Books and their Legs – A SelfPub Experience

Publishers like books that have legs, books that sell themselves through that good witch WordOfMouth, but it was always the same old story – how could they know if a book had legs if they wouldn’t take it for a walk? Publishing, like any career move, had its own version of “must have experience to get hired but can’t get experience unless you get hired.” This is one manhole cover that the ebook revolution has pried open just a crack. Now you can find out for yourself if your book has any legs, but it isn’t a straight shot. There remain forces beyond one’s control. Over the course of the past year or so, I have discovered a thing or two about the legs a few of my own books have.

Let’s call them very short legs, dwarf legs if you like, legs not long enough to attract wolf whistles but legs enough to stagger on down the lane. Fellow book-leg-seekers might find some notes about this journey to be of interest.

To begin with, there’s Amazon Kindle – one thing within my control was actually putting the books there. Some things outside of my control were setting the price I wanted (free), setting the categories I wanted (well, I set them, but they ended up somewhere else), and random promotions. Two of my books have experienced these random promotions now – the same two twice: Snapdragon Alley and Zombie Nights, last October and last week were both marked down to FREE from 99 cents, and the results were sweet. More than 5,000 downloads combined. More than 170,000 bestseller slots climbed (I know, it’s absurd, they will fall just as rapidly down).

Snapdragon Alley ended up in the Top 10 FREE in the unlikely category of “Young Adult – Spine-Chilling Horror’, although there is nothing really spine-chilling about it. Young Adult, yes, but pretty much Sci-Fi or ‘Unexplained Phenomena’ if you like.

Zombie Nights ended up in the Top 10 FREE of ‘Occult’. Again, what’s so occult? It’s an oddball take on the zombie thing, told from the point of view of a rather incompetent undead guy.

I’m of course happy that Amazon gave them away for a week – I give them away all the time on both Smashwords and Feedbooks, where they’ve both been downloaded a lot, and I already knew about their legs from those places – reviews have been mixed, ‘stars’ have been average, ‘favorites’ have been rare. But Amazon is the real big deal, is it not? If you can make it there …

But the Amazon experience confirmed that these books do not have much in the way of legs. I know this because Snapdragon Alley is book one of a trilogy and the other two books are 99 cents each. You would think that people who enjoyed book one for free might plop down a buck for the next one. Some did. 20 in fact so far (more in the UK than in the US), out of the total of around 3000. That’s like, woah, where’s my calculator? 1 in every 150? If you think our prices are low, wait till you check out our popularity!

Okay, so not much in the way of legs. But 20 new readers who liked them in one week!!! That is an increase of a zillion percent over nothing, which is where my books were before this whole ebook thing really took off.

The most inspirational thing I ever heard came from my friend Cynthia, who said, of gardening tomatoes: one tomato is great, anything more is abundance.

  • Your books are free on Smashwords, right? Checking…yes: http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/6034

    So it seems the way to get your book listed for free on Amazon is to have it listed for free everywhere. Amazon doesn’t like to be more expensive than anywhere else. My book was just discounted 50 cents so they could undercut the price elsewhere.

    Note for anyone this has happened to: if it’s a $2.99 book, you’ll still get a 70% royalty, but it will be 70% of the cheaper price.

    Question is how it’s listed free on the Nook when SW distribution sets the price at at least .99 for distribution when you make the book free.

  • With Amazon, it’s entirely at their discretion. They seem to periodically do these promotions. This is the second time these two particular books have been marked down to free. The promotion lasted for around a week last October. This time it’s been a little more than that so far, and they’ve also just marked down a third book (Freak City – Book 2 of the Dragon City Trilogy, so maybe they decided Book 1 had sufficient legs. It will be interesting to see if and when Book 3, Dragon Town, gets marked down as well).

    The categorizing is also in someone’s control (but not the author’s). Freak City was listed in the bestseller lists for both Humor and Literary Fiction yesterday. It doesn’t really belong in either of those.

    No complaints, by the way. Amazon Kindle is still the King of EBooks and I’m thrilled mine are getting some exposure there.

  • Thanks for sharing your experiences, Tom. As a writer who will soon be making the leap into self-pubbing, it’s important to hear the stories of others who’ve gone before.

  • Does anyone know whether an ISBN is mandatory for a Kindle edition? I was under the impression that you didn’t need one, but now I’ve gone back to not being sure, so if anyone can clarify that’d be great.

  • Tom, does it work like this? It only takes a click or two to download a free book. But it takes hours of precious time to actually read it. So instead of walking or, better yet, dancing, either with long legs or short ones, does a free ebook often just sit there in a lot of ereaders, like a would-be Cinderella at the ball, desperately waiting to be read? P.S. I like your hire-experience version of the conundrum (for non-celebrities at least)at the heart of traditional publishing.

  • Ron, it’s funny to me how Feedbooks.com shows, along with word count, the approximate time it will take to read the book. Most of mine are reputed (ooh, what a great word – usually reserved for mafia kingpins!) to take about one hour to read.

    I’m sure you’re right that only some percentage of downloaders become readers. It’s impossible to know for certain, or rather, impossible for us. I’m pretty sure that Amazon can tell. I’m guessing they data-mine Kindles without anyone’s knowledge, and can tell precisely how much of a book has been at least looked at.

    In any case, this recent experience has provided a glimpse. Since they’ve made 2 of the 3 books in the series free, I can see how many people have purchased the 3rd book. As of right now, approximately 5200 copies of each of the first two have been downloaded (for free), and more than 300 copies of the 3rd have been purchased (for 99 cents), so it seems that at least that many people were readers as well as downloaders – this would be around 5 percent who liked them well enough to put a little money down. I don’t know how many others were readers who weren’t as enthusiastic, but I’d guess that number is larger that the first, that maybe as many as 25% of the downloaders became readers, possibly more.

    Publishers face the same kind of question, when they sell to bookstores, and then wait for the returns to come back.

  • Tom, the question is the same for the traditional publishers and us, but to find the answer we don’t have to cut down trees and waste a lot of global-warming energy storing, shipping, and pulping a lot (half? three-quarters?)of what we made out of those trees.

  • The issue, however, is whether the freebie will attract buyers. It is not that easy to attract buyers, because the prevalence of so many free ebooks makes readers prefer free ebooks. They don’t see any reason to pay for something if they can get it for free; so if your goal is to sell books for a living you will never succeed. This is why I never give ebooks away for free. As for the discounting by Amazon, I have experienced this and I must say it does not help my bottom line, only Amazon’s. In that case, one might as well give the book away for free and forget about posting it on Amazon, because you can get that kind of response without relying on the retailer. I don’t see how they can get away with it but they count on the sheer volume of titles to make up the difference, and it appears the ebooks are a loss leader for the Kindles. Besides, buyers don’t really ‘own’ the books as long as they are on the Kindles. So I would not put all my eggs in one basket if I were you.

  • Theresa,
    For someone who is trying to sell books for a living, aren’t all other books competition? Not just free ebooks, but all other ebooks and all other books in the world are choices for the reader. Free ebooks are not the only free books, either. Libraries have long been a choice for readers. The author does get paid once for each copy of a library book, but not every other time the book is checked out. Used bookstores are also unfair competition. Selling books for a living is not an easy thing to do, as I’m sure you know as well as anyone.

    The issue about whether free ebooks attract buyers is certainly open to debate. What I’m currently seeing right now with this experience is that yes, they do. It looks like, in this case, around 5% of the downloads were converted into sales of the next book in the series. This is merely anecdotal but I’m not claiming anything more than that.

    As for me, I give all of my books away for free via Smashwords and Feedbooks. I’m not trying to sell books for a living, nor am I trying to take food out of the mouths of other writers, as I am periodically accused of doing. I believe that my books are no more of a threat to anyone than are the books of George Gissing or John Franklin Barden or any of the millions of other people who’ve written stories and wanted people to read them.

    I also put them on Amazon because I am interested in attracting people as readers, not as buyers, and Amazon is where most of the ebook readers are. Generally, I think that price is not the same thing as value – if someone can get the exact same product (or similar enough) for less, or for free, than why shouldn’t they? The real issue, not just for writers but for everyone trying to sell something for a living, is to make a product with a value all its own. That’s my definition of success.

  • Tom, did Amazon make your books free because they are free elsewhere and they don’t want to be undercut? I seem to remember reading somewhere that if you don’t want your Amazon Kindle books to be marked down to free simply don’t have them available free some other place. What I am curious about is whether Amazon will make an ebook free if it is not free elsewhere. Surely not.

  • Joel, I think you’re right, but it seems they don’t markdown all other ebooks that are free elsewhere, so there must be someone or some mechanism making those decisions. I also think they’re still in the process of building this business, and use ‘free’ as a way to get more customers. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some point in the next year or so they cut back dramatically on the number of free titles they offer.

  • The story goes on. Amazon has now made all 3 of the Dragon City Trilogy titles free, with a result of downloads in the tens of thousands of copies (both in the US and the UK). The titles are showing up in all sorts of lists on their site, in more and more unexpected categories (Dragon Town is both SF and a Mystery/Thriller somehow).

    What this experience demonstrates more than anything is the power and reach of Amazon Kindle. The company seems to dominate the ebook market, and the community there is powerful as well.There are a number of groups, in forums and websites that generate emails, that spread the word widely about Amazon free ebook offerings.

    It seems they will only offer your book free of they’re matching other sites, but just having a title for free on those sites does not guarantee that Amazon will do it. They’ve done it for four of my titles, but not any others – not yet.

    But it seems that these titles “showed enough leg”, as it were, for the Amazon discount decision-makers.

  • Tom, please keep us informed on the results of your experiment.

    Specifically, does your free-ebook bonanza results in sales — of your other existing non-free titles, of subsequently published non-free titles? I hope it does. If I remember correctly your previous postings and comments, I’ve assumed that you want sales, maybe not now, but ultimately.

    I’d love to give away all of my novels, just to let a lot of readers see how amazing they are and enjoy them — and for me to hope that the interest will someday result in their adaptations as films or a television series. If I did that, though, I doubt that the IRS would let me deduct my start-up costs as a business expense.

    On the other hand, I see that Groupon has never recorded a profit, and yet investors believe it’s worth billions of USD simply because it has a rosy future. Why should literary start-ups be treated differently?

  • Speaking as a retired librarian, now indie publisher, library research shows that people will either: buy the eBook to see if they want the paper or; buy paper and then want the ebook to carry with them. Further, relatively few buy more ebooks by the same unknown author unless the first read really catches them. It’s a conundrum.

    The other problem is that if you give something away for free, the inference is that it doesn’t have much intrinsic worth so why should subsequent items? Amazon makes their money on people buying or downloading an ebook and then buying something else while they’re there, or by sending the buyer email solicitations to buy more stuff. Amazon could give a hoot about the indie author or publisher.

    On ISBN, if you don’t have one, forget getting into the new market for library eBooks. It’s a problem but it’s real.

    • What is the new market for library ebooks? Do you mean bricks-and-mortar libraries ‘stocking’ ebooks? Where does that happen?

      • Joel, there are a variety of new avenues in development for libraries to carry eBooks for their patrons. Some are already in place but the majority are in the near future. Essentially, a library or library consortium contracts with a vendor to supply eBooks through the library catalog. Some times the eBook is time limited or limited in the number of copies that can be downloaded (a sore point with libraries that should change at some point). The vendor is the buyer of the eBook, the library is paying for the right to distribute the eBook.

        • Perhaps you can clarify for me whether ebooks actually have their own distinctive ISBNs, as opposed to the separate and different ISBNs for paperback and hardback, and still further different ISBNs when the same book is published by different publishers, such as those with a UK and US edition.

          • The ISBN system is a mess. The UK has it’s own version, some European countries do or do not follow either the ISBN or the UK and so on. But as a rule, most countries use ISBN.

            This link will give the full answer:


            but in brief, an ISBN can be used for a paper, electronic, video or audio book. Each version has to have it’s own ISBN.

            Currently, libraries and most booksellers that I know of use the ISBN as their standard. Some UK publishers use both. For the indie publisher, the ISBN is the gold standard and let the UK publishers figure out their own mess. LSI and Ingram use the ISBN.

            I buy ISBN’s in blocks of ten and sit on them if I have to. It’s much cheaper that way.

            • Thanks Gary, that’s very useful. I had no idea audio and video also had their own ISBNs as well as ebooks. Curious then that Amazon Kindle doesn’t appear to use ISBNs.

              • Or, rather, that Amazon Kindle doesn’t appear to insist on ISBN. I see they have “Page Numbers Source ISBN”, whatever that is, but not for all ebooks.

              • Amazon created the ASIN in place of the ISBN. At least on the surface. Behind the scenes, Amazon gets all it’s data from Bowker Books In Print, aka the ISBN. It’s just Amazon being difficult.

  • I can’t comment on the results of library research – no doubt it’s very interesting – but I don’t agree with the proposition that free things necessarily don’t have “much intrinsic worth”. Many things are essentially free in our world, radio and network television for example, yet people consume them avidly. Many services offer themselves up for nothing, and cash in on bundled advertising. Google, Amazon and others are among those who follow such a model in some of their offerings. These two even work together – you can promote put links to Amazon products on your (free) Google blog and when somebody clicks on them, everyone makes money, including you.

    Now, if somebody offers you a free Ducati motorcycle, you’re probably not going to think it has no intrinsic worth. Price is not value and value is not price. Whether or not a free ebook leads to sales of paperbacks or subsequent ebooks is an ongoing experiment. Some claim success. Others not so much. Personally, I don’t even care. I’m not trying to sell books. I’m trying to give them away. As for their value, that is left up to the readers. So far what I’ve seen, not only from my own free e-books but from those of others as well, is that their average ratings, on Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Amazon, Smashwords and elsewhere seem to fall in the same range as books that cost money.

    I think it’s true that a lot of people have this bias against free or low-cost items, but many others do not – people are bargain hunters as well as status seekers, people like Costco and people like Gucci. There’s a market for pretty much anything in this world – it’s what makes businesses like eBay possible.

    • Tom –

      I’m with you on this debate. Facebook was free. Most of the sites online are free and yet generate billions in ad revenue. I’m also going to give away my next book for free to hopefully attract and audience for my subsequent books. You have to build an army of followers first, then deliver value in the writing.

      It’s a process, but I also agree with you in that I’m not self-publishing for the dollars. I write because I feel compelled to do so and to share my ideas with the world. I think most of us would agree with that philosophy. Sure it would be nice to sell a million copies of a book and earn some serious cash, but I plan to keep writing and raising my own bar with each new work. We’ll see what happens.

      – Ryan

      • Also . . . Congratulations on the book (Snapdragon). I’m going to check it out tonight.

  • Tom: yes, much in this world is free. I’m talking about your product, not a service. Google, Amazon and the rest don’t offer a service, they offer a product that earns them cash. That’s how they see it.

    You are offering a product also rather than a service. Associate programs do provide minimal cash for the participant but again, it’s the company that makes the majority of the money. It’s a clever way of engaging people to advertise a product under the guise of ‘share the wealth’.

    The ratings system on Amazon and B&N is based upon how many buyers have bought a given item within a recent period of time. If 100 buyers grab a book on the same week, the ratings number jumps up. If 100 buyers purchase over 6 months, the ratings are better but not as good as the short span period. I’m making up the periods as I don’t remember what Amazon uses for their base.

    • I actually meant the 5-star ratings system, feedback left by users.

  • Ah yes, the 5-star rating. I had an instance when reviews of an author I publish crept in… but they were not for my isbn! I’m an Amazon Marketplace seller as a publisher and so received this bit of information from customer service: Seems Amazon will pull in any review that meets certain criteria, such as same author, same title, same product type, etc. That means the ratings are skewed as they may or may not reflect the actual item discussed.

    I’m a little guy, currently offering 11 titles and selling an average of 150 copies per month in total. Our plans are to double the number of titles this year as well as arrange for advertising. But, for places like Amazon, our titles have not had a single customer review. Yet they are selling well based upon our current advertising. I’m not factoring in bulk sales as there are a few places that buy by the case here and there.

    I guess I’m very suspicious of what these companies push as ‘customer involvement’. To me, it’s just a means to gather attention. I get more sales from the ‘search inside the book’ and the ‘customer also bought’ features.