Practical Advice for Self-Publishers--Increase Your Odds of Selling

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shelleyo

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This post was a response to the question about what besides blink luck ever got self-published books anywhere. I guess it was off-topic in that thread, so I've moved it here to serve as advice and things to think about if you plan to self-publish.

Feel free to disagree and challenge any or all of it. But please note that not once do I say "do this, and this will result." No one can guarantee that your book will perform at a specific level, and that's true whether you're self-publishing or submitting to agents and publishers. If there were such a formula, there'd be little room for debate.

So, how do you keep your book from staying at the bottom of the KDP barrel? Luck never hurt anybody, but there are still things you can do to increase your odds of success.

Make the product as professional as possible. Some people pay for advertising, some don't. Some pay for services that help them get reviews like NetGalley, some don't. These can help, but they may not. That's just how it goes.

In fact, some not-so-professional-looking books that weren't even all that well written or error-checked have taken off like mad. So it's even possible to succeed without doing all the right things. That might be the equivalent of submitting a manuscript in purple cursive font on yellow paper and still having it read and published in the trade world. Sometimes you get lucky because the story grabs.

But by creating a product that's as professional as possible, the odds are tilted in your favor. Assuming the story is already a crowd-pleaser that keeps readers turning pages:

*Professional-looking cover that compares to other books in the same genre
*clean and well-edited manuscript
*a blurb and perhaps a short except on the sales page that are intriguing and interesting
*an opening that grabs the reader so they won't want to stop at the end of the sample
*proper categorization
*proper use of keywords in the meta (such as where Amazon lets you enter them) to help you get into the correct categories that a self-publisher can't simply select, as well as keywords that potential readers are most likely to search for
*descriptive title, subtitle and series name that make it clear what the story's about
*that pro-looking cover should also give genre at a glance
*links inside the ebook to your other books--make it easy for them to read more of your work
*which leads to: have more of your work available. More books increase the chances of success
*sequels and series: having two or more books in a series increases the chances of success, as well
*which leads to: low entry-points for series. Make the first in a series free or lower-priced than the rest. This can work extremely well.
*price wisely. Don't charge $9.99 for your ebook, even if it's as good as that trade-pub new release at that price. Under $5 at first. $2.99 or $3.99 is a good starting point. Some people go .99 at first and hope the increased purchases at a lower cost will propel them onto the lists for more visibility. And sometimes, that works like gangbusters. Then they increase the price and keep selling. Pricing strategies depend on a lot of factors, but it's important not to price yourself so high that no one will take a chance on it. More people will buy at the lower prices.

People have succeeded without doing all those, but I firmly believe that if you do, you increase your odds of success exponentially. And there's one more--a biggee, if you will--that people don't seem to like to talk about. I believe it's incredibly disingenuous to leave this off the list:

*write in a popular genre that generally sells well that also has self-published authors hitting the lists

This is the one that I personally think should be one of the first things a writer considers when toying with the idea of self-publishing.
Writing romance? Most books sold every year are romance, and self-publishers are all over the bestsellers in romance. Self-publishing could be a great choice.

Writing funny dystopian literary stories with zombies and talking flowers? Much smaller audience. Check the lists, see who's been published by houses and who's on his own.

The bigger the genre audience, the more self-publishers who're doing well, the better your odds. That's just a business truth (and once you decide to self-publish, you're running a business in a whole different way than when you're writing and submitting).

One more I'd add:

*go as nichey as possible in a broad genre without becoming obscure

To use romance as an example, a broad romance that you don't classify down into a subgenre is easily overlooked. Make it an angsty new adult romance, a light-hearted and funny new adult romance, a paranormal romance, an erotica paranormal romance, a Scottish historical, etc. And then write your next book in the same subgenre, and the next. Don't go from erotic paranormal romance with a lot of humor to a viking historical romance with a lot of murder, dourness and death. Don't disappoint the readers who picked up the first one and loved it for what it was by veering too far away from it.

There's some leeway, of course, but you increase your odds of success by branding yourself. If you want to write something completely different, you run the odds of disappointing readers who are expecting what they read you for. You might also pleasantly surprise readers who also like your new book's genre, but it's still a risk unless they're closely, closely related. This doesn't mean you have to write the same type of book forever. That's what pen names are for.

You can do all these things and still not sell much. Nothing's guaranteed anywhere ever. But you dramatically increase the odds of success. Someone who writes really great stories and keeps writing them while keeping the above in mind doesn't have the same odds as someone who publishes an unedited book of poorly-rhymed verse, but the statistics about self-publishing lump them all into the same pool. That's like comparing the odds of success of someone who can write who submits professionally with someone who submits a single-spaced document printed on colored paper with misspelled words on the first page. The odds are not the same.

There are lots of things you can do to attract a little "luck."

ETA: A few more things.

*contact book bloggers who review. It can't hurt, but this is a sort of meh one for me.
*have a brief 99 cent sale at some point (or free if in Select) and contact the sites like POI and ENT about when you'll do it. This is a free option that can help visibility
*make the beginning book in a series free permanently or until Amazon gets tired of price-matching it. I resisted this for over a year then watched my income increase dramatically once I broke down and tried it.
*which leads to: bundles. Bundle a trilogy together and offer the whole at a discounted price above the separate prices. This works best if the first book in the series is permanently free and you use it to enthusiastically point to the bundle. Point the bundle back to the freebie on the sales page so you can hook people with the first book, then convince them to buy the cheaper collection instead of just going on to number two. Sounds counterintuitive, but it works.
*if you have the budget, try for a Bookbub ad in your genre. But you'll want to make sure you have that truly professional package first. People have been having wild success with this.
*have a LibraryThing giveaway
*start a mailing list where you can announce your next release and/or remind people of what you have available
*social media--I'm not so hip on it, not so good at it, but if you're the type who loves it, yes, connect with your readers if you're comfortable doing it
*website with a blog. I don't think it's an absolute necessity, but it can only help. You can use a free blogger blog if nothing else, or a cheap domain with wordpress installed for the blog. Nothing complicated is necessary. Have your mailing list sign-up in a visible position. Talk about things other than your book, but related things. If this doesn't interest you, don't do it. But remember that some people will search your name online after seeing your book at Amazon.

What lifts some books out of the mudflats of KDP is a professional package and the boost they get from 1. being new and 2. being noticed, if it not much at first. New releases are at an advantage for a while, because with a relatively low number of purchases (in at least some genres) they can hit the hot new release lists for that genre, which can increase visibility. Once the book has been purchased, it will start to generate also-boughts. This is where luck can show up. If the book gets into another book's also-bought list, particularly the front page, and that one takes off, it can drag your book right along with it whether it's new or old. This is something that can't be controlled, but it's wonderful when it happens. You can increase the odds of this by being in a popular genre to start with.

(It used to be that the best way to increase your odds of selling an ebook was to write something erotic. No promotion necessary--sex sells. This has shifted a great deal over the last year, and comes with its own set of rules and pitfalls which seem to change every couple of months. If you want to write erotic material, whether plain old erotica or very steamy romance, the list above changes, since there are some specific things you need to be aware for maximum exposure. You can do very well, but it's trickier now.)
 
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Katie Elle

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Also on the covers, remember that your discoverability is not the 1600-2500 pixel cover you get from the artist. What sells is the 160 pixel high postage stamp people see in the search results and the even smaller also bought. Cover art and even title choice needs to grab the eye at that tiny resolution. That means a relatively simple picture and a high contrast easy to read and probably short title.

I suspect this is why so many of the New Adult bestsellers have these one or two word titles done in a geometric font. Part of that is branding, but I think it's also about literal visibilty among the results.

Also, a good blurb won't just catch the reader's attention, it'll also provide a bunch of keywords to the search engine. If the book doesn't have a really grabbing first page, then find an excerpt that will grab the reader and stick it in the blurb.

Genre counts for a lot. Mass market genres like action adventure and romance. The stuff that used to be in 30s pulp magazines then in 50s pulp paperbacks is what seems to sell the best.
 

Medievalist

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I would suggest always having several projects in the pipeline, in different stages:

1. Book 1 available for purchase
2. Book 2 ms. finalized, working on cover, and production
3. Book 3 actively being written

Use staggered releases; don't release them too close or too far apart. Book 1 sales typically pick up a bit when you release book 2, etc.

And as odd as it may seem, don't forget to mention your books and your Website in every single book. When you mention your Website, make it an active link. That means if the visible text is just www.website.com or Jane Doe's Website make sure that the actual URL is the full URL, with http://

If you have a memorable domain name, flaunt it.
 

shelleyo

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Also on the covers, remember that your discoverability is not the 1600-2500 pixel cover you get from the artist. What sells is the 160 pixel high postage stamp people see in the search results and the even smaller also bought. Cover art and even title choice needs to grab the eye at that tiny resolution. That means a relatively simple picture and a high contrast easy to read and probably short title.

Yep. It should also look good in thumbnail and have enough contrast in grayscale to be clear. The growing popularity of tablets means that more people are browsing in color, but many people still use e-ink readers.

What's eye-catching cover-out on a bookstore shelf can look like a muddled mess in a thumbnail image.

Also, a good blurb won't just catch the reader's attention, it'll also provide a bunch of keywords to the search engine. If the book doesn't have a really grabbing first page, then find an excerpt that will grab the reader and stick it in the blurb.

In erotica, this is a must. I didn't mention it because my list wasn't erotica specific, but you're right to bring it up. I don't think keywords have quite the impact for other genres, but it still does have impact.

Amazon will pull books with search terms in the title first, then go down the page. I'm a horror fan. Let's say I'm looking for a novel about demonic possession. (I'd probably look up The Exorcist, a favorite novel of mine, and look from there in also-boughts and relevant titles, but let's pretend I'm not familiar with it). I might type in demonic possession novel into the Amazon search. If there were a book called Demonic Possession Novel, it would probably show up first. Chances are very good it would be one of the first results, at least. As it is, the book that shows up first, the first 3, don't have the words demonic, possession or novel in the titles. The first title has demon in the description, and one of the reviews used the words possession. Maybe the writer also used demon possession or some variant as a keyword. There are enough words in the blurb, reviews (an editorial review even mentions The Exorcist) and description to make it a relevant result for demonic possession novel.

Keep that in mind while choosing keywords or writing your blurb and description. What would someone who might like your book be looking for? I'd use the phrases "demon possession" and "demonic possession" on my page if I had a novel about possession, for instance. I might even get that phrase into the subtitle. Descriptive phrases like that can help people find your book.
 
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Katie Elle

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Use staggered releases; don't release them too close or too far apart. Book 1 sales typically pick up a bit when you release book 2, etc.
Absolutely. A steady set of releases really boosts, particularly with the changes to the algorithms last fall that seem to sharply lower anything past 30 days. The wonderful thing is it doesn't have to be a novel. It could be a short or a novella or whatever.

Also, if it's an ongoing story, like a lot of fantasy that are trilogies etc. break it up into smaller parts and release more often. Some of the epic sagas have no real sense to where the book ends that I can tell anyway. Looking at you Mr. Martin!
 

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This is a GREAT thread. Thanks so much for starting it, Shelleyo, and for your excellent advice.

I'm going to sticky it, so that it's easier to find; and while I realise that lots of people are going to be grateful for it, shall we try to restrict our thank-yous to rep-points, so that this thread remains a concentrated source of good advice? That's just a thought, not an instruction.
 

sarahdalton

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Really spot on.

The only thing I would add is -- get involved

There is a community of self-published authors, many of whom are very savvy marketers. Get involved in forums and suss out the ones who talk sense. When these writers set up promos you can join -- do it.

I'm not talking about the 'like my facebook page and I'll like yours stuff' (boy do I regret ever doing that!) but things like teaming together to create a huge book giveaway, or guest posting on a blog. For instance, I got involved in Elle Casey's summer book giveaway which involved about a hundred other authors all offering an ebook copy of their book as a prize. It resulted in a big increase in sales and I got a few reviews out of it, plus I reached my target audience.

Like Shellyo said, look around your genre. Who is self-published and killing it? Are they active in the community? Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to get your book alongside theirs. I've found self-published authors (well, often authors in general) to be very generous and helpful with their time. By getting involved you don't just help sales of your book, you make contacts -- and even friends -- along the way.
 

Marian Perera

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I'm not talking about the 'like my facebook page and I'll like yours stuff' (boy do I regret ever doing that!)

Hi Sarah,

Would you mind elaborating on that? I can see the page-liking not being very useful, but how did it become something you regretted later?
 

sarahdalton

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Hi Sarah,

Would you mind elaborating on that? I can see the page-liking not being very useful, but how did it become something you regretted later?

Sorry, I was being a bit dramatic. It just clogs all my facebook up with lots of author's statuses. You can hide them though, of course. And I get a fair few messages requesting likes which can be a bit annoying sometimes.
 

shelleyo

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Sorry, I was being a bit dramatic. It just clogs all my facebook up with lots of author's statuses. You can hide them though, of course. And I get a fair few messages requesting likes which can be a bit annoying sometimes.

Your whole point about getting involved is a great one! The above reminds me of a really good point about social media. I don't do much of it--don't like it, not good at it- but have gleaned from others that you shouldn't make the mistake of thinking you're actually using it effectively if your Tweets and FB posts are going out to a group made up of mostly writers. Marketing to other writers shouldn't be the goal.

You need to find a way to get as many readers as possible following your Twitter, blog or whatever your chosen social media outlet may be to get the most bang out of it.

I'd put efforts into starting and promoting a mailing list that you can use to announce new releases before worrying too much about gaining Twitter followers, but that may be an entirely biased view.

Medievalist said:
I would suggest always having several projects in the pipeline, in different stages:

1. Book 1 available for purchase
2. Book 2 ms. finalized, working on cover, and production
3. Book 3 actively being written

Use staggered releases; don't release them too close or too far apart. Book 1 sales typically pick up a bit when you release book 2, etc.

And as odd as it may seem, don't forget to mention your books and your Website in every single book. When you mention your Website, make it an active link. That means if the visible text is just www.website.com or Jane Doe's Website make sure that the actual URL is the full URL, with http://

If you have a memorable domain name, flaunt it.

Excellent points. As far as links inside the book, here's what I do: links to website, Twitter and every title I have for sale both in the front and back matter, as well as a link to my mailing list.

Having links direct to each title removes any barriers to purchase--a title looks interesting, click, directly there. Having the links on the front page means that links to all my books and my site are in the sample. Someone can download the sample, not even buy the book, and still have linked titles. Having them in the back also means that a reader finishes the story and while still in the afterglow, so to speak, is faced with linked titles that are easy to click for more.

I have a template for each retailer with that store's links in the front and back to make it easy. So I make a separate book file for Amazon, Smashwords (just for the store proper), B&N, Kobo, Draft2Digital (for Apple) and AllRomance. Each new ebook only requires that you go in and add one new link to the front and back of each file. Copy and paste into the book file to make a new release. Having the links made a difference for me, and with the templates it's too simple a step to skip.

Also, on the subject of excerpts in the back of a book, I think it's important to experiment a little. I used to put longish excerpts in the back of each book for 3-5 others. That might add an extra 2-4k to the word count. I've also tried no excerpts, just links, and very brief excerpts of 200 words or so with links. I've abandoned the long excerpts and switch between the short ones or just the links. I'm pretty sure I'm going to settle on just the links, since I haven't noticed a different with the short ones. I do find it's helpful in a series to have a short excerpt for the next one in the back with a special link right after the story ends and before the back-matter links. Other than that, I haven't seen much benefit to excerpts. Mine's all short stories-novellas. If I only had a few things out that were novel-length, not a series but same genre, I'd probably do one medium-sized excerpt in the back with a tracking link, through bit.ly or something, to see how many clicked through.

Use tracking links in your mailing list mailings, Tweets, FB posts and others to see how many people actually go to your book from those things to get an idea of what's effective, too.
 
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sarahdalton

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A good tip for finding readers and not writers on Twitter, is to find a comparable author in your genre and follow some of their followers. If they follow you back you know they're already into reading that genre.

And never spam.

And be patient -- it takes time to build up a network.
 

ebbrown

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Really spot on.

The only thing I would add is -- get involved

There is a community of self-published authors, many of whom are very savvy marketers. Get involved in forums and suss out the ones who talk sense. When these writers set up promos you can join -- do it.

I'm not talking about the 'like my facebook page and I'll like yours stuff' (boy do I regret ever doing that!) but things like teaming together to create a huge book giveaway, or guest posting on a blog. For instance, I got involved in Elle Casey's summer book giveaway which involved about a hundred other authors all offering an ebook copy of their book as a prize. It resulted in a big increase in sales and I got a few reviews out of it, plus I reached my target audience.

Like Shellyo said, look around your genre. Who is self-published and killing it? Are they active in the community? Keep your eyes peeled for opportunities to get your book alongside theirs. I've found self-published authors (well, often authors in general) to be very generous and helpful with their time. By getting involved you don't just help sales of your book, you make contacts -- and even friends -- along the way.

Great point.^^

I would also say consider the amount of potential response vs amount of time/money you spend in your promo efforts. Being a member of dozens of sites might give you exposure, but spending that time to become a valued member of a community might be a better way to go.
Also, respect & value your fans. If you are on Facebook, talk to your fans and be fun. Be yourself. Be selective about promo, and don't spam.
Thanks for this great thread. Well done, authors. :)
 

magicbooks

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What's about aggregators?

Very good ideas here and good tips. I am also working on my "how to play a didgeridoo" ebook together with my musician partner from australia combined with great stories from him. We want to self publish. Now we have seen that there are tons of possibilities and ebook stores in the net.
What do you think about ebook aggregators? Are there some you can recommendate? Are the services they have good? Or is it better to all the work by myself for a lot of ebook stores?

these are the main questions we have. Most of them have different services and prices I do not like or which makes me think twice which one is a better one. Tunecore for musicians looks trusty and it would be great for me if something like that exists for ebooks. Paying a onetime small fee and get 100% of all earnings and I behold my rights and can cancel every time.
 

J. Tanner

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What do you think about ebook aggregators? Are there some you can recommendate? Are the services they have good? Or is it better to all the work by myself for a lot of ebook stores?

Go direct with Amazon.

Optionally go direct with Kobo, B&N and Apple.

Smashwords is the proven aggregator and supports the largest number of non-Amazon stores, but is a bit clunky. It also has slightly better terms with B&N in particular.

Direct2Digital is newer and covers the four big retailers (Amazon, B&N, Apple, Kobo) and most reports are that it's a smoother process than Smashwords.

Both charge roughly 15% of cover price for each book sold.

Non-Americans won't have the direct option with B&N and non-Mac users won't have the direct option with Apple. Since you have to use an aggregator for one or both of them, it's often simpler to just throw in Kobo as well since the sales there tend to be small. (If something takes off big-time in one of these stores, it may become financially viable to find a way to move it over to a direct upload to reclaim that 15%.)

I haven't seen any other services that offer terms competetive with those options. (When I looked into BookTango self-pub portal a while ago their stated terms were great, but their affilition with notorious subsidy publisher Author Solutions is troubling.)
 

magicbooks

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Thanks Tanner. This is what figured out too. I am also a musician and I like what tunecore or here in germany recordjet is offering. This makes it very easy for me to update shops and all financial is on one place. I think it is a fair deal to pay a yearly fee or a small percentage for their administrative work so I can be more productive and creative. I do not like any of the aggregators on the market now. I am doing it myself until I find the right aggregator who is doing it on the bookmarket similar to tunecore or recordjet for msuicians.
 

Emma Clark

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Hello,

In another thread, someone made an excellent suggestion that I post my experiences here:

Free ways to advertise/promo:

Do a goodreads print book give-away. My short story give-away began June 1 and ends July 1. So far I've had nearly 160 requests, and over 100 people have shelved the book in less than a month. It really helps.

On Shelfari Library Thing you can do the same thing with ebooks. You can give away up to 100. I haven't even tried that one yet.

Whenever I give away a free ebook, I always tell ask the reader to spread the word if they enjoyed the book. Nine times out of ten, they do. It shows via subsequent sales.

If you get a bad review, be grateful to get any review at all. Show readers that you appreciate any review, even though reviews aren't for authors.

Sign up for a free author's account on Manic Readers.com. As soon as you publish a book and upload the info to MR, the site mods will tweet about the release of your book (and I didn't even know that until recently). After that, offer your book for a review. I got a 4-star review only a week or so after offering mine on MR.
http://www.manicreaders.com/index.cfm?disp=reviews&bookid=37105


Of course this stuff won't work for everyone. This is just what I do. But I've had---so far---180 sales in just under 4 weeks, in addition to 5 borrows this month.

I'm an unknown author, and my short story was my first Kindle ebook.

Also, keep writing to get more and more sales. Next month I'm coming out with at least 2 ebooks. One will remain free forever (more free advertising); the other, a novella, won't be free. If readers like your new stuff, they'll likely go back and buy your old ebooks as well.

Finally, don't publish just for the money. Do it because you enjoy writing, and the $ is just a perk that goes along with it. And if you enjoy writing a book, readers are more likely to enjoy it too (in my experience).

And there's also this:

An American Booksellers' Association study found that people buy books because (my comments are in bold):

1. Author reputation (52%) (hence, be gracious about bad reviews)
2. Personal recommendation (49%) (so tell your readers to spread the word if they like your book)
3. Price (45%)
4. Book Reviews (37%)
5. Cover/Blurb (22%)
6. Advertising (including online) 14% (comes in dead last... though sometimes it seems to work for some people).

:)
 

MumblingSage

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"Reputation" may also refer to the quality and genre of the author's books--I know especially in romance I buy books because I know I like how an author portrays her characters, without knowing anything at all about the author personally. Which feeds into the importance of branding yourself and your stories.
 

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Interesting read, a lot of useful information, thanks!

I am wondering though, where can I find information on the right tags to use on my book? I've yet to find the right tags for erotic romance :p
 

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