Sunday, November 27, 2011

Freebooking Doesn't Always Go As Planned

A short but lovely trip to Louisiana to celebrate Thanksgiving with about 50 of my closest relatives almost netted me two new puppies -- but I was strong! Meanwhile, I learned a fair bit about the book biz while there, so maybe I can write the trip off come tax time... :o)

For those of you who have been following the freebook journey, that trip's had a few unexpected twists, some of which have been pleasantly surprising and others of which have been downright frustrating.

To recap, I decided to put Spoil of War up for free in late October. The plan was to get it free on Amazon and keep it free for only a few days. Since any good campaign plan includes a list of expected results, I hoped to 1) garner a few more credible reviews for the book and 2) capitalize on the book's better visibility once it came off free to spur sales before the holidays so that post-Christmas it would be in a favorable position to be discovered by lots of happy readers with new Kindles and nooks.

The first part of the plan went brilliantly. Apple kindly made it free right on schedule, followed by Amazon. I immediately started the process to unfree it -- and that's when I hit the first major detour. Apple simply refuses to unfree the book. I don't know if it's because of a glitch in the automated system between Smashwords, who distributes to Apple, and Apple, or if there is a human decision involved. Smashwords last week sent a message to Apple to help me expedite the unfreeing, but as of this writing, Spoil remains free there.

Amazon will presumably keep Spoil free now for as long as Apple does. In fact, Amazon decided being free in the US store wasn't enough, and, last Wednesday, they thoughtfully made the book free on the UK site too.

Now, lest those of you following this journey think this is the route all books take, let's look at one of the short stories excerpted from the Extinct anthology that went on this same trip earlier this month. The request to free it was honored on schedule by Apple and Amazon, just like Spoil. As with Spoil, I immediately began the process to unfree it the day it went free on Amazon. Unlike Spoil, Apple returned the book to paid status after exactly one week of being made free. Amazon followed suit within hours. Exactly the path I wished for Spoil.

Why the difference? Clueless.

My initial plan was to return Spoil to the paid list on Amazon while it was still in the Top 100 on the free list. When that milestone passed, I hoped it would still be in the Top 200, then the Top 300. Now I'm holding my breath for 2012. Free books usually start to lose their appeal and their rankings after 7-10 days. Spoil has enjoyed a decent overall rank for an extended period of time (which MAY be why Apple is reluctant to unfree it just yet), but a major fall in the rankings is inevitable. I'd really, really like to be shunted over to the paid store before that happens and the chance for visibility is lost.

Here are the numbers to date.

Apple:

#1 Historical Fantasy
On the What's Hot lists for all of Fantasy and Historical Romance

I won't know total downloads through the Apple store before next quarter, so maybe mid- to late-January I'll have those figures.

63 ratings (38 5-star, 16 4-star, 8 3-star, 1 2-star) for an average of 4.5 stars. Three text reviews, all 5-star.

Amazon:

US / UK
#3 / 2 - Historical Fantasy
#20 / 13 - All Fantasy
#14 / 5 - Historical Romance
#86  / 39 - All Romance
#388 / 107  - Overall Free Store

18,481 US Downloads
622 UK Downloads

16 new reviews since going free -- still pretty mixed.

It's frustrating to know where you want to go but to not be able to get there when you want to despite careful planning and through no fault of your own. I've enjoyed seeing the sights along the scenic route, but I'm ready to be at my destination now. Surely we must be close. Are we there yet???

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Book Covers And A Free Gift

Jump down to the end if you can't wait to see what the FREE GIFT is :o).

For any author, book covers can make or break the book. Traditionally published authors often get little say in the final result. Sometimes that's a good thing; other times, it can cause a maelstrom of controversy -- especially if the cover tries to cater to a PC mindset (blond-haired, white MCs, for example) when the actual story is anything but.

Authors who self-publish have the luxury of adapting a cover to the story as they see fit. Sometimes this means working directly with a professional design artist. Sometimes it means working with the design software yourself.

For the Steel Magnolia Press (SMP) books, we're swinging both ways. We've bought a couple of premade designs from a talented design artist and tweaked the titling text ourselves to get a feel for what we're happy with. Jennifer wanted a signature font and styling for the author name on her books, and we settled on a feminine cursive design that can work with anything from historicals to contemporary. We've also progressed to buying a premade design and letting the designer run with the titling text to stunning effect. I'll have more on the topic of finding a cover artist and the different types of cover work, along with examples, in a future post.

Some covers we keep in-house. A Vision of Sugarplums, a reissue of an award-winning novella by Jennifer Blake, is one we produced ourselves. Jennifer found a stock image that she knew captured the essence of the story perfectly. All that was needed was to make it Christmas-y. I suggested the santa hat and another SMP author, Kathy Faucheux, suggested the bow on the teddy. And to make things even more perfect, while Jennifer was updating the story to account for technology changes since the story was first released, she changed a ragdoll the baby carries around to a teddy bear. Having that kind of flexibility is priceless.

The image went from the standard stock image to the final cover with only one wrong turn along the way. (I seem to need to create one stupid draft first before understanding how obviously bad it is. Let's just say my skill with design software is maturing.) Another opportunity we had was to create a nice title page that plays off the design of the cover. For those of you self-publishing, the advantage to uploading directly to vendor sites such as Amazon and BN rather than going through an aggregator like Smashwords is being able to create nicer-looking interiors (even though there are still tight limitations on what translates over to the e-reader). It's double work to produce two different master copies, but some things are worth the extra time, you know. For instance, that pretty title page in the Smashword's editions is plain text, nothing more.



So What's The Free Gift Already?!

Among the romance reading audience, Jennifer's name is well-enough known that folk will readily pay traditional publisher prices for her new releases. In-store promotions helped rocket her recently released The Three Graces trilogy to thousands sold over the last few weeks. When I published A Vision of Sugarplums to BN and it went live yesterday morning, the cover image -- which is served out from a separate server from the rest of the information -- hadn't even populated onto the page yet and the book was already selling. A Jennifer Blake ebook for 99 cents had been unheard of before now.

Jennifer, though, wants the 30,000-word novella to be free -- a gift to her readers for their support, not just over the years, but for following her across publishing models. We're working on making that happen. For now, you can pick up your free copy -- in Kindle, epub (nook, Sony, iPad, etc) or PDF format -- at any of the following sites:

Steel Magnolia Press (Don't forget to sign up for the newsletter while you're there!)
All Romance eBooks (I uploaded the "pretty interior" versions here)
Smashwords (These are the "dumbed-down interiors" required to get through Smashwords' ebook converter, affectionately known as the "meatgrinder")

Here's the tease (see, you WILL be required to write a pitch at all different lengths even once your book is published!):

Meghan Castle is a real Scrooge about the holidays ... until she finds an abandoned baby in her store on Christmas Eve. Change is certainly in the air — especially when customer Rick Wallman agrees to watch the baby with her. But the secrets they're hiding could destroy the fragile future they start to build together.
Enjoy!

Friday, November 18, 2011

My Own Secret Dinosaur by Jo Antareau - Freebooking It Now!

Yay! Another story from the Extinct Doesn't Mean Forever anthology is now FREE on Amazon!

Jo Antareau's very excellent "My Own Secret Dinosaur" is one of the BEST examples of voice I've seen. At just 2000 words, it's well worth your while to read it to check out the voice, especially if you write middle grade stories. While the underlying themes are really adult-level (though younger folk can certainly enjoy the plot), the story is told through the eyes of an Australian youngster.

Download your copy at  http://www.amazon.com/My-Own-Secret-Dinosaur-ebook/dp/B005FG17CO

It's also free on Apple iTunes and Smashwords, so no excuses for not picking it up.

We'll probably make another couple of stories from the anthology free, but we'll do it sequentially and unfree each previous book before the next goes free.

Speaking of free, Spoil of War continues to be free on Apple, which needs to unfree it before Amazon will put it back in the paid store. It just broke 16,200 downloads on Amazon. While it's still #1 in the Apple and Amazon free stores for Historical Fantasy -- and in Amazon it's #8 in All Fantasy, #9 in Historical Romance and #51 in All Romance -- its overall rank on Amazon is dropping. It's now #203 in the free store. I'm hoping it will still be in the Top 300 when it's unfreed.

On Apple, Spoil now has 48 ratings with a 4.5-star average. The two text reviews it has are both 5-star. Just sayin' ;o).

I'll have an announcement about another free book soon! Stick with me here and you may never have to buy another book again...

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Freebooking Update And The Influencers Of Reviews

So 13 days in and Spoil of War is still free, despite my best efforts to unfree it. On the day it went free on Amazon I immediately repriced it on Smashwords, who distributes to Apple, expecting Apple to reprice the book within 2-3 days and Amazon to stop the free price-match by Day 5 or 6 at the latest. Apple still has it listed for free.

So, after Day 13 at Amazon:

#2 Historical Fantasy
#5 All Fantasy
#9 Historical Romance
#37 All Romance
#133 Overall in the Amazon Free Store

Times Downloaded: 15,034

at Apple after Day 18:

#1 Historical Fantasy
#9 All Fantasy
Historical Romance - Not on the Top 10 Free chart, but the book is listed in the Top 100 What's Hot, which includes only 7 free books.

Times Downloaded: Wish I knew, but I'm not provided that data in real-time. Maybe at the end of the quarter they'll let me know. Or not. Clueless as to how they report out free downloads.

After neglecting Apple as a retailer until 3 weeks ago, I'm beginning to develop a real affection for the iBooks/iTunes store.

Ooh, first position under What's Hot and #1 under Top Charts - Free in Historical Fantasy.
The only reason getting it unfree as soon as possible is important is that it will enter the paid list at a better rank and with more visibility. The more days that pass, the farther in rank the book will slip, and if the time that passes is too long, the whole marketing effort will be for naught.

Still, as a marketing effort, I'm quite happy with how successful the campaign has been so far. I wanted it free in the first place for two reasons:
  • To capitalize on visibility and hopefully pick up a few extra sales when it went back to its unfree status
  • To garner a few more reviews to offset the rash of negative ones.
Due to content alone, I certainly expect a percentage of folk to slap on a low rating. And I'm good with a few people simply not liking the story for whatever reason. I certainly don't like every book out there, no matter how well-rated. Plus, I'm sure because Spoil is cross-genre, there will be folk expecting it to be one thing and unhappy to find it's not.

What's interesting is how diverse the review communities are between Apple and Amazon.

At Amazon, anyone registered at the site can rate any product whether they've purchased and used/read it or not. Same for Apple. But you have to download the iTunes app first and launch the app if you want to rate something that you're not currently reading. That helps cut down on the "drive by's."

Like BN and Goodreads, Apple allows customers to simply rate a book without obligating them to write something. This encourages more ratings overall but doesn't make it as community-friendly.

Amazon cultivates a more open review community, which also opens it up to abuse of the system: sock puppets, paid reviews, review exchanges, boycott reviews, revenge reviews, etc. The only way to neutralize any of these abuses is to have a large pool of reviews for a given book.

Because I know Spoil is a well-written, well-proofed and well-formatted book, I was not afraid to open it up for wider consumption in hopes of more reviews.

What's happened is that, at Amazon, where reviewers are exposed to other reviews, the ratings continue to be mixed. A dozen new reviews have been posted since the book went free, with 25 total reviews now.
3 5-star - 8 total
3 4-star - 5 total
2 3-star - 3 total
4 1-star - 9 total

Even if the balance remains 50/50, from a psychological standpoint the number of positive reviews will now feel more legitimate to readers.

At Apple, where there is less peer-pressure, it's a completely different story. Spoil had no ratings before it went free 3 weeks ago. The rash of 1-star reviews that showed up on Amazon in August/September in response to a blog's reviews of the book didn't affect the iBooks store. As of now Nov 16, the book has 42 ratings (and 1 5-star text review):
22 5-star
12 4-star
7 3-star
1 2-star
0 1-star
The only experience most of the Apple customers have is seeing the book on the Hot and Top charts. I'm not discounting that as an influence in itself. In fact, I think that's likely a high influencer. I'm also sure some of those readers were disturbed by the content, but none of them enough to 1-star it.

Any conclusions we draw from this are only anecdotal, of course. We don't have enough to go on for any across-the-board observations. What it appears, though, is that books are little different from any other marketing targets. How the product is presented is as big an influence on the consumer as how the product actually performs. People like to be part of the "in" crowd. If 4-out-of-5 dentists agree that Brand X is the best, are you really going to disagree with the experts? Really?

How influenced are you by reviews? Do you generally like a bestseller more because it is a bestseller and everybody likes it? Have you ever decided not to read a book that sounded interesting and had a good sample but the reviews were poor?

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

May I Introduce ... Steel Magnolia Press

Steel Magnolia Press is a site where imagination blooms, offering romance and mainstream fiction from a talented circle of Southern writers. Our anchor author -- with 65 novels and 15 other works under her belt -- is Jennifer Blake, a New York Times bestselling author and winner of multiple awards and recognitions in romance and women's fiction.

Did I say "our?" Why yes I did! That's because I'm involved in this new venture.

Why "Steel Magnolia?" It's the nickname given to Jennifer a decade ago by Public Relations genius, Nancy Berland. And, seeing as how all the affiliated authors are from the South, it has a feel that fits.

Right now, the venture is limited to 6 authors: Jennifer, me, Tamelia Tumlin, Trudy Edgeworth, Delinda Corbin and Katharine Faucheux. The latter 3 will have books up the beginning of 2012.

Steel Magnolia Press is a way to bring Jennifer's backlist out as rights are reverted, to offer never-before-in-print-or-ebook works, to showcase her backlist titles from other publishers, and to highlight her new books as they are released through some big-name traditional publishers.

As a corollary to the main reason for being, it's a new venue to showcase works by the other affiliated authors. I have a page on the site with my two novels and the Extinct anthology. Plus there's a sub-page with all of the Extinct singles.

What happened to Dare To Dream Press, you ask? Since that's the name my novels, the Extinct anthology and the Extinct singles are all published under, and since there's an e-store already set up under that name, it'll remain viable, just not so visible. I've jumped whole-heartedly over to Steel Magnolia.

Right now at Steel Magnolia we're running a contest to draw business to our newsletter. Each week, we'll be giving away a virtual basketful of 4 ebooks in the format of the winner's choice. Plus, everyone who signs up for the newsletter gets Jennifer's free e-booklet (in PDF): 20 Tips for Writing Romance Novels.

So what do I bring to the table besides a free book that was supposed to be unfree in time for the launch? I provide the techie stuff. I've dusted off some old skills to create the website (wow, when did iframes become so popular? And how easy is that to pull in a blog and an e-store now?) and am applying new skills to produce the new ebooks themselves.

In fact, there are new ebook editions of two Jennifer Blake classic novellas from the 90s that we're releasing in tandem with the site launch -- and may I just say I think the matched pair look quite pretty inside and out! You can see them on the Steel Magnolia homepage or take a peek at them on Amazon directly at:
For now we've decided to leverage the internal promotions Amazon and BN offer rather than sell direct from the SMP site. But we're setting up to be agile enough to change that model if and when needed.

Is print publishing dead? Absolutely not. Authors just need to be open to new venues and new possibilities. And they need to remember the smart portfolio is the diversified one. Jennifer has a stake now in each of the three selling models:
  • Traditional Publishing, with 3 new titles released successively in July, August and September of this year, and in contract negotiations right now for a new trilogy.
  • Agent/Publisher, with the majority of her backlist reverted, converted and offered up through eReads, the pioneer of the agent/publisher model.
  • Author/Publisher Coalition, with the launch of Steel Magnolia Press through which she'll publish out the remainder of her backlist herself as rights are reverted, plus publish brand-new works never before in print or digital versions.
 I'm quite honored to be a part of this venture and will, of course, offer periodic updates and insight on it.

Meanwhile, Spoil of War has been downloaded 11,190 times at Amazon (I was hoping for 5000) and has 27 brand-new-since-it-went-free ratings on Apple iTunes (I don't have the data on how many times it's been downloaded there). The average rating on iTunes is 4.5 stars. So far there's only one text review, and it's 5 stars.

Look for a post soon about the influence of reviews on other reviewers ... ;o)

I've neglected my Confessions of an Animal Junkie blog while getting the final bits finished for the Steel Magnolia Press website, but I'll be back to regular posts there tomorrow on Friday

Please check out the Steel Magnolia Press website -- and sign up for the newsletter while you're there!

Saturday, November 5, 2011

October Sales and Freebooking

Today I've got some observations on the free book strategy as well as some solid and anecdotal sales figures from October.

FREEBOOKING

We need a term for the marketing strategy of offering an ebook free for a short time. I propose adding "freebooking" to the publishing lexicon.

After about 72 hours of being free on Amazon, Spoil of War has done better than I anticipated. For the last 60 hours, it's bounced between #37 and #42 in the overall free store and has continued to be #1 in Fantasy. In Historical Romance, it's moved back and forth between #7 and #8. And in overall Romance, its been between #17 and #19. Right now its rankings in the categories are the same as they were when I posted on Thursday. Only the overall rank is different.

#1 Historical Fantasy
#1 All Fantasy
#7 Historical Romance
#17 All Romance
#40 Overall in the Amazon Free Store

Times Downloaded: 7102

I really expected it to start taking a nose dive yesterday and am very surprised it held its rank this long. It'll probably start falling today. Needless to say I'm quite delighted so many readers have taken a chance on the book despite the handful of low ratings on Amazon.

It's also free in the Apple iTunes/iBooks store. I distribute there through Smashwords, but won't get the results from its time being free there for awhile yet. Silly me didn't download the iTunes app so I could watch sales in that venue until late Friday night, after Spoil had been free there for a week.

Right now, after a week, Spoil is, in the Apple free store:

#3 Fantasy
#8 SF/F

It also has 18 ratings on Apple -- all given since it went free -- with a solid 4-star average. There are no text reviews there yet, but this gives me a better idea of how average readers who likely haven't seen the 1-star reviews on Amazon are actually reacting to the book on its own terms and not on what other people think of it.

I'm afraid folk who grabbed a copy because of the kerfluffle on Amazon are going to be disappointed that the book isn't nearly as controversial as those low raters make it out to be ;o).

I am a bit disappointed to see it's still free on Apple. I changed the price from free on Smashwords on Wednesday as soon as Amazon made it free since Amazon will keep it free for as long as it remains free on another site. Smashwords should have fed them the unfree price on Thursday or Friday. I'd hoped that Amazon would have have it back to 99c by tonight (Saturday night). Not sure when it will lose free status now.

Theoretically, the timing could not have been better for the book to go free, climb the ranks then be made unfree while it still has visibility. It's frustrating to do everything right and on time on my part yet not be able to influence the vendors to follow through in a timely fashion. All the feeds and bots to do this should be automated.

The real test of the marketing strategy of free, of course, is to:

1) Help sell other books in the same series as the free book (Spoil is a stand-alone).

2) Help sell other books the author has in the same genre (My other book is a near-future thriller and my next book will be Part 1 of the Vet Tech Tales, so no help there -- although I have seen a small spike in sales in the UK where Spoil is not free)

3) Drive enough residual interest in the book so when it goes from free to paid, readers will be willing to splurge real money on it and keep it selling (which is where I hope the free strategy helps Spoil -- so having it go back to paid status while it's still high on the lists is the most important bit of the strategy, apart from the visibility it gains)

More updates to come on the freebooking experiment (go ahead, use "freebooking" in your own sentence -- you know you want to).

OCTOBER SALES

Like in August and September, sales continued to be pretty divisive between those doing OK and those doing GREAT.

Both Spoil and SECTOR C fell into the OK category. They both had more sales, but I also lowered the price on them mid-month, so the net gain was less.

Spoil of War:
39 Amzon US
10 Amazon UK
1 Amazon DE (Germany)
5 BN
1 Smashwords
______

56 Total

SECTOR C:
61 Amazon US
5 Amazon UK
6 BN
______

72 Total

I also gave away 35 copies of SECTOR C through a LibraryThing contest, and 28 folk claimed the book (the totals above are all paid copies). I've gotten a couple of short reviews from a couple of the LT winners so far, so that's nice.

As for more broad-spectrum sales, anecdotal sampling over in the Kindleboards forums yields some good info as always. Special thanks to Jason Letts for doing some of the compiling this time around so I didn't have to :o)

Again, some people reported by the book and some people aggregated their totals. My aggregated total, for instance, is 56 + 72 = 128 sales across 2 titles. All figures exclude free downloads.

SINGLE TITLES

1-9 = 10 (Note 3 reports of zero sales)
10-99 = 19
100-499 = 14
500-1000 = 4
1000-2800 = 2
2800-4399 = 1
4321 = 1
5800 = 1

29 single titles sold fewer than 100 copies vs 23 that sold more. That's 56% of this sample of 52 titles.

MULTIPLE TITLES

1-99 = 8 across 2-11 titles
100-199 = 4 across 2-3 titles with one other across 14
200-499 = 15 across 2-6 titles with one other across 9 and another across 17
500-999 = 8 across w-7 titles with one across 11
1000-1499 = 6 across 2-25 titles
1500-2499 - 3 across 2, 10 and 23 titles
2500-5000 = 7 across 2-33 titles
5001-10,000 = 7 across 2-14 titles
10,001-15,450 = 3 across 3,4 and 8 titles
29,500 = 1 across 43 titles

Again, this is very anecdotal and a random sampling of folk who chose to respond. Don't read more into than just some fun with numbers and a tiny glimpse into what people are selling via self-publishing venues.

Freebooking (just had to say it one more time).

Thursday, November 3, 2011

What Free Can Do

The Kindle Board members are reporting in on October sales. I'll do a sales roundup of their data on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Spoil of War is free for a very short time at Amazon and Apple iTunes. As I write this, it's been free for about 21 hours at Amazon. 3213 readers have downloaded it there, and its rankings on the Free bestseller list are:

  #1 Historical Fantasy
  #1 All Fantasy
  #7 Historical Romance
#17 All Romance
#37 Overall in the Amazon Free Store
Wow.  

I mean - wow. I had no idea. I keep having to take new screen captures as the rankings change. I don't expect this surge to continue, but I must admit it's pretty powerful while it lasts and the visibility it offers is amazing.

There's no money changing hands, but there is marketing method to the free strategy, which I'll of course share more of as we move through the cycle.

As mentioned in the case study post where I talk about "Connect," Ken Burstall's short story from the Extinct anthology, going free, Amazon price matches the free price at its discretion. Some books it never makes free. I'm fortunate. I started the process last Wednesday, setting the price to free at Smashwords. I opted for Smashwords to distribute the free price into the Apple iTunes store, which happened on Thursday. The price change was made at Apple on Friday and I notified Amazon of the new free price on Saturday.

I know a number of authors have been waiting months for Amazon to price match their books to free, so was quite happy it took only a few days to happen for Spoil.

Smashwords should be sending the new price update to Apple either today or tomorrow. I have no idea how long it will be before Amazon realizes it's no longer free on Apple and updates the price, so go grab it while you can. 

See you Saturday for updates and a complete Sales Voyeur analysis...