Thursday, September 12, 2013


Giveaways: if only this was real.


We have a couple of basic choices in promoting our books. We can go on Twitter and a hundred other social platforms, post, tweet and auto-tweet our product links fifty times a day, and hopefully move a few books off the shelf and into the reader’s hands.

The other choice relies on ‘passive discoverability.’ This is when people simply ‘find’ your book. On electronic platforms such as Kobo or Amazon, when they buy a book or merely look at a book from another author, they will be presented other options, all lined up in a row. It’s like a bookshelf physically arranging itself for the customer, as it ‘knows’ the customer’s previous purchase history, their age, gender, and of course the category they’re looking at. It doesn't present them with books they've already bought in that store, for example. If your book is in the same genre, there’s a mathematical probability that it will be presented, ‘sooner or later.’

All other things being equal, (and they aren’t) if there are 10,000 books in a category, then each book would ideally be presented once for every 10,000 unique visitors to that category. (There are other factors such as duration of visit and the number of browsing customers at any given moment, which limit the number of options they may be presented with, and few people look at thousands of books in a session.)

This is where the all-important rankings come into play. The highest ranked book is presented first, and so forth and so on.

However, things are never equal. Stephen King’s releases sell more initial copies than any unknown author. If someone looks at one, and it’s number one in category, they are more likely to be presented with the number two, three and four authors in that category—the electronic store has concluded, all governed by algorithmic equations, what choice is most likely to please a customer of such a ‘configuration.’ It’s another way of describing an individual in mathematical terms a simple machine can easily understand. A customer-fan of that genre, in other words.

In passive discoverability, the keys are fairly simple: a good cover, a good product description, a popular category, good reviews, and more than anything, frequent publication by the author. The quality of the book matters too, but until someone actually buys one, it means nothing in terms of ‘gaming the algorithms.’ There are more complex biological algorithms, which govern such human reactions after-sale, including word of mouth, surely the most effective form of promotion. We can even control this to some extent—by writing good books and moving some of them off the shelves, for example by promotion of free titles. This is where the tweets and posts come in.

The only way to game total ‘passive discoverability’ (i.e. no other forms of promotion being used) is by publishing something new as frequently as possible. New books pop out in a stream of new releases. They’re at the top of a list for however brief a time. The best way to game the algorithms is to first and foremost, write good, entertaining books, and to do it as often as possible. This why people who publish exclusively on Amazon use the Select Program. It’s a way of moving some books out the door.

So your book is at the top of a list when first published. For that exact moment in time, that book has as much chance as Stephen King’s new book, assuming good product presentation. It all depends on how many people are looking at the new releases, and not much else, algorithmically. Without sales, without downloads, those books sink very quickly.

Most authors will probably choose a mix of the two techniques. You want people to go and look at the books, and you want someone to buy one once in awhile. The higher you go up the rankings, the better your odds become of selling your next book. (All other things being equal, which they are not. Ever. Because the customer choice is so subjective.)

Social Media.

My personal opinion is that social media is overrated in terms of booting up bestselling books. Yet it is not entirely useless in marketing books. It must be understood, exploited, but not abused endlessly. Without social media I would not be selling a single book. With it, I sell a few. That is the real revolution in independent publishing. I’m selling a few books. This is a requirement for further success, and it must be exploited systematically and rationally in order to be most effective over the long haul.

Writing a series.

If readers like a book, a story, or the characters in it, they want more. This is why TV has spin-offs and why Agatha Christie wrote Hercule Poirot books, Miss Marple books, and characters like Mack Bolan and Matt Helm had such a long career. People recognized a good read by the character names on the cover.

Rather than writing a whole bunch of standalone novels, using the same characters allows for more development, more world-building, and it provides much more material for the reader to ‘discover.’ As the author goes along, they know so much more about the world they create that it does get easier to write them after some time.

Linking a series.

Smashwords now has a ‘Series Manager’ where authors can link and number their books if they are part of a series. Kindle Direct Publishing has a field for that in the publishing page.

This is a good tool. I was conflicted by the need, or even just the method of indicating that some of my books were in a series. It felt clunky to write it into the product description, and I really didn’t want to put a big red #1 on the cover of my first one—how the hell would I know if I could do another? I only have a novella and two books in the series, and yes, I am writing the third. But it felt presumptuous and so I didn’t do it. Now there’s an easy way. For promotions, the first book in the series should be free. You can tweet with a good conscience, because you’re giving away free product. It’s a legitimate promotional tool

Free giveaways.

Some people scoff at free giveaways.

“Don’t such authors value their own work?” I read that in a blog somewhere, it was quite hurtful at the time.

(You’re danged right I do.)

“Would you like to supersize that meal?” How about 24 ounces of Coca-Cola to go with that burger and fries?

It’s only twenty-nine cents more.

I find it hard to believe that after all these years Coca-Cola Corporation (whatever) doesn’t value their product, and yet they still keep giving it away…

You want new readers. You want people to download free books. The algorithms are predicated on information technology and information theory. You can game those algorithms, by getting people to buy, take, borrow, lend, or review, or even just look at your book.

The more people look at your book, the more people will buy it. Store traffic is one thing, that’s different across platforms, but you want them to stop and look at your book if you can possibly get them to do it.


Spam is shit in my inbox, where I have to click on it to look at it, and I have to search for an unsubscribe link, and yet I’ve never been to your website. I’ve never done business with you.

Spam is wasting my time and slowing down my inbox.

Now, if you want to post pictures of cupcakes on Facebook, well, that doesn’t bother me at all.

If you don’t like all the spam on Twitter, I have no idea what the hell you’re doing wrong. Maybe you should switch it off, and watch a football game, as no one, (or hardly anyone) has ever complained about all the commercials there, even though they say they don’t like commercials and yes, they can be kind of annoying. Right?

Twitter is like an old party-line phone, only instead of half a dozen other households listening in, anyone in the world can sign up and eavesdrop on your ‘private’ conversations. It is a form of communication, I will grant you that. Like any form of communication, it can be exploited, effectively or otherwise.

Here’s the real value of any social network: you can go on Facebook and click away, (judiciously, or you end up in Facebook jail) and build up an audience or readership of 5,000 friends. You can go on Twitter and build up an audience, even buy one, of 100,000 or a million followers. Let’s completely ignore what it is that you’re posting. This is the real revolution in social media—an obscure guy, an isolated person, perhaps some lonely old fart on a microscopic pension, can go in, learn the system and build up a following, over time of course, that might not rival Tumblr’s recent 38 million unique visitors in a month, but something that does the job.

How many books a month would you have to sell to make it worth your while? I would love to sell 200 books a month. This would go a long way. I could buy a car or pay insurance or something with that kind of money.* It is by no means a bestseller, as it might be sales of a dozen different titles. It’s not the sort of money that attracts big investment, but then it doesn’t require a large expenditure up front for infrastructure. In a recent blog post Hugh Howey, ‘Wool,’ etc, suggested that almost anyone should be willing and even able to invest $2,000 in order to launch almost any successful business. (I think that’s what he said.) I’ve done better than that. My first three years involved a cost of about $30.00 a month initially, although the bill has gone up for the internet. Only recently have I been buying marketing images from Canstock, for a total cost per book cover of about $5.65, which includes tax. Now, over the years, I have probably spent my two grand. Never at any time did I have two grand to invest in a business; I just did it anyway, using all available and alternate means.

That stems back to my training, (all too brief) as a journalist. Get your story out by any means necessary. Period.


Comments on this blog are always welcome.

*I’d love to sell 2,000 books a month and throw this lousy pension back in their faces…


Here are some of my titles on iTunes.

Hugh Howey's Advice for Aspiring Authors.

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