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It’s a Brave New Indie World: Russell Blake

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Russell Blake

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Amazon is shaking up the playing field again. This time, in a way that has profound implications for indie authors.

On or around May 1, it changed its algorithms in two important ways. Or I should say, it appears it has – nobody knows for sure what the elves deep in the Amazon Tower actually do – we can only guess at what the shadows on the cave wall hint at.

In this case, the weighting of free units downloaded appears to have been reduced by around 90%. That means that the giddy crack high of a free promotion followed by sales of hundreds of books per day, as a result of the algorithms seeing your thousands of free downloads and putting you on lists like Movers and Shakers, or Most Popular (as opposed to Best Selling), is over. A month ago, after a decent free run, you could expect 5 to 6 days of inflated sales due to visibility on those lists, and then sales would drop off over the next few weeks, as your book was pushed from the top of the list, to the second page, and then the third, by newer hot titles that came off free since your promo.

That changed around May 1, and free promos now have a radically reduced impact on sales. Whereas I would see 150-200 books a day sold following a free promo in March or April, my May promos bumped sales to maybe 20-30 per day – still not terrible, but on titles where I see 10-15 per day without a promo, nothing to go crazy about. I have seen many reports that folks see no difference – as in a couple of units, no more. That’s probably due to having to get into the top 40 overall free to make even a dent in the algorithms. So the days of the free promo being a no-brainer book marketing miracle are over. It was a nice period, but that was then.

The other change Amazon apparently made is to weight their popularity lists based on price, rather than on unit sales. I actually don’t think that’s such a bad idea, but then again, they didn’t consult me. What it means for indie authors is that the playing field just got much harder for two reasons. First, because trad pub books can set a list price of $4.99, even if the book sells for a lot less, it appears that the algorithms use that higher list price for their placement calculations. That means that indies can’t compete with trad pub titles for visibility, as they don’t have the same tools – they can’t set a list price, and they can’t price their books over $9.99 (unless they want 35% commission, which would be daft). It also means that lower priced titles will receive less visibility, effectively reducing any chance they had of being bought. So all those who were working off the 2010 wisdom of pricing their work at .99 cents are now relegated to a bin where they will have far less chance than ever (I won’t debate whether a novel should sell for .99 – you better than I know what your work is worth).

Put simply, at .99 you have to sell ten times as many units to rank the same as one sale of a $7.99 book. What that will accomplish over time is that the lists will feature mostly higher priced books, setting a self-fulfilling prophecy for the trad pub titles (and of course, Amazon’s own label) and hurting sales for lower priced titles. The folksy wisdom of selling on price to get noticed will be the worst advice you could get, unless you are selling massive quantities. As an aside, selling based on price is always the sign of a lazy marketer. It’s a dead-end street, because you lose any pricing power you had, brand yourself as a cheap quality/price purchase, and create no barriers to everyone else in the world chopping their price to meet or undercut yours. For those reasons I think it’s a dead-end strategy for all but the extremely short term.

Is this the end of the world?

Not really. It just means that the crack high of free books and boom times from the associated promotions are largely over for indie authors. Because now that Amazon has won the war for market share and dominance, it is going to get down to making money. And a $10 title makes it a lot more than a $3 title. So which would you focus your efforts on selling if you were the company? To me it’s obvious. You go where the money is. Companies are not in business to better humanity or prove points. They are commercial enterprises whose sole reason for existence is to make a profit. I get it.

I don’t think Amazon is targeting indie authors for extinction in any way. I think that many will become extinct as a byproduct of this, though. Which brings me back to a blog post I wrote about six months ago. About why you write. To repeat myself, if you write because you hope to hit it big, or even make a decent living, you are writing for the wrong reasons, as the odds say you’ll starve. To me, that’s the wrong reason to write.

About the author

(c) Russell Blake May 2012

Russell is the international bestselling author of Fatal Exchange, a groundbreaking genre-blending thriller set against the counter-culture backdrop of New York’s gritty underground, The Geronimo Breach, an action/intrigue/thriller set in Panama, the bestsellingZero Sum trilogy of Wall Street thrillers – Kotov Syndrome, Focal Point and Checkmate (which hit #15 on Amazon’s top 100 free books), The Delphi Chronicle trilogy (The ManuscriptThe Tortoise & The Hare and Phoenix Rising), the epic assassination thriller King of Swords, and its prequel, Night of the Assassin, and The Voynich Cypher.

His first satirical non-fiction work, How To Sell A Gazillion eBooks In No Time (even if drunk, high or incarcerated) was released to critical raves.

Russell is regulary listed in the top 100 top selling independent authors on Kindle (and several times in the top 50)

The Geronimo Breach is a breakneck-paced thrill ride that pits the world’s most unlikely protagonist against the deadliest adversaries on the planet. From the corridors of Langley to the sweltering jungles of Panama, from the hills of Pakistan to the cocaine trails of Colombia, a clandestine scheme to preserve a terrible secret goes horribly awry, plunging a reluctant hero down a deadly rabbit hole of deceit and betrayal, while raising disturbing questions about the media, the war on terror and its linkage with the war on drugs, and the nature of reality in an age of sound-bites and photo ops.

Albert Ross is a malingering misanthrope – a boozing, chain smoking philanderer; shifty, lazy, cowardly, going to fat, and more prone to doing the wrong thing than any man alive. His purgatorial existence working for the State Department in Panama gets shattered when a routine errand becomes a race against the clock, battling adversaries for whom no price is too high to protect a secret that could topple the world order. As the body count climbs in a struggle with no rules, Al must face his own demons, as well as the myriad very real ones intent upon destroying him. The unexpectedly shattering conclusion of this richly drawn thriller is both topical and chillingly plausible, making for a roller-coaster action/adventure without parallel. Buy it at Amazon here.

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