Nice interview here with Piotr Kowalczyk, one of the first ebook experts I came across several years ago, and author of numerous funny & intriguing stories published under the alias of Nick Name, available on Feedbooks. Also check out his E-book Friendly web site, a great place for all things ebooks
We like to make up those kinds of store names, like “Blue Jeans Etc” and “Beverages and More”, only ours are even more stupid, if you can believe that, like ”Pickles & Stuff” or “Bottlecaps Galore!”. But on the subject of ghosts, I was happy to see one of my “ghost stories” garner a genuine five star review on Amazon. “Hidden HIghway” has been neck and neck in a race for worst overall rating with “Fissure Monroe”, averaging somewhere around 1.8 on Goodreads, so seeing a 5 was a bit of a shock, but a pleasant one. And here it is:
At a company meeting I heard an executive talking about the need to “got after every white space in the market”. After mocking this turn of phrase, I later thought of one such white space – in the book market. There has been a wave of independent authors, buoyed by the technological trends in smartphones and e-readers. At the same time there has been a decline in the business of supersized bookstores. The chains are not doing well, and smaller independent bookstores have an opportunity to stake out new territories, and may find some success if they are well-situated and innovative enough. One such junction might be the marketing of independently published books. Many of these are breaking through the e-bestseller lists, so they are proven to be desirable commodities. How to get these books into bookstores is a different matter.
On the one hand, there have been independent distributors in the past, companies that aggregated small press books and had some salesforce and warehousing to funnel these through to independent bookstores. Such distributors found it difficult enough to survive, especially during the rise of the superstores, but right now there may be an opportunity to build on that model with independently published books as well as small presses. It may be only viable, in the beginning, for very localized success, in such markets as New , the Boston Area, Northern California, etc … but some enterprising entrepeneur could take it on. They could work with Smashwords, perhaps, to identify and contact those bestselling – and other worthy – independent writers, and with Lulu, even with Amazon’s CreateSpace to find their way in (bookstores apparently loathe CreateSpace so this part might not fly). It would take some legwork and effort, but they could possibly convince the independent bookstores to set aside a special section for local, independent authors. The problem here is profitability (and tangled issues like returns and many individual relationships)
Another idea combines the advantages of bookstores and web publishing. One of the great things about bookstores is browsing. One of the great things about online offerings is free excerpts. Why not put them together? Print-on-demand machines could produce pamphlet-like versions of books – front and back covers and the first 5-10 pages. Bookstores could display this in racks the way that maps are displayed, or like travel brochures in hotels and rental agencies. The cost up front is low (indie authors may need to contribute a small amount to that, to help defray the cost and also perhaps serve a barrier to entry that would serve to thin the herd, so to speak).
This is the kind of thing that independent bookstores can excel at, and it could work to bridge the gulf between e-publishing and p-publishing, There is no inherent contradiction. Many people prefer paperbacks to e-readers. The same books can find their way to everyone. It would take a group effort – on both sides. Independent bookseller organizations could be working together with independent self-publishers for mutual benefit
- Reports of the Bookstore’s Death Are Greatly Exaggerated (teleread.com)
- The Business Rusch: The Year of The Bookstore (kriswrites.com)
- Independent Bookstores (bookwormyyc.wordpress.com)
- Indie Book Store and Indie Author Team Up – Burien Books Hosts Book Signing with Local Author T.M. Franklin (prweb.com)
- 5 Ways to Get Your Book into Bookstores (bookmarketingmaven.typepad.com)
- Should We Save Bookstores from the Internet? (misfortuneofknowing.wordpress.com)
- INDIES: How Independent Publishers & Bookstores are Surviving & Thriving in Today’s Market (laurenmbarrett.com)
This article in Salon.com, while mainly a whiny and self-pitying lament, does shed some light on one aspect of the recent changes in book publishing. Publishing is not what it used to be, and neither is book reviewing. It used to be that a published author stood a decent chance of getting a professional review from a newspaper or magazine book reviewer. Apparently, there ain’t no days like those anymore. The article’s writer – a previously published author with in-crowd connections who was once able to garner such blessed reviews – couldn’t even get responses to his emails once he decided to self-publish his latest awesome novel (which he only resorted to after it failed to get traditionally published). The kicker is when he moans that If this can happen to him, imagine how horrible it must be for the 99 percenters of self-published writers, those of us without his hoary ties to people-in-the-know and his track record of proven, if admittedly minor, success.
What we 99 percenters know, of course, is that when it comes to getting (legitimate) reviews of our self-published fiction, we have always relied on the kindness of strangers. We quickly exhaust our social network supply of potential reviewers (we exhaust them in every sense) and after that it’s all “word of mouth, baby”. Recently a publicist for free-ebooks.net (one of the many ebook sites with an experimental business model, this one a subscription service) asked me if I knew how to convert downloads into reviews. The only answer I could give was “maybe give them stuff” – not money, but rewards of some kind, benefits in kind, more free books perhaps. Goodreads Giveaways are supposed to work like that. The winners are supposed to submit reviews after they receive and read your books. I have no way of knowing if they actually do that. I’ve done four giveaways so far and am beginning another one this week for “Prisoners of Perfection” but there seems to be no tracking mechanism for the reviews or ratings.
Yes, it’s difficult. For every thousand downloads-to-strangers you might get one written review. That’s just a guess, nothing scientific, but it seems to correlate with my own experience. Star ratings are somewhat easier to come by, but are not the same thing at all. People who take the time to write and post reviews of self-published books are practically mini-gods to self-published authors. We can’t thank them enough, even if they trash our work. At least somebody said something! Otherwise, how can we even know that we exist? Self-publishing used to be called vanity publishing, but all publishing involves a degree of vanity. The Salon article shines a bright light on that little secret as well.
The article’s conclusion is “I can tell you that self-publishing is not fun.” I didn’t feel too sorry for him. If what the author reallt wants is reviews, only that, his best chance is to give away his book for free and to give it away for free in as many places as he can. He probably still wouldn’t get a boatload of reviews, but then the question is, how many are enough? How many reviews would it take to make it all fun for him? How many readers would it take? How is 1000 strangers reading your book better than 999? What difference does the one thousand and first make, in your everyday life? Where do you draw the line between fun and not fun?
A friend of mine once told me her philosophy of gardening, and it’s stuck with me ever since, especially in regards to self-publishing. One tomato is great, she said. Anything more is “abundance”.
- 77 Ways to Find New Readers for Your Self-Published Book (Book Review) (thiscollegedropout.wordpress.com)
- If You are a Writer of Stories, You Should Focus on Storytelling (katmicari.wordpress.com)
- Say Goodbye to the Play-by-Play Book Review (themillions.com)
- MBR: How to Spot a Phony Book Reviewer (thiscollegedropout.wordpress.com)
- Book Reviews: Easy Way to Promote Others, Your Own Blog, and Improve Your Writing Style (lindathorlakson.wordpress.com)
- How I overcame snobbery to self-publish an e-book (telegraph.co.uk)
Zombie Nights is just about to hit 50,000 downloads on Smashwords (3 years in), where it is now the #7 most downloaded ebook from that website, trailing two Smashwords’ user guides, one Islamic baby name book and 3 erotica titles. There have been very few other titles breaking into that top 10 free list over the past two years, which makes me think that fewer and fewer people are following the ‘free’ route towards readership these days, preferring instead to test the cold hard sales waters. That’s all well and good. It’s a thriving new market, or perhaps one that is not all that new at all. A very interesting article on the business of literature provides a lot of history and perspective on bookselling and is well worth reading. Our current era may be more like an earlier time than we realize.
I often come across comments in self-publishing blog posts that numbers are interesting to indie authors, so I thought I might offer some here regarding Zombie NIghts during its 50,000-Smashwords-download-jubilee-day celebration. (Overall downloads for Zombie Nights, including Apple, Amazon and Barnes & Noble, Feedbooks, Obooko, Google Books, Sony, Kobo and Smashwords, are somewhere around 150,000).
On Smashwords.com its overall rating is 3.73 based on 33 reviews – note a mere 33 reviews, only 1 every 1515 downloads.
On Amazon a scant 10 reviews nets it a 2,5 rating, while on Goodreads there have been 107 ratings, including 29 text reviews, for an average of 2.76
As usual, Apple readers are more generous. 155 ratings on iTunes give it a 3.5 rating, while on Barnes and Noble, 101 ratings give it 3.0 stars. On Sony there’s been only 1 review (5 stars), and on Kobo 3 ratings give it 3 stars overall. On Google Books, 8 reviews give it an average of 4 stars.
I’ve noticed this pattern is typical of most of my books: Smashwords and Apple readers are often a full star more generous than Goodreads and Amazon reviewers. Theories have been offered, but it’s only guesswork. The main thing is, reviews remain sparse as a percentage of downloads. I have not gone out of my way to ask for reviews of this book or done any sort of marketing or advertising for it, other than having it show up on getfreeebooks.com, a site I always recommend to free-ebook-offerers.
What’s mysterious is how Amazon is reporting the US and India together in its KDP Reports section. There seems to be no way of separating the data for us poor outsiders, so for example I have no idea why the sudden surge of Snapdragon Alley this month, which bumped its way back up to around 1400 downloads after having slowly declined towards around 400 a month over the past year. Could it be … India? Is it even free in Amazon India? One never knows. It’s still rated in their absurd categorizations like this:
One has no idea how they come up with these things! I don’t think anyone’s spine has ever been particularly chilled by Snapdragon Alley (although I do agree with one recent commenter, who said it was the best of the four book series, which kind of makes me feel bad for readers of the other three, which are not terrible, but still … i don’t think of them as sequels but more as re-mixes, like dub music)
Anyway, nothing else has shown such a surge, but remain steady there on Amazon at around 200 per month for Zombie Nights, Orange Car with Stripes, Freak City, Death Ray Butterfly, Ledman Pickup, Dragon Town and Happy Slumbers. I’m just glad Amazon is keeping them all free for this long, and expect it to end at any moment.
Reviews say as much about the reviewer as about their subject. Reviewers bring to bear all of their previous experiences and attitudes, their perspectives depending on their personal history and current state, the tastes and preferences of their friends, their families, their generation, their social background, time and place, and so on. All of which is merely an introduction to this particular review, which is as much about my response to the book as about the book itself.
On reflection, it occurred to me that my experience of “Catskinner’s Book” by Misha Burnett, is similar to my experience of the movie “The Matrix”. The main similarities in the works themselves is that they deal with the theme of ‘aliens among us’, and there is a unique protagonist, a chosen one of sorts. The way the hero of Catskinner’s Book was “chosen” is closer to the way the infant of “Rosemary’s Baby” was “chosen”. Catskinner, like The Matrix, features a number of striking concepts such as distinctive representations of a ‘hive mind’ in humans. Catskinner also has a main female character of considerable surprises. The book is as much horror as science-fiction.
The writing in Catskinner is bold and deft and hooks you right in from the start. That was enough to carry me along for quite a while, but … and I’m sorry to include a ‘but’ at this point … like The Matrix, there was one element that drove me out of the story and left me on the sidelines, letting the rest go by. This has everything to do with me, in my current state, and the tidal wave of excessive violence that’s currently pervading our culture (and has been for some time, witness The Matrix!). I’m talking about long, extended scenes of carnage and mayhem, all of them both unlikely and ‘fantastic’ in the imaginary sense (Neo with machine guns in the marble corridor forever) (Batman and the Joker in the tunnel) (The goblin massacre in The Hobbit) (I could go on and on with such examples). I’m not sure what the attraction is, but surely there is one, and we are seeing more and more of them acted out in our theaters and schools and shopping malls – not just random killings, but sprees all dressed up in appropriate costumes and dramatically ready for the cameras. Perhaps it’s because I started to read this book shortly after the Newttown tragedies, or maybe I’ve just had enough of it for one lifetime, but it leaves me colder all the time. I can’t follow the stories anymore after encountering these prolonged bloodbaths.
All of which does not indicate that you, the reader of this review, may not be able to look past that, or may even enjoy these passages. It’s curious. I didn’t mind the main character being a paid assassin. It’s what he was created for, in a sense, and it matches the overall plot, which is a sort of gangland-rivalry-from-outer-space. It just seems to me that this kind of thing can be done, and used to be done, with a lot less shattered glass, a lot fewer explosions, and somewhat less incredible stunts and feats of physical prowess. I recently watched the old Sergio Leone – Clint Eastwood classic, “For a Few Dollars More”, and there is a scene where Clint has to climb over a wall to sneak into the bad guy’s compound. The stunt man actually climbs over the wall, slowly, with difficulty, like a human being actually would, and comes down on the other side landing hard, a bit scratched and bruised as well. Nowadays a single leap and it’s up and over and down, no worries, as if we were all composed of computer-generated graphics these days. All of which is to say that I’d like a bit more realism in my fantasy fiction! Crazy, I know.
Much of my perspective on the business of writing and publishing comes from my twenty years of working in bookstores. There I observed the ebb and flow, the life cycles of books and especially of authors. Anyone who has worked in a used bookstore has an even more varied perspective than with new books, for in the new bookstores, only the faddest of the fad survive from year to year. There you will find your main guys in the different genres hanging in there over time – a Stephen King or a Danielle Steel, for example. Those deemed classic-worthy are also generally available, a Raymond Chandler or even a Cornell Woolrich. Memories are short and fads are even shorter, and the publishing industry will quickly cut off nearly everyone who doesn’t reach some impossible level of sales. 999 of 1000 authors will not see their books last even a few seasons, and those are the 1 in 100,000 who got their books published and stocked in the first place!
What to expect of the self-published author then in the age of ebooks, now that everyone is published and everyone is stocked? We might think of all of these as pre-used (as used cars are now called pre-owned). They all end up on the dusty stacks of the virtual used bookstore, joining those 999 published authors as relics of a passing season. That anyone still reads those old dime paperback novels is a miracle in itself, a fact of random chance and happenstance. Browsers browse and pick out something for some reason – title or cover or price or whatnot. Many of the used books you come across in those old-timey bookstores are by authors long dead and gone, or merely those whose time is. You can only tell the difference by the publication date.
On Amazon Kindle, I get to see the reports of the downloads of my free ebooks there, and I wonder that it’s even still happening. I am doing near zero promotion (you can’t count this blog which hardly anyone sees) so it’s all a matter of Amazon itself and the way the ebook trend is trending and the free-ness of the titles. To me it’s a slow stream winding down, and I imagine it will turn into a trickle at some point in the fairly near future, and then, like any old pulp pocket book in some backwater bookstore, the occasional reader will accidentally come across one or two and check them out.
This is what to expect.
Quite some time ago I put most of my self-published books up on Google Books – another source of paid or free ebook distributio (in my case, free). I’ve made my books free in several places, including Smashwords, Feedbooks, Liibooks, Obooko, Xii, Lulu, and Google (on Kindle, some of them are free, but that’s Amazon’s decision – I had to make them 99 cents by default there).
Anyway, every now and then I go and check on them in these various spots to see what they’re up to. Most of these sites give you a reasonable summary. Feedbooks is the simplest and easiest. Smashwords dashboard shows you downloads but only from their main site – from their distribution network (Apple, Sony, B&N, etc …) you have to look at messy spreadsheets, some of which, like Apple, don’t even account for free copy downloads, so you kind of have to guess.
Google Books, however, is something of a mystery. At books.google.com/partner, you can track things sort of (there were 335 book “visits” in November, but 166 pages were viewed? what does it mean?), but just going to each book’s page, there is wildly conflicting information. Zombie Nights tells me it’s had 100 reviews and that the average review is 4, but when you click in to see the reviews, there are only 5 of them. The same pattern continues for other titles. The number of reviews claimed is always wrong. Clicking through sometimes brings you in to Goodreads reviews, sometimes not. I have no idea what they’re doing. The partner page tells me that Zombie Nights was “visited” 97 times in November, for a total of 6 pages viewed. For the year it’s been 1,417 visits, 69 visits with pages viewed and 507 pages viewed. I wish I knew what they considered to be a “page”. Did anyone read the whole book there or what? Hard to tell.
Altogether I have to be content with the “knowledge” that for 2012 to date, my Goobgle Books entertained 6,279 visits, of which 1,430 involved pages being viewed, for a total of 5,764 pages viewed . My books average around 90 “pages” in book-length which is probably not the same thing as web page length. If anyone has any idea what these things even mean, I’d be glad to hear it.
In an excellent post, Paul Samael makes the case for traditional publishers aggressively going into the ebooks market in an innovative way – sort of halfway between the Smashwords/Amazon approach of taking everything, and their own current way of only e-pubbing their own (relatively small) collections. They could be taking in a lot of submissions, doing a certain amount of filtering (think of how a great blue whale filters for feeding) and in that way claiming a genuine foothold in the new publishing industry. No doubt those they accepted through their filtering would have to go exclusive (or through the pubs into outlets like Amazon).
The plus side for writers would be the good ol’ stamp of trad-pub approval that’s so much craved. The down side is, what? More acceptance, less rejection, better filtering, less of a haystack.
Any other downsides one could see, for the publishers at least? Personally, I’ve got no horse in that race.