How To Win Sales And Influence Algorithms

Matt Iden & Nick Stephenson

Matt Iden & Nick Stephenson two crime/thriller writers who have been working together to increase their promotion and marketing range since June 2014

I’m hosting a discussion today between two authors who are using creative ways to share audiences, something which has the happy side-effect of increasing their respective sales.

As I said on Thursday, I think creative forms of collaboration – especially in terms of marketing strategies – are going to be big this year.

Traditionally published authors may have to compete with each other ways that may not be relevant/important to self-publishers – like agents, deals, grants, prizes, or co-op. But self-publishers have nothing to fear from cooperating with authors they are nominally competing with, and everything to gain.

The market is so large that no writer will ever reach all the readers out there, and the odds of getting noticed can improve greatly with the right kind of cooperation – as many authors with box sets saw last year.

If you are still skeptical, consider this: Amazon’s recommendation engine can drive sales like nothing else. The Also Boughts (the strip of other titles under your book on its Amazon page) are central to that recommendation engine in ways that we only partly understand. What we do know is that they are key influences on all those emails which are sent to Amazon customers.

Did you ever have an unexplained bump in sales that couldn’t be tracked to a mention somewhere? There’s a reasonable chance you started appearing in the Also Boughts of a popular title in your genre, and then your book suddenly got recommended by email to a bunch of new readers in your target audience. Also, this phenomenon in reverse is often behind an inexplicable drop in sales (and is more comfortable than tin foil!).

Savvy authors are now pooling audiences in an attempt to influence their Also Boughts and get Amazon’s system to recommend their books to each other’s audiences. I noticed crime/thriller writers Matt Iden and Nick Stephenson doing this in interesting ways over the last few months, and invited them to spill the beans.

Here’s Matt & Nick with more:

Matt: So, some background. I first looked into what you were doing after I finally noticed the cover of your perma-free novel Wanted in my also-boughts. In retrospect, it was like the 29th time I’d seen it. Your covers are very distinctive and the branding is strong and consistent—no accident, I know—and something deep in my reptilian brain told me, You’ve seen this before. Maybe you should click on it?

wantednickNick: Yeah, you know what they say: “twenty-nine times is the charm”. My marketing strategy revolves around annoying people until they buy. It seems to come naturally.

Matt: So I followed the trail to your author page, where your list of blog posts were about experiments in promoting, marketing, and unraveling the mysteries of Amazon placement and rankings. It was obvious you were using some different approaches, especially when it came to increasing discoverability in non-traditional ways.

Nick: Yeah – I think there’s a bit of a marketing meme going round these days that all an author needs to do is “write more books”. Personally, I think that’s horrible advice. I get some amazing results from promoting my work, and it’s not all about Bookbub, either.

Matt: I could also see from your blog that you weren’t playing around. It’s pretty clear when a writer has gone all-in…or is writing for a hobby. (Just to be clear, we’re the “all-in” camp).

Nick: Damn straight. But I reckon, ask any “hobbyist” if they’d like to sell a few more books, I’m pretty sure they’d be happy to. I’ve spent the last couple of years figuring out what works, and the answer is gob-smackingly simple.

Get content. Tell people about content.

The “telling people” part is where most people struggle. But a lot of the work I’m doing with authors right now is helping them build up better ways to communicate with readers direct – rather than relying on Amazon and advertisers. And the results have been pretty incredible.

Matt: One particular thing that caught my eye was when you compiled some preliminary findings in a PDF report you shared (that probably formed the basis for your guide Supercharge Your Kindle Sales, which I was happy to blurb). It filled in a lot of gaps for me on keyword selection, rankings, and some other juicy bits I hadn’t seen treated quite that way anywhere else. I promptly told all of my blog people to go follow you and that really started our collaboration.

Nick: That was pretty cool of you! Putting together “Supercharge” was a lot of fun – it was cool to see two-years’ worth of experience jump out of my brain and onto the page. I was in the zone for a few days with that book. And I still get emails from people who’ve had great results, so it’s definitely been worth it from that perspective.

Matt: And, of course, I knew we could work together when the subject line of our first email was “Sword fights, alcohol, and nudity.” Which is less weird than it sounds.

Nick: Let’s just call it a Game of Thrones reference.

Matt: I asked you some stupid things about my Amazon descriptions (like using H1 tags to emulate the orange section headers in my books’ pages on Amazon), while you pinged me for a little brainstorming help on the cover for your new detective series. We also compared notes on Noisetrade.com—we’d both independently done promotions there and found the experience lacking, which helped me decide to not pay for another round there.

Nick: Noisetrade, for anyone who doesn’t know, puts your book up for free – but unlike other retailers, will actually share its customers email addresses with you. So it’s great from that perspective. But I don’t think fiction performs overly well, so I haven’t been back (I know David G did really well with his non-fic work there).

Matt: I guess I should say at this point that attitude has had a lot to do with our successful experiments. Early on, both of us were willing to share what we’d learned, show our numbers, and ask stupid questions. Even though we write in roughly the same genre—and frequently compete for top ranks in the sub-lists—neither of us treat readers as a finite commodity, like assets to be kept from other writers.

Nick: I think this is a throwback from the traditional world, where a handful of titles would compete for shelf-space. And at $25 a book, I guess I can see the logic there. But with $5 (or less) ebooks, where there’s no pressure to sell a certain amount within the first few months, the concept of “competition” should really be thrown out. Authors aren’t competing with each other in this market – if anything, we’re all in it together. What helps one of us helps all of us.

Matt: Also, knowing that you’re British has made me all the more eager to collaborate, since it’s given me the chance to use “mate” and “on holiday” in our chats. Even though I’ve never heard you use those words.

Nick: I only get them out at parties.

Matt: I’m still looking for an opening to use “blimey.”

Nick: To be honest, the Irish have much more colourful language…

Matt: Back to the collaboration, thing–this may be blindingly obvious, but self-pubbers are in a perfect position to treat other writers as collaborators, not competitors, considering the low price-point of most self-published books. This is especially clear when best-selling indies can sell a boxed set of twelve books for $.99. Traditionally published writers don’t have this advantage.

Nick: I think it’s from that old-school mentality that a trad-pub’s main audience is the casual / bestseller reader. The kind of people that pick up the latest Dan Brown in the airport, but won’t read anything else all year. I think the self-pubbers REAL advantage is that we understand we need to reach readers direct, and not just deal with publishers and agents. That shift in mentality puts us in our customers’ shoes. We know what our readers want, and we give it to them. THAT’S our killer advantage.

Matt: Well, no kidding! At $25 a pop, I wouldn’t be looking to buy another book for a while, either. Which might point to why traditionally published writers hoard their fans like Gollum hides his jewelry.

Nick: But now, the ebook revolution has brought in the voracious readers – who gobble up a book a day. So you’ve got to price for them, really. And with our prices hovering in the $2.99 – $4.99 territory, our readers are probably buying seven books at a time.

Matt: One of your ideas that takes this “allies-not-competitors” innovation a step further is asking your newsletter subscribers what books they’ve read lately, then actually sharing those titles and authors in future newsletters.

Nick: Yeah, it’s the first thing I ask them when they sign up. I build my email list like I’m talking to friends – and it works well. I’ve picked up 15,000 new subscribers in the last 6 months, and all of them engage really well. It’s a great question to open with – it gets a dialogue going. And I’m not just “some random stranger” emailing them – there’s some connection there, through books.

Matt: I followed your lead by sharing Blake Crouch’s Wayward Pines series with my newsletter gang and got a great response. Not to mention it was fun…we writers are readers first.

Nick: Yeah, always. I think what’s good for one author is going to be good for everyone. Getting more people reading is the aim for me, even if they’re not my books! So, if I have a month where I’m not promoting anything, I’ll recommend other authors’ work that I think my readers will enjoy. I’m not “losing” sales. I’m building trust and connections.

reasonmattMatt: A natural extension of that was to run some promotions together. I think the first was a coordinated email blast to our respective newsletters…at the time that meant about , what? 4,000 people saw both of our sale books? And you threw in an e-Ink Kindle reader to sweeten the pot.

Nick: Right. We sold 352 books from that email – and many of the people we emailed actually already owned copies. So that was a great result. Actually, apart from Bookbub, that’s a better result than pretty much any advertiser I can think of – and we didn’t have to pay anyone or jump through any hoops.

Matt: I was afraid some readers might think we were engineering the subscriber relationship a bit, but I don’t think we’ve done it in a mercenary way.

Nick: I figure, if it’s good for the reader, than it’s good for us. I’d heard your name come up a few times with readers emailing me, and I was keen to prove to them that I was listening.

Matt: And I’d seen all of your books in my also-boughts, so some of my fans were already buying you.

Nick: So it seemed like a good fit — my readers like your books, and hopefully vice versa. No one’s complained so far! In fact, I still get emails from readers thanking me for turning them on to your series. So that’s got to be good.

Matt: That little collaboration had an entirely unexpected learning moment for me as well when you pointed out that my price point outside of the U.S. was probably killing my sales.

Nick: Yeah. I’d been tracking the sales of the books in our joint email promo and saw that, while our sales tracked together in the U.S., they weren’t even close in the UK. While my book, Fallen, was ranked 4,500 – 6,500 a week after the promo, your novel The Wicked Flee was up in the 20,000 – 30,000 range.

Matt: And there was no good reason for the disparity. We had the same number of books published, about the same starting ranks, same genres…

Nick: …but, based on my (narrow) experience, it might possibly be price related. I saw a 50% increase in sales dropping my price from £2.31GBP (equivalent of $3.99) to £1.93GBP (around $3.30). That shows up at £2.35GBP and £1.99GBP respectively, after VAT is added. (Note: this is before the recent VAT changes.)

Matt: Blimey.

Nick: Brits (and other markets) are a few years behind when it comes to ebooks. Cheap still = good.

Matt: The $.99 stigma hasn’t hit yet.

Nick: Right.

Matt: So, I dropped my price in every market except the U.S. and saw about a 50% upward bump in sales in almost every market. Another major thing we’ve tried to do is influence also-boughts by “advertising” in the back of each other’s books. Specifically, each of our perma-free books.

Nick: We actually managed to get our sales on an almost identical track – check it out:

Saleschart

Matt: So, that’s our collaboration experiment. Our future plans include continuing to share newsletter space and expand our reach, as well as pinging each other about specific concepts to increase sales outside normal channels. With my Marty Singer series recently being acquired by Amazon’s Thomas & Mercer, it’s more important than ever for me to find ways of boosting sales without just churning my price point.

Nick: And my focus will continue to be building up that direct line to readers. With the promise of good content and building a valuable connection, readers are more than happy to hear from me with news about upcoming promotions or launches. It’s been a real step-change for me.

* * *

Nick Stephenson is a self-published author making six figures a year – and he also helps other authors find their first 10,000 readers. He currently offers FREE video training on how you can do the same at yourfirst10kreaders.com.

Matt Iden is the author of the Marty Singer mystery series, which was recently acquired by Thomas & Mercer. He has never used the word “blimey” in his fiction. Find him at matthew-iden.com.

About David Gaughran

David Gaughran is Irish, living in Prague, and the author of Mercenary, A Storm Hits Valparaiso, Let's Get Digital, Let's Get Visible, and this here blog.
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42 Responses to How To Win Sales And Influence Algorithms

  1. vickilesage says:

    Just when I thought I would have a relaxing Saturday, I ended up clicking all these links and learning a ton of stuff. Thanks, as always, for the great info!

    Like

  2. Reblogged this on Shirley McLain and commented:
    I found this blog interesting about writers helping each other to sell their books. Enjoy

    Like

  3. Fascinating stuff, and definitely the way our world is going these days. I’ve seen good results from putting my first book into a box set with other authors in a similar genre – even started making a bit of money from it, despite royalties being split 5 ways! But definitely my favourite tactic has been adding a page to my back matter saying: ‘If you liked this book, you’ll love – ‘ and I recommend the first book of another guy in my genre – one that outsells mine hands down. He did the same for me, and we regularly shunt customers onto each other after they’ve finished our books. It’s one of the most positive relationships I’ve developed since self publishing, and I finally met the guy in real life last month. He bought me a coffee. And so he should, because the bastard still outsells me…🙂

    Like

  4. Steve Vernon says:

    Reblogged this on YOURS IN STORYTELLING… and commented:
    Always something more to learn about selling e-books!

    Like

  5. A.J. Sendall says:

    Reblogged this on A.J. Sendall and commented:
    A refreshing perspective on ebook marketing from Matt Iden & Nick Stephenson

    Like

  6. MP McDonald says:

    Thank you for sharing your information. I used SuperCharge to increase my downloads of my perma-free. Now I need to work on that email list, but I only have a few dozen on my list and I have never sent a newsletter. Guess I should start.

    Like

  7. Charles Ray says:

    Reblogged this on Charles Ray's Ramblings and commented:
    Interesting points of view.

    Like

  8. What a great post. Got, as usual, good info from both authors –

    “Matt: self-pubbers are in a perfect position to treat other writers as collaborators, not competitors…”

    “Nick: We know what our readers want, and we give it to them. THAT’S our killer advantage.”

    Plus the details about sharing newsletter info and telling our readers about writers we’re reading. All in all, great post- thanks!

    Like

  9. Reblogged this on Felipe Adan Lerma and commented:
    One of the better posts I’ve come across of how and why authors, especially self-published writers, can and should co-operate. Plus the various ways to collaborate. Info is provided via a dialog between authors Matthew Iden (one of my favs) and Nick Stephenson (intriguing work worth looking into).

    Like

  10. Reblogged this on Finnegan Daley and commented:
    Call to all authors, reviewers, people with too much time and money,

    OK, if you’ve read any of my website, you realize I’m pretty much a self-centered douchebag. If anyone out there wants to start a bromance with me, the way Matt and Nick did, I’m all for it. I’ll talk up your sh1t, you talk up mine. The closest connection I’ve ever had to anyone in media is to have our faces next to each other on the DUI page of the Vindicator. This stuff they’re talking about, like bumps in sales, yeah, I’m all for it. If the process is complicated, I can probably give you my userid and password so you can run with it.

    You know how to reach me!

    Sincerely,

    Finnegan

    Like

  11. Dave, Matt and Nick, I am new to this and appreciate your insights. It’s clear you don’t mind helping out the new guys such as myself. I hope to be able to pay it forward some day.

    Like

  12. Reblogged this on David Pandolfe and commented:
    I kind of doubt there are any indie writers not already subscribed to David Gaughran’s blog, but here’s another great post, just in case. This one features Nick Stephenson and Matt Iden offering advice about writers cross-promoting each other’s work to mutual benefit. Great stuff, as always.

    Like

  13. There are other cross-promotion opportunities, such as cross-media promotion. You may for example partner with mobile game developers in your genre. Check the download count and ratings/reviews in the game’s Play Store listing to get an idea of the popularity of an Android game.

    Another cross-media opportunity may be partnering with YouTube creators. Again, YouTube provides some basic video views and channel stats data that give an idea of the creator’s reach.

    Also think of musicians.

    Like

  14. tojpublishingservices says:

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    Like

  15. Anthea Sharp says:

    Great article! Nick, you have some brilliant ideas, and I completely agree about banding together with other authors. Myself and 6 other YA authors with similar indie books and audiences are in the process of launching our website/FB presence to cross-promote to one another’s audiences. (http://sevensparksya.com/)

    Upcoming projects include weekly YA book giveaways on Facebook, a multi-author bundle, shared table at YA reader conferences, and continual newsletter outreach, connecting our fans to new authors.

    Like

  16. patricefitz says:

    Thanks, Nick, Matt, and of course Dave for the excellent guest blog post. These are some great new ideas, both fun and inspiring. And I love the spirit with which you approach it — friendly and collaborative, both with other writers and with readers. After all, why are we in this biz, except to be able to do what we love, which is write? (That, and get really rich and retire to an exotic island with a good Internet connection and find a sexy pirate or two for companionship… oh, wait. Maybe that’s just me.)

    Like

  17. Excellent interview. I like the idea that we writers are all in this together and I also like the idea of collaboration! Thank you Nick, Matt and Dave for sharing this valuable information. Have an amazing week!

    Like

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  19. Love the message from Nick and Matt. Collaboration is a great thing that Indies do so well. Great interview that I reckon will inspire more collaborations (o:

    Like

  20. hazzyvish says:

    Reblogged this on pointvalidated and commented:
    Must read

    Like

  21. Reblogged on Queen Bee’s Kitchen…very interesting read! Thanks guys. Oh, and yes us Irish have a VERY colorful vocabulary🙂

    Like

  22. Reblogged this on Jean Reinhardt and commented:
    Very enlightening post and check out the links at the end for even more good advice.

    Like

  23. I’ve started implementing these strategies as part of my marketing overhaul for 2015 and am already seeing results. Thanks for sharing and continuing to pass along your knowledge – it’s very much appreciated.

    Like

  24. Pingback: How To Win Sales And Influence Algorithms | The Passive Voice | A Lawyer's Thoughts on Authors, Self-Publishing and Traditional Publishing

  25. Leta Blake says:

    Reblogged this on Leta Blake and commented:
    Very interesting thoughts/ideas on author collaboration to help with sales and promotion of books. Thanks to Annie Person (http://anniepearson.com/) for linking me!

    Like

  26. stutteringhub says:

    This was a wonderful and enlightening conversation. It just shows what can be achieved when we pool our resources, rather than treat each other as competitors. Thank you.

    Like

  27. Nick and Matt must not know many trad authors, because all the trad pubs in romance do tons of collaborative marketing, and they focus heavily on direct-to-reader contact. In fact, trad romance authors have been in the forefront of author self-promotion for decades. Nothing these guys are saying is new to most trad authors. Anthologies? Take a look at all the anthologies for sale in genre fiction. Many of them were set up by authors. Sheesh. Can you convey info without firing off wildly misleading comments about traditional publishing?

    Like

    • Congrats on finding the one needle of contention in a haystick of helpful information!

      Yes, the romance community is at the forefront of collaboration and self-promotion, and always has been. But I think it’s fair to say that *in general* self-publishers tend to collaborate more than trad authors – not least because we have more freedom to do so because we control the price of our products and don’t have to, for example, ask someone’s permission to run a sale or put together a box set.

      The framing of the discussion was written by me, not Nick or Matt, and the framing of the discussion in terms of self v trad wasn’t an attempt to have a dig against trad authors – you would need to be incredibly sensitive to view it in that way. Rather, it was aimed at authors who are reticent to collaborate, trying to show them that they don’t really compete with each other – especially if they are self-published – and whatever sales someone could “lose” through such collaboration is greatly outweighed by the potential gains.

      The strategy that Nick and Matt are deploying may be common in its aims, but the execution is the interesting part that is worth noting (and experimenting with). It’s not as simple as Nick pointing his readers to Matt’s work and vice versa. It’s all about the details. In short:

      *Nick and Matt realized they have similar target audiences.

      *They understand the importance of Also Boughts in the Amazon recommendation engine.

      *They engaged in various activities *directly aimed* at appearing in each other’s Also Boughts – running a sale/promo at the same time, hitting each other’s mailing lists, running a competition aimed at both sets of readers which encouraged purchase of both books.

      *As a result, they appeared in each other’s Also Boughts, and then Amazon’s system took over and began recommending their book’s to each other’s readers en masse.

      The last part is the crucial part and turns a nice three-day promo into something with a much longer halo effect. Unlike, say, an anthology of short stories.

      Like

  28. Pingback: Best of the Web Book Marketing Tips for the Week of February 2, 2015 | Author Marketing Experts, Inc.

  29. tomrains says:

    A very interesting and useful read. Thanks so much!

    Like

  30. Antara says:

    I read in AMC that you need 10 sales to appear in the “Also Bought List”. I have 10 sales but I am still not in this list. I know it doesn’t appear immediatel,y still wonder how much time will it take?

    Like

    • You aren’t usually eligible for Also Boughts until you have had 10 Amazon US sales. Once you have had 10, then you *usually* get Also Boughts the next time that Also Boughts recrunch. I haven’t checked that in a while, but the last time I did the Also Boughts recrunched twice a week – on Thursdays and Sundays. Assuming it is still working that way, you would need 10 Amazon US sales, and then your Also Boughts should appear the next Thurs/Sun. However, delays and glitches with this system are very common.

      Like

      • Antara says:

        Thanks, David. I just finally went though Let’s Get Viable, posted a review too. Pretty nice job scooping the Amazon’s algorithms. I only wonder is the info relevant, i.e a free purchase is one tenth worth and the popularity list is updated every 30 days?

        Like

  31. Pingback: How To Win Sales And Influence Algorithms | Sound Bites with TyCobbsTeeth

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