When self-publishing, cost is almost always a consideration (if you’re not rich)

With my cover image selected and sent off to the designer, I turned my attention to another key decision: which self-publishing vehicle to use?

Seven years ago when I first self-published, my priority was getting my novel into print. This time, my priority is reaching a specific audience, most of whom are inclined to read e-books.

I also have less funds available so need to gain maximum exposure for minimum dollars. Likewise, I am short on time and each year grow shorter in patience, making the simplest option the most desirable. That points to using a single vendor, versus spreading around as I did before.

I initially considered Smashwords because it costs nothing to publish through them. They just nip a percentage off each sale and distribute across the most platforms. But they don’t do print, and I want to reserve that option for the future without having to change vendors.

That made Amazon’s program, Kindle Direct Publishing, the obvious choice. There are others—Draft2Digital is one of several I investigated—but KDP offers three features that accommodate my priorities:

(1) a print option from the same submission as the ebook
(2) the largest percentage of ebook customers, as well as a dominant position for print
(3) the minimum number of entities involved in order to publish

Item three eliminated Draft2Digital. Although D2D offers print plus broader distribution than KDP (while including Amazon), it’s a third party in the equation. Same with everyone else. By publishing through Amazon, it’s just me and one vendor.

Simplicity vs. complexity

There’s always a trade-off, and the “sacrifice” with KDP is that it requires exclusivity for a certain time, and for certain of its services. However, you’re not tied into that forever. KDP thus provides the best way to reach the most people through the path of least resistance, and then you can expand in whatever direction you please later on. Since this meets my needs, why make things more complicated?

Amazon itself, however, makes things complicated through its categorization system. In trying to make a vast pool of books discoverable by the public, they’ve created a system that combines the BISAC codes used by brick-and-mortar stores to shelve books appropriately, and their own arcane—and fluid—system of keyword searches by consumer. (Click for more about BISAC.)

I’ve delved into this arcana multiple times and still don’t understand it, though I’m starting to get the drift. Many more research sessions will be needed before I fully commit myself to the Amazon path. At present the complexity makes my head spin; so, in order to maintain forward progress, I backed up a step and went at the problem from the old-fashioned marketing angle of studying comparative products.

Fine shades of difference

On every book’s sell page, Amazon shows the book’s chain of category placement along with sales position within those categories. So I studied where authors of horse stories positioned their novels. This turned up weird patterns. Rather, they are not-patterns, in that I could find no apparent relationship between the book and where it was positioned, for title after title.

I got into this by starting with keyword searches relevant to my own work:

“horse romance” brought up 9,000+ titles
“equestrian romance” brought up < 600
“horse stories for adults” brought up 6,000+
“horse novels for adults” bumped it up to 7,000+
“horse romance for adults” dropped it back down to 3,000
“equestrian novels for adults” plunged it to 200

Any of these search phrases picked up some erotica titles, since evidently there are naughty associations with mounting and riding and whipping.

As well, any of these search phrases using “books” instead of “stories” or “novels” picked up all sorts of nonfiction and memoir.

Keyword consequences

I want to subtitle my novel “an equestrian romance”; first, because that’s what it is, and second, because looking at titles, covers, and blurbs shows that the most novels that cover my material come up under that keyword search phrase.

From there, however, things get illogical. There is no official category for horse stories—which became obvious when I drilled down to the next level. Using the keywords “horse romance” and “equestrian romance” then opening the sell page for each of the top 12–15 titles that were found, I scrolled down to investigate how they were categorized. The results stopped me in my tracks.

Keywords = “horse romance”:
• Books > Christian Books & Bibles > Literature & Fiction > Westerns
• Books > Literature & Fiction > Women’s Fiction > Contemporary
• Books > Literature & Fiction > Women’s Fiction > Divorce
• Books > Literature & Fiction > Women’s Fiction > Domestic Life
• Books > Romance > Paranormal > Werewolves & Shifters
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Contemporary Fiction > Women’s Fiction
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Family Life
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Westerns > Christian
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Religious & Inspirational Fiction > Christian > Romance > Western & Frontier
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Women’s Fiction > Romance
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Paranormal
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Romantic Comedy

Keywords = “equestrian romance”:
• Books > Crafts, Hobbies & Home > Pets & Animal Care > Horses > Riding
• Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Family Saga
• Books > Romance > Sports
• Books > Sports & Outdoors > Individual Sports > Horses > Equestrian
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Sagas
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Science > Biological Sciences > Animals > Horses
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Sports > Individual Sports > Horses > Equestrian
• Books > Science & Math > Biological Sciences > Animals > Horses
• Kindle Store > Kindle Short Reads > 45 minutes (22-32 pages) > LGBT
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Nonfiction > Sports > Individual Sports > Horses > Equestrian
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Sports
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Romance > Time Travel
• Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Literature & Fiction > Sports > Equestrian
• Kindle Store > Kindle Short Reads > 45 minutes (22-32 pages) > Romance

Holy mackerel! How on earth do readers who want horse stories combined with love stories find what they’re looking for? And what the heck are novels doing in “Nonfiction”?

Category confusion

Researching onward, I picked up numerous articles by “gurus” who advise how to game the Amazon system. Some of this is true gaming, trying to position a title in a slim or borderline subcategory to manipulate sales ranking. The rest seem to be authors like myself trying to position their books where people might actually find them. It’s not our fault that categories don’t align with our intent.

In my case, it’s clear that “equestrian romance” leads to more categories relating to horses than “horse romance” does, because the term “equestrian” somehow shifts story dominance to horses instead of romance.

When I looked at how my original publisher listed the book, its only category was “contemporary romance.” That’s a mighty broad universe, which only tangentially ties to the horsey set.

I need to know all this not only to get a feel for how my desired audience might find my book, but also because I have to assign keywords to the book as part of uploading it into Amazon’s system.

There seems to be some Amazonian magic that picks up titles plus subtitles plus images plus keywords in a mysterious combination that leads to the search results we receive. If that combination is possible to decipher, I haven’t gotten there yet. But the exercise gave me a big heads-up that things aren’t as simple as they seem, and savvy authors will do whatever work is needed to give their books their best shot.

Fine-tuning KDP categories

All of the above led to a title search. As mentioned in part 1 of this story, I made a radical cover change, and that required a title change to go with it. I thus had to check my new title against what’s already out there, to see if anyone else has used the title as well as to find any intersections that might create a problem (such as inadvertent overlaps with erotica titles).

Lucky for me, my title choice was unique, so I could check that one off the list and move on.

Onward led to questions about content tweaking. When I initially pitched to the romance market, I tweaked the manuscript to emphasize certain tropes desirable to that category. There’s no reason to change that, but I now need to consider what tweaks might make the content more appealing to horse lovers.

I hadn’t considered tweaking until I was running cover concepts by my writers group. This gang includes some horse lovers, and one of them pointed out ways that I could insert mention of this thing or that thing which would enhance the horsey side without needing to recast the whole story.

I resisted this idea with all my might. My intent was to rebadge the existing book and send it out the door. The cover-image experience, however, forced me to recognize that republishing can’t be as easy as I want—especially if my priority is to introduce the book to a new and appropriate readership. I’ve got to make sure my horsey romance is as horsey as it is romantic!

Balancing the equation

The thing that’s hard to keep in mind about self-publishing is you can do anything you want—either first time out or republishing an existing book. With my horsey romance, because of contract terms, I can’t reuse the original cover and must have a different ISBN, making this book is a second edition by default. No reason, then, why I can’t update and improve it.

If nothing else, the situation warranted a proofread. I hadn’t looked at the text in years, so I started on page one and crawled through, rediscovering the story with the delight of hindsight. It’s a lot better than I thought it was! And I also found five bloopers. That alone justified the review.

At the same time, the points where I tweaked it for romance leaped out at me. Those don’t need to change, but I could likewise see points where I could enhance the equestrian experience and balance it out. That will take some thought and time to work on. And it cancels my plan to just change the cover and send the book out the door!

With luck and diligence, the delay will only be a season …

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