I spend more time than I’d like to admit commiserating with Charlie Brown these days. I can’t blame it all on my son’s obsession with the Peanuts gang, though repeated viewings of the Valentine’s Day special have etched a few particular scenes onto my brain.
Every time I check the sales figures for the Kindle version of my novel, which for better or worse are available in something approaching real time, I can see Schroeder sweeping past, an armful of Valentine’s cards, but none for me. My numbers have a maddening habit lately of remaining much more consistent than I would like.
On the rare occasion when the Units Sold tally ticks up a digit, I hear Charlie Brown’s voice in my head: “Hey, maybe this is the start of a trend. Maybe this is a whole new trend for old Charlie Brown. Maybe this is the start of something big! Maybe next year I’ll get a whole *bunch* of Valentines! Maybe next year I’ll need three briefcases instead of two! Maybe next year I’ll even…”
Then I’ll check the numbers again, only to choke hard on reality as they remain frozen at the new, only slightly higher than before, level. For a brief bit the fact that they went up at all will be enough to keep the pilot lit on that pathetic and unwarranted Charlie Brown-esque optimism, but it will eventually fade as the doubt starts gnawing at the lining of my stomach. “Will I ever sell another copy?”
It’s silly and irrational, but it’s probably not all that far out of line with what most new authors experience. And being realistic, I must remind myself I knew this was the likeliest scenario I’d face. Sure, there was that one alternate reality in which The Greatest Show on Dirt rocketed up the Amazon best seller list in the days following its release. The one in which me monitoring my sales figures looked a lot more like Peter Gibbons checking his illicit bank account after hacking into the Initech computer system in Office Space.
No, my climb is much more methodical, which only drives home the most important lesson I’ve absorbed thus far.
1. Patience is more than a virtue. It’s a requirement.
According to my original plan, I shouldn’t have sold a single book by this point. I originally announced a March 20 release date. I sent out about a dozen review copies at the end of January and was prepared to sit tight until Spring. But within a week someone actually wrote about the book. Not a full review, but a solid mention to lead off his column. And I realized if someone were intrigued they’d have nowhere to go to order the book.
Unlike the big guys, self-publishers can’t set their titles up in Amazon ahead of time for pre-order. We’re virtually invisible until we jump out into the market. And invisible is bad. So I changed course midstream and went live six weeks ahead of schedule, like a running back cutting away from his blockers. The yards are tougher to gain this way, but in retrospect it still seems like the right move. Eventually those reviews will start running (one already has, a couple others could be on the way as soon as this week) and things will mesh just fine from that point. In the meantime I need to find something else to occupy my mind so I don’t drive myself, or anyone else, insane.
2. Pity sales are better than no sales, but not really.
Of my two dozen sales to this point, I could probably identify all but a handful of purchasers. I am grateful to the friends and family that bought the book, but I didn’t want them feel obligated to do that, even with the Kindle version selling for less than three bucks. I want someone I’ve never met to buy the book and like it for the writing, the characters, and the story. Not because they grew up down the street from my parents.
Again, I’m grateful, and I don’t want to make it sound otherwise. But I try to imagine Jonathan Tropper’s mother down at the hair dresser, bragging to all her friends. “My Johnny has another one coming out. Such an imagination. You’re not going to want to miss this one.” I don’t think he needs her to drum up business.
3. When they won’t take it for free, you’re doing something wrong.
I signed up for the Kindle Select program, in large part due to the anecdotal evidence I saw/read about a couple of authors well exceeding their goals. They saw tremendous spikes in their sales after running free promos that lifted their books up the Kindle sales lists and generated plenty of buzz that kept them selling even once they were back at full price. And the Amazon lists are largely self-perpetuating. Once a book makes it into the top 100, it stays there, because people can find it and people like to buy what other people buy.
Kindle Select gives you five free promo days to split up however you want to use them, within your 90-day exclusive obligation period. I decided to use two of them last week, starting Monday, February 20 (President’s Day) and running through midnight Tuesday. As if I weren’t normally addicted enough to watching my sales figures, I was absolutely mainlining that first day. The numbers climbed, jumping 3, 5, or even 10 every time I looked. I had about 300 downloads Monday and was sure I was bound for double that the next day. Unfortunately, the downloads dried up to about 80 on Tuesday and I had zero carryover effect, selling only one copy at full price the rest of the week.
This was nothing like the thousands of free downloads I’d read about other authors having on their free days. What went wrong? Well, in my research there were a number of things that I could have done ahead of time to grease the skids, particularly submitting it to certain sites that specialize in spreading the word on free downloads. By the time my book wound up on those listings, the promo was pretty well over.
I think I was more successful on the first day for two reasons. 1. It was a holiday. While it’s been documented that people love to surf the web at work, most of them probably don’t go quite as far as downloading new books to their Kindle. 2. I think most of my hits came from friends and family spreading the word on Facebook and Twitter. They all did it Monday, and by Tuesday they’d already done their much-appreciated good deed. While Twitter seems to have virtually zero impact on real sales, it does seem to help as far as getting people fired up over a freebie.
While the free promo wasn’t the runaway success I was hoping for, there are some positives in there, including my first reader to post an Amazon review–a five-star job from someone I don’t know. (Home run, right there.) I am optimistic there are more coming, too. While I didn’t have 40,000 free downloads, the readers who did take advantage of the free promo might be more likely to actually read it, having likely heard about it through a friend instead of an anonymous website. A few dozen more like that and I’ll be writing a column on how I feel like Dan Brown instead of Charlie.