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.

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