The Birth of the Kindle

The 10th birthday of the Kindle was on Sunday, which has been met with all sorts of retrospectives. Getting less coverage is that it’s also the tenth anniversary of Amazon’s self-publishing platform. In this excerpt from the forthcoming third edition of Let’s Get Digital, I argue that the real revolution is something else again which is also ten years’ old this month: the Kindle Store itself, which didn’t just open up publishing by allowing anyone to sell their books, it also democratized which books get recommended.

I’ll be posting in more detail about the launch, and the two books on marketing which will follow. Digital 3 won’t be available as a free update like last time, as that caused way too many problems. However, I will be making the pre-order available for 99¢ so that anyone can update for the minimum possible cost.

Sign up here to get an email when it’s released. (And feel free to ask in the comments about all of this.)

Digital is heading to the editor today – so this is unedited. Please excuse any errors.

Chapter 11 – The Birth of the Kindle

It’s almost exactly ten years to the day that the first Kindle was launched—as I write these words, at least. There are a lot of interesting articles circulating about the launch on 19 November 2007 and it’s funny looking back at that first device, which resembled a slimmed-down fax machine. I remember thinking no one would ever use such a clunky thing to read a book, and they certainly wouldn’t pay $399 for it!

The future makes fools of us all.

But maybe Jeff Bezos isn’t quite as visionary as popularly depicted because that first Kindle sold out in five-and-a-half hours. And it didn’t just sell out, it sold its entire Christmas stock. Amazon wasn’t able to put it back on sale until April 2008—five months later. It’s amazing now to think that even Amazon didn’t realize how much latent hunger there was for digital reading.

What happened next is well-known: successive iterations of the Kindle were released with better specs, greater capacity, and new features, always allied with a lower price. The display got crisper, the device got lighter, performance improved, and Amazon began selling Kindles internationally too. By the time the third-generation Kindle came out in August 2010, the price had dropped from $399 to just $139. This lower price point ushered in the digital revolution in earnest. Sales of what became known as the Kindle Keyboard exploded, and kickstarted a corollary uptick in the sales of ebooks; all these new Kindle owners had devices to fill. Those first hardy self-publishers mapping out the digital landscape during Christmas 2010 reported a massive boom in sales, one that made plenty of writers (like myself) take a serious look at self-publishing for the first time.

The sudden flowering of digital reading and ebooks and self-publishing puzzled many long-time observers of the sector. Ebooks had been around since 1971 when Michael Hart typed up the Declaration of Independence and made it available to download on a rudimentary precursor to the internet. The first patent for automated reading is older again, filed by Spaniard Angela Ruiz Robles in 1949—although the concept itself can be traced back to author Bob Brown’s manifesto from 1930 called The Readies. In terms of commercial availability, ebooks were purchasable on floppy disks since the 1980s, ebookstores had been around since the early 1990s, and dedicated devices were available since Sony launched the Data Discman in 1992—a full fifteen years before that first Kindle.

So why did ebooks suddenly flourish? How did Amazon essentially create the modern ebook market? Why did Amazon end up being the dominant force rather than, say, a first mover like Sony? These questions are easier to answer if you realize something important: it was never about the device. While Amazon is responsible for many hardware innovations, I don’t think anyone would argue that the Kindle Fire is higher spec than the iPad, and Kobo arguably led the way for many years in terms of dedicated e-readers without grabbing Amazon’s market-share.

It was about the store. Continue reading

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NaNoWriMo Writing Prompts – Bad Boy Romance Edition

Lots of people will be diving into NaNoWriMo in a few days, and lots more are sitting on the fence. I’ve been on that fence, it’s made of excuses!

Today, I’m going to do you a solid by taking one of those excuses away. You’re getting some Writing Prompts. And not just any Writing Prompts, but Bad Boy Romance Prompts.

(Please note that no actual romance writers were harmed in the making of these prompts.)

Prompt #1: You are foreign. Maybe Australian! Your scammy non-fiction books aren’t selling too well, but you spot the latest trend: bad boy romance, and decided to write under a woman’s name – no, screw that, several women’s names! You eagerly stuff several books into one, artificially inflating your page count and stealing from your fellow authors. You do this across all your books – who cares anyway, they are all ghostwritten.

Prompt #2: You’re from DC but you moved to Seattle a few years ago, where you decided that you were sick of being a failed non-fiction writer of boring books about iPhones, and have decided to dive headlong into the hot world of bad boy romance! Of course, you pretend you are a woman and write under several different names. This way you can finally unleash your inner bad boy, and use all sorts of tricks to cheat the system – especially as your day job is a data scientist. The only problem is you can’t write.

Prompt #3: You are an English guy who has decided to spice up his life by writing under several different female names. Well, when I say writing, I mean packaging someone else’s words and passing them off as your own. The ghost is on a tight NDA anyway, so they can’t even complain about their crappy pay. Everything should be fine, right? Pretty sure no one will ever find out…

Prompt #4: You made a name for yourself when you hit #1 in the Kindle Store and everyone is asking you how you did it – which is fun the first couple of times, but then you think, “Hey, I could make some real money out of this.” You start a $2,000 mastermind class and turn the current crop of scammy internet marketers into the next generation of bad boy romance authors.

Prompt #5: You’re a bestselling bad boy romance author pulling in $200,000 a month but some no good kids are sniffing around your business. Amazon is breathing down your neck too, just when you have invested big in turning your ghostwritten books into German-language ghostwritten books. Then you get an idea: hey, what if I point my clickfarm at them pesky kids? Continue reading

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A Tale of Two Marketing Systems

Lots of people right now are asking themselves whether they should leave Kindle Unlimited.

I’m generally agnostic on it, and I think writers should do what is best for them and their books, but there’s no doubt this is the big question of the moment.

That’s partly down to falling pay rates, Amazon’s inability to deal with scammers and cheaters, or the increasing concern about having all your eggs in one basket when something like this (or this, or this) regularly happens. But I think authors are asking themselves the wrong question.

The real issue, I suggest, should surround how you are going to find readers on these retailers (or on Amazon, if you have decided to swim in the other direction). Because I often see people taking the wrong approach – using the wrong tools for the job.

I gave a talk at NINC earlier this month which was titled Wide or Exclusive? How to Effectively Promote a Series. I had been invited to speak after meeting one of the programming co-chairs at another conference in Austin earlier this year, and we hashed out a few ideas for workshops by email.

If I was a faster writer, I would have given her a more apt title for the talk – A Tale of Two Marketing Systems – because one thing becomes clear as soon as you contrast the authors who have been successful in KU with those who have been successful wide: they are two very different approaches.

Aside from my own efforts, and that of authors I regularly stalk, I was also able to draw on the fascinating experience of managing marketing for another author over the last six months – one with a considerably larger audience and backlist. And he has been killing it in KU, getting a Kindle All Star every month since March.

I have much less direct experience with wide, but lots of my friends have been doing very well on Apple, Kobo, and Nook for some time now, and many authors (including Deanna Chase, Sarah Woodbury, Monique Martin, and Ernie Dempsey) were kind enough to share their numbers and experiences. And, conveniently enough for my purposes, they all told a similar story. Continue reading

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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 at the very start of October, advertising on Freebooksy, KND/BookGorilla, and Digital Book Today – 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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