Can you make a bunch of money selling books like burgers? Possibly. Guest blogger Sue Campbell analyzes the commonalities of the e-books that make the bucks. You might be surprised at some of them. ~CHU
Can Anyone Sell a Million Books on Amazon …
By Guest Blogger Sue Campbell
I’ve been giving this a lot of thought. I recently read, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months by John Locke. Yes, I was one of the multitudes who clicked that “1-click” buy button. So, you’re asking, what is his secret sauce? How’d he do it? Could he do it again? The short answer to that last thing is yes. And he will, again, and again, and again.
His strategy boils down to just three obvious things. He writes for his niche market, and he uses Twitter/Blogs/and an Email list of his buyers to get the word out, and the third is price. That’s it. If you’re like a writer friend of mine who hasn’t sold a million ebooks yet, you’re thinking, “Well, that’s not new, it’s no different than what I, or thousands of other self-published authors are doing.”
So what’s really the secret? He’s writing for a niche. A niche he’s identified, learned what they want, and is delivering it, over and over and over as fast as possible. Remind you of a super-successful business model? It should.
1. The niche—it’s a very popular one. Light, but often violent, and funny, sexy thrillers. He says his a small niche—I would argue that one of the biggest “niches” in bestsellers today. He writes to it religiously and doesn’t waver much from his formula. He’s found if he does, his readers don’t like it. And you piss off your readers at your peril.
So if it’s such a big niche, how are his books different from the pack and how is it they are they selling up there with the bigger names? Well there is a difference. And you’d think it wouldn’t be a good one.
The difference is slight, but noticeable. Sort of like the difference between a Big Mac and Fat Burger, (or In-N-Out, or Carls Jr.’s $6 Burger—name your favorite poison). The first is adequate, and will tide you over until your next meal, but somewhat less satisfying than a really superb burger. Something is missing, even if you can’t quite pinpoint what it is.
What it is—is the richness, the details, the building of characters, that subtle nuance of language in the hands of a master. And there are masters of language even in these genres, I know this, because I’ve read these genres, and I like them. A lot.
Some of my favorite thrillers are books by Joseph Finder, Lee Child, Harlan Coben, John Grisham, and yes, even James Patterson (though he’s perilously close to the flavor of a Big Mac). There are more. This is a big wide and deep field—people eat this stuff up. Like McDonalds. But like fast food, there’s room in this field for Carls, In-N-Out, Fat Burger, and McDonalds too.
To be fair, I needed to understand what it was these new millionaire authors were peddling to understand why they are so successful. So I read some. Locke’s, Saving Rachel; J.A. Konrath’s Shot of Tequila and he and his writers friends’ Draculas; Barry Eisler’s Lost Coast; Amanda Hocking’s, Switched; and other titles by lesser known, self-published authors. But those four authors in particular are notable, because they have all done very, very well in this arena. All but Hocking are writing in the thriller/crime/police procedural/hard boiled—whatever you want to call that “niche” genre. (Draculas was a horror/splatterpunk romp).
The young Miss Hocking writes young adult fantasy, and paranormal romance (ala Twilight) also a particular niche audience with rabid fans who’ll slurp up anything with fangs and broken hearts. But she too writes to her niche and only her niche.
All of them have something in common, aside from writing similar stories in similar ways, they share a strategy. (No Locke didn’t reinvent the wheel as he likes to think he has.) These books are, by and large, fairly short fast reads. Predictable, hmmm, maybe. They are like junk food—you get what you want and you don’t have to work very hard to receive it. They don’t challenge you; they don’t ask anything of you; they don’t make you think; and they aren’t likely to stay with you long after you’ve finished one. In fact I’ve started one, and skipped to another (by another author) and hardly knew I was reading another character, let alone another book.
And let me say right now, unequivocally, that they aren’t bad, well, not really bad. These stories are entertaining, fun, and an easy way to spend an afternoon and perhaps the evening too, depending on how fast you read.
I can’t say they are really good either, but that’s the bookish snob in me. I like good literature too, and I swoon over a well-wrought sentence. Probably because it’s something that I’d like to aspire to, but realistically don’t think I’d ever achieve. Sometimes I want a gourmet meal, other times a burger suits me fine. There’s a place for both. And that analogy brings me back the strategy and How He Did It.
2. A low, low price. It’s vitally important.
Let’s say that I have a choice between a known writer, like a Stephen King or a John Grisham, or an unknown. Like McDonalds, I know what I am going to get. I’ve read them before, they’re good at what they do—some would put them in the masterful category (I’d be one of them). High art? Maybe not, but master writers just the same. Their ebooks are selling for between $5 and $10. Granted they are longer, some of them much, much longer—and I know that I’ll get what I paid for—I’ll have a relationship with that book for several days. Also, because I’ve had good experiences before with the author—I’m pretty sure I will enjoy it. These are bargains really—newer titles may be priced in the $20 range. (I know why they are priced there—they have publishers, costs are higher… it’s not greed. Another story for another time.)
Then there are the books by authors completely unknown to me, selling from 99¢ to $5. Thousands of them, in every genre imaginable, and some I can’t begin to imagine. Most of these works are hanging right around $2.99. This is the magic number, or so it seems. Why? There’s no scientific reason I can figure out. Except that it’s as low as you can go and still get Amazon’s 70% royalty rate. Books sold for under $2.99 or over $9.99 earn the author (or publisher) 35%.
Pricing your book this low isn’t instinctive to most new authors. After all they want to become rich and famous and the may have toiled for years over their masterpiece. Right? Right, but they won’t, and it doesn’t matter.
An author must put on their reader’s hat and ask, “Which would I rather do? Spend nearly $20 on a book by someone I know, and will need to spend a week reading, or hey here’s a book almost like that one for less than a buck? Does it matter that I don’t know the author? Will I think twice about spending a buck to see if it was worth it?” Did you think twice about buying that pack of gum, or can of soda? Now also factor in that you (unknown author) are not Stephen King or John Grisham and your prospective reader doesn’t know what they are going to get.
A low price will allow readers to take a chance without even giving it a thought. And writing to the niche, allows readers discovering the new author to get more of what they (hopefully enjoyed the first time). That equals series. Every one of these authors is writing series novels. Almost without exception the first book is 99¢ and subsequent books in the series are $2.99. Like a crack dealer, give them a taste and keep them coming back for more.
But I can hear authors saying, “How can I make a living on that paltry amount?” Volume. They must keep writing more, and publishing more. Of course if they really did spend years polishing that treatise, this strategy is going to be very hard to make it work for them.
In a recent interview in the NYT, Amanda Hocking admitted to spending about two weeks on her novels. (That maybe just the first draft, but they don’t go through more than a couple of rewrites/edits.) Two weeks. That’s … fast. The other fellows are fast too—publishing several books a year, though maybe not this fast. Which brings me to the difference, and the one I said you’d think would not be a good thing.
The fact that these are multi-book series, and fast reads, not long, and not challenging to read—possibly makes them a bit less challenging to write as well? No thesauruses’ were harmed in the writing of these books. Weeks were not spent agonizing over a sentence until it sang like poetry. They are straightforward writing. For thrillers, plot is king—so not much character development takes place. And speaking of plot—plausibility is sometimes optional. But let me reiterate, in case you think I’m hating on them. Not so, they are what they are—enjoyable so long as you understand what you’re getting. Also, they are short, and did I mention, cheap?
That means I am not going to spend a long time with them—they are a weekend fling. Fast food. If I want a relationship—I’ll date Stephen King. So sometimes fast, and shallow is a good thing.
Reviewing: popular niche, series, cheap. What else?
3. Marketing. In this case social networking.
Here’s where it gets a little murky. Locke goes into some detail to explain that his marketing consists of infrequent blog posts that resonate with his “niche” audience. He has cultivated some 20K Twitter followers and he Tweets regularly, and re-Tweets items by others that relate to his blog posts. Importantly, he says that these posts must be genuine and heartfelt to be effective. Right, well that sounds reasonable. He devotes about an hour a day to this activity.
What he does do that other self-publishers don’t, is to keep his blatant plugs pretty low key, and never presented alone. As in a post that consists solely of “Hey buy my book, you’ll love it because it’s good.” Frankly, I prefer this soft-sell approach.
What he relies on most are his cultivated list of buyers to spread the word. I for one am far more likely to take the word of readers than that of the author that a book is worth my time,. But honestly, I am suspicious of books whose Amazon pages contains 20 five-star reviews and not a one lower than that. I am far more likely to put credence in reviews if there are at least one or two dissenters. For some reason, it looks more realistic, and less like your mother and all your friends reviewed the book, and no one else has read it. But that may be just me.
Getting your fans to sell for you is a smart tactic, and one that takes a good deal of work to implement. This crowdsourcing is a strategy that most publishers cannot employ, because they don’t know who their readers are. I would have guessed that this took time to pay off, but Locke claims it didn’t take but a few months. I suspect that it could have been: right time, right place, and right name-dropping that really got the ball rolling for him. But who knows really how these things go viral?
And that is what has to happen. For you to sell a million ebooks it has (or rather they as a series have) to “go viral”. It has to develop a momentum of its own. Who would have thought a kids’ book about a boy wizard would become the juggernaut that is Harry Potter? You just never know.
Do I recommend Locke’s How I Sold 1 Million Ebooks.… Meh. It’s not exactly earth-shattering material, but honestly, it’s only $4.99. So why not?
I haven’t drawn any conclusions, but I don’t have to. What I’ve outlined here is fact.
If this is so damn easy then, and you can make a million bucks writing “just adequate” fiction, why isn’t everybody doing it? Well, from my perspective it kinda looks like everybody already is. (That’s also another story.) But the truth is, it isn’t that easy. It’s a lot of work—and definitely no guarantees. So my hat’s off to all of those writers working their tails off—and my admiration goes double for those able to make money at it too. No matter what you write.
©2011Sue Campbell. Sue is a freelance book designer and aspiring writer. Her work can be found in bookstores, and at www.suecampbellgraphicdesign.com.