Selling Self-Published Books: The Amazing Amazon


May is How To Sell Self-Published Books Month here on Catherine, Caffeinated. Last week I poured a bucket of ice-cold water over your dreams in Read This First (which, thanks to Freshly Pressed, is the most popular post ever on this blog), and then explained why I think you should go guns blazing for the launch of each book instead of waiting until you’ve a few to sell in One at a Time. This week I’m presenting my Not So Scientific Theory of How Self-Publishers Can Use Social Media to Get Amazon to Sell Their Books, which is based on how I think I’ve managed to sell my own books over the last couple of years. You can catch up here

In Newly Self-Published Book World, everything is going to plan. We’ve built an online platform, make some blogging and tweeting friends and launched our book in a week of virtual celebrations—and all without annoying the guy who has been reading our blog posts from day one only because he enjoys cyber-stalking us. (Although come to think of it, it might be alright to annoy him.) You’ve done an awful lot of work already, but the real slog is only just beginning. Because now you have to keep the momentum going. Now you have to make sure your book can tread water for long enough that its head always stays above the water line on Amazon, instead of sinking down into the black depths of the abyss where not even the most determined Kindle owner will ever find it.

The Amazing Amazon

Very few self-publishers manage to sell books without focusing on Amazon, and fewer still manage to sell books without relying on Amazon at all. (I can only think of one self-publisher who’s been a success on Smashwords alone.) Now some self-pubbers get their knickers all in a twist about getting into bed with such a capitalistic juggernaut of a corporation, but if you don’t like it, don’t do it. But really don’t do it. At all. If you hate Amazon and like to blame them for crushing brick-and-mortar bookstores, complain about them making oodles of cash off you, the poor writer, and believe that when the four horsemen of the Apocalypse appear, they’ll arrive packed in an Amazon-branded brown box, then don’t self-publish your book with them. It gives me a pain in my eyeballs when self-publishers moan about the company who has allowed them to sell their work on the biggest online book store on the planet, promptly sends them the proceeds by cheque once a month and, in some cases (including my own) enables them to make a living without leaving the house. Without even getting dressed, some days.

(Okay, most days.)

It’s either complain and don’t publish, or publish. This isn’t a pick ‘n’ mix. And anyway chances are those knickers you’re getting in a twist have a corporate logo’s label sewn into the back of them, unless you made them yourself.


So quit your whining and let’s get to work.

All Roads Lead to Amazon

The aim is to send everyone who wants to buy your book to Amazon, because here, if a tree falls in the woods it always makes a sound. A sale increases your visibility on the site, which increases the chances of someone else discovering it, which increases the chances of another sale. A sale leads to a sale, if you’re lucky.

This is easy to do: make every link to a place where your book is for sale a link to Amazon. If you have a list of places, for instance, where you can buy the e-book versions of your books, list all the Amazon sites first. If someone wants to buy your paperback, encourage them to go to Amazon—not your CreateSpace e-store, or Lulu’s website. If you want to be really strict about it, don’t order any stock to sell to family and friends and get them to buy your book online instead. But only on Amazon, naturally.

My Amazon Author page.

Get an Author Page

Go to and sign up for an Amazon Author account. Then go to and do the same there. An Amazon Author page is essentially a page of your own on Amazon where you have an opportunity to share some information about yourself, add a feed to your blog and Twitter account, list upcoming events and even upload videos and photos. It also gives the customer somewhere to go where they can see all your books listed together.

Which is great. But that’s not the real reason we’re signing up for Amazon Author Central.

The product listing for In the Woods by Tana French. Yes, the reviews are great, but what’s the book about? The blurb is buried towards the end. Click to see a larger image.

Maximize Your Listing

A few months ago I attended a talk by an editor of literary fiction and during it, she shared her thoughts on self-publishing. One of the things she recommended self-publishers to do is to hire a professional copywriter to prepare their “blurb text” for them, i.e. the description that goes on the back of your book and, subsequently, appears on your Amazon listing. She said that once that had been entered it couldn’t be changed, and that it went out to every catalogue, online retailers, etc. and remained the first thing the potential reader read about that book forever more. She said that as it often had to be done well in advance and sometimes even before the book was completely finished, it was the most difficult aspect of publishing a book to get exactly right.

Listening to this, I could barely keep the grin off my face. Because I knew that, on Amazon at least, you can change this information whenever you want, however often you want. And you can add stuff to it. And you can even put in some formatting. Because through your Amazon Author Central account, you can add to, subtract from and endlessly update your product listing.

This is an area where—for once!—I’m going to call out traditional publishing for getting it wrong. It’s easy to see why they get it wrong: they have hundreds if not thousands of authors to worry about, whereas the self-publisher can devote as much time as they’d like to fine-tuning all aspects of their own books. But that doesn’t matter. What matters is that this, along with things like release schedule and pricing, is where you, the self-publisher, has the edge. You can make your listing stand out, and make it look better than its traditionally published peers.

My Backpacked listing, after I used Author Central to spruce it up. Click for larger.

Through Author Central, you can:

  • Edit your product description (the blurb). You have a lot of space for this, I think 4,000 characters, but don’t be tempted to use it all. Or even use half of it. A short, snappy description of no more than 300 words is ideal. You can also use italics and bold formatting, which you can’t do when you’re entering this stuff from the back end in KDP or CreateSpace. Use sparingly, but definitely use.
  • Add editorial reviews. These are extracts from reviews written by trusted sources, e.g. bestselling authors, respected individuals in their field (for non-fiction) and book review sites and book bloggers. DO NOT put quotes from Amazon customer reviews here; they mean nothing and make you look like an amateur.
  • Add an “About the Author.”
  • Add a “From the Author.” This can be a little spiel about why you wrote the book, or what makes you a good person to write it (for non-fiction).

Editorial reviews and my About the Author on Backpacked‘s listing. Click for larger.

Seeing Other People

Next week I’ll be posting about KDP Select, which enrolls your book in the Kindle Owners Lending Library and lets you promote your book as free for up to five days out of every ninety. To do this, you have to give your e-book exclusively to Amazon for the whole ninety days. You can’t even have a PDF download from your own website, and of course Smashwords is out.

It’s not a good idea to put all your eggs in Amazon’s basket, but I think doing it for a short space of time is okay and might actually be beneficial in the long run. I’m releasing my next book in November, and this is my plan for it:

  • Exclusive to Amazon for 3 months so I can enroll in KDP Select. I’m thinking I might offer it as free for the first 3 days of its life, so my blog readers, Twitter followers, newsletter subscribers, etc.—who’ll be the first to hear about it—will get a chance to read it for free in exchange for putting up with me for all this time. Also it’ll be my third travel memoir, the third in the series, so the 3 days ties in. Clever, eh?
  • It will only be available in e-book for those same three months, or until the end of January 2013-ish if I’m releasing in November. Think of the e-book like the hardback; it’s main purpose is to build momentum that will hopefully translate into sales when the paperback comes out later. Also I’ll have a few paychecks from the e-book before I have to pay for things like a full paperback cover, proof copies, etc.
  • At the end of the ninety days exclusivity with Amazon, I’ll upload the books to Smashwords for full distribution and release the paperback.

(NB: Of course on other online retailers like Barnes and Noble and iBooks, there is also an argument for sales leading to more sales. But it is much easier to do it on Amazon, where—for now, anyway—the majority of e-book readers are browsing for their next buy. And you have Amazon Author Central to help enhance your listing, which you don’t have on the other sites. And you have KDP Select. So for a starting off point on this selling books adventure, you can’t make a better friend than Bezos.)

In order to blog about KDP Select next week, I’ve been experimenting with it this week and last. Today my novel Results Not Typical, goes free on all Kindle stores for five days. Download it, tell your friends, etc. etc. It’s a satire about an evil slimming company and what happens to them when one of their prototypes goes missing. Let’s just say I’ve done plenty of research. And it comes with a Backpacked preview. Download it from here and from here.

Tomorrow: things like paid advertising, bonus material and mailing lists. Basically all the things that will have you tugging on the pants leg of the person who just finished one of your books, wailing “Don’t forget about me, okay?”.

UPDATE: Due to a technical issue, by “tomorrow” I mean Saturday evening. And by “technical issue” I mean “I lost the blog post after re-instating the wrong revision and don’t have time to re-do it until I settle down to watch The Voice on Saturday evening.”

Get it by e-mail by subscribing to this blog or follow me on Twitter (@cathryanhoward) for links. 

43 thoughts on “Selling Self-Published Books: The Amazing Amazon

  1. The Clutter Book says:

    Catherine, thank you for sharing all the information you’ve learned. I appreciate your generosity and I am looking forward to reading Results Not Typical, which has been on my to-read list. It’s actually how I found you, which led to reading the blog. Your insights into self publishing have been helpful.

  2. David W. Wright says:

    Hi Catherine. Great advice on optimizing your Amazon author page and book descriptions! I do disagree with you in one instance, however. You suggest NOT using reviews from customer reviews, as it makes you look like an amateur.

    I see some authors who are doing pretty well in self-publishing (like John Locke) who use customer reviews in product descriptions.

    Sean and I are proud of the more than 200 5 star reviews we’ve gotten for our serial, Yesterday’s Gone, and we’re not going to be ashamed to quote them.

    Customer reviews are social proof that can help sell your book.

    I’d say if you don’t yet have proper reviews or author quotes, start with what you have, and put them in your product description. Obviously, you’re not gonna quote friends or family who like your books, but if you’ve got legit reviews, use a few of them that best showcase your work.

    Embrace your indie-writer/publisher status! To limit yourself by the constraints of what traditional pubs are doing, is to do yourself a disservice.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Hi David,

      I wouldn’t put quotes from Amazon customer reviews into my editorial reviews, for three reasons. First, you really only want 2-3 of them on the Amazon listing because otherwise it gets clogged up, and so I’d rather reserve them for reviews from other authors, book review sites, etc. Second, an editorial review, to me, is a review that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a book in a store. I’m not coming at this from a publishing POV, but a reader. I buy a lot of books and as I’m a total sucker (!) I’m often swayed by blurbs/endorsements, so I think I have a good instinct for the kind that will sway people, and they kind that won’t. Personally, a single quote from an Amazon customer review wouldn’t do the job, because Amazon reviews really only matter in volume. As in, one review that says “amazing!” is practically meaningless, but thirty reviews saying that is great. Thirdly, all your Amazon customers reviews are right there anyway, on the listing. The number and average actually appears at the top of the page, before we ever get to editorial reviews.


      If I had outstanding customer reviews—like, for instance, 200 five stars!!!—I would definitely mention it in the product description (the blurby bit). I saw one recently that had something like:

      #1 Bestseller in Humor
      #1 Bestseller in Travel
      100+ Five Star Customer Reviews…

      and then the synopsis was below that. I think that’s what should be done with them, but they shouldn’t be put in the space for editorial reviews, in my personal opinion. Just because, as a *reader*, they don’t really mean anything to me on their own.

      We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one I think. But congrats on your reviews!

      • Anuradha says:

        Great post Catherine. I am however struggling with the differences in Author Central on and

        The UK site does not allow me to add any editorial reviews and a lot of other info.

        Any idea on how to get around it?

        Thanks a lot,

        • catherineryanhoward says:

          I just think that’s the way it is. You can e-mail and get them to change your listing but it’s a pain. Although, it seems to me that if I update a KDP book on US Author Central, it filters down to the UK site too. Maybe try that…?

          • Anuradha says:

            Thanks for getting back to me . Yes, apparently that’s teh way it is. I have just received an email from Amazon saying they are trying to make both sites equal. But I am not holding my breath. Unfortunately my book which is a hard bound coffee table book of poems and art is not suited for Kindle.

            So perhaps I will just update the US author page and hope for the best.

  3. Cege Smith says:

    What I really appreciate about these kinds of “how-to” posts are that no matter where you are in your self-publishing journey, you can always find nuggets of gold. The flexibility of being able to edit the product description from Author Central sounds awesome and I’m going to head over and look at mine right now!

  4. Jacki Clayton says:

    I devoured “Backpacked” and “Mousetrapped” over the last two-three days. Thanks, Catherine, for providing “Results Not Typical” free. I happened upon “Backpacked” that way and purchased “Mousetrapped” (Kindle). Again, thank you Catherine, this bibliophile is so excited to have found you!

  5. Amy Keeley says:

    I haven’t heard of any authors having success self-publishing with Smashwords alone. Who is this person?

    Great series, btw. The first post was my favorite, but I’m loving all the others as well.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      It was an Irish romance author I read about on the Smashwords blog a few months back. They’re doing a series of interviews and (of course!) are highlighting Smashwords success stories, as in Smashwords and their distribution partners, so the likes of iBooks and B&N as well. I doubt anyone at all is making a living off the Smashwords *website* alone.

  6. Ken Preston says:

    I downloaded your book, it’s not my kind of read ordinarily (although I do read out of my reading ‘box’ sometimes,) but it sounds very good. Great posts by the way.

  7. Amy French says:

    Hi Catherine,
    I’m so glad for Freshly Pressed for leading me to you – thank you so much for all this valuable info. I really loved what you said about thinking of the ebook as the new hardback and an aid in working towards paperback sales.
    Thanks, Amy (*dashes off to download Results Not Typical*)

  8. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel says:

    Thanks for the download, and the tons of information I’ve already learned from you. I’ve picked up two of your books now! I have a question and hope it’s okay to ask it here. A couple days ago, on my Author Central page, I added that my books advertized there are out of print. I don’t know if this is good or bad. The reason for this is because I am revising and re-issuing both books on Kindle since the publishing rights reverted back to me. Do you think it was a good idea to add Out of Print to my Author Page? I did mention both books would be coming to Kindle soon. Did I hang myself here? (See I just proved you can edit your author page on Amazon.)

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      No, I think it’s fine. I unpublished the paperback of RESULTS so that’s out of print, but Amazon customers can see it’s available in Kindle if they want it. I wouldn’t worry about it—but I’d get to work on those Kindle editions ASAP!

  9. Gordon A. Long says:

    Two points:
    1. I’m loving your series on how to self-publish, and am following your ideas, but finding a subject for blogging that will give value is a problem. Whyever would anyone want to hear about one more of a thousand lame authors moaning about how difficult it is to self-publish, when a few people like Catharine are doing it so well? So it’s difficult to find a topic that people are going to be interested in. Hey, I thought I was doing pretty well finding a novel topic people might be interested in. I thought even my title, “A Sword Called…Kitten?” might do the trick,(Note how I cleverly inserted that in the sentence, in hopes that you might leave it in). Live and learn.
    2. I just downloaded your book for free from Amazon, so I owe you one. When I have a review ready, where do you want it posted? That is, assuming it’s a positive review, and that you really need another one. You seem to be doing pretty well already.

    Thanks for your blog

    Gordon A. Long

  10. char says:

    Thanks once again. I didn’t know Amazon had an author site to do all my stuff on; I am slowly learning…but your posts are helping bring me up to speed. And I am downloading your book right now. Exciting!

  11. Katie Mack says:

    Catherine – I just found your blog on Monday. I’ve learned more from you in four days than I have in three years of dabbling with blogging, self publishing, etc. What a bang up job you are doing here! Thank you so very much for sharing your knowledge.

    I know you mentioned recently about the extra attention you are getting and how new readers are complaining about your sales tilt. I say, “Don’t we all want to sell?” I mean, isn’t our whole goal as writers to have other people read our work? Sales of books, whether self published or not, is a huge part of that!

    I’m not fool enough to believe that a book contract is going to fall into my lap. Self-publishing is going to be a reality for me. I’m so glad to have your guidance on how to go about it!

  12. Lily Paradis says:

    Very helpful information, I’m loving this May on your blog! Perhaps I missed it somewhere, I’ll go look around, but I’d be really interested to know your opinion on DRM on Amazon, and whether you should choose to let people lend your book to others or not!

  13. Moira Munro says:

    Ah Catherine, I rushed over to my Author Central page to edit my blurb (Product Description) and I can’t find where it’s done. Can you be very patient with us, and take us step by step through just where it is, once we’re on our Author Central page ( ?
    I loved how your book Self-Printed takes readers step by step through these websites, and so if you have a minute, I’d appreciate the help if you can do it again here.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      When you log into Amazon Author Central, go to “Books” (link at top of the page). If you don’t see all the books you have there, click “Add More Books” to go through the process of adding them.

      From the list, click on the title whose product description you want to edit. Now you’ll be on a new page with a picture of the book’s cover at the top and three tabs: Editorial Reviews, Book Extras, Book Details. You want to be on the first tab, Editorial Reviews. Scroll down until you see “Product Description” and its corresponding edit button. NOTE: There’s a technical issue at the moment that doesn’t let you edit Kindle product descriptions through Author Central So edit your paperback edition and then e-mail Amazon about it, and they’ll make the Kindle edition the same. Alternatively go in through Amazon Author and do it there; when I updated my Kindle listing for Backpacked there, it filtered down to the, amazingly.

      Hope this helps!

      • Moira Munro says:

        Oh, what a gem you are. Well, that works nicely on Amazon Central USA, but those three tabs don’t show up for me on the UK site. Never mind, I did some edits on the .com.

  14. tonyschumacher says:

    Once again a stunner of a piece! I’m sort of following you along this path with my book on Amazon and by sheer luck I seem to have taken most of your steps already. The main thing I’ve learnt today though is getting the blurb right and sticking some nice words off people who matter in description… I just need to get some words off people who matter now!

  15. Parlor of Horror says:

    Catherine, thank you so much for your honest, refreshing, usable, and attainable, tips for self-publishers. Most blogs, sites and tips are vague outlines that compare self-publishing with major pub houses and how you can be like them. They’ll start out with, “divide your budget into three parts…” (What budget????). But you relay honest, ground floor, tips that writers can really use. Now, about people’s aversion to Amazon; I’m against big corporations that try and box out, or squash, the little guy, but Amazon is one of the rare instances where the self-doer can be on a level playing field of distribution with the big brands. One day a bigger, greedier company may buy Amazon (if they can) and this current amazing opportunity could go ‘bye-bye’ (lets pray that does not happen). Everyone should use any distribution means possible to sell their creations while the opportunity is available.

  16. enjoybirth says:

    I love your blog! I found it when it was Freshly Pressed and it came at an ideal time. I just started a virtual book tour on Mother’s Day and it is going great.

    I loved learning we can go in and change our info on our Amazon page! Awesome! We have 5 authors and the formatting on that section was wacky. I am fixing it now. 🙂

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