book sales

In my first post, I looked at what to do and what to expect from your first novel release. In brief, the strategy involved enrolling in KDP Select and doing a quick initial giveaway. It’s a very simple strategy. All it takes is a few clicks, some waiting, and some hoping. In fact, if you’re some marketing ninja or already have a huge platform, you’ve probably got better options for pushing your book. So go ninja-tweet instead of reading this post, goofus! This is more for authors who are starting off with no support, tools, or weapons whatsoever.

Anyway, so you’ve run a giveaway or two, resulting in several hundred downloads. If you haven’t been able to garner that many, take a cold, hard look at your cover–this is the first thing prospective downloaders are seeing as they browse the freebie listings, so if they’re not clicking over, that’s the first part of your book to troubleshoot. If your cover’s at least good, though (and I mean actually good, a cover that doesn’t instantly out you as a self-published author–not that there’s anything wrong with self-pubbing, but the idea is to create a product that’s indistinguishable from traditional products), and the downloads still aren’t coming, that could be a problem. I’ll look at that in a followup post dedicated to troubleshooting.

But let’s say you’ve managed to give away, say, 400-2000 copies. You have, hopefully, also gained a handful–maybe even two scoops!–of cold cash sales. Most likely, however, things have quieted down within a week of your promo. You might feel like you’re back to square one. Oh god, we’re writing our names in water!

Yeah, but now it’s time for Phase 2.

Phase 2 can probably only take place if your giveaways have garnered you a minimum of 5 reviews with an average rating of 4.0. I know there’s a good chance this hasn’t happened for your book even if you’ve spent all five of your free days already. One of my novels has been out for 18 months and it still only has 3 reviews (with a sterling 3.7 average!). When you’re starting out, getting reviews can feel even harder than getting sales.

Because it is. Reviews tend to come faster for new books with none, but from what I’ve garnered from my results and those of others, you’ll probably pick up just one review for every 100-300 paid sales. And the ratio of reviews to freebies given away is generally even worse. I’ll talk more about how to pick up reviews in the troubleshooting post (I’ll try to get that up later today or this weekend), but for now, if you’re not there, let me just reiterate: don’t pay for reviews. Don’t use sockpuppets. Don’t do anything shady. You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot. Fake reviews have crippled or killed the careers of several indies already. Even if you get away with it, and intend for it to be a one-time thing to jumpstart yourself, here’s the thing–you haven’t learned how to pick up reviews legitimately. That’s a skill you will need as your career continues to build up steam.

And building these skills is the ultimate point of these posts. Hopefully this strategy will help you fast-forward through the most grueling, painful, self-doubtful portion of your indie career. But more importantly, the giveaway process is helping you learn what works for you and what doesn’t. What makes a good cover. How to categorize your books. What promo efforts lead to sales and which are a waste of time. Which of your books have big appeal and which don’t. Blah blah blah. You are building the skillz to pay your literal bills. Acquiring honest reviews is one of those skillz. Don’t shortchange yourself.

Back to Phase 2: The Big Giveaway.

There is where we’re going to try to give away a lot of copies. At least 3000. Hopefully 5000-8000. And, if everything breaks right, 20,000+.

That probably sounds like a lot. Because it is. No one will be left to read my novel! Oh no I gave away all my readers!

Nah. Brand-new Kindle owners are buying their first ebooks every single day. Same deal with Nooks and Kobos and iPads. Brand-new readers are being born every day. There isn’t really a limit to how many people could potentially buy your book. I mean, 7ish billion, plus however many aliens are lurking within wireless range. But compared to that, 20,000 is nothing. A piece of Twilight erotic fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off has sold millions of copies this year. If you’ve got a book with the appeal to give away 20,000 copies, trust me, it has the appeal to sell plenty more.

Before your promo, set up a mailing lost. I use Mailchimp, but any service will do. Put a line at the end of your book like “If you’d like to hear when I’ve got a new book out, please sign up for my mailing list,” and include a link to your signup page. Doesn’t have to be anything fancy. The goal is to create a way to get in touch with the people who liked your freebie so you can let them know when your next release is out. Having an initial base, however small, will help get your next book up and running much faster.

Don’t skip that step. I did, because I am lazy and dumb, and then I had a huge giveaway and a great month of sales and I lost out on adding all kinds of fans to my list, which I would regret deeply, except I am too lazy and dumb to care about the mistakes I’ve made along the way.

With that out of the way, it’s time to schedule your promo. You want at least two promo days available. Schedule a two-day free run for 1-2 weeks from now. Now, go alert the three major sites about your upcoming giveaway:

Ereader News Today

Pixel of Ink

Free Kindle Books and Tips

Links go to their announcement pages. Now, wait for your free day to come, and pray to the Bibliolords that one, two, or all three of these sites mention you to their fans.

There is no guarantee this will happen. On any given day, some 4000+ books are free on Amazon. These sites list a few dozen free books between them. They have standards, too. They want a professional-looking, well-reviewed book (and in POI’s case, they’re definitely more interested in certain genres). They have attained their massive followings–followings you are now attempting to tap–by only presenting great-looking books to their readership. If your book doesn’t have strong surface appeal, your chances of getting picked up by these places is pretty low.

These aren’t the only free sites out there, but they are the only ones who seem capable of launching your book into the freebie stratosphere. Alert everywhere else under the sun, if you like (freebooksy, for one, appears to be building an audience), but these are the big dogs.

If they mention you, you’ll probably finish the day with somewhere between 1500 and 15,000 downloads. 2500-6000 is a more typical range. Unless you get more mentions elsewhere on day two, you probably won’t grab as many downloads on your second day, but so long as you’re in the top 100 free, you’ll still get plenty. If you’re still pulling them in fast and furious at the end of day two, add a third day to your promotion.

You may want to save the rest of your free days for a later promo, but as long as the downloads keep coming, there’s an argument to be made to keep adding more days and racking them up. Amazon’s algorithms are currently stacked to favor colossal download counts. It varies wildly by genre, as will your post-free results, but I’m talking 8-30K to really move the needle. If your promo is working, be aggressive with it. In fact, that is the #1 rule of selling books: “If it’s working, be aggressive.”

Some people tweet and Facebook and etc. etc. while their promo is working. It can’t hurt. I don’t, personally. Again: I’m lazy; possibly dumb.

Now your promo’s over. With any luck, you’ve given away somewhere between 3000-20,000 copies. Yay! Now what?

Now you watch, that’s what. Your first day or two or three back to paid might be pretty quiet. It will take a couple days for all those freebies to be counted toward your popularity list ranking and for your alsobots to recrunch and all that. But I would bet that some sales are coming in, and that they will continue to do so for a week or so. Not hundreds upon hundreds. Those days are over, unless you just gave away a ton of copies and have a killer book that’s going to take advantage of its new visibility by hooking every reader who glances its way. But a few dozen. Maaaybe a couple hundred, again depending on genre, appeal, the size of your giveaway, etc. Enough to pay a few bills, though.

And to snag some more reviews. And some signups to your mailing list. And Goodreads reviews. And recommendations to their friends. These things build up over time, adding to your infrastructure. If the edifice of your authordom grows sturdy enough, the lean times will be less lean and the boom times will boom much harder. Right now, we’re building your floor. Floors are very unexciting. Very unsexy (unless you have a skilled tile worker at hand). But they hold you up while you are walking around, which is very preferable to crashing through the basement, or leaping from beam to beam like some kind of fool.

You may see your floor start to strengthen after your very first big giveaway–if you were selling 1/week, maybe after the initial rush of sales you level off at 1/day; if you were doing 1/day, maybe you’re up to 2/day. I know, pretty meager gains, considering you just gave away thousands and thousands of damn copies of a book you nearly killed yourself writing.

But you’ve only got one book out, sir or ma’am. It’s hard to sell consistently with just one book. You have nothing else for your fans to snap up. You have nothing else to promote. Meanwhile, Amazon’s algorithms have become a very harsh mistress. And your first published book–even if it’s not the first book you ever wrote–will probably not be your most appealing book.

So I hope you’ve been working on a second book. And, once that one’s finished, that you’re ready to get to work on a third. This business is a bloodsport! The more gladiators you’ve got ready to hit the arena, the better your chances of producing a champion. Trust me, if you keep at it, if you keep writing and you keep learning to make better books on the inside and out, it will get easier.

I hope Phase 2 has given you your first taste of success, however modest. I’m thinking you’re now 1-6 months into your indie career, depending on how fast it took to get your initial reviews and such. As you continue to publish new books, repeat Phase 2 with each of your books every 30-90 days.

What? Give away thousands of copies of every book every 1-3 months? Is giving away this many books sustainable? I don’t know, actually. I do know it’s more sustainable than you’d think. But there’s a reason it’s called “Phase 2” and not “Permanent, Immutable Plan 2.” Next post, I’m going to look at branching out to the other stores and more long-term strategies. We’re going to go pretty far off the beaten path. GRAB YOUR PITH HELMETS!

Okay, Part 3’s done–check it out here.

Much like punching a crocodile, indie publishing is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. Exhilarating, because hey, you hit “publish” this morning and perhaps tomorrow the next thing you will hit is the ceiling after you discover you sold a million copies overnight. At the very least, it is exhilarating because you’ve taken control.

At the same time, it is utterly, skin-grippingly terrifying, because it’s such a big, big world, and when there are 1,504,243 titles and counting in the Kindle store alone, who the hell knows how a book ever sells a single copy in the first place.

When I put my first book out, I didn’t have the faintest idea what to do with it. Joe Konrath said I should join Kindleboards, so I did that. I posted about my book there and nothing happened. When my next books came out, I did the same thing, and more nothing continued to happen. It took me a full 12 months before all that nothing began to turn into something.

If I were starting my indie author career over right now, if I had my first book all ready to go out and conquer the world, here’s what I might do instead.

First, I would price my book at $2.99 or $3.99. This is not based on scientific research over here. But $0.99 is gaining a stigma and, from what I’ve absorbed elsewhere, $3.99 is the lowest price at which many readers will impulse-buy. When you’re just starting out, you’ve got nothing. No reviews. No also-boughts pointing back to your book. No recommendations from a reader’s trusted friend. There is nothing to break down a buyer’s resistance to buying your book, so you want to keep that resistance as low as possible with a bargain price. $2.99-3.99 seems to be low enough for that resistance to frequently be overcome by no other tools than your cover, your concept, and your sample.

Second, I would enroll my book in Amazon’s Select program.

This is a controversial decision. Well, it’s not that controversial. It’s about as controversial as all the thrillers listed on Amazon with subtitles including the word “CONTROVERSIAL,” which is to say that a few of us nerds might care, but nobody else gives a damn. Anyway, there is a mild controversy around Select. A lot of writers don’t like the idea of being exclusive to Amazon. A lot of writers think giving away your book devalues it and all books, and that it leads to temporary, inorganic gains that will soon dry up and blow away. What these authors are after is a long-term organic strategy of distributing to as many markets as possible and building up many different revenue streams that add up to a steady and sustainable income.

Well, good luck, guys.

That’s a little snarkety. But the thing is, every storefront presents you with a different set of tools to get your book in front of readers. And Amazon’s Select program is the very strongest tool of them all.

Quick aside: you should probably attach the phrase “In my opinion” to every sentence here. It will save us all a lot of time and anguish.

But here are some facts, or at least the facts as I have experienced them. If you push your book to Barnes & Noble, it will appear on the new releases list if readers sort by date, and there may be a week or two in which people see it. If you distribute to iTunes, it may not show up anywhere at all. Same with Kobo. It will be visible on Smashwords’ new releases for about a day before it’s buried, and then people are going to have to search for it to find it.

In other words, the window for your new book to take off purely organically is about 1-7 days long. If those 1-7 days pass and you haven’t sold enough to start making bestseller lists and generating also-boughts and all that–which you won’t–your book will be buried by all the new releases.

And that is where Select comes in.

For the record, I’m not an unrepentant Amazon/Select cheerleader. Of my 9 titles, only 2 are currently in Select, and I might not leave them there for another term. The program is not what it used to be. And it’s not a magic bullet. But it still has its uses.

Let us say you have hit “Publish.” Your book goes live. Shoppers can now find it by browsing the new releases or by searching for very specific terms and keywords, where your book will probably be listed as the #1,387th result. How else do you get readers to see your book?

One method, popularized widely by Amanda Hocking, is to submit your book to book bloggers. These people will review your book and then share it with their readership. This is a free and relatively simple way to get your book in front of people. But there are a lot of problems with this process. Another preface: book bloggers are great. I’ve known some spectacular people in the field who have really brightened my day with their devotion to finding new books and their enthusiasm in sharing them.

But you can’t count on book bloggers as a release strategy. They are overwhelmed with review requests. It may be weeks or months after you write to them before they can get to your book. If you’re chummy and entrepreneurial enough, maybe you can send them an ARC and schedule a review for around the time of your book’s release, but that means you have to wait to release until they’re ready, and waiting to release sucks. Anyway, that’s assuming the review will be good, which is no sure thing, even if your book is a professional product. Their opinions are highly subjective, after all. I’m a movie reviewer. A paid one who works for a newspaper. I hate all kinds of professionally-made movies that other people love dearly because reviews are nothing more than opinions, which always, always vary.

To summarize, then, reviews from blogs are likely to be slow to arrive, there’s a chance the review will hurt your book (just try selling it when it’s got a single two-star review), and even if the review is positive, the blogger’s audience probably won’t be all that big. If everything breaks right, it might be good for a few sales. Having a positive review out there may also help future shoppers decide to purchase your book. Seeking blog reviews isn’t a dumb thing to do, then, and it can help build up your long-term infrastructure, but it’s not going to do much for you on Day 1.

Anyway, things are different from when book bloggers gave Amanda Hocking the push that helped break her out. They’re all overwhelmed. You can’t hit enough of them to make much if any difference. Personally, the entire submission process feels too much like the agent hunt. I don’t submit to book bloggers anymore. Unless you write in YA, where they still seem to have some influence, I wouldn’t burn too much time on that route.

What do you do instead? It’s probably worthwhile to get your book listed on GoodReads. I am not intricately well-versed in how Goodreads runs, but if you have librarian status, or know someone who does, you should be able to add your book easily. If you can’t, it’s no big deal–someone will get to it eventually–but Goodreads seems to be a fairly important part of developing your book’s infrastructure, a concept I’ll get to in a bit.

But perhaps the most important thing you can do after hitting publish is this: make your book free. Right out of the gate. Give away the hell out if it. Schedule it for a two-day run, sit back, and see what happens.

“What happens” probably won’t be much. I think it’s vitally important to set the right expectations at this stage, and for most beginning authors, the reality is you’re going to sell very little right off the bat. In concrete terms, you’re doing very well if you’re selling 1/day. Many brand-new books from first-time authors with no platform can easily go days or weeks or even months between sales. A month from now, your sales column might consist of a number between 1-9, and that is perfectly okay.

At this phase, that means every single sale is a success. Every sale means someone stumbled over an unknown book and thought it looked interesting enough to pay money for. Do you know how hard it is to make that happen? Remember: 1,504,243 ebook titles and counting. As a brand-new book, the only place you’re showing up is in the new releases list and in keyword searches, and even then, anyone who found your book is either obsessive or almost superhumanly dedicated to finding new books, because they probably had to dig through dozens of pages before they happened upon yours. In terms of its present visibility, your book may have a “Buy” button on its page, but in many ways it still hasn’t really been published.

So cheer every day you do get a sale, but try not to be surprised or disappointed when you don’t. It’s probably going to be some time before your book starts traveling down some of the main avenues to discoverability.

And that’s why we’re going free right off the bat–to try to kickstart a couple of these avenues.

Again, don’t expect much from your first free run. A few hundred downloads on your first day is a pretty good outcome; my brand-new novels have typically pulled 200-500 on their first day free. If you’re in that range, hooray! I’d let it run free for a second day just in case it wants to catch fire, but it’ll probably give away fewer copies than it did the day before, which is perfectly normal.

Let’s address the exceptions real quick. If your book does start giving away a ton of copies–I dunno, 2000 or more–I would definitely add a third day, and keep adding days for as long as it keeps getting downloads. If it gets very few downloads–like, 50 or fewer over those two days–take a close look at your book’s presentation, its cover and blurb. If they look good, maybe you just ran into some bad luck, but this could be a sign that your book’s appeal isn’t quite there yet. One of the collateral benefits to making your book free is it can help you ballpark its overall sexiness. If you’ve got doubts about your book’s surface appeal, take this opportunity to fix it up now. Seriously. It matters.

If your book had a more middle-of-the-road outcome, though, and gave away 300-1000ish copies over its run, awesome. With a little luck, its infrastructure is about to get going. “Infrastructure” is just some crap I made up, but I think of it in terms of all the things about your book that makes it visible and makes it pretty. This includes any number of things. Reviews–onsite, on Goodreads, on blogs, wherever. Alsobots, which is our very clever slang term for the similar/related books a website will recommend to people viewing a specific title. Nice placement on lists (bestseller, popularity, new releases, whatever). And the ever-popular, ever-nebulous word of mouth.

By going free and giving away several hundred copies of your book, you’ll generate a bunch of alsobots that appear on other titles’ product pages that point back to your book. Hooray for visibility! And with a little luck, you’ll pick up a few Amazon reviews in the next few days and weeks, too. Maybe just one or two or three, but assuming they’re generally positive, these are going to help take advantage of your increased visibility by helping to convince anyone browsing your page that a living, breathing, non-you person enjoyed and recommended your book. (Because a real person did enjoy it. Don’t fake reviews. It’ll come back to bite you.) People might start reviewing your book on Goodreads, too–they’ll probably be more inclined to do so if its page already exists–which means their friends will see their reviews, which might entice them to check out your book. (More expectations-setting: Goodreads reviews are generally much harsher than Amazon. On Goodreads, 3 stars generally means they liked it. Didn’t love it, but liked it. That’s more like a 4-star review over on Amazon.)

You may wind up with a handful of sales in the first few days after your free run, too. Always an awesome feeling. These will probably slow down all too soon. But between alsobots (hopefully!) and reviews (hopefully!), maybe instead of selling 1/month, you’re selling 1/week. Or instead of 1/week, you’re up to 1/day.

These are small gains. Frustratingly small, probably. Well quit whining, whiner! Ha ha, sorry. But really, right now, every gain is a gain. And there’s a less-tangible gain going on here, too. Through this process, you are learning. At least you better be learning! Again, sorry. You’re learning how to sell books in general and how to sell this book in specific. That’s going to make this whole business much easier down the road.

For now, that’s it. I mean, if you want, you can tweet and blog and Facebook and pursue book bloggers about your book. That could help. It’s probably better than nothing. It makes me feel like a jerk, though, and it’s very time-consuming, so I don’t do any of that stuff. Except blog here. Because I enjoy it. That is the real secret to self-promotion: find what you like, and do that.

Otherwise, there’s not much more you can do for now. Watch your book for 2-4 weeks. Most of all, you’re looking for reviews. You’re going to want 5+ of them, ideally with an average of 4.0 or better. Having done a giveaway is risky at this early stage, because a couple of poor negative reviews right off the bat can turn this process into an uphill slog, but I think it’s worth the risk. Just be aware that this could happen.

Hopefully you can get these initial mostly-positive reviews just through your giveaway and through normal sales, but if they’re not coming, you may want to spend time actively pursuing them. Again: please be ethical. Sockpuppets stink. Paid reviews are against Amazon’s policy, too. Don’t fall prey to temptation. This is a game of patience. This won’t be your only book, right? Then act with the same class you’d like to be known for in a year or five or twenty, when you have many books and many fans.

While you wait, work on your next novel. Learn more about the business by reading blogs or Kindleboards or whatever. Try not to obsess. Almost everyone sucks at first. Like I said, it was a full 12 months before I started selling more than 5-20 books per month.

What you’re gearing up for here is your second giveaway. A giveaway with a much better chance to hit it big and push your book up to the next plateau.

A giveaway which–cliffhanger!–will be the subject of my next post.

Part 2 can be found here.

End of Days Sale

July 30-31, it is the end of the world. Well, not actually. Not that I am aware of, anyway. If it is the actual end of the world, I think we’re all going to be a bit too busy dealing with the fog-monsters from beyond the stars to care about how I said the world was going to end and then it did.

Instead, I’m talking about the next best thing to the end of the world: a whole bunch of great books about the end of days are now on sale.

For between $0.99 and $2.99–as much as 75% and $5 off per book–read about plagues, invasions, terrorism, and other horrible things that would be awful to live through but are a hell of a lot of fun to read about.

Check out the full list by clicking here. Books include:

 * My apocalyptic thriller Breakers, $2.99

 * Phoenix Sullivan’s medical thriller SECTOR C, $0.99

 * Steven Konkoly’s pandemic survival tale The Jakarta Pandemic, $2.99

 * Amy Rogers’ eco-terrorist novel Petroplague, $2.99

 * And Toni Dwiggins’ geological disaster mysteries Badwater and Volcano Watch

It’s a pretty diverse set, but they’ve all got two things in common: low prices, and a whole lot of stuff going kablooey. Please give them a look. And take that, humanity!

So when we last left off, Breakers‘ free days had rolled off its popularity list rankings. That process took three days to finish (since it had been free for three days). Within a week, its sales had dwindled from 50-70/day to 10/day. I still had decent pop list placement, because it had sold so many copies in the last 30 days, but as each day passed, its pop rank continued to slide, because the old high-sales days were being replaced by new low-sales days. The end was night.

All the while, I was having a pretty obvious thought. If a big free run had propped it up in the first place, what if I did another free run? I probably couldn’t match my previous total giveaway numbers, but if I made it free while it still had a lot of paid sales credited to it, would that be enough to boost me back up the lists and continue the ride for another thirty days?

Meanwhile, I was having a second, far less reliable thought, because my brain can’t leave well enough alone. The thing is, Breakers was outselling a lot of the big sci-fi books around it on the pop list. Its bestseller rank was consistently better than Ender’s Game, for goodness sake. If the pop lists were calculated purely by sales, it wouldn’t have fallen off at all. The only reason it did drop relative to these other books was because they were priced higher, and ever since the beginning of May, price is weighted heavily in how the pop lists are ranked.

So what if I raised the price, too? Before, I was selling at $3.99. Would my sales hold steady (or close to it) at, say, $5.99? If so, when my latest free run ran out in another 30 days, would I be able to avoid eating cliff? Or at least suffer a less painful, more gradual decline?

So I set it free again. For two days. That was all the days I had left. And I waited to see what would happen.

And then Amazon botched my promo.

Instead of starting on June 23rd as scheduled, Breakers didn’t wind up going free until around 2 AM June 24th. I emailed KDP and called AuthorCentral (KDP has no phone number), but KDP was no help. That left me with just under one day to get as many downloads as I could. When it finally did go free, things went about as well as I could have hoped–POI picked me up, and so did ENT–and I finished the day with about 5600 downloads. On the one hand, that was really good, but on the other hand, with another day, I probably would have finished with between 8000-10,000. I needed every one I could get to restore my lost placement.

In the end, it wasn’t quite enough. I bounced back up the pop lists, but not as high as before. Initial sales were pretty good (25-30/day), but even at the higher price, it wasn’t enough boost to keep up with the higher-sales days of 30 days ago that were continuing to roll off my rank. I think my worse bestseller rank was hurting me here, too, but it’s really hard to say. Sales held steady for about ten days, then halved after July 4.

Since that end of the experiment was a bust, I decided to learn what would happen if I raised the price to $7.99. Interestingly, sales held steady around 10/day for another couple weeks. Three weeks out, they halved again. A few hours ago, Breakers ate cliff again, falling from #27 in Science Fiction > Adventure to #113. I’m guessing its sales are going to be pretty slow from now on. (Well, until more magic happens, anyway.)

For all I know, the higher price crippled its ability to stay as sticky this time, too. But I don’t think that’s the only factor. Over the last couple months, I’ve watched several books try this same trick–doing regular free runs to prop up their pop list rank for another 30 days. Every time, they don’t come back as strongly as before. Don’t get me wrong, they still do very well–coming back at #1500 instead of #500, say, or #2200 instead of #1500–but there is, in this limited sample size, a clear trend of diminished returns.

What’s happening? Are these books, including Breakers, slowly exhausting their audiences, even with similar pop list placement as before? Is it the case that, after an initial giant free run, a book is essentially experiencing what it’s like to be a popular new release, and when it pops back up after its first cliff, it’s being met with a lot of eyes that have already seen it?

Likewise, these books’ second and third big free runs are never as big as their first. Not that I’ve seen, anyway. The obvious conclusion–which isn’t to say the correct one, necessarily–is that they’re draining the well, so to speak. Massive free runs depend on just a handful of sites. Once you’ve tapped those sites once, the well has that much less water in it the next time you return. It refills over time as new subscribers sign up, but in my observation, it doesn’t refill completely within 30 or even 60 days. In fact, it may take much longer than that.

We’re back in the realm of speculation now. But the logical conclusion is this that riding free runs every 30-40 days can be an effective strategy (although ENT now says they won’t mention a book within 60 days of the last time it was free, meaning you’re basically down to POI, FKBT, and paid ads for exposure). This can last for several months, anyway. But it appears to be less effective the more you do it, and there is a point where a diminished 30 days of sales + a diminished free run isn’t going to be enough to prop you up to a significant place on the pop lists. When that happens, the run’s going to be over for a while. At least until the wells refill. Or you discover some other way to get your book back up there.

There’s also the question of whether giving away that many books might hurt your long-term sales. I have no answers to that question. People are buying their first ereaders every day. Considering there are already millions of Kindles out there, giving away 50,000 copies of your book over the course of a year may be a drop in the bucket of your potential audience. Readers aren’t a nonrenewable resource. Still, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable question, especially if you might be better served waiting to reach those readers for when you’ve got the next book in the series ready, say.

This is getting far afield. Nearly three months after the new algorithms spraing into being, here are my conclusions, which may or may not be remotely accurate:

 * The Select program continues to reward far fewer books in the past

 * The few books it does reward are well-positioned to continue to exploit their appeal

 * If timed right, and with the right luck, these books can chain several months’ worth of strong sales together

 * However, there will likely be diminishing returns after two or more of these runs, and it is unlikely to be something that can be maintained for more than a few months in a row

 * While Select may no longer be very useful for most single titles, it continues to be quite useful for series

As for me, I’ll be leaving my fantasy series in Select for the time being, but I’m letting Breakers‘ Select contract expire early next month. I’d like to explore the other storefronts with a book I know is capable of selling. I’d like to see if I can build sales that are less roller-coastery. And to be perfectly frank, I’m pissed off at Amazon’s shitty customer support (grumble grumble bitch&moan). I’m sure they will be devastated to have lost my exclusivity.

What might this mean for your book? That is virtually impossible to answer. Maybe you’ll strike it rich on your next free run, but the chances of that are pretty low, unfortunately. And the strategy discussed above certainly isn’t a long-term plan (although giving away and selling that many copies may build you a readership that is very long-term indeed).

At the same time, what’s the alternative? De-enroll from Select, push the book to all the other stores, and pray it catches on? That’s not exactly an active strategy. Yet the other stores don’t have the same kinds of tools for discoverability that Select provides. It’s possible to make books free on iTunes and Kobo, yes, but that doesn’t result in the same list placement going free provides on Amazon. (Well, it kind of does on iTunes, but it’s clumsier, it takes much, much longer, and it’s far from guaranteed.)

In other words, we’re still in the same boat we’ve been in since mid-March. Select doesn’t sell like it used to, but the other sites are a cross between a roulette wheel and a wasteland. I’m growing restless and disillusioned, so I’m going to go exploring. I don’t know what you should do, but I’ll report back with anything interesting I find along the way.

Perhaps you’ve noticed I haven’t been posting much this month. Or perhaps you haven’t noticed anything different! We all have our own priorities. But I haven’t been posting, mainly because I’ve been nipples-deep in another project: putting the finishing touches on my newest novel, The Great Rift.

The Great Rift is the second book in my epic fantasy series The Cycle of Arawn. To celebrate its release, the first book The White Tree is currently free (and will be so for the next few days).

Meanwhile, The Great Rift is just $2.99, half off its regular price of $5.99.

According to Amazon, The White Tree is 417 pages long (150,000 words), and normally sells for $4.95. The Great Rift is a whopping 575 pages (nearly 200,000 words) and will normally sell at $5.99. In other words, that’s nearly 1000 pages of epic fantasy for $2.99, or 73% off. Numbers!

This is the first time I’ve had the first clue what to do with a new release. If you like what I do on this blog–you know, the numbers and such–and The Great Rift sounds like it might be worth a read, consider its purchase an investment in future content. The more I sell, the more I learn about how to sell! The more I learn, the more I can talk about what I’ve experienced and what you might try for yourself! Everyone wins and gets rich and life is wonderful forever. This is how you sell something, right? Insane promises?

Anyway, some discussion of price, strategy, etc. after this lovely picture of the cover (artwork by Char Marie Adles):

The Great Rift

So, when most indie books are $2.99 or $3.99, with a handful doing battle at $4.99, why $5.99? Well, because this book is super damn long. I worked the better part of 8 months on it. 200,000 words is a lot of words. As it turns out, it is 200,000 of them. To put it in different terms, that’s 2-3 times as long as most of the books written these days. From a financial, conquer-the-world standpoint, it would have been smarter to split it in half and sell two books at $3.99 or $4.95. But that would have messed with the story. It would have made it worse, I think. I don’t want to make my books worse.

So I’m hoping people won’t be put off by the fact it costs $1-3 more than many indie books. It’s twice as long, after all, and if I know one thing about writing, it’s that volume is the only thing that matters!

In general, “hope” is not a great business strategy, but I’ve spent the last month selling Breakers at $5.99 and $7.99, which has proven to me that.. I can sell Breakers at $5.99-7.99, when it has plenty of Amazon visibility behind it and 59 generally positive reviews in a completely different genre than The Great Rift. But I have also learned $5.99 is not necessarily a death sentence. Maybe I can sell there.

And if I can sell there, then I can justify writing books this long. And if I can’t sell there, well.. bummer. Because I think this book kicks ass. And I really want to write the finale to the trilogy.

The underlying point is this: I talk a lot about numbers and algorithms and strategies. At times it probably sounds very calculated and mercenary. Like min-max gamers in World of Warcraft who’ve forgotten how to have fun. Examining this stuff is very fun to me, because there is an underlying logic that can be brought to life if you look closely enough and long enough.

But that’s not ultimately why I do this. I do this to write cool books. Books I can be proud of. (When I’m not overcome by Acute Author Shame Syndrome, at least.) If you’re a writer, I bet you feel exactly the same.

When I’m prattling on about the numbers, then, and the numbers tell you to do one thing but your instincts as a writer tell you to do something different–ignore me. Forget the numbers. Do what makes you happy. This is supposed to be your dream job. Treat it as just that.

Last time I looked at Amazon’s current algorithms, I speculated what would happen 30 days after Breakers‘ giant free run. At that point, all the free copies it gave away would stop counting towards its rank on the popularity lists. That was a frightening prospect, but at the same time, I’d racked up some 2300 paid sales (and another 600 borrows) in the 30 days since my giveaway. Would those be enough to sustain my place on the pop lists? If not, what would happen? Would I face a slow decline, or a swift one? Would I stroll down a hill, or smash down a cliff?

Well, here’s a look in chart form. Here’s Breakers‘ entire sales history:

Pictured: D’oh

That doesn’t look so bad. That nice, flat line goes on forever and ever. It’s just a little jagged there at the end is all. Wait, let’s take a closer look:

Pictured: D’oh, Part 2

Okay, that’s a better look at what happened. What we’re seeing here is twofold. First, notice that downward slope starting around June 16? That’s when my free days stopped counting. The descent was swift–nearly 1000 ranks a day until I hit #4000, when the decline slowed. That is not a gentle hill. That is a brutal cliff. The drop from #1000 Paid to #2000 Paid is the difference between roughly 70 sales per day and about 40 sales/day. And rank declines more slowly than it rises, meaning my drop was even stiffer than that. Within a week of my free days beginning to roll off, I’d dropped from #1000 to #5000. In terms of daily sales, that was a drop from 50-70/day to 10/day.

I had braced myself for it, but it’s hard to brace yourself for a freefall. Mostly what happens at the end of the cliff is a puddle composed of you.

“But wait,” you say. “Bottoming out at #6000 isn’t so bad. That’s a pace around 500 sales/month. And anyway, rank spiked just a few days after that, taking you back to #2000. What are you bitching about?”

What am I–? Look, we’ll get to that in a moment, Captain Impatience. First, I want to talk about the why some more. Why such a steep decline? After all, my bestseller rank was still really good. #1000 overall, which was something like #8 in Technothrillers and #22 in Science Fiction > Adventure. That’s quite a bit of visibility, isn’t it? And what about also-boughts? At that point, I had a lot of popular sci-fi books pointing back to Breakers in the form of the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” lists.

Well, it turns out those things just aren’t all that important. Ha ha! That is way too flippant of an answer.  Totally misleading. In truth, bestseller rank and alsobots clearly matter to some degree, but the more I do this, the more dismissive I am of them in general: while they certainly help generate sales, the bestseller lists are so volatile your book can sink extremely rapidly, and the alsobots are such a harsh filtering process (basically, your book needs to be on the first page of a book that has just been finished by a reader who is interested in buying another book right now) that they are of limited use. I think if you have a very high bestseller rank, or first-page placement on the alsobots of a very popular book, then that can do a lot for your sales, but otherwise, those are the supporting cast to a book’s sales, not the star.

The star is the popularity lists. And your book isn’t on just one of them, it’s on a bunch. For instance, one of Breakers‘ category paths is Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction > AdventureEach of those is a separate popularity list, which means the book is listed (somewhere) on each of them. Say it’s showing up at #20 on > Adventure; that would place it somewhere around #40-50 in > Science Fiction, and somewhere like #1200-1600 in > Kindle eBooks. In terms of discoverability, it would be very easy to find in SF > Adventure (second page), pretty easy to find in > Science Fiction (page 4-5), and totally awful in > Kindle eBooks (page 100+). No one is going to click through 100 pages in the eBooks category to find it. But this is part of the reason mega-popular books like 50 Shades of Grey or The Hunger Games stay so sticky for so long: when you’re #1 in the store, everyone sees you every time they visit Amazon. Plus the whole “world-destroying word of mouth” thing. But extreme visibility in high-traffic categories leads to a lot of clicks on your book, which in turn generally leads to a lot of sales.

That’s essentially why Select free runs used to do so well on the old pop lists. And that’s why taking a sudden tumble from, say, #10 in > Science Fiction (where I peaked)–the first page of the entire category–to #40-50 or wherever makes such a big difference. And remember, you’ve got another subcategory you’re listed on, too. Once your visibility is lost when a big free run rolls beyond the pop list window, you’re not going to regain it without another push.

Breakers’ peak rank on the Science Fiction popularity list a week before I ate cliff

And giving it another push is exactly what I tried to do next. With another free run. This post is already terribly long, so I’ll explore the mixed results of that attempt–along with my experiments with higher pricing–in the next post later today or tomorrow.

As the headline says, I’ve been interviewed at Up Your Impact Factor, a blog about getting by in modern times. What do we talk about? Well, the changes to Amazon’s algorithms, of course, as well as what it means for Select.

But Jenny asked me a couple of other interesting questions I haven’t had to tackle before–like, many genre writers can release 2-4 books a year, but what do you do if you’re a literary author who only releases a book every year or two? And what’s a good general strategy if you’re just starting out as an indie author?
I provide answers! Not the answers. But an answers! Along with a very extended metaphor about selling books. Go read!

Yesterday, Joe Konrath and Blake Crouch put up an interesting post on Amazon’s Select program. The gist is that, with the emergence of viable alternative ebook stores besides Amazon, staying exclusive to Amazon by participating in the Select program is no longer worth it.

I’d qualify that a bit: staying exclusive to Amazon is no longer worth it for bestselling authors J.A. Konrath and Blake Crouch.

I’m sympathetic to their message. For 98% of participants, Select is no longer as powerful as it used to be. It doesn’t rack up the sales like it did just a few months back. Meanwhile, over the last couple years, Amazon’s share of the ebook market has decreased from around 90% to 60% or less. Still huge, in other words, but the other stores are no longer irrelevant. To put it in perspective, let’s look at a completely hypothetical example. Say you’ve got a book that will earn $300 through Amazon each month. Back when Amazon had 90% of the market, you’d only expect to earn another $33 by distributing to all the other stores. These days, having it available everywhere would make you another $200 per month. In an environment where gaining the perks of Select only means giving up 10% of the market, it’s a pretty easy call. When that exclusivity means giving up 40%, it’s a completely different story.

Blake illustrates this by his experiments with Barnes & Noble and Kobo. By enrolling in the Nook First program with his latest book, Eerie, he was able to sell 1500 books in a month of exclusivity–pretty good. Far better than he would have done for the Nook without the advertising and placement B&N gives its Nook First authors.

With another book, Kobo offered him a real promotional flurry–“email blasts, coupons, and prominent placement on their landing pages”. He didn’t have to go exclusive with them, and he was still able to hit the top 10 on Kobo. That month, his Kobo earnings on that title nearly matched what it made on Amazon.

This sounds really good. Much better than the dwindling returns of Amazon Select. But then again, of course it sounds good: this is Blake Crouch we’re talking about.

Blake Crouch can get into Nook First. Blake Crouch can get a massive advertising push on Kobo. Can you? Without those resources at your disposal, how do you really think you’ll do on the other stores? Better than you’d do than if you stayed in Select?

This doesn’t mean I think Select is still the end-all and be-all in the indie world. Kobo is very interesting, and some people do well on B&N. Despite my recent success with it, I’m growing increasingly disenchanted with Select myself; a week back, I scheduled a two-day free run for Breakers that had a good shot restoring its sales, but the promo didn’t begin until 2 AM on the second day. I emailed, called, and emailed Amazon again to reschedule my lost free day for the following day, but they didn’t respond until it was too late. The giveaway went decently, but without that second day, it didn’t do nearly as well as it would have. I gave away some 5600 books; with another day, I probably would have done 8-9K. In my position, that could have been huge. Amazon’s slow customer service cost me hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars.

Guess who’s pretty interested in Kobo and iTunes right now?

But I’m still not pulling everything from Select right away. I have a plan for one of my books that hinges on what Select offers. Select can still help that book better than anything I’m aware of through iTunes, B&N, and Kobo put together.

We’re not all Blake Crouch. I’d like to be Blake Crouch. It would be much easier to make these kinds of decisions when the other stores are willing to put so much marketing muscle at your disposal. In the interest of full disclosure, the only reason I’m leaning toward pulling one of my books from Select is I’ve had an offer–at a much, much smaller level–that would provide it with some visibility there. That, combined with my growing disenchantment with Select, makes me inclined to experiment.

The bottom line is very much a matter of common sense: if Select isn’t getting you much in the way of results, you should totally try the other stores and see what happens. Experimentation is key. You have to fail and fail and fail until you find what works. But if Select is helping, even modestly, or you have a strategy to make it start working for you, then you should probably stay exclusive for now.

Blake gets at that in their post, actually. He concludes by saying that he doesn’t have definitive answers, that the real answer is to experiment and adapt–but Joe pushes harder against Select. He no longer thinks exclusivity is worth it.

Well, maybe not for him. But it still might be for you.

So we’re now three weeks into Amazon’s most recent set of algorithms. I don’t know the first thing about what they’ve meant for the overall activity of the Kindle store, but in terms of books in the Select program and free giveaways, some trends are starting to emerge. And they generally aren’t too favorable.

Yet they aren’t completely disastrous, either (depending on your definition of “disaster,” anyway). Phoenix Sullivan has a week’s worth of data on ten different titles showing a 500% increase in income in the week after her most recent free runs. At the same time, she sees that it now takes a significantly higher number of downloads to see increased sales.

Over at the Kindleboards MEGA-THREAD devoted to the tracking of free data, results are kind of all over the map, but show persistent evidence of decreased post-free sales. (Link goes to results posted after the May 3 changes; when browsing, make sure to look for free runs that took place after that date.) Still, it’s also showing that post-free sales haven’t dried up completely. Meanwhile, Russell Blake, who’s been doing pretty well for himself in part due to free runs and is touch with a bunch of other authors, has mentioned post-free sales are only about 10% of what they used to be back in the glory days. In the episode of the Self-Publishing Podcast I was on, Johnny B. Truant mentioned he’d recently given away 8000 copies and seen no appreciable sales bump. After what Phoenix has termed the Golden and Silver Ages of Select, these diminished numbers are fairly discouraging.

But here’s something else that appears to be a part of the new system:

This is Breakers‘ entire sales history, dating back to its release on February 7. Now let me doctor the charts a little bit:

The two red bars mark the approximate dates of algorithm changes. 0, 1, 2 all fell during the days of List A; 3 took place during the days of List A/B/C; 4 is what we’re seeing with the most recent set. 0 was the release date. 1, 2, and 4 came after free runs. 3 was an ad/sale price promo.

The pattern’s pretty clear, right? Under the old algorithms, books would peak, then gradually decline over the next few days until they returned to Spiky Land, where sales are few and inconsistent. (My Spiky Land sales rate was generally 0-6 per day.) The trajectory looked like the flight of a lofty home run ball in reverse–a swift rise, then a steady downward slope. Since my latest free run under the new algorithms, however, the sales trajectory is more like.. the path of a torpedo. A sexy torpedo. One that doesn’t show any major signs of slowing down.

For another three weeks, anyway, which is when things will get really interesting. What’s happening here is this. Breakers gave away 2.5 shitloads of books on its last free run (where a “shitload” is defined as 10,000 copies–note that we’re using customary measurements, not the Imperial scale). Right before it was free, its popularity list rankings were #121 in Thrillers > Technothrillers and worse than #500 in Science Fiction > Adventure. Where is it now?

Technothriller isn’t the biggest category in the Kindle store, but SF > Adventure is a pretty tough one. This is the category where George R.R. Martin and Wool chew everyone else up and drool them down their sales-fattened bellies. Yesterday, Breakers was actually #12–page 1!–but a new release from Amazon’s 47North imprint vaulted ahead of it today.

Here’s the difference between the old algos (List A) and the new. When Breakers came off free, it would have vaulted to #1 in both categories. It probably had enough downloads that it would have hit page 1 of the entire Mystery & Thrillers genre. This would have produced a rush of sales (almost certainly hundreds), but after a few days, its rank would start to decay. It would get leapfrogged by the latest post-free books off big runs of their own. Within about a week–maybe two, given a giveaway of this magnitude–it would probably be back down near its former rank and sales.

If anything, the opposite is true now for big giveaways. Initially, Breakers hit Technothrillers at #12 and Adventure at #27. It hadn’t sold much over the 30 days prior to being free. 110ish copies, I think. The new pop lists look at a 30-day rolling window of sales. Once it reverted to paid, then, its pop list placement was calculated based on 25K freebies + 110 sales. But since its free run, it’s been selling 70+ copies per day. As the 30-day window advances, then, last month’s low sales days are discarded from the equation while its most recent high sales days are added to it. The result: it has steadily climbed the pop lists ever since.

By now, it’s probably about peaked. And in another 3 weeks, those 25K freebies will roll beyond the window. At that point, it will drop down the pop lists again. How much? That will be determined entirely through how many copies it sold over its new 30-day window. But if that arrow-straight sales line from its sales history holds out, we’d be talking somewhere in the neighborhood of 1500-2000 copies–in other words, enough that it’ll probably still be somewhere on page 1 of Technothrillers, and probably page 3 of SF > Adventure. That would still be a lot of pop list visibility.

In other other words, it could get sticky.

Assuming the algos don’t change over that time, of course. And that I don’t get 50 consecutive one-star reviews. And that the collective unconsciousness doesn’t decide Breakers is 300-some pages of garbage and that its author should be defenestrated with all possible haste. Or that interest doesn’t simply dry up. The U.S.S. Me could be torpedoed at any time.

Back to the big picture. In general, Select is no longer as effective at generating sales as it was just last month. The visibility produced by most giveaways is much lesser than it was before. But if you get lucky enough, that visibility will last for much longer. More visibility, more sales. While in most cases, Select is the least useful it’s ever been–and part of me isn’t happy about that at all–in certain instances, it’s become a more powerful tool than ever.

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