One Hundredth of a Star

Marketing is pushing boulders down a mountain. The myth is that pushing a boulder always creates a landslide, but that’s not true anymore than that the market is an efficient sorter and the cream rises to the top. “Quality” is only loosely correlated with economic success, and most of the boulders you launch will crash down and come to a dead stop.

Big companies have the resources to launch many boulders at once, and giant boulders at that, and even then they don’t always cause a ruckus. Little guys like me have to settle for small boulders — big rocks, really — and fire them off one at a time. If one is lucky, one gets a little landslide. But most of the time one will not be lucky.

Last week I ran a single promotion — FANTASMAGORIA was discounted to 99 cents — which was announced in an email from Booksends to their subscribers on Monday, and which was also featured on the Kindle Books & Tips blog Wednesday morning. KBT also sent an email to their subscribers that afternoon. (I also announced the promo via my email list and on social media.)

Booksends cost $30, while KBT cost $25, for a total spend of $55. Quite modest.

I like the 99-cent sale versus the free giveaway for the same reason insurers like co-pays — it reduces the moral hazard. I’ve done a few free giveaways this year — on Smashwords, on my website, on Google Play, and I took part in Free eBook Day — and I never noticed any rebound. I got lots of downloads, but no return sales.

I expect that’s because a free book requires no engagement. In fact, I expect there is a bit of a hoarding effect with free promos. LOTS of people will download because it costs nothing and because they might want to read the book later. I doubt many did.

Please note, I’m not saying you shouldn’t give your stuff away for free. Not at all. I am saying that, just like with piracy, people who download for free have low engagement and so aren’t/weren’t likely to buy. (Personally, I don’t believe piracy represents many, if any, lost sales.) I am just much more judicious about giving stuff away now than I was before.

For example, I will give a book away face-to-face, meaning to someone I run into or chat with online, in a heartbeat. Some minimum threshold of engagement has already been passed at that point. I also think there’s value to keeping the first one or two books in a series free — not because the engagement is necessarily any higher but because you want to keep an open door.

But outside of those two purposes, I now want to see some real value before I list my books for free. If someone is unwilling to engage at 99 cents, then they’re unlikely ever to be a customer of mine.

So running the promotion at 99 cents was intentional. It set a small bar. People had to be engaged enough with the cover and blurb that they’d pay a dollar. At that rate, I sold a VERY modest 110 books. However, that includes some books besides FANTASMAGORIA (which were not discounted), meaning at least a few people engaged enough to buy some other stuff at full price.

KBT (at $25) outperformed Booksends (at $30) such that I actually came out ahead on the one and lost money on the other. I was roughly neutral for the week, meaning I spent $55 and earned roughly that back, partially because some folks bought non-sale items. (My royalty on a 99-cent book is 35 cents, meaning I have to sell three books for every dollar spent to break even.)

The overall verdict is mixed. There was unquestionable value in going through the process. I learned what to expect. I learned that Booksends is probably not good for reinvestment for me. (Other authors/books may have different results there.) I learned KBT probably is. I got three reviews on Amazon over the weekend, only one of which I can otherwise account for. (Incidentally, that review was the result of a “face-to-face” free giveaway from several months ago.)

On the downside, all of these numbers are piddly. I did expect that. As I mentioned, the goal was not to make money. That will come, if at all, after I craft a fully-fledged plan and start launching boulders down the mountain on a regular basis. Here I was just gathering intel and getting a little practice.

However, I had hoped to see a little bump in my daily sales, which normally hover around zero. Turns out the needle is heavy, so I will have to wait until I schedule enough of these promos — staggered days over multiple weeks — to keep my Amazon ranking high, which gets me de facto secondary advertising. It didn’t take much to book me into the top 50 in my category.

The next step is to schedule promos on other sites to test out their viability, and after that to look at the effectiveness of different days of the week. Once I know those things, I can begin to craft a “real” plan, which is to say I am still a loooooong way from a “real” plan, let alone any kind of success, and what I have now is only a fraction of what I need.

Contrast all of this with the Goodreads giveaways I did earlier this year. The site requires you to send a paperback. In two runs, I gave a total of 15 books away at a cost (with printing and shipping) of $180. This $180 got my book into the hands of a mere 15 people — chosen by Goodreads, not by me — and netted no rebound sales. Three of those 15 people left 3-star ratings on Goodreads without any accompanying text (versus the two five-star reviews with text that showed up on Amazon over the weekend resulting from a net-zero spend.)

[Side note: reviews are SUPREMELY IMPORTANT. They are CRITICAL to establishing trust in new potential readers. Critical. Absofuckinglutely. If you want to support an indie writer, leave an honest review. Talking them up is great, but everyone understands that talk is cheap. Taking the time to write a review is putting one’s money where one’s mouth is! Write a review, then talk THAT up by telling everyone you liked it so much that you were motivated to leave a review. That is genuine A1 support.]

To me, nothing sums up the culture of the Goodreads community more than their rating system, which proudly displays hundredths of stars. A book is not 4 stars, it is 3.99 stars. It is not 4.5 stars, it is 4.46.

The only possible value of a hundredth of a star is to assign status, to know who wins. Like a beauty pageant. Thanks to Goodreads, now we can know which of the two books rated 3.8 stars on Amazon is better. One is 3.82 while the other a mere 3.78.

The scientist in me wonders how that last digit is possibly significant, while the reader in me balks at the puerile need to RANK AND ARGUE ALL THE THINGS.

Don’t get me wrong. There are lots of fine folks on Goodreads. I am merely pointing out that just because it’s dense in readers doesn’t mean it’s dense in my readers, who are best defined as “anyone without a stick up their butt. About anything.” And on the numbers, Goodreads will not get any further investment from me.

End boring marketing crap.

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