How To Sell Self-Published Books: One at a Time

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I’ve christened May “How to Sell Self-Published Books Month” here on Catherine, Caffeinated. This is something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and I figured that after last month’s shocking lack of blogging, this would be a good way to make up for it. It’s going to be a mix of new long posts, new short posts, replays and interesting links, all served with an Americano with an extra shot in it. You can catch up here. Get all future posts delivered direct to your inbox by subscribing (look in the sidebar or footer for the sign-up box) or, you know, you could just come back…

There’s a school of thought that says don’t do anything to promote your book until you have several books to promote. (They’re talking about e-books, but since that’s what most of us self-publishers are focused on these days, we’re going to talk about them too.) The idea is that if you manage to find a reader and convince them to buy one of your books, there’s another two or three or more for them to buy immediately afterwards, thus converting the effort of promoting one book into the sale of several.

Seems like a good idea, right?

It’s not. At least I don’t think it is. In fact, I completely disagree with it. I believe you need to release your books one at a time with space in between, and market, promote and sell them that way too. Here’s why.

As I said in Read This First, you generally have to do three things to sell me a copy of your book:

  1. Tell me about it
  2. Pique my interest
  3. Give me a reason (i.e. make me care enough) to buy it.

Let me give you a real-life example of how this 1-2-3 process led me to buy a self-published e-book. One day I was reading a blog post about how some self-publishers had been adding things like “For Fans of Dan Brown” to their e-book titles, and how Amazon had now moved to crack down on their clever (and a bit cheeky!) use of their system. The post mentioned two UK self-publishers, Louise Voss and Mark Edwards, who had done this to great effect with their e-book, Catch Your Death. So that’s how I found out the book existed—through a blog post. My interest was piqued when I read that the thriller was partly set at the Cold Research Unit in Salisbury, because anything that involves viruses is a winner for me. (In another life I wanted to be a virologist.) So I went to look it up on Amazon, where a combination of what I already knew, the synopsis and the pair’s writing credentials gave me reason enough to buy it. And so, because Mark and Louise had a good book that was the kind of thing I liked to read (it was well reviewed and they’ve since signed a huge deal with Harper Collins in the UK), and they’d designed a convincing Amazon listing (something I’ll blog more about later this month), the only real work they had to do was inform me of their book’s existence, and it’s this that marketing multiple books simultaneously—or waiting until you have multiple books to market—cripples.

You want to create as many worthwhile opportunities as possible to inform new readers that your book exists, without boring the arses off the readers who are already along for the ride, i.e. your blog readers, Twitter followers, Facebook fans newsletter recipients, etc. The way to do this is to squeeze every last bit of Interesting Juice out of each book, and then give everyone a chance to recover before you go at it again with your next title.

Take Mousetrapped, the title that started it all for me. Although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time—I was just procrastinating online, I thought—I started building anticipation about that book approximately three months before I released it. Here’s some of the things I did:

  • I blogged about my decision to self-publish it
  • I blogged about the logistics of self-publishing it
  • I shared my cover design process and other milestones such as the finished blurb
  • I made two book trailers (see the Videos page)
  • I offered copies to book bloggers
  • I was interviewed by book bloggers and other sites
  • I wrote guest posts for other blogs
  • I had “#MousetrappedMondays” on Twitter where I made a thing of containing my self-promotion to 3-5 tweets every Monday in the lead up to its release, and then I released the book on the final #MousetrappedMonday, March 29 2010
  • I posted photos of my first proof copy, my first box of books, my bookstore launch, etc.
  • I set up a Facebook page, asked friends to like it, posted updates about the book on the wall
  • I gave away copies on my blog
  • I tweeted links to all of the above.

And in these ways, I told people that Mousetrapped existed, and I managed to get some of those people to buy it when it came out, to recommend it to friends and family and to mention it on their own online homes. And here is the key: when Backpacked came out more than a year later*, I was able to do all those things again and more besides. Why? Because I now had a completely different title that generated new material for me to blog about, etc. and because enough time had passed for (i) the people who had been around since the beginning to forgive all my Mousetrapped talk and (ii) a whole new audience to turn to face my way, i.e. new Twitter followers, new friends of my Facebook fans, new blog readers of my blog friends, etc. Enough time had passed for me to reach loads of new people using the same methods as I had before—and to do it without pissing people off.

What if I had released all of my books at the same time? I would only ever have reached that first, small group. My original readers. The ones who came on board at the beginning. Now maybe they would’ve been loyal enough to buy all of my books, but what then? I can’t continue to churn out post after tweet after post about the same old stuff, so I can’t blog about my books. No one likes “My book is on Amazon. Buy it!” tweets, so that’s out too. And what are all my lovely fans going to do after they’ve read all my books? What now?

I saw how disastrous this could be myself back in September-October 2011, when I did something silly. I released Backpacked, my second travel memoir, on September 1st, and Results Not Typical, my first novel, on October 1st.  The people who read my blog (hello YOU!) and follow my Twitter feed aren’t doing it because they love hearing about books they might have no interest in buying, so I was slow to spend two solid months yapping on about both titles. So I neglected Backpacked, and focused on the novel instead. I organized an extensive blog tour and a giveaway—and blogged about it, of course—but it was diluted and rushed, and my attention was split between the two titles. I should’ve spread them out a lot more and done a proper job on both of them, but I didn’t have the patience to keep two ready-to-go books behind the curtain any longer.

I know the temptation to get the next book out there right now is overwhelming, especially if it’s already written and ready to go. If someone sends you an e-mail saying “Just read Your First Book—loved it!!! When is the next one out? Can’t wait to read it!” there’s a reptilian part of your brain that considers going to KDP right that minute to upload the book, just so you don’t lose that sale. Because that’s The Big Fear, isn’t it? That that reader will have forgotten all about you by the time your next book comes out. Well, guess what? I have to wait a year between books for all of my favorite writers—because that’s the speed at which the publishing world works— and I manage it just fine. I never forget about them. Instead, I wait anxiously for their new books to come out. The waiting makes the reading sweeter. I’ve spent 364 days of every year waiting for a new Michael Connelly novel for almost half my life, and somehow I manage. I also buy every single one of his books. And if I do forget? Amazon reminds me in my recommendations whenever I visit the site. Sometimes they even e-mail me too.

You have to look at this in the long-term. Yes, the person who e-mailed you might not buy your next book because by the time it comes out six months from now, they’ll have forgotten about it. But the people who will find out about you for the first time when you put a full launch effort into your next title is a far greater number. And do you know how they say that the people who lose weight slowly and steadily have a much greater chance at keeping it off than those who lose a lot quickly on a drastic diet? Well, I think the same goes for books. (Bear with me…) Organic growth is always better. You promote this first book well, you focus entirely on the one title, and hopefully you carry a lot of the readers you gain with you onto the next book. You repeat the process in a few month’s time, and now you’re carrying forward the readers from the first and second books, and they all read both of them. And so on and on. I think those readers, thanks to the longer relationship they’ll have with you, will be a lot more likely to stick around in the long term that someone you managed to sell three 99c books to and then never interacted with again.

One of the people I follow on Twitter released three different books in rapid succession (I’d say, all within the same month) a while back. They were all quite different titles, and he’d never released anything before. He didn’t blog really, so Twitter was his main online home. At the time of the release, there was a lot of Twitter talk about it, but that soon dropped off like the edge of a cliff once the third book had been released. Since then? Nothing. Nada. Not a word. There’s nothing new to report, and he’s nice enough not to use his tweets for advertisements, so now he’s stuck. And so are his sales. If he’d spread out those releases, he might be heading into the summer now with a brand new book to promote—and so, new things to tweet about (like how he came to have his cover design, what a headache e-book formatting is, what he’s doing different this time around, etc.)—and I’d be willing to bet that he’d definitely get more sales. He has more Twitter followers now than he did when he released those books, and I—and all his other followers—are likely to have more people around us too, and so if I re-tweeted one of his book links, his audience would be much larger now than it was then. So, he should have waited. He should have spread out the release dates of his books.

I really hope this all makes sense, because I haven’t had much coffee today and regular readers will know how much I need my coffee. I fear I’ve spent two thousand words over-explaining a really simple concept. But in case I’ve spent two thousand words making no sense at all, what I’m basically trying to say is this:

  1. Each title release creates a wealth of material you can use to promote your book
  2. Putting this material online is one of the ways people find out that your book exists
  3. Informing people that your book exists is the first step in getting them to buy it
  4. You can’t constantly use your online platform to promote your book, and it’s not much fun to do that anyways
  5. Different people are following you and your followers than will be in six months or a year’s time
  6. The only way to maximize (i) how much material you get out of each book and (ii) the new people who see that material is to spread out your books
  7. What you sacrifice in I-just-finished-the-first-I’ll-buy-the-next-one sales, you’ll more than make up for with new, more loyal readers in the long term.

*I don’t recommend you leave a year+ between titles. That was just my own laziness!

L-R: the ridiculously comfortable beds at the St. Regis San Francisco, which I loved; the plank of wood with a thin foam mattress on top, as-thick-as-toast squishy pillow (covered in my own T-shirt, as it didn’t come with a pillowcase), sleeping bag and prone-to-falling mosquito net that I slept in at our hostel in San Pedro, Guatemala. Which I did NOT. 

I’m testing KDP again with Backpacked: A Reluctant Trip Across Central America. It’s the story of me (loves Starbucks, boutique hotels and inactivity) going backpacking in Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama (climbing active volcanos, sleeping on planks of wood, cockroaches, etc.) and it’s FREE between now and Wednesday for Kindle. So please, feel FREE (see what I did there?) to download it for yourself, or let your anti-backpacking friends with e-reading devices know that they are also FREE to download it for FREE from Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk. For FREE. (FREE!)

61 thoughts on “How To Sell Self-Published Books: One at a Time

  1. Martin Lake says:

    Lots of good sense here, Catherine. The received wisdom is to get as many books published as quickly as possible so your thoughts are an excellent antidote to this fret.

    I also thought that your strategy was very useful. Lots of imaginative and creative ideas. Hope you don’t mind if I nick them?

  2. gingercalem says:

    I’m so glad I’m following this series of blog posts. Great advice. Question for you, I’m writing a YA trilogy, working on book 1 now. When that is finished and ready, I’ll be hard at work on book 2. What would you suggest the recommended space between the releases? My current thought is to have book 2 written and in the editing stage and have book 3 plotted so that I can be prepared to space them well but not sure what would be good spacing … 4-6 months? Too close?

    I know I’ll be so excited to push book one out into the world the moment it’s ready. It will be hard to hold it back but I know that I should.

    Thanks!

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I think if the books are related to each other/in a series, 6 months is a good space in between. It’s enough time to regroup, you’ll have them well spread out but lovers of book 1 won’t have to wait too long. You could even set up a mailing list for book 1 readers to sign up for exclusive early previews or an opportunity to buy book 2 before anyone else or something.

  3. Laura Reese says:

    Okay, all fabulous suggestions! Including NOT sleeping under the mosquito netting! Have plans for a book on “Selling Self-Published” when you’ve wrapped up the blog posts? (I’m sure you’ve already thought of that). Cheers!

  4. hannahsteenbock says:

    Your blog and your book “Self-Printed” are a godsend for me. You already inspired me to start a blog, and you’ve reawakened my writing joy. Now I see a use for the novels that are languishing on my hard drive.

    In fact, your book got a blog post today. 😉

  5. Author Mary J. McCoy-Dressel says:

    So much useful information. I thought to re-issue book one and two together. I’m sure glad to have read this. Your post made all kinds of sense, and came at the right time for me, and it seems alot of others. Thank you.

  6. Tahlia Newland says:

    Thanks for this, it’s timely advice, since I have one title coming out in June and another still with my agent that I’m dying to rip out of her hands and publish myself. I can afford to wait a little longer & I’ll make sure I give my novella the talk it deserves, sweet little thing that it is.

  7. cydmadsen says:

    Reblogged this on Cyd Madsen and commented:
    Such an easy-breezy way with words, and words too wise for someone so young (the old broad said). She’s not afraid to let her pink flag fly, she exposes her blunders and triumphs to help others along.

  8. Shah Wharton says:

    Excellent post. I had wondered what was the best strategy. I plan on self-pubbing in the Autumn and the second in the series, although drafted, is no where near ready to publish. This makes me feel better about that. I have shared this post and your FREEbie offer all over face book and Linkedin. X

  9. Catherine says:

    So happy to have discovered your blog via Freshly Pressed! (Congrats, by the way!) You’re very generous to pass on such thoughtful and thorough wisdom about self publishing. I’ll be sharing your URL on to my friend who’s been talking about taking that route for a while. And I’ll be back to visit regularly for myself, just in case I end up moving in that direction in the future too. Cheers!

  10. Rhoda Baxter says:

    Sounds like very good advice. I’m new to this promo game (book 1 came out in March, book 2 should be out next year) and I’ve often wondered what next. I hope you don’t mind if I nick some of your ideas from the post.

    PS: Do you really have a pink typewriter? (shallow? me?)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Nick away! That’s what they’re there for. And no, I don’t have a pink typewriter but I do plan on treating myself to one should I ever snag that six-figure deal.. (I might be waiting forever!!) 🙂

  11. kellie larsen murphy says:

    This makes perfect sense to me. Also, it seems that many self-published books have slower sales initially with growth coming over time. That word of mouth and steady growth can help to propel interest in the next book and the next…

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It took me about a year to really start selling. Then it sped up really fast, like it had reached a tipping point or something. Until that happened I was probably selling between 100-200 books a month, max. Patience is the key to this game!

  12. bellewhittington says:

    Wow! That’s great advice! Your article speaks volumes of what I’m learning while promoting my little YA novel, Cicada, which I released last July. I’m also working on the sequel, Firefly. And, boy, and I’m glad I didn’t have them both read for simultaneous release! 🙂

  13. Jen Talty says:

    Many roads to Oz…Interesting post and I think in many ways, I will agree, especially about what you said in the comments about long term and patience. One of the things we recommend, especially for fiction, is to wait until you have 3 books published before going all out. With fiction (and we have found fiction and non-fiction to be a bit different in terms of promotion and marketing) you can get a lot of bang for your buck with promoting a series. But you also said something else in the comments about it taking a year to sell really well. One of the things we have found that has worked for us is to focus on foundation for that first year–for us that was putting content out there. Then we focused on promotion. We went from selling 347 ebooks in one month to averaging 50k in a month. Now, we have a lot of books to worth with. Bob Mayer, my business partner has about 50 in his backlist, so we have a solid foundation. But it still took us some time to gain traction in the digital word, even for Bob. Again, many roads to Oz. I believe it is important that we be open to what has worked for others. Not everything is going to work the same way for each other, so we have to be willing to try other things.

  14. dawnstarpony says:

    (for a second i thought that there wasn’t a comment box.)
    anyway i guess self publishing isn’t so bad…?? especially if you publish traditionally and only get 10-15% -_- how horrible! self publishing is actually better, isn’t it?; you do a lot more work on your own but you get more money! right? if you traditionally published, and you didn’t “get famous” or whatever it is, then its the same thing as not getting famous by self publishing. (right?) i may need more convincing that self publishing is the way to go, though. (not that i am SOOOO important that i need more people i convince me. nor am I asking. But if you’d like to in a reply, then go ahead :P)

  15. CG Blake says:

    Catherine,
    I’m a little late to the party here. Porter Anderson tweeted a link to this post today. You are right on target. I keep telling my writer friends who want to rush their work onto the Kindle to take a deep breath and count to 10–and wait six months to a year. You articulated all the good reasons for doing this. I started my blog last September and self-published my first novel in February. By the time I published it, I hit my stride as a blogger (I hope!) and was active on several popular blog sites. I have three works in progress (including a NaNo novel with lots of potential), but none are nearly ready. I just don’t see how anyone can publish their work without subjecting it to review by trusted outside critics. I used a book editor to look at the beginning of my MS (I couldn’t afford her for the whole MS) and a professional graphic designer to do my book cover.

    I will bookmark your blog and post a link from my blog. Good stuff here.

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