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Is Amazon The Big Bad Wolf?

So you’re an indie author and you’ve published your novel on all the online retailers, but now you’re wondering whether you should have gone exclusive with Amazon. Is Amazon the Big Bad Wolf? Is it wrong to leave all the other retailers out in the cold?

Mark posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Howdy!

First off, I just want to let you know that I LOVE your blog, and read each post as soon as it comes out. You have a lot of great knowledge and information, and I’m really thankful that you’re willing to share that with the world.

So, my question is about KDP Select. (Being an indie author, I’m sure you’ve heard of it before.)

What are your thoughts on it? There’s a lot of conflicting opinions out there, and I’m wondering what yours is. I know that you currently publish with smashwords, so that means you’re not presently enrolled in KDP Select, but would you consider jumping aboard in the future? Why, or why not?

I currently have several non-fiction books out (and am planning on self-publishing some fiction pretty soon) and all of them are enrolled in KDP Select, but I’m considering withdrawing some of them.

What are your thoughts?

Thanks!

Randy sez: That’s an excellent question, Mark.

First, let’s talk about what “KDP” and “KDP Select” are, to make sure everybody’s on the same page with us.

“KDP” is “Kindle Direct Publishing.” It’s a web site at kdp.amazon.com, run by Amazon which allows anybody to publish their book online as an e-book at no charge.

KDP is a great program for authors. You can upload your e-book, set the price you want, and Amazon will create a sales page for you, collect the money, and pay you a percentage every month (either 35% or 70%, depending on the price and certain other factors).

KDP has several competitors. Here are the most prominent:

The great thing for authors is that you can work with ALL of these at the same time. This gives you more places to sell your book, and that’s good for you. It’s also good for readers, because different readers like to shop in different online stores.

“KDP Select” is a special option within KDP. If you choose the KDP Select option, you agree to work exclusively with Amazon. This means that if you choose the KDP Select option, you CAN’T also publish your e-book with B&N, Apple, Smashwords, Kobo, or anyone else. You work only with Amazon.

Why on earth would any author agree to do that?

Because Amazon offers you several perks if you choose the KDP Select option. Here are some of them:

  • You get paid when people borrow your book from the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library.
  • You earn higher royalties for books sold in certain countries (currently, Japan, India, Brazil, and Mexico, but this list is constantly changing).
  • You can list your book for free for 5 days during each 90 day period.
  • You can run a Kindle Countdown Deal, where your price is temporarily lowered and a countdown timer shows when the deal will expire.

These have value to you as an author, and Amazon gives you these perks in exchange for giving up the right to sell your e-books on other online retailers.

A lot of people believe that Amazon is evil, that they’re the Big Bad Wolf and they intend to eat up their competition and then jack up prices when they have a monopoly.

My own opinion is that Amazon would definitely like to eat their competition. But I can see no evidence that they intend to raise prices, should they ever get a monopoly. So I don’t consider Amazon evil. They’re just a very strong competitor.

Competition is not bad. Competition is good for readers and for authors. Competition keeps prices low for readers. Competition keeps options attractive for authors.

I won’t tell you what to do, Mark. I think that the markets work best when readers and authors do what’s in their best self-interest. This keeps competition working correctly. It’s a free market and you can do what you want.

My own choice, so far, has been to refuse the KDP Select option. I’d rather work with multiple retailers, because I want my readers to have as many options as possible. Not all my readers want to buy from Amazon. I’ve posted my e-books directly on Amazon, B&N, Apple, and Smashwords.

Smashwords is not just a retailer–they’re also an aggregator, which means that they can get you distribution into other online retailers. So you can use Smashwords to put you onto Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, Oyster, Scribd, Library Direct, and more. So I use Smashwords to put my books into all the places that I don’t deal with directly.

For the last couple of years, some authors have done very well using KDP Select to promote their books for free for 5 days each quarter. This gets them lots of downloads (sometimes tens of thousands of downloads in a single day), which makes their books visible. And some authors have then gotten sales traction because of that visibility. However, the word on the street is that this isn’t working as well as it used to.

In fact, the biggest lure of KDP Select that I can see is this ability to make the price free for 5 days each quarter. Because this is no longer as effective as it used to be, there is less and less appeal to choosing the KDP Select option.

I’m looking at my sales spreadsheet right now for my novel Oxygen, which was the first e-book I released, so I have the most data for it. Here are the percentages of units sold for the various retailers that I can track:

  • Amazon: 84%
  • B&N: 13%
  • Smashwords: 3%
  • Apple: I don’t track sales on Apple because their accounting is such a pain in the ***. Note to Apple: Please clean up your act. Your accounting tools suck.

Why work with Smashwords, if sales are so low there? Several reasons.

  • Smashwords lets you price your e-book free anytime, all the time, with no restrictions. (Amazon and B&N don’t let you do this.)
  • Smashwords is international, and the price they charge is the SAME anywhere in the world. (Amazon sometimes adds a surcharge to certain countries, and you have no control over that. This can be horribly embarrassing when you run a promotion at a special price, and then learn that people in some countries are having to pay a higher price.)
  • Smashwords will sell your book in ANY format, including Kindle, ePub, PDF, RTF, Sony, text, and a web-readable format. (Amazon sells only the Kindle format, and most other retailers sell only the ePub format.)
  • Smashwords lets you create coupons so you can easily give away copies to friends and family by giving them a coupon code.

Why work with Apple, if their accounting tools are so bad?

  • You still get paid, even if it’s a pain to learn which books earned you the money.
  • You can set the price to free on Apple, and Amazon will usually match that price. This is called the “permafree” strategy, because it lets you make your book free ALL the time. I’m told it’s much harder to get Amazon to match a free price on Smashwords. Permafree is a nice marketing tool for the first book in a series, because it gives readers an easy way to try before they buy.
  • Apple sells in most countries and you have complete control over the pricing in each country.

I will note that all of the online retailers do a poor job at making accounting information available. Sure, you can easily find out how much they’re paying you total. But the real numbers you care about are these two:

  1. How many copies did each individual book sell?
  2. How much did I earn in US dollars for each individual book?

The number of copies sold is important for marketing purposes. If your book has sold 100,000 copies, you’d like to be able to brag about that in your ads. But you can’t do that if you don’t know the number. And none of the retailers lets you easily find this out. They do make the information available, but it’s fragmented.

The number of dollars earned is important if you have a co-author. You need to know how to split the money.

It is bizarre that NONE of the online retailers lets you easily get these two crucial numbers, and two of them make it impossible. Smashwords does the best job, but you still have to manipulate a large spreadsheet to get what you want. Amazon gives you all the data, but not all in US dollars. If the book was sold in Europe, you’ll see a line-item for sales in Euros, and they don’t tell you the exchange rate. And ditto for books sold in the UK, Japan, Mexico, Brazil, etc. This makes it impossible to do an accurate split if you co-author some of your books and write others on your own. B&N provides the data you need, but you have to manipulate a spreadsheet. And Apple is simply crazy to work with, so I’ve given up trying to get data out of them.

Well, Mark, I hope that helps. I’ll repeat my advice–do what makes the most economic sense to you. If you believe that KDP Select will earn you more money, then go with it. If you believe you’ll do better with multiple online retailers, then work with them all. The choice is yours.

Mark, you asked if I’d consider going with KDP Select in the future. Yes, possibly. For me, a major concern has been what’s best for my readers. More options for them is better for them, and this outweighs in my mind the advantages of KDP Select. But I might consider a test of one book on KDP Select to see how it works out. Every author would like to get the word out on their books, and one way to do that is to use the 5 days of free pricing on KDP Select.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

The Big Marketing Hatchet Man

So you published your novel and now you’re trying to market it and it’s going slow and you suddenly realized that you hate marketing. How do you get the word out when you don’t know anything about marketing fiction?

Sharon posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

So I’ve written two books. And most of the readers who own the books have liked them. (Not all of course, none of us will write a book that every reader falls in love with.)

But still the big marketing hatchet man hovers over my head. Why does marketing have to cost more than book sales? Or does it?

And Jonna posted a similar question on the same day:

I have indie published the first three novels in a series, all available in print and for Kindle, and have gotten good reviews from readers, but my marketing skills are pretty bad. You recommend sending out review copies. I’ve seen some sites offering reviews for a fee. That seems a bit dodgy to me. My question is, to whom should I be sending review copies and should these always be print copies or can I submit digital files for review?

Thanks for all your great advice, Randy.

Randy sez: Sharon, I love that phrase, “big marketing hatchet man.” It conjures up an image that resonates with just about all fiction writers.

Jonna, your specific question is about review copies, and I can answer that very quickly. Don’t pay for reviews. Indie authors will do best by getting reviews on the online retailers–Amazon, B&N, Smashwords, etc., along with reviews on Goodreads and other social media for book-lovers. But the more general question that you’re really asking is the same as Sharon’s: How do you market fiction?

Let’s be clear, right up front, that this is a very hard question. A very big question.

It’s a little bit like asking, “How do you play chess?”

Sure, I can show you what moves each of the chess pieces is allowed to make, and once you know those, you technically know “how to play chess.” But you will play like a beginner.

This is the way people usually teach marketing. They show you how to do a tweet or how to post on Facebook or how to pin on Pinterest or how to post a blog entry or whatever. And technically, now you know how to market. But you will market like a beginner.

If you really want to learn to play chess well, then you need to get some training from somebody who knows how to play chess. Either you find a mentor or you learn from books or from software. But you need to get training.

And then you need to play chess. Lots of it. If you want to become a grandmaster, you need to put in about 10,000 hours playing chess. That’s 5 years, playing chess 8 hours per day, with a couple of weeks vacation per year. That’s a lot of chess!

Do you have to become a “marketing grandmaster?”

NO!

No, no, no, no, no.

You can do that if you want, but very few novelists ever do. I would say that James Patterson is a marketing grandmaster. And he gets the kind of results you expect from a marketing grandmaster.

But you don’t have to be a grandmaster to play a mean game of chess. You just need to master a few tactics, such as the pin, the knight fork, the skewer, the double-attack. And you also need to learn basic chess strategy, including king-side attacks, queen-side attacks, defense, and the end-game. Each time you add one of these to your arsenal, you become a strikingly better player.

Likewise, you don’t have to be a marketing grandmaster to do well as a novelist. You need to master a few basic marketing tactics. And you need a marketing strategy.

I could write a whole book on this. In fact, I am writing a whole  book on this.

I can’t possibly put everything into one blog post.

But I can tell you the essentials, and they’re pretty simple.

Let’s start by asking why you need marketing. Then we’ll ask what marketing is.

The reason you need marketing is because most people on the planet have never heard of you. (There are seven billion people on earth, and none of them knows everybody.)

Marketing means taking people through three distinct phases:

  1. Attraction–they learn that you exist
  2. Engagement–they learn that you write the kind of fiction they want
  3. Conversion–they pull out their wallet and buy your book

Each phase is essential. Nobody will buy your book unless they want it. Nobody will want it unless they know it exists.

So you need a marketing strategy that will first attract people (to your web site or to the sales page on Amazon or some other retailer); then you need to engage those same people long enough to figure out whether they like your kind of fiction; finally, you need to persuade those same people to buy RIGHT NOW.

If your marketing strategy fails in any of these points, then almost nobody will buy your book.

If your marketing strategy is designed to attract one kind of person, engage a completely different kind of person, and convert a completely different kind of person, then almost nobody will buy your book.

If your marketing strategy succeeds in all three points, then a growing number of people will buy your book. Then if it’s good, they’ll talk about it and word-of-mouth will take off and your sales will grow exponentially.

Those are the essentials.

That is the big picture.

Filling in the details will take a whole book. I can’t change that fact. Marketing is complicated. The best I can do is to break it down into a series of simple tasks, and I’m working on that right now.

I don’t want to discourage either of you, Sharon and Jonna.

So let’s end on a happy note. This is critical for your long-term success, so start with this key principle:

The best marketing tool for any book is another book by the same author.

If you’ve got only one book on the market, then it’s one book out of ten million on Amazon. A few people will find it by chance and buy it, but if they like it, they’ve got nothing else to read. They might tell a friend, but that’s it.

Whereas if you’ve got 100 books on the market, then 100 times as many people will find them by chance and buy them, which means you’ve now got 100 times as many sales. If they like one, they’ll buy several, so now you’re getting several hundred times as many sales. And with each book, they’ll tell a friend, so you’re getting tons more word-of-mouth.

If you look at the successful authors, most of them have a lot of books published.

So it may very well be that the absolute best way to market your novel is to … write another novel. And another. And another.

Of course, people will tell you that you “must” be on Twitter. You “must” be on Facebook. You “must” be on Pinterest, on Goodreads, on the blogosphere. You “must” do this, that, and the other thing. You “must” be on the marketing treadmill ten hours per day.

Really? Seriously? These people know this for sure? Or do they just think it?

I’ll agree that it’s POSSIBLE that some of those things might help market your work.

But you should always ask whether they’ll help MORE than just writing another book.

If you don’t KNOW  that the answer is “yes,” then the answer is probably “no.”

There are certain things that I KNOW work. I know, because I’ve tried them and measured the results. I know when they work and why they work. I know when they don’t work.

Blogs can have value, under certain conditions. E-mail lists can have a lot of value, under certain conditions. Ditto for all the various things people do.

But here’s the thing that has the MOST value: Writing another great book.

Right now, I’m doing almost nothing to market my fiction. Instead, I’m putting my effort into getting my back-list of books back in print as e-books. That should be done fairly soon, and then I’ll have six books that I can market all together. And I’ve got another two books that are partially written–books that publishers had issues with, so they never got published traditionally. Books I believe in and plan to publish as an indie author.

My focus right now is on production, not on marketing. Most of the successful indie authors say that they started getting traction only after they had 3 or 4 or 5 or 6 books out. So that’s my goal.

Jonna and Sharon, go write some more books! This is an exciting time to be an author. Few of us will have success like James Patterson, but that’s OK.

Today, I read that there were 150 authors on Amazon’s KDP program this year who each had sales greater then 100,000 copies.

And thousands more indie authors sold thousands of copies apiece. (I was one of them, without doing much at all to market my books.)

You can too. Write more books. And stay tuned, because I’ll have more to say on how to market fiction effectively in the coming months. But I won’t be able to fit it all into a blog post.

 

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

 

What If Your First Novel Fails Miserably?

What if you finally get your novel published and then it fails miserably in the market? What if it crashes and burns? Will your fiction-writing career be over?

Dale posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi, Randy. Something’s been bugging me for a while now, and people I asked have given me a bunch of different answers; I hope you’d be able to clear this thing for me and those with similar doubts.

Namely, what will it mean for my future fiction-writing career if my first published book ultimately fails (being of course my failure) to make a name for itself, or worse — is a total disaster. I assume (should I write another novel) that agents and editors would then look at my work with this presumption: “I shouldn’t even waste my time looking at a manuscript by someone who failed so gravely the last time.”

How is it? Is an author’s first failure their last? Or perhaps there is a way out to make yet a good name for oneself?

Thank you for your time.

Randy sez: Dale, your fear is every fiction writer’s fear. And with good reason.

Let’s be clear that everything I say here is my opinion only, it could be wrong, yada, yada. There will be some people who wildly disagree with me. But then, I wildly disagree with them, so that’s OK.

My opinion is that editors and agents care most about your most recent book. If it was a success, then that’s great and you’re everybody’s pal. But if it was a miserable failure, then that’s horrible and you’re damaged goods.

Generally, your agent won’t abandon you after a book crashes and burns. But he will be doing damage control when he goes to sell your next book. Your agent will make the case that your book failed because:

  • Your publisher gave it a lousy cover.
  • Your publisher failed to send out review copies.
  • Your publisher dropped the ball on distribution.
  • Your publisher screwed up on pre-sales.
  • Your book came out too early.
  • Your book came out too late.
  • Your publisher had a dispute with a major retailer and didn’t get copies into any of that retailer’s stores.
  • A thousand other excuses.

Any of these could be correct. I have seen books fail for each of these reasons. I’ve seen books fail spectacularly when several of these things happened together. I’ve seen really excellent, brilliant writers have a massive book failure because their publisher screwed up.

But none of that matters, because everybody knows it’s the author’s fault.

Yeah, that sucks, but that’s the way things are. If your book fails, you get the blame.

So what are you supposed to do about it?

I suppose you could quit the fiction writing game, but if writing is in your blood, then you’re not going to do that because you can’t. When fiction writing is in your blood, you’re going to write fiction because that’s just what you do and you can’t help yourself. Quitting is not an option.

You could accept a smaller advance from a smaller publisher and hope that your next book does well and you can rebuild your career. That’s a live option, and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you have another miserable failure, then you’d have to step down to an even smaller publisher and an even smaller advance. In principle, you could circle the drain two or three times before you finally go out.

You could adopt a pseudonym and start your publishing career over, either in a new category or in the same category. There is nothing wrong with this option. In fact, you can make a case that even if your career is going great guns, you should use a pseudonym if you radically change brands. That way, you don’t confuse your readers. If you’ve been publishing serial-killer novels under the name Hack Slade, and you switch gears to writing sweet Amish romances under that same name, expect a wee little bit of astonishment and confusion from your fans.

You could bail out of the traditional publishing game altogether  and become an indie author. Then you aren’t beholden to any publisher. You don’t have to convince the gatekeepers that you’re worthy of being published. You just publish. You become your own boss. You make the decisions. You get the money and the glory if it succeeds. This is a viable option, and plenty of authors have done this. I know authors who’ve gone indie precisely for this reason.

There are people who will tell you not to worry about all this. If you’re good, then your books will just magically sell well and you’ll do just fine.

I don’t believe this, for a couple of reasons:

  1. The publishing industry is the opposite of Lake Wobegon (where all the children are above average). In the publishing industry, MOST books sell worse than average. You might think this is statistically impossible, but it’s true, because book sales don’t follow a bell-shaped curve. If book sales followed a bell-shaped curve, then about half the books would sell better than average and half would sell worse. But the actual sales curve is horribly lopsided. The James Pattersons and Dan Browns of the world pull the average up massively. MOST books sell far below average.
  2. Publishers are made up of humans, and humans make mistakes, and sometimes they totally screw up a book. I’ve seen it happen to brilliant authors. Odds are good that if you write more than a dozen books, one of them will tank because the publisher dropped the ball.

Let’s be clear that I’m not anti-publisher. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve met in the publishing industry are smart and decent and hard-working (with a few exceptions).

I’m not anti-publisher. I’m pro-author. And the fact is that authors have a tough time in this industry. There are a lot of reasons for that, and it’s a subject for another day, but it’s possible to write a good, solid book and have it sell poorly.

When that happens, the author always gets the blame. Always. Always. Always.

Write that down: “Always.”

Oh, did I mention that the author always gets the blame?

The solution is NOT for us to fall down weeping incoherently or to wring our hands helplessly.

Authors are not children. We don’t have complete control of our situation, but we have three things under our control:

  1. Develop your craft as well as you can.
  2. Develop your marketing skills as well as you can.
  3. Take complete responsibility for your writing career.

We can’t afford to complain when things go bad. And things are almost guaranteed to go bad. Crap happens. A lot.

I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: There has never been a better time to be an author. We are living in the Golden Age For Authors.

We authors have more options than ever. We can work with a traditional publisher. We can go indie. We can be hybrid authors. We can do what we want, write what we want, sell to a world-wide market at little cost and little effort.

Yes, when things go wrong, we get the blame.

But when things go right, we get the credit.

Don’t worry about what can go wrong.

Dream about what can go right.

And then go make it happen.

Dale, I hope you feel a bit better about your future. Just saying it out loud has been good for me. It’s reminded me that yeah, I’m the person driving the bus. I’m in control of my career. And you’re in control of yours.

Go to it.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Defining the Target Audience for Your Fiction

So you’re writing a novel and your critique buddies want to know who your “target audience” is. What do you tell them?

Nee posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hello Randy,

I am a newbie at the writing. A new “writer” friend insists I must know my audience and for whom I am writing BEFORE I start my story – so I will know what those readers will be expecting/anticipating in my story.

HOW can I know this concept? Right now, I’m writing a fictional piece because I’m having fun telling a simple Baby-Boomer character story. I ain’t got no clue who all’s my “audience.”

Can you shed me some light on this particular?

Randy sez: Yes, it’ important to know the target audience for that novel you’re writing.

No, that doesn’t mean you need to have detailed demographic information about your target audience.

John Locke wrote a book on marketing that had some nice thoughts on defining your target audience. What I took away from his book is that the author only needs to know what emotional needs the book is going to fill.

Locke’s fiction features a psychopathic assassin named Donovan Creed. Donovan works for the government but takes private contracts on the side. If you took Donovan Creed at all seriously, you’d hate the guy. But John Locke’s readers don’t take Donovan Creed seriously. Donovan Creed is a fantasy.

Locke says that his male readers would like to BE Donovan Creed.

Whereas his female readers would like to DATE Donovan Creed (although they recognize that he wouldn’t make good marriage material).

Now it should be obvious that almost nobody would really like to be Donovan Creed and almost nobody would really want to date him. Fantasies don’t have to make sense.

John Locke knows the fantasies that Donovan Creed drives in the minds of his readers.

So when you sit down to define your target audience, you need to know what emotional buttons you’re planning to push in your readers. That should start with the emotional buttons that your fiction pushes in you.

My own fiction is driven by the fact that I’d like to be Sherlock Holmes. And Albert Einstein. And Indiana Jones. All at the same time.

No, that isn’t rational. I know perfectly well that I can’t literally be any of those guys. Much less all of them at the same time.

But each of those names pushes certain emotional hot buttons in me. Those emotive buttons drive my fiction. I assume that those are also hot buttons for people who like my books. So in that sense, my target audience is composed of people who want to be Sherlock, be Einstein, and be Indy, all at the same time.

There’s more to defining your target audience, of course. Part of the game is to define your category. And to know the rules and standard operating procedures for that category.

That’s most true in the most sharply defined categories, such as romance, mystery, fantasy, and science fiction. Each of these has a large number of subcategories. If you write in any of these subcategories, then you really need to read a lot in that subcategory so you know what’s been done and what your reader’s expecting.

The good news here is that you don’t have to do a poll to find out the age, gender, economic status, and favorite ice cream of your target audience. Most writers have fans all across the spectrum. But those fans are fans because they’re responding to the emotional hot buttons that the author is pushing.

One last comment: When I talk about hot buttons, I’m of course not implying that you should be calculating or mechanical about your target audience. Write the sort of fiction that appeals to you. Figure out why it appeals to you. Your target audience will be the people who also find that appealing.

Recently I hired a graphic artist to create the cover for my next e-book. I love that cover. (Not going to show it here–I’ll save that for when we get closer to release of the book.)

I showed the cover to one of my friends. She said, “Wow! I love that cover! Who’s the target audience?”

I said, “The target audience is the set of people who like this cover.”

She thought I was joking, but I wasn’t. The cover hits a lot of hot buttons for me. I expect it’ll hit those same buttons for readers. And I expect they’ll like the book. And no, I really can’t say any more about it just yet.

That’s all for today. My US readers will be celebrating Thanksgiving tomorrow. Happy Turkey Day!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.