The topic of “how to be successful” publishing a book came up in a recent discussion. You are probably here because you have either published a book or are are about to, and you want to learn as much as you can about how to increase your book sales. Having published my first novel to a 4.6 “star” rating and flirting with the top 1% of sales and now having made it to the top-10 of five bestseller lists, I thought I’d share what I have learned.
Core to my writing blog is helping other authors and writers succeed at publishing their books. We generally think of “success” as big royalty checks and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list. But let’s think about that for a moment. Do you know what you are really trying to accomplish with your first novel?
First, everyone has to articulate their own definition of success. It will differ for all of us. And we should be realistic. For instance, in my case, my definition of success, which I was very vocal about before I published my first book, was “Learn as much as I can, have a ‘star’ rating of at least four on Amazon, and average at least one sale a day for the first year it is in market.” I did not have any expectations about significant monetary gain, becoming a best seller, etc. My expectations for my second book are materially different than for my first. My goal for my second book is an average of at least four copies per day. But that is in the future. Back to my first publication and what I can share that you might find helpful…
An Amazon bestseller?
Since I launched my book four months ago I have averaged a bit over two books a day in sales (including ebooks, borrows, and paperbacks). There was an initial spike when I first announced (which was mostly friends and family), then it fell off to about one a day for the second month it was in the market. Over the last two months, I’ve been averaging about three copies a day and ramping.
Several times I’ve sold seven books in a day, which (believe it or not) reportedly put me near the top 1% of sales on Amazon (I heard in a podcast by Penny C. Sansevieri on how to sell books on Amazon that 27K sales rank is the break point to reach the top 1% of sales). It was a fleeting moment, though. For July, I actually averaged three and a half books a day, which I’m sure puts me well below the top 1%. As luck would have it, though, the day I wrote this I again sold seven books, which put me back in the ~28K sales rank…
Ranking this high is nice, but it also speaks to how many books don’t sell at all, and it speaks to how very hard it is to get to volume that has any meaningful revenue associated with it. With Amazon’s revised terms for Kindle Unlimited, I’m grossing about $25 a month on a 79-page novella (as Amazon counts pages) priced at $.99 for the ebook and $5.39 for the paperback (which account for about 5% of my sales). I’m not going to get rich on this novella even if my sales increased by 100 times! Think about that: I could increase my average sales of $25 a month by 100 times and I’d only be grossing $2.5K a month. And increasing my sales by even ten times would be a phenomenal accomplishment.
So what works when it comes to book promotion?
I’m a bit of a numbers freak, so I have been tracking my performance carefully. The problem is that it is very hard to know what is moving the needle on any given day or even for a specific week (more on that shortly). Below is what I do know when it comes to promotion. Some of the below are things I’ve heard said over and over in the various books on how to succeed on Amazon, which seem true based on my experience. And some of what is below are my own learnings.
I also want to emphasize an old saying in the world of marketing: “Half of all marketing dollars are wasted. The problem is that it is impossible to figure out which half.”
I work in marketing for the high-tech sector, and this quote is sadly true. Though we try very hard to figure out how to get the optimal Return On our Investment (ROI), it is often damn hard. The problem is that there are always many variables in play that we can’t control, and often don’t even know about. So keep that in mind reference everything I say below, and in your own endeavors.
My experience is with Amazon, but I think it can be generalized to any other publication method, to include traditional publishing.
Here is what I have learned:
- Without the basics you are dead in the water:
- Write the best story you can…be self-critical and use an online workshop (such as CritiqueCircle) or beta readers to help you find the problems. You may be adept at using literary devices, indirect speech, metaphors, dramatic irony, and foreshadowing. And you might be a rocket scientist when it comes to story structure. And that is all good. But is it really interesting? You must know how to influence people, engage them emotionally, capture their imagination, fire their passions… You need beta readers and/or a critique group to let you know.
- Your work must be professionally edited (some writers debate this, which boggles my mind).
- You must have have compelling cover art.
- Your story needs an engaging blurb.
- Optimize your buy site with keywords, author info, etc. Really be sure you understand every data-field and how to determine the right entries.
- Engage your potential fan base, which to a large extent is going to be via Media of the Social variety.
- Do not get on SM platforms and start screeching that you have a book for sale. No one gives a damn, and you’ll just annoy people. Figure out how to engage and be helpful to others first.
- Facebook is probably the most powerful SM platform to build a following as a writer, so learn how to use it. That said, FB is way, way more complicated than you think it is. There are a ton of “tricks” and subtle methods you can use for targeting, etc.
- Youtube video trailers can get you some attention, which can be positive or negative (if you do them poorly). I’ve done a video, but I don’t have any way of knowing if it is driving sales. It cost me $20 (for the soundtrack from Pond5), and three hours of my time. It has gotten a few hundred views. Again, this was another thing I did largely as a learning experience. I’m still trying to figure out all the SEO tips and techniques to drive Youtube videos. So for me the jury is still out on this one.
- Your blog can be powerful, but will also be a time sink, so figure out how to establish a good presence but keep your hours on it to a minimum. There is a ton of info on how to blog well. I suggest subscribing to Neal Patel’s QuickSprout blog to get a few emails a week with some really rich content on how to make your blog more compelling. He writes very clearly, though some of the content is techie SEO stuff.
- Google+, Tumblr, Stumbleupon, Flipboard, Pinterest: I also have a presence on all these platforms, but they are all minimal efforts. For the first four, they include content that is mostly redirected content from my blog. That is, they auto-populate when I post something to my blog. On Pinterest I have a board of bad grammar in public that is just for fun (check it out if you want a good laugh). I don’t know if any of these sites help me sell anything. I do know that my Google+ site drives some traffic to my blog. I don’t think the others accomplish much. It was fun learning about them and getting them in place, though. Now I spend less than 15 minutes a month on any one of them.
- Reddit and Quora: On occasion I will answer questions on these two sites. For the most part I just participate in discussions. Occasionally — and only if it is a really good fit — I’ll include a ref and link to my blog if I have a relevant article. Both have driven traffic to my blog, but I don’t think either has resulted in any sales of my book. My view on these is that it is a long term investment as part of these communities.
- An additional point about all popular social sites: Besides the fact that it can be a time sink, be very thoughtful about the personality you want to present on each. For instance, on FB I have my personal page where I do traditional FB things — share funny cat videos with my friends, keep up with what everyone is doing, etc. I also have a page dedicated to my writing. For the most part, I keep my writing and blogging off of my personal page; my friends don’t want to keep hearing about it. But as a writer, I do have a (small) following with whom I share lots of info and insight on writing, my success and failures, etc.
- Another way to engage your fans and developing a following is through book signings. The downside of book signings is that they are a lot of work for a generally small payoff (at least in the short term), but it is a way to start to build a local following with which you are personally connected. As an example, I read somewhere that the author of Chicken Soup for the Soul had only three people attend the first book signing they hosted. In fact, one of the attendees was the bookstore’s janitor (if I remember the story correctly). But it was a start to what went on to become a massive bestseller. I fared about the same at my own first book signing. Between torrential rains that lasted the entire time I was there, and a problem with the bookstore owner’s email that kept her from sending out an announcement to her customers, we got very little traffic. I did sell a couple books, and it was another learning experience, so I will do better next time.
How to get top reviews
- Reviews: This has been a huge success story for me, at least as to quality. Of my 26 reviews (at the moment) I’ve gotten about 10 reviews from top Amazon reviewers or other novelists, almost all of them 5-star reviews, to include one from Amazon’s number 2 reviewer! To summarize, first I wrote the best novel I could, then I found top reviewers on Amazon who reviewed books similar to mine who have published their email address. After that, I wrote them directly and politely asked them to review my book. Most did not respond, or said ‘no thanks.’ But about 15% did review my novel. Getting reviews is a very time-consuming operation, but it worked, and now I have compelling reviews from highly regarded reviewers. My hope is this will have a positive and long-term impact on the sales of my first book, and more importantly, my reputation as a writer. Lastly on this point, I’ve developed a relationship with these reviewers. Any bets as to who I’m going to first to ask for reviews when my next novel is published?
- Fake reviews: Don’t do it. No matter how desperate you think you are to get more reviews, don’t. Though such things might get a quick (tiny) bump in sales, I’m convinced that in the long run you’ll lose more sales than you might gain. And I’m not even convinced you’ll gain any sales. For instance, I won’t buy a book that looks like it has fake reviews. Additionally, your reputation will be shot to hell if (when) you are caught. If you ever do make it big someone will dig up your paid-for-reviews and publicly embarrass you about it. Just don’t do it. Don’t do “blackhat” SEO tactics, either. Always treat your customers and fans as you want to be treated.
- First, foremost and always, deliver a quality product to your customers. The most powerful advertisement for your next book is the reputation you have established with your first. I know…how do you do this for your first one? All the other things I’ve said here in this blog is how.
- Second, the best advertising is multiple highly regarded good books. So in all your thinking and the time you put into advertising, keep in mind that the most powerful thing you can do to ramp sales of your most recently published book is to publish another great book. Remember that this cuts both ways, though: If your first book is poorly reviewed, it is going to make it all that much harder to sell your second.
- Goodreads book giveaway: For me it was a waste of time and money. Not a single review as a result. Note that ~600 people entered the contest for 10 copies of my book. So people are signing up for giveaways with zero understanding of what they are signing up for. My sense is that a gritty, violent, military novella did not appeal to the people that got it. I’ve seen some of them wind up on Amazon from resellers. Other genres might fare better with the Goodreads members.
- Goodreads advertising: They offer this service to promote your book to a demographic of your choice. Their filters are generic, so you can’t get too precise with your targeting, but I invested $10 to give it a try. It is Pay-Per-Click, so no click, no cost. Unfortunately — after several weeks and almost a thousand impressions — zero clicks. So it is not wasted money because I’ve not had to pay for any clicks yet, but no clicks is disappointing. To a large extent I used the same copy I have used for my Bing ads, which is getting clicks, so not sure why I’m not having any luck on Goodreads. I don’t think Goodreads is a popular forum for #Vietnam War stories, but 0 out of 1000 is much worse than I would have expected. Still thinking on this one.
- Amazon book giveaway: Ditto my Goodreads experience, though I only gave away 3 books, so a tiny sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions. I did promote it via Twitter with the amazon and giveaway hashtags, which drove a huge increase in my Twitter followers.
- Twitter: Twitter can be a powerful platform if you can include highly followed #. But it only works if you have a link in a tweet with a popular # to content that is really compelling. Otherwise, your tweets are going to be ignored, though you’ll pick up followers, but they will have zero interest in you. They just want a follow back so they can tout their count of followers. For instance, I’ve now got 1400 followers, and I’ll bet less than 5% of them have any interest in anything I have to say (other than giveaway).
- Bing Advertising: I stumbled on to two $100 gift certificates for advertising on Bing. I’ve used them both, spreading out the spend over 4 months, so a couple dollars a day on average. It has been a great experience to learn about how such advertising works (the tools are very powerful, but complex). And I have gotten a few clicks per day through to my Amazon buy site. I’m not at all sure, though, that these clicks are resulting in sales. I’m actually in the middle of an experiment (as I write this the end of July) to see if my Bing ads are helping my sales. I’ve turned them all off for a week to see what happens. Strangely, the first four days I shut down the ads were the four best days of sales I’ve ever had. On the other hand, it is possible that the sales I’m experiencing now were the result of prior clicks from the ads that might have inspired someone to put something in a cart or wishlist to buy later. Impossible to know. I may have to extend my advertising blackout another week to really figure this out. Which leads to my second to last point…
Experiment to find out what works for you
- There are so many things going on in the world of advertising that it is very, very hard to know exactly what is driving sales and what is being effective on any given day. I suggest that you pick the things you enjoy working on, and do your best to maximize those to help promote your book. You can’t possibly cover every promotion methodology. But you can pick a few to optimize aggressively. Every person and every book are going to be different for hundreds of reasons. So study how to be successful, and then tweak, tinker and experiment (in thoughtful ways) to see what works for you. Keep in mind that what works for some people will be a bust for others.
- My last point: You are going to make mistakes. Lots of them. Especially with your first book. I figured this out as I was thinking about publishing my first novel (not the Vietnam War story). I came to the conclusion that I was going to make a hash out of publishing my first full novel if I did not learn a lot more than I can from reading about publishing. I realized I was going to have to do a “dress rehearsal.” The military story I had on the shelf fit the need perfectly. I spent 4 months rewriting it, sending it through betas, having it professionally edited, etc. I do care deeply about that story, so it was not a throw away exercise. And I think the evidence is that I did a few things right with that novella, but in the spirit of full disclosure, it was also very much a learning experience for me. I’ll do better next time. Which is how we all must think about ourselves as writers — we are not out to write one book. So get over thinking your first book is brilliant or will make enough money for you to live on. Odds are overwhelmingly that it won’t.
I hope all this information is helpful to you. I’m happy to share it, and I understand that my self-education and the experience I’ve had with my one novella hardly makes me an expert. But it has convinced me of a few things that must be done, and some things that are the kiss of death. There are other experts out there who can give you more help. Sort through the noise and find a few you trust and can be helpful to you.
One you can start with is Joanna Penn’s How to Market a Book. It is not the only guide out there, and it is not too deep, but it is a good starting point that covers a lot of ground. Use it to find what is comfortable for you and is something you’d enjoy doing over an extended period of time, and then drill deeper into those specific activities and learn how to do them well. Don’t try to force yourself to undertake marketing and advertising methods you don’t enjoy, otherwise you’ll just get frustrated and won’t carry through.
In all events, good luck with writing your book and marketing your book, and please share back any insights you gain! In turn, I’ll provide an update when I hit the one year anniversary of the publication of my novella. I’d like to think my first full length novel will be out by then.