Starting From Zero

lets_get_digital_amazonSuccess can seem unattainable to those starting out. It’s easy to forget that even the biggest sellers started from zero.

Amanda Hocking didn’t arrive on the scene as a fully formed sales machine. She didn’t have a platform which she had been diligently building up for years, nor did she come from trade publishing. She was unable to convince an agent to take her on and decided to self-publish instead, and then sold a million e-books in nine months!

Detractors tried to paint Hocking as an anomaly — and she was, in the sense that anyone who is phenomenally successful at anything is an anomaly.

But that missed the point: she was able to sell as much as the biggest names in publishing without the help of a publisher.

Soon, others followed suit. Authors like Bella Andre, Hugh Howey, HM Ward, Liliana Hart, and Barbara Freethy have sold millions of e-books on their own. Michael Wallace, Deanna Chase, Ed Robertson, Monique Martin, Chris Culver, BV Larson, Russell Blake, David Dalglish, Marie Hall, and Ryk Brown are just some of the many, many authors who have sold hundreds of thousands of e-books on their own. Without the help of a publisher.

Further down the food chain, hundreds of authors (possibly thousands), myself included, are making a living from book sales. Many of them, like me, were authors who couldn’t get out of the slushpile.

In other words, most of us started from zero. No readers, no platform, nothing.

A lot has changed in the three years since self-publishing went mainstream. In some ways it’s harder, but in some ways it’s easier too. Competition has increased. More importantly, the general savviness of self-publishers has improved. But the tools we have for reaching readers are much more sophisticated, and the prizes have swelled along with the market.

But it’s definitely different than it was three years ago, and, as such, the route to success has changed somewhat too. Beginners might get frustrated trying to follow in the footsteps of the authors named above because of that.

I see some of that frustration any time I share marketing tips. When those starting out read a post like this one on how to boost your mailing list, there’s always a comment which says something like “All that is great, but what do you do if you don’t have any readers?”

I get it. I really do. It can seem like a chicken-egg situation. You need ads to get sales, sales to get mailing list sign-ups, reviews to get ads, fans to get reviews, ads to get fans… pretty soon you’re all tied up in knots and see no way out.

The underlying question is “how do I get the ball rolling?” The short answer is step-by-step. And here’s the long answer. Continue reading

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Self-Publishers Aren’t Killing The Industry, They’re Saving It

In light of current events, I thought it would be good to re-run Ed Robertson’s excellent guest post from November 2012 where he highlighted interesting parallels between historical paperback pricing (pre-industry consolidation) and self-published e-books.

It’s unlikely I’ll have time this weekend to respond to emails, or tweets, or jump in the comments, as I’ll be busy editing, but this should give you something to chew on.

I’m sending the 2nd edition of Let’s Get Digital to the editor tomorrow, and I’ll be blogging about that Monday or Tuesday.

Oh, and the Spanish translation of Digital has just been released. You can grab it for free today only. More at the bottom of Ed’s post:

Self-Publishers Aren’t Killing The Industry, They’re Saving It

I’m a self-publisher. An indie author. Whatever you want to call me. I’ve read many articles about how self-publishers are killing the book industry. I’ve heard it from big publishing houses. From the president of the Author’s Guild. From traditionally published novelists and agents and even other self-publishers. If I want, I bet I can find a new one of these articles every single day.

But I won’t, because I no longer believe them.

Self-publishers don’t have the power to kill the publishing industry. I don’t think anyone does. But we do have the power to change it. We already have – and paradoxically, this change isn’t a change at all. And instead of killing books, this change has helped resurrect them.

We aren’t the first to be accused of killing the industry. In 1939, Robert de Graff threatened to kill publishing, too. At the tail end of the Great Depression, when hardcovers regularly sold for between $2.50-$3.00, he started selling paperback Pocket Books for $0.25. Continue reading

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Building a Killer Email List

wanted-alt71-200x300There is a lot of upheaval in publishing today and I think that’s likely to increase rather than decrease. The best insurance policy any writer can have against the future is a targeted mailing list.

I’ve written before about how the author with the biggest mailing list wins, and I’ve invited Nick Stephenson along today because he’s got some great ideas on how to boost your list.

The cool thing about his approach is that it’s something anyone can do. And, as you will see, it really, really works. Here’s Nick with more:

Building a Killer Email List

As an author, I try to read as much as possible. I tend to get excited over 8 or 9 different authors across a few different genres, and I always buy their new releases as soon as I hear about them. Whenever I find out there’s a new book on the shelves, I go buy it straight away. I don’t even check the price. It doesn’t matter to me, because these particular authors always deliver the goods.

And you know how I know they’ve got a new release? They tell me. Not Amazon, not Goodreads, not Bookbub – the author tells me direct, with a message straight to my email inbox.

Let’s face it. Book promotion is difficult. You know the feeling, right? Your new novel hits the shelves to minimum fanfare, you grab a few sporadic sales in the first week, and then… nothing. It’s happened to the best of us – and it’s a rite of passage that all new authors have to face at some point.

But it doesn’t have to stay that way.

David’s touched on this point before – the author with the biggest email list wins. If you’ve got legions of fans all signed up to hear about your new releases, you can hit the ground running. No more waiting around for months to collect enough reviews and sacrifice enough goats* to apply for a Bookbub ad spot – you can take out the middle man and go direct, and give your book the best possible start.

*(vegetarians can try sacrificing pumpkins. The net effect seems to be the same)

panic-for-web-200x300Collecting readers’ email addresses isn’t as difficult or intimidating as many people think. There are a ton of people out there who would love to find out about your next book, but simply don’t know how to go about it. Your job is to make it easy for them, give them a reason to trust you with their email, and then honour that relationship. The results can be incredibly rewarding, and you don’t need to be a NYT Bestseller to see some great results.

Here’s how I started adding an extra 500 – 1,000 email addresses to my list each month:

At the end of 2013 I decided I wanted to focus on building up an email list. I had set something up previously; a simple “sign up here for new releases emails” link at the bottom of my website, but I was only seeing 5 or 6 people signing up each month.

I figured – what’s the incentive? If my readers are anything like most people, they’ll probably figure “nah, I’ll just keep an eye on Amazon if I want to get the new one” and then promptly forget about me after a couple of days. That’s no good. That’s a lost sale right there.

So, I figured I’d give people a reward for signing up. In December 2013, I started giving away a free book (a novella of 25k words) in exchange for an email address. The results? My subscriber rate shot up to 80 – 90 people a month, without any increase in website traffic. I was converting visitors to signups at a rate of about 35%. Not bad, but definitely room for improvement. Continue reading

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Kindle Unlimited: The Key Questions

amazon_kindle_unlimitedAmazon launched Kindle Unlimited on Friday, giving self-publishers a big decision to make.

The long-rumored subscription service will allow users to download unlimited books for $9.99 a month, and reader reaction has been, from what I can see, overwhelmingly positive – especially because they will be able to test the service with a month’s free trial. Writers have been a little more cautious, for all sorts of reasons I’ll try and tease out below.

The main stumbling block for self-publishers is that participation in Kindle Unlimited is restricted to titles enrolled in KDP Select – Amazon’s program which offers various additional marketing tools in exchange for exclusivity. Author compensation will be similar to borrows under the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library – a percentage of money from a fixed pool. The only real twist is that payment will be triggered when 10% of downloaded books have been read.

At the moment, it’s far too early to know what effect this will have on the market as a whole, and it seems like authors have more questions than answers right now, so I’d like to address some of those.

How much will we be paid for borrows?

There’s actually no way of knowing right now. Authors had the same questions when KDP Select launched in December 2011, and I remember estimates ranging from $0.30 to $2. In the time since, borrow payouts have averaged $2.19. It seemed like Amazon was always keen to keep the rate around $2, adding and subtracting money from the fixed pool each month to keep things at that level.

It could be the case that KDP Select and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library was (at least in part) a giant experiment paving the way for Kindle Unlimited, and it could also be the case that Amazon will maintain borrow rates at around $2, but we can’t be sure until it happens. It’s possible that Amazon could let borrow rates slip and hope that increased volume makes up for it. We’ll have to wait and see.

Will this cannibalize paid sales?

This is the big question. It seems safe to assume that paid sales will be cannibalized to some extent, but Kindle Unlimited could also grow the pie. We don’t know how popular it will be with readers, but I’d be very surprised if it was a flop.

So which kind of readers will it attract? Will it be all the bargain-hunting readers that swamp sites like BookBub and make limited-time 99c sales so effective? Will it gobble up the freehunters that make permafree such a winning strategy? Will it wean the power readers off box-sets? Will it increase the amount of reading (and, by extension, payments to authors) by those on tighter budgets? Will it be used by readers in addition to their normal purchasing habits, or will it replace them? Will it make short fiction and serials more attractive to readers? All interesting questions that will be answered over time.

Is this the future of reading?

Authors are understandably nervous about all reading moving to a subscription-model (whether Amazon or Scribd or Oyster). Self-publishers lose a key tool (price) and it looks like this will generally muddy the little drips of data we do get. Writers in general cast fearful eyes at the music world and Spotify, and its paltry rates. But I think books are very different. Music has a much higher replay value, so I can’t see our compensation ever degrading to that level. And I also don’t think that subscription services as a whole will grab as much of the market as they will in music – my gut says there’s a hard limit of how much of the pie they will grab. Maybe 25%… tops. Continue reading

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Gatecrashing the Cosy Consensus on Amazon

amazonhachetteA group of bestselling traditionally published authors – including James Patterson, Scott Turow, and Douglas Preston – engaged in an act of breathtaking hypocrisy on Thursday with an open letter calling on Amazon to end its dispute with Hachette.

The letter is incredibly disingenuous. It claims not to take sides, but only calls on Amazon to take action to end the dispute. It also makes a series of ridiculous claims, notably that Amazon has been “boycotting Hachette authors.”

Where do I start?

The Phantom Boycott

First of all, refusing to take pre-orders on Hachette titles is not a “boycott.” Pre-orders are a facility extended to certain publishers – not all publishers. Many small presses don’t have a pre-order facility. Most self-publishers don’t have a pre-order facility.

I don’t know why Amazon has stopped taking Hachette pre-orders, but both sides have stated that negotiations aren’t likely to be resolved any time soon. Amazon might be reluctant to take customers’ money for orders it doesn’t know it can fulfill. Or Amazon might be strong-arming Hachette. Nobody knows.

Either way, Amazon still displays upcoming Hachette titles (again not a facility extended to many small presses and most self-publishers) and still provides a way for customers to be notified when the book is actually released. Not much of a boycott, is it?

Here’s what a real boycott looks like.

Since October last year self-publishers have been banned, en masse, from the e-bookstore of the UK chain WH Smith. The company has given zero indication when this ban will be overturned. Do you remember Preston, Turow & Patterson writing an open letter condemning this actual boycott? I don’t either.

Barnes & Noble refuses to stock any Amazon-published titles. Many indie bookstores have joined this boycott of Amazon titles. Do you remember Preston, Turow & Patterson writing an open letter condemning this actual boycott? I don’t either.

Last year, Simon & Schuster got into a dispute with Barnes & Noble over contract terms. Barnes & Noble drastically reduced orders and didn’t stock some Simon & Schuster titles altogether. This went on for months. Do you remember Preston, Turow & Patterson writing an open letter condemning this actual boycott? I don’t either.

And I don’t remember any of that getting much play in the media. Continue reading

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Media Bias and Amazon

amazonhachetteThere is so much crap being spouted in this anti-Amazon media push that you need a nose-peg and waders to get through it all.

Let’s take a look at what happened this week.

Hook, Line & Sinker

Statements from either side in the Amazon-Hachette dispute have been thin on the ground. Both companies are said to have signed NDAs – restricting formal comments while negotiations are ongoing – but Hachette has been leaking to reporters, and marshaling authors and industry figures in its defense, leading to an extremely one-sided depiction of events in the media.

Which is fine, it’s a pretty standard negotiation tactic, and a clever one if media conglomerates like Bertelsmann (part-owner of Penguin Random House), CBS (owner of Simon & Schuster), and NewsCorp (owner of HarperCollins and Harlequin) are rooting for your team.

What concerns me is that media outlets – even those not in the same corporate family as those publishers with a vested interest in the outcome – are taking the Hachette leaks as the complete and unvarnished truth.

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported that Amazon is demanding payment for pre-orders and other facilities and services it previously provided to Hachette for free. This story was leaked by “someone involved on the Hachette side of the negotiations, who is under orders not to discuss them and asked not to be named.”

Then this Guardian story – New Amazon terms amount to ‘assisted suicide’ for book industry, experts claim – got a lot of traction on Thursday. It was primarily based on a piece in The Bookseller on Wednesday (the editor of which is the “experts” in the Guardian headline). That article was wholly based on leaks from publishers, none of which were treated to any skepticism or critical analysis.

Does anyone see the problem here?

Reporters are supposed to aim for some kind of objectivity (or be open about their subjectivity), but that’s not happening here at all. The only attempt at balance has been to ask Amazon for comment. Naturally, Amazon has refused as it’s currently restricted from commenting because of those NDAs.

This leaves a reporter with two choices: run the unbalanced piece as is, or attempt some critical analysis on their own. I’m not a reporter, but I can think of any number of scenarios where Amazon could be asking for an increased percentage of e-book sales, or wants to start charging for pre-orders, which doesn’t mean that the world is ending and Jeff Bezos eats babies.

Here are two plausible scenarios. Continue reading

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Fake Bestsellers, Concern Trolls and Hidden Agendas

boomLast Friday we were treated to a story from the Op-Ed pages of the New York Times, where Tony Horwitz claimed “I Was A Digital Bestseller” then complained about how little money this made him, and how he would now stick with traditional, print publishers as a result.

Then this Op-Ed was held up – in outlets like Gawker – as another example of how writers have it so tough in this scary new digital world which is going to lead us all into penury.

Just like the story I wrote in January – Fake Controversy Alert: Hitler’s Mein Kampf Was Not A Digital Bestseller – the key “fact” in Horwitz’s tale of woe doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

Can you guess what it is?

Tracker2

Tracker1Boom was published on January 29 this year. According to KND’s Tracker, before the Op-Ed, the highest rank it achieved in the Kindle Store was on one particular day in February when it peaked at #2,345, selling ~50 copies a day. Sales declined in March (best rank: #3,255), again in April (best rank: #5,797), and more in May (best rank: #9,396).

By June, Boom had slipped further, bouncing between #10,076 and #79,820 in the Kindle Store, selling between 15 copies a day on some days, and maybe just one on others.

In other words, Boom did okay, and sold reasonably consistently for a few months, but was no bestseller. Tony Horwitz’s confusion seems to stem from seeing his book on a sub-sub-sub category “Best Seller” list and assuming it meant he was selling lots (and not having access to actual sales figures).

As those more familiar with the Kindle Store will know, Amazon has extremely granular sub-categories, particularly for non-fiction, which will allow a title to “chart” with very few sales. But this doesn’t mean that actual e-book bestsellers don’t shift a lot of copies or make good money.

Of course, after the Op-Ed was published on June 20, Boom jumped to #625 in the Kindle Store. Finally it was a digital bestseller. Kind of.

Well, technically the first time, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

At the end of his Op-Ed, Horwitz gave his thoughts on why he felt his “success” hadn’t translated into enough cold, hard cash:

One reason “Boom” sank, I suspect, is that there aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers.

Continue reading

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