Marketing Strategy for 2016: There I go, Pivoting Again

R.D._Hubbard_and_Co._(3093755038)Apropos of one of my 2016 resolutions—to stay nimble when it comes to marketing—I have once again changed my primary marketing strategy for the first part of 2016.

In 2014, my main strategy rested on having my series of Victorian San Francisco mysteries in KDP Select and doing monthly 99 cent promotions of each book through the Kindle Countdown tool provided for books in KDP Select. With no new book out that year, this strategy did a great job at keeping the three books in my series visible and selling. Then, in the summer of 2014, when Amazon introduced the subscription service Kindle Unlimited, I found this strategy no longer served my books as well as it had.

That was when I decided to switch strategies for 2015. See Time for a Pivot: Kindle Unlimited and Marketing in 2015 for my reasons for shifting my books out of KDP Select to offer them in most major ebookstores while making the first book in the series perma-free and Pivot Post Update for details on the success of this change in strategy.

However, towards the end of 2015, I began to see two new trends in terms of my sales on Amazon. The number of downloads of my perma-free book began to slow, even with a second BookBub promotion, and the sell through rate to the other books was weaker.

I agreed with the analysis put forward by other indies that the promotional opportunities for books in Kindle Unlimited had changed the playing field, making it more difficult for independently published books not in KU to compete for visibility—at least in my categories.

The majority consensus among indies currently appears to be that the only way to fight this trend is to keep your books wide (in numerous books stores) in order to compensate for the loss of income on Amazon.

However, those authors who swear by this “going wide” strategy tend to be authors who are putting out five or more books a year—often fairly short books—and are able to use these frequent launches and the pre-order system to keep their books visible in all bookstores.

They also seem to be authors who have been successful in establishing relationships with representatives from other bookstores. I know from my own on-going experience with a representative from KDP how invaluable that kind of personal relationship with—say a rep from Apple, or Kobo, or Nook­­­––can be in getting promotional opportunities.

Yet, I noticed that a number of authors were saying (often quietly since they were usually in the minority on discussion threads) that the introduction of what was being dubbed KU2 (paying for pages read) was helping increase their Kindle income substantially…more than enough to compensate for having their books exclusive with Amazon (a condition for having a book in KDP Select—and therefore KU).

I was intrigued by this information, in part because I am lucky to get a book out every 2 years (so the frequent launches and pre-order strategy wasn’t going to work for me the way it was working for other authors who were keeping their books out of KDP Select. I also wasn’t looking forward to doing the networking I would need to do to get those special promotional opportunities that would expand my books’ visibility in non-Amazon bookstores. So, I began to think about switching strategies again.

This fall I decided that I would experiment by putting two of my books back into KDP Select (books three and four of the series) and shifting back to doing free rather than 99 cent Kindle countdown promotions of those books.

In October, with Bloody Lessons and Deadly Proof back in KDP Select, I had a BookBub free promotion for Deadly Proof . The result was I made the single highest monthly income from Kindle that I have made in years. The promotion increased my sales of all the books in the series , with the total income from Kindle sales going up four-fold over the previous month. Not insignificantly, over half of that income came from the “pages read” of Bloody Lessons and Deadly Proof in KU.

The very length of my books became an asset when they are borrowed through Kindle Unlimited. If a person reads the entire book, I earn nearly what I earn from an outright sale of the book, and the “borrow” boost’s the book visilibity. I found that my increase in income for these two books in KDP Select more than compensated for the income I lost by not having them in the other bookstores.

I subsequently put books one and two (Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits) back into KDP Select as well and I am having a free BookBub promotion of Uneasy Spirits January 20-22 that I hope will have a similar impact on my sales.

But this is not a permanent shift in strategies. Once Pilfered Promises, the fifth book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series is completed (spring or summer of 2016), I intend to shift back to having the series be available everywhere, with the first book perma free. This will permit fans of the series who do not use Kindles or the Kindle app to buy the new book (and any of the books that come before it that they haven’t bought yet).

As should be obvious by now (if you aren’t suffering from whiplash following my different pivots), I believe that when it comes to marketing there should be no hard and fast rules. What works in certain seasons, for certain books, at certain stages in the life cycle of a book can vary. And just when I think I have found what works, the publishing landscape can and will change, and my strategies change accordingly.

What stays the same is my commitment to writing the best books I can and doing the best job I can to help them get discovered by the readers I think will enjoy them.

What is the main marketing strategy you plan to purse in 2016? Is it any different than your strategies for 2015? Let me know. In sharing there is strength!

M. Louisa Locke, January 8, 2015

The unexpected effect of the “perma free” strategy on my productivity

dreamstime_m_42093656In a post entitled Time for a Pivot? I detailed a shift in my marketing strategy for 2015. In 2014, all my books were in Amazon’s KDP Select (which requires exclusivity) and I used the 99 cent Kindle Countdown KDP Select tool as my primarily form of promotion. In December 2014 I took all my books off of KDP Select in order to sell them in a variety of bookstores (Apple, Nook, Kobo, GooglePlay), and for these first six months of 2015 I have been using the perma free strategy (making Maids of Misfortune, the first book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series, permanently free) as my major promotional tool. I also committed to writing more short stories, getting audiobook editions out for the next two novels in my series, and writing a short story for a new science fiction collaborative project called the Paradisi Chronicles.

While the table below demonstrates that this shift in strategy worked—in terms of maintaining my monthly income—the unintended consequence and perhaps the most important positive outcome from my shift in strategies is revealed in the last row of the table. My writing productivity quadrupled.

January to June 2014          January to June 2015
1 4 books on sale all in Select 5 books not in KDP Select 1 perma free
2 Total Sales and Borrows 21,200 13,626
3 Ave per month 3,500 2,200
4 Total royalties $36,000 36,500
5 Ave per month $6000 $6000
6 Free books 10,000 129,000
7 Promotions 5 KC (including 2 BookBub) and 1 Free promotion 1 BookBub of permafree book
8 Words written 2 short stories 18,000 words Draft of novel 85,000 words

How did this happen?

First of all, let’s look at the numbers. In the first six months of 2014, I had three novels for sale as ebooks (Maids of Misfortune, Uneasy Spirits, and Bloody Lessons) and a boxed set of those books, with print editions for the novels, and an audible edition of Maids of Misfortune.

In the first six months of 2015, I had three novels for sale (Uneasy Sprits, Bloody Lessons and Deadly Proof––the 4th book in my series), Victorian San Francisco Stories (a collection of short stories) and my boxed set. I also now had audio book editions of Uneasy Spirits, Bloody Lessons, and Victorian San Francisco Stories. This meant that even with the loss of the ebook version of Maids of Misfortune as a source of paid income, I had two more ebooks available for sale and several more audio books as a source of income.

Second, while I had lost the income I was getting in 2014 from borrows from KOLL (Kindle Online Lending Library) because none of these books were in KDP Select in 2015, I had picked up sales from Apple, Nook, Kobo, and GooglePlay that made up for that loss of income. For example, January thru June 2014 (before the Kindle Unlimited subscription service was started by Amazon) I averaged 370 borrows a month from KOLL — about $700 a month in income. For 2015, with none of my books making money from borrows, I made on average $1000 a month (which included sales in the Apple, Nook, Kobo, and GooglePlay stores as well as the Kindle store).

Third, while I sold more books in the first six months of 2014 than in 2015 (see rows 2 & 3), a lot of those books were discounted to 99 cents as part of Kindle Countdown promotions (my main promotional tool in 2014). This explains why I was getting the same income for selling fewer books (averaging 1,300 fewer a month in 2015; see rows 3, 4 & 5). In 2015, I was giving away a lot more of copies of one title (see row 6), but I was also selling all my other titles at full price.

Which leads to the fourth and main point. Those Kindle Countdowns took time. As you can see from row 7, in 2014 I did a promotion every single month. And while this strategy produced more book sales, promotions took a lot of my time — which I could have used for writing. I had to schedule each promotion a month in advance, often with multiple promotional sites. The week the book was on sale, I engaged in daily activity on social media to further the promotions, and in order to determine the profitability of each sale, I spent additional time in record keeping to track average sales before, during, and after the sale.

While the time I spent in 2014 yielded income, it also meant that I only got two short stories written during that six-month month period (a total of only 18,000 words). In contrast, in 2015 I spent much less time on promotions. I had a one-day Book Bub promotion of my perma free book, Maids of Misfortune in January and I ran several Facebook ads for that book whenever the number of downloads per day fell. That’s all.

And the short story in the Paradisi Chronicles I said I wanted to write? It became Between Mountain and Sea, a full-length novel (85,000 words) that I wrote between February and June of this year. A much higher rate of productivity and an unexpected bonus from my shift to the perma-free strategy for my series.

So, have any of you authors noticed perma-free freeing up your writing time? If so let me know.

And for the rest of you, why don’t you go and check out Between Mountain and Sea, the fruits of my greater productivity, which is now available for pre-order. You will notice this book is in KDP Select because I am anxious to see how the new “payment by pages finished”​ process of Kindle Unlimited works. Stay tuned!

M. Louisa Locke, July 21, 2015

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

Is Kindle Countdown the new Free? Keeping books visible in 2014

Rory_sketch_-_confusedFor the past year there has been a good deal of hand-wringing over the question of KDP Select free promotions. Have they de-valued fiction, do they attract negative reviews, do they even work anymore? As anyone who regularly reads my blog posts knows, I have been a strong proponent of offering ebooks free for promotional purposes, and free promotions have been very good to me in terms of increasing my reviews and keeping my books visible and selling.

However, I also believe one of the distinct advantages we have as indie authors is our ability to use our own sales data to respond innovatively to changes in the marketing environment. As a result, in the past year I followed a number of different strategies to keep the books in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery series visible, including beginning to experiment with the new promotional tool, the Kindle Countdown, that has been introduced as part of KDP Select.

In this post I am going to:

A.  Review how successful the strategies I pursued last year were for selling books in 2013.

B.  Address whether or not Free is failing as a strategy.

C.  Compare the Kindle Countdown promotions to Free promotions.

D.  Assess whether or not Kindle Countdown promotions can replace free-book promotions as my primary promotional strategy for 2014.

Continue reading

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?