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

“It’s a Dandelion Thing:” Social Media and Marketing

At the Digital Minds Conference held before the 2013 London Book Fair, Neil Gaiman  made a speech where he asked the question: “How do we make ourselves heard in a world of too much information?” His answer: We rely on becoming dandelions.

626px-Dandelion_seed_dispersalGaimen went on to say: “…the model is try everything. Make mistakes. Surprise ourselves. Try anything else. Fail. Fail better. Succeed in ways we would never have imagined a year ago or a week ago. I think it’s time for us to be dandelions willing to launch a thousand seeds and lose 900 of them if a hundred or even a dozen survive and grow and make a new world.”––Neil Gaiman, Transcript of Speech at Digital Minds Conference for London Book Fair 2013

I love this image of the dandelion and its seeds, and it helped me frame what I wanted to say about my particular strategies regarding marketing and social media.

Like most committed indie authors, I have read innumerable blog posts about how to use social media to sell my work. I have read that I must blog, use facebook, pinterest, tumblre, google+, linkedin, stumbleupon, and reddit, among other things, (don’t you just love some of those names?). I have read that if I am going to blog I should do it daily, with short pieces, and lots of pictures, that I should tweet at least 5 times a day, but never actually promote my own books through twitter, that I should get involved on GoodReads groups but never engage in BSP (blatant shameless promotion), that I should take blog tours, that I should… Well you get the picture. I have also read that I shouldn’t do any of the above, but I should just write more books.

My conclusion after several years of reading about social media is that there are countless paths to getting your work visible through social media, and that there are no guarantees that any particular path is going to work, or assurance that the paths that work today will still be effective next month, or next year. Myspace anyone?

I think this is why I resonated so much to Gaimen’s speech and his exhortation to experiment and to do so with the expectation that many, if not most, of our efforts will, like dandelion seeds, fail to take root. This reflects my own experience and my own temperament as an indie author.

For example, when I started my blog, I called it my Front Parlor, thinking this was a clever way to establish a brand for my planned series of Victorian San Francisco Mysteries. I expected this blog to be the main path to finding the audience of potential readers for my historical fiction. Instead, my posts turned out to attract mainly an audience of other authors, who are probably quite mystified by that “Front Parlor” reference.

In addition, contrary to the perceived wisdom that successful blogs need frequent, short posts accompanied by pictures, it is my long, infrequently posted, picture-less blog pieces on topics like choosing the right categories, KDP Select, and marketing that keep being read, linked to, and commented on. For example, my first post on the importance of choosing categories has been read by over 10,000 people.

450px-20090425_Leeuwergem_(0004)Seeds were sown, and took root, just not the ones I had planned on. Sort of like planting tulips and getting tomato vines instead.

But, that doesn’t mean I have given up on tulips. I am trying to include more and more historical posts that will be of interest to readers, not just writers, but only time will tell if those historical posts bear fruit. (I know, I know, tulips don’t bear fruit, but I never met a mixed metaphor I didn’t like.)

Twitter, on the other hand, is not a place where my seeds flourish much at all. 140 characters? I can’t write a blog piece under 2000 words, how am I expected to say anything in 140 characters? I used twitter when I first signed up to find bloggers who seemed to be writing interesting pieces on ebooks and self-publishing, and I still use twitter as a way of letting my own followers know when I write a blog piece, find an interesting article by someone else, or to help cross-promote my own and my friends’ books. But my number of followers is relatively small, the percentage of my followers who retweet my tweets is miniscule, and most of those who do, are fellow authors, not the people reading my books. Again, as with my blog, I haven’t found twitter a fertile place to connect with fans or potential fans of my work. And, as most bloggers seem to agree, for social media to work there has to be a sense of personal connection.

On the other hand, most of my seeds on GoodReads seem to grow on their own. I have my author page, I gladly accept anyone who wants to be a friend, and I find the giveaways useful in letting people know when a new book is out. But in most cases, it is readers themselves who sow my seeds. Without my asking, they put my books on their shelves and review them. For example, Maids of Misfortune has been rated by 755 people and 944 people have it on their too-read list, which feels like a nice lush garden, just not sown by me.

In fact, the dandelion metaphor really works well when considering my activities on sites like GoodReads, Shelfari, or LibraryThing, or the various genre specific sites like Historical Fiction Mysteries, Cozy Mystery.com, or sites that feature indie authors like Awesome Indies, or indieBrag, or the numerous book bloggers. I am willing to sign up, get my books listed, offer an occasional post, give an interview, scatter some of those dandelion seeds. What I don’t do is spend time cultivating them so they must take root on their own if they are to survive.

Time is the big factor here. For example, GoodReads members don’t want authors to pop into group discussions just to promote their books. They want authors to engage in conversations over the books or topics they are discussing. Yet, at this point in my writing career, I can’t find the time to read the books that are being discussed on groups like Historical Fictionistas. So any activity on my part on these groups would be inauthentic. I can scatter seeds in lots of places, but I haven’t the time to really cultivate them in most of the places they land.

For me, that sense of authentic connection has only come recently, and I am as surprised as anyone that it has come on Facebook.

As a good little indie author, even before I set up a website, I signed up for a private Facebook page. I loved that I found old high school friends and acquaintances (who were some of the first to buy Maids of Misfortune when it came out––thank you all!) I still enjoy the fact that I often know what my nieces and their children are up to before my sister-in-law does because I check out Facebook several times a day. But any fans who wander onto this site aren’t going to hear much from me of interest on a day-to-day basis. I am too private (or maybe just too long-winded) to burble on during the day about my daily affairs, I don’t really think that other writers or fans want to see too many pictures of my grandchildren (adorable though they may be.), and it seems inconsiderate to impose too much of my writing business on friends and family. So some seeds do grow there, but again, not with much cultivation on my part.

However, several months ago, when I started to report my word count on the author Facebook page I had set up, I discovered my seeds were falling on very fertile ground and I didn’t mind cultivating them.

My author Facebook page is where the most vocal fans of my series seemed to show up. It was here that I would get questions about when the next book in my Victorian San Francisco mystery series was going to show up. So, several months ago I decided if I announced how many words I had written (or if I wrote at all) in a day to people who actually cared about the new book being published, I would try harder to put my writing first. And it worked. I spent more days writing and I spent more hours per day, and in two months I wrote 76,000 words and completed the first draft.

In addition, in order to make these updates more interesting, I began talking about the research I was doing and linking to websites about historical places, events, and people that were relevant. I even found a way to use Pinterest when I discovered I could easily link my updates to picture I had pinned (without worrying about copyright-since the picture was linked back to its origins.)

And people, people who were not just other authors, responded. They cheered me on when I had a high word count, and they consoled me when I didn’t. They commented on the links and added their own, and they shared personal stories. That personal connection that I had been missing on twitter, my blog, and GoodReads was suddenly there.

KONICA MINOLTA DIGITAL CAMERAI have no idea whether the seeds I am sowing on this Facebook page will have any significant effect on future sales. For all I know, everyone who has participated would have gone out and bought the next book anyway. But that doesn’t matter because I just enjoy going out every day and looking at all the pretty splashes of yellow in that particular field.

And when you come down to it, isn’t that what it is all about. Writing the books, telling the stories, and basking in the knowledge that other people have enjoyed sharing with you the worlds you have created.

Now all you authors, do tell me where you have scattered your seeds, and where you have found they have taken root most successfully. And for the readers among those reading this post, where have you found the most satisfying personal connections to the authors you love?

In case you are interested, Maids of Misfortune, the first book in my Victorian San Francisco Mystery Series will be free on Kindle May 25-26, 2013.

Why DIY Publishing is not a Dead End

This morning I read a post by Anderson Porter about a four-piece article written a few weeks in the Boston Phoenix by Eugenia Williamson, entitled The dead end of DIY publishing. I had read the Williams piece earlier, and the more than fifty comments, which in my opinion had done a more than adequate job of pointing out its problems. But when Anderson seemed to accept much of her analysis, and labeled the comments as “the usual pitchfork-waving, spittoon-dinging dismissals, I found myself spending the rest of the morning writing a reply. When I finished, I thought I ought to expand abit, and post what I had to say as a blog, thereby at least justifying a morning lost to writing on my next book. So here goes:

I am a DIY self-published author, who found Williamson’s piece upsetting because it did what so many other pieces have done, alternated between describing self-published authors as a group in dismissive terms and using some of the most unrepresentative examples to prove its points. I am not going to argue that traditional publishing is dead, or that self-publishing is the best or only route for every author to take, but what I am going to do is give you my reasons why I don’t believe that self-publishing is a dead end.

Williams is making 3 points: That publishing is not profitable, that when it is, it is not because of merit, and that it can not provide “the equivalent of research and development: the nurturing of young writers with a first book of short stories as well as critically worthy mid-list authors provide the equivalent of research and best sellers paid for.”

For example, in Williamson’s article she has as a heading the statement: SELF-PUBLISHING ISN’T PROFITABLE, OR MERITOCRATIC. I don’t know how you would interpret this, but I read it to mean that if you self-publish you won’t make money, and if you are successful it isn’t because of the value of the work you produce. As a self-published author who is successful (in this my 3rd year as an author the income I am making per month in sales is well over what I made as a full time history professor), I naturally found the first part of the statement inaccurate and the second point insulting.

Her proof of the first statement is that for every Konrath there are thousands who don’t make any money. This is a meaningless statement since, while I am sure it is true, it is equally true that for every Steven King there are perhaps hundreds of thousands of traditionally published authors who make no money. Writing, at least until now, is not profitable for the vast majority of the people who engage in this activity. If she really wanted to make a statement that added to the discussion, she should have said that self-publishing was less profitable than traditional publishing for the majority of authors. But she can’t say this, not just because the systematic data comparing the two doesn’t exist, but because the increased number of traditional authors who are choosing to self-publish would argue that the statement was untrue.

Since she can’t prove her statement that self-publishing is unprofitable, she instead feels the need to insult those people who do it by suggesting that the authors don’t care if they make money because they “wouldn’t make a dime because no publisher would take them,” or that if they make money, it was only because they had the money to invest in the process because the “truth is self-publishing costs money.”

Then she picks one of the least representative examples of a self-published author she could find–De La Pava to prove this point. Here is an author who published a book and “forgot about it.” How unrepresentative is that! And she mentions that he spent thousands of dollars, which sounds like he used an “authors services” package. If she had either done her research or wanted to paint a balanced view of self-publishing surely she would have taken the time to interview one of the hundreds of self-published authors she could find on the internet (we blog incessantly about our experiences), and mentioned that Smashwords, Amazon’s KDP, and Barnes and Noble’s PubIt, and Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lightening Source have made it possible for authors to publish without that large initial investment.

But no, she doesn’t do that, instead she tries to use this author to make the point that there is no meritocracy in self-publishing because this particular author was successful because he had good luck. The implication is that success has nothing to do with the work an author puts into the writing of the book, or the marketing of the book, or the judgment of the readers, hence the idea that those who are successful don’t “merit” the success. If Williamson had spent just a few hours reading the blogs of self-published authors she would see how much time is being spent on the craft of writing, on learning how to design better books, inside and out, on how to most effectively promote, and on actual promotion, and she might have been able to see how little luck has to do with it.

Finally there is her third point that self-publishing doesn’t nurture young authors through the provision of advances or research and development possibilities the way traditional publishing does. Porter (and many of the authors who commented on the article) pointed out the problem with her assumption that traditional publishing uses its bestseller profits to nurture their midlist authors, so I won’t belabor this point. What I will argue is, that if we are discussing fiction, which Williamson seemed to be doing, the nurturing that authors need the most is a steady predictable income so that they don’t have to work full time at something else, and the research and development they need is marketing data that they can then use to develop new strategies for getting their work to the reader and getting that reader to buy their work.

If you compare the traditional to the self-publishing model, the self-publishing model is anything but a dead end. For the traditionally published author, small advances, spread over 3 or 4 payments, and royalties, that only come 2-4 times a year, mean that most authors have a very insecure and spotty income. It is hard to take the leap to leave your “day job” when your money comes in dribs and drabs and you don’t know from year to year what you are going to make.

In contrast, as a self-published author I see my sales daily, I get my checks monthly, I have sales data for 2 1/2 years and can tell you which months I will make the most money, and which months the sales dip, so I can make my fiscal plans accordingly. Within a year of publishing my first novel, I was making enough money monthly to replace my part-time teaching salary (I was semi-retired), and I retired completely to write full time. As with most small businesses, it may take authors who self-publish years to grow their business to the point of making a living, but I am hearing many more stories of authors finding this sort of sustainable income than I ever heard from mid-list authors in traditional publishing. And with more income coming from ebooks, which don’t have the short life span of print books, this income has a much longer impact on an author’s financial security.

I have every reason to expect that the two books I have published will continue to sell, and that as I publish more books, my income will go up. My traditionally published friends know that in most cases they will never make any money after the advance, and they have no guarantee that the next book they write will ever be published. Which vision of the future would you find more nurturing?

Williams says that if traditional publishing disappeared the only books published would be by those with “the money and the time to publish and promote it.” But if she had done adequate research she would have seen that the initial investments in self-publishing are generally small (mine was $250 for a cover) and can be recouped quickly, and only a small percentage of future profits need to be plowed back into the business on a yearly basis (upgrade websites, professional editing, etc.), and you don’t need to even do that to get out another book, which can then double your earnings.

And for fiction, research and development should mean researching the market and developing good promotional strategies. But again, traditional publishing doesn’t do a very good job of this for most authors. Traditional publishers are just starting to talk about shifting their marketing focus from book sellers to book readers, and most authors are still expected to come up with their own marketing campaigns based on extremely limited data and often years-out-of-date information about where and how their books are selling. Even if they get direct feedback from their fans, they have little control over covers, interior formatting, pricing or promotions. So even if they did their own research, they don’t have authority or mechanisms to use that information to improve the product.

In contrast, because I know every day how many books sold, in what venue, I can mount a promotion, change a price, upload a book into a new book store, and know instantly what the effect of these actions are. I can change a book cover, go in and correct formatting errors instantly, not wait until another edition is printed (if ever). And, as I write my next book, I can take into consideration what 100s of my readers have said in their reviews, not what an editor says based on limited marketing analysis of my mid-list genre.

Just three years ago when I started, it was very difficult to get any information on how other authors were doing with their sales. (Which is why Konrath’s willingness to publish his sales data was so revolutionary!) While there might have been a top down mentoring system among agents, editors and successful authors, there wasn’t the vibrant community that now exists among authors that is open to all. Self-published authors share information readily about what promotions worked and what didn’t. We share information about sales data, how to over come formatting difficulties, what covers work, what fonts to use, and promotional strategies. We open up our blogs to guest reviewers, form cooperatives for cross-promotional purposes. Self-publishing welcomes writers of any age, any background, who write about every subject in every form. Any time spent online looking in Barnes and Noble or Amazon’s stores, or reading writers’ blogs demonstrates that authors are experimenting more than ever before. Short stories, novellas, graphic novels are being published and read that would never have made it through the narrow gates of traditional publishing, which tended to strain out anything that deviated from the recent bestseller trend.

Will some authors fail, or be disappointed? Of course. Will some of these experiments prove unsuccessful, certainly. But, without self-publishing these authors wouldn’t have gotten the chance to fail, and many others, like myself, a former academic in her sixties, wouldn’t have ever gotten the chance to succeed.

I would love to hear from those of you who have had experience with both traditional and self-publishing and examples of nurturing you found in both.

Surfing the waves of indie publishing and trying not to care if I fall off

Until recently, the narrative I had constructed about my life was that I was a bit of an under-achiever, generally risk-adverse, and very comfortable in a supporting role in life’s events. I learned early on to work hard enough to fulfill my responsibilities (school, work, family) because then I could do what I longed to do most, which for me has primarily meant reading. I followed that pattern throughout my academic and professional career. My mother (a trained social worker) was successful in getting me to spend time away from my books by pushing me to develop friendships, join in on activities, and accept her ideas about social responsibility, counteracting my natural instincts as a shy loner. Thirty years of standing in front of a classroom as a college professor has helped as well, but I still tend to hide in corners at parties. I was a good teacher, but not a particularly innovative one. I have taken leadership positions––usually out of a sense of duty––and, while I have done well in these roles, I am always delighted to hand over the responsibilities to others when the time came.

The truth is that throughout my life I have been personally cautious (I don’t tend to take physical or emotional risks) and not very ambitious. I avoid competition in any form (in sports, academics, and even board games) and, despite the times I have assumed leadership roles, I continue to be more comfortable as part of group enterprises than as an individual who stands out from the crowd. I even saw my feminism (keeping my own name when I married in 1972, constructing, with my husband, one of the most equalitarian marriages I have ever witnessed, deciding to get a doctorate in the male dominated field of history, and working full-time and raising a child) as simply being part of the sixties generation.

But in the past two years I have unexpectedly found myself on the cutting edge of the ebook revolution and riding the fast-moving wave of self-publishing. While it has been an exhilarating ride; it has also pushed me past my comfort zone as I have had to learn how to take risks, promote myself, and come to terms with personal success. What I am going to examine today is why I have been so willing to move outside of that comfort zone when so many of my friends among the writing community are having such a hard time doing so.

Risk-Taking:

For many writers, one of the key attractions of being traditionally published is that, even if your books don’t end up selling, there is the emotional safety of knowing that industry “experts” (your agent and editor) have deemed your writing as worthy of being published. The alternative (known until very recently as vanity publishing) had the risky penalty of acute embarrassment of people assuming your book was crap because it couldn’t be traditionally published. This fear of embarrassment had indeed kept me tied to the idea of traditional publishing for the 20 years between the first draft and the publication of my historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune.

But in 2009, even though self-publishing still suffered under all the old negative stereotypes and indie authors like Konrath had been self-publishing for less than a year, I decided to take a risk and use the new options that KDP, Smashwords, and CreateSpace offered to self-publish. No one I knew personally had done this, and I had no particular reason to think I would have success along the lines of a Konrath, who was really the only example of success I knew about.Nevertheless, I jumped into this new enterprise with uncharacteristic bravado.

I can look back now and see that one of the reasons I could take this step was because I was at a time in my life when I wasn’t emotionally or materially dependent on achieving success as an author. If the book had garnered only negative reviews, I might have had my feelings hurt, and I certainly would have been less likely to write the second book, but it wouldn’t have negated my sense of accomplishments as wife, mother, friend, and professor. I also didn’t have to worry about the effect of failure on anyone but myself. No agent, editor, publicist, or book rep could stand in my way, but neither could any other individual’s career or bottom line be hurt if my book wasn’t a success.

As a result, self-publishing has made me much more of a risk taker. I have ignored advice that one well-meaning agent had given me about using multiple points of view in Maids of Misfortune, and didn’t worry that both of my books are much longer than the normal word-count average for my sub-genre. I have freely experimented with prices, changed my books’ categories, made editorial changes after a book was published, and tried a variety of methods of promoting my books. In short I have innovated to a degree I never have done in my life before. I need no one’s permission to do so, and the only one hurt if my experiments fail is me. Very liberating!

Self-Promotion:

This brings me to another way that self-publishing has pushed me out of my comfort zone. I have become a blatant self-promoter. If you had asked me (or anyone who knew me) before I became an indie author if I would make a good sales person, the answer would be no. I have never been comfortable selling anything, even girl scout cookies or raffle tickets for good causes, much less been able to “sell myself” or anything of mine. While I wrote a blog post about why I distinguish between selling and marketing, the truth is that is I have found an unexpected satisfaction in learning how to promote my books. Once I started getting positive reviews and lovely email messages from readers this became easier. I had proof that my books and short stories were giving people pleasure, so it felt right to make sure that people who might like my work would hear about it.

I also have found that when I look at promotion from the point of view of a life-long student and social scientist, then marketing becomes even more comfortable. I feel proud of myself for being willing and able to master the skills necessary to set up a blog, create an email signature, organize RSS feeds, design a website, and format a book for upload to KDP. When I experiment with a new price point or a free promotion and then analyze the outcome, I am engaged in an intellectual exercise that, to a degree, counteracts even a negative sales result. In my mind, my book hasn’t failed and I haven’t failed; the experiment has failed and I have learned something from it.

Finally I have discovered that promotion has a lot to do with storytelling, a skill I have practiced all of my adult life. To successfully engage college students who were taking my required U.S. history courses, I had to figure out how to narrate the story of the past in a way that was interesting and relevant. When I write my historical blog posts, I am telling the story of Victorian San Francisco, making the information relevant to the people who have read my books and short stories. When I write blogs like this one, I am telling the story of my journey as a self-published author, and I am successful to the degree to which I entertain other authors and made my experience relevant to them.

In short, self-publishing not only helped me become a risk taker, but it also revealed that I possessed previously unknown skills at promotion. But when my promotions resulted in people discovering and buying my books, it also led to a level of financial success that has challenged me in unexpected ways.

Personal Success:

To be blunt, I never expected to make money selling Maids of Misfortune. I wanted to give the book a chance to find an audience and sell enough so that I didn’t feel like it was an expensive hobby. However, since I only invested in a cover, the cost of hosting a website, and some business cards, I wasn’t going to have to sell very many books to achieve that goal. One of the ways I felt I could give back to the growing tribe of indie authors whose advice and support I had depended on was to do what Konrath and other early advocates of self-publishing had done––provide concrete details on where I was selling my books, at what price, using which promotional methods, and reporting on how many sales I was making.

I am aware of how uncomfortable many authors feel about providing this sort of detail, particularly on sales. Many have been trained by traditional publishers to view information about advances, royalty rates, and sales as private and proprietary. And for many, particularly of my own generation, it just feels like bragging when you are doing well. I didn’t worry about this in the beginning because I didn’t sell many copies the first six months I was an indie author. Then, when Maids of Misfortune began to sell a enough so that I was able to retire from my part-time teaching job, my response was sheer joy at my good fortune and a desire to inspire other writers with the news that someone could make a decent amount of money as an indie author, even if you didn’t have prior name recognition, a traditional publishing career, or a huge social media base.

But then came KDP Select. First of all, in my new risk-taking, promoting persona, I didn’t hesitate to join KDP and give Maids of Misfortune a two-day promotion. Even though there wasn’t much data out and many indie authors were very wary of the exclusivity requirement, it just seemed like another grand experiment to me. As a result, my first two promotions came early enough so that my books benefited fully from both post Christmas sales bump and the very favorable Amazon algorithms that were first in place. As a result, my royalties for January, February, and March were higher than any monthly checks I have ever made in my career as a full-time professor. I was dumb-founded, and I shared the information (why I made the decision, what strategies I used, and what the results were) publically with a sense of how unexpected and wonderful it all was.

But then I began to watch other writers try KDP Select and have much less success. For the first time, reporting my sales numbers did feel like bragging, and therefore very uncomfortable. I am still trying to figure out how to handle this. I do believe that reporting my numbers, good and bad, can be useful to other writers, but I need to find a way to do it where it doesn’t feel like boasting.

In addition, I momentarily began to loose my nerve when it came to promotions. My third promotion done at the end of March produced an anemic post promotion sales bump. See this blog and this for speculations on the changes Amazon has made in the algorithms. I began to second-guess my decision to hold off doing another promotion until the end of May; I worried as my sales rankings slipped (both books are currently ranked in the 25-35 range of the historical mystery bestseller list-where they were before the first KDP Select promotion.) Maybe the wild ride was over?

Then my usual sense of perspective kicked in. Where had my sense of adventure gone? Even if the particular wave of success that KDP Select represented had now finished its course, that didn’t meant I couldn’t paddle on out and enjoy myself waiting for the next wave! And if I never sold another book, this wouldn’t be the end of the world.

So, I decided that if I was hitting the limits to the market for Maids of Misfortune as an ebook, why not try to tap into a different audience? I enrolled Maids of Misfortune in the ACX program (Audiobook Creation Exchange) program, and if all goes well I will be selling the audio version by the end of June. I also plan to try out the new Author Services program that Audible is piloting to help authors promote their books. In addition, I have planned another round of free promotions on Amazon, tweaking my strategy a bit to see if I can at least boost the visibility of Uneasy Spirits, the second book in my Victorian San Francisco series, since I know I haven’t saturated the market for that book yet.

In any event, you can count on me to take new risks, try out new forms of promotion, and continued to look out for the next wave of change in the publishing industry because I’m not yet ready to end this wonderful ride.

KDP Select Free Promotion: Discoverability Experiment, Part One

Ok, I confess I stuck the term discoverability into the title since it seems to be the new marketing buzz word. As a professional historian who has spent most of her life in the past, I am getting rather a kick out of riding the wave of change within publishing — even using new words for old concepts like marketing, promotion, and publicity.

In this blog I have frequently posted about these issues, the importance of branding, the possibilities of blog tours, and the use of tags and categories, all describing what I have learned about how to sell books as an indie author. The bottom line of all those posts has been about how an author can get potential readers to discover their books, when they don’t have the same opportunities available to traditionally published authors (publishing house book reps, catalogs, big name reviewers, organized books tours, shelf space in book stores, etc.).

Today I am going to look into the newest tool that Amazon has given indie authors — the free promotion through KDP Select.

Some background. The pros and cons of offering a book for free has been the matter of a debate that has ranged between the argument that offering books for free devalues literature to the contrasting belief that an author should offer their books for free as a matter of philosophical principle.

What I am talking about here, though, is offering books for free as a short-term promotional strategy.

Very good arguments have been made that offering free copies of a book is a way of getting your book noticed, getting people to read it and decide they want to buy your other books, and — my particular obsession – using it as a way to improve your rank in the Amazon browsing categories so that is was more likely to be discovered by readers.

However, until recently, if you published your book through the Kindle Direct Platform (KDP) and wanted to get the 70% royalty, you had to sell your book at a price between $2.99 and $9.99. You could decide to sell the book at a lower price, (reverting to 35% royalty rate), but you could not set a price of $0.

The only way, as an indie author, you could do this was to set your price to $0 on other sites (e.g., Smashwords and its affiliates, your own website), and if Amazon’s bots found it, they would discount your price to $0 (and of course you would stop getting any royalties.) Authors did do this, but it has a big down-side: you have no control over when or how long your book will be available for free on Amazon. It could take months for the Amazon bots to reduce your Amazon price (it took a year for Amazon to lower the price of my short story), and when you want to end the free promotion it might take weeks or months for the Amazon price to go back to normal. This means this is not a useful strategy to use for a targeted promotion — for the launch of a new book for example.

Then came the Kindle Owners Lending Library Program (“KDP Select”). When first instituted, it was very limited. It was only available to traditional publishers and it only gave readers who were members of Amazon Prime the opportunity to “borrow” one book a month for free. (Amazon Prime is a subscription service that gives members other benefits such as free shipping, free downloads of games and videos for the Kindle Fire, etc.). There was a good deal of controversy over whether or not publishers had agreed to allow their books to be borrowed for free, what if any compensation authors would get, and, again, whether offering books for free was a good thing.

However, the breakthrough for indie authors came on December 8, 2011 when Amazon offered authors who publish through KDP the opportunity to participate in KDP Select. There were caveats. They had to sign up for a three-month commitment and stop selling their enrolled books through any other venue. The carrot? Those authors who signed up would get a share of a pot of money and they would get five free promotional days in the three-month period. This was and is controversial — particularly the exclusivity required — and it left unanswered questions about how the pot of money would be divided up and whether the bulk of the money would go to just a few big names in indie publishing. What interested me, however, was the free promotional days.

Last Christmas the sales of my one historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, were fantastic, and I sold 4600 books on Kindle in December and January, and another 1400 in February. This Christmas I had a second book, Uneasy Spirits, available. It had been selling well since I published it in October. I put my short story into Kindle Select as a harmless experiment, but decided to delay putting either of my novels into the program until I saw how well they sold during the days after Christmas on both Kindle and Barnes and Noble.

Something unexpected happened the week before Christmas, however. The historical mystery category on Kindle, which had been artificially small because of a glitch in the KDP program (I had been posting about this for nearly a year and a half), expanded from having only around 81 books to suddenly having over 1600 (I assume the glitch was finally fixed.) Almost overnight, both of my historical mysteries, which had been hovering in the top five best selling books in this category, slipped down in ranking to the teens and twenties. The top ranks were filled with books that had been traditionally published, had been out longer than mine, or were classics. (I did find it amusing that someone — probably a publishing house techie — had put such classics as Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, Conon Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books, and Dorothy Sayers’ Cloud of Witness in this category.)

In addition, during the week after Christmas, a number of other authors began to report that their post-Christmas sales were not living up to their expectations compared to last year. The greater number of ebooks available (estimates are that the number of ebooks doubled in the last year), the greater numbers of ebooks offered at 99 cents, and new patterns of consumption by the newest Kindle owners, were all offered as reasons for this. The best discussion I have read so far on this subject has come in Kristine Rusch’s post, “The Holiday Surprise.”

To make a long story short, it seemed clear to me that, although the market for ebooks had increased considerably with all the ereaders sold for Christmas, I was facing a great deal more competition for those new consumers.  I needed to do something to make my book stand out so it was easier to discover.

So, when I got back home after visiting my family for the holidays, I put my first historical mystery, Maids of Misfortune, into the KDP Select program and then created a two-day promotion for it by making it available for free on December 30 and 31. I hoped that this would make Maids more visible and that there would be an echo effect that would send Uneasy Spirits up the ranks so it would also become easier to discover. Finally, I hoped that, after the promotion was over, both books would stay highly ranked (at least in the top ten) in the historical mystery category long enough to generate a greater number of sales than they had been generating. In my experience, a high rank can beget better sales, which in turn will sustain the high rank.

I tweeted and announced the promotion on Facebook and Goodreads and on a few lists and forums on the day before the promotion and then on the two days of the free offer. (I only have about 500 Facebook and Twitter followers — not great, but not terrible.) And I crossed my fingers.

The day before I started my free promotion, both Maids of Misfortune and Uneasy Spirits were bouncing around in the 10,000 to 15,000 rank in the overall Kindle Store. While I know that some authors would kill for those rankings, I was used to being around 4,000 to 5,000. Both books were also bouncing between 18-24 in the historical mystery category. I was selling about 15 of each title a day.

At the end of the first day of free promotion, 6500 people had downloaded Maids of Misfortune, it was #67 on the Kindle store free book list, #1 on the free historical mystery list, and #1 on the free women’s sleuth mystery list. And Uneasy Spirits had risen to #12 on the historical mystery bestseller list, selling 26 copies that day.

At the end of the second day, over 14,000 people had downloaded Maids of Misfortune, it was #35 on the Kindle free book list, still number #1 on the historical mystery and women’s sleuth lists, and even #3 on the free mystery list. Uneasy Spirits had risen to the #8 position on the historical mystery bestseller list, and had sold 54 copies that day.

I clearly had reached my goal of making Maids of Misfortune more visible! The morning after the promotion ended, Uneasy Spirits still was in the #8 spot and Maids of Misfortune was in the #3 position. Clearly it was now easier for readers to discover both books with these high rankings. I am not the only author to report this sort of success, see this post and comments on the Passive Voice.

What remains to be seen is how long this bump in visibility will last, what kind of sales it will produce, and — if there is an increase in sales — how much will it be and how long will it last?

I will report on the results in Part Two of this post. So stay tuned.

Apart from the marketing angle, I couldn’t be more thrilled personally by the success of this free promotion. As anyone who has read my posts (for example my last one assessing my second year as an indie author) knows, I was already quite pleased by the fact that I had sold 15,000 copies of Maids of Misfortune in the two years the book has been out. Now, the number of people who have the book has doubled.

Do I mind they didn’t pay for it? Not a whit. Even if the sales I hope for down the road don’t materialize, for me it has never been strictly about the money. When I wrote as a 17 year old in my high school yearbook that I wanted to do with my future is “write happy books” (I know, I know, not a particularly felicitous turn of phrase!) I meant that I wanted to write books that gave readers the kind of enjoyment that authors like Georgette Heyer gave me, (Laurie King calls it frivolous fiction, and I love that phrase). Being an indie author has given me the opportunity to do just that. And today, Amazon’s KDP Select just gave me the opportunity to tickle the fancy of a whole lot more people. How grand and what a wonderful way to start the New Year!