Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tuning In To iTunes

Let me just say how spoiled I am by the near-real-time reporting through Amazon, Barnes & Noble and AllRomance. Here it is the end of February and we've just gotten our January royalties statement from Apple via Smashwords. Mind you, this is just the statement that lets us know how many copies were sold and what the royalties will be when they are actually paid out sometime in, um, let's see ... first month of the first quarter then 90 days out from that and, I dunno, July maybe? FYI, Amazon and B&N pay 60 days out. Automated spreadsheets and electronic fund transfers move business along a bit more quickly for those businesses that embrace change.

Altogether, Steel Magnolia Press has 4 books in the iTunes stores -- all the rest are with Amazon exclusively through the KDP Select program. We already had plans to move 2 of the books to KDP Select in May after a promo we have planned for them in April. This latest royalty statement confirms that decision as being the right one for these two titles. While the combined iTunes sales for these 2 titles is about half the number for Amazon -- a very decent comparative showing -- I'm certain (at least as one can be in such volatile times) these titles will perform much, much better using the Select tools to generate sales.

And that's the real problem. Apple iTunes is delivering good sales. Before I saw what the Select tools could do for a title's sales, I would have been ecstatic at the performance of 2 of the books we have in iTunes stores. But Select has been a real game changer, and any comparisons we make today, just 90 days out from Select's launch, pale into disappointment.

But vague references to sales figures and percentages don't help anyone in seeing the true picture. Are we talking 10 total sales? 100? 1000? So, as always, the Sales Voyeur will demonstrate with actual numbers for 2 of the titles, both of which are "special circumstances" books, making decisions about their futures a tad more difficult.

A Vision of Sugarplums

The first is A Vision of Sugarplums by Jennifer Blake, a holiday-themed novella. Steel Magnolia gave away 13,000+ copies on Amazon and, well, who knows how many on Apple because Apple doesn't report free download numbers to Smashwords to pass on to the authors and publishers (grrrrr). The book was offered free on Amazon through price-matching and, because we had no control over when, of even if, that price-matching might occur, it turned out that Amazon conveniently waited till AFTER the holidays to offer the book for free (despite a couple of emails pointing out the time-sensitivity of our promotional efforts). In addition, once free, we had no say as to when it would return to the paid store and couldn't time its return to best maximize its sales rank.

In any case, holiday fever had cooled by the time the book was back in the Amazon paid store the second week of January. Still, it sold 652 copies there last month. While the sales were nice-to-haves, we really wanted to GIVE the book away to more people during the holiday season.

Over at Apple, the book went back to the paid store right before Christmas, closer to how we planned things. In January, the book saw 157 sales, a respectable number for the venue for a book "past its freshness date."

In all, if we ignore the specter of Select grinning at us from above, we're very happy with how the book performed at Apple in comparison to Amazon. We're happy we could give away so many books to readers in multiple venues over an extended period of time. Leaving this book out of Select served the purpose intended and made a few dollars as bonus.

But what about next year? Properly timed, and with all else being equal with how things are today, selling a couple of thousand copies on Amazon after giving away another 10,000 is a good possibility. The business decision seems clear. We can do well with Apple, we can do better with Amazon.

Spoil of War

Although its "also boughts" seem to indicate the book is selling on iTunes mainly to the romance crowd, it nevertheless held the #1 spot in Historical Fantasy for much of January in all 4 native-English stores, holding in the Top 100 in Fantasy and flirting in and out of the US Top 100 for the broader SF/Fantasy category. It saw a 50% increase in sales from December to January at Apple. With a sharp decrease in sales from December to January on Amazon (after benefiting from the short-term halo effect of coming off a free run in early December), that meant almost equal sales for the book in both venues:

Amazon Sales
90 - US
36 - UK
2 - France
1 - Italy
_______

129 - Total

Apple Sales
62 - US
44 - Australia
10 - Canada
11 - UK
_______

127 - Total

Because I have Spoil priced at $1.99 in the US and 99c in the other stores on Amazon and the royalty structures vary across Amazon and Apple, even though I sold about the same number of books, I made a little over twice as much through Apple.

$73.56 - Amazon
$147.42 - Apple

With Select with this book, I could likely make a few hundred sales at Amazon, especially being able to time when the book comes off free. Spoil came off a price-matched free run in early December at a respectable but not optimal rank and sold 400+ copies. Better timing could likely get double that many sales. But to do that means sacrificing position and 200+ ratings that average 4.5 stars on Apple. I'm still not ready to do that with this book as Spoil is still ranked #1 in the UK, Canada and Australia stores and is still bouncing around the Top 10 in the US. It's a big fish in a little bitty pond and, for now, that's a rather comfortable fit.

###

So, with Apple results in and the borrow amount per copy finalized, updated combined total earnings for Spoil, SECTOR C and Vet Tech Tales for January: $4819.59

And right around the corner, the Sales Voyeur will look at preliminary figures for February, including updates on two new releases from Steel Magnolia Press that each sold over 2000 copies in 3 weeks.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Return To Sender: E-Book Return Policies

One of the most archaic practices in the publishing industry is the returns policy that allows booksellers to purchase inventory that can be returned for full purchase price within, well, just about any timeframe. While originally a good idea to boost a flagging industry for the short term, keeping it instilled for the long term, especially when current technology bases forecasting and inventory management more on science than hope, is just perplexing at best and ludicrous at worst.

But this post isn't about the traditional returns policy at the business-to-business level. It's about the returns policy and behavior at the business-to-consumer level. For ebooks.

Most brick-and-mortar stores have a fairly liberal return policy. After all, if a customer returns a physical book for any reason, if the store can't sell that copy to someone else, they can simply return it to the publisher for a full refund.

But what about online retailers and ebooks?

Interestingly, the two biggest online retailers -- Amazon and Barnes & Noble -- have quite divergent policies regarding returns.

One of the consistent complaints with B&N seems to be how difficult it is, if not impossible, to return an ebook through their online store.

In contrast, Amazon's return policy is so lenient unscrupulous customers can have a field day buying, reading and returning books without ever actually spending money to subsidize their reading habits. In essence, Amazon lets a customer return an ebook for any reason within 7 days of purchase for a full refund.

B&N's draconian policy nips any thought of unscrupulous practices right in the proverbial bud. But what about legitimate reasons for wanting a return?

  • Formatting: For instance, weird spacing between words, paragraphs that all run together, various type sizes -- and none of it intentional 
  • Copy Editing: The book has more than a tolerable number of errors and/or the writing is juvenile
  • Subject Matter: A reader picks up what appears to be a sweet romance, for example, and it turns out to be, um, not so sweet
  • The Enjoyment Factor: This one is completely subjective. It can be argued a reader who samples should be able to tell whether or not they'll enjoy the full story and that a return based on whether a reader liked a book or not isn't a legitimate reason to return a book. Technology allows Amazon to know how much of the book a specific reader has paged through. If a reader has finished a book, do you think Amazon should refund their money? If not, after what percent read should the money NOT be refunded? 25%? 50%? 75%?

Newbies who've just published with Amazon are often surprised to see those first returns show up on their statements. In the days before December 2011, the return rate averaged about 1-2%, even for a well-formatted, well-proofread book that delivered the same story promised in the blurb. Since December, return rates have shot up, mainly for books in the KDP Select program. Authors are even seeing high returns on FREE books. Let's look at why lovely readers who wouldn't think to exploit any loopholes in the system might return a book at Amazon.

All Books

  • A percentage of readers may have a legitimate complaint about the formatting, copy editing or bait-and-switch subject of a book. These are issues the author has complete control over.
  • A percentage of readers may not get the perceived enjoyment from a book. These are the returns that hurt authors most. Was my story really that bad? Did the reader just not connect with my voice or writing style? If sales are strong, then while these returns sting, there really isn't much the author can do to please everyone.
  • For books that pass the technical tests and the likability factor, Amazon gives us 1-click ordering that can play havoc with our return rates. Oops, I meant to send a sample to my Kindle, not actually buy it is a fairly common complaint. Not much an author can do about an accidental purchase except hope that sale that shows up a few minutes later is from the same customer who sampled it then decided to purchase it.

Select Books

  • Amazon helpfully lets the Prime customers know a book is available for free in the Lending Library by prominently displaying a big red $0.00 price (with a tiny little disclaimer) that overwhelms the actual retail price. The majority of readers not shopping for a Prime borrow can easily be confused into thinking the book is actually free. Even though the 1-click Buy button displays the actual price, once it registers on the reader, it's often too late and they've already clicked the button. 
  • Some readers who actually want to borrow the book aren't sure how to do a borrow and accidentally buy the book rather than borrow it. Often, an author will see a sale show up on their KDP dashboard followed by a return followed by a borrow in quick succession.

Free Books

  • Some customers read a lot of free books, and some of them aren't quite sure how to delete a book off their Kindle once they're done with a book they're pretty sure they don't want to read again. So they return it to make room for more free books.
  • In addition, some readers don't take the time to sample free books when they go on a download spree. They'll hoard a day or two's worth of free books, then go through them and choose the ones that they're really interested in. The rest get returned to free up space for more free books.
  • Some readers also see a book that's been returned to the paid list advertised for free on an old email or post, click through, then don't pay attention to whether the book is actually still free or not. When they find they've been charged, they return the book.
  • Some readers may see a book they've bought within the past 7 days now offered for free. They return the purchased book and download a free copy instead. 

Seeing a lot of returns can be discouraging, but if your book is of good quality and is being enjoyed by readers leaving nice reviews, then the returns are likely happening because of factors outside your control. It might help to do the math, too, keeping in mind 1-2% is a fairly normal rate of return even if you don't factor in all the erroneous buy errors that result in returns.

For example, SECTOR C has had 30 returns this month. Ouch. It's also sold 674 copies so far this month in the US, been borrowed 87 times and has been downloaded for free 2093 times. 30 divided by 2767 (or 674 + 2093) equals 0.0108, or 1.08%. Not a bad rate after all. Whew!

So why do YOU return ebooks?

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

It's Not In My 5-Year Plan

Like all of you, I have a 5-year plan (you DO have one, right?). And a 3-year. And a 1-year. I have a best-case plan and a worst-case plan. What I don't have is a plan that can't be changed.

And yet, for many authors afraid of change or risk or of being an aggressive business person, the fall-back response to not in fact wanting to do something is that the something is not in their 5-year plan.

Really?

I want my book available to everyone; therefore, I will only pursue traditional publishing. Self-publishing is not in my 5-year plan.


I want my book available to everyone; therefore, I will self-publish it and distribute it to as many sites as possible. Denying anyone access to my valuable tome is not in my 5-year plan.

Seriously? 

I have a carefully laid-out plan for acquiring and nurturing readers. It's a slow build and anything else is not in my 5-year plan.

You're kidding, right?

The potential of selling a couple of thousand copies of my book short-term is not in my long-term plan.


Selling a couple of thousand copies of my book short-term may, in fact, be detrimental to my long-term plan.

I give up.

May I just ask: 5 years ago, was publishing an ebook in your 5-year plan at all?

There are many, many legitimate reasons for not hopping on the newest bandwagon, for not following the latest trend and for not trying out new tools when they're offered. "Not" in some cases is the exact right strategy. But declaring that "It's not in my 5-year plan" and allowing technology and opportunity to pass you by for no other reason than to cling to a plan that was obsolete the day after you penned it? That's old-school thinking that simply can't keep up at the pace of digitization.

So if you're going to say no when an opportunity knocks, know very clearly why you're saying no, and always be open to the potential of saying yes. Your new 5-year plan could very well start today.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

E-Book Pricing Strategy

No, this isn't a post about price point and whether or not 99 cents is the new Number of the Beast. I try hard not to repeat arguments you can find elsewhere. It's about a timing strategy for books in Select based on some trending observations. Sort of a companion piece to go along with last week's post about launching a new ebook. As with all strategies discussed here, what works for some books may not work for others, no guarantees, yadda yadda.

For Steel Magnolia Press, each price point we launch a book at is determined using the usual factors: genre, length, how well-known the author is, etc. We come up with two prices: an introductory, short-term price and the price we think that can sustain the book. We're open to those price points changing, though, and will re-evaluate price based on historical data -- we just need more historical data for it to be convincing. So far, we're only talking a difference of $1 between the intro price and the sustained price. As the gap between the two increases, the landscape may well change. We're happy to hear from anyone who's experimented with different price points and has data to share!

Once we have the two price points in mind, we obviously launch with the introductory price. We promote it as an introductory price and don't necessarily communicate an end date as that gives us flexibility to change the end date at need. Per our launch strategy, we set the book free for 2 days. Trending shows that books following the "normal" post-free cycle seem to hit their peak rank and sales on Day 3 or Day 4 then begin a slow decay. Our intent is to capitalize and maximize. We want to shore up royalties in the face of the decline, keeping the monetary base from eroding as quickly as sales. In theory, this should mean more money earned overall for the books by the time they plateau in the week or so after the price change.

On Day 5 post-free, we watch to be sure the book is dropping rank by comparing sales during the past 24 hours with the previous 24-hour period. Be sure you're comparing 24-hour periods and not days in general. Part of Amazon's ranking algorithm appears to be based on sales velocity during that past 24 hours. So a rank at 2:00 PM takes into account the number of sales from 2:00 pm the day before to 2:00 pm that day.

What this means is that watching and recording sales is important, at least for the first week or so after the book is back in the paid store after going free. Authors who don't fuss and fret and obsess about watching the KDP dashboard are doing themselves a disservice. Authors who proudly admit they only check the KDP dashboard once a month, once a week or even once every couple of days aren't able to capitalize and optimize in an industry that now moves at digital speed. Why do you think Amazon updates rank every hour rather than just recalculating every 24 hours? Because when books are selling, it's a volatile business. Sometimes you can't do anything with collected data. Sometimes you can. In the case of our repricing strategy, we can.

Once we're sure the book is on the normal decline, we up the price to its sustained price. But how can we tell whether the new price or the natural decline is affecting sales more negatively? Well, we can't. But we can compare the next 24-hour period to the one that just passed. If revenue is greater in the next period than it was in the last, we're at least keeping royalties from decaying.

So what are some real-world examples? Let's look at the 3 books we've used this pricing strategy with at Steel Magnolia Press. For now, we'll just look at numbers in the US store.


The Rent-A-Groom by Jennifer Blake

This book peaked on Day 4 around noon at #192.
On Day 5, we changed the price from $1.99 to $2.99 at 6:00 pm.

191 books sold in the 24 hours before the price change.
321 books sold in the 24 hours before that.
126 books sold in the 24 hours after the price change.

In the 24 hours before the price change, The Rent-A-Groom made about $192.00.
In the 24 hours after the price change, the book made about $252.00.


Catering to the Italian Playboy by Tamelia Tumlin

This book peaked on Day 3 around noon at #170.
On Day 5, we changed the price from 99c to $1.99 at 10:00 am. We could have changed the price on Day 4, but Day 4 was Valentine's Day, and we didn't want to up the price on a holiday so closely themed with romance.

116 books sold in the 24 hours before the price change.
358 books sold in the 24 hours before that.
77 books sold in the 24 hours after the price change.

In the 24 hours before the price change, Catering to the Italian Playboy made about $40.60.
In the 24 hours after the price change, the book made about $53.90.


SECTOR C by me

This book peaked on Day 4 around 9:00 pm at #224.

On Day 8, we changed the price from $2.99 to $3.99 at 8:00 pm. This was our first book to test our strategy, and we delayed the price change until the book crossed out of triple-digit ranking. In hindsight, we likely waited too long, but the first test is always the scariest.

69 books sold in the 24 hours before the price change.
94 books sold in the 24 hours before that.
41 books sold in the 24 hours after the price change.
57 book sold in the 24 hours after that.

In the 24 hours before the price change, SECTOR C made about $140.20.
In the 24 hours after the price change, the book made about $112.00.

While the day of the price change seems to negate the pricing theory, if we extrapolate the decline across the 24-hour periods, the book would likely have sold 73% of 69 copies -- or 51 copies -- during those same 24 hours after the change, which would have yielded about $103.50 instead of $112.00. Given the jump in copies sold over the next 24 hours, it also seems that the day we made the price change might have had normal depressed sales as it was a bank holiday in the US. Remember, no data point exists in a vacuum!

One huge advantage to working with a company that offers its vendors multiple snapshots of sales throughout the day and that offers easy, remote access for adjusting price and promotion is being able to react quickly to market changes. If, say, your free promotion and launch don't go as well as expected, you can simply let your introductory price ride. Then perhaps the next time your book goes free, you can consider a repricing strategy.

Do YOU have a pricing strategy? We'd love to hear it! (However, please refrain from arguments for or against free and/or low price points - focus on the strategy you use instead. Thanks!)

Friday, February 17, 2012

Extinct Author's New Book Free Through The Weekend

Well, OK, the author isn't extinct -- yet. Peter Dudley, whose "Distractions" is in the Extinct Doesn't Mean Forever anthology, has a new book out. SEMPER is a YA Dystopian, available as an ebook or in print through Amazon. Normally $2.99, it's FREE through Sunday. Coincidentally (after, you know, a couple of emails back and forth), the stand-alone version of "Distractions" will also be FREE on Sunday.

SEMPER: FREE Friday through Sunday (Feb 17-19)

Dane’s sixteenth birthday holds a choice he didn’t expect to face: Should he take his place as Semper, obeying his cruel uncle and twelve generations of Southshaw Truth, or should he follow his heart and risk exile and death to unearth the real truth? An exotic huntress, a mythical ghost-man, and a tailor’s daughter hold the keys to his answer. And to the survival of Southshaw itself.

"Distractions": FREE Sunday (Feb 19) only

George thought Stinson’s window office would surely be his after making a momentous discovery while on holiday. When the distractions get too much, however, his wife cooks up a surprise to remind him that love is always worth sacrificing for.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Some Books Will Never Be Rock Stars

The reality is all the promo in the world for a well-edited, well-covered, well-blurbed book won't guarantee success. If all it took was promotion, traditional publishers would be striking gold with 100% of the books they publish instead of having the 20% that hit prop up the 80% that fizzle. Some books simply resonate while others don't.

Theme, genre, state of the economy, general mood of the country, saturation in a market -- all play a role in whether a book is well-received or not. What finds an eager market today may find a less-than-welcoming audience in 6 months. What sells well in one store may not sell at all in another. It's the fickleness of art.

Sucess, of course, has many definitions, many variations. And the tools to measure success vary too. Is a book that manages to launch big, hit a New York Times bestseller list its first week out and then disappear more successful than the book that doesn't make as big a splash at launch and never makes the list but over the year outsells the book that does? Is a trad book that earns out its advance or an indie book that earns enough to cover its expenses and so turns a profit a success?

In my last post, I touted the initial short-term success the Steel Magnolia Press books are seeing using our launch strategy. I'll just add here the updated stats for our two latest releases. These books launched last week, went free Thursday and Friday and have been in the paid store since Saturday.

Catering to the Italian Playboy by Tamelia Tumlin

Rank highs so far of:

#170 Overall US store
#14 Contemporary Romance
#35 All Romance

#122 Overall UK store
#12 Contemporary Romance
#17 All Romance

1250+ Total copies sold
52 Total copies borrowed
10,700+ Total copies downloaded free


The Rent-A-Groom by Jennifer Blake

Rank highs so far of:

#192 Overall US store
#15 Contemporary Romance
#44 All Romance

#229 Overall UK store
#18 Contemporary Romance
#31 All Romance

1100+ Total copies sold
106 Total copies borrowed
24,700+ Total copies downloaded free

We're prepared for these numbers to start to slide in the next day or so. Well, mentally prepared if not emotionally. I still get a twinge watching SECTOR C's slow slide (it's in the #7000s now - boo). And we plan to bolster revenue of these two new releases with a price change soon. I'll have a post on our current pricing strategy later this week.

But this post started out talking about books that don't rock it on the lists. In the interest of full disclosure, we've seen some of those too. Books that are selling OK but not in the numbers hoped for. A couple of SMP novellas have seen only a couple of hundred sales since November. They did not have benefit of our current launch strategy and we'll be relaunching those books around May 1 to see if they can achieve rock star status then. We think they will.

The Extinct anthology also continues to be rockstar-challenged. The good news, however, is that after 11 months, it's finally earned out its advances and expenses and is ready to start paying royalties to the authors involved. Aside from 3 more scheduled free days through April, we'll be looking at other ways to make the book more appealing to a wider readership.

The anthology and the individual stories had their first free runs a couple of weeks ago. The anthology had over 2000 free downloads, which spiked 43 sales plus 4 borrows since. The individual stories had a combined total of around 3800 downloads with about 50 paid sales afterward. Far from the number of sales many other titles have seen after a free run, but a nice bump from what had been selling. Between the complete anthology and the individual short stories, we'll have something free from the collection every weekday starting tomorrow and going to the end of April, and will evaluate our promotion strategy again based on those results.

Sales for Vet Tech Tales didn't seem to notice there was a free day in there on Jan 31 when only about 450 copies were downloaded. After its flurry of sales and borrows the first week after its launch in December, this month it's settled into selling about 10 copies per day. A respectable number considering I've taken my eye off of it promotion-wise until I start posting new tales from Volume 2 on my other blog. Still, no rockstar sales for it.

This, of course, is the wisdom handed down to us by traditional publishers and investment strategists: A diversified portfolio of many titles will help ensure a steady income. Having a large number of titles is your hedge against future uncertainty.

I'll also add the lightning analogy in regard to educating yourself about the market. While you'll never know in advance where, or even if, lightning will strike, when you know something about its properties you can at least position yourself in a place where it's more likely to find you.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

eBook Launch Strategy

So you have a brand-new, stand-alone ebook ready to be released into the wild. You need reviews. You need to tweet it and facebook it. You need 10-minute spots on all the popular talk shows. Right?

Obviously, none of that hurts. But how much is necessary? As with everything in the book business, it depends. What is your expectation for sales? What is your personal view of the Amazon empire? What connections do you have? How much time can you devote?

We've launched 4 Steel Magnolia Press (SMP) titles in the past 2 months. This is how we did it and the results we've had so far. Will this same strategy work for you? Maybe. Maybe not. But when I compare sales of my first two books and sales of SMP's first novellas right after launch with the results we've had using our current strategy, it's clear what we'll be doing for our next release.

Our expectations are reasonable:
  • We want to get our books out there with enough visibility that they can be found by readers who'll love them.
  • We want a quick climb so that the books have prominent placement in the New Releases lists.
  • We're willing to trade a few dollars profit for a good foundation in the early days. 
And really? Ours is a very, very simple strategy. Nothing surprising, nothing secret. Except maybe the secret surprise concerning pre-launch activities.

Our recent titles are:
  • Vet Tech Tales (by me), a nonfiction novella-length memoir/essay book released mid-December
  • Gypsy Bond (by Lindy Corbin), a regency romance, short novella released Jan 5
  • Catering to the Italian Playboy (by Tamelia Tumlin), a category-length contemporary romance released last week
  • The Rent-A-Groom (by Jennifer Blake), a contemporary romance, long novella released last week
And because SECTOR C didn't really take off until January, I'll include it tangentially in this post to add the dimension of a full novel in a non-romance category.



The Lead-Up

Obviously you need the basics in place:
  • Fabulous book that's been edited
  • Eye-catching cover
  • Well-formatted files
  • Grabby blurb
What you don't really need:
  • Much pre-promotion
  • Reviews
The commitments you'll need to make:
  • Exclusivity for 90 days with Amazon through KDP Select (this basic strategy is for stand-alone titles or the first books in a series)
  • Giving the book away for a couple of days right after it's published
  • To keep vewwy, vewwy qwiet about the book being published until the appropriate time for promoting it widely
The Steps
  1. Keep vewwy, vewwy quiet about the book. No slamming social media unless you want to say you're working on a book and will be publishing it soon.
  2. Publish the book to Amazon in the Select program with no fanfare. Pretend it's still on your hard drive.
  3. Set the book to go free for 2 days starting 2 or 3 days out from the time it's published on Amazon.
  4. Once it's published and you have the url for it, send polite emails to or fill out the online forms on request sites that feature books for free asking them to feature yours. A list of a few such sites is at the end of this post. Give at least 2 days notice. Most sites will not feature your book. Many of the top sites want there to be 5-10 4-star reviews first and your new release won't have the requisite number. Be prepared for that, but know there are also a LOT of sites that automatically pick up and feature all the books for free. Your book WILL get mentioned and found (unless it's erotica -- those books are special-case).
  5. If beta readers or others with a fairly objective eye have already read the book, you can ask them to post a review between the time you publish it and the time it goes free. This is a helpful but entirely optional step. Not one of the SMP books had a review before it went free (except SECTOR C).
  6. Continue to keep vewwy, vewwy qwiet about the book. This is undoubtedly the hardest part about this strategy. We're told over and over to promote and pester and promote some more. To use social media till our fingers bleed from so much texting and tweeting and posting. Here's the thing: Our efforts in this scenario aren't likely to mean much weighed against the engine that pushes free titles. Trust the tools we're given and use social media at the appropriate time. Understand that the sales you run up in the couple of days before going free will mean doodly squat in the long run. Save asking for those sales until they can help the book sustain the rank it attains after going free.
  7. Now, SMP makes an exception to the gag order when it comes to our newsletter subscribers. Many of these folk are loyal fans (mainly of Jennifer Blake), and we want to do everything we can to reward their loyalty. That means we make sure they know when a new book is out and free. Understand that there is a difference between a fan base and a friends-and-family base. If you don't have a fan base, then you don't need to advertise in advance that your book will be free.
  8. The first day your book is free, let the booksite engines do their work, and continue to keep vewwy, vewwy qwiet.
  9. The morning of the second day of being free, evaluate how the book is doing.
  10. If it's been mentioned by some of the big freebook sites and it's in the Top 100 in the overall free store (NOT just a category), it has enough momentum to sustain it. Continue the qwiet routine. That's right. Your book is out. Thousands of people are downloading it, but you don't need to let your family and friends know about it yet. They'll buy it, right? The absolute best time to ask them to buy it will be after it comes off free. And while I can't make guarantees about most things, the one thing I CAN guarantee is that if you tell family and friends your book's available but can they please wait till Day X to buy it, they will not wait. The timing is in your hands and you have to have the willpower to wait for them.
  11. If, however, your book isn't going gangbusters during its free run, then you need to decide whether to use your social network to solicit more free downloads or wait till the book is back to paid to start promoting it. Unless you are very, very well-connected through social media, my advice would be not to push the freebie hard. A mention or two, fine, but I'd hold off on the heavy promoting. A few dozen free downloads in the grand scheme means very little.
  12. Once the book is back in the Paid Store, haul out the megaphone. The first 4 days after coming off free are the most crucial. Try to drive what sales you can in that compressed time. After that, it's up to the almighty Amazon algorithms to carry you on.
  13. After the book is back in the Paid Store you have about 3 weeks to promote it, get some reviews and keep it noticed. After 30 days it comes off the Hot New Releases list. Keep in mind that currently the average book will typically see the after-glow sales from being free start to decline after Day 4 and drop off a cliff sometime in Week 3, even for books doing really well.  
  14. Oh, but what's that in your back pocket? Another free day? Now's the time to put it to use! Contact the free sites and start the cycle all over again.
  15. Meanwhile, it's 30-days out from launch and you probably still haven't gotten any bloggers to review your book or any ads up for it. You'll want to work on all that, of course. Because there are no guarantees about how your book will fare in any one promotion or fare from one promotion to another. 
 The Results

So how have our launches fared? Not as well as some; better than others. We've been pleased with the results. Consider that it was easier to launch a book last spring, and that Spoil of War had 68 sales its first month and 77 its second. When SECTOR C came out in September, it had 37 sales and 75 in October.

Vet Tech Tales

In its first two weeks, VTT had 311 sales and 88 borrows.
In January, it had 228 sales and 32 borrows.
That's a 6-week total of 539 sales and 112 borrows.

It had a very modest free run, with only 1347 downloads. And it didn't get its first review until 6 weeks after it was published.

Gypsy Bond

Between its release Jan 5 and its second free run on Jan 31, Gypsy Bond had 235 sales and 7 borrows.
Its first free run resulted in 2400+ downloads. It's second free run saw 9500+ downloads and it hit #65 overall in the Free Store.

Between Weeks 5 and 6 after launch, GB had another 695 sales and 37 borrows.

That's a 6-week post-launch total of 920 sales and 44 borrows.

Catering to the Italian Playboy

This book has only been off free for 1.5 days. It had 10,700+ downloads while free and hit #47 overall in the US Free Store and #8 in the UK.

In the day-and-a-half since coming off free, it's had  262 sales and 15 borrows.

The Rent-A-Groom

This book also has only just come off its free run. It had 24,600+ downloads, hit #5 overall in the US Free Store and #9 in the UK.

In the day-and-a-half since coming off free, it's had 364 sales and 44 borrows.

At one point in the UK store, Catering to the Italian Playboy and The Rent-A-Groom were occupying the #6 and #7 spots for Romance. This made me smile:


SECTOR C

Let's call January its relaunch month :o). It had 14,000+ downloads on its first free run on Jan 6-7 and reached #25 in the overall Free Store. Just the opposite of Gypsy Bond, it had far fewer on its second run on Jan 31 at 3000+ downloads and barely reached the Top 100.

During January, it sold 1925 copies and had 274 borrows. So far in February, it's had 435 sales and 68 downloads.


While these 5 books have done well, we can't hit homeruns every time. Some genres and some stories will just never have the same appeal for whatever the reason. But for now, this is the strategy we at Steel Magnolia Press are following.

What's yours?

Here's a list of some of the freebook sites you can notify about your free promotion. Please be sure to read through the requirements and how to submit for each of them.

Pixel of Ink
E-Reader News Today
Free Kindle Books
Indie Books List
Freebooksy
Books on the Knob
Ereader Freebies
Bargain Book Hunter
Kindle Author
 


Saturday, February 11, 2012

There Are No Internships In The Indie World

While a number of publishing folk have the advantage of learning on the job -- whether through an internship or starting off on a low-level ladder rung -- authors who self-publish don't generally have the same training opportunities to go with the publisher hat they're forced to wear. That's where following blogs such as Kris Rusch's (her business posts are a Thursday feature) and, I hope, this one can help us all better understand the changing face of digital publishing.

In the beginning, I do urge you to follow indie bloggers who are at different levels in their own careers. Konrath, for instance, started out with tips for the newbie, but his tactics and results are pretty unrealistic for the newbie today because he's no longer in the trenches trying to figure out what works when you're bunkered in a foxhole just trying to survive another day. Aspire to his success, but perhaps look elsewhere for the nuts-and-bolts of how to achieve it as a newbie working with today's digital options.

Separating the solid advice from advice that may be somewhat impractical in your situation will be the hardest part of the knowledge-absorption process. Dean Wesley Smith's (Kris' husband) creative habits may not be yours. His level of attention to detail in a quantity-over-quality strategy may not jive with yours. Maybe you only want to write series books and not branch out to test other markets. Maybe you don't have a series bone in your body. Maybe you're concentrating on short works. On putting out one book a year -- or maybe six books a year. All require different strategies and expectations. Be open to advice from all fronts.

The more indie authors there are sharing actual results from strategies implemented, the better indies as a whole will succeed in an industry that was once very closed and good-old-boyish.

I'm very pleased that my fellow authors at Steel Magnolia Press have agreed to my sharing their successes on this blog. Of course there will be some bragging. Of course there will be some promoting. Mainly, though, it will be a bigger window for you to see through: this is the promotion, this is what went well, this is what didn't happen that we wanted to, and this is the result -- not just the immediate result, but the longer-term impact as well. From that, plus my observations on trends and tools, you can maybe extrapolate whether a strategy is right or not for your book(s). What works for romance may not work for hard science fiction. Likewise, what doesn't work in a genre as competitive as romance may work beautifully for litfic. We offer no guarantees, just honest insight, commentary and best guesses.

One day, perhaps, our sales will be so stratospheric our strategies will have little in common with an author who's just starting out or is just a few months in. Meanwhile, most of the SMP authors with books out now have the exact same struggles you have for finding an audience and hopefully keeping it. Our consortium model may even inspire you to try a variation of your own.

Look for the first of these promo results tomorrow.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

The Sales Voyeur: January Sales

My need for instant gratification is not being catered to right now. Nearly a third of the month of February is gone and many of the puzzle pieces around January royalties are still outstanding. I'll have to come back later in the month to backfill, so look for an updated voyeur peek in the week or so ahead.

Again dear readers who are not writers, this is a post about the ugly business side of writing, not the beautiful enchantment that comes from connecting words sweated out on the page with readers eager to be transported to new worlds and have their emotions toyed with. Your part in the equation is never, ever forgotten.

Amazon reporting has been unreliable since the crash of Feb 1. In no way do I mean to infer that Amazon has "lost" any sales. They have redundant billing systems and the data is there; it's just not finding its way into the reports in a reliable fashion right now, or with its usual near-real-time precision. There are rumors of a new reporting interface on the horizon, which if true, may account for some of the wonkiness. Last evening saw a huge influx of updates to the week ending on Feb 4 as well as changes to this week's figures. Whether what we're seeing now are the final totals, who knows? What I do know is that trying to reconcile last week, especially after the reporting meltdown late on Jan 31, with this week's captured data is a battle I won't win.

I'm not intimidated by numbers or spreadsheets, but because Amazon isn't telling us what's actually being filtered through, it's trying to make sense of a data dump without a key. And with 25 titles across 5 regions, and most of the "sales" divided between free downloads and paid sales, I finally have to concede I don't know what it all means. And won't until I'm convinced all the final figures are in.

Still, I have data to play with through Amazon, unlike Apple. There I have to wait until Smashwords receives the reports from Apple, crunches them to take their cut, then delivers them out to me in a monthly report 2 weeks after the month ends.

Waiting 6 months for a royalty statement from a traditional publisher? Hell on earth for a numbers junkie/control freak like me.

Those of us with books enrolled in KDP Select are also still waiting to see what the commission per borrow will be for January. More than the $1.70 it was in December? Less? I will say, I'm seeing a fairly drastic decrease in borrows in February, which makes sense. The Kindle Fire comes with a 1-month free membership in Prime, which means the free month for all the holiday Kindles would have been either December or January.

So, reserving the right to update these figures once the final tallies are all in later this month, here are the sales stats for January.

The Numbers Sold

Vet Tech Tales

This little book trundled right along without any further props since its mid-December release and without a review to its name until recently when it received its first and, so far, only one. It's exclusive to Amazon.

194 - US
..34 - UK
_____

228 Total Sales
..32 Borrows

Spoil of War

Still waiting on the numbers from Apple where Spoil continued to be in the Top 3 in historical fantasy in the US, UK, Canada and Australia stores much of the month. For the first time, I'll have historical data to compare (December to January), and doing that in a separate post might be beneficial, especially as we see so little in the way of iTunes data.

91 - Amazon US
36 - Amazon UK
..2 - Amazon France
..1 - Amazon Italy
..4 - B&N
18 - OmniLit
..2 - Smashwords
?? - Apple
______

153 Total Sales (+Apple)

SECTOR C

Catching a bit of a break on a lot of fronts (including the Kindle Storefront!), this near-future medical thriller pulled its weight and then some in January. With a lot of debut advances hovering around $3000 - $5000 in the traddie world, SECTOR C earned that out during January. Its post-free run in February hasn't been quite as successful, but it's still looking like another 4-figure month. It's exclusive to Amazon since Jan 5.

1902 - US
....11 - UK
.....2 - Germany
...10 - B&N
______

1925 - Total Sales
..274 - Borrows
17,000 - Freebies


How Much?

Let's break it down and add it up.

Vet Tech Tales

228 copies at 99c = $79.80
32 borrows at $1.70 = $54.40
_______

$134.20


Spoil of War

115 copies at $1.99 = $80
39 copies at 76p = $16.41
_______

$96.41


SECTOR C

50 copies at 99c = $17.50
$2.99 @ 35% royalty = $106.75
$2.99 @ 70% = $2533.11
$3.99 @ 35% = $58.65
$3.99 @ 70% =  $1307.85
274 borrows @ $1.70 = $465.80
___________

$4472.16


Aggregated royalties for all 3 books

$4702.77 = Estimated January Total (+Apple royalties; borrow amounts estimated from Dec payout)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Sometimes Lightning Does Strike Twice

Swoon. Again. I'm speechless.

KDP Select, Amazon Rank And The Secret Of Why Select Members Have An Advantage

One debate I won't get into is the "Amazon as evil empire out to take over bookselling as we know it" one. We all have our opinions about Amazon, exclusivity and what business intents there may or may not be. We all clearly have a side in the debate, and it's obvious from my posts what mine is. I have no interest in persuasive arguments and calls to the heart and emotions on the matter, but that's me and not you.

From Day One, I have contended joining KDP Select is a matter that must be decided on an author-by-author, genre-by-genre and book-by-book basis. My attitude on that hasn't changed. What I do try to offer here is insight on what's worked or not worked for me, and that can maybe be extrapolated to your situation.

I've read numerous posts and comments about how free can get a book a better rank in the paid store. What I haven't seen is a drill-down into what that actually means. And it's here that I think folk who don't understand everything that happens the day after free have a hard time seeing how free can possibly be a viable sales tool.

Let me be clear: This post is NOT about the long tail of free but about the short-term after-glow. In the long tail, we all hope maybe 10% of folk who download a free book will eventually read it and that a percent or two will go on to purchase other works we have on offer. It's about exposure and connections. It's about the personal reader-author side of the book business. It's the side that is easily understood. It's the side where authors line up either for giving away their books to get that readership or against giving away their work for free.

But there's much more to the Select Free Model than that. You see, Amazon gives Select members who choose to make a book free two tremendous perks that non-Select books don't get. Amazon doesn't advertise these particular perks, possibly because it wants to be able to change them at will without encumbrance, but savvy authors will want to know what Amazon is doing behind the scenes to promote its Select members, at least during these initial months of the program.

I'm astonished at how few folk seem to get it. On the first of this month, KDP reporting went into meltdown. Sales, free downloads, and rank were all affected. It was crisis mode for indies who obsessively check their stats. There was a lot of moaning about the sales and rank side of things, but never once in my travels through the interweebs did I run across anyone else who had the same concern I did: The books that came off free and went into the paid store on Feb 1 were not getting the expected perks. Oh, people were concerned about "rank" in general, but no one seemed to understand what the real panic moment was.

So in case you missed it, I'm going to share the secret side of the Select program for your eyes only. Do remember, though, that you're in partnership with Amazon. You do have to meet them halfway by doing what you can to ensure your book has a decent number of downloads compared to other books in its category.

PERK 1: Kindle Lending Library Placement

Only indie books that are in Select and exclusive to Amazon can be placed in the KLL. Placement of books listed there depends on three things: Overall popularity of the book in the long term, whether a book has recently been made free, and how well it performed while free.

The first pages of the KLL are volatile. Planned churn keeps new books in front of borrowers. Where does the churn come from? Books with high downloads coming off a free run. Each day new books come off free and wind up on the front page pushing older books further back into the catalog. Books that continue to sell well once back into the paid store can linger on the first two pages for a few days, but most books soon lose prime placement.

What can you expect being on Page 1 of a major category in KLL? More borrows certainly while it's there along with a few more collateral sales from folk who decide to purchase rather than borrow your book.

You can see the KLL here.

PERK 2: Kindle Catalog Placement By Popularity

Fine, so you don't care about borrows and the KLL. You want real sales, and real sales aren't impacted, right? So, so wrong.

Amazon has many ways to discover books, but a reader has to know where to look to find, say, the Bestseller lists. Casual browsers likely go to the Kindle store and click on the category links Amazon provides on the front page of the store. Do you think the list the reader sees doing that is a bestseller list? No. It's a popularity list that is manipulated to favor Prime/Select books.

In many ways, this Popularity Catalog List (my term, don't know if it has an official name) mirrors KLL. That means the number of Select books presented to the reader/buyer on this default list outnumbers those offerings that are not in Select.

The churn on this list also mirrors the churn in KLL.

For example, in Technothrillers right now, the first 6 books presented are all Select books, and SECTOR C happens to be #3 on the list.

In the same category in KLL, SECTOR C is #2. On the Bestseller list, SECTOR C is #12.

The Analysis

Typically, Days 2, 3 and 4 after coming off free are a book's best sales days. That's when the book has the most visibility in the KLL and on the Popularity Catalog List before being churned off to Page 3 or 4. Day 1's sales are usually so-so until the book is placed into these lists, which usually happens within 24 hours of coming off free.

Right now, today, SECTOR C has better placement in the lists that casual browsers see first than other books that are considered bestsellers. This better placement is a DIRECT result of 1) the book being in the Select program, 2) the book having just come off free, and 3) the book having had thousands of downloads during the time it was free.

Beyond the first 3 or 4 days after coming off free, an otherwise unknown book must rely on the "also bought" lists its associated with, the "also vieweds," and the "recommendations" it can get. Placement on the lists on the product pages of briskly selling books depends on how good sales are in those crucial first 4 days coming off free.

I'm not sure I'm getting across the true power of that placement in terms of sales, but it's the driving force behind many of the successes you've read about here and elsewhere. SECTOR C reached at least #110 in the free store during its free run on Jan 31. I think it actually broke into the Top 100, but that's about when the rankings stalled and things started melting. I expected to get placement on the Perk Lists by the end of Day 1. When the book didn't get that placement, I panicked. I didn't care that I couldn't see rank or that the sales-counting report was broken. I knew those things would be fixed. Not getting that placement and the sales it could drive couldn't be fixed.

Luckily, thankfully, Amazon followed through on its perking, and SECTOR C and Gypsy Bond by Lindy Corbin (which had an amazing second free run and reached at least #65 in the free store), are seeing the benefits.

The Reality

Not all books will benefit. Not all books will achieve the downloads needed when free to compare favorably to other books in their categories. Not all books will resonate with readers and benefit from a free run whether they're in Select or not, whether they get prominent category placement or not.

SECTOR C and Gypsy Bond are doing well. I don't know that SECTOR C will do as well this time as it did after its first free run in early January, but sales are definitely picking up today. Gypsy Bond is doing even better than SECTOR C this time around.

Two of the books that also went free on Jan 31, though, aren't enjoying anywhere near the same success.

I'll be back later with an analysis of the discrepancy. And I'll have a wrap-up of January sales on Monday.