It’s been a year since the article “Digital…Eventually” came out (Novelists INC newsletter) and the digital world is a lot like the dog world—time is compressed. It’s not exactly a seven-to-one ratio, but a lot has happened. This year, the buzz word is “discoverability” as in how does anyone find you, given all the hoopla and noise? The noise has been big stuff, too.
Barnes & Noble began publishing more than just classics, and Amazon became a publisher, which has shaken up New York publishers. Amazon also launched the Select program for lending books, to additional flurry. Amanda Hocking became the 2011 poster girl for digital success. We’ve had existing publishers announcing their digital plans, ranging from Berkley/NAL bringing back Signet Regency romances as e-books under the InterMix imprint to HarperCollins publishing work from their Authornomy writers’ site. Apple launched a new program for textbooks that has a whole lot of fine print. (But NY is still not talking about raising e-book royalty rates.)
You can follow the rest of what’s going on at DigitalBookWorld.com, on Bob Mayer’s Write it Forward blog, and at Publishers Weekly. But that’s all big picture stuff. I’m here to talk about my year in the trenches. It may help with your own digital discoveries.
Let’s start with what everyone wants to know—the numbers. I’ve sold more than 90,000 books this year. Yes, that’s right, more than 90K. These are U.S.-only sales; the number doesn’t include giveaways. Last year, I didn’t pay much attention to international sales from Amazon; this year the numbers are growing fast, so I’ll be watching that. My bestsellers last year were A Proper Mistress and A Dangerous Compromise (one also sold great in print, the other did not, so go figure).
I’ve given away just over 15,000 copies of my Regency novella, Cat’s Cradle, so total e-books out there for me is more than 100,000. That’s respectable—not huge numbers, but not bad. It’s also the first year I’ve made enough to say that I’m supporting myself with my writing—and not starving while doing so. Always a plus.
With this in mind, I brought out my first self-published book, a Regency Historical romance, Paths of Desire. Last year, my sales did not start moving upward until after June/July—just after I brought out all eight of my Regency romances, so having a quantity of work out there does seem to make a difference. Sales really took off in September/October, when I dropped the price from $2.99 to $.99. I’ve pretty much left the prices there. Before we dig further into pricing and promotion, let’s step back a bit and talk some basics.
This one’s still a must for any e-book; I see books from the NY publishers that have the same formatting issues. It’s a tricky thing to get an e-book to look as it should, particularly across all the various platforms.
Last year, bringing out my backlist meant getting a very clean Microsoft Word file, setting up a simple style sheet, and then letting PubIt, Amazon, and Smashwords do the formatting to e-book. This year it’s a different story.
A few programs have helped with additional format clean-up, so the books look better. I’ve learned to take my Word files and save them—once they’re in clean, simple style sheets—as “Web Page, Filtered.” This HTML file gets cleaned up with a simple HTML editor; I love Coffee Cup for this.
NOTE: If you don’t know HTML, I recommend learning some basics over at W3school. com–they have some great tutorials.
Once the HTML looks good, I import the file into Mobipocket Creator. Like Coffee Cup, this is a free program. While Mobi has its quirks, it’s pretty easy to use. With Mobi, I add the cover, metadata, book description, ISBN, and suggested pricing, and convert the file into e-book format. I then look at the e-book file in Calibri, a free e-book manager that lets me make sure the formatting is correct. Seeing how the book will look in an e-reader helps me, and I can add additional tags and information to make the book highly searchable.
NOTE: I’d recommend that when you buy your ISBNs from Bowkers, make sure you upload a CSV file, which you can create in Excel, with keywords so searches can more easily find your books. Keywords or tags should include your name, the book title, and any special characteristics or genre information about the book.
In Calibri, I look for odd paragraphs and font formats, weird spacing, and symbols that don’t belong in the text. If I find such things, I go back to the Word or HTML file to sort it out (it’s almost always an issue with the style sheet). I’ve slowly been moving my other books into this new formatting process to give the e-books a cleaner design. I’ve also been correcting typos as I go, and adding promotional information into the back of the e-books, because this year it’s all about how readers find the books.
A NOTE ON STYLE SHEETS
It’s a Technical Thing. Word-processing programs, such as Microsoft Word, provide several ways to format text. You can apply formatting—italics, bold, different fonts, etc.—to individual words, sentences, or paragraphs but in an e-book document, this introduces extra formatting code that can cause issues later. Instead, set up universal formatting using a “style sheet.”
You can work from preset template styles (Word has the option to “change styles,” allowing you to select a template of styles) or modify existing styles by right-clicking on them. For instance, you can redefine “Normal” text to suit you (e.g., 12 pt TNR, first paragraph indented .5 inch, singlespaced, no spaces before or after the paragraph), highlight the paragraphs you want to be “Normal,” and apply the “Normal” style.
Follow similar steps to format styles for chapter headings, scene-break marks, title, and other special text. You can format individual words as needed, but if you have an entire paragraph of italics, it’s worth setting up a style. With your style sheet in place, the file can be converted cleanly to HTML and ebook formats. For more information on setting up style sheets in Word, go to the post on Twelve Steps to a Digital Format on my website.
“Discoverability” was the word batted around at the NINC conference this past October—how does a reader find your books? I was fortunate enough to get my books onto the top-selling list at Amazon—A Proper Mistress was in the Top 10 overall sellers (not Regency category, not Romance, but overall). So, success does breed success. Sometimes it is just an issue of luck or timing. Other than this, I didn’t do much for promotion. However, I am online.
I blog regularly at sd-writer.com, I’m on Twitter and Facebook, and I do promote my work, but I don’t have huge reach. My Klout score hovers in the high 30s (and if you don’t know what Klout is, it may be time for you to improve your Social Media awareness). I’ve tried a couple of online ads, but haven’t noticed any impact from them. Same with reviews; I’m not sure they do much for a book, but I figure they’ll help with awareness.
I believe awareness is the key.
To help with reader awareness, I put Cat’s Cradle up as a free novella. It’s been on the Amazon Top 100 free e-books list, but I can’t say that the free novella has really helped the other books to sell more. I do think free works best when it’s the first book in a series—I’ve gotten hooked on Bob Mayer’s Atlantis series that way. With the free book promotion, I’m selling steadily, but not at the peak numbers. I’ve left the novella out there for promotion, but it may get a price tag put onto it at some point. Which brings us to the issue of pricing.
My sales took off at the $.99 price point. I know publishers complain about this number; in fact, I think they turn pale when this number comes up as a price point for any book. Others think it’s undervaluing your work (and folks seem to forget that paperbacks started off as cheap dime novels). For me, the $.99 price made sense for two reasons.
First, my backlist has already made money. These are books that were done and finished and sold, so it’s all gravy from here. Second, aren’t we all watching the budget these days? The economy is bad, and my book buying budget no longer includes any book that’s over ten bucks. In fact, I really like books that sell for a buck or two. (I can go three or four at a stretch, and that’s about it.) I love the low-cost books because I still read a lot, so what’s easy on my pocketbook is an easy sale. The way I figure it, I’m not the only one looking for a bargain.
This notion showed up, too, at the last NINC conference in the data presented by Carolyn Pittis of HarperCollins. Over the past year, the bestsellers at Amazon have been priced either low ($.99) or high, but not in the middle. I don’t have a household name (or a huge marketing budget) that will make that high price point work for me—and Regency romances aren’t big blockbuster books. This same statistic about pricepoint sensitivity also showed up in a recent Publisher’s Weekly article. So, at the lower price point, I make a better profit in quantity.
Last November, I tried out a price increase back to $2.99, but this impacted sales numbers, so now all my books are priced around $.99 to $1.99. However, I’ve brought my new book out at $3.99, so I can discount it and do specials (it’s on sale for .99 through the end of March 2012).
I’m also still trying to make sense of all the data from the last year. Why does one book sell better at $1.99 than it did at $.99? Is it the cover? The cover copy? The timing of its release? The lunar cycle? Why does a book that did not-so-well in print do great online? What’s the difference? Do the monthly trends mean anything, or is this market in such flux that there are no trends, just an ever-changing tide? Sometimes my head hurts from trying to make sense of everything, so I go back to writing; this marketing stuff is not for sissies.
Which brings us to the next big issue for being discoverable.
For me, 2012 is all about experimental promotion. I’ve sent Paths of Desire out for reviews (if you want a free copy and will post a review at Amazon or BN.com, email me). I’m trying cross-promotion with other authors on their blog sites. For additional exposure, I’ve posted my backlist to Backlist Ebooks. I also regularly give workshops. I’ll be speaking at the 2012 RWA conference, and I’ve brought out one of my workshop books as an e-book: Story Showing; Story Telling. I want to experiment more with cover designs, and with bundling some of my books, which should work great given that some of the books are connected.
Most of all, I want to get more books out there.
I’ve had readers asking for Diana’s story, a character from Lady Scandal whose story I’ve always wanted to write, and Jane’s, from A Dangerous Compromise. I’d also love to put out two other Regency romances sitting around that need editing. So, much more writing must be done because I can’t sell a book I haven’t finished. Then it’s time to edit, format, and get the word out there.
But, really, the truth is that no one knows what works.
Some books just sell better than others. Some authors sell better than others. And some books sell better on Amazon than on Barnes & Noble. (I include these two big outlets because, for me, Smashwords does not produce great sales, and I’ve left the prices higher there because the numbers do not justify a price drop.) I haven’t figured out why BN.com is lower for me, but Liz Scheier of Barnes & Noble was at the 2011 Novelists INC conference and was made aware of how many authors (besides me) found their books to be lagging at BN.com but doing great at Amazon. I have seen performance improve at BN.com since last October, so maybe Liz is having an impact. I know Amazon has a lot of great promotion tools, and it’s really hard not to give Amazon the focus when they’re producing the profit.
I’ve put two books into the Amazon Select program. The downside is that the books must be exclusive to Amazon to be in the program. The upside is that Amazon will pay for every book borrowed. This payment may not be enough to offset the loss of sales from other sites, but I do like the idea of book-lending—I got my reading start at a library, so I’m a supporter of book-lending.
Which brings us to…
For me, this is still a non-issue. If you have a huge brand, maybe this is something you need to look at. But Digital Rights Management (DRM) still sucks, and even Amazon has started moving away from it, with their changes to allowing authors to set DRM in 2010 (see the article on Amazon’s change for DRM management), and with their Amazon Select program to lend books. As noted in a recent article in Publisher’s Weekly, calling for publishers to become sane about the DRM issue: “…a study last year by Rice University and Duke University contends that removing DRM can actually decrease piracy.”
Fighting piracy has just about killed the record industry. I have neither their resources nor their interest in this battle. I still maintain that if you post your work for sale at a price buyers consider reasonable and it’s easy to buy, most folks will opt to purchase it.
When I wrote the article last year, I’d started down the digital path in November 2010 and wrote the article in mid-December, when I was putting my third book online. At that point, the three titles (Under the Kissing Bough, Proper Conduct, and A Proper Mistress) had netted $201.96 from Amazon, $147.70 from PubIt, and $57.09 from Smashwords.
In other words, this time last year (in 2011), I’d made about $400 for the previous year. My total budget for covers, ISBNs, and some online promotion was $5,000. At that time, I’d noted:
- Sales of Kindle and Nook are anticipated to explode (they did)
- Digital media consumption is on the rise (it still is)
In fact, the Kindle Fire is reported to have sold over six million units. BN’s Nook sales are up 70% this year over the previous year, but are still behind Kindle sales. All of this means that while you may not see your book hit the bestseller lists, your sales numbers could still go up (a larger market means more sales are needed to hit the tops of the lists).
So what’s ahead for this year in the trenches?
For me, more books, more experiments. The noise is going to be noisier this year. By next year, I’ll let you know how the self-publishing is going. And I hope to have a couple of more books out and available. Would I say no to a NY deal? Maybe. Or maybe not. But the NY deals are no longer the only path, and a lot of times, they’re not a great deal, either; not with lower advances and royalties than you can get from doing the work yourself. The world has changed in the last year. It’ll change even more—that’s one prediction you can bet on. And it’s no longer digital eventually…it’s become digital inevitably.
This article was originally published in the NINC newsletter as a follow up to the “Digital…Eventually” article. For more information, see also the post on “Setting up for Digital.”