My “Better Than Free” Experiment

Recently, Amazon added another promotional perk to its Kindle Select program – Kindle Countdown Deals. Authors and publishers can lower the price of their e-books for a short promotional period, and still retain the 70% royalty rate. Amazon helps “promote” books by listing the specially priced books on a special webpage. Consumers see the “regular” digital price crossed out with an advisory about the “limited time” sale when they come across the book.

The reason I thought this would help me sell my novel, Loisaida, is because in the past when I’d lowered the price for my own “promotion” I’d seen sales increases. During those previous promos word got out without my doing very much. There used to be tons of sites and blogs on the look out for 99 cent books, and Loisaida would get listed pretty quickly without my contacting those sites.

Sales spikes are good things for authors, not just for whatever small revenue they bring in, but because the way that Amazon works, the more books you sell, the more books you will sell. Their mysterious algorithm means that every sale leads to a book appearing to more customers through various recommendation widgets that show up when consumers sign in to Amazon. Even a few sales in a short time can turn a book into a genre or sub-genre “bestseller” making it easy to find for readers with particular interests. What I was really hoping for was that even a few extra sales within a few hours or a day would lead to a “bounce” resulting in more sales.

The indie landscape is constantly changing. The amount of self-published books has grown to ridiculous numbers while quality (or lack thereof) on the whole has not improved. When I first put Loisaida on Kindle in late 2011, I quickly lowered the price from $2.99 to 99 cents, and was able to sell a few hundred copies a month. Then I raised it back to $2.99 and sales dropped dramatically. I’d lower it again periodically and get a small bounce, but the bounces decreased over time. It sold most when Kindle sales started to take off in the US, and Kindle was just introduced in the UK. Back then, consumers were looking to fill up their new devices with cheap content. Nowadays, consumers who buy self-published books expect the prices to be super low, and consumers with no interest in self-published books expect a 99 cent book to be not worth the price.

As things began to tighten up, I’d seen some authors do well by advertising, but advertising has to be strategic. It makes no sense to spend $300 if you’ll get back nowhere near that amount on sales. Many people are trying to make money off of the self-publishing boom by selling publicity, advertising, and other services to writers who will never see a return on these investments.

Pete Morin, author of Diary of a Small Fish had blogged about his positive experience with Book Bub, which sends out a newsletter listing promotions to a large number of subscribers. Listing your book is not inexpensive, but Morin ran the numbers and for him it worked out well. Really well. Months before the Kindle Countdown offer became a thing, I’d written to Book Bub, but my book was rejected. I’m still not sure why as they wouldn’t give me a specific reason. It’s a gritty tale and might not appeal to every reader’s taste, but reader reviews on Amazon, Amazon UK, Goodreads, and assorted blogs have been overwhelmingly positive.

Since BookBub wasn’t open to me, and I didn’t know what advertiser to trust, I decided to try something different. I made an offer through my blog, Facebook, and Twitter. I’d give consumers a $1.99 Amazon gift certificate for purchasing my 99 cent book during the promotion. The offer was only good through the Amazon dot com site (not Amazon UK) because I wanted to concentrate any bounce and wasn’t even sure the sale was on in the UK. Customers would need to purchase the book first and e-mail proof of purchase. When it didn’t look like the Facebook offer was getting a lot of shares, or the tweets getting many re-tweets, or my blog getting more than the usual traffic, I went for a little bit of advertising – a $6.99 promoted Facebook post, and $15 for a twitter ad.

Meantime, I did a web search just to see if the promo price was getting any buzz through blogs or websites as it had when I’d lowered the price previously. Nada. Maybe nobody’s listing short term sales anymore, or no one’s listing without paid “sponsorship.” I don’t know.

I checked out Amazon’s Kindle Countdown Deal page and found it almost impossible to even find my book listed. They had put it under Crime Fiction and I finally found it somewhere around the fifth screen. There was 0% chance of anyone randomly coming across it or even finding it if they knew it was there but didn’t know where to look. However, in an unrelated development, my book got a tiny shout-out by another indie author in an interview on The Guardian website.

The sale ran from midnight November 12th until the end of November 16th. I got a total of two people redeeming my rebate offer. Web searches didn’t reveal any “buzz” about my offer, and I never found any listing mentioning the 99 cent sale Countdown offer, other than Amazon’s very hard to find one. Is it possible some of my sales were due to people seeing the offer through my blog, Facebook or Twitter, checking out the book, and buying without redeeming? Maybe, but other than two people on Facebook claiming to have done that, I don’t know. Total sales during the promotion period were 15, and one post-promo-sale so far. None on Amazon UK. Given the dismal numbers in the previous three months, that still comes out to a five-fold increase over what I might have expected, but not enough to have resulted in the hoped for “bounce.”

Here are the numbers:

Revenues: 15 books at 70 cents royalty each (minus “file size” fees ) = $10.48. Plus 1 additional post-promo-sale which I’ll generously attribute to the promotion adding a $2.72 royalty for a total of $13.20

Total costs: $6.99 promoted Facebook post, plus $15.00 twitter ad, plus 2 rebates for $3.98 = $25.97.

I’m out $12.77.

Seriously folks, good marketing advice based on stuff that’s actually worked for the person passing it along, would be most welcome, as long as it’s not something I’ve already heard, like the following:

  • Gather 6,000 plus twitter followers who don’t also have books to sell.
  • Send $500 and I’ll help you sell your book.
  • Write to your hometown paper. (Mine is The New York Times Believe me, they’re not interested.)
  • Next time try writing something people will actually want to read.

This self-publishing thing is hard.