A New Strategy for a New Year – Guest Post by Sarah Woodbury

To enroll or not to enroll, that is the question on a lot of writers’ minds. I have had several posts on KDP Select, because it’s a complex issue, without one “right” answer that will fit all self-publishers.

If you are just catching up, I came out against the program before Christmas, but featured two authors recently that are doing well out of it: Marilyn Peake and Patrice Fitzgerald.

To wrap up this mini-series, I have a guest post from bestselling author Sarah Woodbury, who hasn’t enrolled in KDP Select. Instead she’s exploiting the increased opportunities on other retailers. Here’s Sarah:

***

When Amazon first announced its KDP Select program, my heart sank. I knew that going exclusively with Amazon would not be right for me or my books. My sales at the other sites were one-quarter what they were at Amazon, but I wasn’t prepared to abandon my readers or what I’d spent 11 months building up. Or the potential for sales, which I still felt was there. But how to respond? 

When David Gaughran included my story in his book, Let’s Get Digital, I’d only been an indie author for 6 months. Although my sales continued throughout the year, I published two more books, and ultimately grossed $30,000 in 2011, my concern about the future was growing. November sales were the lowest in six months. December, with the introduction of KDP select, was looking worse with every day that passed.

While telling myself that sales go up and down, I cast around for a new strategy—something that meant motion instead of stagnation. First, I redesigned two of my covers. Then I asked Christine DeMaio-Rice (flipcitybooks.com) to redo the covers for another three books (out of a total of seven).

While she worked on those, my books sold the fewest in a week since April. I despaired. And then a light went off. I was approaching my one year anniversary as an indie author, and I’d been thinking about what had helped jumpstart my sales in the first place.

Free books.

Now, the debate about ‘free’ is ongoing, if not endless. I’m not going to go into that here. What I will say—and what KDP select has proven for many authors—is that ‘free’ for the sake of free doesn’t get you very far. ‘Free’ as part of an overall strategy can be a gamechanger.

My time travel romance, Daughter of Time, a prequel to the After Cilmeri series, had always been my loss leader, as retailers say. I’d sold 1000 a month every month from May through October. However, sales had dropped to less than half by December, even at 99 cents. I decided that I would make it free on all platforms. At worst, at sales of 15 a day (which was it’s current rate), I was losing $5. As it turned out, as soon as it went free on Amazon US, I was losing $5 to make $200.

Daughter of Time went free at Apple on Dec. 18. Immediately, it went to #1 in historical fantasy (free), and my other books which hadn’t charted into the top 100 since the summer, appeared on the ‘what’s hot’ front page. By January first, the first book in the series, Footsteps in Time, hit #1 paid in historical fantasy and has remained so on and off since then. As I type this (here on January 16), Footsteps in Time is #1, the bundle of books one and two is #7, Prince of Time is #11, Cold My Heart (a novel of King Arthur) is #23 and The Last Pendragon is #67. The Good Knight, my medieval mystery, is #33 in historical mystery, though it hit #1 earlier in the month.

Apple has reported sales for December to Smashwords. 246 of my books sold during the month (as compared to 134 in November) for $500. Barnes and Noble showed a similar uptick, with 340 sales (as opposed to 185 in November). I await the sales report for January with bated breath.

Back to Amazon US: Daughter of Time was price-matched to free at Amazon on December 28th. Since then, I’ve given away 21,000 books. And my sales? They’ve quadrupled. 2170 books have sold this month (all at $2.99 and above) and the average sales per day is increasing. On the first day of January, I sold 145 books. The number was 165 yesterday.

Sales go up, sales go down. In this new indie world, you have to be prepared to turn on a dime and change your strategy.

***

A big thank you to Sarah for this post. You can check out her (many) books on Amazon and Amazon UK, and as she is not in KDP Select, SmashwordsBarnes & Noble, and everywhere else too.

If you would like to follow her progress as she takes over the world book-by-book, Sarah’s web page is here, her Twitter is here and her Facebook page is here.

I’ll just sign off by saying that I agree with everything Sarah says here (and I should point out that when I was checking out my listings on Sony’s ebookstore yesterday, one of Sarah’s books was being featured on the homepage).

As I hope I have shown with my own experience, and with guest posts from several different writers from Moses Siregar back in July right up to Sarah today, that “free” can be a very powerful tool, but only, as Sarah says, if it is “part of an overall strategy.”

With KDP Select, that strategy is built-in: coming off free at the right time to pole-vault up the paid listings. For those not in KDP Select, if you are using “free”, you should figure out what your goals are and approach it accordingly.

I made two shorts free the old way (via Smashwords), and had a couple of hundred downloads there. When the new “price” filtered through to Barnes & Noble, the rankings rocketed from #400,000 & #600,000 to #4,000 & #10,000. I won’t get the numbers for a while, but it’s safe to assume that things are moving (and hopefully something similar is happening at the other retailers).

On top of that, the two shorts finally went free on Amazon on Tuesday, and I’m approaching 15,000 downloads in just over three days.

But my aim wasn’t to raise the profile of these stories, it was to advertise my other (higher-priced) books, particularly my new novel (with a sample in the back of both shorts). Sales of the newbie have jumped on Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Yesterday, I switched the stories back to paid on Smashwords, but it will take a while to filter through to the partner sites, and then to Amazon.

It will also take a while for readers to actually read the shorts, so I think I’m only seeing the start of what all this free advertising will do for me – on all channels.

And speaking of channels, I am expanding my distribution this year. Aside from Amazon, and all the stores I reach through Smashwords, I have uploaded all my books to DriveThruFiction and OmniLit (and I should be appearing in Spain’s Casa del Libro soon), and I’m working on expanding even further, especially to e-bookstores in Ireland, the UK, Spain, the Czech Republic, Chile, Australia, Brazil, Argentina, and New Zealand.

Some of these international stores especially can be difficult to get into. Aside from needing ISBNs, and some other fiddly requirements, they often are quite indie unfriendly. I have been saying for some time that there is a huge hole in the market for someone to aggregate and distribute to these myriad international stores, and it looks like Mark Williams is going to be doing just that (at bottom of post). I’ll be watching with great interest.

About davidgaughran

David Gaughran is an Irish writer, living in Prague, and author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible and this here blog thing.
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36 Responses to A New Strategy for a New Year – Guest Post by Sarah Woodbury

  1. Thanks for the shout-out, Dave.

    Sarah, the sales figures are fantastic! And of course timing the free books to break just as the Holidays / New Year bonanza commenced is a stroke of genius.

  2. Thanks for the opportunity to visit your blog, David!

  3. J.D.Hughes says:

    Sarah, I agree with Mark. Terrific progress! You present an alternative to KDPS that appears to be viable. Well, at least it was for you. Congrats.

  4. What’s really encouraging to hear is that there are many ways to boost sales. It’s really all about having a long-term strategy and knowing if one thing doesn’t fit your goals, there are always other options. Thanks for sharing your experience, Sarah!

  5. To KDP select or not to KDP select is the question. Leaving other retailers out of the loop seems unfair. Hopefully they will change their rules.

  6. Great to hear how well things are working for you Sarah. (And I love those covers!) I agree that keeping things open, looking at the big picture and casting a wide net makes the most sense. Amazon has glitches. If they are your only retail outlet, that means you can be without an income for weeks while the tech gets straightened out.

  7. Is Amazon still price-matching free books elsewhere? I’d heard that since KDP Select started, this would no longer be happening — but it sounds as if that info may be inaccurate.

    • They certainly are. Nothing has changed, as far as I can see. It’s still a bit hit-and-miss, and they can be slow, but I went free about four or five days after reporting it. Personally, I’ve seen better results from just getting a handful of people to report the free price, rather than a deluge.

  8. Kat Ward says:

    David: I can’t remember how I found your blog, but I am very grateful that I have. You provide explicit, detailed information and have led me to other useful sites, as well. Many, many thanks.

  9. I think being for or against Amazon Select is very much the wrong way to look at it. It s a tool, nothing more. I’m not against hammers or pliers just because I don’t choose to use them.

    I am in Select because I felt it was the right tool to boost my sales. It has. Other people with a situation different than mine, such as Sarah, use different tools.

    • You have certainly done very well out of it, JR. When I look at the guys doing well out of Select, there seems to be a few commonalities. I’m seeing authors with good books (and usually more than a few), who have all the basics in place (solid covers, blurbs, formatting etc etc.), but they just hadn’t got the “break” yet to take their sales up to the next level – and the well timed “free” ride, catapulting up the paid listings, provided the “break” needed. Would that be a fair summary from what you are seeing?

      • I would say that too, David. As JR said, it isn’t something to be ‘for’ or ‘against’. It’s a tool you can put in your tool belt if you choose. I wasn’t willing to give up the progress I’d made at other sites and that meant I needed to do something different. Most of my writer friends are in KDP Select and many are loving it.

      • Just as a clarification (which I should have made clearer at the top), what I was really “against” re KDP Select was the principle of handing over control of pricing in the form of fighting for a share of a fixed pot. One of the great competitive advantages indies have is price. Now, to be fair to KDP Select, we lose control of pricing under any lending/subscription model, but I was against the idea of a “floating” payout, rather than some minimum we agree to (and can negotiate to improve). A small point, but one worth making, and something I think will become more important in 2012 as subscription models proliferate (and more reading is done within them, rather than through standard book buying like we have now). I’m also not crazy about the exclusivity component – which counts me out, personally – but at least Amazon are open and upfront about it, unlike the underhanded way that Apple are forcing exclusivity on users of the new iBooks Author app. Details on that here (and check the comments too): http://www.thepassivevoice.com/01/2012/the-unprecedented-audacity-and-stupidity-of-the-ibooks-author-license/

  10. This is one of the most informative and helpful blogs on self-publishing. Thanks for all the specifics about KDP Select and sharing the experiences of other authors.

    • I’m considering taking one of my books that has not sold well and using it as a freebie to see what happens. But I’m more inclined to go the route Sarah did than to put it into KDP Select. As a matter of fact, when I raised the price of “Bearing False Witness” to $3.99, Amazon came back and discounted it to $.99. I’m not sure what that’s all about. Actually, the sales have decreased since they discounted it. I’ve inquired as to why they discounted the price but have not heard back from them. I don’t know how to get it back up to the $3.99 price point I want for that book.

      • There are two possibilities:

        (a) Amazon is arbitrarily discounting. You will be able to tell by looking at your weekly sales reports. If they are paying 70% royalties on that 99c book, then they have took it on themselves to discount. However, this is extremely rare, and it’s much more likely to be:

        (b) Amazon are price-matching another retailer which has your book at 99c. I would bet this is the reason, and I would also bet that Kobo is the culprit. Check all the vendors Smashwords distributes to. If one of them have the lower price, then Amazon will continue to price-match that.

        How long ago did you raise your price on Smashwords? If it has been less than a week or two, then the new price may not have been pushed out to all the partner sites or they are still processing the change. If it has been longer, then email Smashwords with the details.

      • David, the price was raised to $3.99 (from $2.99) a few weeks before Amazon discounted the book to $.99. It reflected the correct price for about two weeks. I’ve checked the other sites where the book is available (through Smashwords) and can’t find it anywhere for $.99.

        I haven’t checked the royalties yet to see if they’re paying 70%. But I don’t care if they are paying 70% royalties. I don’t want the book priced at $.99 and that should be my decision, not Amazon’s.

      • Unfortunately, one of the terms of the ToS grants Amazon this power. However, they rarely exercise it. Invariably, a rogue retailer is causing the price matching. Did you check Kobo and Diesel (and Sony)? It’s normally one of those.

        Check the weekly reports – at least rule at that possibility.

      • I’ve checked all those sites – all the sites connected with Smashwords. Oh well, didn’t mean to hijack the thread.

      • Don’t worry about hijacking the thread. At this stage, I get disappointed when threads don’t veer off into some tenuous tangent…

        This is a mystery. The most plausible scenario (I can think of), is that when you first tried to raise the price, your book was still 99c at one of the more sluggish retailers (Kobo/Diesel) but now it’s not. If that’s the case, you can prod Amazon’s price-matching bots back into action by changing your price again. Try $2.99. Maybe that will “unstick” it. Then you can go up to $3.99 if you want. And if that doesn’t work, mail KDP again.

  11. C.J. Archer says:

    Congratulations on your success, Sarah. Those new covers are just beautiful! I think you’ve made the right move in updating them. Your situation mirrors my own in lots of ways – coming up to a year of self-pubbing, making a quarter of my sales at non-Amazon venues and grossing $30,000 – so reading your story on why you didn’t go the Select route was intriguing and helpful. Good luck to you. May the free-train bring you lots of new passengers.

  12. John Hayden says:

    David, I’ve been following the recent series of posts giving different perspectives on KDP Select. The posts have been a real public service to the Indie writer community. I’ve yet to publish an ebook, but from everything I’ve read here so far, I’m definitely inclined to go for wide distribution, rather than exclusivity. I especially feel that Smashwords deserves support. From what I can see, Smashwords played a critical role in opening up publishing opportunities to unknown, first-time authors. There will inevitably be shakeout coming in online publishing. Probably Amazon or Apple will emerge as dominant, trailed by a few competitors who manage to survive. I think it’s in the best interests of writers, present and future, to preserve as much diversity and competition as possible in the world of online publishing. I’m pulling for Smashwords to continue to succeed as an independent distributor.

  13. David thanks to you and all your contributors for this enlightening and inspiring site. I’ll tweet the word… and definitely return for more.

  14. Thanks, David, for inviting Sarah to give us her views. It’s been illuminating, and I wish you well Sarah. I love people with ‘strategies’. More work needed by me on this front, I think!

  15. I have a strategy but I an keeping it in my head. I feel writing it all down takes away the fun. Is that a recipe for failure? Hey David, B&N caught me out with my Park Ave address. Plan B, download a Kindle for PC.
    Thanks for the posts.
    Cheers, Bernie.

  16. Hey Dave – just to break the flow and go totally off topic for a sec, I’ve awarded you the ‘Versatile Blogger Award’ – apparently it carries almost the same weight and prestige as if I actually had a piece of paper with the words ‘Versatile Blogger’ written on it to hand to you.
    Alas, budgets being what they are in self publishing…
    Anyway, as it was past to me, so has it been to you. Lucky bugger that you are.
    Except you have to swing by my blog to claim it… Ha! Not so lucky now, are ya!
    Here it is:

    http://AdventureWithoutEnd.com/2012/01/22/im-a-versatile-little-blogger/

    Enjoy!
    Tony

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