People write and self-publish for many reasons. For some, it is purely for the sense of achievement. They want to leave their mark on the world and aren't worried if they don’t sell any copies. The fact that they've written the book is fulfilment enough.
Others dream of writing a best-seller that they’ll load up to Kindle and will take the charts by storm. In reality it seldom works out like that. I have seen statistics which say that the vast majority of self-published books will never sell more than 100 copies.
It’s fair to say that the quality of work out there is variable. Some people will load up poorly written books, riddled with errors that probably don’t deserve to sell. But what about those who have written brilliant well-crafted books that deserve to succeed, yet sit unloved on Amazon’s virtual shelves? How do the authors of these books feel, knowing they've written a fantastic piece of work that nobody is buying? Pretty demoralised, I would imagine. There are plenty of such books out there – I've read some fantastic books by some really talented authors. But no-one is buying.
In this blog entry, I’d like to explore some of the reasons behind why this might be, as well as exploding some of the myths that circulate around on the internet in various forums. Naturally, new writers looking for help gravitate to these places. Do they get the advice they need? Some, maybe, but it’s very hit and miss. For every useful piece of information, there’s another misleading piece. Of course, people aren’t deliberately giving erroneous advice, they are simply regurgitating what others have said until it becomes enshrined as an article of faith.
It reminds me to some degree of some of the things I used to hear in betting shops during my misspent youth. Punters were full of gems of wisdom then that used to get endlessly repeated. One I particularly remember was “The bigger the field the bigger the certainty”, in reference to the favourite’s chance of winning the race. This was in fact complete nonsense but it had been repeated so often over the years that everyone in the shop assumed it to be true.
I see a lot of the same now in author’s forums on the internet. Having put my former career in market research to good use in analysing things from every which way, I've come to some conclusions that pretty much go against the general consensus of what the crowd are saying. In fact, raising some of these opinions in forum has even led to some criticism being thrown my way for daring to challenge the status quo. But I’ve stuck to my guns, gone against the grain and it has paid dividends. Just like it did all those years ago when the punters in the betting shop were groaning when yet another favourite bit the dust and I was cleaning up on the 16/1 winner.
It’s only two years since I published my first book, and a year since my first novel – yet since I started following the golden rules I set myself just under a year ago, I have seen my sales increase steadily every single month. The last month for which I have complete sales is April – in that month my total sales were 580 with another 232 borrows on top of that. Prior to Christmas, sales were barely one quarter of that, and a year ago, before my first novel came out more or less negligible. My early non-fiction books didn't sell many copies and they still don’t, but they did serve a useful purpose which was to get me started and help me learn how the whole system works. For the purposes of what I’m talking about in this blog, assume I'm referring to my three fiction books as they are the ones that I've applied my golden rules to.
So what are these rules? Well I’ll summarise them in turn.
Selling to the right audience
The one huge mistake that I see indie authors falling into over and over again is that they are selling to the wrong people. It’s generally accepted wisdom that you must build a following through a blog, blog tours, an author page, not to mention pushing your book constantly on Facebook and Twitter. Controversial statement coming up here – but I consider that whole strategy to be a total waste of time.
I need an analogy to demonstrate this. Imagine you sell cars for a living. Your sales strategy is to go into town, to the supermarket or into the pub and ask everyone you meet over and over again, “Would you like to buy a car?” Imagine getting up every morning and asking your next door neighbour “Would you like to buy a car” – every single day. I think he would probably get pretty irritated with you after a while. But that is exactly what authors are doing every time they spam Facebook groups and Twitter with their books. Yes, chances are that you will catch the odd sale this way – just as if we ask enough people if they want to buy one of our fictional cars, ultimately we will find someone who will, but there’s a much better way to sell our cars – and that is to have our own showroom.
In our showroom, we can guarantee that anyone who walks in will have come in specifically because they are interested in buying a car. Half the battle has already been won. And when it comes to books, we already have our own showroom – it’s called the Amazon website. People who go into the Kindle store go there for a reason – to buy a book and these are the people we need to be trying to sell our books to. Not all of our Facebook friends and Twitter followers who are at best uninterested and at worst pissed off at our endless “Buy my book” posts.
Once I realised this, I immediately stopped trying to force my books down people’s throats on social media – yes I do post occasionally but that is normally with good reason – such as a new book launch, or to advise if I have a Kindle Countdown Deal running. Other than that I leave it alone. My Facebook friends are friends with me the person, not me the writer.
Once I established this golden rule, the others naturally followed.
People judge a book by the cover (and the blurb and the Look Inside)
So, we've established that the correct place to sell is the Amazon showroom, but we still need to attract people to our book. Plenty of people fall at the first hurdle when uploading their book. Like I've said previously, there are some fantastically talented writers out there who produce some fantastic, original and well-written material but they let themselves down. It never ceases to amaze me how many writers finish a book, give it a quick proofread through themselves, knock up a cheap cover using the cover creator tool on Amazon or in Photoshop and think that’ll do. The fact is, it won’t do. Nothing screams “amateurish” as much as tacky cover (I know, because my Sausage Man book still has one!) and then a book that’s full of grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. It’s a huge turn off, and if your blurb (the book description) is poor too, you may as well go and shoot yourself in the foot now.
If you want to make your book a success you absolutely have to invest in it. Proofreading is a must – preferably professionally ( I use http://www.proofprofessor.com/ which costs me about £200 per book) but failing that, the absolute minimum is a friend with some experience – maybe in the media or as a teacher. And likewise don’t try designing the cover yourself – it’s a huge mistake. There are plenty of sites where you can get a decent off-the peg cover for a reasonable price. My last three all came from http://www.selfpubbookcovers.com/ who have a huge range and are not expensive – I paid $79 for each of mine and I think all three are fantastic. Some will say, “I don’t have that sort of budget to invest” – quite frankly, I feel that anyone who isn’t willing to invest $79 in a cover can’t be that dedicated to wanting to make their book a success.
Finally the blurb – this is free. Craft it lovingly, the way you did your book. In a way, I often find this the hardest part. Play around with it until you are happy, and change it after publication if you think of a way of improving it. This couple of paragraphs is more important than any within your actual book. It’s integral to the customer’s decision whether to purchase or not.
Reach more people using Amazon Category Keywords
Here’s one piece of advice I've seen on forums – “Don’t use Romance as one of your keywords as it’s a waste of a keyword if you are already in that category”.
In fact, this couldn't be further from the truth. Most people probably aren't too sure what to put in their search keywords, so try and think of words relating to their book which people might search for. This is very hit and miss. When I launched my Time Bubble book, I started off with things like “Time Portal”, “Time Tunnel” and such-like. I don’t think these were particularly effective.
Then I found out about Amazon Category Keywords and how to combine them. As you’ll probably know, Amazon lets you choose two categories to put your book into. What few people know is that is you use the right combination of keywords in conjunction with the right categories, you can get your book into many different categories. It’s pretty simple to do. Let’s say your book is a Romance book with a Paranormal theme, that also could fit into lots of other categories too. You could choose Romance – Paranormal as your main category, but you can get it into lots of other Romance categories too by using other keywords. Amazon even provide a handy list, which can be found here: https://kdp.amazon.com/help?topicId=A19G4ONBAU6NO3 There are lists for Science Fiction and many other genres too.
So, for example, by using Romance as a category keyword plus Vampire, werewolf, spirit and demon as keywords, in theory you ought to be able to get into all of those categories (assuming they are relevant). This is not an exact science and it can be quite frustrating playing around with the keywords trying to get the right combination. I spent weeks on it, but I got there in the end. For example, at the bottom of the product page for my book The Time Bubble, you can see that I am in all of these categories:
· Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Teen & Young Adult > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Time Travel
By doing this, I’ve given myself a fighting chance of being found by a lot more people than I would have done before.
Reviews and sales rankings
A quick word on reviews – some see them as the be-all and end-all – and there’s no denying they are important. There are all manner of ways of coming by them – and it’s a grey area not only morally but when it comes to violating review policy. I certainly don’t recommend you ask friends and family to give you dozens of glowing reviews – this look suspicious.
Nothing sets alarm bells ringing for me more than when I look at a book and see that it has 22 reviews and every single one of them is 5*. Now that is OK if the book is ranked at something like #517 in the Amazon store – clearly it’s selling like hot cakes and attracting rave reviews because it’s a good book. However, if it is sitting at #517,000 which means it is probably selling one or two copies a month at best then those 22 reviews look highly dubious.
Ultimately the best way of getting reviews is to let them come naturally, though I understand the frustration of people who say they can’t get sales without reviews and they can’t get reviews without sales. You’ll get a few bad ones in with the good ones, that’s for certain, but at least it will look genuine, and there is nothing wrong with badly written, one sentence reviews. That’s how people review on many sites, and they are genuine. A good spread of * ratings is good too. I would argue that if our book with 22 reviews had thirteen 5* star reviews, six 4* reviews and one each of 3*, 2* and 1* of varying lengths and styles, potential purchasers will feel a lot more confident in what’s being written.
So how do you get sales? Read on…
There are all manner of sites offering to promote your book on the internet – from my experience the vast majority of these are a waste of time. I have come to the conclusion that there are 3 things that really work, and those are as follows:
Bookbub – the holy grail of book promotion sites. It’s expensive – expect to pay $300 or more to get in, but the payback is enormous and it will put your book on the map. You can go for a free option or a 99c/ 99p option. I recommend the latter option as I don’t personally believe in giving work away from free (but I did on my early books when I started). I wouldn't go so far as to say you should beg, borrow, steal or sell your granny’s gold teeth to get into Bookbub, but I can understand why some might. I've never managed to get in, but I keep trying!
AMS (Amazon Marketing Services) – a cheap and effective way of getting your book noticed on Amazon (.com only). I recommend setting up an ad based on individual products you want to try and target – I won’t elaborate further here, as I covered it in an earlier blog entry in February which can be found here http://jasonayres70.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/amazon-pay-per-click-promotions.html - to summarise, it’s cheap and pretty effective as far as I can tell.
Facebook ads – far more effective than posting over and over, if you have an author page, you can put a normal post on it promoting your book – say you have it on a promotion for 99c, you can say so here. If you’ve got 200 followers on your page it will probably be seen by a couple of dozen of them. However, if you then pay to Boost the post, you can ask for it to be seen not only by your followers (who will be a mixture of your friends and fans) but by all of their friends too. I did this last month for one of my books, and the post was seen by about 4,000 people. I paid £14 for the ad, and sales of that book quadrupled that week, even though it was not on promotion. I'm going to try it again soon in conjunction with a Countdown Deal.
This leads me nicely on to my final segment:
It is my belief that you absolutely have to be in KDP select, which means being exclusive to Amazon. However, what you lose by not being on those other sites is more than outweighed by what Amazon have to offer. The two key benefits are:
Kindle Unlimited. If you are in Select, your book is enrolled in KU which means people can borrow it, as part of a subscription service. I get a huge number of “borrows” through this, all of which get me around $1.40 per borrow – which is not much less than the 70% royalty on a $2.99 sale.
Kindle Countdown Deals: A quick word on pricing here – don’t be fooled into thinking that you’ll get more sales if you sell at 99p or 99c. That hasn’t been my experience at all. In fact, it’s been quite the reverse. I think selling at those prices makes people think that the book is cheap and therefore rubbish. You also only get 35% royalty at that level. Price your book at a price that reflects the worth you place on it and at a price that will give you 70% royalty – that’s £1.99 in the UK and $2.99 in the US. The only time you should ever be selling at 99p/99c is when you are running a Kindle Countdown Deal – another benefit of Select – oh and you get 70% royalty for that too.
I can’t prove this, and it is just a gut feel, but I’m pretty sure Amazon also looks after you better and makes your book more visible if you are in Select.
Well, this brings my blog entry to a close – it’s been a long one but hopefully you've stayed with me. I know not everyone is going to agree with everything I have written, but if you can find a few gems in there that will help you in your quest to get your books out to a wider audience, then this blog has served the purpose for which it was intended. I have had a lot of support from the Indie author community – and I'm more than happy to give something back. Please feel free to share this post to other groups you may participate in.
Jason Ayres is the author of six books, including his brand new novel, My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday, available here: http://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/product/B00UDHAD0M