indie life

For the last few weeks, I’ve been too busy to do anything except revise my upcoming novel, but when the guys at the Self-Publishing Podcast invited me back on the show, I jumped at the chance. In the last year, host authors Johnny B. Truant, Sean Platt, and David Wright have exploded; their serialized Yesterday’s Gone has sold tens of thousands of copies, Amazon picked them up for a couple Kindle Serials, and they continue to produce new titles with staggering prolificacy. Dudes know their shit.

So in their latest episode (#42), I went on to talk with them about Select and what Amazon’s algorithms have been up to since I was on the show last May, but I expected to learn plenty from them, too. I wasn’t disappointed.

You can watch the show here. I had a blast. Hope there’s something useful for you, too.

In one sense, it isn’t news that Amazon wants the payment to authors for Select borrows to be about $2.00. The program is now over a year old, and in that time, the rate has always been pretty close to that mark. But this December, a lot of people thought things might be different. Amazon announced that they were adding a bonus payment to the Select pool, doubling their borrows budget to $1.4M. There was talk that borrows might pay $3 or even $4 apiece. I didn’t think it would get that high, but I figured it would be a big enough pot to keep borrows in the $2-2.50 range.

The December 2012 borrows rate was recently announced. The payout? $1.88.

Well. A bit skimpy. But how does that compare to the history of the program? Here’s the per-borrow payment each month since Select started.

12/11 – $1.70
1/12 – $1.60
2/12 – $2.01
3/12 – $2.18
4/12 – $2.48
5/12 – $2.26
6/12 – $2.08
7/12 – $2.04
8/12 – $2.12
9/12 – $2.29
10/12 – $2.36
11/12 – $1.90
12/12 – $1.88

Over the course of the program, Select has paid an average monthly rate of $2.07 per borrow. Its lowest payout was $1.60 in January 2012; its highest was $2.48 in April 2012. The payment rate has never been more than 20% lower than $2.00 or 25% higher than $2.00. Trend-wise, the per-borrow payment has never increased more than 3 months in a row, and it’s never decreased for more than 3 months in a row.

Based on these numbers, I think we can conclude a few things about Amazon.

  • Amazon wants borrows to pay about $2 apiece
  • Amazon doesn’t want to set the borrow rate at a hard $2 apiece
  • Amazon is really good at modeling consumer behavior
  • They’ve done better over the holidays than expected

Rad. All this raises a few immediate questions.

Why $2?

The glib economics answer is Amazon believes $2 is the rough price point at which enough authors will stay enrolled in Select to give Prime customers an enjoyable selection of books and thus incentivize them to re-up next time, too. As for how Amazon reached that $2 figure in the first place, I don’t know. The obvious answer is that $2 is about what an author would be paid for a sale of a $2.99 book at a 70% royalty, making a borrow just as good as a sale.

Why not a hard $2 monthly payment?

I think there are several reasons for this. For one thing, a $600,000 or $1,500,000 pot looks a lot more enticing to authors than $2/borrow. There’s a bit of a gambling element to it. Sure, borrows may only have been $2.04 this month, but what if they go up to, say, $2.40 next month? And what if I can get more of them than I did last month? That could really add up. *click, enrolled*

For another thing, maybe Amazon doesn’t have perfect confidence in their predictions of customer behavior. If they set borrows at $2, and next month Fire sales explode and they wind up with double the borrows they had last month, Select would cost them twice what they had budgeted. Amazon’s got riches for days, so maybe an extra $200K or $600K is no big deal, considering it’s a cost incurred by selling all those new Kindles/getting all those new Prime subscriptions, but even Amazon has budgets.

But the most important thing, I think, is that Amazon loves complex systems. They don’t want to lay down rules from above, they want to build dynamic ecosystems, because if you build them right, such systems are self-correcting–and provide you with all kinds of awesome data. For instance, if you set the borrow payment at $2, and authors slowly decide that’s insufficient, they’ll unenroll. The selection of titles in the Kindle Online Lending Library will shrink, making it less attractive to Prime members, leading to fewer subscriptions and less $$$ for Amazon.

But if you make the per-borrow payment dynamic, then you have a self-correcting element to push the system back to equilibrium. Maybe $2 isn’t worth enrolling, but as there are fewer books sharing the pot and/or fewer Prime customers borrowing them, the borrow payment creeps up. Maybe at $2.25, a few more authors decide it’s worth their while to join up. At $2.50, even more jump ship for Select. The KOLL has more titles, making it more exciting for prospective Prime customers, leading to (hopefully) a resurgence in subscriptions. And then as more authors and Prime customers join up, the per-borrow payment shrinks again, but who cares? You’ve got fresh blood in the program. To leave it, they’re going to have to a) decide it’s no longer worth it and b) take action to get out of it. Until they do, you’ve got authors’ content and customers’ money.

And in the meantime, you get to collect all this awesome data about how all these groups react to the changes in the system.

Because Amazon doesn’t know that $2 is the ideal borrow payment. Maybe authors will flood Select with titles for just $1/borrow. If so, great news for Amazon. They can offer even better service to their customers at little or no extra cost to themselves.

Why might Amazon have had better holidays than they anticipated?

I don’t know that for a fact. But look at the numbers above. To date, the only months the borrow payment rate has dipped below $2 are in November, December, and January–the leadup to Christmas, Christmas itself, and the post-Christmas boom. If they wanted borrows to be around $2, then they’ve had a few more Prime customers both holiday seasons than they predicted.

What does this mean for authors going forward?

Well, that would seem like good news. Because a lot of those new Prime members have their membership because they bought a Kindle Fire. And new Kindle Fire owners means more people around to buy ebooks.

It also means the Select program is pretty stable. There are still a lot of authors in the program and a lot of Prime members borrowing their books. From Amazon’s perspective, this is just dandy. And if everything’s working as they like, it’s less likely that they’re going to put out a lot of shiny new incentives to the Select program.

Note: there is a big difference between “less likely” and “won’t”. However well Select is doing for Amazon, the bloom is off the rose. They could decide to do something about that at any time.

But the program looks stable, and it looks like a winner. I’m having a hard time typing this, because I feel like there are good odds I’ll soon be proven hilariously wrong at any moment, but don’t count on any big changes to the program soon.

And in the meantime, expect to be paid about $2 per borrow. Amazon appears to want to keep it there–and Amazon is pretty good at getting what they want.

It is an amazing time to be an author. No joke. It has probably never been easier or more realistic to make a living writing books. Self-publishing platforms offered by Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, Kobo, and elsewhere have made it incredibly easy for authors to reach readers directly. Maybe too easy! Well, you don’t have to buy it, chums.

But I am deeply in love with all these companies. After spending most of a year gazing creepily into their Nooks and crannies, I have determined they are very much like people. Some take more time to understand than others. Some are easygoing. Others are grumpy. Whatever their faults, however, I love them all, because they have given me the job I have always wanted to had: writing books.

And just like friends and relatives, none of them is perfect. Since they’ve all come to me begging for advice, I’ve assembled a list of ways they can improve (from the perspective of indie authors) over the next year. It should be stated and restated that none of these suggestions means I think any of these places is useless or bad. I genuinely love all of them.

But some could be better to me. If I were these places, and I cared what indie authors thought, here’s what I would do to improve the experience in 2013.


Amazon needs to improve the Select program.

In 2012, Select changed everything. It released in early December of 2011 and allowed unknown authors to give their books away to thousands of readers. With a decent free run to vault them up Amazon’s popularity lists, an author could go on to sell a lot of their books over the next 7+ days, too. Over the period of just a few months, uncounted indie authors built real careers on the back of Select.

In March, Amazon tested ways to alter the program, because (presumably) it resulted in a lot of questionable books at the top of the popularity lists, which is one of their major drivers of sales. In May, they decided they had a better system, and watered down the effectiveness of freebies significantly. Within six months of Select going live and changing everything, Amazon neutered it.

The outcome looks great for Amazon. Only the books that gave away the greatest number of copies saw a significant boost in sales afterwards (and instead of lasting for 1-2 weeks, that boost could last for a full month!). That meant only the books that had been most vetted by free downloaders wound up in front of paying customers.

Which meant it became more of a winner-takes-all program. Great for indie books with strong packaging in popular genres. Not so great for niche subgenres, or for anyone who doesn’t fall into, say, the top 2-5% of the Select program.

I don’t know, maybe it’s best for readers to only be served up with the best of the best indie books. But it is not the best for authors. Especially those with quality books but whose genre/luck/ability to massage the big book blogs isn’t the strongest. Offering Select authors a 70% royalty in certain non-English-speaking territories isn’t enough. The KOLL doesn’t provide them enough alternative visibility, either (and anyway, it still disproportionately rewards those at the top). Exclusivity should be worth something. There’s got to be another way to get started as a new author besides trashing other books on Goodreads, building a following, and then releasing a New Adult book. Please add a new incentive to Select in 2013.

Barnes & Noble needs an affiliate program.

As far as I know, there is no B&N equivalent to free and bargain Kindle book blogs like Pixel of Ink, Ereader News Today, and Free Kindle Books and Tips, to name just the largest. Blogs like these are instrumental for helping indie authors run promotions and get in touch with eager readers, yet there’s not a single blog remotely like this for B&N.

Why are there a jillion Kindle blogs and zero for Nook? Because Kindle blogs make lots of money off Amazon’s affiliate program. When they direct a shopper to Amazon, they receive a cut of anything that shopper goes on to buy during that trip. This incentivizes entrepreneurs to set up sites meant to alert readers to free, bargain, and noteworthy books available on Amazon. If these blogs do a good job at that, they make lots and lots AND LOTS of money.

B&N has an affiliate program, but they don’t extend it to ebooks. Thus nobody cares enough to get one going for ebooks. Thus indie authors and small publishers have far fewer methods to promote ebooks on B&N. I don’t know why they don’t extend this program to ebooks. It seems like free money for everyone–B&N gets advertising at a small cost of the sales generated by that advertising; bloggers get affiliate money; authors get royalties–yet B&N discontinued the program earlier this year. Maybe the numbers just didn’t add up.

But this is one of the chief reasons Amazon has a robust indie market and B&N is a very distant second. If they want a share of that market, they’ve got to open up ways for people to participate in it. I think that starts with affiliate percentages on ebooks.

This goes for all the ebookstores, really. If I were a smaller outlet like Sony, I would be murdering myself–or better yet, everyone else!–to set up an effective affiliate program and get other people selling my products for me.

Kobo needs an automated new releases list.

Kobo’s got a bunch of lists on their site, but most appear to be hand-operated. As in, books are selected to appear on them by hand. That’s cool, but it rewards established authors who already have the name recognition to be selected for these lists.

This extends to new releases. Yet the new release lists are one of the few areas where new authors who have either a) great books or b) savvy can push their books up the list, drawing new eyeballs.

I love Kobo. They’ve made great strides in 2012, they’re super personable, they’re indie-friendly, and I think they will soon be/already are a vital part of the ebook and indie marketplace. Now they just need to make it a little easier for new authors to get a toehold in their store. A big step in that direction includes a new release list that’s ordered by bestsellers and sortable by genre.

An automated list of bestselling freebies would be nice, too, but one step at a time.

The iBookstore needs more avenues to visibility.

Apple’s iBookstore is deeply intriguing. When you’re not used to it, it looks awful. Browsing is weird. It’s a miracle anyone can find anything. But once you’re used to it, it’s not bad at all. In fact, it’s got a bunch of different categories to find books in, a few lists of bestsellers, bargain-priced books, and staff picks, and as an author, you can set prices in 50 different countries and counting, allowing you to target prices and promotions to markets as they emerge.

But the iBookstore is not all that deep. It’s easy to find the bestselling books, as well as the ones the iBookstore team hand-selects to appear on the couple lists they’ve got, but that’s about it. Its searchability is less than great. Like Kobo, it’s very winner-takes-all. The tail isn’t very long with Apple (or, to be more accurate, very fat). They’re well-curated, but maybe a little too well-curated. Let’s add a few more ways for books to be discovered. Let indies work to prove their worthy rather than relying on you to be placed in front of shoppers.


Amazon needs to quit obsessing about new releases.

You thought I was done with Amazon? Ha ha! In the words of Kramer, not bloody likely!

In the last 1-2 years, Amazon has geared their site more and more toward new releases. Hot New Releases lists now last 30 days instead of 90. The popularity lists measure the last 30 days of sales rather than the last ~7. It has resulted in a system where new releases are king, and if you don’t sell well right off the bat, you may never have the chance to. For new writers, there’s really no such thing as “organic” growth on Amazon. You either bring a fanbase to the table to buy your new book the instant it goes live, or you struggle in total obscurity until you give away enough books to have a fanbase for your next release.

This is a catastrophic system. On the one hand, by measuring the last full 30 days of sales, it makes it very difficult for a short-term boost to be big enough to get a book selling in any real numbers. On the other hand, by only measuring the last 30 days, you ensure that books that did gain from short-term boosts and are now finding their audience will die a noisy death as soon as that 30-day cliff rolls around.

Please vary it up a little. I know, you’ve got 1,800,000 ebooks and counting. Who cares about all that old crap when you’re adding 100,000 titles per month. But right now, too many elements of the system run along similar lines. Book sales crash too hard and rockets launch too fast. Vary it up so that authors can actually claw their ways up the ranks. And when it comes time to fade, let them parachute gradually rather than smashing into a big red writer-shaped puddle.

You’re too volatile, is what I’m saying. Having multiple systems working on 30-day scales isn’t helping anyone except people who understand how to game new releases.


Smashwords needs to quit sucking.

I feel bad for saying this, because Smashwords founder Mark Coker is pretty cool, and a definite friend of indies. But at this point, his ebook distribution service doesn’t offer a whole lot of value. It’s good to use if you don’t have a Mac and want to be on iTunes. It’s nice if you don’t live in the US but want to distribute to B&N. And it’s useful to get out to all those other tiny stores where nobody sells anything but you may as well be there because hey why not. Oh, and it lets you put free books on B&N, which is awesome for you but seems kind of useless for Smashwords.

Otherwise, there is no benefit to uploading through Smashwords instead of going direct to all the places that let you go direct (as of this writing, that includes [with some caveats] Amazon, B&N, Kobo, and the iBookstore).

On the contrary, Smashwords distribution can actually hurt you in a lot of ways. The Meatgrinder forces you to use .docs rather than the epubs that are industry-standard elsewhere. That means an additional round of formatting for many authors. Even .doc-users have to meet Smashwords’ rather rigid style guide. Smashwords doesn’t categorize books all that accurately, either, leaving your books in a wasteland of discoverability when they are pushed to other markets. And changes made to your books on Smashwords can take weeks or even months to filter through to the other stores.

I mean, Smashwords could be a pretty good service for a lot of authors, specifically the subset that wants to just buckle down and write rather than micromanaging their books on all the various vendors. Upload to Smashwords, distribute widely, collect checks, party party. I am far too data/control-neurotic to do that, but that is a valuable service. No joke.

But not accepting epubs and having very specific formatting requirements for .docs makes it less convenient to go through them, and their general sluggishness makes it excessively difficult to run effective sales or promotions. In fact, given pricematching between stores, having delayed price changes can result in authors losing hundreds or thousands of dollars when Amazon slashes their book prices down to match prices on Sony that should have been changed a month ago.

So there you go, SW. Get faster, get more precise in areas like category mapping, and accept epubs. I’m sure that’s just as easy as I’ve made it sound.

Everyone except Kobo and the iBookstore needs to improve their customer service.

Kobo and iBookstore: awesome. Knowledgable, prompt, helpful, eager. Everyone else: terrible. Take a lap.

B&N’s customer service department has apparently all been zapped to Lost, because they don’t respond at all anymore. Amazon has no phone number for emergencies and their representatives are inconsistent at best. Smashwords is small and can take a long time to reply. Sony says, “Sorry, take it up with Smashwords.”

I know this stuff costs a lot of money. But two stores are doing it right. If you can afford to step up your CS game, look to Kobo and Apple.

Sony needs to exist.

That place is just a myth, right? A land of makebelieve sales? As far as ebookstores, the more the merrier, as far as I’m concerned. Out of roughly 14,000 books sold this year, I think about a dozen of those were on Sony. That is probably being generous. Sony: please prove you exist.

Okay, so at this point, we’re not newbie indie writers anymore. We’ve looked at releasing your first book and using Select to start selling it. In the next step, we kept with Select to build up some fans and learn more about what makes for an attractive book. Third was about examining the pros and cons of Select in preparation for where to go next. And after concluding that Select isn’t perfect, we looked at expanding into non-ebook formats and identifying when and what to pull from Select.

Then a lot of time elapsed. Sorry. I was busy putting some theories to the test. Another, more accurate way to put that is “I was scrambling like mad to make the actual transitions I intended to talk about.” Those were a fun couple months, where “fun” is also meant to be understood as “something not all that fun at all.”

But it’s lookin’ good now, and the experience helped me feel ready to talk about the next step. About hitting a stable career and the specific tactics used to get there. I’m hardly the first to come up with these strategies, but that is not about to stop me from talking about them as if I own them and am revealing them for the very first time!

The way I see it, there are three or four solid ways to continue selling books without a ton of active promotion. Naturally, all of this depends on writing new books in the meantime, as well as in cultivating a mailing list/fanbase to alert whenever that new release is ready. I hope this provides some stuff to think about even if you’re already well-familiar with concepts like permafree.

Staying in Select

No matter how many times DWS or KKR insist that you’re missing out on sales, angering potential readers, and otherwise acting a fool, the exclusivity of Select sometimes makes sense as a long-term plan. There are at least two ways to make this work.

The first is the much more common scenario. If you’ve got an established series, running a Select giveaway is a great way to support a new release or to boost flagging sales. A Select giveaway costs nothing and provides you with precise control of when your promo runs. It gets your book in a lot of new hands, giving you the opportunity to build your mailing list or your Facebook page or whatever tools you prefer to use to have direct contact with your fans. There are all kinds of theories and strategies for selling books, but I haven’t seen any as revolutionary as Select. I’ve seen it build dozens of careers this year, including mine.

I mean, I’m leery of Select. I’m less in love with it by the day. But it still works very, very well for some people, particularly authors of series. With 3+ books, you can run a free promo of one book every month without having to make a given book free more than once every three months. That’s a good long time between free runs. Enough to let a book recharge its batteries a bit. That strikes me as a far more sustainable strategy than trying to give away the same book every month (although even that can work), especially if you’re adding a new book or two (or three!) to the series every year.

The second long-term use of Select is if you’re selling so well that you never even need to give copies of your books away. This might sound like a great reason to leave Select–if your books are doing that well, surely they will sell in the other stores as well–but here’s the thing: borrows. If your books are doing great, they’ll place highly in the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (the KOLL), which is what Kindle-users browse to find books to borrow. The KOLL only represents the subset of books in Select (along with a small number of traditionally published books that have negotiated special arrangements with Amazon), so the competition there is much less fierce. If you’re a strong seller, chances are you’ll wind up with great visibility in the KOLL.

Let’s think about this for a moment. Despite the growth of all the other stores, Amazon retains something like 60% of the ebook market. Meanwhile, before Christmas made everything all crazy, Amazon was getting about 250,000 borrows per month. These were split up among a smaller pool of books (everything in Select) and the books at the top were rewarded with a disproportionately high cut of the borrows. While a bestseller like Hugh Howey’s Wool has done plenty well in the other stores, it might do even better by staying in Select and racking up borrows; he’s intimated as much on comments on Kindleboards.

Crazy, I know, and totally counterintuitive–unless you think of the KOLL as a completely separate market. A small store, sure, with just a few hundred thousand customers per month, but it’s also got a much smaller selection to split those customers between. It’s the guaranteed opportunity to be a big fish in a small pond, and that is generally a safer bet than it is to fling your book at the other stores and hope its word of mouth allows it to do just as well at B&N, Kobo, the iBookstore, Kobo, Smashwords, Sony, and all the rest as it did at Amazon.

I’ll put it another way. Let’s say Librios, the god of books, strolls down from book-heaven and presents you with a choice. He can make you a bestseller at Kobo, but you have to remove your book from the iBookstore. Mwa ha ha ha! Would you do it?

Unless you’re already a bestseller at both places, of course you would. The argument for publishing to every possible outlet is that you never know where a book might take off, so you should buy as many lotto tickets as possible to up your chances of breaking out.

But if you’re doing that great with Select and its borrows, you have already won the lotto.

The concept that it is best to publish to every store isn’t a universal truth, then, it’s a dogmatic principle. Your situation doesn’t care about principles. Your situation cares about your situation. Look at your placement on the KOLL. Look at your monthly borrows, and remember those apply to your bestseller rank, too. I don’t know where the cutoff point is, but if, say, 20%+ of your income is generated by borrows, it might make more sense to stick with a winning ticket than to go chasing a hypothetical 40% of the marketplace that might never materialize for you.

Moving into the Other Stores

But you know what? Select kind of sucks. Giveaways aren’t as effective as they once were. Amazon is throttling freebies on sites like POI and ENT, meaning they list about half as many free books each day as they did a couple months ago. Meanwhile, other markets continue to grow. And rather than improving the Select carrot in any meaningful way, Amazon is hitting authors with an impotent stick, offering 70% royalties in India and Brazil for Select books and just 35% for non-Select titles. What incredible opportunity! India has a billion people! Brazil is the most populous country in South America! Yeah, and they’re not exactly busting down the ebook doors just yet. At this moment, I have sold 1100+ books on Amazon in December and given away another 11,500+. 0 of those have been in Brazil. Great incentive, guys.

Anyway, it just doesn’t feel safe to me. I like the idea of diversity. Diversity is healthy. It lets you weather change and disaster. It feels good to not have to rely on so many things beyond your control–Amazon algorithms, free book sites, yadda yadda yadda.

So let’s say you’re thinking about exiting Select for the greener pastures of BN etc. Here’s the thing: don’t do it until you have an actual plan to sell at BN. Letting your books sit around waiting to be struck by sales-lightning is a terrible idea. The slow burn leading to a boom of success is something of a myth. It’s an outlier, at the very least. If you’re selling 2/month at BN, that’s not going to lead to growth. Maaaybe if you’re doing 20/month. You need to be climbing ranks, accumulating meaningful alsobots, etc. A book doesn’t have to be a bestseller in every store to be a valuable part of your writin’ business, but you have to do something to get sales going.

Because the idea that a good book will eventually find its audience is just that. An idea. A wish. Cream only rises to the top because it is less dense than the lower-fat milk beneath it and it is a natural law of physics that less-dense substances will float on top of denser substances. Books are not dairy products. Writers can trick you with metaphors about selling books because it is a writer’s job to trick people into believing in places and things that aren’t true. So. Books are books.

Fortunately, it does not require a 12-point business plan to sell them outside Amazon. Here’s a few simple ways to actually make it worth your while to leave Select.

The Perma-Free Option

This plan is super-simple: if you have a series, make the first book free. Permanently. You can accomplish this by setting the price to $0.00 on Kobo and the iBookstore, using Smashwords to distribute at $0.00 to BN, and getting Amazon to pricematch your title to $0.00. This plan is awesome because it requires very little work to set up and virtually no work to maintain. Readers check out your first book because it costs nothing, and if they like it, maybe they go pay real money for book two.

A lot of people have seen great success with this plan. The common pattern of sales is a genuine slow burn that eventually explodes as a series picks up steam. After some time–a few months, typically–sales tail off, but still continue to come in at a nice, steady level. And since there are several different stores to build an audience in, you can experience this cycle at four or five different places with a single series.

Some authors don’t like free books. They don’t like the idea of giving away something they worked so hard on. They think free books devalue the marketplace and will eventually be the ruin of us all.

Well, good news, Scrooge. You don’t have to.

Just Write a Series

That may be all it takes to start selling in other stores. If you’d prefer to have a career now rather than counting on some five-year business plan whose chief tenets are magical thinking and wishcasting the future, I recommend starting your first couple books in Select, then transitioning out once you’ve got 3+ books in that series.

The idea is to use Select to pick up initial visibility, sales, and fans despite being a no-name nobody who’s otherwise lucky to sell 1/week. Once you’ve got something of a fanbase on Amazon, and no longer have to rely exclusively on giveaways to sell a new book, you can get going in other stores just by releasing the entire series there at once.

Why does it make a difference to release a series together (or at least tightly-spaced) rather than one at a time over several months? Because a series is like an A-Team. There aren’t a lot of Rambo-books out there, invincible one-book killing squads that can’t be stopped no matter how many trad-shirt enemies get in their way. It is very rare to have a book that good.

But if you’ve got a squad of books, they help each other out. They pull each other up when one of them stumbles. BN, for instance, has a new releases list that goes back 90 days. You have a much better chance of climbing high up this list if you fire three titles at it all at once–giving browsers three chances to find your series–rather than hitting it with a single book at a time. There are cases in which books enter a state of positive reinforcement where they haul each other faster and faster down the track.

There are no guarantees this will actually work. This plan is a definite citizen of the Sovereign Nation of My Books Will Magically Sell Themselves. But at least it ups your odds. “Synergy,” it’s called, if you’re a fan of words that could get you punched. Depending on the store, you’ll only be eligible for new release lists for 1-3 months. Take advantage of this visibility while you’ve got it. Let your series be an A-Team. That is what series are designed to do.

Do Something. Anything at All. Seriously, Just Do Something to Get Started

Here is a slightly less magical plan: when you move your books out of Amazon, advertise or promote your books in some way. If you know a site that advertises to Nook users, book an ad for soon after your books go live on BN (and then tell me where you advertised, because non-Amazon ad sites are as rare as snipes). Do something. Anything at all to get some initial sales and, with any luck, provoke your books into continuing to sell.

Because here is another law of physics, one that might actually apply to books: a body at rest tends to stay at rest. A book that isn’t selling tends to continue not to sell. Anti-Select people like to talk about the opportunity cost of Select–all the potential non-Amazon sales you’re giving up by being exclusive to Amazon–but if you are in the other stores, and you’re not selling anything, then you’re incurring an opportunity cost by not being in Select, where you could be sparking sales through giveaways.

Even if you’re generally anti-marketing, then, do something to get sales going. Do a $0.99 sale along with a new release. Book an ad. Blog your ass off. Whatever. The goal is to get the new store you’re in to start selling your book for you so you don’t have to keep doing this stupid marketing stuff.

Here’s an example of all this junk in action. I published Melt Down, the sequel to Breakers, to Barnes & Noble on October 16. My October sales there were 8. 4 for Breakers, 4 for Melt Down. I made $16.30 in October. Melt Down was only out a couple weeks, so why don’t we double that to represent a full month going forward. 16 sales. 3-4/week. $30-40 a month. Whoopee.

In early November, dissatisfied with my new release sales everywhere, I threw a bunch of junk together. A guest post on my friend’s popular blog. An ENT ad. Etc. I reduced Breakers and Melt Down to $0.99. Aided by advertising, being on BN’s new releases list, and a $0.99 sale, I sold a few hundred copies over there. The boost was short-lived. About five days. After that, I restored them to $2.99 and $3.99. But even after things settled down, the sale had given them some visibility. Alsobots. A few reviews. Maybe a bit of word of mouth. Six weeks later, they’re continuing to sell about 3/day. $7/day, $200/month.

The difference between $40/month and $200/month probably isn’t the difference between dogfood dinner and organic prime rib, but this is where Dean Wesley Smith’s mantra about creating as many revenue streams as possible through as many sites as possible starts to make sense. But I don’t agree with his ideas about tossing your work out there and doing nothing to promote it. Not when you’re still scrabbling to establish a career and every dollar matters. Take a few days off to give yourself a kick, then get back to writing.

The Hybrid Solution

I’m talking about all this stuff like it’s just that simple, but it’s not. Even when you’re in Select, and you’re on Amazon, which all sorts of sites offer advertising and support for, selling books is tough. Selling books in non-Amazon stores is even tougher. If you’re making a career out of indiedom, cutting off Select and taking the plunge into the other stores could be a serious risk to your sales. If it gets bad enough, you could find yourself back with–shudder!–a real job.

So maybe it’s a good idea to leave some books in Select and others out. That’s been my plan since August–move my Breakers series into the other stores while keeping The Cycle of Arawn in Select. My thinkin’ was to hedge my bets. By keeping Arawn in Select, I could still run free giveaways to keep sales steady even as Breakers dwindled on Amazon and fought to get established in the other stores.

It worked. Or maybe it worked, question mark? Since it’s only been a few months and all. My sales shrank for a couple months, but then Breakers got going on BN, and now it’s going on Kobo, and I just did a big Select giveaway of Arawn back on Amazon, and woooooo Christmas.

Anyway, it doesn’t particularly matter how it worked for me. The concept is what’s important. Having one series in and one series out is just about being flexible. Which you can’t do if you have bizarre, unbreakable principles about how a very fluid book market is supposed to work. Unless you think there is something morally heinous about it, Select isn’t an ideology, it’s a tool. Every single (non-heinous) strategy is just a tool. Tools are made to be picked up when they can be useful and set down when the job changes or you find a better tool to get the old job done.

A Summary

The problem with these long-range business plans–write ten book before you start promoting; forego Select and get your start in all the markets right now–is that even if they are sound in principle (and I mostly think they’re not), no one can predict how they’ll play out for an isolated, individual career. A hard, rigid plan may not be the best fit for where you are right now in your life. If you’re relying on your income as an author to survive, and that income is partly or wholly reliant on using Select, then obviously you’re going to want to be a lot more cautious and gradual about leaving the program than someone with a day job that pays all the bills and affords the luxury of taking high-risk gambles or embarking on years-long plans.

That seems like such common sense that I’m sitting here thinking, “Dude, you can’t seriously be trying to pass that off as wisdom. That is so obvious and self-evident that you are an idiot for bothering to type it aloud.” Yet I see people passing down hard and fast rules to new writers all the time. Stuff that sounds so insane it would make more sense as deliberate sabotage.

I’ve tried to pull together some specific strategies here–when it makes sense to stick with Select, going permafree, how and when to transition from other stores–but I think success as an independent author boils down to a handful of very basic ideas.

One, you need to keep writing. This is the advice that everyone gives, because it is the best advice. I don’t know how many books you “need” to write per year to sustain a career. I am going to say one, at the very, very least. Two or three or four is going to make it a lot easier on yourself. Depending on your background, four books per year may sound impossible, almost comically fast and virtually guaranteed to produce hackish drivel, but you can write a lot when you’re writing as a full-time job. The very fastest indies I’ve seen put out a new full-length novel every single month.

I sure don’t write that fast (although I may be capable of 3-4/year now), but that’s just to provide a sense of scale. The specifics don’t matter. If you want to make this a full-time job, then you have to treat it like a full-time job. Let that not be lost in all this babble of tactics.

Second, you have to try things for yourself. You have to find something that works for you, and when you find it, you have to keep doing it. Aggressively.

As long as it’s not evil, a specific tactic has no value judgment attached to it. If you’re getting results from Select, keep doing Select. If not, try the other stores. Try ads, even if Konrath says they’re stupid and never did him any good. Try anything. Try everything. Failure’s good. Failure’s cool. Failing means you’re trying.

If you’re done failing, and you’ve got to the point where your fans will follow you down any path, then congratulations, you’ve won. For most of us, it’s still a struggle. If someone’s found a way to make it work, I hate to see other writers put that down just because the author is using Select or erotica or serials or whatever damn trend is bringing the judge-hounds sniffing around. If it works and you like it, do it now, because it may not work tomorrow.

But even if it does stop, you’ve probably wound up with more fans. More experiences. More resources to get you through to the next port in the storm. It gets easier. I think. How’s that for reassuring?

This series of posts is now to the end of my experience. I don’t know where it goes from here. I am sure the next year of changes will force me to find out.

Writers can’t agree on anything. That is because we are simply a subset of “people,” who can’t agree on anything either, but it is more fun to pretend there is something different about us that makes us especially prone to bashing each other’s heads over the most minor of issues. If nothing else, writers are–hypothetically–particularly skilled at rhetoric and word-usin’, so our spats often look more dramatic and convincing than they are.

For instance, there’s a subset of authors out there who will argue quite vehemently that in the early days of your writing career, it is worthless–counterproductive, even–to actually try to sell your books.

Instead, you should wait until you’ve got a decent backlist built up. Five, ten, twenty books. Something like that. Because you’re new to this, it’s more important to work on your craft than to waste time flogging your first books. There’s little point in marketing if you can’t yet write worth a damn. And do you know how little damns are worth? Nothing. Damn this cold weather! See, I’m just giving them away.

Furthermore, when you only have one book up, you’ve only got one book to sell. Captured eyeballs have no other titles to wander off toward. None of yours, anyway. Whereas if you have five or ten books, if you point a potential reader to one of them, they will also have four or nine other books of yours to peruse. Marketing efforts become much more efficient and thus timeworthy when you have more than one book to sell.

And really, the argument concludes, if you write a lot of books, make them available everywhere, and make sure they look nice, you won’t need to market. The books will sell themselves. You won’t even know how! Cream rises to the top, you know. Because it is of a lesser density than the less-fatty milk beneath it and thus it is a law of the natural universe that it will rise. The same physical law of science applies to books. Just ask Newton.

There’s some truth to all these ideas. I have found that is indeed easier to sell books when you have multiples of them to play with. There are all kinds of tricks and games you can play with a three-book series, for instance. And it is very difficult to keep one book selling all the time. It is like.. pushing a snowball up a hill that is also covered in snow. The further you push the ball, the bigger and heavier it gets; as you exhaust places and means to advertise a given book, the more snow it accumulates. It gets harder and harder to keep moving. But if you’ve got nine other little snowballs waiting down the hill, when one ball gets too big to push, forget it and run down to one of the others. Let the big one melt for a while.

And it is simply true that your fifth or tenth book will be better than your first. Unless you’re Joseph Heller. But for all us non-Hellers, in the early days, it is just a better use of time to focus on your writing instead of your sales. Work on your craft and the sales will come later. Craft!

But here’s the thing. Marketing is a craft, too.

That’s right. Marketing is a craft. It’s a science and an art–one of the dark ones, mwa ha ha ha!–and there are just as many myths about selling as there are about writing. For instance, did you know you don’t need a social media presence at all? (I italicized that because italics means you’re an expert. Fact.) It definitely helps, but there are all kinds of things you can do to promote books that don’t involve time-consuming Facebook sessions or blogging. Oops.

Your initial attempts to sell your book are going to be just as hamhanded and cliche-riddled as the first book you wrote. So you know what? Probably best to get them out of the way early. When nobody’s going to see your embarrassment. Thing is, every attempt to sell is a learning experience. The curve is steep. It just doesn’t take that much time and effort to accumulate a clue or two. In fact, this whole damn thing is like D&D. It takes much more experience points to advance from level 19 to level 20 than it does from level 1 to level 2. If you devote the next three years to writing–no marketing, no promotion, nothing but writing–maybe you come out the other side as a 20th Level Writer. But guess what? You are still a 1st Level Salesman. The puniest little kobold can knock you unconscious. Sweet Tiamat! Get behind the fighters!

Meanwhile, if you dedicated 95% of those three years to writing and 5% to learning how to sell books, you’re going to emerge from the dungeon as a 19th Level Writer and, say, an 8th Level Salesman. From there, guess who’s going to have an easier time building their career?

Not to mention the very minor point that if you learn how to sell your books well enough to quit your job or at least reduce your hours, you can dedicate all that extra time to writing. (See? Italics.) You will have more books and they will be better than the person who comes home from their office and dreams up stories for two hours every night while their spouse dreams up new ways to kill them without being caught. One guy’s scrabbling to get in a Sunday afternoon killing dragons with his buddies while the other woman is spending every day slaughtering her way across the Castle of the Golden Lich. Guess who levels up faster?

I’ve just spent 400 words expounding on something that is self-evident once you hear it. Selling is a skill. A craft. To get good at it, you have to work at it. Should you spend more time learning how to sell than you do learning how to write? Absolutely not. I mean, maybe. Look, it’s your life. If you’re a writer, the writing should come first.

But not putting in the effort to learn even rudimentary ways to get your books in front of people who might actually be interested in buying them? That’s shooting yourself in the foot. No. It’s worse. It’s denying you even have legs. Well, you do! You have legs. Learn how to use them, for god’s sake. Don’t rely on outside forces to get you moving. If you sit in one place, the only thing that’s going to get you rolling is an earthquake. You don’t have to train to become a marathon-seller. But at least learn to walk.

By the way one of my books is free until Christmas. See how easy this is? (Side note: this very last bit is irony. This post will in no way change the outcome of my giveaway. I just got aggravated reading for the hundredth time about how writers shouldn’t bother to learn how to sell the things they are writing.)

Last week, Passive Guy’s mentioned the publishing industry has jacked up book prices well beyond the rate of inflation. Curious, I decided to compare prices for myself. I didn’t know what I would find, but two results popped out: adjusted for inflation, publishers have tripled the price of mass market paperbacks. And this leap in prices coincides with the period of mass consolidation within the publishing industry.

The full results are available at David Gaughran’s blog. Dude has a lot of readers. Way more than I do.

This is a huge topic, one I may well explore in further depth down the road. Oh, in the meantime, one other thing that jumped out at me? Right now, many indie books are the exact same price as the original mass market paperbacks–paperbacks that helped revitalize the entire industry.

Ever since the John Locke paid reviews scandal came to light, indie author granddad Joe Konrath has bent over backwards to defend Locke and other authors who’ve abused the review system. In his first commentary on the issue, he points out that since many techniques used to sell books aren’t 100% pure, no one has any right to judge Locke for buying hundreds of fake reviews. Next up, he proposed that we would all sell out, cheat, and lie to help our friends or further our career, so really, in our own ways, we’re all little Lockes at heart. Anyway, there’s no proof that buying all those reviews helped Locke at all, so who was hurt, really?

From there, Konrath argued that leaving one-star reviews is “shitty” and “mean,” but since millions of other people do it all the time, what’s the big deal that author RJ Ellory left anonymous one-stars on his competitors’ books? He might be a dick, but the system is filled with millions of dicks! Also, reviews are about free speech. So even when an author violates the policies of a company’s own website–and attempts to deceive readers into thinking his one-star reviews have been left by other readers with no stake in the game–this is no different from any other one-star, and anyway, “It’s wrong to not allow people to speak their mind.”

Next up, Konrath posited that some fake reviews are a good thing. Satirical reviews of wolf t-shirts and tanks are creative and funny, and if we wipe out all the fakes, we’ll lose these treasures, too. Being against fake reviews is being in favor of censorship.

As always, he drew false equivalencies, conflating an innocent or murky issue with a blatantly wrong one, then declaring they’re all one and the same. There’s no difference between leaving a satirical review, leaving a review on a friend’s book you genuinely enjoyed, and, say, calculatedly lying to customers in order to get them to buy your books. If you’re against one case, you’re against them all. Either that or you’re a hypocrite. Oh, and you’re anti-freedom, too.

All this time, he condemned the “moral panic” he saw brewing around fake reviews, warning that it would lead to mob lynchings and witch hunts. If you’re against fake reviews, you’ll wind up hurting the innocent.

Recently, Amazon started deleting whole bunches of reviews. Some of these disappeared reviews were tainted, some were pure, and others were somewhere in between. The other day, Konrath took this as proof he was right. Who was to blame for the loss of many innocent, truthful reviews? Losses that dismayed both reviewers, who lost their voices, opinions they worked hard to provide, and authors, whose books now have lower ratings than they used to? (Then again, if, as Konrath claims, reviews don’t matter, why is that an issue?)

Not the authors who bought fake reviews or used sockpuppets to harm others.

Not Amazon, for casting such a broad, flawed net that many genuine reviews were caught up in it as well.

Nope. Instead, fault lies with those who complained about these problems, especially the low-hanging fruit of ad hoc (and, I’ll concede, self-righteous) groups like No Sock Puppets Here Please.

As usual, Konrath deflects blame from those who deserve it–the authors who created this whole mess–and splashes it over everyone else instead. For the record, I don’t think Konrath’s an idiot. I’m also wary of witch hunts, and I think he raised some interesting points about the shades of gray involved in selling books. Too bad he used those points not to ask “Where do we draw the line?”, but rather to declare, “Oh my god, there are no lines at all!”

I’m sure he believes everything he says. That he’s acting as the lone voice of reason amidst a hysterical mob of moral crusaders. The problem is that he’s wrong. Authors abused the system. In response, the system cracked down. Innocents got hurt. The lesson here isn’t that it’s wrong to complain about cheating. The lesson is that it’s wrong to cheat. Even when the harm isn’t immediately clear, it has a way of coming back to hurt those who’ve been playing fair, too.

ETA: For the record, in my research for this post, I discovered Amazon has been sweeping up big batches of shady reviews since at least late June. The Locke stuff broke in late August. So is this purge of reviews a direct result of people complaining about John Locke and his review-tainting cohorts? At best, the answer is “partly”; possibly, the answer is “not at all.” Amazon cares very deeply about the integrity of their review system. Because they know reviews sell books. Did the supposed “witch hunt” accelerate or heighten the review-deletion process? Possibly. But it is indisputable that this review-deletion was going on months before anybody started calling for heads on a platter.

#

Meanwhile, some clarity has been shed on exactly why Amazon is deleting so many honest reviews. The best summary of the situation I’ve found is in a post in the Amazon forums.

The gist is this. Reviews aren’t being removed because of some mysterious new policy, but rather because Amazon has decided to more strictly enforce (and possibly has reinterpreted?) its preexisting policies–probably in response to the Locke scandal. The poster (Peter Durward Harris) mentions two ways reviews are in violation: those given in exchange for any form of compensation, including gifted books, and those given by people who have a direct financial stake or are in direct competition with the book.

What’s the matter with gifting books to reviewers? Isn’t that in line with Amazon’s policy that you can’t provide any form of compensation except a free book? Well, it’s tricky. One way to interpret this is that when you gift someone a book, you have essentially sent them a gift card for the value of that book–and the receiver of the gift card doesn’t have to actually spend it on the book. The gifted book is a form of compensation, funds provided to purchase a book, which Amazon does not allow.

The second area–no reviews from those with a financial stake in the product, including competitors–is being enforced with similar semantic strictness. Harris’ post mentions that a graphic designer was informed that she’s not allowed to review books she’s done covers for. Meanwhile, many authors who’ve left reviews on other books have since had those reviews yanked.

Harris doesn’t mention the phenomenon of “linked accounts,” which appears to be the third violation Amazon is targeting, and may actually be a new policy. In my last post, I mentioned that reviews area being deleted if they are found to have (unspecified) connections to the writer or to other reviewers, which may include things like connecting to Amazon through the same IP address.

What we’re seeing here is an enforcement of rules that errs on the side of suspicion. Reviews that fall into a gray area, or those with the potential for abuse, are being axed without regard for how “pure” they may actually be. Amazon appears to be pretty serious about preserving the integrity of their reviews, even if it comes at the cost of many that did nothing wrong. If it has the appearance or potential of wrongdoing, it’s a target for deletion.

I’m not sure exactly how strictly these areas are being cracked down on. Lots of reviews based on gifted books are still out there. A quick update after further examination–Amazon might be touchier when it comes to giving gift cards rather than gift books; in any event, the removal of reviews based on a gift/gift card seems to be reserved for specific abusers. Lots of reviews left by authors are still out there. Customer service responses indicate it’s okay to review books as an author, but that malicious and/or fake reviews are against guidelines–yet many legit author-penned reviews have been deleted. My best guess is they’ve ginned up some programs to flag reviews that exhibit certain suspicious signs, then flagged reviews are checked and deleted (or left alone) manually. It remains highly confusing. The only thing that’s clear is that enforcement is selective, inconsistent, and imperfect.

I haven’t seen any real punishments handed down from on high, at least. Reviews just.. disappear. If you email Amazon to ask why, they’ll give you a vague explanation; if you try to repost your review, you may receive an email warning you not to try again or face the risk of having your reviewing privileges curtailed or revoked. It’s all kind of weird, largely because it’s still not all that clear, but at least the streets of Amazon aren’t running red with the blood of unwitting reviewers.

But perfectly innocent reviewers and authors have lost reviews. It’s frustrated many; possibly, it’s discouraged reviewers from reviewing, and could well have hurt the sales of authors who’ve done nothing wrong. That’s the fallout from John Locke, Stephen Leather, and RJ Ellory’s wrongdoing. (For the record, I consider Leather’s small-scale sockpuppetry far less insidious than Locke’s purchase of hundreds of fake reviews.) So I suppose Konrath’s right about one thing–if no one had cared, no one would have been hurt.

But people do care. Because reviews matter, if only to those who give them and those who receive them. I don’t blame those who complained. I blame those who knowingly acted to compromise the system.

In my last post in this series, I looked at whether Select is as useful in the long term of an indie author’s career as it is in the short term, concluding that Select carries several costs and risks. My skepticism may be weird, coming after two posts that were nothing but rah-rah Select cheerleading, but Select isn’t a life-philosophy. There’s no Tao Te KDP Select. As I’ve said before, Select is a tool. And I think it is, in general, most effective as a tool for those who are just starting out.

Which isn’t to say it becomes useless once an author’s established. But things are a little different.

Before we get started, two things. What do I mean that an author is “established,” or has reached a “medium-term” portion of their career? Hell, I don’t know. Somewhere between fresh out of the gates and automatic bestseller? To put it in more concrete terms, I’m thinking about authors whose careers, at present, roughly match up to these guidelines:

  • Have published 3-6 or more full-length books (or some equivalent in serializations, novellas, and the like)
  • Capable of selling at least a few dozen copies of their new release right off the bat

  • Are writing and publishing 2+ novels a year

This is just ballpark thinking. To abstract these points a bit, the idea is that you’ve got a backlist of sorts, you’ve got the infrastructure in place to generate some sales with new releases (be this a mailing list, canny advertising, or whatever), and that you’re continuing to put out new books on at least a fairly regular schedule. To get even more abstract: you don’t just have a book or two out there floating in the ooze. Instead, you’ve got resources at your disposal to take advantage of when sales slow down and it’s time to give yourself a boost.

Onto the second qualification: take all this advice with a grain of salt. In fact, take it with two grains, because salt is delicious. But also take two grains because I’m not coming at this from the perspective of somebody with lengthy, firsthand expertise. I don’t sell 50,000 copies a month. My garage doesn’t contain a Ferrari and an elephant. Some twenty months into my indie career, I’m just breaking into this phase myself. I’m coming at it from the perspective of someone whose own floor is barely in place, who’s able to make a living, but not one most people would consider respectable. I’m observing and experimenting with all this stuff right now. That means what I’m seeing is present-day info, which is nice in a business changing this fast, but it could also mean I’m heading down the path to disaster. Just want to toss that out there!

Anyway, on to the thinkin’.

If the early stage of an indie career is about building your floor, I think the middle stage is about building.. the stuff that goes on top of the floor. Maybe this metaphor should be about a castle? In which case, the middle phase of your career is about raising new turrets, bastions, ramparts, moats, curtain walls lined with merlons, murder holes…you get the picture. All the infrastructure that will defend your career against the threats of the outside world and a rapidly changing industry. Logically, the best way to build a stable, steady career is to establish multiple revenue streams for yourself. To cast aside the shackles of Select and spread your arms to the healing rays of iTunes, Kobo, B&N, etc.

…or maybe the best way to build a stable career is to continue to reach as many readers as possible. And maybe that involves staying in Select.

I think both are valid points of view, so I’m going to explore both strategies, as well as some that fall in between. First off, though, is a bit of a cheat. You can be in Select and other stores. How? With paperbacks and other non-ebook formats, of course.

   On the Virtues of Non-eBook Formats

If you haven’t already, expanding to these other formats–the most obvious ones are paperbacks and audiobooks–is worth exploring. I know, not everyone is as lazy as me. They were downloading CreateSpace templates with one hand while uploading their ebooks to KDP with the other. Well you know what, pal, if you’re that ambidextrous, there are probably easier ways to make money than writing books.

And I think that, in the early phases of indiedom, it’s okay to focus exclusively on ebook formats. Ebooks are the easiest format for indies to break into, and proper formatting doesn’t require much specialized talent. Certainly not like producing quality cover art. Meanwhile, formatting a paperback or getting an audiobook produced requires an author to learn an entirely new set of skills. Considering how little money you’re likely to make off these formats in the early going, I think it’s perfectly valid to ignore them in favor of working on new books.

At first. Somewhere in this middle phase, however, I think it’s worth your while to take a break from your daily schedule to learn how to get these other formats available for people to buy. Hell, you don’t even have to learn paperback formatting for yourself. There are a lot of people out there who’ll do it for you for $30-100 a pop. That may not have been feasible for your to pay in the early going, when every cent mattered, but if you’re bringing in monthly sales, it’s time to invest some of that revenue into new ways to sell your books. With audiobooks, it can be expensive to hire a narrator outright, but if you agree on a royalty split, your total costs should be minimal.

If you choose to learn to format paperbacks for yourself, chances are you’ll find the next one takes far less time to produce. My first paperback took me several days to format. I’m finishing the second one right now. It took me maybe three hours in total to produce, including emails to my cover artist and such, and cost $50: $25 for CreateSpace’s expanded distribution, and $25 for the paperback cover. (Technically, an additional $25 on top of the ebook cover I’d commissioned earlier.) It is very difficult to predict the future, but assuming CreateSpace doesn’t go out of business in the next two months, I believe this minor investment of time and money will pay for itself many times over.

I think that’s all I’ll say about that. Other people have covered the importance of other revenue streams in much more detail, and with far greater experience, than I’m capable of doing. Paperbacks and audiobooks may never be a major component of your income, but they can be a small tower of your empire, a place to take refuge in even when other towers are collapsing. And if these formats are an area you enjoy exploring, you may be able to use these bastions as strongholds from which to expand your reach. Man, I write too much epic fantasy. I’m talking about getting paperbacks into local bookstores. Serializing audiobooks on your website. That sort of thing.

Back to ebooks. Specifically, to stay in Select, or to start heading sail for distant stores?

  What to Pull Out of Select

Again, I have a handy dodge. Unless all your titles are in successful series, you may have noticed that one of your books just doesn’t seem to get any juice from Select. Maybe the big freebie blogs rarely mention it when it’s free. Maybe you’ve never wound up with enough reviews, or a high enough review rating, to meet those blogs’ standards. Maybe everything about selling this book feels like pushing a boulder uphill.

Well, I say stop pushing that boulder. Nobody likes pushing boulders. Some books are just tough sells. It’s hard to know which ones are boulders before they’re up for sale–few people intend to write dud books–but given enough time, and several other books for comparison, it’s pretty easy to tell which of your books are tough sells, and may never see any significant benefit from Select. These are the books whose monthly sales columns make you want to shake your head and send them to the corner with a pointy cap on.

These boulders are perfect candidates to roll out of Select and into the other stores. The truth is they probably won’t sell like gangbusters elsewhere, either–if they lack that certain appeal in one store, they probably won’t have it anywhere–but they’ll more than likely sell a few copies here and there. They may gradually pick up a few reviews, not that those appear to be nearly as important beyond Amazon. And once you’re ready to transition your better-selling books to other stores, new readers who snap up your bestsellers will have other titles of yours to buy, too.

Additionally, novellas, short stories, and story collections all tend to have a hard time in Select, but may do better on platforms like iTunes. If you’re not getting any Select traction with them, don’t be afraid to let them expire from the program and distribute them to other stores.

   Should I Upload Directly? Or Use a Third-Party Distributor?

When it comes to the other stores, I recommend uploading directly whenever possible. Smashwords is a useful company and service, particularly if you’re trying to get into stores you can’t partner with directly (such as B&N, if you’re outside the US, or Apple, if you’re a human). But they’re very clumsy. They don’t always catalogue books correctly, and any changes you make to pricing, content, etc. may take days, weeks, even months to filter out to all the other stores. Use Smashwords where it makes sense–when you can’t get into a store, when you’ve got a book you’re all but certain you’ll rarely if ever change (an unpopular short story collection, say), when you’re making a book permanently free, and to be present on Smashwords itself.

But if you can, go direct through Kobo. Go direct through Barnes & Noble. If you’ve got a Mac, apply to sell direct through iTunes. Much like learning to format paperbacks, once you’ve learned to format an epub for the other stores, doing it with your next book will take no time at all. You may be able to upload the same Word document, or just have Calibre export an epub instead of a mobi. In exchange for this small expenditure of your time, you’ll have direct control over your books. You’ll be able to change prices, blurbs, categories, etc. in a matter of hours rather than days and weeks. And if you have to suddenly change your whole strategy–because, for instance, OMG selling books outside Amazon is impossible–you can unpublish tonight rather than waiting months to abandon the other stores and scurry back to Select like the scurvy rat ye be.

Okay, dunno where that came from. I don’t write any pirate fiction. Point is, you want to remain nimble at all times. Nimbleness (nimbility?) is one of your chief weapons as an indie. You want to be able to react to changes the moment after they happen. If you publish through a third-party distributor, you lose that flexibility. Don’t use Smashwords (or anywhere else) just because it’s easy. Use it smartly. Use it when it’s to your advantage. Otherwise, preserve control of your work wherever possible. You’ll thank yourself later.

Hey, I gave you that advice. You should be thanking me.

   Yeah, But You Said There Would Be Strategies Here

I know. But this is getting loooooong, and I have a new novel to flog. Anyway, all these things are strategies, kind of. And they’re applicable to all authors, whether or not Select is a major plank of your platform.

A lot of opinion-having writers feel like Select is an either/or proposition. It isn’t. Once you’ve reached this middle phase of your indie career, you should be in position to decide for yourself whether you want to stay in Select or branch out to other stores–but whatever you decide, you’ve still got options.

Even if you think you’ll stick with Select, you can kick your non-performing titles out of the nest and see if they have better luck elsewhere. Start building new floors at Kobo and B&N and iTunes, however tiny, in case you change your mind down the road. Your boulders aren’t doing you any good in Select anyway. Just fire ’em off and forget ’em.

If you plan to get all your books out of Select and into the other stores.. well, follow that exact same process, but more aggressively. Be faster to pull the trigger on suspected boulders. Use these advance scouts to get a feel for how the other stores work so you’ll be in best position to sell your popular titles. This metaphor is terribly mixed. But don’t fire and forget. Fool around with your scouts, then fool around some more.

Whatever your top-level strategy, bear in mind that the ebook is not the only property you have to work with. Your story is what’s of value. People will buy that story in whatever format it comes in–ebook, paperback, audiobook, holocube, neuronasal spraypaper. But you have to give them the option first. Once you’ve got a few books out there, try to find the chance to take a few weeks off your writing to devote to other formats.

This is 2300 words. That’s a lot of words. I will endeavor to produce another batch by tomorrow.

Last post, I looked at how to run big giveaways in order to build up your floor as an author. As long as you’re comfortable giving away thousands of copies of your books, it’s a fast, low-effort way to grab your first real visibility. Along the way, you’re gaining fans, which will help you sell your next book, as well as reviews and likes and tags and all that, which will help you sell this book the next time you promote it.

This whole strategy is based on KDP Select, however. Which requires selling exclusively through Amazon. Which continues to be a contentious and divisive topic within the indie publishing world.

The pro-Select crowd more or less believes this: “Select is a tool, nothing more. I’ve gotten better results through it than I ever have when my book was available at all the other stories. Until that changes, I’m going to stick with what’s working for me–Select, and Amazon exclusivity.”

The anti-Select argument has a few facets to it. Some people have a philosophical problem with exclusivity; they want readers to be able to buy their books through whatever store and on whatever format they prefer. Others just think Select is a bad business decision: it’s not sustainable, the gains from free giveaways are temporary, and you aren’t factoring in the opportunity cost of exclusivity: you don’t know what your books could be selling in the other stores. “I want steady, organic growth. A long-term career. The best way to achieve this is to make my books available in as many stores and formats as I possibly can.”

This perspective is perhaps most visibly argued by Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch. These two are long-term pros with all kinds of great advice about protecting your rights as an author and running your business wisely. I’ve met them once, and found them smart, approachable, and downright excited to share what they know with new authors. (Hi, Kris! RadCon 2010–I was the young dude in the Bukowski shirt. Got flustered when you told me he was one of Dean’s favorites.)

But I also think they’re full of crap.

To me, the business plan of pushing your work out to every stores is a strategy of hope. As in, “I’m going to sell my work in every store, and hope the readers there magically find it.” It’s the power of prayer, in other words–and we all know God helps those who help themselves.

So you can hope. Or, you can enroll in Select. At the cost of hoping you might sell at the other markets, you now have a powerful tool to create visibility for yourself in what remains the majority share of the ebook market.

That said? I’m growing skeptical of Select. I don’t think it is necessarily a long-term part of an indie author’s career.

Boy, this is going to be a long post. Here’s the thing. The benefits of Select depend on giving away a lot of books. You can only give away a lot of books if a lot of people know you have a book to give away. The way most books give away thousands of copies is through being listed by the big three freebie blogs: ENT, POI, and FKBT. In other words, your success as a self-published author depends on a new set of gatekeepers.

These gatekeepers have their own sets of standards as to which books they’ll choose to promote. These standards may or may not be public. If you’ve got a book that doesn’t meet their standards–whether because of your cover, your genre, your number or average rating of reviews, or you gave their dog a dirty look nine years back–Select may not be of any use to you. Note that I surely don’t blame these blogs for having standards–they’ve built their own readership by curating titles and offering up what appear to be the good ones; if they had no standards, no one would follow them–I’m just saying that your success in Select depends on factors outside of your control.

Speaking of factors outside of your control: Amazon is not reliable. Not 100%. Using Select, you’ll run into glitches all the time. Your free day may not start as scheduled, or at all. Your book may not go free on time or go back to paid on time. You may not be displayed on the free ranks for hours or days at a time, curtailing the effectiveness of your promo. And you know how much immediate customer support Amazon offers for these problems? Zero. There’s no phone number for you to call. If you email KDP support, you’ll be lucky to get a response by the next day, and it will probably be several days after that before they’ll address your issue. Too late to matter, in other words.

Amazon’s algorithms that help translate free promotions into paid sales aren’t reliable, either. They’ve already changed twice this year: once in March, once in May. They could change again at any time. Could be better, could be worse. There’s no way to know until it happens.

Then there’s the matter of sustainability. I don’t know if it’s sustainable to pick up sales by giving away thousands of free copies on a regular basis. No one knows this. The Select program hasn’t even been out a year yet. If we’re talking about a career, we’re talking about decades of time. Can you get effective results by giving away a book month after month and year after year?

Common sense says you’ll see diminishing returns, but in a business as chaotic as the current ebook world, common sense needs to sit down and shut up. I can relate that, anecdotally, I have seen a handful of people who have been able to run highly successful monthly or semi-monthly giveaways of a title and pick up some real sales afterwards. The May changes to Amazon’s algorithms have made this harder to do, but people are still doing it. (And this mostly depends on POI picking you up every time you go free.)

But they’re not common. There is a larger pool of people who can regularly give away a decent number of copies on a regular basis, but their post-free sales aren’t that inspirational. I’m talking a few dozen extra sales following a giveaway. Probably no more than a couple hundred bucks in income. And then there is an even larger pool of authors who get very inconsistent results. Sometimes, they may give away thousands of copies during a promotion, but other times, they aren’t picked up anywhere and they’re lucky to give away a few hundred.

And there is an opportunity cost. This cost is totally unknown, of course; you can’t know how your book would do in the other stores until it is in the other stores. This is what I’ve seen, though. A book that does well in Select tends to sell in the other stores, too. Probably not like gangbusters. Usually not enough to make up the difference. But it will sell some. And I’ve had some books that gained nothing from Select wind up selling more in the other stores than they have on Amazon. Again, not sales by the truckload. But a few here and there. Furthermore, all the things you’ll learn about selling books by being in Select–covers and categories and all the rest–largely apply to the other stores as well. After seasoning yourself in Select, it should be easier to take what you’ve learned and apply it to Apple and B&N and Kobo as well.

Then there’s the issue of trying to become a big fish in a small pond. Of trying to stay ahead of the curve rather than blindly following what dummies like me are trying to pass along as fresh news.

In order to make Select work, then, you have to rely on the gatekeepers of blogs. You have to rely on Amazon to actually run your promo as scheduled and to not change the program’s effectiveness three weeks from now. And you have to rely on the Select concept being one that will work for years and years down the road. Meanwhile, you can’t know where you’d be at in the other stores if you’d never tried Select in the first place.

All that said? I still recommend Select as a starting point. Right here, right now, Select still works very well for a great many people. Even for seasoned indies, the other stores can be a struggle. Select remains well-understood and easy to leverage. It’s particularly useful for a series and for getting new books off the ground before you have a fanbase to do that for you.

But for all these reasons, I think a longer-term strategy involves more than Select. I, for one, am trying to make a career out of this. I don’t like the idea of my success being dependent on a handful of blogs, a single store, a single program, and a single trick. I still have a couple books enrolled in Select, but I’m trying to make it one of my tools rather than my only tool.

Okay, this post is approaching Konrathian lengths. I’m going to explore medium-term strategies in a followup post instead. But I thought it was necessary to lay out all my thoughts about Select before delving into where you might go with your career after you’re, say, 6-12 months into your career, have 2-6 titles out there, and have run multiple giveaways. That way, you’ll know where I’m coming from, and can adjust your own strategies accordingly.

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.

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