When I published my first book on Amazon, I thought I’d be well on the way to notoriety, infamy and gazillionaire status (also known as being able to quit my day job) by now. I thought I would write my books, publish them and the dollars would start rolling in. I thought I would bask in the glory of being an author, with actual published books (well, electronic ones anyway) and I’d be invited to present at conferences and summits and seminars and workshops and on radio shows and everyone in the entire world would be keen to hear what I had to say about my books and this self-publishing lark.
Nothing could be further from the truth. I am but an insignificant and powerless grain of sand waiting to be washed away into oblivion by the relentless Amazon tide.
It’s quite depressing, because I know I can write and I know I write well and I know that readers love what I write, but standing out in an extremely crowded marketplace without spending a gazillion dollars on promotion and advertising and marketing is quite tricky. No one tells you about that. Well, they probably do, but as humans are often wont to do, this information has been blocked out and buried, not least by me.
So this post is, in part, about addressing the dearth of information about what it’s really like to self-publish because according to practically everyone, Amazon is a goldmine. Except it isn’t, not in my experience anyway. And it’s because I’ve approached it the wrong way, and by wrong way I mean being totally clueless and naive about it all.
1. Make sure you do your research
One of the biggest mistakes I’ve made so far is thinking that self-publishing on Amazon is all about launching my fabulous writing into the world and that people would recognise my talent and start buying my books. I had a platform and all I had to do was click the big, yellow Publish button and the accolades and dollars would come. I thought that the simple acts of writing and self-publishing would be all that I needed to build my career as an author. I knew how to write, so I had that base covered. I didn’t know about the process of self-publishing on Amazon, so I learned all about that. I knew I might have to do a little promotion, but I was comfortable with that; after all, I have a Masters degree in Communications Management. I could do that side of things with my eyes closed.
What I realise now is that writing and loading my books up into the Kindle store and publishing them comprise only a few of the pieces of the self-publishing puzzle. What I neglected to realise or understand is that Amazon, pure and simple, is an internet store. It sells products. It uses internet marketing principles like SEO and keywords and categories and algorithms that, like Jon Snow, I know nothing about. And because I know nothing about this stuff, I lagged behind. Books about coconut oil (because they are niche categories) that are ghost written and stuffed with keywords so Google will find them — and are so badly written baby Jesus would be weeping a flood of tears — do better than my beautifully written tomes and are making their publishers gazillions of dollars. Don’t believe me? Read this and prepare to be depressed. People are making shit loads of cash gaming the system, because it can be gamed.
My recommendation is to do as much research as you can about what it takes to be successful on Kindle before you self-publish. Don’t rely on your writing, at least in the beginning. Good writing will only get you so far, and unfortunately because of the way that things currently stand, it’s not far at all.
2. Don’t skip the launch of your book
The importance of a launch for your book in the Kindle store can not be overstated. And it’s not for the reasons you think i.e. your book being read by a bunch of old fans and discovered by new ones. A book launch is important because you need to get as many downloads as you can — at this stage it doesn’t matter if it’s actually read or not — so that your book will be favourably indexed by Amazon’s algorithms. I have it on good authority that if this favourable indexing doesn’t occur, your book will languish in the bowels of the Kindle store forever, never to be found by anyone. The only way a book can recover from a non-launch (so I’m told) is to unpublish it and relaunch it with a new cover and a new ASIN.
So what’s the best way to launch your book? Lots of downloads (hundreds, thousands) in the first few days it is released; however, unless you are an established author (I’m not) with a gigantic email list (don’t have) this is difficult to achieve (almost impossible). The only other way to do it is to make it free, and you can only do that if you enroll your book in Kindle Select, where you are allowed five free days per quarter for each book you have enrolled. You also have to let readers know it’s free, and that means spending money (not much if you don’t want to) on promoting it.
Did I do a launch for my books? No, I’ve had not much joy in terms of readership; those books are languishing in the aforementioned bowels of the Kindle store. My short stories though, are a different matter and I’m surprised at how well they are doing in comparison to my non-fiction even though short stories (so I’m told) are difficult to market. I honestly thought my essays would be exceedingly popular, given the Cheryl Strayed phenomenon, but I was wrong. Clearly, I didn’t do my keyword and category research.
3. Don’t rely on the first book of a series to sell the rest
Every writer and teacher who ever writes and teaches on the subject of self-publishing says that a surefire way to boost your sales is to publish a series. It could be fiction or non-fiction — it doesn’t matter. The first book in the series will sell the next one and so on and so forth. Amazon’s algorithms will kick in and will sell the consecutive books in the series for you. as you write them.
Can you hear that?
Crickets… tumbleweeds… more crickets…
In other words, I’m still waiting for the domino effect to occur.
While a few friends have bought a few books, sales have been dismal. I have now made my first book permanently free as a carrot dangler, and my second book is free if people subscribe to my mailing list. I’ve done some promotional work around the first book, and the reviews (such as they are) are good, but I haven’t managed to move readers along the product funnel. Maybe I’ve overpriced them, but at $2.99, I’m hesitant to drop the price, although I could do a discount promo to .99c once I have all the books in the series published. I haven’t enrolled these books in Kindle Select because they don’t qualify: unfortunately, they have been published elsewhere i.e. Smashwords. Amazon is ruthless when it comes to people complying its terms and conditions (T&Cs) and I’ve heard urban legends where people have had books removed and accounts closed because they dare to argue over T&Cs.
4. Misunderstanding the review process
Speaking of absolute compliance with Amazon’s T&Cs, be careful with reviews. More specifically, be careful with who reviews your books. When my first book came, I sent the link to my work colleagues via my work email. One work colleague loved it (she was a fan of non-fiction) and she promptly wrote a review saying how much she loved it and why. Of course, I was thrilled and eagerly watched and waited for this first review to appear.
After much emailing occurring between Amazon and my colleague, and Amazon and me, we discovered her review was deleted because she knew me (did you know that Amazon monitors IP addresses? No, I didn’t either) and it was supposedly a biased review. I was mortified, and so was she. So much so, that she promptly deleted her account (she is very mindful of her digital footprint) and will never buy another book from Amazon, written by me or anyone else. Shame, because this girl buys a lot of books.
Since then, I got smarter about asking people for reviews. I did it via my Facebook account. Whenever I ran a promo and people messaged me to say how much they liked my book, I asked them to leave me a review. Guess what? A couple of those were deleted by Amazon as well. Again I was mortified. People went to a lot of effort to write thoughtful reviews and those reviews were deleted. What the actual fuck? Who knew that Amazon monitored IP addresses to that degree? Scary stuff. Now I run my VPN whenever I do anything even vaguely Amazon related. And those missing reviews? People have kindly sent them to me so I can add them to my product descriptions, so they haven’t been totally wasted.
Apparently, the whole review fiasco has come about because an author paid for reviews…
(Reviews matter. They provide social proof and help if someone is wondering whether to download your book or not, even if it’s free. If you want to use third-party websites to promote your book, you are often required to have a minimum number of reviews before your book is accepted. Sometimes it’s five, sometimes it’s ten, sometimes it’s twenty. Reviews are hard to come by, so when someone writes a review and it’s deleted it’s a BIG deal. Amazon now has a minimum annual spend rule for readers before they can leave a review.
And yes, I get that I’m playing in Amazon’s backyard, and it’s their rules. I can’t help but think that they’ve tried to crack a walnut with a sledgehammer with the way they go about things, and the few bad apples have ruined it for the rest of us. I’d love to move my books out of Amazon if I knew I could be self-sustaining, but their market is too big and I’d be cutting off my nose to spite my face if I did so.)
5. Get your calls to action right
Calls to action — in other words, what you want people to do once they’ve read your book — matter. And how you go about your calls to action (CTAs) matter more. I thought one page in the back of each of my books telling people about my other books and my blog and my mailing list would suffice. I’d been wondering why I wasn’t getting traction with any of it — no subscribers, no blog followers, dismal sales. Turns out of I’ve been doing that wrong too. Who knew?
What I’ve learned is that each CTA must be separated. If they are all lumped in together, there are too many things to do, so readers don’t do anything. So here’s how I’m approaching it now:
- Copyright (combined with the book title — I used to have them on separate pages)
- Acknowledgements (I’m still toying with the idea of combining Acknowledgements and Dedication to take advantage of Amazon’s Look Inside feature)
- CTA for book review (with link to the book)
- CTA for book review (with link to the book)
- CTA for what to read next (with images and links)
- CTA for my other books that readers might be interested in (with images and links)
- CTA to subscribe to my mailing list (with link and reason why they would want to subscribe)
- CTA to follow my blog (with link to my blog and RSS feed)
- CTA to get their book signed (with link)
- About the author
It seems like a lot of CTAs, I know, but apparently it must be done!
6. Don’t skimp on promotion
And by skimp, I don’t necessarily mean on money — although you do need to spend some dollars on promotion. What I mean is: don’t skimp on the time you spend promoting your books. I thought (foolishly, it turns out) that I just needed to publish my books, write a media release and a few blog posts, send out and respond to a few tweets, let my Facebook friends and the couple of groups I was in know via an event posting, post a couple of quotes from the book to my Pinterest and Instagram accounts and update my Facebook page and the job was done. I thought that Amazon and its magic algorithms would sell my books for me (or so I was told).
I laugh out loud at the naive child I was.
At the very least, I should be promoting at least one book every week or so and trying to get to #1 in category. And by promoting, I mean the following (and it’s still not enough):
- ensuring I’ve done my keyword research on both Google and Amazon
- scheduling Kindle Select free days and raise the price to $1.99 beforehand (so it looks like free is a bargain)
- once I’ve worked out my days, schedule a promotion and post the free days to as many (free) book promotion websites I can (this takes time to research, is tedious and it is difficult to know the ROI so I tend to use sites that other authors recommend)
- schedule a two-day promotion for when the book reverts to its normal price (paid book promotion site)
- on the promotion days, post to as many Facebook groups and Subreddits as possible to generate even more exposure.
I should also be buying, testing and tweaking Facebook ads, and tweeting and posting the link to my book on more websites on my free days. And in between these sorts of promotions I should be trying to guest post on as many blogs as I can and appearing as a guest on as many podcasts as I can. I should also be courting more reviewers and doing book trailers and Rafflecopter giveaways and putting more energy into sites like Smashwords and Kobo and Instagram and Pinterest. And don’t get me started on Bookfunnel and StoryOrigin. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. I could be printing postcards and bookmarks and other marketing collateral like mugs and bags and t-shirts with quotes from my books. I could also be doing book tours and readings and signings and radio interviews once my book goes to print.
And (here’s the depressing and disillusioning bit) after doing all this, there is still no guarantee of success.
Promotion is a full-time job and I’d rather spend it writing, but I don’t have a choice other than to promote. Ok… that’s not true. I could choose not to promote, but then even fewer people would know about my books and my writing.
I thought self-publishing would be easier than it is. And by easier, I mean not as hard to get traction and a foot-hold in the market. I thought I’d be much further advanced than I am. Granted, I’ve learned a lot, and I can use this knowledge with any subsequent books I release BUT I can’t help feeling that I’ve lost momentum in the time I’ve spent wandering dazed and confused around the Amazon wasteland.
If I had my time again, I would have done a lot more research about what is required to be a successful author on Kindle; but hopefully, after reading this post, you’ll go in the direction I should have gone.
Instead, I got caught up with the exciting idea that I was an author, even if it was a self-published one…