Hard Lessons in Marketing

I have a confession to make. In the month since my book launched, I have been obsessing over its performance. I was extremely excited when my book first launched. My launch day giveaway yielded over 1,200 downloads with 20 to 30 sales a day for the next few days. But it didn’t take long for everything to change.

As the days and weeks wore on, I started watching my Amazon sales and rankings with a keen interest, feeling almost sick as I watched them plunge into nothingness. I felt discouraged and helpless as my sales dried up and my rankings dropped. I went from 7,000 to 15,000. Then I dropped from 15,000 to 30,000 to 50,000 to 80,000, and so on. I found little solace in the idea that a sales rank of 80,000 is still in the top 8%. You see, I had the unrealistic expectation that my sales would at least stay flat, if not increase a bit each week.

What made it even worse was that nothing I tried worked. Tweeting about my book didn’t help it recover. Neither did Facebook or Goodreads ads. New four and five star reviews didn’t help either. It seemed that nothing could slow my ranking’s steady decline and it just didn’t make sense. Scores of people on various Kindle boards felt the same way about their own books: surely, something is wrong with Amazon’s reporting. We can’t possibly have dropped off a cliff into obscurity, could we have?

The simple answer is this: Yes, we could have, and we did. Of course we did. You see, the real problem is that I didn’t understand how book marketing works because I’ve never done it before. But now, I’m smarter. I know more than I did a month ago.

If you’ve been following my blog at all, you’ve probably heard me say a few times that I’m still trying to figure this marketing thing out, and that’s still true. I’m continuing to learn the ropes, but my expectations and my understanding are changing. I’m starting to realize what drives book sales. And I’m convinced that a lot of folks talking about marketing have it wrong.

The seed for this idea was planted a couple weeks ago. I read a handful of marketing blogs and they all had lists o’ stuff they insisted would help drive sales. To be honest, a lot of it didn’t feel right. So, what did I do? I went and checked them out on Amazon. I wanted to see how well they were selling. I mean, if you are teaching me how to market, you should be selling books like crazy, right? Yeah, um… not right. These folks were doing worse than I was. Granted, I was still in my downhill slide from my launch, but I was still outperforming them, and that didn’t add up for me. I had the distinct feeling that it was a case of the blind leading the blind. As cliché as it is, I think it’s a fitting analogy.

But as my sales continued to wane, I started questioning my logic. So, I started doing some of the things they suggested. Not all, mind you. Some of the things they suggested showed up on my Twitter and Goodreads lists of what not to do. I realized that if stuff annoys me as a consumer, it’s probably going to annoy others. That’s not the way I want to market. That’s not how I want to be known.

Anyway, none of that stuff worked. In some cases, it might have made the difference between two sales and one or zero, but it certainly wasn’t the difference between success and failure. And it’s only as I’m watching my second round of giving away my book for Kindle that stuff is actually starting to click. I’m starting to piece together the little bits into a larger picture that takes the emphasis off the short term. In fact, I have a growing belief that the system (i.e. Amazon) is getting better and better at keeping those short-term successes from affecting the larger book ecosystem. I think, and this is just my opinion, that they are getting pressure from the Big Six to keep small indies like me from disrupting the status quo. I could be completely wrong about that, but they are definitely doing things to stabilize the market.

For example, here is one article that does a pretty good job of discussing the popularity system on Amazon. Popularity is completely different from sales rank. It is specifically designed to be more stable. For example, my free book currently has a sales rank of #788 in the US and #281 in the UK. In Science Fiction-Adventure, I am #8 in the US and #6 in the UK. Popularity is completely different, however. In the US, I’m #190 in Science Fiction-Adventure. To say that differently, I’m on the first page of the best sellers list, but I’m on page 16 in the popularity list. And which list do you think is more important to sales? Yep. Popularity.

First, the bestsellers list is limited to the top 100 for each category.  If you’re not in the top 100, you don’t exist.  You cannot be found that way.  Second, the popularity list is the default browsing mechanism for the site.  What does that mean?  It means that I’m expecting the same slow decline in sales rank that I’ve experienced this past month.  If most sales come from the popularity list and I’m essentially invisible, it won’t be long before the only sales I make are to people who are specifically looking for me.  Once that happens, it’s back to obscurity.

There is a lot more I could say about this, but the point I want to make today is that sales is not a short-term effort, and I think it has little to do with how hard we try. All the marketing tips and tricks will do little to help you succeed on this front. That isn’t to say that these things aren’t important, because they are. It is to say that I’m starting to understand how this stuff works, and it isn’t nearly as depressing as I thought. It’s just how things work in the real world.

I still want to give some attention to all those techniques for marketing and how they play into the longer-term picture, but I’ll leave that for another post. I’m trying to keep these things in “smaller” chunks. So, until next time, happy marketing.

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