Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Guest Post by Victorine Lieske

Today's guest post is an interesting one, because it contradicts some of the things I constantly preach about.

But it's damn hard to argue with success, and Victorine Lieske is certainly successful.

I'll let here tell her story, then pop in for comments at the end. Here's Victorine:

My Publishing Journey
by Victorine Lieske

It all began in the summer of 2009. I had written a novel that I felt was good, and had put it through a critique website twice, getting a great response. I was fairly confident in the book. However, I wasn’t sure that traditional publishing was for me. I had done my research. I knew the odds were slim for getting an agent, and even slimmer to sell the book to a publisher. I knew what to expect as a typical advance for a first time author, and understood that the book would likely be on the shelf for a few months before going out of print. But I had also heard self-published books sold very few copies and I didn’t like that any better. So I typed up a query email and sent it to eight literary agents.

The first email I got back made my heart pound. An agent read my query and sent me a response. I held my breath and opened it: a rejection. Relief flooded through me. What? Relief? At that moment I realized I didn’t want to get an agent. I didn’t want to spend my advance traveling and doing book signings. I didn’t have time to travel with four kids and a business. I just wanted people to read and enjoy my book.

I stopped sending out queries. One other rejection came, and the rest never responded. The book had been sitting on my hard drive for a while when I found out I could upload it to Lulu where they would sell it as an ebook. All I needed was a cover design. Great! I uploaded the book and told everyone I knew. I sold three books in six months, two of them to friends.

I had just about given up hope when I stumbled upon this blog and read about Joe’s success selling on the Kindle. (I confess I hadn’t even heard of the Kindle before reading about it here.) This excited me, and the best part was I could upload it for free. With the current economy and our business suffering like every other business, free was just the right price for me.

Before I uploaded the book, I read as many of Joe’s blog posts as I could to gather information on how to do it right. I learned the importance of good formatting, a low price, and marketing. When I felt ready, I signed up for an account with Amazon and uploaded the book. That was the middle of April, 2010.

I priced my book at $1.99 and began socializing with the wonderful people over on Kindleboards.com. When sales were slow I realized my cover design needed work, which was embarrassing because I have an associate’s degree in graphic design. I played around with it until I came up with something that I felt was eye-catching and represented my genre well.

It took a while for sales to build, I didn’t have instant success. But I tried every marketing idea that I found on Kindleboards, and by the end of June, I had sold 614 books. With the royalty change in July, I raised my price to $2.99. I had been selling an average of 20 books a day the week before I raised my price, and that fell to an average of 9 per day. Then it fell again to 7 per day. By the end of July I was selling around 5 books a day.

I left my price at $2.99 through August, and sales slowed even more. I was selling around 3 books a day. I marketed my book heavily, and in September I was featured on Dailycheapreads.com and had a Kindle Nation Daily free short. On those days sales spiked, but after that they slowed back down.

The only thing I hadn’t tried was lowering my price. I took a hard look at the most successful indies, and realized they all had at least one book priced at 99 cents. What the heck. I was only selling 3 books a day, so to break even I needed to sell 17 books a day at 99 cents. I lowered my price near the end of September and announced the sale price.

Sales took off right away; I’m sure because I had been marketing it heavily. I began selling 35-40 books a day, much more than the 17 I needed to keep earning the $200 a month I was seeing. After sales kept steady through all of October, I called my experiment a success and decided to leave the price at 99 cents. I mean, I was earning more money than I had, and reaching more readers. Why not leave it?

Then something unexpected happened. In November my sales increased. Instead of hanging around 550 in rank, I climbed up to around 350. I stayed there all through November, and saw a huge increase in UK sales as well.

December brought another climb in rank, the same 200 positions as last time, and I stayed around 150 the entire month. This meant I was selling quite well, over 100 sales each day, and some days over 200. Christmas sales exploded and I ended December with a little over 11,000 sales.

January brought another climb in rank, this time around 100 spots to hang round 45 to 50. I was now in the top 100! I was selling about 600 books a day, and amazed that new people were finding my book, with very little marketing on my part. The only way I can explain it: Amazon recommended my book to hundreds of people each day. It’s certainly nothing I did.

I sold over 21,000 books in January. That means I earned over $7,300 in January alone. I am actually earning real money on one 99 cent novel. I hadn’t expected that. I figured I would “give” away my first book in order to get people to try me, and then go on to purchase my next novel at a higher price. I never thought I would earn thousands of dollars each month on one book. It boggles my mind.

In total, I’ve sold over 51,000 books and have earned over $18,000. I doubt I could have gotten that kind of an advance on a single romantic suspense novel.

I’m finishing up my next book. I plan to release it at $2.99. If I can sell half as many of the new book and keep up sales of Not What She Seems, I’ll be earning $27,000 per month for two books! Even if sales slow to half, I can definitely live on $162,000 a year.

On a side note, I have been contacted by Tuttle-Mori in Thailand for foreign rights. I doubt I would have been noticed had I kept my $2.99 price and sat at 3 sales a day.

What’s my suggestion for other indie authors? Price at least one novel at 99 cents and leave it there at least two to three months. Even if you lose money at first, the better rank and more readers could propel you to huge sales and more readers for your higher priced novels.

Joe sez: First of all, Lieske's cover is one of the best I've ever seen. Deceptively simple, it both intrigues and conveys an entire story using just two stock images and a catchy title.

I haven't read the book yet, but my wife loved it, and she's a real tough one to please.

The product description, in my opinion, needs to be tweaked. But Not What She Seems has been in the Top 100 for the last 46 days, so apparently the description isn't hurting sales.

I constantly preach about low prices, and 99 cents is as low as it gets. This low price hasn't seemed to hurt Lieske either--she's on her way to earning a very nice annual income on a single ebook.

So far, Vicki has done everything I've preached about. But the thing that surprises me is the fact she's been so successful with only one book available. I've droned on endlessly about the importance of taking up as much virtual shelf-space as possible. Lieske has shown, in her case, this isn't necessary. It's entirely possible to sell very well without having a big backlist.

Naturally, this brings up a lot of questions, which I'll list here.

Q: Though she's selling a lot of ebooks, isn't she losing money by pricing it so low?

A: That's an impossible fact to prove. Unless we can split into parallel universes and keep track of 99 cents vs. $2.99, it's all just guesswork. But we can take some things into account.

1) 99 cents sells more than $2.99 in the majority of cases. I've seen many people whose ebooks began selling six times as many (the number need to keep the profits equal) just by going to 99 cents.

2) Raising the price means fewer sales int he majority of cases. One example is Sam Torode. His book cracked the Top 100 at 99 cents, he raised the price to $2.99, it fell out of the Top 100, he changed it back to 99 cents, and it is currently at #174. I haven't talked to Torode lately, so I don't know his reasoning behind changing his prices, but if I took a guess it would be he dropped the price to keep the sales momentum going.

3) I'm guessing (and it is only a guess) that the visibility of having a Top 100 bestselling ebook more than makes up for the lower royalty rate, at least int he short term. But what about the long term?

Q: Since it's selling so many copies, won't it reach a saturation point?

A: That's what I would have thought. But people are still buying Kindles, and those who already have Kindles are always looking for ebooks. Until Lieske sells 20 million copies of her ebook, she isn't close to saturating this market.

Q: How did this ebook catch on if Lieske is a complete unknown and has no other titles?

A: Luck. That's how all books catch on.

There are things that help maximize odds, like writing a good book with a good cover at a low price, and having lots of books available. But ultimately random chance will dictate what sells.

In Vicki's case, it took seven months before she really started selling well. So what looks like instant success actually took a long time to build. And once a body is in motion, it tends to stay in motion. Success begets success.

Q: Should Lieske try raising her price?

A: If it were me, I wouldn't do it. Why mess around with something that works? Instead, I'd be working my butt off, writing my next book. Or, at the very least, a short story. Anything to capitalize on the current wave of sales.

Q: Isn't 99 cents devaluing a novel?

A: No. The value of a book is how much of a profit it earns, not its cover price. If you can sell more units at a lower price, your ebook has a bigger value than it would at a higher price.

Q: Aren't low ebook prices just a race to the bottom?

A: The laws of supply and demand don't work with ebooks, because the supply is infinite, the availability is infinite, and the demand isn't close to saturating the market.

I don't know of any economic model that can predict what happens in a situation like this. The closest one I can think of is file sharing. Piracy has proven there a world market for media, and that market is insatiable. Piracy sites continue to be some of the most-visited on the net, and at any give time there are millions of files being shared.

This tells me that there will always be a demand for digital media.

The way to combat piracy is with cost and convenience. This tells me that low priced ebooks will continue to sell well, and that prices across the board will probably drop.

But I don't believe they'll drop so low that a writer won't be able to make a good living. Especially if that writer keeps writing.

If I release a novel a year, and price it at 99 cents, and sell 15,000 copies, thats $5250--which is still more than the average debut novelist gets from the traditional publishing world.

Ten novels at that price, selling at that rate, is better than the average income in the US.

But until EVERY Kindle Top 100 bestseller is 99 cents, I think there's room for slightly higher priced ebooks.

TRAPPED, my current bestselling ebook, is priced at $2.99. It has earned $13,700 in the last six weeks. People obviously aren't balking at $2.99.

Q: Do you ever think about lowering the price of Trapped to 99 cents?

A: I do. I also think about raising the price to $3.99. But for now, like Vicki, I'm abiding by the "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" rule.

That said, I think I am going to try to price one of my novels at 99 cents, just to see what happens. I'll do an update here when it goes live, and share my numbers.

Added several hours later:

So here's what I did.

I lowered the price of my ebook, THE LIST, from $2.99 to 99 cents, for the remainder of February.

As of 2/15/2011 7:30pm, The List has sold 592 copies sold on Kindle this month. That has earned me about $1200.

Here are its current Amazon rankings:

#1,078 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)

#13
in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals

#14
in Books > Mystery & Thrillers > Police Procedurals

#57
in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Fiction > Action & Adventure

I'm going to tweet about the price drop, once a day, for the next few days.

I'll announce the price drop on Kindleboards.

Then I'll watch and wait to see what happens.

If I sell an equal number of copies at 99 cents as I did this month at $2.99, I'll earn around $200. That means, at most, I'll lose about $1000 on this experiment.

Now, I expect to sell more copies, so the loss will be smaller than that. If I do wind up selling six times what I did in the first half of the month (3552 copies) then I'll break even.

In all honesty, I don't expect to sell 6x as many. But that isn't the main point of this experiment.

The main reason I'm doing this is to snag new readers who wouldn't have bought it or noticed me otherwise. Besides tracking THE LIST, I'm also going to be watching my sales numbers on 17 of my other ebooks. If their sales go up, it's a pretty good indicator that people who bought THE LIST went and tried some of my other ebooks.

I'm guessing that I'll see a spike, but I don't know to what degree. At the end of February, I'll have a lot of figures to analyze. If I break even overall, or even make a bit extra, then this might be a good case for occasionally putting ebooks on sale. That's the retail model, so it will be interesting to see if it translates to Kindle readers.