THE 99-CENT EBOOK DILEMMA: ROAD TO SUCCESS OR A SUGGESTION “IT SUCKS”?
When Amanda Hocking first made news earlier this year that a 26-year-old out of Austin, Minnesota, could become a millionaire by selling her books for 99 cents on Kindle, anyone with a flicker of a story hammered it out and uploaded it as a 99-cent eBook. The world isn’t suddenly full of newly minted novelist millionaires.
Then out came John Locke with his news and book entitled, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months. He, too, sold at 99 cents. As he said in an interview with J.A. Konrath, “Coming from a legacy publishing background, I knew that 35% royalties were much better than anything the Big 6 offered. Even so, when I first got into this, I thought that cheap ebooks would be a loss lead, that would get people to read my more expensive books. And yet, when I lowered the price of The List from $2.99 to 99 cents, I started selling twenty times as many copies--about 800 a day. My loss lead became my biggest earner.”
Still, there’s a perceived stigma attached to 99 cents, not helped by the 99-Cents Store where you buy castoffs from major corporations. (But it’s a good price!) Until recently, I didn’t see many literary books at 99 cents, and I felt if a book were truly any good, if it were something John Irving might buy, then it had to be at least $2.99.
Also, if you sample some of the many 99-cent books, you see basic editing is still needed. This isn’t true of Locke or Hocking or Henry Baum or R.J. Keller and others I could bring up, but many 99-cent books have problems. The authors need to learn storytelling. Thus, every fiber in me resisted 99 cents.
Third, what’s not been publicized about Hocking or Locke is that Amazon, when it sees an author or book rocketing up the charts, it quietly promotes the hell out of them. Ever notice how Amazon has recommended books for you? If your tastes happen to match what they’re promoting: voila—success. Add to that the email blasts. As one publicist told me, “You don’t get to the top of the Amazon charts alone. It’s not about tweeting, and then you’ve sold a million books. Amazon is there.”
Still, to get Amazon’s notice means you’ve first found readers who have paid for your books. Once you selling in the top 100 of a category, and you're there for a day or two, Amazon's algorithm might notice and start promoting you quietly. Thus, your goal is to sell a lot of books fast. Pricing them at 99 cents once helped, but far less often now.
I found myself explaining this topic of 99-cent books to authors Jim Jennewein and Tom Parker. They wanted to know some of the steps for bringing their YA Viking saga to eBook form and how to price them.
First you need to know some Amazon basics on pricing. Amazon encourages authors to upload their books in which they hold the copyright to the Digital Text Platform. The platform will convert a Microsoft DOC file fairly well to the Kindle format, though I’ve found using an online program, LiberWriter, to be much more accurate.
There are three basic things you can do to set yourself up for success before you get to this point of uploading, though:
1) Write a damn good book--and rewrite it and get feedback and polish it and rewrite it again until it’s professional. You may have to hire an editor.
2) Create a cover for the book, which means you may have to hire a good designer. Test market a few covers and choose the one that gets the most attention.
3) Write a great blurb for your book. People buy books online based on interesting covers and strong blurbs.
Now comes the pricing. The Big Six publishers are selling many of their eBooks for $12.99 and more. Amazon, though, knows some of the best sales occur when books are priced between $2.99 and $9.99, so if you price your book in that range, Amazon will give you 70% royalty. Barnes and Noble’s Nook will give you close to that, too. If you’re out of Amazon’s sweet spot, you get 35% royalties.
Therefore, if you price your book at 99 cents, you only get 35% (i.e. 35 cents a book). Still, here’s what’s clear to me:
A) Most of the self-publishing ultra-success stories have books priced at 99 cents. If you’re selling 3,000 copies a day, you’re making a thousand dollars a day. Is that bad?
B) Most of these indie successes also have two things in common. They are genre books, such as mysteries, romances, and thrillers, and the authors have multiple books out there. Amanda Hocking and John Locke match these criteria.
C) Just because you price your book low and have multiple books still means you’re unlikely to hit it big. You need to make yourself a presence, but there’s no clear prescription for that. John Locke says to write an important blog and tweet about it often. I haven’t heard of it working for anyone else. Locke may not know it, but he’s a personality, which comes through in everything he writes. He pulled in followers the way Switzerland attracts neutrinos. Another truth: you need to populate your book’s Amazon page with reviews, for instance, but have you sent your book out for review? (More on what to do really takes a whole-day seminar.)
D) Have some luck. JA Konrath, whose blog A Newbie’s Guide to Publishing has become the megahorn for self-publishing, says, “Sales involve luck. Luck is all about random chance.” That means you can do everything, and still nothing big happens. I haven’t hit a big one yet, despite all the great reviews, awards, and professionalism. I’m what you might call a mid-lister. Yet I’m an optimistic man.
Up until recently, I thought that my brand of writing--comic literary fiction--was just too small a niche, and, besides, I hadn’t seen any indie literary book do well. Then a reader pointed me to Darcie Chan, whose novel Mill River Recluse, about an old-woman who looks back on her life with an abusive husband, was on the Top-Ten Kindle sales list. It’s now #1. (Update: It ended 2011 as the #4 most sold book in any form for the year.)
I wrote Darcie. She agreed to an interview, which you can read by clicking here. The main thing I learned is she followed the three main things I listed above, and her book was so good, she landed a top agent in New York. The agent, however, found that while publishers admired the writing, they didn’t know how to market such a story. After two years having the manuscript in a drawer, she published it on Kindle, first at $2.99, then at 99 cents. It took off. She’s making a few thousand dollars a day just from one book. She doesn’t have another yet.
So know what I’ve done? I experimented selling my novels at 99 cents. They sell better at $2.99 to $4.99. I can't explain why. My new novel, Love At Absolute Zero, is about a physicist who uses the tools of science to find his soul mate. He only has three days. The story took me five years, six drafts, and two editors to finally get it where I wanted. The work was worth it, as great reviews are coming in and sales have started.
So too is my first novel, The Brightest Moon of the Century, about a young Minnesotan who is blessed with an abundance of “experience”—first when his mother dies and next when his father, an encyclopedia salesman, shoehorns him into a private boys school where he’s tortured and groomed.
Thus, this is all about experimenting. Experiment with your price. Maybe 99 cents will work for you. One big truth is that whatever you find will likely change over the next year. Stay nimble and search for the new rules for the road.
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