On the FAQ to its costumer review guidelines Amazon clarifies what makes for a great costumer review. They claim that among the most loved reviews are those that can be "just plain funny."If you click under the "funny" link above it will take you to a review of a product that Amazon deems to fall in the "just plain funny" category. It's a review of a shirt sold on Amazon that has an image of 3 wolves and the moon. The review claims that the shirt will allow you to get women and fly, and it has a video to prove it.
So here you have Amazon endorsing a fake review. You may argue that I should lighten up a little because this review is an obvious spoof that doesn't hurt anyone. But consider another product: Wolf Urine. Virtually all the reviews about this product are fake "just plain funny" reviews, except the one I am reproducing here:
1.0 out of 5 stars Why are all the reviews jokes?, September 14, 2012 By pumpkin I have read more than half of the reviews of wolf urine and they're all jokes. I would like to know if anyone has used this product to repel coyotes. A coyote nabbed my neighbor's pet cat from her front yard two weeks ago, and came back for the other cat four days later. Right now all the neighborhood cats have to stay inside, and talk about pissed, they are. Has anyone used wolf urine to repel coyotes? Did it work? So here you have a case of a potential customer interested in whether the product will work in a certain way and trying to no avail to find the answer among all the spoof reviews; the very same reviews that Amazon condones and encourages. Still, I do understand the comedic value of the fake reviews. In fact they may actually help some products; but here is my beef. The thriller author Joe Konrath wrote a series of fake reviews in September to make his point that writing fake reviews is not necessarily bad. Among them was a review for a training aid to prevent dogs from eating their own poop. 5.0 out of 5 stars Works great!, September 24, 2012 By J. A. KONRATH "Thriller Author" (Chicago, IL USA) This review is from: Solid Gold S.E.P. (Stop Eating Poop) 3.5oz (Misc.) It helped cure a gross and disgusting habit that almost ended in divorce. But thanks to S.E.P. I'm now able to resist the temptation, and my wife is kissing me again. In November Amazon decided to enforce their misguided policy of authors not being able to review other authors with whom they have a personal relationship (whatever that means). It was in this way that more than fifty of Joe Konrath's reviews of fellow authors were removed from Amazon.
These were not fake reviews. These were real, honest, and useful reviews of books by authors whose work he likes, and now they are gone forever. But here is the kicker: all of Konrath's fake reviews, including the one about the stop eating poop product, are still up! So by Amazon standards leaving an honest, useful, review of a book by a fellow author whose work we respect is not acceptable, but leaving a fake review of a training aid to make dogs stop eating poop is. Still think I need to lighten up a little? OK, I will lighten up a little. How about this: Amazon Wants Authors to be Celibate and Hates Their Mothers! ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
Amazon has just unveiled some very bad news for us authors: they clarified their product review policy. With regards to whether authors can review other authors they have this to say: Authors and artists can add a unique perspective and we very much welcome their customer reviews. However, we don't allow anyone to write customer reviews as a form of promotion. If you have a direct or indirect financial interest in a product, or [are] perceived to have a close personal relationship with its author or artist, we will likely remove your review. Can you believe this? No, I don't mean the fact they left out the word "are" from a public document. The above means that I will not be able to keep on running the "sex for reviews" scheme that has worked so well for me. Amazon wants me to be celibate! In fact I may not even be able to use romantic innuendo in order to charm fellow authors into leaving reviews for my book because that may classify as a "personal relationship." What am I going to do now? And Amazon also gives several specific cases of customer reviews they don't allow. For example: A customer posts a review in exchange for $5. How am I going to earn money now? With the 400 reviews I get paid to write per month I am barely breaking even. And this is very hard work even though I barely read the books! A seller posts negative reviews on his competitor's product. Well, somebody's got to do it. I mean, all those illiterate readers who don't know better love the son of a bitch's book more than mine! A product manufacturer posts a review of their own product, posing as an unbiased shopper. And pray tell how many reviews can I leave on my book's Amazon page using my own name? Well, just one; duh! Of course I need to pose as someone other than me. And I AM unbiased: my books just happen to be great. An artist posts a positive review on a peer's album in exchange for receiving a positive review from them. Now I cannot trade reviews with my fellow authors! But maybe there is a silver lining. I can still send them e-mails where I write: GIVE MY BOOK A FIVE STAR REVIEW OR I WILL COME OVER AND KILL YOU! I've done it a couple of times, and it has worked. Maybe I will do this more often. But the most egregious one of them all is: A family member of the product creator posts a five-star customer review to help boost sales. This is unconscionable! What does Amazon have against my mother? She writes the best five star reviews east of the Mississippi. And even though she is 80 and in ill health, she manages to keep track of all her different accounts. My mother is by any measure an admirable woman, and I deeply resent Amazon waging this senseless Jihad against adorable reviewers like her. I am sure that if you are an author you sympathize with me, as you probably do pretty much what I do to get reviews. But what will we do now? Amazon wants us to be celibate and hates our mothers. How is my next book going to get the 60 reviews I got for my first book The Sun Zebra? Should I just write a book, put it out there, and then wait twiddling my thumbs for the reviews to come? Yeah, right! Woe is me, despair, despair…what are we going to do?This post was my attempt to "lighten up a little." ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
At the beginning of the KDP Select Program it was easy to climb up the Amazon charts with a single free promotion and linger on those lofty heights for a while, but that has all changed. Amazon, perhaps concerned over how many low priced books coming out of their free promotions were displacing higher-priced titles, has changed the algorithms to make it harder for free books to climb the charts. Nowadays an often quoted figure in the blogosphere is that 10 free downloads counts for only1 sale. Amazon is also tinkering with their system to decrease the visibility of free books, and it has also biased their ratings away from lower-priced books, effectively signaling the end of the 99 cent book era. This has created a situation where to have a chance of reaching the top of the best seller’s lists a book has to gather free downloads in excess of tens of thousands, and the only way to achieve this is to make sure that as many people as possible know that a book is being given away for free. Thus the fight for visibility in the Kindle store is now carried out at the level of the blogs that advertise free promotions to readers. Authors used to be able to list their book for free in several blogs. This is still happening in several automated blogs that list free books as they become available, but the turnover of books is so high that this advertising option has a limited effect. The next option is blogs that accept submissions of books that will be free and feature them in their pages. However these blogs have had to raise their acceptance standards due to the large number of submissions, and now books are often listed only if they have a rating of 4 stars on ten or more reviews. The competition is so fierce to promote free books that authors are resorting to paid advertising in blogs, and many blogs whose promotional services in the past were free now have paying options or have switched to only paying options altogether. As the avalanche of free books keeps increasing, the only way to have a decent chance at a successful free promotion will be to pay for it, and this will only add to the costs of a book. Taking into account that in the majority of the cases the bottleneck for any measure of book selling success is not how good a book is (within reason of course) but rather its discoverability, it is very important that authors consider how much of their budget they will spend on editing, formatting, and cover design vs. how much they will devote to promotion. I miss the old good old days in which making books free used to be free. Now free is getting expensive! ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
This past Sunday November 18 my book The Sun Zebra turned one year old! I had a lot of fun writing about the magical adventures of Nell and her family, but other aspects of putting this book together, publishing it, and promoting it have been a different ball of wax. I have learned a lot about the process during this time, and I keep learning because the whole self-publishing universe continues to change. Some things that were valid a while ago don’t work anymore, and new and exciting things are appearing all the time. Like most authors I am still trying to find “the formula” if such a thing even exists. One year ago I self-published my book while trying to curtail any unrealistic expectations by telling myself over and over that my sales would at best be modest. I was not to be disappointed. My book started slow and then went slower and finally dipped into the primordial ooze (the long tail also known as low-sales limbo) with hundreds of thousands of other books. But along came the KDP Select Program that gives authors the ability to give their books away for free. So I enrolled and did my first free promotion with a smile. I gave away a paltry 147 copies of my book in January, which did not gather me a single sale: utter and complete disaster.I fought my depression over my pathetic numbers (which totaled 25 sales over 5 months) and fixed problems with my book, my author image, and my marketing approach. My second KDP promotion in April was a success as I gave away more than 19,000 free copies of my book. Even though The Sun Zebra reached #9 in the Free Kindle Store and garnered me 240 sales and 54 borrows, but it still did not gain a lot of staying power. A third promotion in July was a bust that awakened me to the realities of the effect of seasonality on free book giveaways plus Amazon also changed the algorithms they use in weighing the sales equivalent of a free book download. My fourth promotion just finished last Sunday November 18 and soon I will know whether that went well or not. Either way I will likely learn some more! All in all for the past year I have ended up with 303 sales and 58 borrows. If you take into account the dollar amount of each borrow compared to the percentage of royalties I earn from the sale of each copy of my book, the number of sales plus “sale equivalents” comes to about about 514. Clearly the Amazon Prime program has been a great asset for me. As I expected my numbers have been modest, but the important thing is that The Sun Zebra didn't cost me anything to publish and the money that I have left over from paying for promotions will be enough to pay for my next book, which will hopefully be out in the first few months of next year. I want to thank all the extraordinary people who helped me in this self-publishing project with their constructive criticism, editing, and opinions, or by writing reviews or helping me with promotion. You are all wonderful, take care, and keep on reading and writing! Rolando ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
Well, it finally happened. Remember all the furor that was stirred when some authors created sock puppet accounts to write glowing reviews of their own work, and another author paid for fake reviews? The issue hit the Indie blogosphere like a ton of bricks. Everyone was outraged! How could this have happened? Petitions were circulated. Pundits pontificated. Nasty comments were left on the Amazon pages of the books of the offending authors. And then the worst of all things happened: the brouhaha reached the upper echelons of Amazon’s management. Now reviews are disappearing right and left seemingly without reason. Many authors are reporting that several of the reviews that they have received from or have given to fellow authors are gone. And when they write to Amazon requesting an explanation all they get is an e-mail with this quote: We do not allow reviews on behalf of a person or company with a financial interest in the product or a directly competing product. This includes authors, artists, publishers, manufacturers, or third-party merchants selling the product. In other words, as a published author you cannot review the book of a fellow author because your book is competing with his/her book. If Amazon had asked me or any other Indie author, we would have told them that our fellow authors are NOT our competitors. We are all in this self-publishing adventure together and we support each other. But company policies designed to quell public uproars are not known for the intelligence behind them. They are quick fixes put in place so people in the company can claim they did something and then move on to deal with more important matters. There is a reality: books need good reviews and they need them fast. The problem is that reviews by what I call people familiar with your work (first tier reviewers), but which other people call “friends,” more often than not include fellow authors. These people are the most readily available and fastest source of good reviews a beginning author can have. Dedicated (second tier) reviewers may take many months to review your book, and third tier reviewers (unsolicited reviewers) can be few and far between and a total wild card. Thus Amazon’s policy of review removal strikes by and large at the most important source of reviews for a beginning author: other authors. So, should authors stop reviewing the books of other authors? I think not. This policy is not only unfair, but it also ignores the true bonds that bring us Indies together. I have already explained my position on the so-called reviews by “friends.” I don’t think they are unethical as some people claim. A review of a friend’s work can be as honest as reviewing the book of a stranger. But what can we do about it? By all accounts Amazon is policing reviews using a bot (a program), which makes sense because there are tens of millions of reviews. So the easiest thing to do is to keep your reviewing account and your author account at Author Central separate. Use your reviewing account to purchase books and review, and your publishing account to publish. Also when you leave reviews do not show familiarity. Refer to the author either as “the author” or by their first and last names (i.e. John/Jane Doe), and if you did not buy the book include a statement to the effect that you received the book in exchange for an honest review. Finally, when the next moral or ethical outrage comes around, think twice before becoming involved in the screaming. Remember: Amazon may listen. What do you think? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
The CEO of Smashwords, Mark Coker, recently published a guest post in the Self-Publishing Advice Blog of ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) entitled: “Amazon Is Playing Indie Authors Like Pawns,” says Smashwords founder, Mark Coker In a nutshell he states that Indie authors should have their books distributed to as many retailers as possible and should therefore avoid joining Amazon’s KDP Select program because this program demands exclusivity. If they don’t, he argues that these authors will not gain access to many emerging markets where other retailers are rising in importance. His reference to Indie authors being pawns is because he thinks Amazon is using them to harm other book retailers and presumably harming (sacrificing?) the authors as well in the process. As one of these “pawns” that Mr. Coker mentions I want to state that I don’t agree with the exclusivity requirement for belonging to KDP Select. However, leveraging an advantage against your competitors is a common sales strategy. Amazon knows that it offers the best deal for authors when royalties, publishing platform, discoverability, size of market, and other aspects are considered as a whole: something that is especially true compared to Smashwords. I considered publishing with Smashwords, but after reading what the author blogoshere had to say about them and their publishing platform called “The Meatgrinder,” I decided otherwise. From reading author blogs I also gathered that the most common reason why authors leave other retailers and sign up their books with Amazon is because their sales with those other retailers amount to a fraction of their sales with Amazon. To this you have to add two additional features that authors gain in exchange for exclusivity in the KDP Select program. The first is that books in the Select program get included in the Amazon Prime library where readers can borrow them, and for each borrow Amazon pays authors a certain amount of money from a pool allocated to this program. If a book is priced at $1.99 and someone borrows it, the resulting payment can be equivalent to the royalties from 3 sales. If the book is priced at $0.99 the resulting payment can be equivalent to the royalties from 6 sales. The second feature is the capacity to make a book free for a total of 5 days, which can help with promotion and boost the amount of sales once the book comes off the free period. So is Amazon using me as a pawn? Maybe, but I don’t really care. I am not “married” to Amazon. I am on Amazon and on the Select program because in my opinion they offer me the best deal at many levels. When and if this changes I will make my move to other publishing platforms. Perhaps, as Mr. Coker says, I miss the chance to get on the bandwagon of emerging markets where other retailers are rising in importance. However, to gain entrance into a market through another retailer it is not enough to simply publish. You have to work at it and master the nuances of promotion on each retailer’s platform. The way it is now, I barely have time to keep up with everything I have to do on Amazon, and I am still making mistakes and trying to get things right. Finally, I want to remind Mr. Coker that if a pawn reaches the eighth row it can get promoted to a knight. Right now I think my odds of achieving this with Amazon are higher than with Smashwords or other retailers.
What do you think?
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If you buy a print book, the book IS yours. You bought it, it belongs to you. No can one can take it away from you and you can sell it if you please, or family members can inherit it if you pass away, and they can later donate it to a library. This is not the case with e-books. Many readers don’t understand that when they buy an e-book from Amazon or other businesses they are not buying a book, they are merely entering into a licensing agreement. You don’t own an e-book, you are just leasing it. And legally you cannot sell your copy of the e-book, have your family members inherit your e-books, or give them away to a library. Amazon created a huge stink back in 2009 when it deleted (of all books) George Orwell’s “1984” from Kindles because the book had been placed for sale on Amazon by a company that did not have the rights to sell it. After some readers brought a lawsuit Amazon clarified and limited the conditions under which they could delete digital content from their customer’s Kindles. This happened again in 2010 with books that contained fictional accounts of incest. This time Amazon deleted the books from the Kindle archive. If customers had the book in their Kindles, the books were not affected, but if they had moved the books to their Kindle archives, the books vanished and could not be re-downloaded. In the first case Amazon gave refunds to their customers, and in the second case they reinstated the book to the archives of readers who had bought them (although they deleted them from the general store due to content violation). But the point is that Amazon HAS the ability to delete the e-book you purchased. In an earlier post I have also covered the fact that Amazon monitors what you read with your Kindle, how you read it, and the highlights or notes you make. In many ways this is a strange new world. I am sitting typing this next to a bookshelf that contains some books that belonged to long-dead relatives. Now these books belong to me and my family. The publishers or vendors of these books cannot take them away from me, in fact they don’t even know I have them, and the books have marks on them whose nature is only known to me and my relatives. These books are in many ways a connection to the past, a bridge between generations. As most of you know I am all for self-publishing and e-books. In fact I believe that when it comes to e-books, their sales pattern is more natural than that of print books. But I wonder what sort of world we are creating. One hundred, or two hundred years from now, what will reading look like for families? Will everything be electronic? Will people be able to inherit and read the books (files?) read by their ancestors and see what comments they typed on them or what passages they highlighted? Or will the reading performed by one generation be cut off from the next? What do you think? ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I want to address an issue that I have been thinking about. On Amazon the ranking of books takes place according to the following system:5 stars: I love it.4 stars: I like it.3 stars: It's OK.2 stars: I don't like it.1 star: I hate it.
However, consider the ranking that is used at the website Goodreads: 5 stars: it was amazing4 stars: really liked it.3 stars: liked it.2 stars: it was OK.1 stars: didn’t like it. So here is the issue. The “average” rank in Goodreads is 2 stars (“it was OK” is in between “liked it” and “didn’t like it”). This is because the Goodread’s scale is skewed. The “good” side is covered by 3-5 stars, while the “bad” side is compressed into 1 star. I have seen that some reviewers that post their reviews on Goodreads often post the same reviews on Amazon. The problem is, for example, that an “OK” 2 star ranking on Goodreads is not the same as a 2 star ranking on Amazon. A 2 star ranking on Amazon means the reviewer didn't like the book. Similarly, sometimes I have been left scratching my head when I read a positive review on Amazon and then see the reviewer gave the book 3 stars (it's OK). Often after checking I have found that the reviewer has posted many reviews on Goodreads where 3 stars mean they like the book. I know that the meaning of the stars in both websites "pops up" when you move the cursor over them, but I think many reviewers that are accustomed to the Goodreads system often don't take this into account. I am not saying that one system is better than another, but there is a reality. If you go to the major book blogs you often find that they require a minimum rank of 4 stars on Amazon (not Goodreads) to consider featuring your book when you do a free promotion. Each day 3,000 books go free on Amazon and the competition for advertising space is fierce (unless you pay for it). So if we go by this “rule” you can see how ranking books on Amazon using the Goodreads scoring system can lower the ranking of books and create problems for authors. This is especially true in the first few months after publication when a book is vulnerable to swings in the rankings. Just consider that to neutralize the effect of one 3 star review (bring it up to 4 stars) you need one 5 star review. To neutralize the effect of a 2 star review you need two 5 star reviews. And as we know, unless a book is an overnight sensation, getting reviews is slow, hard work. Of course I realize the above is an oversimplification and it is unfair to single out Goodreads reviewers. Many reviewers have their own system as to what the stars mean, and you can just as easily make the opposite argument (i.e. that Amazon reviewers flocking to Goodreads undeservedly inflate the ranking of books). Also the general ranking of books at Goodreads does not seem to be lower than on Amazon. I researched several books on both websites and found the ranking could go either way. However, it would be nice if major sites like Amazon and Goodreads would harmonize their systems to avoid this ambiguity that can have potential adverse effects on the work of authors. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.
I want to address an interesting phenomenon I’ve encountered in my experience with Amazon’s KDP Select Program. As many of you know, if an author enrolls their book in this program, in exchange for exclusivity they get to give away their book for free for 5 days. And this has been a great promotional tool. Additionally, any book enrolled in the program is included in the Amazon Prime library where it can be borrowed by readers participating in the program. Amazon has allocated a pool of money to the program ($600,000 to $700,000), and this money is divided by the total number of borrows that take place within a given amount of time. Based on this ratio, Amazon then pays their KDP Select authors a certain amount of money per borrow. A reader who joins the Amazon Prime program pays $79 a year and is limited to borrowing one book from the Prime library per month. I remember that when this program got started many people argued that the program would not benefit authors who sold their books at low prices. The reason being that for that $79 investment to make sense, a reader would have to borrow 12 books a year each costing (79/12) $6.58 just to break even. Therefore, it was argued, Amazon Prime members would only borrow the more expensive books. This has proven to be false. Many authors selling books at prices lower than $6.58 have reported a substantial number of borrows for their books. So far Amazon has been paying $2.30 to $2.50 for each borrowed book. If you are an author selling your book for $2.99, Amazon gives you a 70% royalty, which means you earn about $2.00 per sale. But if your book is borrowed, you actually end up earning more ($2.30 to $2.50, instead of just $2.00). What is not clear is the situation with books that are priced even lower. Here is where I want to share my experience. My book The Sun Zebra is priced at $1.99. Out of every sale I make Amazon gives me a 35% royalty, which means I earn $0.70 per book sold. If my book were to be borrowed that would be a great thing. For me to earn $2.5-$2.3 per borrow is equivalent to selling 3.6 to 3.3 copies! But who would use their allocated monthly borrow on my book that costs $1.99 when they are paying $6.58 a month to belong to the Amazon Prime Program? The answer is: many people. I did my last free promotion from April 11 to April 13 of this year. So far about 45% of the income I’ve earned from this promotion alone comes from borrowed books! So why is this? I think that participants in the Prime program feel they are getting the return on their $79 investment from other things. If you belong to this program, among other perks you also get free two day shipping of Amazon Prime items you buy plus unlimited instant streaming of thousands of movies and TV shows that are available on Amazon (this is cheaper than Netflix which charges $8 per month). This is why I believe Amazon Prime participants have no qualms in using their monthly borrow on lower-priced books. But what about books that are priced even lower? I have anecdotal evidence from other authors reporting that their books priced at $0.99 are being borrowed. This is huge as in terms of royalties each borrow yields an income equivalent to the sale of 6.6 to 7.2 books. Unfortunately I haven’t found any hard numbers regarding this matter. Ideally I would like to know what percentage of royalties do borrows account for at different price points. Do Amazon Prime participants indeed borrow more of the higher priced books, or does price not affect their borrowing rate? Please leave a comment if you have any information about this or if you want to share your experience regarding borrows.
As many of you probably know the Department of Justice (DOJ) has sued Apple and 5 of the big six publishers for collusion to keep prices of e-books artificially high. Now that the case is getting close to a settlement, the Author’s Guild has jumped into the fray with a letter directed to the DOJ where they blast Amazon for its business practices and criticize the proposed settlement. Who is this group? According to their website “The Authors Guild has been the published writer's advocate for effective copyright, fair contracts, and free expression since 1912.” This claim confused me. Does this mean they have been criticizing traditional publishers for the lopsided contracts and meager royalties they impose on writers? The answer is no. Now that Amazon has demonstrated to the world how e-books can be published faster and cheaper earning authors greater royalties and giving readers lower priced books, this “Author’s Guild” has come out from under its rock to defend the inefficiency and unfairness of traditional publishing, and the way in which these publishers colluded with Apple and each other to keep the prices of e-books artificially high when e-books should cost less. I share their concern about Amazon taking over the market but I cannot sanction stupidity and unwillingness to evolve. Those businesses that don’t adapt to new realities, compete hard, and reward their clients should not be protected from those that do. Consider the following example that I have written about here before. Traditional publishers did not want to make their e-books available for lending at public libraries because, get this: it was too easy for readers to borrow books! I’m not kidding you. They were concerned that readers who were not “inconvenienced” enough would turn into borrowers and not buy enough books thus cutting into the publisher’s profits. Well Amazon kept making their e-books available for lending at public libraries and guess what? A new study by the Pew Internet and American Life project has revealed that e-book borrowers are also avid e-book buyers with 41% of them saying they bought the last book they read. While this rate is lower than the larger population of e-book readers (55%), it is not the profit busting nightmare that traditional publishers were concerned about. Those companies that have the vision to see the future should be rewarded with it, not their slower dimwitted competitors. Personally, I cannot complain about Amazon. They have provided me with the platform to become a self-published author, they pay me 35% on e-books under $2.99 and 70% on those above, and with the KDP Select program they have given me a powerful tool to promote my books. They have also made e-books available to me and other readers at the lower cost these books should have compared to print books. But, being an author, I was curious as to what the Author’s Guild had to offer me. However, before learning about all the wonderful things they could do for me, I checked the eligibility criteria to join the guild and I found out that: “Self-published works and works published by subsidy presses do not qualify an author for membership.” Well…just substitute “guild” for “job” in the video below. ***If you like this blog you can have links to each week's posts delivered to your e-mail address. Please click here.