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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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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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15 Jan 2012, by

Free Lunch

I have been asked how my recent three day jaunt on Amazon went.

The one where I made my thriller The Geronimo Breach free for three days.

I think I’d accurately compare it to being sixteen, and handed the keys to dad’s Porsche while discovering that I have the house to myself for three days…and the liquor cabinet’s open. It’s that kind of “Wow” moment.

First, to the numbers. Over the three days. roughly 10,400 people downloaded the book. That’s a lot of people. How many will actually read it is probably a fraction of that – maybe 20%, maybe 30%. I’m using highly scientific proprietary algorithms to come up with those number, by the way, incorporating numerology and magnetism (available in my upcoming releases Attraction, Repulsion, Alignment and Of Course He Tricked You, Douchebrain).

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MORE ACCOLADES: Fatal Exchange was the favorite book of 2011 for Kate Farrel at The Kindle Book Review.

INTERVIEW: I was interviewed about writing and craft by @WritingTips101. Worth a look, & please Stumbleupon it at the bottom using the little green button.

NEW INTERVIEW: I was interviewed by South African blogger Nadine Maritz, and the result can be seen here.

IMPORTANT! Night of the Assassin just went FREE on Barnes and Noble. Please help me out here. Go to the Amazon page for Night here, and scroll down below the rating, where it says “Tell Us About A Cheaper Price.” Then click that, and enter the link to B&N, which I post below, and enter 0.00 as their price. I would appreciate the help in having them price match it. Thanks so much. Here’s the B&N link.

http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/night-of-the-assassin-russell-blake/1108178602?ean=2940032947783&itm=6&usri=russell+blake

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Those are big numbers. And oddly, downloads increased roughly 20% per day over each prior day. Extended out over time, that’s an exponential curve that will have more people on earth with a copy of The Geronimo Breach within a few months than have spent days with Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest reading about shopping trips to Ikea and frozen pizza. Which is why I put a stop to it. Shut it down. Promo nomo. I didn’t want to tip the poles or cause a cosmic imbalance due to all the kindles filled with my work. Not for free, anyway.

Why would I give my book away for free – a book that’s garnered rave reviews, and has been described as unique in most of the 23 four and five star reviews? Obviously, because I hope to get something.

Readers.

My bet is that if, say, 2000 of those fine, discriminating folks actually read the book, most will become repeat customers of my other titles. That would translate into a nice sales bump. Additionally, it would increase my visibility as an author, which should translate into a long term net positive both in brand recognition, as well as sales. So it’s really a loss leader. Like a dope dealer. First time’s for free.

I fully expect some of the one star drive-by reviews to happen, as I’ve seen that as a regrettable by-product of free book distribution. Some might say miserable pr#cks with no lives who delight in trashing things for no good reason are drawn to free books, and that these lowlife f#ckwads, who are easily recognizable due to their never having reviewed a book before, are basically vandals who delight in tearing down the work of others, good or bad, for the thrill of any attention it might bring, and should be dragged behind a garbage truck through rusty nails and broken glass while splattered with battery acid and bleach in any kind of just world. I take a more charitable stance, and view them as mentally ill – the not too bright angry cousins who would be torturing animals if they weren’t busy prowling the net expressing their disturbances in a more benign way. I’m all about tolerance here, and when I say my critics can bite me, I mean it respectfully, of course. Let’s be clear about that.

I believe the vast majority of readers will vote with their wallets. If they think the work is redeeming, they’ll buy more of it. If not, they’ll shut the kindle off after a few minutes and move to the next one. That’s what I do. Life’s too short to read crappy books.

If my belief is correct, and if Geronimo is actually as good as everyone has said (and as of this writing, it has 21 five star and 2 four star reviews on Amazon), people will read it, hopefully like it, and then buy another of my titles.

I shall keep everyone informed of how that works out. I’d hope to see a 20%-30% increase in sales in January, and a sustained increase thereafter. We shall see.

To everyone who downloaded it, thank you, and enjoy. Let me know what you think. It’s one of my favorites – Al was a fun character to write, and it was a delight to do so. I hope you enjoy reading about his exploits as much as I enjoyed creating him.

If you like this blog, hit the green “Stumbleupon” button at the bottom and recommend it to others. Spread the word. Oh, and vote for me for a shorty award so you can watch me annoy legitimate talents with my inappropriate antics at the presentation ceremony. I understand drinking may be involved. Wink.

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I’ve had numerous folks ask me who my cover artist is. E-mail me through this site and I’ll give you the skinny. Good, fast and cheap.

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