Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fine-Tuning Our Virtual Publishing Machine.

Louis Shalako

Editor’s Note: the following may be heretical. The odds of Louis recanting would appear to be rather slim.

It was in April of last year when Shalako Publishing and Long Cool One Books underwent a massive system overhaul and quality control audit.

During that revamp, we found missing titles on a few platforms, and a badly formatted story or two. During the course of that month (as well as since then) we have upgraded many of our marketing images. We rewrote a few blurbs and checked all meta-data, some of which turned out to be not particularly well done.

Here is a link to the post on that Publishing Machine Overhaul.

One of our goals here is to build a powerful, personal publishing system that’s effective, easy to use and as profitable as we can make it.

We call it our virtual publishing machine. The only moving parts are the keyboard and the mouse on this desk...and, one must assume, the writer.

This machine takes no account whatsoever of anything that has ever gone before. It totally gnores traditional assumptions.

About last April, we noted that OmniLit has an iTunes distribution channel. Various writers on the industry have recommended being on every platform. Smashwords also has a distribution channel to iTunes. That’s the one we were using, basically because SW was here first and we started off with SW and Amazon four or five years ago.

When I looked into publishing directly through Apple’s iTunes, the first thing I noted was that they wanted me to download the app, which didn’t fit my needs. The PC I was using at the time was choked with stuff. 

There wasn’t enough space on the hard drive. The second thing I noticed was that they wanted a credit card number. That was enough to stop me at the time. However, now I have a new computer and presumably downloading the app won’t be a problem. My credit card is maxed so I’m not too worried about being robbed.

We’ll worry about publishing directly to iTunes later.

However, on Smashwords’ distribution channel manager, we un-clicked a few titles, and removed them from iTunes distribution.* We made ourselves some 1400 x 2100 marketing images and used OmniLit to distribute to iTunes. It takes some time, as Apple has an internal review, and OmniLit’s uploading process is more labourious. But those books made it into the Apple store just as well as through Smashwords. Those books will pop out into the new books stream for the second time. We can even un-click them from OmniLit and pop them out through Smashwords again.** Basically, we have built a new wrinkle into our machine, our system, or whatever you want to call it. It’s a little bit like price-pulsing, only we’re using the product itself.

You have to understand the market: it is a great, gaping maw, it’s hungry and it wants to be fed.

It likes nice, shiny, new little tidbits to gnaw on.

Around the same time we opened an author account on Kobo through Kobo Writing Life.

Using one pen-name, we uploaded three or four titles. Without any real promo effort, he had sold about three books over the course of a year, which was more than he had sold using the Smashwords to Kobo distribution channel (and no promo there either.)

It was only recently that we read the post on price pulsing. Honestly, I hate to brag, but I learned that one from WalMart. Their mushrooms were $1.27 one week so I went back the next week. The price was $1.49, or the same as anywhere else. The next week they were $1.86 and that’s when I started doing some thinking...

I also bought the mushrooms at $1.86—I didn’t feel like driving across town, only to find that the other store might have them on for $1.99. That was my great revelation in marketing. You have to drop that price and then raise it in a way that seems completely arbitrary. This is especially easy with ebooks because no one seems to know what the price should be anyway.

(What does the average consumer know about mushrooms except what they paid for them last time...?)

Writers are like mushrooms, aren’t we?

Keep us in the dark and feed us nothing but shit, right, ladies and gentlemen?

We will see about that, ladies and gentlemen.

Like any other tool in the inventory, no single thing is responsible for selling a book. It’s a whole combination of factors, but pulsing does seem to work to a certain extent. To change the price puts it into another category, where presumably a different class of shopper may see it. Quite frankly, I was shocked to stick a new cover on a $0.99 book, jack the price to $7.99 and sell one copy in fairly short order. I only wish it had sold two copies! But who knows what will happen if I dropped the price to $0.99 again.

The basic theory behind price-pulsing is that you try to move as many units as you possibly can at a lower price. The stated theory is that the algorithms don’t care about price, only ranking. Those algorithms create the ranking based on total sales. Once you have a higher ranking, jack the price, sell a few units, and then lower it again.

Giving away free books carries less weight algorithmically per unit, and getting Amazon to price-match a free book on another platform is always uncertain. They reserve discretion to set pricing policy and as it’s their store we can only push so hard.

So what we are doing now is to unclick titles from the Kobo distribution channel on Smashwords. We’re uploading directly to Kobo now, and if we make a sale, then we simply get paid by Kobo as opposed to Smashwords.

When we uploaded our first few titles to Kobo a year or so ago, the lowest price that you could set for a book was $1.99.

Now you can set it anywhere from free, $0.99, and up. This makes the platform much more amenable to the hot-shoe driving of it.

You can set books for free, and watch them go out the door. Publishing from Smashwords, either Kobo didn’t report free books ‘sold’ or maybe we simply didn’t get any. But we uploaded old titles to Kobo and saw at least one sale almost immediately. That was in the Philippines, another first for us. We’re giving away free books in a number of countries and that’s a first for the Kobo site as far as we can determine.

There is more to what we are doing here than just price-pulsing. We are adding in dashboards and control points, and diversifying our revenue streams.

When you publish a book, it pops out on a website’s front page shortly thereafter. If it does not sell at least one copy, it may never have a ranking.

One wonders how passive discoverability would ever have a chance to work in such a case.

Those books were already on iTunes and Kobo. They just weren’t doing anything, and in fact this is a good reason to go back and sign up for publishing directly through iTunes, and Barnes & Noble’s Nook Press if they ever make provision for Canadian authors and ITINs and no 30 % tax withholding.

This is why it’s important to sell a book—it improves the odds of selling another one greatly. We have titles on Amazon for example, that have never sold a single copy. Those books have no ranking at all.

Giving away free books means that the customer has indicated a preference, and they will likely be presented with more of your titles, especially if you keep writing them and the customer is not so displeased that they give the book a bad review.

We’re not doing any practical harm to Smashwords when we do this, because those titles weren’t selling through the channel anyway. Now they stand a much better chance, and it’s because we can fine-tune the machine. We can price-pulse (or toggle back and forth from zero to $0.99) using an individual platform, essentially giving us more control, and a greater likelihood of selling a book on any given day. We’re going to learn Kobo’s strengths and weaknesses in a way that was just not possible by going through Smashwords.

With something like a hundred titles and a few other products, including PODs, you can only spend so much time on it. I can’t toggle a hundred prices a day on eight or nine different platforms, it simply isn’t possible. In that sense it is still limited by the number of hours in the day and the need to write new material. If I could get a bunch of trained monkeys or build a bot to do just that, I would switch prices every day. Every damned day, because that’s what WalMart does, ladies and gentlemen.

I just don’t have the time.

We all have to eat, to sleep, perchance to dream.


The other day I read a blog post where the author felt it was ‘dishonest’ to use giveaways to achieve a high ranking and then claim a bestseller.

I do not claim to be a bestselling author. There is nothing like that in any of my blogs, it does not say that on the cover of any of my books, or anywhere at all.

Number eight or twenty-seven on a free list is just that: number eight or twenty-seven on the free list.

But what really struck me is that I was being judged by someone else’s standards, and obviously we will always fail such tests, because they are based on a set of someone else’s assumptions. And having failed their test, they now have the right to condemn us as ‘dishonest.’

Obviously the person sincerely believes that traditional publishing is the only real way to go.

This is certainly true in their case. I cannot recommend anything else for them—this advice is offered without prejudice and without further comment.

As for me, I am building a machine that simply ignores traditional publishing in this one particular author’s life.

I never have to submit a book or story again if I don’t want to.

You are comparing apples in a basket to a man in boots and coveralls who just picked out a fine parcel of land and he’s sticking apple seeds in the ground. You have a basket of nice shiny apples and he’s building something that will be totally awesome at some point in the future.

It’s a difference not so much of opinion—we both consider each other’s opinion irrelevant, but in our basic set of assumptions.

And the whole world is built on assumptions, isn’t it?


*Smashwords tells you not to un-publish your books. If you do, you will lose any ranking those books have on any given platform, for example iTunes or Kobo. If you’re not selling any books on those platforms, you have no ranking to lose. You can still keep the rankings in the SW store and in any other platform where you have sold books.

**iTunes’ internal review and time-lags at the aggregator end sort of stymies this to a certain extent. This actually helps to make the case for publishing directly via iTunes—once the titles are up, you should be able to price-toggle, (or instantaneously change covers with some confidence that changes will actually go through), to your little heart’s content.

I can’t really state that with any certainty, as I haven’t actually done it yet.

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