Saturday, March 23, 2013

What A Difference A Year Makes

It occurred to me I really should do a wrap-up post for the blog since it doesn’t look like I’ll be posting here much anymore. I think I simply hit that wall that many bloggers who’ve blogged for a few years hit. Been there, done that, time to move on to something new. Not without regret, of course. It’s been a great place to work out and share the first steps of my self-publishing journey, as well as a great place to share data and put forward marketing theories. Had I known earlier self-publishing could involve so many lovely spreadsheets and data analyses, I would have jumped in far sooner!

In that spirit, I thought it appropriate for this post to cover three topics:
  • Amazon Select Then And Now – One Book’s Journey
  • Steel Magnolia Press – One Year Later
  • The Latest On The Pop List Watch – Math-Free Version!


I first enrolled SECTOR C in Select on January 6, 2012. Since then, it’s gone free 10 times. It’s always lucked out and had fairly good runs, and was one of the books that saw immediate success in the Golden Age of Amazon Algos, when free book downloads were counted as real sales. It hit #1 on the SF poplists a few times and made a couple of appearances (with its old cover) on the Amazon splashpage for ebooks.

When authors ask whether or not frequent free eventually reaches saturation, I point to SECTOR C. In a string of 8 months where SC went free each month, it still had a decent showing of 11,000+ downloads in the 8th month. And, after being downloaded about 63,000 times in the 9 free runs prior, it still managed its best run yet on its 10th time out.

Granted, it had a little help via a BookBub ad on Day 1 followed by a late rally on Day 4 from a FKBT mention, which resulted in over 44,000 downloads. It hit #1 Free in the store late in the day on its first day free and then again on the afternoon of its second free day.

But what of the post-free sales bounce? In January 2012, SC had 16,000 free downloads, then went on to sell 1930 copies, netting over $4300. Bless those old algorithms!   

After its late February 2013 run with 44,300 downloads, it’s had over 750 sales+borrows, with an anticipated 30-day total of 850 sales, with a net of about $2000. Almost 3 times the number given away this year resulted in less than half the number of sales and royalties from January last year. Still, it sextupled what had been its monthly sales average for the 5 months prior, so I still count what was probably its last free run for a while a grand slam.

In all, SECTOR C (pubbed Sept 1, 2011) has earned about $17,000 over its lifetime. Not a groundbreaking figure, but one I’m still pretty pleased with.

Does Select Free still “work”? (Weren't we asking that same question back in August?) For many of the titles in the Steel Magnolia Press inventory, the answer is YES, with caveats. Those caveats are common sense. Freebook site mentions, of course, play a huge part. But we have titles that can still hit high in the Top 100 without a major site mention, even competing against titles with BookBub, POI and ENT backing. That’s due in large part to one or more of the following:  
  • being penned by a name author
  • being a boxed set with a higher perceived value to begin with
  • being in a highly popular genre

Shorter works, titles without a high review rating, and/or titles that don’t get an advertising push don’t do well. No surprises there. For those books, we have to figure other strategies to get them noticed.  


On January 1, 2012, Steel Magnolia Press had my 2 novels and short essay collection and 3 of Jennifer Blake’s novellas in its inventory, and had been in business for about 6 weeks.

Today, Steel Magnolia has 50 titles by 4 authors published, with 49 of those titles in Amazon Select. SMP also has an honorary bestselling Magnolia with 2 titles in (though her sales are not included in our overall totals). We’ll be publishing another backlist novel from Jennifer Blake, Sweet Piracy, at the end of March, then a brand new book in Jennifer’s Italian Billionaires Collection will release in early May. In June, we’ll put out 2 more box sets, then follow those this summer with 12 backlist novels as we give the box sets a rest. On top of that, we have a handful of Blake’s backlist novellas waiting to be formatted, and new titles to come soon(ish) from Tamelia Tumlin and me. By the end of 2013, we’ll have close to 80 titles available once we bundle some more of them up in time for Christmas giving.

But having a large inventory and selling them are two different things. Now, we could go with the KKR-DWS approach of pricing high, publishing to all platforms and then ignoring the books as we move on to publishing the next. Instead, we concentrate our marketing on Amazon, use the tools available there, advertise strategically, and price competitively and aggressively to gain the visibility that leads to more sales. Using this approach on mainly backlist titles has worked well for us as we’ve grown Steel Magnolia to its current 50 titles, the majority of which are novels and box sets.

When reading our sales figures, keep in mind that we did not start publishing out Jennifer’s backlist novels until last July, and then it was only 4-6 books per month from July-October. October also saw the release of a brand new book by Jennifer, The Tuscan’s Revenge Wedding, which hit #1 Free in the Amazon store with 37,000 downloads, jumped to #91 Paid overall, then went on to sell 25,000+ copies.  In November, we bundled the existing books into virtual boxed sets and released 8 of those. We published nothing new in December, and then published two more box sets in January, with no new titles being published in February and March.

One of the box sets, the Louisiana Plantation Collection hit #14 Paid in Amazon in December, stayed in the Top 100 through January, hopscotched in and out of the Top 100 through February and finally fell out in March after selling well over 65,000 copies. As I write this, it’s at #198.

In all, over the past year, Steel Magnolia has had 10 separate titles in the overall Top 100 Paid bestseller list in the store, and several more ranked under #1000.

Sales Figures For Steel Magnolia Press, January 2012 – Feb/March, 2013

195,347 - Total # of Books Sold (through March 22, 2013)
724,456 - Total # of Books Given Away (through March 22, 2013)
$163,660 - Total Royalties (through Feb 28, 2013)

96,581 of those sales have happened since January 1, 2013. I think, maybe, we’re finally getting the hang of this indie publishing thing ;o).


Having been among the first (maybe The First) to point out how Amazon uses the popularity lists as tools in its internal marketing and recommendation engines -- and changes those algos to better reflect the browsing and buying choices of its readers and to better influence whatever buying choices it wants its customers to be making -- I figured I should end by throwing out a couple of things for the new Data Avengers among you to mull over.

First, the UK is still using algorithms that are quite favorable to indies who run free, whether via Select or price matching. Spoil of War was recently price-matched to free in the UK for a couple of weeks, during which time it had 2077 downloads. When it came off free (by my choice, I no longer wanted it price-matched so was actively trying to get Amazon to re-price the book to paid), it was quite nicely ranked in the poplists:

#1 Arthurian Fantasy
#1 Historical Fantasy
#5 Historical Fiction
#5 Fantasy

Those rankings were true to the algorithms of the Golden Age of early 2012 that we all knew and loved on the .com store. Sales at the UK-equivalent of $3.78 began promisingly enough: 28 the first day after it came off free, followed by 25 sales the next day. Followed by 4 sales the next. Sigh. Amazon, in its infinite wisdom, had seen fit to re-price the book to free again. Since it’s full price elsewhere, it could only be price-matching some cached version of iTunes, or price-matching the US store.

Still, enough of a glimpse to know the UK remains firmly entrenched in the Golden Age algos. For now.

But here’s the kicker on the .com site and the tease for all you data watchers. The higher (better) SECTOR C climbed the poplists and the KOLL lists, the worse its sales seemed to get, on average. Yes, even before that 30-Day Cliff that still looms ahead for SECTOR C. Yesterday was its best placement on those lists since being free – but yesterday was its worst sales day yet.

Your mission, should you decide to accept it, is to figure out why.

Peace out.


Whirlochre said...

I shall miss the flapping of flaming wings in my Google Reader inbox...

fairyhedgehog said...

So many of us are fading from the blogosphere.

Phoenix Sullivan said...

It IS kinda sad. And soon Google Reader will be gone too.

Thanks for being here for so many years, Whirl and FHH!

Matt said...

Hey Phoenix!

It's been a long time. I'm a freelance editor now, and I've sold a couple of articles online.

I'm planning on ePubbing a book soon and I thought I'd stop by here for some tips. I was pleasantly surprised to find a new post!

Phoenix Sullivan said...

Hi Matt! Great to see you! If you would, send me an email with your deets that I can pass on. I know quite a few authors looking for editing, especially on the quick when their regular editor gets swamped and can't make deadline. Yes, most of the authors I know write fast and turn out 4 or 5 books a year :o) (Not me!) Do you do content editing, line/copy editing, or proofreading? And if you can give me your current rates or rate ranges that would be great. And do you offer a 5- or 10-page sample edit so folk can try you out? Looking forward to hearing from you! And yay for your sales and upcoming book!

phoenixsullivan at yahoo dot com

Matt said...

Email sent. Let me know if you have any questions.

It's good to see you too! And congratulations on Sector C's solid run. When I left a review on Amazon I was one of maybe ten. Now there are 160 reviews!

David Gaughran said...

I've no theory at all on the performance of SECTOR C as it climbed the Pop List and KOLL charts. It makes no sense at all that sales would drop as visibility increased. Did borrows also drop?

I'm not sure what the answer would tell me, just curious. Also, did you verify that everyone else was seeing SECTOR C in the same prime position in those Pop Lists? The only theory I have is that for some weird reason (glitch, A/B testing, whatever) you were seeing a different Pop List than most Amazon customers.

But that doesn't make much sense either because you were seeing SECTOR C where it should have been - based on everything we know about the Pop List.

Confusing indeed and really tough to figure out unless we get some more cases like this.

Much more clear is the performance of SMP. WOW! The sales total for 2012 was crazy enough, but it looks like you surpassed that in just three months or so in 2013. Insane. Well done Phoenix!

Toni Dwiggins said...

Well-deserved success with SC and SMP, Phoenix!

Re the pop list:

I had a similar experience back in January. 24K freeloads, good post-free sales as the book climbed on the pop list; sales slowed once the book hit the first page in its sub-cat.

Confusing indeed and really tough to figure out unless we get some more cases like this.

Jo Antareau said...

Great to see you're doing well, Phoenix. I'll miss your posts abut the self pub journey, and, of course, the updates about all those critters and the farm.

Please tell me a sequel to the Vet tech book is coming out!