All I wanted to do was write, but I held back.
Before spending the next two months slogging away, I needed to make sure that my story was going to be read. And in today’s competitive world of indie publishing, there are no guarantees.
I needed to do my research before I picked up a pen.
The first book I read on the subject was Write. Publish. Repeat (by the successful indie authors Sean Platt and Johnny B. Truant), which I highly recommend to anyone interested in learning the best strategies for marketing one’s book in 2014.
One of the key concepts in this book was the idea of creating a “product funnel” in order to build an audience. The idea is simple. You create an introductory product and release it for free. If people like the product, they will buy your next one. If they like your next one, they will likely buy the one after that.
This might sound kind of gimmicky, but it addresses a reality in today’s publishing landscape: too many people can publish their own books, and if you want to attract readers, you need to lure them without forcing them to make a major time commitment or dole out money.
This was the model that one of the most successful indie authors, Hugh Howey, used to release his series Wool, and it has been used by hundreds of other successful indie authors since then to launch careers.
Indie authors have created funnels in all sorts of creative ways. Traditional novels are tricky because they tend to be one off projects, but some authors have built a funnel by releasing a free first novel, building a loyal following, and continuing to release additional novels that appeal to the same fan base.
Of course, this is a very time intensive and difficult model so most successful indies using the funnel method release series and serials where there are multiple shorter installments of the same story.
Regardless of what kind of story you’ve created, if you release the first installment for free and can get your reader interested enough in you or your story to pay for their next product, you’ve created an effective funnel.
For my story, I decided to pursue the serial model, releasing A Cappella Drug Lord, a story about an Ivy League singing group which gets sucked into a Colombian drug cartel, in six 10,000 word episodes making up one complete first season. My plan was to release the first two episodes free and charge $3.99 for a bundle including the remaining four.
After settling on this strategy, I focused my efforts on everything else I had read in my marketing books. I needed to end each section with cliffhangers. Check. I needed a fast-paced narrative. Check. I needed a professionally designed cover and an error-free manuscript. Double check.
Some writers might find these parameters restrictive, but for me, if anything, they nudged me along, and by the time I finished writing, I had created a story that I loved.
With everything in place, I planned my release.
The plan involved several steps with one central goal: get Amazon to post my book for free.
Once upon a time, it was easy to post your book for free on Amazon, but supposedly it is getting harder. Amazon wants to control the bookselling market, and part of its strategy to do that is to pressure indie authors to join its KDP Select program.
KDP Select allows indie authors to post their book for free (or at a discounted rate) up to three times per 90-day period. KDP Select authors are also able to make their book accessible on Amazon’s lending library. In exchange for these benefits, authors must commit to selling their book exclusively on Amazon (meaning dropping the book from an author’s own website, Barnes and Noble, Kobo, etc.) during the 90-day window.
Some authors might consider this a good deal, but several of the books and articles I read caution against using KDP Select. Yes, using KDP Select will give you exposure during promotions, but apparently the downloads you receive during a promotion will no longer boost your book’s sales rank so it has limited value.
Is it really worth giving up your ability to sell your book on other platforms? For me, the answer was yes until I found out that there was a backdoor way to be able to post my book free on Amazon permanently and to still be able to make my book available on as many platforms as I saw fit.
The way to make this happen was supposedly complex, but the payoff was high.
Step 1: Make your book free on Smashwords
Smashwords allows you to upload your book in one convenient place, and then it will do all the work distributing your book across multiple platforms. After one simple upload, your book can be distributed to Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple, Sony, among others. Smashwords is great just for the convenience of being able to distribute one’s work to so many different platforms so easily. However, the main reason I chose to post A Cappella Drug Lord on Smashwords was because it allows you to post your book at no cost.. I posted the first two episodes via Smashwords, and within two weeks, I could download both of them for free on many different distribution channels.
Step 2: Alert Amazon that competitors had made my book free
I posted my book on Amazon directly (rather than through Smashwords), but the minimum Amazon allowed me to post the first two episodes for was $0.99. My goal was to force Amazon to lower their price by alerting them to the fact that my first two episodes were posted for less on their competitors’ website. If you scroll down to the bottom of any Amazon page, there is a button that reads “tell us about a lower price.” If you click on that button and include a link to a lower priced competitor, Amazon will review the report and consider lowering the price.
Step 3: Tell as many people to do Step 2 as possible
I tried reporting the price discrepency every day for two weeks to no avail. I went back to my books and read that some authors had found that they needed people from different parts of the country with unique IP addresses to follow this protocol to get Amazon’s attention. Amazon is committed to having the most competitive pricing, which is why this backdoor way of making one’s book free exists. However, if only a few people notice the disparity in prices, the issue doesn’t get onto their radar. I sent an email out to friends and family asking them to please report the Barnes & Noble and Kobo prices to Amazon.
Step 4: Wait
I’m not sure how many people actually reported the lower prices. Lots of people said they did, but I can’t be certain. All I know is that the first two episodes of my book are still $0.99 on my website. From what I’ve read on Goodreads and other forums, it can sometimes take up to three months in order for Amazon to make a book free. (If this link still says $0.99, please help a fellow author out and report that a lower price exists here – it only takes two seconds to report, and once I figure out the tricks of the trade, I can report back to all of you!)
In the middle of this waiting game, I sometimes wonder whether all of this is worth it. I could have just released my book on KDP Select. By now, I would have probably run my free promotions and potentially gotten some organic reviews (as a side note, I have learned that asking family and friends to review one’s book yields very limited results).
Instead, I’m holding out hope that one day I will check and my book will be listed at $0.00. If that happens, I hope that the payoff will be worth it. Making the “free list” is still the best way to get exposure and has been the launch pad for a number of successful indie authors.
I’ll admit that I’ve had a few moments of frustration recently when it seems my efforts are producing minimal results. It can be easy to forget that the reason I wrote A Cappella Drug Lord in the first place because I wanted to share a story I cared about deeply with the world. If my book becomes free and perhaps even eventually becomes popular, I would be ecstatic. However, as I wait out the weeks and potentially months it might take to make that happen, hitting the “tell us about a lower price” button daily, I am reminded that even one reader and one encouraging comment makes the whole process of writing worth it.
My sales currently come in a small trickle. Most have come from friends, friends of friends, and my small network of indie authors on Goodreads. Yet once in a while, I get an email from someone saying that they can’t wait for the next installment to come out, and when I get even one of those notes, it is enough to keep me writing and struggling and hoping that one day I’ll figure this whole thing out.
Pallas Snider Ziporyn, this month’s Guest Blogger, is an award-winning playwright and author of the serial novel, A Cappella Drug Lord, the story of a Yale singing group that unwittingly become drug mules for Colombian cocaine smugglers. She swears she has no first-hand knowledge of the drug trade but, as a 2010 graduate of Harvard College and private college counselor, admits to know more than a bit about the Ivy League. She writes regularly about colleges on her blog, The College Matchmaker, and is the author of the non-fiction book, The International Student’s Guide to American Colleges.