This will be a long post. Fair warning.
Disclaimer: While I'd love to link my books and my bookstore, frankly, I can't trust one or both won't be vandalized by those on this board who will be delighted to hear I am considering leaving Amazon. Sorry.
Further, I am issuing advance notice I will not be responding to the usual instigators, so don't bother.
I've been publishing on Amazon now for five-and-a-half years. I've hit that button more than sixty times. I have romance, sci-fi, fantasy and non-fiction titles. I've probably either bought or personally made more than 100 book covers using stock art, commissioned art, professional fonts, you name it.
I'm making one more attempt to gain some kind of traction on Amazon before I hang it up. I'm going to try and set the first titles in my three series to permafree and boost visibility with occasional Freebooksy ads. At this point, my entire promotional strategy depends on whether Amazon allows me to do so.
Not sure if this will be of any value to anyone else, but these are my experiences.
With the exception of a tiny blip in mid-2011 and another in September of 2015, my sales have been uniformly zero or close to it. I get occasional glimmers of activity when I pour money into Bknights ads. No other kind of ad platform affects my Amazon sales at all. It's just throwing money into a hole. I can always give away hundreds of books as long as I spend money to do so, but the sales don't follow like they should. The books don't rank. We never get any traction. Month after month after month no matter what. We sell ten books here, fifteen books there and then back to zero until we pour more money into more ads. Even these meager results require us to remain perpetually exclusive with Amazon.
We get a few hundred KU page reads a month. Now, these reads always come in batches, which is circumstantial evidence people are reading all the way or most of the way through the book they borrow. The problem is there are only one or two people at a time doing so. This is circumstantial evidence that only one or two people at a time are able to find the books in the first place.
My books are technically fine. I have an English degree. I'm academically qualified to teach creative writing so I can state with confidence I have no grammar, vocabulary, spelling or punctuation problems. I'm also an experienced programmer, and I hand-code both mobi and (validated) epub versions of every book I publish, so it's not a formatting issue either.
I have more than 40 five-star reviews across all my titles, so the people who do read the books seem to enjoy them. I have my share of negative reviews as well. They rarely complain about story or technical issues. They mostly complain about length (I publish short works and bundle them).
The problem is really very simple: nobody has ever heard of my books and by the looks of things, they never will. Publishing on Amazon is the ultimate "solve a puzzle, win a prize" competition. Like most authors I flail from one scheme to the next, trying to find something, anything that will get my books in front of people who would likely enjoy them.
For example, I have enough books in my romance series to, through KDP Select, have at least one free book available every day forever. As long as you have at least 18 books, you can rotate them through their five free days for 90 days at a time, at which point the first book is eligible again. The only problem with that system is it ties the entire series to Amazon exclusively forever. It's kind of an ersatz permafree system. That was my major promotional strategy in 2014. It worked about as well as you'd expect, which is to say I gave away a half-dozen books a day on average and sold virtually nothing.
It should be noted that through this system, I have even stronger circumstantial evidence only about 4-6 people visit any book page on a given day unless I have a paid promotion going. They are always apparently happy to take a free book, but rarely willing to buy, which only proves I'm trying to sell entertainment on the Internet. Far better funded companies than mine (Disney) have been utterly obliterated attempting the same thing.
Now at this point I suppose I could make the whole series exclusive, fire up a Bknights promotion every day (which would be a logistical nightmare) and just pour free books into the market as fast as possible in an attempt to gain traction and/or mailing list subscribers. The only problem with that plan is the problem with every plan on Amazon: It makes my books worthless. It makes my marketing program look desperate (because it is desperate). And at the end of the month, it will cost $150 and likely return not even close to that amount in sales.
Over the last couple of months I've done some tinkering with Facebook ads. This was really the moment when I realized all was probably lost. I wrote a non-fiction book about a fictional character a couple years ago. There are a fair number of people on Facebook who have expressed an interest in that character. So I ran a campaign targeting that audience with a professionally designed ad featuring the book cover (one of my better ones) and some rather expensive art. I set a $60 limit and turned it loose.
The ads got about 100 clicks at a 1.15% click through rate, which is astronomically high by Internet standards (I know this because I wrote a book on it). The ad pointed at a landing page on my site which redirected to the book's page in my bookstore, where it was on sale for about 30% off. I spent just under $60 at roughly $0.34 a click.
See if you can guess how many books we sold?
Remember, this is a unique book about a fictional character with a worldwide audience well into the tens of millions pointed at an audience that, according to Facebook, is highly interested in that character. All the ingredients were in place, but no cookies came out of the oven. It was astonishing and inexplicable.
It should have worked, but we didn't get a single sale. Not one mailing list sign-up. Not one message. Throughout the campaign (more than 10,000 impressions) we got one page like. That was it.
Without putting too fine a point on it, that was devastating. At this point, it's not that I'm tired of the game. I'm just tired of losing. I have other businesses where I'm much more successful. I'm not perfect, by any stretch, but at least I win occasionally.
With Amazon, it's a never-ending siege of failure with no end in sight. I've written more than a million words of commercial fiction. But nobody can see my books, and I don't know how to fix it.
I'm perfectly willing to admit perhaps I just suck at marketing. I've been building games, books, apps, etc. for a long time and while I'm very good at one-to-one sales and very good at recruiting people into my company, when it comes to retail, everything comes crashing to Earth, usually painfully and expensively. I can build the products. I consider myself an above-average writer. I just can't market. Fair enough. Nobody can be expected to be good at everything.
Absent five-figures a month spent jackhammering my book titles at potential readers until they can't stand it any more, I honestly don't see any viable way to market e-books, at least on the web. To be fair, I've been on the Internet since the late Cretaceous, and I don't see any viable way to market anything on the web any more.
But then again, the whole point of Amazon KDP was we weren't supposed to need to be good at marketing. At least that's what we were told in the beginning.
When Amazon announced the self-publishing platform years ago, the deal was we would write the books and Amazon would market them for us. Even now, on the main KDP page it says "reach millions of readers." Except that's not what happens. Each book reaches a half-dozen people a day and will only move if it's free or if I'm pouring money into ads (or both). There's no millions of readers anywhere to be found. Or, there are millions of readers, but only if you solve the puzzle of the Amazon machine and get it to show your books to more than six people a day.
My books were supposed to be easier to find because they were so exhaustively categorized on Amazon. Except they aren't, really. There are only a couple dozen effective keywords. My fantasy series, for example, doesn't fit into Amazon at all. There's no combination of keywords that will get it into the right categories. This seems to be rather common with middle grade and YA books. It's strange, because you would think Amazon would be highly motivated to try and support the YA and middle grade market. They even have a special program called "Freetime" for it. We're not allowed to be a part of that, though. So my YA/middle grade fantasy has zero sales month after month after month and Amazon would apparently prefer it stay that way.
My military sci-fi series launched with five books in four weeks. It was the fastest selling, and because of the keyword situation ended up in about eight browse categories. I sold a few hundred copies across the series (now 16 books) and kept publishing for several months afterwards. The reviews were positive, if meager in numbers. And then it tailed off and back to zero, where it has remained ever since.
The romance series took a bit longer to get published (19 books, 14 months) and had about the same pattern. Few hundred sales over the year and back to zero.
Right now, if I do nothing, the sixty titles I have on Amazon (in four genres) will sell an average of seven copies a month forever, earning me about five dollars. In other words, the five-and-a-half years I've spent writing, advertising, making covers, formatting, programming a system to build mobis and epubs, etc. will have been a complete waste of time save for the couple thousand total books I've ever sold on Amazon.
One would think that I would have at least improved over those years. One would think that I would have developed some kind of readership, even if it's only a few dozen people. But I didn't. I don't know why, and I suspect I never will. I think I became a better writer, but being a good writer doesn't matter if nobody reads what I write.
Hereabouts, we've been treated to story after story about how all of a sudden, somebody's book started to sell. My personal favorites are the one about the author who launched cold (new pen name, new series, no history as a writer, no platform, no nothing) and made $1400 in the first month, then went on to sell a half-million books for millions in income.
We know better, because that story is no different than a story about how someone invented an anti-gravity machine. There is no reasonable mechanism by which an author with no experience or history can just walk into Amazon KDP and move $1400 worth of books in their first 30 days without some kind of artificial help. It's about as credible as an average athlete with no experience walking into training camp with the San Francisco Giants and hitting .340 against major league pitching. It can't be done, regardless of talent, strength, speed or agility. We already know this, but for some reason, we're willing to believe it because it gives us some small measure of hope, I suppose.
My other favorite is "I published my third book in the series and then WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO I'm on a roller-coaster to moneyland and the party never ends!" It's like someone flipped a switch. It reminds me of the lottery.
People buy lottery tickets because they hear stories of the people who won. Lotteries are a cruel enterprise built on selling false hope for real money. On Amazon KDP, we don't buy a lottery ticket. We have to write a book every time we enter the contest, and like the lottery, we have absolutely no control over whether we win or not. All we can do, as we are repeatedly told, is write another book.
I've worked for content mills before. I got a smidgen of pay for a few hundred words. It's soul-destroying work, but at least it pays. Amazon reminds me of writing for a content mill, except I don't get paid. Even at a penny a word, I make more writing [crappy] articles about how to build a fence than I do writing 80,000-word books on Amazon.
I find it curious that my Amazon sales chart only responds when I'm sending paid traffic to my book pages. I'm well aware Amazon can tell when my traffic patterns change, and I'm sure they have their site set up to make my book slightly more visible if I buy Amazon a little traffic. What better way to build the world's largest e-commerce site than by off-loading your marketing expenses to your vendors?
The problem is, the math doesn't work in my favor. I feed a dollar into the machine and get 97 cents back. No amount of kicking, punching or shoving that machine is going to change those numbers. The machine was built by Amazon for Amazon in much the same way slot machines are built by the casino for the casino. The machine wants traffic so it can sell trampolines and luggage and televisions. That's why it advertises 112 other products on my book page and puts a price tag of $0.00 right next to my book cover. It's training customers to associate the word "worthless" with my book while simultaneously ringing the cash register on the stuff Amazon really wants to sell.
E-books are the candy dish next to the Amazon cash register. They're free and worth every penny! Take a handful while you're dropping $800 on a gas generator!
Meanwhile, Amazon takes up to 65% of my cover price. If I'm doing all the work (and paying for the ads), including the marketing, why do they get paid at all? What exactly is Amazon doing for their 65%? They certainly aren't marketing my books. I have five-and-a-half years of data to prove that.
It's kind of like the old question about the education budget. Here in California, we spend more than $10,000 a year per student on education. If we are very generous and say the teacher in a classroom of 30 students earns $150,000 a year, there is still $150,000 a year left over. Since schools are perpetually without books, field trips, supplies, librarians, buses, extracurricular activities, facility maintenance, clubs, athletic equipment, music equipment, science equipment, computers, tools, gymnasiums, playground equipment or air conditioning, one might wonder just where the hell the rest of the money went?
My main freelancing business earns me more in 36 hours than I make in a year on Amazon and doesn't take even a fraction of the time. I think I speak for quite a large number of authors who have had the same experiences. This platform has no future because it doesn't offer authors like myself any kind of a roadmap to success. What it proves instead is we can publish dozens of commercial-quality books on a web site with more than 2.4 billion unique visits a month and fail utterly to attract a dedicated readership of even ten people.
Amazon complains long and loud about the people who "game the system." To be fair, they have a point, because those people ruin the experience for their customers. But let's be fair to the authors while we're in such an egalitarian mood. Writers and publishers wouldn't have to game the system if legitimate success on Amazon weren't meted out with an eyedropper. Furthermore, what success we do see is as inexplicable as my failure to sell a single book using Facebook ads. We see books in the top 300 with [crappy] covers, bad writing, bad formatting and insane prices. We see books the author and publisher clearly put no time into. They sell by the dozens every day, and then we look at our own work, where some of us have invested thousands upon thousands upon THOUSANDS of man-hours, and see nothing but devastation, failure and wasted time.
Amazon is a marketplace that totally de-couples hard work, talent and craftsmanship from financial success. It really is no different than the modern job market for the 20-somethings. They are told they need marketable skills, only to find themselves laid off, fired or passed over after they invest sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars obtaining them. Such things breed cynicism and gloom.
At this point, I have every reason to believe if I simply wrote a check for $300 and printed 100 copies of my middle grade fantasy adventure, put a bookmark with a URL to my mailing list in each one and simply handed them one copy at a time to parents at Starbucks, I'd probably get more readers and mailing list signups in a month than I've ever had or ever will get from Amazon. I'd be spending three bucks a "click" but at least I'd be giving a real book to real people instead of wondering why 100 people clicked on an ad and then totally ignored it, or why 334 people downloaded a free copy of a five-star rated book and then ignored every other book in the series.
This is all assuming of course all those downloads and ad clicks were real people. At this point I have no evidence to prove they were.
According to the charts, there are a couple hundred successful authors on Amazon. The rest, like myself, sell nothing. Ultimately, all Amazon has accomplished is to recreate the traditional publishing industry where, instead of outright rejection, the un-anointed authors have the false hope of future success perpetually dangled in front of them by a machine: success they will never achieve, no matter how many books they write.
Like I said, I'm going to give it one more try with the permafree strategy. If that doesn't work, I'm taking my e-books down from Amazon for good and investing my efforts elsewhere. I could read my books aloud into a webcam for YouTube and probably make more money on ads at this point.
I hope my experiences will be helpful to others.