First of all Happy New Year!
2016 was a very eventful year for lots of reasons from Britain leaving the EU, to saying goodbye to a whole host of famous faces, to Trump becoming president of the US (and much more!).
I think it’s safe to say that 2017 is looking like it’s going to be a year of big changes and perhaps some uncertainty that will have even the top-selling indie authors shifting nervously in their seats.
So what have I learnt one year on and four books in to self publishing? Turns out, a helluva lot. The learning curve has been massive! This article is going to be a long one so maybe grab a snack.
Got it? Okay, deep breath.
It’s hard (like really, really hard)
If nothing else, I’ve learnt this. But it’s only made me push myself and realise how much I really want this. So my advice to anyone readying to click the self-publish button is this: you are by no means ‘done’. But don’t fret! Because if you want it enough, everything will be fine.
What do I mean by hard? – I now look at self-publishing as a business (so if you’re publishing books for a hobby or aren’t bothered about making money straight away then just disregard this advice). But if you are looking to do this full time as I am, then the sooner you look at this as a long-term endeavour, the better. There’s no harm in wistfully looking to the top runners out there who are doing this (and killing it) but just remember that they worked their asses off to be where they are. It may seem like they popped out of the ether into success but remember this quote by Steve Jobs:
“If you look really closely. Most overnight success take a long time.”
Sure, some people get lucky and I think to make it really ‘big’ there has to be an element of luck somewhere along the line. But I think to get lucky you have to put yourself in the firing line of luck’s assault rifle by working your butt off.
I’ve read a lot (like a lot a lot) of blog posts from successful indie authors searching for their secrets but what I found was just a lot of sensible business-minded advice. It seems one of the key things to making a success of self-publishing is being prolific. This is the one piece of advice that I’ve seen given again and again from the people doing this full time. So stop reading this and go write your next book…I’ll wait.
Back? Okay. But what if I can’t get more than one book out a year, I hear you say? Well, that’s fine. Just write and continue to write. It just might take longer to be a success that way. There is obviously a trade-off between time and quality. So if you can (semi)comfortably write a novel 50k plus and bring it out within say, 3 months at a high standard? Then you can publish four books a year. Like me 🙂
2. Work with Amazon, not against it
I know Amazon seems like a huge sale-sucking monster who is dominating the world right now. But remember that Amazon is a huge sale-sucking monster who is dominating the world right now…
This one varies across indie authors. I personally, am a big fan of Amazon. They offer a platform (albeit a small one) for anyone who wishes to publish their writing and can help you find an audience – if you work with them.
What do I mean by working with them? I mean, do your research on how to use Amazon to get eyes on your book. This is very hard, it’s something I struggle with now – but trust me when I say that even the top runners struggle with this. That’s life. It’s hard to build an audience. So start now. Go on.
I could ramble on for ages about all the different things I’ve tried and failed at to get Amazon to show my book off. But like everything, it takes work.
So I’ll break down some key points you need to get your head around now to immediately give your book a better chance at finding new eyes:
- Keywords – this one has just been made slightly more difficult by Amazon. They’ve just changed their layout on KDP which means you now have a word limit on each individual keyword (I found some previous success with filling my keyword block with a tonne of words for each one) but I think this is a good thing. I’ve noticed since this change that I’m ranking more strongly in the categories I want. So I can only assume this has done some good (though I’m not sure what it is yet – I’ll get back to you).
For those of you who don’t know what keywords are. Here’s how it works. Amazon rank you in categories across the kindle store. You can choose two categories for your book to be ranked in at any time and then use 7 keywords to help you rank more specifically within those categories. You ideally want to be in a top 100 chart of a category that well-defines your book. But you have more chance of doing that if you find a category with as few books in it as possible (so you have a better chance of ranking higher).
Still with me? – good. I cannot for the life of me remember where I picked up this following tip but it’s a good-en. I’m going to call it…
Rank Spying: Go to the Amazon kindle store. Pick a category that well suits your book. So for me that would be Fantasy. So click Kindle ebooks on the bar on the left > pick your category (e.g science fiction & fantasy) > keep defining it (fantasy) > and again (coming of age)
Note: you should see numbers in brackets next to the categories as you define your book. This is how many books are in that category. You want to choose one that has the lowest number and still defines your book. I can see that in fantasy ‘Classics’ only has 200 books in it. That’d be a great category to rank in….if your book was a classic. There’s no point ranking in something just because it’s a small category. (Nail files for octopuses might be a small category but no one’s going to go looking for your book there).
Now here’s the tip:
Knowing the number of books in a category is still not going to help you much, if say, the top 500 of those books is in a very popular category and are all ranking very highly across the whole kindle store.
For example, say the top 100 in Paranormal are all as popular as Twilight (obviously they’re not but stay with me) – you are not going to rank well in that category if the top 100 books are extremely popular in general because it makes that category very competitive. So here’s how you find a good category to rank in….
Choose one that fits your book well. Let’s say you choose:
Science Fiction & Fantasy > Fantasy > Superhero
Now click on the number 1 book in that chart which today happens to be Onset by Glynn Stewart (Tip: if you click through to the categories and it doesn’t take you to the top 100 chart then click on the first book on the list, scroll down to their Amazon Bestsellers Rank and find it there, clicking on ‘superhero’ and you’ll be taken to the top 100 chart).
Now click on the book in the number 1 spot, scroll down to their Amazon Bestsellers Rank and look at their overall spot in the kindle store which I can see for Onset is #650 in the paid kindle store. Now go back to the top 100 chart and scroll down to the book in position number 20 in that chart which I can see today is Outcast by Lindsay Fairleigh. Scroll down to their ranking…which I can see for her is #3,743 in the kindle store.
Okay, so what have we learnt here? Well, you know the books in this category are doing fairly well over the entire kindle store. So it might be tricky to rank in. Ideally what you want to see is that the book in number 1 position is ranking anywhere from 500+ but more like 1000+ in the entire kindle store if possible and a book at number 20 in that chart at 20,000+.
But what if the categories that suit my book are all too competitive? Well, that’s a tough one. But if you dig really deep, you can usually find a smaller category. How do you find new categories? Research people’s rankings, click on books in the top charts in categories that suit your book and look at the other charts they’re ranking in. You can normally find a gem or two.
Now even if you find a niche category that’s small and fits your book well, you still have to make some sales to rank in it- but a lot less than you would have to have ranked in the popular categories – ta-da! You just made it easier for your book to be seen.
So on to getting sales….
3. Getting sales is hard (really hard)
But do you know what’s harder than getting sales? Getting sales and continuing to get sales and thereby making your book hang around in those top charts.
So how do you do it…?
Well, if I knew that I’d be a bestseller by now, sailing off into the sunset on my yacht. As with anything worth doing, there’s a lot of hard work involved. But I do have a couple of tips and tricks that work for me (most of the time).
Reviews – I almost hear you sighing. Yes, getting reviews is – you guessed it – hard! And it’s one of the biggest ways Amazon ranks your books – that’s right it’s not done just off of your sales -they’re also taking into account that people like your book too. So yeah. If your book sucks, sorry. But Amazon have to have some quality control, don’t they?
Let’s assume your book doesn’t suck…
Let’s say someone besides your doting mother who has no reason to lie to your face said they really actually enjoyed reading it. Well done you! Take a moment to appreciate that because it’s a big achievement and sometimes we lose sight of why we really do this – because we love it! And we looooovee hearing that other people love it too. Yeah, maybe we’re all just egomaniacs. I dunno. But a good review just makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. But I digress…
Getting reviews: I’ve done this through several different avenues.
- Blogging – set up a blog, say hi to the community (they’re really nice) and do not ram your book down their throat. Blog about your book, what your experience is, your advice for people just starting out – things like that. Read other people’s blogs that have similar interests to you, like reading your kind of books and then when you’ve got a little following going (it took me maybe six months to get to a point with blogging that I asked for advanced readers to review my book). It’s really not a quick fix but you should have a blog anyway so go start one now and meet the authors and readers who love the same thing you do.
- AMZ Tracker – This one got me about 10 reviews before I decided I didn’t want to pay for the AMZ privileges any more. It’s basically an Amazon run company that lets you give away your merchandise at a discounted price to sellers and in exchange they will honestly review your product. This isn’t dodgy or a scam it’s a genuine way for new sellers to find buyers on Amazon and it’s anyone selling anything not just ebooks. AMZ tracker also let’s you see how well you’re ranking in the Amazon store in specific keywords people are searching for.
I could ramble on about it but just go check it out. To use their review exchange service you have to pay a monthly subscription – it is however a ‘cancel any time’ contract – so you could do what I did and buy it for a couple of months (I think it’s something like $30 a month I can’t remember – go look) but you can get a 10 day free trial to see if it works for you first. The problem with this is… the discounting. For me it was easy as book 1 in my series is permafree. So my ‘voucher’ was just a link to the free download on Smashwords. (If all of that was Greek to you, I will explain shortly about permafree). I’m not sure how you would make a voucher for your ebook otherwise. But look into it. It might be possible if you don’t want to give your book away for free.
- Asking for reviews in the back of your book – a simple call to action in the back of your book can do no harm. But it’s giving people incentive that really works. Most people will not bother to leave a review – not because they’re callous and coldhearted but to them it’s a bit of effort they’d rather avoid. I know I was guilty of never reviewing anything out of pure laziness before I had books out and realised how precious they are (if you’re not much of a reviewer yourself and take nothing else from this article, please leave a review for the next book you read – especially if it’s a book by an indie author). And why are they so valuable? Remember what I said about rankings? Yeah that. And if you get enough reviews ( I think the bar is in the fifty region) apparently Amazon will start putting you in newsletters but I’ve heard that on the grapevine so don’t take my word for it…
Incentive – FREE STUFF! It’s really the only way, IMHO. If you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to give away your work for free then don’t go complaining to me when you get no sales. I’m sorry but it’s just plain business sense. You’ve got to prove your worth to people. And a lot more people will give your writing a chance if there’s zero risk involved for them (I’ll talk about permafree in a minute I promise). Anyway, back to incentive. In the back of my book, I make a deal with my readers. It’s very simple. Write me an honest review on Amazon, email me when you’ve done it and I’ll give you book two for FREE! And yah. It works. Nuff said.
- Find people that like similar books and email them – I know it sounds shifty. But it’s not. I’m talking about legitimately researching people that would be interested in your book and, if they provide an email address or have a blog where they review books then you are fully entitled to email them and ask them to honestly review your book and you’ll send them a free copy. How do you achieve this? Take a guess. Yeah it’s hard work again…but so worthwhile!
I’m going to call this…
The Reviewer Hunt:
Get on Amazon, look for books similar to yours and scroll down to the reviews. I’ll give you an example using Lindsay Buroker (because I love Lindsay and I’m just going to shamelessly promote her – so there!). Look at her Emperor’s Edge Book 5 (if you choose a book later in a series you know these are die hard fans so there’s more chance they’ll stick with your series too). Click on the reviews (she’s got 4.8 stars on this – legend) then change the filter settings to 5 star only as you want to contact people who really liked her book as there’ll be more chance they’ll really like yours too. Then get scrolling and clicking.
Click on each reviewer one at a time (this takes a long time) and you’ll be taken to their reviewer page where you can see their rank etc. There will be a ‘see more’ button so click that and if a reviewer has shared their details that means they don’t mind being contacted – I promise! I’m not promoting hounding people by any means. These people have shared their information freely, you will find that most people won’t have any contact information so just pass them on by and send them some happy thoughts for the hell of it and maybe they’ll come across your book one day and review it voluntarily.
Okay so once you come across an email address or blog/facebook page you can contact this potential reviewer (note the word potential!!!). DO NOT SEND THEM some generic, copy and paste email. Mention where you found their email address in the first line of your email. Something like: I came across your review for Lindsay Buroker’s Emperor’s Edge book 5 and wondered if you might be interested in reading my new novel blah blah blah in exchange for an HONEST review. Never ask people for anything but honesty in their reviews. It’s not cool and Amazon will hunt you down and will kill you (Liam Nieson style). Give them the Amazon link for your book or if your book’s not out then make sure you save their email address to give them the link later. If someone agrees to read your book thank them profusely and send them a copy. You’re entitled to give them a gentle nudge if you have heard nothing but crickets with in a month – NO HOUNDING!
Okay this blog post is turning into a novel itself (hmm there’s an idea…) I’ll keep going. Maybe it’s time to grab some coffee? Or tea (herbal or otherwise). I’ll wait. I got one too.
Alright alright, I’ll tell you about permafree.
This is my number 1 tip. But in this list it’s number….
4. Permafree changed my life – I’ve heard from authors who got into the game waaaayyy before me back when self-publishing was fairly new on Amazon and apparently permafree used to pack a massive punch. But it’s still a very useful tool and it was a real game changer for me. It’s not a quick-fix either by the way but it will boost your sales if you write in a series.
Remember what I was saying about people not taking a risk with your writing if it’s free? That’s the general principle of this. If your first book is free AND good (keep in mind if your book is sh….rubbish then that’s a separate issue) but if it’s good and free, people are going to read the follow-ups. Why wouldn’t they? Would you start a series, fall in love with it then stop reading after the first book because the rest of the series isn’t free? Or would you buy the next book because you just gotta? Also I’m a cruel author because I love a cliffhanger. I know people hate them and don’t put them in just to get people to read on but if it works for you, go for it. If not, don’t.
Basically, don’t go permafree until you’ve got more books out in your series. It’s pointless. You want people to buy your next books, if you go free too soothen, they’ll forget about you by the time book 2 is out.
So how do you go permafree with a book on Amazon? – I think I can get a chant going here, I ask a question and you shout ‘it’s hard!’. Alright it’s not that hard but it’s fiddly. Amazon don’t really want you to do it but they will begrudgingly let you because they just gotta pricematch. They’re a sucker for it. So make sure your book is not enrolled in the Amazon kindle unlimited programme. If it’s already in just un-enroll (is that a word?) it when your 90 days are coming to an end (you can uncheck a box on Amazon KDP so it won’t automatically renew – if it does, you’re screwed and gotta wait the 90 days again so go do it now. Done? Okay.)
Then pootle on over to Smashwords and publish your book there for free. Now wait a moment before you do that because you’ve got to format your book for Smashwords first so they can distribute it to stores like ibooks and kobo etc. They have a formatting guide (it’s an entire free book all about how to do that) I’m not going to natter on about how to do that just read the guide. I do have one big important tip though! Make sure that nowhere in your book do you link to Amazon. I had a link to the next book in the back of my first book and it took me ages to figure out why it kept getting rejected at Smashwords. ibooks and Kobo don’t want you driving sales back to Amazon. Makes sense, they are their biggest competitor after all.
Okay so once you’ve got your book for free on Smashwords and it’s been distributed to the other stores (this can take up to a week and even longer for some of the stores). Once it’s on ibooks or Barnes and Noble, your solid. Just grab the link , paste it into an email to Amazon through the KDP ‘contact us’ and veerrryyyyy nicely ask them to pricematch your book to free on Amazon and give evidence of it in the ibooks store or all the stores if you want to make sure they accept it.
Note: Amazon will laugh in your face if you send them a Smashwords link. They don’t value it, they’ll only pricematch to stores like Apple because they are their competition. So be patient, it might be a few weeks before you get your book pricematched or it might be a matter of days. I think it took me two weeks from start to finish when I did it.
Now your book is free -wahay! Congrats. You’ll get a boost of downloads as it’s fresh meat on the free Amazon market. I didn’t know this and wasted my advantage with those first few days of hundreds of downloads because I assumed it would always be that way. Don’t be me! If I did it again I would have bought some ads for those first few days to maximise impact. Even without doing anything I got to number 2 in a free chart (oh yeah, you won’t rank in paid charts anymore…more about that another day). Just think what I could have achieved if I’d bought some ads. I’m going to talk about advertising another day because my fingers are falling off.
Let’s round this up. One more and I’m done. If you’ve stayed with me this long, you deserve a medal. You’re clearly as determined as I am in this.
5. Building your fanbase
What you want is a big fanbase that scream about your books from the top of mountains, right? Well, if you want that it takes time and effort. People will be loyal if you’re loyal to them back, If you actively make friends with people. Don’t fake it. Actually want to interact with your fans. And who doesn’t love doing that anyway?
Do you know how cool it is to say I have ‘fans’? I love getting emails from people who are enjoying the books, demanding that I bring out the next one -it’s such a thrill! Of course that’s not why we started writing…well it is a little bit, isn’t it? (go on you can admit it, I understand). Anyway, I’m getting side-tracked daydreaming about my fans.
You’ll get fans if you do all the things above, blogging, getting reviews, reaching out to people. But the main thing is to keep those fans close. And you do that with mailing lists and social media. If you don’t have a Facebook page, go get one. If you don’t have twitter, go subscribe. Get a website. And if you do nothing else – get a mailing list.
Mailing list – the biggest tool an author can have is this. I use Mailchimp but there’s plenty of others out there. I have a list for people to subscribe to for news about my books and I promise only to email them about releases. People don’t want you bugging them, they’d just like to know when your next book is out. That’s what they want from you, your writing.
And how do you get people to subscribe? FREE stuff! Yep. That’s it. If you subscribe to my mailing list you get book 1 for free plus two free novellas and I let people know that in the front and back of all my books as well as on my Amazon Author page, my website and Facebook. Everywhereeeee.
I need a break so I’m going to leave it there but there’s some more things I will talk about another day. I’m off to finish my Christmas chocolate before Monday when the diet begins. But it is a bank holiday so maybe I’ll start Tuesday….
Thanks for reading 🙂