Friday, April 27, 2012

Dwindling Sales And Free Is For Losers: Myth Or Reality?

One of the biggest advantages indies have over the traditional publishing world is agility – being able to change strategic direction within a few weeks, days or even hours.

One of the biggest disadvantages indies have is agility. Sometimes it’s TOO easy to change direction. Timing the market is important, true. Timing it wisely is even more so.

Chasing any trend just for the sake of hoping to emulate success isn’t good strategy. Ditching a previously viable activity or tool at the first sign of poor performance without understanding all the variables involved isn’t good strategy. While being early in and/or early out can be quite lucrative when new tools come along or play out their usefulness, the old adage of “look before you leap” continues to be sage advice. If the only reason you have for entering or exiting a promotion is that everyone else is doing it, then take some time to understand why “everyone” else is acting the way they are and figure out if it’s a true market trend or simply people acting on blind instinct  – or fear.

Part of the problem, I think, rests in how many of the indies define “success.” Self-pubbing is still relatively new. Many indies don’t even have year-over-year results to compare to. But you have to compare how you’re doing now to some other arbitrary time to determine if you’re succeeding or failing, right? That’s how business works. Well, there’s also seasonal adjustments to consider. What promotions were offered. And what bases you’re comparing to make your determinations: income? ranking? copies sold? Smart businesses look at all the data at hand before assuming instant success or failure from their plans.

Two big concerns for indies right now appear to be the diminishing value of Select and the diminishing value of 99¢. But are these diminishing values that clear-cut?


Amazon just released its Top 100 Sellers of 2011 list. I count at least 10 books on the list that made it there priced at 99¢. I also see that these 99¢ books account for roughly half of the indie books on that list. A quick peek shows about half of these 99¢ books are in the Top 1000 and the other about-half are hovering under #3000. Buyers don’t appear to be warded off by the 99¢ price point.

SECTOR C made it into the Top 100 because of a 99¢ promotion. The Rent-A-Groom made it into the Top 200 because of a 99¢ promo. Over the past couple of weeks I can cite a dozen more books with similar sales and rankings based on a drop to 99¢. I can also point to two Steel Magnolia Press books that have good and consistent sales at 99¢ – over 500 sold this month for one, over 400 sold for the other. In counter-balance, there is one 99¢ book that sold 1200 copies in its first two months but whose sales have stalled this month. Nothing is ever guaranteed in this business.

So why the lament over 99¢? I believe there may be three reasons:
  • Perceived value – readers who care enough to frequent the forums and answer surveys tend to equate low price with low quality, and authors want to avoid the stigma of the 99¢ ghetto.
  • Lack of the right marketing – some authors try to use the price as their only marketing tool, and when that doesn’t move copies, they blame the price.
  • The 35% royalty rate – some authors want (and some demand) more than 35%. When John Locke sold his first million copies, some indies were quick to point out he’d “only” made $350,000. Dissatisfaction with compensation generally leads to blaming factors other than the obvious ones and making the results appear self-fulling.

Based on what I’ve seen and experienced (let’s call it subjectively objective), I’m not of a mind that the 99¢ price point is dead or that it’s even on life-support. Buyers appear to want 99¢ books when those books are marketed to them in the right way. What is “dead” is the belief that an author can publish up a book at 99¢ without any supporting marketing and have readers flock to it in droves. And I think that disappointment by authors who staked their sales on price point alone is what’s driving the angst over 99¢.

Free and Select

But free really is dying and Select is gasping away, right? With the number of people voicing their disappointment over diminished numbers of free downloads, post-free sales and borrows, it would seem so to the casual observer. Likewise the number of folk who’ve left Select and the numbers who claim they will as soon as their current term is over.

Is it, however, that the Select model no longer works or that buying behaviors have changed? Sometimes tweaking a once-successful tool slightly can yield surprising results. Does Amazon abandon every tool at its disposal when they no longer provide the hoped-for results or does it tweak the proven ones as a first defense against eroding sales and margins?

So why does free no longer seem to be the lure it once was? 
  • Fewer downloads – Is the overall number of free downloads the same now as it was only spread across more books? Or does it just seem like fewer downloads? In response to this complaint back in March, I compared how many downloads it took to hit the same rank across multiple dates. Because I had good data for it, I did this for several ranks between #50 and #150. Guess what? No difference.

    Today I compared that data against the 7 free books I watched on April 9. Across the board, it took about 20% fewer downloads to hit the same ranks as before. That means on that one day, at least, there were indeed 20% fewer downloads than in the months before. But this is only one day, one data point. I’m not prepared to call this a trend based off this result. It will bear watching, though.

What about Select makes it appear to be in its death throes not even 5 months beyond its launch? 
  • Fewer post-free sales – Most folk are citing an average of one-third the sales post-free in this past month compared to previous months. Some are seeing considerably fewer, some are seeing a drop of less than one-half. I haven’t seen anyone say they’ve gotten MORE post-free sales recently.
  • Shorter post-free bumps – Anecdotal reports are that the bump has tapered off from about 3 weeks to about a week.
  • Fewer borrows – Anecdotal evidence suggests this is across-the-board behavior.

Fair enough – when the numbers and the model are looked at in isolation. With the exception of a few outliers, numbers are diminishing. But are they doing so by a significant amount? And are they doing so when the equations are adjusted to account for other variables: 
  • Seasonality – Strongest sales and free downloads were in the two months post-Christmas. Are we in a seasonal decline right now? Or were those first two months after Christmas when millions of Kindles/Fires were gifted the exception?
  • The end of the Prime promo – Fires sold at Christmas came with one month of free Prime. While this could explain any drop-off in borrows between January and February, something else has to be at work to create the continuing month-to-month drop-off. The 30% increase in the number of books available? Buyer disinterest?
  • Buyer behavior – Are folk becoming more selective? Has the novelty of buying books for a new device worn off? Is an early spring keeping folk more active and away from reading? Are folk buying traditional books and non-Select books instead of Select books?
  • Amazon’s adjustments to shelf placement – This is by far one of the most damaging changes to have occurred and one that can, indeed, be linked to part of the reason for diminished post-sales results. But is Amazon simply testing the waters? Will they be rearranging the shelves again shortly?
  • Marketing efforts – Are authors setting books free too often, for too many days or too few days? What’s the sweet spot? Are authors who get no mentions on the big freebook sites and do poorly for one or two free runs giving up too soon? Are some authors not marketing at all – or marketing to the same folk each time they have a free promo?

Some folk claim that every time Amazon makes an adjustment to its algorithms or the way it displays products, indies take a hit. Here’s what I think. Those adjustments produce a larger divide, rewarding successful titles and ignoring the less-successful ones. Since, let’s face it, the majority of indie books fall on the less-successful side, those authors are louder in their decrying of what they consider Amazon’s anti-indie sentiments.

What’s happening, though, is that those adjustments are forcing indies to become stronger. Indies have to work harder and smarter and put out ever-better books in order for Amazon to give them better shelf placement and recommend them to buyers.

Not all indies are created equal. There is no entitlement that goes along with being an indie. There is no agreement with Amazon that all indies will be treated equally, either within the group of indie vendors or among all vendors, traditional and indie alike.

A lot of the disillusionment I’m hearing is from authors who believe Amazon is somehow betraying them by 1) having given them a tool to help with discoverability and with the ability to catapult sales and then 2) throttling that ability so that only the stronger, more successful books continue to reap higher rewards.

If you’re an indie, you CHOSE to self-publish. You CHOSE to enter a competitive business and to go up against the big boys. Part of that choosing means you have to put on all the business hats the big boys bring with them, which includes sales and marketing, and it means stepping up your game in order to compete. Amazon guarantees you a platform through which to sell your books; it does not guarantee it will help you, specifically, sell your books. Believing there was any agreement to that effect is where I think a lot of the disgruntlement is coming from.

For some, the Select model will never work. For others, it hasn’t stopped working. And for that vast demographic in between, the way one uses the model will need to be tweaked to make it sustainable. Understanding why it does and doesn’t work is the first step in tweaking. Gaining that objective understanding takes time and hard work – neither of which many authors are willing to invest. For them, it’s easier to simply cry foul and abandon the tool.

To be honest, I can’t be too unhappy about that as a whole since it means less competition in the Select arena for me. But it doesn’t mean the work to keep the model sustainable will be any easier.

For me, personally and for Steel Magnolia Press, the Select model continues to work. Are we seeing diminished returns? Yes. But we're prepared to work for our sales. We're prepared to be realistic about the return on our investment. And we're prepared to measure success in concrete terms that, right now, Select is helping us to surpass. Just because sales are not as stellar this month as they were in January or February does not mean our realistic goals haven't been met.

Going forward, we'll be vigilant, we'll be agile and we'll continue to snatch at opportunity when it comes knocking. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

1000+ Queries, 2 Million+ Hits, 6 Satisfying Years

Just. Wow. With the stamina he's shown over the last 6 years, I'm convinced Evil Editor must respond to every Viagra/Cialis ad that hits his spam folder.

Today is his 6th BlogEEversary. I've been around for 5 of them, stalking, lurking, commenting, learning. Yearning. I never did get my agent or my publishing deal despite 300 queries across 3 books. I've made peace with that because, lucky for me, the industry has changed. And, more importantly, I've changed with it. But I would never have had the insight or the courage to take the next step had it not been for my obsession involvement in EE's community.

Because what EE has isn't simply a blogsite. It is a community. Family. There are those who've hung out at his place since the beginning and others, like me, who've passed the torch and only show up now at family reunions.

Still, EE's site remains the #1 feed in my Google Reader. I don't visit as often, but when I do I go with the purpose of visiting old friends and new, knowing I'll be welcome whenever I decide to drop in. And I continue to drop in because the place is filled with laughter and the spirit of all that makes us human.

That's because EE's site isn't just home to 1000+ queries and 900+ new beginnings; it's home to thousands upon thousands of dreams, to heartache and disappointment, and, best of all, to giddy success stories.

Today, I salute the thousands who've left a piece of their soul on EE's blog.

I salute the many minions who've endured EE's tough love as well as those steadfast devotees who've helped along their fellow minions by giving freely of their time and talents.

I salute the handful of minions who've remained comrades-in-arms and fast virtual friends beyond EE's nurturing hand.

And I salute the man who after 6 years continues to make a difference in the many lives he's touched (most of them in a legal way). I salute his unwavering brand along with the institution he's become. I salute his unnatural endurance.

Most of all, I salute a mentor and a friend.

Salud, EE.

And thank you.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Why, Yes, SECTOR C Did Hit The Amazon Top 100

Did you miss it? Then you must have blinked. But from early Thursday evening -- about 5:00 CT -- until the wee hours of Friday morning, SECTOR C was indeed hanging out in the Top 100. Best rank? #84. And for most of the day yesterday it hung around the #135-140 rank. I couldn't be a prouder mom.

But you didn't come here to bask in the wonderfulness of my book -- or likely to even buy it ;o). As a passing curiosity, you want to know how many sales it takes to get there. Mainly, though, you want to shoot YOUR book up the bestseller lists and drive my baby down into obscurity. And you want me to tell you how to do it.

We'll get to that. But first you're going to have to scroll through the pictures of my beautiful baby as it made its Top 100 debut.

SECTOR C hit #10 in Thrillers and #19 in Mystery, Thriller & Suspense

SECTOR C was at #7 in all Science Fiction

So, what happened? How did it go from a ranking in the teen-thousands to #84? Simply put, it was a perfect storm. It went on a free run on April 9 and did modestly well. Well enough that it still had fairly high visibility and discoverability in the Amazon store. Then I dropped the price from $3.99 to 99c on Wednesday. It began to pick up a little steam as folk who had it on price watch came to pick up their 99c copy.

A few price-watching sites mentioned it in automated passing. A couple of sites that I'd notified of the sale kindly featured it. As it started moving up the ranks, other sites noticed and also featured it without my prompting. No one wants to be the only one who didn't point out a bargain price on a popular book, do they now? Well, no one except POI, it seems (I still love you, Sharon, even though it's an unrequited passion).

The engine pushed hard throughout the day on Thursday. By Friday, it had found a new darling to chug along.

This was simply a pulse like the one a book gets from a free day. Only this time I got to watch the left side of the bestseller lists where the paid books are. It's unlikely that I'll be able to pulse the book this high again. Some favors you can only cash in once. I'm hoping people shopping this weekend will catch it on the bestseller lists today. I'm hoping it moves up the popularity lists and the Lending Library lists later this evening. But I'm in uncharted territory for me and I'm not sure just how much of a continued push from Amazon I can reasonably expect.

The ultimate goal is stickiness, where the book doesn't have to be pulsed up the charts. It has yet to achieve that. Can someone please pass the Super-Glue?

So what do the numbers look like?

After its free run 10 days before, SECTOR C sold about 100 copies at $3.99 and was borrowed 18 times. In all, it was at 130 copies sold and 35 borrowed for the month.

I changed the price on Wednesday and it sold about 40 copies before price-change sites caught up and bargain-price sites started mentioning it on Thursday.

To hit #84 -- and rank is based on a bunch of factors but is focused on sales velocity and numbers within the past 24 hours (actual hours, not day) -- took about 594 sales. Over the next 24 hours, SECTOR C had 361 sales and its rank dropped to #140.

So, despite 1042 sales and 10 borrows between Wednesday morning and Saturday noon, its rank is now #215 -- and falling. Velocity of sales and consistency of sales matter a lot at those high altitudes.

The secret then to making the Top 100 on a slow sales day is to sell 600 copies of your book. That'll do it. Guaranteed.

Of course, I didn't experiment first with MY book. With Jennifer Blake's permission, I used The Rent-A-Groom as a guinea pig. Her book had also gone free on April 9, where it hit #12 in the free store with over 10,000 downloads. In the 6 days following, it sold 243 copies at $2.99, and its rank was in the #2000s. We dropped the price to 99c late last Sunday and began the push on Monday. By 1:00 am Tuesday it was #187 in the store with 402 copies sold. We re-priced it to $2.99 Tuesday afternoon.

It hit #3 on the Movers & Shakers list.

Breakers in the #3 spot here is authored by an online bud of mine, Edward C Robertson.
I was thrilled to see he made the list at the same time Jennifer did.
Books are only eligible to be a Mover and Shaker if they are in the Top 400.

Friday, April 20, 2012

The RT Experience – Or What’s A Con For?


Addendum: Why, yes, I am running a special promotion for SECTOR C, thank you for asking. How well is it going? Have a look from yesterday:


Once I’ve recovered from the shock, I’ll post more on what it takes numbers-wise to make it into the Top 100 – and how far and hard the fall is from those heights afterward :o).


Admittedly, it’s been a while since I attended my last writer/reader convention. The mid-1990s, I think, and it was a Science Fiction/Fantasy con not a Romance one. The same stuff was still there: panels, goody rooms, vendors, signings, costuming, parties and networking. Yep, none of that has changed, save for the whole industry-being-in-flux thing. But I apparently have changed.

I made the transition of going to cons as a writer not a reader in the late 80s. Wearing a “published author” badge and speaking on panels made me feel more legit then. At the RT con this year, however, it seemed authors outnumbered the other industry folk and the readers combined.

Jennifer Blake signing at the Ebook Expo (left) and the main book signing (right).
I sat with the "S" authors at the Ebook Expo.
Four or five years ago, I was a member of Romance Writers of America (RWA) for a year. That year, their annual convention was in Dallas, just a day trip away. I got caught up in the excitement and the envy of author-wannabes scheduling pitch sessions with agents and editors. Oh, the battle royales that ensued over jimmying for position at those sessions. In the end I elected not to go and amid all the gushing preparations and the mushy after-glow reports I was sure I’d made the wrong decision.

This year when I got the announcement that reservations for the pitch sessions at the RT con were opening up, I simply chuckled as I deleted the email. At the con itself, I didn’t even step foot in the pitch areas to ogle the agents and editors in attendance. My obsession with all things trad publishing was effectively cured. Not that I wouldn’t accept the right trad deal should one come around, but my days of stalking such a contract seem to be over.

I’m also older. Never one to enjoy crowds and schmoozing, this year I was officially wearing my “old fuddy-duddy” attitude. Gone are the days I’d spend the midnight hour watching a poorly dubbed anime film hosted in a small hotel conference room followed by filk singing into the wee hours of the morning. Last week it was all about hitting the parties early to scarf up the free food and drinks and getting back to the hotel room by 8 or 9 pm to check stats and chat with online friends.

Samhain's Western-themed bbq/party

This year, the RT con had a full workshop track devoted to e-publishing. I was excited about the prospect of learning new techniques and possibly figuring out new ways of thinking about digital publishing and marketing. Names I recognized and folk I’ve interacted with occasionally were hosting some of the workshops: Mark Coker, Joe Konrath, Blake Crouch and Bob Mayer. Those of you who know me will know that I am far from a fangirl when it comes to these gentlemen, but while I don’t agree with everything they preach, I’m smart enough to know something is working in their favor and to be open to acquiring and/or modifying new strategies for my own work and for helping Steel Magnolia Press. There was also a panel on how to manage a backlist, something Jennifer Blake and I will be looking at closely since she’s recently had 36 titles whose digital rights have been reverted, that I was excited about. I put myself in eager receptor mode and … was sadly disappointed.

Konrath and Blake are charismatic and motivational speakers. If you read their posts, know that’s pretty much them as panelists. Lots of energy and rah-rah self-pubbing. Lots of sharing of stats, but no real way of translating what they’ve done into solid strategies for what you can do. In fact, one of Konrath’s next ventures is into the Nook First program, which is by invitation only. Listening to him is like listening to Stephen King explain how traditional publishing can catapult you onto the New York Times Bestseller lists for weeks at a time. Interesting, yes; inspirational, yes; but grain-of-salt when trying to apply any of it to your own strategies.

My notes from the Joe/Blake session: Bundles seem to be working well for them and a scribble to myself to tell my friend David Gaughran that they mentioned his blog and his book, Let's Get Digital, as being great resources.

Bob Mayer’s workshops were also motivational but not overly informative for someone who’s been self-publishing for a while. His success has been built on an extensive backlist, but neither of his talks focused on how to capitalize on the backlist to build success. They sort of rambled from one industry point to another, calling out some of the basics along the way. Personally, I was interested in how he markets the other 8 or 9 authors in his publishing company and to see how being in his company affects their sales. Unfortunately, the presentations were all about him and his books, so it was impossible to determine if the strategies he was using to push his books was working for the other authors’ books too.

My one note from Bob’s two sessions: He’s just signed with AmazonEncore and 47North for two series.

Surely, then, Mark Coker, who’s been outspoken about Amazon Select and who recently had to do some quick negotiating with PayPal to allow certain erotica books to be transacted through PayPal on his site, would be a goldmine of information at a romance convention featuring a lot of erotica, romantica and digital-only authors. His session started out promising, with slides-full of brand-new data he’d just collected getting their public debut. Geek heaven! Real data! Sadly, raw data without appropriate context or the right slicing is pretty meaningless.

For example, he shared “breakout” statistics of a handful of authors who went from selling a few copies per month to suddenly spiking at Apple for a couple of weeks before tapering off. The takeaway from that was supposed to be that once spiked, that book was now poised to spike again since the spike validated the book had all the requisite ingredients of a quality read: cover, blurb and content. But what caused the book to spike to begin with? Now that seemed to be the great unknown. Do I buy that he and the authors were clueless about the trigger? Not really. I can tell you exactly why Spoil of War spiked in iTunes in December and continues to sell moderately well there 4 months later.  I can tell you precisely why SECTOR C spiked on Amazon in early January, then again in February and now again in April. Are people really so oblivious to the context that they don’t know why a spike occurs? Nah. Right?

And the PayPal thing? Never came up in the two sessions he presented.

So with only ¼ of the first page of my notebook filled with notes and doodles, I settled in to listen to 4 authors and an agent discuss how to put out your backlist and, presumably, market it.

Agent Kristin Nelson spoke about the services her agency offers her clients. Having read her blog posts here and here about it as well as Courtney Milan’s thoughtful follow-up, I was already well-versed in what she’s providing and respect the effort she’s gone through to make her agreements fair and meaningful. But she didn’t provide anything new in the way of how well it’s working. And, of course, her services are not available beyond her current clientele.

One author shared a venture she’s helping to spearhead to digitally publish backlists for others. Perfect! What strategies are they using to relaunch these books? Well, they’re covering the books, formatting them and putting them out on as many venues as possible because that’s how books get discovered. Um, could she elaborate on that? Elaborate? What was there to elaborate?

It takes time to gain traction, another author assured us. People who are earning thousands of dollars on their backlist titles are 1) not earning that overnight and 2) are earning it across many multiples of titles. Expect to hit the Amazon charts at a rank of 300,000 to 600,000 and stay there for a month or more then slowly work your way up. In fact, be prepared for it to take 6 months, 12 months, as much as 18 months to gain traction. It’s a slow but steady build.

Really? The authors invited to this panel are satisfied with building traction over more than a year and not earning a decent income from their titles until then? And the best advice they have to offer is to get your titles' rights reverted and the ebooks up in as many venues as possible and let them be discovered organically?

The main problem with workshops at a con, of course, is that audience and panelists are all over the place in regards to experience and knowledge. Many in the audience at each workshop were only to the point of just thinking about the possibility of self-publishing while I’m chomping at the bit for marketing data with validating results. Some of the panelists aren't really savvy about how to actually publish and market in the digital world. But then I don’t have the access to marketing promotions that folk a step above have and are using (Nook First, early entry into Amazon programs, etc.). In all, my expectations were set too high; therefore, I was disappointed. 

What I did come away with and what made the con worthwhile for me was validation that what I’m doing is on the high curve of where the self-pubbing industry is at today. We’re not setting any records (yet!), but we’re also well ahead of where most indies and indie-wannabes are at right now.

Getting to and from the con was an adventure!

I’ve never ridden the rails before, so was delighted when Jennifer Blake suggested we take an Amtrak train from Texas to Chicago and back again. The only drawback was the distance we each had to drive to get to a station. I drove 2 hours to reach the station at Mineola, Texas, which turned out to be a beautifully restored 1906 depot, complete with museum. I parked 20 feet from the station and waited with the only other passenger getting on the train there. Our host arrived minutes before the train did and we were whisked on in no time.

Jennifer drove about 2.5 hours from Louisiana to a station at Marshall, Texas, which was also a restored depot in a scenic downtown area. The Marshall station was a bit more bustling than Mineola but compared to Union Station in downtown Chicago, it too was a quaint way-station.

Leaving Union Station in Chicago

The roomette we shared was tight, but our facing seats reclined and converted into bunk beds, helpful since the trip lasted about 20 hours. Mifi reception was great, so I didn’t have to go through total withdrawal from stat-checking.

The neighbor who took care of my critters (horses, goats, chickens, ducks, dogs, cats, iguana, etc) did a wonderful job, with only two minor scares about animals getting loose/not being found that worked out fine in the end. No one was missing and everyone was safe.

The St. Louis Arch as seen from the Amtrak dining car

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Query Crit: The Royal Mews

We haven't seen a query critique around here in a long while, but this one is for a long-time friend of the blog, and I'm more than happy to do the occasional one for folk who've been hanging here since the beginning.

On Friday, I'll have a post about my experience at the Romantic Times Conference and what I learned there -- or maybe, more importantly, what I didn't learn -- along with a few pictures.


The Original

When Gerald MacGrath won the Enderton Cup, turning his horse into a national treasure, he had no idea he was stepping from the winner’s circle into a showdown between the horse’s new American owner and the Queen of England.

The sale hammered out before the big win, will free Gerald from his father's debts but won’t close until the horse passes the breed inspection. However, Her Majesty's Secretary just presented Gerald with a better deal, not to mention the prestige of being able to claim the Queen as a customer. Completing the sale with the American is the only honorable choice, but Gerald isn't sure how one says, "No, Your Majesty; you can't have the horse."

He manages it. Unfortunately, the queen isn't familiar with the word "no," and she informs the Prime Minister that she wants that horse, and please see to it.

While the Prime Minister goads the U.S. President to intercede, Gerald's need for cash grows urgent. Neither Her Majesty nor the American will back down, and the only solution anyone has proposed is one that will ruin Gerald.

Furthermore, it's being proposed by someone who also isn't familiar with the word "no." The Prime Minister has decided it's time to assassinate Gerald's horse.

The Royal Mews, an historical fiction, is complete at 80,000 words. It tells the story of a UK stallion, of endangered breed, purchased by an American who planned to ship him to the US. Elizabeth II wanted the horse, and a royal cock-up resulted.

Thank you for reviewing my query.

My Critique

The central conflict here is clear, but the motivations seem to be missing. There's a lot of chatty stuff that underscores the conflict but that doesn't necessarily add to the story. I think tightening what you have here will give you room to add motivation, which will also give whoever is reading it an idea of who the target audience is: not just folk interested in Anglo politics but in horse breeds too. The chatty bits help define your voice, so of course the challenge is to incorporate the chat with the events.

When Gerald MacGrath won the Enderton Cup, turning his horse into a national treasure, he had no idea he was stepping from the winner’s circle into a showdown between the horse’s new American owner and the Queen of England.

This is a nice hook line. The only suggestion I have is for you to make it present tense rather than past.

The sale hammered out before the big win, will free Gerald from his father's debts but won’t close until the horse passes the breed inspection. However, Her Majesty's Secretary just presented Gerald with a better deal, not to mention the prestige of being able to claim the Queen as a customer. Completing the sale with the American is the only honorable choice, but Gerald isn't sure how one says, "No, Your Majesty; you can't have the horse."

Whether Gerald sells to the American or to the Queen, his debts will be paid. I don't see a struggle here about him ever thinking about keeping the horse, so unless that's an issue, I'm not sure bringing up his debts as a factor in WHO he sells to is necessary. It does give us a glimpse into his character, though, so maybe just rewording it will help.  

Perhaps in this setup paragraph you can give us a few more bits of info. Which Queen are we talking about (help set us in the right historical period)? Why is there so much interest in the horse (he's a linchpin in keeping his breed  alive)? Why is Gerald being forced to sell the horse (this is where you talk about his debts)?

He manages it. Unfortunately, the queen isn't familiar with the word "no," and she informs the Prime Minister that she wants that horse, and please see to it.

While the Prime Minister goads the U.S. President to intercede, Gerald's need for cash grows urgent. Neither Her Majesty nor the American will back down, and the only solution anyone has proposed is one that will ruin Gerald.

Furthermore, it's being proposed by someone who also isn't familiar with the word "no." The Prime Minister has decided it's time to assassinate Gerald's horse.

From a reader's perspective, the problem here is that the PM hasn't actually proposed the solution, right? He's not come out and said to sell the horse to the Queen or he'll kill the horse (can you "assassinate" a horse - or can you only murder and assassinate people?), or has he? If he did, that would seem to open up a PR nightmare. So how is the choice being forced on Gerald being amplified? What is the true conflict? Is it how to remain honorable in the face of political pressure? Can the Queen not try to buy the horse from the American rather than Gerald before the horse is taken off British soil? 

The Royal Mews, an historical fiction, is complete at 80,000 words. It tells the story of a UK stallion, of endangered breed, purchased by an American who planned to ship him to the US. Elizabeth II wanted the horse, and a royal cock-up resulted.

The last two sentences merely echo what the first part of the query has told us. They can be deleted.

Thank you for reviewing my query.

Many agents will tell you they don't "review" queries (or maybe that was directed to me?!). 

My Version

When Gerald MacGrath wins the 1962 (?) Enderton Cup, turning his horse into a national treasure, he has no idea he's stepping from the winner’s circle into a showdown between the horse’s new American owner and the Queen of England.

In dire need of money to clear his father's debts, Gerald agrees right before the big win to sell his prize stallion to an American breeder. After the race, Elizabeth II, determined to keep the horse’s lineage properly British, offers up a better deal. The honorable choice is for Gerald to close the sale with the American -- but that means saying no to a very powerful and very stubborn queen.

The American proves just as stubborn, and as negotiations stall, Gerald's urgent need for cash escalates when his maid reveals she's pregnant with his child. His life in crisis, Gerald’s hold on honor begins to crumble.

When even an intercession by the U.S. President fails, a disgusted Prime Minister decides there's only one way out of this political debacle that won't besmirch Elizabeth. He makes plans to assassinate the horse, one of the last purebred Cleveland Bays in Britain. Not only does Gerald's own future and a queen's reputation hang on Gerald's next move, the fate of a dying breed now rests on one man's honor.

THE ROYAL MEWS is historical fiction based on the actual events of 1962. I look forward to sending you the manuscript, complete at 80,000 words.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Sales Voyeur: March Ebook Sales

Well, from the comments I've seen, March was either the best month an author has ever had or sales were down considerably when comparing month over month. While I fall into the latter category, I'm not too unhappy about it. I think March for me was a "sustainable" month in terms of copies sold and royalties earned. January was gangbusters, but it does look like Amazon's going to make everyone work a lot harder to get those kinds of sales going forward.

The amount for borrows went up a bit, from $2.01 in February to $2.18 in March. Alas, as the amount for borrows goes up, my number of borrows goes down.

My Titles: Preliminary Report

SECTOR C had about 60% of the sales it did in February, but when it still earned over $1000, how can I complain? Of course I'd love higher sales, but if I can sustain at these rates, I'll be a grateful happy camper.
399 sold
2400 free downloads
60 borrows
$1128 royalties

Vet Tech Tales continued to gain ground thanks to nice free run early in the month. Compared to the first months of sales for SECTOR C and Spoil of War, it's doing well. Now if I can just get Vol 2 finished and on sale.... 
373 sold
4100 free downloads
16 borrows

Spoil of War was still clinging to the Top 3 (often at #1) in the UK, Canada and Australia and was bouncing around the Top 10 in the US in Historical Fantasy -- and then Apple decided to rearrange the front tables and dropped it (and most of the titles that had been there) from the What's Hot list at the end of March. March numbers from Apple are still to come (I'm guessing around 75 copies), but it looks like it's time for another price-matched free run for Spoil -- even if it does last a month.
118 sold (+ Apple)
$71 (+ Apple)

So my titles altogether (sans Apple) for March:

972 copies sold
6500 free downloads
76 borrows
$1365 royalties

Steel Magnolia Press March Highlights

The Rent-A-Groom by Jennifer Blake had two phenomenal free runs reaching #5 in the free store on its first run in Feb, when it debuted. A second free run in March saw it reach a rank of #14.
11,500 free downloads
1628 sales
190 borrows
$3700 royalties

Totals for The Rent-A-Groom between its release on Feb 8 and Mar 31:
40,000 free downloads
4200 sales
495 borrows
$6700 royalties

First Quarter 2012 Milestones

27,600 free downloads
4615 sales
484 borrows
$8700 royalties

SMP (sans me):
74,000 free downloads
9100 sales
523 borrows
$11,000 royalties

SMP Totals Across All Books Q1 2012
101,600 free downloads
13,700 sales
1000 borrows
$19,700 royalties

Thank you to all our wonderful readers!
Whatever success we have, we owe all to you -- and we NEVER forget that.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

When The Slush Pile Works

Yes! It can happen! And I am thrilled that it happened to such an awesome author! In fact, I'm so full of thrilled it's spilling out in an abundance of exclamation points!

Many of you may remember Chelsea Pitcher from her queries and invaluable advice here and at Evil Editor's place. Last June, we toasted to Chelsea having picked up an agent who picked her up from the slush pile. You'll find the query that won the agent over at that link.

And now I get to announce that Chelsea has a book deal with a Simon & Schuster imprint! Here's the news straight from Publishers Marketplace (note some of the links will only work if you have a paid subscription).

Chelsea Pitcher's THE S-WORD, pitched as The Scarlet Letter meets Veronica Mars, about a high school girl who found her best friend in a compromising position with her own boyfriend on prom night and cut off their friendship, then was plagued by guilt and decided to find out who was responsible after her best friend was branded Queen of Sluts and committed suicide, to Adam Wilson at Gallery, in a nice deal, for publication in 2013, by Sandy Lu at the L. Perkins Agency (World). 
Seriously, how cool is that? My only regret? That Evil Editor scooped me. Had I only gotten to my email earlier ...

Chelsea, you rock!

Monday, April 9, 2012

Spring Fling Freebies

Hop on over and collect a virtual basket full of FREE ebooks! 

Saturday, April 7, 2012

The Long and Short of Ebook Sales

Is using free as a tool to drive sales a sustainable model? I don't believe so. I also don't believe that makes a difference as to whether I choose to use it now or not. I've pretty much heard all the arguments for and against "free," and you know by now where I stand in the debate. Still, there's one argument that keeps coming up that I simply can't get my head around: That because "free" is not a long-term strategy it doesn't make sense to use it in the short term. That, somehow, sales ranks that are earned through any channel other than "free" will be stickier and that organic growth is better.

Sure, "free" could stop being effective tomorrow. The 99 cent price point lost a lot of its effectiveness last year. However, that in no way negates the effectiveness of "free" today. And while books may well pulse up and down the charts, why would anyone deny themselves short-term gain? Yes, I'm familiar with the dollar-costing strategy for financial portfolios and I recognize the gamble one takes in chasing the stock market either monthly or via day trading, but book sales respond differently and to different triggers.

"I won't do 'free;' I'm after long-term sales," is a statement I hear a lot. First of all, I have to ask what "long term" means. Sales over years, months, weeks? What's the ultimate goal? 5000 sales? 50,000? If I can make inroads into that number faster by using "free," how is that not a good thing for business?

"Pulsing up and down the chart is no way to establish yourself for long-term sales." Perhaps this would be a valid concern if books actually swung between extremes. Some probably do. So I took a look at my books' rankings over the last 6 months (well, 4 months for Vet Tech Tales since it only released in December) to see how they've fared. (Note this is anecdotal evidence at best, and my 3 books do not a trend make. Charts screen-captured on April 5.)

The first chart is for SECTOR C. I put it into Select on January 4 and set it free January 6. Despite it being priced 99 cents through January 5, you can see that it was taking wild swings in its pre-Select days and was maybe starting to gain some traction in December due to some advertising in early December and again in late December. Since being in Select, it's rarely dropped below a #20,000 rank and, as you can see, each time it does, I've pulsed it free to keep its sales fairly even. Price since January 9 is $3.99.

My Vet Tech Tales hasn't gotten quite the same push from free, even though you can see it did climb to #68 on the free charts in March. Its fluctuations are a little more erratic but realize that the further you drop away from around the 5000 rank the more fluctuation a single sale can produce. Plus, less data -- 4 months vs 6 -- in the chart means each change looks bigger. Pulsing is keeping it fairly consistent in the #15,000 - 18,000 range. 

And then there's Spoil of War, which is not in Select. It was price-matched to free in November; hence, that long straight line. Before December, this tool did not track free ranks as it does now. On the US Amazon site, it sold close to 300 copies in December post-free before sales tailed off and started some large fluctuations.

I couldn't (or rather, wouldn't) pulse the book free again this past quarter because 1) sales at Apple were building nicely and 2) that long free run from early Nov to early Dec was only supposed to be 3 or 4 days at the most. I couldn't get it unfree, and that was frustrating.

Now, Spoil seems to be the poster child for the folk who point to post-free sales as being nothing more than a flash-in-the-pan surge. True. But the stickiness for Spoil seems to be around the #40,000-80,000 rank on its own at Amazon. Organic growth on this book is slow. If I can triple or quadruple its sales artificially for a short time and then still return to the level where the book was before going "free," what's inherently wrong with that? And how is that different from actively promoting the book through advertising, reviews or social media?

Why do some folk not see that non-"free," organic promotions can build on the successes of "free"? Why do some folk believe the two are so very mutually exclusive? And why would anyone say that just because moving 300 or 1000 or 2000 copies of a title in one month isn't sustainable into the next months that they'd overall rather NOT sell those extra copies?

I'm not being snarky when I ask. If there's truly a solid business reason for not chasing short-term sales gains through pulsing free promotions, I really do want to know the reason and the logic behind it.



I'll be at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention from April 10-16 but I've got the March Sales Voyeur post scheduled to run on Wednesday. We're also running a Spring Fling at Steel Magnolia Press on Monday, April 9, where we'll be giving away 7 of our titles, including 3 of mine. Do you know how much that timing hurts? I'm not sure I can survive just twice-daily checking of the post-free stats :o).

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Is A Small Publisher Right For You?

First, let’s acknowledge that the majority of you reading this will not get an offer from the Big 6 or even a midsize pub such as Harlequin. I’m not talking about YOU, of course, when I use the term majority :o). Even with a marketable book, odds are against it. Your odds increase, though, when talking about going with a smaller digital-first or digital-only publisher. But should you? As with most questions, the answer is … it depends. One of two statements must be true for you to even consider it:

  • You have life challenges (work, family, volunteer commitments) that preclude you from studying the book industry well enough to make savvy business decisions and/or from overseeing the details of editing, covering and publishing the book yourself. 
  • The small publisher offers value-add in the form of benefits that aren’t in your arsenal.
The first bullet is a little tricky in that many folk who don’t have the time to produce a book in the first place or learn about the industry probably won’t have the time to learn the best avenues for promoting the book and then follow through with the promotions. Because you WILL have to promote it no matter whether you publish it or someone else does. Another factor is that the industry is in the throes of massive change right now; you may not be comfortable putting on the business hat you need to succeed on your own, but you also have to be reasonably comfortable that whoever you sign with is successfully keeping up with the market.

The second bullet is tricky in that the benefits the publisher touts may not be all that beneficial. Ironically, not too long ago I ran across someone who works for a small publisher who was citing free editing as a reason to publish with a small pub. We’ve all heard the spiel: Money flows to the author. If you can hand over your manuscript and never pay a dime to have it turned into a digital or print book, then that publisher is legit and worth your time to court. Right?

That thinking is so 2009. Plus it was wrong thinking then and it’s wrong thinking today. When your publisher keeps half your royalties or more, that editing isn’t free. You’re paying for it over time. And for a successful book you’ll likely wind up paying more in interest than in principal. For some authors without much in their nest egg to cover production costs, being able to make “time payments” through a small publisher is the only option they have. For them, partnering with a small pub can make sense based on the cost factor alone if that's the only way they'll be able to put out a top-quality book.

Don’t get me wrong. Finding credible content editors is difficult and time-consuming on the indie side, so there can be a nice advantage there. It’s just not free. Nothing a publisher does is “free.” Don’t lose sight of that and you’ll be able to make better, more dispassionate decisions when it comes to how you decide which publishing model to target.

A strongly branded publisher can help to build and/or validate your brand. Is your smaller publisher recognized for putting out quality romances or thrillers or science fiction? Being included in their stable can help brand you as a quality author in the genre too. Early on, especially, that can be a nice career booster.

Some publishers also have access to certain promo opportunities an author acting alone won’t have. For some recognizable contests, your work has to be nominated by an editor or publisher. The peril, of course, is putting more stock into some of the nominations than they’re worth. For instance, every publisher can nominate works for the Pushcart prize. Being nominated carries little value; only winning makes a real impression on the industry professionals. Publishers also get member-only invites to conferences and conventions where they nominate a certain number of authors to speak or simply attend. You want to look for publishers that have an active presence in your genre, whether that’s accomplished through contests, conventions or marketing.

BUT – and this is a pretty big but – small publisher marketing tends to drive traffic to the publisher’s site. While there may be an occasional spotlight on a single title, efforts in general will be around promoting the catalog. It will still be up to the authors to drive traffic to their own books.

There are excellent small presses out there that truly partner with their authors and provide the value-add to make the relationship mutually successful.

There are some good-intentioned presses that strive to deliver quality but can’t deliver the sales.

And there are other in-over-their-heads presses that are struggling to deliver even the basic services.

Publish fail can be attributed to several causes: Too many authors not making enough money. Too much outgo and not enough income. People in charge who don’t have quite enough business savvy to hold it all together. People in charge continuing to invest all their time and resources in old models that aren’t working rather than spending the time to understand and pioneer in the new market.

The truth is, anecdotal evidence shows that many authors with small digital-first and digital-only publishers don’t make $600 per year from a single book. Historically, small pubs haven’t been able to sell in high quantities, especially those selling just from their own sites. As for small print pubs, many have to churn inventory off their distributors’ shelves. Authors tend to be caught in either the short shelf life or the low quantities moved dilemma.

And while it isn't all about the money, it's hard to objectively measure success by personal satisfaction or any other means.

Just like with their bigger siblings, most small pubs operate under the general wisdom that most books will be modest sellers while only a small percentage take off. Having a number of titles spreads the risk for them. The 25 books they have each making $300 a month for them (remember, the publisher might well be making 4 to 5 times what the author is on each book, though hopefully that ratio is changing) might not be enough to keep the editors paid and the lights on, but the 5 books each making $2000 a month will be. It’s the reason publishers have lead titles with marketing budgets and midlist titles without. It helps to know in advance whether your book would be planned as a lead or midlist title so you can adjust your expectations accordingly.

Until a publisher goes under or you personally find yourself selling no more than a few dozen copies of a book in a month, you may not be able to tell what kind of publisher you have, especially if they are a young company without a track record. Some are even shuttering their doors before they’ve had a chance to become established.

Most publishers don’t make their balance sheets public. While your dream may be to simply hand the reins over and let someone else drive your book, nothing absolves you of the responsibility for the success of your own career. Practicing due diligence up front will save you much heartache on the hind side.

Many companies now provide the services you need to get your book edited, formatted, covered and published out to major etailers for a set upfront free. It’s up to you to figure out if the publisher you’re thinking about signing with offers benefits on the backend as well.

While a publisher may not disclose what the average earnings are for their authors, there are some things you can examine in the contracts to help you decide if THAT publisher is a good one for you.

Be wary of long-term commitments

Just because you don’t have the time or inclination today to keep up with the varying opportunities for selling your work doesn’t mean that won’t change in a couple of years. Industry standard among the small digital-first/only publishers appears to be 3 years, with some asking 2 and a few 5. Think hard about a 5-year contract. For a debut novel, that might be perfectly fine – as long as other contract clauses don’t stifle your ability to publish elsewhere.

Be wary of non-compete clauses

If your publisher isn’t doing as much for you or your books as you’d like – either today or a year from now – you’ll want the freedom to publish with others or to publish on your own. You’ll likely have to compromise on release dates of any new titles you have control of, but you want as much freedom as possible to chase the best deals for your future books.

Be wary of low thresholds for reversion

If a publisher loses interest in you or your titles or if they simply have too many clients to give each one the attention individual titles need to succeed in a changing market, then you don’t want your book(s) lingering with them on the equivalent of life support.

What’s optimal? Genre and price will, of course, play a large part in how many books sell per month. In general, the higher you can negotiate the better. Besides, just because you build in a reversion option doesn’t mean you have to exercise it. IMO, if a publisher can’t move 500 e-copies of a midlist book in a year, they have no business hanging on to it – unless they’re additionally moving other formats as well. In fact, negotiating thresholds for each format could be viable, as well as negotiating by overall royalty: If the book earns you less than $300 in a 6-month royalty period, you can revert rights.

Be wary of unfair royalty splits

What’s unfair? Well, that’s certainly debatable, isn’t it. Personally, I think fair is a sliding scale. Not the sliding scale paperbacks often deliver, such as 6% for the first 10,000 sold, 8% for the next 10,000 and 10% thereafter. I think the royalty rate should be paired with how many years you’re held to a contract, with the rates going up in your favor as the time commitment increases. For instance, 2 years gets you 40% of net, 3 years gets 50%, 5 years gets 60%. Don't let an advance upfront sway you from reasonable royalties. And certainly don't settle for lower royalties if your contract requires you to pay back any unearned advances. 

Should you or shouldn’t you?  

There are some great small presses that can help some new authors find success they may not be able to find on their own and help them navigate the ins and outs of the industry. For first books with a short-term commitment by an author too busy with other non-writing obligations, a small publisher would be a good option. It’s like participating in a mentorship program. Not every author needs or wants a mentor but for those who do, these publishers can provide the services and benefits necessary. Of course, no reputable small publisher wants to be seen as a stepping stone, and none wants to invest heavily in an author who doesn't plan to put out more books with them. So catch-22.

 Just be careful out there and be sure that before signing you are indeed getting the value-add  you expect from a publisher who knows where and how to sell your books. Preferably someone who’ll be in the business long enough that you aren’t left stranded before your contract’s up. 

Which reminds me: Be sure your contract stipulates that all rights will be returned to you within a set amount of time (30-60 days) if the publisher ceases operation for any reason.

Would I?

If I weren't involved with Steel Magnolia Press (which is more of a consortium than a publisher), would I sign with a small digital-first/digital-only publisher? No. But that's because I think I've gained the knowledge necessary to sell on my own in the digital marketplace. I do know that, were I to consider a small publisher, all else being equal, I would chase the publisher with 25 authors each making $1000 a month per title over the publisher with 200 authors each making $100 a month per title. The problem, of course, is that most pubs aren't divulging their authors' numbers so the visibility needed to sway me just isn't there. Going blind into a contract without an idea of what the average earn-out is would be a deal-breaker. As, of course, would be a low earn-out average. 

But everyone's situation is different, as is everyone's measure of success or degree of expectation. All I ask is that you be smart in choosing your path. And I'm betting that's what you want too.