Saturday, February 4, 2012


If Amanda Hocking jumped off a cliff, would you?

Independent authors are all excited about the latest marketing magic of 99-cent ebooks. 99-cent ebooks made Amanda Hocking a star. Amanda Hocking’s a multi-million-dollar author now, all because she innovated the 99-cent ebook.

We cannot argue with Amanda Hocking’s success, but hers was not due simply to a 99-cent book strategy. What many authors fail to realize, she never sold ALL her books at 99-cents, only the first one in a series. And all her series installments were shorter in comparison to a typical novel of 80,000 words. Most were probably not more that 40,000. So, her deal was to get readers hooked on the first installment of the series, then pay more for the rest. And with a dedicated social networking effort, she made success happen.

Many authors have tried to repeat her efforts, but have not met with similar success. And the reason for the lack of duplicate success can be attributed to many things – personality, lack of repeated concerted marketing effort, quality and content of books, targeted readership ... and the list goes on. The truth is, no two authors, no two books are exactly alike, so naturally success is relative and not exactly reproduceable.

How's that 99-cent ebook strategy working out?

The real issue here is the focus on 99-cent ebooks as the key to success. While many authors want to delude themselves into believing this is the only real key to success that matters, in truth it is only a small part of a larger spectrum of strategies to be employed. Yet many authors believe all they have to do is price their book at 99-cents, and success will roll in like a warm summer breeze to invigorate their book sales to the stupendous success of bestsellerdom.

Here are some thoughts on this from a couple authors who, though skeptical, tried this approach, and some opinions from others in the book industry...

Here’s a quote from that last blog link...

“I don’t think I’ve spent more than a few dollars on a book or ebook since I got my Kindle several months ago. It’s changed what I read and how much I’m willing to spend. Now I just read whatever’s super cheap and looks interesting.”

Authors, if you missed the import of that quote, here it is again...

“I don’t think I’ve spent more than a few dollars on a book or ebook since I got my Kindle several months ago. It’s changed what I read and how much I’m willing to spend. Now I just read whatever’s super cheap and looks interesting.”

Let’s look at what’s really going on here.

A few years ago, when Apple came on the scene with iTunes, and music downloads became all the rage, something sad happened. This was...

The day the music died.

And so did the music industry. Now it is a former ghost of itself. The days of the big music promoters like Columbia, and later Sony, went by the wayside. Music promoters are still in business, but not like they used to be. And musical artists still make music. Most, like authors, can’t help themselves. It’s in their nature. But many of them have lost the dream of making it big. Now all that’s left is uploading their ‘albums’ to iTunes and hoping for some sales.

And who’s the big winner in this scenario? Apple. Certainly not the big corporations that used to make or break a music star or group. And not the music stars. Only the ones who have the chutzpah to self-promote and finance their own tours and pay for their own recording studio time seem to make it these days. Musicians can still manage to make their albums somehow, but now the only real place to sell their music is on iTunes and other copycat online stores.

The real focus is the technological rite of passage defined by iTunes. Gone are 45s, LPs, eight-tracks, cassettes, transistor radios, boom-boxes, Walkmans ... and CDs are already waving goodbye. Gone are the music stores and media stores and retail aisles selling music CONTENT. The focus is on selling music TECHNOLOGY. Now it’s MP3s making way for MP4s playing on iPods, iPads, iPhones ... i-yi-yi-yi-yi. Technology’s always going to continue to change, but the real issue here is what happens to the content when a technology leader takes control.

Apple ate everyone’s lunch by funneling music CONTENT and DELIVERY through a technology coups. In that way...

Apple dismantled and rebuilt the music industry in its own image. Now, Amazon’s hell-bent on doing the same to the publishing industry.

Amazon is making its content DELIVERY-SPECIFIC so that you can only get Amazon content from Amazon and use it on Amazon technology – while everyone else (except Apple, of course, that has its own proprietary standard) is screaming for technological standards available to everyone in the industry.

In an effort to speed the demise of the publishing industry and take it over before Apple can, Amazon has made ITSELF a publisher as well as a publishing portal for every Tom, Dick, and Jane that ever dreamed of writing a book. The focus here is not on quality, but quantity. Oh, sure, Amazon is hand-picking authors to put in its publishing stable, but the rest of you authors out there, you’re on your own. If you make it, great. If not, oh well, Amazon isn’t going to shed a tear.

Of course, Amazon’s also doing some other sneaky things to try and weed out competitors who are seeing what Amazon’s doing and trying to get a ride on that gravy train. Barnes & Noble, who was once the king of book retaildom, has been scrambling the last few years to establish an online presence to challenge Amazon. Too little too late. So, to fight back, B&N has announced it will not shelve Amazon Publishing books. So what? Amazon’s doing a circle-about and positioning itself to build some retail stores of its own, thumbing its nose at B&N.

Additionally, Amazon is trying to keep its ebook content delivery-specific by tying the content to its brand of technology through not only a unique proprietary format used by no other ebook company, but also by rewarding purchasers of its high-end reader, Kindle Fire, with perks not available to other customers.

Another thing Amazon’s been doing since last November is to invite authors to make their ebook content AMAZON-SPECIFIC, meaning it is available only on Amazon and nowhere else. They have been uproariously successful at this by tantalizing authors with the lure of $700,000 dividends split among the participants, based on the percentage of customer purchases and borrows of their ebook content. The deal is ‘sweetened’ by the offer of allowing authors to GIVE AWAY (that’s right, give away) their content in this program to all Amazon customers on selected days, and all the time for Amazon Prime (paid subscription) customers. And authors are jumping on that like hungry swallows on a cloud of mosquitoes. Why? Because of the PERCEIVED jump in sales ranking on Amazon. The more books people snap up for free, the higher on the ‘desirable’ list an author’s title climbs, giving the impression that it is a ‘bestseller’ when in fact it is a ‘bestfreebie.’ But, to an author who is looking at maybe 100 sales TOPS for the lifetime of his title, this sales ranking may be the only plus in his writing career. A sad but true fact – not simply a conjecture.

What's the point?

So, you authors out there are probably wondering, What’s the point. If I want to see my work published, if I want sales, I pretty much have to toe the line and do whatever it takes – whatever Amazon dictates, because they’re the only real game in town.

Maybe. Maybe not. It’s true that they are trying to take over the playing field as previously described. But if everyone jumps on the bandwagon without knowing where that wagon is headed, when the dust settles, the only one who will finish the trip and still be on the wagon will be ... Amazon.

Why? Because all that’s going to result from Amazon’s latest market ploy is akin to WalMart’s world-wide domination strategy. It is a known fact that when WalMart moves into a community, it brings a homogenized and expanded content at cheaper prices to areas where it was formerly not available, but it also KILLS all other stores in the area, making WalMart the only game in town. Is this a bad thing? It is when WalMart squeezes out other retailers who provide jobs for the community so that WalMart is the only employer in town. Amazon is attempting to do the exact same thing in publishing by becoming the only content distributor in town. They do this by encouraging the following events:

1. Authors will remove their ebook content from other ebook retailers like Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, in effect shriveling the content base these retail distributors have to offer their remaining customers. This will erode the content base of these competitors.

2. Amazon will continue to work against standardization of ebook content delivery, ensuring that any customer who bought a Nook or other ereader will experience enough difficulty finding suitable content that this will further erode the customer base of these competitors.

3. Amazon will continue to dictate pricing in favor of quantity so that very few content providers will benefit greatly, but Amazon will benefit across the board from every content provider.

4. Amazon will continue to favor authors who’ve been previously favored by successful publishers, and ignore other potentially worthy authors who, for whatever reason, cannot get their books to sell like hotcakes at a pancake breakfast fundraiser. That means lesser known authors will not enjoy any of the automated promotion mechanisms in place to reward and promote bestselling books that don’t actually need these promotion mechanisms to achieve sales success (in the same way that publishers promoted successful authors with TV and magazine/newspapers ads and other promotions to keep them on the bestseller list while virtually ignoring midlist and newcomer authors).

5. The end result is that all this flurry to offer books for free and exclusively on Amazon won’t amount to any more success than the author might have seen otherwise, once the dust settles.

From our own experience.

From our own experience with experimentation in Amazon’s program, it is apparent that whatever momentary sales spike certain featured titles have experienced when offered for free, the benefits disappear entirely once the title is no longer offered for free. What this tells us is that, once customers find out they can get something for free, they will no longer pay for it. Not even 99-cents. The only reason they would ever pay $9.99 for any ebook is if they really, really want the book and couldn’t get it for free at a library. And let’s face it, no indie author fits into that category of ‘really, really want it’ enough for anyone to pay mass-market paperback price for an ebook.

The only way authors have found they can fight this trend is to split their books into smaller segments and sell them piecemeal. That means totally revamping ebook content to fit this new segmented sales mentality. Now, instead of a book being 80,000 words, it may only be 30,000. And maybe it will still sell at 99-cents ... modestly. But that 80,000-word book will never again see sales at $2.99 or higher, thanks to a lot of super-desperate indie authors and Amazon. Now nobody has any hope of making decent money off their books unless they can pull an Amanda-Hocking blitz. And we don’t see that happening. Do you? Not at 99-cents, and not for free, certainly.

At 99 cents, a title would have to sell more than eight times as many copies.

At 99 cents, making 35% per sale on Amazon, a title would have to sell more than EIGHT TIMES as many books as it would at $2.99 and 70% per sale. That means if an author is lucky enough to sell 100 copies, the take from a 99-cent price would be a mere $34.65, as opposed to $209.30 at $2.99 – neither of which seems worth all the work it takes to write a book and get a decent cover. Amanda Hocking’s game was to have several different series and several books in each series, for 15 or more titles. Clearly her goal was to sell more than 100 books. But if your only content happens to be one book, then giving it away or selling it for 99 cents isn’t going to make success happen.

What are your thoughts, your strategies?

So, authors, what are your thoughts on this? What are you selling strategies? Does anyone have a plan that seems to be working? Or do you see this as the end of another era...

The day the writing died.

Send us a comment and let us know what you think!


  1. Well now this paints a grim picture. I agree that Amanda Hocking is a rare exception and should not be the hope and dream of every new/struggling writer. I also agree that the book industry is changing a great deal but it's not all bad. For one thing Ebooks have beaten print books in sales for the past 3 years and while Amazon is a typical big company who wants to destroy the competition completly I don't think the will ever succeed. There are too many different tablet readers out there for all the other formats to just dissapear. Also as you say the music industry isn't dead, just changed. Here in Newfoundland lots of local bands get by and several have gone in to great success. I see more concerts now then I ever have. And for reading I am buying more ebooks but I buy based on only what I want to read. I never liked hardcover so Ebooks are a great fit for me. The price doesn't matter to me much (as long as it's less than the paperback) and I can't be the only one like this. So has the writing died? Not by a long shot, it's changing a great deal but change can be a good thing and I hope that's the case here.

  2. Hey Charles, thanks for your comment. You are right, things aren't dead yet. Just changing. We want to hear from readers and writers to find out what their take is on the state of flux books are in right now.

    It's scary but also exciting because for the first time in history 'a regular Joe' can get a book published for little or nothing - and that is due directly to Amazon. So, while Amazon's actions may at time seem a bit aggressive and unfriendly (it's just business to them, after all), they have made striking innovations in the industry that have torn down barriers that kept many good and even great authors from getting published. Now the decision is in the readers' hands to pick who will win and who will ... well ... not be quite so lucky in the game of publishing.

    It is a historic time to be in.


  3. It is true that there is still a sorting out going on between Amazon and the Big 6 New York publishing establishment, and that Indie and small press authors face marketing options and competition. However, the real story is the historic fact that Indie, mid-list, and small press authors are now allowed to exist. Amazon crashed the New York Gatekeepers' party with Kindle, and there is no going back. It used to be the publishing establishment was only looking for the next big hit. Now, mid-list and niche authors can make a nice living, too.

    As for the 99 cent strategy, in the end it will be the quality of books, and the buying public's tastes, that determine success of individual books. Giveaways and 99 cent sales are not the end of authors or small press's. Sales and giveaways are only attention getters, a tactic used in all forms of retail business.

    I also disagree with the Walmart analogy that discount stores destroy other worthy business. People do not complain about shopping malls, but do complain about Walmart. Why. Politics. Unionization, or the lack thereof, should not determine where I am allowed to shop. If Amazon destroys the New York publishing establishment, so what? The Big 6 New York establishment were not good gatekeepers of quality content, anyway. They were merely a monopoly that controlled distribution to retail stores.

    Most important, Amazon represents freedom. No one can tell us what we are allowed to read anymore. It's all out there now on Kindle. Sorting through all those books is no different than me spending all day at used bookstores, shopping at garage stores, or shopping at Barnes & Noble. Eventually, I will find what I want. And if what I want is 99 cents, great!

  4. Hi Walt, thanks for another viewpoint that expands the issue for further consideration.

    You are so right in saying that the big-six monopoly had to go. It was in place for way too long, and it was a system that abused its power in many ways, keeping out everyone except 'old favorites.'

    The Walmart analogy doesn't apply to malls - apples and oranges. Walmart moves into small rural areas and kills all the mom-and-pop businesses ... grocery stores, hardware stores, tire stores, clothing stores, etc., by undercutting established pricing with the introduction of cheaply foreign-made items that are possible only because of the disparity between American wages and third-world-country wages. Shopping malls would not dare to invade these depressed economic regions because there would be no profit in it for them, based on their retail structure. Walmart is akin to retail strip-mining. Whether this is inherently good or bad depends on the observer.

    It is great when consumers benefit from an industry shakeup. It is bad when everyone else suffers - especially the little guys (indie authors) who were just getting a toe-hold in the game. If authors can manage to keep their shirts in this game, then all will be good. Not everyone will be a winner, but at least everyone is getting a change to go to bat.



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