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Book promotions

For Father’s Day, I decided to participate in a different kind of promotion than what I’ve been doing lately.

As we’ve covered in so much detail over the last few blog posts, free is winding down, so other than my last few promos that were already scheduled for my older titles (yes, some of those are ancient, and came out as long as ten months ago!) I haven’t got much going on into the summer other than writing and editing – a seemingly endless task.

So when my fellow author and pal Andy Holloman suggested a novel sort of promo, I though, hey, as my blood results and the slew of tattoos and scars attests to, I like to drink and try new things. Why not this?

And so it was that I woke up this morning to find myself participating in the FreeBooks4Dad promo. The idea is that this enables you to do something better than getting pops the usual crap pattern polyester tie or bucket of price-slashed spicy chicken wings at Hooters.

The way it works is this: You purchase one of the eligible books (obviously, I’d hope you would buy mine, but that’s just the greedy parasite in me talking) listed at the site and you get the other five free!!! Wow, you say, how does he do that? The answer, is of course, volume.

Actually, a group of like-minded authors grouped together to add a title to this promo in the hopes of creating something different that could work to everyone’s benefit – sort of like inventing game theory, without the maudlin Ron Howard script treatment and outdated meds (sorry, Russell, tough love).

It will be interesting to me to see if this does anything, as it seems like a viable strategy for promotions. As opposed to just giving away twenty thousand free books over a few days and hoping that the inevitably ensuing one star reviews will at least turn on spellchecker.

This promo will be live through Sunday, so if you’ve ever wanted to accumulate a sh#tload of quality books at a nominal price, perhaps this is up your alley. As with voting in Chicago, vote early and often, with your wallet. And remember that if you buy my book, I’ll be able to have that lifesaving operation I’ve been on the fence about. Not to pressure you or anything.

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Sales for every author I know have been dumping since March, on a month over month basis. This could be due to seasonality, but I suspect that it has far more to do with changing consumer behavior. We, as authors, have trained readers that they don’t have to buy books. They can just wait for them to go free. What kind of chump pays for a book when they can get the same thing for free, fer chrissakes?

I’ve heard this again and again. So while free has been good for some authors (like me) in the short term, in the longer term, it has established a new kind of hoarding behavior where the value of the work is degraded. We have done this to ourselves. We have seen the enemy, and it is us.

I’m guilty of it. Most I know are, too.

And sales across the board are languishing. Since Amazon changed the algorithms, my sales are down 35% from April, which were down about that much from March (which were almost 5X what Feb and Jan were, so can’t complain too much). The difference is the free promotions, or rather, the success thereof. In March, I would do a free promo, see 15K downloads in two days, and the sales would boom to couple hundred a day of that title for four to five days, then slow gradually, maybe hundred and fifty day six, hundred day seven, sixty day eight, and then settle into a “long tail” where they would bottom at around fifteen to twenty a day by week three.

The point is that by running a free promo every week, I would see that spike on one title per week, which was an extra eight hundred to thousand books a week. Averaged across a month, that was four thousand books. That’s a lot of books.

Now, though, I have done three different promos in three weeks, and seen 10K per free promo, I’ve seen sales struggle to maybe 20% of what I saw in March and early April, with the fall happening much faster. I believe that’s because of how the books appear on Amazon’s lists – they aren’t getting favorable placement any more, due to the algorithm change. So now you are invisible to readers, just as you were before, except for maybe one or two days of placing far down a list that has also been changed, again, as noted in earlier blogs.

That would argue for pulling out of KDP Select. No more free lunch. No benefit. And an actual harmful net effect.

And yet, I am staying in, for now, even if I’m not going to do many more free days.

Why, you ask?

Loans. As of April, Amazon increased the loan fee for each borrow to just a hair shy of $2.50. So if you get 1000 borrows, there’s an extra $2500. It’s actually not extra, as it cannibalizes a sale, but at $2.50 net, what do I care? That’s great compensation on a net basis (even if you have your book at $3.99, you won’t see $2.50 average net, as all the affiliate and non-US territory sales cut into that at a 35% commission rate, as opposed to 70%, blending out at more like $2.25 on average across a month). To my thinking, I’m now being compensated as if all my titles that are borrowed were retailing at $4.50 or so. That’s a sweet deal. Sweet enough to have me keeping my titles in the program to reap that reward.

I see about 30% borrows to sales. Sell 1000, you see roughly 300-350 borrows. How does that suck? Well, you are foregoing nook and other platform sales (although not really, if someone is willing to convert the MOBI and you haven’t enabled digital rights management). But no way are my nook sales 30% of my total.

One tell is that my UK sales have now grown to be 30-40% of my mix. But they don’t have borrows there. That would explain why sales have been growing even as US sales are falling. Far fewer seem to take advantage of free promotions there, and they can’t benefit from loans, so they just buy the books. I also note that the refund rate is far lower. In the US, I see roughly 1.75-2.25% returns. Doesn’t matter what title. That’s the average. I used to think it was because some were offended by language or politics or religion, but no – my dog bio sees the same returns as my most controversial work. In the UK, the return rate is more like around .25 percent. Perhaps there’s just a philosophy in the US of refunding things for whatever reason. Perhaps UK Amazon’s return policy is harder. Dunno. I just know that UK readers seem to whine less, return less, and buy more.

Viva the UK!

So what does this all mean for authors? Free is over, as I said before, unless you consider a 10%-20% effect worth it. Instead of seeing 150 books day two, you’ll maybe see 20-30. And that’s if you placed in the top 40 free overall. There will be exceptions, but that’s become the new rule, so free as a mechanism to increase sales due to the heightened visibility of the free/paid cycle is done. I do think the negative is that it is going to be a long time before the fringe crowd that would pay to read a new indie title does so – why buy when you have 100 free titles already on your kindle? That fringe buyer is who many of us were courting, and they are largely out of the game. Hence, sales slump, in addition to seasonality. And what you are trading for that extra 20-30 books sold for 5 days, is the death of your longer term sales market. Seems like a dumb tradeoff, to me, anyway. Maybe it’s worth it to some. But only, by my math, if you plan to sell maybe 200 books total per title. Otherwise, free is a bad deal now.

My tactic moving forward will be to run out the clock on the promotions I have scheduled, keep my books in KDP Select, but not offer them free. I will do this for the $2.50, no other reason. And if that declines, I’ll be out completely, focusing on other promotional tools.

And writing.

I think the single biggest differentiator I have from most of my peers who started publishing when I did, is my large and growing backlist. I’m so convinced that makes a difference I have committed to writing five more novels this year, if it kills me. I think once you have critical mass of, say, 15 paid titles, there is a lot more chance for someone to stumble upon one of your works. And when they do, they might work their way through all your books, which translates into considerably higher revenue over the long term. Because you have gained a reader, not made a sale.

In the long run, and I’m talking years or decades, I believe making a living as an author will come down to supplying consistently high quality work in the genre your readers like and want. Promotions, pricing, giveaways, hype – all are good, but nothing will build a career like putting your head down and writing as well as you are able. Not as fast as you can, but as well as you can, at a sustainable rate. So if you can only get out one or two novels a year, my advice would be prepare to do that for the next five years, and dig in for the long haul. That’s what I’m doing. My magic number is to have 15 paid titles, then next year I will back it off to maybe 3 or 4 books a year from there on out. Because it’s not like I don’t have enough titles out. But all of last year, I felt hunted and driven, because a part of me said, “You need more.”

Turns out that was right.

I have been told that summer will be miserable from a sales standpoint, and also, in the same discussion, that sales will increase due to summer beach reads being bought. My gut says free saturated a lot of those discretionary indie beach read purchases, but I hope I’m wrong. However that may turn out, I’ll still write my five more books, and be gearing up for the Dec-March boom again.

Because Rome wasn’t built in a day. Nor will any career be. Unless you’re a Kardashian. Meh.

Speaking of shameless self-promotion, check out my new box set – that’s a lot of books for a lousy ten bucks. As always, the art was done by my usual guy, whose contact info can be yours for the asking.

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One of the things I get asked a lot, besides “When does the statute of limitations expire?” and “You seriously don’t understand why you can’t say that in a book?” is “What steps have you taken that have made a difference in your promotions?”

I would have to say that the KDP Select free days have had a massive positive impact (although how long that continues is anyone’s guess), as has my my participation with Melissa Foster’s World Literary Cafe.

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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.

STILL MORE NEWS: Book review for pet biography An Angel With Fur from Pets Weekly.

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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WLC, as it is known in shortened form, is a gathering place, author resource network, promotional site, and much, much more. I originally was introduced to it by Andy Holloman, for the launch of his book, Shades of Gray, in which I featured The Geronimo Breach as one of 9 books that helped support his launch. My experience was positive, so I signed up for their tweet teams (reciprocal tweet groups) and then did a few launches – most noteworthy being The Voynich Cypher, my first launch with them March 20, which sold 4,000 copies within a week of the launch, to which I attribute much to WLC – it was a featured book, had an excerpt on the site, featured a blog by yours truly, etc. I have no doubt I wouldn’t have gotten the visibility I received absent those promotions, and I continue to use WLC for my launches – I’ve integrated them into my strategy. The cost is a no brainer, more than reasonable, and the results speak for themselves. I used them for the launch of Revenge of the Assassin and saw a big run of sales, and will continue using them for the foreseeable future. They’re a quality outfit, and the founder, Melissa Foster, is a caring and supportive bestselling author in her own right.

They can be found at WorldLiteraryCafe.com.

Another thing that’s made a difference is @TweetYourBooks doing promotional tweets for me. Hard to measure the success directly attributable to that, but my gut is that it is substantial. Their sister service can be found here.

I have also tried advertising with little success, blog tours with some success, interviews with some success, and all sorts of other promotions, with inconclusive results. The few things I can say that are part of my arsenal moving forward are the two I just mentioned, as well as trying to respond to every e-mail and comment from readers, and keeping my blog interesting as I can – although I’ll grant you that it is very author-centric at the moment. Perhaps next week I’ll focus more on fluffy kitties or cute puppies. Or clowns, and the ever-present menace to thinking upright bipeds that they represent.

While the aforementioned types of promotional vehicles (except for the clowns and puppies/kitties) definitely can add to your visibility, the truth is that success in publishing is as much luck of the draw as it is skillful planning. Being in the right place at the right time, luck, a fluke, a mention from out of the blue…any or all of these can have just as much to do with exposure and sales as any strategy I’ve seen. Having said that, I can’t help but think that the harder you work at promotions, the luckier you will be.

That’s it for this installment. My philosophy is to just keep writing, and hope that eventually quality will rise to the top. Or in my case, that I’ll get lucky.

And since no blog of mine would be complete without shameless self-promotion, here’s the cover for my new one, to be released by the end of the month. Sequel to King of Swords and Revenge of the Assassin – Return of the Assassin. If anyone wants the contact info for my cover artist, e-mail me through the site and I’ll be happy to provide his info.

Now go buy some of my books so I can afford my bar tab this month. Papa gets thirsty. Wink.

 

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It’s almost the end of March, and I promised everyone following my self-publishing saga an update on how the month went.

Frankly, it surpassed all my expectations.

As of today, 5:00 p.m., 3/24, I have sold over 10,000 books in March. Those are paid copies, not free downloads. Free, I’ve seen north of 60K this month. One way to view it is a 20% ultimate ratio between paid and free – maybe a little higher, as I still have till the end of the month to see all the sales on the titles I went free with this month.

That’s a lot of books.

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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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Why the big jump from January and February’s 3000 books per month? One reason is that on March 17, I released The Voynich Cypher, which sold over 3,000 copies in the first three days, and to date, has sold within kissing distance of 4000 copies. That was unexpected, and looks good to continue, if not strengthen moving into April. Feedback has been positive, so it looks to become one of my most popular titles. My personal feeling is that it could be my breakthrough book, but who the F knows anymore? Let’s just say it’s looking good so far.

I had a body blow, too, though. Zero Sum disappeared from Amazon for 24 hours, with no explanation, about a week ago, midway into a promotional push. Just vanished. The resulting loss of about 70 sales during that period was painful, but more painful was the drop in rank from 1480 to 3500. The momentum I’d built on it came to a crashing halt, through no fault of mine. There was never any explanation of what happened. To call that frustrating is to understate it in the extreme. It hasn’t recovered, which makes sense, as below #2000 rank it gets recommended based on the algorithms, but above that number it doesn’t.

This underscores that we indie authors are creatures of Amazon, whether we like it or not. They give, and can take away. Like a deity, they can be mercurial, or accidentally cause large, unintended consequences – perhaps those numbers don’t seem like the end of the world, but when one considers the additional incremental decreased sales (25 a day versus 70) it starts looking like hundreds of books. Ouch.

Still, all in all, I can’t complain, and am very fortunate that readers like my work enough to catapult my books to well over 10,000 books sold this month, so far. I would guess sales will ultimately wind up being more like 11K to 12K by the end of the month, but one never knows. Even if we pull out the 4000 Voynichs, that means that my existing titles jumped from 3000 to 7000-8000 by month’s end. My hunch is that I’m getting better visibility over time, and word of mouth is slowly spreading – remember that 99.99% of all readers have never heard of me. My job over the next few years is to change that, to the extent that it’s possible.

Loans increased to over a thousand, as of this writing. That number isn’t counted in my above 10K – those aren’t technically sales. But they do throw some cash to the bottom line, and I’m happy to report I won’t run out of tequila or diesel fuel this month. The number is actually lower than it would be, as I’ve had several books expire from KDP Select and haven’t re-upped them. King, Delphi, Angel, Night, all are out of the program, with only Voynich, Geronimo, Zero Sum, Fatal and Gazillions remaining in. ZS will exit next week at some point, and Fatal in a couple of weeks; then it will be down to only three in the program.

So that’s the roundup. I will do a year-end summary for those playing along at home, and while there are no guarantees, I think it’s safe to assume that barring a disaster, sales for the year could exceed 100K sold. I could probably double or triple that number by moving a few titles to .99, but I don’t want to do so. I believe the work is under-valued at a buck a book, and I won’t sell a title for that. I’d rather give ’em away for free. Which is what I continue to do on Night of the Assassin, and The Delphi Chronicle Book 1. Although I am considering ending those free promotions in June or July, writing a bit more content for Night, and making it a paid title as well. I’ll be releasing the sequel to King of Swords, for which Night is the prequel, in late April – Revenge of the Assassin – so it might make sense to take Night paid at that point, as it starts to look like a real series then. I already have the idea for the next one – Return of the Assassin – so that’s a strategic play. Return will probably be my next book, while my head’s still in that groove.

Here’s the takeaway for indie authors:

1) I began doing this in June, 2011. I made $16.87 that first month. Sales exploded to $80 by August – after three months of nonstop marketing, writing, and releasing 2 more titles. It took till December to make $1460 that month, by which point I had released twelve titles, and promoted tirelessly. Now, ten months after my first book, Fatal Exchange, went live, things are moving. Obviously, it takes time, and hard work, and good quality product.

2) It is possible to make good money as a self-pubbed author – way more than I’d be making if I was trad pubbed with those kinds of sales numbers. So the landscape has changed. Obviously, if I sold millions via a good tradpub deal, that would eclipse my results to date, but nobody’s knocking with that deal, so it’s a moot point. As it is, I’m seeing roughly double income from what I’d see trad-pubbed per unit. That’s significant, and there’s no agent taking 15%.

3) Part of the secret, at least for me, has been building a substantial backlist to promote. So if you are writing, write more. More good books is like fishing – more lines in the water to snag the passing schools.

4) Write most of the time. I write about 12 hrs a day, and tweet and facebook maybe two to three. Be prepared to work hard for many months, or years. I still do, and plan to, as I understand that one good month does not a career make. Neither does one good year. That’s just how it is.

5) Treat your publishing like a business. That means invest in editing, proofreading and copy editing, as well as professional covers. Be sensitive to what’s working, and what isn’t. Be willing to adjust your prices to meet the market – this isn’t about ego, it’s about selling books. As an example, I believe Voynich is a $6+ book, but I have it priced at $3.33. Why? I want maximum readership and a relatively low barrier to entry. The price will increase over time, as it has with King of Swords, which is selling briskly at $5, but to maintain max sales at a fair return for the first phase of the Voynich Cypher launch, I slashed the price and have kept it slashed. And I’ve done one facelift on all my fiction covers since last year, and am in the midst of a second phase of improvement – it’s a visceral world, so putting forth something visually appealing is worth spending time and money on. On the editing front, I’ve added a copy editor and a proofreader to my normal editor, so three sets of eyes checking for errors. I still get them, but far fewer. In other words, I do what the trad pub houses do – I invest in quality control so my brand has integrity and consistent appeal.

Thanks to all the readers who are enjoying my books. It’s inspiring to see so many downloading and reading, and mostly, liking. A few hate me, but as always, they can bite me before returning to their apartment in their mom’s garage, or dressing their 14 cats in Christmas outfits, or waiting in sleeping bags for the next Twilight movie release. I’m not writing for them. I’m writing for those who get it. If you’re reading this blog, that is probably you.

 

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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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