amazon black box, and it automatically lists pre-ordered hard copy in the kindle ebook list, but if that’s the case, then what value does the kindle list have? Why not just have one list, if that’s the explanation?
Or perhaps people are just really, really stupid, and want to give Amazon their $12.99 for an ebook a month and a half before their goods are delivered? Sort of an interest free loan the likes of which you normally have to be a big bank on Wall Street to get?
Maybe an angry and vengeful God is singling me out for punishment, and filling my head with stupid questions?
Or maybe we should all do an Amazon Dr. Strangelove, and just lie back, close our eyes, and think of England instead of worrying about all this? Because I’m sure that Amazon has our best interests at heart. More on that in my next blog. Till then, just don’t lose your wonder at life’s little miracles. They happen every day.