Survey says the meaning of life may be 37, not 42

Oh, look - it's a fucking Kindle...

First, let me apologise for being an obnoxious git on Twitter and Facebook this week. (Even more so than normal, I mean.) It was a not-very-subtle-or-scientific experiment to see how social media promotion fares against no promotion.

I cannot even begin to tell you how sick I have felt sending out those messages—self-promotion does not come easily to me.

For the last seven days, SMIP: Sublime Moments In Pop has been available for free download from two sources. I entered SMIP into Smashwords’ Read-an-eBook Week promotion but did not promote that link (except one passing mention on Twitter). I also made SMIP available for free via Bookfunnel, a service I love—and this was the link I promoted twice a day on social media.

(I had also wanted to make the book free at sites like Amazon and iBooks but you have no fucking idea just how difficult the big retailers make it to give your own bloody book away. I tried to navigate the maze and eventually gave up the fight.)

The bottom line stat is that readers downloaded SMIP 37 times. This may not sound a lot—indeed, five copies a day is not a lot. However, to put it into perspective I sold only 14 copies of the book in the whole 366 days of 2016. (Even the porno, er, erotic novella I’ve published for a laugh under a pseudonym and never promoted outsold SMIP last year.) SMIP is, I fully accept, a niche title.

50% of Bookfunnel downloaders opted for the Mobipocket version (the proprietary format obstinately used by Amazon’s Kindle) and 50% went for the ePub version (the format used by everybody else). In the US, it’s thought Kindle has 70%+ of the eReader market, though it is less in Europe. The format information isn’t available for Smashwords downloads.

The overwhelming majority of the downloads came from Smashwords, where I did no promotion and left it to the website to promote the book within its promotion as it felt fit. But Smashwords’ site obviously gets umpteen times more visitors than my Twitter and Facebook accounts can generate, which is about 200 clicks on the basis of the last week.

The Smashwords’ stats dashboard is a bit rough and ready, but it looks like about 5% of people who viewed the book on Smashwords downloaded it. On Bookfunnel, 3% of page viewers downloaded the book.

Again, 3% conversion may not sound a lot—indeed, again, it is not a lot. However, research by WordStream suggests that the median conversion rate for sales pages is 2.35%.

So 3% is not completely shit: it could be shitter but it could be less shit. It’s a metaphor for life, I guess.

SMIP has a deeply amateur, DIY cover. And I didn’t have time to hone the sales page blurb because I only decided to try this exercise at the very last minute. So a 3-5% conversion rate is actually better than I thought it would be.

The project has largely confirmed my long-held suspicion that seeking to use social media as a sales platform is a waste of time. (I don’t know whether that’s the case with paid, targeted ads on Facebook and Twitter—and I’m not going to piss £100 up a rope and into Mark Zuckerberg’s pocket just to find out.)

Other than that, however, I guess I still have more questions than answers.

The easiest way to give a book away via Amazon (and even then only for a few days a month) is to enrol in a programme called KDP Select that means your book has to be exclusively available on Amazon for at least 90 days. I think that’s an unfair contract term: who the hell are Amazon to decide where I can sell/give away my book? But for obvious reasons no self-publisher is going to sue Amazon to prove the point. If you want your self-published book or eBook seen, it’s hard not to conclude that you have to suck up whatever Amazon’s offering. But if half of readers use e-reading devices other than Kindle, going exclusively with Amazon cuts off 50% of your potential readership.

All the retail websites take a big chunk of cash when you make a sale. (Which is why they don’t want you to give your books away free…) If you want to sell your book for between 99c and $2.98 on Amazon, you will receive between about 33c and $1 per sale—the royalty rate is 35%, calculated after the deduction of the costs of Amazon delivering your eBook to your reader. If you price your book at $2.99 (or more), you make about $2 per sale at a 70% royalty rate—which is nice and way above anything you’d get if you are published traditionally, but it still means that Amazon is taking fully 30% of your income.

The other thing I find detestable about the big retail websites is that they don’t tell you who your readers are. You simply can’t get access to the names or email addresses of people who buy your book. I appreciate why Amazon wants to retain its place as middleman but if it wants self-publishers to sell more of their books via its website, it doesn’t make much sense to cut the umbilical cord between author and reader. If someone bought and enjoyed SMIP, it’s not entirely inconceivable that they might buy and enjoy SMIP Volume 2—but I have no way of promoting it directly to them via Amazon or iBooks or Kobo.

It is cheap and easy to sell eBooks directly from your own website and retain more of the purchase price. (It’s harder with physical books, but still doable.) The problem with that is traffic. Amazon’s the 8th most visited website in the world. My blog? Not so much. (Hi, mum.)

At a conversion rate of 3%, if I want to sell 1,000 books I’ll have to generate 35,000 visitors to my website. Unless I leak my own sex tape, that’s only achievable through advertising. (Actually, who am I kidding? If I leak my own sex tape, there’s going to be sod all traffic going anywhere near my site for the rest of time.)

Can you target Google and Facebook ads well enough to drive qualified, ‘warm’ leads to the landing page for your book? Can you create a landing page and a book cover that converts those prospects at, say, 5% instead of 3%? Can the sales you make cover the cost of the ads that generate the leads in the first place?

If things go to plan I should have three very different books coming out during the remainder of 2017: one novel, one non-fiction music book and one legal guidebook for self-publishers. The latter two should do OK.

The music book will be promoted by its subject to his mailing list, so the conversion rate should be better than 3%. Plus all profits from that exercise are going to charity so I’m hoping people’s purse strings will be a little looser than might otherwise have been the case.

It looks like the legal book could be published in concert with and promoted by the UK self-publishers’ “trade body”—so, again, traffic generation shouldn’t be a major problem.

The novel? Well, that’s any bugger’s guess. It’s going to live or die based entirely on my own efforts. How much am I prepared to pump into cover design and ads? What platform(s) should I use? How much should I charge for it—if anything? Do I go exclusively with Amazon for 90 days in the hope that giving it away in its first week will generate sufficient interest and reviews that might turn into “proper” sales after the free promotion ends?

I had hoped this week’s experiment might have helped clarify some of those issues. With the benefit of hindsight that might have been a little overambitious.

Perhaps the answers are to be found at the bottom of a bottle of single malt. I’ll report back.