Tuesday, July 01, 2014


"I can guarantee you anything you want"
-Bender, Futurama

A month ago I took a chance with my book Old Habits.  Amazon Kindle offers better promotion and placement in their website if you go with them exclusively, so I pulled the e-book off all other locations and went with the Kindle Select program.  Then, rolling the dice, I put the e-book up for free for 5 days, using one of Amazon's promotion options.
The theory works like this: if you give your book to a number of people, they read it, talk about it to other people each themselves, maybe a scattered few of them read reviews, and they may even loan it to others to read, who then talk to still others.  The principle is like any giveaway for a company: to spread word of mouth or goodwill.
In theory this means that a few free books given away translates into more sales.  I spread the word through all my social media outlets, told people I knew, and by the end of the promotion, 111 books had been downloaded for free.  That was a month ago, today.
Amazon even put out a promotional email featuring Old Habits at the top for buyers in the sci fi and fantasy interest groups.  They did their job to promote the book.
Since the promotion started, I have sold 2 books.
I gave it a month before I drew any solid conclusions, because it takes time to read, to talk to people, for the word to spread, and for people to do any reviews.
Two books.
For every 55 books I gave away, I sold 2, and I don't think either of those sales were influenced by the giveaway at all.  No reviews have been written.  I'm seeing no buzz or commentary on the book whatsoever online.  Nothing from social media, no feedback to me at all.
Two books.
The Long Tail theory states that you generate buzz and sales online through word of mouth, and one of the ways to do this is by discount prices and giveaways.  Since Old Habits is selling for 2.99, that puts it at a fraction the sales price of major publishing houses and its discounted.
Further the Long Tail postulates that search engines such as Google and sites such as Amazon make products available to readers in a way that local stores do not and cannot because they help guide people to what they want and the shelves are effectively endless.
The problem is that these companies are getting more and more sophisticated and ad-driven in how they present information and how sales and money influences their search engines.  This infographic from SOE Book explains some of the problems that's causing for "Long Tail" theory.
Among the other things they note, the Google results page strongly promotes big sites and paying customers.  If you buy an ad on Google, that shifts searches in your favor.  Also, because Google is buying properties such as YouTube, they actually are favoring searches to their products like YouTube so instead of raw results of what you're looking for, they direct people toward their products.
Because I write this blog on Blogger (owned by Google) I get a bit more favorable site listing when people search for things I've blogged about, for example.  My blog is itty and gets little traffic, but gets superior notice because of my affiliation with a Google product.
This is exacerbated by what else shows up on the page, eating up search result space by notations such as IMDB listings, images, and so on.  Half the page is taken up by the favored results, with the rest of the hits often down the page below the scroll line.
Also, something that the Long Tail theory relies on specific "niche" search engine hits.  But with the way search engines work now, attempts such as "Thief Fantasy novel" are actually adjusted toward more common searches that may even change the terms used and search engines will direct results toward favored traffic.  Type in those words and you get 2 books on Amazon, a handful of images, then sites talking about books rather than the books themselves.
In other words, you aren't getting results about novels, you're getting advertising, pictures, and then general information.  Search for a product on Google and this is typically what you get instead of going straight to the niche seller or product you desire.
None of this is a deliberate attack on the Long Tail as the graphic suggests.  Its just Google trying to maximize their profits and promote their businesses.  They spent billions on these things, and want their money.
The problem is that means theories and ideas that worked even five years ago aren't quite the same any more.  While other search sites have different problems, they all are moving along this exact same philosophy: advertising and moneymaking over search engine results.  Its not that they don't want to give you accurate results, its that they want to do so as a secondary goal, after making money.
And since Google or Bing or Yahoo etc is a business, that makes sense.  What it does, though, is hurt the micro businessman like me trying to reach people in order to get sales. And what might have worked recently may not work any more.
TANSTAAFL, right?  There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch.  You get what you pay for, and these search engines aren't under any burden to offer you anything for free.  And I'm fine with that, but it does sort of make the whole "Long Tail" theory problematic.
For me, the experiment is a failure.  I may have cost myself potential sales and am seeing no results.  While it cost me nothing up front, it might have cost me quite a bit in terms of sales - or maybe not, perhaps none of those people meant to buy the book to start with, and only became interested when it was out for free.
The thing is, I'm not sure my book is being presented effectively enough to the public for optimal sales.  I do not really know what I'm doing.  I know the cover could be more dynamic, and I'm sure I could do better in terms of outreach and promotion, but I am doing the best I can with the no money I have.
Its possible that the experiment just needs more time.  Its possible it just didn't catch on and that's just how it goes sometimes.  Its possible people liked it, but not enough to buzz about.  The kind of story you go "that was neat," then forget.  There are a lot of possibilities, but I don't know what to do about it.
At least I tried, I suppose.


vanderleun said...

Cover's key, esp. online. As the old editor's saying goes, "If you can't judge a book by its cover, what reason do you have for buying it."

Eric said...

Part of the problem with buying books online... there is much less browsing. You used to go in to a bookstore looking for one book and you might spend an hour in there looking at other stuff.

Now, you hear about a good book, you go to Amazon, search for it, download it, and never pass any other books along the way. Maybe you look at the "here's what other people who bought this book are reading" thing, but at that point you've likely already completed your transaction.

It seems to me the only way for a small guy to really get momentum is if he has some kind of popular website or blog with lots of content related to his book and the website/blog promotes it for him... but that model doesn't lend itself well to fiction writers.

A good example is Athol Kay at Married Man Sex Life. He started his blog in 2010, promoted himself well, gained readership quickly, finished his first book in 2011 that was tied to the concepts from his blog, and has written two more since then, expanding his brand as he goes to bring in a wider audience (it used to be a blog for men, now it's increasingly for married couples). He quit his day job last year to do the blogger/author thing full time.

I think that is the model for becoming a successful independent author in this climate, but again... I don't know how you apply it to fiction.