Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Will Success Spoil Kevin Hardman?

As noted in my last post, my novel Sensation actually broke into the Top 100 in its Fantasy category last week, debuting at No. 97.  I was tremendously excited and was barely able to focus on anything else.

Over the next few days, I watched it climb steadily higher in both wide-eyed surprise and white-knuckled anticipation. They like me! They really like me! I thought.  After all, I only just put the novel on Kindle at the beginning of May, so I felt extraordinarily blessed to have found an audience so soon.

When I woke up yesterday morning, I checked and saw that I was up to #2. Excellent! I thought and gave my wife the good news. As I drove to work, I tried to imagine what it might feel like if I ever reached the top spot, but it's one of those things that you can't quite get your arms around because it would be so surreal.  Around that time I got a call from my wife.

"What are you going to do if you hit number one?" She asked.
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, are you going to call me, text me, what?"
"Babe, I don't know what I'll do.  I'll probably go into shock."

A short time later I was in my office pulling up the rankings, and that's when I saw it:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #9,731 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

I was No. 1.  Numero uno.  All I could do was just stare at the screen for about 5 minutes.  Then I got up, calmly closed the door to my office, and did the Happy Dance.  

Okay, I didn't do the Happy Dance, but I was excited enough that I would have done it if someone had asked me to.  I sent my wife the requisite text and then just kind of sat back in awe.  This was something I had prayed for (and GOD had been kind enough to answer that prayer), but it happened so exceedingly fast that I wasn't quite able to wrap my head around it or the implications.  What exactly does it mean to get the top slot?  I figured that it might result in additional sales, give me greater exposure, and so on, but what did it mean in the grand scheme of things?  

Does it mean that I'm a good writer? Does it mean that I'm a successful writer? Does this validate me as an author? It kind of put me in mind of that old movie Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, where a guy gets everything he wants professionally and discovers that the things he thought were important are actually empty and meaningless.  In short, it felt good (fan-freakin'-tastic, actually) to be #1, but the meaning behind it all seemed elusive.

After a while, I just gave up on trying to figure it out and decided to enjoy the ride while it lasted.  I'm an author, and this is what I do.  It's great that my work is resonating and finding an audience and I recognize how lucky that is, because there are lots of other authors with more talent than myself who simply haven't struck the right chord yet with readers.  However, I think as long as they enjoy what they are doing and put their hearts into it, eventually they will find success.

Ultimately, I like to think that being #1 means that people are getting as much joy out of reading my work as I am getting out of writing it.  And as to enjoying the ride while it lasted, that turned out to be about a day-and-a-half:

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #5,361 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

I'm back at #2.  However, if you look at my rank in the Paid Kindle Store, it's actually a lot better than it was when I hit number one - #5,361 vs. #9,731.  This again kind of comes back to what it really means to be No.1.  Was I better off before with the #1 ranking, or at #2 but with better stats in the Kindle Store?   Personally, I prefer the latter; being #2 in this instance has greater value.  As someone once said, everything's relative.  That said, I'm truly grateful for the support I've received, and I hope the audience for my work keeps growing.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Zen and the Art of Amazon Rankings

When I first looked into indie publishing a few years back, I recall coming across a statement that the average self-published book only sold nine copies.  Nine!  I don't know where the person making that statement got their stats, but it was a little frightening to me. Authors put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into their writing; the thought of only selling nine copies might be a little discouraging. 

I was recently discussing this subject with a friend, who felt that the obvious solution to selling  more books was to get ranked on one of Amazon's bestseller lists.  This struck me as a lot like the which-came-first-the-chicken-or-the-egg scenario:  in order to sell more books, you need to get ranked on one of the lists.  In order to get ranked, however, you need to sell more books.  In other words, my friend's advice wasn't a real solution, but more of an objective.

Needless to say, every author wants to sell a lot of books.  (Or at least I assume they do.)  Thus, while my sales numbers are still modest, I was thrilled to see Sensation break into the Top 100 in one of its categories on Amazon a few days ago:

Sensation: A Superhero Novel
Kindle Edition


Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #22,661 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

It actually debuted at No. 97, so I got the thrill of watching it climb higher.  (It actually reached as high as No. 32 - Woo-hoo!!!!)  Of course, it was difficult to get anything done for the rest of the day.  It was a lot like when you first earn money via AdSense; you just want to sit there all day clicking the refresh button, waiting to see how much the numbers change.

I'd like to argue that the novelty wore off after a day or so, but that's nowhere near the truth.  I'm actually still on cloud nine about it, but to a certain extent basic human nature began to reassert itself.  In essence, I started to get greedy. It wasn't enough that I was ranking in the "Fantasy" category; why wasn't I ranking for "Superheroes" as well???

Frankly speaking, I didn't think it was a completely unfair question.  After all, "Fantasy" and "Superheroes" were the two categories I selected for this novel.  Moreover, when I looked at the numbers, my rank in the Paid Kindle Store was actually better than some books in the Top 100 in the "Superheroes" category. (No offense to any authors currently ranked on that list.)

Anyway, I called Amazon to woodshed them over the issue, but apparently I overlooked one of the essential variables in the algorithm used to calculate rankings:  time.  I had thought that perhaps I had listed my book in the wrong category, hadn't chosen the right keywords or what have you, but the representative I spoke with (who was very helpful, by the way), told me that my book was definitely in the proper category.  However, she also said that the length of time that a book has been out and selling well also plays a factor. 

In short, it appears that the Amazon rankings are even more complex than I initially thought.  Obviously it's not enough to just sell a certain number of books (although that is undoubtedly the first step); you also have to sell consistently.  Unfortunately, I don't think I'm quite there yet in terms of selling an expected number of books each day. Hopefully, that will change in the near future.

In the meantime, I will sit here with my fingers crossed, constantly clicking the refresh button and praying that the ever-elusive "Superheroes" category will soon pop up.

Update (5/26/13):  In accordance with what has now become part of my daily routine, when I woke up this morning I checked to see how I had fared overnight and was pleasantly surprised to see the following for Sensation:

Finally, I made it into the Top 100 in the "Superheroes" category!  I didn't think it would last, but at present I'm still hanging in there, ranking at #18 in "Fantasy" and #86 in "Superheroes."  It's hard to make it onto these lists and even harder to stay there, so I won't be surprised if the ranking algorithm kicks me off later.  Still, I'm excited about having made my debut in the rankings, even if the judges do decide to strip me of my crown later.  Clearly, I'm getting a lot of support from readers, and for that I am truly grateful. I'm praying that the book continues to resonate with an ever-expanding audience.

If you would like to be notified when I release new books, please subscribe to my mailing list here.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Adventures in Indie Advertising/Promotion: Goodreads

There's an old question that goes:  If a tree falls in the woods and nobody is around, does it make a sound?  In a similar vein, if you write the greatest novel in the history of the world but nobody knows about it, will you sell many books? It's possible, but not probable.

In essence, your job as a writer - especially an indie author - doesn't end once you upload that final, professionally-copyedited version with the too-cool-for-words cover art.  You still have to get the word out about your book.  That's not to say that some novels will not gain popularity and through great word-of-mouth, but I wouldn't put all my eggs in that basket as a virtual unknown.  Basically, you will probably have to do some marketing (so build that into your budget).

In my own case, I've got several venues that I intend to use for marketing and promotion, but one that stood out to me was the prospect of a Goodreads advertising campaign.  Goodreads bills itself as having "140 million pageviews and 19 million unique visitors a month."  That's a lot of eyeballs, and I'm sure we'd all love to have them looking at ads for our indie novels.  Thus, pulling the trigger here was really a no-brainer.

Goodreads' advertising system is a pay-per-click model.  Thus, you pay every time someone clicks on your ad.  The amount that you pay per click is based on how much you choose to bid, with the bid range being from $.10 to $300. (The default rate is $.50 per click.)  You can fund fund an ad campaign with a certain amount of money and also place daily limits on how much is spent.  For instance, you could place $10 in your account for a particular ad campaign, and then bid 10 cents per click with a $1 per day limit.  At that rate, you would max out the account with 10 clicks per day over a ten-day period.  However, Goodreads states that the average click-through rate (CTR) is .07%, meaning that to max out the daily limit your ad should expect to have about 14,285 views each day.

With respect to views, Goodreads uses a "complex algorithm" to determine which ads are shown on the site, and those with higher bids are given higher priority.  In short, the higher your bid, the more your ad is displayed.  That said, Goodreads states that the CTR is a greater determinant of which ads are shown more often - i.e., the more often your ad is clicked, the more often it is shown.

Personally, I've been bidding 30 cents per click and I'm pretty happy with the results.  I have ad campaigns for both of my books, Sensation and Warden, and have set a daily limit of $5 for each.  I've never come anywhere near to reaching my daily limit - even with two ads for each book - and I've had thousands of views for each campaign since starting my ad account on 5/6/13. (One thing I will say, however, is that once an ad gets at least one click I've noticed that the number of views increases significantly.)

Speaking of multiple ads, I have two for each book within each respective campaign; one is targeted to readers based on genre, while the other targets them based on authors.  (This is in accordance with Goodreads' suggestions.)  From my experience, those based on genre do exponentially better in terms of page views than those based on authors.  Also, all ads in the same campaign are funded by the same pool of money, so you don't have to dump in a huge sum of money.  regardless, your campaign will continue to run until you run out of moolah in your account.

So, in the grand scheme of things, is advertising on Goodreads worth it?  I would say "Yes," but it also depends on what kind of value you feel you are getting out of the ads.  For instance, if you are strongly adhering to a bean-counting philosophy, you may measure successful advertising solely in terms of resulting book sales.  Thus, if your novel costs $2.99 and you're advertising it with a rate of 30 cents per click, then you may feel you need to sell at least one copy every 6 clicks or the ad is a failure.  (Any more clicks-per-sale than that will result in a loss.)

From my perspective, I think it would be a mistake to measure success solely in terms of quantifiable data like sales.  I believe you should also consider the amount of exposure you're getting. By way of example my novel Sensation has a completely abominable CTR of .01%.  However, it has still had thousands of page views, resulting in it being added to several "to-read" lists on the site. (It also got a nice 5-star review.)  And all of this has only cost me pennies thus far.

In short, I think advertising via Goodreads is an excellent option.  Creating an ad is simple and easy; anyone interested can get started on Goodreads' advertising page.  (A nice FAQ is also located here.)  Also, two other people who do an excellent job of discussing this advertising program are Lindsay Buroker and Geoff Wakeling.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Book Prices and Comparative Value

Mother's Day is coming up, so - like a good son - I recently went in search of an appropriate gift, along with a nice card.  In addition, I've got numerous relatives (cousins, nieces, nephews, etc.) graduating from various institutions this month.  Thus, it occurred to me to get all of the shopping for everyone out of the way at once.

Following that train of thought, I found myself in the greeting card aisle of my local drugstore, casually perusing the various cards-for-all-occasions on display.  After making my selections and heading to the checkout counter, I offhandedly flipped one of the cards over to see how much it cost...and almost had a heart attack!

$6.99!!!  For a card

Talk about sticker shock!  Granted it was nice, but it's essentially a folded piece of paper with a couple of sappy, sentimental lines of text.  For that they want $6.99?  You could get both of my books for less than that!  (Admittedly, at  $2.99 and $3.99 they're only a penny less, but you see my point.)  In fact, the cheapest card I had picked up was actually $2.99.

Maybe I just haven't been paying attention lately.  I can remember when you could get a nice card for 99 cents.  Then I recall prices slowly creeping up:  $1.39... $1.79... $1.99... $2.25...  I just don't know when they took this monstrous leap such that they now cost more than books.  (I'm assuming that Hallmark and the other greeting card companies know that the public is going to buy cards for occasions such as Mother's Day, and that some portion of the population is going to wait until the last minute.  If all the "cheap" cards are gone at that point - i.e., those in the $2.99 range - then the buyer has no choice but to get the expensive card.)

Book prices, of course, is a hotly debated topic among indie authors.  It's hard to find that sweet spot whereby readers will take a chance on you as an unknown, but at the same time you earn enough to make you feel...relevant (for lack of a better term) - like you can not only make a living at writing but that you're actually good at it. 

If you're publishing on Kindle, there's certainly a powerful argument for keeping your price as cheap as possible, which usually means $.99.  After all, you'll still earn a 35% commission (show me another business that will pay you that rate!), and - as almost everyone knows - it makes your book an easy impulse buy, such that you'll probably reach more readers.  If I remember correctly, John Locke (author of the Donovan Creed novels) achieved tremendous success with this approach and still advocates it.

On the flip side, if you charge at least $2.99, you get a whopping 70% commission.  In other words, you have to sell almost six times as many books at $.99 to earn the same amount of money.  It's certainly not impossible, but that's a lot of ground to make up.  In addition, there's a significant amount of backlash now with respect to books priced at $.99.  Basically, the book-buying public has come to assume that a book in that price range, by an unknown author, is probably an indie novel and not worth the price of entry.

In the case of my book "Sensation," I labored long and hard over what the price should be.  I was initially tempted to offer it at $.99, based on the fact that I'm a new author and I'd like to build a fan base.  I figured that I would offer the sequel (which I'm working on now) at a more equitable $3.99.  However, I looked at a couple of other books in the superhero genre, and found most were priced at $2.99+.  For instance, Jim Bernheimer's Confession's of a D-List Supervillain costs $2.99.  Marion G. Harmon began by offering the first novel in his Wearing the Cape series at $.99, but quickly raised the price to $2.99; today all the books in that series are priced at $7.99 on Kindle.

I'm not attempting to compare myself to those guys, but rather trying to convey what I feel the market is for books in this genre.  By comparison, take a peek at the list of the bestselling comic books for January 2013 (compiled by Comichron) located here.  Looking at this list, you can see, for example, that an issue of the Bionic Woman - priced at $3.99 and ranked at #294 on the list - sold almost 4,400 copies that month!  (And I don't mean to imply anything bad about Bionic Woman; I'm just trying to suggest what the fiscal temperament is for those interested in comics and superheroes.)  Based on what I've observed, I think $3.99 is a fair and reasonable price that readers of this genre would be willing to pay.  (Not to mention the fact that Mrs. Wonderful (my wife) offered her unsolicited opinion on the subject:  "You are not selling this book for 99 cents!" And that pretty much brought an end to the debate about price on my part.)

As to "Warden," the mental exercise was much the same, with me coming to the conclusion that $2.99 was an appropriate price for this entry in the teen/young adult genre of horror, fantasy, magic and science fiction. (And again, the Boss Lady reviewed my work and would place her stamp of approval on nothing less than $2.99.)

In retrospect, I think that the prices for most ebooks - not strictly my own - are not only fair but actually cheap in comparison to other consumer goods - Exhibit A being the greeting cards I mentioned at the beginning of this post.  But you can find this type of thing in various sectors, like the price of gas: people think that gasoline is expensive, but other products like soda and coffe are exorbitant in comparsion.  By way of example, imagine you can buy a 12-ounce Coke for 50 cents.  At that rate, Coke costs roughly $5 per gallon, but people happily pay that and more when they go out and eat lunch every day.  Likewise with coffee. 

Basically, at 3 to 4 bucks a pop, I think most ebooks represent extraordinary entertainment value.  You'll pay twice that to go see a movie that you end up hating and not think anything of the cost (not to mention the $20 you spend on concessions).  Thus, I don't even think there should be a debate about books in that price range, or even a little higher.

If you would like to be notified when I release new books, please subscribe to my mailing list here.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Value of Pen Names

I recently saw the funny commercial below, in which a young couple discover that the plumber fixing their sink is also the guy who did their taxes.  As you can imagine, it leaves them feeling a little queasy - like walking into the doctor's office and suddenly realizing the physician you're talking to is also the guy who changed your oil at the mechanic's shop.

What this commercial clearly shows is that we rarely expect people to have expertise in more than one area, and the public rarely embraces them when they try to go outside the boundaries that have been drawn for them  (e.g., no one wants to see Garth Brooks singing rock).  The same seems to hold true for writers.  While there are a select few who can seemingly navigate all waters in the field of literature (Michael Crichton is one who comes to mind), we usually expect authors to stick to what they know.  For most of us, that means writing in a single genre (or related genres, which might include variations on a theme - such as going from "romance" to "mystery and romance").

Bearing all this in mind, it's not surprising that many writers - even established authors - will sometimes use pen names.  Of course, that's not the only reason.  Many writers are afraid of the backlash from fans when they write in another genre.  ("Why's she writing this sci-fi stuff instead of sticking to romance novels?")  Or they may be concerned that if the book does poorly it will damage their brand.  Or they may not want their real name attached because of the subject matter - like erotica!  :>)

Personally, I think that the writer's work needs to be judged on its own merits, not in regards to whether the author has published in that genre before.  Who knows?  We might all have a little Michael Crichton in us.

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