Sunday, September 15, 2013

Guest Post by David Haywood Young

Hi everybody!

I say that sometimes on my blog, too, and it's a sort of private-to-me joke. Very nearly an entirely private joke: I don't have a lot of readers. Compared to some people.

But when I started I had none. Even my wife and my mom needed constant prodding! (In fact they still would, but I gave up on 'em...the traitors.)

These days, a couple of hundred people read each of my posts, and...well, I obviously ain't no Joe Konrath but I find that both flattering and humbling. As it says on my homepage, I'm not sure I even want to be the sort of wildly popular writer who can't respond to his readers. I love the interaction.

Okay, enough about me. (I would've also described myself as a Konrath groupie, but then I'd have had to tell you he doesn't know me from a hole in the ground, and then somebody would raise the obvious question...frankly I neither know nor care what he does with them, and neither should you. Best to let it lie, don't you think?)

Let me tell you what's different about this guest post: I'm not talking about any of my books. I'm not even linking to them. I'm confident enough in my plan for the next year that I can say this: frankly I don't think I need to plug anything here. Also, I don't think it would benefit me much in the long term even if I did.

(I don't think there's anything wrong with self-promotion, by the way. I'm just trying to make a point about an alternative approach to the problem.)

Bear in mind:

1)      Reviewers of my books (on Amazon) have generally been quite kind,
2)      My first novel sold fairly well for the first couple of months, but
3)      Current sales can't even climb out of the...plumbing...to reach the toilet, and
4)      My second novel never really sold at all even though I do get nice comments from its few readers (a self-inflicted wound, I think: my sense of humor won't let me change the title, and its cover sucked), but
5)      I'm nevertheless pleased as all hell with my writing career just now.

I'm here for the long haul. I need to generate material for various retailers' virtual shelves. I also need to connect with readers. Thing is? I can. It'll just take some work. So, for the near future, I'm going to use that shelf space a little differently than most. Than any, as far as I know, unless you folks want to come along with me. Which you're welcome to do.

All right. I'm coming at this whole writerly ambition thing from a software/entrepreneur background. I've posted about that before, and you can find that stuff if you want to. What gripes me most about the current indie publishing world? Customer lock-in at Amazon. The customers under discussion? We're them. As a business guy I have to say this: it sucks the bottom line.

I mean, let's face it. They've got us. We do our damnedest to send people over there to buy books. And why not? It works. They know who our actual repeat customers are. And they know better than to tell us. Since they also have a huge pool of potential first-time buyers handy, we're convinced we can't afford to take our toys and go home. We play in their sandbox, or—essentially—not at all.

Seriously? Doesn't that bug you? We advertise for them? I grok the necessity, but it's damn well backwards if we want to grow a long-term self-sustaining business for ourselves. Here's the neat part: I think we can improve the situation. I don't even think it'll be all that hard, as long as we're willing to work at it. And no, I'm not just talking about email lists...though I do think they're essential.

Right now I should tell you all about my new guaranteed way to do business without Amazon. That'd be cool. But I'm not going to tell you about a foolproof get-rich-quick scheme for indie writers (though of course I do have one). Nor am I going to tell you about the bright future indies have in traditional bookstores (though I'm wildly optimistic on that score too).

Incidentally, did you follow those links to my site? Sucker! Fun, though, I hope.

Seriously though: it's the counter-intuitive but dead-simple ideas that work. I did a goofy giveaway on my blog a little while back, in which instead of posting download links I personally emailed free e-copies of any book anybody asked me for, one to a customer (obviously on the honor system there), in any format they liked...for 30 days. I put a lot of work into the post explaining it all, trying to make the offer sound enticing. And a ton of work into getting all the books sent within 24 hours of the requests, with personal comments included if the requester had a blog or something. My wife was...supportive and pleased and exasperated as hell by the end of it. Maybe I'll wait till next year to do it again! {8'>

But every single one of the recipients has my personal email address and knows I'll talk to them. I got a few reviews and a few new beta readers out of the deal (and it was fairly recent, so there may well be more coming), but the main thing? Though the overall volume was a small fraction of what I could've done with a KDP giveaway, it was a hell of a lot more fun for all of us. And I think a bunch of these new people will stick with me. If I can continue to earn their attention. My opinion? Joe Konrath can't afford to do this sort of thing. But I can. So, as long as I'm willing to put the work in and I don't let it stop me from writing new stuff, I have a competitive edge. If so, I should use it, huh? My readership, though puny, can grow a lot (in a percentagewise sort of way) from a few efforts like this.

I'm doing another goofy thing in which I'll be writing a story about a character who likes a particular computer game. Oddness ensues. The character is a bit player from my first novel, so there's some potential to help re-goose that one (also the sequel I'm writing ought to help, and so will the first novel's eventual perma-free status).

Thing is, I'm doing this story in semi-collaboration with the game designers. We're going to try some cross-pollination between our audiences. And why not? It should be fun for everybody involved.

But here's my main topic for today: I'm doing something deceptively straightforward, both at Amazon and emphatically not.

1)      I'm posting a new free story on my blog every Wednesday. For a year.
2)      Each following week I'm publishing them via Smashwords (as freebies) and Amazon (as...well...$.99 specials, pending the elusive price-match).
3)      I provide links to retailers on my site so folks who feel the urge will have a handy way to go post a review if they like, or recommend the story to others...or whatever they choose to do.
4)      The biggest bit, simple as it is: each and every one of these stories, when posted at Amazon and elsewhere, will include language right on the “book description” page (and in a “Thanks for Reading!” section at the end of the ebook) telling folks about the weekly freebies on my blog. People will see that whether they buy the story or not.
5)      Yes, I'm continuing to write novels. Though, yes, at a slower pace.

Essentially? I'm trying to turn the tables on Amazon (to some extent) by using them to place a highly-targeted ad for my blog. Let their recommendation engines roar! Hell, I don't even have to make a sale for this to work. Anybody who finds any of my “Weekly Challenge” stories can: (1) go away, (2) buy the story, (3) at some point buy a story collection including the story they've found, or (4) come play with me at my place today. Or some combination of the above.

Let me ask you...which is of greater value? A $.99 sale, of which I get to keep $.35? Or bringing a reader to my blog, where if all goes well he/she will get in the habit of reading my fiction every week? Possibly even signing up to one of my mailing lists?

Kind of a no-brainer, isn't it? And here's a funny thing—my blog subscription email list, which I put off even creating for a long time, is growing more than three times as fast as my RSS subscriber pool (assuming Feedburner is roughly accurate on the RSS side of things). I had no idea how many people I was essentially turning away until I tried it. Which makes me feel kind of stupid, because I knew exactly how much my email list was worth when I ran an internet startup: essentially it was the only asset I owned that mattered. The same applied when I was doing freelance work, though in that case phone numbers mattered too. I did have a new-release-only list going already, but I was still kinda dumb.

I originally intended to put the stories into KDP Select, and in fact I did that with the first one. But I got pushback via blog comments, Twitter, and email. I can't say how much of that was genuine interest versus frustrated entitlement, but people flat didn't like it when I shut them out via Amazon-exclusive content. So I learned something there too.

Speaking of obvious stuff I missed going into this? Until recently I failed to grasp something so important it's kind of funny. It's out there for all to see, but I think nearly everybody is missing it. Let's recap: Amazon is giving less of a boost to indies (especially via KDP Select) than they used to. Thus, it's hard to sell much of anything unless you have a following or pay for an ad, and you kind of need a following to get enough reviews to place an effective ad. So...what's that mean? Should we panic? No, we should direct our efforts elsewhere. Because Amazon has made themselves much less important to indie writers than they used to be. I'm waiting for other people to notice this and come up with new strategies accordingly.

In fact...if we need to go find readers ourselves in order to get a sales “bump” to kick off Amazon's algorithms, why do we even need Amazon? Not that I'll go out of my way to stay away from their sites, but true fans we find for ourselves are probably at least somewhat portable. Seriously, just today a reader saw a post about some trouble I'd had with Amazon and asked me via email where I'd prefer she get my stuff in the future.

Feel free to discount all of the above. This isn't a success story. It's not a testimonial. I'm just telling you what I'm up to, because I think it will work. Possibly very well indeed. But if it doesn't? It doesn't really matter. I'll just try the next thing.

And thanks, Joe. You helped inspire me to go back to writing fiction. I'll make it work one way or another—this is, or will be, my third career (after professional poker and software development). Neither of the other two was easy to break into. I don't at all mind that I'll need to earn any success I attain in this new area over time. Sounds like a blast actually!

Oh, and if any of you guys are in the place where I used to be? Where you get a lot of value out of Joe's blog but haven't read his fiction? Well, if that's your spot, change it. I've now read most of his fiction. It's also a blast. Those books, I'll plug anywhere.


Did I mention I believe success will come from hard work and a bit of creativity? 'Cause I do. And nobody seems to be stopping me from finally doing what I've always wanted....

Joe: I applaud David for thinking outside the box, but will offer some unsolicited advice: Novels sell much better than short stories. At some point, while releasing a story once a week, consider releasing a segment of a serial novel, so at the end of the year you have a longer work or two. Those can then be put together and sell for $3.99, and you'll make more money in the long run. 

Also, I'm a good reminder that blog traffic isn't directly comparable to ebook sales. The first part of the zombie novel GRANDMA? that I'm writing with my son has sold 100 copies since we released it last week.

I'm a name brand with a popular blog and lots of bestselling titles, and that ebook--my latest--is selling lukewarmly. I expect it to pick-up as we add more installments, but so far I'm underwhelmed.

No one knows what sells, or why. Having a well-known name, lots of publicity, a brand, a blog, 10,000 Twitter friends--none of that makes people buy books. All of my experience points to the majority of my books sales due to Amazon's algorithms and website structure (reviews, bestseller lists, also bought, search engines.) Who I am outside of Amazon.com doesn't seem to matter much. 

So go for it, David, but keep your expectations modest, and remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. It's smart to increase your virtual shelf space with a lot of content (provided it is good content) and if you can wrangle a novel or two out of your experiment, all the better.