How to Have a Wildly Successful Promotion that Still Loses Money

I promised an update after I ran my big promo, but it turns out that it takes a lot longer than I expected to fully quantify the return on investment. Let’s start by summarizing what we are dealing with:

  • Entropy is a trilogy of romance novels. The first was published in August 2015 and the last in March 2017.
  • Entropy has 55 reviews, averaging 4.5 stars on Amazon, and has proven fairly easy to sell if I can get people to its page on Amazon.
  • None of the books had sold more than a couple a month for the past few months.
  • All the books are in Kindle Unlimited.
  • I’ve never run a free book sale on any of these titles before. I have run $0.99 sales a couple times, and those did okay.

And here is what I did:

  • May 3-7, Entropy was free
  • May 4-10, Duality and Gravity were $0.99/£0.99
  • I tweeted several times a day about the sales, starting on May 3
  • I ran $423 worth of newsletter placements on May 4 (details here)

By any reasonable standard, the promotion was wildly successful:

  • 5,846 downloads of Entropy
  • Entropy hit #26 on the overall Amazon best-seller (free) list
  • Entropy remained in the top 100 free May 4-6
  • 118 downloads of two perma-free shorts I have on Amazon
  • 7 full-price ($4.99) purchases of books from the trilogy (before/after the sale)
  • 3 full-price ($2.99) purchases of my newest novel (not part of this promo at all)
  • 225 purchases of Duality & Gravity at $0.99/£0.99
  • 12,811 pages read in KU (so far)

In hindsight, it turns out I did some very smart things completely by accident. First, I set up the newsletter promos to be stacked on the second day of the sale. I did this because I wanted time to contact Amazon if the sale didn’t start on schedule. Of course, it did start on schedule because this isn’t Amazon’s first rodeo. So during that first day, I promoted it on Twitter. I expected a dozen downloads. I got 300. What that did was push my book up into the top 500 free books. Since Amazon takes history into account when computing bestseller ranks, being at this high level the day before my big promo let my book reach its peak bestseller rank much quicker than otherwise would have happened. I never expected to break into the top 100, much less go all the way to the second page (Amazon shows 20/page on the top 100 list). While I think category bestseller lists are completely pointless, getting into the overall list certainly would seem valuable on getting a virtuous cycle going.

The idea is that if you get a high rank, then people who are browsing for something to download might notice it in the list. That leads to more downloads, which takes you higher on the list, and so on. Did that happen? There’s literally no way to know, because Amazon won’t tell authors where their buyers come from.

Lesson 1: Start the deal a day early and promote for free on Twitter the day before your big newsletter promos drop

The next genius thing I did completely by accident was run the 99 cent sales on my second two books. My thinking was that a few people who grab the free book might actually read it right away (I firmly believe most people who download free books never read them). And if they like the first book, they might want the rest of the series. But since they are smart/frugal enough to wait for books to be free, the chances of them paying $4.99 for the sequel struck me as slim. I figured I’d have a much better chance of getting those readers if the book was as cheap as possible, hence the sale price. I started it a day later than the free day, figuring it’d take people at least a day to read the first one and want the second. My logic was completely wrong.

Very few people came back to get the second two books after reading the first. What people did was buy all three books at once! They came to grab a free book, saw that they could get all three for 1.98, and about 110 of them took the bait. If I had understood this dynamic, I would have had the 99 cent sales start on the same day as the free sale, so I could have grabbed a bunch of those first-day Twitter users’ money, too.

Lesson 2: Put other books in the series on sale for 99 cents when you make the first book free

The last thing that really surprised me is the KU behavior. If a person subscribes to KU, they don’t need to wait for a book to be free. They can read those books any time for free. So why would a free book deal draw KU readers to read the free book? I have no idea. But it does.

The pages read are clearly tapering off, but they still haven’t stopped. I suppose I’ll have a few slow readers keeping that chart busy for the rest of the month. The great thing about this phenomena is that even though the book was free, I still get paid for KU reads. Last month the rate was 0.448¢ per page. Assuming it’s close to that for May, those 12.8K pages read should earn me about $57.

Lesson 3: The boost in KU reads is significant and helps offset the cost of the promo

This brings us to the bottom line. I spent $423 on the promo. I earned $182 on sold books, and $57 on KU page reads, for a total of $239. My wildly successful promo left me $184 in the hole. Sigh.

At this point, most authors would congratulate themselves because of all the exposure or branding they got for that $184. Sorry, folks. That’s nonsense. I’m an independent author with 4 novels. I’m not a brand.

I did get one brilliant review on Goodreads. But I also got a couple one-star no-review ratings there, because people are jerks, I suppose.

Once those KU reads die out, the book will be exactly as dormant as it was before I ran this promotion. And that glimmer of hope I had that this might have a knock-on effect of getting new readers for my latest novel? Seems that’s not happening either. (I sold three copies during the promo, but I think that was just a coincidence because they happened right at the beginning.)

Would I do this again? Definitely not. It is a bad idea to pay people to read your books. But I might do something different. I might do the Entropy is free / Duality & Gravity are 99 cents thing in a few months, and look for ways to promote it that are more cost effective, for example.

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Chasing the “Big Bump”

For those of you who are new around here, let me catch you up. I’ve been writing novels for about three years. My first one was an erotic romance called Entropy, which has done pretty well for a first novel from an indie author who refuses to spend more on marketing than he makes on his writing. (I’ve sold about 400 copies of that one across all channels.) I followed that up with a sequel, Duality, and then finished out the trilogy with Gravity. The sales of the latter two books were not as robust, being sequels. It didn’t occur to me (particularly against the drumbeat of bloggers saying “You have to write a series!”), but sequels limit your audience to people who read the previous book. So while my sell-through rate (40%) is well above average, sequels are never going to be able to match the sales of the first book.

Having learned that lesson, my next novel was a genre-change. I wrote a standalone women’s fiction novel Apotheosis. It’s not erotic (in fact, there is no sex at all), and it sort of mashes up “Women’s Fiction” and “Hero’s Journey” plot lines to make something that should have a pretty broad appeal. That’s just been out a couple months and it is off to a decent start, selling about 50 copies so far across all channels. The reviews are outstanding. I’m having a heck of a time figuring out how to promote it, though. Twitter Ads, which have worked really well for me in the past, aren’t working at all for the new novel. Getting cheap clicks is working (particularly in the UK), but once they get to the page, they aren’t converting to readers at nearly the rate I saw with Entropy. No clue why.

So while I let that new book simmer, hoping it finds an audience on its own, I’ve temporarily turned my attention back to my original series. One thing I’ve never done is make a novel free. I have a couple short stories that I turned into e-books and made free, and although I’ve never spent a dime promoting them, they’ve managed to find about 1,800 readers on their own, just sitting there being free. The free shorts also include the first chapter of Entropy, as a teaser. As far as I can tell, that’s never led to any sales. But each short only took me a day or two to write, edit, and publish, so I don’t feel bad about not making anything back on them.

Despite that evidence that free is not a good strategy, along with my argument that authors should never pay people to read their books, I’m going to go ahead and do a free promo of Entropy. And I’m going to do it right. The book is in KDP Select (Amazon exclusive), so I can easily make it free for five days. And I’ve secured paid spots on a bunch of newsletters to promote the free day:

  • Book Sends: $180
  • Free Booksy: $100
  • Excite Spice: $40
  • Fussy Librarian: $30
  • eBook Betty: $25
  • Book Soda: $20
  • Book Raid: $20
  • Read Freely: $8

Yes, that is an eye-popping $423 I’m going to spend to promote a free book. I can guarantee I won’t get a direct return on my investment, since it’s free. There’s no royalties when it’s free. So without an ROI, why do it? Curiosity, mostly.

The conventional wisdom of doing a free promo is that you get The Big Bump. That is, after the promo is over, your sales go way up. I’ve never bought into this theory because it’s usually predicated on the idea that you get the bump because your bestseller rank goes up on Amazon. Except whenever I see authors talking about their bump, they point to their category rank. Having a high category rank does nothing. I proved this a long time ago (skip ahead to the word “delusional” in that post). If your overall book rank hit the top 10, as might happen if you get a coveted BookBub spot (which I can’t), that should cause a nice knock-on sales effect. But being in the top 10 of some sub-sub-subcategory helps nothing but your ego.

However, I recently read a blog post that had a much more plausible explanation of the bump: Also Boughts. Read that post for the details, but the gist is that if lots of people “buy” your free book, then your book is likely to show up on the pages of people who are browsing Amazon. We know the bump is real. Authors always talk about it as the reason to run free promos. And now that I have a reasonable explanation of it to hold on to, I’m finally ready to try one.

It’s scheduled for May 4, so I’ll do a follow-up after that with my results. Since I’m “stacking” all the newsletter ads together, I won’t have any way to tell which ones worked and which didn’t. But that’s a very solid list of well-respected performers (particularly the two expensive ones), so I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t do much better. (Within the constraints I have: ENT won’t run ads for Entropy because the cover lacks a bare-chested male model, and BookBub is just a big bunch of meanies.)

My predictions:

  1. I will get a lot of downloads. Let’s guess 4000
  2. I won’t make it to the top 10 overall bestseller list
  3. I will get a bump in my KU reads of all my books
  4. I will see some sales and KU reads of the sequels in a couple weeks
  5. I won’t come anywhere close to making my money back
  6. I will have a loss on my 2018 Schedule C for the first time as a result of this lunacy

 

Apotheosis: A New Release from Joshua Edward Smith

Maggie Jane Schuler

There are pitfalls people fall in over the course of a lifetime, and Cynthia is one of those folks who has fallen. She’s a midlife divorcee who recognizes she needs a change in order to live her life and fill the empty void. Apotheosis tells the tale of one woman’s journey in search of owning her own happiness. Her sojourn takes her through an emotional cleansing of sorts and mixes her foundational beliefs with a blend of cultural experiences, self-esteem building, and the path to loving oneself and having the love returned.

Joshua Edward Smith takes the Pacific Northwest by storm in Apotheosis. He creates a lost soul in search of the road to salvation in his heroine. Cynthia is never the meek and miserable type woman, but she is struggling to make sense of a life she feels has been unlived. Smith demonstrates a realism in this work. He…

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Get a Free Novel when you Sign Up!

I have a new novel coming out soon, so I’ve decided it’s time to do a push to get people to sign up for my mailing list. I thought it might make sense to offer a free copy of my first novel as a way to entice people to sign up (and if they love it, they can buy the sequel and the sequel to the sequel).

But there’s a catch!

All three books are in KDP Select, so that Kindle Unlimited users can read them for free. Amazon has a rule that you cannot distribute books anywhere else if you want to be in that program. And that includes giving them away like this. So what I’ll do is if you sign up now, I’ll buy the book from Amazon and give it to you as a gift. I get my royalty on that, so it costs me almost nothing. I’ll pull Entropy out of the KDP Select program when my contract expires on January 8, so after that I can just email copies.

So let’s do this! Click here to sign up.

Mailchimp will send me a notification that you signed up, and I’ll send the Amazon gift code to that email address.

Hard Tweets Explained: NäN

In the early days of computers, pretty much the only thing everyone could agree on was how to represent small positive integers. Other than that, nobody could agree on anything. They couldn’t agree on how many bits were in a byte. Or how many bytes you should work on together (called a “word”). Or how the bytes in a word should be ordered (biggest to smallest, or smallest to biggest). They couldn’t agree on how to represent negative numbers (sign-magnitude or two’s-compliment). They couldn’t agree on how to map letters to numbers (EBCDIC or ASCII). And they really, really, really couldn’t agree on how to represent real numbers (the kind with decimal points in them).

Over time, all these arguments got settled. Except the word ordering one. They still can’t agree on that. And the final decision on how to represent numbers (both integers and real numbers) was worked out in a committee that produced the IEEE 754 standard. That standard even covers weird things like what’s the value of 1➗0 (+infinity), -1➗0 (-infinity), and what to do with equations that make no sense. For example, if you add +infinity to +infinity you get another +infinity. But if you add +infinity to -infinity, what do you get? It’s not zero. They dump all those strange cases into a bucket called “not a number.”

Think about that: In the standard for how to represent numbers, there’s also a standard way to represent things that aren’t.

“Not a Number,” abbreviated “NaN” is pretty easy to get. 0➗0 for example. Or you can get it by treating something that isn’t a number at all as a number, if you are using one of the modern languages that lets you make mistakes like that.

IEEE 754 didn’t only specify how to store a NaN in computer memory, but it also gave rules for how to handle it in equations. And one of the rules is that it refuses to be ordered. 0<NaN is false. But 0>NaN is also false. A weird result of that rule is that NaN cannot equal itself.

Suppose you are working with a computer language that uses === to mean “is equal to” (yes, such languages exist). In that language if you have a variable X and you test X === X, you’d think that had to be true. But it’s not when X is holding a NaN.

And that brings us to our tweet.

Nän (also spelled “naan”) is a kind of bread they serve in Indian restaurants. Funny story. I was once on a bus at work going from one building to another, and a new Indian restaurant had just gone in. And the bus driver said, “Hey, is that place any good?”

And I said, “Yeah.”

And the bus driver said, “So, what do they serve there? Like maize and buffalo and stuff?”

The bus driver was not joking. Sigh.

Anyway, I digress. So nän is a kind of bread, and NaN is a numberish thing that isn’t equal to itself. And unless you are that bus driver, I’m guessing you can put the rest of those pieces together.

And if you are that bus driver, I think you were one hell of a great bus driver, and I really appreciated you, and some day I’d like to take you to that restaurant for some nän.

 

The Black Magic of Getting Your Book Tweet Right

I’ve been doing this book marketing thing for quite a while now, and one thing that I often need to help people with is getting their book link tweets right. I figured it’s time for me to put all my tricks in one place. This is that place.

“People click my link and it says the book isn’t available”

The problem here is that there isn’t just one Amazon. There are lots and lots of them. If you share a link to amazon.com, and someone in the UK looks at that link, they’ll see your book, but Amazon won’t let them buy it. They need to find your book at amazon.co.uk. But they aren’t going to do that, are they? It’s a minor miracle that you got them to click your link in the first place. No way they are going to go typing in a search to a different website to find your book in the right store. Not. Gonna. Happen.

The solution (which I’ve mentioned before) is to use mybook.to from booklinker.net (there are other services, but I like this one best). It’s basically a link shortening service like bit.ly, but it is smart about geography and all those Amazon stores. It looks at where the person is clicking from, and sends them to the right place. Also, because they haven’t been around for 100 years like bit.ly, you can get pretty much whatever short link you want. I’ve never had any trouble getting the exact titles of my books as my short link.

Their links work for both Kindle and paperback books, so if you’re doing both, you’ll generate two links. These are the links I use:

When you set up the link you want to make sure that the Amazon link is like this:
https://www.amazon.com/dp/{ASIN or ISBN}
Be sure to use https (not http) and you don’t need your title in there. If you copy the link from Amazon, just delete the junk between .com and /dp and if there’s junk after the ASIN/ISBN, delete that, too. Obviously you should test the link to make sure you didn’t delete too much.

“I messed up and put in the wrong link, how do I fix it?”

After you create the link at mybook.to and you test it, if you find that you messed up and didn’t put the right link in there, you can fix it as follows:

  1. Delete the short link you created
  2. Create the link again, not making a mistake this time
  3. Go to this address mybook.to/clear-link-cache.php?url={your nickname} for example, if you created mybook.to/warandpeace you’d need to hit mybook.to/clear-link-cache.php?url=warandpeace

That’s not documented anywhere. The nice guy who administers the site told me that trick when he and I were debugging another problem which I’m about to tell you about.

“My tweet doesn’t have the preview of my book!”

So you’ve created your short link and tested it and it works great. Now you tweet it, but all that shows up is the short link, not the pretty cover and blurb and star rating from Amazon (known as a “Twitter Card”). Why is that?

This happens because when your book is brand new, Amazon doesn’t generate the right “meta tags” on the page for the Twitter card. No idea why, but it pretty much never does. So you have to hit the page over and over, and eventually it starts generating the right tags. But there’s a catch. Twitter saves the first version of that page it sees, so even once Amazon is generating the right meta tags, Twitter ignores them.

You can actually address both of these problems with one simple trick! There’s a tool that developers use to make sure their meta tags are good. You can use this tool to both force Amazon to re-generate the page, and to force Twitter to pay attention to the changes.

Go here: https://cards-dev.twitter.com/validator and enter the mybook.to link. Be sure to start with http, like http://mybook.to/warandpeace. If you forget the http, it won’t work, and the error message is confusing. Click the “Preview Card” button and you’ll either see a card, or you won’t. If you see the card, you’re done.

If you don’t see the card, count to ten and click preview card again. No card? Count to ten and click it again. You may have to do this many, many, many times. Trust me. This will eventually work. Once you see the card, you’re done. Go look at Twitter and you’ll see that the tweet which didn’t have the card, now suddenly does have the card.

“You didn’t answer my question!”

Ask in the comments. I can probably help.

Everyone is Writing Texting Wrong

Since becoming a bona fide author, I’ve met a lot of other authors. And once you have author friends, you are going to do a lot of beta reading. Since texting and direct messaging in Twitter and Facebook are so much a part of modern life, it’s natural that the characters in these stories are going to do that. And I’ve watched as author after author struggles to convey these conversations. And I’ve noticed a consistent theme to their approaches:

Everyone is doing it wrong.

Everyone except me, of course. Because this is my blog and I get to define reality here. If you’ve read any contemporary fiction, I’m sure you’ve seen the various approaches:

  • Use italics or a weird font
  • Indent funny
  • Identify speakers like it’s a screenplay

It’s all horrible and distracting and unreadable. Let’s take an analogous situation. Suppose you have two deaf characters who are talking in sign language. Would you stop writing words and include a bunch of gestures? No. Of course you wouldn’t. You would use a couple dialog tags to convey it was a signed conversation and then move on, right?

“Hello,” she signed.

He smiled broadly. “How have you been?” he signed back.

“I’ve been well,” she said. “I’ve missed you.”

We establish that they are both signing, and then it’s just regular dialog. We’ll use normal tags like “said” and “replied” and “asked,” and we’ll occasionally throw in a “signed” in there to remind the reader that this is a silent conversation.

So why should texting be any different? Why are you trying to make the prose on the page look like the actual text conversation?

“Hello,” she texted.

He smiled broadly. “How have you been?” he texted back.

“I’ve been well,” she said. “I’ve missed you.”

See how natural that is?

In my first novel, the two main characters almost exclusively text (it’s about a Twitter affair), so I have a lot of experience in this and a lot of reader feedback on whether my approach works. It works. Texting is just dialog. Write it like dialog.

Here’s an example from Entropy (which is a really great book you should buy here).

“Good morning beautiful!” It was the first private message she saw when she went online in the morning. It was from him.

Her heart pounded. Okay, so he thinks I’m beautiful, she thought. Or maybe that’s just what he says to every girl.

She greeted him back, and after a few minutes they were chatting again. It was the same as last night. He still seemed uninterested in her as a woman, but engaged with her as a person. It was strange and new. They talked about a lot of things. They shared pictures of their families, and talked about their marriages. Lisa told him about Roger.

Lisa told him how things with her husband were boring and stable, but nonetheless exhausting. “I feel like I need to walk on eggshells around him all the time. I never know what’s going to set him off. And when he goes off, he can be so cruel.”

“Keeping things stable takes energy,” he replied. “I guess it’s a little counter-intuitive, since you think of Newton’s first law: a body at rest will stay at rest. But the reality is different. Think about an old water tank you find in the woods. It’s sitting there, doing nothing, and yet it’s slowly falling apart. Eventually the rust eats away at it beyond a certain threshold, and it collapses under its own weight.”

“Okay?” Lisa replied. She had no idea where he was going with this.

“But if you actively maintained that tank, it could last forever. You just need to sand it and give it a new coat of paint now and then. You must tend to it. It’s stable, but to keep it stable requires that you put energy into it.”

“Like my marriage,” Lisa said.

“Exactly,” he said. “A marriage takes work. You have to constantly put energy into it to keep it from falling apart. Going nowhere takes energy. Stability isn’t what you get when you do nothing. It’s what you can hope to achieve when you work hard.”

“And working hard is exhausting,” Lisa added.

That was a text conversation, but who cares? What’s important is the dialog, the connection, the power dynamic being established, all the usual stuff that character interaction gives you. The fact that they happened to be texting instead of talking is incidental and not at all important.

(End rant.)

Regrets is now Free

About a year ago I wrote a post in which I showed that nobody wants to read novellas, so there is no point writing them. And shortly after that I accidentally wrote a novella. It’s now a year later and despite having a dozen 5-star reviews on Amazon, including this downright amazing one, and having the low, low price of $0.99, I’ve only sold 43. That means I’ve made $15.05, which is my break-even point since I spent $14.95 on the stock photo of a keycard for the cover. I’m going to take that $0.10 profit and spend it on hookers and blow. BRB.

At least I’ve proved myself right. Nobody wants to read novellas.

I’ve decided to go ahead and make this story free. I popped over to Smashwords, which I use to get my ebooks onto everywhere except Amazon, and set the price to zero. Then I asked KDP Support (love them) to price-match on Amazon to make the price zero. That happened today, and I immediately got about 50 downloads. This was before I even told anyone I made it free. So maybe there’s some pent-up demand for five-star free smut, even if it’s just novella-length. (It isn’t even novella length. It’s like half-novella length at best. It’s more of a short story that went long.)

It’s not a bad piece of pulp, so if you haven’t read it yet, you should probably go ahead. It’ll only take you an hour. You can get it at Amazon and every other ebook retailer.

I have no illusions that this is going to lead to sell-through to my novels. I tried that already with my short story Attractions, and despite that also being really, really good, and having a teaser from my novel in there and everything, it’s led to no sales to speak of. Across all channels I’ve given away over 1000 copies of Attractions and it’s yielded bupkis. So no, I’m not making Regrets free to draw in readers for the Entropy trilogy. I’m making it free because it’s not selling anyway, so why the hell not make it free?

I hope you enjoy it! Leave more 5-star reviews!

The Entropy Soundtrack

Can a novel series have a soundtrack?

Can a novel series have a soundtrack? I mean, movies get soundtracks, right? Why not books?

The male protagonist in my novel series (Entropy) is an amateur jazz pianist, somewhat of a jazz history expert, and a dancer. So naturally, music plays a big part in his stories. I decided to comb through all three novels and put together a comprehensive list of all the song references. Then I created a Spotify playlist which I’m calling the Entropy Soundtrack. Fun, right?

It’s mostly jazz, but because the last book—Gravity—includes two weddings, there are also a couple oddball things you might not expect. But all soundtracks are like that, I think: 80% songs that kind of fit together and 20% songs that are totally weird and out of place.

Go check it out. I dropped a link to this list to a few of my beta readers (once you beta read for me, you beta everything for life), and the consensus is that it’s a pretty awesome list. Here’s the link again: bit.ly/entropy-music

Joshua Edward Smith – Gravity

Maggie Jane Schuler

Sir and Lisa’s journey explores the inner self and the road to a strong emotional and physical bond with a partner. Joshua Edward Smith’s final installment of the Entropy Series is a beautiful tribute to the human condition. While he uses the erotic nature of BDSM to convey the message, the Entropy Series is more of a philosophical exploration of the lifestyle. The complex themes of unconditional love, trust, and genuine happiness truly run their course through the series. From the unraveling of growing apart from one’s partner to personal tragedy, and rebuilding a life, The Entropy series covers it all and much more. Smith’s eloquent style deepens the richness of the text and leaves the reader critically analyzing the complex structures which exist among people with regards to the vulnerable acts associated with affairs of the heart. For a sophisticated and elegant read try your hand at the Entropy Series, you won’t be disappointed

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