Friday, February 10, 2017

A Broke-Ass Writer's Thoughts on Amazon's Pre-Order Feature, or How I Learned What True Disaster Feels Like

So.

I read JA Konrath's thoughts on the pre-order feature for amazon, and for those among us that don't need long-winded, apologetic, partially-whiny rants (for that, please see below) (and believe me, I'm not talking about Konrath here), the short and long of it is this: there is no significant benefit to using the pre-order feature, for either Broke-Ass Writers (me) or very successful ones.  It may be enjoyable to see how many folks line up for a particular book before it's done, but chances are good that if you've got fans they will do that no matter what.

And the down-sides, unfortunately, are legion (please see whiny rant below).

For those wondering what the hell I'm talking about, the pre-order feature on Amazon is the neat idea where an author establishes a publishing date through enrollment in the KDP Select program and people are allowed to pre-order it, creating a queue for the finished book.  It contributes to your amazon ratings and can contribute to increased visibility leading up to publishing, which can be very useful.

But... Let me share my cautionary tale with you.

One of the things about this program that I'm not a huge fan of, having used it for two different books now, is that the book must be finished, polished, TOTALLY finalized 3 days before your publishing date.  So your actual deadline is not, say, February 14th, which is the day Blackstone Fever comes out; your deadline is actually February 10th, at 2 o'clock in the afternoon.  This shouldn't be a huge deal, right?  You've had months to plan this, and your book should be wrapped up, lock, stock, and barrel.  You know what you've signed up for.

But life happens sometimes.  It really does.

Something very bad happened in my family in January.  These things do.  It was the kind of thing, also, unfortunately, that didn't happen quickly and I reeled from it and gathered my loved ones and moved on after a hot minute--it was the kind of thing that spiraled into every other thing and just made life generally a hell of a lot harder for a lot longer than I could've prepared for--not that I got to plan for this.  This is not the kind of thing you plan for; like I said: life happens.  And sometimes it just keeps on happening.

I'd already messed up once and moved the date from the 1st to the 14th, which I did on a total whim because I forgot the penalty: banned for a year from participating in the pre-order feature (which, ha, don't worry about that buddy).  I just thought releasing on Valentine's would be cute.  It turns out, nothing about this process has been cute, but hey, that was my thinking at the time.  I was sad to be banned, and felt foolish.  However, because of what happened in my personal life, I am thanking the powers-that-be that I moved that deadline back.

There was no viable book on February 1st.

Sometimes, given strict deadlines, an author can crank out a ton of decent writing; I operate fairly well like this.  I had half of this book's first draft done by Christmas, when it opened for pre-order.  This gave me exactly 51 days to write a full novel and have it ready by February 14th, which required writing approximately 1500 to 2000 words a day, or 3000 if I wanted a reasonable amount of time to edit (which I prefer), in order to reach novel length.  If I have the resources and support, I can write roughly 2500 words an hour for about 3 hours at a time.  This looked like a very easy math problem, back in December.

But then January happened.

Sometimes you don't have the support, or the resources.  Sometimes you can't touch the damn thing until February, and then you've got two weeks, half a first draft, and a looming deadline.  You've got people counting on you (in my case, at last count, 28 of them).

So you write.

I am lucky in that I have a fully developed plot (and many sub-plots) already mapped out, and I did have that half a first draft.  I am unlucky in that I didn't like a lot of the first draft.

So I wrote.

On February 9th, I sighed, took a deep breath, and uploaded my final draft.  Thank god, I thought.  I am never doing this again.

On February 10th at around 10 am, I realized I had uploaded... The unfinished first draft.

No shit.

Now, the ins and outs of Amazon's publishing software are a bit of a mystery to me; I put this draft in and hit 'save and publish' on the bottom of the page, and the whole document went into lock-down.  The little button you click on the sidebar of each one of your books changes from Continue Setup to a greyed out label and you can no longer access your books details, manuscript, or pricing.  The review process for a change in manuscript such as this can take up to 72 hours.

When you're not using the pre-order function, this is inconvenient but not a big deal.  You just sigh at your own stupidity, wait for the changes to be approved and the button to go from greyed out to Promote and Advertise, and re-upload your ACTUAL final draft when the system is done processing your work.  It's not a problem, because there is no one that has pre-paid for your book; at most, it might move your actual publishing date back by a day.  I have never had a book take 72 hours to load, particularly if the changes are incremental.

But.

When you use the pre-order feature, your book goes into lock-down once that little clock reaches the 3 day deadline.  It gives no shits about what you're doing, what happened in January, or how many people will be disappointed if you just say screw the whole thing and unpublish.

I refreshed that page so many times I thought my finger was going to break.

Finally, at around 12.30, the damn thing re-published.  I had roughly an hour and a half to get my final draft in.

Okay, I thought.  Let's get this sucker in and make sure it's okay.

Because its the right thing to do, I spent the next hour and a half 1) uploading the final draft and 2) looking at it on the various previews to make sure it didn't have any strange formatting or glitches, particularly since there's an image towards the end of the book.

2 minutes left on the clock.

Okay, I thought, if I get locked out now at least the damn thing's as clean as I can get it... But I should look at it in phone mode one more time, just to be sure.

Phone mode loading... Scrolling through the document... Making sure everything looks okay... Yup.  Everything looks okay.  I click the button on the top left of the screen to go back to the actual document, and everything freezes.

This is alright, I think.  If it's going in pre-order mode (which I think it is) that's fine--the final draft is in, so no problem.  Whew!  What a nightmare.  I am never doing this again.

I get kicked out to the main Bookshelf page, and sure enough, my book is locked down in pre-order mode.  Okay, I say, getting ready to shut the site down and catch my breath... Wait a minute.  What's this?

PRE-ORDER LIVE with Unpublished Changes.  What the fuck is this?  I click on it, and the highlighted bubble says: You've entered new information about this pre-order title, but it's not published yet. A previous version of your pre-order title is live in the Kindle Store and is available for purchase. Click here to publish your changes.

I click to publish my changes.

I can't change anything; it's in pre-order lock-down.

I can see the page in dulled out grey beneath the window telling me I'm not able to change anything, and I see the title of my draft, which I never changed--no help there.  Is it the old one or the new?  Damnit!  There are 2 spelling errors.  Was that there with the new draft?  SH!TF@CKGODDA---

So.

I have no idea if the new draft made it through.  If, for reasons I'm not entirely clear on, it just didn't fully register my changes--and it looks that way--28 generous, risk-taking souls will be getting a ratty first draft instead of the finished product when the book debuts on Tuesday.  Happy Valentine's!  I feel like throwing up.

I could be wrong; like I said, I don't totally understand the inner workings of Amazon's programs.  Maybe I'm panicking over nothing; maybe I did have two spelling errors in my final draft... Maybe.  I really don't think so.

I have spent hours with customer service today; Amazon hires nice, helpful people.  None of them can get into the system and tell me if the changes went through, or how to make sure they go through, or anything useful, really.  So I might unpublish the book on Tuesday, after all of the pre-orders go through, and re-upload the changes, hoping everyone that took a chance will get an updated copy on their devices before they read it.  Otherwise, I can unpublish now and they'll get a re-fund, but the book won't be on their device.  Which is worse?  I'm not sure.  I'm really not--even approaching this as a reader, what would I prefer?  I don't know.

My verdict on the pre-order feature: unless the book is already written, completely, and you know you will never change anything about it ever again, and you have a good marketing plan that involves using pre-orders to drive up your amazon ranking, DO NOT DO THIS.  Even with these strategies, there's the chance that you, like me, will have some baffling, glitchy run-in at the last minute with the draft you send in--I don't think the risks are worth it at all.  But hey--there is a lot of human error in my story, as any tech will tell you.  You're smart.  You decide.

And good luck, imaginary friends, either way--