How My Self-published Kindle Novel Went Viral for 11 hours; or, How Clotho’s Loom got Me Banned from Social Media, by Shawn StJean

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For two reasons, I’d like to freeze this very moment in time: morning, Saturday, September 1, 2012. First, my novel no longer occupies the stratosphere of Amazon lists and rankings it did just hours ago, rubbing elbows with the productions of authors everybody’s heard of; because, secondly, this morning people who want to own it will have to pay for it–and I’m not certain they will. So I’m living between promising past, and unknown future: on the cusp of unrealized potential.

I’m going to proceed here in linear, narrative form. I think this story is worth telling because, I hope like the novel itself, it’s entertaining. Mistakes were made. I’m not sure about informative: because the folks on a certain popular social media site–we’ll call it FAvoWITreADS–didn’t seem to be too happy with the way it all went down, and because I owe a huge debt of gratitude to the folks who contributed, I need to obscure names and numbers before I write myself or someone else into trouble. Maybe someday, I’ll revise and plug in real figures. For today, let’s just say I’m totally blown away.

It starts the way many writer’s stories start: I toiled away for x years–wait, make that xx years–on my book, doing my very best, learning my craft. Anticipating publication this year, I queried a bunch of agents with my best pitch. No response. Looking around the publishing landscape, it was impossible not to notice the time was ripe to self-publish, electronically. I already had a pretty fair amount of material in print over the past 15 years, including two books from university presses, and I really wondered if I wanted to spend more years following traditional procedures that were often extremely stressful and, after all, got my stuff into relatively few readers’ hands.

This part should sound familiar. I discovered the Amazon KDP Select program. I really botched my launch date, hoping to package the book as a stimulating summer read, so I began a promotional blog in May, naming June as the day. Well, during the final edit I couldn’t resist tweaking, days lengthend to weeks, and I finally made good on August 11. Just great. This is a long novel, between 500 and 600 pages if printed, and everybody’s already come and gone from Wherever Beach, and toting some other fella’s book. But, looking forward and carrying on, the way one would do after a bad golf shot, I set up my first two “free days” for the following weekend. Scrambling so last-minute to get the word out, via other bloggers, free promo websites, social media, and word of mouth, I suppose I’m lucky anybody downloaded the thing. Friends, family–most of them came through, along with a few generous strangers. Not a huge success, but enough for a start. I hit #42 in free literary fiction for Kindle.

I vowed to do better next time, and (learning as I go, just like writing) I did my due diligence, reading up on which sites have the most followers and require lead-time, e-mailing every potential reviewer I could find, joining many discussion boards and introducing myself and Clotho’s Loom, entering a few no-fee contests, keeping my blog current and building a modest but respectable core of repeat customers there (BIG shout out to y’all!) I also comitted to, as an experiment, Thursday and Friday (versus the Saturday and Sunday I used previously for free days.) Finally, I slipped into a month-long giveaway hosted on a third-party site, listing xx copies for free in exchange for reviews, and scheduled the Amazon free days to coincide with the ending of that. Thus, the winners could obtain their copies from the online bookseller, helping my rankings at the same time. The novel received a fair number of requests on that site–I was pleased.

So when the Amazon free days commenced, in the middle of the night two days ago, I felt confident, between the giveaway winners and a list of e-mail contacts I’d assembled from every corner of my past life–former colleagues, students, and long-lost friends–that I had a decent base to start with, and set myself a mental goal of doubling my previous performance. And, sure enough, the download pace on Amazon’s author dashboard went exactly that way: a very slow and steady trickle, for 35 hours or so. Ho hum. This despite my posting dozens of little promo blurbs in the social media, in the wee hours of the first day.

Switch to present tense. Thursday dawns, I’ve been typing in online forms for hours, and I’m wiped out already–I need sleep.

Instead, I spend a much-needed day out of the house, and away from the computer. Good decision. My Amazon rankings have disappeared anyway–due to what they call “system lag,” I guess–but at least that relieves me from obsessively tracking them through an unproductive day. Later, I’ll catch up on my rest. Thursday night passes unremarkably.

Morning of Friday, the second day, I’m at a loss. I want to do more, but I’ve exhausted all my contacts. The downloads trickle. I figure it’s too late for anything else, shrug, and half-heartedly return to my routine. Then, out of nowehre, big setback: FAvoWITreADS bans me from posting for the next 15 days, saying I’m exploiting them for commerical purposes! Huh?! I rant and rave about the hypocrisy for a half-hour or so. I’m doing, on a much smaller scale, what many thousands of people do every day–and many of them find ways to charge money for it. I look over the rules, convinced I did nothing wrong. Whatever. Okay, I’m over it.

I eat a late lunch, and prepare for my afternoon nap, then remember something from early morning. Yesterday. A friend of mine had provided me with a few e-mail contacts of Kindle bloggers, and I’d queried them in very early hours of Thursday. They were both nice enough to respond favorably, and one of them featured my book in a very slick promo, in very short order–in spite of my last minute request. Some people are just too cool. So now it’s about 28 hours after she did that, and I finally share the link on my personal social media page (in spite of the dire prohibition, though in all honsety I figure they don’t mean my own page.)

Now, here’s where things get interesting. While I’m napping, a friend kindly reposts my link. He’s got a lot more contacts than I do. And, in addition, he makes a very kind tag remark, bless his heart. If 2 or 3 of them should repost. . .you can see with this is going. Well. . .it happened. I get up from my much-needed one hours’ sleep, and my downloads have doubled from last viewing. Deadly! Out of compulsion, I click the update about ten minutes later. They’re rolling in. 5 minutes, another click. They’re flowing in.

Somewhere about this time–I haven’t yet been able to determine yet exactly when (but it was fairly late)–a bigger promo outfit, one I contacted a week earlier, posts my book on their blog for “daily free deals,” with a cover photo, and very generously includes me in their outgoing social media posts. They never e-mailed me to say so. I didn’t actually see it until about 6pm Friday, and I’m looking for mention of me out there. However, and possibly important: this is all happening about that point, on Friday afternoon, when people at work on the east coat have started knocking off for the weekend, and on the west coast, they’re seriously considering it.

For clarification’s sake, when people use the phrase “Going Viral,” many of them may refer to the final amount or number, as in the sentence “The zombie virus infected millions of people.” Well, I can’t make that grandiose a claim. What I really mean here is rate as a function of time. If you can picture dominoes falling–miles of them–or better yet, a slot machine paying off, sirens blaring, lights flashing, and cupping your hands under it, while never being sure when it will stop–and then it going on at that pace, for ELEVEN hours–that’s pretty much what we’re seeing at this point, though I don’t know it yet. As it starts to get dusky out, I go for my bi-daily three-mile walk (too much time at the terminal makes Jack a fat boy,) and my mind keeps repeating that the downloads will have stopped by the time I return. Nope. People are re-posting all over the place. By the time it’s pitch dark out, I go out for a drink with a friend to celebrate. We’re WAY past any goal I would have dared to set. In fact, I’ve tripled my wildest conjecture. I’m starting to wonder, can you give out too many free copies?, but I’m too pleased to worry about it. We’re hugging. After all–we talk about this in the glow of beer glasses at the tavern–I didn’t become a writer to get rich. I wanted to share stories with people, because others sharing with me has enriched my own life so profoundly.

Upon return (one drink,) the hours until midnight pass in disbelief. The machine is still spitting out coins, in huge clumps now. It can’t be unplugged. I check my rankings on Amazon–not a good kettle to watch, it’s slow to boil. But when it catches up, I’ve hit the top 20 in Free literary fiction–first page! In the company of writers I’ve admired my whole life. Just when I’m sure it’s about over–it has to be, midnight looms–SMACK on the head! I realize it’s not gonna end until midnight west coast time–I’ve got three more hours! C’mon–it’s getting late, even there–people are getting dinner, going out, putting their kids to bed. It definitely won’t go the distance. Now I hit #11 in Lit. Fic. I’m nodding off. Even 3 a.m. comes and goes, and the system lag doesn’t shut me down for another 20 minutes past the deadline. The downloads roll in, right until the very last second. I crash. I have hit #6 in Literary Fiction; #138 in the Kindle Store. From total obscurity, at 4pm. Total number of downloads: xxxx. Wow.

Saturday: So the big questions remain: Will this all translate, now that my novel and I are back in my anonymous paid rank, among millions of writers and books scrambling for notice, to cash sales at $2.99 per copy? Will FAvoWITreADS ban me for life, without a trial? Two things, I am sure of: many, many, many more people have my book in their hands, than did two days ago, and that makes me damned happy; second, I owe each and every person who liked, commented, reposted, shared, made a phone call, and took a chance recommending Clotho’s Loom. I can never repay most of you–I may not ever hear about most of you–though I hope some will trouble themselves further, not only to read the book, but review it somewhere. Even a sentence or two. What can I say?, but. . .THANK YOU ALL SO MUCH. Shoot me an e-mail sometime.  I will answer.

The learning curve continues. . .

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17 thoughts on “How My Self-published Kindle Novel Went Viral for 11 hours; or, How Clotho’s Loom got Me Banned from Social Media, by Shawn StJean

  1. Nicolas says:

    Great story, you must be so proud! I wonder how the sales are doing now that it’s not free anymore?

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  2. shawnst says:

    Hey, Nicolas, thanks for stopping by and leaving a footprint. Short answer: I sold more books on the first day after the promo (yesterday) than in the 20 days since its launch. So it works–at least in the short term! Still not sure how or why. We’ll have to wait and see how far the momentum carries me.

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  3. 3psmama says:

    What a very cool way to have it all come to pass…even if it was not what you had imagined! May your good fortune follow!

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  4. shawnst says:

    Thanks so much for the good wishes. Yes, I think this version of the KDP story–others have had it happen–shows clearly that it’s not a matter of people waiting in line to get your book for free. Something triggers and event like this. And some people are lucky enough to get the spark early in the free period. Who knows where Clotho’s Loom would have gone, if it the time had not expired?

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  5. Lisa Ard says:

    Hey thanks for an entertaining and illuminating story AND the comment on my own blog. Stay tuned and I’ll share my KDP Select story with you. I’m hoping for the spark.

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  6. shawnst says:

    Hey Lisa, be sure to link to it here!

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  7. Dalya Moon says:

    May your next one be even more fantastic!

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  8. shawnst says:

    Hope so. I’ve only one day left, not two, so it’s a bit of a poser to figure out how best to utilize it. Thanks!

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  9. J.D.Hughes says:

    An interesting experience. Thanks for relating it. Shawn. My novel is due out soon and I’m contemplating KDP. It seems a no-brainer; 90 days exclusive and access to the biggest electronic publishing platform in existence.

    Good luck with your book on the ‘paid’ days!

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  10. Really interesting to read about your experiences with KDP Select at this point in 2012. I started with it back in January and had fantastic downloads on the free days and increased sales for about 3-4 weeks after each session during Jan-April. Since May things changed and even though I have still had fantastic downloads, the sales ‘hump’ has been very much shorter – just a week. I believe Amazon changed their algorithms and visibility after free days does not last very long. I have not done any free days since then as it seemed ludicrous to give away tens of thousands of books for no paid benefit (although obviously there are now many people with my book which may help with future publications). I will check back to you in a month and see if you are happy with the paid downloads after your wonderful success with the free days. I have stayed in KDP Select for now as the book lends make me a fair bit of cash each month – often more than for the sales!

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  11. shawnst says:

    Thanks J.D. and Emma. My experience echoes yours, I think, Emma. Sales boomed at first, and have now steadied out. Considering the book is virtually unknown outside of the month’s worth of promo work since its publication on August 11, I’ve no right to complain. I call it a successful launch–good luck with yours, J.D.! One issue is, Clotho’s Loom is quite long, and so reviews have been slow to come in. I expect some soon, though. They’ll help.

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  12. HBastawy says:

    Thanks for this post, I have not tried KDP Select yet, and what I read is very encouraging for me to give it a go, I noticed as well that it was not just KDP Select it was also the help of family and friends. It’s always great to have supportive people around. If you don’t mind me asking is it possible to help fellow writers with the magic link to this very cool blogger(s).
    Congratulations!

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  13. shawnst says:

    Hi, HB: I’m not sure what link you’re asking for, but if you pay attention to this discussion you will be right on track: http://www.linkedin.com/groupAnswers?viewQuestionAndAnswers=&discussionID=156844120&gid=1515307&commentID=95191374&trk=view_disc&ut=1OAiy0FdcRLBo1

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  14. Great story, Shawn! So would you say that you were successful because your influential social network contacts shared the offer?

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    • shawnst says:

      Without a doubt, Sandra. Though I don’t personally have a large social network, I do rely on those of others–and Facebook and Twitter are not necessarily foremeost among them. In fact, a friend and fellow writer just reported (privately, but she will write it up soon) another KDP Select giveaway with enormous success, and she credited several “Mom’s blogs” for promo-ing it!

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  15. Great to see the evolution of a giveaway journalled. I hope it has resulted in more sales.

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  16. [...] ago, I declared to a fellow author: “I don’t think you can give away too many books.”  We both ran highly successful KDP Select events, and got our work out there to thousands of potential readers—but, today, I’d like to shift [...]

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