Dangers of Cross-Genre Indie Books: Returns and One-Star Reviews

When I set out on the Kickstarter project for Birthright last year, I had a major task ahead of me: I had to define what made my book any different or any more suited for crowdfunding than anyone else’s.

I mean, I was a new author with no discernable fanbase, writing science fiction about a kid who finds a magic sword. How the hell was I going to market that?

And then it hit me. I was writing science fiction about a kid who finds a magic sword. Scifi. Not fantasy. On top of the MMO-themed technology (Instancing) in my book that I thought was a selling point, I could tout Birthright as being cross-genre.

Which I did. And the Kickstarter was a rousing success–155% of my initial $2,000 goal!

And now, a year later, the book is selling pretty well. It’s listed in two very distinct categories on Amazon (Epic Fantasy and Space Opera), but I can’t help but wonder if going the cross-genre route was a good idea.

Traditional No-No

From all the research I’ve done, books need to fit in a single, well-defined category. It can be pretty much anything the book’s about, but it needs to be singular. Crossing genres and saying you have a erotic dystopian zombie memoir is a recipe for disaster.

Because while you’re going to appeal to those true-life, post-apocalyptic, zombie-sex lovers out there (you know who you are), anyone who likes just one of the constituent genres is going to be left out.

So unless your book can fit snugly in a marketable category, traditional publishing is probably going to pass. Which is understandable because you’re at risk of not earning out.

Enter The Indie Author

But as indie authors, we have the power to cross-pollenate. We can list our books in Epic Fantasy and Space Opera at the same time. We can tell a swords-and-sorcery story while hopping dimensions and creating pocket universes.

And people who like that sort of thing will absolutely rave about it. Your day will be made. So will your week, your month, and your year. You’ll be ecstatic, and you’ll scream “This is why I’m an indie!” from your roof until your neighbors tell you to shut the hell up.

And then it will all come crashing down.

Because you didn’t account for two simple things in your ecstasy: ebook returns and one-star reviews.

One-Stars Hurt

To be fair, I’ve only been given a single one-star review, and it wasn’t on Birthright. (I know that one’s coming, too, but it just hasn’t yet. I’m steeling myself for it, though.) And it sucked. It hurt my feelings. And it took everything I could not to get on Twitter and whine and cry and bitch about it.

But I didn’t. Because that’s not professional. You take the bad reviews with the good ones. Even if you don’t agree.

And when you’re writing cross-genre books, you will most certainly not agree with everyone. They may think you’re book is too much of this without enough of that. Or the reviewer might love your implementation of that and that your claim to be this was overwrought for marketing purposes.

Whatever. If you write cross-genre, be prepared to upset some fans of one or both of the genres you’re messing with. It comes with the territory, and while it’s not easy to deal with, you have to suck it up and know that you’re screwing with something someone holds very dear.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

Ebook Returns

As a working author who’s made a pretty decent number of sales on my books, I like seeing big numbers. Amazon allows indie authors to check sales data in pretty close to real-time. I can F5 my browser and watch (more often pray) for new sales to show up.

Unfortunately, Amazon also allows readers to return purchased ebooks within 7 days of purchase with–from what I understand–no questions asked. 7 days. Which is plenty of time for someone to read a book, enjoy it well enough, think about it a bit, and then decide they’d rather have their money back.

So they go, initiate the return, and my F5’d sales numbers drop. Money that I thought I’d made disappeared.

And as a cross-genre indie, I have to accept that. Some people will buy my book because it has a flaming, golden sword on the cover. Then when they get to the part where I’m discussing pocket universes and hyperspace envelopes, they rush back to Amazon because that was not what they thought it would be.

And that’s okay. I’m still unhappy about it, and every time it happens I’m a few dollars short of quitting my day job and doing this full-time, but I expected it. People who want a sci-fi book may not want fantasy trappings, nor do people who want a fantasy book want to deal with technobabble.

So they return the book and buy the fiction they were originally seeking.

It sucks, and again, it hurts my feelings, but there’s nothing that can be done about it. Plus, like my wife says, it’s better that they return the book and get their money back than leave a one-star review.

True dat. I repeat: True. Dat.

If a reader doesn’t like my cross-genre writing, their return only costs me a few bucks out of my month’s sales. Their one-star review sits on that book forever. So of all the bad stuff that can happen to cross-genre indie authors, returns are actually on the better end of the spectrum.

In The End

You want people to buy your book, love your artisanal genre-bending, give you five-star reviews and all the money in their bank accounts. And while that might happen on a small scale, the reality of indie publishing is the same as traditional: in the end, money talks.

There’s a reason that traditional publishers avoid cross-genre books. It doesn’t make them a bad idea–in fact, it opens up a market for them for us indies–but it makes it so that if you’re going to try something that’s less-than-mainstream, you should be aware that it might not be all hearts, roses, and an easy jog to being a millionaire.

Do you have any experience marketing cross-genre literature?

My Experience with KDP Select Free Promo Days

This past weekend, we set Nimbus to be a free download using KDP Select. We did a Friday/Saturday promotion, and over the course of those two days, we gave away 879 copies of our book.

In doing so, we hit #1 in the free Steampunk store, and we topped out at #4 in Sci-Fi Adventure. We even made it to #524 in the overall free ebook rankings of all Amazon.

Nimbus - Number 1 in Steampunk

Which is freaking awesome. Fan-freaking-tastic, in fact.

So how did such stellar ranking affect our book? How do we feel about the KDP Select program so far?

Long story, short: it didn’t, and it sucks.

At least so far–in the immediate afterglow of the promotion.

The algorithms on Amazon’s side of things have obviously changed in the past year or two, and I understand that. Free sales no longer directly translate 1:1 into paid ranking once the promotion ends. I didn’t expect to maintain #1 and #4. I did, however, expect some ranking. Some positive effect for giving away almost a thousand free books across two days.

Instead, I wake up the following morning to find Nimbus at #341,119 in the Paid Kindle store, and not even listed in any of the genre lists it had topped just a few hours before.


And that sucks.

Not Unexpected

Now, I can’t say this isn’t entirely unexpected. I had read for a while that the KDP Select free promos have lost some of their luster over the past few internal Amazon updates. I just didn’t expect the transition back into paid to be quite so ridiculously jarring, given how well we ranked while free.

I never expected to be #1 and #4 in the categories forever, but I did expect to still be visible. Which is something we are not right now.

And–again–that sucks.

I mean, Nimbus is a steampunk novel, and there are only ~800 steampunk novels on Amazon. By any amount of pseudologic, one would think that having nearly 1,000 copies downloaded would be worth something. I mean, within a week of Birthright‘s launch, it was ranked in the Top 10 steampunk novels–and it wasn’t even steampunk. It was miscategorized and ranked, so I couldn’t imagine how well an actual steampunk book would do with this kind of exposure.

Well, now I can. And it ain’t pretty.

What Next, Then?

Well, next…we wait and see. We wait on reviews to trickle in from free buyers. We wait to see if paid readers see those reviews, and in turn, see our book. We promote ourselves the same way we had been, and we just wait and see what happens.

That’s the hard part. There’s very little we can actually do to affect what happens next. We either did okay with the promotion, or it was a mistake. We just can’t know that this early.

What we do know is that we got out book into the hands of 879 potential readers, which is a good thing. Especially for our other books. I haven’t noticed a marked improvement in sales for Birthright since the Nimbus weekend, but that’s not to say it isn’t coming. It just wasn’t immediate.

I do know that I’m rethinking my whole KDP strategy, which most directly means that I don’t think Austin and I are going to be doing more free days for Nimbus in the near future. We are going to talk it over, and it’s likely that we are going to look at getting our books on iBooks, Google Play, and Nook soon–if results from being Amazon-exclusive remain this lackluster.

Sure the exposure is great, and we had an absolutely brilliant time tracking the numbers and seeing our book skyrocket through the charts. But if that was empty success that doesn’t translate to sales or even real exposure, being locked into Amazon isn’t worth it if all we get for it are a handful of lends to Prime members and free promo days we don’t use.

Update: A Few Days Later

Now that a few days have passed, the rankings are changing. And I still don’t think that it had anything to do with the KDP Select promotion. I paid for a few gift copies for review–4 to be exact–and now, Nimbus is ranking as a Top 100 bestseller. In fact, both rank and sales have steadily increased since I sent those to reviewers, and today Nimbus was ranked at #20 in the Steampunk category.

So just for those number people out there: 879 free downloads doesn’t count as much as 4 paid downloads.

Is this hard, empirical data? Hardly. But I think certainly says something about the usefulness of the KDP Select free promos.

“Birthright” is Live on Amazon Kindle!

Birthright (The Technomage Archive, Book 1) Well, folks, after almost three years of writing, editing, revising, rewriting, and crowdfunding, Birthright is finally available for purchase (or to borrow for free if you’re a Prime member). Plus, if you were a Kickstarter backer, I already emailed you the link to download your ebook copies. (If you missed it, check your Kickstarter messages and/or send me a message, and I’ll resend it.)

It’s been a strange, nerve-wracking ride, so I’m happy to report the book is doing well. So well in fact, that it even hit #21 on the Amazon Steampunk bestseller list today.

Which is great!

(The only problem being that Birthright is in no way even remotely steampunk.) I have already contacted Amazon to get that fixed so readers don’t think they’re being misled.

I can’t help but find some irony in that situation, though–I billed Birthright as a cross-genre book all through the Kickstarter process, and within two days of its release, it crossed into a new genre all on its own. Atta boy, Ceril! Atta boy!

I’m working on the softcover and Kickstarter-exclusive hardcovers right now, too, and I hope to have them available for you backers soon. That process just takes a bit more finesse than the ebook process. I’d say I’m 75% finished with it, so it won’t be much longer for you guys to get your grubby little hands on a physical copy of the book, if that’s your poison of choice.

So if you haven’t already, hop on over to Amazon and snag your copy of some technomagey goodness, or at least put it on your shelf on Goodreads to remember for later. Tell your friends, and if you’re feeling gracious, toss up a review somewhere after you’ve read it.

And again, thank you. From the absolute most sincere place I can conjure–thank you. Without y’all and your support, getting this book out there never would have been possible. This book is as much yours as it is mine. So really, thank you for being so awesome.

Nimbus is…done. #sadface

Nimbus Volume 4Last April, Austin and I launched NimbusIt was an exciting project, and we approached it with zeal. We talked, we outlined, we wrote–we pretty much dreamed about our little steampunk world. And now, almost a year later, we have finished drafting the novel. I spoke with Austin last night, and we finished our final chapters within hours of each other.

All that’s left is final edits, proofing, and review. And then we’ll be done. Done with Nimbus.

We’ve absolutely adored working together, getting to know all of you through this project, getting to know each other better, and learning about the world and people of Nimbus. And it’s over now. The story has been wrapped up, and the conclusion is–to us, at least–satisfying.

Writing the last Rucca chapter honestly left me sad. For everything the character was, I felt like I really got to know him. And I liked the fella. So writing that final sentence was hard. But I did it. I feel good about it. When I hit CTRL-S and watched that Dropbox icon move from blue to green, I felt like I was going to cry. Outside of revisions and a few short shorts we have planned, that was the last bit of Nimbus  left.

It’s over. It’s done. Our novel, our experiment, our attempt at making steampunk fun and cool is finished.

Parts 1-3 have been available on Amazon for a while, and Part Four will be there within a few weeks. Austin and I will meet within the next few days to read and give notes on our final chapters, then we move into final proofing and revisions. So you folks should have Part Four in your grubby little hands soon.

But I just wanted to let you know that it was done.

“The Grinder” – A Tale from Nimbus

“Tales from Nimbus” are short shorts that offer insight into the world of Nimbus in ways the main narrative cannot.

Nimbus Volume 4“The Grinder”

Jonah Roebuck laid his cards on the table.

The man across from him—Jack Panzer—chewed on his cigar and swore under his breath. Slowly, Panzer put his cards on the table, too. The others laughed.

“Well, ya can’t win em all,” Roebuck said. He raked in his winnings, but before he could get any of the coins into his pockets, Panzer had pulled out a switchblade knife and was waving it in the air. “Nice toy,” Roebuck said. “Very shiny.”

“For such a little man,” said Panzer, “you have a very big mouth.”

“Yeah? I get that a lot.”

Panzer stuck the knife into the tabletop. If Roebuck had pulled his hands back just a second later, his fingers would still be on that table. He scratched the back of his head and snickered. He’d made a lot of people mad during card games before, but Jack Panzer had just risen to the top of that list.

“Easy now,” said one of the other men at the table. “Just relax, Jack. It was a fair game. No need to get all angry.”

Panzer glared at the guy. “If you don’t get up from this table right now, I’m going to have Lenny shoot you in the head.”

Behind Panzer, the giant bodyguard patted the butt of his rifle.

Everyone except for Roebuck and Panzer left the table. Roebuck kept his eyes on Lenny, but it didn’t look like Panzer’s bodyguard was going to shoot him anytime soon. Cautiously, Roebuck eased out of his chair. Now, he could barely see over the table.

“I reckon ya want your money back,” Roebuck said.

Panzer grunted.

“Sorry, buddy, but I won it—”

Panzer coughed into his hand. Lenny fired a warning shot that barely missed taking off Roebuck’s scalp.

“Ya know,” Roebuck said. “I didn’t peg ya as the sore-loser type.”

“If you don’t leave right now,” Panzer said, and his jaw was clenched tight, “I’m going to get Lenny to dangle you over the edge of this skyport, until the novelty wears off, and he drops you into the fog.”

Roebuck reached for the coins on the table.

“Leave the damn money!” Panzer snapped.

Roebuck started to retract his hand, but instead, he grabbed the knife that was still embedded in the table. Before Lenny could even fire a shot, Roebuck had ducked beneath the table. Lucky for him, he was incredibly short. He barely even had to crouch.

Panzer leapt up from his chair, and Lenny slunk down low enough to put the steam-rifle in Roebuck’s face.

“I like that gun,” Roebuck said, and then he rammed the switchblade into Lenny’s hand. Before the bodyguard even started howling, Roebuck was running for the exit. He turned around to smile at Panzer. “Thanks for the knife, buddy,” he said. “I’ll always remember ya for it!”

When he was safely outside the tavern, he followed the crowd toward the loading docks. That was another perk of being so tiny—he easily disappeared in a sea of people. Now, though, he just needed a place to hide while Panzer and Lenny searched for him.

Roebuck was nearly toward the end of the docks, when he spotted a small Hosing vessel with a NOW RECRUITING sign. There was a scraggly, bearded man near the airship. At first, he didn’t seem to notice Roebuck, but after Roebuck tugged on the man’s shirt a few times, he looked down.

“Yeah?” he asked.

“Want a job,” Roebuck said. He stashed the switchblade into his pocket. “That sign says you’re recruitin. Whaddya say?”

“You’re a little short for the Gangly Dirigible,” the man said. “Try a smaller vessel.”

“C’mon,” said Roebuck. He looked at the captain’s insignia on the man’s overcoat and read the name printed there. “Schlocky? What kind of name is that?”

“It’s my name, and if you don’t get lost, I’m going to bash your head in until you’re a few inches shorter.”

“All right, all right. I’ll get lost.” Roebuck started to turn around, but he nonchalantly added, “I could be a lot of help to the crew, though…”

Schlocky scoffed, “How?”

Roebuck thought about it for a moment. He hadn’t really expected the captain to sound so intrigued. Now that his little ploy had worked, though, he wasn’t sure what to say next. He stroked his chin and hoped Panzer and Lenny weren’t close to finding him. He was good at hiding, but out in the open like this, they’d spot him in a heartbeat.

Then, Roebuck grinned. “I bet ya need someone to fit between the aqua vats on that ship, right?”

Schlocky raised his eyebrows.

“Well,” Roebuck said, “I can fit between em.”

Schlocky snorted and stepped to the side. “Welcome aboard.”