books with Athena

books with Athena

Sunday, August 12, 2012

How a 91-year-old Author's Debut Mystery Hit the Bestseller List


NEVER GIVE UP ON YOUR DREAMS!

Recently, my publisher, MWiDP, relaunched Shirley S. Allen’s cozy mystery, ACADEMIC BODY as an ebook. Sales had slowed for the print version published by Mainly Murder Press in 2010, but Mark Williams saw my ad for the book on this blog, read it and loved it. He saw a strong future for it as an ebook--especially in the international market, where classic mysteries still sell.

Shirley S. Allen happens to be my mom, who turned 91 years old in May. 

So this is an emphatic lesson for every aspiring writer out there: IT'S NEVER TOO LATE! Keep at it and your publishing dreams will come true. 

The ebook of ACADEMIC BODY launched in June and had steady sales, but we were kind of disappointed in the numbers until last weekend, when Mark decided to give it some of the free days allowed to ebooks in Amazon’s KDP Select program.

I should note there’s a certain amount of controversy surrounding the concept of giving free ebooks. On the plus side, it’s great advertising that costs nothing.  But the whole concept of free books rubs some authors the wrong way, since it seems to contribute to the devaluing of our product.

But with the advent of Amazon's KDP Select program last year, the freebie became the technique of choice for launching ebooks—both for self-publishers and small presses.

It worked brilliantly when Amazon algorithms gave free books the same boost in “popularity” as their regular inventory. Catherine Ryan Hyde had a huge success with KDP Select free days when launching her self-published novel WHEN I FOUND YOU. I wrote about Catherine’s phenomenal success last month in my post Social Media vs. A New York Times Book Review Cover: Which Sells More Books. After dismal initial sales, Catherine made her book free for three days and the subsequent bounce made her enough money to buy a Lexus. Not a brand new one, but a very, very nice car.

A change in the Amazon algorithms on May 3rd made cheap and free books much less bouncy, but still Catherine was able to launch her book DON’T LET ME GO with a two-day give-away that gave a nice boost to sales.

Author Shirley S. Allen
Catherine and I did the same thing with our nonfiction book HOW TO BE A WRITER IN THE E-AGE. The freebie got us to #1 in free writing books for three days, ahead of the new Eisler-Konrath book, and two of agent Noah Lukeman’s offerings. But then sales went down to well below where they’d been before we went free. We not only got no bounce, but the freebie seems to have worked against us.

Except that it got us some very nice reviews. Thanks to the lovely readers who took the time to write them. Free books that get thoughtful reviews are never wasted. (And it’s still only $2.99, everybody: great deal! And it tells you important stuff about launching your writing career that you won’t get anywhere else, whether you’re self-pubbing or going the traditional route. OK, end of commercial break.)  

It was a learning experience. Nonfiction books with a limited audience do not seem to benefit from free give-aways.

In spite of this, we decided to go ahead and offer my mom’s book as a freebie last weekend. Quite frankly, our hopes weren’t that high. This book is a classic cozy set in a small New England town. It’s beautifully written and plotted, but the criminal activity is all offstage. There’s none of the mayhem, high body count or torture fashionable in today’s crime fiction. But it’s also not one of the crafty cozies that are currently popular with older readers: nobody knitted or tatted or made throw pillows out of dryer lint. The sleuths are a couple of sophisticated middle-aged married people who love each other--much more Nick and Nora Charles than Alex Cross or Stephanie Plum.

But what happened next was epic!

ACADEMIC BODY shot up to the top ten in the thrillers and suspense category. And it started to climb up the top 100 in the entire Kindle free store. By the second day, it was at #2 in thrillers—probably the most competitive fiction genre—and #30 of all free Kindle books. And it stayed there.

And, curse you Bob Mayer, it might even have gone to #1 if Bob’s new Black Ops thriller hadn’t been free the same weekend.

By the time ACADEMIC BODY went off its three free days, it had over 10,500 downloads. Remember how I said last month that the bump a book gets from a New York Times Book Review cover can be as little as 82 actual books sold? Compare that with moving 10,500 books!

Obviously the big difference is that the NYT author’s book cost money and my mom’s didn’t. But still, over 10K people decided to download her book to their Kindles. Considering how many 1000s of Kindle books are free at any given moment, and how many of us have Kindles already loaded than more books than we can read in the next 10 years, it’s pretty durn amazing.

So why did this particular free book climb to such heights?

Here are some things I suspect may have helped:

1) The Perfect Cover. The cover of ACADEMIC BODY, designed by Patricia L. Foltz of Mainly Murder Press, shows an inviting room bathed in amber light—lined with books—and just the legs of a deceased person in the shadowy foreground. It’s the classic “body in the library.” It immediately brings to mind Agatha Christie.

And those books in the library are so inviting and warm. Perhaps as we lose paper books to technology, we’re already getting a little nostalgic for them? To a reader, there’s hardly anything more inviting than a cozy room full of books.

The cover is a seductive invitation to read.

2) A Great Bio. I rewrote my mother’s bio for this book launch, adding material about her academic achievements. In the past, publishers haven’t wanted to advertise that she has a PhD in English Literature and wrote the definitive book on the life of London’s great 19th century Shakespearean actor-manager, Samuel Phelps. Her publishers were afraid she’d sound stuffy and boring.

But in today’s world of so much not-ready-for-prime-time self-publishing, I thought readers would like to know the author has a superb command of the English language. Plus the protagonist of ACADEMIC BODY is a theater director. I figure it’s a plus to know the author has in-depth knowledge of the subject matter.

3) An Established Social Network. No, my Mom isn’t spending her days on Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr. The network is mine. It was easy to use my own connections to promote her book. Plus I went to some senior sites and FB and LinkedIn pages for alums of Bryn Mawr—our alma mater. That allowed me to reach out to people who aren’t in the current writing scene and didn’t know about free Kindle ebooks, but were very interested in books about academia. And of course they wanted to support a fellow alum.

4) Serendipity. We didn’t think about the Olympics when we chose last weekend, but I think the games worked in our favor. Most of the people interested in action and sports were glued to the tube, watching the spectacular competitions in London—so the readers who might be more likely to buy an action-adventure type of thriller were otherwise occupied. The non-sports fans were at loose ends, looking for some less sweaty entertainment.

5) Writing in a Genre that’s Under-Represented by Mainstream Publishing. It seems readers still want classic mysteries. In fact, they may be starved for them. Contemporary mysteries usually fall into the James Patterson/Steig Larsson category (graphically violent serial killer thrillers) or Janet Evanovich types (rom-com mysteries like mine) or the crafty cozies I mentioned earlier. 

But classic mysteries are puzzles that engage the mind and leave the reader satisfied that justice has prevailed. At the end of a classic mystery, all is right with the world. Evolved intelligence has prevailed over primitive brute force. Reading a classic mystery gives order to the universe--like listening to Mozart.

After the spectacular success of the freebie days, ACADEMIC BODY did get a nice bounce. Not enough for my mom to trade in her old Acura, but the book is selling much, much better than it did before the freebie days. And the paper version from Mainly Murder seems to be moving, too.

Does that mean giving away free books will work for everybody? No. As I say, it didn't work for our nonfic. book. And I’m not sure how much longer cheap and free books are going to be of benefit as marketing tools.

Mark Coker of Smashwords said in an interview with Forbes this week that he thinks many self-publishers are undervaluing their work. Like Amazon, Smashwords has changed its algorithm so it no longer counts free and 99-cent books as “sales” with the same weight as sales of books priced at $2.99 and up. Mr. Coker says he “found that the $2.99 to $5.99 price band appears to be the sweet spot for indie authors, those prices over-performed the average in terms of income for the author. But 99¢ and $1.99 under-performed.”

And free? It still seems to be working for some fiction right now--it sure did for my mom. Her next book—a historical—is due out next month and we'll see how that works out. But whatever happens, I know nothing's going to stand in the way of her dreams!

What about you, scriveners? Have give-aways worked to promote your work? Do you read a lot of free Kindle books? How do you feel about free ebooks? Do you have a dream you'll never give up on?

Don’t forget the Central Coast Writers Conference in beautiful San Luis Obispo CA. It will be held on September 21st and 22nd on the campus of Cuesta College. Last year I got to meet Mark Coker in person there.  This year will have an equally exciting roster of speakers and presenters (including yours truly.)

On Wednesday, August 15th, I'll be visiting the awesome blog of M. Christine Weber, to talk about being a writer--and a reader--in the e-age, and why it's such a great time for us all. 

33 comments:

  1. Good stuff for your mom's book!
    I've downloaded quite a few free books but only read a few. I think that has as much to do with the fact I have a ton of books on my iPad as anything else though.

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  2. Nicely done, and great overview of what led to the sales. I agree, Anne, I think readers want to know about the writer's background, especially their education and work experience, which in your mom's case, was proof she knew what she was writing about.

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  3. Congratulations on your Mom's success! It certainly isn't too late to live out your dreams is it?
    I am not not as old as your Mother but I have come to this game later in life. I've been doing this for only about 5 years when my kids got older.
    I've decide not to do free and my price will be over the 2.99. Readers can read free on my website all the time. I have a romance story going on there now that seems to have caught a few eyes so maybe they will keep following me. I can only hope.
    Great post!

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  4. Wow! Sounds like you did everything right. Your Mom's book would appeal to the large, underserved Murder, She Wrote audience.

    Is she working on another one? She better be!

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  5. Congratulations Anne and Shirley! That's a fantastic success story. You must be so proud.

    As for free, I did a promo a couple of weeks ago, shot me to #1 for two days in Kindle Free store and to #8 in Love & Romance, but after that, nothing. I've had one sale since the promo ended. 3 very nice reviews, but only one sale.

    I think Free is a crap shoot these days. And you're right about having so much reading material to last for 10 years. I can't even get through a book a week, and before I was reading 3 paperbacks a week.

    I'm glad your Mom had such a great run. With creds like she has, she deserves the recognition.

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  6. Please give Shirley hug for me!

    Love, Gretchen

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  7. Congrats to your mom––and you––on your great results. Your support and guidance and her literary skills paid off.

    I had 2-2 day sets of Amazon free days with the first two books of one of my series. I am NOTORIOUSLY BAD at marketing tricks and maybe even marketing as a whole. I once gave an Amazon Bestseller Day, one of those campaigns people used to give where you bribe your friends to buy your book on a certain day by giving them downloadable gifts. I sold 13 books with my campaign, a disaster.

    I expected something similar, but my book The Angel & the Brown-eyed Boy shot to #1 in its category (Sci-fi Adventure) and stayed there for most of a day. The other book peaked at #3, same category.

    The result was a rise sales of ALL my books, not just the series. It wasn't a rise that would have Stephen King leaping for joy, but it was enough for me to be pretty happy.

    I think the trick to maintaining sales after the free day is not letting up on your promotion. My friend Cheryl Kaye Tardif (Author of 'I made $42,000 in one month with my eBooks") promotes ceaselessly. I didn't. Should have.

    Anyway, BRAVO AND CONGRATULATIONS TO YOUR MOM!

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  8. Alex--I have that problem too. I have so many books on my Kindle, I can't decide which to read, so I pick up a magazine instead.

    Diana--I'm glad you agree. I think knowing something about the author's credentials is a selling point.

    Vera--The strategy of free on Amazon works because it raises the "popularity" of your book, which means it shows up in Amazon "also boughts" and other promotions. Unfortunately free on other sites like blogs doesn't give you that advantage. But you have to give Amazon an exclusive to be eligible for those free days, and since success isn't guaranteed, it's a big gamble.

    Ruth--You're so right about the Murder, She Wrote audience. (My mom's favorite show.)

    Anne-VERY interesting. You hit #1 in the whole free store and ended up selling fewer than when you started? So it doesn't just happen with nonfiction. "Crap shoot" is right.

    And I'm the same as you. I used to read so much more before I published and got into all this social media stuff.

    Gretchen--I'll definitely send her a virtual hug from you. :-)

    Sandy--Thanks for weighing in with your experiences. So you lucked out on the freebie "crap shoot" but didn't do much with those "game the system" promos. (I remember we were all told to do that a little while back.) Glad to hear the freebie exposure raised all your sales. I think you're right that continuing to promote is key. As somebody said recently, authors have to be "Farmer John" not "Johnny Appleseed." We have to keep cultivating those books.

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  9. This is so exciting, Anne! Could I feature your mom on my blog, LaterBloomer.com? She'd be perfect!

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  10. Great post and great news for your mom! I bought her book and am anxious to read it. I'm not a big mystery reader but do like Agatha Christy so am looking forward to this one. And, I love this wondderful example of how we can always make or dreams come true. It helps to have a really smart daughter on your side!

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  11. Wonderful!!!! Just downloaded.

    Madeline

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  12. Debra--Absolutely! I'm sure my mom would love to be on your blog. (And she has a love story that's so sweet. She met the love of her life when he was 89 years old. He lived to be 99--And won a golf tournament a couple of weeks before he went.) Email me with the details of what you need.

    Christine--I'm glad you got a copy. I think you'll enjoy it. Very clever plot.

    Madeline--You too! I sure hope you enjoy it!

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  13. Anne, can you tell your mum that she's awesome for me? That really is the most incredible story - it both inspires and makes me incredibly jealous. I love classic mysteries, but I can't write them worth beans (though I did once solve a Sherlock Holmes mystery before Holmes did. I felt pretty awesome there.)

    Brilliant post! Going to make a note of those success factors - you never know when they'll come in handy!

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  14. I think it's wonderful that your mother has published her novel and achieved such success. :) As a young writer I'm at the opposite end of the spectrum, but I've met more than a few older individuals who've told me they've always wanted to write a book, but never got around to it and now feel that it's too late. I always tell people it's never too late. Regardless of where the book does or doesn't end up or whether they choose to pursue publication, writing a book is a fantastic accomplishment.

    And I agree that freebies can be a good thing. I've given away some short stories and novellas in order to promote my work and it has helped me, not hurt me.

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  15. Anne: Thank you for telling the story of your mom and for putting her book up free. I already have a paper copy. Besides I was in her writing critique group when she was writing it. By coincidence I found out only this morning that my Titanic novel COLD APRIL is free today and tomorrow. Must call Shirley and congratulate her.

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  16. It IS Never too late to pursue your dreasm! I think your mom just proved that even more than my Grandmother had (who did a carrer switch at 6o).

    And now I can't remember if I snagged the book while it was free or not... And with Ruth's mention of Murder, She Wrote, I need to make sure I have it. (I might be youngish, but I do remember seeing Murder, She wrote, though never a full episode, but remember liking the main character.) :}

    And maybe someday I'll be able to make the trip out to the west coast for a writers conference... For now I must stay near the home base.

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  17. What an inspiring story! Congrats to your Mom! As a mystery lover I'll definitely be picking up a copy.

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  18. Charley--Thanks! I think she's pretty awesome, too :-)

    Ranae--You're right that it's never too late! Glad to hear the freebies worked for you.

    Phyllis--I'm sure you had a part in my mom's success with all the critique help you gave. I'll go check out COLD APRIL!

    Cathryn--Congrats to your grandmother for making a career switch at 60. Learning new stuff keeps you young. I'm sure you've got great writers conferences in our area too. Look for shorter weekend ones held on college campuses rather than in big city hotels--prices are usually lower.

    Ryshia--I hope you enjoy the book!

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  19. Hi Anne,

    I've been given e-books but rarely download freebies. I don't have a lot of time to read, so I'm pretty picky.

    Freebies and 99 cent offerings are great for promo, but there's a fine balance between cheap/free for the sake of sales and perceived value.

    Love that your mom is writing her second book. Age is just a number. Thanks for another inspiring post.

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  20. Jennifer--"...there's a fine balance between cheap/free for the sake of sales and perceived value." So true! We need to keep that in mind when we make our marketing plans.

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  21. I just want to say that I think you and your mom are awesome! Way to go, Mom, living your dream!

    Angela Ackerman

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  22. Angela--Thanks! We're both pretty pleased.

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  23. Well, this was an exciting post! I was fascinated by the story, and I've already recommended your Mom's novel to my sister.

    I reissued my HarperCollins suspense novel (it originally sold nearly 100,000 copies) as an ebook. When I went free for five days, I got 18,000 downloads, but only about 50 sales thereafter. I also got some VERY mean-spirited reviews on Amazon, which Dean Wesley Smith and his wife say can be a side effect of free. (The theory goes that if you get something for nothing, you don't value it.)

    I'm now weighing the pros and cons of committing to KDP Select with my brand new mystery in a series called THE RABBI'S MOTHER (published under Anna King). Truly don't know what to do. I'm proud of the novel, and I think its older femme fatale protagonist should have enormous appeal to the same market your mother hit.

    Anyway, your column was certainly timely for me, and I'm about to tweet it to the world. Thanks so much for getting the story down here.

    Jody

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  24. Jody--Great to have a Bryn Mawrter come to visit. I'll definitely check out your books. LOVE the idea of an older femme fatale! Thanks for the tweets!

    You're so right about the mean-spirited reviews. Everybody seems to get them after their freebie days. Some are so similar, I don't think the people read them. They just post the same generic anti-indie review on all books that have had free days.

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  25. This is so touching and inspiring. As usual, you added the details that really make sense of the market. Huge congratulations to your mother and you!

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  26. Congratulations to your talented mother. Thanks to her as well, from one reader who appreciates it when the violence is off stage and the protagonists are likeable. Going to download it now.

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  28. This is a great success story. Well done to your mother, and to you.

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  29. Tricia--Thanks. I think it's good to see what things have worked and why. Sometimes people with big successes will say, "Do what I did and you'll be rich!"--but it won't work for your genre or audience for some reason.

    Maggie--I'm with you. I'm very careful about what images I put in my brain. Stuff that's too dark really upsets me. Too much empathy or something.

    Neil--Thanks!

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  30. How inspiring! Never, never give up if you truly love to do something. Very sweet of you to help you mom out, and it sounds like it worked really well. :)

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  31. Carol--You make a good point. You need to LOVE something in order to stick it out. I think when people say "never give up" they forget that sometimes giving up is fine--that isn, when you figure out you're in the wrong medium. I've known struggling writers who became successful painters, and struggling actors who became great writers--when they did "give up" and chose a medium more suited to their talents.

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  32. Congratulations to your mother - that is an amazing achievement. I've just released my second book so we'll see how sales go. It's a dollar more expensive at $3.99 but I decided on that price because it's almost twice as long as my first book.

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  33. L. K. Good luck on your second release! I see the prices of ebooks trending up. Both Amazon and Smashwords have changed their algorithms to favor books that cost $2.99 or more. $3.99 may be the new sweet spot. Considering it for my own books. So far my best seller is my $4.99 boxed set.

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