Guest Post: Ruby Barnes on Snake Oil

Author Skin Exposed? Apply Some More Snake Oil. 

Here’s the thing; no one knows how to sell e-books. It’s all smoke and mirrors. Permit me to demonstrate.

The Social Media Guru
Three or four years ago a lot of people were starting out as independent e-book authors. They managed to cast off the stigma of self-publishing like a snakeskin and tread boldly without the cloak of traditional publishing validation. Some were doubtlessly examples of the king’s new clothes, but social media was the elixir of success. A prominent guru in the field of social media for authors proclaimed that traditional advertising didn’t work for e-books. Social networking to the max, push until it goes viral, that was the answer. Blog on subjects of interest to your target readership, make them your friends, coincidentally introduce your book as it fits the conversation and have them refer you on in turn to their friends. Build twitter teams, personally engage with your followers, sell subliminally. Network marketing without the drawbacks of pyramid. The guru sold a lot of how-to books.

The Viral Marketer
An author released a fairly controversial crime novel; eye-catching cover, strong blurb, content that polarised a readership that was growing rapidly in parallel with a viral social media campaign. Tweets were coming out every couple of minutes, urging followers to push the book up the charts. The title sold tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of e-copies and reached the top position on Amazon. A rake of related titles from the same author followed over the next months and you might expect that they would all be in the top one thousand of the charts. But they’re not. Don’t get me wrong, they sell at a level that many authors would be delighted with, and an enviable reader-base has been established, but the runaway success of the first title wasn’t repeated. Was it twitter? What part of the social media whirl boosted the success? Why could it only be done the once?

The Businessman
Enter a man of commerce; entrepreneur and natural salesman. He had money, contacts, advisors and a book that he had written. He and his henchmen applied tried and tested traditional marketing methods to no effect. Paid-for PR resulted in virtually no media coverage and sales remained very modest. By a process of elimination the businessman closed in, unwittingly, on something that would work to sell a million e-books. Three tactics were running when success hit: a series of blog posts designed to tap the reading public’s psyche, the careful building of a mail list of loyal readers, and an extensive effort to procure reviews (good or bad) for the book. A plethora of titles followed and seemed to meet with a ready audience. His industrious new product pipeline and customer loyalty management pushed the brand into a position of strength that withstood public outrage over paid-for reviews. He also sold a pile of his how-to book even though, by his own admission, he wasn’t exactly sure what had been the catalyst for success. People sure wanted some of his snake oil.

The Mainstream Author Turned Indie
A confident author of many published novels, incensed by the rejection of some of his work by publishing houses, decided to grasp the indie author nettle and lead the way. He took a professional approach to independent publishing by building brand strength through cover design and investments in editing. His blog posts, charting his progress, lacerating the traditional industry, disseminating advice and hosting the current success stories of the indie world, became legendary. Authors clamoured to write comments on the blog in the hope that breathing the same virtual air would imbue their own books with the virus of success. His prodigious output remains high in the charts. Every release meets a hungry waiting readership and his backlist has migrated from mainstream to indie, adding even further momentum. This is an example of critical mass that could cause a black hole.

A Nerd Sits Quietly On Another Planet
On the KDP author forum one person started to quietly hint at the secrets of their success. They posted under a pseudonym in an arena where people blew fake trumpets and laid false claims. Only a small clique was privy to the true identities involved but the clues were there, like a trail of crumbs in the forest. Forum members became upset about the withholding of success factors from the community, but the truth will out. The author did indeed have remarkable sales success. A series of science fiction novels, smartly covered with a strong and immediately recognisable style. The writing wasn’t going to win prizes but the target readership wanted the stories rather than literature. A simple, product-oriented website. Minimal social media. Regular release of a further title every month or two, to retain something in the hot new releases listing. How the first book achieved success was never disclosed. This is secret snake oil.

Backlist Becomes The Buzzword
The harmonious trilling of indie author success was accompanied by a grinding of teeth in the towers of mainstream publishing. Each self-published assault on the e-book bestseller charts was proclaimed as the death knell for traditional publishers. Independent authors made hay as the big houses wallowed indecisively with hopelessly high prices, poorly formatted e-books and a lack of e-editions to match their print offerings. Then they got with the programme.

It was a no-brainer to digitise the backlists of established authors and put their titles up for sale online. A new type of micro-publisher emerged - nimble, technically astute, low overheads - and the market began to swell with quality e-books that had passed out of print and were formerly considered dead and gone. Those micro-publishers came from surprising sources - mainstream authors, literary agents, and the odd indie author equipped themselves to produce shelves of professionally presented e-books. Great, if you had a backlist.

Meanwhile the traditional publishers learned how to format.

The Empire Strikes Back
Amazon found itself in a price war with Sony. The era of the 20 pence e-book had arrived. Mainstream titles were to be had for pennies, undercutting the lowest prices independent authors could set on KDP. The e-book bestseller lists were dominated by household names and doomsayers foresaw the sales cliff for indie authors. All that was left to indies was the power of free. They had wielded this power to good effect using KDP Select and achieving substantial follow-on paid sales that had their explanation deep within the arcane algorithms of the ’Zon. As the self-published throng moved en masse to free as a tactical weapon, and flooded the various online routes to promotion of free, Amazon changed its algorithms and altered the rules.

The Sony Amazon price war abated (presumably Sony sold their target number of e-readers or else gave up on it). Diminishing returns from free had the naysayers nodding and claiming that independent authors and the ’Zon had successfully destroyed the market.

SEO Wars
New insights were claimed by e-book publishing magi. On the assumption that a book’s content was good enough and its cover eye-catching and suited to the genre, the secret lay in subtle details of search words, product description and category selection. A process of brainstorming words and phrases, selecting those relevant and most searched, then embedding in the book blurb and search keywords was prescribed to catapult a book to success. Careful selection of the book’s category would achieve a top 100 bestseller listing with just a modicum of sales and maintain a momentum that would otherwise be lost in the sea of titles. Folks who could dedicate the time and energy to this task began to do so, with some success. One author saw sales of a title jump by tenfold, but his other titles in a slightly different genre didn’t benefit. The mystery of buyer behaviour. 

Publishing gurus mixed this recipe with a team knowledge of ’Zon algorithms and suggested a combination approach of SEO, categorisation, free and mail list management to gain a foothold in popularity lists. Despite a lack of success with their own fiction, they sold a lot of how-to books.

The Paradigm Shifts
They told us that traditional advertising doesn’t work for e-books. What is traditional advertising? TV, radio, magazines and newspapers, roadside hoardings? Numerous independent authors have gone on record to share how they wasted money for no result using such methods. 

If an author or publisher wants to pay for e-book advertising then there is a steady stream of providers ready and willing to take a slice of advertising budget, but none of them fall into the traditional category. Folks on Fiverr will do almost anything for that small sum, perhaps dance naked with your book’s QR code painted on their rear, but will it have any impact? At the other end of the spectrum you can fork out hundreds of dollars to be featured in a one-off mail-out to subscribers who have opted in for ebook special offers. 

Authors and publishers talk about breaking even on an advert and perhaps making a small profit from the sales subsequently generated. These might be ads for priced books or for free books. Published figures from the largest and most expensive advertising providers give a yield of between 2% to 7% of subscribers for free downloads and between 0.2% and 1% of subscribers for paid sales. For example, a $480 dollar ad for a 99c mystery will produce 27 paid sales per 10,000 mystery genre subscribers and the average sales volume from such an ad is 1,730 copies. Don’t worry about the maths - suffice to say that these subscriber lists are huge. It’s a numbers game.

The idea of such advertising is to achieve and maintain visibility. Publishers and authors are investing in a zero sum game with the hope of achieving critical mass for referrals and series sales. The people making real money in this model are those organisations with ownership of high quality opt-in mail lists and high traffic websites. Oh, and Amazon et al, of course.

That Snake Oil Recipe I Promised You
Step one - with book 1 - expose your author skin to the buying public. It’s got to be a good skin, this novel of yours - sitting firmly in a popular genre; a toned combination of professional cover and excellent blurb; an exfoliated sample that grabs the reader and will convert the sale. You’d better have another skin ready underneath that one because it’s going to be stripped away by whatever exposure tactics you employ. That means you need more titles in the same vein.

Step two - with book 2 - expose your author skin to the buying public … etc, etc.

There are and will be heroes who achieve success on the basis of viral blog posts, viral tweeting, global group hugs and algorithm ninja moves. They will pass into e-book folklore and serve to motivate or demoralise us mortals, depending upon our frame of mind. They won’t know exactly how they did it but they will dine off the story, and their book sales, in perpetuity.

Now, enough indulgence and back to your writing, before I get the WIP out.

Ruby Barnes is the Ireland-based author of four novels - Peril, Getting Out of Dodge, The Baptist, The Crucible Part 1 - and a how-to book The New Author (may contain traces of snake oil).


Lee said…
You've forgotten one: the anti-hero. A writer who is indifferent to sales altogether. (And who laughs at how-to books - unless it's how to install a new tap; very useful!)
Chris Longmuir said…
Great post, throws light on a lot of angles that concern the Indie author. Oh, and I would never have guessed you were a man if I hadn't looked at your Amazon age!
Lydia Bennet said…
Good summary/round up of methods Ruby! There's a huge element of randomness here too, some things work amazingly for a few people very occasionally, not easy to predict or repeat it seems. Also there's the time element, the first to try something might succeed, then Amazon change their algorithms...
Brilliant, and occasionally devastating, post, Ruby.

My favourite sentence:
"Despite a lack of success with their own fiction, they sold a lot of how-to books."
Unknown said…
Great blog, Rubester! All very true indeed. :-)
Dennis Hamley said…
Very, very good post, Ruby, and a real eye-opener. You certainly blow the gaff. Whenever I see a 'Do it this way' book, I assume axiomatically that the author doesn't. But I have to say that my overall reaction to the post is to hide under the bedclothes and wish it wasn't happening. But don't worry. I'll get over it.
A great post - and so accurate. Or as screenwriter William Goldman put it (though he was talking about Hollywood) 'Nobody knows anything.' Trouble is people always try to predict what will work tomorrow on the basis of what worked yesterday. But the 'creative industries' never seem to work like this. As a writer, you eventually realise that every time somebody tells you 'nobody wants...' whatever nobody wants is almost certain to be flavour of the decade in a little while. And I'm sure the same thing goes for most of the selling advice. Pretty much all of it worked for these writers, or worked well enough for them to think they had cracked it. (And I've bought a few of these 'how to' books myself!) But I take everything with a very large pinch of salt these days. Except whoever said 'keep putting the work out there.' I reckon he might be right.
@Ruby_Barnes said…
@Lee - you're right and I should have spotted that as my MCs are usually anti-heroes. Now I'm off to write a plumbing how-to.
@Chris - you can tell my sex from my age? I know what you mean and I'm about to morph into R. A. Barnes instead.
@Lydia - yes, seems the snake oil is only good for a few applications then a new recipe is required for efficacy.
@John - glad you like it and I had the odd chuckle at myself.
@Pam - cheers, m'dear!
@Ruby_Barnes said…
@Dennis - those who can do and those who can't teach, sort of thing? Yes, I think that's often the case. Their own snake oil isn't working for them. Maybe they should rub it on harder?
@Catherine - quite right. Them's as says they knows the answers ain't always the sharpest tools in the box! We just all have to keep on keeping on.
glitter noir said…
I got there first, Ruby--with the female-looking pen name Kelley Wilde, years ago. Well done!
@Ruby_Barnes said…
@Reb, looks like you have me outmanoeuvred there. But I believe I was wearing suspenders long before you put on a christening dress ;-)
Debbie Bennett said…
You got a picture for that, Ruby?
@Ruby_Barnes said…
@Debbie - I actually have a VHS video tape as evidence. A strange but true story that ended sadly when the guy I was parodying got beaten to death in Bedfordshire by his stepson with a ball pein hammer, on the instructions of his ex-wife. Truth stranger than fiction and all that.

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