Since I know some of you out there are thinking about publishing your own books and stories via ebook distribution, I thought it might be worthwhile for me to recap the lessons I’m learning as I go along. Just so you’ll have another data-point to use in making decisions and setting your expectations.

First, it’s probably worth mentioning that I’ve spent more than a year doing the whole pitching-to-agents song and dance routine. Given the quality of what routinely gets published, I eventually concluded that however the system actually works, there’s only thing I can know from the outside : No matter what’s really going on behind the curtain, the way the people in the system describe it publicly to people outside the system pretty clearly skips some crucial points.

Also, it’s probably a bit unusual that I went to ebook publishing after finishing my fourth novel (though I suspect that might not as unusual as most people might imagine). So the way I evaluate the options is certainly weighted by the volume of stuff I was releasing.

With that said, here’s what I’m learning:

KDP Select is a mixed bag, at best

Why do you sell your books on Amazon? "Because that's where the readers are."

Why do you sell your books on Amazon? “Because that’s where the readers are.”

I went with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing because I recognize the value of the famous Willie Sutton quote. I went with KDP Select because I reasoned that a vastly unknown writer could benefit from the advantages of giving things away… particularly if giving away one thing — A Madness — could entice anyone who liked it to purchase another thing — Siobeth.

Quick overview: KDP Select is a deal in which a writer exchanges exclusivity (enrollment requires that you not offer your book anywhere else at any price for three months) for a few interesting advantages. In addition to your book being published on Amazon (which requires no three-month exclusive commitment), Amazon Prime members can “borrow” your book for free. However, you get paid a royalty for every borrow, and Amazon points out the share paid to most writers is more than they get from setting selling a copy outright. That’s probably the biggest incentive.

The others? KDP Select offers you two other types of promotions for each book, for each three-month period.

Option 1: Give your book away for five days. You can pick which five days, and they don’t have to be contiguous;

OR

Option 2: Use your promotion on a Countdown Deal. The deal lasts for a week, and you pick the opening price and the number of pricing increments. In my instance, Siobeth started at the cheapest allowable price ($0.99) and then increased by a standard increment every 36 hours before returning to its regular list price ($4.99)

That was back in November. The first book I put up will be coming out of its first enrollment period on Jan. 29. The other three expire on Feb. 8. So far, I’ve used up all my promotion credits except for two remaining days during which I can give away Bokur.

So how is that borrowing thing working out?

So figure I’m about two-thirds of the way through my enrollment, and exactly one person has picked up exactly one of my books via the Prime borrowing program. I don’t remember which one, and since we’ve clicked over to the new year it’s not easy to check the reports from 2013 to find it, but that’s beside the point.

How about that Countdown Deal for Siobeth?

On this one, I didn’t even attempt to self-promote, because I wanted to test whether the Countdown Deal promotion touted by Amazon would have any effect purely on its own.

Result? Not a single sale.

Now, that’s not to say that this might work for someone else, with a different kind of book. Siobeth is a sequel by an unknown writer, and I didn’t expect much to begin with.

What about the giveaways?

Different story. The giveaways work.

In the last two months, I’ve given away 211 books in the United States, 35 books in the UK, 25 in Germany,  10 in Canada, four in Italy, four in Japan, two in Brazil, and one apiece in Spain, India, and Australia. Now that’s probably not 294 individual readers — some of them are probably friends of mine who picked up several books. But I figure that giveaways have probably put my stories in the hands of at least 200 people.

Whether any of those people ever bother to read those books… well, that’s something we can’t know. But that’s good distribution for someone starting from scratch.

One way of knowing that it’s working is to keep an eye on the foreign markets. While I do a few things to promote my books via social media, I’ve got only a few friends in the UK, only a few professional contacts in Germany, and no contacts anywhere else besides a couple of twentysomething soccer players in Canada who almost certainly aren’t picking up my free ebooks. Which means that when you see those giveaways in foreign markets, there’s an excellent chance I got picked up by people who noticed my books simply because they showed up on the search results for Free Books.

It’s nice to know that your friends pick up your books because they like you. But its exciting when a complete stranger picks up your book simply because she saw it and thought it looked interesting.

How does that figure compare to actual sales?

Favorably, of course. For every book I’ve managed to sell, I’ve given away seven.

Is that disappointing?

Yes and no. First off, I figure that of the 227 people who “Liked” my author page on Facebook (209 of them FB friends of mine), only about half of those are ever likely to spend their leisure time reading a novel. They’re not bullshitting me by “liking” my author page but not buying any books. They’re just helping me get the word out.

Anyway, most of those novel-reading friends (let’s call it 60 percent) are not yet used to reading on ebook devices. So from that remaining pool of roughly 45 potential readers, figure that many of them are busy around the holidays, or in the middle of reading something else.  And others would read it, if it were on Nook, or some other format besides Kindle.

I’ve sold roughly 40 ebooks, and I figure about half of those went to readers who purchased more than one book right away, mostly because they’re trying to help out.

So in terms of building an audience, I figure that, of the people I know who’ve heard about this publishing venture of mine, roughly 1 in 10 has gone out and purchased one of my books. I know that sounds bad, but given the nature of the product, that’s entirely in line with what I expected.

There’s a pretty good chance that this number will grow over the next year, too.

What’s the bad news?

So far, a total distribution of more than 300 ebooks has produced just two reviews on Amazon. That’s a little better  than my old observation about blog-traffic-to-comment ratios (my experience is that I average roughly one comment per every 300 page views on most of the sites I’ve produced or managed), but still lower than I’d hoped for.

Those two reviews are favorable (a 4-star and a 5-star), but for these books to start expanding beyond this original pool of potential readers, I’m going to need a bunch more in order to attract new customers.

 

What’s the good news?

Several things. First, writers want readers, and I figure more than 200 people, many of whom have never heard of me before, now have at least one of my ebooks loaded on their devices. Before November, the grand total of people who had read any of my books was probably… 10?

Second, I’ve heard from all sorts of people who I haven’t heard from in months, years.

Third, even if this publishing venture never takes off, there’s some evidence that I’ll still make a little bar money off these books. Which is so much better than the old option, which was to let them sit on my computer until I died.

But the best news is the sales record for Siobeth. It looks like this: 1, 1, 1… a slow drip of sales that paints a picture that does wonders for my morale. After the initial flurry, which includes a couple people who bought my whole catalog as a show of support, each of those Siobeth sales represents one person who read A Madness and then picked up the next book in the series.

As far as I’m concerned, the best review in the world is the purchase of a sequel.

So will you be renewing KDP Select?

No. Because while I can see some possible advantages to trying another quarter in the program, I doubt they’ll add up to breaking even on keeping my books exclusively with Amazon.

Sure, it would be different if all of the sudden hundreds of people started borrowing my books at $3 a pop. But given the performance so far, I don’t see that.

Additionally, did you notice the performance of A Madness when it’s being given away? Most of the books I’ve given away are copies of A Madness, and if those freebies produce paying customers for the sequel, it’s a great deal.

There are free books on Amazon, and not all of them are on KDP Select promotions. So how did they get there, given that Amazon requires you to set a price no lower than $0.99?

Because Amazon has a price-matching policy. Which means that if I put up a copy of A Madness at another online ebook store that allows me to give copies away, sooner or later Amazon will notice that price, and reduce the Kindle Store price accordingly.

If Amazon would have let me give away A Madness every day, I would have done it. So my plan going forward is to push these books out to as many venues as I can, including ones that allow free books. And if that gives me a free book on Kindle, then that’s gravy.

Your mileage may vary, but if you’ve got any questions, suggestions or stories to share, please fire away.

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