NY Times Bestsellers tell self-pub secrets at #RT16

One of the panels I attended yesterday at RT Booklovers was a packed house on the subject of self-publishing ebook platforms. “Power of the Platforms” was moderated by K.A. Linde and featured three (possibly four?) New York Times bestselling authors: Jamie McGuire, Laurelin Page, Alessandra Torre, and CD Reiss.
They had a lot of tips and information to impart for any author or small publisher – and for each other, often pausing to take notes on each other’s remarks.
The first topic of conversation, and the one that went on the longest and came back up the most times, was about the most disruptive recent change in the digital marketplace: Kindle Unlimited, aka KU.
For those unfamiliar with KU, it’s a “Netflix” type model where readers pay Amazon a fee for unlimited access to books in the KU program. To be in the program, a book has to be ONLY available via KU for 90 days before it can be sold anywhere else, and the author is paid a small fee determined by pageviews which doesn’t come close to what they would have been paid if all those reads were actual sales. Every publisher I’ve talked to doing romance or erotica, including my own imprint Circlet Press, Riverdale Avenue Books, Samhain Publishing, and even the LGBT publishers Riptide and Bold Strokes Books saw revenue from Amazon drop suddenly when the KU program came online.
Here’s what the panelists had to say:
(Disclaimer: I type as fast as I can but I only get about 60-70% of what people say and I occasionally get mixed up on which person was speaking, but I’ve tried to capture the discussion as accurately as possible.)
KA Linde: Let’s just get this right out in the open. Kindle Unlimited. Do any of you do KU exclusively? (Some authors have pulled all their books from elsewhere and only do KU.)
Jamie: I don’t. I say open as many doors as you can. I see narrowing the platforms as narrowing the audience. This is the time when promiscuity is a good thing! Do everybody! (audience laughter)
Alessandra: KU is really tempting to a lot of authors and everybody is flocking in that direction, but everything changes and you are cutting out a lot of readers if you just stick to one platform. And there are a lot of opportunities on the small platforms who are more willing to work with you.
Laurelin: I have some books that are just on one platform because I want to reach all audiences. KU is a specific group of people that exists so I rotate things in there. But I never want to do that only since it cuts off all the other platforms. I had some books in there that I then pulled out and went wide and they did very well on the other places. The little ones can really add up.
KA: But do you reach readers in KU who wouldn’t have bought the book?
Laurelin: Yes, there are people who don’t ever need to go anywhere anymore because there such a selection [in KU]. That’s their book budget for the month. But if they fall in love with you there, they will follow you other places.
Several panelists argued that the KU audience is a separate audience and isn’t representative of “all” romance readers: it’s only a select few. (So if you want to reach everyone you really are leaving out a LOT of readers if you only do KU.) The panelists then asked for a show of hands in the packed room of who uses KU as a reader: only two hands went up. One of them said: “It’s so affordable compared to what I used to spend on books. I have a Kobo and a Kindle and I’ve migrated everything to Kindle now.”
Laurelin: I have gotten emails once in a while from Nook readers asking why the books aren’t on there and I tell them it’ll be coming. Have a plan for how you’re going wide. Don’t do a panic move. Make a plan.
CD Reiss: You have to make sure you have a mailing list for Nook or other people. [She explains this later.] Plan a BookBub for when you go wide. You can put a title back on other platforms but if you do no promotion for them you will just cry.
Laurelin: It’s like waiting for something to come on Netflix or Amazon Prime. They cycle things out. People understand that.
Jamie: Some people want to watch the Walking Dead that night on AMC and other people are going to wait for syndication.
CD: KU is not for everybody. It’s not for every reader and not for every writer. Some people feed their families exclusively through KU and that’s what right for them.
Alessandra: You can’t just say “oooh KU is evil, it’s a disease it’s terrible.”
CD: KU saved a book of mine. I had made a mistake and gotten two books in a series flagged as adult on Amazon [which prevents them from coming up in search results on Amazon] because the covers were too racy. I got a new cover and released in KU and it excelled there. It got me a ton of new readers, and it saved the book. And THEN I will go wide with it and have a BookBub–I have already bumped the sales with emails to my Nook and iTunes/iBooks readers.
KA: What other strategies have worked on the other platforms?
Laurelin: iBooks works well for me. “First book free” in a series on iBooks really worked for me, the first time I ever made more from iBooks than any other platform. Those people who read on iBooks were really loyal.
Jamie: It’s a very deliate balance. Amazon is 60% of my sales. If you do something for someone, you have to do it for someone else. If I set up a promotion on one site I turn around and offer it to the others. If I do something with Amazon I turn around and ask iBooks if they want to do it, too. I once did a book early with iBooks, where I releeased it a week early there: It wasn’t an exclusive, so for the bestseller list it was still a wide release.
KA: Ibooks likes a lot of lead time. If you have a Bookbub coming up, tell them a month in advance.
Laurelin: I talked with Kobo about how box sets do really well there. They don’t have the problem of dinging your royalties on box sets priced above $9.99. We’re going to sell one at $24.99 and have special promotions through Kobo.
CD: I have one huge box set only on the other sites (not Amazon) and it is high price, but it sells like 30 a month which really adds up!
KA: I have no strategies for Barnes & Noble. I feel like they’re sinking.
CD: Hardball sold well at Barnes & Noble. Here’s how I market to Nook readers. I take everyone who has ever clicked on the Nook links in my email newsletter and I segregate a special email to them only. Then they feel special because I’m communicating directly to them. It really works.
Jamie: I could not get pre-orders to work through Nook Press. They would not do it.
CD: I sent them a nasty letter saying look all my author friends have this, why don’t I? And they gave it to me.
Jamie: I tried to do that and they ignored me.
KA: I was all Smashwords in the beginning but now I’ve moved to iBooks directly now that it’s easier to do. I bought a Mac just to upload to iTunes.
CD: Once you go Mac you never go back. (laughter)
Jamie: Oh no, no no, never. (more laughter)
KA: Have you ever done something different with iBooks with cover or description? I feel like their readers want more conservative covers and descriptions. They don’t like abs.
Alessandra: Here’s something I learned today about iBooks! When you’re on pre-order you can give up to 250 download codes for people to leave pre-release reviews. I did not know this until today. You have to request them and then there is a 28 day period where they’re active. You don’t have to request all 250 at once.
Laurelin: It’s great. You can just request like 16 codes at a time. And then you build up your iBooks readership.
(Audience question about rankings and preorders.)
Jamie: On Amazon when you have a long pre-order period each sale affects your ranking immediately, so you never get as high since you don’t get them all in the short period of time. Whereas on iBooks they all pool and they all count on the first day.
KA: You can hit the top in iBooks sometimes with only 250 preorders. And Nook does that now, too.
Jamie: So much of my career is luck and because I was in early. I don’t know how people break into it now because it was easier to establish yourself before KU came in. The top 20 is just FULL of KU books.
Laurelin: I had a book co-written and we only did a four-day preorder on Amazon, whereas the last one I had a 6 month preorder. The short one stayed in the top 100 for a couple of weeks, but in the six month one I think maybe I only cracked the top 100 for one day. But the sales in the end were equal. The lack of visisbility doesn’t always hurt. It’s do you sell them beforehand or after.
Alessandra: I like the 4 day pre-order. It gets you in the “people who saw this, saw this” feature in Amazon but it doesn’t dilute your rank so much as a long pre-order period. But on other platforms you can start collecting preorder a year in advance on just the title alone, not even a cover! And you can change the pub date if you need to. Put it a year out with a plan you could move forward, you can always move it earlier.
CD: I had an 8-month pre-oder for Hardball. I had 1500 pre-orders before I released the final blurb and cover, and I got it up to 3500 after that on Amazon. Release day sales were still good but I had to PUSH. And PUSH. And PUSH. And it cracked the top 100 finally. I did Facebook ads, I did takeovers up the wazoo, a fan blast, blogs, etc.
Jamie: I did an experiment. Rebecca Donovan has a financial advisor named Anthony who is amazing. [Four of the five authors then reveal they all work with this same financial advisor, and the fifth one was jokingly admonished to.] He had an idea that I do an experiment. On Facebook only a few people see the things you post, and I was doing ads where I was spending a lot but didn’t seem like I was getting much. But he said ONLY TARGET THE PEOPLE WHO LIKE YOUR PAGE. In the five days on 200 bucks, my Amazon rank jumped in the thousands.
KA: More questions about KU: the short term versus longterm approach to diversity versus exclusivity? Did we kind of cover that?
Alessandra: I have a question for Laurelin about that: when you put a new release onto KU did your new unit sales drop?
Laurelin: They did after a while, but that would happen anyway. That co-written book I was talking about, I wanted it specifically to be a moneymaker in the interim between the books we had to deliver to other places. KU was the best plan for earning some money quickly. Sales did not drop until after the first week.
CD: I was selling 500-600 a day.
Alessandra: I was in the top 10 on Amazon, but my sales dropped to 40-50 sales a day after KU, while my pageviews were through the roof. When I put my backlist into KU it doesn’t do anything. It seems to be directly a correlation of where your rank is. If you’re in the top 3000, KU puts it in a really high spot.
CD: Maybe do a BookBub and right when that ends and your rank is high, you drop it into KU?
Laurelin: I have them do a KU-only BookBub!
CD: They’ll do that?
Alessandra: So you do a Kindle Countdown Daily Deal, you get the 70% earn rate, and then you do the BookBub…. [all the authors on the panel writing notes quickly]
Audience comment: I did a scary experiment. I took everything out of KU and went wide last summer. Sales fell off a cliff, but very gradually my also-boughts were changing. The KU books were disappearing and now there are 107 books in my also-boughts and only 15 are in KU. And then when my next new release came out, sales tripled. I was scared I had done something really bad, but it worked out. It’s a white knuckler. You have to hang on for several months or so. I also raised prices to $4.99. And that worked, too.
Laurelin: That’s what I was saying about have a plan and don’t panic. Don’t do it as a panic move.
CD: You almost have to think of KU as a publisher. You know you’re going to do certain products for them and do certain things strategywise.
Laurelin: The KU readers aren’t loyal to you: they’re loyal to KU. It’s a different audience from the audience that comes to this conference. As our show of hands showed.
Jamie: The reason Amazon moved to pageviews is because KU people hoard books and don’t read them.
KA: Should we talk about Google Play? We haven’t mentioned them yet. [murmurs of discontent]
Jamie: Google is great to work with once they get everything working, but they came to me. I wouldn’t have bothered if they hadn’t come to me.
Laurelin: It’s a nice little bonus check but it’s not a major player/major platform for me.
(Audience question about using newsletters to promote.)
Alessandra: I have 12,000 newsletter subscribers, a 34% open rate, and I give something away every newsletter. And now you can re-send to the people who didn’t open it the first time. I use Constant Contact and they have that feature. Some people do quit if they get a second one from you, but if they don’t want it and they get off the newsletter list, that’s great since you don’t want them anyway. You have to pay for every subscriber so why pay to keep someone on your list who isn’t reading what you send?
CD: My list is 15K, open rate was 34% before started segregating. Now I separate the list into bargain hunters (people who click the 99 cent links), Nook and iBooks people, and my clicks went up. Use the analytics you get from ConstantContact or MailerLite–I use MailerLite–to break the list into groups based on which links they’ve clicked on. I thought it would be a lot of work but it was like 15 minutes.
KA: I also upload my own to some places. I still use Smashwords to get all the little places, but I unclick Apple, B&N, and Kobo and do those direct. Mark [Coker at Smashwords] is great about helping with iBooks promo though if you’re going through Smashwords to iBooks.
Laurelin: I’ve also used Draft2Digital to publish German-language books to the German version of Amazon called Tolino. That’s the only way to get to them. And do you all use the Kobo promotions tab? They have discount codes, and it doesn’t get price matched since it’s a coupon, not a price drop.
Alessandra: I don’t think I’ve ever seen the promotions tab.
Laurelin: You have a bunch of things you can apply for. It might not be on everyone’s dashboard. You can email them at writing life and say you want to be on the promotions list, though.
Jamie: The number one thing to take away from this panel is ask, ask, ask!
KA: What about Audible for audiobooks? If they buy your book on Amazon readers can “whispersync” for only $1.99 and you can build a bigger audiobook audience that way.
Alessandra: I never saw a dime from any of the audiobook sales [when I sold the rights to others]. Now I self-pub ALL my audiobooks and they all pay back. I pay the production costs and they all earn back.
Laurelin: I make a ton of money off Audible. I get huge checks from them.
And then we were out of time!


  1. I guess I’m an atypical KU user. Due to financial constraints, I use it to have /something/ to read, and occasionally find an author I will follow outside of KU, but I’m fiercely loyal to my favorite authors and continue to purchase their new releases as soon as I’m able to.

    1. I don’t know if you’re atypical: Laurelin did say she felt if people liked her KU books they would follow her outside of KU, too. But I guess enough people don’t do that for it to make up the difference. Specifically, the big thing is that there used to be readers who would buy ebooks at full price and if they didn’t like the author enough to buy the rest of their books, that was OK, at least the author had the sales, whereas now they do get to try a lot of authors for very low cost via KU, and being discovered more via KU isn’t leading to enough sales to make up for what folks used to make.

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