Author, Publisher, Promoter, Exporter . . . Exporter?

Since I last wrote about Goodreads giveaways I’ve opened my giveaways up to more countries besides the U.S. This worked fine when the winner lived in Canada, but after trying to get a book to South Africa, I think I’ve hit my limit.

The shipment to Canada I mailed myself. It cost more than I’d expected but it was easy. In the South African case, it would be less expensive to send a copy directly from Amazon.com to the winner.

Shipping cost $14, on top of the price of the book. I was pleasantly surprised at how reasonable this was, and that’s when the surprises stopped being pleasant.

During the ordering process I learned that South African customs requires the national ID number of the recipient of a package. I suspected the recipient could provide this number to customs when the package arrived there, but I wasn’t sure. Not wanting to ship a book that might never get to its destination, I paused to investigate.

Online searches yielded no helpful information.

Since Amazon had alerted me to the requirement, I decided to ask them about the particulars. I called customer support. The representative assured me all I need was the recipient’s address. Great. I asked him why Amazon requested the recipient’s national ID number in that case. He put me on hold. A minute later, he returned with a changed mind: I certainly needed the ID number to ship the package. I decided to try a different Amazon representative.

Via web chat, the next rep told me I could substitute my own national ID number. The only national ID number I have is my Social Security number, and I’m certainly not plugging that into Amazon to buy a book. Besides, it’s hard to see how my Social Security number would do South African customs any good. I hope they don’t have a database of all American’s and their most personal information. When I asked the rep about this, she began answering questions I had not asked, but not the ones I did. I said thank you and goodbye.

The humble, little humor novel that caused all the trouble. According to Amazon's shipping department, it might just be explosively hilarious.

The humble, little humor novel that caused all the trouble. According to Amazon’s shipping department, it might just be explosively hilarious.

Still confused, I broke down and did the unthinkable. I sent a message through Goodreads to the winner of my giveaway. Goodreads strongly discourages this, but under the circumstances, I hope to be forgiven.

The winner was a very nice man, who even apologized for his country’s red tape. Though I’d been careful not to ask for his ID number, he offered it anyway, along with a more specific address than the one supplied by Goodreads. I returned to my Amazon shopping cart. Problem solved.

Or not.

Amazon would not ship to the new address at all. A pop-up box explained that I might be sending something that South African authorities would not allow – for example, weapons or explosives. Well, I have handled hundreds of copies of this book, and it has never yet exploded. What the pop-up box didn’t mention is that the new address contained the phrase “PO Box,” which is more likely the reason Amazon didn’t want to deal with it. But it was convenient to blame it on the South African authorities.

I went back to the non-PO Box, address. Combined with the winner’s national ID number, no warning lights flashed and no gates came crashing down. I was free, as far as I know, to ship a humble, non-toxic, non-invasive, paperback book to South Africa.

What do you guess the odds are of it making it to its destination?

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Amazon giveaways: the best-kept secret from Amazon customers?

This year, Amazon.com has added a new giveaway feature. Here, you can sponsor a giveaway of virtually any product sold on Amazon.

Having done a couple of Goodreads giveaways for A Housefly in Autumn, I was interested in how this new feature could help me promote the book. After doing a little research on Amazon’s official giveaway site, I’m still unsure how this feature would help.

Amazon.com and it’s international incarnations reach hundreds of millions of customers. This makes any tool Amazon unveils worthy of consideration. But after reading up on this new giveaway service, I think it may be more useful to larger vendors with a wider social reach than myself.

The main problem with Amazon giveaways, from the perspective of the small, independent publisher, is that there appears to be no readily accessible site within the entire realm of Amazon where customers can go to peruse the available giveaways. (As far as I can tell, there is only a Twitter hashtag: #AmazonGiveaway.) Instead, the sponsor of the giveaway is issued a unique link to disseminate to interested parties in order to bring them to the specific giveaway.

By contrast, the biggest advantage to a Goodreads giveaway is that readers can browse the entire catalog of available giveaways and thereby find new books that may interest them. The giveaway is a tool to reach potential customers with whom you might not otherwise make contact.

In the case of Amazon, you are left to promote your promotion, which seems like an extra, unnecessary step to promoting your product. Everyone in my network has already received promotional information about my books. I want tools that reach beyond my already-establish network.

Amazon jungle

I went to the Amazon the give away some books, but my books got lost in its immense jungle. (Image: Keystone View Company)

In the description of this service, Amazon says, “Run promotional giveaways to create buzz, reward your audience, and grow your followers and customers.” I could much more easily grow my followers and customers if all Amazon customers were allowed to discover my books by browsing the list of available giveaways.

I can imagine that this service could be valuable to individuals and corporations with large social followings. But for the little guy, it’s hard to spot the advantage. If I want to give a book to friend, I can do that on my own.

Amazon has done a lot of good things for independent authors and publishers, and maybe this new feature was intended for somebody else. Also, the feature is relatively new and perhaps still evolving.

If Amazon opened up a catalog where its customers could browse and enter any of the various giveaways, I believe I would begin sponsoring giveaways for my books in a heartbeat. In the meantime, I think I’ll hold off until somebody can explain the advantages of the system as it now stands.

Would you consider doing Amazon giveaways? Have you done any? How did they go? Whether you’ve tried them or not, can you spot an advantage to the small seller that I’ve missed?

The review police cast a wide net

A few years ago, the complaints about fake reviews on Amazon reached a level Amazon could not ignore. They tightened their reviewing policy and purged reviews that smelled funny to them.

Having seen enough fishy reviews on Amazon’s pages, I thought this was a good move. I feel like I can pick out insincere reviews, but, apparently, not everyone can. Besides, they can get to be annoying, when they are not entertaining, behind their veneer of deceit.

I wasn’t affected by the purges, so I never bothered to learn how Amazon determined which reviews were frauds. Time went by and I didn’t much consider the issue.

Amazon reviews can be very helpful in promoting your book. In spite of this, I decided I would try to avoid the temptation to ask for reviews with A Housefly in Autumn. The really valuable reviews are the ones people are inspired to write by their experience with the product itself. I didn’t want anyone writing a review because they felt obliged to do it.

So far I have stayed true to my intention. I have not asked anyone for a review. Consequently, after nearly a month, I have few reviews. I would have had one more, except the Amazon purge has finally struck me.

I kicked off my book with a release party. Not wanting to be alone at my party, I invited people I know. They humbled me by the way they gladly turned out. One of the attendees is a co-worker. She paid her hard-earned money for a copy, took it home and read it.

She liked it. She liked it a lot. Without any prompting, she wrote a review on Amazon. It was a short review, but it was heartfelt. I felt honored by it.

It was also short-lived. Within a day, Amazon purged it. She inquired about this and was told that she was not eligible to review this item.

They didn’t say why she was ineligible. I suspect it is a combination of her not having reviewed much on Amazon previously, the shortness of the review, the fact that it was not a “verified” Amazon purchase (she bought it at my party), and the fact that she lives in my town.

The official rules. Did the review in question violate them?

The official rules. Did the review in question violate them?

I’m disappointed at losing her review, but I am not irate with Amazon. I know they mean well and they can’t investigate every review on its own merits.

I feel as though this was an honest review. The reviewer paid for the book. No review was solicited of her, and she was in no way compensated for it. She has no economic interest in the book. The only connection she has is that she knows the author.

I hope Amazon does not consider proximity to be too much an indicator of fraud. After all, who will the non-famous author market to first, if not his own community. I would discourage family members from reviewing my books, but how far away from me must that line be drawn?

What do you think? Was this a valid review? Should people who know the author be prohibited from reviewing his books? Where should Amazon draw the line?

Nothing lasts forever – even when it’s sponsored by Amazon.com

I discovered today that the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) competition has been discontinued. This is disappointing, but judging from the comments in the ABNA forum, I’m not as heartbroken over it as some other would-be contestants are.

I have participated in ABNA since its inaugural year, which I believe was 2008. It was an annual event, allowing 10,000 novelists from around the world to compete for a healthy royalty advance and a publishing contract from Amazon, with all the marketing advantages that we 10,000 imagined that entailed. Based on the quiet death of the event, perhaps we were imagining too much.

I experienced varying degrees of success in my seven attempts at ABNA. I never won, but I never expected to. It was a great opportunity to get feedback from total strangers who were avid readers and reviewers. That was enough to make it worthwhile, especially since it was free to enter.

Sure, it was exciting to scan the list of entries moving ahead to the next round. It felt good to advance, and it was always deflating to be booted from the competition. Some took it hard, but most recovered fairly quickly. Just as for Cubs fans, there was always next year.

Except there is no next year now, because there’s no this year now. The announcement came just as people were expecting the new submission period to be announced. The unfortunate timing left many sorely disappointed.

Bad news coming

“What’s that? You’ve discontinued the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award? How delightful!”

My disappointment is mild by comparison. Over the years, the ABNA highs got less high and the lows not as low for me. It became more of a yearly routine than a special event. It was a nice routine, like a free lottery ticket, and I’d take it when offered, but I had my chances so I can’t complain.

I do feel for the folks who discovered ABNA in the last year or two – those who learned from the experiences of their rookie seasons and were ready to come back at it with renewed vigor – those who toiled to rework their manuscripts specifically for this chance, only to discover at the final hour that the chance was no more. I wish they had time to come to see ABNA as just one of many opportunities before it got yanked away from them.

Amazon has replaced ABNA with its Kindle Scout program. I haven’t read many details about Scout because it only accepts three genres, in which I have no manuscripts ready. From the little I have read, it seems like a social media popularity contest more than anything else. I admit, there is some value in knowing which authors can rock social media, but it doesn’t seem to account for the quality of their work very much.

Bad news here

“And you’ve replaced it with a program that relies on social media? I’m absolutely giddy over it!”

Scout may turn out to be a good program. I don’t know enough about it, and it hasn’t had time to prove itself. Time will tell. Meanwhile, I bid a fond farewell to ABNA. I won’t cry, but right around this time every year, I will miss you, if only just a little bit.