Writing Fiction: How to Escape ZON, the Rampaging Elephant
There’s a rampaging elephant in any room a publisher uses. ZON is short for Amazon. And it would just as soon crush you as pay you.
This wasn’t what I was going to write about today, but right on the heels of picking out the top 10 books to teach yourself the craft of writing fiction, there were four posts which came up:
- How to Sell Books: The Ultimate Guide to Joint Promotions – by Nick Stephenson
- Here’s How Digital Self-Publishing Has Changed Over the Last 3 Years – Forbes (Adam Rowe)
- How Kindle Authors Can Easily Earn $628.26 Per Month (Within 1 Year) – TKPublishing
- How Do Readers Choose Books? – C. Hope Clark (Bookbaby)
These added fuel to the recent Author Earnings January report.
I’ve been financially free for half a dozen years now, just because I started publishing ebooks. I pushed a test of several dozen public domain (PD) and PLR ebooks up through Lulu to the (non-Amazon) outlets and started enough sales to more than pay my bills. But you can’t do what I did then – well, you can, but not the same way. Things have changed. Lulu quit accepting PD, but PublishDrive appeared and that replaces Lulu for all ebook porting. (Use Lulu for print books. Better than CreateSpace or IngramSpark.)
David Gaughran, is referenced stating in the Forbes article that the number of ebooks have increased 3 1/2 times since 2014. 2 million books then, seven million now.
And the main problem is that they don’t ever go out of print. We don’t really know how many books are on Amazon, only how many actually sell there. (At least one copy.) Print on Demand paperbacks are the same.
What this means is that discovery is worse a problem for authors than it ever was before. Tons of competition. Less of a chance people will find your books.
Gaughran points out that self-publishing is now mainstream, which is why he re-wrote his “Let’s Get Digital” from the ground up. You don’t have to tell people they should be self-publishing. It’s the corporate publishers that need to promote.
The Rampaging Elephant in the Room is Amazon
Read the Author Earnings report carefully. Even go back a year. Amazon is cannibalizing it’s publisher base (both self- and corporate) to get larger profits for itself. Its imprints are taking sales aways from the corporate and self-publishers because they are promoted more than the others. That’s the same tactic they use with Select and Unlimited ebook self-publishers. If you aren’t being published by Amazon, you’ve got a target on your back.
Amazon is not your friend. They don’t care whether you keep publishing or not. They don’t care if you lose everything working for them. Because they have another 7 million other books and nearly 300,000 other authors to take your place, with many more of both being added every day (in 2014, it was one every 4 minutes.) It’s Amazon’s playground. As long as you play nice with them, then you can stay. A temporary guest. Just for now.
The only person who is going to take care of you is you. (And if Amazon does screw you over, your only real recourse is pleading your case to “firstname.lastname@example.org.”)
Let’s get one thing out in the open. Becoming a “bestseller” is not your goal. You want to get enough books selling consistently enough that you can replace part or all of your day job and have decent residual passive income. Almost all authors don’t make a living from Amazon ebook sales alone. Author Earnings’ May 2016 report shows it to be about .04 percent (4 out of a thousand.) And that’s only making $50K per year, not enough to live in New York, and probably not enough to raise a family on anywhere else.
The other point is their bestseller lists and ranks. The higher you go, the faster these are recalculated. You can be up their for minutes. (And is where a lot of these “Amazon bestseller” gold-colored paper badges come from.) See http://edwardwrobertson.com/amazon/reality-check-salons-my-amazon-bestseller-made-me-nothing/
You aren’t there to impress anyone or get some medal. You’re there to figure out how to get enough readers regularly buying your books. And there are only two approaches to this that work…
Two Camps of Bookselling
You are either completely inside Amazon or you go wide. Inside Amazon, you can’t tell what you are missing in sales. The idea is that if Amazon has 70% of the sales in the U.S. then you are missing 30% of the sales. But – once you go wide, your sales inside Amazon drop as you aren’t recommended as much. Other survey and anecdotal reports say that Amazon income for wide authors drops to 50% of their total income. And I could say that percentage is about right from my own experience.
To solve the black hole of discovery, you’re going to need to promote. Gaughran points out two different approaches for promoting depending whether you’re “all-in” or “wide.”
The all-in KU strategy is to run ads to take advantage of their free days and so on (see his article here.). And swallow the extreme peaks and valleys of income. You are completely dependent on Amazon for your livelihood. Meanwhile, Amazon (per the article above) is not removing scammers, but it penalizing innocents who the scammers target. Accounts get canceled. No more income at all. Gaughran has multiple posts on his site about this sad outcome. Scary. Meanwhile, KU authors have noted that Amazon keeps dropping the per-page amount every year. Meaning the same sales produce less income the longer they are on sale. (So you have to write, publish, and promote more of them – it’s called “feeding the beast.”)
To go wide, you need to be working on the Content Inc. approach of building up an email list. And working with merchandizers for iBooks, Kobo and the rest to get your books selling internationally. Again, that link just above covers this in general points.
The Stephenson article talks about how to utilize other authors to get book sets going. This also includes setting up time-limited giveaways on Instafreebie. They also promote your giveaway through their emails and apps, particularly if you promote them on Twitter. These readers are then imported to your mailing list for you (paid, not free version, although you can upload them manually nearly as easily.)
Amazon is a Different Beastie
Amazon has different peculiarities. This lead me to put them last in porting my books. Because they are going to need a different version. It’s important for you to know that 95% of the writing-advice books out there are specifically designed for succeeding on Amazon. But if you are only getting 50% of your sales their, then know that you’re going to do two versions (plus Smashwords) to get your books properly wide.
Amazon likes reviews. No one else cares. Both of them are right. Amazon’s ecosystem sells your book better if you have a lot of 4- and 5-star reviews. Elsewhere on the planet, they’ll be recommended by author or genre or series. The Bookbaby article goes over that point. People don’t pick books by reviews, or not completely. Sure, that’s not a “scientific” survey, but you can find other reports by searching that say organic reviews are only left 1% of the time – while Amazon is pounding you to leave reviews on every sale (and the first book reviews were written by Amazon staff.) And yes, just like KU, there are tons of scammers leaving fake reviews. Another author or family can’t leave them for you (they get removed.) Just the nature of the beast.
Other points, like the look-inside, are only on Amazon. There are previews elsewhere, but they run different on each platform. Some are excerpts, others you leave your own PDF.
And that look-inside can trash your book, since you have to have your opt-in offer as the first chapter in the table of contents or it won’t show up.
Smashwords requires you put a blurb in the front of your book that says it’s one of their versions. The other outlets will make you take that out. The best use of Smashwords, besides selling on their site, is to get into libraries in addition to Overdrive.
My sequence of publishing original ebooks is this:
- Draft2Digital to everywhere except Amazon.
- PublishDrive to everywhere they don’t go, except Amazon.
- Smashwords to everywhere not covered above.
I also go wide with other versions, as the TKPublishing article covers.
- Build your book on LibreOffice, export it to PDF, upload to Lulu as paperback. (CreateSpace doesn’t go wide, really. IngramSpark charges you for every single revision you make. Oops.)
- Since you proof by reading out loud, record and edit that, and post to Findaway (via that link on Draft2Digital.) There’s your audiobook.
- Then put an audio preview along with a PDF preview on BitTorrent Now to get email subscribers.
- If non-fiction, take that text and audio to turn it into a course (like BecomingAWriter.thinkific.com)
Going wide means you have stable income, no matter what happens (pretty much.) Courses, by the way, make around 100X using the same material that’s in the book versions. For any fiction author: take that blog you’ve created to keep in touch with your readers, and then turn it into a non-fiction book and course. Your readers will love it. And pay you for it.
Going Wide Means Discovery Opportunities
Chris Fox points out that you want the uber-readers to recommend your book on Amazon. These are the 2-novels-a-day readers. They’re always running out of stuff to read. Amazon will put your book up with these other books on their “also bought” strip at the bottom. The simple approach is to put your book where you can get subscribers to your list, and then you can tell those people about your special offers and new releases. Amazon and other book outlets are there to be your lead generators, to get you subscribers to your email list. It’s just a bonus that they also pay you for your books.
Uber-readers go where there are lists of books created so they can find more to read. Not too surprising, these sites also run giveaways. Goodreads and LibraryThing are two key ones. (BookRiot is another, but I haven’t cracked how to get my books there.) As I start in on this myself, I’ll tell more about it.
Medium has various publications who take fiction works. I don’t see right now that their paid subscription model is supporting fiction writers, but it may be. Again, more research needed – stay tuned.
Tip: I curate articles daily about writing and publishing on Flipboard (https://flipboard.com/@robertworst2015/becoming-a-writer-55nhr5lqy) And these articles above are on there.
What Works, What’s Recommended
Right now, I’m saying to get your fiction piled up. Get lots of stories written. Publish them all. The key success that hasn’t changed is writing a lot and publishing in series and serials. The people who like your writing are going to want more of it. So write daily, publish weekly. Every day, every week, all year long.
Meanwhile, get everything you’ve already written published. Put it under pen names. Get it up to Wattpad on a regular basis (chapter by chapter) so you can build an audience and get feedback. That’s another place where the uber-readers go.
That gives a general flow to things:
- Write and publish daily/weekly. Without fail. Use the above sequence of publishing to get your book wide.
- Get a blog (Blogger.com, like JA Konrath) where you can communicate to your readers.
- Get an Instafreebie/Mailerlite set up going. Put some feebies on it, and build some giveaways with other authors. Start accepting subscribers.
- Put your writing up on Wattpad, as a serial.
- Put some giveways up on Goodreads and LibraryThing.
- Schedule precise times (duration) daily to interact on those two and Wattpad. Set a timer.
- Finally, every month change one thing about each of your books on Amazon – metadata, keywords, updated content, price. One thing. Every month. So they can recommend your stuff as something “new.” Only once a month. Every book. There are other tricks to Amazon, but this won’t cost you anything. Remember, Amazon is a search engine – that likes fresh meat.
Outside of the above, you’ll see that you can get independent of Amazon and so no one book outlet has control over your life. That’s why you go Findaway rather than Audible (so you can go wide.) And Lulu instead of CreateSpace. Amazon owns Createspace, and I’ve seen authors get both accounts canceled within hours for something they didn’t do. Instant no income.
Soon (days) I’ll have my new book out (serialized here as well) on “How to Stop Feeding the Beast” that will cover more of the above.
Until then, stay tuned…
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Also published on Medium.