Thursday, February 10, 2011

Guest Post by Guido Henkel

My guest poster today is an interesting case.

On one hand, I've never seen a more professional self-published writer. Guido Henkel's website for his Jason Dark series, his covers, and his methodical, smart approach to selling books would be envied by any of the Big 6. His blog has a terrific, step-by-step instruction on how to format e-books, and is worth studying.

So surely his ebooks must be selling like crazy. Right?

Read on...


Things you can do if your book is not selling so well
by Guido Henkel

There has never been a better time for authors to publish their own work, no doubt, and in recent months we’ve read a lot on these pages about successful indie authors who have managed to not only carve out a niche for themselves but actually make a living with their self-published books.

Unfortunately, not everyone has reached that point just yet.

While there is certainly a pattern evident in what these authors did in order to achieve this kind of success, it is clearly not a reciprocal process and doing the same thing does not necessarily guarantee the same kind of success for other authors and books. I think many of these elements are simply a necessity in order to “make it” at all, such as proper covers, strong descriptions, etc. Therefore, to set yourself apart from other authors and increase your discoverability, I have always felt that you sometimes have to think outside the box and create promotions that get attention simply because they are a little unusual. As you will see, I have tried to do that on a number of occasions, though with limited success.

Especially when your books are sitting in the midfield the need to be proactive is, I think, imperative. I am not only talking merely about posting on message boards and using social networking, but also the critical examination of one’s own work.

When I first realized the books were not selling to my expectations, I decided to rework the covers. The original layout of the covers (shown above) was designed with print booklets in mind, featuring a recurring theme that went through then entire series along with highly detailed cover artwork. While the books look gorgeous in print - at least in my eyes - when reduced to thumbnails, none of the detail remained. In fact, it was virtually impossible to recognize anything other than perhaps the Jason Dark logo.

With that in mind, a rework of the covers was in order, specifically for the eBook versions, to bring out the focal point of the cover artwork and complementing the images with larger titles.

I like the new covers much better for eBooks and have no intention of going back to the print covers for those channels - although I still use the original print covers inside the eBooks for illustrative purposes.

Another change I made over time was the price point. Each volume in the series sells for $2.99 and no matter what anyone thinks, to me that is a good and realistic price point, even though these are novella-length releases. I have never bought into the magic of the 99 cent price tag, and I still don’t, but I gave it a try. For a limited time I offered the first volume in the series for 99 cents to introduce more readers to the series, hoping that it would lead to an upsell of the other parts in the series.

Although I saw my sales triple, roughly, clearly this was a losing proposition. Given Amazon’s royalty structure - or the overhead cost of such minuscule credit card transactions on my own site for that matter - I would have had to sell at least six times as many copies. Unsurprisingly to me, that did not happen, and I decided to return to my original $2.99 price point. I may be selling less, but I’m making more money that way. I know, this has worked big time for some authors but in the case of “Jason Dark,” I did not find it as much of a driver as I expected.

I’ve been working in the entertainment industry for almost 30 years now and I know the importance of publicity. Even before the series was launched I approached the media with it to make sure I had coverage from day one, and it resulted in a nice launch with solid coverage across the web. The key to approaching media is to come across professionally. Not only does indie publishing have a stigma, what’s even worse is that every media outlet is swamped with requests for coverage these days. Even the most ordinary book blogger who started his site last week will find himself confronted with a pile of proposed submissions that is impossible to conquer.

It is even worse when you talk about major media, such as USA Today, the LA Times, etc. Nonetheless, I have had announcements on various major horror-related websites at the time, oftentimes followed up with solid reviews shortly after. Even Fangoria covered the series and gave it a full-page review, which is something that rarely happens. Personally, I like to attribute most of the willingness of these media outlets to support the series to the professional presentation of the books and the official website, which took me four months to put together painstakingly from scratch. From the beginning, the web presence of the series was designed as a destination all of its own and I included not only the ability for people to purchase books right from the site, but also message boards, the ability to leave reviews and ratings, all the way to free in-browser versions of all the books in the series. While I originally offered the full books for free there, I have since switched to a sample model, allowing only about 40% of the book to be read online.

Over the course of the past year I have also constantly approached bloggers and professional reviewers to get “Jason Dark” reviewed, with fairly good success I would say, as there are, at this time, roughly 50 reviews all over the web covering the series. Nonetheless, that is an endeavor that never stops, of course. Strangely enough, though, reviews on Amazon or Barnes&Noble have been very sparse and the few that are there are mostly reposts from those same bloggers. It has always amazed me how some books manage to be awash in customer reviews in very short periods of time, and somehow I have not figured out the magic formula for that yet. At the same time, I often feel it is the crux for success on Amazon and other channels. Too bad Amazon does not give authors information about page views, so it is impossible to gauge how many people may have looked at my books and decided not to buy them for one reason or another, but I am certain that customer reviews do drive sales.

All of this has been pretty much standard fare for any writer who self-publishes and takes his product seriously. However, I have also dabbled in promotions that are a bit more outside the usual box. To get people interested in the series I was able to secure a dedicated “Jason Dark: Ghost Hunter” panel during last year’s “Weekend of Horrors” in Los Angeles. This is one of the largest horror conventions in town, attracting not only fans but also major horror superstars. Apart from appearing on the panel and discussing the series, I also handed out hundreds of print copies of “Theater of Vampires.” As with any good promotion, the idea was to generate interest. Have people check out the sample book, hopefully read it, and look for more.

On another occasion I also gave away hundreds of copies of books during the Saturn Awards in Hollywood. This awards ceremony is gathering some of the Hollywood’s most talented, creative people to celebrate the movies they made. As a result, people like James Cameron, Sam Raimi, Leonard Nimoy and countless others got their very own look at “Jason Dark.” I did the same thing with the “Reaper Awards” later in the year, where every visitor found a copy of “Theater of Vampires” in their goodie bag.

Since horror fans are my main target group, “Jason Dark” also lent itself to a promotion with independent studio Blue Underground. We had thousands of advertising flyers packaged with their DVD and Blu-Ray release of the zombie classic “City of the Living Dead.” That way I was able to directly reach out to hardcore horror fans. Clearly, it was not the ideal movie for the purpose - a Hammer film would have been much more suitable - but it was worth a try. At the time I also approached Warner Brothers and Universal Studios to do the same thing in the DVD and Blu-Ray release of “Sherlock Holmes” and “The Wolf Man” respectively, but unfortunately the cost was prohibitive for my limited budget.

To me, these kinds of promotions have a lot of potential, even though they do cost a good bit of money, and I plan to revisit them again in the future. I think, now that the series is up to ten volumes, there is even more weight behind it, which can make a good bit of difference. It is no longer the new kid on the block.

Shortly after the launch of the series I also took out a full-page color ad in “Screem” magazine, a print publication that specializes on classic horror movies and I spent a lot of time at various conventions, handing out flyers to visitors, just to burn the name into people’s minds.

With all these cool things going on, surely, the “Jason Dark” series has turned into a hot property, you might think by now. However, you might be surprised that it still sits firmly in the lower midfield of the eBook catalog, with sales rankings in the 100,000s somewhere. So, in a way, my guns-blazing approach has not been quite as effective as I had originally envisioned. Why, I can’t tell you, just as Joe will never be able to put his finger on the one thing that makes his books sell. It might just be the constellation of stars, or karma. We will never know.

I don’t like sitting back and just taking things the way they are, as I am sure you can tell by now. Instead I began to look at my own work again, giving it a look-over. Maybe the problem lies somewhere else, after all. Maybe the problem is rooted in the product itself?

I have returned to taking a look at more basic things, such as the blurbs for my books, the first impression it creates on Amazon’s website, the first things a visitor of the product page will see. As I am writing this I am in the process of uploading new product descriptions to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo. Trying to tighten them up a little, making sure they are as impactful as possible might just be the way to turn prospective browser-window-shoppers into customers. Maybe, in the past, I have not been critical enough with some of my own work, but at this point in the game, I sure as hell am not giving up.

Joe sez: First of all, I'm amazed and impressed by how much Henkel has done to promote this series. He's attacked both tried-and-true methods of marketing--a website, appearance, ads--and he also thinks outside the box and tries new, imaginative ways to promote.

I bought the first Jason Dark ebook, Demon's Night, and found it to be exactly as Henkel describes, a fun, penny-dreadful horror novella, well written, well edited, and compelling.

So why isn't this guy selling?

Here's what I would do.

1. Experiment more with price. Dropping to 99 cents for a short period of time tripled his sales, but he then changed it back to $2.99 too quickly. I'd recommend pricing the first three books in the series at 99 cents, and leaving them there for at least two months. It's a drastic step, but there's really nothing to lose here. He needs to get on some of the genre bestseller lists to get noticed, and he won't get there with rankings of 100,000.

I price my novellas at 99 cents. $2.99 might be a tad too much for a novella. In figuring out the "value" of an ebook, I've determined that it has nothing to do with cover price. Value is determined by how much money an ebook earns. I have a feeling, if he dropped his prices, he'd eventually start selling six times what his is now selling, which means he'll earn more in the long run.

2. Bundle. The more virtual shelf space an author has, the better the chances of being discovered. Henkel has a good opportunity here to add to his shelf-space without having to write more. Why not try combining three Jason Dark novellas into one ebook, and selling that for $2.99? Or selling five ebooks in one package for $4.99? Lots of combinations and possibilities here, and since Henkel is already a pro at cover art and formatting, it won't cost him extra to do this.

3. Wait. I've said many times that the wonderful thing about ebooks is they are forever, and the shelf space is infinite. This means there is time for something to catch on and start selling. In every Kindle success story I've heard about, it took months, or years, before the author became a hit. While it is frustrating to be trying your best and not seeing fabulous sales, this is a marathon, not a sprint. Luck ALWAYS plays a part. It just can take a while. Which brings me to...

4. Keep writing. While ten books in the Jason Dark series is impressive, it might be time for Henkel to try something new. I have 19 ebooks on Kindle right now, with several more being released this year. I've got horror, thriller, mystery, humor, sci-fi, and even some poetry. And I have ZERO clue why some of my ebooks sell better than others. But diversity can only help people find you. And once they find you and like you, they'll buy more of your work.

5. Stop advertising. In my opinion, ads are a huge waste of money. I know a lot of ebook bestselling authors. None of them advertise. It isn't necessary, and in the case of ebooks, I think it's worthless. Also, I'm really not in love with all the ads on Henkel's home page. I'd be curious to know how much income they're bringing in, but in my opinion they'd have to bring in a lot of money to make up for the distraction they cause.

6. Createspace. Henkel's print books look pretty damn cool, but they aren't for sale on Amazon, probably because it's damn near impossible to to get self-pubbed books for sale. But I've found that print and ebook sales, linked together on Amazon, tend to enhance each other.

Createspace will print Henkel's books, and list them on Amazon.com. He might need to bundle them in order to find a decent profit point, but the set-up cost is minimal ($39). There's really nothing to lose in trying.

Those are my immediate ideas. Does anyone have anything to add?