A BRIEF INTRODUCTION, PART I
I dithered for a while whether I wanted to post this or not, but this blog post from David Gaughran made up my mind. Key quote:
“It’s obvious from talking to prospective self-publishers that marketing is the task that causes the most stress and trepidation. Of course, scammy operators know this. They prey on these fears by offering a series of magic bullets at exorbitant prices. And they don’t work. At all!”
There are a lot of new and fledgling writers out there, and there are almost as many scam artists hoping to make a buck off them. Or there are new writers who will try to waste years on the traditional publishing roulette in the hopes that their publisher will “take care” of all the marketing, little realizing that they only have a slim chance of obtaining a book contract, and that even if they do get a book contract they’ll still have to do all the marketing themselves. So I post this in hopes that someone undecided will see it, and realize that it is not necessary to spend ridiculous sums of money for someone else to upload your book to Amazon and someone else to do your book marketing, nor is it necessary to sign up for the parade of misery that is a traditional book contract from a large publisher.
Not when all it takes to do it yourself is some free software, an Internet connection, and a little time.
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION, PART II
In 2013 I talked to a lot of traditionally published writers, some of them veterans with over a dozen books under their belts, and I’ve noticed many of them have a horror of self-publishing. The root of that horror often seems to stem from fear of having to “market” their books, of having to become a “huckster” selling books to people. Good work, they say, good books, will get noticed for their own merits.
The problem is that many (though not all) writers are introverts, and that the mindset I described above is essentially a form of magical thinking.
To explain why this is magical thinking, let us use a stereotype as a metaphor. A lot of writers have “nice guy” syndrome – basically like the cliched nice guy from a romantic comedy film wondering why the hot girl goes with the jerk instead of him. The objective truth is that the nice guy has no one to blame but himself, because he didn’t compete. He sat around waiting for the hot girl to notice all his awesome qualities, but the jerk actively pursued the hot girl. He showed up and played the game. Or to use a non-romance related metaphor, the employee who quietly does his work and keeps his head down is less likely to get promoted than an employee who actively socializes with his co-workers and supervisors.
This is neither fair nor just, but most of humanity does not make its decisions based on objective truth – it makes them based on social connections. This includes deciding which book to buy.
However, as mentioned above, many writers are introverts, and for introverts, talking to people is often tiring, exhausting, or even terrifying. I think some of the writers I’ve talked to think of “book marketing” as spending endless hours on Facebook and Twitter (or, God forbid, Google+), bellowing “Buy my book! Buy my book!” over and over again to an audience of unhearing spambots.
If you’re marketing your book this way, you’re doing it wrong. Book marketing isn’t about the face-to-face hard sell, but the soft landing. The one fundamental rule is this:
DO NOT BE NEEDY.
Needy is death. Remember that guy you met in college who wanted everyone to read his novel? Don’t be that guy. (Full disclosure: I used to be that guy.) Never, ever ask someone to buy your book – but leave as many doors unlocked and and as many windows open as possible if they decide to do so of their own will.
Below are a collection of low-energy guidelines and suggestions I’ve found for marketing books. None of them are intrusive, obnoxious, or needy, and none of them take much time or energy. Most of them are entirely passive, and several of them, in fact, you can ignore once you’ve set up. That said, none of them are individually very effective. But in aggregate, they really add up, and ebooks are a business of aggregation. If you sell 5 copies a day of one book, that’s not very many. But if you have 20 books and they each sell 5 copies a day…well, that adds up.
We’ll divide the tips into eight sections – Book Structure, Retailer Categories, Website, Free Stuff, Social Media, Newsletter, Sales & Ads, and Obtaining & Dealing With Reviews.
A BRIEF INTRODUCTION, PART III – A NOTE ON PRONOUNS
I wrote this guide using the structure “I do this, and I do that”, rather than “you should do this, and you should do that.” Advice is always troublesome, so rather than giving advice, I shall merely say “this is what I do” and leave you, the reader, to make your own judgments about the best course of action.
PART I – BOOK STRUCTURE
Here, I’m not talking about the plot structure of my book. Rather, I mean the physical layout of my ebook – what links or items to include. Many writers include a list of hyperlinks to their other books at the end of their ebook, along with a link to their email newsletter and website. This is commonly called “back matter” among self-published writers, and is very useful. Most of the traffic to my website comes from these links. Traditionally published books have done this for years. Flip to the end of a book, and you’ll usually see a short bio of the author, along with a list of his other books. I believe many romance novels used to include an ordering form for additional romance titles in the back.
Basically, if someone reads my book all the way to the end, they’ll likely want to read other books I have written. So it is wise to leave information at the end of the book that will help them to do so.
However, it’s important to put the back matter IN THE BACK! Don’t put it in the front of the book! (Full disclosure: I used to make this mistake.) Most ebook retailers let readers sample the first 10 or 20 percent of the book, and if the front of my book is heavy-loaded with your About The Author and Other Books By The Author chapters, I am losing the valuable space I need for my story to capture the reader’s attention.
So put the back matter in the back. (The best advice, they say, is always obvious.)
My back matter usually has three sections – Bonus Chapter, About The Author, and Other Books By The Author. The Bonus Chapter is, as the name implies, simply the first chapter of the next book in the series. For example, GHOST IN THE BLOOD, the third book of my THE GHOSTS series, has the first chapter of GHOST IN THE STORM, the fourth book in the series, at the very end, along with a hyperlink to the book’s page on my website. Sometimes I will put in two bonus chapters if I think it makes a better impression, or combine parts of two chapters – at the end of FROSTBORN: THE FIRST QUEST (the prequel novel to the FROSTBORN series) I put all of Chapter 1 and part of Chapter 3 of the next book as the bonus chapter. The end of GHOST IN THE MASK has all of Chapter 1 and the first half of Chapter 2.
About The Author has a pithy little biography paragraph I wrote for myself, along with links to my website, my Facebook page, and my newsletter. Generally, the shorter and the wittier I can be with my author bio, the better. The less I talk about myself, and the more I talk about my books, the better (see below).
Other Books By The Author is where I list my other books, all with hyperlinks to my website. I used to make a mistake here for years – I simply listed off my books without any text or explanation. I found a better way when I read William King’s excellent KORMAK and THE TERRARCH CHRONICLES series – Mr. King has a short writeup for each of his series at the end of each of his books. If I can write compelling ad copy (and if I am writing my own book descriptions, I should be), then I can write up a short, punchy, compelling description of my additional books here.
One important point – the hyperlinks should go to my website, not to individual book retailers! All the ebook retailers get annoyed if I have direct hyperlinks to their competitors in their ebooks, and Apple in particular is quite picky about this and will block without warning any books with links to competing retailers. So all hyperlinks in my book should go to my own website. The individual page on my site can then have hyperlinks to all the different retailers.
Additionally, I also include a hyperlink to the sign-up form on my newsletter. More on this later – a newsletter is a vital tool if used properly.
This brings us to the topic of the cover art. I have gotten to the point where I can produce adequate covers with the GIMP, (an ebook that had one of my self-made covers was #1 in its category in both Amazon US and Amazon UK, and got up to a sales rank of about #1,400 total on Amazon UK) but I still prefer to hire it out, since while I can wrap my head around layout and the technical aspects of the GIMP, I simply have no sense of aesthetics. To paraphrase Treebread, I have a mind of metal and wheels, not one of color palettes, layouts, and gradients.
The rule of thumb for cover art is this: it should feature attractive people doing something related, however tangentially, to the topic of the book. As ever in matters of art, there are exceptions (see the covers for my FROSTBORN series), but this is a good guideline. Additionally, I am writing a series, the covers of the books across the series should have a consistent visual look. That means the same sort of fonts, the same sort of general look and feel, and so forth. The reader should be able to tell at a glance that a book is part of the FROSTBORN series or THE GHOSTS SERIES.
PART II – RETAILER CATEGORIES
Deciding what category to put my book into is critically important at Amazon, Apple, and Google Play. It’s also important at the other retailers, but both Barnes & Noble and Kobo tend to give greater weight to traditionally published books, so while it is still important it is less critical there. Additionally, B&N and Kobo both do “co-op”, which means they charge for better placement on their website, so naturally the higher spots tend to be dominated by traditionally published books.
The reason choosing the right category is so important is the bestseller list. Amazon displays the top 100 books in each category, and Apple displays the top 200. (I believe Amazon Australia shows the top 200 for some reason.) Quite a lot of people browse those lists, so if your book as an attractive cover (see above) you might persuade a browser to take a look inside your book. And if the front of your book catches their attention and isn’t larded up with a lot of hyperlinks or extraneous material (again, see above), you might get them to buy the book.
This also applies to free books. Just because a book is free doesn’t guarantee that someone will download it, and it certainly doesn’t guarantee that anyone will read it. But if my book is sitting at, say, #11 on the Epic Fantasy free list, there’s a good chance someone will download it and at least give it a try. And if I have links to the rest of the books in the series at the end (see above), they might go on to buy those additional books if they liked the first one.
It is also a good idea to rotate categories every so often. Some categories are more competitive than others – for instance, the Windows category for nonfiction computer books on Amazon is brutally competitive, but Unix Networking is less visited. You might wonder why I want to shift my books to a less-trafficked category, but it’s better to be #1 in a less-visible category than #79 on a more popular one. My books will stay in the top twenty of the list for longer, while they will be quickly pushed off the more popular list. Paradoxically, this means my book might well be seen and purchased by more people. In May and June of 2014, all four of my FROSTBORN books sat at the top of Amazon UK’s Arthurian Fantasy list for weeks, and consequently sold much more copies than they would have otherwise.
“But, Jonathan Moeller,” you might protest, “your book is Epic Fantasy, not Dark Fantasy! Isn’t that cheating?”
No. Leaving aside the whole academic discussion on whether or not “genres” are arbitrary constructs for marketing reasons, the fact is that most books overlap one or more of the Amazon categories. To cite an example, JONATHAN STRANGE & MR. NORRELL could legitimately go into Fantasy, Historical Fantasy, Military Fiction, War Fiction, Regency, Romance, and several others. I count my FROSTBORN books as Arthurian Fantasy because the premise of the series is that the survivors of the fall of King Arthur’s realm went through a magical portal to a world where magic works, and spent the next thousand years building a civilization and a kingdom of their own.
In fact, when I upload a book, Amazon explicitly tells me to pick two or more categories for my book, and I could likely be assigned a third, depending on what keywords I pick for my book. There isn’t currently an official Fantasy > Sword & Sorcery category in KDP, but if I pick “sword & sorcery” as one of my keywords, I might get my book into that category. You can find a list of the keywords and the categories they trigger here. One book could quite easily fit into multiple categories – there’s a reason Amazon lets me pick two categories for my book and Barnes & Noble and Kobo let me pick up to five.
Rotating categories can then give a bump to my book, especially if I move it to a category where it hasn’t been seen before. This isn’t the sort of thing I should do daily (especially since it takes a few days for the change to register anyway) but every few months is a good idea.
Choosing categories is also useful at Apple, primarily because the iBookstore is available in so many countries, and Apple has longer bestseller lists than Amazon. Amazon lists the first 100 books in a bestseller category, but Apple lists the first 200. Additionally, in some of the smaller iBookstore markets, it takes fewer sales to sit at the top of the lists. In the summer of 2013, I had several of my books in the top 20 for Epic Fantasy in Ireland, New Zealand, Sweden, and Denmark in the iBookstore. The actual numbers were not large, but the market was small enough that only a few sales pushed the books to the top of the list – and the increased visibility meant more sales.
PART III – AUTHOR WEBSITE
The most important function of an author website is to make it as easy as possible for people to get to the author’s books.
My author website doesn’t have to be elaborate. A domain I own is ideal, and web hosting has gotten quite cheap. A $10 monthly plan will meet the needs of most writers, and if my traffic suddenly explodes for whatever reason, I can always upgrade.
I try to make my website as book-centric as possible. Every book gets its own page with cover art, with links to all the various ebook retailers. To cut down on the complexity of navigation, I gave each series its own page, and then assigned the individual books to sub-pages within the master page. (I use WordPress for my website, so this is easy to do.) I also make sure to have the registration form for my new release website as prominently displayed as possible.
I also have my new-release newsletter signup form prominently available. A new-release newsletter is a valuable tool, as we’ll see below.
I also use Amazon Affiliates to make links. Basically, the idea behind Amazon Affiliates is that I select an Amazon item, and Amazon generates a little bit of code. I stick the code on my website, and it displays as a graphical link with an image. If someone clicks on the link and buys the book, Amazon kicks back a little percentage (like, between 4% to 12%, depending on how many items get sold through my affiliate links) back to you. It’s a nice way to conveniently generate links and get a little extra money on the side, though unfortunately Amazon Affiliates is not available in every US state due to local tax laws. (Even then, it’s still a good way to make quick links if the author sells most of his books through Amazon.)
Basically, my website should make it as easy as possible for people to get to my books.
PART IV – FREE STUFF
Giving away free stuff is an effective tactic, but if only employed properly.
The easiest and most effective way to use free stuff is to make the first book in a series free. The idea is that the reader will read the free book, like it, and move on to the paid sequels. The most common way to do this is to set the book’s price free on Smashwords and Google Play, and eventually the bots at the other retailers (especially Amazon) will catch on and price-match the book to free. Generally, I do this when a series gets up to four books. Anything less than four books, and I don’t think it generates the necessary bang for the buck.
It’s a good idea to make a complete story free, rather than a cliffhanger. I’ve had the best luck when I’ve made complete novels free, rather than stories that end with cliffhangers. In fact, I’ve come to suspect people hate cliffhangers in general, so I try to avoid them whenever possible. In fact, people especially hate free cliffhangers that have a paid sequel, and a substantially minority will express their opinions at length on the reviews page. So when using free books as a promotional tool, I think it is best to give a complete story away for free, a story that nevertheless leaves open the possibility for a sequel. That way, if the reader likes the characters in the free book, he may well continue on to the additional paid books in the series.
If a book is a stand-alone work, with no sequels, I think making it free is a waste of time. If I were to write, say, a stand-alone science fiction novel, a reader finishing it would have very little reason to try one of my fantasy novels. Most likely he would want more of the characters and the setting from the science fiction novel.
I also give away free short stories to my newsletter subscribers. Every time I release a new book, I also write a tie-in short story and release it at the same time. In my newsletter, I include a Smashwords coupon code that lets the newsletter subscribers get the story for free as a bonus. The funny part is, I suspect many of them simply buy the story outright rather than using the coupon code to sideload it onto their phones and tablets. But it makes for a nice bonus for newsletter subscribers.
To sum up, giving away things for free is a useful tool, but only if employed properly.
PART V – SOCIAL MEDIA
This is where a writer can really shoot himself in the foot, or (if he works at it even a little) in the face. If you’ve paid attention to the news over the last year, undoubtedly you have seen many stories of a person saying something controversial on Twitter or Facebook, only to have the Internet fall upon their head like a ton of bricks.
I don’t want to be that person, and I am pretty sure you don’t, either.
The three keys to using social media effectively is to always remember this: use the pronouns “I”, “me”, and “mine” as little as possible, never, ever discuss personal problems, and never, ever forget that absolutely anything you type into Facebook or Twitter is theoretically visible to EVERYONE IN THE ENTIRE WORLD. If I am not comfortable having something I write on Twitter appear on a Jumbotron over Times Square on New Year’s Eve, then I probably should not be writing it.
The reason I do not talk about myself or any personal problems is that I am not as interesting as I think I am. So I don’t talk about myself on social media. I can talk about my books, but a Facebook page or a Twitter feed that is a relentless stream of self-promotion quickly becomes dull. The exception to this is if I have a sale going (more on that below), or if I am working on the next book in a series and I know people are waiting for it. There are many documented cases of writers who take, oh, seven years or so between books (we won’t cite any examples here), so committed readers appreciate regular updates that I am in fact working on the next book.
Therefore, pick some topics that are tangentially related to your books and talk about them. Like, if a writer does historical fiction, he can talk about things related to the historical period of his books. This is a common tactic for writers who write historical romances; the clothing and fashion of a particular era (especially the Victorian and Regency eras) is a well that seemingly never runs dry. I regularly post comments on video games I am playing, or observations on technology, and those usually go over pretty well. Sometimes I write essays on the business of self-publishing or the craft of writing (like this one!), and people seem to like those as well.
Additionally, it’s a good idea to be as positive as possible. Let us be candid – the Internet is often one long howl of complaint, populated with articles like “59 Reasons The New iPhone Is The Worst Thing Ever”, which overlooks the fact that 20 years ago, any iPhone would have seemed like an object of unspeakable wonder fashioned by magical wizard-smiths. Let us be candid – it is easy to complain and snark. Complaints and snark and sarcasm are the empty calories of communication. It is much harder to be interesting, so we should strive to be interesting, even if it is more work than complaining or agreeing with whatever the hashtag du jour is.
PART VI – NEWSLETTER
A newsletter is an extremely effective tool for marketing. I would even go so far as to say it is a vital one. I use my newsletter for exactly one thing – to notify people on my email list when I have a new book out. When I have a new book out, I prepare a newsletter and send it out with links to all the different retailers that carry the book. If enough people read the newsletter and buy the book, it generates a big spike in sales, which shoots the book up in its category listing, which means more people might see the book and buy it.
This might seem like spamming, but here’s the thing – I only send the newsletter to people who have actually asked to receive it. I also make sure to prominently mention the “unsubscribe” link in every message if people find the newsletter tiresome and no longer wish to receive it.
Getting people to sign up for a newsletter is a slow process of aggregation. Basically, I have a link at the end of every book inviting people to sign up for my newsletter. I also make sure the form is displayed prominently on my web page. I started a newsletter in 2012, and by June of 2014 I had over a thousand addresses collected. So it is best not to expect sudden dramatic spikes, but instead to strive for a slow, steady collection of names.
As a bonus for newsletter subscribers (as mentioned above), I almost always include a free tie-in short story when I release a book. I have several reasons for doing this. I wanted to give newsletter subscribers a bonus as a “thank you” for subscribing. Additionally, I simply like writing short fiction for its own sake, since it presents a different set of challenges than novel-writing. I once gave away an entire short novel (FROSTBORN: THE FIRST QUEST) for free with the newsletter, but that was a lot of extra work so I don’t think I will do that too often.
As for the mechanics of sending a newsletter, it is best to use a service called a “mail provider” instead of a personal Gmail account or whatever. A legitimate mail provider will not be flagged as a spam provider, which will happen if you send, say, a thousand messages at once from a Gmail or a Yahoo account. Additionally, a mail provider provides a web form you can embed on your website to let people sign up, an easy interface for managing email addresses, and most important of all, a way to back up your collected addresses. I use one called YMLP and have been quite happy with it, while other writers of my acquaintance have used MailChimp.
PART VII – SALES & PAID ADVERTISING
Sometimes I will run a sale on a book. As I mentioned above, the first book in (most) of my series is free, but I will sometimes drop the price of the second or the third book down to $0.99 for a day or two. Additionally, I have omnibus editions of the first few books in some of my series, and sometimes I will run a one-day $0.99 sale on those.
The tricky part of sales is that they don’t work in and of themselves. Having a $0.99 sale on a book is well and good, and I need a way to notify people of it. Social media doesn’t work well for this, since most of the people who follow me on Facebook and Twitter have already read most of my books and therefore would have little interest in a sale.
This is where paid advertising comes in. Ever since the ebook revolution took off, a number of companies have started that send out daily emails of discounted or free books to their subscribers. When used in conjunction with a sale, this can have a big impact – my books GHOST IN THE FLAMES and GHOST IN THE BLOOD both got in the Top 100 of Epic Fantasy on Amazon US (which is a brutally competitive category) in November of 2013 off of a BookBub ad for CHILD OF THE GHOSTS, the free first book in the series. Most of these companies let you list your book in their newsletter.
BookBub is currently the heavyweight for ebook ad promotions. I’ve had book in BookBub four times, and all four times the free book got downloaded thousands of times, and the rest of the books in the series saw a subsequent sales bump. BookBub is fairly selective about the books they list – they need to have a good cover and a respectable number of rankings – so if a book doesn’t get in the first time, it never hurts to reapply later. (A few writers have criticized BookBub as the “new gatekeeper” of self-publishing, but I think that argument is without merit. BookBub can’t stop me from selling my book the way that a traditional publisher could, and I had sold nearly 90,000 copies of my books before I had even heard of BookBub.) I’ve also had good results with FreeBooksy, BargainBooksy, and BookGorilla.
A very effective tactic that I hinted at above is to run an ad on the free first book in the series, and then drop the price of the next book or two to $0.99 for a few days. (I first read of this tactic on the blog of author Lindsay Buroker.) Both times I tried this resulted in a big spike in sales for the entire series.
A note of caution – there are new ebook advertisers springing up all the time, and some of them are little more than scam artists (see above about predators). Generally it’s a good idea to investigate a company a little before buying an ad from it. Fortunately, Google makes this easier. I will sometimes roll the dice on a new company if the ad isn’t too expensive.
PART VIII – OBTAINING & DEALING WITH REVIEWS
New writers sometimes ask how to get reviews for their books on Amazon and Barnes & Noble and the other sites.
The answer is simple. I don’t do anything.
Generally, I have found that you can expect one review for about every 250 to 1,500 copies of a book sold. That is a pretty broad range, but it depends on the book. In fact, the lack of reviews is often a good sign. If there is something wrong with a book, like a chapter missing, people will complain immediately. I have had books that sold reasonably well for months before they received any reviews. It is good to bear in mind that it can take people weeks to read a book – my longest book was about 140,000 words, which comes to just over 7000 Kindle locations, and some people posted reviews months after they purchased it.
So reviews are like erosion – it simply takes time.
Do I ask people for reviews? Not usually. I do include a short note at the end of my book that says “If you liked this book, please consider leaving a review at your ebook retailer of choice”, and that’s it. It’s in the same short paragraph that has a link to my newsletter subscription form and Facebook page, and I suspect most of my newsletter subscriptions, Facebook follows, and book reviews come from that paragraph, so I see no harm in having that at the end of the book.
Do I change my books based on reviews? No. I wrote what I intended to write (or what my past self intended to write, since I wrote some of my books more than ten years ago), and what’s done is done. The one exception is if multiple reviews mention a serious formatting error – like the chapters are out of order, or the text inexplicably turns to gibberish halfway through. Those I try to fix immediately.
Do I ever respond to reviews? Like, if someone posts a one-star review of my book on Amazon, do I wade into the comments to argue? Absolutely not, for four reasons:
-Just as I have the right to publish whatever I want, so to do people have the right to stay whatever they want about what I publish.
-Hounding people about reviews is like being that one guy in college we mentioned above, the guy who nags everyone to read his novel.
-It can scare off people from leaving honest reviews if they know the author is lurking in the comments section, ready to fall upon them like a ton of bricks.
-It really is a waste of time and never ends well. Remember the section above about accidentally provoking an Internet lynch mob? Arguing with reviewers is an excellent way to do that.
The one exception is if someone emails me to tell me what they thought, or leaves a Facebook comment, and I always respond (politely) to those messages.
I know negative reviews are a big deal for new writers. I once had a woman tell me that she could never write a book because she could not bear the thought of anyone criticizing it. The surest way to get a new writer to melt down is to criticize their book, and every few weeks I will see a news story or a blog post about a new-ish writer who loses his or her mind at a critical review. The first one-star review does feel like a blade to the heart. But the twentieth? The hundredth? Not so much. Writers, like dragons, grow thicker scales as they get older. I am currently writing my 31st (possibly 32nd, I’ve lost count) novel, and I care much less about criticism than I did when I started.
I think part of that is simply growing older – aging has its downsides, but one of the benefits is that the circle of people whose opinion matters shrinks drastically. A teenage boy cares what everyone thinks of him, but a grown man concerns himself with the opinions of far fewer people. Concerning book reviews, perhaps in the end all writers should aspire to emulate a ninety-five year old woman sitting upon her porch with a beer and a cigarette and utter disregard for what anyone might think of her.
If that doesn’t work, a surefire way to get over the bad review blues is to look up the Amazon page for a classic work of literature like THE LORD OF THE RINGS, read the one-star reviews, and wonder what people were thinking.
Book marketing need not be onerous, and I hope the methods detailed above will help.
But do writers need to do marketing for their books?
Consider Coca-Cola. Everyone knows that Coke exists. It can be purchased at practically every location in the United States that serves food and drink. Yet I just saw a commercial for Coke.
Coca-Cola is possibly one of the best known products and brands on the planet…and Coke still needs to do marketing! My books are not as well-known as Coca-Cola, and if you are a writer I am reasonably sure that yours are not, either. (If they are, congratulations!) So I need to do marketing.
But I think it is possible to do it in a way that isn’t unpleasant or vexing.