Some thoughts about publishing on Amazon

A member of the Northwest Independent Writers Association asked the following question:

“The number of reviews you’ve received is remarkable. Would you mind sharing how you got them?”

I answered:

I hope the correct answer is that my readers liked my story and some of them liked it enough to say so in writing, though there were a few who said they didn’t like it.  Nothing is for everyone.  That’s kind of a flip answer, because, I think, you want to know how I got them to read it in the first place.  So, starting with the first assertion and working backward: Getting a large number of reviews is a numbers game (as long as you do it honestly, which I did.  There is a lot of discussion on various blog sites about dishonestly obtained reviews.)  I sold almost 9000 copies of my novel in 2012 (which I can prove with reports from Amazon)  I have, at this moment, 178 3,4,&5 star reviews.  So approximately 20% were motivated enough to say they liked it with a good review.  Only three people disliked it enough to say so in a review.  This, of course, begs the question – how did I get almost 900 people to pay for and read my novel?  (Actually, it has to be more than that: I discovered two websites that were giving it away for free.  I was able to get one to stop, but I can’t afford a lawyer.)
First, I belonged to a really good critique group in Atlanta.  My first draft had a lot of problems.  They were completely, sometimes brutally, honest.  If they didn’t like something, they said so.
Second, I listened and rewrote a lot of the story, learning how as I did so.  This is my first novel.  They critiqued it again.  Sometimes I rewrote again.  I think it is fair to say that none of them considered this his/her favorite genre.
Third, my wife, who is something of a savant on grammar and sentence structure, beyond anyone in my critique group, read it for those kind of errors.  (In spite of that, I still find the occasional issue when I re-read the novel.)
Fourth, I tried to sell it through the traditional route of agents and publishers and got the usual collection of form letters.
Fifth, I was an “early adopter” of Kindle in  2011 as an opportunity to sell my books non-traditionally.  This got me a few sales and a couple of reviews, but was, otherwise, nothing special.
Sixth, I was an “early adopter” of the Amazon KDP Select program – this, for a while, increased my number of readers into the thousands, although I received no income from the two- and three-day “free book” giveaways that Amazon calls “promotions.”  So the percent of reviews per sale actually much lower than 20% if the free downloads are included.
So, lots of readers means lots of reviews and, to a large extent, a lot of good reviews means a lot of actual sales.
I recently, however, wrote the following about my continuing experience with KDP Select:
When I offered my novel the first time for free through KDP select in January of 2012, I got great results, almost 5000 free downloads and 30-40 reviews, and, the best part, it continued to sell at high rates (10-15 copies per day) for weeks thereafter.  Each time I tried it thereafter – every four or five months – the results were less and less impressive until the last time I tried it, in July, I got no bump at all in sales or reviews, although I did see over 3000 in free downloads those three free days.   I am convinced that there is a population now who downloads free books to read later – not the case when KDP was new.  Anyway, I’ve discontinued my membership in KDP for the time being.  Your results may be different, but I can’t recommend it; not anymore, although I was enthusiastic about it in early 2012.
I think, but don’t know for sure, what happened is that when the “free” promotion feature was first introduced by Amazon, the novel stayed on the top 100 lists for “paid” books in its category when the promotion ended.  So if a free promotion got 5000 downloads during the course of the promotion, it would, at least, be in the top ten in its categories when it was no longer free.  People would see it and continue to buy, though of course not at the “free” level.  Unfortunately, they “fixed” this.  They now have two distinct lists.  Free and paid, and the two do not mix, so the listing is immediately invisible on the lists when the novel reverts to paid.  Even after I came to this conclusion, I tried it a couple more times, thinking I would, at least, get a few reviews.  Not so.  As I said above, people download free copies to read later, so no reviews.
Anyway, I have a list of email addresses of people who said they liked my novel.  I hope to finish my second one sometime in this life.  I will use that list to promote the new one and, I hope, see a bump in sales of the first, again, as others read the second one and look for other things by “this author.”
I would like to add to this, and I wish Amazon would listen:  Amazon still calls the KDP free giveaways a “promotion” and this is clearly no longer the case.  A real promotion should result in real sales after the promotion is finished.  Theirs no longer does so since they fixed the “bug” in their ranking system.  In my last attempt in July, my novel was briefly number one in science fiction downloads in the Free category.  The day after the promotion, it had dropped to number 2000+ in the science fiction paid category, which is visible to the author, but not to potential readers, who only see the top 100.  I continue to sell about one copy a day, I suspect from people reading my reviews, and I appreciate that, but it is nothing to get excited over.
So, the short answer is, I really don’t know how to do it again.  I will probably try KDP select at least once when I finish my new novel, but I’m not expecting much beyond a lot of free downloads that might result in some reviews.  I’m working on preparing my first novel for KOBO.  I read that they are number one in Canada.