Chasing Amazon from abroad
I recently got my first English title on amazon.com, but making it to Amazon, and making sense of Amazon are two different things.
Coming from abroad means you start from scratch and need to find your own resources.
This is my journey from start to launch of a title.
I have tried to compile everything I found, from links to horror-bloggers and reviewers to my own experiences on marketing. And you are free to skip ahead whenever you like.
Choosing a title
The Amazon Logarithm
Promoting my giveaway
Official Review Sites
The Danish Challenge
(Yes, you can skip this.)
My name is Michael Kamp. I’m 43 years old and living in Denmark, where I have made a name for myself in the horror genre. I currently have 17 titles out in Danish and have been part of 10 anthologies, including three in English.
I’ve won three awards for my stories and are generally well received with a stable career.
It’s been a pretty good run, but I have been eying the English market for some time now.
It’s a numbers game, really.
Danish is a beautiful language, comparable to the sound of two elves making out, but there’s not a lot of us. We are 5.5 million Danes in the world and the rest of you are missing out on anything written in our language.
Several Danish writers have gone on to make international careers, but there’s a catch. The traditional way to make it big is to write a Danish bestseller and get noticed by publishers abroad. Since Denmark is a fairly small nation, a bestseller is usually any title selling more than 5,000 copies.
But I write horror.
The horror market is typically small in any context, but as a small segment of a tiny market … I’m not sure there are 5,000 horror fans in the entire kingdom.
No horror novel by a Danish writer has ever been picked up by a major foreign publisher.
Waiting to be discovered by the usual means would be a dead end.
So I had to do it myself.
Choosing a title
(Yes, you can skip this too.)
Before I could commit to my attempt I had to choose a title, and choose wisely. If this one flops, it will be hard to get the resources for the next one going.
Out of the 17 titles, four were obvious contenders.
Moln – a collection of interconnected ghost stories set in an eerie Danish town where bad things happens to the kids in the local school.
Pros: The most well-received of all my titles. Stellar reviews and lots of induced nightmares. It’s a very solid set of stories. Nominated for a national award.
Cons: I was really not looking for a collection of stories. The setting in a Danish school might be off-setting for a US audience and a lot of the social commentary is really aimed at the Danish society.
Bunker 137 – Lovecraftian horror set during WWII when a group of German soldiers gets trapped in a bunker. They are not alone in the dark.
Pros: Solid horror. One of my personal favourites and a chance to show off my hardcore horror chops.
Cons: The main characters are all Waffen SS. They are Nazis.
It basically puts the reader in a dilemma – if you have to choose between the worst of humanity and the utterly inhuman, how do you choose?
I’m just not sure if the US audience would appreciate a story told from the eyes of an enemy.
Klovn – A horde of clowns descend on a small Danish village and mayhem follow. Faces are eaten and the population dwindles.
Pros: Clowns are hot. The premiere on IT was looming ahead and I had a feeling the market would be a good fit. Also it was much shorter than other titles, clocking in at around 19,000 words, and would hence be much easier to translate.
Cons: It’s set in a small Danish village. Not sure if a US audience would feel alienated by the differences.
NekroMathias – A series of six books for children on the adventures of Mathias – a 13 year old boy who suddenly realizes that the undead are real and only a brave group of heroes are keeping them at bay in secret. One of those heroes is his grandpa.
Pros: Very popular over here. Great fun and fairly grisly scenes go hand in hand. Each one is fairly short, so I could translate one title of the time and still keep up the speed.
Cons: It really need to be available in full to get people hooked. I hate starting a series that is not yet completed, because the wait is long and the future uncertain.
I chose Klovn, which became Clowns. The opportunity to time it with the release of IT was too tempting and the short length made the translation less daunting.
(Native English speakers can skip ahead on their carefree path to Amazon)
If you have no experience with translations, let me assure you that they are very, very expensive. There’s a reason you usually only translate bestsellers, because it is a pretty big investment and needs solid sales to make a profit. And publishers are in it for profit just like any business.
A professional translation can easily be 50,000,- kr (around 8,000$) and is simply an investment I can’t make on my own.
So I had to do the next best thing.
I’m very good at English, but very good is not good enough when I need to go up against native English speakers. I chose to translate the bulk of the story myself and then paid a freelancing US editor to work his magic. This was a smart choice and drove the cost down considerably, but it took time. Time that could have been used writing my next title.
Still – it was this way or no way.
Now, I’ve seen plenty of horror stories (the bad kind) where Danes or others are a little to comfortable with their own ability to write in English and skimp on the hired editor.
Never skimp on the editor.
If your translation is clunky the title is dead in the water from the get go. So pony up that cash and find a freelancer.
I found my guy on Upwork and he did a great job.
His name is Josiah Wartak and he is awesome. Go make him rich.
Now, Clowns did not need much editing, because it had already been edited by my Danish editor, so what was left was making sure the translation was smooth and that some of the weird Danish imagery was made understandable.
If you have not had your work edited yet, you need a line-by-line edit, and those aren’t cheap.
Back to translations.
Translations comes with challenges. Most of my stories are set in Denmark, where our culture and traditions are different from what the US mainstream is used to. I had to choose between keeping the setting and risking alienating my new audience or move the story to the states but then loosing the authenticity of growing up in this environment.
I made the choice to keep Clowns in Denmark, but add an afterword detailing some of the cultural difference so they made sense. I’m still not sure this was really needed, though.
So – title picked out, translation done and off we go the main event.
The Amazon logarithm
(Now we’re cooking!)
Amazon is a behemoth. The largest market in the world.
The main challenge when launching a title is to not instantly drown in the sea of offerings. I’ve dipped my toes in the English market before via three anthologies, so I tried to learn what made them successful or not.
One of my award-winning short stories, Homo Arachnida, had been accepted into the anthology “Lore: Vol. 2, No. 3”
Which nobody read.
Four years on the market and it did not get a single review. Apparently it had drowned on launch.
Well, it didn’t get a digital release, which hampered impulse buys and the price was a bit high too, but I guess the biggest mistake was not preparing an actual launch. It just … appeared.
Well, lesson learned.
Comparing to the more successful launch of the anthology “Twice Upon an Apocalypse: Lovecraftian Fairy Tales” it was clear that the launch mattered greatly.
Twice Upon an Apocalypse: Lovecraftian Fairy Tales is at 18 reviews and had quite a bit of buzz.
Trying to discern the mechanics I dug into the workings of the Amazon logarithm.
Amazon hitlists are guided by downloads or sales.
Lots of downloads makes the title climb the ranks and since you only get any attention at the top of the ranks, I needed to get those downloads out there.
But here is a sad truth.
You could give your work away for free and still not get any readers. There are simply too many offerings to stand out unless you make it stand out. You could literally read a book every day for the rest of your life and never pay a dime – that’s how many are given away for free. Thousands of them every single day in every genre imaginable.
Horror, hauntings, splatterpunk, dinosaur erotica … it’s all there.
You need to stand out, which brings me to:
We all judge a book on it’s cover.
In the jungle of Amazon you have maybe a second to catch someone’s attention, and an awesome cover will do that.
Fortunately my publisher had my back.
The cover to Clowns is made by Danish artist Flemming Schmidt and it is fantastic. Just what is needed to catch the attention of people scrolling by. It carries a homage to the cult classic Killer Klowns From Outer Space and anyone interested in clown horror will definitely take notice.
All we had to do was to change the title from the Danish ‘Klovn’ to ‘Clowns’.
Back to the campaign.
Promoting my giveaway
I figured it would be most efficient to concentrate my campaign so I could rank up the maximum number of downloads in a short span of time. Therefore I got my publisher to make Clowns free for the first five days, from Saturday to Wednesday. That got me five days to work the market.
And here I fumbled for the first time.
I did not plan it well enough. For one my Publisher (Tellerup) has around 10,000 followers on their Facebook-page, but it was several days before I got them involved. I should have planned it so they were ready at launch.
Getting noticed in the sea of offerings meant I had to do some legwork. I’m a member of the Horror Writers Association and they have a Facebook page with also around 10,000 members. Every Saturday full members are allowed to post announcements on their new publications, and I made sure to time my launch to a Saturday.
Then I went digging through Facebook to find groups for promoting giveaways or Kindle Horror. I joined several, the largest having around 25,000 members.
In hindsight I’m not sure the promotion groups are worth the hassle. They are for obvious reasons mostly populated by writers wanting to promote their own books, and I doubt there’s a huge following of readers. I might be wrong, but the grand announcement on “Free Kindle Books” with those 25,000 member got a whopping two(!) likes.
Maybe they just didn’t like clowns.
I also ran a 50$ Facebook add in the period which resulted in only 16 clicks. Not impressive.
Still – the combination of my efforts were pulling their weight and Clowns climbed the charts.
Some very specific charts, sure, but I’ll take it.
I didn’t crack the first place, but I got to nr. 2. In the very specific “Kindle Short Reads > Two hours or more (65-100 pages) > Teen & Young Adult” chart.
But the real numbers were a bit disappointing. I had expected thousands of downloads. I got around 400.
That’s nice, but I had assumed with a reach of nearly 50,000 people through Facebook, more would have taken the free story.
It just goes to reinforce how much free stuff is out there.
While downloads/sales make your title climb the lists, Amazon reviews are the most important part of your launch. The actual numbers are secret, but digging through the internet, the most common assumption is that a title needs 20 reviews to be mentioned in the “Also bought” category and at least 50 reviews to be picked up as a “recommended” title. (It should be noted that there is considerably debate whether or not this is actually a thing. Amazon is silent on the matter.)
Here’s where I faltered the second time.
After my five days giveaway was done and the story had been downloaded more than 400 times, it had accumulated a grand total of two(!!) reviews.
And both were Danish fans who made the jump to English for the giveaway.
That’s when I knew I was in trouble.
Do not under any circumstance opt to fiddle with your reviews. The Net is Dark and Filled with Fraud, and you can find dozens of sites that offer paid reviews with a 30 second search, but you have to resist.
First of all, it’s highly immoral. Reviews are meant to be readers giving their honest opinion. You, as a writer, should not be a factor in any way, shape or form.
Secondly, if Amazon catches you with paid reviews, you will get banned from the site.
In fact the following are strictly no-no’s on Amazon:
Paid reviews (duh)
Trading reviews (I review one for you, and you review one for me)
Rewarded reviews (review my book and participate in this competition.)
All strictly forbidden.
Back to Clowns.
400 downloads and two reviews equals a one half of a percent review-rate! That was considerably less than I had expected. By at least an order of magnitude.
It has since climbed at a natural pace and currently Clowns has nine reviews – all very good reviews, so I can’t complain. It will reach the first 20 reviews in it’s own time.
Lesson learned – I should have prepared the launch better with the following:
I will provide links to them further down, but I should have sent out copies to every review site on the list months in advance. Then it could be timed with the release and hopefully lure both readers and reviews into the fold.
But I didn’t have the time.
IT was premiering and I could not wait several weeks for sites to catch up. I had to tap that clown while it was hot!
I’ve never used them to be honest. I wasn’t sure how they worked and the Danish market is so tiny I didn’t really need to. You can’t really hide from a publication in Denmark – we only have a handful of regular horror-sites, and I hit those whenever I put something out.
But having a solid mailing list mean you can offer your fans pre-orders with a discount. And since they are already fans, chances are they will like it and hence write good reviews, thus bootstrapping you launch.
I need to work on my mailing list for sure.
Official Review Sites
Outside Amazon you need your title reviewed by as many outlets as possible. Being without a network meant I didn’t have any contacts to journalists or an easy way to get in touch with people in the other media.
I had to start from scratch once more.
I did manage to find an impressive list of sites on Kira Butler’s blog HERE.
Going through the list it turned out that many sites had closed for review requests and others had totally disappeared from the web.
I worked my way through the list and ended up with the following, which today (October 18th 2017) are active AND open for review requests.
Bloody Good Horror Books – (Seem to be offline at the moment)
If you know of other sites that accept requests for horror reviews at this time, please comment below 🙂
I wrote to all of them, four were interested and so far two have posted reviews. Bloody Good Horror Books and Sci-fi & Scary were particular fast. Hopefully the others will follow.
Word of advice – be polite. Book reviewers are being flooded by review requests these days so don’t stress them. They are not working for you.
Make sure you have read and understood their guidelines for reviews.
Beware of paid reviews.
Several sites were charging authors to review their titles. They specified that the payment did not affect the reviews themselves, but I would be weary of them.
They are quite expensive and I can’t tell if they are worth the investment or even dodgy.
Reviews are great for several reasons (if they are good, that is).
One is that they drive traffic from the review sites to your book and generate interest. That’s handy, but some review sites are rather smallish and probably won’t drive a significant number of sales.
But you can also use them for snippets about your brilliance to use in the general marketing. Those small tidbits that sum up why this story is worth the readers while.
“Brilliant and innovative” is a pretty good pitch if it comes from a place of good reputation, and any writer would be wise to use such quotes in their marketing.
Slap those quotes everywhere your book is mentioned, so that potential readers can see essence of those reviews without bothering to look them up.
But here I have a cultural handicap.
The Danish Challenge
(You can skip this, if you don’t fancy Danish psychology)
I’m a Dane and Danish culture is to a large extent governed by The Law of Jante. This basically states that you need to be humble about your success.
Bragging is considered childish and buffoonish, and one of the worst sentences you can utter in Denmark is: “Do you know who I am?”
Mister, I don’t care if you’re the Pope – get back in line with the rest of us.
You are not supposed to use your job title outside a professional environment, and foreigners tend to find that confusing. At a Danish social gathering you are not supposed to be able to tell who is a surgeon, who is a cleaning lady and who is unemployed. Personal achievements are considered a separate, private issue that is not really something you bring up yourself.
I love my culture. I find this to be a healthy way of life and an equalizer among peers.
But it makes it SO difficult to promote your work, or yourself.
I got a stunning review of Clowns. Hands down the best review I ever got for anything in my life.
And I can’t use it. I can’t pick out the best quotes, because that would be socially unacceptable in Denmark. You can’t use that kind of language about yourself.
The only way to do it would be to keep it ironic or as a semi-serious joke. I have already deleted three bad jokes in this section trying to keep a distance between myself and the review.
And yes, I know my aim is the US market and the ways here are different, but it is hard to let go of your upbringing. It feels wrong.
The internet is always changing and I had been totally blind to the existence of Booktubers. Apparently more and more reviews move from blogs to youtube and some of the more succesful Booktubers have hundreds of thousands of subscribers.
I managed to find a very impressive list of 1000 Booktubers including their URL, number of followers, Twitter-handles, e-mails, Goodread names and a short description of each channel.
It’s a goldmine and you can get it all HERE.
I didn’t make the list. It’s an incredible effort by a user on the Absolutewrite forum called Bickernicks. I highly recommend the forum, by the way. Lots of useful advice for both new writers and pros.
I can’t say anything intelligent on the use of Booktubers, because I have just discovered them. Try your luck?
Ok – with the giveaway over with and reviews coming in, we should talk about promoting your brand.
But since this article is already well over 3000 thousand words, it really needs to be a two-parter.
I’ll see you in a few days.
Very good. Thank you for sharing especially about being a Dane in a foreign environment
Glad you liked it. 🙂
I’m working on a follow up, but my actual writing keeps me busy.