Marketing as an Indie Publisher, the Amazon Algorithm, and Why My Books Are No Longer Free

I was talking to a friend of mine once about what I’m trying to accomplish in the world of independent publishing and he commented with a quickly astute, “Huh. Sounds like a lot of chicken and egg stuff.”

Every time I try to gather my thoughts and plan my next move for my books, I come back to that comment and it has continued to ring true.

I put out a new story? Great, so I want to get readers for it. So I tweet and post on Facebook and write about it on here…but that only reaches the readers I already have. Some of them are die-hards and they go on to tweet and write about it (if they like it), but then it fizzles out pretty quickly.

Which is to say that when I want to grow my fan base, I turn to people who already read my work and tell them about it. It makes sense sort of…in the proper light. But when you think about it, it’s…well it’s chicken and egg work.

The annual art contest is another great example. I love the art contest and have loved every entry I’ve received over the past three years, but all I know to do to promote it is to tell my readers about it and encourage them to pass it forward. And that’s effective to some degree, but it doesn’t exactly “go viral” ever.

My initial thoughts, years ago, on how this would work would be that one person would read a short story, enjoy it, then tell two other people about it and my words would spread ever outward. But social connections and influences don’t work like that. It isn’t a clean pyramid of 1 influences 2, then 2 influence 4, then 4 influence 16 and so on.

Generic two-step flow network diagram by esagor Flickr

No. No, social networks tend to look something more like this:

Community and Group formation in a Social Network by BigSee from Flickr

You’re the dot on the left.

Which is to say that some random reader could influence dozens of people simply because they have an upbeat attitude while a huge fan who is more of a thinker might not even share my work with someone else, preferring instead to digest it slowly in their own way.

I think about this quite a bit and the notion of “going viral” is a rather intricate phenomenon.

That being said, I do think the best way of getting there is to not over-analyze it and to find new readers wherever you can, make them aware of your work, and represent yourself professionally but with your own attitude thrown in. Shake every tree but focus on those most likely to bear fruit, like groups you seem to have a high reader-to-fan conversion rate in. Then? Lather, rinse, repeat.

I have definitely been growing my fan base using these methods over the years, but it hasn’t exploded. Which brings me to the very weird question of, “How do I find new readers?”

I mean, again, when I put out a new work I mainly tell my current readers, but that doesn’t get new readers, does it?

Sadly I have no answers. I just know what hasn’t worked, and I know what I’ve had to tweak.

Advertising, for example, has proven to be a pretty lousy way to spread the word. I’m now of the opinion that advertising needs to be just one part of a larger marketing strategy, not a stand alone investment thrown into the world with no real connections to anything else.

There’s a notion in marketing, a sort of “Rule of Three,” when it comes to ads. Think about the first time you see an ad for a new product that pertains to you. You look it over, nod, and then immediately forget about it. Once isn’t enough. But if you see an ad, then read an article, and then it comes up in conversation with friends? Well then that product sticks. It takes about three different entry points into the cranium before an idea will lodge there firmly.

So advertising alone never made much sense or impact. Campaigns would see a rise in hits on the site and then nothing more would happen.

Recently though, I’ve started thinking about this project as a whole again, something I haven’t done in awhile. And some core ideas had to be revisited.

One of the larger tools I always knew I had at my disposal was the Amazon algorithm. Simply put, when Amazon gets a feel for your shopping style it starts to recommend books based on similar shoppers’ previous purchases. If a book, any book, starts getting linked up in Amazon’s big ol’ brain to a popular book, then that other book starts getting pushed on consumers in the world’s largest book store.

That’s a powerful tool, but it’s one that fell by the wayside in my plan over time.

Why?

Because when I first started this site the Kindle didn’t exist. The iPhone didn’t exist. Hell, I didn’t even have a laptop. The thinking was to put all my work up online for free. I figured that if someone was going to read an entire book off of a computer, well then that was a FAN, all caps, and I’d gladly give up the royalty for that reader just to have them on my side. Most other readers who became hooked would get sick of reading on a screen and then go purchase a book. And most of them would purchase from Amazon.

Over the years, though, so much has changed. I now happily read books on my phone. People can download PDF’s into any number of devices designed for easy reading. People have more choices than, “Read my entire book off of their computer monitor or buy a paperback.”

So in order to bring my overall plan back into focus, a slowly built audience with a large percentage of them purchasing me on Amazon, I’ve done something I never expected myself to do. I’ve stopped offering my books on my site for free.

This is annoying because I firmly believe that, in five or ten years, books for free on authors’ websites will be the norm. I think new tools for monetizing readers will continue to come along and income for authors will be made based on web visitors. Or at least a larger portion of it than occurs today.

Hell, I think that would work for any already broken-in author with a core fan base.

But for an author trying to find that fan base, when the Amazon algorithm is a major tool being used, well…I need those damned sales. Not for the royalties, but for the PR.

Again, this is a complete turn around from my plan of five years ago, but, again, so much has changed that my plan needed to be revisited.

Plus I can take comfort knowing that my books cost NINETY-NINE FREAKING CENTS for their e-versions and that this isn’t a suicidal price point, but one at which I earn a healthy royalty.

The world has changed.

Somehow I forgot that such things happen.

Time to change with it.