Category archive: Technology

Amazon Caught Me Gaming the System

A funny thing happened to my royalties from Amazon after I put a few of my short stories on KDP Select. They went up. I didn’t pay much attention at first, but I always seemed to be making more than I expected each month. I knew people were borrowing my short stories through Kindle Unlimited, but it wasn’t until I scrutinized the royalty statements that I understood what was going on.

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Kindle e-books Rising

Amazon announced yesterday that Kindle e-books are now outselling all formats of paper books (combined) in their UK store. They passed this mark a long time ago in the US, but people in the UK have been slower to buy Kindles and adopt electronic reading.

I’ve got a few haired-brained theories as to why UK readers have been slower on the up take. Perhaps they’re a more conservative country than they think, or perhaps they’ve been enthralled watching the slow-motion train wreck of the Euro. I imagine it’s no fun to witness your trading partners’ economies crash and burn. All those Brits who kept them out of the Euro and on the British pound can now take a bow.

The good news, of course, is that even though the adoption of e-reading in the UK has been slower than in America, it is happening. Perhaps that’s why my last free day saw a surprising number of UK downloads.

So I guess I better fill in my Amazon author page for the UK store and work on promotion across the pond. There are Kindles needing e-books.

Amazon’s Amazing and Scary Algorithm

This is a cautionary tale for indie-authors.

Up until around June 23rd, Amazon used to auto-suggest Apocalypse Revolution to readers. For instance, when looking at a product page for a similar horror novel, readers would see this header below the cover page and description  “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought.” After that comes the row of about one hundred clickable thumb-nails of novels usually in the same genre. When checking out other horror/scfi adventure novels, I often found that Apocalypse Revolution was auto-suggested.

But it all changed in the third week of June. Now I can only find one novel that auto-suggests AR: The Dragon and the Unicorn, and AR is about the 90th suggestion.

So what happened? Obviously this was not a human decision, except that a bunch of variables were programmed into the auto-suggest algorithm and my novel tripped one of them. Here are my theories:

1) Low downloads on a free day. This is my bad. I waited months for the new cover and then ran three free days close together. That’s a killer for downloads because the hard core readers who are looking for deals will have already downloaded your novel the day or week before and don’t need it. On the last free promotional day I ran there were only forty or so downloads, actually there were more in the UK, only the internet knows why. Here’s my other bad: I didn’t promote the free days at all. I was conducting an experiment to see which cover moved better, but of course I couldn’t run a proper control, so it was a pretty useless experiment.

Maybe the algorithm has a bit of code that says, ‘if free downloads are less than fifty in a day, stop auto-suggesting this novel.’ I’m paraphrasing of course.

2) The six month theory. The third week of June was six months since I published AR. Now I admit I haven’t done a whole lot to promote the novel, and Amazon helps those who help themselves. I’ve been cramming through book two, anxious to get it to market, anxious to get to book three and fill in the gap that takes us to Vampire Road, which is book four. So I wonder if I trip some piece of code that says, ‘if sales aren’t x by six months’ reduce auto-suggest function by an order of magnitude.’ In other words: dump it.

Whatever the cause, the results are startling. AR went from selling one or two copies a day to nada, okay, almost nada, since Amazon turned off the promotional tap.

I’m not too worried. Book Two of the 1000 Souls is the best I’ve ever written, and I think its sales will put me back into Amazon’s favored novel status. But I have learned my lesson. Amazon promotes those who promote themselves. Don’t leave it to luck, because Amazon’s Amazing and Scary Algorithm will cut you off and leave your novel to languish into obscurity. Fair enough. Why should Amazon have to do all the work?

So I’m thinking about book trailers, Shelfari, Good Reads and more. I’ll keep you posted. Any suggestions, send them my way. I’m not a natural promoter, but I’ll learn.

Amazon Disappears–then Reappears–My Novel

Never put all your eggs in one basket. This wise old saying was invoked by many pundits when they wrote their opinions about Amazon’s KDP Select. This is the program that allows authors to offer their eBooks exclusively on Amazon in exchange for having their work placed in the Kindle Lending Library. It also provides for the opportunity to offer your eBook free for five days during the three month contract–a way of getting your eBook out there and building buzz to help paid sales.

This was working out pretty well for me until yesterday morning. I was headed for a month of record sales–nothing that was going to threaten John Locke’s records for sure, but definitely a personal best. But when I opened my Amazon account I put down my coffee in surprise. Apocalypse Revolution hadn’t sold in twenty-four hours. I went to look and the product page and discovered it had disappeared. I held off posting this so I could provide a link here, because until 3:00pm EDST, there is nowhere to go. Nowhere. It’s not available on Smashwords or at Barnes and Noble or at any of the other eBook retailers. All my eggs were in the KDP Select basket, and Amazon had dropped it.

Amazon  promptly replied to a query, and they were able to tell me that they could see the product page for Apocalypse Revolution, but there were several back-and-forths over the next 24 hours (one of the delays was my fault) before A.R. miraculously reappeared without notice.

Amanda Hocking let everyone know what she thought of KDP Select when she informed the world that half her self-pubbed eBook sales came through non-Amazon eBook retailers. She didn’t say anything bad about Amazon or warn authors away from KDP Select, she was just letting authors know what they might be giving up.

I’m delighted Amazon solved the glitch, especially because the free days I offered this month generated five great reviews and 12 Likes. I know, small potatoes compared to most eBooks, but I don’t know four of these five reviewers–the other is a friend, but Rebecca put that review up without prompting. The others are not friends and family, so if the product page was totally corrupted and the reviews were lost to the ether, it’s not like I can e-mail the reviewers and ask them to re-post their reviews. I would be starting over from scratch.

The damage is minimal. The Amazon Sales Rank has vanished, probably reset as if it’s a new novel, which is better than what it would be after two days of zero sales. But all those other novels that used to auto-suggest AR, well instead of being the first or second book suggested, it’s about sixth to twelfth. I guess other novels were selling while AR was AWOL. Oh, and the link to AR at the right side of this page is broken. I’ll have to get my IT guy on that.

Even a great tech company like Amazon will have glitches, and their response was certainly fast and professional, but it does remind me that keeping all of my eggs in one retail basket may okay for the short term, but in the long term it may not be the best idea. Stuff happens. Better to be diversified.

Rango – The Post-Apocalyptic Western

Johnny Depp has a knack for picking unusual and interesting films that don’t fit with the Pirates of the Caribbean box office smash, so when my kids wanted to watch Rango, I sat down with them, surprised that an animated Western even existed.

The Western, both as a film and novel genre, fell on hard times during the 1970s and 80s.  The movie-going and reading public had begun to realize the Indians weren’t nameless and faceless “savages,” but rather that they were actually human beings who had, and still have, a legitimate grievance.  The public lost interest in seeing John Wayne indiscriminately kill people who dared to oppose the US Cavalry or tried to stop the flood of settlers into the west.  The audience began to feel guilty.

Westerns didn’t die, of course, but they centered more on outlaws, sort of the Mad Max movies set in the 1860s.  Rango is definitely in the latter category.  Thugs dominate a town while controlling its most limited resource–water.  People are leaving, and everyone who stays behind owns a gun and knows how to use it.  During a gun battle, creatures on both sides kill indiscriminately–yup, just like John Wayne in a 1940s Western.

That’s when it hit me.  We’ve come full circle back to the Western.  Now the stick-figure enemies are zombies/vampires, but this time our heroes can kill without remorse.  The zombies are already dead and there are no land claims.  The humans who need killing are vicious Mad Max-type bikers with no morals. They would be locked up if only there were any jails.

But it goes beyond just guiltless killing.  It’s also the freedom that comes with being in a post-apocalyptic world, one where your credit card and mortgage are unimportant, but your next meal is always on your mind.  I read a great blog by author Steven Montano on the appeal of the post-apocalyptic world.  People actually enjoy the fantasy of waking up one morning to find out that they don’t have to go into work, that the boss is a zombie and their car payments can be skipped.  Indeed, if you can drive, you can grab any car you want, preferably a big SUV.  You don’t even have to worry about sustainable development anymore.  Better yet, in every post-apocalyptic scenario, you are the one who survives and gets to wield the shotgun.

There was a time when I wondered if this genre would peak at the end of 2012 and dip after the Mayan Calendar reset and the world didn’t end.  But now I believe that as long as the population density in major cities is on the rise, as long as consumer debt is high, as long as unemployment rates force people to stay in low-paying dead end jobs, there will be demand for post-apocalyptic fiction.  That’s what Rango is: post-apocalyptic fiction set in the lawless West.

Apocalyptic Fiction Authors Beware

The Great Blackout of 2003 came without warning.  I was clacking away at my keyboard just wearing shorts because the mercury was high, and when a bead of sweat ran down my temple I  decided it was air conditioner time. But before I could even stand to head for the thermostat, my screen went blank and everything went silent.  That quiet was the eeriest part–no freezer or fridge hummed, the ballasts on the florescent lights no longer buzzed in the background.  My house and my computer had abruptly died.

My first thought was to call my wife–who was off with the kids visiting my mom far out in the suburbs–to tell her not to rush home for dinner.  My cell phone couldn’t find a signal–weird since I live downtown.   That was my first clue that this was more than a local blackout.  The landline worked, but after a quick chat with my wife I discovered the blackout was at least city-wide.  Now I was starved for information, so I dug eight C cells out that miraculously had enough charge left to operate a radio and got the next big surprise: static.  There wasn’t a single FM channel in operation, but I finally found an AM sports channel that had a working back-up generator, and the radio guy had all the excitement of a sportscaster as he described a multi-state, international blackout.  The whole north-east and a chunk of central Canada were suddenly living like it was 1799, except with cars–no traffic lights, just cars.  That was the day I learned that an electrical grid is a fragile construction.

Which is why it gets on my nerves when an author of an apocalyptic novel doesn’t understand that.  I’ve been reading a lot of them lately, since I write apocalyptic fiction myself, and I’ve been shocked by the ignorance.  In Hollowland most of humanity has been overtaken by a zombie plague, but some surviving humans  pump gas at a station in the middle of the desert.  Uh?  Just what’s powering the pump at this gas station?  Not electricity that’s for sure.

In another novel, Selection Event, 98% of the planet’s population dies from a flu virus while our lead character, Martin, is underground for a year-long psychology experiment.  When Martin comes back to the surface he heads to his parents’ house to see if they survived, and when he gets there he rings the doorbell and it works.  What?  Everyone died two months ago but the electrical grid is still up?

I tried to suspend my disbelief because areas around Niagara Falls continued to have power during the 2003 blackout thanks to smart power workers who isolated their section of the grid.  The Niagara Falls hydro-electric generation plants provide very reliable power.

But in Selection Event Martin discovers from old newspapers that environmentalists had lived long enough to blow up all the dams in the west in order to let “the rivers run free.”

Now if environmentalists lived long enough for tooling around with dynamite, surely nuclear power plant technicians had a little warning too.  Despite the Simpsons’ negative portrayal of nuke plant workers, those people actually take their jobs very seriously.  If they knew they were all dying of a flu, at the very least they’d put the plants into a safe shutdown mode.  Ditto for power plants fired by coal, gas or oil, cause you sure as hell wouldn’t want the explosions that go with unmonitored fossil fuel plants.  High pressure steam pipes just can’t be left unattended, and if they are things will go wrong very quickly.  These plants aren’t like the Starship Enterprise, which seems to need a massive crew but can be operated just by Captain Kirk in a pinch.

Don’t get me started on solar and wind, because these incredibly variable sources of power are destabilizing for a grid, creating unexpected power surges and deficits as clouds and wind vary.  They can’t provide a base load, and if other power sources are gone one surge will trip breakers everywhere on the grid, and there’s no one to reset them.

Now if just knocking one power plant offline could bring down the entire eastern seaboard, image what knocking out dozens of dams, nuke plants, coal and gas plants would do?  Hydro is probably the one source of power that could conceivably (although not likely) carry on for a few days without human monitoring, but that would have to be a section of the grid that is not interconnected with the national grid, and in this case the environmentalists had done away with that option.

So if you’re writing an apocalyptic novel, keep in mind that the first thing to go will be the electrical grid, and it will be gone in a matter of hours without human monitoring.  Once the power is gone the refineries shut down, so then you gradually lose the gasoline, and well, then it’s back to 1799, only with better guns.

The Accidental Google Ad Campaign

Blame it on sleep deprivation, new technology or simply a bad click, but it seems I launched a Google ad campaign for Vampire Road last week. Good thing I set a ten dollar per-day maximum or I might have needed to run to the bank for a loan.

The funny thing is that I should have known something was up because my novel started selling one or two copies a day.  I know this shouldn’t sound so amazing, but I hadn’t done any serious marketing, not even to my friends and family. This is a great vampire novel, but I only want sell it to people who will like it.  If your preferred summer reading is Margaret Atwood, this isn’t a novel you’d want.  Although who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy it when no one’s looking.  😉

The upshot is that I haven’t begged my mother or older brother or even my sister-in-law to buy this novel, so the sales weren’t coming from that end of my life.

The other big clue I should have observed was the Amazon suggestions.  You know: People who bought this novel also bought…just about anything with a vampire or a zombie.  Where did these readers come from?  How did they stumble across my novel?  Now I have the answer.  They Googled Vampire Novels or one of the other keywords I’ve got running and my ad popped up.

Are the ads worth it?  If I was looking to make money from Vampire Road then absolutely not, but what I’m trying to do is build a fan base that will buy the next two novels in the series.  So far the ad words campaign has been pretty inexpensive, but it won’t be my only marketing avenue, and I will shut it down after a few weeks.

I’ve just begun marketing–well, it turns out I began last week. I just didn’t know it.