Amazon’s Hall of Spinning Knives

Phoenix Sullivan is well-known in the indie community – I’ve known her myself since 2009 or 2010 and consider her a close friend.

Aside from being exceptionally generous with her time and knowledge, tirelessly sharing her insights on marketing and algorithms, Phoenix is also well known as a vocal campaigner against scammers and cheaters – particularly on the current big issues of book stuffing and clickfarming.

And now she is being targeted.

Phoenix made a box set free for a few days back in September, advertising on Freebooksy, KND/BookGorilla, and Digital Book World – all legitimate sites – and there was no other promotion involved with this title. No BookBub CPM ads, no Facebook campaign, no tweets, no newsletter swaps, no mailing lists.

On the third day of her free run, Phoenix’s box set was rank-stripped by Amazon, a punishment normally reserved for those who have used clickfarms or bots. Phoenix reached out to Amazon to ask what was going on, but they only replied with a canned response accusing her of using artificial means to manipulate her rank.

Exactly one week later, they sent an automated mail with essentially the same content and implied threat:

We are reaching out to you because we detected purchases or borrows of your book(s) originating from accounts attempting to manipulate sales rank.  As a result, the sales rank on the following book(s) will not be visible until we determine this activity has ceased.

Wild Hearts Box Set (Books 1 & 2 + Bonus Novella)(ASIN: B01MYP56J8)

Please be aware that you are responsible for ensuring the strategies used to promote your book(s) comply with our Terms and Conditions. We encourage you to thoroughly review any marketing services employed for promotional purposes.

Please be aware, any additional activity attempting to manipulate the Kindle services may result in account level action.

As I said, Phoenix is a close friend. I know her well and we are in contact almost every day. I know exactly what methods she uses to promote her books, and they are all legitimate. Her ethics are above reproach and she would never engage in any grey hat behavior, let alone go near the black hat territory of bots and clickfarms or mass gifting/incentivized purchasing.

In short, there is no possible way that Phoenix is guilty of any wrongdoing. Continue reading

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Win A Free Spot On This Fab Email Marketing Course

Three new courses launch today that you guys should be interested in, as they focus on the three biggest needs I see right now: launches, email marketing, and advertising – and I’m giving away a freebie!

The courses are from Indie Pub Intensive, they’re super cheap, and are run by someone who really knows what they are talking about – Tammi Labrecque. She has taken a fairly unique approach as well.

These aren’t tarted up PowerPoint presentations you watch passively, the courses include video calls for group discussions, one-on-one sessions with Tammi, as well as worksheets to help you get your hands dirty right away. Each course lasts four weeks and they cost $199 a pop – a bargain, if you ask me.

EDIT: if you hustle across to the site and engage in neither dillying nor dallying you can bag the special introductory offer of $99 per course, which is pretty amazing for what you’re getting.

Before I get into the details of what each course covers, a disclosure: I know Tammi. We’ve only met once – at the Smarter Artist Summit in Austin earlier this year – but that was enough to know we’ll be good friends, especially after a particularly boozy lunch that almost caused one writer to miss his transatlantic flight. Ahem.

Anyway, Tammi is a friend so I could be biased. I mean, I guess there is a chance she could take all that incredible knowledge she has about Amazon algorithms and Facebook ads and automated email sequences and somehow forget to put that in the course. Highly unlikely as she is one of the most organized people I know, but I guess that’s theoretically possible.

There is an FAQ if you want to know more about Tammi or the courses, but I just wanted to highlight the part which seems most relevant here:

You must be monetizing this some other way then? Affiliates or kickbacks or whatnot?

Nope. No affiliate webinars, no kickbacks to people who recommend me, no kickbacks from services I recommend, no undisclosed affiliate links to services or sellers.

So if you see someone recommending this course, you can be very confident that recommendation is genuine.

Back to the courses themselves. There’s only one four-week course each month so you have Tammi’s full attention:

Your Best Launch 6 November 2017 – this one is aimed at beginner-to-intermediate types who want to learn how to launch a book effectively. Of course, you’ll need a finished book, edited, with a pro cover. Tammi will teach you the rest – how to draw up a launch plan, the various bits and bobs you’ll need to pull it off, how to use all the sweet tools that will measure which parts of your launch are working and which are holding you back. The nifty thing about this course is it will also give you a crash course in how all the various stores work, and how to conduct your own launch post-mortem – i.e. how to do build on your efforts to do it better next time.

Mailing List Expert4 December 2017 – this may not be the sexiest sounding of the three courses but I swear it’s the one that is most needed. Nearly everyone’s email game is pretty shoddy, to be honest (me included). You might not be aware of the possibilities with email these days. The course will start with the basics (which email provider is right for your particular needs) and rapidly move into ninja territory with autoresponders and onboarding and will help you plan out your first automated sequences. And once you have all that stuff nailed down, Tammi will teach you how to grow that list substantially with quality subscribers. To show you how badly needed this course is, and how great I think it will be, I’m buying two spots on this course, one for me, and one to give away to you guys. (More on that below.)

Ads That Work8 January 2018 okay, this is where Tammi totally jumps the shark. In just four weeks, she’s going to cover discount sites (the likes of BookBub, ENT, Robin Reads, etc.) and in particular which ones are working right now. Then she’ll dive into AMS best practices. Then the third week is Facebook ads, and the cool thing about this is she will actually build an ad with you in real time. And then she’ll wrap up with BookBub CPM ads. That’s a hell of a lot of knowledge packed into one course and I’d say this one will book out right away (ditherers be warned!). Continue reading

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You Can Win Without Cheating FFS

Most self-publishers will agree: it’s getting tougher out there.

If you are in KU, then you’re pretty much dependent on one income stream and if Amazon sales dip or you run afoul of the Hall of Spinning Knives for whatever reason then you are totally boned. And it’s getting so competitive in KU that it seems to take more titles and quicker releases, along with multi-pronged marketing campaigns – which can be complex and/or expensive – to get any real traction or stickiness.

If you’re not in KU, hitting the charts on Amazon is increasingly difficult and holding on to position is near-impossible – especially when your book is being leapfrogged every hour by thousands of borrow-boosted KU salmon running all that mad marketing. And you can’t even advertise to the same level because they are getting reads on top of those sales to make ROI easier.

Getting visible at all is much trickier now too. The days are long gone when putting your book at 99c was enough to hit the genre charts, and when one small, cheap reader-site ad could put you in the overall Top 100.

But that’s only half the picture.

The rewards are much, much greater now also. The amount of money to be made at the top of the charts, and the upper end of KU, is incredible. I know authors who are regularly banking $10,000 to $50,000 a month from KU page reads alone. And they aren’t even close to what the top tier guys are making.

So, yes, it’s harder. But the prizes are bigger. You might even say it’s getting harder *because* the prizes are bigger. If the money was declining I’m sure many people would find another line of work.

Certainly, the scammers and cheaters would move on to an easier mark, just as most of them have done every few years since they started with their bullshit internet marketing scams and MLM pyramid schemes back in the 90s. WarriorForum is always ready to sell them the next “turnkey solution” and “passive income stream” – whether that’s real estate ads or importing pool noodles from China or selling bad boy romance by the ton.

But that doesn’t mean you must cheat. Continue reading

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Michael Hyatt Has Something To Sell You

Michael Hyatt has successfully reinvented himself as an author and speaker – one of those quasi-experts on marketing who slowly morph into a life-coach type guru. It’s a well-trodden path and these guys all tend to present themselves in similar ways.

Here’s Michael Hyatt reclining among soft furnishings. Here’s Michael Hyatt enjoying a tender moment with his dog. Here’s Michael Hyatt projecting success with a shiteating grin for the ages. It’s almost easy to forget what he did. Almost.

In 2009 when Michael Hyatt was CEO of Christian publisher Thomas Nelson, he was instrumental in the creation of WestBow Press – one of the first white-label vanity presses operated by Author Solutions on behalf of an established publisher.

The Naming

The shadiness began right from the start, with the choice of name. WestBow was already an established fiction imprint at Thomas Nelson, with titles still in print and stocked in stores, and it seems the idea was to either create confusion among store owners and book buyers, or to make newbies feel like they were getting a real book deal – a ruse as old as vanity publishing itself.

Here is what literary agent Rachelle Gardner had to say about that at the time:

If you search Amazon for WestBow, you’ll find books by authors like Ted Dekker, Karen Kingsbury, and Colleen Coble […] It seems like it might fool unsuspecting consumers.

The Launch

It’s instructive to look back at the 2009 launch of WestBow and re-examine some of the claims made by Michael Hyatt.

The first big one was that there was going to be huge growth in the sector. And like a dog-dirt sun-dial which is right once a day, Michael Hyatt was correct about that. Only 7 titles were published by WestBow in that first year, but by 2012 the yearly output had peaked at 3,869. With publishing packages costing up to $19,999, that was a serious amount of cash for Thomas Nelson, Michael Hyatt, Author Solutions, and Thomas Nelson’s new owner, HarperCollins.

(Michael Hyatt stepped down as CEO when the purchase of Thomas Nelson was announced in April 2011, but stayed on as Chairman until the deal completed in mid-2012).

The second big claim was that WestBow would be a legitimate alternative to traditional publishing. While self-publishing has firmly established itself as a viable option, vanity publishing most certainly has not. The only people making serious scratch from vanity publishing are the vanity publishing companies (and their traditional publisher-owners). Continue reading

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9 Ways to Improve AMS – Amazon Ads For Authors

More product searches start on Amazon than anywhere else, even Google. It’s the world’s biggest bookstore and by far the largest ebook retailer.

But Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) is still very much a work-in-progress, particularly the slightly pared-back version authors get to advertise books.

Self-publishers tend to focus on making books visible on Amazon. Aside from being a market leader, and having famed frictionless purchasing, there is another key reason why such a focus often gets the best return. Unlike other popular sites, anyone visiting Amazon is generally there for one reason: to buy stuff. You aren’t interrupting them while they share dank memes with friends, or search how fast a raven can fly during winter.

AMS is often referred to as “new” but it has been around for more than two years now. While AMS offers a variety of ads to third-party sellers which can increase app downloads, drive traffic to websites, or boost sales, we’ll specifically focus on the bits open to self-publishers: the Sponsored Product ads and Product Display ads for selling books.

AMS has seen an explosion in popularity this year, with a range of courses and webinars and books and workshops all promising to teach you how to be an AMS whiz. They are probably all over-egging it at least a little bit, because the platform is fundamentally under-developed, and hasn’t changed much from what was first launched in beta a couple of years ago (and I’m told it has implemented little of the feedback provided by beta testers).

Success on AMS is tricky to attain, frustratingly fleeting, and difficult to scale. There are some pretty basic flaws with the system that are holding us back from becoming better advertisers. Continue reading

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This Self-Publishing Course Is Free… And Great Too

When I heard someone was giving away a self-publishing course, I was a little skeptical, presuming it was either some kind of bait-and-switch or an opportunity for some hardcore upselling.

But I was wrong.

Iain Rob Wright has done something pretty amazing. He has created a pretty damn comprehensive course on self-publishing and marketing – over 50 hours of HD Video – and he has made it all free. Not the first bit free. Not free for a limited time. Not free if you also buy this, or agreed to be assailed by that.

Just free.

Iain had originally planned to charge quite a lot of money for it, but the idea didn’t sit right with him and just before launching he made the decision to make the whole thing free. The course is called Self-Publishing Mastery and you can enroll here.

You are probably skeptical. And you are definitely right to be generally skeptical. There has been an explosion in courses lately – some have a great reputation and are led by authors with a solid track record of both knowing their stuff and selling books, and others are not. Plus there has been an accompanying uptick in seamy sales tactics. It’s perfectly natural to be suspicious of someone claiming to be giving away all this content for free.

So I was suspicious. I checked it out first, and asked a few friends to do likewise. And you know what? There really is no catch.

There’s a teeny bit of upselling when you first enroll – a small bolt-on course on craft for those who haven’t finished their first book yet – and I think it’s quite cheap, something like $28. I’ve no issue with that at all, obviously. Seems like it would be useful to some people, and I know from experience that some newbies can get ahead of themselves and start guzzling down information on optimal KU strategies before they have finished their first novel *glares at 1.4% of blog audience*.

There’s also a few affiliate links scattered throughout – but once again Iain is upfront about that, mentioning that in the introductory video (a refreshing bit of transparency), and again the ones I checked seemed to be legitimately good products at a discount, and there was no hard sell. For example, he recommends Vellum but also shows you how to format your books for free. I generally have no problem with affiliate links once the products are legit and everything is disclosed, and this goes beyond that.

(Full disclosure: I’m not an affiliate of this course, I don’t know Iain at all, and I’m only recommending it because I think it looks good. The only thing I’m an affiliate of is Amazon. Any time I link to a book on here, it’s probably an affiliate link. Unless I’m a dumbass and forget, like I did with that scammer post which had 70,000 views *weeps*.) Continue reading

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The Visibility Gambit

Kindle Unlimited has received a fair bit of bad press over the last couple of years – some of it from me – but I want to balance that by looking at the positives.

Most pertinent is KU’s popularity with readers, meaning there can be huge opportunity for authors. Especially so if you make full use of the tools Amazon gives you, and understand that it’s all about visibility.

Enrolling in KU comes at a well-documented cost: exclusivity. But it’s the potential benefits I want to focus on today because some of that might be getting lost in the (well justified) complaints about scammers, transparency, and falling pay rates. Even though those rates have dropped by around 20% this year alone, KU is still paying out more dollars to indie authors than all non-Amazon retailers combined. And I think indies need to be selfish and do what’s best for them – whatever they decide that may be.

The other price of staying out of KU is arguably the bigger one: visibility. Each borrow is counted as a sale for rank purposes, and borrows can make up 50%-80% (or more) of a KU book’s rank – unless you are down in the telephone number rankings and invisible to everyone.

Borrows Cannibalizing Sales

When KU first launched the big debate among self-publishers was whether borrows would cannibalize sales – an important consideration when sales are more lucrative and puny humans tend to need food several times a day.

And it turns out they do, but of the books not enrolled in KU. Continue reading

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