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5-Star Sales

I just realized I haven’t been talking about Taming Fire much recently. Well…not here. I can already hear Courtney and Joshua guffawing that I even dared to say that, because I talk about almost nothing else in real life.

But somehow it hasn’t shown up much on the blog. That’s pretty odd.

I’m going to fix that. I want to spend the next few weeks talking about Taming Fire, and some of the lessons I’ve learned about being a writer, about being a publisher, and about being a bookseller. I think it’ll be interesting to you if you’re any of those things, or even if you’re just a reader who’s curious what it’s like for a writer to try to be those things.

I’m talking about this now because Taming Fire has been doing some interesting things recently. Quite interesting. I’ve got charts to prove it.

It all started late last month. Actually, that’s not true. It all started in October 2010. That’s when I first published Gods Tomorrow. I sold a bunch of copies in the first two months. All my friends and family who’d been waiting for decades rushed out and bought a paperback for me to sign. Those were heady days.

They quickly passed, and Gods Tomorrow sales dropped down to a trickle. I started a spreadsheet in Google Docs to track it, and every month I’d record how many books I sold at Amazon, at Barnes & Noble, at Lulu, at Smashwords. Most months, most of those were zeroes.

I did what I could to try to get those numbers to change. I didn’t invest in ads anywhere, because 1) I’d heard from people who should know that it’s a huge waste of money, and 2) I didn’t have the money to waste anyway.

But I did other things. I talked it up here. I spammed a link on Twitter and Facebook. I started a Facebook page for the book and uploaded cover images. I got involved in the community over at And I begged all my friends and family to buy copies, so my book would gain higher visibility at Amazon.

I begged them all to write reviews for me, too. At Amazon, reviews create credibility. The more reviews a book has, and the more positive they are, the more likely a stranger is to at least give the book a chance. So I bullied everyone I could into writing a review. I provided free signed copies to anyone who would promise me one. I pleaded. I sent out reminders.

In the end, I was able to convince fifteen people to write reviews. Out of everyone I know in the whole world, to support my first terrified venture into self-publishing, I was able to get that support from fifteen people.

Don’t take that as slander against my friends and family. What they did do was recommend the heck out of it. They talked about it with way more passion and pitch than I could ever manage. They bought gift copies. They spread the word. They just wouldn’t do it at Amazon!

Eventually I got a couple reviews from strangers, too. All good, too. That was really thrilling for me. The end result is that, eleven months and twelve hundred sales in, Gods Tomorrow has 18 reviews. 15 of them are 5-star. Go figure.

I never really saw any major impact from those reviews. Gods Tomorrow sales dwindled steadily until I released Expectation, which gave it a little boost, and then they dwindled steadily again until Taming Fire came out…and took off! Now they’re rising right along with Taming Fire.

That’s not to say they’re matching Taming Fire sales. Taming Fire has sold 17,000 copies in its first three months. And, you know, with that many books sold, you’d expect to see a lot more reviews, huh?

Not really. Taming Fire has 47. If we subtract the 15-ish that are probably those same loyal friends and family, Taming Fire had to sell 17,000 copies to generate 32 spontaneous reviews. That comes out to about 0.001% of readers who speak for the other 99.999%. That means any one reader who does leave a review has a profound impact on the book’s review status. Think about that, next time you’re hanging around at Amazon.

For the most part, I’ve really enjoyed every review I’ve gotten at Amazon. I’ve had a few negative reviews from people who really don’t seem to like fantasy, or adventure fantasy, or slightly-grim adventure fantasy, or (oddly enough) books with talking animals. Those don’t bother me at all. They’re not my target audience, so I’m pretty thrilled just for the three stars they would give me on style.

I’ve had a few positive reviews that had some pretty severe criticism buried in them almost as an aside. Major secondary characters’ actions don’t make sense. The ending is unsatisfying. My protagonist doesn’t participate in the most interesting parts of the world. None of them has been a surprise yet (except the complaint about talking animals), and I’m glad of the opportunity to learn from them and improve my future books.

But late last month I received my first 1-star review. It was really frustrating to me, too–not because someone didn’t like my book, but because the review was useless to me.

“Weak characters and the storyline was predictable and dry.”

There’s not much I can do with that. It’s not a mystery–it’s a traditional genre fantasy–so the storyline isn’t supposed to be full of huge surprises. Most people have found it exciting enough, though. And most of the praise I’ve gotten has focused on the strength of my characters. That really left me with no idea what advice to take from the review. So I just shrugged and decided to forget about it.

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to. See, that one 1-star review dropped my average star rating at Amazon from 4.5 stars to 4 stars. I didn’t expect that to matter much, but a day after my rating changed, my sales plummeted. Daily sales of Taming Fire fell off 30% from one day to the next. And they stayed low.

I’ve been surprised how steady daily sales are, and when they move dramatically I can always track it back to a single cause. In this case, the only one I could find was that half-star I’d lost at Amazon, and for four days my sales stayed at the lower plateau. Then I picked up a couple more 5-star reviews, got my half-star back, and my sales bounced right back up to where they’d started.

That was a big relief. It was also pretty scary–realizing that one negative review could cripple my sales like that. I spent some time worrying what would happen if I got another one.

Less than a week later, I got to find out. Ugh. The end result is that September’s going to be my worst sales month since July…but I’m also going to make way more money than I ever have before. It’s…well, it’s weird. Come back Thursday and I’ll tell you all the gory details.

7 Responses to “5-Star Sales”

  1. Heather says:

    One arbitrary comment:
    “it all started in October 2012.”
    Really? Are you sure? Cause I’m pretty sure it was October 2010, but perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe you have a time machine you never told me about. If so, I totally need to borrow it. Just for a day or two, I promise.

  2. Sean L says:

    Interesting. I’ve been curious about how the self published tend to market themselves, and what Amazon’s criteria for pushing recommendations is.

    I discovered your books from it recommending me Taming Fire, and I enjoyed it enough to buy all the rest. I’ve word of mouth recommended it but not written a review.

    I think their review system might improve some if they allowed non review ratings. I never review things because I really don’t have anything to contribute generally that hasn’t already been said, but I’d be happy to rate items.

    • Hi Sean! Thanks for dropping in. I don’t know as much about Amazon’s review system as Aaron does — but I wanted to thank you for buying all of Aaron’s books. Support for Aaron is support for all of us here at Consortium Books, so we appreciate it! It’s nice to hear such great feedback from a reader. : )