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Authors are a special breed. We are generally both readers and writers, and yet too often, when we think, if at all, it’s as writers. We leave our reading hats at the door, which is usually a mistake. Especially as self-publishers.

What do I mean?

I had a discussion today with a friend of mine, also a writer, about genre, and writing cross genre, or genre-blending books. Which gave me a chance to pontificate – something my blog readers know I enjoy doing, whether I know anything about the topic in question or not.

Specifically, my thinking about genres is that we should view them as readers, not as authors. What do I mean?

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NEWS: My new guest blog on Tinderboox is raising some eyebrows.

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When a reader buys a Russell Blake book, he/she is probably expecting something along the lines of Ludlum or Forsyth – in other words, a thriller with some conspiracy or action/adventure overtones, preferably both. And yet I’ve written several books that don’t really fit that genre – most notably The Voynich Cypher, which is an Umberto Eco-style treasure hunt adventure, and my latest, Silver Justice, and my first, Fatal Exchange, which are really police procedurals with action/adventure and conspiracy overtones. And I think that could have confused early readers – if someone bought all my Assassin novels, or buys my forthcoming JET series, they expect mile-a-minute action/adventure tales from all my books. So then they buy Geronimo Breach or Dephi – no problems. More of what they like, or at least close enough so they nod along. And then maybe they buy Zero Sum, which is also what they expect, and then buy the second volume in that series, The Voynich Cypher, and they get…an action/adventure novel of the type Dan Brown has made popular. Now, many love that, but I can see where it would be disorienting. “Damn. I thought I was going to get more typical Blake, and suddenly I’m in the Roman catacombs decrypting ancient clues.” Fortunately, most seem okay with my dalliance in a type of fiction I love, but if Voynich was the only of my books anyone had read or I only had two or three books out, and then they moved to any of my other books, I could see the danger of them thinking, “I wanted Foucault’s Pendulum, not the Bourne trilogy,” and deciding not to buy any more of my work because they didn’t get what they were expecting.

My readers tend to be a bright bunch, and luckily they’ve entertained my lapses into something off the beaten path now and again. But I could see an author with, say a couple of books in a series that were, I don’t know, Hard Boiled Noir Detective genre, who wrote a masterful medical thriller, and then had a hell of a time getting folks to buy it. Why? Because the chances are that the audience he developed is a hard boiled detective audience, and it won’t necessarily like or want or appreciate a medical thriller, no matter how brilliant. His/her detective readers won’t buy the book. Because it’s not something they’re interested in.

Publishers know this. Le Carre is espionage thrillers. Ludlum is conspiracy thrillers with action aplenty. Harris is serial killer thrillers. You know what you are getting when you buy the name. Harris doesn’t put out a romantic comedy. At least not deliberately. Or sober.

People are creatures of habit. We like the familiar. As readers, we tend to seek out whatever we prefer as a guilty pleasure because it makes us comfortable, or entertains us in a particular way we like. We like easy choices. That’s why a series is an easy buy. We like book one, we know what to expect in books two through twenty. We like that. Maybe we will move to another series of the same type by the author afterwards, or maybe even try his other books, as long as they aren’t too far outside of our designated comfort zone. But we don’t want to wind up with a spy novel from our favorite science fiction author. We’re likely to never buy the author again if we get that kind of surprise, unless we have stayed with him through a ton of books, in which case we may be willing to forgive him just that once. But now we, in the back of our mind, are thinking, “Is he going to do a switch on me again?” when he comes out with his newest, so we might, just might, not be quite as interested in hitting buy.

That’s how many readers are. And before you start telling me about how you are different, which you may well be, understand that we as a species tend to be, A) lazy, and B) stupid. Not everyone. But many. One might even argue that it’s a majority of us that are, at least as far as our entertainment goes. That being the case, my counsel to authors is to keep it simple. Figure out what audience you are writing to. What genre. Then stick to that genre. Not some other. Not two genres. Understand what genre you write to, because if you don’t, then how the hell is your audience supposed to know? You’re job as a publisher (as opposed to an author) is to clearly define a product for a clearly-defined audience, which presumably you believe is worth marketing to. If you’re unable to do so, and get all authory, a la “Oh, my work’s different, more of a romantic suspense space detective literary fiction thing,” they guess what? You are saying you have no idea who your target market is. “All readers” or “readers who enjoy diversity” is not an answer. That usually equates to no readers.

If you want to build sales over years and have a readership that follows you, stick with what you, as a brand identity, are known for. But what if you don’t have a brand identity yet, you mewl? Then now’s the time to develop one. If you have no idea who you write for, how would you expect a reader to figure it out? Job number one as a publisher is to communicate clearly what your book’s target market is so that the audience can find it. If you don’t communicate it, then you’re muddying the waters and making it harder for readers to choose your books, as opposed to someone who is targeting well. Take Harlequin. They publish romance. You aren’t expecting Silence of the Lambs when you buy their books. And you don’t get it. You get what they are known for – alternatively, if you buy a Tom Harris book, you don’t get Love’s Silent Fury.

Or consider McDees. They make mediocre burgers that are relatively cheap that always taste the same and are served fast. You know what you’re getting. They make it easy to think, “I’ll go there, I know what they make.” Maybe they are trying the new McFiestaBlowoutWrap, but my hunch is you didn’t choose to go there because of it, nor are you that likely to order it or enjoy it if they gave you one by  mistake. Because you had an idea of what you wanted when you went in. And that’s what you want.

Authors. Learn from Coke’s disastrous New Coke experiment. People don’t want a surprise. They buy Coke because it tastes like Coke. They don’t want Coke to taste like Pepsi. They would buy Pepsi if they wanted a soda that tastes like Pepsi. If you are asking people to buy your books, my advice is to keep your voice the same book after book, and keep the genre clear and well defined. Because if you build a readership, or hope to, it won’t want you to switch to something else. It wants what it buys you for. You are the brand. You are Coke.

I know. As authors we want to be able to say, yeah, but we are so much more than just Coke. We’re Coke, and Pepsi, and Mountain Dew, and Hawaiian Punch. Guess what? You’re an author that nobody is likely to buy, because you’ve confused the consumer – and they don’t want to be confused. They want what they want.

Without belaboring this, authors need to think like readers. While there are a few exceptions (Stephen King can write whatever genre he wants and people buy it because he’s Stephen King – he IS the brand), genre fiction readers want to read within a genre. Not across two or three. If you don’t believe me, try it, and watch your sales do nothing. Again. Keep it simple, and communicate clearly what you do so your readers can find you and then stick with you.

If you want to write in other genres, do so under a pen name. Let your audience know you’re doing so. Some will want to shift over and see what you’re up to under your other name. But most may not want to. So your pen name can develop its own readership. Want to write about trolls? Fine. Can’t be the same name that writes psychological thrillers. It’s confusing. You’ll lose everyone, and nobody will be happy. Your troll audience will be confused by your books that aren’t about trolls, and your psych thriller fans will hate you for the trolls. They won’t want to spend money pulling the handle of a slot machine to see what you are thinking your next book should be about, genre wise.

I’m sure I’ll get a lot of authors complaining that it’s so limiting, and that they’re different, and that the new era of ebooks means all those old rules are out the window. Guess what? No they aren’t. It’s called brand marketing. It’s been around longer than you have. It will be around longer than you will be. Ignore it or fight it at your peril.

Note I’m not saying restrict yourself in what  you write. I’m saying take off the author hat and put on a publisher’s hat, which involves thinking like a reader. So here’s your next book. What product is it? How to describe it so the audience you know you need to sell it to in order for it to be successful, buys it? Who is that audience, and what does it want?

My forthcoming new JET series is filled with nuance and contradictions and depth. But at its heart it’s an action/adventure series. Like my Assassin series. My elevator pitch for it is four words: Kill Bill meets Bourne. That’s it. Everyone knows what it will deliver from those four words. You liked the movie Kill Bill? You like The Bourne Trilogy? You’ll love JET. Looking for love among the cactus or a glittery vampire tome? Not so much. By understanding what I am, and what I write, I have targeted my audience with precision. I try to make it easy for that audience to find me, and take a flyer on my work. And I try to make it easy for my current readers to stay with me. I’m not throwing them for a loop. There will still be surprises, and the work is not formulaic, but it knows is what it is. I repeat. It knows what it is.

If you have books that aren’t selling, part of the problem may be that your audience can’t find you because you don’t know what your book(s) is(are). You aren’t selling because of a failure to communicate. If you pen a space cowboys novel, it’s not a western. It’s sci fi. With cowboys. But it’s not a western set in space. It’s sci fi featuring cowboys. Why? Because you may find some sci fi fans who are entertained by the idea of cowboys in space, but you are probably not going to find a lot of western fans that are thinking, “Shit, put a rocket and a ray gun in there and I’m all over it!”

Be clear about what you write. Then communicate it clearly. Package it so the audience can easily figure it out.

Selling books of any kind is hard. Don’t make it harder. Give the nice readers something they can understand, so they can decide if they want to read what you are selling. Easy.

Now go write.

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9 Jun 2012, by

I Care

I care a lot.

I really do. About many things. Mostly, about how much abuse one’s liver can take, and whether it’s possible to collect the social security payments of one’s deceased neighbors in a foreign country. But other things, too.

One of the things I’ve found myself caring about lately is the wisdom of making my work free periodically. I speak to many authors, and most are concerned about the creation of a culture that doesn’t value our work. I’ve had people tell me, “Oh, I can’t wait for that to go free so I can read it” after hearing that one of my books has been rated well. Often, that sort of a statement comes from another author.

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NEW! Three Questions – a hyper-short interview with Van Heerling. Worth a moment of your time.

WOW! 5 star rave from The Kindle Book Review for The Geronimo Breach is truly worth reading

BOX BOX BABY: What’s that,  you ask? Why don’t I have any box sets? I do now! Three of my enduring faves at a 20% discount!

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Which raises the question of whether we have created an environment where the very thing we do, which is write, is considered near, or completely, without worth. My hunch is that there is a decent audience out there that hasn’t bought a book in months. Why would you, if every day thousands go free? Doesn’t really make much sense to, does it?

I’m not sure what to do about it, as there is still merit to putting one’s work free via KDP Select, albeit at a 10% effectiveness rate of what it was 2 months ago. But you see 20K downloads, and then a net increase in sales of 200 books, does the incremental financial gain justify the damage that is done by creating an ocean of free content? Specifically, are we causing our own demise chasing nominal sales bumps?

Some argue that it’s all good, and that we shouldn’t fret all the free content. That the majority of readers still will pay for content they find worthwhile. Perhaps, but my sneaking suspicion is that a fair percentage of the small minority that were willing to take a chance on an indie name have converted to those who will do so, but won’t pay. I’m not sure what percentage of that group is no longer buying books, but my hunch is that it’s substantial. I know this because I haven’t bought a book in about four months, and most of my friends who read haven’t either. And we used to – before December, when the free thing hit. But now, I’ve got so much content waiting to be read, I haven’t bought anything for a while.

Now, some might say that makes me a bad man. Others claim I’m bad for a lot of other reasons, but that’s not my point. Whatever I am, I’m probably typical of a fair number of folks out there. I mean, I want to and understand why it’s important to support other authors by buying their books. And yet I haven’t. Actually, I take that back – I bought three this year so far. But last year I probably bought thirty.

Maybe I’m alone in this. Maybe everyone else is buying like crazy. But I suspect not – unless you’re a romance author, in which case you’re occupying most of the top 40 indie slots and your books are selling like coke at Studio 54 (how’s that for a dated reference?). Most of my author acquaintances aren’t selling very well over the last 45 days. Most are complaining that their sales are off by 50% or more over the last 2 or 3 months – and I’m talking around a hundred authors. Now, nothing scientific here, but if only a few out of a hundred are doing anywhere near what they were in April, then that’s not seasonality, or genre, or fickle markets. That’s a trend.

For that reason, I cancelled my plans to put my new release, Return of the Assassin, free when I launched it at the end of May. And my newest WIP, tentatively titled Silver Justice and targeted for a July 4 release, probably won’t ever go free. Neither will the next WIP, Jet. Because in the end, the hoped-for sales bump that was the lure for doing the free thing isn’t nearly as meaningful as it was, and I now see no evidence that giving away 150K free books (that’s about how many I’ve given away this year) is worth the potential damage it causes to my brand. When giving away 20K books translated into an extra 2K in sales at $5, that made sense. For an extra 200, not so much. And it fosters an environment that is counter-productive long term.

My goal in writing is to write the best work I can. My goal in running a self-publishing business is to sell enough books to make it worth doing. My business goal is to have a dozen or more paid  thriller titles available by year’s end (not counting deliberately free books like Night of the Assassin or the first book in Delphi). My thinking is that if I can sell a reasonable number of each title at a reasonable profit, that’s a decent business. It’s not a get rich quick business, and it’s not an easy business, but it’s one that could be sustainable and might build over time – one would expect sales dollars with twenty competent thrillers out to exceed what one would see from ten, and so on.

Free is antipodal to my long term goal.

My long term goal is to continue writing and make a decent return for my efforts. I can’t see how free will do anything but perpetuate a negative from here on out. I have a few free promos for the month, but I think that’s it for me. The extra few hundred books I might sell isn’t worth the long term damage I believe free is causing to the perceived value of books. That’s an emotional response, but I think it’s a legitimate one. And I don’t think I’m alone in that observation. We all delighted in the sales spike free brought before the algorithm change over a month ago. I know I did. Those were heady times. But they’re over. And now, like most drunk jags, we have to deal with the hangover. And this will be quite a hangover, I think. I believe we’re already seeing it in indie sales. Take a look at the Amazon Top 100 today. What percentage are trad pub or magazines? A quick glance says a much larger chunk that two months ago. I count 24 indie titles in the top 100, of which 80-90% or so are romance novels. The rest are trad pub. That is about 75% trad pub. I don’t think it was nearly that high a few months ago. Am I wrong?

So where does that leave me as an indie author? I’m still writing. I will still be putting out another five novels this year. Already know which ones I intend to write – Silver Justice, Jet, Fatal Deception, a Delphi sequel and an Assassin sequel. Already finished SJ, and will be editing for the next few weeks before launching into Jet. Next year, more like three novels. Maybe four. More of a sane pace. If you call that pace sane.

That’s where my thinking is today. I reserve the right to change my mind tomorrow. But I probably won’t. Unless I do.

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I have gotten a number of e-mails from concerned authors asking what the Amazon change on the ranking weighting and the Free promos means to them. I thought I would answer those in a general, public manner so everyone can see my thought processes.

First, I believe that at any moment, Amazon may reduce the weighting of free downloads to zero, or close to it. They will do that whenever they get around to it – they have already won the war with Select – there is no credible competitor, so they don’t need to create a scenario where their higher price titles are displaced by indie authors, whose work is by now clogging millions of kindles from all the free downloads. Sure, if someone wants to put their title up for free, in the hopes that translates into greater exposure, they’ll let ‘em, but it won’t have any effect on sales, so most will not do it as it won’t make any sense any longer, except perhaps for the first book in a series (to pull along the rest, assuming anyone actually reads the free first book, and then likes it enough to pay to read more).

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NEWS: New interview with Deanna Jewel on my process, including an excerpt from my latest!!!

WOW!!! New 5 star rave from The Kindle Book Review for The Geronimo Breach is truly worth reading.

UPDATE: Yours truly was in the Top 50 indie authors by sales for the second month in a row!

UPDATE REDUX: What’s that  you say? Why don’t I have any box sets? I do now! Three of my enduring faves at a 20% discount!

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I think that succeeding in self-publishing will get even tougher, so much so that the majority of self-pubbers who have enjoyed some small success will see their businesses dry up. That will discourage most, and result in the mad self-publishing gold rush we’ve seen to abruptly come to an end. It will take a while, like an oil tanker shutting down its engines and requiring five miles to stop, but once folks figure out the implications of a world where the big names command most of the virtual shelf space, the love will be out of the game.

Stories of John Lockes and Amanda Hockings will be comfortable fairy tales, when back in the good old days you could hit big in self-publishing with seeming ease. But what will quickly become apparent moving forward is that if the lists don’t have you on them because they favor higher priced offerings, then nobody knows you exist, and all the Tweeting, Facebooking and Google Plusing in the world won’t broaden your reach. If you can’t have a list price of $14, you won’t be able to compete with those that can, unless you sell a sh#tload of books – the odds of which decrease given that the algorithms that are the kingmakers won’t tout you, and so your sales will be meager. It’s a vicious circle, where if you aren’t already part of the club, then you won’t stand much chance of ever being invited into it.

I don’t know what Amazon has up its sleeve, but I do know a few things. First, it costs them something to upload every book and create a page. If that book never sells enough to cover those costs plus a tidy operating profit, the chances are poor that they will keep doing it. They’ll want to discourage it. Or perhaps even start charging to create a presence for those who aren’t traditionally published. I don’t know, but I do know that it doesn’t make sense to do free stuff once you have won the war.

And make no mistake – they have won the war. I can’t say I will be sad if they do that, because let’s face it – there’s a glut of books that should never have seen the light of day. Every person in the world has by now dusted off every manuscript they churned out in the last twenty years, created a cover, and slapped it up on Amazon, hoping to cash in on some of that easy self-pubbing money. After all, didn’t Konrath make $100K in three weeks selling stuff that was rejected? Didn’t Locke sell a million of penny dreadfuls? Anything is possible, and in all feeding frenzies and manias, the sense is that this time is different. Anything can happen. And if you don’t buy a lottery ticket, you can’t ever win.

I think we are seeing the not-so-slow-motion popping of the Amazon self-publishing bubble. Whether it will be abrupt, or gradual, is the only thing I’m unsure of. The dawning awareness that this is an extremely hard business, where the odds favor those who are already successful, will come slamming us all in the face, and for many, will be a kind of epiphany. No, sweetie, you can’t pick dot com names with a dart and wind up a millionaire. Sure, for a while the game was rigged to make it seem like you could, but most didn’t, and that era is over. Likewise, it seemed like you could always depend on there being a sucker to pay more for your McMansion than you paid for it the prior year – until you couldn’t. It’s human nature, and all manias have that characteristic. The impossible becomes achievable, at least conceptually, to most everyone – and by the time everyone is participating, the odds of all but a slim minority exiting with a profit are slim to none.

If you haven’t read it, pick up a copy of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds. Written a century and a half ago, it’s still a great book. And human nature hasn’t changed. We want to believe that we can prevail, and that winning doesn’t involve being part of a club we have no hope of ever joining. We live in hope. We have to. The alternative is too depressing.

I’ve said numerous times that you shouldn’t be writing if you are motivated by selling a gazillion books. Or even earning a living at it. Because 99%+ odds say you won’t. For a brief moment there was a kind of Camelot, a renaissance in the industry, where for a few giddy years the sky seemed to be the limit. I believe that is now over.

Perhaps I am overreacting, and Amazon will act as a proud parent, dolling out treats to us all for being good. My hunch is that ain’t going to happen. What’s more likely is that they focus on their own Thomas and Mercer brand, making it successful, and push the offerings of the trad pub world, because they make more, and because those are likely higher quality than most of the indie stuff.

I see every reason for them to do so, and few to foster a world where every man is a self-publishing empire. The economics are against it. And in the end, ALL commercial enterprises are about making a profit. As much of one as possible without getting arrested. That’s what businesses do. It’s their reason for existing. If you want to know what Amazon will likely do in the future, just look at what will make Amazon the most money. This isn’t hard, folks. It’s common sense.

I think this is the first salvo in a continuing strategy. I don’t think they want to kill indie. I don’t think they care about indies much, beyond the leverage catering to that market bought them in achieving their short term business objective. Which they did. They shook up the trad pub world, got a proud and vain industry to understand where the real power lies, and changed the negotiating landscape. So now, time to tweak the software and get down to making some money.

I don’t blame them. I frankly have always viewed the Pollyannaish sentiment that they would treasure us and nurture us like precious hothouse flowers to be somewhat naive. Why? Why would they? What’s in it for them, other than selling a lower profit SKU in place of a higher profit SKU? Who would push the lower profit SKU? I wouldn’t. Not if I understood that my market would largely buy the higher priced one if that’s what they were exposed to. Because running a business, the smart business decision would be to sell the item that will make you the most money, all things being equal. So that’s what they are likely to do. The end.

What does the future hold? I believe it holds tough times ahead. I think the lower sales most are seeing this month are the start, not the end, of a trend.

I have never wanted more to be wrong about anything.

Time will tell.

I will try another free promo next week to confirm what I’m hearing from just about everyone, however I have very low expectations – maybe 10-15% of the impact on sales the same promo might have had in March or April. It may net out to still being worth doing – if you see a 200% bump in sales for four days, hey, that’s something. But what won’t be happening is placing in the top 10 with ease, and then seeing a thousand books sold in the following week. Those days are over. Sad, too. I loved those days.

Better buy me a drink. I start crying in a few minutes.

On a shameless self-promotional note, I launched Return of the Assassin today – the fourth installment in the continuing adventures of El Rey, the “King of Swords.” It’s another barn burner and has more twists than a mountain road. Buy one for every person you know, or would like to know, or think you might know at some point. It’s for a good cause.

Me.

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17 May 2012, by

How it works

Funny thing has happened of late.

Many midlist indie authors who were ranked fairly well fell into a black hole around the first of the month, and their sales never recovered. A few of my titles did the same thing.

I found it suspicious that all of a sudden, one day, several of my titles could drop from being ranked in the 2000 area to the 6000-8000 level.

Seemed weird to me.

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WOW!!! New 5 star rave from The Kindle Book Review for The Geronimo Breach is truly worth reading.

GUEST BLOG: Sex. How much is too much? Yes, I’m writing about sex this time around.

NEW: Author Spotlight with screenwriter and novelist Lee Chambers! First of the season.

UPDATE: Yours truly was in the Top 50 indie authors by sales for the second month in a row!

UPDATE REDUX: What’s that  you say? Why don’t I have any box sets? I do now! Three of my enduring faves at a 20% discount!

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Equally odd was how several of my other titles could sell 60% less than a few of my fellow authors’ books, and yet be ranked higher. I saw that multiple times. It wasn’t a glitch.

So I developed a theory.

As theories go, it wasn’t much. I posited that Amazon must have changed more than the way free units were accounted for around the end of April. I guessed that they had started basing ranking on dollars, not on units.

That gut feeling has been validated, at least partially. You can see an excellent blog on the topic here. I won’t duplicate effort by belaboring its points. Just read it.

This marks a turning point for indie authors. Amazon’s apparent tinkering with their algorithms has just made the now poor counsel to price your books at .99 a disastrous one. Besides undervaluing your work (unless it’s crap, in which case, you know your work better than I) it is now a recipe for lower ranking, and poor sales. Self-fulfilling prophecy, that.

I have mixed feelings about all this. On the one hand, I believe that the .99 cent thing was a shoddy gimmick and poor branding. And it will now be even worse for anyone who followed the advice, because as I’ve said numerous times, it is very hard to move from being a .99 author to one where your work can command many times that amount. So not only are you now facing the whammy of having to sell 5 times as many books as a $5 book to rank the same (at least on popularity lists – don’t know what the future holds for bestseller lists), you don’t have any pricing power for your work, as you’ve valued it at a third of the price of a cup of big city coffee. On the other hand, I wonder how we indie authors will get any visibility, if Amazon is calculating ranking based on list price, not on sales price, as it would appear they are doing. That gives the trad pub gang, and Amazon’s own trad pub label, a huge advantage, as they can list price a book at $14 even if the actual selling price is $7. If I am correct and that artificially inflated price is the one the algorithms recognize as the “price” of a unit sold, then the game is forever rigged in favor of trad pub books. They will virtually always place better on some of the lists, if not most.

Is this the end of the world?

Not really. It just means that the crack high of free books and boom times from the associated promotions are largely over for indie authors. Because now that Amazon has won the war for market share and dominance, it is going to get down to making money. And a $10 title makes it a lot more than a $3 title. So which would you focus your efforts on selling if you were the company? To me it’s obvious. You go where the money is. Companies are not in business to better humanity or prove points. They are commercial enterprises whose sole reason for existence is to make a profit. I get it.

I don’t think Amazon is targeting indie authors for extinction in any way. I think that many will become extinct as a byproduct of this, though. Which brings me back to my blogs of six months or so ago. About why you write. To repeat myself, if you write because you hope to hit it big, or even make a decent living, you are writing for the wrong reasons, as the odds say you’ll starve. To me, that’s the wrong reason to write.

If, however, you wish to open a self-publishing business, where you create a product you hope to sell enough of to recoup your investment of time and money, and generate a profit, you need to care about these developments, as they radically impact your chances of succeeding. My own company included.

In the end, I think we can safely assume that Amazon will do what’s best for Amazon, just as your company will do what’s best for you. That’s how things work. But if you are still hoping to use last month’s strategy of going free to boost sales, or are thinking that cheap will translate into sales success, you’re badly mistaken, and will learn the hard way.

Or you can read this blog, and know about trends real time. Or at least, as soon as I become aware of them.

Good luck out there. For what it’s worth, I also believe that free is rapidly going the way of the dinosaur. It still has a tiny bit of life in it, but it’s on life support, and I bet it is dead within 30 days. I’ve pulled all but one of my promos for that reason.

Oh, and check out my new boxed set below. It will build strong teeth and bones, and keep Satan from your door. Mostly. Mileage may vary.

As always, if you want the artist’s contact info, drop me a line.

Until next time, go buy a bunch of my crap. Buy two. I need to pay my bar tab.

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The crazy, mad crack high of free books is now officially over.

I can’t say for sure, but I am about 99% confident that Amazon has made changes to its algorithms, so instead of seeing massive spikes in sales coming off free, you will see a paltry spike, if that.

I have several friends who just came off free in the last week, saw 15K downloads, and saw a marginal increase in their sales – maybe 10% of what they would have seen a month ago.

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BREAKING NEWS: New interview with Kevin Rau and yours truly. Because it’s all about me.

NEWS: An excellent new blog featuring my thoughts on promotions by @inkwellHQ. A good read.

MORE NEWS: New book review for King of Swords sequel, Revenge of the Assassin, by bestselling author Steven Konkoly.

UPDATE: Yours truly was in the Top 50 indie authors by sales for the second month in a row!

UPDATE TWO: A lengthy interview wherein I cover everything from the war on drugs, to central banking, to writing.

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I just did the same thing with Zero Sum. Actually, that was an odd one. I think Amazon hates Zero Sum. Remember that it “lost” the book for 24 hours, trashing the ranking when it “found it.” Went from #1300 or so to #8500, and never recovered. Nice. Thank you, Amazon. Whoops!

But this time, Amazon didn’t pull it off free at midnight when it was supposed to, at the end of day two. No, 12 hours into day three, and it was still free. Which made the promotions I’d scheduled a moot point. But it saw over 10K downloads and hit #30 overall. So not terrible. Certainly not bad for the third time it’s gone free.

Day one paid, I priced it at .99 for one day, to boost paid sales on the critical first 24 hours, when the algorithms used to give a sh#t. I saw a whopping 100 sales at .99, versus 350-500 on similar promos just a few months ago. So not as large a bump – maybe a quarter or less what April might have brought. Then, in the first 24 hours at a discounted price of $3.47, I saw 21 sales.

To put that into perspective, the book typically sells 20 a day. Some days 15, some 25.

So a modest effect on deeply discounting the book, and then virtually nothing once at normal price.

Two months ago, I was seeing 150 a day following a free promotion at full price, and that lasted 7 days. Now, not so much.

Thus, the giddy days of big sales from going free are officially over. I’m hearing similar tales from everyone I know. So it’s O-V-E-R. We’ll have to come up with something new.

I won’t be doing any more free promos if there’s no lift from the free days. Makes no sense. I’ve already seen well over 150K of my books downloaded free over he last 6 months, so another 10K of one title or another ain’t going to bring in the tide of readers. I’ll run out the clock on the existing promos, and collect the loan fees on the borrows – which DO offset sales, contrary to some claims to the contrary (I’ve seen it now for several months, where the first few days of the month borrows go through the roof, and sales drop by precisely the same amount – makes sense, as those folks are waiting for their free book from Select, rather than buying the title). But as to breaking big on a book because of free, I believe that’s finito. It was certainly fun while it lasted. But now the hangover sets in.

I wonder how long it will take others to figure this out? My prediction is 30-60 days, if they don’t read this blog. Allow me to be the first to proclaim the end of the free era on Amazon. Long live the new, new thing. Whatever that might be.

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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?

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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.

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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…

 

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12 Apr 2012, by

Rambling Man

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.

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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.

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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.

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On June 7, I’ll have been self-publishing for exactly one year.

My first offering, Fatal Exchange, continues to sell well – in fact, it’s selling more now than ever.

My second book, How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated) is languishing. I guess authors don’t buy books, or perhaps they don’t have a sense of humor about the business. So that’s been somewhat of a dud from a sales perspective, although a hoot from a creative and acclaim perspective. Go figure.

My third, The Geronimo Breach, is also selling well, although it varies from white hot to so-so, depending upon pricing and promotions I’m running. Still, it’s gotten rave reviews, and is one of my favorites, and I have to give it a thumb’s up from a sales standpoint. That’s one I think will still have appeal a decade from now, so I’m confident it will earn its keep.

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NEWS: An interview with author Felicia Rodgers and yours truly on The Voynich Cypher.

UPDATE: New guest blog at Manic Readers on writing The Voynich Cypher. A good one.

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I’m not going to list all my books. Don’t worry. You didn’t come here for that. You came here because of the free stuff I routinely give away, and the nude photos, I know. What? There aren’t? Oh. Never mind then.

Self-publishing has turned into a truly awesome experience for me – far better than I’d ever hoped. I’m selling at a clip that I’d hoped to hit within three years of entering the market, not ten months. So that’s great. But it has also given me a chance to live my dream. No, not being a pole dancing male burlesque stud grinding for the drunk tourist women at Jalapenos – I just do that for the cash and the workout. And no, also not naked ice dancing, although that’s certainly my first love. What I’m speaking of is being an actual author who makes his living writing books.

I had sort of given up that dream after my only encounter with the whole NY traditional publishing game in another life. It just seemed like I was going to have to surrender all my control, and dance like a trained chimp to the beat of countless editors, agents, marketing consultants, etc. while making peanuts, if that. I don’t have the patience for doing things on other people’s timelines, which is why I’ve never been a good big company player.

When I first heard of success stories in self-publishing I was skeptical. Konrath, Locke, Hocking, Eisler… I don’t know. It sounded too good to be true. But after I bought my first kindle I got it. I understood why that simple device had changed publishing forever, as had Amazon. I saw the future; one where tens of millions of devices were voraciously devouring high quality content, and I realized that if I could create even an interstitial awareness of my writing, there might be a there there. So I went the OCD route, and committed to write as close to a million words by the end of 2011 as I could manage. I got pretty close. 12 releases. None I have to be ashamed of.

2012 I’ve slowed the pace, and have targeted releasing 6 to 8 novels, depending upon my mood and the muse’s availability. I’ve got two in the can, and have started the third, so hitting my goal isn’t going to be a problem, I don’t think.

2012′s first release, The Voynich Cypher, has been big so far, and I hope it continues to attract reader attention. The next one, Revenge of the Assassin, a sequel to King of Swords, will release end of April, and then another sequel to King will release end of May.

Because of self-publishing, I’m getting to make my living, in retirement, as an author, and doing so on my terms, at my pace, with my vision of what the work should be like, what the covers should portray, and what price the books should sell for. As a creative person, I can’t tell you how good that feels. Happiness is fleeting, and getting to do something I love and get fairly compensated for it, as well as connect with readers, defies description. It’s a rush. It makes everything seem worth doing. I recommend it highly.

For that opportunity, I’m grateful. And while I at times have a love/hate relationship with Amazon, without their visionary approach to self-publishing, I’d be relegated to laying around on the beach considering my navel. So for that, I owe them one.

As I owe those who have purchased my work, and then told a friend. Without readers, a writer isn’t very fulfilled. It’s readers that make the experience complete.

So for everyone out there who might be debating self-publishing, all I can say is that to date it’s the most rewarding decision of my life at a host of levels. I hope that continues, and would encourage you to take the plunge and give it a shot. The water’s warm, and the view is just fine. Although the hours can be brutal, and there’s no guarantee that you’ll walk away from it with much more than the glow of the experience. Much like life, that.

 

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Readers of my blog know that I began my experiment with KDP Select in mid-January. The main attraction for me was the ability to put a title free for a day or three, thereby enhancing visibility and presumably giving me a boost on the “most popular” and “also bought” lists following the free day(s).

So how has that worked?

Glad you asked, internal dialogue that always seems to know just what to inquire for maximum effect.

Sales of my books increased by a factor of four in January, from my most popular month ever – December. Given that I have been at this for a whopping nine months, that would kind of make sense. December, everybody on the planet got Kindles for Xmas, and needed content for them. Ergo, more books would sell.

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BREAKING NEWS: Fantastic guest blog at The Veil War on the writing of The Voynich Cypher.

MORE BREAKING NEWS: Interview, book review of The Delphi Chronicle, Book 1, and a short story. Must read! With author Kathleen Patel.

UPDATE: Monday, 3-12. Interview with Digital Ink Spot on Amazon promos, process & thoughts.

UPDATE: New interview just posted with Eden Baylee. It’s a fun one.

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I also released a slew of books in December – Night of the Assassin, King of Swords, and The Delphi Chronicle trilogy. Night and Book 1 of Delphi were and are free, so I increased my available paid titles by two that month, bringing it to a total of seven possible paid titles to buy. I don’t count the first book of Zero Sum, because that was free as well, nor do I count the individual books in the trilogies, as nearly everyone who buys, buys the bundles.

If all things were equal, I would have expected an organic growth of 20-25% from the new titles, which is about what I saw from November to December. All very predictable.

In mid-January, I enrolled my first book in KDP Select, and ran a couple of days free. The Geronimo Breach saw 12K downloads in its two free days, and then sales took off like a rocket for 5 or 6 days, eventually dropping back to a sustainable rate that was above December’s run rate, but nothing like what the post-free week was like. That got me looking at other authors’ experiences, and sure enough, the post-free phenomenon was being discussed, although it was still largely too new to rate.

I then ran a few more titles free, for a day here and there, and lo and behold, saw the same effect. This resulted in a reproducible sales boost, and appeared to have pulled my other titles along with it. I finished January giddy, with four times December’s bucks in my pocket.

February, for the first two weeks, sales were down 30% from January. Other authors indicated that was a well-understood effect of readers digesting all the books they’d downloaded. Made sense, but still not a lot of fun to see. In the final two weeks, I ran Geronimo free for one day, and Zero Sum free for two, and Geronimo saw 10K in one day, and Zero Sum saw about 20K on two days of downloads, hitting number 5 for free downloads. Post free, sales took off like a scared rabbit again, and I finished February at the same sales level as January, which is to say back at four times December sales, but income was up 25%, at five times December’s sales, due to a higher ASP after the artificially low promotional pricing I’d tried on a few titles in Jan. I figured it would be down 20%, so that was a pleasant surprise.

March, Zero Sum has been continuing its run from the free days the end of February, performing well and holding in the 500 paid range now 8 days post promo, which is unexpected but nice. But here’s the amazing part about the KDP promotions: by March 10 I will have sold more or less as many books as I did all of Feb. Obviously, that portends good things. If sales stay on track the rest of the month, I can expect a double to tripling over the course of the March, or roughly eight to twelve times December sales.

That’s an eye-opening number. Extrapolating, if March comes in as it’s shaping up, from that point on with no sales growth at all (even though I’ll be adding a slew of new titles this year), I will sell well over 100K books in 2012. Needless to say, if that happens, I’ll be one of the very very very few indie authors making a significant living from my passion. That’s amazing for two reasons. First, up until Amazon created its revolution in self-publishing, it would have been impossible. Utterly, completely impossible. A pipe dream. Second, it’s astounding because I will be a failure by traditional publishing standards.

Failing has never felt so good.

If I have 12 paid titles out by the end of 2012, and I’m selling 100K books, I’m only moving 9K books per year, per title, mas o menos. That’s a disaster by traditional published standards. And yet obviously, by living in Mexico self-publishing standards, it’s a home run. The numbers assume that none of my books really hit in any way big. In fact, these numbers might. My new one, launching on March 17, The Voynich Cypher, could blow things wide open. It’s that kind of a book. Mainstream, accessible, my take on a Dan Brown/Raiders of the Lost Ark style adventure/thriller. If it gets traction, it could be a big book. Early readers are enthusiastic, so I’ve got high hopes for it, but even if it sort of of putters along flat, I’m still in the mix to hit my 2012 numbers. Again, this all assumes that none of my books really get discovered, or in any way hit the mainstream.

I attribute my success to date, such as it is, to two things. First, to writing a heartfelt blog about a beloved & perhaps misunderstood public figure and comparing him to my dad, and having it go viral. Okay, maybe not so much that. Seriously, it’s because of being fortunate enough to have delivered a reasonable product to those brave or stupid enough to try my offerings, and building slow recognition organically. And second, it’s because the KDP Select program has created a venue whereby indie authors can displace the big name brand authors, and get a small slice of awareness from an audience they previously would have had no chance of reaching. The first takes 15 hour days, 7 days a week, for 10 months. The second took KDP deciding to offer “free” as a perk for joining the Select program.

I owe Amazon deep and sincere gratitude, and hope they crush the bones of their competitors to jelly and dance in the still-warm blood of their adversaries as they rule the book world. At least, for another year or two, it would be nice. My game plan is to have twenty titles out by the end of 2013, all selling for between $2.99 and $6.99. If Amazon’s KDP program stays in place and their algorithms don’t change, I and a whole group of writers who had no real shot at making a decent living suddenly have become viable. Perhaps Indie will become the new slush pile – but one that pays well. Or perhaps there won’t be any more slush piles, and the phones will go unanswered in NY sometime soon.

On a related topic, my UK sales are now trending at 10% of my US sales, so the UK is having more of an effect than I would have expected. Given that I have done exactly zero marketing beyond twitter and a lackadaisical Facebook presence, that also portends good things. Although I will say that I have been participating in Melissa Foster’s World Literary Cafe, and the visibility from that group’s efforts have likely played a role in my sales. I recommend them highly, for those looking to participate in a good organization.

Loans have also increased, and as of today, for March 8, I have 450 borrows. As I said in a prior blog, on titles at my price point at least some of those are displacing sales at a considerably higher net rate, but the overall positive of being in the KDP program is outweighing that negative. Hard to bitch over the cost of doing business on that one.

That’s where we are as of today. Whether sales continue apace, or dirt dive, is unknowable from this point on, but I’ll keep everyone updated. It’s been a fascinating experiment so far. I’ll post an end of year summary in December, and maybe a mid-year one in July – really, the first full year of being in this game. Beyond that, thank you to my readers, and good luck to all the authors following this blog. It can be done. It’s just not easy. Nothing is.

UPDATE: As of March 10, midnight, I have sold 3015 books this month and had 540 borrows. A little slower than I’d hoped, but the last few days were laggards. Still, difficult to whine too much. I’ll save that for the end of the month when I’ve crashed and burned…

 

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My last blog focused on the positives and negatives of the Amazon KDP Select scheme, particularly pertaining to the loan fees and how they compare to outright sales commissions on higher priced books.

This blog will focus more on the value of the actual promotions, and explore what, if any, benefit one can hope to garner by giving away thousands of books. I’ll do this by describing my own experiences with one of the titles I made free.

Last month, I dipped my toe in the water by making The Geronimo Breach free for three days. During that time, I saw about 12K downloads. Not too shabby. Then, when it went back to paid, a funny thing happened. After languishing for the first day, it shot like a rocket, finally hitting #165 in the paid kindle store.

All good. Or rather, all should have been good. One problem was that the book was .99 rather than $3.99, due to price matching with Barnes, which after three weeks still hadn’t taken the book down, even after numerous e-mails. And .99 was the wrong price anyway, but I digress. The point is that Amazon’s software matched it, so folks were downloading 500+ books a day at .99.

Sales peaked at day 3-4 of being paid, and then started dropping off, bottoming at week three or so.

At the time, I didn’t know what to make of the data. I was frantic on day 5 – what was going wrong? Why did God hate me? Were the clowns behind it? What gave?

Turns out that this is a very predictable and knowable cycle for those who have done free days. Reason is because the Amazon algorithms pick up on the ranking from when it was free, and begin featuring the book on their recommendations pages about, you guessed it, 24 hours after going back to paid, as well as in the “also bought” strip at the bottom of other books your shoppers picked up. Over the next two to three days, love is in the air, and sales roll in. But then the book, whatever it is, gets pushed off to the second tier to make room for the more recent titles that did well since then. And the buying from folks Amazon was presenting you to dries up, little by little, and you’re back to your old run rate. Sort of like being a Hollywood starlet who briefly dates a celebrity, you have to be satisfied with and enjoy your moment in the sun, because it won’t last.

But knowing this presents an opportunity. It suggests a way to play the game so you can win, if you’re an author. Specifically, you can understand the phenomenon and capitalize on it. How? By running another free promotion 4 to 5 weeks after the first one. Maybe at 6 weeks, maybe at 3 1/2. Depends on sales. But you can repeat the performance.

Let’s go back to The Geronimo Breach. Thursday, it went free for 24 hours. It saw 10K+ downloads, and hit #11 in the Amazon free store last night. Most of the day, it, and one of my other free titles, The Delphi Chronicle, were #2 and #5 in Kindle free Action/Adventure.

That’s the second promotion, and it was more successful than the first – 10K in one day versus 12K in three. And the best part? I didn’t tweet about it. I didn’t do anything. Because I’d forgotten I was going to run it, and only figured it out halfway through the day when I checked my rankings. So that was with no social media at all, other than a few tweets from some friends (thanks Claude!) and being listed as free on several websites that picked it up. One of the best I’ve found for thrillers being Epic Kindle Giveaway (I follow it on Twitter at @eBookSwag), as well as The Digital Inkspot, and Digital Book Today. Others that may or may not pick it up are Cheap Kindle Daily, Pixels of Ink, and a host of others. Google them for a complete listing. There seem to be new ones every week. Most are very good for what they are, and save a lot of time.

I am now at day one of The Geronimo Breach being back to paid. Before the promotion, I was #9K-#11K overall. Today, so far, I’m at #2300 or so. At $3.49 – a sale off my usual $3.99 price to encourage folks to buy over the weekend. I’m sure if I lowered the price to .99 it would sell a lot more books, but given that I would need to sell 8 times more books at .99 to see the same revenue as at $3.49, I question whether it’s a smart idea. I also don’t want to brand myself as a buck a book author. Lord knows that is played, and there are more than enough of them out there. We shall see how sales go as of late this evening and tomorrow, but I’d say the trend is positive at this point. Even if it only stays at 2300 for four days, hey, that’s an improvement over where it was, and there are 10K more people with it on their kindle now – probably the most important thing for an author like me, who has a slew of titles and is adding to them seemingly every month. Because I believe the primary value of free is familiarizing readers with the work.

To put that into perspective, I’ve had around 70K free downloads of my work since I started giving books away. That’s a lot of downloads. A lot of folks who can decide they love, hate, or are ambivalent about me.

What is the takeaway from all this? Do Select freebie promos every 4 to 6 weeks, don’t freak out when day one sucks or starts slow (remember the algorithm, my friend) and then promote the hell out of it days 1-5 of it being paid. Recognize that the decline in sales over the next two weeks isn’t a function of an angry and vengeful deity singling you out for persecution, or that word of mouth has spread and your book sucks (I mean, either are possible, but not a given, is my point), or anything else. It’s a function of the Amazon algorithms having moved to new, fresher, more exciting faces.

Think of that first 4 or 5 days as your time at the bar where everyone wants to buy you drinks. Day 6 on is where a new kid on the block captures everyone’s attention, until you are ultimately yesterday’s news. Unlike the dating world, though, you can repeat the performance over and over (well, I suppose that is a little like dating – wink) and hopefully see a higher trough each time you decline. Then again, I’ve also heard that the effectiveness of the free days diminishes for a title each time through the cycle, so there is probably a point where it won’t work any more. But cross that bridge when you come to it.

For now, if you’re in the program, make hay while the sun is shining.

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