Congratulations! A Great Truth has dawned upon you.
You’ve decided that to become an A-list author by the agency/publisher route is as likely today as striking oil in your window box. You’re tired of laminating your 1000+ rejection slips to sell on EBay as collectible bookmarks, the moment you become famous.
You’ve resolved to self-publish your book.
Perhaps you’ve already put it up at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords or the like. Or you’ve produced a paperback via CreateSpace or some other cheap, fast print-on-demand printer.
Or you’re planning to do that.
Once your book is out there, the hardest part is over. Isn't it? After all, it took you months or years to write and edit the book. That's work. If you also formatted it for Kindle or epub by yourself, you are a hero(ine). That’s a lot of work.
Can you now relax and wait for your Amazon payments to flood in?
No. Here’s a cruel truth. You won’t sell a single book, except to your friends and the postman, unless you promote it. Hard. And that’s where the real work begins. And the heartache.
Let me reveal Five Great Truths I’ve discovered, after 18 months of climbing the indie learning curve and finally putting four novels up at Amazon this year - The Cunning Man, Fear of Evil, Dream Of Darkness and The Hog Lane Murders. I did it all myself, except for the cover designs, because I wanted to understand the process.
BTW: You must hire a pro for your cover, even if you’re an ace graphic artist. It’s a specialist skill.
I gained 92 top-star reviews across five Amazon sites in eleven weeks. Am I a best-selling author? Well, my story The Hog Lane Murders did rank #1 in its sales category in its first week. But a best-seller? In cash terms, no. My private yacht is still on the horizon.
That said, all the books are making comfortable sales. It was worth the work. How did I do it? Let me count the ways...
In five Great Truths.
Please bear in mind that these are merely my experiences and grumpy opinions. I’d love to hear yours, grumpy or not!
Truth #1: Great reviews do not correlate with sales.
Some truly ‘best selling’ authors - those with private yachts - have relatively few Amazon reviews. Conversely, many authors whose books flaunt 100+ reviews are barely making a crust.
True, you do need a handful of 4 or 5 star reviews to kick-start your sales. Reviews are comfort factors. They reassure the purchaser. How do you get your first reviews, legitimately? Give review copies to your friends in writing groups or social networks.
1. Insist that they state clearly in their subsequent reviews: ‘Disclaimer: I was given a free review copy of this book’, or similar.
Amazon is relaxed about that nowadays, although it went through a patch of paranoia when it would have deleted any review that might have come from an author’s ‘friend’, howsoever loosely defined.
2. Do not offer to reward the reviewer in any way, except with a review copy. That includes author quid pro quos: “I’ll review your book if you review mine.” Sure, it happens all the time and authors get away with it. But Amazon has lately become very astute at spotting such reviews. And taking them down.
Truth #2: Spamming your book across social networks doesn’t work.
Has anybody, in the unrecorded history of spam, ever clicked on a book link at Twitter, Facebook or Google+, and bought the book? Have you?
Truth #3: Paid advertising is iffy.
Some authors swear by ad platforms like Bookgoodies, Bargainbooksy, EReader News Today, Kindle Nation Daily (KND), Author Marketing Club, Peoplereads, Readingdeals, etc. Other authors have lost their shirt. (I spent $150 at KND and made three sales.)
Everyone praises Bookbub.com, but it’s pricey and selective. You need to show a lot of good reviews before it will take you on.
Common sense dictates that you spend as little as possible. Test small. Budget only what you can afford to lose. Space out your ads so you can tell which ad is working. Otherwise, if you run more than one ad in a single week, you won’t know which one is responsible for your sales peak.
And never, ever book a banner ad. Anywhere. Banner ads don’t work. Period. I speak from five years of pain.
Did someone mention Goodle Adwords, Bing ads or Facebook ads? They don't work for books or anything else that has a unit of sale, or total client value, much below $1000, given what you have to pay for any long-tail keyword that's worth buying. The maths are against it.
Truth #4: Blog tours are vanity publishing.
You can pay three figure sums to have a tour promoter get you interviews or promotions at book review sites, with tweets and Facebook parties thrown in. I spent $200 on a blog tour. When I saw no impact on my sales, I looked closely at the 15 sites that had reviewed my book. Only one had any Google page rank or Alexa rating whatsoever.
Conclusion: they got few visitors.
I was also perturbed by the interview questions that some sites asked me. One was: ‘What was the name of your first pet?’ It spoke volumes about the quality of the site.
I concede, you might be lucky with blog tours. An Amazon friend swears by them for her historical romances. They seem tailor-made for romance, sci-fi, chick-lit, paranormal, vampires, and the like - genres with a lot of cult followers.
But if you opt for blog tours, set up your own route.
Choose review or interview sites that you know are popular and reputable. How can you know?
First, check their Google PR and Alexa rankings. (You can do this with the free Alexa toolbar. Download it here: www.alexa.com/toolbar) If you see no Alexa rank, or one in the high millions, suspect a start-up site or one with few visitors.
Second, look at the quality and volume of the comments beneath the reviews. If the posts have drawn no comments, although comments are enabled, that site is getting little or no traffic.
A blog tour that you mount yourself takes work. But, at least, you won’t lose your shirt.
Truth #5: Goodreads Giveaways are (mostly) vanity publishing.
If you’re a Goodreads Author member, you probably know you can mount a free Goodreads Giveaway. Offer just one printed copy of your book as a prize in a lottery (Goodreads won’t accept ebooks) and an average of 820 people will enter. That implies they want your book, doesn’t it? No. Some people will apply for anything, if it’s free.
You then have to mail the book to the winner, wherever in the world they might live. Whether they want it or not.
Anecdotal reports suggest that you’ll gain, on average, two Goodreads reviews and make one sale.
In fact, I love Goodreads. And some authors love Giveaways too. But when pressed, they tend to answer: “I don’t know if they made any sales. But they got my name around.”
So what does work, in my experience?
1. Optimize your title and cover for Kindle.
If you have a Kindle, you’ll know that the covers depicted there are about half the size of a postage stamp. So your title needs to be short, big and bold. Or it will be illegible. I had to change the title of one novel from The Apothecary’s Dream to Dream Of Darkness because the word ‘Apothecary’ vanished on Kindle.
Likewise, your design. Bold and clear. It should indicate the book’s genre, and hint at its drama or theme, in a one-second glance. (Not for nothing are many of James Patterson’s titles just one word.)
Your author name? That’s secondary but, when your books gain followers, name recognition will become important. So if your name is Camilla Hogarty-Ffitch Boring, contract it or use a pseudonym. (Amber Flint, perhaps?)
2. Choose the right Amazon categories.
Amazon lets you choose only two topic categories and sometimes defines them perversely. (For example, it lists how-to manuals on fiction writing under Reference or Creativity.) Search on Amazon for the half-dozen top-selling books that are the most comparable with yours. Scroll down their book description pages and, at the end, you’ll see something like this:
• Books > Literature & Fiction > ContemporaryDon’t necessarily choose the categories that seem obvious. (One author listed her crime mystery, which had a religious theme, under Spiritual. It didn’t work.) Choose the categories that people are likely to search for.
• Books > Literature & Fiction > Genre Fiction > Historical
• Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery
• Books > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Thrillers & Suspense > Crime
Be prepared for Amazon to do its own sweet thing and switch you into different categories regardless, including some you’d never heard of. (Allegedly, it once listed Yann Martel’s best-selling novel The Life Of Pi under Philosophy>Chinese.)
3. Imbed a lot of apt keywords in your book description and meta tags. And use HTML, second colours, enhanced fonts, bullet points, and indents on your Amazon book page.
Did you know you could do all that? For sure, Amazon won't show you how. Betterbooktools.com offers a nifty little tool that does it for you. You can see how these enhancements work in my - far from perfect - book description for The Hog Lane Murders here.
Sorry. I'm in danger of becoming technical, and I don't want to guide you wrong. (Especially as I'm not technical.)
So I’ll refer you to Michael Alvear’s excellent manual, How To Sell Fiction on Kindle, where he spells it all out step by step. Without being technical.
4. Keep price testing.
One of the joys of self-publishing at Amazon and elsewhere is that you can change your price, cover, book description and even the entire book contents in a moment. If a trade publisher had brought out your book, you’d be stuck with their choices forever. Even if they didn’t work.
BTW: If you change your title, it becomes a new 'product'. Amazon gives it a new ASIN or reference number. You'll lose all the reviews you've got to date and have to start again from scratch. Don't do it. Unless you're desperate.Currently, the most profitable price at Kindle for a standard 80,000 word novel is $3.99. Few fiction works make a profit above $5.99, unless you’re an established author.
But everything at Amazon changes by the day. So try price testing. It works best if you have several books for sale, linked by genre or characters. Set book #1 temporarily at 99 cents. With luck, you’ll get a lot of buyers and can persuade them - in the front and end-matter of your book - to buy your next books at a more profitable price. (The ‘funnel’ principle.)
Amazon also offers you Countdown Deals, Daily Deals, Exclusives, Singles, Kindle Unlimited… You have a lifetime of harmless fun ahead of you.
Does ‘free’ still work?
Not like it used to. According to some industry gurus, only around 1% of those who download a free book will get around to reading it. And darn few of those will pay for your subsequent books. Why? You’ve taught them that you’re ‘free’.
One profitable idea is to publish a lot of very short novellas, around 20,000 words, in a linked series. (Celina Grace does that with her Asharton Manor series.) You might still charge up to $3.99 for each. It’s no hardship to put out a new novella every two months and the cumulative income from your loyal followers can become impressive.
But price testing is an art, not a science. Keep testing and prepare to be surprised.
How do you learn the nuts and bolts of self-publishing, if you’re not familiar with it?
That calls for a lot of posts! Instead, I’ll refer you to a good overview here:
You can get any aspect of your book preparation and/or promotion done for you, at a price, at: bibliocrunch.com. I haven’t tried it, but it’s recommended by the Alliance of Independent Authors.
If you need recommendations for cover designers, copy editors, proof readers, coders or anyone else, email me via the Contact tab at top of this page or post your question below. (You can even hire Michael Alvear himself, if you wish, though he’s pricey. Details on request.)
Let me leave you with one thought… Self-publishing is still a horse race in fairyland. A Rule will work for author A and flop for author B. A novel that is unreadable may pull six-figure sales. A story of genius might go nowhere.
Why? Nobody knows.
Sometimes a ‘no hope’ outsider, that breaks the rules, will romp home. But it’s wiser to bet on the favourite. First, write a great book. Then heed the rules.
Have you self-published a book, or you’re thinking about it? Please share your experiences or advice to others in a comment below. Or post your questions and I’ll try to help. Every comment gets a fast, thoughtful reply.
Posted by John Yeoman. Posted In : The Writing Craft