Time for a Pivot? Kindle Unlimited and Marketing in 2015

North_Korea_-_Sonbong_school_(6146581889)Everywhere I hang out as an author, I see blog posts discussing the effect of the introduction of Kindle Unlimited (KU) on authors’ sales. For those authors just waking up to this discussion, Kindle Unlimited is the subscription service Amazon introduced in July. Subscribers pay a monthly fee and can borrow all the books they want that are in the KU library. For most books by indie authors to be part of that library, the book must be enrolled in KDP Select.

If you have ever read my blog before, you will know that I found that enrolling the books in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series in KDP Select was very rewarding—even though it meant accepting the terms of enrollment that prohibited me from selling my ebooks in other stores. If you are interested, click here for a list of the posts I have written on that subject.

In fact, last winter I announced that my strategy for 2014 was to keep my books in KDP Select and use the new promotional tool called the Kindle Countdown as my major form of marketing.

Which I did, quite successfully.

However, when Amazon announced the introduction of the Kindle Unlimited program, I, like many authors, was very interested in how this new program would affect my income.

Now, after using the KU program for five months, I have come to a conclusion. The overall impact of the introduction of Kindle Unlimited has been negative for my books.

As a result, I decided to remove my series novels, Maids of Misfortune, Uneasy Spirits, Bloody Lessons, and my short story collection, Victorian San Francisco Stories, from KDP Select.

However, my experience may not be representative of what is happening for all authors, so I would like to share how I came to that decision. To that end I will:

1) Briefly evaluate why the strategy of keeping my books in KDP Select and using the Kindle Countdown promotional tool worked for most of 2014 (and might still work for your books.)

2) Describe what happened to my books when Kindle Unlimited was introduced.

3) Describe why I think the program had a mostly negative effect on my income.

4) List what strategies I intend on pursuing for 2015.

Continue reading

Dandy Detects is now an Audio Book

DD_audibleI am excited to announce that my first short story, Dandy Detects, is now available as an audio book on Amazon, Audible, and iTunes. I am trying a new narrator, Alexandra Haag, who I love, and I hope she will be able to do the rest of my work. But, ultimately it is the fans of the series who can tell me if Alexandra has captured the world of Annie Fuller, Nate Dawson, and the O’Farrell Street Boarding House.

The price for the audiobook is $3.95 (I don’t set the price and I know this seems steep for a short story—but it is cheap for an audio book—and it has already been discounted on Amazon to $3.45).

To encourage you all to give it a try I am giving out a limited number of free coupons—just send me a message at mlouisalocke@gmail.com.

M. Louisa Locke, February 22, 2014

pointing+hand+vintage+image+graphicsfairy2    Buy on AmazonAudible, and iTunes

 

Readers to Books/Books to Readers-Part Two: How to Sell Books in the Kindle Store with the Search Bar

In my tips for selling on Amazon, I suggested that authors should: “Think about selling from the buyer’s perspective.” In part one of this new series of posts, I addressed that issue in detail by examining the Kindle store from the reader’s perspective. Here, in part two, I describe some of the things that authors can do to make their books more visible to readers who use the Kindle store Search Bar to shop for books.

How to make the Search Box work for you

Just as authors have no control over which books vendors display in the front windows and on the display tables of their physical bookstores, so authors have little control over what books Amazon displays on the main Kindle Store Page. The one part of this first page that authors do have some influence over, however, is the search bar (found at the top of the screen.) Since many consumers have been trained by their use of Google and other web search engines to search for stuff using keywords, this is probably the most important place to start if you want to maximize a book’s discoverability.

Readers looking for a specific book or author:

For the reader who shops in the Kindle store and has a specific book or author in mind, their first step is to type in the author’s name or the book’s title into the search bar. Even when they don’t have the complete name or full title (or even the correct name or title), Amazon’s search engine is very good at finding the best possible matches. In fact, one of the things that distinguishes Amazon from other online retailers is how good its search engine is at delivering good matches even when the user searches using incomplete or inaccurate information. For example, if a reader is trying to find my book, Maids of Misfortune and puts “Maids” and “San Francisco” in the search bar, my book will show up. Or, if they put “Locke” and “Maids” into the search bar, my books will be the first match offered.

What the author can do to help ensure their books are found:

It is important for the author to realize that, as clever as Amazon’s smart search engine is, it can only work if it has good author-provided information to work with. Authors should therefore be consistent in how they provide Amazon with information when they (or their publishers or distributors) add their books to Amazon and the Kindle Store. For indie authors this means when they enter the information as part of the process of uploading a book into the Kindle Store through KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing).

It is particularly important to be consistent in how you enter your own name and the titles of your books. For example, if you use a middle initial for your author name on your book cover, use that middle initial on all of your book covers (and all editions). Make sure all editions of a book have identical titles. For example, don’t drop the subtitle from the print edition of your book, and don’t include a volume number for one book and omit the volume number for other books in the series. If you are consistent this will strengthen the chances your books will be found—and you won’t run the risk of confusing the reader—particularly if there are authors and books with similar names and titles.

You should also set up your Author page through Author Central, making sure that all of your books in all formats are listed on that page. Doing this correctly will ensure that, when a reader searches for your name, they will get a link to your Author Page as well as links to your individual books. By making sure your Author Page is complete––with a picture, short biography, and a list of all your books––you will make it easier for readers to identify that you are indeed the author they were looking for, and make it easy for them to see all your books––not just the specific books they know about.

Readers who are simply browsing for certain kinds of books:

Readers will also use the search bar to find books on specific topics or books of a particular type. Again the Amazon search capabilities are very helpful. Say, for instance, a reader is interested in a novel about the “Knights Templar”—and they put the words “Knights Templar” into the search bar. A drop down menu will come up with a list of suggestions. If they click on Knights Templar––historical fiction, they will see 147 books, all fiction.

What an author can do to ensure their books are found:

An author who has written an historical novel about the Knights Templar would obviously want to make sure that their books showed up on this list. There are two sure-fire ways to do this. First, put the words “Knights Templar” in the book’s title. Second, use “Knights Templar” as one of the 7 keywords (actually, key phrases) Amazon permits an author (or their publisher) to enter into the keywords field when uploading the book into the Kindle store through KDP.

There is also evidence that using keywords in the book’s product description helps—although using the keyword only in the description does not seem to help as much as entering it in the Keywords field. For example, I use the word “clairvoyant” in my product descriptions (but not in my titles or keyword list) and my books don’t show up if you put the word “clairvoyant” into the search bar. However, having a keyword in the product description in addition to having the same keyword in a title or among the designated keywords may push the book higher in the search-results list, which is ordered by “relevance.”

So, do what writers do best: chose your words wisely as you devise your title, write your product descriptions, and pick what 7 keywords you attach to your book when it is uploaded into the Kindle store. But, in the Kindle store context, this means doing some work to determine which keywords will most effectively match how your target audience will search for your book.

To do that, experiment by doing your own searches. Search for the keywords you think a reader might use if they were looking for a book like yours or books on a similar topic to your book. As you type in the search box, notice that Amazon provides “search suggestions” just below the search box. Look at those suggestions in the drop down menu below the Search Box and try clicking on options to see what you find.  Does your book show up? Are the books that do show up similar to yours?

For example, if I search for the phrase Victorian mysteries (words that are in my title, keyword list, and product description), my books show up in the top 25 books in the search results list. But, perhaps more importantly, the other books that show up near the top of list are very much like my own. They are also the books that usually show up in my “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” list of books (and my books show up in their “Customers Who Bought” lists as well). Since over 500 books show up in the search results for “Victorian mysteries,” readers who like Victorian era mysteries will find this a productive set of keywords to use each time they look for a new book or a new author to try, and I can feel confident that the keyword, “Victorian mysteries” is effectively targeting my audience.

Contrast this with the phrase “Gilded Age mysteries.” While this is an historically accurate term for the late Victorian era in the U. S., when you search the Amazon store using that phrase, the search results in a list of only 10 books, and a reader probably won’t bother to reuse that search. Therefore, I wouldn’t want to waste any of my 7 author-supplied “keywords” on that term.

Another example of the importance of testing keywords is what I discovered when I searched for the phrase  San Francisco mysteries. My books show up in the search results for that phrase because all three of my novels use the subtitle “A Victorian San Francisco Mystery.” So, even though I didn’t use “San Francisco” as one of my 7 keywords, my consistent use of the same phrase as a subtitle does mean that readers interested mysteries in that setting will find my books in this search.

However, most of the other books in the search results for “San Francisco Mysteries” are contemporary mysteries. And none of the books at the top of that search results list ever show up in my “Customers Who Bought” lists (nor do my books show up in theirs). This means that it doesn’t make sense to designate San Francisco as one of my precious 7 keywords. Does it mean I should get rid of San Francisco in my title? No, because I know from my reviews that the setting of the book is one of the things that attract readers once they see my book listed among the other historical mysteries.

A final piece of evidence for the importance of keywords is revealed by what books are missing from the Victorian mysteries search results list.

Anne Perry is the founding mother of Victorian mysteries with her Thomas and Charlotte Pitt series and her William Monk series. She is still publishing books, she is still selling well, (four of her books are currently on the historical mystery bestseller list) but only two of her books (out of her more than 60 Victorian mysteries) show up on the list that comes from putting “Victorian mysteries” into the search bar. Those two books are Christmas books that have “Victorian” and “mysteries” in their titles. Apparently, her publishers didn’t attach the keywords Victorian mystery to her books. When I discovered this, I then tried searching for “Victorian Crime” and “Victorian London” (terms that are used in some of her product descriptions), and “19th century mysteries” and “historical mysteries” to see if her books would show up in the search results, but none did. You can find her books if you search for the names of her protagonist—but that is because those names are in the books’ titles.

Now one could argue that an author like Anne Perry (whose books are publicized by her publishers, show up in the front of physical bookstores in the New Release tables, and are recommended by store clerks) doesn’t need to worry about whether or not her books show up when a reader puts “Victorian mystery” into the search bar on Amazon. But as more people do their shopping online, as more of the younger generation of readers get used to “browsing” online by using the search functions of Google or Amazon, then Anne Perry will be losing potential new readers because her publisher hasn’t bothered to attach the most obvious keywords to her books.

And what if you aren’t Anne Perry? Can you afford not to care if your books don’t show up when a reader looks for books like yours using keywords and the search bar? I wouldn’t think so.

As indie authors we may not have the clout of a publisher behind us to get our books listed in the Daily Deal and we may not have easy access to physical bookstores, but we do have the power to ensure that readers find our books when they put keywords into the search bar.

We also can use those keywords to help get our books into the right categories, which is the other main way readers discover books in the Kindle store. But that will be the subject for Part Three of this series on how to get readers to books and books to readers.

M. Louisa Locke, November 21, 2013

Readers to Books/Books to Readers––Part One: How to find Books in the Kindle Store

I have spent an enormous amount of time on this blog giving advice to authors on how they can get their books discovered by readers. But the other day, as I read a post by Mike Shatzkin entitled Finding your next book, or the discovery problem and fumed over his statement that looking for books online is more difficult than it is in a bookstore, I had an epiphany. If this man, who spends his life giving publishers advice on how to sell their books, doesn’t know some of the fundamentals of how readers can find books in an online bookstore, why am I assuming that the average reader has any better understanding of how to discover books in the Amazon Kindle Store? Maybe I have been preaching to the wrong group. Maybe, I should be directing my advice to readers, not just writers.

Even though research suggests that nearly half of all books (print, ebook, audiobooks) are bought online, the process of browsing in an online store is still new for most of us and it can be confusing. Except for the very young, most people who buy books are familiar with how to find them in physical bookstores. So I will begin by describing the experience of browsing in a brick and mortar bookstore—say my local Barnes and Noble––and then I will compare that to the experience of shopping online in the Kindle store.

In the process I will demonstrate that all the methods of finding books to read in a physical bookstore (staff recommendations, display tables, and shelves of books organized by broad categories) exist in the online Kindle store. However, in the Kindle store there are a variety of additional methods of finding a new book to read that don’t exist in physical stores, providing the potential for a shopping experience that can be much faster and more productive.

Not surprisingly, for the authors of books, understanding the different methods of discovering books in the Kindle store is the first step to figuring out how best to make sure their books will be discovered by these methods––which is what I will address in Readers to Books/Books to Readers––Part Two.

I will be focusing on browsing (rather than on looking for a specific title or author in either kind of store since this is an entirely different matter and much easier to do.)

Finding books in a physical bookstore:

As I come up to my local bookstore, I see books placed cover-side-out in the window––ready to catch my eye. These books tend to be newly released bestsellers or seasonal holiday books. When I get into the store (and ignore all the non-book items now for sale––items which are taking up an increasing amount of floor space), I immediately see display tables with labels like New Releases, Best Sellers, Discounted, Best Young Adult, Holiday Picks, etc.

What most customers don’t realize is that publishers pay for the right to get their books in the front window and on these front tables. So, by and large, these are the books publishers and bookstores think will most attract readers. They have literally invested a lot (of money or floor space) in making these books easy for everyone to find.

The next place where books are very visible is on the shelves around the walls of the store. These books are typically popular non-fiction and Literature and Fiction—the largest single category of books in the store. The back of the store is devoted to a children’s section with a mix of fiction and non-fiction books along with games, stuffed animals, and other merchandise for kids. I have noticed that my local bookstore has been devoting more space to this section over the past couple of years. Perhaps this is because children’s literature has proven more resistant to the move to ebooks than other literature.

The rest of the store (again not counting the Nook center and the expanding shelves of other non-book items) consists of standing shelves with numerous non-fiction headings (Travel, Humor, Self-Help, History, etc) and a few fiction headings (Teen and Young Adult, Mystery, Romance, and Science Fiction/Fantasy). Within these different categories, most of the books are shelved with their spine out (with just the title and author’s name visible) and are arranged alphabetically by author––although sometimes the new releases in a category are shelved together at the start of their category.

Unless I am on a mission to find a specific book, I will first browse the books on the front tables, which have books displayed so I can see the full cover. Although many people may find plenty of books to interest them on these tables and not venture into the rows of shelves, I generally move on past the tables fairly quickly since I am usually looking for paperbacks and trying to discover new authors; (the tables tend to be hardbacks and well-known, bestselling authors).

The first shelves I visit are the mystery shelves (my major form of light reading). I look at the new releases (which are hardbacks—so I don’t usually buy anything) and begin to browse these shelves. The only problem is I only like certain kinds of mysteries, for example, historical mysteries, British police procedurals, and mysteries with women sleuths. And if I want to find a new author, I have to guess by the title on the spine which books to pull out and see if the book might be in one of my preferred sub-genres.

When I find a book whose cover suggests it might be to my taste, I still need to read the blurb or the first few pages to be sure. This is time consuming and, as I try to go methodically through the shelves from A to Z, I seldom get through all the books in this section before I get frustrated because most of the books I have pulled out appear to be of sub-genres that I am less interested in: the talking cat, the serial killer, the hard-drinking private detective. I also notice that, as I age, bending over to check out the books on the bottom shelves gets harder and I am less inclined to do so. On a good day, I might find at least one book before I give up. As a result, the books on the bottom shelves and at the end of the alphabet never get a decent chance of being discovered by me.

The problem of finding a new author I like in a physical bookstore is even more frustrating with historical fiction––one of my other preferred genres. I can hope that I run across an historical mystery when I was making my way through the mystery shelves. Or I can go to the romance section—and try to figure out by the titles which of the books are historical romances. To make matters more difficult, most of the historical romances shelved in this section are strong on sex and weak on history, which means they aren’t what I am looking for. Covers or titles alone won’t tell you which is which because the cover of a sedate Georgette Heyer (my favorite) looks identical to a racy romance.

As a result, I am forced to go to where most straight historical fiction is shelved––in the large Fiction and Literature section. In this very large section there are no sub-genres identified and books are just shelved alphabetically by author’s last name. Gad Zooks! The work it would take to find a previously undiscovered work of historical fiction here is mind-boggling, and I simply don’t try very often.

I could ask a clerk for a recommendation, but in my experiences in large chain stores, the staff is most likely to know only the more popular bestselling authors in any genre––the ones I already know about. The clerks in small independent stores may be more able to make useful recommendations—beyond the bestsellers­­––which might be one of the reasons that in the past several years independent books stores are holding their own and even expanding compared to the chain stores.

In short, there are limited and often inefficient methods of finding new books to read in a physical bookstore––in stark contrast to the multiple ways of discovering books in the online Kindle store that I will expand upon below.

My description of how to find a book in the Kindle ebook store is based on the experience of shopping online on a computer using a web browser (in my opinion the best way to find books.) If you are using a Kindle device, the experience is slightly different but it is similar enough so that once you have the process down using the computer/web-browser approach it is pretty easy to figure out.

Finding books in the Kindle book store: 

When I first approach the Kindle Book store, the center and the right of the screen are filled with book covers under different headings, like New and Noteworthy, Post-Apocalyptic Sci-Fi, and Recommended for You. This is very similar to the front window and the display tables in a physical store and the specific categories change from time to time the same way a brick and mortar store window changes.

But, when I am logged in to Amazon, many of the groups of books displayed online have been selected by the fabled Amazon algorithms to catch my particular eye. Amazon uses my past visits to the Kindle store and my past purchases to determine what kinds of books I might want. This is different from a physical store’s window and better, in my opinion. Today the first books I saw were a book by one of my favorite science fiction authors, a book on self-publishing, and a work of historical fiction.

New displays of books will also appear magically if I move away from this screen and come back to it. For example a group of books entitled A Salute the Classics just appeared, and when I came back after lunch, there was a group labeled Popular Romance for under $2.99 and the Post-Apocalyptic display had turned into Dystopian Sci-Fi. It is as if a bunch of clerks, worried they hadn’t been able to find any books to tempt me, scurried around pulling new books off the shelves onto the display tables, hoping that when I came back to the store that I would find something this time I wanted.

These algorithm-inspired listings aren’t perfect––I share an account with my husband—so the recommended list also included a hard-boiled detective novel and a travel book. But I do find that they are more likely to strike my fancy than what I find on the tables of a physical bookstore.

If I am looking specifically for discounts, bestselling books, or experimental forms of fiction (short stories, fan fiction, etc), I have another list across the top of this first screen to choose from labeled “Big Deal,” “Daily Deal,” “Bestsellers,” “Editors’ Picks,” “Kindle Singles,” “Kindle Worlds,” “Kindle Serials.” Click on each of these and you get a whole new display of books to browse. As with the “front of the store” displays in physical bookstores, some of these books are on these lists because the publishers paid to have them featured, others are there because the Amazon editors have chosen to feature them.

For each of these books I can also see the price of the book, the number of reviews and average number of stars rated for each. Each of these bits of information can help me determine whether or not to click on the book to find the product description, reviews, or read the first pages of the book (the next step in deciding whether to buy.) This information, plus the sheer variety of books displayed at the “front of the store,” means that there are actually more chances that I will find a book to buy at this stage than when I browse in a physical book store display tables.

But what if I am looking for a particular kind of book—like a mystery or a work of historical fiction––and I don’t want to be limited to what the Amazon editors, publishing houses, or algorithms have picked out for me in the front of the Kindle store?

Well, as in the physical bookstore, there are shelves and shelves of books under different subject headings or categories. And these shelves can be found to the left of the first screen in the Kindle Store under the heading “Categories.” The headings are familiar to anyone who is used to looking in a physical store. There are broad non-fiction categories like Business and Technology, Religion and Spirituality, Travel, as well as the familiar fiction categories of Mystery/Thriller/Suspense, Romance, Teen and Young Adult, and Science Fiction/Fantasy, and that broad category, Literature and Fiction. However, when you click on any of those category links, the experience changes dramatically from browsing in a physical bookstore.

Let’s take mysteries. Remember how in the physical bookstore I only had the choice of a section of newly released mysteries and then everything else was shelved alphabetically by author’s name? Online in the Kindle store, when I click on Mystery/Thriller/Suspense, I get all kinds of new ways to find books.

1) I can look at the center screen that has changed to offer up different displays of books—all within the broad Mystery/Thriller/Suspense category of books––all chosen by the algorithms, Amazon editors, and publishing houses to tempt me.

2) I can go to the listing on the left of this screen and click on browse all, and I will get a list of all 124,218 books in the general Mystery/Thriller/Suspense category. (How do I know how many books are in this category? It says right at the top, just above the first book—but the number keeps just getting larger every day I check!) The books are initially ranked by a formula that determines those that are “new and popular.” In a drop down menu on the upper right I can also change the sorting of the books to order by price, average customer review, or publication date.

3) I can go back to the first screen and again look on the left, but instead of clicking Browse All I have a number of sub-genres to choose from, including: British Detectives, Collections and Anthologies, Cozy, Crime Fiction, Espionage, Hard-boiled, Historical, International mystery and crime, James Bond series, Mystery, Paranormal, Police procedurals, Private Investigators, Series, Suspense, Thrillers, Technothrillers, and Women Sleuths.

When I click on any of those sub-genres I get a list of books in that sub-genre. For example, since one of my favorite sub-genres is historical mysteries, if I click on Historical I will get a list of just under 4000 historical mysteries (again sorted by the “new and popular” listing). Today, Kate Atkinson’s Life after Life is listed first. Or I could sort by price (choosing low to high––with the books that are free in this group coming first.) Or I could sort by customer review, where a self-published book, To the Grave, with 412 reviews and a 4.7 out of 5 stars, is listed first.

Some of those sub-genres even offer you additional categories to choose from. For example, clicking on the category Cozy, you get a list of cozy books, but the category list on the left side of the screen now also shows cozy sub-genres: animals, crafts and hobbies, and culinary. Some of these sub-sub genres repeat categories. For example, if I click on the Mystery sub-genre link on the main Mystery, Thriller & Suspense page, I get some categories I have already seen––like Cozy or Historical––but I also see a couple of new ones like African American, Gay and Lesbian.

With each list of books, you again have the option of also sorting the list by price, average customer review, and date of publication. But that isn’t all. You can also “filter” books by moods and themes, characters, and settings. This filtering functionality is available on the left side of the screen below the categories; you will see various filters with check boxes beside each one. For example, looking at the list of historical mysteries—I can use the “filter” function to narrow the nearly 4000 books down to 500 that have “female protagonists” (listed under “Characters”). And I can filter using more than one filter at the same time. For example, I can check both “female protagonists” and “British Detectives” and get a list of 64 books with female protagonists and British Detectives. Needless to say this list is filled with books I have read and new authors I plan to check out!

4) At any point, with any list of books, I can also refine my browsing further by putting keywords in the search box at the top of the page. For example, if I enter “Ancient Rome” in the search box when I am looking at the main Mystery/Thriller/Suspense page, I will get a new list of 43 books; but if I enter that same search term when I am looking at the historical mystery list I will get 27 books. If I enter it for cozy mysteries I discover that there are no books categorized as Ancient Roman cozies (surprise, surprise). But if I enter the search term “quilts” while browsing the cozy mystery page, I get a list of 34 books that are cozy mysteries that feature quilts.

5) Finally, you can use most of these same browsing features to browse just Bestsellers (those books that have sold best in the Kindle estore in the past hour).  To do that, you start back at the beginning in the Kindle Store at http://www.amazon.com/Kindle-eBooks/ and click the “Kindle Bestsellers” link on the left side under Popular Features. You can then go through the same process described above to narrow your browsing to Bestsellers in a category such as historical mysteries. Here you only see the top 100 books in any chosen category. You cannot narrow your browsing within Bestsellers by using filters and searches, but you probably won’t need to since you are only seeing lists of 100 or fewer books. I have also just discovered that you can do a similar search if you click on the new Kindle Countdown Deals or Kindle Monthly Deals features. (Will Amazon never stop giving us more ways to find books?)

Conclusion:

This may seem overwhelming at first. But the bottom line is that if readers take the time to explore the browsing options available in the Kindle eBook store, they can learn how best to find the kinds of books they like to read, at the price they can afford. In the process they can discover books they would never have found in a physical bookstore.

I tend to start at method #5 above, searching Bestsellers (and there the list is divided between paid and free lists). I then click on Mystery/Thriller/Suspense then Mystery, then Historical. Then I look first at the free books to see if there are any to tempt me. (I recently discovered Donis Casey’s Alafair Tucker series and Priscilla Royal’s Medieval Mystery series this way and they have become two of my favorite series.) Then I go to the paid list. It seldom takes me more than a minute to find several books I want to download or buy, and I am done.

And here is something else: the books in these two series, although published by the reputable Poisoned Pen Press, are not found on the shelves of my local Barnes and Noble store. Even if the latest book in each series showed up on one their shelves (for the usual six weeks a mid-list book gets before being returned), and even I had found them (browsing alphabetically by author), it is unlikely that the first book in the series would have been available. Since I like to start reading a series at the beginning, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to try them. I didn’t have this problem when shopping online in the Kindle store. In the Kindle store, when you find a book that is part of a series, you can just click on the author’s name to see all their other books listed—and buy the book you want instantly. In a physical bookstore I would have had to go to the cashier and order the first book in the series—something I wouldn’t usually do for an unknown author.

In summary: All the methods of finding books to read in a physical bookstore (staff recommendations, display tables filled with NY Times bestsellers and books paid to be promoted by publishers, and shelves of books by broad categories) exist in the online Kindle ebook store. But in the Kindle store there are a variety of other methods of finding a new book to read that don’t exist in those physical stores, and you can design a strategy that works best for your own tastes.

In Readers to Book/Books to Readers-Part Two: Selling Books in the Kindle Store, I will discuss how writers, if they understand Part One, can do a better job of getting their books discovered. Meanwhile—go sign onto the Kindle store, try out your new tools for browsing, and buy a few books!

So, was all of this information new to you? If not, what strategy do you use to find the books you want in the Kindle store?  Do you find shopping online less rewarding, as rewarding, or more rewarding than shopping in a physical bookstore?

I really want to know!

M. Louisa Locke, November 5, 2013

Don’t Panic: KDP Select still works, you just might have to work it a little differently

I haven’t posted for awhile on any topic, including on indie publishing, but that is because I have been working steadily on writing Bloody Lessons, the third book of my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series (if you want an update on my progress go check out my facbook page.) I also felt I had pretty much exhausted what I had to say on the ins and outs and pros and cons of using KDP Select.

However, with the change in Amazon’s rules for Associates, a whole discussion has erupted about what this means for indie authors. See this balanced review of some aspects of the discussion. See, in addition, this good overview of the issues around free as a selling strategy and Amazon. One result of this change and subsequent posts about it is I have had a number of requests to comment on whether or not this means that free promotions and KDP Select won’t work as well any more.

The short answer is, how in heaven’s name do I know? But that isn’t very helpful so what I am going to do is remind people what I have written on this subject already, do a brief recap of how my last free promotion went, and try to predict some of the ways in which the most recent changes might require tweaking of my own (and other’s) strategies for using KDP Select. I also decided it was time to publish a list of Promotional Links, which I will try to keep up-to-date.

Posts I have already done: 

If you want to know everything I have written on this subject––put “KDP Select” in the search bar at the top of my website. Otherwise, go ahead and click on these posts I have done on selling on Amazon, the importance of Categories, and an update on this post, how to have a successful KDP Select promotion, and factors you should consider when deciding whether or not to enroll in KDP Select.

Update on my most recent KDP Select Promotion:

I put the first book in my series, Maids of Misfortune up for free through KDP Select for three days, February 23-25. This was two months since the last promotion, which was December 29-30 (where I put both of my books up for free). This time I didn’t put Uneasy Spirits up for free, although I did pay for a Digital Book Today 7-day promotion for this book for the week after the Maids of Misfortune promotion was over.

I signed up with eleven sites that promote free books (only two cost anything, Book Goodies and BookBub.) I have been trying to rotate through the free promotion sites with each promotion so as not to saturate their specific markets. Maids hit the magic top 100 Free List by noon the first day at #73. By the end of the first day I had reached #26 in the Free List and had over 8,000 downloads. On the second day, by 3:15 pm, when the BookBub email went out, the book was at #11 In the Free List and already had 22,000 downloads. By the end of day two it was #3 and had 28,000 free downloads. It stayed at #4 throughout the third day, and the total number of free downloads for the promotion was 37,086.

As you can see by the data below––the promotion was successful––in boosting my sales and   borrows, even of the book that wasn’t promoted.

Maids of Misfortune                                          Before             After

Average sales per day (over two weeks)          7.9                77.4

Overall Rank                                                   20,000s           2,000s (18 days after)

Uneasy Spirits

Average sales per day (over two weeks)          6.1                 22.3

Over all Rank                                                   26,000s           6,000s (18 days after)

Average Borrows per day (over two weeks)

Both Books combined                                       16                 59.9

The Future of KDP Select:

While I am not clairvoyant, I often pretend I am (something I share with my protagonist in my Victorian San Francisco mysteries), and I will say with some authority that KDP Select will not go away anytime soon, and Amazon will continue to work with and encourage self-published authors. While Amazon may have turned to indie authors (first with KDP, then with KDP Select) because they realized that depending on public domain books and traditional publishers wasn’t working, it was the indie authors themselves who proved to Amazon that they were both an outstanding source of the product Amazon needed and nimble innovators in the rapidly changing world of publishing.

Indie authors not only began to produce books at an amazing rate (as backlists were republished, manuscripts like my own were taken out of drawers, and genre writers began to pump out 2-4 books a year), but we also proved leaders in the changes that were going on in publishing, proving the viability of new short forms of fiction (novellas, short stories, serialized novels) and experimenting with new marketing techniques (using discounts, free promotions, blog tours, giveaways, twitter, facebook author pages, etc). Our books and our innovation helped fuel the heady growth of ebooks in a short period of time.

For example, from the beginning, Amazon’s royalty structure, which gave the 70% royalty rate only to books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, was challenged by indie authors like Amanda Hocking, who proved that the volume of sales you could make at 99 cents could make up for the lower 35% royalty rate. Amazon made money (and kept a bigger chunk of the money), and Hocking got her traditional contract (and paved the way for the idea that traditional publishers––including the new Amazon imprints––might find their next bestselling authors from among the ranks of the self-published.)

Then came KDP Select. If you will all remember, when Amazon introduced its first Kindle Fire, one of the selling points was that if you were a member of Amazon Prime you could download one free book a month. Initially Amazon had targeted traditional publishers (who––as with the whole ebook thing––ran away, screaming bloody murder), so once again they had to turn to indie authors to provide the product they needed to make the Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL) effective. However, while this is pure speculation on my part, by the end of 2011 (when KDP Select was set up) they were beginning to be concerned by the way that other booksellers (Barnes and Noble, Kobo, etc) were tapping into the ebook market so they came up with the exclusivity clause. If a book is in KDP Select it can not be sold anywhere else.

They needed a way to induce indie authors to go exclusive, and, besides creating the pool of money to be shared by KDP Select authors whose books were borrowed, they threw in the 5 free promotion days, having learned from indies that free promotions could sell books. In fact, a growing number of authors who had now published their back lists (or were very prolific in self-publishing lots of books a year) had discovered that if they made their books free on Smashwords, Amazon would price match. They had also proven that a free book that was the first in a series, or a free short story, could drive up sales for their other books. No doubt, seeing this trend, Amazon thought that the chance to put up your book for free, for a limited time for promotional reasons, would be a good inducement to get indies to sign up. Which we did, to great success in the first months of KDP Select’s existence.

But there was an unintended consequence. New kindle owners loved free and were gobbling these free books up at an amazing rate. And, since initially a free downloaded copy counted as a sale, the books that had been free dominated the best-seller categories, pushing the traditionally published books into invisibility. I am sure the traditional  publishers complained, and I suspect that since indie books are by-in-large cheaper than traditionally published books this was not seen as a good thing in terms of profits for Amazon. The truth of the matter is that KDP Select and free promotions pushed the ebook environment from a level playing field for indies to giving them an unfair advantage within the Kindle store. Hence the changes to the algorithm counting downloads as sales and other tweaks to the formula that determined where a book is ranked on the popularity lists.

This was not the first time that some indie authors rent their garments and claimed that Amazon had turned its back on indies, and it certainly discouraged some authors from using KDP Select. However, while it became more difficult to translate your free promotions into high enough visibility to sustain sales afterwards, indies and those who supported indies again innovated, and a whole bunch of facebook pages, book bloggers, and websites popped up to advertise free promotions. The data above, from my last promotion, shows that KDP Select promotions remained a viable way of improving visibility and sales.

Again, however, unintended consequences caused Amazon to make the changes to their Amazon Associates because they were shelling out substantial amounts of money to websites that were primarily promoting free books. Again, the goal wasn’t to discourage indie authors, or even free books, but to direct the Associates program back to its original goal, encouraging people to go to Amazon to buy things.

So what does this mean for the future? First of all, a few of these promotion sites will go away, a larger percentage will start to charge for promotions––like BookBub.com does (to make up the revenue loss if they stop using Associates links), and others will begin to promote primarily cheap and discounted books rather than free.

If you look at the Promotional Links I have listed, you will see that there are still a significant number available, even after the Amazon change. And, one of my friends just put her book, A Provencal Mystery, up for free  in KDP Select (breaking through into the top 100 by noon the first day and getting over 24,000 free downloads in two days) so I think we can safely say these promotional sites are still doing their job.

However, I do think that as indie authors we need to continue to innovate. Here is what I plan to do––I would love to hear from the rest of you what your strategies are.

Have free promotions less frequently. I had already noticed a growing tension between my reliance on free promotions to keep my books visible (agonizing when 30 days from the last promotion had passed and my books began to drop in the rankings and then lose sales) and the law of diminishing returns (if I offered the book free too frequently, the promotions were less successful.)

Then the success of BookBub.com (as the promotion site that has been delivering the highest number of downloads) forced me to make a change since they won’t feature a book more than every 90 days or an author more than every 30 days. Because of these limitations, my most recent promotion of Maids of Misfortune came two months after my last promotion (and three months after my last BookBub promotion.) I don’t think it is a coincidence I had more downloads than ever, with the strongest post sale bump since last March (and the infamous Amazon algorithm change.)

Longer promotions are safer. I used to suggest that authors not put their books up for free for longer than two days at a time (based on the idea of doing several promotions in the three-month contractual period under KDP Select.) But now that you need to get more downloads to achieve a post sales bump (see the amusing post by Elle Lothlorien), you need to consider how long it is going to take your particular book, in its specific genre, to reach enough downloads. I would do at least a two-day promotion if you have been able to get accepted by BookBub, three days if you don’t but have your book in categories that do well in free promotions and have a strong number of reviews, and maybe the full five days if your book is new, doesn’t have a lot of reviews, or is in a tiny niche market.

Schedule promotions near the end of a month. I started to notice that my borrows are always the strongest the first few days of every month so it is helpful to have my books as high as possible in bestseller lists at the beginning of the month. March 1-3 (three days after my last promotion ended) 394 of my books were borrowed. This helps maintain visibility as well since the borrows appear to be counted as sales.

Do more 99 cent promotions. For awhile, 99 cents was considered ‘dead’ as free books began to dominate as the main method of promotion, but just last week, for the first time, a self-published book hit #1 on NYT Bestseller list (with a 99 cent book). What I plan to do is experiment more with combining a 99 cent sale with a free promotion, or doing a 99 cent promotion to help maintain visibility during those longer times between free promotions.

Experiment more with promotions that are not tied to free or discounting my books. I don’t know for certain whether or not having a week-long promotion of Uneasy Spirits on the heels of the Maids free promotion has helped keep its sales up, but as more of the sites on the list I have compiled switch to non-free promotions, there will be certainly some of them that will turn out to be successful. BookBub can charge high rates they have demonstrated that they consistently deliver enough post promotion sales to more than make up for their cost. I expect that new marketing strategies will emerge in the next few months that are not dependent on free promotions.

Write more books and short stories. I know, I know, this is not a new strategy. But I know that the time I was taking to do free promotions every month was taking away from my writing time. The launch of a new book or short story (like a free promotion), if done correctly, can bump up sales and visibility of your other books, and it can take the sting away from those months between free promotions when your sales drop.

In short, I predict that as long as free promotional days in KDP Select deliver increased post promotion sales and borrows, Amazon has no reason to get rid of them, particularly if this is the main way to get authors to sign an exclusivity contract. And, as long as indie authors continue to produce books and stories that sell and provide new innovative ways to promote those books, the partnership between KDP Select and indie authors will continue.

What do you think?