Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Amazon Kindle Crosses the Ocean: Two authors discuss the secrets of ebook success

Amazon author Greg Swanson and myself have recently given an interview to Fanbook, one of Russia's greatest science fiction sites FAN-BOOK. We quite enjoyed it, considering we agreed to disagree on certain points :) Hope you like it, too:

About G. E. Swanson
Greg Swanson currently lives in California’s southern San Joaquin Valley where he grew up. He has a wife and two grown children. While serving in the U.S. Army, he has lived in Virginia, New Jersey, Hawaii, and Japan. From a very young age he was fascinated with the paranormal and science fiction, and now writes about it. He loves anything that has zombies and is on a constant hunt for it.

About me 

Alex (Aleksei) Bobl is a science fiction writer, author of 13 novels. An ex-paratrooper, he used his military knowledge and experience to write his debut novels for S.T.A.L.K.E.R., a bestselling science fiction action adventure series set in a post-apocalyptic Chernobyl. Alex now works on his new novel, working title Fog`s War, due to come out in English in the end of 2013. He lives in Moscow with his wife and two boys. 

- What does an indie author need to do for his or her book to take off successfully on Amazon?

G.S. I’ve noticed books that usually set higher in the search results have a better chance. But that is only part of the equation. A catchy title and professional looking cover that accurately reflects on the story is also important. Although this is no longer done on the US site, Tags and Likes help. The biggest part of the equation is effective marketing. Start getting the title and cover of the book out there for people to see before the launch. They have to know it exists before they can buy it.

A.B. A book release demands some serious ground work using all the tools available: social networks focused on reading and sharing books, like Goodreads and Shelfari, readers’ forums and such. The English-language literary market is competitive to say the least.  There are lots of sites that offer paid promotion, but you have to tread really carefully with them.  But if you submit your book to several established reviewers long before the actual release so that they can publish their reviews on book-related sites – that would be absolutely fantastic.

- Do you think it's possible for a new author to achieve instant success on Amazon?

G.S. There are rare occasions where it can happen, but for the most part no. You have to keep trying, don’t give up. It takes time to build a following. Once people see a track record of good books being put out by an author, more will start buying them.

A.B. I have my doubts. It does happen, though. For a new book to be instantly noticed, you need to either sweat your heart out into it, or invest a considerable sum of money into its promotion. Don’t forget you’re dealing with 2,5 billion English-speaking readers: a mind-boggling number, and each of them has their own tastes and genre preferences. Attracting many to your particular book isn’t going to be easy. But you can still do it gradually, over time, especially using social networking.

Apocalypse Z

- Do you think Amazon demands a different approach from a Russian author as compared to an American one?  

G.S. I’m not sure how Amazon has some of the sites outside of the .com set up so I can only answer for what I’ve seen on that site. The platform they have set up makes it fairly easy for anyone to publish. Amazon sends out emails promoting books to people that buy in that genre. They usually select the ones that are better sellers. After all Amazon, or any book seller for that matter, are out to make themselves money first.

I think in this case they buyer would be the one that has the most influence. They expect the book to be well written and a smooth read after it is translated. If it is mentioned upfront, most people (and notice I said most, not all) will be a little more understanding if there are a few rough spots due to translation. But if there are too many and it becomes a distraction, they will voice their opinion in a review.

A.B. Yes, a considerable difference. An American author doesn’t need to invest in a translation and they have no difficulty networking (I’m speaking for myself here as my English is far from perfect). Readers do tend to be slightly biased against Russian writers, but their interest is more sincere which is a good thing. It’s all understandable: until now, the only Russian books known to the Western reader were classics by the likes of Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, not today’s authors.

- How many copies, on average, would a science fiction title need to sell per day to be considered moderately well-selling? 
Apocalypse Z: Uncommon Ground

G.S. I can’t really give a fixed number. There are variables that can change depending upon the time of year it is. In the summer months there are more outdoor activities and people will spend less time reading. Amazon does have a ‘Best Seller’ rating in over all kindle sales and a ‘best seller’ rating in the category the book is listed in.

A.B. In my estimation, decent  sales would be something in the area of thirty to forty downloads a day at $2.99 a copy. These kind of earnings would provide a writer with enough motivation to keep working.

What decides the success, if any at all, of a Russian book on Amazon?

A.B. There are some Russian-language books on Amazon already. But it’s probably too early to talk of any successes. Officially, Amazon hasn’t arrived in Russia yet which results in low sales figures as Kindle e-readers are only available in Russia through various “gray” dealers. What successes are there to speak of? And still, I have a funny feeling Amazon is keeping an eye on the Russian market. Recently, they’ve lowered shipping costs for Russian e-book buyers (before, they used to be $2.00 on top of the book price). It could be due to the growing activity of Russian customers. Russian authors, too, keep publishing their new books on Amazon. You never know, we might soon see a Russian Amazon site like those opened recently in Canada, Brazil and Japan.

What science fiction subgenres are the most popular in the US at the moment?

G.S. From what I have seen, it would probably be the Paranormal Romance (aka chic-lit). This would be for both the adult and young adult categories. As of right now, vampires are pretty big, but by tomorrow they could be old news.

A.B. I don’t think I can give you an answer. From what I see, zombies are still going strong, together with space opera and fantasy. 
Memoria. A Corporation of Lies

- What, in your opinion, is the best book length/price ratio on Amazon?

G.S. What I do is keep it above 200 pages. For an unknown author I would say that $2.99 to $3.99 would be a fair price. It seems any more than that, fewer people would be willing to give an unknown a shot.

A.B. First, you need to decide what you’re actually going to sell. Let’s say you have a novella series (Amazon thrives on series), about 100 Kb each. Let’s say they’re interesting and engaging in a genre that sells well. Ideally, you could offer the first novella in the series for free and price the rest between $0.99 and £2.99. In this situation, they should start selling pretty quickly. But if you’re starting off with a standalone novel (about 200 Kb according to Amazon), you really should enrol in the Select program which will entitle you to five free promo days every 90 days. If you plan your promotion well so that it results, say, in a few thousand free downloads, the book will continue selling even if you price it at £5.00. And after about a month, reviews will start trickling in. Positive reviews will result in sturdier sales.

Let me repeat: Amazon readers choose their books very seriously. They study the reviews, then check the reviewers themselves to see how active and trustworthy they are. They read the “Look Inside!” sample and are definitely influenced in their decision by the book’s cover art and overall formatting.  These are the things you should not overlook.

Do you think Amazon has a future in Russia?

A.B. As I’ve already said, Russian customers seem to be turning to Amazon more often, as do Russian authors. So yes, I think there are. Once they work out how to sell their devices officially in Russia, opening the site itself can’t be that difficult. 
Point Apocalypse

- What promotion tools could you suggest outside of Amazon itself? Do you use them yourself?

G.S. I use social networking sites to promote mine. But I also do it on the sites that the books subject matter would fit into. With that in mind if, you appear out of nowhere and only push your book that is counterproductive. Talk, participate in general discussion and mention it occasionally. On sites like twitter if you get to know others that share your interest they might retweet your posts and that helps a lot. Don’t just say thanks and leave it at that, be sure to return the favor. Also check around at book review and referral sites. Make sure your book is in their databases.

A.B. If you look at my answers above, I’ve already spoken about the importance of social networking. To add to that, let’s not forget the numerous book reviewers’ blogs.  They read quantities of books regularly and recommend them to readers. I’d suggest you study them and make a list to submit your book to. Quite a few also promote free Kindle books, so provided you’ve enrolled in Select, you can submit your free promo information to them which significantly boosts your downloads. Many of these sites and blogs also have Facebook pages where you can post your book information or check its free promo ad.

- What, in your opinion, most influences the reader's decision to buy the book - e.g., the reviews, the book's rating, etc?

G.S. This can vary depending on the readers person preferences. I have heard that some people will by a book just to have a ‘cool cover’ in their digital library. It could be a couple of the things mentioned or a little bit of everything. Sales rank, reviews, over all star rating, and the sample Amazon provides are all equally important. But remember, just because someone gives a book a one or two star rating doesn’t mean it’s bad. It just wasn’t for them. I have seen a two star review that read “This book is about a bunch of horny college students killing zombies.” Some people will like that and race for the ‘Buy’ button.

A.B. Both: reviews as well as ratings. As I’ve already said, Amazon customers are very responsible buyers. They pay attention to the cover art, to the “Look Inside!” chapters, to the book’s ratings and naturally, the reviews.

- Do the majority of readers buy the book via their computer browser or purchase it directly from their Kindle reader?

G.S. This is just my own opinion, but I would say mobile devices. The kindle reader (which does need a Wi-Fi hot spot to work) or something like the iPhone that comes with the kindle app preinstalled on it. Some tablets also come with the app ready to go.

A.B. I’d say, they use Kindle readers. There’re everywhere these days.

- Any other advice you could give to a new writer wishing to upload his or her book to Amazon?

G.S. Yes, be patient. Don’t expect to be up there in the top 100 with Stephen King in a short time. Keep working and putting more books outs. The more you have out there, the more fans you will have. Remember, it took many years for J.K Rowling to get her Harry Potter series off the ground and going.

There is also something else I need to say. As Indie authors we are now stepping into an area that the large publishing houses used to dominate. We are shaking the business up and making them very nervous. They used to pretty much dictate what books were available to readers, but now we offer those same readers many more choices. And in my opinion some better stories as well. Be ready for some cheap shots about your work from those that side with the large publishers, but don’t let them get you down.

Keep trying no matter what.

A.B. Be patient and believe in yourself!

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