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"Roundheads and Ramblings"

Kindle rankings

Tip #5: The Difference between Tags and Categories

When you sign up your book on the Kindle KDP site, they ask a lot of questions.  Be sure you answer every one, particularly the ones about tags and categories.




Tags are the labels that tell readers what your book is about.  Kindle will let you choose 6 or 7 of these. You want to choose words that readers are most likely to enter in a "search" box.  Make them general to capture as many searchers as possible.  Check various SEO sites for suggestions on the most popular searches. But be sure to be honest. Readers won't be tricked more than once. If your tags include "hot sex" you'd better have an x-rated book to go along with it.


[SEO = Search Engine Optimization]





Categories, on the other hand, are the labels that determine what best-selling and top-rated lists you qualify for.  You only get two of these, so make them as narrow and specific as possible. Use "Fiction" as your category and you'll have to compete against millions of other books for a place in the ratings. Limit it to "Fiction - > Cold War -> Russian Steppes -> Romance" and you'll have a list all your own, where you can be #1 if you sell a single book. (That's an over simplification, of course, but fitting your book into a genre that is not over-populated can make a huge difference in your rankings.)



Rankings, you say? Can I really influence those?  Yes, you can.  We'll talk more about that topic next week.

In Hindsight: What I Learned from Three Free Days on Kindle Select

My new little book, Left by the Side of the Road: Characters without a Novel, appeared as a free offer on Kindle for three days last week.  I put it there deliberately to test some of the theories that are currently floating around the internet.  Here's what I found out:

Q: Is it true that publishing a "book-a-year" is no longer enough? Are our readers demanding extra books, even if they are nothing more than long short stories?

A: The importance of this practice may have been exaggerated.  From what I could tell, the people who downloaded my free book of short stories were those who had already read Beyond All Price.  For them, perhaps the small offering between the publication of major books was welcome. But I do not see that it attracted many new readers.  Readers who did not already know me and my work yawned and went elsewhere. Would I do it again? Probably not, unless, as this time, I already had a body of work that needed a chance at publication. I would not write something new just to fill up a couple of months between publications.

Q: Does offering free copies of e-books for a few days really spark sales and boost the book's rankings?

A: No and Yes.  Unlike the viral fever that hit Beyond All Price a year ago and kept copies selling for a month after the free offer expired, this offer ended and so did sales. And while the rankings went up during the course of the free offer, they too plummeted when the freebies ended.

Suspiciously so.  During the second day, downloads drove the book up the rankings until it reach #16 in Historical Fiction.  When the sale ended, it was no longer even on the chart. As for the overall ranking number, it was something like 1,187 during the sale and around 265,000 within three hours of the end of the sale. That would suggest that during the wee hours of the night, 265,000 other books sold more than the several hundred downloads that Left by the Side of the Road had accumulated. That's pretty unlikely.

So what was going on? I see this as strong confirmation of a rumor that has been circulating--Amazon used to count free downloads the same as sales.  Now they do so only during the sale period.  Then they discount downloads at a high ratio.  I've heard 1 to 10 and 1 to 100.

If the sale had any effect at all, it was not on the ranking of the new book, but rather on increased sales of my older books.  Those numbers doubled and tripled for a few days.

Q: What about the relatively new Kindle Select program? Will people really "borrow" books that they could buy for a couple of bucks?

A: Not that I can see.  This is my second test of that theory, both times using small book titles that I regarded as extras.  None of them got a single borrow.  And why should they?  Amazon Prime customers can borrow only one book a month for free.  If I were in their position I'd save that borrowing privilege for the most expensive books on their list, not one I could buy for a few dollars. And if I ever decided to offer another book as a Kindle Select, I'd make sure that it's original price was high enough to make borrowing financially beneficial.

Q: And finally,  what are the consequences of giving Amazon exclusive sales rights over a new book?

A: Coincidentally,  just yesterday, I received my quarterly royalty payment from Smashwords. It includes purchases made on all the other platforms -- Apple, Nook, Kobo, Sony, etc.  I was shocked to see how many e-books had sold over on Barnes and Nobles Nook -- many more than I sold in the same period on Amazon.

If you list a book on Kindle Select, you can not sell it anywhere else for 90 days, and in my case, ninety days of sales on Nook could amount to several hundred dollars lost.  Is it worth it? Not that I can see.  I'm committed, I'm afraid, to leave Left by the Side of the Road on Kindle Select for another two months, but after than, I will not be using it again.

These are not definitive statements, and my testing method was pretty unscientific. However it confirmed something I've been suspicious of for some time.  It may no longer be possible to "game" Amazon into making your book an instant best-seller.  Nothing succeeds better than good old-fashioned time and effort. 


Day Two of Book Launch for "Left by the Side of the Road."


You know what she's thinking, don't you?  "How can it take you an entire year to write a book?  You can make a baby in less time than that. And just look at the authors on supermarket book shelves.  They have a new book almost every month. Come on, Schriber, get with the program.  Why so slow?"

Well, the truth of the matter is that it takes even longer than that.  I can't possibly write a book I'm proud of and satisfied with in a year. Here are my production figures:

A Scratch with the Rebels:  Started in 1981, revised in 1987, put away until 2002, started hunting for a publisher in 2004, and finally published in 2007. Twenty-six years is not a record, but it's close!

Beyond All Price: Started in 2006 while waiting for Scratch to hit the bookshelves; self-published in August, 2009. Three years!

The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese: Started blogging about the writing process in 2008 while finishing up Nellie's story and then kept it up while I did the research for The Road to Frogmore.  Finally had enough material for a "how-to" book in January 2012. Three and a half years!

The Road to Frogmore: Research started in 2008; will be published in October/November 2012.  Almost four years.

And there's the explanation for bringing out Left by the Side of the Road: Characters without a Novel.  I wrote the first of these little sketches during National Novel Writing Month 2010.  They've been floating around ever since without a home and without much hope that they will ever find their place in a book dedicated to them.

So here they are, in the hope that the weeping lady up there will take some small comfort in having something new to read.  Is the launch successful?  It's too early to tell, yet, but I can give you a couple of figures.  A couple of hundred people have downloaded the short stories -- enough to boost their ranking to #19 in Kindle Short Stories and #25 in Historical Fiction.  The book is still free until midnight tomorrow night, so please pass the word in case there are other desperate readers out there.

"Get 'Em While They're Free"





Book news is leaving me overwhelmed this morning. Yesterday, a member of The Military Writers Society of America posted a review of my newest book on Amazon. By pure coincidence, hers was the tenth review of "The Second Mouse Gets the Cheese," and that magic number made the book eligible for a free promotional period. So without my knowledge, The Mouse 's price dropped to $0.00 last night on Kindle, and the downloads began.  By this morning, here's what the book listing looked like:



















It's an exciting development, because those rankings will promote sales even after the promotional period is over.  Even better, I'm seeing some fallout  for my other books as well.  Several other sales have happened this morning.  Somebody even bought the paper version of The Second Mouse.

Anyway, between watching the sales figures rise and trying to do another editing read-through of a 3/4-finished historical novel, I'm buried in virtual books!  I can't promise how long the free offer will last; it will be purely at the whim of Amazon. So if you have ever considered exploring the possibilities of self-publishing, here's a place to pick up some free tips and advice.  Happy reading.

Be a Literary Critic in Twenty-Five Words or Less

I've been noticing a small trend of emphasis on readers lately. Some pretty powerful blogging voices are saying that readers influence book purchases and best-seller lists to a degree the publishing world has never experienced. A few years ago, book sales depended on the all-important appearance in The Times Review of Books or on a similar best-seller list. Academic writers gained tenure or were forced to change careers at the whim of reviewers in the most influential academic journals. Literary critics held the fates of new writers hostage to the complimentary review. But now?  All that has changed.  Now you, the reader, are in control!

That's a powerful position.  I applaud the change.  Readers are the people we writers really want to please.  But being the reader who can change a writer's life is also a weighty responsibility. If a reader can help make a book a best-seller with a single comment, then that same reader can kill a writing career by remaining silent. Readers need to take their own commenting power seriously.

Let me give you an example of how a single review affects a writer's ranking. On Kindle, my book, Beyond All Price, currently has a ranking at the 4,000-level. For those of you who haven't paid a great deal of attention to these rankings, that's actually very good. Every book that sells a single copy gets a ranking, and there are now well over 900,000 books that are ranked. Being number 4,500 out of those puts me well into the top 1% of all books that are selling on Kindle. (And I'm laughing at myself here as I realize the new connotations that 1% ranking carries. No, I'm not rich!) But I'm not on the list of the top 100 best-sellers in Historical Fiction at the moment, either; for that I need to crack the 3,000-level.

Yesterday, I received a "direct message" on Twitter from someone who had just finished the book.  She was complimentary, and I appreciated her praise. I responded by asking her to put that comment on Amazon, where the rest of the world could see it. Most people won't follow up on that suggestion, but Anne did. When I checked the book's listing an hour or so later, her review was there -- five stars, less than four lines long, a total of 86 words. The book's rating before she posted her little review stood at 4,162.  For the next hour, I tracked the book carefully.  Not a single copy sold. The only difference was that review. An hour later, when the ratings officially changed, it was at 3,546 -- an improvement of over 600 points from just one review.  

Do readers make a difference? Absolutely! Beyond all Price is doing moderately well.  There are over 44,000 copies in circulation. But out of those 44,000 readers, only 20 have left comments on the Amazon site. Those 20 people have encouraged the other thousands to try the book.

Is doing a a review hard? No! All you have to do is go to the Amazon page for a book you like and click the "Create Your Own Review" button.  You'll jump to a new page where you can assign stars, leave your screen name, or an anonymous one, and post a few words about the book.  Amazon will accept as few as 20 words as an adequate review.  It takes you only a few minutes. And then your words fly out there to work their own magic on the rankings. 

Please take your power as a critic seriously, not just for my book, but for every struggling writer out there. If you really hate a book, your best recourse is to kill it by remaining silent.  Don't use the reviews to snark or attack. Offer constructive criticism.  Find something faintly nice to say.  Or -- if you really enjoyed the book -- let the world know it. At least click the "Like" button. You are the new Literary Critic! Enjoy your new position.