Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Self-Published E-Book Riches--How in the Hell?

 Take a look at this list of successful self-published e-book authors. Some of them have POD paperbacks too:


I'm damn frustrated. I'm agog, atwitter and absolutely dumbfounded by the number of successful self-published authors who are raking in sacks of money for their e-books. This amounts to more than head-scratching for me--this is a mystery that I can't solve, explain, or even copy or emulate. I'm a damn slave to self-promotion and marketing, and I've used some pretty exceptional resources to get the word out. Just for the past six months I've spent at least three or four hours out of every writing day to create buzz, link, guest blog, field interviews, advertise (free), announce, brag, talk-up, get reviewed, entice and blast my books all over the cyber universe, just up to the point of spamming the world. I've been warned, put on probation and kicked off sites, for this type of enthusiastic, some would say desperate, activity. I AM A SHAMELESS SELF-PROMOTER. I am this because no one else is going to do this for me. I don't buy ad space, nor do I have a Big Six publisher or publicity outfit behind me. I won't even spend a dime for a blog tour. I'm not a celebrity, but I'm well-known--this I know from the emails, comments and reviews. And it's taken years of flinging my name and books out there for someone to say, "Yeah, I think I know who you are...I'm sure I've bought from you."

The sales and rank for my latest release are very good, but not top-gun or A list. I'm not self-published in e-book or POD format, but I do have a great small press publisher behind me, adding to the exposure and promotion. My publisher is doing everything humanely possible to raise awareness on this title EVERYWHERE he goes--even the editors and artists blast my title on FB and Twitter. I roughly sell about 30 to 50 books a month, and those are great months. I have to split the proceeds with my publisher, so I'm not pulling in that 35 or 70 percent from the Amazon program. That 's not my beef or frustration. I'm getting slaughtered by just average e-book self publishers, who are claiming anywhere from 200 copies a month on up to thousands. Forget about those big names on the list up there. I'm talking about authors who have recently or just recently listed on Amazon and are claiming very high numbers. And you know what? Their ranks are the proof in the pudding and I check on dozens of them every day. They're not lying. I go to their websites and blogs and see screen shots of their sales. I write to them and pick their brains. Most do not really give me something substantial to chew on, except for the advice and template that I've already followed. They're leaving something out. But what?

Here's the clincher: do you know what's coming from the other side of the fence from the same authors who have also self-published and listed on Amazon? Here's some of the comments I've reproduced, nearly word for word from some blogs and websites:

"Gosh, I'm not selling at all like that."
"I wish I had those numbers, congrats!"
"I've only sold nine books in the last month. How are you doing this?"
"Are you paying for ads somewhere? Is it worth it?"
"That's not been my experience. Got any tips?"

Indeed. Quite a division, isn't there? So what the hell's going on? Aren't you the least bit curious about how some rise to the top almost instantly, and then stay there week after week, month after month, and in some cases, for a couple years? And by God, the others are claiming nothing like those numbers. The first question I ask myself is, "What could I possibly be doing so wrong to reside in the relative sales gutter, while I'm being upstaged by these self-published gunslingers? There have been many of them that claim that they do NO promotion or marketing at all. Some admit to active promo and marketing, and others proclaim they really bust their asses. But strangely, I see a LOT of those authors admitting to little or no self-promotion.

Let's forget "great story" as a reason for high sales--I don't believe this after having read hundreds of sample pages. These books have nothing on any others as far as characters, plot, pace, tone, hook or any other advantage. Trust me on this. Some are very poor quality, wherein some merit exceptional writing. In short, they are no better than commercial published books from the large presses.

Mind you, these books are surpassing even our most treasured best-selling authors, and landing on the NY Times, and other best-selling media lists. Commercial publishers and agents are flocking to pick up some of these authors and, yes, major publishing and movie rights sales have been made.

Paid ads. This could work, but you'd need to place these ads in the best possible locations to reap any kind of response. And paid ads can be VERY expensive. They're not all that useful, and are more hit or miss than anything. I doubt that even the best, most expensive ads could rocket you into bestseller stardom, but I'm willing to bend a little here and entertain the notion that some paid ads have started a few literary careers. 

Let's forget personal popularity--these authors, damn near every one of them (with a few exceptions), were completely unknown to the industry.

Word of mouth? I'll try and explain that a bit further on.

Friends and family? Forget it. Unless they have a direct lineage from Genghis Khan, it is nearly impossible to account for that many sales from relatives or personal contacts and expect word of mouth to carry and perpetuate sales numbers into the stratosphere.

Very low price points? Ah, we've hit on something here that certainly can have a major effect on what's happening. Until you realize that just about every other self-publisher and publishing house has ALSO dropped their prices to experiment and compete. Both my publishers dropped books sales into the $.99 to $2.99 bracket and kept them there. It did help, but it did not, does not, account for extreme sales jumps into the thousands or tens of thousands. It's extraordinary how many $.99 e-books on Amazon I see listed from self-publishers. I'll admit that real cheap books can sell in the truckloads. But if that were true, where are my and your huge sales? Are you priced between $.99 and $2.99? Okay then.

So what's left? There's only one conclusion that I've come to that makes any sense at all. I'll not claim claims, name names or accuse. I don't have any evidence to prove my point. I'll ask that you ride along with me as I extrapolate or give it a hell of a guess. I certainly can't research it--there wouldn't be an author on this planet who would admit to it. But it's the only thing that makes sense.

They're buying their own books.

There I said it. And I don't want to start a flame war. Want to land in the top 100 Amazon bestseller list with an unknown $.99 e-book? Buy a 100 of them (your own book) over a period of a week and I guarantee you'll get there. Want to spend a few more bucks and land in the top 10? Easy, start filling your shopping cart, carefully watch your rank, adjust your purchase timing and keep the book's high rank there yourself. These types of authors, many who've claimed to spend big bucks on cover art, formatting and editing, wouldn't blink an eye while dropping a couple hundred or more to launch their books. Amazon doesn't care if all the purchases come from the same IP address--they're a business and in it to make money.  A conscientious author might enlist a dozen or two dozen friends to crank the sales numbers up by making the purchases, gladly using the author's money. I'm almost positive that a half dozen sales in one day can land you in the top 100, provided the genre is right. Easy peasy.

Yeah, but what happens after the book hits those lofty sales ranks? Then the author runs out of money, so it doesn't mean the book will stay up there in bestseller heaven. It's a flash in the pan--he's had his 15 minutes of fame--it's over in a few or several days. Oh, no. It's just getting started. When you hit the top 100 or 10 Amazon bestsellers list, along with any large media list, the thing this author most likely does is blast that news all over the Internet, to every news corp site, display site, writing and reading group, special organizations, local and national magazines, newspapers and radio stations...you get the picture. That author will start a blog (if he/she doesn't already have one in place), and they'll start threads and posts in the largest groups that you can find on the Internet. Their claim, after all, is legitimate. And timing is everything if they want to pull this off without a glitch.

Once you hit those lofty bestseller lists, you've automatically set yourself up for the best algorithm position Amazon has to offer. You'll be on specialty lists and pages, given priority rank and exposure. Your Amazon publishing page will go nuts--your email box will flood--your popularity on every one of your group sites will manifest tenfold--your comment boxes will fill--and the curious will break down your door, wondering how you've achieved all of this in such a short time. Oh, yes, your sales will go through the roof, especially if you're priced very low, and those purchasers will be comprised of the awestruck curious, eager to read and enjoy this best-selling tale, believing that the popularity of this book lies in its unchallenged, supreme quality. Face it. Everyone on this earth is drawn to a rags to riches story, especially the publishing kind.

Now you have a snowball effect, where this book can achieve perpetual motion. It climbs further, faster and higher, because its initial success (self-purchased copies) was the primer that launched it. It rides its own coattails, growing exponentially. The author need not quit any marketing or promotion, but will probably have to redouble their efforts and find the energy to keep up with this runaway Leviathan. They've created a monster--a wonderful monster. Is this illegal, unethical or deceptive? Nope. It's been done before and there are documented cases where this tactic was used to create a breakout. If my mind serves me, a Publish America author did something like this. So it's been around for a long time. Only now I can see how it really could be put into good use as far as self-published e-books, priced at $.99. Face it, your curiosity is piqued and wagering a dollar on the purchase is not going to bankrupt you.

If you think about it, it's rather quite genius in its simplicity. You fire a live round into an ammo dump (make a mass purchase) and that one round sets off all the other live shells, creating a mass explosion (mass publicity).

Am I on target here? I don't know. Like I said, I don't have the proof. I have nothing more than a nagging gut feeling/suspicion on how some of these authors are busting out with these miraculous sales. I've seen dozens and dozens of these bestsellers habitually post their progress on boards, and its about the progress, stats and numbers, and not about the storyline of the book itself. More sales math than writing meat, and that raises my hackles.

Chris, are you saying that most or all self-published authors are doing this? God send a lightning bolt down upon me, NO. I know of a dozen or so talented authors who have gained notoriety and high sales from their own persistent efforts, and I've read their blogs and exchanged pixels with them. It's the others I can't account for, or understand their jump to fame, and it's that that boggles me. I would expect any author who has done this to launch their careers to keep buttoned up about it, and go to their graves with it. I've just been trying to make sense with something that just doesn't make sense. Perhaps one day, when I'm ready to self-publish, I'll experience my own ride and learn about the "mystical formula"--the formula that can launch me into the stratosphere and confirm my dreams of avarice.

I'd love to hear from anyone, self-published or not, that can punch a hole in my theory or answer this riddle. Am I way off track here, or am I possibly on to something? What else could possibly make sense? I'm not talking about a Joe Konrath here; I'm talking about these unknowns (no fan base) who have eclipsed even him, and shot to stardom.

Anyway, food for thought, wot?

ETA: Comments are not showing up for some reason, and I'm trying to figure out why. Maybe I'll reload.

ETA # 2: Just been informed that Amazon allows only 10 purchases from a credit card as far as books are concerned. Still, could 10 people max out for a writer friend and drive up sales rank?

ETA # 3: I'm starting to regret this post. My guesswork might just be off by a mile. A poster in my group just informed me that Amazon will only allow one book purchase per Kindle device. In other words, you'd have to own 100 Kindles to purchase 100 books?

ETA # 4: How in the heck can any self-published writer game the system? Or is Amazon giving special treatment and extended exposure to their self-published stable of authors? How would they do this?

ETA # 4: After further investigation, it appears that Amazon does indeed give added exposure to new releases on a very high-traffic list location (page/pages). Combined with low price points and free trial periods, the Amazon listings (because of its huge readership), are responsible for some very high upfront sales numbers. Very high sales for new books are quite common within the first week, driving many to the top 100 bestselling list, wherein more exposure is gained. Snappy covers and blurbs account for increased browser purchases, with many, many books sold at the popular $.99 price point. I would venture to say that once the book hits the top 100 list, the authors are using social and commercial media outlets to announce the fact, which is what I expected. I have not heard (yet) if there is anyway to make multiple author purchases, other than claiming lost titles, defective product complaints or dissatisfaction.   


Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars (Engage Science Fiction) (Illustrated)


"Planet Janitor does deliver an interstellar romp that hearkens to the best of Robert Heinlein or Philip José Farmer... A rollicking plot-driven adventure... The dangers are intimidating, the wonders evocative and the thread that ties it all together is always just a little more tangled than it seems." --The Canadian Science Fiction Review, December 13, 2010

"An intriguing and exciting cross between Aliens and 10,000 Years B.C. - Stevenson shows us a future filled with proof that we should listen to Stephen Hawking's warnings about alien life forms and what they want to do to us." --Gini Koch, author of `Touched by an Alien' & `Alien Tango', December 1, 2010

"Stevenson's book considers the possibility of an elite industry of environmental cleanup specialists who take on all sorts of bizarre environmental jobs... Clearly, this is a timely topic that hits home in the wake of the Gulf oil spill." --SF-Fandom, September 21, 2010

From the Publisher

A great deal of care went into the quality of this book, with case laminate library binding, wrap around cover art, and 26 illustrations.