Sunday, May 27, 2012

Don't Do What I Did: Make the KDP Select Program Work for You

Self-publishing is about as democratic as anything else, in the sense that 1) anyone is free to try it and 2) it takes money to make money.

I have one self-published friend who recently admitted to spending over $15,000 to market her Indie novel. She's doing well and has more than tripled her investment. In addition, she has built a platform of readers who are now eagerly awaiting her next novel.

That story has a happy ending. But what if you don't have $15,000, or even $5,000, to spend on publicity? What if just getting your book published wipes out your savings, because you already had to cough up a few thousand for the cover, the design, the ISBN number and an editor, too? What do you do then?

That's the situation I was in when I published my novel Sleeping Tigers.

Fortunately, there is advice aplenty for authors on how to advertise cheaply. Check out web sites for Novel Publicity, Ereader News Today,World Literary Cafe, Digital Book World, TeleRead, and The Book Designer for useful tips. These all offer great advice on book marketing—and, yes, it's all free! Indie authors J.A. Konrath and John Locke also have helpful blogs.

Now, after three months of testing out book marketing strategies, I can honestly say that probably nothing can help you market your book more effectively than the KDP Select Program.

What is the KDP Select Program?
Read the fine print on the Kindle Direct Publishing web site, but here are the bare bones: if you agree to participate in the KDP Select Program, you sign up for a three-month exclusivity term. This means that you agree to sell your ebook only in the Kindle format, but you can continue selling your paperbacks however you wish.

In exchange for this exclusivity agreement, you are granted five free promotional days during your three-month term. Your book is also included in the lending library for Amazon Prime members; this means that people with Amazon credit cards can borrow your book for free—and Amazon will pay you a royalty for each borrow.

Many authors object to the KDP Select program. Indie authors are a crowd of wild Mustangs and we hate being reined in—that's why many of us self-publish. We object to some of Amazon's monopolistic business practices. Plus, why would anyone want to give a book away for free?

I was one of those resisters. On the other hand, despite my steady blogging and my shiny new Twitter account, I was selling very few books. The first month after publication, Sleeping Tigers sold just enough books for me to take my husband to a movie or dinner, but not both. My novel was a cross between literary fiction, chick lit, and romance—no zombies, vampires, serial killers, cowboy lovers, or psychic detectives. In other words, there wasn't the usual genre crowd to rely on for sales.

I wasn't trying to get rich on this novel—in fact, I didn't even imagine making back what I spent on publishing it. But I am a writer who longs to reach out to readers. I had tried everything but the KDP Select Program to market my novel, so I signed up for the three-month term and chose my first two promotional days. Then I sat back and waited.

Don't Make the Same Mistake I Did
That was my mistake: I sat back and did nothing.

While I did have more downloads during the first two days my book was free—the book ultimately reached a rank of #18 in Kindle's contemporary fiction and a rank of 185 in the free Kindle store—after the promotion I was still selling only one or two books per day.

“What did I do wrong?” I asked a friend who also happens to be my guru in the Indie publishing world.

“Did you advertise the fact that your book was free?” she asked.

Uh. No.

By the next month, my book was back down in the ranks, sliding as low as 70,000 or so. I was getting desperate; I had always sold my book at $2.99, but many Indie authors who make it into the Amazon stratosphere sell their ebooks for $.99. My next experiment was to try this strategy. I decided to lower the price to $.99 to see what would happen. (This is called a “price pulse” and you can find lots of authors discussing this strategy online.) I even did a mild book pimping run on Twitter and Facebook to see if I could garner interest in a week-long $.99 promotion.

The result? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. In fact, my book rank plummeted, languishing around 134,000 or so.

“You have to do another free promotion,” my friend urged. “But advertise it this time.”

Do This Instead
For my second KDP Select Promotion, I waited until I had that magical tenth positive review on Amazon, courtesy of a generous book blogger in England. Then I set my promotion for three days, choosing the end of tax season, April 15 to 17, as my dates, figuring people would finally be finished with nasty paperwork and be ready for a fun read.

A week ahead of time, I emailed some of the big e-reader sites that my book would be free on those days, like Pixel of Ink and Ereader News Today. Then, to take the “layered marketing approach,” as the saying goes, I bought a (very cheap) ad on Digital Books Today to run right after the promotion.

As I waited for April 15, I began second-guessing all of my efforts. Was I making a mistake? April 15 wasn't just tax day, it was Patriot's Day, and the day of the Boston Marathon! Who the heck would want to download books if there was a holiday to enjoy? Why didn't I wait?

Plus, even by April 14, I still couldn't bring myself to blog, tweet or Facebook about the promotion. Authors who spend their time sending out book pimping messages make my teeth hurt. Yes, everything these days is “soft” marketing, but I prefer content with my advertising. I didn't want to inflict sales spam on people I'd come to know through social media channels.

I nearly pulled out of the second free promotion for another reason as well: I was having a crisis in confidence as a writer. How many readers are left in the world? In my most pessimistic moments, I imagine everyone sitting around in sports bars or lying on the couch watching American Idol or YouTube videos. Maybe everyone who would be interested in reading my book had already downloaded it.

On April 15, I could barely bring myself to check the downloads, but bam! There they were, and they were coming fast! In the very first day of the second promotion, I had as many downloads as the first two days combined! By the last day of the promotion, my book had hit #1 in contemporary fiction and #3 among all free Kindle downloads—with twenty times as many downloads as during my first promotion.

What's more, sales have declined but have remained steady. Thanks to the KDP Select Program, I may actually make a small profit from Sleeping Tigers. More importantly, I am creating an audience of readers and book bloggers who I hope will be interested in the next novel I publish.

What the heck happened to make this possible?

The answer is easy: I took full advantage of KDP Select Program's free promotional days. You can do it, too. Here's how:
  1. Before joining the KDP Select Program, check your book sales. Are you selling more on Smashwords or Kindle? If the answer is Kindle, then you have nothing to lose by going with the KDP Select Program—you can opt out again after three months.

  2. There are two schools of thought when it comes to deciding when to go with KDP Select: one is that you should wait until you have at least ten positive Amazon reviews (4 or 5 stars). The other is to do it right away, when you launch your book. That will give your book a higher ranking from the start. However, sites like Pixel of Ink are less likely to pick up books without customer reviews, because so many authors contact them, and of course it's in their interest to publicize the best free books possible. I'd advise contacting reviewers early, before your book is out, and waiting until you have the reviews posted on Amazon before advertising your free promotion.

  3. Remove your book from Smashwords and other sites at least two weeks in advance. I ran into a slight snafu, because I thought that removing the book from Smashwords meant I'd successfully made my book exclusive to Kindle; however, Smashwords distributes to a number of other sites, like Barnes & Noble, and it can take 2-3 weeks for them to remove the book.

  4. Once you sign up for KDP Select, make use of all five free promotional days, but don't do them one at a time—spread them out between a two-day and a three-day promotion. That gives readers time to see your book and download it.

  5. Follow up your free promotion with some modest paid advertising.

And that, my friends, is it. Simple as can be. Will I sign up again for KDP Select? I already have. I'll let you know how the next round goes. I'd love to hear your experiences, too. What has worked for you?

Friday, May 18, 2012

How Obama Won Me Over with a Single Speech

I am not a gushy sort of person when it comes to celebrities, nor am I particularly political. So, when I heard that President Obama was going to speak during our daughter's graduation from Barnard College last week, I was less than thrilled.

 “Think of the security,” I said to my husband. “What a nightmare!”

 “We can't even bring water through the gates,” my husband grumbled, reading through the detailed commencement regulations. “Maybe we should skip it.” He gave me a hopeful look.

 We both wanted to bow out of the event. New York City is enough of an ordeal as it is. But New York plus Obama? Chaos. We actually considered missing the first half of graduation, figuring we could order photos online and sneak into the reception tents later.

 But of course we went, because we love our daughter, who worked hard to graduate from Barnard with honors. We're proud of her, and this is what proud parents do everywhere, every day: we sit on uncomfortable metal chairs in gymnasiums and stadiums and auditoriums, trying to unobtrusively read our phones or Kindles during the boring parts of school celebrations and athletic events.

All of the advice from Barnard indicated that we should arrive on campus by 9 a.m., since they were going to close the gates by 11 a.m. Graduation wasn't scheduled until 12:30; there would be no food available, but the campus was providing water and paper cups. They were even confiscating umbrellas, I guess so nobody could stab Obama.

We didn't arrive until 10:30. (I think that my husband was still hoping there might be an excuse to go to the Museum of Natural History instead.) The security screening was remarkably efficient—pretty much like airport lines—and it was amusing to watch the collection of confiscated umbrellas grow by the gates as we plodded through the maze of barricades constructed to control the crowd. Inside the tent, we sat on the dreaded metal chairs and waited. And waited. Every building on campus was closed; this meant standing in line for forty minutes to use a portable toilet. The only food handed out consisted of one puny granola bar per graduation goody bag.

Eventually the graduates joined us, a vibrant ocean of nearly 600 young women in pale blue robes. Then, like magic, Obama was beamed into place, presumably escorted onto the stage via one of the tent tunnels rendering him invisible to snipers. I had been cynical about this whole idea of Obama giving a commencement speech. The election is coming up; this seemed like a pretty damn convenient move. I voted for this President, and I already knew I would vote for him again, given the choice between him and Romney. I disagree with Obama on certain issues (mostly military), but I agree with him on many, including abortion, gay marriage, and health care. At the same time, I'd have to say that for most of my adult life I've been that sort of passive, head-in-the-safe-suburban sand kind of liberal rather than any kind of activist.

But, when Obama took the stage, I was suddenly cynical and passive no more. I don't know how to explain this bizarre transformation. The closest I can come is to say that the President emanated an energy that was so generous and good in spirit that I swear I could almost see the halo. (No, I'm not religious, either.) The effect on me was such that I wanted to move closer to him, to be included in that circle of warmth, the way you edge closer and closer to a fireplace on a winter's night.

Obama is capable of being too academic and calm when he addresses a crowd. But he wasn't on this day. On this day, perhaps because he has two daughters of his own, the President's speech was inspired and inspirational. He made a few jokes and then talked seriously about the economic crisis—surely of uppermost importance in the minds of all new college graduates—and of how far women have come in the roles we play professionally, athletically, and politically.

And then he laid things on the line, telling these young women, “After decades of slow, steady, extraordinary progress, you are now poised to make this the century where women shape not only their own destiny, but the destiny of this nation and of this world. But how far your leadership takes this country, how far it takes this world—well, that will be up to you.”

Rather than spend too much time telling these remarkable young women just how extraordinary they were—which was the stump speech of almost every other person at the podium that day—Obama urged the graduates not to sit back and watch events unfold in the world, but to “stand up and be heard, to write and to lobby, to march, to organize, to vote.”

This part of the speech transported me to my own post-college attempts to make the world a better place. I volunteered as a Spanish translator in a juvenile court; I served with the Big Brother, Big Sister organization; I tutored inner city kids in math and science; I wrote grants to fund science enrichment programs for at-risk high school students; I volunteered as a mentor to teen mothers. Somewhere along the way, though, I got tired and my volunteer efforts flagged. These days I volunteer with local schools and libraries, but just a few hours a month, because I'm a working mom operating on too little sleep. My husband has been laid off one, two, three times. We worry all of the time about our own children and whether they'll have jobs, health insurance, and roofs over their heads when we're gone. Forget buying a house. Our kids will be lucky to pay their car repairs.

Yet what have I been doing, to stand up and be heard? Not enough. Finally, Obama urged us all to persevere. “Nothing worthwhile is easy,” he said. “No one of achievement has avoided failure—sometimes catastrophic failures. But they keep at it. They learn from mistakes. They don't quit.”

The President then shared a personal story of his own attempts after college to try and organize community meetings in a Chicago neighborhood plagued by gang violence. “Nobody showed up,” he said, despite the fact that they had done everything possible to get people there. He was tempted to quit. So were the other volunteers. But they didn't give up. They just kept chipping away at the problems in the neighborhood.

“Whenever you feel that creeping cynicism,” Obama told the Barnard grads and their families, “whenever you hear those voices say you can't make a difference, whenever somebody tells you to set your sights lower—the trajectory of this country should give you hope. Previous generations should give you hope. What young generations have done before should give you hope. Young folks who marched and mobilized and stood up and sat in, from Seneca Falls to Selma to Stonewall, didn't just do it for themselves; they did it for other people.”

After the speech, Obama was whisked away immediately through another secret tent tunnel. One minute he was there. Then he was gone. Except that he wasn't gone, not at all. I could still hear his words ringing in my ears and feel that warmth and goodness, even as the gates to the campus were flung open and we cheered the graduates crossing the stage to receive their diplomas, young women with big smiles and, I hope, even bigger hearts, who will always stand up and be heard.

I am back in my real life now, away from New York City. Yet I still hear the President urging me to do my part. It's never too late to “reach up and close that gap between what America is and what American should be,” as Obama concluded, and I intend to do exactly that.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Are We Ever Too Old to Be Called “Promising?”

When I received my latest issue of Poets and Writers Magazine, I did what I always do: I put it in a special place on the nightstand, where I could devour it after finishing work, dinner, dishes, and putting my youngest son to bed. I've been subscribing to this magazine for many years, and the ritual is always the same. I treasure each issue for the same reasons my software engineer husband loves his subscription to Technology Review: these magazines help us feel connected professionally, and keep our dreams of being successful alive.
Imagine my horror, then, when I read the interview in this recent issue with Ben Fountain, one of my favorite fiction writers since the appearance of his brilliant collection of stories, Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, in 2006, and stumbled across this quote: “It's slightly ridiculous to be fifty-three years old and about to have your debut novel come out...There is an absurd and pathetic aspect to that...”
Really, Mr. Fountain? Really? These are the words of inspiration you have for the rest of us, on the eve of publishing your novel, Billy Lynn's Halftime Walk, with Ecco?
Come on. It's not like writers are ballerinas who can't do splits without injuring ourselves after a certain age, or even football players too fat to run. Is it?
Or maybe it is. For a little while after I read that interview, I was fretting, thinking my prime must have zipped by me so fast that I didn't notice it leaving me behind. I didn't have the successful law practice Mr. Fountain had before luxuriating in the full-time writing life (courtesy of his very supportive attorney wife). I am a working mom, a fixer-upper of houses, and a wife. All of that means that I'm juggling more spinning plates in the air than I can count, and yes, I do occasionally drop one and smash it. Should I feel absurd and pathetic? Or even slightly ridiculous, on the eve of my own debut novel?
Many years ago—when I was a mere slip of a girl, scarcely 32 years old—I had a short story “almost accepted,” as I joyously raved to friends, by an institution no less brag-worthy than The Atlantic Monthly. After receiving compliments in a letter from the magazine's fiction editor at the time, I decided to zip on down to the stately Atlantic offices in Boston. Since I had no day care, I brought my first child with me, a son who today is old enough to be writing his own fiction.
The Atlantic editor was a curmudgeonly New Englander outfitted in a Mr. Rogers cardigan. He very gallantly admired not only my fiction, but the baby as well. Then, after we discussed the state of fiction at some length—at such a length that I had to nurse my baby right there in the office, to keep him quiet—the editor said something that made my blood run cold: “The thing is, you're a little too old to be called promising.”
Of course I was crushed. Once I could pick myself up off the chair, I gathered the baby, stuffed him into his snowsuit, and drove back to my seedy little apartment north of Boston, weeping the entire way home.
Did I stop writing? For a few days. And then I had another story idea, and another, and yet one more, and soon I was happily weaving together sentences for my own amusement. I got an agent, who tried to sell my novels but failed, until finally he sold my memoir. I cobbled a living together as a journalist and essayist, still writing fiction, still failing to sell it. Until, one day, I did.
It took me twenty-five years to sell a novel. I am, as the venerable Steven Tyler said recently on American Idol, “Much too young to be this old.” And yet I don't feel pathetic, or absurd, or even slightly ridiculous, Mr. Fountain, thank you very much. I just feel happy. Really, really happy. My main thought is this: “Holy cow, I did it!”
I suppose it has helped that my husband has fantasies of creating his own software product, and he isn't much younger than I am. He has worked for big companies and small start-ups, and he occasionally rants over seeing one of his friends—a billionaire, usually, who has sold some world-altering innovative product—featured in Technology Review. In his darkest hours, my husband also wonders if he's too old to become successful. We prop each other up however we can during these crises in confidence. I know that my husband can create a cool new product and have fun trying to bring it to market. It's just a matter of time.
Are we ever too old to be called “promising?” Do we really have to feel pathetic or absurd if we don't succeed at achieving our dreams until we're in our forties, fifties, sixties, seventies or even beyond?
Not even a little bit, Mr. Fountain. For what is life, without passions to follow? That is the point of it all.