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ebook marketing

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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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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