Selling Books With Debbie Young: A Guest Post

It’s downright easy these days to self-publish. Companies such as Amazon KDP, Smashwords and CreateSpace are cheap and easy to use, and if you can’t figure them out there’s a wealth of helpful information online that’ll steer you in the right direction. Producing a good looking self-published book and doing it professionally has probably never been easier. But one thing is getting increasingly difficult: selling copies of that book. In a world where new books arrive by the second and readers are faced with more choice than ever before, selling even a handful of books is far from easy. Today we have an interview with Debbie Young, author of Sell Your Books!, who I hope will share some of her top tips with us…

Me: First of all, thank you for sending me a copy of Sell Your Books! I was most impressed with it because as you know I love books as physical objects, and SYB! is quite the lovely book indeed — the colours on the cover are so deep, for example. It’s very impressive. Tell us about its publication.

Debbie: Thanks, Catherine, I agree! Even though Sell Your Books! was published back in November, I am still bowled over by how beautiful the printed book is. I keep stroking its velvety cover, and I love the quality of the interior paper and typography too. Even my non-author friends want to pick the book up and handle it. A covetable cover is a great selling point, because once you’ve picked up a book, you are much more likely to buy it (a phenomenon known rather cutely as “puppy-dog selling”).

To be honest, the final cover design looks nothing like my original suggestion! I really wanted a cover that would tell you at a glance what the book was about – the old “does what it says on the tin” trick – but SilverWood’s designer came up with a very different starting point from mine. I provided feedback, and the design evolved till we were both completely happy. The simple, clear message and bright colours are cheerful and engaging, but the blue is calming too – just the right combination to raise the spirits of the nervous author worrying about the task ahead!

The book was commissioned by assisted publishing company SilverWood Books. Knowing I had many years of PR experience behind me, Director Helen Hart asked me for suggestions as to how she could help SilverWood’s self-funding authors promote their own books in an affordable but effective way. I was really impressed with how much she cared about her clients – absolutely the antidote to old-fashioned vanity publishers that took the authors’ money and ran.

It was a bit of a “Physician, heal thyself!” moment when I said “Why not produce a self-help book about book promotion, specifically written with indie authors’ needs in mind?” Helen immediately liked the idea. “How would you like to write it?” came her reply, and so my journey began!

Credit: Dave Betts

Credit: Dave Betts

After eighteen research-filled months, my manuscript was complete, and it was off to SilverWood to be turned into an e-book and paperback. The production standards of the finished product are representative of SilverWood’s service to its paying clients. Every time I visit the SilverWood office, I find myself ooh-ing and aah-ing over their latest titles, which are always beautifully designed and presented. This is my first book, and for me, this experience demonstrated the advantage of using a third party service if you’re not confident or knowledgeable enough to specify the finer details of your book’s production, which I’m not – though I realise that there are plenty of authors, including yourself, Catherine, who are happy to tackle the whole job!

You mention that the best person to sell your book is you, the author, which is absolutely something I believe. Why is this so and what would you say to a writer convinced that a PR company will do a better job while they sit back and relax?

Being an author who has spent a couple of decades in the PR business, I can speak from first hand experience on both fronts.

Any decent PR company will make a very good case for what a fab job they would do for you, and insist that they are keen to represent you. Up to a point, they can act as a facilitator, but only at a very high price. You would need to sell an awful lot of books to cover typical PR charges, which are calcuated per hour of executive time spent, rather than by results achieved (which may be nil). Book promotion takes a lot of time. You could therefore end up paying a lot of money for absolutely no increase in sales. You’d also still be required to put in a lot of time to support the PR people (talk about the tail wagging the dog!), approving press releases, revising copy, doing press interviews (the PR would only arrange them, not actually do them). So the time saving would not be as great as you might assume.

No matter how keen a PR purports to be, nobody is going to be as knowledgeable as you, the author, about your book or your subject matter, or as passionate about the book’s success. Even if you are shy or nervous of speaking to someone about your book, once you get going, you will be more eloquent and engaging than any third party. The media don’t want to interview a PR about a book: they want to speak directly to the author.Monkey and organ-grinder are the words that spring to mind here – because when did you ever hear a book programme on the radio, for example, where the PR, rather than the author, was in the hot seat?

As a writer, you have all the qualities essential in a promoter: you are articulate, literate and intelligent. With a book such as mine pointing you in the right direction, you have all you need to run your own successful promotional campaign. And you won’t have to buy a single banana.

Most of the advice we see given to self-published authors (mine included) focuses on online tools like Twitter and Facebook, yet in SYB! you also cover venturing out into the real world (!) for things like literary festivals, library events and school visits, and getting mainstream media coverage. Why is this useful?

These are relatively easy things to do at a local level, and they will cost you next to nothing, so it seems foolish, misguided and possibly even arrogant, not to bother with them. They are very easy ticks to get, and you’ve got nothing to lose by doing them. They’re also a good source of material to put on your website, so, if you’re smart about it, you’ll get far more mileage out of these events than just a splash in the local paper.

I think engaging with “real” people can also help a new author feel like a “real” author. If you go into a school or a WI meeting, for example, they’ll greet you like a celebrity. Being a big fish in a small pool is a great confidence booster. A modicum of local fame will make you feel less anonymous and worthless when you’re pitching against everyone else in the vast space that is the internet.

Local events are generally very small scale, enabling you to engage one-to-one (or one-to-small-group, anyway) and to gain useful feedback from individuals, including “quotable quotes”. And you never know who you might meet. When I put a notice about my new book in our parish magazine (and newspapers don’t get much smaller than that!) I had neighbours approaching me on the street to order copies for their mother-in-law, their aunt and even their cleaning lady who were all writing books. They’d never have known about my book if I hadn’t shouted out about it locally.

Sell Your Books 300dpi cover image

If your book is good, and you do a lot of local PR, you’ll become well-known locally and be invited further afield. I’ve just been invited to address my first local conference (hurray!) to speak about blogging. I don’t think I’d have been asked without my local PR profile. People who have met you locally will also tell more distant friends about it, and spread your reputation further (think pyramid selling!) Before you know it, quite a big readership will have grown, all from your having planted a few small, parochial seeds.

For a self-published author who hopes to have their books stocked in stores, approaching a bookseller can be an extremely daunting experience. What tips do you have to put them at least a little bit more at ease?

To research this important subject for my book, I spent a lot of time chatting with a local bookseller who had been worn down by inappropriate approaches from eager self-published authors that had no idea of how his business operated.It was a real eye-opener, I can tell you, and I’m very glad to be able to share his advice.

Firstly, put yourself in the shoes of the bookseller. Understand that every inch of his shelf space has to make money. Your challenge is to convince him that your book will make him as much profit as every other book he’s chosen to put on his shelf. Think of it as a balloon debate – prepare to make the financial case for your book.

Secondly, respect the bookseller’s time. He doesn’t have hours to spend chatting to individual authors. The big publishers send in sales reps that pitch a book in ten seconds – and they’ll reel off dozens in the space of a single visit. Your book may be worth a long conversation to you, but the bookseller doesn’t have the luxury of time.

Finally, be as well prepared as if you were defending your book in a court of law. Take along evidence: Exhibit A, local press cuttings that show you’ve fuelled a local demand for the book; Exhibit B, reviews that demonstrate it’s a high quality, respected publication, not just a piece of typo-riddled junk dashed off in a spare weekend. And so on. There’s a whole lot more about how to butter up a bookseller in Chapter 8 of my book!

Give us three quick DOs for selling your books:

  1. Produce the best book you possibly can – writing, design, presentation. Any compromise on quality puts you at an immediate – and avoidable – disadvantage.
  2. Be realistic in your expectations. I don’t mean assume you’ll fail – just don’t expect your Picker’s Guide to the Wild Mushrooms of Hampshire, say, to be a national sensation.
  3. Engage with other authors online to learn best practice, lift your spirits and stop you feeling alone in your quest to sell your books. There’s a generous, supportive network of experienced self-published authors out there (naming no names, to spare others’ embarrassment, but some of them REALLY like coffee!)

And three quick DON’Ts:

  1. Don’t be disheartened if it takes a long time to achieve sales. Too many people give up too soon. This is tragic, because there really is no need. Unlike traditional publishers, who will give a book six months or so to prove its worth, you have as long as you are prepared to try. Books don’t have a sell-by date. E-books never go out of print. That is VERY EXCITING!
  2. Don’t send needy tweets and status updates saying “Buy my book! Like my Facebook page! Please RT! I’ll like yours if you like mine!” It makes you look like an amateur and turns people off.
  3. Don’t give away free copies of your book without very good reason. In particular, don’t post free copies to reviewers on spec, whether online or in print media, unless they have categorically asked you for one and you are sure they will read it. You’ve put your heart and soul into your work – don’t give it away, but SELL YOUR BOOKS!

Find Sell Your Books! on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and find out more about Silverwood Books here

About Debbie Young:

During a career longer than she cares to admit, Debbie Young has meandered between journalism and PR, writing memorable copy about all kinds of things from ice cream to education, and from cat litter to continence (not so great a leap, then). Now freelance, she published Sell Your Books! in October 2012, in tandem with running a wide-ranging blog of book promotion tips at her Off The Shelf Book Promotions website. She also weaves wonderful WordPress websites for her fellow authors, as well as offering them general PR guidance. In keeping with her recommendations in this interview, she operates on the “teach a man to fish” principle, advising authors how to run their own promotional programme, equipping them with the necessary confidence and skills, rather than doing it for them. When time permits, she reviews self-published books on this website to draw attention to just how good the independent publishing sector can be.

To ensure she occasionally leaves her study for more than just cups of tea and the school run, she also works part-time for the national children’s reading charity, Readathon, helping to raise the next generation of eager readers, to the benefit of authors everywhere! She’s a volunteer fundraiser for JDRF, the leading charity for research into Type 1 diabetes, a serious condition which affects both her husband and her young daughter. 25% of the author’s royalties for “Sell Your Books!” is being donated to the JDRF.

And with her other hand… she writes a personal blog, YoungByName, about anything that takes her fancy, espcially life with her Scottish husband and small daughter in the small Gloucestershire village that has been her home for over 20 years. All of human life is there.

While keeping all of these plates spinning, she’s now working on a collection of short stories and a volume of the best posts from her YoungByName blog, to be published later this year.

37 thoughts on “Selling Books With Debbie Young: A Guest Post

  1. silverwoodbooks says:

    Thank you, Catherine. This is a really good in-depth interview and there are some useful tips from Debbie (especially the Dos and Don’ts). She really does know what she’s talking about, and her blog is always packed with generous information for authors. Marketing yourself and your book can present a daunting challenge for most people (as an author myself, I know that only too well!) so it’s really nice to have a supportive handbook written in a friendly, accessible way that explores the possibilities that are out there.

  2. Alison Morton says:

    What a treat, Catherine and Debbie together!
    Catherine, you have guided my through my publishing route with common sense and balance (I have both editions of Self-Printed 😉 ). You have also made me laugh.

    Debbie’s six points are upbeat but grounded in reality – thank you.

    • Debbie Young says:

      Thanks, Alison! I agree with you, Catherine’s humour is SO refreshing and much-needed in the often fraught world of self-publishing – along with her wisdom and experience, it makes a great cocktail!

  3. Skye Warren says:

    I thought this was a good article, particularly the part about approaching bookstores, but I must disagree with this point:

    “Don’t give away free copies of your book without very good reason. In particular, don’t post free copies to reviewers on spec, whether online or in print media, unless they have categorically asked you for one and you are sure they will read it. You’ve put your heart and soul into your work – don’t give it away, but SELL YOUR BOOKS!”

    In every industry, there are times when it makes sense to give something away for free (or steep discounts which amount to the same thing–losses for the company) in order to gain exposure. Publishing is not a special snowlake. Publishers have long given away ARCs to librarians and booksellers and, more recently, bloggers and ordinary readers who write online reviews. I’m not talking about a handful either, I’m talking about fifty, a hundred, two hundred.

    To say a self-publishers author shouldn’t consider this proven method of marketing is just silly. That doesn’t mean it’s guaranteed to work, but it might. And for me, it completely did.

    I don’t do “free days” simply because I don’t like the exclusivity of KDP Select, but I have given away plenty of my books in a few ways: 1) a permanently free book (short story, really), 2) bloggers and reviewers and readers, 3) giveaways, and 4) a particular opportunity that arose for me where my book was selected by a Goodreads Group for book of the month and I opted to give them away. I “lost” about 50 purchases if you assume all those you grabbed one would have purchased but based on the reviews that followed (not all positive, mind) I was launched onto the bestseller list for my genre and stayed there for months. Yes, months, so needless to say I recouped those 50 books and made much more.

    This is business. Period. Your “heart and soul” are no longer relevant when it’s a product sitting there on the shelf. You are not giving away your heart and soul. You are giving away a product on a shelf with the calculated intention of recouping that investment somewhere down the line.

    • Debbie Young says:

      Skye, thank you so much for your long and thoughtful comment – but actually, I think we agree here! The loss leader, used wisely, is a wonderful thing. Used without proper research and preparation, it’s just a loss.

      The important words in my post are “without good reason” – and there are PLENTY of good reasons to give your book away, in whatever format, for free, IF you know that it will be read properly and something good will come of it.

      What grieves me is seeing authors post off print copies to reviewers who they’ve never had any contact with, and haven’t sounded out in any way, in the blithe hope that a good review will come of it. I recently had contact with an author who had just identified the names of people who had written about books in national dailies, so he sent them all a copy, unannounced, of his self-published debut novel. Result: zero reviews, a lot of postage, and almost certainly every copy ended up in a charity shop, at best.

      What I’m saying is, it’s fine to give away a free copy IF YOU HAVE GOOD REASON. I’m currently on my second GoodReads giveaway, for example, and this is an excellent, really good value mechanic for raising the profile of a book worldwide.

      I also gave a free copy to Catherine, having established that she was interested in receiving one and would be interested in reading it and doing something with it, and here I am on her blog before her very lovely readers. I rest my case! 😉

  4. mycookinglifebypatty says:

    I truly enjoyed this interview and post! Debbie, you’re inspiration comes at a great time for me and I am very interested in your book too! Thanks for sharing your wisdom and experience with us.

    • Debbie Young says:

      It’s a great idea to bind your blog copies into a book – it captures them for perpetuity (I’m always slightly nervous of all mine disappearing into the ether some day!) Depends how many copies you want, but if it’s just one or a small number for you and your friends and family, Blurb or similar services are very useful. (I think I’ve read in one of your posts that you do this with your own blog, Catherine?) In these days of digital printing, it’s possible to do that at an affordable price, without having to commit to a minimum print run, which would have been necessary in the old days. Gotta love the 21st century! 🙂

      • home, garden, life says:

        Did not like blurb, not user friendly and they crashed during up load of other album images. HP Snapfish is much more user friendly and transparent about costs up front, and if they botch an order, they immediately refund. Guess I must wait for technology to catch up, as I cannot be the only blogger who would like a copy of their blog.

        • Debbie Young says:

          Sorry you had a bad experience with Blurb – hope you find one of the many similar services out there more helpful. As you say, there must be a huge market for a service like this. We work very hard on our blogs and they are worth preserving!

      • catherineryanhoward says:

        Every year I make a book of the previous year’s blog posts just for me to keep, and all I do is copy and paste them into a MS Word template and privately publish a hardback on Lulu. It’s time-consuming but inexpensive and I’m building up a nice little collection for myself! 🙂

  5. karin mesa says:

    Finally got back to the post. Thanks! Debbie Young’s book sounded so good I zipped over to Amazon and bought it! I am a writer/illustrator of children’s books. I really needed this. Onward and upwards! Love your posts, by the way. I read them all!

    • Debbie Young says:

      Ooh, thanks, Karin! Do let me know what you think of it – I’d love to hear from you! I’m planning to do a post on my own blog soon about marketing children’s books, so will check yours out in the meantime!

      • homepreneurs says:

        Thank you, Debbie for your sage advice. I am focused on the home business and eBooks are a great way for virtually anyone to make a little extra on the side. I have 4 published myself at this point with more to come. 🙂

      • homepreneurs says:

        Thank you, Debbie for your sage words of advice. I am focused on the home business model and eBooks fits perfectly into my suggestions. I even have 4 books published myself with more in the works. 🙂

  6. Sean Walsh says:

    I’m only sorry I hadn’t read this one before I approached Eason’s and Veritas here in Dublin – booksellers, the former a chain – with a view to getting some copies of my paperback, At the Praetorium, unto their shelves. The response was negative. (Another copy of my book sinks without trace.) And that despite the stunning cover designed by Andrew Browne (Design for Writers) whom I found through the good offices of Catherine.
    I should explain that I am a dramatist rather than a novel writer: At the Praetorium is a trilogy of one-act plays set against the backdrop of the first Good Friday. The storyline moves from a dungeon beneath the Roman garrison In Jerusalem up to the Seat of Judgement where a Galilean stands on trial before the Governor, Pontius Pilate. So… a limited appeal; a printed script not everyone’s cup of tea… But here’s the thing: a local Drama group are now busy rehearsing my play and will give it a first, live production in three different churches in the city the last week in March. The sanctuary of a church, a terrific setting for my drama. Posters, parish bulletins, notices, local radio and press – all planned, targeted. I will be there, but of course! On hand at the back with one or two helpers, selling (hopefully) copies of my paperback. (I have invested in a stack of them long since, direct from CreateSpace, at a very reduced rate.) And I am especially thrilled that on March 27 the scheduled venue is All Hallows, Dublin 9 – a centuries old church – chapel, choir. Will people buy my paperback after witnessing a live performance? Ah, there’s the rub!.. Debbie, Catherine, this ancient scribe will pay diligent attention to your comments should you care to any. Thank you.

    • Debbie Young says:

      HI Sean! That sounds so exciting! Put the bookshop’s initial dismissal behind you and go in again with lots of evidence about the coming performance and the publicity you expect to get from the performance. Maybe even offer them a free pair of tickets. Try to speak to a different person from the one you spoke to before – he or she may not have told anyone else about it – but if they do remember, you can tell them how much higher profile your book will be now and that you expect people to be actively seeking it out.
      At the event itself, have a very visible display of your books, with author blurb etc, where people will see it when they come in, and you could even put flyers on the seats to make sure people know about it if they don’t spot it when they arrive. You may even sell copies before the show. If people are in a hurry to get away after, they may not linger to buy then – so make sure they know where they can buy it online. (I hope the link is also on the posters etc!)
      I’d also target any specialist religious bookshops with it, whether or not they’re close to you (do you have the chain SPCK in Ireland?) and get in there quick, before Easter! Might be a bit late for this year, but hey, there’ll be an Easter every year and therefore a new opportunity!
      On my Off The Shelf blog, there’s a good example of an author, Artemis Cooper, selling her books at a talk (which by chance was given in a church, though it’s not a religious book) where she stood by her stand, signing books beforehand as well as afterwards, being charming, and she sold positively shedloads! (Google “Debbie Young Artemis Cooper Off The Shelf” and the post should pop up.)
      You know that you have a captive audience there who will by definition be a great target for buying a book because they’ve bought a ticket for the play.
      This might sound a bit naff, but if you think it would work, have a “lucky ticket” number so someone can win a free copy? That would also draw attention to the fact that it’s for sale there.
      Good luck with the event, ancient scribe – and if it goes well, let me know, and I’d love to write about it on my blog!

  7. Sean Walsh says:

    Ah,hh, thank you so much, Debbie. Such a prompt response! So warm, so enthusiastic, so encouraging! You are quite the engaged, engaging extravert… I have taken much of your advice onboard and if I survive all the excitement, I will fill you in later. Andrew Browne is creating my own website; once up and running I will try my hand at blogging!
    In the meantime, I’ll keep humming – “There’s no business like show business!..”

    • Debbie Young says:

      Haha! Thank you, Sean, I think I’ll quote you on my website – what a lovely alliterative compliment with all those e’s! 🙂 Glad to be of assistance!

  8. Sheree Nielsen says:

    Debbie, Great information. I have been thinking about self-publishing. Been trying to weigh the differences between that and traditional publishing. Thanks for all your insight!

  9. zacthraves says:

    A great post and a brilliant book, I already have a copy and have been using the advice to sell my book Pirates Vs Fairies. It has worked, promotion on-line; FB page; doing presentations at schools. I have been encouraged by the words of Debbie and the enthusiasm. Now, with another book out there I am encouraged to go that step further with promotion and do something guerilla style! All I can say is that Sell Your Books! is well worth buying and offers brilliant tips and and insight into how to market yourself. It is a wide world, it can be daunting, but it can be done. All the best to you. x

    • Debbie Young says:

      Zac, what a lovely comment, thank you so much! I remember we had a conversation earlier this year (via email? Twitter? I forget which now) so I’m really pleased that my book ha been so helpful and that all is going so well for you. If you don’t mind, I’ll quote you on my website’s review tabs! (If you fancied putting the same thing on Amazon, that would be fab too of course 😉

      Good luck with your second book now, it sounds like you are really on a roll! I’ve just clicked the follow button on your blog and I look forward to keeping up with your progress! Best wishes, Debbie

  10. Sandy Osborne says:

    I was in the lucky position that my debut novel was published by SilverWood Books just after they released SYB! – so I have kept it in view on my desk and regularly dip in and out of it. Debbie writes in such a friendly engaging manner which helps to reduce the anxieties presented by some of the tasks (and people!) we self employed authors face! Debbie is always so positive and full of helpful advice. A must have in on every indie authors book shelf!

    • Debbie Young says:

      Sandy, it’s been a pleasure to play a part in the launch of your debut novel (and not only because it meant I got to read an advance review copy of “Girl Cop”!)
      I’ve met so many lovely, interesting and talented writers through SilverWood Books and the indie publishing community.
      What a fabulous lot we all are! 😉

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