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


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.

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. 

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