Monday, February 27, 2017

Cover Wars

For the past week, I have been filling out a questionnaire that will provide the basis for an interview to appear in a magazine later this year. I’ll leave you in suspense about the details so I have fodder for a future blog. One of the questions was, “How did getting/being published change your life?” My response was that after publication I spend much less time on pure writing and significantly more time on sales and marketing activities.

To my way of thinking, it’s all about exposure. I have faith that my novels are well-written and a certain segment of the reading public will like them—but only if they get a chance to read them. The problem is to find ways to make those potential readers aware of my books so they can find out for themselves just how good they are.

Since you never know what works until you try it, I experiment with different promotional opportunities. One I tried last year is called “Cover Wars.” The concept is simple: every week fifteen book covers are displayed on a webpage. The public can vote for the best cover, and the winner receives some free promotion on the website that sponsors the contest. It costs nothing for an author to participate.

Now, I think my Doubtful Relations cover is a really good cover – the kind of cover that makes you want to pick up the book and find out more. I’m prejudiced, of course, but you can judge for yourself. I signed up, waited a couple of months for my turn to participate, and early one Sunday morning the contest including my book opened.

I checked out the competition. There was only one other book that I thought was a contender. Now, those of you who personally know me know I am a teeny, weeny, bit competitive. I wanted to win. The rules were that repeat voting was allowed, but no more than once a day. But the reason I had signed up wasn’t to win; I hoped the exposure would intrigue some folks who did not know my books to give this one a try.

I posted about the contest on Facebook and mentioned it to the Guppy Chapter of Sisters in Crime, where I am currently the president. And, of course, I voted once a day for the best cover!

The other cover that should have been my competition garnered very few votes. The book that turned out to be my major competition was not a particularly strong cover; it was so busy the key message (title and author) was lost.

Some of my Guppy chapter associates got behind the contest in a big way, voting daily and encouraging others to vote. Had each of the chapter’s 700 members voted for my cover just once, it would have won by a landslide. Which tells you the contest exposure was small. The fifteen contest authors ginned up various amounts of support from friends, but there wasn’t a large group of folks out there in cyberland using this contest to find some great new books.

And that led to the marketing result: During the week of the contest, sales of Doubtful Relations declined compared to the average for the previous few weeks.

I also quickly recognized that the free contest was only free in terms of me not spending any money. I spent lots of time thanking people who let me know they had voted for my cover. And Mr. Competitive wasted mucho time tracking how my cover was doing compared to the competition.

I went to bed Saturday night with a very small lead, and woke up Sunday morning having lost by a bunch of votes. The winner had rallied her troops or bots or whatever for a last-minute push.

Lessons for me: Measure all the costs of a promotion, not just the cash outlay. Check some prior results to see the number of votes – that would have given me a clue that the contest was thin on reader engagement. Remember that whatever I tell myself about being disengaged from the result of a contest, I won’t be, so make sure to factor in all that wasted time checking to see how my entry in the race is faring.

So dear friends who are readers, where do you find out about new-to-you books that seem to be worth trying?

A version of  this blog was first posted at Writers Who Kill on 2/26/17.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Why I Am All In with Amazon for Ebooks

Every Indy Author (a.k.a. Self-published Author) must make a fundamental decision about how to market their electronic books. Do they jump in bed solely with Amazon or play the field, allowing readers to purchase books from Amazon, B&N, Kobo, iBooks, Google Play and others?

Authors must evaluate many factors before coming to a decision about how to sell a particular book. The size and breadth of their following, including the percentage of readers in the U.S. compared to other parts of the world where Amazon is less dominant can impact their choices. The price of the book can also matter, since Amazon will only pay 70% royalties for ebooks priced between $2.99 and $9.99, inclusive.

Print editions have other considerations. Today I want to concentrate on electronic books.

A year ago I regained rights to Bad Policy from a small publishing company whose philosophy is to go wide, making ebooks available on every platform they could find. During the three years they controlled the distribution and pricing, 80.3% of electronic sales by both volume and royalties were through Amazon and 19.7% through other outlets. My second book, Cabin Fever, (currently, with nearly three years of sales data with the same small publisher) has Amazon at 81.9%, with 18.1% for all others.

For simplicity let’s round the split to 80/20. Choosing to become exclusive with Amazon for Bad Policy, I’d potentially give up 20% of my sales. What would I get from Amazon that could justify reducing revenue flows by 20%?

The main advantages of going exclusive with KDP (Amazon’s self-publishing platform) are (1) simplicity in the publishing process, (2) the use of a limited number of days to use countdown deals/and or give the work away for free, and (3) access to Kindle Unlimited (KU) and Kindle Owners’ Lending Library (KOLL).

Simplicity is nice, but not a very high hurdle. With a broad distribution, you can (with work) nearly duplicate the effect of Amazon’s countdown or free days. The difference-maker from my perspective is access to KU and KOLL.

Ant Farm, the first Seamus McCree novel, was published by Kindle Press (an Amazon imprint), so the ebook is Amazon-exclusive. KU and KOLL revenues for it represented 29.9% of revenue—greater than the 20% I was losing by cutting off alternative sales outlets.

Now, the first thing one must realize is that the extra 10% is not all additional revenue. Some people who read the book would have purchased it from Amazon had it not been available on KU. I cannot quantify that number, but my gut sense is that it is very small. In talking with people who subscribe to KU, they claim to rarely buy books, preferring to read exclusively those available through KU. Amazon probably knows for sure whether that is true, but it seems unlikely those people buy many books from non-Amazon sources—which is why Amazon pushes KU subscriptions.

Offsetting that “double-counting” are people who prefer to read electronically using their Nook or Kobo, but have a Kindle reading app they use when that is their only choice.

I decided the gains would outweigh the losses, so when I reissued Bad Policy, I made the ebook exclusive to Amazon. It’s been less than a year since the reissue. During that time, KU has generated 30% of revenue—the same result I have had for Ant Farm, which has always been exclusive to Amazon.

When I published the fourth Seamus McCree novel, Doubtful Relations, in August 2016, my experiment with Bad Policy was already producing positive results. But I was reluctant to write off the 20% of my readers who were reading my books on non-Amazon platforms. I chose to go wide, using Draft2Digital to distribute to the other platforms. Instead of the expected 20% of sales from the other retailers. I earned less than 10%.

The reasons are not all that clear to me. Perhaps since Bad Policy’s original release in 2013, fewer people are reading on alternative platforms. (I know I initially preferred Nook, partially to help keep competitiveness in the ebook market, partially because I could turn my Nook into a tablet. I gave up on using my Nook as a tablet when much more powerful tablets became ubiquitous, and because it was so difficult to navigate B&N’s website and so easy to find what I wanted on Amazon.) Although I do enjoy detailed numerical analysis, I have not taken the time to do a month-by-month comparison to determine if the Amazon ratio had been increasing in the past year.

After three months with the same low rate of non-Amazon sales, I made Doubtful Relations exclusive to Amazon and enrolled it in KU. It’s too early to know for sure how that decision will play out, but in that partial first month, KU revenue was twice what I had earned from all other retailers in the previous three months.

This past Tuesday, LowcountryCrimes: Four Novellas made its debut. I polled the other three authors to determine if they had very strong readership on non-Amazon platforms. Everyone was noncommittal, so I went with my gut, which said KU readers would be willing to take a gamble on our four novellas. It only cost them reading time to try authors they might not know, and I (technically my publishing arm, Wolf’s Echo Press) made the ebook exclusive to Amazon.

But I also decided to publish each novella separately. And there I went wide! My thinking was that if you could get all four for free in KU, there was no advantage to having individual novellas enrolled in KU. If someone wanted to read (say) Tina Whittle’s “Trouble Like a Freight TrainComing” they could order up the entire anthology and read her story. Maybe they’d give the others a try. But, if Tina did have fans who read exclusively on Nook, I’d give them an opportunity to acquire her novella at B&N as well. Plus, I found a publisher (Pronoun) who pays 70% royalties on books priced less than $2.99, double Amazon’s policy of paying only 35%. The total anthology ebook is priced at $3.99; each novella at $1.99. (So you can purchase the entire anthology for the price of two separate novellas.)

That’s my current thinking. Will it change in the future? You betcha. The publishing industry remains in flux, and any business (and being an author is a business) needs to continue to keep on top of trends and experiment.

I’m curious, dear blog readers: has your way of reading changed over the last few years? Do you expect it to change in the future? Those of you who are authors, what are you finding with your sales?

~ Jim

This blog originally appeared on Writers Who Kill (2/12/17)