The Business Rusch: The Halo Effect
Kristine Kathryn Rusch
In October, my novel Wickedly Charming had a one-week e-book promotion. The book was free to e-book buyers on the big sites (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBookstore) for one week only. This promotion wasn’t my idea. Instead, my publisher Sourcebooks set up the promotion with the e-stores.
I only found out about it because my short story e-book, The Charming Way, sold dozens of copies in one day. Before that, The Charming Way sold maybe a dozen copies in one month. WMG Publishing published The Charming Way, and all of the Grayson backlist that I control. (Kensington still won’t release the rights on two out-of-print books.) And because I’m working closely with WMG, I get to see their numbers in real time.
I confess, I’m a numbers watcher, even though I tell other writers not to do that. I watch the numbers because numbers make things real for me. Unlike most writers, I don’t take numbers personally. (Oh, no! That’s not selling! It must suck!) Right now, I’m watching the numbers to get this new world of publishing in my head. It’s not real to me partly because I’ve worked on computers since 1982. The digital form is something that manuscripts are before I print them out. Watching the numbers—for me—is a way of reminding myself that the digital files are now selling, the way that books in a brick-and-mortar bookstore do.
In fact, my obsessive number-watching has slowed in the past six months as I am becoming accustomed to the new system. Now I check some sites on a weekly basis, some on a monthly basis, and some not at all. My weekly check on Kindle corresponded with the start of the “free” promotion for Wickedly Charming. But I live on the west coast, and I work late at night, so I didn’t check anything until noon my time—and by then, The Charming Way had sold an astonishing number of copies.
By the way, WMG priced The Charming Way at 99 cents, which is where all of WMG’s short stories (under 10K) are priced. That day, I noted some movement in the other 99-cent Grayson short stories, but none of them were directly tied to Wickedly Charming, not the way that The Charming Way is.
Let me explain: I often write a short story long before I write the novel. I don’t plan it that way; I write a short story that suggests something longer, and then I write the something longer. When I’m working on a series, like the Retrieval Artist books or the Diving books, I will write short fiction as part of the world-building.
The blurb for The Charming Way says that it’s the short story that provided the inspiration for Wickedly Charming. Under my Grayson pen name, most of the books are connected, but the short stories aren’t. The only other shorter work connected to Wickedly Charming is Standing Up For Grace, but you wouldn’t know that unless you’ve read Wickedly Charming. Besides, Grace isn’t a romance—it’s a YA (or maybe a Middle Grade), if you have to put a genre on it at all.
So logically, the only connected work which could sell to the “free” buyers on the very same day as the free book is The Charming Way. On Day One, there was no movement on the two novels, Completely Smitten and Simply Irresistible, even though both of them are romances. Both of them are also $4.99—not an impulse buy for the “free” reader.
I’m a “free” reader. I use the free promotions to sample writers I’ve always wanted to try but never felt like shelling out the cash, or to read books that sound intriguing by writers I’ve never heard of. In most cases, I’ve found that the free books by writers I have heard of confirm my suspicions—they’re not to my taste. But the free books by writers I haven’t heard of are often a great and pleasant surprise.
Anyway, I watched the numbers closely that free week, and saw the two WMG novels tick upwards toward the end of the week. The Charming Way sold more than 100 copies in that period of time. But the fascinating uptick in sales for me—and the most gratifying—came at the end of the week: Standing Up For Grace suddenly started to skyrocket. That meant people liked Wickedly Charming and wanted to read more about the characters.
After I blogged about the promotion, Sourcebooks kindly sent me the numbers for Wickedly Charming and Utterly Charming, their latest Grayson release, through October. I was going to examine them in a blog, but wanted to wait to see the halo effect.
By that, I mean this: I wanted to know if the free promotion would have an impact past the week of the promotion itself. I quickly learned that there was a secondary and surprising side to the promotion: after the book ran free for one week, it then climbed the “paid” charts rapidly the following week. And there was an immediate halo effect on the other books, which sold five to ten times more than they had before the promotion.
The short stories, the cheapest offering, sold as well, but not all of them. The paranormals (which Wickedly Charming is) and the fantasy stories sold better than the westerns, which sold better than the contemporary romances. That pattern has continued throughout.
I was most curious, though, about what would happen in November, and then in December. How would the halo effect hit after the majority of readers actually had a chance to look at the free book?
If I had my druthers, I would have given the halo effect six or eight months instead of two. But two new promotions are running this week on both Wickedly Charming and Utterly Charming, which will (and already have) skewed the numbers.
So, since I planned on discussing the October promotion and a few other observations it brought up, I need to do it now, before December’s numbers overwhelm my memory and my inclination.
As I mentioned, Sourcebooks provided me with their actual numbers on the promotion. (Thank you!)
In that first week, Wickedly Charming rose to the top ten in the Kindle Free bestseller list, and hovered between #4 and #9 for the week. On Amazon alone, Wickedly Charming sold 32,000 copies. (If you can count a free giveaway as “sold.”)
Note: this does not mean that every book that hits the top ten of the free list will sell that many (or that few) copies. It depends on what else is on the list at the same time, how many people are trolling the lists, and what the patterns are. I don’t know enough about Kindle free promotions to tell you if more people download in October than they do in January.
I do know that the paid bestseller lists for paper books have a true pattern: If you want to hit the list for the first time, put out (and promote the hell out of) a book in early January. You’ll hit the list at a lower number of sales. The heavy hitters all come out in either late spring (for summer reading) or fall (usually late October/November/early December) for holiday shopping.
The numbers that will get you on the New York Times list in January won’t even kiss the list in November.
But does that strategy work on the freebie list for Kindle in the same way? I have no idea. I’m sure some of the major publishing companies that have done a lot of free promotions have an idea. I’m sure that Amazon knows for certain—as certain as they can be with two years worth of data.
At the beginning of October, Sourcebooks released my novel Utterly Charming. So the free promotion of Wickedly Charming coincided with the publication of Utterly Charming. The use of the word “charming” in the title, the fact that both were from Sourcebooks, and clearly part of a series meant that readers went from Wickedly Charming to Utterly Charming in that month.
In the month of October, Utterly Charming sold 313 copies on Kindle alone in e-book. As a comparison, Wickedly Charming sold 132 copies in the first month of its release on Kindle in e-book. The promotion brought in 181 more sales of Utterly Charming.
How do I know it was the promotion? I don’t entirely. Except for this: Wickedly Charming’s initial e-book sales started high, and then by the end of its first month of publication (May) dropped, until the last week of the month when they hit the level that they would remain at all summer.
Utterly Charming’s highest e-book sales were the week after the promotion, two weeks after the book’s release. The sales remained high throughout the rest of the month.
I haven’t seen November or December’s numbers on Utterly Charming or Wickedly Charming, but I do know this: the sales of Simply Irresistible rose significantly the week after the promotion. It took a little longer for Completely Smitten to rise, meaning that readers went from the Charming novels to Simply Irresistible to Completely Smitten.
But in November and December, Completely Smitten’s sales outpaced Simply Irresistible. Why? Because Completely Smitten features one of the most popular characters from Utterly Charming as its hero. Again, if you read Utterly Charming, you would know that Completely Smitten is closely related.
The week after the promotion, Wickedly Charming continued to sell at its standard price. It rose to 300-something on the paid list (I lost my notes for that), and sold 560 copies in the second week. Then sales dropped to levels much higher than the book sold in May, in its initial release.
Since I don’t have November and December numbers, I don’t know if those sales remained at that level. I won’t be able to track it either, because of the new promotion.
But, if the numbers on the WMG books hold true, then here’s what the promotion did: It goosed sales of Kristine Grayson books on Kindle—nearly doubling and (in one case tripling) the sales of the related titles. The other fascinating benefit is that the short stories all sell five to ten times better than they ever have before.
So the promotion improved sales somewhat. One book does not a statistical analysis make, but I’ve seen evidence from dozens of other writers that the halo effect has worked for them. It’s company policy at Sourcebooks—they’re constantly promoting their backlist titles when their frontlist titles come out. That’s one of the reasons I was very interested in working with them.
Sourcebooks and a handful of companies are working on what is called “the long tail,” which means they produce a lot of items at lower cost to have long-term continual sales. The use of the phrase “the long tail” as applied to retail (not to statistics, where it originated) comes from a Wired article by Chris Anderson in 2009. He later published a book about it called (of all things) The Long Tail: Why The Future of Business is Selling Less of More. (Please note that I haven’t read it, and therefore am not recommending it.)
Honestly, big retailers have worked on the long-tail strategy for decades before Anderson “discovered” it for Wired. But publishing companies rarely work on that model. Generally speaking, publishing companies do sell a lot of items in the hopes that something will hit big and make oodles of cash (see last week’s post). Only a few companies still in existence have worked on “the long tail” for more than thirty years. Harlequin is one. Others that existed when I started publishing got swallowed by conglomerates more interested in short-term profits than in long-term gains.
Which is why you see the long tail strategy employed by companies that are still (in one way or another) majority owned by book publishing people and not—say—media conglomerates like CBS (which owns Simon & Schuster) or some of the other conglomerates that have their fingers in pies other than books and media.
The long tail is a strategy that usually doesn’t fly in boardrooms populated by people who don’t understand all the businesses that come under their corporate umbrella. The quest for short-term profits makes the “hit” or the “bestseller” the best way to go—something with a huge profit margin that can be repeated, rather than bunch of somethings with a small profit margin that can grow over time.
The same thing applies to indie authors with one or two products. If they offer one of those products for free, then they’re not really working on the long tail. They’re working on a get-it-now strategy that will hurt them in the long run. They’re better off producing a lot of product (writing a lot of books) than they are trying to promote one or two books.
Because what readers want—ultimately—are more stories. Constantly. They want more stories, more of the same stories, more stories that they might like, more adventurous stories, more strange stories, or just something, something that’ll suit their moods. And readers always go to their favorite authors first. If those authors don’t have new books out, then the readers search for something similar, something that might make them to a brand new and great reading experience, creating a new favorite.
How do I know this? Besides all the studies about what readers want, my own personal experience as a hardcore reader, and my years in publishing? Well, this month another promotional strategy hit my Kindle numbers.
Only I wasn’t doing a promotions strategy. I was just following my muse.
In November, WMG published the latest Retrieval Artist novel, Anniversary Day. I had planned to do a lot of traditional publicity in coordination with WMG, but our friend Bill’s death and the work Dean and I had to do on the estate precluded any involvement I might have had in any promotions. I barely had time to hit my writing deadlines, let alone do anything like help a new company on its first big promotion campaign. So we decided to jettison the campaign and do it on the next book.
WMG published the book with an eye toward next summer when the next (as yet untitled) Retrieval Artist novel goes live on Audible.com (followed by its WMG edition two months later). Provided that something else huge and life-changing doesn’t happen, we’ll do the planned promotion then.
So Anniversary Day came out on December 1. It started selling the moment the book hit Kindle, and hasn’t stopped since. In fact, it is my bestselling WMG title, period.
But that’s not the interesting thing to me. The interesting thing is what’s happening with all the other Retrieval Artist novels and novellas. They’re selling like crazy. In fact, they’re outselling the Grayson books this week.
Why is that significant? Because this week, Amazon has placed Utterly Charming in its Big Deal promotions. This is an Amazon promotion, not a Sourcebooks promotion. Utterly Charming is 99 cents until December 23 (Friday), and it’s selling pretty well. Again, I don’t have the numbers, but I do know that The Charming Way has started its crazy climb again, followed by all the other fantasy/romance short stories. And Completely Smitten is selling faster than it ever has.
Concurrently, Sourcebooks is doing a “first book in the series” promotion for Wickedly Charming (and several other of their titles), selling it at $1.99 through January 8. That promotion started on December 21. See why I said the numbers are going to be screwy from now on? I have to look at the effect of all the promotions on the Kindle sales, and I don’t think I can, given the fact that Amazon announced last week that it has sold a million new Kindles per week since November. So the new readers will have to get factored into the numbers as well.
Folks who’ve been doing electronic books and promotions for a long time now (all of two years) have said that series sell better than stand-alone titles. Yep, I’m seeing that. The same folks say that series sales increase when a new title in the series gets released. Yep, I’m seeing that. They also say that free bumps sales and the sales get set at a new normal. Yep, I’m seeing that too.
Although I’m only seeing the free impact on Kindle. The Nook free promotion didn’t work. (And the Sourcebooks folks tell me that something might’ve gone awry with the B&N side of that promotion.) I have no idea about Apple, since I am not privy to those numbers in real time. I won’t see them for another month or two, and by then I’ll be onto something else.
But the increase in sales in the Retrieval Artist series makes my little writerly heart go pitter-pat. Because all that tells me is this: the more I write and publish, the more readers will want what I write.
And oh, that makes me happy. It keeps my butt in the chair, and my fingers on the keyboard. It also makes me a bit crazy: I have more stories to tell than I could ever get to. I’m typing as fast as I can—and having a ball.
That’s what all the writers who’ve decided to embrace this new world will tell you. We’re having fun, some of us for the first time in years. (To me, writing has always had to be fun or there’s no point in doing it.)
I’m not sure if the numbers mean anything, really. I’m not sure if I’m reading tea leaves or simply seeing patterns where there are none. I’m not sure if I care.
Because, as I said, the numbers make this strange new world of publishing real to me. And besides, I promised y’all I’d give you an update on the promotion.
Which I have just done.
And I am tired. I did my normal number of fiction words today, and wrote the blog post. (I have a story that’s not letting me out of its grip.) So I’m sitting in my chair two hours past my usual quitting time, keeping myself going like I used to when I was in radio, with sugar and caffeine. (God bless the holidays and the calorie-free week I give myself each year.)
If I didn’t know you guys were waiting for the blog post, I’d’ve blown it off on nights like this so that I could finish that dang story. But you’ve all let me know repeatedly how much you look forward to the blog. Thanks for that. I appreciate all of the comments and the e-mails, the links to news articles, and the donations. And the support. It means a lot.
The blog is the only content that I don’t include completely for free on the site. I have a donate button here to encourage me to take the extra time to write something each week. If you get a benefit from the blog, please do leave a tip on the way out.
“The Business Rusch: The Halo Effect” copyright 2011 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.