Sunday, April 03, 2011

Guest Post by Guido Henkel

In February, Guido Henkel did a guest post about his sales, which weren't up to his expectations.

I offered some advice, and so did many others in the comments section.

Guido followed this advice. Did it work?

Here he is again, to answer.

Guido: As you may all recall, a few weeks ago, Joe was kind enough to allow me to presented to you the scenario of my “Jason Dark” series of supernatural mystery dime novels and how sales have been very flat despite my best efforts to kickstart the series.

The comments this blog post generated were staggering — to my mind at least — and I read every single response to the discussion with interest and with an open mind. In fact, I immediately began bolstering my Twitter presence as a result of it. But once things had petered out a little I took the next step. I made a detailed list of things that had been brought up and weighed the comments as I felt some of them warranted more credit than others.

As a result a picture began to form in my mind about how I could actually reshape the series, starting with the very first book, “Demon’s Night,” based on many of these comments. For the past weeks I have done just that and finally, I am able to show you the result.

About four weeks ago I relaunched a completely rebooted version of “Demon’s Night!” As you can see at a glimpse already, the book features a completely new cover artwork. Virtually nothing remains of the old look, I daresay. While the urge was strong to somehow reincorporate the original artwork, a few attempts quickly showed that they all, inevitably, turned out pulpy. Not what I wanted!

I wanted to refashion the book with a contemporary look, something that looks a lot more like what other quality Kindle releases look like these days, as opposed to the traditional look of old dime novels. It took a good amount of trying and tweaking, but I do like the new cover quite a bit, and through its design, it allows me to loosely suggest a series character by retaining certain elements when I go to work to rework the covers for the other nine books I have in the market.

But there are more changes. The title, for example. As you can see, the book is now simply called “Demon’s Night” without the limiting mention of the “Jason Dark” series as such. Instead, I provided a small byline saying “A Jason Dark Supernatural Mystery.” This way people can still identify books featuring Jason Dark as a main character without my creating the impression that this is a series of books that needs to be read in sequence. This, in particular, was important to me, as I realized just how strongly people believed they had to read these stories in sequential order, when in fact each one is a stand-alone book. With the new moniker, any reference to volume numbers is gone also, for the same reason.

Next is the reworked product description. Once again I have worked towards giving the book a description that makes it stand on its own instead of seeing it as tied into a series, so the boilerplate text that was part of each of the adventures is gone entirely. Instead I tried to fashion a description that has a hook and generates enough interest for readers to take a closer look. To complement the new description I have also changed my author biography on Amazon and placed the track record of my books in the text rather than my achievements in the computer games industry. With ten books now published, I guess I can safely use those titles as references to establish my credibility and will no longer require the mention of the games I did so many years ago. In addition the description now includes a word and page count to make sure potential buyers have better idea for “how much book” they get.

Let’s see, what else is there? Oh yes, the absolute hot-button issue — price. I have — once again — reduced the price of the book to 99 cents. Out of necessity. I still believe that this price point has become the bane of the book industry, but be that as it is, I have to bow to the market requirements just as much as anyone who wants to gain exposure. So I am deliberately forfeiting revenues for the sake of volume. Having nine other books in the catalog at a $2.99 price point will hopefully mean that I will generate much needed revenues though those titles in the tail.

In order to sell other titles, however, it is necessary for the loss-leader book to be as strong as possible, of course. Therefore I gave “Demon’s Night” a complete revision. Starting with the completely rewritten opening chapter, I went over the entire book with a fine-toothed comb to improve the style and writing. It was actually interesting to go back and see how much I have grown as a writer in the past two years, and to put some of the new things I’ve learned to work in that, my first, book. The result is, I hope, a much more riveting experience that will hopefully translate into readers picking up other Jason Dark adventures — or at least recommending “Demon’s Night” to their friends.

I made a series of other changes, including my author description, removing the message boards from the official website because they lay there barren, unused and intimidating and numerous other smaller things.

As I said, I relaunched the book about four weeks ago and was really curious to see what results these changes may yield. To prevent the tension from killing you, let me make this short and sweet for you. The result was zilch! It resulted in no measurable increase of sales — not for “Demon’s Night” or any of the other books.

By the time I launched the new version, “Demon’s Night” was hovering between #70,000 and #120,000 on Amazon, with an occasional break-out. I looked at that as my baseline. There has been some improvement in the ranking since the reboot, but the book is still hovering between #20,000 and #45,000 with occasional dips below the #60,000 mark. Since in that space selling even a single copy can make a huge difference, the sales numbers are really not nearly as dramatic as the rank improvement might suggest. The sales increase is not nearly doing enough to make up for the lost royalties resulting from the different price bracket. As such it is a complete loss.

My hope was, that sales increases in “Demon’s Night” would eventually lead to a sales increase in my other books — the upsell effect, but since there was virtually no sales boost… all of my other books are still hovering somewhere between the #100,000 and #200,000 marks, just as they did for the past months, each selling a single copy every 4 or 5 days.

During the past four weeks I also redesigned the cover for “Ghosts Templar” in a similar vein of the “Demons Night” rework to see how that will perform. I also changed the title to remove series references, I created a new product description and once again included a word and page count. I needn’t have bothered, really, as there is also no notable difference here either.

The only satisfying result that came out of this so far is that I can at least tell myself that I tried. I had an open mind and tried to incorporate feedback. I even agreed with a lot of the feedback and I felt good when I first relaunched the book, especially since so many people told me how great the reworked version looked and read.

So, what does all of this tell us? To put it bluntly, it tells me that we are all pretty clueless. There is no secret formula — or at least we have not yet discovered it. The original concept, look and feel, and presentation for the series that I had for the series was every good — or bad — as anything the collective input was able to produce. For everything I created and tried, there were people who thought it was great and others who thought it was bad. It is the way of life, for sure, but it certainly teaches me one thing: to go with my own instincts because they are every bit as true than anyone else’s.

For me, that instinct tells me right now to let go of Jason Dark for the time being, as there is quite evidently very little interest in this sort of literature at this point in time. The latest issue of Fangoria just came out this part week, featuring the first installment of an exclusive Jason Dark serial. Fangoria, as you may know, is America’s leading print horror magazine and even the exposure on the pages of such a genre institution did not have an impact on my sales, so perhaps it is time to move on. “Curse of Kali”, the tenth Jason Dark adventure is just around the corner and it will represent a nice way to put the series on hiatus with a cool cliffhanger.

If I sound disappointed to you, it is probably because I am. I spent every waking hour of the last two-and-a-half years on creating these books. It was a full time job, creating, publishing, promoting and, of course, writing these ten books and I have spent many thousands of dollars of my own money to see it come to fruition. Over that time I have fallen in love with the characters, the world, the possibilities it offered, etc. To see that it was all in vain is disappointing — would be to anyone, I suppose, but with that in mind I have begun writing a modern day thriller, a book that has absolutely nothing to do with the horror genre. It will be a full-length novel and I’ll be curious to see how that pans out.

Altogether, this was an exciting experiment that yielded some interesting — yet unexpected — results. I wish to thank you all for your feedback and most importantly, my heartfelt thanks go out to Joe who has allowed me to not only present my initial concerns to you, but who has been even more gracious by giving me the opportunity to share these resulting changes with you just now. Joe, you are a class act in my book!

Now, where was that refresh button for the Amazon Author Central ranking page again???

Joe sez: Wow. I'm impressed with all the work Guido put into this reboot, and I think everything he's done is smart and should increase sales.

But it hasn't. So what's going on here?

There's no magic bullet in this business. No one can predict what will sell, or even adequately decipher why something does well while something else doesn't. As I've stated many times, luck plays a big role in determining success.

I've had novels on Kindle for two years, and watched my sales rank fluctuate on various titles. Two of my novels, ORIGIN and THE LIST, were the first two I released, and they're both currently in the Top #100 at $2.99 each. (That might change shortly--ORIGIN recently fell out of the TOP 100 and only crept back to #99 an hour ago.)

But those are two ebooks out of 25 that I have available. What aren't all 25 of mine in the Top 100?

I have no idea. I wish I did, but I can't read every customer's mind to learn why they did or didn't buy something.

I have noticed that successful ebooks have some common traits--good cover art, low prices, good writing, good product descriptions. But in my humble opinion, Guido has all of that.

So did Jon F. Merz. Yet he also struggled to find an audience. That is, until recently, when his sales have blown up. Like Guido, Jon tweaked his backlist according to some suggestions by me and people on my blog.

And, like Guido, those suggestions didn't help much. But then Merz released a new series, which caught on and is earning him $150 a day.

Let's assume Henkel, Merz, and I are all equally talented writers. Let's also assume our covers are all of professional quality, and we're all doing similar things to find an audience.

So why am I selling like crazy, why is Merz finding an audience, and why is Henkel still struggling?

I can't say. Luck swings both ways. Prior to the new Lawson Vampire series, Merz was experiencing some bad luck. Now his luck is turning around.

Anyone who has read my blog for a while knows I wrote nine novels and got over 500 rejections before landing a book deal. Two of those rejected novels, ORIGIN and THE LIST, are currently in the Top 100. Why were they not good enough twelve years ago, but are now selling hundreds of copies a day?

Hell if I know. They books haven't changed. It just took 12 years to find an audience.

Now, no writer wants to hear that success could take 12 years. Or even 2 years (ORIGIN and THE LIST were uploaded to Kindle in April 2009.)

But sometimes, that's how long it takes to get lucky.

All we can do is keep writing. Keep experimenting. Keep trying.

Guido Henkel is going to succeed. I'd put money on it. He's doing everything right.

The world just hasn't discovered him yet. Sometimes it takes a while. I'm proof. And so is almost every other success story. Kindle lore is full of newbies who got rejections and then became bestsellers, and snubbed legacy authors who self-published out-of-print titles and made a killing. All of these stories have a common element: the writer kept at it until the world couldn't ignore them any more.

I think Guido is smart to try something new. I've reinvented myself at least six times over the past 20 years. Mysteries, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, humorous thrillers, technothrillers, medical thrillers, etc. Until THE LIST and ORIGIN took off, my pen name Jack Kilborn was outselling J.A. Konrath by a wide margin. Why? Hell if I know.

But I do know that writers need to write. And if something isn't working, it can't hurt to try something new. If Guido keeps at it, he'll find those sales he's looking for. Ebooks are forever, and forever is a long time to find a fanbase. Ask Van Gogh, who only sold a single painting in his life.

So my advice to Guido is to keep at it, and write something new. I'd stop messing around with tweaking covers, but if I was in his shoes I'd drop all of my titles to 99 cents for a month, just to see what happens.

Jason Dark isn't a dead property. It just hasn't caught on yet. And it wouldn't surprise me if, in the future, there's a demand for more Jason Dark stories.

But for now, it's time to move on. Having been at that point many times in my career, I know how hard it is.

I also know that I'm going to have to write sequels to THE LIST and ORIGIN--novels that have been "dead" for over a decade. I never could have predicted that would happen.