How to Keep the Long Tail Wagging


There’s been a lot of blogspace this week dedicated to the “long tail.” If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, see my post here.

The long tail is simply a way of describing a line of product that remains available for consumers. For books, it is the backlist. It’s become a relevant topic because now, in the digital world, books are “shelved” forever.

Recently there’s been some commentary on how just having a long tail online is not any help with discovery. That much is true. You still have to provide a way for readers to find your offerings.

This is the big challenge for traditional publishing right now. It the “old days” (pre-2007), big pub got books into bookstores and bought prime real estate for the titles it wanted to push. If a name was big enough—like Stephen King—a reader could also find a lot of his backlist sitting on a shelf.

Unfortunately, this was not the case for the midlist writer. Usually their frontlist title went to a shelf, spine out, and if the book didn’t catch on the bookstores would be less willing to buy the next. The publishers, who are after all in business, would usually not “throw good money after bad,” and thus a writer’s second book got only minimal treatment. Then the author disappeared from the shelves. Career over or consignment to the backwaters of small publishing. 

Enter the Kindle and digital self-publishing. In those early years (what I call the Konrathian period), it was common to hear the naysayers opine that this was a blip, that only a very few authors would make any kind of money at this, and that it would unleash a “tsunami of crap” that consumers would be unable to wade through.

Well, we now know that early opinion is the bunk. We moved quickly to the Entrepreneurial period (see above link). Now every week it seems we hear about another self-published writer making really good money at this game.

It’s even possible that a debut self-pubber will smash through in a big way. As Hugh Howey recently stated:

[D]espite what some experts would have you believe, self-published authors are still breaking out with their first works. AJ Riddle and Brenna Aubrey are two examples, and the current bestseller lists on Amazon are loaded with new self-published authors you’ve never heard of. Andy Weir’s THE MARTIAN sold a ton of copies and was picked up by Random House and 20th Century Fox. This was a debut novel, and Andy hasn’t published anything since. He succeeded through self-publishing faster than he would have landed an agent if he went the traditional route.

But most of the time real bank is being made by productive writers who are developing that long tail. Which gives rise to a few thoughts for my fellow scribes: 

1. Make sure the tail is worth wagging

Quality makes a difference. I’m not talking about some literary standard kept in a secret vault in an underground bunker below the offices of the New York Review of Books. I’m talking about making whatever you choose to put your keyboard to the best it can be. Don’t formulate this opinion on your own. Please refer to a post wherein I explain how to know you have a quality product. See also Jodie’s list of beta reader questions


2. Pay for a trumpet blast

There are several e-book deal alert services out there worth your investment. The reigning king is BookBub. A listing there is tough to land, but if you do it’s the best advertising money can buy. Check out their submission tipsand keep trying. Other good services are Kindle Nation Daily, BookGorilla, eBooksoda, Ereader News Today, and Pixel of Ink.

Keep trumpeting your backlist on a rotating basis with these services. Don’t worry if you don’t make back every dollar of your investment. A percentage of these new readers will be of value down the line, as repeat customers. 


3. Consider perma-free

If you have written a series of books, one strategy several recommend is making that first book free. That way there’s no cost barrier at all for readers to get started on the series. It’s a virtual guarantee that a percentage of the readers will go on to buy one or more of the related titles.

That’s happened with my historical series. Book #1, City of Angels, is free on Amazon. When I made the change last month, several blogs that announce freebies got wind of it––without any effort on my part. I saw a huge spike in downloads and the book reached #26 in the free Kindle store. There has indeed been a nice uptick for the other books in the long tail. My sales chart for all the other titles looks like the heart monitor of a patient going from stable to good condition.

Perma-free is a strategy that, so far, Amazon does not discourage. To qualify your book must be offered for free on Kobo, iTunes or Barnes & Noble. You can accomplish this via Smashwords, but I simply did it via Kobo, which allows you to set “free” as a price. Then you go to your book’s page on Amazon and hit the “tell us about a lower price” link and follow the instructions.


4. Put your marketing on auto-pilot

The first six months of this year have been, far and away, the best for my self-publishing stream. I attribute much of that to setting up a marketing calendar at the beginning of the year and simply following that plan each month. I spread out my paid placements, KDP Select offerings, social media and e-mail notifications so I know what to do automatically. 


5. Keep adding to the tail

Finally, and most important of all, keep adding content to the long tail. People can’t buy what isn’t there.

Do all this, and soon you’ll be able to say to your less-productive colleagues what the fox said to Otis:



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How Many Brands Can an Author Have?



Last week I wrote about the re-launch of my first series, co-authored with Tracie Peterson. City of Angels, Book 1 in the Trials of Kit Shannon series, is now available for the intro price of $2.99 on both Kindle and Nook.
Which raises (not begs!) the question: can an author today have several brands?
Back in the “old days” (like, before August, 2010) branding was a key concept in the traditional publishing world. Still is, actually. That’s because a publisher trying to make money with an author has to build a repeat readership, and that’s done over time, book by book. 
Take a hypothetical author. Let’s call him Gil Johnstrap. He comes out with a terrific first novel, a thriller about a boy on the run from the law. A fan base starts to form and they eagerly await his next book. If that book were to be about a horticulture competition in Surrey, England, circa 1849, they would tend to be confused and frustrated. They might decide to skip the next Johnstrap because they’re not sure what it contains.
So Gil and his publisher come out with another thriller, this one about a family on the run from the FBI. Fans buy it and are happy. They start spreading the word to other thriller fans about this Johnstrap fellow. The growing base looks forward to the next thriller. And so it goes.
Now, if an author becomes overwhelmingly popular, like a King, Grisham or Patterson, they earn the right to try, on occasion, something “off brand.” King might write about a girl lost in the woods. Grisham about a painted house. Patterson about whatever the heck he wants—I have a feeling his parking tickets would sell a million copies.
But the publishers will insist on getting “back on brand” with the next book, because that is the bread and butter for them, the guaranteed sales.  
Cut to: today. And e-publishing. What is the state of branding now? Let me start with my own experience.
I have been writing contemporary suspense, like the Ty Buchanan series for Hachette and Deceived for Zondervan. I’ve now augmented those books with novella/short story collections I’ve self-published. These all fall into the suspense category, so they are complementary. They make new readers for the traditional work. Everybody wins. 
I’ve self-published a couple of boxing stories, because I like writing them. These make me new readers for the rest of my work, too. They do absolutely no harm to the print brands. Plus they bring in nice-dinner-with-my-wife money each month.
I write zombie legal thrillers under the pen name K. Bennett for Kensington. I plan to augment these with short, paranormal stories. These stories will make new readers for the novels. Once again, both publisher and author win.
As mentioned up top, I’m re-launching the historical romance series featuring Kit Shannon, six books in all. I daresay the readers of the Kit Shannon books may find the Mallory Caine, Zombie-at-Law books a tad “off brand.” But that’s okay. Two different audiences, but with potential cross-over. And no harm, no foul to either brand.
I do non-fiction for Writer’s Digest Books. I support those books with articles for Writer’s Digest magazine, my regular Sunday column here at TKZ and on Twitter (where I’ve also developed a strategic brand). Again, everything working together.
So: Can an author today juggle several brands?
My answer: Not only can, but should.
Branding in the days of print-only was partially determined by physical shelf space and seasonal purchases. An author could not come out with several different titles at roughly the same time. Bookstores wouldn’t buy. And they’d be a bit confused. If Gil Johnstrap did write that horticulture novel, A Garden in My Heart,would it be placed on the thriller shelf next to his other titles, where fans would look? Or on the romance shelf? Or in “Gardening”?
But there are no such limitations in the digital world. All books are “shelved” cover out. Digitized books are given, via algorithm, space next to similar books. A reader can find new authors in a genre this way. Quite easily.
An author can distinguish between his brands via cover art, book description, tagging, and even a pseudonym.
John Locke, poster boy for self-publishing success, writes contemporary thrillers and Westerns. Just like Robert B. Parker did after he became a household name with Spenser.
As I said a couple of years ago, this new e-publishing era is a lot like the old pulp fiction days. I look back at a Depression-era writer like Robert E. Howard. He wrote stories in the fantasy, horror, detective, western and boxing genres. All of ‘em. And made a living. That can be done again, now, in today’s e-world. It’s a great time to be a writer who loves to write.
There is only one fly in this ointment: a traditional publishing contract with a boilerplate non-compete clause the publisher is determined to enforce. I know some writers in this predicament. And while I understand that publishers are undergoing paradigm shock right now, this is not the best reaction. Publishers should be willing to re-negotiate these clauses so their writers can earn extra income and make new readers without harming the brand they are creating together.


Publishers who make an investment in an author do deserve consideration and protection. They deserve the author’s best work (non-diluted by overwriting). And they are entitled not to wake up one morning to find their author selling a novel in the same genre for 99¢. Authors need to appreciate the harsh business reality of traditional publishing. 
All that said, I see no reason why writers cannot be strategically developing different brands for their digital platform, and have fun doing it. Nor do I see a reason for publishers to resist sitting down with author and agent and hammering out contractual language that is fair to both sides on this matter.


Now I’m going to run a warm bath, put on some Yanni and relax with A Garden in My Heart.

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