E-Reader Publishing: Three Months In (UPDATED 12/29)
This post was originally published on 12/25, but due to a sudden problem, I felt the need to go back and revise. Read it and you'll see why.
On September 3, I self-published my story "Melon Heads" on Amazon.com for the Kindle, thus beginning my experiment in self-publishing for e-readers. September 20 saw the second coming of my previously-published story "I am the Wendigo" and November 16 saw my Lovecraftian tale "The Beast of the Bosporus." My most recent self-published story, "Illegal Alien," debuted on Amazon December 11. At some point I created a formal Amazon author page as well.
At first, I enrolled all of them in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program, which allows members of Amazon Prime to borrow my stories for free (I still get paid through a fund set up for this purpose) and allows me to release my stories for free on certain promotional days. However, being part of KDP Select is conditional on not having the stories available online anywhere else.
KDP Select proved to be a mixed bag. The promotional days allowed me to move large numbers of copies free, which I had hoped would generate more reviews and build buzz, leading to more sales later. The increased number of reviews I expected did not come through (most reviewers are people I already know), although there's no way of knowing the long-term effects of having dozens if not hundreds of readers having seen my content for free. Maybe I'm creating a fan base that will pay off in the future when I have real books available. After all, I did once get some traffic to this blog from a Google search for "Illegal Alien Matthew W. Quinn." The number of free copies moved on the first promotional day tends to be significantly higher than the number moved on later days, and I recall only actual borrow.
So I bought some Facebook advertising for the short stories, remembering how successful it had been in attracting readers to my blog in the summer of 2011. This provided to be a major bust--I'd spent upwards of $70 on advertising, but gleaned few if any sales. This not only applied to my ads for "Melon Heads" and "Wendigo" that received relatively few views and clicks, but even my ads for "The Beast of the Bosporus" that received over 100,000 views and over 100 clicks. Paying $45 for a much nicer cover for "Illegal Alien" didn't generate much sales either. So far, "Illegal Alien" has made 1/4 of the sales "Melon Heads" made in its first month, although since it was published mid-month, I won't be able to make an accurate comparison even after four weeks pass.
This meant more drastic measures were needed. I turned off the KDP Select auto-renew for all four stories. The other stories were either still in their first term or I'd allowed them to renew for another term, but "Wendigo" would no longer be Kindle-exclusive come December 21. This would be especially useful because an ad I'd purchased for my Facebook fan page increased my fan count from 80 to close to 1,400 (as of 12/29), most of whom apparently are from Turkey or other Middle Eastern countries. As far as I know, people from these countries cannot buy from Amazon (except through tricky means like getting a UK e-mail address to access Amazon.co.uk). People from India can access the same Amazon as Americans, but that would exclude Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.
On Christmas Eve, I made the leap to Smashwords, putting up "Wendigo." Soon afterward, I "greased the wheel" a little bit by paying $5.00 to "promote" the post announcing the story was now on Smashwords. The number of "likes" I've gotten from my Middle Eastern fans indicated the move was much appreciated. Within 24 hours, I'd sold ten copies of "Wendigo" in two batches of five. I figured Smashwords' sale of stories in multiple file formats (to allow people using different e-readers or not using e-readers at all) and not being limited by country had paid dividends.
Then when checking my Smashwords Dashboard, I noticed my royalties had been cut in half. I queried Smashwords and looked at the Excel spreadsheet and found that five of the ten sales had been refunded due to "fraudulent payment method." I wrote Smashwords and learned that thieves use Smashwords to either test out stolen cards or "max out" said cards. My remaining five sales were refunded as well for the same reason.
(Smashwords limits purchases to five at a time to minimize the impact of fraud--some poor author "sold" 1,000 copies to a fraudster and then had his purchases refunded.)
Rather than earning $7.85 in a day, I'd earned zero--and my royalties remained zero as of 12/29. I'm not going to complain too much, since it's just one short story and I've only been a Smashwords member for a week or so. Some discussion on LinkedIn indicates that "premium status" (which ensures one's writing is marketed on other sites) on Smashwords is where the real money comes from, and that's still pending. Before I pass judgement on Smashwords as a whole, I'll wait to see what happens with that. I might even buy a Facebook ad for "Wendigo," since it's much, MUCH less limited than Amazon KDP and that might have been a reason behind the first Facebook ad campaign's failure.
My strategy for the moment is to publish the three remaining stories on Smashwords as soon as their KDP Select periods end, which will be in February and March. Any future stories I self-publish will be on KDP Select for one term (to allow for one or two promotional days) and then placed on Smashwords. Maybe I'll post my stories on lulu.com as well.