Friday, March 16, 2018

Dark Winter...The Postmortem of a Zombie Book

My debut novel, Dark Winter: The Great Divide Game crossed an important milestone yesterday.

It now has a seven figure sales rank on Amazon.  In case you are wondering, no that is not a good thing.

Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,049,228 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
#7510 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Military
#8066 in Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Post-Apocalyptic
#10086 in Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Post-Apocalyptic

By every possible metric this book is a failure.

Time for some painful self analysis.

The question is, what did I do wrong?

The answer is basically everything.

I put my worst foot forward.   I should have spent money on a cover.  No one on Earth follows Ben Franklin's advice, everyone judges a book by it's cover.  Amazon is incredibly visual as a sales medium.  Your cover is your biggest first impression and your most important advertisement and I should have spent money there.  A first rate cover will run you $1,500.  Instead, I used Amazon's cover generator. Bad idea.

Next.  I went super cheap on the editing and had a friend who didn't have enough time to do it, edit my book.  This was mistake two. Dark Winter came fully loaded with format changes, grammatical errors and other detail screwups. To say nothing of never having had a pro say to me, "these are your precious babies that you must kill to improve your story."  I should have spent money on a real editor.  A first rate editor will run about $3000.

These two things are important, I knew about them going in and chose not to spend the money.

Now that I have researched my failure, I'm so, so glad I did NOT do those things because today I'd still have a book with a seven figure sales rank and I would also be out nearly $5,000.00.

In case you were wondering about it, I'm glad I didn't bother with Bookbub either.  You need people to read your book and bookbubers just buy the $0.99 book, stick it in their Kindle library with the view of maybe getting around to reading it someday or maybe not, hell it was just a buck. Yeah, Bookbub spikes your rankings...for one day only but you also have to pay to get on that list and pretty much nobody ever makes a profit from it.  You might be number one for a single day (yeaaaa! muppet arms!) and the next morning you drop off the Bookbub ranking's cliff at fourteen thousand.

There is a reason for that and that reason is called the A9 algorithm and it ignores Bookbub sales.

The A9 is Amazon's search engine and anybody who wants to make it as an Amazon indy had better start researching that thing...just like I didn't.

Thinking of Amazon as an online department store catalog (Cataline seriously dates himself here) is wrong.  Amazon's real business is the A9 algorithm, and it just sells stuff to support of that.

It is the A9 that makes money for Amazon.  However, in theory it can make you money as well.  If you approach it right.

Amazon sells everything now but I strongly suspect that the biases within the A9's programming DNA are strongly oriented toward book sales.  Call it a legacy issue.

For those of my readers too young to remember, there was a time that Amazon only sold books.  And it was a brilliant idea when Bezos came up with it.  Before Amazon, if you wanted a specific book, you ran around to all the bookstores in your area hoping to find it on the shelf.  If it wasn't on the shelf, then in despair and dejection you would have to pick a bookstore, trudge inside of it, order the book and then wait four to six weeks for the book to come in... To that store you understand, you had to go back in there to get it.  Having the book arrive on your doorstep in less than a week was nothing short of amazing.

Back to my point, the A9 sells everything but what it is best at selling is books.

So what will Amazon tell you about how to sell using the A9?

Nothing.  Absolutely, nothing.  Amazon won't tell you a damn thing about it.  Rightfully so, I suppose but there are things you can learn by observation.

First and foremost, you have thirty days to make it on Amazon and that is better than any bookstore in America.  For thirty days A9 will make your book a top priority and try to sell the living hell out of it.  If you haven't made it by day thirty one, then it is welcome to the Amazon Abyss.  Today if you type "dark winter" into the search bar you will be wading through six pages of BDSM romance novels before you get to my book.*  But for thirty days it was on top of the skyline, Amazon played fair there, my book just didn't come through for them and here is why it didn't.

Genre is important to the A9.  Genre is a big part of how it knows who to try and sell your book to.

I screwed that up completely.  When I wrote Dark Winter I decided I was going to bend all the genres and create my own crazy, great thing.  I had a Far Right action adventure book with both kinds zombie; the Walking Dead undead and the 28 Days bio-rage bot. It had political intrigue, a zombie attack during a major college football game and the start of the Second American Civil War.  All on the eve of the fall of the world.

The A9 had no idea what the hell to do with all of this.

I placed Dark Winter in the genres of Zombie, Post Apocalyptic, Military and Science Fiction.  Those elements were there but Dark Winter really wasn't any of those things.  The world hadn't fallen yet, so it wasn't Post Apocalyptic. The people who are into that, want a world where 90 % of the population died over night.  It had Marines but they weren't in starships and that is what Military Science Fiction people want.   As for Zombie lovers, what those guys want is a group of terrified people holed up in a mall while waves of the undead are beating at the doors.  My book didn't have that either.

When all is said and done Dark Winter: The Great Divide Game was about a group of hard military men and their hot medical women up against high and low tech threats.  They get their backs pinned to the wall but push back hard and win through in the end.  This is called a Medical Thriller and it was the one damn box I didn't check.

The last problem the book had may have been it's biggest. Call it Also Bought Incest.

Clicking on Dark Winter this morning and scrolling down to the "Customers who bought this item also bought" section, you would ideally see the top ten authors in Thriller,  Medical and maybe PA.  Michael Crichton's Andromeda Strain wouldn't be out of place there.  John Ringo's Last Centurion would have been right at home.   But what you will see in my Also Boughts is an incredibly bizarre and apparently random list.  Right Ho Jeeves: A Binge at Binkley the graphic novel by P.G. Wodehouse, The Last Closet by Moira Greyland, The Lawdog Files by D. Lawdog, Young Man's War by Rod Walker, Crisis and Conceit by Vox Day, Brings the Lightening by Peter Grant, plus a couple of Galaxy's Edge books.

Think about that for a second.  A comic book version of a Jeeves novel.  A heartbreaking biography of violated innocence. A hilarious collection of stories and anecdotes from a Texas lawman born in Africa. A collection of essays and outrages.  A couple of Star Wars books that are way better than any Star Wars movie you are going to see in a theater these days and a western by a South African.  The only thing on that list that is even close to the mark is a Heinlein juvenile pastiche.

Readers of this blog know that this list does have one thing in common, all of the authors are published by Castalia House and everything except the GE books have been published by that small but very fine house.

Now click on any of those books and tell me what you see.  Don't worry I'm not going anywhere.

Again, the Also Boughts are all by Castalia House authors.

It's great that Castalia fans are motivated.  It's fantastic that they get out there and buy... but...there is no getting around it, Castalia House is an enclosed ecosystem so far as the A9 is concerned. And here is the hard truth, an enclosed ecosystem is not growth.  It is stasis and that is slow death.  The A9 was only trying to sell my book to one group of people who who are only interested in one thing; was the book published by Castalia? If the answer is, no, they will move on.

I was in the unfortunate position of being a part of  the Castalia A9 ecosystem without being endorsed by it.   When I gave myself a small and apologetic plug on Vox Popoli, the commentators there who like me (lets not take a poll) took an interest.  This small number of buyers was just enough for the A9 to corral me into a group of potential buyers who weren't going to buy my work because it wasn't a Castalia release. **

Painful self analysis completed.

I actually look on all of this as good news. I'm very excited and optimistic because I've worked out where I fucked up.  Moreover, I've got a really good idea about what I need to do in the future although that is proprietary information and I don't have permission to share it.

 Dark Winter is a book that can be relaunched in a year or two under a new title once I have three or four more books in that series ready to go.   In the mean time I now know where I screwed up and where I need to correct myself.  This is the kind of failure that it is easy to learn from and I have.

Okay, I'm done here.

*Although it is the first result for the "The Great Divide Game".  Guess what I'm renaming the series when I relaunch it next year?  

** That and all the rest of the reasons I listed above.

Link from the comments below now posted


bob kek mando - ( I love the smell of Autism on the internet. It smells like ... victoREEEEEEEEE ) said...

a group of terrified people hold up in a mall

you know, for $3000 i could probably be talked into doing some edimitating.

Emmett Fitz-Hume said...

Not sure if you listened to it (parts of the post sound like you might have) but Daddy Warpig’s Geek Gab podcast had an interview of Nick Cole about this issue and it was fascinating.

Cataline Sergius said...

I've been doing a lot of studying. Chris Fox, Cole & Anspach and a few other sources.

Jew613 said...

Emmet, do you have a link? I tried but havent found that podcast.

Emmett Fitz-Hume said...

Here's a YouTube link:

I usually just listen to it on my iPhone.

I found it very interesting.

Jeff aka Orville said...

Brian Niemeier is editing the book series that I'm releasing next year, and he only charges $500. I was very pleased with what he did with the first book. Save that cash for the book covers!

Don't feel bad. I made all these same mistakes too with my first book last year.

I'm doing the Cole-Anspach maneuver with my series later this year. I'm going to let the AI drive this time.

Cataline Sergius said...

@ Jeff


My intel on cover art was seven months old.

Holy crap, has that ever turned into that real bottle neck.


Try $4000 for a top notch cover now.

Emmett Fitz-Hume said...

I'm preparing to enter the self-publishing field later this year (my timetable has a December 2018 launch).

Currently working on two series, all short novels. I'm writing them as one long story and then separating them for 1) Continuity/ease of editing and 2) to have multiple, serial novels ready to publish in intervals (like Cole spoke of). Both series are unrelated.

Series A) The 9th Hispana settles and starts a Republic on an alien world after making its way through a dimensional gate. It centers on a group of soldiers who are initially in something called The Monster Legions. A fair bit of political intrigue.

Elevator Pitch:
"Ridley Scott's Gladiator meets James Cameron's Aliens."

Series B) Our Solar System about 1,500 years in the future. Earth is a post-apocalyptic wasteland and the birthplace of barbarians, avoided by all. The rest of the system has advanced and is ruled by the Emperor of the Crimson Storm and the Jovian Lords. But a ravaged planet earth holds a powerful, secret weapon...

Elevator Pitch:
"Frank Herbert's Dune meets Xenophon's Anabasis."

As for covers, a friend and I think we have found an interesting and somewhat more economical alternative to the Cover Art problem:

We found a local marketing and design company willing to create an Amazon friendly logo/cover (my friend has already purchased their services). The bulk of their business comes from Micro-breweries and they design some pretty snazzy labels and designs. They have a contract with her and are reading parts of her novel for inspiration.

They are going to come up with a design for my friend's mystery novel for $500. Now, to be clear, its not a typical cover illustration. But, if it looks like the rest of their design, it will look slick and professional.

I've already budgeted the money for it myself come November/December.

Brian Niemeier said...

Cataline, You're not alone in your plight. I can confirm what Jeff said. We need more authors producing solid entertainment to fight the poz in SFF. I'm doing my part by helping new authors polish their books and coaching them on marketing.

The prices you quoted for various services are highly inflated because many hobbyist writers have more money than sense. You can find covers, editing, and formatting at reasonable rates if you know where to look. The covers of my Dragon Award-winning Soul Cycle series cost less than 1/10 of the price you quoted--each.

As Jeff mentioned, I offer editing services at competitive rates. My exact fee depends on length and deadline, but Jeff's rate is representative. My first novel client's sales improved tenfold over his debut book's performance.

It's good that you're listening to Jason, Nick, and Richard. If you want more hands-on marketing advice and editing from a Dragon Award winner, get in touch with me through my blog.