To Select or to Smash, asks Valerie Laws.

Crime - does it pay?
That is the question. Typically I’ve tried doing both at once but frustratingly it’s hard to tell where I’m going wrong/right and how to improve things. I have two ebooks out and have taken different paths with each. My comedy novel LYDIA BENNET’S BLOG is on Amazon KDP and Smashwords. My crime novel THE ROTTING SPOT is with KDP, and further, I allowed myself to be seduced into the Kindle Select Programme. This offers ‘library loans’ of your book and allows you to promote by going ‘freeby’ for five days in three months. BUT it means you can’t sell the ebook anywhere else. This novel has been doing reasonably, not by most grown-up writers’ standards but a few squid a month is coming in. But does being in Select help at all? You see, I can’t help a nagging feeling that there’s some password which might open doors for my novel in the Amazon jungle if I only knew the secret. My novel has a goodly range of 5* reviews, and I wonder how those titles in the ‘top hundred’ constantly pushed by Kindle Store get there - quality and formatting aside, there must be some way people out there get to know they exist in the first place - how does that work? I get emails from Amazon offering me crime novels by authors I’ve never heard of (so it’s not just a case of famous writers getting the attention) for 99p - how could I become one of these favoured few? What are they doing to get that leg-up from Amazon? The whole ‘free for two days’ promotion is allegedly losing its power anyway, but if being in Select doesn’t help, what does? I’ve worked hard at marketing both books, with guest blogging, Tweeting, Facebooking, but is there something obvious I should be doing, and how do I find enough time to do it and write more books?

Paxo moved by my struggles...
Anyway, THE ROTTING SPOT is doing better than LYDIA BENNET’S BLOG (‘Gah and thrice gah!’ as Lydia would say.) Now I was brought up to see hard work as a virtue that would be rewarded, despite all evidence to the contrary (viz. MPs and reality TV personalities) and the work I put into formatting LBB for Smashwords would wring tears from Jeremy Paxman.

Meet the Meatgrinder...

It was agony, me dears. Smashwords call their formatting programme, which turns your ebook into a whole range of e-formats, The Meatgrinder. I certainly felt like I was being made mincemeat of. The result? I was accepted by Smashwords, and so nitpickingly perfect was my formatting, they put me into, wait for it, their PREMIUM CATALOG!! Yay! This is said to ‘ship’ (on an e-ship?) your book to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, etc across the board. Well, in effect, what has this much trumpeted distinction brought? Sales via non-Kindle ebook stores, 1 copy. (The Shame!) I can easily get to my Smashwords page for LBB, but when I seek it out on the other formats it’s very difficult to find, and I know it exists in the first place! Much googling has been involved... google Nook, you get pages on how to buy a Nook. Google Kobo, similar. Now there are ibooks and the ibook store is announced, but try to find it to search for your own book! All I could find was how to download the app. None of these pages are more than minimal when I did eventually find them, well the Nook and Kobo ones at least. How would readers find my book on Smashwords?

Comedy - it's a funny thing
LBB, with some stonking 5* reviews, is selling gradually in its Kindle incarnation, however, though not as well as TRS - is this because I’ve not gone for Select on LBB? The agony of choice! Does crime pay more than comedy? Would having both books on Kindle Select and removing LBB from Smashwords help? Is Amazon agin books which flaunt themselves shamelessly across the e-formats? All this dithering is not good for me you know, especially as I have other writing hats to wear (performing, having my poetry published, keeping Writer’s Residencies dusted etc) and I’ve not even wondered about pricing yet. I’ve been reading that some are putting their prices up to avoid suspicion that free books mean poor quality. Gibber...

As a refutation of that last point, our libraries are free, and a wonderful service to us all, especially those who can’t afford to buy books. No reason they can’t keep up with the e-book phenomenon, if Waterstones can. Newcastle City Council is planning to shut down branches across the city, many in deprived areas, in response to Government cuts. Some of us authors are helping to fight this movement which is being repeated across the country. More anon. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from anyone with the answer to, or comments on, any of the questions above, especially on the Smashwords issue.

Lydia Bennet's actual blog:


Susan Price said…
Oh Lord! I wish I knew the answer, Val. I'd tell you if I did.
Kathleen Jones said…
I don't know the answer either! Only consolation is that Scott Pack - at the top of the e-book tree - published a couple of books under a pseudonym (though everyone knows it's him) and they aren't selling any more than ours are.

The only way to get Amazon's attention is to get all your friends and family to buy the book on the same day - shooting you up the charts and into the algorithms where Amazon start to take notice and promote you. Trouble is ... I just can't do it!
CallyPhillips said…
Hi Valerie, Really interesting post and something that absorbs us all constantly I suspect! I certainly have been 'experimenting' for a year on most of these (haven't got my head round Smashwords yet and you don't give me confidence!)
As regards how one 'gets up there' on the charts I fear that the simple answer - as well as what Kathleen says - is YOU PAY. There are lots of places which promote 'free' or even not 'free' ebooks and if you harness them they'll shoot you further up the charts. (I think it's much like the old principle of the record singles top of the pops) There is certainly a range of strategies one can employ. I call them 'games' but of course its a serious business. It's an ethical question for each person to deal with - is this smart marketing and me 'investing' in my product or is it 'cheating'? People have different views on that. But it's very much a PAY TO PLAY market out there and so if one is 'marketing' then I guess one has to take the 'smart' decisions.

For me I'd rather remain 'pure of mind' and simply focus on putting the work out there and making it available and trying to let people know it exists the best I can without resorting to anything I think of as 'dirty' tactics. But I may just be an anti-capitalist LOSER. And I'm not suggesting anyone else should or does share my personal opinion.

At least the joy of this brave new e-world is that we CAN get our work out there. Shaking off the cloak of invisibility, that's another thing. It's certainly something that 'collectives' such as AE (at its best) can aid with because it broadens the number of people making work visible. But you pays your money and you takes your choice. I fear that for those of us who DON'T put some money in nefarious/ appropriate places to back our product are unlikely EVER to make it to the BESTSELLERS, front of the shelf spot. But that's the way it's always been. I have a dream/hope/wish that we could work towards breaking that system and I do what I can to promote that cause. But I know enough history to know that such revolutions rarely occur in one's own lifetime. Sometimes. Where there's enough will. All we can do is do the best we can, hold our nerve, work together and know what path we are trying to follow. We each have 'a way' to follow but whether there is 'the way' I doubt. As Lao Tzu says 'the way that can be named is not the way' - that helps doesn't it! LOL.
Chris Longmuir said…
I'm in Smashwords Premium catalogue and I've checked the Kobo ebook store, Barnes and Noble ebooks, and th Apple iBookstore, and my books are in all of them. I don't sell a lot, maybe get between £10-£15 in commission, when it comes, and I sell nothing through Smashwords themselves. I've resisted the KDP Select, and kept my ebooks at a steady £2.55 price and I do get newsletters featuring them. However, I don't know if anyone else gets these letters, so not sure how it all works. The only thing I take heart from is that selling ebooks starts slow, and then builds slowly, therefore it is the opposite to print books which sell well at the beginning and then decrease. We can only hope that the continual increase will eventually be fruitful in terms of the folding stuff.
Interesting post, Valerie, and came at just the right time for me because it has given me even more food for thought. I'd taken almost everything off Select and was going to put the novels on Kobo in time for Christmas. Then, last week, I read some stats for downloads and payments from a few other people and also took note of the rather large sum allocated for Kindle loans over Christmas, and put all but two novels (Ice Dancing and The Curiosity Cabinet) back on Select for three months. Now, I'm just dithering about these two. I find the complexities of the Meatgrinder as off-putting as the name but the Kobo site is easier to engage with as a publisher. On the other hand, if it isn't resulting in sales...
My experience has been - as so many people say - that the more novels and stories I get out there, the better I do. I suspect one way of getting to the tipping point is to write a series of some kind, and use Select to give away the first book, but that's a long term strategy. I've had reasonably steady sales (this month, I've earned more in the US than the UK which is surprising) and had one very welcome huge spike after I did a giveaway of The Curiosity Cabinet. And this was AFTER they supposedly changed the algorithm which gave sales a little push after the freebie. I too get quite a lot of emails which promote my book as well as other people's and yes - I think they do go to lots of people and not just to me. I'm corresponding with somebody who discovered one of my plays in this way at the moment. I'm becoming very dubious about the value of the free download though.I think people have Kindles stuffed with ebooks they don't read and never will. But I do sometimes wonder whether the exclusivity of Select enrolment is subtly rewarded. Let's face it, this is a company which analyses things to the nth degree. I think Cally is right in that some time or another we are going to have to pay for some promotion, but I don't think paying to promote freebies makes much sense. Unless, as I said, it's the first of a series of which the rest are already out there.As an example of how something simple can affect sales - I deal in antique textiles on eBay from time to time. When I send out the parcels, and it can be as many as a dozen a week if I'm feeling enthusiastic or needing the money, I include a nice postcard (from promoting one of the books. There's a definite correlation between sales and times when I'm sending these cards out. (Guess what everyone is getting in with their Christmas cards this year?) Which makes me think that traditional ways of promotion might be worth considering!
Lydia Bennet said…
Gosh thank you all so much for such full and helpful comments! Thinking of taking LBB off smash and putting it on kdp select... Like Cally I'm no capitalist, I wouldn't have been earning my living as a poet for years if I was :) I'm not bothered about rankings and fast selling, though of course it would be nice if it happened, I'm happy with slowly growing steady sales, but if that means you don't get brought to readers' attention at all... I know it's my own fault for having one book so far in each of difft genres. Catherine, interesting about your postcards! Speaking of which Cally raises a good point about paying for pr. I feel queasy about this, as if it's not right, like paying for reviews which has a bad rep, on the other hand publishers pay for pr all the time with nobody thinking any the worse. Should I overcome my scruples, are they valid, or cling to them as I gnaw mouldy crusts in the gutter? Decisions... thank you again for your help and welcoming support all of you, with this my second AE post!x
Susan Price said…
I find it curious that Valerie says paying for promotion makes her feel 'queasy' and Cally calls it 'cheating' - as if it was some moral standard.
Pragmatic as ever, I think it's simply a matter of what you can afford.
Capitalism has been around since at least the Tudor period. It's not going anywhere. There are other systems - but how well do they correlate with individual freedom? And I speak as a bit of a Leftie.
'You can fool some of the people all of the time, all of the people some of the time, but...' If you have a crap product and you pay to promote it, you will sell some...But you will annoy many of the buyers, who will feel they've been fooled, and they won't come back. So, ultimately, you'll lose your money.
But if you have a good product, which people enjoy, and you pay for promotion - what's wrong with that? How is that cheating? Why should it make anyone queasy?
You're paying for the use of media which you don't have the know-how to use yourself: and the people who do have the know-how deserve to be paid for their work.
By paying you spread the news of your product - book, music, whatever - further than you otherwise could. If it's a good product, then the people you reach are glad that they heard of it, because they enjoyed it, and they come back looking for more.
I'm fine with all this - I just can't bloody afford to do it!
And okay, that makes it an uneven playing field, but it's not promotion itself that's unfair...
We just have to be more inventive with the many free tools now available to us. Which reminds me - we CAN put videos on our website.
CallyPhillips said…
Chris - yes, good point I think the 'bleeding' of one's existing work and reputation into the ebook world can be extremely important and takes time and Catherine - yes of course, cards and all such means of promotion can be really useful!
Sue - leaving issues of political ideology and the good/popular debates aside, (mea culpa for raising them) it's not promotion itself I have a problem with it's the variations of sock puppetry I object to. I am for openness and transparency not smoke and mirrors and there are a lot of people/places/ways out there which offer 'promotional' opportunities that I find ethically suspect. (eg the creating of Awards or Quality or the like which are little more than 'get all your friends to vote for you' or similar. I shall write a blog post on this on my own site for anyone interested in furthering this debate. Obviously one wants/needs to promote one's work it's HOW one does it that is the issue. Secretly paying someone to put me in a visible position as 'featured' ebook or whatever when the reader thinks that I'm there because my work has in some sense been validated as 'popular' or 'good'by the reading public or professionals of some kind is an example. My definition of Pay to Play is akin to a kind of 'vanity' model. But as I said, this requires more space to do into properly and I'll do that. Thanks so much to Val for opening a very valid and interesting debate though!
Very useful debate. We need more of the same, because even when we haven't reached firm conclusions, it all helps. I think we have to get our heads round wearing two hats. (Pun probably intended!): writer and marketer. I'm tending to agree with Sue, but with Cally's provisos in my mind and I know exactly what she means. There's a sense in which the audience out there takes us at our own valuation. Many writers tend to be quite shy of promoting their own work which (unfortunately) leaves the field wide open to the few people who are extremely good at saying how wonderful they are, whether they are or not. But as Sue says, if we have a good product, we need to find ways of saying so or at the very least making sure it is as visible as it can be. It helps if you already have a platform of some sort which I think most if not all the AE members do. Do you remember a few years ago, a writer pretended to be her own publicist? She invented a persona for herself, and managed to get a lot of coverage for her novel. I have the distinct feeling that now, she would be slated for sock puppetry, but at the time I thought 'Good for her'. The fascinating thing was that when she contacted newspapers and media companies as herself, she got short shrift, but when she masqueraded as a publicist, she got a completely different and much more positive reception. Sometimes I think it's all such a game that we have to find ways of playing it to win - so long as, wearing our writerly hats, we take THAT part of it seriously!
Lydia Bennet said…
More great comments and debate! I think my queasiness is partly the kind of scruple mentioned above, about the way it's done nowadays on some sites, and also frankly a hangover from my other life as a published by publishers writer and the whole 'vanity pub' thing. Yet I'm well aware that in the highly respected world of published books, people's friends review their books in posh papers. I have problems 'selling' which I've done a lot to overcome, and learned a lot in the process, but it's still there. It's part of my background and culture as well.

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