I spent half my life writing one book. Got the idea for it at thirteen, published it at twenty-six. Sure, a couple distractions got in the way during that time: puberty, high school, a bit of college, a day job doing manual labor that put hair on my chest, an obsessive routine of HIGHLY amateur dumbbell curling, booze, 2 years spent racking up 400+ rejections from literary agents, booze. And now one year after finally unleashing my debut Fantasy on the world, with the release of its sequel a few months out, I’m so glad that I broke my way into indie publishing and have seen data-based potential for the sustainable career I’ve always wanted. Here are some little nuggets of wisdom and experience I’ve gathered on my journey so far.
Invest in a high quality editor and cover designer to make the best possible first impression
No matter how long you spent finishing that first draft or how many dozens of times you’ve polished it on your own, front to back, IT’S NOT READY! Most of those rejections I accumulated occurred when my manuscript was 40,000 words heavier than the final product that I published. After doing a Writer’s Digest workshop with one literary agent, I realized I could substantially trim the book down and still keep it all intact. I went line by line to chisel the substance out of the murk, and after a few months had it down from 130,000 words to around 89,000, and still it was far from done.
Beta readers are an invaluable resource to help you make your work consumable, but that’s still not enough. After all those brave souls have sunk their teeth into your under-cooked work, hire a professional editor and a cover designer who can help you publish the best version of your work right from the start; don’t try to sell a salad of grammatical awkwardness wrapped in a middle school collage project. Even if you plan to publish a majorly improved 2nd Edition later on when you have more funds, you will have fed a sour apple to so many prospective fans that you’ll lose credibility and appeal. I found my editor, Karen Conlin, through some very well-respected indie authors on Google Plus writing communities. It turns out that she edits for a couple other authors who signed with the award-winning audiobook publisher that picked up my series, too. And the book designers at Damonza have produced beautiful covers for my series that have been worth every penny.
If you only have one book out, KDP Select is probably the way to go
Selling exclusively through Amazon has been much more profitable than my brief stint with wider distribution, because in addition to sales, subscribers to Kindle Unlimited have read more than half a million pages of my book over the last 6 months. What Amazon pays you for that varies a bit each month, but it usually appears close to half a cent per page.
Join online communities and enter your book in a few contests
It’s common for newbie authors to bombard every social media community they find with daily pleas to GET MY BOOK NOW. Free advertising is tempting for sure, but that kind of shameless self-promotion usually disgruntles A LOT more people than it attracts. I was certainly guilty of it for the first several months that my book was live, and sometimes I’ll do a scaled-down version of it if my book is free or highly discounted for a few days. There’s a lot more value in building a friendly relationship with the readers in those communities, and giving as much as you hope to get in return.
If you’re an Indie Fantasy author, check out Mark Lawrence’s annual Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off. This year’s contest is near its end, and the link will take you to the 10 finalists that have gotten a lot of well-deserved publicity. Being involved in that contest was a great experience for me, and I got a nice review plus some badass author friends out of it. Get the announcement about this year’s winner and next year’s application period on Twitter: #SPFBO
Hiring “social media gurus” to plaster your book link all over Twitter/Facebook is like paying someone to hurl a basketball from the opposite end of the court
There are paid services that do the dirty work for you, and send out the same tweet ten times a day to their “hundred-thousand followers.” I blew a decent amount of money on one of those at first, and even though the staff were highly courteous and responsive, I’m convinced that I never came close to getting a return on my investment. A fraction of the people who see those social media posts are interested in your genre; a fraction of those in your genre will be motivated by your post to look at your book on Amazon, and a fraction of those that you’ve just spent money to attract will care enough to shell out their own cash. But if you’re advertising your book directly on Amazon, almost everyone who sees your ad is already looking to buy something; they’re not as “cold” as potential customers on Twitter or FB.
Amazon ads can be extremely effective, but can also drain your bank account with lightning speed if you’re not careful. Low Cost/High Yield is achievable through trial and error
I invested about $4,000 testing 4 different ad pitches against 5 audience targets over the course of a couple months, and was able to isolate several specific combinations of pitch and target that are profitable. It’s challenging enough just to create ads that break even, but through trial and error you can really elevate your sales and income with Amazon marketing. My Product Display ads with a Cost Per Click Bid of around 20c and a monthly budget of $400 often result in an actual Cost Per Click of 2c-5c and monthly expenditure of far less than the maximum I set. They’ve been way more successful for me than Sponsored ads, which have always been a competitive cash drain in my experience.
It took about 4 months to recoup my investment and start making a profit, and even though it was a long haul I now have a handful of ads that consistently bring in more revenue than they consume. I go more in depth about my advertising experiments in a couple other posts that you’ll see in the margin, but here are a few pro tips that could have saved me a lot of dough when I was starting out:
- Create several pitches that concisely capture the essence of your book’s appeal so that you can test them on relevant audience targets
- Pick just 1 audience target per ad to determine which specific pairings of pitch and target are most successful, and weed out the ones that attract people who are interested enough to click (at your expense) but won’t close the deal
- Start with a CPC bid of 20c and a monthly budget of $200-$400 per ad, and be sure to select the “Spread Campaign Evenly” option instead of “Run As Quickly As Possible.” This approach I’ve found spends less per day than the max you allow
- Check your stats and Billing History every day so you know how much you’re spending, but remember that it often takes several days for stats to start showing up. While your spreadsheet may look bleak, your ads are likely running and your Billing History will show your accumulating tab. I’ve terminated ads and then kicked myself hard after seeing great sales stats show up a week later, which is why you should always Pause instead of Terminate if you’re nervous
I recently did a free giveaway and didn’t have any ads running for several weeks, and my sales took a dive as a result. Now I’ve just started a new set of ads that promote my ebook and audiobook with one pitch that mentions three of the bestselling Fantasy titles by the same audio publisher. The pitch is essentially:
Hey, you know these three Fantasy books that everyone and their mother are reading? Well my book got picked up by the same audiobook publisher that picked those up. It’s the hottest new thing!
The most promising of those ads is one that only appears on the Amazon pages of the other Fantasy titles that my audiobook publisher picked up. It brought in 2 sales with just the first 3 clicks, which I’ve never seen before. With my most successful ads before now, the ratio of click to buy was about 40 or 50 to 1, so I’m hoping that trend continues past Week 1.
Beware of Data Pollution
I first heard that term in a great interview that author Chris Fox gave on the Self Publishing Podcast, another wonderful resource for authors, and he warned that shouting about your new book from the rooftops and getting all your friends and family to buy it right away might actually hurt you more than it helps. Amazon analyzes all your customers to find what other purchases they have in common, so that it can then recommend your book to lots of other people who also bought those same titles. But if all your customers have nothing in common but you, then Amazon gets confused and leaves you stranded to find customers on your own. This is why specifically targeted advertising is so valuable, because it can gain you hundreds of customers who buy many of the same books and give Amazon the data it needs to help more of the right people discover your work.
Your sales might skyrocket unexpectedly. It will be confusing and awesome, and can be soul-crushingly temporary
After several months of increasing success with Amazon ads, my sales abruptly shot through the roof in mid January of this year, and the marketing on my end accounted for less than half of that. For the ensuing three weeks, my one book was bringing in more than enough money for me to live on, and I was planning which city I should relocate to so my new life as a full time author could begin. Then, after those 3 glorious weeks, sales dipped down to their normal level and left me scratching my head about just what the hell had happened.
All the people who got new Kindles for Christmas could have contributed a bit to that surge, and perhaps Amazon in all its wisdom threw my book into one of its popular mailers. Though it definitely stung to find out that it wasn’t a long term situation, the fact that it happened at all and could happen again is very encouraging. The most important thing I can do is continue my well-targeted, low cost/high yield advertising, build a mailing list (yeah, that cool box that popped up and asked for your e-mail address gets you a front row seat to all the wonders I have in store for the reading public), and of course…
Take some key advice from the great publishing minds at Sterling and Stone: WRITE, PUBLISH, REPEAT
I’ll be releasing the sequel to A Facet for the Gem this September, and if just my two books bring in the average amount of revenue that Book 1 has made over the last few months, I’ll be earning as much from them as I’ve ever made at my day job. Then I can support myself doing what brings out the best I have to offer, which has been the dream all along. And all the kind readers who continue to come forward help me keep that dream alive.