Friday, February 20, 2009

Marketing The Monster, Part Three

My last post reminded me that I had promised to do a third installment on marketing your self-published book, this one focusing on Amazon as your primary retail outlet. So after a protracted delay I'll do my best to make up for the wait.

PRE-PUBLICATION

When you publish your book with Lightning Source, your basic data will be uploaded to Amazon (and B&N et al.) via the Bowker and Ingram databases, and a temporary page will slowly begin to appear. I say slowly because it takes some time for all the necessary pieces to fall into place. For your debut publication this will take much longer than subsequent releases, due to the need to establish your publisher account information both on Ingram and on Amazon. For Amazon UK listings this takes even longer, particularly if (like me) you don't establish your account with Nelson very early on (at least three months before your publication date). And while I'm mentioning Amazon foreign sites, much of what I'll discuss below you'll have to do for each Amazon location, which can be a real dilemma if you don't know Japanese! - which I don't, so consequently I haven't done a thing to my Amazon.jp listing. For a Lightning US account your listings will show up on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca, while a Lightning UK account will get you listed on Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.de, Amazon.fr. and Amazon.jp, all distributed from the Lightning UK plant.

By the way, if you're publishing through some other vehicle than Lightning Source, I have no idea how much, if any, information will be transferred automatically to Amazon. For many subsidy publishers you'll be entirely on your own, and have to list your book through Amazon Marketplace, while others will do some of this for you, but if you've read my prior posts concerning self-publishing, you will have chosen Lightning Source, if only to get your title into Ingram. A Lightning Source account allows you to get a separate account with Ingram, but you have to ask your rep to sign you up for one, so make sure you also do that in advance of your publication date. You don't really need an Ingram account, especially if you're only distributing your work via online retailers - you'll do all title maintenance via Lightning Source; but if you'll be selling to brick-and-mortar stores, you'll need an Ingram account in order to check your book's sales and stocking status nationwide (and, ultimately, globally).

Now, unless you've been living in a subterranean enclave for the past few decades, you likely already have an Amazon account. You don't need to set up any special business account to sell your book on Amazon (although there are several other program accounts you can sign up for, which I'll talk about in a minute): all your sales transactions will be handled by Lightning Source, and the profits forwarded by them to you on a 90-day net invoice (meaning you have to wait three months to get paid, which is standard in the industry and due to bookstores and warehouses being billed by invoice).

AMAZON LISTING BASICS

So your publication date has come and gone, you've got your accounts all set up and squared away, and your book is still not listed on Amazon! And so you wait....

The Saga of Beowulf actually showed up on B&N.com a good week before it appeared on Amazon. And, in fact, the eBook editions started showing up in Google searches almost immediately as it propagated across the net, even though I hadn't uploaded my eBook files to Lightning Source until very close to the publication date. All together it was almost two weeks before my listing first appeared on Amazon, and then it was just the very basic data: title, author, publisher, ISBN, and publication date, as well as language, book dimensions, and shipping weight (although as I recall these last ones showed up later). There was no cover image, no price listed, no book description, and it showed as being "Out of Stock." As this information appears, be sure to check it carefully for errors. If you do find any, make sure to check your Lightning Source data first to be sure the error wasn't yours. Then check your Bowker listing. Finally, check your Ingram account if you've got one. And only then contact Amazon with suggested corrections.

At this stage you can't yet make any changes to the listing yourself, but you can do one thing: you can upload cover images using the customer "Add Image" function. You don't really need to, because the image will come from Ingram eventually, but until then you can add one if you like. I added several graphics, not just of the front cover, but also of the back, the complete outer jacket, my map and a two-page illustration I did for the prologue. I would have put these up eventually anyway, and it made my listing look much nicer in the meantime.

Another thing you can do while you're waiting is to update your Amazon Profile with a glossy professional photo and a blurb about yourself. This won't likely be used for much until you're already rich and famous, but it can't hurt to be proactive.

Little by little your listing will be updated to reflect its status. Your book description will appear, the categories you chose will be linked, the price will show up and the estimated delivery time will be something like 2-3 weeks, although there won't yet be a discount listed. Finally you're live, and your book can now be ordered!

An amazing thing will now happen: several copies will suddenly show up as "New & Used" in the Amazon Marketplace listings, even before you've sold a single copy. These are third-party vendors that have linked to Ingram's database and simply import your listing to their Marketplace storefront. Many of them will have ridiculously inflated prices, though most will keep your suggested retail, or very near to it. How these companies make a living I can't fathom, but not to worry: if they sell a copy of your book you get paid just the same, and it will also count towards your Amazon sales rank, so you won't lose out there either. I now show a total of some 20 or more of these retailers, though a few are book reviewers pawning off the free copies they never bothered to read. These latter, of course, you don't get paid for, although they do boost your sales rank if they're sold.

AMAZON DISCOUNTS

After a few more weeks Amazon will apply a discount to the retail price, based on the discount you've given them. I initially gave a short discount of 25% and the discount Amazon passed on was 10%. I changed this to 30% for one month to see if the customer discount increased, but it didn't. Then I dropped it to 20% and still it didn't change - although it did disappear each time for a few days after the change took place, but each time the 10% appeared again a few days later. So that's where I've left it ever since. I have heard that Amazon will pass on a larger discount as you increase the discount they get, but you'll have to experiment with this yourself. The production cost of The Saga of Beowulf prohibited me from testing this theory further, plus Lightning Source only allows you to make one price change each billing cycle, presumably to simplify their bookkeeping, so it's a tedious process.

The other thing I've heard rumored is that Amazon gives preference in searches and placement programs like "Better Together" to products with higher discounts given, but I cannot confirm this. If true, it might be a good policy to give your book a higher retail price than you expect to sell it for, and give a higher discount to Amazon, who will theoretically pass on enough of that discount to get your retail price down to where you wanted it in the first place (which has the added benefit of making your customers think they're getting a much better deal). The main problem with this practice is that it only works with Amazon: other retailers will list it at the full retail you've given, including brick-and-mortar stores, thereby decreasing your chances of selling books through those outlets. But if you're only selling online, then Amazon is your only real concern, and this might be worthwhile to try.

I should also mention that eventually the estimated delivery time will decrease, depending on your sales among other things, and ultimately it will simply say "Ships from and sold by Amazon.com," with all the standard shipping times and methods being offered to your buyers, including most importantly, free shipping on orders over $25. If your sales are consistently good, your listing will start to show an "Order in the next XX minutes...." option for next day shipping. This means that Amazon has started stocking your title in its own warehouse, and is ordering at least a few copies at a time from Lightning Source so they can keep some on hand. However, my book has not yet achieved that level of success.

All this will take time, and long before that point you can start to work on upgrading your listing.

ADDING DATA TO YOUR LISTING

Unlike Amazon, you can't actually add any data to your product's file on B&N.com, or any other site your book is uploaded to, with the exception in some instances of your book description. Some online book retailers will let you change the short default description you added to your Lightning Source info to something longer and more detailed. But that's all you can do.

Amazon, on the other hand, has a wide range of user customizable features, and that's really what this post is all about. Amazon has a Publisher's Guide that you can refer to for further help, which you can find at www.amazon.com/publishers. They also have a wide number of customer service contacts and community help forums which you can find via their help pages.

So the first thing you'll want to do is beef up your book description. This is done through the Book Content Update Form at www.amazon.com/add-content-books. To access this form you're required to enter some author/publisher info to show you have the authority to make the changes - you don't want just anybody doing this, after all! Here you can add a longer description, insert book reviews, an author biography, rear jacket text, an excerpt from the book, and even a table of contents (most useful for non-fiction books). With the exception of the review boxes, everything you enter here will replace anything already listed, so make sure to re-add anything you don't want deleted. The reviews you add are pretty much permanent, as I haven't found a way to change them once their posted, so make sure you get them right the first time!

Once you submit these changes they will be manually checked by an Amazon lackey, and if okayed, will show up in a few days. If for some reason your additions are rejected, they won't bother telling you, the changes just won't show up, so you'll have to try again. However, I've never had this happen, and I can only presume there would have to be a pretty good reason for them to reject it.

TAGS AND CATEGORIES

At some point the three categories you assigned your book for Lightning Source will show up on in your listing, but others will also begin to appear. These are added manually by Amazon, so it takes some time. You'll find them listed near the bottom of the page, under the headings "Look For Similar Items by..." But you can send your own suggestions to the Book Department, although you probably won't need to. My book has more categories and subject headings than I had ever thought of, as you will know if you've read my prior posts (for example, my book is listed under Norse & Icelandic Sagas, a category that I didn't think of). These headings are used in customer searches and browsing by subject, so it's in Amazon's best interest (and yours) to add as many relevant ones as they can think of. Remember, Amazon wants to sell your book just as much as you do, making them an ideal partner!

Unlike subject categories, tags are entirely user submitted. About halfway down your listing page you'll see the heading "Tags Customers Associate with This Product." Here you can add whatever keywords you think best suit your book, and your customers can do so, too. Once you accumulate enough a tag cloud will start to form off to the right, below the tag search box. But don't expect that to happen anytime soon. I'm still waiting.

SEARCH INSIDE

One of the best things you can do for your listing is to submit your book to the Search Inside program. This is a feature which allows customers to browse through a portion of your book (usually the first 8 pages, plus the front and rear covers at high-resolution), as well as allowing customer searches to include keywords from your entire text, greatly increasing the odds that potential readers will find your book. Not only that, but Amazon uses a computer analysis of your text to match it with other books their customers are browsing. You will have noticed that on every Amazon page there are a host of other items also listed, and this is one of the ways they decide what goes there. When you make a purchase, for example, you will be given a page showing related items you might like.

And, of course, for fiction authors, giving potential readers a taste of your writing is really the best way to draw them in. This is probably the number one reason to submit your title to this program, even though you should already have provided a short book excerpt in the book description. However, I believe there is nothing that truly equals the experience of browsing through a book, which is the one area where bookstores have always had a vast advantage over online outlets. You still can't get that smell or feel, but at least now you can see what it is you're buying (you'll have to fondle a book you already own while doing your online browsing to get the full effect).

Once your Search Inside feature is functioning, another section will eventually appear in your listing, giving "key phrases" from your book. A program scours through your book and digs out any phrase that it deems important, either because it's capitalized in the book, or because they occur frequently, and these are listed as hyperlinks, which are searchable and help increase your listing's keyword density, again so that potential customers can find it.

There should be a link beneath your cover image which will take you to the Search Inside application page. You can either submit a PDF file or send them a copy of your book, but I recommend the PDF for the obvious reason that it's cheaper, and also because they'll have to scan it in and the images won't be as crisp and clear as the digital PDF, which might put off some customers who think the quality looks shoddy.

Another program you can sign up for as soon as you're up and running with Search Inside is called Amazon Upgrade. This allows buyers of your book to read it online for a few bucks extra, presumably while they wait for the physical copy to arrive. I doubt this is worth the bother, but it couldn't really hurt. I've never signed up for it, mostly because I keep forgetting. Besides, if someone's going to read your book online they'll probably just buy the eBook edition. You did make an eBook of your title, right?

AMAZON KINDLE

There are numerous eBook formats all vying for domination in the pending electronic age, but for the present Amazon has clearly taken the lead in the past two years. I've talked a lot about the Kindle recently, so I need not go into it much more here, other than to say that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain by offering your book in this format. To do so, all you have to do is upload yourPDF (via a different link than that for Search Inside) and Amazon will do the rest. Follow the appropriate link under your cover image to get started. Amazon will take 65% of the profits for Kindle book sales, but that still leaves you with a tidy 35% for little effort on your part. You would have paid that much for printing anyway, and 35% is more than John Grisham gets for his books. My answer to this has been to offer downloads of four other eBook formats directly from my website and this blog, for which I net 100%, minus PayPal fees and a $5 monthly fee for e-Junkie file hosting.

I will mention again here that if you have put your book out in the Mobipocketformat and checked the box for vendor distribution, then it will show up automatically on Amazon in the Kindle format, but you'll have no control over the listing, and you'll get gouged twice by your "two" distributors. I would highly recommend you uncheck the Amazon box on Mobipocket if you're using their service, and supply your own Kindle listing. I've been trying for over a month now to get rid of this other Kindle listing, but to no avail.

AMAZON CONNECT

This is a feature that allows an author to link external blog posts to their book listing and profile page, or to write a blog that's hosted on Amazon itself. I've done the former, since I have this established blog you're reading now and see no need to write another, but you can if you want. Not having used it, I have no idea what kind of interface or functions Amazon blog software has, but I'd honestly recommend you start a real blog and link it to your Amazon account, since a real-world blog (as opposed to an Amazon-world blog) will garner far more traffic and relevant search results, and still exist in the Amazon world as well. Of course, if you have a lot to say, feel free to do both! You can sign up for an Amazon Connect account at www.amazon.com/connect.

OTHER AMAZON OFFERINGS & ISSUES

If you've done all this then you've got a pretty sweet listing going. But there are still several other things you might do if you so choose. You can make your own Listmania on a subject related to your book. You can start a discussion on your listing page or in a forum. You might join Amazon Associates and add links to your blog and website that will net you a small percentage of any sales generated via those links. You can write your own Amapedia entry (Amazon's version of Wikipedia) on a topic your book covers. You can review other books similar to yours, and include your book title in your signature (i.e. Author of...), which, by the way, you should always do if you frequent any forums or discussion lists. In fact, put that "Author of..." subtitle under your name in all your correspondence, online or otherwise. And make up some stationary. And print some bookmarks. But I'm getting off the topic of Amazon here.

I've talked extensively about Amazon Reviews (and Reviewers) in prior posts, so you can glean back through those to learn what you might about that subject, and decide for yourself how to approach it. Amazon has a whole network of reviewers, complete with forums and in-fighting, so have at it. You'll find a lot of good folks there, and some others too, but it's guaranteed to be interesting either way. If you're smart you will have already got some advance reviews from various sources, and maybe some of these folks will post their reviews on Amazon for you. But unless you know them, don't count on it. Most reviewers will post their review on Amazon at the time they do it if you ask, but not all even then, and I wouldn't even consider going back to ask them months after the fact. The chances are they'll have filed the review and won't want to dig it out. You can, of course, add these reviews to your content section, but you don't get rankings from them that way, and a lot of people won't view them as they do customer reviews. How much good these reviews do is uncertain, but if they're good they certainly can't hurt, and a nice 5-star customer rating looks pretty nice under your name.

Once you sell your first book your title will generate a sales rank, and this will tell you much about how your book is performing. Lightning Source provides sales data as well, as does Ingram, and if you're selling through a lot of outlets that's where you'll find your most accurate data. But if you're like me and Amazon is your major retailer, their sales rank is a pretty good indicator of how your book is doing. Again, I've already discussed this subject at length, so I won't belabor the matter here. Suffice it to say that you'll probably spend a lot of time tracking your Amazon sales rank either way.