It’s that time of year again, and I’m not only dragging out the Stuff I Found While Procrastinating Online Gift Guides, but also replaying some of my most popular “self-printing” posts from the last twelve months for those who might have missed them first time around. There’ll be in no particular order, popularity-wise, but I can tell you that today’s replayed post was the most popular, not only of the last year, but ever, on this blog. (Thanks in no small part to Freshly Pressed.) After lacking in the quality blog posting department I decided to make last May my “How To Sell Self-Published Books Month” but before we got into the nuts and bolts of promoting your book, we needed to have a little tough love session first…
At my most recent workshop I started off by saying to the participants that my aim for the day was to send them home with everything I wished I’d known before I started self-publishing, or in other words everything I had to learn on the job because when I started self-publishing, I didn’t have a clue. And yet clueless and all that I was, I was operating with a huge advantage: realism. Because I’d spent a good decade of my young life poring over every How To Format a Manuscript for Submission To Within an Inch of Its Life Because, Yeah, That’s What’s Going to Be the Deciding Factor (Not!) and 500 Pages About Submitting to Agents Even Though You Haven’t Written a Word type books, I knew way more than I’d ever need to about the way the traditional publishing world works, and so I knew that as a self-publisher, I wouldn’t be sitting at the top table. I mightn’t even be in the same room. But that was fine by me. I still recognized what an amazing opportunity digital self-publishing provided, and I was excited about getting to avail of it. And because I knew the score, I could manage my expectations. (Truth be told, I didn’t have any.) Ultimately when success came, it was a welcome bonus. So before we get into the practicalities of selling your self-published book, let’s have cold blast of reality, shall we?
1. By Default, No One Cares About Your Book
Just because you wrote a book does not mean people are going to want to read it. Sounds suspiciously like common sense, but as I’ve said before, common sense isn’t as common as you might think.
Think of all the books you hear about on a daily basis. Think of all the books you see when you walk into a bookstore, or through the book isles of supermarkets. Think of all the books that pop into your line of vision while you’re on Amazon. Do you buy them all? Are you even interested in them all? Or are you like me—and, I’d suspect, most book-buyers—buying and ultimately reading just the very cream of the crop, the top 0.5% or less of the books we know about, just the ones that get us interested in them and wanting to read them, i.e. just the ones we care about?
At least once a day I receive an e-mail from an author I don’t know saying “I’ve wrote a book. Will you review it?” If this author knew that every Friday Oprah’s Book Club sends me an e-mail recommending several books—books that, this being Oprah’s Book Club, are hugely publicized, high advance, this-is-gonna-be-big traditionally published books—and that, on average, I make a note of maybe two of them and ultimately buy maybe one of them for every five or six e-mails I get, do you think they’d do anything differently?
It is very hard to get people to care enough about your book that they go and buy it. It’s the hardest part. And before you can even do that, you have to get them interested in it, and before that you have to let them know that it exists. But embracing this will help you achieve this, because you’ll know what lengths to go to in order to make it happen. I blogged a little bit more about this in How (Not?) To Get Your Book Reviewed.
2. Your Book is a Product—and It Had Better Work
We’ve seen time and time again that the self-publishers who enjoy consistent success are those who treat self-publishing like a business they’ve started up. They act like entrepreneurs, and make like their book is their first product—which it is. Your book is a product. While you were writing it you could be all writer-like, hanging out in hipster cafés with your soy milk lattes and your well-creased Moleskine, but now that the book is going to be out in the world, for sale with a price-tag on it, the romance must drop away and the book must meet standards and be a viable product. When it comes to books, we’re talking about a professional polish and it having appeal. I talked about appeal in Why It Doesn’t Matter Whether or Not Your Book is Good, so let’s focus on the professional polish bit here.
Self-publishers against enlisting the services of a professional editor and/or proofreader seem to be against it because it’s expensive and/or because they don’t understand what editing means. The “I can’t afford it” thing drives me completely cuckoo because if you can’t afford to spend some money on your product, you shouldn’t be self-publishing it. If you’re not prepared to invest, why should I be expected to buy? And buy a sub-standard product at that. Which brings me onto my next point: not understanding what editing is.
Generally we can divide editing into three stages: structural (think re-writing), copyediting (think language) and proofreading (think errors). (If there’s any editors hanging around these parts, feel free to correct me on that, or elaborate.) I can understand why self-publishers would skip the structural bit, because it’s the most expensive and going back to the business analogy, you wouldn’t buy Egyptian cotton tablecloths for a fast food joint, because you’d never make the money back off a $1.99 burger. But you would have tables, right? And chairs for sitting around them? Of course you would, because that’s what’s expected. That’s a minimum standard. When we go into restaurants, we expect there to be somewhere to sit. And when we buy a book, we expect it to be error-free. (Or at least almost error-free. I’m still searching for a way to make perfection happen right out of the blocks.) We expect the language to be correct. We expect clarity and consistency. And that’s what a copyedit and a proofread does: it brings your book up to the minimum industry standard.
Every time I mention this, I get comments and e-mails saying things like, “But if a reader likes the story, they’ll overlook misspellings, etc.” I’m just going to say this once, okay? ONLY IF THE READER IS YOUR MUM. Take an hour to read a few Amazon Customer Reviews and then see if you still feel the same way.
3. Social Media is About Connection
I am evidence that social media does sell books, but only if you don’t use it to sell books. This is something I’ll be blogging loads more about this month, but for now I’ll just say this: you can’t use Twitter, Facebook, etc. to blatantly sell your book, because no one will buy it. Being subjected to the hard sell is not why anyone is using those platforms. We’re there for one or more of the following reasons: connection, entertainment and valuable information. Where does you saying “My book is on Amazon now: just $4.99!” or “My book is out now. Buy it!” fit into those? Obviously it doesn’t. (And no, it’s not valuable information!) I have a little giggle to myself every time I meet someone with a business who mutters, “I really have to get on Facebook” or “We really should start tweeting” as if social media is California during the Gold Rush and all you’ve to do is show up and start digging and—hey presto!—you’re a millionaire. News flash: starting a Facebook page does not equal sales.
Worse than the shameless self-promoter is the person who has no interest in blogging, tweeting or using Facebook but reluctantly comes to the table to flog their wares anyway. If you don’t genuinely enjoy connecting and sharing with other people online, what are you doing there?
A presence online takes time to build, and it isn’t suitable for people who don’t really want to be there or who don’t have an instinct for how it all works. So if you’re planning to self-publish a book and your marketing plan is to tweet a link to its Amazon listing once an hour 24/7/365, you’ve failed before you’ve even begun.
4. You Can’t Sell New Concepts with Old Ways
In my experience if your book is only for sale online, you should only be promoting it online. Time and time again I see self-publishers with money to burn hiring publicists who draft press releases for them and then send them round to all the usual suspects—newspapers, radio shows, magazines, etc. This is totally pointless, especially in the beginning, unless your book has a specific local interest or something. If you want to spend money, you’d be far better off doing it on a Goodreads ad or a Kindle Nation sponsorship, i.e. a place where readers gather online. You need to let go of any existing ideas you may have about selling books (especially if you’ve been traditionally published in the past) and haul them—and yourself—into this brave new digital world.
In February 2011 a series of events meant that in the space of a week or so, I was featured in The Sunday Times and appeared on several national radio shows, including the second most listened to show in the country with an average of 400,000 listeners. As far as I could tell, it led to no bump in sales. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that when I read about a book in a newspaper, chances are I’ll later walk into a bookstore, see the book on the shelf and think, Oh, yeah. That’s that book I read about. I must get that. But when you read about a self-published/only for sale online book in the newspaper, there’s no chance encounter later to remind you of it. And since apparently you have to be reminded of something three times before you’ll take action and buy it, it never translates into sales.
John Locke famously spent a fortune on “real world” advertising all to no avail, but became the first self-published author to sell a million Kindle books when he started focusing online instead. Traditional methods for selling books just don’t work when those books aren’t being sold traditionally.
(Note: I’m not saying say no to print and radio interviews. Say yes! They’re great fun and will make you feel like a proper published author. And your relatives might even believe you now when you say you’re selling loads of books online. Just don’t pursue them as a means to advertising a book, because they’re not effective when the book isn’t widely available in stores.)
5. You Are Not The Next Amanda Hocking
In all probability you’re not, anyway. And I’m not talking about becoming the first household name success story of this modern e-book self-publishing era—I’m talking about having to do little other than upload your e-books to achieve stellar sales. As in, chances are you’re going to have to do a lot more than that to shift any copies at all.
Let me explain. As in all walks of life, some people get really lucky at this self-publishing e-books thing. They upload their e-book and sell thousands of copies the first week, without ever having blogged or advertised. They massively outsell self-publishers who have been at it for years, and they do it almost instantly. So we should copy them, right? We should find out what they’re doing and do it ourselves. Wouldn’t that make sense?
No, it wouldn’t. Because they’re the outliers. They’re the extremes. You’d be better off focusing on the people in the middle, the ones who never meet the bleak abyss of failure or the dizzying heights of success, but instead consistently sell and can tell you what they did to achieve it. As I’ve always said, it’s better to hear from me, a moderate seller who can say I did x, y and z to sell my books and you can do it too, then a mega-seller who isn’t quite sure how they managed to sell a hundred thousand books.
Think of it this way: You meet a newly published author who is now sitting atop the bestseller lists with a debut novel that scored her a top agent and a six-figure deal. A movie adaptation is in the works. She’s rich, successful and she has achieved a lifelong dream. How did you do it? you want to know. She says that she was interviewing for a position as her agent’s assistant when they got talking about a recent news story, and she said “I bet the girlfriend did it. Wouldn’t it make a great story if she did?” The agent instantly got dollar signs in his eyes, told her to forget about being a PA and instead go home and write a one-page synopsis, which she did, and seven days later she had her six-figure deal. Now, knowing this, what would you do about your own published writer dreams? Would you continue to polish your novel, write a synopsis, craft a query letter and politely submit to suitable agents and editors, or would you start scanning the jobs listing for admin openings at literary agencies and publishing houses?
(I sincerely hope it would be the former!)
Your model for success shouldn’t be an extreme, because chances are you’re not going to be one. Millions of authors have self-published but only a relative handful had found success comes easily. Instead, get ready to work really hard.