Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Getting "The Call" -- Indie-Wise

Michelle Hauck (aka Michelle4Laughs) is doing a wonderfully inspiring series of posts from authors who've gotten "The Call." Wanting a little balance, she asked me if I'd like to do an indie version of "Getting the Call," and of course I said I'd be delighted. Michelle has been an online friend and staunch supporter since, well, forever. What she and I didn't know at the time was that the indie "Call" post would be scooped by Ruth Cardello, whose self-publishing success has been miles ahead of mine. But you know what, my little books and I have worked hard to get where we are today, and I figured a little grounding for readers following the series wouldn't hurt.

My version of "The Call" is now up at Michelle's blog. And she's cross-posted it as well to her team blog, For the Love of Writing. I hope you'll take a look.

ETA: Oooh, looks like Michelle has issued a comments challenge! Please leave a few words over at her place when you visit.

Monday, May 21, 2012

More Window Placement At Amazon

Why yes, that would be Spoil of War hanging out on the front page of the Science Fiction & Fantasy section of Amazon. Nice placement, yes?

Oh, and look at the company it's keeping: A slew of fantasy greats to its left, Charlaine Harris and Sookie to its right, and GRRM, Diana Gabaldon and another slew of greats beneath.

Wow, this makes 2 of my books that have gotten store window placement at Amazon. Now if there was just an easy way to get them both up there at the same time!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Post-Free Results - 1 Week Out

So here we are 1 week after our 10 Steel Magnolia Press titles ended their free runs. Yesterday's chart comparisons around free run results since January validated that, for our titles, the apparent A/B testing in March meant depressed post-free sales numbers in April, and the change in algorithms at the beginning of May meant further depression in general. In fact, the conversion rate of number given away to number sold steepened sharply for every title, with only a rare valley or two between January and May.

 (Click to open chart larger in a new window.)

Of interest is that, despite titles holding within a few rankings on the popularity lists, sales velocity over the last three days has either held steady or slipped, with Vet Tech Tales still being the exception. It appears to be climbing back to its typical per-day sales rate while the others are dropping back to theirs.

Another interesting bit that helps us better guess at the new algorithms can be found looking at the 2 titles for which we can compare bestselling and popularity rankings.

SECTOR C had a short run into the Top 100 last month, and 1240 sales are being carried over from that into its current 30-day history for a total of 1425 sales. Add to that some percentage of its 11,000 US freeloads from last week -- say 10% (our best guess right now) -- and it's competing with other titles in its categories on the popularity side at a sales-equivalent of 2525 sales over the past 30 days. Coupled with a $4.29 price, that's a serious enough lift to boost it above its bestseller (BS) counterpart ranks.

  • 4 Pop vs 29 BS - Technothriller
  • 72 vs >100 - Thriller
  • 7 vs 45 - High Tech SF
  • 29 vs >100 Science Fiction

Vet Tech Tales, on the other hand, has a 30-day history of 226 sales plus a modest 1500 freeloads. Adding 10% of 1500 to 226 equals 376 sales equivalents. Overall, its popularity rank is tracking very closely to its bestselling rank in every one of its categories, even ranking a rank or two lower on a couple of pop lists than it is on the bestseller side.

  • 2 Pop vs 1 BS - Veterinary Medicine
  • 57 vs 60  - Medicine
  • 162 vs >100 - Science
  • 43 vs  39 - Professional & Tech - Medical
  • 149 vs >100 - Professional & Technical
  • 10 vs 10 - Animal Care - Essays
  • 39 vs 39 - Animal Care & Pets
  • 95 vs 97 - Home & Garden

On the money front, SMP titles made about $1860 in the week since being free, or $265 per day. In the week before going free, the books were making about $50 per day. Don't forget we still need to account for the 1.5 - 2 days the titles were on their free run. If we subtract $100 (2 days x $50) from $1840 and divide by 7 days, we get just a bit over $250 per day. So by going free, we increased our weekly sales total 500%.

The good news is that when we compare the pre-free week to the post-free week, each of our books improved in both number of sales made and money earned.

It isn't as many sales or as much money as we were making in the Gold or Silver Age of Select, but for us going free through Select at this time still carried an advantage. Of course, luck and the good folk at the major freebooking sites were also with us.

As always, your results may vary.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Sales Comparison Of 4-Day Post-Free Results

I did a quick comparison of Day 4 post-free sales for each Steel Magnolia Press book that has been on at least 2 free runs and charted in the Top 250 Free. The following is the result. (Feb 1 and Feb 2 designate 2 separate runs 3 weeks apart.)

I'm still analyzing, but one thing from these results alone -- meaning we can't really make any firm, across-the-board claims from this data set -- seems clear. For our SMP books, we now need to see at least 3000 free downloads during a given run to have much of a post-free impact on sales.

Tomorrow we'll look at the 1-week post-free numbers and wrap this all up on Sunday. Then we'll wait for the next set of algorithm changes to come along :o).

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Is Freeloading Via Amazon Select On The Wane?

Every now and then I see someone make mention that hand-in-hand with the decline in post-free sales, free books are not being downloaded in the same numbers as they were earlier in the year.

Is it true? Or does it just feel that way? It's a statistical claim, so what data is the observation based on?

Authors who aren't getting as many downloads per book as they once were might be tempted to extrapolate that data point across the entire freebook model. But just because we're tempted to do something, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do.

I am, however, going to fall into that same temptation. The only differences are that 1) I have a LOT of free runs to compare, 2) many of those free runs resulted in comparable ranks so I'm comparing like to like, and 3) I understand how to look at the captured data in a way that (hopefully) returns meaningful results.

For instance, on its first free run in January, SECTOR C hit #25 and ended up with 13,000 downloads in the US. That's how most authors would report their free run result, right? Did that mean it took 13,000 downloads to hit #25? Not at all. It took about 10,000 to hit that rank. In fact, 8 hours later it went off free at a rank of #35 with those 13,000 downloads -- and it took about 7000 downloads to hit #35 the first time. But the way indies often report results complicates and skews those results -- which makes it difficult to work with other people's data.

So, working with the pool of data I do have -- 10 books in Select through Steel Magnolia Press, which is admittedly quite a small pool but is perhaps better than what many indies are armed with -- I charted how many downloads it took to reach a given range of Top 200 ranks during each month in 2012.

Here are the caveats:

  • Within a given month, the free runs logged may have taken place on different dates.
  • There is always server lag in reporting downloads vs rank. I've used actual rank figures and backed up an hour to two hours to get the download numbers associated.
  • In the Top 50, it's very competitive. While I've segmented the ranks by 10s, the difference between a rank in the low end of the segment and one at the high end can easily be 1000 downloads.
  • Each month we had more books in Select, so data for January and February is not as robust as that available for March, April and May.

Still, there are some trends we can plausibly infer from the charted results below.

  • January appears to be the high point for freeloads across the store, followed by February. 
  • April saw a bit of a depression of about 20% across the board.
  • May freeloads appear to be at about the same level as February.
  • Readers still appear to be enthusiastic about freeloads.

And here's the kicker to what this data appears to indicate (and please note the frequency of the word "appears" throughout this post!):

There are now 153,000 books that are Prime Eligible compared to about 65,000 in January. Not all of those are in the KDP Select program, but for simplicity sake let's say the number of books eligible for a Select free run has doubled since the first of the year and posit that there are now twice as many books being offered free as there were then. If all the books being made free on a given day were being downloaded equally, then it should take roughly half the number of downloads now than it did in January to reach a given rank. But that's not what we're seeing. We're seeing it take the same number of downloads to hit a given rank even though there are almost twice as many books available.

That means either the overall number of free books being downloaded has increased exponentially because there are more customers downloading them or the same number are downloading more books, or else the overall percentage of books rising to the top has gotten considerably smaller, meaning there are a LOT more books not getting many downloads at all.

It is, of course, likely to be some complicated version of all three scenarios.

What this means is that using free as a tool for discoverability is still a great option assuming your book gets into the Top 200 or so, but it rapidly loses its effectiveness otherwise. Note I said "for discoverability" and not "for gaining post-free sales." With the new algorithms and their accompanying new price bias, books likely need to get into the Top 150 Free to have any noticeable post-free sales bounce, and into the Top 80 to see an appreciable bounce.

More and more, you have to be in this game to win it.

The bar keeps being raised. Are YOU up for the challenge?

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Day 4 Post-Free Results

The question we're all trying to answer with the recent changes in Amazon's algorithms is whether or not playing the freebook game with Select is still "worth it." What "worth it" means to each author will likely be different. Picking up new readers, simple satisfaction in seeing your book out there in the hands of those new readers -- these are things that can't be measured except by your own internal evaluator. And just like the way Amazon's algorithms work, these are factors that you'll give either more or less weight to depending on your individual goals.

What we can do here is chart the tangible results and make some educated guesses as to what it all means for the expectations we set for future free runs.

Below are the 4-day post-free sales results for the 10 Steel Magnolia Press books we set free last week. You'll recall 4 of the books made it to the Top 50, 7 books got into the Top 100, and 9 into the Top 150.

(Click on the chart to open it larger in a new window.)

In addition to updating the numbers from the 2-day totals, I added some guestimated dollars at the end. In the week leading up to the free run, the Steel Magnolia authors sold 212 books and had 20 borrows total. That works out to about 33 copies sold/borrowed per day. In dollars, that's about $350 total or $50 per day.

That gives us the baseline to work from. To be doing any good from a purely financial standpoint, sales would have to improve over that $50-per-day mark post-free.

From the chart, you can see that in 4 days we've sold 800 books, had 116 books borrowed and had 100 returned. Subtracting the returns, we wind up with an average of 229 books sold/borrowed per day. That equals about $1200 total since the post-free run, or an average of $300 per day in royalties.

Remember, though, we lost 1.5 days in there by going free, so to see what actual gains there have been, we need to subtract the $50 per day we would have normally gotten on the days the books were free from the overall total. We ended our runs early on the second day, but to keep things simple, we'll call it 2 full days or $100.

So, $1200 - $100 = $1100.

Now we divide that $1100 by our 4 post-free days and get a total of $275 per day. And we can see that $275 is 5.5 times the $50 we had been making per day -- or a 550% increase.

A slam-dunk success, right?

Ah, but here's where we have to filter the results through two sets of eyes: publisher eyes and author eyes.

For Steel Magnolia Press, it's clear that using free as a revenue-generating tool can still work. Maybe not to the extent it was working in the past, but given the right promoting and a lot of luck, the post-free sales bounce is lucrative enough to repeat. At least based on these charted results.

But what about for the individual books? Using the same formula as above, let's look at how daily averages post-free compare to those pre-free.

SECTOR C - 372% increase
Warlock's Daughter - 4700%
The Rent-A-Groom - 800% 
Out of the Dark - 3900%
A Dragon's Seduction - 400%
Catering to the Italian Playboy - 1200%
Extinct Anthology - 350% 
Gypsy Bond - 300%
Vet Tech Tales - (90%)

Pretty wide ranges there, varying from 0.9 times as many sales to 47 times.

Of particular interest is Vet Tech Tales. It's on 4 Bestseller lists and in the Top 100 of 6 Pop lists. It had a healthy average of about 9 sales per day going into free. 1500 copies were given away and it ended its free run at #145. All signs that should point to a moderate post-free sales bounce. Instead, in the past 2 days its sales have come to a halt and its rank is poorer than it's been in weeks. Already it has a lower sales-per-day ratio than when it started -- all-in-all, a discouraging performance despite a nice increase in visibility.

I've heard anecdotal evidence from others who've noted this same phenomenon. This book has been on 5 free runs, and even on the couple of runs where it didn't get mentions on the major sites and had only 400 or 500 downloads, it was back to selling a pretty consistent 7-10 copies per day. This is the first experience this book -- or I -- have had with sales falling so completely off a cliff so quickly. I don't have an immediate answer as to why. I'm open to any thoughts you may have and, of course, I'll be looking for an answer too.

If that were the only book I had in Select, I would very disappointed in the result of the promotion, despite the overall success for the publisher. Something to keep in mind when you're listening to stories about various authors' successes or failures with Select free runs. Folk who do really well or really poorly are likely to be most vocal about their results.

So is there any data to help us determine just how different the results are now than they were in the Gold and Silver Ages of Select? If you ran a Select free promo back in February, what can you reasonably hope your May campaign will look like in comparison?

I happen to have data from comparable runs that will help answer just that question that I'll share with you on Friday.

Tomorrow, we'll look at whether readers really are getting tired of free books -- or is it the authors who are tired of giving them out instead?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Price Bias – A New Wrinkle In Amazon’s Ever-Changing Algorithms

OK, we’ve been keeping something from you. We suspected this early on, but it was such a major change to what we were used to seeing we wanted to be sure what we were seeing was actually there – and repeatable.

Price bias in Amazon’s algorithms.

Until recently, Amazon’s popularity lists have been price-agnostic. That changed on May 1. Ed Robertson has a nice rundown on the evidence. Huge thanks to Ed for the hours (and quantities of alcohol consumed) spent chasing down the figures.

I won’t repeat all the gory details here. Go read Ed’s piece for that.

What I want to discuss today is editorial in nature: Why Amazon might be changing the playing field yet again. The following is opinion and speculation only.

Let me be clear up front. In no way do I believe Amazon is changing its virtual display shelves in a way that is meant foremost to have any impact on indies. I’ve used the expression that we’re simply collateral damage numerous times, and I stand by that belief. Of course, whether you die by virtue of intended murder or unintended manslaughter, the result is the same.

So what’s up then? Weren’t Select titles that were going free and selling hundreds and thousands of copies post-free making Amazon money? Of course. But Amazon will sell books regardless.

Is Amazon reacting to a public outcry over the quality of the books being routinely put on the front shelves? Hmmm. I haven’t heard or seen such an outcry, and to make an impact, I would think it would have to be a tsunami of outrage to turn Amazon's ear.

What’s prompted the change, I believe, has all to do with the demise of agency pricing. When Amazon is again free to offer loss-leaders of bestsellers from the Big 6, they will need to make up the thin margins they’ll no doubt be earning per copy through quantity. It will behoove Amazon to ensure those books are kept in front of the readers, and keeping them high in the popularity lists will help accomplish that. Remember, Amazon routinely sends email blasts to customers that feature the top 5 or 6 titles in the pop list directly in the email and then links to the rest of the list itself, so the popularity lists feed Amazon's recommendation engines in large part.

One pricing bit we’re also looking at is the List Price of the ebook vs the actual Purchase Price. Our testing of List vs Purchase price is still ongoing. Of interest so far is to note that the Amazon imprints now seem to be offering a List Price of $9.99 while actually selling their titles for $4.99 and lower. That’s good marketing to make the customer think they’re getting a deal, but I believe it goes well beyond simple Marketing 101 strategy. If the price bias uses the List Price as its factor, then Amazon is giving its imprint books the same advantage in the algorithms as the Big 6 publishers will have, and the Amazon imprint books will keep getting pushed to the front shelves along with the Big 6 titles – and ahead of the indies.

Ahead, because “List Price” is not a tool the indies have to work with, and we’re clearly disadvantaged because of it should the theory about List Price prove out. We can change the price on a book and have the old List Price reflected with a slash through it, but only temporarily. Within a few hours or, at most, a few days, the new Purchase Price becomes the List Price.

What that means, of course, is that indie books that are lower priced have to sell a lot more copies to be promoted up the pages of the popularity lists than do books with higher Purchase Prices and/or List Prices. So the answer is to price everything higher, right? Not necessarily. First, a book has to have the perceived value of the price you want to sell it at for it to actually sell at all. Plus, if the algorithms are working off the List Price, that gives Amazon the luxury of pricing a book at any price and still enjoying better shelf placement. Say you price your new thriller at $4.99 to avoid the bias, and Thomas & Mercer is selling their newest thriller at $3.99 but with a List Price of $9.99. That T&M book will still be placed higher than yours unless you sell a substantial number more than the T&M title.

If this algorithm change persists – and who knows, it could be replaced in a month or two! – what I foresee when the agency-priced titles are wholesaled once again to Amazon is this: Customers will be able to purchase those pricier bestsellers (as ebooks) for less than what they’re being offered at now. Score 1 for the customer. In an effort to compete, indies will begin raising the prices of their books, and the 99c to $2.99 titles will be harder to come by. So customers will be paying less for one class of books and more for another class as prices begin to normalize within the $2.99 – 9.99 range that Amazon has been pushing all along.

Of course, there will always be outliers. Of course 99c books that can move 100,000 copies will still rank well and sell well. Of course indies who price their books above the value customers are willing to pay will not sell.

Of course there are factors other than price that will affect how well your book performs. If you concentrate on just one variable, such as price, to the exclusion of all others, you’ll likely be disappointed in the results. Price is still just another consideration in the overall equation.

On another note regarding the agency pricing scandal, check out David's Gaughran's Open Letter to the DOJ.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Day 2.5-ish Post-Free Results

So, has the free ride in KDP Select run its course in terms of post-free sales? Well, let's just say it's walking and no longer sprinting toward the finish line.

First, a chart of the results of the 10 Steel Magnolia Press books that went free last Thursday and half of Friday. Then we'll look at how this run, which we'll call Bronze (post-May 1), is comparing to runs made in the Golden (pre-Mid-March) and Silver (Mid-Mar - Apr 30) Ages of Select.

(Click on the chart to open it up in a larger size.)

The popularity lists for the Kindle categories have all updated at least once, and so far it's quite clear that our books are not reaping as much visibility reward now as they have for past free runs that resulted in similar successes. Either the Books categories have not yet updated or else they are weighting Kindle book sales much less than print book sales. For example, while SECTOR C is #9 on the Medical Thriller bestseller list, it's not even in the Top 300 of the Books category (note there isn't an equivalent Medical Thriller Kindle category at all).

Two of my books are lucky enough to have high visibility in some categories that are less-competitive than Romance. Since they can rank high on the bestseller lists across multiple categories, they have the opportunity to rank high across those same categories on the popularity lists as well. Just look at how many opportunities Vet Tech Tales has to get eyes-on!

Luckily, we have similar points of reference for many of these books, so we can compare very like circumstances across all three Ages of Select. 

Today I'll simply chart the data here, then tomorrow we'll take a break from looking at new numbers and see what, if anything, we can deduce from the data so far. Some of the trending is, of course, pretty clear :o). What trends can you spot? In addition, we'll look across the data and try to determine not only how post-free sales are being affected but what we can tell about the numbers of freebies being given away as well. For instance, are the numbers of copies being downloaded dropping?

On Wednesday, we'll include the sales totals through the first 4 days post-free, and finish up with data tracking on Saturday. Finally, on Sunday, we'll look back over all the data and make some educated guesses about where Select has been, where it is now, and where it will take us in the near future before any additional changes are made to the algorithms.

The following charts contain data for free runs across 7 of the Steel Magnolia Press titles. While Warlock's Daughter and Out of the Dark both made it into the Top 50 Free last week, they were only put into Select right before this promotion so they have no other data to compare to.

The sales totals are cumulative from Day 1 through 1 Week. We'll need to wait to fill in data for Day 4 and Week 1 on all the Bronze columns.

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Query Revision # 100-and-something

A dear friend of the blog is getting ready to begin submitting her latest manuscript (yay!). And she needs a solid query to accompany it. I've offered thoughts on her draft below. Feel free to leave any helpful comments you may have as well!

Dear Dreamy Agent:

The supernova of a nearby star wiped the ozone from Earth’s atmosphere. Now the sun’s radiation batters the planet unfiltered, bringing slow death to those who survived the initial destruction.

Seventeen-year-old Little Bit is bursting at the seams. She’s sick of being detained inside the walls of her Indiana compound by a magical anklet locked on her by the young mage, Garrett. She may be safe under the shield created by Garrett, but a slender age difference and saving her life doesn’t give him the right to conceal her past or keep her captive. Even a girl who has never been anywhere can see a world composed of four people lacks a future.

Little Bit outwits the anklet to stumble through collapsing ghost towns inhabited by magically mutated beetles and over-sized possums. Creatures that have had their evolution ‘sped up’ are about as helpful as Garrett and a whole lot hungrier. Plus, they aren’t the only things willing to eat anything. Friendly humans are in short supply as Little Bit follows rumors of a colony in New Chicago. Troubling memory blackouts soon prove that her anklet had a larger purpose than simply holding her prisoner. Little Bit must get her answers and create a future while dodging the sun’s deadly rays.

LITTLE BIT is a YA dystopian novel with crossover fantasy elements complete at xx,xxx words. My pathetic list of credits here.

Thanks for your consideration.

My Thoughts 

The supernova of a nearby star wiped the ozone from Earth’s atmosphere. Now the sun’s radiation batters the planet unfiltered, bringing slow death to those who survived the initial destruction.

This is a nice opening. It's setting me up for a dark, SF dystopian tale. 

Seventeen-year-old Little Bit is bursting at the seams.

"Little Bit" and the trivial-sounding "bursting at the seams" language now have me thinking this isn't going to be a dark story after all.

She’s sick of being detained inside the walls of her Indiana compound by a magical anklet locked on her by the young mage, Garrett.

And there's a mage? In this case, maybe it's best to bring up the genre at the beginning of the query. I feel like I'm being flip-flopped a bit and am having to work a bit too hard to keep up as my expectations about the story keep changing. 

She may be safe under the shield created by Garrett, but a slender age difference and saving her life doesn’t give him the right to conceal her past or keep her captive.

Does she know he's concealing her past? Can the reader know too? And isn't it like death to leave? 

Even a girl who has never been anywhere can see a world composed of four people lacks a future.

The 'four people' mention now has me asking questions: who are the other two? are they captives too? do they matter to the query? 

Little Bit outwits the anklet to stumble through collapsing ghost towns inhabited by magically mutated beetles and over-sized possums.

I'm going to be honest and say the language used here is giving me a middle grade rather than YA vibe. I'm also a little unclear about these creatures. Are they the only creatures inhabiting the towns? Are they inhabiting them in the sense that they're sentient and using the towns the same way humans would? If they're being magically manipulated, is the manipulation part of some overall plan or just young, bored mages playing with their magic? 

Creatures that have had their evolution ‘sped up’ are about as helpful as Garrett and a whole lot hungrier. 

Well, if Garrett was keeping her alive under his shield, seems he was being helpful. 

Plus, they aren’t the only things willing to eat anything. Friendly humans are in short supply as Little Bit follows rumors of a colony in New Chicago.

So then she must be meeting up with unfriendly humans, right? I'm thinking you may want to show LB's obstacles a little more concretely -- with the added benefit you can use the opportunity to do a little more world-building along the way. 

Troubling memory blackouts soon prove that her anklet had a larger purpose than simply holding her prisoner.

Earlier, we're told Garrett is concealing her past from her, which made me think he was blocking her memories. Now it seems even more memories are being blocked because she takes the anklet off? Again, I've been set up for an expectation that doesn't jive with the follow-through. 

Little Bit must get her answers and create a future while dodging the sun’s deadly rays.

I'm trying hard here to understand her goals. Are the answers she needs buried in the memories that are disappearing, buried in her past, or do they lie with Garrett? What kind of future are we talking here? Something that will save what's left of humankind? Or just to meet up with other friendly humans to pass a pleasant few years before everyone dies of radiation poisoning? I'm not getting a strong enough sense of the world or the perils therein to fully appreciate the goals mentioned. 

LITTLE BIT is a YA dystopian novel with crossover fantasy elements complete at xx,xxx words. My pathetic list of credits here.

LITTLE BIT doesn't sing out YA Dystopian to me (then again, I suck at titles...)

If you have credits to list, they aren't pathetic! :o) 

Thanks for your consideration.

My Version

Dear Dreamy Agent:

The supernova of a nearby star has stripped the ozone from Earth’s atmosphere and the onslaught of radiation is slowly killing everyone who survived the initial destruction in LITTLE BIT, my YA dystopian novel with crossover fantasy appeal.

Held captive in an Indiana compound, seventeen-year-old Little Bit wants only two things. First, to escape the young mage, Garrett, who's using magic to shield her from the fatal radiation -- but at the cost of her own past. And second, to see and hear and touch other humans while there's still time.

When Little Bit outwits the spelled anklet thralling her to Garrett, she escapes into a world being corrupted more by magic than any devastation the sun is beaming down. She stumbles through ghost towns populated by magicked creatures -- hungry, mutated beetles and mega-sized opossums -- whose evolution is being sped up by Garrett and other mages of his ilk for purposes only they can fathom. 

Dodging nests of radiation-scarred survivalists who skulk in the shadows, Little Bit follows rumors to a human colony occupying New Chicago. What future she has lies with them -- she can feel it in her bones. But first, she'll have to confront Garrett about why he kept her imprisoned, uncover the secret of her past, and find a way for them all to survive the sun's deadly rays.

Thanks for your consideration. I look forward to sending you LITTLE BIT, complete at XX,XXX words.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Day 1 Post-Free Results

Well, the first 24 hours coming off free teaches us one thing: It's going to take more time to draw any real conclusions. (See yesterday's post, if you missed it, to get caught up on today's sales discussion.)

Let's get right to the data. Below the chart, we'll discuss what you're seeing. (Click on the chart to see it larger.)

One of the interesting things I noted after coming off free was that the majority of these sales came within the first 8 hours. Sales have tapered off since.

The titles are in the same order as they are in the chart we saw yesterday, which showed best free rankings and number of downloads. If the book showed up in a category's Top 100 bestsellers list, I've noted its rank in that list in a column on the left.

On the right side of the chart are sales by region: US, UK and all the others lumped together as sales are minimal outside of the US and UK. There's a column for total sales across all the regions, a column for total number of borrows, and a column showing total returns/refunds across all regions. It's pretty clear that coming off free in the middle of the day confused a number of customers who thought the books were still free. A few obviously went on to borrow the book after returning a purchased copy. And some of those returns could well be freebies that were returned. How Amazon is counting them I won't know until tomorrow's weekly summary report.

The far right column shows sales in the US for the week prior to the free run. Most of our books were in a bit of a sales lull and sales immediately post-free in most cases surpassed each book's prior week's total. Vet Tech Tales is the only outlier here; historically it seems to sell consistently whether it's been on a free run recently or not.

The column with the popularity rank is one we will want to pay particular attention to. The recent algorithm changes mainly affected these lists, and books coming off successful free runs are not rising as high on the lists as they did before May 1 (when 3 different display lists became 1) or March 19 (when the single popularity list that was Select-friendly was split into 3 different display lists that were randomly tested on customers).

It's clear that the Science Fiction and Thriller categories have updated since yesterday. SECTOR C was further down the ranks in both the SF and Thriller related categories on Friday. Its ranks on the new popularity lists track well with its ranks on the bestseller lists. The only discrepancy is with the Medical Thriller list. That list, however, is a Books list and not a Kindle list, and I'm pretty sure that one simply hasn't updated yet.

In the past, given the rank and number of downloads SECTOR C achieved, it would have hit the popularity list at  #1 in both Technothriller and High Tech SF and possibly hit at #1 or #2 in overall Science Fiction and wound up for a third time on the Kindle store homepage as the representative title for the SF category. The overall Thriller category is much more competitive, and SECTOR C would likely have landed somewhere between #22 and #30 on the Thriller popularity list and been in the Top 100 for the broader Mystery & Thriller category as well.

I'll be particularly interested to see whether the other books track as closely to their bestseller ranks. SECTOR C has the advantage of bringing last month's sales during its Top 100 run to the algorithm table today since it appears the algos weight sales heaviest over the last 30 days.

Likewise, where our books have Top 100 bestseller ranks in categories where they're not showing up in the first 250 items on the popularity lists, I'm guessing it's because the daily updates haven't taken place yet. In the past, we've seen it take anywhere from 24 to 48 hours for these lists to update, contributing to what was affectionately known as the 3-day sales bump.

In addition, considering the discrepancy (though not so wide) between Vet Tech Tales' performance in the two lists, it looks like its popularity lists haven't updated yet either. It was indeed selling well enough before going free that it hadn't dropped completely off the radar on those lists.

So is there anything yet that we can tell from the data here? Not so much. There have been several folk who've run a title free since May 1 when the algorithms changed and who've reported only a handful of sales over the 3 or 4 days following the free run. Here, we see good sales for 5 of our Steel Magnolia Press books post-free, moderate sales for 3 of them, and meh sales for 2, so sales immediately after a free run seem variable across the board. What we need to do now is wait to see where the books land on the popularity lists once those lists recrunch and then see if their new ranks help drive additional sales.

The problem? Will sales that are tailing off now because the books aren't currently appearing high on a list affect where they ultimately wind up on that list? We'll take a look at that together first thing on Monday morning. Tomorrow, we have a query to critique!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Let's Experiment With KDP Select Together

Here's your chance to play armchair self-publisher!

Yesterday, we set 10 Steel Magnolia Press titles free. I'll update their progress here over the next week or so. Together we'll try to determine what types of promotion work best in the current Select environment and how we can turn the new, less indie-friendly algorithms to our advantage.

First, the results so far. Then I'll detail out how we got here.

7 out of 10 of our books made it into the Top 100 Free
Top 150 = 9 out of 10
Top 300 = 10 out of 10
Nearly 50,000 books given away

Needless to say, I'm delighted with the results, although we did leave ourselves room for improvement too.

How We Got Here

Having a group of books to promote seems to be cost-efficient in terms of both dollars and time spent. Size of the group matters and having a professionalism surrounding the campaign seems to help. Our books are all offerings under the Steel Magnolia Press imprint, and we have a nice website that we used to promote with.

We also have a monthly newsletter that we send out to a mailing list of about 700 readers. So, first orders of business were to build out the website's homepage and to add a tease to our May newsletter. After that, we notified the larger freebook sites. Because we were thrown a big change in the algorithms early in the month, I held off running the promo while we did some analysis. Because of this I missed the deadlines for asking a couple of sites to mention our promo. It obviously didn't hurt us too much, but it's something to improve on next time.

In all, I notified 6 of the sites that offer free mentions. Of those 6, 2 declined to mention any of our books. Relationships are important in this business. I have a good relationship with the owners of 2 of the sites that mentioned us, no relationship with 2 sites that gave us a mention and a third one that didn't, and am obviously blacklisted by the good folk at Kindle on the Cheap, though I have no clue why.

Those who graciously mentioned either the overall promo or books from it were:
Free Kindle Books and Tips
Ereader News Today
Pixel of Ink
eReader IQ

Myself and all the authors at Steel Magnolia Press wish to thank Michael, Greg, Sharon, Christian and their staffs for supporting our campaign, their readers, and ours, making this a win-win event for us all.

In his Free Kindle Books and Tips post, Michael linked directly to the SMP website. This proved to be a terrific option for us as it drove about 6000 readers to our site where they busily read the books' descriptions and clicked over to Amazon to claim the ones they wanted. Quite a few folk also signed up for our newsletter while there and entered our May contest for 2 $10 Amazon Gift Cards.

We also reached out to the Kindle Fire Department and purchased our first-ever ad for free books. The KFD blog ran into some technical difficulties, but Gadget gave us space on the FaceBook page with individual links to each of the 10 free books and offered to run a second reminder post today for us. Because I knew we'd be pulling the books down throughout the day, I declined the offer but was impressed that Gadget was willing to work with us to make right a technical issue beyond KFD's control.

Tying our books together the way we did certainly helped with visibility and discoverability. Being innovative helped too. I don't believe we wore out our welcome with the freebooking sites with this promo, and as Jennifer Blake begins releasing her backlist of 36 titles through Steel Magnolia Press we'll have other titles to promote out to freebook site readers as well -- though likely every backlist book won't be immediately offered for free!

The question now, of course, based on the newest algorithms Amazon appears to be applying to its popularity lists, is whether these Steel Magnolia Press books will be able to overcome the biases now being incorporated into those algorithms. Early results from others who have run free promos since May 1 seem to point to severely diminished returns compared especially to earlier this year.

I suspect much depends on the historical sales data of each individual book as well as on current variables associated with the titles. I'm guessing it's not a one-size-fits-all-and-screws-indies-exclusively algorithm that's been introduced. That means I'm also guessing each of our 10 books will see wildly different post-free sales results, based possibly on variables such as what rank a book was at before it went free, the book's price, the book's average sales rate over a 30-day period, velocity of sales in the past week vs the past month, whether it's part of a series and/or something else entirely.

As sales results come in I'll post them out over the next few days along with what data I have for each book. Then you guys can help us all figure out if Select is completely dead, mostly dead or still alive and working but only if you happen to be in a certain too-cool-for-school group.

Plus we'll have a query crit on Sunday to break things up a bit!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Why It Pays To Be Popular

Whether you've enrolled your book(s) in KDP Select or not, the conversations around changes to the popularity lists affect you too. Why? Because Amazon's recommendation engine is based on rankings, both on the bestseller lists and the popularity lists.

Most of you are familiar with the alsobots (the list of books that customers who bought your book also bought and that are similar to your book in genre, price and ranking). The alsobots are what you probably thought of first when the reco engine was mentioned. And they're important, of course. But how about the emails that Amazon sends out periodically based on your browsing habits? Those along the lines of:

Customers who have purchased [specific genre] books on Kindle might be interested in this month's best sellers or related books Recommended for You.      

If you have clicked on the "see more" link at the end of the 6 or 7 books displayed in the mail, you might have thought you were being taken to the bestseller list. Nope. You're shown the popularity list. And if you aren't a bestselling author, the popularity list is likely your best chance of getting seen by folk who click through. The recent algorithm changes affect books in and out of Select equally when it comes to recommendations, visibility and discoverability.

And while it's become harder to hit the popularity lists, once on them you'll likely hang out on them longer -- for about 30 days assuming you can move at least a few copies of your book during the time you're in the Top 100 of your genre. After 30 days, though, if you haven't done anything to step up your game, you'll drop off the cliff...


And in non-Amazon (OmniLit) news, this makes me happy:

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Why KDP Select Is No Longer The Easy Golden Ticket

First let’s be clear: Amazon only ever promised two things with Select: 5 discretionary free promo days and compensation for borrows from the Kindle Owners Lending Library. Any other benefits were purely happy happenstance. Amazon has not reneged on its original Terms of Service agreement.

What it has done is rearrange its front tables to better reflect a new front list. Where before Select books coming off successful free runs got put on the first table where casual browsers couldn’t miss them, they’re now being relegated to side tables mid-store. They’re still on promotional tables, to be sure, just not the most prominent ones. See Ed Robertson’s latest post on the ins and outs of the new algorithms.

Decreased visibility will certainly mean a decrease in post-free sales compared to sales in April, which were down considerably from January.  

So free won’t be effective any longer?

That depends on how you were using free in your marketing strategy. If you were relying on post-free sales alone, then free will be considerably less effective. If you were relying on the first book in a series being free to help drive sales of the other books in the series, there will be diminished effectiveness in the post-free period, but complementary sales during the time the first book is free shouldn’t be impacted. And if you use free to attract readers and help build your newsletter list, then free should continue to work just as well for you now as before.

It’s just the “front tables” that are affected, right? Do many people browse books that way anyway?

Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t release any buyer behavior stats so we don’t know for sure how most readers discover books. Anecdotally, we can see some clear drops in post-free sales during the 6 weeks Amazon was conducting what we presume to be split testing of its lists. That seems to implicate those popularity lists as being major sales drivers.

But the lists extend just beyond placement “in store.” Most of us have received recommendation emails from Amazon that state something along the lines of: Customers who have purchased [specific genre] books on Kindle might be interested in this month's best sellers or related books recommended for you. If you’ve followed the “more” link in those emails, you’re taken to the complete genre list of those books on Amazon. Have you ever noticed the list Amazon takes you to is NOT the bestseller list but the popularity list?

So decreased visibility on the popularity lists directly affects your book’s ability to be placed high in Amazon’s recommendation engine. Lose/lose all around.

Does it affect borrows?

Yes, the latest algorithms either positively or negatively affect borrows depending on how well and consistently a book sells and where it displays on the popularity list. The KOLL list appears to be culled directly from the popularity list; it just excises the non-Prime books. That means for authors with books that are selling well and selling consistently who don't go free and who are in Select mainly for the borrow perk, their books won't be pushed so easily off the front pages of the KOLL by those upstart freebookers. In fact, if you're a borrows-onlyer with books in the 10K and better rankings range, your books may have sneaked up a few pages in the KOLL since the beginning of the month.

Are there any other variables to consider?

Almost certainly. The data Avengers team is testing a couple of hypotheses now that, should any of them pan out, may well have huge implications in the future. I’m leaving this intentionally vague because right now these are nothing more than well-educated guesses that need to be proven.

Also, bear in mind Amazon’s algorithms are only a small portion of the sales equation. I talk a little more in-depth about how other variables in the overall equation have to be considered in this comment on Kindleboards.

Can I game the new algos?

Of course. Simply sneak in a book that consistently sells hundreds of copies a day. :o)

We’re only a few days into the new paradigm. There is much data still to be collected and analyzed before any certainties can be reached as to long-term effects and short-term strategies. For now, be thinking less reliance on free runs and post-free sales and borrows.

As more data around results comes in, other trends may become apparent that could suggest best strategies for going forward.


Caution: rampant speculation ahead.

Based on incomplete data sets and untested variables that are leading to some interesting hypotheses, I have an idea as to why Amazon is changing its algorithms. Bear in mind I could be wrong, but drawing on the amount of public and not-so-public knowledge I’m privy to (which still leaves a considerable amount on the table I’m not privy to), the following seems pretty clear to me.
It has ALL to do with changes that are coming to the agency pricing model and NOTHING to do with how well Select is or isn’t performing. Indies and Select are simply collateral damage.
There is no conspiracy against indies. If there is any concern on Amazon’s part that too much dreck was rising to the top too swiftly and customers were annoyed by it, throttling that back is merely a happy byproduct of the changes being instituted.

And if one especially surprising result coming out of the super-geek Avengers team’s research proves verifiable, big change is on the way.  (And no, I won’t be elaborating until we have much more data in hand on that front.)

Thursday, May 3, 2012

April Sales Voyeur + A Hint Of Things To Come

Amazon is making a change that will soon have authors in Select and those contemplating Select talking. Possibly screaming. Maybe gnashing their teeth. Certainly weeping. It’s as big a revelation as this was. It even makes Ed’s post over at Failure Ahoy obsolete – just a day after he broke his results. I was, in fact, lining up to do a companion piece.

Why, yes, I know Ed. And no, I am not the Eye of Sauron. I’m more like Gandalf. So you know if a data geek like me isn’t the ultimate evil genius of a data-loving group, then said group has to be one of the most awesomely geeky groups ever. A true super-geek group. With secret identities for some and “Tony Stark is Iron Man” publicity for others. Very much like The Avengers of the data world. (And if mention of both Lord of the Rings and The Avengers doesn’t bring this post SEO love, nothing will!)

We’re doing some final evaluations before we make our results public. Hang tight and keep watching this space -- and/or Ed's. This will be AN IMPORTANT ANNOUNCEMENT.

Meanwhile, let’s talk April sales.

The high point, of course, was hitting #84 in Amazon’s paid store with SECTOR C. I’ll be talking about those glory days – er, hours – for a long time to come. So you might want to steer clear of me if you see me in the hall unless you’re ready to be subjected to all that obnoxiousness.

The one thing I won’t be talking about in detail is exactly what I did and who I notified when I executed the promotions for both SECTOR C and The Rent-A-Groom. Some of you have asked and I've impolitely ignored you. I don't, however, mean to be rude or make that a personal statement directed toward you. But I know the first thing you guys (as in the collective "you") will do will be to inundate these same sites the way the handful of freebook sites I mentioned when I outlined the Steel Magnolia Press launch strategy got swamped. They’ll follow the trail back here and I’ll lose any goodwill I’ve built with the owners. It’s not a matter of protecting my sources. It’s a matter of protecting my relationships with them. And in this biz, those relationships are very important -- and very rare.

My Titles: Preliminary Report 

Even with a jump to the Top 100, SECTOR C still didn't sell as many copies in April as in January. Nor was the average sales price as high in April, so no money milestones were achieved either. In fact, April’s sales were about on par with March’s, which were way down from January. 
1375 sold
1900 free downloads
61 borrows
$1100 royalties

Everything, of course, is relative. My “way down” number in April is one I would have celebrated with chocolate and libations and much dancing in the streets in 2011.

Vet Tech Tales had a little bump that coincided with SECTOR C's run up the charts. Overall, this book continues to surprise me by gaining more sales each month it's out.
575 sold
1800 free downloads
18 borrows

Spoil of War went free in iTunes the last week in April. Amazon price-matched it to free last Sunday and it's bumping right along in both venues. In iTunes, it's been #1 in Free Historical Fantasy and in the Top 10 in all SF/F since it went free. It is, however, not an easy book to get freebook site mentions for. 
64 sold (+ Apple) before going free
$45 (+ Apple)

So my titles altogether (sans Apple) for April:
2014 copies sold
3700 free downloads
79 borrows
$1382 royalties

Steel Magnolia Press April Highlights

The Rent-A-Groom by Jennifer Blake followed up its previous 2 free runs where it reached #5 and #14 in the entire free store with a third run that saw it hit #12. That was followed by a 99c promo that took it to #187 in the paid store. 
10,300 free downloads
964 sales
63 borrows
$1200 royalties

Totals for The Rent-A-Groom between its release on Feb 8 and Apr 30:
50,000 free downloads
5160 sales
558 borrows
$7900 royalties

2012 Milestones

31,300 free downloads
6630 sales
563 borrows
$10,080 royalties

SMP (sans me):
89,000 free downloads
10,840 sales
608 borrows
$12,700 royalties

SMP Totals Across All Books
120,000 free downloads
17,500 sales
1170 borrows
$22,800 royalties

The Extinct Doesn't Mean Forever Anthology
*These numbers include the short stories that are offered standalone as well as the anthology title itself.
11,600 free downloads
280 sales
3 borrows
$300 royalties

As always, thank you to all our wonderful readers!