Alive and Writing

With 2015 nearly half over, it seems an update is well overdue. The lack of updates this year isn’t so much about nothing happening, but more about there not really being any real milestones reached (or none that I thought to be worthy of a post).  I think I’m far enough along on things to talk about them now, so here we go…

Badlands Book Three

The good news is that the manuscript for third book in my Badlands trilogy–Out of the Badlands–is halfway to completion. I hit 50k words this week and I expect the manuscript to clock in around 100k words. So far I’m on track to deliver the book by end of year. I’m really, really working hard to make that happen because I don’t want to delay its release again (it’s already going to be published a year later than I originally planned).

Another Badlands Novel

Around the beginning of last year I nearly finished the manuscript for another Badlands novel called Vengeance In the Badlands. The novel follows one of the main characters after the events that took place in book #2, but the story goes on its own tangent and thusly falls outside the trilogy. The good news is that because its already so far along I think I’ll be able to release it later this year, directly on the heels of book #3. Keep your eyes peeled for that or make it easy on yourself and sign up for my newsletter so that I can let you know about all my new releases (you’ll also receive a free ebook for signing up).

Other Works

I have a couple of other projects in the pipeline. These won’t be released until next year, but I’ve done some work on them already. I’m planning a novella crime series about a damaged guy who hunts down serial killers and I’ll be concurrently working on a new novel. I have a few ideas in the works for said novel, but it’s too early to say which one will grab my attention. It’ll be a surprise for both of us, I suppose. 🙂

Sales & Marketing

Sales continue to be mediocre, even on Amazon. I’ve seen sales really climb on Kobo and Barnes & Noble is holding a steady third place. After my experience in Select at the end of last year, I won’t be heading down that path again anytime soon. Right now I only have two short stories in Select; for me it just doesn’t work for my novels.

I did, however, temporarily reduce the price of my first Badlands book to $.99 for a few months on all platforms. It really helped to move some additional copies, anywhere between two to three times more. But like any sale, the price has to go back up again or it’s not really a sale. Still, book one is a dollar cheaper than the rest of the books to make it just a little easier to pull the trigger and give the series a try. When book #3 and the standalone novel are released, I’ll probably run another sale on book #1, dropping it to $.99 again. I might even try to get a Bookbub ad to see if I can move some copies.

That’s about all for now. Remember, if you enjoy my work the best thing you can do to help is tell your friends. And if you really want to be super helpful, leave a review. It really does make a difference.

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More on KDP Select

I’ve been mulling over KDP Select pretty hard the last couple of months. As I mentioned in the last post, I moved all my non-Badlands titles into Select to test it out.

Today I opted in my Badlands books.

Why, after all I said about Kobo sales increasing and non-Amazon markets making up 35% of my sales? Well, for starters I’m curious about a few things.

How might Kindle Unlimited perform for me? Might it hook new readers who want to try me risk free? KOLL borrows used to be pretty good for me, so maybe there’s still potential there.

Also, how might free work for me now in 2014? I had mixed results in 2012 when I did free runs, but I definitely sold more books overall.

Kindle Countdown deals? Do they work?

And the tough question that’s hard to prove…does simply being in Select give my book more visibility? Will I see sales increase across the board? Will I show up in more also-boughts?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. The only way to find out is to opt in and see what happens.

Select requires 90 days of exclusivity. That puts me eligible to opt out around the end of December. Badlands #3 won’t be out until January or February, so if Select turns out to be a crappy decision I have time to opt out before book #3 comes out. Readers who bought into the series on other devices won’t be affected.

In other words, now’s the window I needed to get my questions answered. If I wait, I’ll have to make some tough decisions around my best-selling series.

But what if Select works wonders for me? Will I keep all my books opted in? I don’t know. Will that piss off readers on other platforms? Possibly. But I’ll say this…if you started my Badlands series outside Amazon and want to finish it on your preferred reader and can’t, contact me. We’ll work something out. I wouldn’t be allowed to sell you the books, but that doesn’t rule out review copies.

I have a few promotions scheduled, staggered over the next 90 days. Two free givaways and two Countdown Deals. Not sure what I’ll do with the Badlands books yet. I’m considering a free giveaway on book #1 and a Coundown Deal on book #2, right before the pre-order page for book #3 goes live (which would be at 40% regular price). That could really build momentum around the series.

For now I’m seeing no borrows for any books after being in there for less than a week. Sales are slightly up, but not so much that I can correlate it with opting in to Select. Could just be normal fluctuations. I’m currently running a free giveaway right now on one of my short stories. That did pretty well on the first day, but fell off a cliff by day two. I think I’ve given away maybe 85 copies so far.

While it might seem that that I’m all over the place, there really is a method to the madness. Having the guts to change course is a strength often downplayed by political talking heads as ‘waffling’. I don’t listen to those assholes. It doesn’t take a genius to see that if you keep doing the same thing you’re going to keep getting the same thing. I’d rather be doing something than sitting back and just letting things happen to me.

We’ll see how it goes. I’m cautiously optimistic.

Reconsidering KDP Select

I recently read an article by Hugh Howey wherein he discussed his considerations around going all-in with Amazon. I won’t go into every little detail here (that’s why I provided the link), but it got me thinking (again) about my choice to opt-out exclusively.

I spent nearly all of 2012 in Select and I made a decent amount of money from the borrows. I’m sure I also garnered new readers (some of whom said so in the reviews). I sold incredibly well, but that was back in the good ‘ol days, during the Kindle Gold Rush, so to speak.

I opted out in 2013 and have been out ever since. I’ve also watched my sales plummet, though I think that has more to do with a cooling market than opting out of Select (I hope so at least).

I’ve been reconsidering Select for the past six months or so, especially after they added Kindle Unlimited and Countdown Deals. Part of what KDP Select exclusivity brings is a collection of discovery tools. Kindle Countdown Deals, Kindle Owners Lending Library (KOLL), Kindle Unlimited (if the customer has signed up) and Free Promotions. I also suspect that Select books are given better visibility, but that’s conjecture on my part.

Kobo does allow for free promotions and price-reductions, which is great. B&N doesn’t really do crap for indies, but I suspect that’s because they’re still in bed with all the big publishers. By all appearances their Nook platform is slowly dying and could go away altogether before too long anyway. Apple iBooks doesn’t really do much for indies either and it’s a major pain in the ass to upload directly to them (I use Smashwords).

So I asked myself…if Amazon is providing all these tools, what are the other guys offering? Simply being “not Amazon” isn’t really enough. I feel like these vendors need to do something to convince independent writers to distribute through them.

That said, I’m leery of going all in with Amazon for every title I have. Also, I think I’d piss off more than a few people if I yanked my Badlands series from the other ebook vendors. People who started that series on their Nook or iPad should be able to finish it there, without having to jump to Amazon.

I decided to land somewhere in the middle. As I’ve posted before, non-Amazon channels account for as much as 38% of my sales now. But…of those non-Amazon sales, 99% of them are in my Badlands series. My other stand-alone books sell virtually no copies on the other platforms.

So now that I have a decent little backlist, I opted in four of my six titles: a stand-alone horror novel, a collection of short stories, a novella and a stand-alone short story. These haven’t sold jack outside Amazon, so I figure I have nowhere to go but up. These lagging titles will now be eligible for Kindle Unlimited borrows as well as KOLL borrows.

I scheduled two books with Countdown Deals and the remaining two with free promotions. This gives me an efficient and cheap way to promote them. More importantly, I can test out Select again after being out of it for so long and see if it can still push a title up in the ranks.

By opting in only my lagging titles, I can test out Select without affecting sales of my best-selling series. This mitigates my risk and doesn’t really penalize readers (as much). My two Badlands novels are still available everywhere. Book three should be out later this year and I plan to opt it out of Select as well.

I’ll be watching my Amazon sales closely over the next 90 days. If I see huge spikes in sales, I’ll know the move was worth it. I’ll also be watching my sales of the Badlands series on the non-Amazon platforms to see if those sales drop. Could be that I’m penalized for de-listing titles (hopefully not).

As much as I want to make my books available on all platforms,  I also want to reach as many readers as I can. That could mean Amazon is the place for that, to the exclusion of Kobo, B&N and Apple. I won’t know until the data rolls in.

I’ll post updates as I go. I’m interested in seeing where this experiment takes me and my books.

Life Outside Amazon

Amazon has always been my biggest sales channel, but with the bottom dropping out of sales around the beginning of 2013, sales outside Amazon have stepped in to fill some of the gap.

What does it look like when the bottom drops out? Take a look at this graph, showing all sales (including borrows). These are units, not revenue. (Click the thumbnails to enlarge.)

All_REUs

What I really want to show is the net effect of all sales outside Amazon. Check out this graph:

Non-Amazon_REUs

Some help reading this graph: these are units (sales+borrows) for all non-Amazon channels. Notice 2012 is low; I only had a book or two outside of KDP Select during that year, so I couldn’t sell at B&N, Kobo, Apple, etc.

What’s interesting here is the distribution of non-Amazon sales. Kobo, Apple and B&N are the clear leaders. Also, the rise and fall of sales is fairly consistent with the holidays.

But what’s most interesting here is Kobo. Since March of this year, I’ve had month-over-month increases at Kobo. I just had my best month at Kobo in August.

Kobo_REUs

Conversely, B&N sales are steadily declining.

BN_REUs

Apple is all over the place, but most recently I’ve seen a gradual increase since May.

I’m not sure what’s causing the increase at Kobo. Sony recently shut down and Kobo took over their existing customers, but I never had great Sony sales.

Could be Nook customers are abandoning B&N. Those customers might not be the Amazon type, so the next best thing could be a move to Kobo or Apple. As Nook devices age, iPads might be replacing them, with the Kobo app or iBooks stepping in to serve the need.

What I can say is that 35% or more of my sales are coming from outside Amazon these days. Plus, I’ve had a few borrows now through Oyster. Yet another revenue stream. All in all, too much to go exclusive. I’ve talked in the past about the benefits of diversification across channels. These kinds of increases make me even more certain I should be on all platforms. There is a market outside Amazon.

So if you’re not selling on Kobo or the other platforms yet, maybe you just need to hang in there. I spent a long time at Kobo with nothing to show for it, only to see sales inexplicably pick up. Apple’s picking up too.  Something to consider when you publish your books. To me, KDP Select is a short-term strategy. As writers we’re in this for the long-haul, so being available to as many readers as possible is the best long-term approach we can take.

How I Write a Book

Now that I’ve written four novels (with a fifth nearly complete) I think I’ve finally settled into a process and routine that works. I titled this post “How I Write a Book” and not “How To Write a Book” because I don’t think there’s one “right” answer. Different people do things differently than others. I thought, however, that sharing my process might provide ideas to other writers on how to settle on a process of their own (should they not already have one).

The Idea

My books tend to start with an idea. Sometimes it’s a thought or a feeling of the type of book I want to write. Other times it’s a world that I’d like to create and explore. Sometimes the ideas just come from nowhere, other times it’s more deliberate. Either way, without an idea you really have no story.

The Outline

I outline. Some don’t. For me, the outline is the best approach because I know that if I can finish the outline then I can finish the book. I have too many off the cuff books that I got 20k words into before watching them die a painful and slow death. That said, an outline is just a rough blueprint. Things can and will change as the book is being written.

The Manuscript

Once the outline is finished I write the manuscript. I set a 1,000 word per day quota and I hit that quota hard. This is critical. Setting and meeting word count can’t be underestimated. I try to shoot for 75k to 80k novel length, but sometimes they run shorter or longer. I simply adjust my due dates when this happens. Writing a book is a creative endeavor, after all, and one that can’t always be accurately estimated.

Put Out the Call for Beta Readers

Once the manuscript gets a month or so away from completion I put out the call for beta readers. I have a stock of betas who always read for me, but getting a few new faces at the table provides new perspective from book to book. I look for betas who have a good idea for story and who aren’t afraid to tell me when something sucks.

First Revision

After the manuscript is complete I do the first revision, one chapter at a time. I work all week on the revisions, sending out the revised chapters to the betas on Sunday night. I repeat this process until the entire first revision is finished. This allows the betas to get the story in bite-sized chunks, which means they’re more likely to stick with it until the end. It also avoids the scenario of keeping betas waiting until I finish the entire first revision and then me having to wait while they consume an entire novel. That all takes time and this multi-tasking approach shaves months off the process.

Second Revision

This is where I go over the book again, incorporating the beta reader feedback and cleaning up any clumsy prose and spelling/grammar errors. I run the manuscript through several different spelling and grammar checkers including Scrivener, Microsoft Word, LibreOffice, Apple Pages and Google Docs. They all catch something different and provide different suggestions for improvement. (Sometimes it takes more than one pass to get through this revision.)

To the Editor

With the second revision complete, I’ve now gone over the manuscript three times (including writing it). Now I’ll send it off to my editor. She’ll have the manuscript for maybe two to four weeks, depending on her schedule and how long the book is. Her job is to check for spelling and grammar issues and to ensure that the story is reads well. She looks for inconsistencies, repetition, awkward phrasing and other areas that need improvement.

To the Proofreader

Once the manuscript is returned to me, I’ll make the changes she suggests. I’ll then send the manuscript off to my proofreader. She looks primarily for spelling and grammar errors. She’ll also find weird stuff that both my editor and I missed. Improper word usage and other stuff like that. She’s the last set of eyes on the work before it goes to publication, ensuring I’ve done all that I can to catch and fix all errors.

Final Read

Once the proofreader’s changes are in, I’ll copy the book to my Kindle and read it as if I were one of my readers. This allows me a final look at the entire book, start to finish, after all changes have been made. This way I can ensure it reads as I want it to and that something didn’t go awry during the editing process (like accidentally deleting entire chapters).

Publish

Once the final read-through is complete it’s time to hit the publish button. I export the manuscript into both Kindle and ePub formats and get busying uploading to Amazon and the other vendors.

Back Cover Copy

This is the synopsis or product description, the bit where you pitch the salient points of the plot to potential readers. It tells readers what the book is about, sets up the problem that needs to be solved and leaves the reader guessing as to whether or not the problem can be solved. I usually start this process when I get the outline finished and tweak it along the way. It needs to be finished before I upload my finished book and hit “publish”.

Notify My Mailing List

I now have a mailing list compiled. I use MailChimp to collect and manage this list and I use it only to inform readers of my new releases. By signing up for this list, these readers have told me they’re very interested in my work. As such, they get notified the moment the book is available on Kindle, Kobo and Nook (the other vendors take longer and I don’t want to make readers wait that long). At this point I don’t post anything to my website about the new book being available, nor do I post on Facebook, Google+, Twitter or anywhere else. Think of it as a silent release (where only a select group of readers are notified).

Advertise the Release

This is the part where I tell everyone else that the book is avaiable. I hit Facebook, Twitter, Google+ and my website with the news. I only do this once, because I don’t want to push a hard sell on people. I don’t want to be the BUY MY BOOK! BUY MY BOOK! guy. I don’t know a person alive who likes that sort of marketing approach. The time between notifying the mailing list and notifying the rest of the world can vary. Last time I waited a couple of days, but next time I might wait a week or two.

Start the Next Book

I usually take a short break, maybe a week or two, and then I start the next book and do it all over again.

So there you have it, the process I use to write and release a novel. You’re bound to do things a bit differently, but this approach has worked very well for me during my last several releases. It keeps me on a reasonably quick production schedule and ensures the books are high quality. Hopefully some of what I’ve said here will give you some ideas, whether it’s your first release or simply the next one in line.

And if you’re a reader, you now know that publishing a book isn’t simply finishing a manuscript and hitting the “publish” button. There’s a serious amount of work that goes into each release to bring you the best quality work I can produce. I hope you enjoy it.

Lapsing Out of KDP Select

kindle

As self-published writers, not only do we write the books, we also price them and market them. One of those pricing and marketing tools is KDP Select. I’ve written about Select before (and the reasons behind my choice to opt in), so I won’t bore you with those details here.

What I’m discussing here today is my choice to opt out.

I opted my debut novel, Into the Badlands, into KDP Select back in February of this year. Each month after it averaged around 35 borrows. I left it in Select for nine months (three ninety-day terms). I began seriously considering opting out after the second term, but I opted for a third term anyway. At the time I leaned pretty heavily toward opting in because of the poor performance of non-Amazon sales channels.

Mark Coker wrote an article about Amazon playing authors like pawns in a chess game. While he made some good points, the tone of the article made indie authors sound naive and gullible. Like we didn’t think about what we were getting into. He also did not place enough responsibility on Amazon’s competitors’ inability to step up their game and actually compete (including Smashwords).

But what really compelled me was this article by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. It really got me thinking about my long-term readership.

While I contend that what I’ve said about KDP Select and Amazon’s competitors is still true, I’ve come to the conclusion that Select is a short-term tool. I plan on writing for the rest of my life (and self-publishing for as long, should the existing system hold up), so the decisions I make should be geared toward the long-term.

Simply put, making my work available everywhere, to anyone, regardless of device, is a better long-term plan to acquire and retain readers.

But I had concerns about opting out of Select. Badlands is my best-selling title and I didn’t want to risk damaging that. My first concern was the fact that I’d lose all my borrows, about 35 per month on average, or around $70.

My second concern was that Amazon would “punish” me for opting out by knocking my book down in the rankings. If true, not only would I lose the borrows, but I’d lose paid sales.

I decided to risk it in the end. Long-term it was the right decision, so I allowed Into the Badlands to lapse out of KDP Select in November.

What happened was surprising.

Sales increased. I actually ended up selling more books than the two prior months. I have two theories around this. One theory is  it’s all seasonal. We are approaching Christmas and Amazon likely sold a ton of Kindles on Black Friday. Those Kindles need books.

The second theory is that borrows were cannibalizing my paid sales and once folks couldn’t borrow the book for free they simply ponied up and bought a copy. Badlands is ranking higher than it has for months. Simply stated, it doesn’t appear that Amazon is penalizing my book for lapsing out of Select.

Also, non-Amazon sales have improved since last year. Barnes and Noble, while not stellar, performed best, with Kobo ushering in a sale. Alone, these sales didn’t cover the gap I lost with my borrows going away, but combined with the additional Amazon paid sales it went a long way toward filling the gap.

Utilizing Select Short-Term

That said, I do think Select can be utilized short-term. My second novel, The Desolate, got off to a slow start when released. For three months it languished until I opted it in to Select and ran a two-day giveaway. After that sales nearly doubled. I think the trick was the giveaway, placing my book on many different “also bought” lists for other horror novels and getting it in front of more paying readers.

I think that a “Kindle First” approach might be valuable. The idea being: give the book to Amazon for 90 days and do a giveaway to seed the “also bought” lists. Let it ride for 90 days and then let it lapse out and get it into the non-Amazon stores (B&N, Kobo, Apple, Smashwords, etc).

And some books, like novellas and short stories, might be better suited for utilizing the free promotions that come with Select, since Amazon’s algorithm changes don’t boost paid sales after a free day anymore. Giving away stuff you don’t make very much on (with previews to your full-priced novels included) is like cheap advertising.

It’s hard to say how long Amazon will extend the Select program. If it goes into next year I’ll likely take the “Kindle First” approach with my upcoming sci-fi thriller. My sequel to Into the Badlands, however, I don’t plan on opting in to Select at all. The first book already has a readership, so I don’t need to seed “also bought” lists with a free promotion. The book should sell on its own.

No Reader Left Behind

So as Kris Rusch suggests, I’m taking the “no reader left behind” approach. It’ll probably cost me a little in the short term, but with the long tail of this new publishing paradigm I think that I (and my readers) will benefit more in the long term if I make my titles available to everyone, everywhere.