You know how sometimes you read blogs and wonder if the blogger is telling the truth because everything they write makes it look as if everything goes perfectly for them all the time? Well, I hope to break through some of that perception with this post.
Here’s the story:
A little while ago, I released my novel The Bialy Pimps from the purgatory of my closet, where it had been languishing since I’d finished writing it twelve years earlier. I self-published it on Amazon’s Kindle platform, and celebrated its debut by doing a promotion that allowed anyone to get it for free. A bunch of you (you awesome people with excellent taste, you) snagged it. And a bunch of you wondered why, after spending all that time and effort on a novel, I’d simply give it away.
The full reasoning behind my debuting the book for free is here, but the short version is this:
1. Although nobody is totally sure how Amazon’s ranking algorithm works, one thing that seems clear is that a lot of activity will help your book rise in the overall rankings. I wanted to generate a lot of activity — more activity than I could generate by charging for the book — in the hopes that when the free period ended, The Bialy Pimps would be ranked well and would have impressed Amazon’s algorithm with my general awesomeness. Ideally, in addition to Amazon saying, “Dude, you’re awesome!” sales to people who didn’t already know me would start to happen on their own because Amazon would feel compelled to share the awesomeness by telling customers about me.
2. At the same time and maybe a little contradictorily, it was intended to be sort of a soft launch, going mainly to the fine people who read this blog, are on my list, or are one degree removed from either. I purposely didn’t do a BIG LAUNCH like a lot of authors do, which I’ll explain if you keep reading. In other words, the limited scope of this launch was intentional, and subsequent phases are still to come.
3. But even with that said, you hear stories where one free promo rockets someone to bestsellerdom, which ruin everyone’s day by setting unrealistic expectations of grandeur.
So here’s what actually happened, in real and sometimes embarrassing numbers, with no punches pulled.
My book release, by the numbers
The results of this initial release have been a mixed bag. In some ways, the first push was incredibly gratifying because people have had great things to say about the book, both in reviews and via Twitter and email. But in other ways it’s not been gratifying at all, because the numbers started off okay and then went downhill fast.
All probably totally normal, expected, and even planned-for… but not as much fun as unrealistic explosive growth would have been.
So without further ado, here’s what happened during those first few days and up to the present.
Tuesday, February 14th
Evening: I uploaded the final Kindle-formatted file to Amazon and then set the free promo to begin the next day.
Wednesday, February 15th
6:15am: I sent the first emails and put up the first blog post and sent the first tweets announcing the promo.
The book had been free for 4-5 hours by this time, but I’d had no downloads yet. This was a good indication that nothing was going to “catch” on its own and that the only people who found the book would be people I sent to it. From what I hear, this isn’t typical. Usually you can do a free promo, tell nobody, and people will start to download it. This happens because your book is already “in the system,” and Amazon has gotten it into their various algorithms. My book was so new, it wasn’t in the system or on anyone’s radar. This wouldn’t be a leveraged endeavor. This would be pushing a boulder on my own, with no help from physics.
6:15pm: After 12 hours, I had 444 downloads. Not bad but not ridiculous like some of the stories you hear from people whose books aren’t brand new and who catch a spark somehow or another. At this point, I was ranked #436 among all free downloads and #19 in humor.
11pm: 546 downloads, #420 in free, and #18 in humor.
Thursday, February 16th
6:30am: After my first 24 hours, I had 618 downloads and was ranked #500 in free and #19 in humor.
8:15am: 638 downloads, #422 free, #16 humor.
At this point, I began to realize how fragile the rankings are. My goal was to get into the top 100 free, and (spoiler alert!) the highest that I saw was #356, which happened on Thursday afternoon. But what I actually noticed about the rankings was that I’d have an hour with a smaller amount of downloads and the ranking would drop precipitously… followed by a good hour and a subsequent rise. You’ll drive yourself nuts watching it. I surely did.
2:30pm: 811 downloads, #378 free, #17 humor. This was the first time I noticed that I’d broken above #400 free.
7:30pm: 900 downloads, #382 free, #21 humor.
I’d crossed 1000 downloads by bedtime, but was also back below #400 in the free rankings. The promo only had a few hours left, due to end somewhere around midnight Pacific time.
Friday, February 17
Once the free promo was over, I woke up to get my total. During the free promo, 1025 people had downloaded the book from Amazon.com. I was also now ranked at #167,170 on the overall Kindle paid list. From what I understand, this ranking means pretty much nothing when a book is so new, but it was still amusing.
From what I’ve seen, heard, and read, any bump in paid sales that you’re going to get (if you get one) will start to show up a few days later. Nonetheless, I was prepared to accept worldwide bestsellerdom by noon. Hey, anything’s possible.
The way things actually went on Friday was a bit less impressive.
I got my first “borrow” at just after noon on Friday. Borrowing is a feature of KDP Select, the program into which I’d enrolled The Bialy Pimps in order to be able to do the free promo. Basically, people who are members of Amazon Prime can “borrow” your book for free within certain restrictions, and “return” it whenever they want. You do get paid for borrows, but it’s typically not as much as a sale. So in my case, with my book priced at $3.99, I get $2.79 for each sale. Borrows vary by month, but chances are I’ll get something closer to $1.70 for each.
I then got my first actual sale about a half hour later. Hooray!
By 3:15pm, my Amazon ranking had jumped up over 100,000 places, to #57,252 on the overall paid list. This sort of proved that rankings don’t mean much 1) when books are new and/or 2) when your rank sucks so badly. Could be either or both.
It’s probably also worth noting that at this point, those groupings of “people who bought this book also bought this” or “similar titles” that you normally see below Amazon listings were not yet showing up on my page — further suggestions that my book wasn’t really seasoned in the Amazon system and that it might have been smarter to wait on the free promo until it was. Given that I wasn’t totally in the system yet, it sort of felt like I’d generated a bunch of momentum that couldn’t go anywhere because the cables weren’t hooked up to the battery yet.
At 5pm, I had had no more sales or borrows and no customer reviews. Still, my rank was up to #36,313.
By the end of Friday, day one after the free period, I’d sold a whole four copies and had had one borrow, and my meaningless ranking was up to #22,086. This is the high life!
Saturday, February 18
Saturday was my “banner” day, with ironic quotes being very intentional.
I woke up to find that four copies had sold overnight and that my ranking was up to #17,910. I then had six more sales by 6pm and was up to #11,144. I also had gotten another borrow.
Alas, I didn’t crack the top 10,000. I ended the night at #18,284. By this point I’d also gathered six reviews, all of which were five stars. Aces.
Sunday, February 19
On Sunday, those lists of “customers also bought” that I mentioned had been missing finally began showing up on my page, indicating that I was at least making my way into the Amazon machine.
It was nice to see the fine folks whose work appeared in those lists on my page — people like Seth Godin and Julien Smith. So I went over to a few of those pages (not just the big names, but the smaller ones too) and tried to see if *I* was showing up on THEIR “also-bought” lists. This was, unsurprisingly, not the case. So nobody was really being sent my way from the algorithm yet.
Joanna Penn told me that she’s seen that it takes around three months for Amazon to really get you into their guts and start sending out emails to people who bought similar titles, suggesting they give yours a try. I guess I’ll see soon if that happens for me.
As of Sunday morning, I’d had a grand total of 15 sales and 2 borrows since the free period ended and was ranked #20,757. It all seemed quite random.
I wasn’t exactly raking in the sales, and this, if I’m honest, was a bummer. I told the world and told myself that all that mattered was to ship the book, but it was around Sunday that I realized I’d secretly been hoping for a lot of post-promo sales. Which was ridiculous, given that I’d intentionally not done a lot of the things that might bring about a surge…. but more on that later.
I sold nothing on Sunday. I just watched my rank drop all day, bottoming out around #35,000 by nighttime.
Monday, February 20 and beyond
I got another two purchases on Monday and had got a few more reviews, now up to eight 5-star reviews. My rank neared #50,000.
By Wednesday, I had a total of 18 books sold and two borrowed. It was pretty clear by this point that although the first week hardly determines the success of a book (especially without a big launch effort), the big surge wasn’t going to happen.
At the end of February, I’d sold 31 copies.
As of right now, I’ve sold three more copies in March and have had two borrows. My ranking hovers around #100,000, give or take. A few sales in quick succession will bump it up tens of thousands of places, proving further that ranks this low don’t mean a lot.
Is this a success or a failure?
It would have been great to see a big surge in sales after a free promo, but that was really just dreaming. Hell, it wasn’t even part of my plan, which I’ll go into in a minute. The first push was supposed to get the book into the hands of the people who were most predisposed to like it, review it favorably, and tell their friends about it. The first push was supposed to be about priming the pump so that when I do a later push, I’ll look impressive to the people who have no idea who I am.
So I guess it was kind of a success. I guess I’m happy that I, mostly by myself, could interest 1025 people, in under two days, in downloading a book that I wrote — especially given the fact that nobody knows me as a writer of fiction. I’m happy with my reviews, which now total fourteen — all of which are 5-stars. I’m really happy with the feedback I’m getting. People are saying it’s hilarious and poignant at the same time, which was what I was going for. People are saying it recalled their own fond memories, that it took them back to a cherished place. People are saying that it riveted them, kept them up late reading. This is all very good.
But I don’t know how much it helped my rankings. If I’d simply put the book on sale and not had a promo at all (free or a push for paid sales), would it be selling as it is now? Maybe.
But I still think the initial free promo is a good idea, and here’s why:
1. As I’ve already mentioned, it gets the book into the hands of people who are most likely to enjoy it. An anonymous push is a mixed bag. I can’t guarantee that any of my readers will like it, but they’re far more likely to enjoy it than a random person. This means good initial word of mouth, etc.
2. It’s a way to get good reviews. Reviews matter for two reasons. One, they seem to factor into the Amazon algorithm over the long haul, meaning that books with better reviews from verified purchasers are more likely to rise in the rankings and/or be promoted by Amazon. The second reason reviews matter is for social proof. New visitors will want to see that others enjoyed the book before they buy it.
(Side note: This might be a good place to say that if you got the book and enjoyed it, it’d be HOT if you’d click here and give me a review on Amazon.)
3. It’s a cool thing to do for your friends and fans. Look, I could have launched the book at $3.99 out the gate and I’m sure I could have gotten at least 500 or so buyers pretty fast. The good thing about that is that I have loyal readers I know would buy the book. The bad thing is that it’s my loyal readers who would have to buy the book. Then, when I offered it for free later, who gets it free? People I don’t know. What if those people are assholes? Do I really want my friends to have to pay and give it away free to assholes? That’s intolerable.
4. It’s a good karmic move. This goes hand-in-hand with #3 above. People like receiving gifts, and I just gave 1025 of my friends a gift. That’s going to generate some goodwill, I’d guess.
Now, does that mean I did it totally correctly? I doubt it. I don’t really like the impression I get that all of the free momentum was wasted because the book was so new to Amazon. I don’t know if this would make a difference, but a smarter move might have been to release the book on Amazon, say nothing about it, and just let it sit there on sale for a month or two or three… and THEN do the free promo. Maybe that would give it more teeth.
Here’s why I think there’s some truth to this, and to the theory that “seasoning” in Amazon probably really does matter at least for Kindle n00bs such as myself.
How I’m outselling myself
If you recognize that Kindle title, you get a gold star because it’s the same as this blog post. It’s up in the Kindle store because I took the advice of my friend Sean Platt and repurposed some of my blog material for Kindle so that i can reach a different audience.
Now, here’s what’s interesting:
The Kindle version of “The Universe Doesn’t Give a Flying Fuck About You” sells about one a day on average, and has been for the past two months. This despite the fact that I don’t have it advertised anywhere, that I’ve never told anyone about it other than anecdotally, and that it still doesn’t have a single review.
Just in case you’re not engaged here, let me spell it out:
My novel, which I poured my heart into, which represents some of my best work, which has nothing but stellar reviews, and which I promoted heavily and was downloaded by over a thousand people in two days is being outsold by a brief piece that is freely available on my blog, which doesn’t have a single review, and which I’ve never, ever promoted.
This is obnoxious. But it’s also encouraging in a way, because the fact that none of the sales are my doing means that the only reason anyone is finding it must be because Amazon is promoting it via “customers also bought” or “Amazon recommends” or whatever.
In other words, this kind of proves that Joanna was right. All that piece did was to sit there for sale. Nothing else. And then it started selling.
So, given the better reviews, better traffic, and better promotion behind The Bialy Pimps, will it also start to sell on autopilot in a few months? Probably, right? It seems to make sense.
And when it does — when it finally seems to “catch” in the Kindle store — then that’s probably a good time to move on to phase 2 of my maybe-this-will-work-but-really-I-have-no-fucking-clue promotional strategy.
I mentioned that I didn’t go whole-hog with my initial launch. I don’t know if this is smart or will turn out to be dumb, but I can tell you why I did it.
I did it because I don’t want the first people who come to the page, buy the book, and leave a review to be random. I don’t want random, unbiased reviews and chatter to be the book’s first reviews and chatter. I want qualified, biased initial reviewers so that when the random people do show up, I’ll look really good.
My first fourteen reviews are all five stars. Think that’s sustainable, representative, or accurate? Not a chance. Those are the opinions of people who already knew me and who went into this expecting to like the book. This is what I wanted.
Once I’ve got good mojo going and have some momentum with the reviews (mission mostly accomplished) and once the book starts selling a bit better on its own (I give it a month or two more), then I’ll do a “real” promo.
But again, I’m going to do it via free, for all the reasons I explained in my last post.
I’ve got three days of free left out of the five KDP Select gave me. So what I’d like to do for phase 2 is to do another free promo, but this time do the stuff I purposely didn’t do this time. I’d like to try for a few high-profile guest posts, submit it for review, and ping sites like Pixel of Ink, which tell their readers about new free titles.
My hope is that next time, I’ll get the surge I didn’t get this time, and that I’ll get a little bit of a viral effect. Maybe this will tail off into higher ongoing sales. I’ve heard from a lot of people — and not all big-selling authors — that this does indeed tend to happen.
Phase 3 isn’t really a launch phase. It’s my ongoing plan to keep promoting myself — but this time prominently including “author of The Bialy Pimps” on my resume.
Phase 3 includes a lot of stuff — most of it boring to read about — but one thing it does include that may interest you is that I’m going to be starting a podcast. Stay tuned to this blog to hear more about that in coming weeks.
Phase 3 also includes writing more books. And more books. And more books.
I firmly believe that the bold new frontier of self-publishing means that you kind of can’t fail if you’re at least decent and you’re persistent. If your sales suck and a given title only makes you $2000 per year, that’s not much… but once you have ten such shitty-selling books, that $20,000 is a nice sideline. If you write 30 books, you can start to live pretty well as your backlist earns for you year after year after year.
It’s not “get rich quick”, but I think it’s “make a living with art certain.” I think that nowadays, math favors the persistent artist.
There’s probably a lot more to this, but this has been a long and rambling post and I’m going to let it be a long and rambling post. I’m not going to try and end it in a tidy manner. It’s just going to kind of fizzle out here.
So, you know, if you have questions or comments, ask or comment away. If you’re any kind of a creative person, we’re all in this together.
P.S: If you read The Bialy Pimps and liked it, would you be willing to leave me a review? That’d be seriously badass of you.