Indie Authors, John Locke and Book Reviews

How many of you indie authors have heard of John Locke, a fellow indie author, not the character on Lost?

indie author handbook

Indie Author Handbook

Probably a bunch of you.  He’s the guy who was the first to sell a million books on Amazon and then he wrote a book on how he did it.  I bought the book, was disappointed by it, and then, when I read about John Locke leaving out a key piece of his marketing strategy, I was downright angry.  I’ve read some articles about Locke, Amazon, pricing and reviews and I want to share them.  I’ve been meaning to get this post written for a while, so some of the articles I reference aren’t hot-off-the-press, but they bear scrutiny.

Indie Authors and Pricing Your Books

Ah, this has been an ongoing struggle for indie authors.  What is the best price for my books?  Is there a best price and does Amazon penalize me for a lower-priced book?  For some great thoughts on this, read this post.  What I find especially intriguing are some of the comments:

Amazon has always advocated the $2.99 – 9.99 prices.  Its royalty structure biases authors to price their books in that range.  Its discounting via the wholesale model was an attempt to shepherd the Big 6 into pricing in that range.  That resulted in the agency pricing model that is since being deconstructed.  Amazon is not against low pricing, just not for full-length works.  Look at how it encourages authors it taps for its Kindle Singles works to keep their prices at 99c and 1.99 (and for which Amazon pays a 70% royalty, btw).

And this:

It’s about customer pricing.  It’s about competition.  It’s about margins and profit. indie author salesIndies are collateral damage in this.  Going to a 70% royalty on 99c books cuts into Amazon’s margins.  If the profit on indie books were substantial enough to outweigh the profit on trad books with the 35% royalty in place, Amazon’s algorithms would reflect that.  They don’t.  Reducing that margin even further makes indies even less lucrative.

And if the market changes and new competitors make a legitimate run at Amazon, then no doubt Amazon’s algorithms will change yet again to accommodate the new market conditions.

This partial comment (read the full comment, it’s eye-opening) is from Phoenix Sullivan, who is an indie author.  She has spent time studying Amazon and its pricing and algorithms.

Ed Robertson, another indie author who has studied Amazon’s pricing and algorithms, wrote this:

The bestseller list isn’t biased by price.

The popularity list is.  And the popularity list is right up there in importance with the bestseller list.  If a $1 can’t hold rank on the popularity list, it has fewer sales; if it has fewer sales, it loses rank on the bestseller list (depressing sales even further).  A $1 has to sell several times more copies to hold the same position on the popularity list as a book selling for $10.  And lots of $10 are still able to sell lots of copies, pushing $1 books down the popularity list.  No popularity list visibility at $1, no sales; no sales, no $1 books on the bestseller lists.

$1 might be inevitable in a “natural” environment, where all else being equal, it’s a competitive advantage over everything priced higher.  But Amazon isn’t a natural environment.  Amazon is Amazon.  They have changed their system to discourage the inevitability of $1 through two major moves:

1) Using the 70% royalty to encourage authors to price between $3-10

2) Rewarding books that can sell at high prices with increased visibility

For now, it’s working pretty well.

This article appeared in July so who knows where things are at just a few months later.  But my take on things is that lower-priced books and free books don’t seem to be the best approach for indie authors (at the present moment).  Indie authors who are using free promos report the number of free downloads are all over the place, but I’m not hearing of great sales after a free promo.  Sure, you’ll get a boost, but how much and will it sustain?  I doubt it.  And since Amazon changes things based on what’s best for Amazon (i.e. not indie authors), I’d be wary of putting all your marketing efforts there.

Indie Authors, John Locke and Buying Reviews

As if trying to figure out pricing isn’t enough, now we’re hearing about indie authors buying reviews.  I first heard about this in a New York Times article.  And here’s the piece that John Locke left out of his book: he paid for numerous positive reviews and it was shortly after those reviews appeared on Amazon (not after his blog posts as he alleges in his book) that his sales skyrocketed.  This certainly doesn’t look good for indie authors…

And then there’s an article I saw, titled Publishing’s Drug Problem.  Now people are questioning not only the reviews but how indie authors are gaming the system.

As if things aren’t tough enough as it is.  And Amazon is reacting by removing reviews without much rhyme or reason (read Indie Authors And Amazon Removing Reviews for more on this – many indie authors share their horror stories in the comments).  What seems lost in all this is that mainstream publishing has been stacking the deck with positive book reviews for years but no one seems to care about that.

Indie Authors – Where Does This Leave Us?

As I read all of those articles (and more that I didn’t link), I find myself coming back to the same advice:

  • write the best book you can
  • get it edited for grammar/spelling and content/structure
  • slap an awesome cover on it
  • market the hell out of it
  • get honest reviews

I can’t control what a reviewer says.  I can’t control if someone thinks I’ve bought my book reviews.  I can control what I write and sell.

What are your thoughts on all this?

About Renée Pawlish

Award-winning author Renée Pawlish writes the bestselling horror book, Nephilim Genesis of Evil, the Reed Ferguson mystery series, short stories and non-fiction ghost stories.
This entry was posted in Indie Author Handbook and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Indie Authors, John Locke and Book Reviews

  1. ju Ephraime says:

    I’m so tired of Amazon. When I saw that they are still deleting reviews, it depressed me so much I could not even work on my manuscript. What’s the point, when they are so negatively impacting my sales by deleting my reviews? Why continue writing, only to be subjected to such abuse and victimization. Where are our rights in this free democracy, that one company can hold us hostage?

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      Boy, that’s a loaded response :). Don’t get discouraged…if you love to write, then write, regardless of what Amazon is doing or what your sales are. Also, even though Amazon is the monster in the room, I think it behooves indie authors to market as many other places as they can. Many of us, myself included, jumped on the KDP Select bandwagon…Amazon didn’t force us into giving them exclusive rights and everything else they asked for. Now that we’re all seeing that Amazon is hurting indie authors with their algorithms and pricing schemes, we have the choice to get out of KDP Select and sell other places as well. Granted, most of us sell the best through Amazon but we can still get into other markets and not be totally dependent on Amazon. Just my two cents. Thanks for your comment.
      PS – anyone can also choose not to make purchases from Amazon, thus hurting Amazon’s bottom dollar – then Amazon will listen…

  2. Ben says:

    I’ve just read John Locke’s book on self publishing and its great! He’s a real inspiration.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      To each his own :). I didn’t find it helpful at all, very little advice that was useful. For inspiration, I’ll take Stephen King’s On Writing over Locke. Thanks for your comment.

  3. Great post, Renée, very informative. That Amazon is the monster in the room, I sort of doubt it. It’s just the way the cookie crumbles – we all need reviews to sell and we don’t get them, and if a well-intentioned friend posts one and Amazon discovers there’s a link somewhere, well, down goes the review!

    After all, Amazon has been battered for not keeping up/monitoring the quality of its customer reviews. They’ve got their Vine Program and if you want good reviews, just solicit Vine Program reviewers: it’s a lot of work – like writing queries to literary agents – but with some it gives results. Just saying that for ju Ephraime’s benefit: he/she shouldn’t get depressed. It’s tough on all of us with over one million fiction titles out there in the Kindle Store…

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      What I find unfortunate is that Amazon should give a valid reason why they took down the review so the author and reviewer know what not to do the next time – but Amazon doesn’t give any specifics. And, if all is fair, then paid reviews by Big Six publishers should come down too, but we’re not hearing anything about that.
      I’ve heard of the Vine program, have not tried that yet because, as you say, it’s a lot of work.
      Just my own opinion, but I think this has to do with worrying about indie authors, their pricing, and how Amazon initially needed content for their Kindles last Christmas, but now not so much…but I could be wrong :).
      Thanks for your comment.

  4. Robbie Cox says:

    Fantastic article and plenty of food for thought. Thanks for sharing and doing the research.

  5. Very interesting article. I’ve been reading a lot about Amazon lately and how they’re not playing nice with indie writers, but there’s a lot of people on both sides of the fence. I’m new enough to the game (released just this week and last) that I don’t have an opinion yet, but it’s interesting to get these views as I wade into the pool.

    I’ve been wary of Amazon for a different reason: I’m from Canada and own a Kobo. I can’t buy Amazon books unless I want to read them on my computer or phone, both of which are not the best option. I have to wonder if other Canadian authors–or anyone who doesn’t have a Kindle–has the same issue. It seems restrictive, versus the “read anywhere” policy that Kobo has. Sadly, Kobo just doesn’t have the same exposure.

    • Renée Pawlish says:

      Very interesting points. And although Kobo doesn’t have the exposure yet, I think it’s coming, and that’s why I am beginning a push there. Good luck with your book and thanks for commenting.

  6. Pete Nikolai says:

    As book publishing evolves people will figure out how to game the system but each time other people figure it out and put fixes in place. Thankfully many people choose to use their creativity for the good of others. I agree that success as an author starts with writing a good book and continues with marketing. I recently wrote on the process for obtaining endorsements and reviews that I’ve seen work over the years at

    Pete Nikolai
    Director of Publishing Services
    WestBow Press

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