The Double Edge: “Giveaways” As A Bleeding Book Marketing Strategy

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By Shawn StJean

My thinking is evolving on this topic.  Just six months 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 emphasis from thousands to potential.

Today, I say: FREE is not necessarily a good thing.  Like many self-published authors, I launched my novel under the Amazon.com Kindle Direct Publishing Select program–which allows one to host five giveaway days in a three-month period–under the assumption that immediate wide distribution was a worthy tradeoff for the lack of short-term profit.  And like many others, I can confirm that giving away XXXX copies will result in a residual spike of one or two days of actual sales, after the price returns to normal (a modest $2.99, at the time.)  Another desirable (short-term) side-effect of these giveaways is that the members of groups like Goodreads and LibraryThing will now have your work in their possession, and have their fingers poised to write reviews.  More on that in a bit.

Some believe that there is no bad publicity.  Lately, I wonder.

Over time, I’ve become convinced that, even if giving books away is one viable means of launching, and gaining a toehold in the marketplace, it is not the proper way to ensure a permanent market share for one’s self-published work.  For years, I’ve known that FREE was the fundamental flaw of Craigslist: most of the abuses (the scams, the spam, the phishing, the no-shows, the tire-kickers) could be done away with by a simple $10 yearly fee, or a $1 per-transaction fee.

Why? It’s human nature: people don’t properly value anything they don’t have to work for.  Think of the last music CD you actually paid for (this would be between $5 and $20 US, probably.)  Of course you’ve replayed the hits over and over again, but eventually you delve beneath the surface, and those tunes that don’t immediately capture airplay have a chance to work their less-quantifiable magic upon you.  You’re a fan.  Now, if you hadn’t paid good money for them, chances are these songs would be lost to obscurity—the b-sides don’t have to pay you back, because you’ve invested nothing in them.

Everyone in publishing understands how vital reviews are.  My book has received, on Amazon, reviews at every level: even though several five-star entries were removed in the infamous sweep, several remain, but I also have four, three, two, and yes, several one-star reviews.

Now, consider for a moment how a reviewer would decide to award a book one star–because even the worst B-movies usually get two.  A book would have to be either plain awful on every level, or very frustrating.  Just trust me, Clotho’s Loom is not for everyone, but by no conceivable standard is it plain awful.   Among my dismissive, one-star reviews, I see two definite trends: 1) the writers are baffled by my writing–either because they couldn’t or wouldn’t read carefully, or beyond the second chapter, or at all–and 2) they got the book for free.

These guys couldn’t be bothered to take a 540-page novel seriously.  They were not my target audience, and I have no one to blame but myself,  putting my best stuff into the hands of someone whose interest lay definitely in “free,” but not so much in “book.”   At least, not my sort of book.  Free is too indiscriminate.  It’s like a sawn-off shotgun.

Easy come, easy go.  Every writer knows that some cliches stick around because they’re true.

We’re living in the age of “free.”  Young people who can’t get jobs do internships, offering free labor in the marketplace.  Rock bands are giving away mp3s of their best material, solely for the exposure.  You can see new movies and TV shows just by typing a few characters into YouTube.  Bulky televisions and microwaves and exercise equipment and computers–much of it perfectly functional–can be had for the taking on suburban curbsides.  And, perhaps most importantly of all, the internet offers trillions of bytes of content, generated by the mainstream media, private bloggers, commercial sites, everybody, for merely the cost of your time, the only limitation being how you choose among it all.  And chances are, if you have a coffee in one hand right now, you’re reading this on free wi-fi.

Now take a look at what the world calls the “successful” people.  The executives, the professionals, the politicians, the lawyers, bankers, even famous authors.  How much are they giving away, really—in proportion to what they’re taking in?  Because they know how the capitalist system works: you trade what you have for other stuff, and you do it at an advantageous rate, not a disadvantageous one.  Certainly not for nothing.

I’m not discouraging the act of promoting a charity, posting flyers for someone’s gig, or volunteering for a bake sale.  We all need to help out someone, somewhere, sometime.  We need to pay forward the help we’ve received, ourselves.  I’m talking about devaluing your own creative talent, time, and more hours of hard work than you could keep track of.  It’s just not smart.  It’s not good business.
Some clown (prince of crime) once said, “If you’re good at something, never do it for free.”  He may have been crazy, but he was no dummy.

Yes, give away your sample chapter.  Write your guest posts, and return the favor by hosting some.  Tweet your friend’s successes.  Promote someone who will never return the favor directly.  That’s all good karma, and more importantly, it’ll keep literacy alive in our culture.  But don’t give too many books away—give fewer, and to the right people.  Find them on Goodreads, LibraryThing, the coffee shop down the street, on a forum or social network, in your extended family, and among the Moms of your kid’s sports team.  They’ll spread the good word.  At worst, they’ll keep quiet.

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Amazon Adopts GoodReads: “Never Go Against the Family, Fredo.”

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By Shawn Stjean

An old bestselling book, from the 1970s, featured a hand controlling marionette strings in its logo, indicating how manipulation becomes second nature to those in power.  I’d like to offer an image that accords better with today’s book news.  For those of you whose talents lie more in visual analysis than in literary, look abstractly at the photo-logo above–ask yourself, what other series of upright oblongs, when stacked in series, topples easily with the right application of very little energy? (answers at bottom)

For us self-appointed oversight-eers, keeping an eye on the Amazon.com A-to-Z monopoly  has become something of a full-time hobby.  They’ve done self-published writers a lot of good with their CreateSpace program, and their big (and free-to-enter) Breakthrough Novel Award contest is currently underway, though the jury is still out on whether the KDP Select program is a boon for exposure of obscure authors, or a cheap parlor-trick designed to put Smashwords, Kobo, and Barnes & Noble out of business, by locking up the new talent into an exclusivity contract for months at a time (see more on the pitfalls here and here).

And now they’ve added GoodReads to the “family,” as GR co-founder Otis Chandler put it in this announcement on their blog.  Immediate reactions (only within the last few hours) from the membership have been mixed, to put it mildy.  They range from a sense of outrage and betrayal, to genuine enthusiasm. Many of the concerns mention money as the primary motivation behind such a merger, and echo the sentiment that Amazon has become too big, grasping for anything and everything it can chew and swallow.  Others are comparing AZ to Wal-Mart, and still others wonder what will become of AZ’s own Shelfari.  So what will this mean for the “Good Guys'” mammoth independent sharing site many of us have loved for years now?  Will AZ influence the reviews on GR, now that their interference in their own reviews, taking thousands off their site arbitrarily and without explanation, has become legend among authors?  Will GR become a venue for sales that profit the corporate bean-counters?  Will the planned integration of GR with the proprietary Kindle platform mean some books will become “more available,” “better-rated,” or suddenly more popular than others?  Will the Listopia voting scheme be affected?

It’s hard not to be happy for Otis and Elizabeth, if they are indeed doing well out of this deal.  Capitalism pays off the smart and good folks who’ve worked hard sometimes, as well as the ruthless and backstabbing pirates (when you link to their photo, you’ll agree its not possible to cast them in the latter role). I’m going to assume that what they’re claiming is true: that they think this will improve the experience for the membership.

Personally, as a small publisher/indie author, I’ve felt safer with GR out there before today, as if there still weren’t an offer AZ could make that I couldn’t refuse.  Havens still exist, of course: Lightning Source, for one, though they don’t host e-books.  Problem is, those that do are not in the strongest position: Barnes & Noble’s Nook series of electronic readers, though a stellar bunch of devices, is looking like a financial e-albatross.  Smashwords is already in bed with Amazon, too.  Don’t even bring up the audiobook market.

“Divide and Conquer”–the old strategy has turned itself inside-out, has transmogrified into “Combine and Conquer.”

Is it time yet to go to the mattresses? (if that film reference isn’t familiar, you might be able to just catch The Godfather on Netflix, before Amazon absorbs that, too.

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2013 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award–2,000 of 10k New Books Advance to 2nd Round

Image10,000 books have been entered by their authors and publishers, in five categories.  Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean, published under the Glas Daggre Imprint, is among 400 in the General Fiction category selected for the second round, and will attempt to move on to the quarter-finals of the ABNA (100 will be selected from each category, announced @ March 12, 2013.)

List of 2nd-rounders:  http://www.amazon.com/b?node=332264011  Congrats everyone!

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From E-book to Print Book, Part 2: One Indie Author/Publisher’s Mild Month with Lightning Source

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This is intended as a companion piece for my original report on CreateSpace, the Amazon-owned solution for independent, Print-On-Demand publishing.  Following my own, less aggressive version of the infamous “Plan B,” I also produced an identical version of Clotho’s Loom (under my Glas Daggre imprint) for the more industrial entity, Lightning Source, to have my alternative printing, Ingram listing, and extended distribution handled by them.  There was no intention on my part to manipulate prices (list is fine with me—more on this later,) but I simply wished not to put all my eggs in a single basket.

It should prove useful to directly compare and contrast the two printer/distributors, on primarily two fronts: first, ease of set-up and cost/service, and second, quality of product.  But let me dissolve any suspense right now: I’m not going to recommend one as vastly preferable to the other.  Both have pros and cons, and this report is meant to be informative, for the use of self-publishers contemplating the choice, from the perspective of one small author/publisher who has used them both, in late 2012.

First, you should note by my title that Lightning Source (hereafter LS) does not quite satisfy the need for immediate gratification that CreateSpace (hereafter CS) does.  The latter took one week only of production—from account opening, to copies in the mail—whereas LS took more like a month.  Still pretty darned fast, compared to the year traditional publishers consumed in producing each of my first two books.  In general, the wheels turn a little more slowly and deliberately at LS than CS, because it services the needs of everyone from giant publishing houses down to sole proprietorships.  And, as with all self-publishing outfits, it’s garbage-in, garbage-out, so the burden is on the self-publisher to get her files in proper order, proofed and corrected, according to the published guidelines.

Like CS, LS provides templates to aid in formatting.  I did encounter some difficulty here, because CS hand-holds you with a sort of preflight, online format previewer, which instantly shows a virtual mockup of your book.  If your gutters, headers, and footers, for example, do not fall within production tolerences at CS, you will know within minutes of uploading the interior file to CS.  And, it’s fault-tolerant—you can keep trying, at zero-cost to you, until you get it right (or, right as far as the computer can discern).  Yes, it’s all very automated over there.

By contrast, LS has actual people that will communicate with you from the very start—all by e-mail, in my case, though phone numbers are never far to seek—and you will be assigned an primary account representative, or Client Services Rep.  I probably exchanged a dozen e-mails with this person, and he was always courteous and prompt in his responses (as long as your expectations are not artificially inflated by sitting at your keyboard all day long) and appropriately attentive to my needs, even though I’m a bit player.  All in all, things operate just as one would expect in an arena of professionals.  I never had the need to communicate directly at CS, so I can’t comment on their humans.

Now, LS and CS do not have identical templates, and my files had to be altered somewhat.  This can be a bit nerve-wracking if one is pinching pennies, as LS does charge fees for uploads—so it is not like throwing darts at a board.  However, they are not draconian in fee enforcement.  My CSR determined in two cases that problems with my files could not have been reasonably avoided, and allowed me to re-upload free of charge.  In one other case (where I did make a significant alteration,) I was charged.  So I believe the final cost for initial setup was about $120 total—and it could have been about 1/3 cheaper, had I been perfect.  Also, a proof fee of roughly $40 may apply. Also, they have been known to offer discounts with orders of 50 copies.  Your mileage will vary.  This is in contrast to well, free setup, at CS (including ISBN—they own it, though).  By the way, my setup difficulties resulted from two sources: 1) I believe there are a few vagaries in the LS guidelines (as to the size of gutters and outside margins, in my case).  Also, 2) I am not a master of Photoshop and related PDF software, and my conversion into the PDF/X standard resulted in a few unsatisfying artifacts in my cover file.  After spending two days trying to remedy this on my own (LS has no tech support for this; CS will charge you) I discovered it was easier to upload a TIFF file.  Problem solved.

As for per-copy-cost to me (to sell through my website, send out review copies, bring to signings, and so on,) I will note here that LS scales its cost-per-copy according to the size of the order.  If you are ordering 1000 copies, you’ll find the difference to be several dollars per unit.  However, as I am dealing in small numbers, my final cost per copy (including shipping) for a 540-page softcover book was almost $2.00 more per copy at LS than CS (CS price is constant, I think).  Royalties from online bookstores were also not quite as high from LS.  This disparity may sound steep, but I have to plead ignorance here.  Other articles have argued that your ultimate profit through LS will scale higher, if you achieve sales numbers in the several hundreds, so I refer you to those sources.  If you expect very few sales and are just looking to publish a mass market paperback for your personal social circle, the consensus seems to be that CS will leave you a higher bottom line.

At each stage, every small step in the LS learning curve will likely consume a day or two, and a buck or two—remember that the humans on the other end are working with you, and their time is worth money as well.  You will be required to order a physical paper proof, if this is your first job through LS.  It arrives in a timely fashion (figure a week,) and approval can be done online.

Now, let me move to a briefer and subjective evaluation of the final product.  Whose books are better?  This is not a 100% apples-to-apples comparison, because I went with a matte-finish cover at LS (versus gloss at CS).  This helps me tell copies apart at a glance—but I also don’t recall being offered the choice at CS.  LS gives you a pretty decent matrix of choice between trim sizes, bindings, paper color, and cover type (you can get two kinds of hardcovers!—at more cost, of course.  I calculated I’d have to raise my list price by 1/3 to remain profitable in HC, and ultimately demurred.  A hardcover is a separate edition and requires a new ISBN, whereas I was able to reuse my CS-provided free ISBN for my identical LS book.)  At CS, your choices as to size and paper only are comparable, but the other options are not offered. No hardcover.

I prefer the look and feel of the matte finish, but again this is entirely a matter of taste.  Gloss yields a more detailed image, by the way.  But other than one exception, the Lightning Source books do look better.  The interior print is remarkable for its dark, smooth quality—with my untrained eye, I see no real difference from offset (printing press) production in the type pages.  CS’s fonts are lighter and appear to have been produced in tiny dot-matrix, though I should emphasize they are entirely acceptable and should only strain the eyes of those with real ocular impairments.  Still, advantage LS.  The paper color and quality seem comparable to me, though LS manages to be a bit thinner (not a bad thing when your book weighs two pounds) while not feeling cheap in the least.  CS did seem to produce a bit more consistent trim tolerance, however.  My book has several borders near the edges of the binding and both covers (professional cover designers apparently know enough to avoid these).  For this reason, I can see, through comparison of many copies, that LS will sometimes cut a bit crookedly, or closer to tolerance in the edges.  Not enough to reject any copies, or to really bother me, but noticeable if you are the publisher.  CS does this, too—no one’s perfect.  And they do warn you.

Final Verdict: well, in all honesty, I am saving my LS copies for “special people,” both because of the higher cost and lighter weight, and because I prefer the matte. I also feel a greater peace of mind in knowing Amazon is not my only venue for distribution (or indeed, production).  Oh, and for those of you “Plan B” people out there, you should hear this.  Due to no action of my own, barnesandnoble.com (which listed my book well in advance of my initial shipment, perhaps a week after I approved LS’s proofs.  The Ingram system is efficient) listed Clotho’s Loom at a 9% discount from list (just over $18.00, versus $20.00 at Amazon.com).  A week or ten days later, Amazon dropped their price to match.  This is considerable, to me.  I set my price through LS at only 20% discount, with no returns (I’m not that keen to get the volume into physical bookstores, so I elected not to go 55% as often recommended).  The reader/purchaser reaps the reward of a reasonable retail price for a quality product, the online booksellers have new content to offer, and I (as both author and publisher) get a satisfying share of the earnings.  Win, win, Winnebago.  Take that, traditional publishing establishment!

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P.S. LS also charges an annual $12 distribution fee that CS, as far as I know, does not. Considering the initial fees that can reach toward $200, an LS book should be treated as a long-term investment.

Clotho’s Loom Paperback now at Barnes and Noble, and through local Booksellers

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In addition to Amazon, Clotho’s Loom by Shawn StJean has joined the millions of titles available from the B&N website (BONUS: as of today, at a 9% discount).  This means a couple of important channels of availability have opened up.  As it’s now listed in the Ingram catalog, the novel will begin appearing on many other online sites, for sale, soon to be optional in ebook form, too (end of January 2012).  ALSO, you can now walk into a brick-and-mortar B&N store, or about ANY local bookstore, and order the paperback through them. 

Search for ISBN 9781479271528 (this may work better than the computer-un-friendly name of “Stjean”

LINK: http://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/clothos-loom-shawn-stjean/1114065232?ean=9781479271528&itm=1&usri=9781479271528

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Clotho’s Loom in Print Gets Global Distribution

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Glas Daggre Publications has contracted with Lightning Source, a division of the Ingram Content Group, to print and distribute a matte-cover version of Clotho’s Loom in mass-market paperback, by Shawn StJean, in the worldwide market.  This means that, in addition to availability on Amazon.com and Amazon Europe, the new novel of literary fiction will soon be available from barnesandnoble.com and other online booksellers, as well as for-order through ground stores in the US, and in many countries (Germany and Brazil are the most recent additions to LS’s reach).

The book has not been translated, and is currently available only in English.  An audiobook edition, read by the author, is currently in post-production.

Indie Authors: Beware Amazon’s Auto-Renew (and Miscellaneous Pitfalls of KDP Select)

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Activision’s Pitfall Harry finds a new way to get his heart broken

As a follow up to my post, Cowboys and Indies: Amazon and Monopoly in the Free Market,  in which I joined the chorus of e-voices lamenting Amazon’s latest wave of review removals (I’ll return to this further down,) I’d like to draw attention, especially for the benefit of new and aspiring authors, to a few of the other potential landmines in your path, if you choose to go with a program specifically designed to benefit fledgling writers: KDP Select.

First, I want to be clear that you’re making a good choice. It’s a great way to get launched. I’m not embarking on some anti-Amazon crusade—my own books are published there, and likely to remain, no matter what other steps I take to sell them. But the system is not perfect—and its flaws are, without question in my mind and whether designed consciously so or not, biased toward the building of the Amazon monopoly.

So if they’re going to police us and our reviews, we’d better police them. While we still can.

There’s a “convenience” feature (their word, not mine) built into KDP Select that renews you for a second (and third, etc.) three-month period, which requires you to UNCHECK the default setting of “go ahead and do it.” This obligates you to publish your book EXCLUSIVELY through Amazon for that period. At first, I thought I was unique in my blunder at overlooking this. Once you’re aware of it, it’s easy to locate within your author’s dashboard—one might say, it hides in plain sight. You will not, among your dozens of other Amazon e-mails, receive a reminder. I’ve since discovered several other authors who’ve essentially committed the first SIX, not THREE, months of their book’s existence to the the giant bookseller by this same lapse in vigilance.

At the end of the first 90-day period, you may feel comfortable enough as an author/bookseller/promoter/agent to want to branch out with outfits like Smashwords, Barnes and Noble, Lulu, Google Play, and a host of other players in the market. You may also have given away hundreds or thousands of copies through AZ’s program, and feel that’s plenty to get your toe in the door of the electronic marketplace, especially if you are channeling those readers in venues like GoodReads, LibraryThing, blogs, and forums like the UK’s Kindle Users Forum (you should be).

Now, should you stumble into an Auto-Renewal, it may occur you to shrug and just do as you like, anyway. If you feel like it’s too much trouble for Amazon to take legal action against you because you’re so little, just don’t forget they have other options. First, it’s their store: they can ban you and your works. Second, due to the royalty payout structure, Amazon will have custody of up to three month’s of your royalty money at any given time. If you breach, and they counter-breach your agreement (somehow your money doesn’t arrive,) are you willing to pursue legal action against them, given they’re so big? Oh, and if I’ve reviewed the guidelines correctly, the 72-hour grace period for withdrawing only applies to the first signup period. I found it all-too-easy, assuming all along I would not renew, to miscalculate the exact day I thought to withdraw, and became obligated for another (big holiday) term.

Perhaps needless to say, this really does look like another of the many, many moves it takes to corner a market, build a monopoly. And you may not really be selling that many books, but as long as you’re also not selling any through any other channels, well, Amazon doesn’t need to concern themselves about you, do they? You’re not contributing to their competitors becoming a threat.

A quick update on the review removals: I’ve confirmed through several sources that it isn’t just certain reviews that AZ’s software bans: it’s certain reviewers from reviewing certain books (products). So that means, if you as an author are in contact with a reviewer (very common, and often very legitimate) and can persuade them to reword or even completely re-write a review, even in strict adherence to the guidelines, it will not stick. I wish to emphasize the importance of this. In my view, it reveals that the official line about reviews violating guidelines is baloney. And in the final analysis, if you can’t get enough positive reviews (the fundamental, traditional means of selling books,) then aren’t you even more dependent upon the Amazon distribution machines, like KDP Select and its giveaways, or whatever they come up with next?

By contrast, if you get stuck with a one-star review by someone who obviously did not read your book, did not buy your book, and for perverse reasons of their own would clearly like to sabotage your book, AZ had provided a “report abuse” button for you to push. I have not discovered many authors getting justice this way, however.

As several sensible folks have already remarked, blenders and generators and computer motherboards are one thing—you NEED reviews to help make an informed decision—but as far as content like books and music goes, perhaps it’s time we began behaving, as consumers, in a non-traditional way: READ the SAMPLE. At least several pages—and decide for yourself. As a literate person, you don’t need Amazon’s robots, or friends and family of the Author, or some ex-girlfriend with a vendetta, telling you who, and what, and how, to READ.