A couple months ago, I tweeted:
— Nels Wadycki (@nelswadycki) April 2, 2016
Well, the changes are moving from mostly aesthetic, user experience enhancements to actual new features. A couple weeks ago, I got one of the usual emails from Goodreads notifying me there was a Giveaway for a book on my To Read list. That happens regularly, but when I clicked through to enter the Giveaway, I saw this:
Now, if I were still blogging about fantasy basketball, this would be like the equivalent of Hassan Whiteside’s free agency decision coming up this summer (ie: a big deal to people involved in the game, but fairly meaningless to the general population). I would have been all over it, reporting it as soon as I saw the alert on my phone. But here it’s been a month since the official Goodreads blog post about it, and 2 weeks since I first got the email… It’s probably been reported all over the writing/marketing/self-publishing blogs and KBoards, but I don’t really hawk those like I used to. Plus, this way I get to provide my own, unbiased opinion and analysis. Yay?
What’s the big deal?
That little image nestled in there next to the word Format. It says Amazon Kindle.
Well, author’s (and publishers) have always been able to give away hard copies of books on Goodreads. It’s a great marketing tool, since Goodreads promotes the Giveaway for you on the site and there are plenty of people who enter giveaways for books in genres they like without knowing anything about the book beforehand. But creating a paperback version (even using Amazon’s Creatspace) is a lot of extra work compared to making an ebook available for Kindle.
Not only that, but giving away ebooks is a lot cheaper. Giving away a paperback (or other hard copy) costs the base price of the book (printing and shipping). For The Valkyrie Project, that means about $7 per copy given away. In contrast, the Kindle giveaway costs a fixed price of $119 and you can give away up to 100 copies. I’m not sure why you’d do less than 100 if your goal is to get copies into the hands of as many people as possible (which is usually the goal with any indie marketing effort). So obviously, that’s only $1.19 per copy – almost 6 times cheaper.
So that’s huge by itself, but I also believe that giving away ebooks on Goodreads is much more likely to yield reviews (the lifeblood of books and authors) than making the same ebook free on Amazon via KDP Select. I don’t have any actual proof, but it’s logical because people who join Goodreads do so to keep track of books they’re reading and review them. There’s really nothing else to do there. People on Amazon generally want many other things in addition to books.
And, as they point out in the blog post, when someone reviews your book on Goodreads (or even most of the time if they just add it to their To Read list), it will show up in the feed that all of their friends will then see on the site.
Once this rolls out to the general author population on Goodreads, Amazon will have provided authors with yet another fantastic marketing tool. And now is the part where you can chime in with your worries that by giving away only Kindle copies, authors and readers are locking themselves into Amazon’s platform. I am well aware that is exactly what Amazon is trying to get everyone to do. But it’s not any different from, as one of thousands of examples, Apple Music giving away 3 months free to try to get people to join that service, or Tidal music getting Kanye’s album exclusively for 2 weeks before everyone else to try to get people to join that service. I don’t want Amazon to gain a monopoly on ebook sales, for sure, but I also hope that people who worry that Amazon is going to begin acting like a monopolist and exploiting authors remember that without Amazon, there likely wouldn’t even be a market for ebooks big enough to sustain the careers of as many authors as now make a full-time living from their writing. (I’m certainly not one of them, nor do I ever think I will be, but I am happy that writers now have that option and can actually earn a comfortable living as a midlist author instead of living on ramen until striking gold and then eating only cavier)
Really, this is just another step in the evolution of Goodreads, Kindle Unlimited, and Amazon as a whole, an iterative process in which Amazon figures out (or guesses) what customers want and gives it to them. And while it may not be exactly what authors want (for example – you don’t get the contact info for winners of the Giveaway), smart authors will use it to get what they want (by putting email list signups links in their ebooks, or perhaps making note of the winners on Goodreads and following up to see if they leave reviews on the site).
Bonus New Feature
Something else Amazon/Goodreads added in May was Goodreads Deals. I’m hesitant to say that this feature will be much less important/impactful than Kindle Giveaways because I feel like it could turn out to be just as big a deal in the right circumstances (and in the perfect circumstances, even more so). But, it isn’t clear — even from the blog post aimed at authors and publishers — how books get listed as Goodreads Deals in the first place… Indie authors can’t discount prices on ebooks. They can only price their ebook relative to their paperback version to make it look like a better deal than getting the hard copy.
If the Goodreads Deal becomes something that can be sent out when an author makes use of their Kindle Countdown days on KDP Select, then it will be a useful way to contact potential readers (especially if you get a lot of people to add your book to their To Read lists by chaining it with the Giveaway feature above).
The more likely option, when beta testing is complete, is that Goodreads Deals will be similar to rental lists from sites like Bookbub or Freebooksy, where authors can apply to be part of an email blast (and probably give Amazon some money for the favor). One clear advantage that Amazon has over the other free and discount book lists is that it gets a 30 or 70% direct cut from all of the books sold, rather than just an affiliate fee. In order to appear somewhat more impartial, they do allow for deals on the other major ebook retailers, but Amazon certainly knows that they have 60-80% of the ebook market, so they can afford to include the other companies. It’s a small price to pay to please Goodreads users and continue to have the opportunity to eventually move them into the Kindle and Amazon ecosystem (through the Kindle Giveaways, of course).
One of the first things that any independent publisher giving advice to other independent publishers says is: Write a good book, have it professionally edited, and get a good cover for it.
Those are the three central tenants of self-publishing. I’m not going to even bother looking up and linking to references because I’ve seen it on just about every site I’ve ever read about self-publishing (sometimes multiple times).
The other thing I see on most of the sites dispensing that advice is a lack of supporting evidence. By that, I mean: How does anyone know that these are the most important things to publishing a book? Is there an experiment that can prove it?
Unfortunately, I don’t think there’s a way to quantify whether you’ve written a good book or not. I suppose you could write a book, throw it up on Amazon and watch your numbers for some amount of time… then somehow “make it better” and upload the new, better version and see if you sell more copies. Theoretically, if you did end up selling more without changing anything else you’re doing, then you could attribute the increase in sales to the fact that people reading it are recommending it more to friends who then buy it. That’s a tenuous connection, and it assumes, as stated, that you don’t change anything else you’re doing. Not only that, but you’d have to make sure you don’t get any new reviews on Amazon (or Goodreads) because those negative or positive reviews will certainly influence whether or not someone discovering the book will buy it. (Since that’s exactly what the rating system is designed to do)
There are a lot of other outside factors that would have to be controlled, but even if you could plausibly eliminate some external variables as causes for an increase in sales, it’s going to be a pretty painful experiment and one that I’m pretty sure no author would willingly take on unless it was under a pen name. The same thing applies to professional editing. You could put up a book that hasn’t been professionally edited, and see how it sells, then have someone edit it and see if your numbers go up. The same restrictions and caveats apply to this case.
So that leaves the book’s cover.
I imagine it’s hard (especially for those authors who are writing and promoting a lot more than me) to devise an experiment where the only variable is the cover. But as someone selling in the single digits per year with only one book out (last year, this was), and doing basically 0 promotion, it was actually pretty easy for me.
The numbers below will probably make people laugh, but I’m posting them so you can see the actual values and not just a hand-waving conclusion to my bold experiment. I’m also posting them just to be honest with other indie/self-publishers who will (hopefully) end up on this page at some point. This can be the reality of it if you’re not good at marketing (or if I’m really being honest, just don’t want to put the time into it) and you only have one book out. (My reading on the subject tells me that the 4th rule of self-publishing is: Don’t bother promoting if you only have 1 book. It’s much better to hit it big when you have a bunch of books out.) Lucky for me, I have a day job with health insurance that pays well enough that I’m not a starving artist. In fact, I usually have more calories available to me than I could possibly consume on a regular basis, so I have to work out and eat right or I’ll end up as the opposite of a starving artist. Now, perhaps if I were a starving artist, and writing books to sell was the best option I had for making money, then I’d skip the extra hours that I put in at work and spend more time marketing. But that’s kind of a whole different blog post… so let’s proceed.
Book Cover Experiment
From 2012 when The Valkyrie Project was originally published until November of 2015, I had this cover:
I thought it was pretty decent considering I had done it myself. I still think it is decent considering I did it myself, but decent doesn’t sell books in this day and age.
And as proof, with that cover:
January 2015 – October 2015 sales (before cover change): 3
There’s no missing 0 there. It’s just 3.
I uploaded a new cover – no other changes – at the start of November 2015. It looked like this:
November 2015 – December 2015 sales (after cover change): 12
Yes, I went from 0.3 books per month to 6 books per month simply by changing the cover image.
Now, with only 15 total sales, I’m sure some statistician will say that I don’t have a big enough sample size, but I think the dramatic increase in sales makes up for that fact. Especially considering I did nothing different in those two months.
“But wait!” the astute among you will say, “Didn’t you release another book at the end of 2015? Certainly that had some effect on the sales numbers! Your experiment is not as flawless as you claim!”
Yes, I did in fact release a book at the end of 2015, but the 12 sales from November to December all took place before I announced that book and even before it was available on Amazon. So while you steely-eyed bean counters are correct in part, the addition of that book to my inventory did not have an effect on the 12 sales of the Valkyrie Project.
Weathering The Past has done pretty well since it’s release, most of which I attribute to the cover:
I am sure it’s harder to sell the second book in series (and I have heard/seen anecdotal evidence to support that), so the fact that I’ve sold more copies (15) of Weathering The Past in the first 2 months than I did in 3 years (up to October 2015) with The Valkyrie Project makes me happy (even though it has no bearing on nor relevance to the above experiment). And honestly, now that the book(s) is(are) actually selling a bit, it has inspired me to increase my output and stay focused instead of bouncing around between projects as I have been doing probably a bit too much recently. But that also could fill a whole other blog post.