This is a slightly edited version of an email which I sent to two other GeekDads, Matt Forbeck and Raymond Masters both of whom are also writers. I wrote this email right after How to Manage Your Money When You Don’t Have Any first became the number one ranked Kindle budgeting book on Amazon back in late July.
Matt and Raymond,
Since you two have asked, I figure that I will send both of you a quick email. If you guys think we can make a post out of it for GeekDad, let me know, and we will try.
I published my book How to Manage Your Money When You Don’t Have Any back on March 8 for the Kindle. The first thing I did right was sign up for the Kindle Direct Program (KDP). That program allows me to give away my book for free on a promotional basis for five days during any three month period. In exchange, I had to agree to exclusively market my book electronically on Amazon and nowhere else.
At the time, I was interviewing Hugh Howey who wrote the Indie science fiction hit Wool. He said that he had decided recently to go with the KDP for his books as well because 90% of his sales came from Amazon. That encouraged me and I took the leap.
(I later found out that he had probably sold 100,000 to 200,000 copies of Wool between January and March, so he knew what he was talking about. He also sold the movie rights to Ridley Scott just when my review of his book came out in GeekDad.)
You can make your books permanently free on Amazon. They will sell your books for free if someone complains that it is free somewhere else. So many authors who just want to give their book away for free to gain publicity publish the book on Amazon, then post it on Barnes and Noble at $0.00. Then they complain to get their price on Amazon lowered. This can effectively give you more free days on Amazon than the five offered with the KDP program.
The problem becomes getting Amazon to put the price back up after you are done giving it away. There is no easy mechanism for communicating with Amazon, and they tend to frown on those who market their books for free. They really aren’t in the business of hosting your book so you can give it away, unless you have other products which make them money. So I don’t really think that is a very wise way to do business with a for profit company.
This isn’t something where I would try to play games with Amazon. After all, they are on my side, allowing me to keep a whopping 70% of the gross proceeds from the sale of my book and to keep the rights. There isn’t a contract in traditional publishing which is even close to that deal. So I like to treat Amazon with respect. For now they are a corporation that is my friend, unlike most publishers.
So pricing was pretty easy for me. I chose the lowest possible price at which I earned 70% of the proceeds, $2.99. Amazon will allow you to price at $.99. However at that price you earn 35% of the proceeds. When I did that math that meant I had to sell 6x more books to make the same money. I figured that the price differential between $2.99 and $.99 was not going to drive that many more sales.
If you needed personal finance help, you were just as likely to pay $2.99 as $.99. Thus, I chose $2.99. I didn’t price it higher because I want my book in as many hands as possible, especially at the beginning. I figured that $2.99 was still in the price range where very few people are going to even think about the price. If they want it, they will buy it at $2.99. That gave me a $2.10 profit per book, which is well over twice as much as I could expect to make from a standard publisher on a $20 hardback. From my point of view, I come out ahead on profit per book, and the price point is 10x lower.
I figured my only shot at getting attention was to get attention quickly, so that I had an audience talking about the book. I decided to blow my whole wad of free days in the first five days. That work stupendously well. I gave away 990 books in five days. I was thrilled. I figured I had it made. I did this by hitting my social network and a couple of other things.
Mostly I think my book has sold based upon the title and my description. The title gets an emotional reaction out of everyone, because almost everyone from the wealthiest to the poorest feels like they don’t have any money. So I have a very broad audience. Plus, I worked and worked on the book description. I honed it and honed it, until it said exactly what I thought it needed to say to do one thing–tell the target customer why they should purchase my book and not any other on Amazon.
So my target audience is a an audience which is looking for healthy financial advice without that advice being accompanied by promises of wealth or pie-in-the-sky expectations about their financial future. I want to hit those people who aren’t interested in becoming rich but want “to do the best with what they have.” I don’t know of any marketed personal finance book with this focus, and I believe that positioning has been a key to my success.
So after the first five days, I was flying high. Then reality hit as sales started. I sold 7 then 4 then 8 and then it slowly diminished until on March 24th, I scored my first 0. There have been many days like this along the way.
However, my book was well written enough that I did start to get some reviews in during March. Almost all of these were 5 star reviews. I had a couple of 4 star reviews, as well, but most of them were 5 star. Frankly, many of my reviews are legitimate reviews but also reviews written by friends. If someone emailed and said they liked the book, I asked them to write a review. I continue to do this because if I watch my rankings, they will almost always be higher if I have recent highly ranked reviews.
I do have to confess that I also manage my reviews. I always vote up the most favorable reviews, and I did vote down the one three star review I have received. I will explain this choice in a moment. For now let me say that my goal is to make sure that the reviews I want to be seen are the ones which show up as the most helpful reviews.
I should also say here that my sense of integrity only lets me cast one vote per review. I don’t have multiple accounts by which I pad the votes. I get one vote along with everyone else. I just make sure to use it.
The one 3 star review that I have received is my own fault. It came from my greatest mistake. I entered my book in the Indie Reader contest for self-published books at a whopping $150 entry fee. That wiped out all profits from March. In June I received my first professional review. The review itself is mostly positive but the conclusion is a sales stopper. When that review showed up on my front page sales dropped.
It also came with 3 stars and this quickly became a problem. As soon as the review went up my rating on Amazon started dropping like a rock. I lost visibility. On Amazon that is a serious problem. If you don’t have visibility, your book doesn’t sell. So I learned my lesson. I will never pay for a review again, and I will watch out for three star reviews.
Personally I will never give any self-published creative work 3 stars or less on Amazon. I might be critical at GeekDad but I don’t want to damage someone’s sales directly. If I don’t like it I will keep my mouth shut. I might wish the rankings were pure sales, but they aren’t. Amazons rankings are also based on sales and stars.So another key to my success has been 13 reviews as of today 10 of them 5 star 2 of them 4 star and one 3 star (which I paid to get aaaargh!).
So reviews have helped keep me highly ranked in my categories. This is the final piece of the puzzle, which I only understood once I had published Brody, my science fiction short, and watched it flop. Not all categories are created equal. Categories like Science Fiction: Space Opera are flooded with material. It is very difficult to rise to the top. However, I have seen other indie authors put their books in less crowded categories and do quiet well. Ernie Lindsey put Going Shogun, a book I reviewed for GeekDad, in comic fiction. That is much less crowded and he is staying afloat in the rankings at about #30. This keeps you seen and keeps sales going. Compare that to my space opera short: I gave away 250 copies got three reviews two 5 star and one 4 star. I sold 12 at $.99 and have disappeared off the map. Ugh! That is discouraging.
My financial book on the other hand is in a category called Kindle budgeting books. This category doesn’t have many traditionally published titles. They all hang out in Kindle money management books. (There I am ranked 4 behind three traditionally published books) So I have a better field to keep me relevant and visible which has keep me selling more copies. So pick your categories carefully. Aim for categories with less competition.
Until recently, I would say my average rank in the budgeting category has been around 11-15–sometimes higher, sometimes lower. That changed this week. I will explain how in a moment for now here is a reality check. To maintain that ranking I have averaged the following sales per day each month: March: 3.7, April: 2.8, May: 3.38, June: 3.63 and until this week July was running at 3.8. Not very many sales but still visible on the site which is what matters to continue to drive sales. My target goals are around 20 books a day for this title.
So last weekend my wife and I decided to try a new free day. I had re-signed with the KDP in June and had 5 more free days available. So on Sunday I put it up for free without any advertising I didn’t even mention it to my social network which is pretty clearly tapped out by now. This was going to have to sink or swim on its own. To my great surprise, I gave away 1063 books in a single day. What was the difference from the first time in which I gave away 990 in five days? I think it came from having been available for six months and having 12 good reviews under my belt, at that point in time. I was floored. When it went back up for sale it was ranked way down. It wasn’t really visible, but the residual fall out from almost doubling my audience in a single day was instantly obvious. I sold 5 that day, even though I was ranked somewhere near 40th in the budgeting category. I was so pleased I decided to do an encore, and on Tuesday gave away another 230 copies. I am going to try again shortly on another weekend day to see if I just tapped out the market on a single day or to see if weekend days are that much better than weekdays for giving books away. Since Wednesday things seem to be changing for my book I have sold 8, 11 and as of right now 9 today. As you can see, I am now way above what I averaged previously. Sales are headed in the right direction finally! Last night I was ranked number #1 in budgeting as I said in my first email.
To conclude, let me tell you how Cory Doctorow helped me. I got to thinking about how he started by giving all his books away for free because it generated the publicity he needed to make money in other ways. I took that idea and applied it to my book in this way: In order to make a ton of money off my book, I would like to sell 20,000 copies which would be about $40,000 in profit (This would make it an extremely successful book for the traditional publishing world in which the average book sells 10,000 copies). That means out of the 112,000,000 households in the United States I need a small fraction of 1% to purchase my book to meet my goal. So if I have to give my book away to 100,000 households in order to sell 20,000,000 I still haven’t even reached one percent of the households in the United states. I have only tapped .1% of all households. The more I give away, the more I will find who are willing to purchase it based on the recommendations of friends. That is a great thought for me. I don’t need to be stingy about the book. The more people who read it, the more people who will buy it.
In traditional publishing, if your book doesn’t become a superstar in the first month or two, they stop printing it and sell out their inventory over the next few months. With a self-published Kindle book, I can wait, and my book is never back listed. I get to follow more traditional business growth curves and look for new customers each month.
So there you have it. My thoughts on self-publishing, the way I think about my book sales, and why I love Amazon and the KDP program.