Monday, June 29, 2015

Amazon, Price-Matching, Passive Discoverability and Advice, Bad and Good.

Louis Shalako

Amazon and its price-matching are a real pain in the butt sometimes.

I know we’re not supposed to get angry in this business, but there are times when it gets real personal.

What happened was that one of our authors had a story that was actually selling on Amazon. 

It’s an ebook, and it’s in a specific category. If romance has ten million titles on Amazon and fantasy five or six million, (just a wild guess), the category this one is in might have had a few thousand titles. It might have had half a million titles. It stood a better chance to begin with. It’s in a smaller category—that’s all.

We’ve all heard a little too much about passive discoverability. We’ll get to that in a minute.

In about three weeks we sold sixty books in the U.K. and thirteen in the U.S. And then one day the sales were gone. I peered at the Kindle Digital Publishing dashboard and realized the bastards had started price-matching.

They’ve given away two hundred and fifty-four copies of our story. After a brief exchange of sharp words, (on my part, because they just don’t care and can afford not to take it too personally as they get some kind of weekly minimum wage), they put the price back on it.

I have serious doubts about that book picking up its previous momentum. Many people have remarked there is no real sales bump after a free giveaway. I still find the more books I give away, the more books I sell. This was, in fact, our best month ever—although that’s not saying very much.

But it seems Amazon, presumably following their own best interest, took the wind right out of our sales on that book. What is especially irksome, is that you can rarely get them to price-match when you want them to.

Countless times, I have taken a link from one of our free books on a competitor’s website. I have gone to the Amazon page for the exact same book, clicked on ‘report a lower price’, and pasted it in—all to no avail. Do that a few times, get no result and there is your answer.

What they tell you is that they have sole discretion in terms of price-matching. If you don’t like the terms of service, you can go elsewhere. No one ever does, because Amazon is the biggest player, they have the traffic. They have the readers and the buyers.

Pricing is a powerful tool. Amazon is the only retailer at present who doesn’t allow the author or publisher to set the price of a book at free. I can set a book for free on any other website. In places such as Google Play, that change is reflected instantly. Price-pulsing is a useful and recognized tool for making sales. Traditional publishers have admitted that they do it too. 

Who wouldn’t use it if they could? On Amazon, there is that eight or twelve-hour delay. And you can’t set it for free, and there are an estimated thirty-three million titles on that website.

There is no such thing as passive discoverability on Amazon, (and please listen carefully) because we are unknown, not previously published authors. We are not disgruntled ex-mid-list authors who were dropped for poor sales numbers, a change of editors, or their previous publisher going bankrupt.

We do not have an established following. We start off with one book, no back-list, no experience, and no readers. It takes a long time to build readership, and that’s true whether you can write, spell, edit, proofread, publish, or not. That’s one reason, after five or six years of assiduously reading blogs on writing, the industry, or ‘how to attract a literary agent’, we no longer listen to the advice. It was simply inappropriate for us.

It might have been more useful to others, and it’s only fair to say that.

On OmniLit, and some other platforms, I can give books away for free all day long. I can go there at night, set up a title with a price, and sell a couple of books. Before I go to bed, I can set it for free again, building up some heat in those pesky algorithms. We can’t do it for all the books, but some books do sell. That is the thing that really grips the imagination.

Imagine me—some guy no one ever heard of, selling books across a number of genres, getting reviews, making a little money and learning our way around this, the independent side of the business.

For our purposes, some of the advice was really bad, and we wish we hadn’t taken it.

On Smashwords, changes appear instantly, but this is one of our poorest-performing websites. 

We sell very few books through SW, and their distribution channels do take some time to reflect price or other changes. Some changes never go through including that all-important metadata, new covers, etc.

When you have a hundred and twenty titles, it is a real pain to go through a half a dozen sites and see if all your changes have gone through.

Speaking of passive discoverability, traditional publishers realized that back-list is pure gold. It was a bunch of free products that they didn't have to pay for, except for royalties already negotiated and rates set. They don't have to pay until they sell a book.

What they did, when they realized this was a whole new revenue stream, one that they had pooh-poohed and completely ignored, was to grab and upload as many back-list titles as they possibly could, before the rights reverted back to the authors.

A lot of those authors had no time limit on their contract. In some contracts, the publication of a new edition, say a translation in Spanish of an English-language title, extends the license for a stipulated number of years. In the contract I saw, (but did not sign), a two-page contract, what was left out was more troubling than what was in it. Each new edition would have extended a two-year license for an additional two years. That part was in there, at least. I at least understood some of the implications. With all due respect to the party in question, it would be fairly easy to put a machine translation, (arguably proofread by a native speaker) up in Swahili, and extend the license of a book that might have been doing all right in English.

What do they care if they sell two books a year in Swahili? What do they care if the product, published under a subsidiary name and imprint, in another language, was a bad translation? 

The author would never know. All the author would know is that they had sold two books in Swahili and a few thousand or so in English, and that they were never going to get their intellectual property back. That’s because two years later the publisher could conceivably publish it in Dinka, or Urdu, or whatever. When you consider the literacy rate in some of these third world countries, native speakers might have a hard time reading the book, but then they might just assume that it’s beyond their reading level. Even they might not know it’s a bad translation, unless and until some educated person reads it and reviews it.

The really interesting thing is that the book that was selling used the exact same type of book cover as the books that were not selling. We had the exact same editor, the exact same formatting. The whole thing kind of put the boots to the people who give the same old advice every time.

Write a good book. Use a professional cover, use a professional editor. If you can’t spell, can’t proofread, can’t be bothered to turn on spell-check and grammar check, then absolutely—you need an editor. In our own case, our editorial skills are more than adequate. 

What they really want you to do, of course, is to load up your first novel with five or ten thousand in costs before it’s ever published. They want you to go broke, quit the business and never come back.

Understandably, they’re a bit shy about telling you that part.


My mother asked me a good question the other day.

“If someone who had never done this before came to you, and asked for your advice, what would you tell them?”

For one thing, it really wouldn’t hurt to submit your first few books around. We had about a hundred and twenty-five rejection slips before we ever published our first title. We also had three contracts offered to us, which we did not proceed with, as my initial impression was that it was a vanity press.

We’ve submitted hundreds of short stories around and managed to place a few of them. 

Somebody else decided the thing was printable. In the early days, this offers both reassurance to the newbie author and some small measure of credibility. The money never hurts either, when you are building up your writing business.

My number one piece of advice is figure out what you want from all of this. Want to attract a literary agent? Read up on the query letter. Want a traditional publishing contract? By all means pursue it, and yes—listen to those people who have experience and knowledge of that side of the industry.

But if you want to explore independent publishing, those well-meaning folks might not be giving the best advice for you.

And yet that advice might be extremely relevant to somebody else.

Be very, very careful who you listen to.

Don't take my word for anything, Do your own experiments, learn the business and just keep going.


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