Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Early Results from a Free Book Promotion


A month ago my blog Free or Not to Free—THAT is the question addressed my assumptions about what would happen when I offered the Kindle version of the first in my Seamus McCree series for five days for free. Here is a summary from that blog:

My hypothesis goes something like this: For every 1,000 downloads, say 10% read the book. Of those, say 10% become fans and read the entire series. At current pricing, it costs them $15 to buy the other four books. Under those assumptions, each 1,000 downloads will result in $150 of sales ($100 of royalties). Plus, I expect I’ll end up with more read Kindle Unlimited pages, and I hope the publicity will spur sales of other books in the series to people who have read and liked my novels but not been motivated to buy the next in the series.

To estimate the effect of the giveaway, it’s necessary to develop a baseline: what might have happened had I not offered the five days of free downloads. During the thirty days before the five free-promotion days, I had no promotions in effect and sold a walloping nine Kindle books. Kindle Unlimited reads during that period totaled a paltry 3,637 pages. Total earnings for those thirty days: $42.

Results of the promotion

The ad cost $150 and resulted in 5,961 downloads of Ant Farm. During the promotion, Ant Farm reached #1 bestseller for free Kindle ebooks in the Suspense and Private Investigator categories, and #22 overall.

Given the nearly 6,000 downloads, my hypothesis proposes I should gain long-term earnings of $600 from Kindle books sales. In addition, I expected to significantly increase the number of Kindle Unlimited Pages read. The chart below shows the results for the thirty days starting with the first day of the promotion.

Book
Kindle Sold
Royalty
KU Pages Read
Estimated Total Revenue
Ant Farm
5
$14
30,586
$153
Bad Policy
33
69
21,663
166
Cabin Fever
23
64
14,004
127
Doubtful Relations
19
53
13,209
112
Empty Promises
18
50
12,962
108
Total
98
$250
92,424
$666

My expectation was and still is that the hoped-for $600 earnings from Kindle ebooks will occur over a long period (and therefore be difficult to measure precisely). However, I have already earned about 40% of that amount.

I also theorize that “binge” readers of Kindle ebooks belong to Kindle Unlimited because it makes economic sense for them to pay $9.99/month rather than buy individual books. If that assumption is correct, KU pages read resulting from the ad will be front-loaded relative to purchased ebooks. The first thirty days of KU reads produced an estimated $414 (at $.0045/page). The rate of pages read quickly reached 2,500 a day, eventually increased to as many as 5,000 a day and has dropped off to 2,750 a day. I’ll be interested to see how long the tail of the distribution is. Also fascinating to me is that many KU readers don’t bother downloading free books; they prefer to read them through KU. That’s great for me because the 30,000 pages of Ant Farm they have read generated over $139 of income for me--nearly paying for the ad!

The ROI on my $150 investment has already exceeded 400% —clearly a terrific investment. As a bonus, the number of Goodreads reviews and ratings has increased, pushing the series total to more than 200 ratings, averaging 4.32 stars. Amazon ratings have also ticked up a little (the series now has 148 reviews averaging 4.67 stars). Several new people have joined my mailing list.

Considerations and Unknowables

A single ad. I decided to run only a single ad for this promotion besides announcing the free days in my newsletter. Had I purchased other ads, I would have generated more downloads at an increased cost. As the results for the month before the promotion illustrate, without promotion, sales of the series die. I chose to save those other advertising possibilities for future promotions. Their mailing lists will have considerable overlap with the one I chose, but each has unique subscribers, and periodic promotions will (a) reach new readers, and (b) remind others of the series. Time will tell.

Amazon-only ebook distribution. My overall sales strategy is predicated on granting Amazon exclusive rights to sell my electronic books. There is no way to measure what might have happened with a similar promotion had the electronic books been available on all platforms, but unavailable on KU. I have noted in earlier blogs that when my publisher used a wide distribution, non-Kindle ebooks ran about 25% of Kindle sales. My KU revenue runs 53% of ebook sales. That percentage will increase after this latest promotion. Single-sourcing electronic book sales with Amazon has been a good decision for me—so far.

Diminishing returns. This promotion was the first time Ant Farm was offered free, other than the free books provided at the book’s birth as a Kindle Scout selection three years ago. I plan to make Ant Farm free again in the future, and I’m anxious to learn how effective periodic promotions will be. As more people have the opportunity to download the book, returns should diminish. The 6,000 readers represent a small percentage of the potential market for the series making it uncertain how steeply the returns will diminish.

Uncontrollable. There are many things that can affect my results I cannot control for in this experiment. I didn’t check the moon phase, whether Mercury was in retrograde, or another astronomical phenomenon. I don’t know whether mid-May works better or worse for a free promotion than other times of the year. I have no ability to test whether changing the sales copy for the free promotion could have resulted in more downloads or sales. So many unknowns, so little certainty.

My experiments will continue.
* * *
James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

An earlier version of this blog first appeared on the Writers Who Kill blog.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Protect Yourself with Financial Notifications

Yesterday I was reminded why setting up financial transaction notifications can save you a lot of hassle and maybe a bunch of money. My better half, Jan, opened her computer to discover email notifications from one of her credit cards for a series of credit card purchases she did not make.

The purchases began around 1:18 am our time and within minutes totaled $900. Because these purchases were overseas, they triggered the credit card company to put a temporary hold on the fourth and fifth purchases (but not the first three). They sent Jan a text alert. Because it was in the middle of our night, her phone didn’t ping, and she only noticed the alerts after she saw the email messages. She called the fraud group at the credit card company and will receive a new card.

Under the Fair Credit Billing Act (FCBA), if you report your card lost before any charges are made, you have no liability. Otherwise your liability is capped at $50. If you didn’t lose your card, but your number was stolen, you again have no liability. Even though your liability is limited, the hassles can be large if you don’t catch the problem early.

For fraudulent ATM withdrawals or fraudulent debit card use, timing is important. Under the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, if your ATM or debit card is stolen, you have no liability if you report the theft before it was used. If you report it stolen within two days of learning of the loss or theft, your liability is limited to $50. If between two days and sixty days, your liability increases to $500. If more than sixty days pass, you will bear the entire loss.

And consider the hassles if fraudulent debit card withdrawals mean if (say) your mortgage payment bounces. Who pays the bounced check fee, the extra interest charge? How long will it take to straighten out your credit report after the mortgage company notes the late payment in your file?

Transaction alerts allow you to catch bogus charges quickly. If you wait until you receive a statement to check for issues, days and weeks may have passed and thieves will keep using the stolen information until it stops working. And if you’re someone who doesn’t bother to reconcile your bank and credit card statements, you could suffer permanent losses.

How do you set a transaction alert?

Each financial institution has its own methodology, but they are similar. As far as I am aware, you can only set notifications online. Here’s how it works for Chase credit cards:

Once you sign-in to the online account, find the vendor’s “account services” or equivalent. You can find it for Chase in a drop-down menu on a “Things you can do” link. Other providers have it as a tab across the top or bottom of the welcome page. Under the account services, Chase has “Profiles and Settings,” which includes “Alerts.”

Chase allows you to set up alerts sent to an email account for any purchase transaction more than whatever amount you choose. In the past I chose $1.00, but now I use $0.01. I want to see any transaction because thieves are known to try out a charge for pennies to see if the transaction succeeds. If it does, they then use it for a very expensive shopping excursion. I also set an alert to notify me of any balance transfer to my card. Banks and credit cards and banks have several other categories of events that will trigger alerts if you want (payment date approaching, minimum account balance, minimum remaining credit limit, etc.). I don’t use them, but you might find some helpful.

I can hear you say, “But I’ll get so many emails.” For my peace of mind, it’s a small price to look through a few more emails and delete them when I recognize the charges. Every so often a bogus charge happens and stopping the thieves as quickly as possible saves me a later hassle, and it also saves us all money in the long run. Just because we don’t suffer a personal loss does not make financial crime victimless. We all pay for the thievery in the higher prices we’re charged.

Questions? Leave a comment and I’ll try to answer them.

***

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.

Monday, May 21, 2018

Free or Not to Free—THAT is the question


Ant Farm (Seamus McCree #1) Cover
Whether to give a book away is not the ONLY question facing authors who have control over such decisions, but it is one with implications.

When Amazon first made electronic book self-publishing easy, one of the successful promotion strategies was to give away a book—particularly the first book in a series. Readers were just getting used to eBooks and eReaders and getting one of your books into a reader’s hands was a successful strategy for becoming known. In the early days a free promotion could generate tens of thousands, maybe even a hundred thousand downloads.

Fast forward to today and the situation is different. Few people are just now buying their first eReader, so succeeding by getting your book to be one of the first downloaded is like trying to hop on a train roaring down the track at fifty miles-per-hour. Even if they don’t have a dedicated eReader and want to try out eBooks, they can read them on their computer or smart phone.

Readers who want free books have dozens of newsletters to provide them links to free books in the genres they prefer to read. The only way for an author to stand out in a crowd is to pay for promoting his book.

Many voracious readers belong to Amazon Unlimited or other subscription services, where after paying their monthly subscription, it costs them nothing to read their next book—but unlike free promotions, reading those books provide authors compensation.

Lastly, I have an untested suspicion that we have fostered a large group of people who will only read free books (electronic or print from libraries) and will not pay for their pleasure reading. A subset includes people who download stolen books, upon whom I wish the worst of computer viruses. If my primary writing goal was to have people read my books, then free is fine, but I’d like compensation for my writing, which means I need to find readers willing to pay for their reading pleasure.

Before Saturday, I focused on reduced-price promotions of my books. I have had limited success with half-price sales or $0.99 sales of electronic books. Whenever I have promoted a sale, my Kindle Unlimited pages read for all the books in the Seamus McCree series increases significantly. I’ve read anecdotal evidence that the same happens when authors give away a book in their series.

Saturday I began an experiment: I reduced the Kindle eBook price of Ant Farm (Seamus McCree #1) to free for five days (the last day is May 23). I also dropped the price on the second book in the series, Bad Policy, from $3.99 to $2.99. The prices for the other three books in the series remain at $3.99.

I’ve taken out ads, will send out my newsletter, and have written this blog. We’ll see how this works. My hypothesis goes something like this: For every 1,000 downloads, say 10% read the book. Of those, say 10% become fans and read the entire series. At current pricing, it costs them $15 to buy the other four books. Under those assumptions, each 1,000 downloads will result in $150 of sales ($100 of royalties). Plus, I expect I’ll end up with more read Kindle Unlimited pages, and I hope the publicity will spur sales of other books in the series to people who have read and liked some but not been motivated to buy the next in the series.

Regardless of how it works out, one thing I know is that I will not set up free promotions for the later Seamus McCree novels. It’s one thing to give away the first in the series in hopes of attracting new fans; it is quite another thing to set up readers' expectation that if they just wait long enough, they can get all the books for free.

So, if you haven’t read Ant Farm, here is the link to get the Kindle version for free.

*****

Update on the results after two full days of the free-book promotion:


Over the weekend, ANT FARM had 4,552 Kindle eBook downloads. That was sufficient to drive it to Amazon's #1 free book in both the Suspense and Private Investigator categories. The book also reached #22 in the entire Kindle store! The promotion continues through Wednesday 5/23, so feel free to share the good news so others can discover and enjoy Seamus McCree.

*****

James M. Jackson authors the Seamus McCree mystery series. Empty Promises, the fifth novel in the series—this one set in the deep woods of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula—is now available. You can sign up for his newsletter and find more information about Jim and his books at https://jamesmjackson.com.


Thursday, May 3, 2018

Feeding Your Addictions


The psychologists have poo-pooed the idea of an “addictive personality,” but I’m here to tell you that I have one. A “friend” recently introduced me to the Wordscapes app for my phone. (It’s available for Android and iPhone.) It’s been sucking up my time ever since.

Here’s the blurb for the Android app:

This text twist of a word game is tremendous brain challenging fun. Enjoy modern word puzzles with the best of word searching, anagrams, and crosswords!

You’ll never experience a dull moment after you try this addicting word puzzle game! (Emphasis added). Play this crossword puzzle once and just you won’t be able to put it down.

Escape and stimulate your mind by visiting the beautiful destinations of Wordscapes!
Get your word hunt on with over 3,700 cross word puzzles!
Challenge your brain and vocabulary – this crossword puzzle starts easy and becomes challenging fast!
Think you can beat these anagram word puzzles? They start simply but ramp up fast!

Wordscapes is the word hunt game that over 10 million people just can't stop playing! It's a perfect fit for fans of crossword or word anagram games, combining [the] best of word find games and crossword puzzles.

I prefer math games, but saw my friend playing this and thought it looked interesting. I downloaded it, and the rest is addictive history. The game is this: You are provided with a number of letters. (It starts with 5, I’m up to 7 and I don’t know what the upper limit is.) You are given a blank crossword puzzle setup, and the task is to fill in all the entries. (The only clues are the number of spaces.) Sometimes there is a “bonus” word that is separate from the crossword. Those suckers are a problem because the only thing you know is the number of letters and that the word does not appear in the crossword.

There is no time limit or penalty for wrong guesses. The app is free but comes with ads. For $2.99 you can eliminate the ads; I don’t pay for aps (expect birding aps), so I put up with the ads, which don’t last so long as to break my addiction!

Here are a couple of hints for new players. Check in every day and accept the free gift box which often contains coins (see later for coin use). There is a daily puzzle which can earn you extra coins. When you play it (and why not?), try to find answers for the entry that includes a butterfly. You’ll earn extra coins that way.

Coins – currency of the realm. Want a free letter? It will cost you 100 coins. If you are stuck, the first thing to do is rotate the available letters. Often that is enough to find new words. However, if the only missing word is the bonus word, I’ll sometimes buy the first letter. With that, I always find the answer.

So, that’s my current addiction. I invite you to try it out. After all, these games are good for preventing dementia and Alzheimer’s, right?

Monday, April 23, 2018

Rethinking Charitable Contributions


If you used to itemize your deductions, last year’s massive tax law changes may affect the optimal way for you to make charitable contributions. Three major modifications in the law are responsible for the changed situation:

(1) The 2018 standard deduction increased substantially. It’s $12,000 single/ $24,000 married, which is significantly higher than in 2017. For those over age 65, the standard deduction increases to $13,600/$26,600 (assuming both members of the couple are over 65).

(2) The deduction for state and local taxes is capped at $10,000, regardless of whether you are single or married (a clear marriage tax penalty in a bill that is otherwise very friendly to families, especially if you have children – go figure).

(3) The provision for Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCDs) was made “permanent” in the new law, meaning taxpayers no longer need to wait until December to find out if Congress will extend the provision.

The combination of (1) and (2) means the standard deduction will now apply to a significant number of individuals who itemized deductions in the past. Charities have their fingers crossed that these people will not reduce their contributions because they have “lost” the deduction for them. It also means that the group of people who benefit from “doubling up” contributions changes.

The “doubling up” strategy involves developing a contribution schedule that crosses two calendar years. If your itemized deductions are less than the new standard deduction but greater than 50% of it, you might benefit by moving all deductions you can from year 1 to year 2 (or vice versa). For example, let’s say you routinely make $10,000 in contributions each year and under the new law that means you will take the standard deduction. Instead, make no contributions in year 1, and on January 1 of year 2, donate the carryover $10,000. Then donate year 2’s $10,000 sometime before the end of the year. If the $20,000 donation is sufficient to allow you to itemize in year 2, then you’ve converted some nondeductible contributions into deductible ones and reduced your overall taxes.

Also effective is delaying optional medical expenses (in standard deduction years) or pushing them forward (in itemizing years). To a lesser extent, timing the payment of real estate taxes or state income taxes might also help.

What’s up with Qualified Charitable Distributions?

Making the QCDs permanent means anyone who must take the Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from an IRA and donates to 501(c)(3) organizations might benefit. Once you turn age 70-1/2, current rules on IRAs, 401(k)s and the like require you to take certain minimum annual levels of distributions or pay a huge tax penalty. As with any such distribution, RMDs are taxable to the extent they do not reflect a return of nondeductible contributions.

QCDs apply only to standard IRAs and allow you to DIRECTLY donate up to $100,000 per individual to qualified 501(c)(3) charities and exclude the donation, to the extent it was taxable, from income. What’s the benefit?

(1) If you take the standard deduction, this provision allows you to effectively deduct what would otherwise be nondeductible contributions. A clear win.

(2) Even if you do itemize, making a QCD reduces your adjusted gross income. That reduction may help you avoid the Medicare High-Income Surcharge, possibly reduce the proportion of Social Security benefits that are taxable, and reduce the limit before medical expenses can be deducted.

(3) Because you’ve reached the age requirement for RMDs, you were going to have to take money from your IRA anyway, and this might be the most efficient way to do it.

What are the rules for QCDs?

(1) You must have reached age 70-1/2 before the distribution is made.

(2) It must come from a regular or rollover IRA, not a SEP or Simple IRA in which employer contributions are still being made. They can’t be from a 401(k) or 403(b).

(3) The receiving organization must qualify as a 501(c)(3) organization (not all charitable organizations do, and private foundations and donor-advised funds are not eligible)

(4) The contribution must come directly from the IRA. If you cash out the IRA and make a contribution with those funds, it will not count. Many IRAs offer a check-writing privilege and that technique will work because the check is coming directly from the IRA. Otherwise, you’ll have to donate securities from the IRA.

(5) Had you not used this technique and instead deducted the contribution in the normal manner, it must have been entirely deductible (e.g. you can not receive any benefit from your deduction—so make sure to reject that coffee mug from NPR and turn down those tickets to the charity ball.)

QCD Implications

Since 401(k)s and 403(b)s do not qualify for QCDs, and if you make considerable charitable donations to 501(c)(3) organizations, you can consider rolling over the qualified plan into an IRA to take advantage of the QCDs.

Increasingly, states income taxes use different rules than Federal income tax law. Any analysis of your contribution strategy must include how any change affects your state income tax in addition to the federal effects.

If you are approaching 70-1/2, QCDs are one more thing to think about as you determine whether to take your initial RMD in the year you turn 70-1/2 or wait and take it by April 1 of the following year.

Warning

We’re talking taxes here, and these are my understandings of the rules. I’m not a lawyer or accountant, and I’m not providing any advice. You really must check with your own tax advisor before making any decisions (or make sure to do your homework).

Friday, April 6, 2018

Six Rules of Author Self-Promotion


Whether you are with a big five publisher or publishing a novel yourself, you must promote your book. I’ve learned six rules to do it right.

Rule One: It’s not all about YOU

Self-promotion should be about building relationships. As an author, your goal is to build long-term relationships with your readers. Naturally, your writing is what ultimately makes the difference, and you need to make it as compelling as possible. That does not mean you start building relationships once you have something about to be published. That would be all about you.

Relationships are two-way streets. If self-promotion is you force-feeding your promotions, you will not be effective for long.

Rule Two: Add Value to the Relationship

You have experiences and expertise that you can share with others to make their life [fill in your adjectives here.] Try to provide value within any promotion. Entertain, provide new insights into your writing, your work, your life—help others improve their writing, their work, their lives. Let people know what didn’t work and why so they can learn from your mistakes.

Help them along their paths without asking for a return favor. I will be forever grateful to Hank Phillipi Ryan and Steve Hamilton, two high-powered authors who took the time from their busy schedules to write blurbs for my books. Don’t you think I let people know about their helpfulness? (You bet. I just did, didn’t I?)

Rule Three: Be Yourself

I am a math guy; always was, always will be. I know that’s not everyone’s cup-o-tea, but it is mine. With my math background and ability to translate complicated concepts into English, I can help people understand the world in a different way. That’s my niche. And I write financial crime novels, so there is a practical tie-in.

Show your sense of humor. Some won’t get it—they never do, do they?—but those who are tuned to your sensibilities will form a stronger link with you.

Rule Four: Have Permission

How do you feel when a robocall interrupts your family dinner? For me, that’s a perfect reason to never buy the product, vote for the politician, or do whatever they had in mind for me to do. All because they did not have my permission to interrupt what I was doing.

I receive unsolicited author newsletters and email promotions all the time. The first time it happens, I chalk it up to inexperience. But when it keeps happening, I employ email junk filters to toss them into the spam pile that is deleted without delay. How likely am I to buy their books or retweet that their latest is on sale? You guessed it: not likely.

Make sure you have permission before sending newsletters. When someone like the ELF asks you to write a guest blog, follow their rules regarding content and promotion. It’s a courtesy to the blog’s owner, and its readers will be more apt to appreciate what you have to say.

Rule Five: If you don’t ask for assistance, you won’t get it.

If there is something you would like people to do, you need to make a direct, clear ask. I’d like you to buy my book, and maybe you would based on this blog. What I will ask you to do is to read the first four chapters of Empty Promises for free and decide for yourself if you enjoy my kind of writing. (If you prefer starting a series with the first book, Ant Farm’s first four chapters are here.)

Nothing works as well as a direct ask.

My order of preference is to ask in person. If that’s not possible, then by phone where two-way communication is still possible. Email or your favorite messenger app is a distant third because it is more distant. Of course, in a promotional situation like this, you need to incorporate your ask in a way you think makes sense.

Rule Six: Thank People When They Help You

Strangers, friends, and family do not owe authors their support. So when someone offers it, tell the individual or community that you appreciate the time and effort they took to help you out. This common courtesy goes a long way when people know you mean it.

That’s it: six rules that make self-promotion acceptable to my sensibilities. What’s been your experience?

A version of this blog appeared as part of the Empty Promises Virtual Book Tour (4/2/18 - 4/20/18)